Kathy was one of the very few to have survived the Munkacs Ghetto as tragically, all the inhabitants, including her mother and baby sister were sent to Auschwitz. She talks more about her mother in the section under Reflection.
KH: I was born towards the end of 1942 in what turned out to be several countries. At that time, it was Hungary, it was in its turn Hungary then it was the Austro-Hungarian Empire, then it became the Slovakian part of Czechoslovakia, then it became Hungary again, then it was part of the Soviet Union and now it’s the Ukraine.
KH: I know, I haven’t moved around – it’s the place that moved around; the borders.
INT: OK so…
KH: But I never actually lived there, I grew up in Budapest.
KH. My grandmother, my mother and her sister all lived in Budapest. When my mother was nineteen years old she was very ill, typhoid/ typhus or however you want to call it, and nearly died. When she was recovering she was sent to a sanatorium in the mountains and that’s where she met my father and they got married and they lived where he was from, that area, the Carpathian Basin which kept changing borders every other…not every other century, more or less every other decade.
I had a brother who was six years older than I, and a baby sister. I never knew anybody. My father was taken to…I don’t know where but he was taken in ’43, before my sister was born; he never even knew he had another child. My mother, my brother and I were taken into the Munkacs Ghetto, the name of the place where I was born was Munkacs in Hungarian, and it’s called Mukachevo I think in Russian. I don’t know if there is another name in Ukrainian, it must be the same. It was a place with a lot of Jews. Thirty to forty percent of the population were Jewish and hardly anybody survived. Some of us survived, as far as I know only one other child actually survived.
In the early spring ’44, when my brother was eight years old, my sister was a few weeks old and I was a year and a half old I was stolen out of the Munkacs Ghetto and taken to my aunt and granny in Budapest and within a few days of that the ghetto was emptied and the whole population of the ghetto were taken to Auschwitz. Not sure if anybody from that last shipment to Auschwitz actually survived.
INT: Right. So what was your grandmother’s background? What do you know about that?
KH: Nothing really, nothing was ever told to me about anything, ever. I don’t know why things were kept a secret but everything was a secret. The only things that I do know is that she was the eldest of eight children with the youngest ten years younger and those were the only two who survived the Holocaust.
KH: My granny and her younger sister; all the other six were at some time somehow killed during the Holocaust. My granny and her younger sister were the only two who actually lived in Budapest and were the only two who survived. And my only relations are the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of my granny’s younger sister…that I know of. There might be great children…great grandchildren of the other six.
KH: That… I don’t know their names, I don’t know where they lived, I don’t know if they were married, I don’t know if they had children; I know nothing about them…absolutely nothing. The other thing I know about my granny which is a big, big secret that was told to me on my sixteenth birthday, is my granny was divorced. Totally unheard situation in a religious Jewish family but apparently her husband was a gambler and he gambled away two businesses. So my granny, in order to be able to finance the bringing up of her two daughters, had to divorce him. The only reason I was told this was…the way it was put to me was that I should be aware of the fact that gambling may be in my blood and I should never catch it.
KH: So that was the big skeleton in the cupboard of the family. Divorce in a religious Jewish family? Unheard of. And I knew nothing else; I was never told anything, I was never taught anything. We were talking about the plaiting of the challah I could see my granny doing it every Friday morning. She never showed me how. I was never taught to cook, to bake, to clean, to sew…anything!
INT : But what else do you remember about Hungary? What sort of house did you live in? A big house/ flat / apartment?
KH: We lived in a big city. Big cities were… private houses were…I never knew anybody who lived in a private house. A tenement. Housing was very difficult in Hungary. I think it’s not as bad nowadays but it was very difficult in Hungary. We had three rooms. There was no such thing in Hungary in those days as a ‘sitting room’ and a ‘bedroom’, you just had so many rooms and every room was used for whatever purpose was necessary. So, for example in summer the three of us slept in three different rooms, in winter only one of those rooms was heated…
KH: So all three of us slept in the same room. Every room had a bed, a cupboard, a wardrobe, a table. Kitchen and bathroom had their own particular designation but all other rooms were simply rooms that could be used as you like. I think it has changed now but that’s how it was in those days.
INT: And how did your grandmother or your aunt make a living?
KH: They both sewed. And I was never taught to sew… My aunt made ties, all her life she worked on making ties for men. This kind of tie and that kind of tie and occasionally a scarf and silk ties, bow ties and…that’s what she did.
KH: My granny, by the time I knew her she was old. Well she wasn’t that old but for me…
KH: As I was a little girl, she was very old, and she didn’t have a job as such but anytime any religious Jew died my granny was notified and she sewed the shirts. I don’t know if it’s a religious thing or if it’s a Hungarian religious thing…there was a very prescribed way of what the body has to wear in order to go into the grave and my granny did that and got paid for it. And she looked after me, yes. As a matter of fact, on occasion I was sent to…my granny had asthma and occasionally it got bad and she had to be taken to hospital, and my aunt was working, so occasionally I had to be sent to an orphanage for a few days, sometimes for a few weeks. But then when my granny got better and she got home then I got home as well.
INT: Wow. So what memories do you have of that, of those times?
KH: Not a lot. I have always been very good, and still am very good, at forgetting the unpleasant things. I’m really excellent at it. What I, I had rickets when I was three four five years old; I don’t remember it but I know I had it, I don’t remember it. And I wasn’t the only one. The orphanage was not a Jewish orphanage…it was an orphanage and there were nuns…and I don’t know what the children were. Maybe some of them were Jewish, maybe some of them weren’t, I have no idea, I have no way of knowing; I was very little when that was happening. But what I do remember is other children with rickets who had it much worse than I did.
KH: I recovered very well and really only my teeth were affected but I remember children whose bones were very badly affected and every time they had a knock they had a broken bone that would not heal well and I can remember little children with three elbows in an arm.
KH: That’s what I remember and I also remember having to fight for food. When a war is over things don’t go back to normal five minutes later.
KH: I was only two and a half when the Second World War was over but food was not back to normal until considerably later, years later, not even here in Britain. You still had those…rationing, you still had rationing well into the fifties!
KH: And Britain didn’t suffer to the same extent as central Europe did.
KH: I mean the war was not actually happening on your streets, the war was happening away from here.
KH: And still rationing didn’t stop until well into the fifties, until maybe twelve years after the war. So when a war is over it takes years, years for the situation to go back to what you would call normal, so food was scarce.
INT: Presumably the orphanage kids get it worse, get it the worst as well.
KH: I remember huge bowls of boiled tatties, which is what we got, and yoghurt with it to cool it down and to…I don’t know…it was huge bowls of boiled tatties and yoghurt…and we fought for it. Little kids, four/five/six-year-old kids.
KH: Fought for it. But then I didn’t…I only spent there a few days or maybe on occasion two three weeks.
KH: And other children lived there full term. Other children suffered more and other children suffered more from rickets.
KH: And maybe some…I don’t know if they survived. But I did.