(Hajnalka Katalin “Chaya Chava” Blau)
Abaújszántó, Hajdúdorog, Debrecen, Hungary; Debrecen Ghetto, Strasshof, Vienna
Hajnalka Katalin Blau was born in Abaújszántó, Hungary on September 26, 1935 to Izor Blau and Gyöngyi Spitz Blau. Izor was born in Abaújszántó and was the owner, along with his brothers, of a hardware store that also carried land machinery, bicycles, radios, etc. “The Jewish community was not so small and it was quite affluent. There was a synagogue and a rich, Jewish life. There were at least two lawyers. There were doctors. They were all Jewish. I went back in the 70’s and what was once, in my eyes at least, a rather elegant little town became a very poor looking village after all the Jews, including the professionals, were murdered in Auschwitz…. Abaújszántó is northeast in Hungary, so nearest to Auschwitz, and they were among the first ones taken there.”
For Katy, growing up in Abaújszántó “was not fun. I became very early on aware of anti-Semitism. I was often attacked on the street, especially around Christmas time. My pigtails were yanked. I was told that I killed Jesus. I didn’t even know who Jesus was. I was that young. Later when I went to school, after a very short time, I was taken out of the classroom and put into a one-class unit with all the other Jewish kids from 1st Grade to 8th Grade….
“I left in the middle of 1st Grade when I was about 7½ -years-old. My mother and I left because of Passover. My father wasn’t home; he was already drafted into the forced labor battalion. My aunt and uncle, Toba and Abraham Citron, an Orthodox rabbi, who lived not very far away, in Hajdúdorog, invited us to spend the holiday with them. Once the holidays were over, my aunt said, ‘Why should you go home? There is nobody at home for you. Stay with us.’ We did and that’s what saved our lives. All of us and one of their sons, Herman, survived the Holocaust together. My other relatives, my father’s side, stayed in Abaújszántó or in the vicinity. They were taken to Auschwitz. I lost all of them.
“After a while, my mother wanted to go home because there was her closed-up house and she was worried about that. She also felt she was a guest long enough. But then there came a new law in Hungary, Jews were not allowed to travel…. Finally, she managed to get a permit…. We went to the railway station waiting for the train to arrive. We could hear the whistling of the train; we could hear the engine of the train. At which point a gendarme rode a horse onto the waiting platform and called out my mother’s name, ‘Mrs. Blau, the permission was withdrawn. You may not travel.’ Little did we know. My mother was so upset! But that’s why we were not taken to Auschwitz. That was the first way that my life was saved.”
The five of them were taken to the ghetto in Debrecen, the nearest large town to Hajdúdorog. The ghetto consisted of brick ovens where they used to fire the bricks for building (Téglagyár). “We were in one of those with lots of other people. I remember several unpleasant things. They cut our hair. I was a girl with long pigtails; they shaved my head. My uncle, the rabbi, had a long beard; they cut off his beard. I was very sad for him…. We were there maybe three weeks, maybe four. And then we were driven by extremely angry and threatening people yielding whips and urging us to hurry up….
“Pretty soon we found ourselves in a train, bound, we didn’t know where. There was a huge number of us in one cattle wagon. So many people that we could not lie down; only the children were allowed…. I remember once in the middle of the night somebody, moving from one place to another in the dark, stepped on me and it was very painful…. Our toilet was a bucket. Somebody rigged up some kind of a curtain in front of it so there would be a little privacy…. At first the train was going east and then they changed direction and started going west. It took us five days from Hungary to get to the outskirts of Vienna. We arrived to a huge camp called Strasshof….
“When we got out of our cars, boxcars, I saw two dead people and that really scared me. I had never seen a dead person before. And they looked to me very awful…. When we arrived, I also could see the latrines. I could see people using them. That was also a horrible sight for me. The whole place was just like a nightmare…. Before being assigned a barracks, we were ‘disinfected.’ We all had to strip naked, go before the guards, who gave us a towel and soap, and then were led to a huge room full of showers. It was a terrible embarrassment for my mother and aunt to stand naked in front of these men…. Imagine! Totally dehumanizing… which was, no doubt, part of the plan.
“In this huge camp, we met up with two second cousins, young girls, Agi and Jutka Frischman, from Debrecen. And for the rest of the duration they joined us. There was a Lager A and a Lager B. We were in one of them, their parents were in the other. My uncle insisted that the girls come with us, which was good because the others were taken later to a death camp. The parents of the girls did not survive. The girls survived with us.
“We were in this camp for a fairly long time. We were all in barracks. We slept in bunkbeds. The mattress was straw. And we were two people to a mattress. So, on one bunkbed, four of us slept. My mother and I on the bottom; Agi and Jutka on top…. It was a very unpleasant place. The outhouse was a ways away. I was afraid to sit on it. I was afraid to go there by myself. Well, I was a kid.
“Eventually, we were again put into a train and taken to Vienna. And here the situation improved because we were put into an old schoolhouse on Hackengasse 11 or 14. There were 40 of us in a tiny room. Again, four to a bunkbed…. The difficulty was that we got very horrible food. We never had fruit. We never had meat. We never had eggs. We never had anything good to eat. Some horrible stuff. I wouldn’t eat it. I started losing a lot of weight and getting very sickly looking and my mother was terribly scared. By the end of our stay in Vienna, I started developing sores on my body from vitamin deficiency.”
Her mother left the camp every day to work, cleaning the mortar from bricks from houses that were bombed to build a passageway from one intact cellar to the other. “Because she spoke German, she addressed some people who lived in that house and she happened on a very nice young couple, both of whom were engineers. She told them she had a child in camp and they gave her food. They gave her some of the food that they had. Every once in a while, she brought me a piece of chocolate cake. That was a red-letter day in my life…. Every once in a while, they also gave her bacon. We were Orthodox. My uncle said that I may eat it because he believed that saving a life was the most important thing. So, I ate the bacon. I liked it.”
Katy remembers several kindnesses that happened at camp. “The couple who befriended my mother offered to adopt me and take me out of the concentration camp. My mother was very torn whether to let me go or keep me. She decided to keep me…. My uncle somehow was helped by another Austrian who was an actor. He smuggled lots of food into the camp for my uncle and his wife and, of course, they shared with us. Those were some of the rare times we ate something palatable. After the war, he became very impoverished and my family was then sending him packages and money…. We were locked into this one building and there were guards. One day I was going down the steps and an Austrian guard was coming up the steps and he was holding a bunch of cherries in his hands. It was springtime. He was throwing them into his mouth and my eyes might have bulged out because he was just reaching for the last cherry, saw me gaping at him, and he gave it to me.”
As the front was approaching Vienna and the air raids became more and more severe, “We were very near a railway station, Westbahnhof, the Western Railway. The allied forces were bombing that particular station. Every night we had to rush into the cellar. It was very scary because the bombs were exploding all around us. Very quickly I learned that when bombs are falling they whistle. If you hear the explosion you survived it…. And then the Nazis decided that pretty soon we might be liberated, so they put us back into the boxcars and took us back to Strasshof. Only this time, because the war was obviously lost, the guards and the Nazis that ran the camp were much, much meaner than before. They did not allow us to cook. We had no food whatsoever. We were positively starving. I remember my male cousin trying to eat a raw potato, he was so hungry. (It’s very unpalatable.) My mother tried to cook something – a few stones, a little fire and a little pot on it – and a guard noticed it, came over, and kicked it over, so everything spilled. Yes, we were starving….
“My mother decided to escape and try to get food for us. She went through the fence. Since she spoke very good German, she went from village to village to beg and everybody gave her stuff. She had a sack and she had a few potatoes and some this and some that, eggs also. On her way back to camp it became dark and she lost her way. Dogs were barking and running after her. My mother was always terrified of dogs and had no sense of direction. She did not know where the camp was. And she was horrified and scared. And we, in camp, thought that she was caught and killed. And then in the very early morning, at the crack of dawn, she arrived with a sack full of food. When she was climbing over the barbed wire fence, the wire caught her sack and everything poured out. As she was gathering her loot, a guard came. Not all guards were Nazis; some of them were just local boys. This one must have been a local boy. He helped my mother put all the stuff together, put it in her sack, put the sack back on her shoulder, and said ‘go.’ And my mother did.”
“When the front was coming so near that we could hear cannons shooting, we were once more put into cattle cars and padlocked in…. Suddenly, a major air-raid alarm sounded; we could see the camp guards running to the bunkers, and a horrible bombing started. We were on an exposed railway station, and the Allies were bombing us! Bombs were whistling and exploding all about us, and then the carriage next to ours was hit. The whole long train lifted into the air from air pressure, everyone shrieked, we were thrown against each other; there was total pandemonium, total panic. The exploded carriage disgorged those in it (some alive, some dead) and the Allied flyers realized that the train carried prisoners. The raid stopped…. The bombing left behind unimaginable devastation; twisted rails rising high up, barrels of tar thrown around, nothing recognizable and whole was left of the station. The munitions factory located close by was hit, and for the next several days, there were huge explosions as the fire gradually reached the stored ammunitions. All this was terrifying for me, especially after the trauma of the train bombing. I still lived, but my nerves were shot to pieces….
“Once out of the train, we realized that the camp guards were slinking away, and that’s when some enterprising prisoners discovered food in one of the destroyed trains. They found soybeans, sugar, and alcohol. You can’t imagine the creativeness that burst forth, what have-starved people could make out of those three ingredients! Though the alcohol was not much used, but left for the Russians….
“We were still hiding in the bunkers, not knowing what was going on, when I, one of the curious kids, went up the steps and saw a man in a strange uniform approaching. The Russians arrived. We were just liberated!
“Among the Russians were several Jews who spoke Yiddish. They convinced us to leave immediately, because, they said, ‘If the Germans should recapture the camp, in their anger and frustration, they would murder all the prisoners’…. So, a small group of us found a cart, loaded our meager possessions on it and as much food as we had, then the adults started pulling and pushing to get as far away as fast as we could. Smaller kids were allowed to just walk and/or ride, and one old lady was amid the bundles to ride. For the next three days we were going toward Czechoslovakia. We passed through fields of carnage with horrendous sights. These were the battlefields just days old, strewn with bodies of people and animals torn apart, just left to rot. Horrendous. meanwhile, above us German planes passed and directed machine-gun fire toward our tiny group. Can you imagine how obsessed they were? It was the end of the war. They lost it. Within days, they capitulated but they still wanted to kill a few more Jews! Each time we heard a plane, we ran into a copse if there was one, hid under bushes. if there were some, or threw ourselves into ditches. Mother threw herself on top of me and screamed. She was a screamer. I was scared to death; it was terrible.
“We arrived to what is now the capital of Slovakia, Bratislava. There was no welcoming committee…. My cousin Herman found an acceptable-looking apartment house, went in, and, trying doors, found one that was unlocked. We simply moved in. We stayed for the several weeks, getting our food from the Russians. I have to say, they fed us decently. My uncle and I collected discarded cigarette butts from the streets, then taking them home, opened them and sold the collected tobacco, to have some money.
“We badly wanted to return ‘home.’ Since there were no organized trains, one simply tried to find one going in the right direction. Sometimes there was a train going, sometimes it just stopped. Sometimes you could only get up on the roof of the train; sometimes you got inside. A few of us stayed together and finally we got inside one; but then we stopped and did not know what was happening. Time was passing, our drinking water ran out, and my mother left to find some. But she did not return, and my aunt went to find her. When she too did not return, my uncle took me with him to find both of them. As we were looking around, calling their names, the train started moving. My uncle jumped up on it and tried to help me, but I was too small to reach the steps. We were in the middle of nowhere, just an empty field, with a few Russian soldiers carrying machine guns. As the train gathered speed, a Russian soldier saw what was happening. Running over, he shifted his gun from right to left, scooped me up, deposited me on the train. Then he saluted and was gone. I got almost separated from everyone. It was totally crazy, and petrifying. It so happened that my mother and aunt were on the same train too, but in a different compartment.
“Because the whole time on our march we were with a woman and helping her and her child, when we arrived to Budapest, she took us to her brother’s house, who by now had been liberated longer. I remember the first good meal, in a year, like chicken soup and I don’t know what else. Unfortunately, I could not eat because something I had seen bothered me so much. I was just nauseated, scared, and horrified. I decided sitting there (I was then 9½-years-old) that I am going to forget this. I am not going to remember it. I am going to forget it. I did. I don’t know what it might have been. Something that was worse than all the other things that I have seen. And that basically was the end of the Holocaust….
“Only it wasn’t, because on the way between one train and the next, as we were trying to make our way to Hungary, a woman came up to my aunt and my mother and was telling them about Auschwitz. We didn’t know. Germans say they didn’t know. We definitely didn’t know. And my mother heard the story and she said to my aunt in Hungarian, ‘Don’t listen to her. She must be crazy.’ She wasn’t. As you well know, she wasn’t.”
“I was so happy to go home! I was expecting to see my father again. And looking forward to my beloved cousin, my best friend, ‘Shmilu’ [Sandor (Shmuel) Rosenberg], and seeing the rest of my friends and family, and having a normal life…. We never went back to Abaújszántó. My life as a child was never normal again. Never!
“I don’t know when I found out about Auschwitz; I don’t know when I fully understood it.
“We never learned what happened to my father. Previously we were notified by the International Red Cross that he ‘disappeared’ on February 7th, 1943 in Igmenka, which is somewhere in the Ukraine. That usually meant taken prisoner by the Red Army – somewhat hopeful for a Jew.… My mother was always high-strung; after the Holocaust, she was more than high-strung, she was a devastated nervous wreck. She couldn’t work, she became a very difficult mother, and it was very hard for me to be her child.
“Of all the Blau cousins, all the Jewish kids of Abaújszántó, only I survived, and the loss of my cousin, my best friend, is a pain I carry around with me always. I lost 11 relatives on the Blau (my father’s) side: three aunts, three uncles, and five cousins. Only some third cousins survived. I lost 20 relatives on the Spitz side: one aunt, four uncles, and 15 cousins. I remember almost all of them.
“My living cousins survived either Auschwitz or labor battalions. The ones still living in New York are: siblings Susie Schwartz, Ditt Levite, Dolly Rabinowitz, and Saje Spitz. Also, Dvora and Moshe Citron, a married couple, cousins to one another and me. In Israel, Tzipora Zarachovich. I am the youngest, since all the younger ones were murdered in Auschwitz.
“Since my mother couldn’t provide for us, we followed my uncle from place to place. We lived in Hajdúdorog, Debrecen, then Budapest. Later, Israel, Brazil and the United States.
“In 1951, my mother decided that she wanted to join her sister again who was then in Vienna where my uncle was a rabbi. But you couldn’t leave Hungary because it was the height of communism. However, the Israelis paid dollars for 2000 Jews who had very close relations in Israel, but we had to go to Israel. My mother said that maybe in Vienna we can leave the train. Well, we couldn’t. We were locked in. Another locked-in train…. We arrived in Israel. In 1951, Israel was three years old. There was no food. There was no lodging. There was nothing. There was heat. It was awful. I was so hungry. I was so miserable. It was terrible. I had to stop going to school. I was 15 at the time. And we lived there almost four years.
“Then my mother saw to it that I left. I visited cousins in Western Europe, then I traveled to Brazil, where my uncle and aunt had moved. Then, I got stuck in Brazil for two years and then my mother joined me. And then we came to America. I was intending to go back to Israel and then I met my husband, Gabor (Gabi) Kemeny, a Hungarian Jew. He also lost his father. He was not in concentration camp; he was hiding in Budapest. My husband was a physicist and didn’t speak Hebrew, so we could not go back to Israel. We stayed in America, so here I am.” They had two daughters, Nicole and Vivian and three granddaughters, Naomi, Hannah, and Alyssa.
Katy is telling her story now because “I really felt that I wanted to do this and have it in the archives because it is so important.” She wants people to know “that it happened…. But I have to tell you that the Holocaust didn’t end when it ended. Because we were so damaged… You just can’t recover from something like that and all the losses and all your memories of the people that you loved…. What happened after the war… we didn’t have money, we didn’t have homes. The nice neighbors took everything. My own house was broken into; everything was taken. They pulled up the floorboards; they pulled out the chimney. They were looking for hidden jewels. There were no jewels. They took everything; they returned nothing…. I don’t know how these few photos survived. Maybe that’s the hardest that I don’t even have good photographs…. Nothing has survived. Nothing that we ever had. And the kind of life we had. We had to go from country to country and then another country and another city and just wandering forever and carrying all of this with us. That is really hard. So, yeah, maybe the next generation will be better. I don’t know. I hope so. I don’t know how many generations this has had an effect on.
“Apparently, my father was a very strong man. Apparently, I inherited that from him. My mother was strong in some way, but at the end she was very damaged. Of all her five siblings that she lost, the one who was her favorite and her best friend and best advocate was the next smallest brother, Shlomo, Shloimele as she called him. He was murdered, along with their only child. My mother never could get over that. That was impossible for her. No matter how old she was, she could not talk about him without crying. So, everybody had somebody that in particular they could not forget. For me it was my friend, my cousin, and of course my father.
“And all the wandering and all the never being at home. People ask me do you feel American? Do you feel Hungarian? What do you feel? I don’t feel. I feel rootless. I just don’t put down roots easily any more. I mean somewhat, but not really. How can I feel American when I am sounding like this, you know? How can I feel Hungarian when they did this to us? I feel Jewish. That I do. But kind of homeless. That’s okay. That’s not difficult.”
Date of Interview: June 13, 2018
Length of Interview: 60 minutes
Interview & Synopsis by: Zieva Konvisser
Videographer: Mark Einhaus