By Leo Adam Biga
Originally appeared in the Omaha "Jewish Press"
For the longest time, Holocaust survivor Kitty Williams of Council Bluffs didn’t think her story warranted telling. She considered her suffering insignificant amid the weight of Nazi atrocities. Other tragedies far surpassed her own. Nobody could find hers interesting or edifying. It’d all been said before.
She’s keenly aware that despite the cruelties her Hungarian-Jewish family endured, others endured more, such as a camp mate who lost nearly all her 50-some aunts, uncles, cousins, nephews, nieces. Kitty can still hardly believe she and two sisters survived Auschwitz. Another sister escaped certain demise on the Budapest Death March. Two brothers made it out of forced labor camps.
“Miraculously, six of us lived. We’re an exception. We were very fortunate that as many lived as did,” said the former Katalin Ehrenfeld.
She was made reticent, too, by Holocaust depictions of incalculable losses. To Kitty, 85, her own losses seemed almost trivial by comparison. But how can losing an adored father be minimized? He was her whole world.
Then there was the survivor guilt Kitty felt. Why was I spared? Why should I be singled out for attention? “I had it relatively easy, and that’s why I feel guilty telling you my story,” she told a reporter. This despite imprisonment in ghettos, at Auschwitz and in a forced labor camp. Her father and a brother killed, their home desecrated, her innocence violated. All sacrificed to the machinations of the Final Solution. She’d already lost her mother and a sister to typhus at age 7.
The permutations of her story, when taken together, make it singular: hiding and “passing” to escape capture; accepting Christian neighbors’ kindnesses; falling for a wounded German airman; finding and nursing her sister Magda at Auschwitz; being chosen for a life-saving detail of women laborers at a German munitions factory. After liberation Kitty married an American airman and came to live with him in Council Bluffs. At his request she concealed her heritage. She then experienced her own private holocaust of a failed marriage and a son’s suicide.
Her reluctance persists despite reminders that every survivor’s tale is a vital link to the body of eyewitness testimony that forms the historical record. Only those who actually lived the Shoah can bring history to life and give lie to the deniers. The larger story is not complete unless the smaller individual stories are documented.
As the number of survivors fast dwindles here and around the world, the need to preserve every untold story becomes more urgent. Kitty recognizes that, which is why she first testified for the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Project. Omahan Ben Nachman interviewed her and her words are now part of the project’s massive archives. But perhaps no one outside her family will ever see that video.
Last May the Omaha World-Herald sketched the bare bones of her story after she met an American liberator at the Heartland Honor Flight reunion. Now, the Jewish Press presents Kitty’s odyssey in its entirety. She may still feel an unworthy subject, but perhaps her story’s publication will validate her travails.
“That’s when we became very scared”
Born in 1924, Kitty grew up in the Eastern Hungarian town of Sarand, near the Rumanian border. She was the second youngest of eight siblings. Their father, Mor Ehrenfeld, was a World War I combat veteran who incurred wounds fighting in the Austro-Hungarian army. However, losing the mother of his children, his beloved wife Anna, cut deeper than any shrapnel.
“It changed everything,” recalled Kitty. “It’s almost like there was a life before my mother that was beautiful and there was a life after my mother died that was sad. Of course, my father took it very hard and really I don’t think he ever recovered from the loss. He did not want to bring a step-mother into our lives. I remember he got us together and said, ‘We’ll make it, somehow we’ll make it.’” Kitty said, “I think most of all of the love that radiated between us is how we made it.”
Her sister Magda, 12 years her senior, became Kitty’s surrogate mother.
The family were the only Jews in the vicinity, except for the Leitners, whom they were not close to prior to the Holocaust, Circumstances would thrust the families together on a harrowing journey. Before the madness, Kitty recalls an idyllic life.
“I have beautiful memories mostly because of my large family. Most of my siblings were very musical and played instruments — that was our entertainment, sitting on the porch, my brothers playing these heartbreaking love songs on the violin. They’re still etched in my memory. We were so close as family, and since socially we really weren’t accepted in town, it was a wonderful feeling.
“We always had a lot of books in our house. We had probably the first radio — a crystal set. We got a newspaper from Budapest every day, although a day old.”
Her father’s 3rd grade education belied wisdom. He ran a general store in town, he dealt in grain, he owned a vineyard. Harvest time marked a communal peasant celebration. “Half the town would come and pick the grapes,” said Kitty. “It was kind of like 4th of July here. It was a get together for a lot of people.”
Kitty said her father was admired for his advanced ag techniques and many skills.
“The school board approached him every year with different parcels of land for him to look at and he would farm these on shares…because he was always able to figure out what was needed, to build it up. The town didn’t have a lawyer and so anytime anybody needed an official paper translated or written they would come to my dad. Besides, he had the most beautiful handwriting. For any advice there would be a knock on the window or on the door of somebody wanting, you know, ‘My child is sick, can I have something from the store?.’”
She said she’s read Who’s Who in Hungary listings praising him as a patriot, citing his WWI service. His community standing helped insulate the family from punitive, restrictive Jewish laws. Even when new, harsher anti-Jewish decrees began being instituted in 1939, she said, “he was always exempted from the Jewish laws until the very end.” Nothing could save the family once German forces occupied Hungary, a noncombatant but complicit ally of the Nazi regime and its master race ideology. Up until then, Hungarian Jews and gypsies largely avoided the mass internments and killings. But as these ethnic minorities discovered to their horror many of Hungary’s Christian leaders and citizens willingly participated in genocide.
The Ehrenfelds and their Jewish brothers and sisters had been duped into a false sense of security. “For us to be able to live amongst Gentiles peacefully it was like paradise,” said Kitty, “but in looking back in our history there were pogroms, we were persecuted.” She could not imagine what lay ahead. There were signs but few could read them. Where once her family “took part in a lot of the town’s activities,” they became isolated, ostracized. The Anti-Semitic enmity could be construed as a dangerous new pogrom or as just the latest wave of Jew bashing.
“The Hungarian radio broadcasts were very biased and so it was always full of good news of German victories. The movie house newsreels only showed all the battles they won,” said Kitty. “Of course they never missed an opportunity for Jew hating. You know, ‘If it wasn’t for the Jews everything would be fine.’ Everything was always the fault of the Jews.”
Even when the family encountered refugees fleeing neighboring countries they didn’t interpret it as a warning their own safety was in jeopardy.
“I remember young Polish and probably Czechoslovakian men knocking on our door
saying they were trying to escape, trying to get to Israel, going through Hungary, and of course we always fed them and gave them some supplies. When they were telling us about the atrocities I don’t think we really believed them. The human mind cannot imagine this can happen. It’s an exaggeration, it can’t be true, it just can’t be. Of course, we never heard about the gas chambers. We heard about the shooting and the looting and that kind of stuff, but not the systematic killing of the Jews. We were completely unaware of it. We were so naive.”
By ‘39, the circle of Kitty’s life narrowed. She was 15 and her family was dispersed, her older siblings married and moved away. It was just Kitty and her father. Back home in Sarand and in the nearby city of Debrecen, where Kitty attended high school and her sister Magda lived, things were getting more difficult.
“I was a young girl but I couldn’t get out except maybe for a couple hours a day. You couldn’t travel, you were forbidden to do anything.”
Wearing the Star of David in public became compulsory. Once, when a Gentile girl asked her to go to the movies, Kitty, anxious to leave the house and be a normal teenager again, agreed. “It was like a dream to get out of my almost virtual prison.” The dream turned nightmare. The movie was a virulent German propaganda film, Walking home from the theater in the chill of the afternoon Kitty put on a coat, covering her Yellow Star. Someone must have reported her, as the next day the police came to her home and arrested her. She was taken away and jailed in another town despite the protests and pleadings of her and father.
“I just begged and begged, ‘I have to be with my dad, please let me out,’ but they had no mercy. They kept me in there.”
She got out only after a Gentile woman who once worked for the family walked the 8 kilometers to obtain her release. Kitty suspects her father gave the woman money to bribe officials. Kitty will never know though as the incident “was never discussed.” Kitty’s father had been allowed to keep his store but eventually he was forced to close it. Then, on March 19, 1944, the German Army occupied Hungary.
“I remember I was visiting my sister Magda in Debrecen. She was married and pregnant. I was walking on the street and I saw German troops marching all over. They’d just landed or drove into Hungary. It happened all in one day. They just descended on us. They were everywhere. That’s when we became very scared.”
“Even to go to our death it was torture”
Before long her brothers were nabbed and sent to forced labor camps. Her sister Elizabeth, who lived in the capital city Budapest, was taken prisoner the very day the Germans stormed into Hungary. She ended up in Auschwitz with Kitty and Magda. Another sister, Klari, was forced from her home in Budapest to march with thousands of others. Their supposed destination — Vienna. But standing orders said no Jews were to make it there alive. Stragglers or resistors were shot on the spot. Klari was a comely young woman who, with a girlfriend, drew the attention of a Hungarian guard. He confided they would not survive the march and offered to hide them at his family’s home in Budapest. Klari accepted the offer and lived. Her girlfriend refused and died. Klari ended up a virtual slave but she made it through.
It was awhile before the Germans reached Kitty’s town. She can never forget the mob that came for her in the middle of the night. Rape and murder on their minds.
“The first night we heard…let me put it this way, we had our Kristallnacht. It was a mixture of German and Hungarian hoodlums. They broke every window in the house. My dad got up. The Germans demanded I come out. They wanted me. I was a young girl of not even 19. Fortunately my dad spoke German. He said, ‘I’m so sorry, she’s not here.’ The Hungarians were more demanding.”
Somehow he convinced the thugs she wasn’t there. They left uttering epithets. “I remember spending the night under the bed shaking,” said Kitty, “and from then on I never slept at home.” For a time she hid in the apartment of a Christian family in Debrecen. But the stress of avoiding detection became too much and the family put her out. Kitty wanted to be home anyway. “I didn’t really like this hiding. I wanted to go and be with my dad, to take care of him.” Her law-abiding father also wanted her home. He arranged for her to travel in the wagon of a farmer going to market. Posing as a Gentile, head wrapped in a babushka, she passed.
Back in Sarand, the Ehrenfeld’s Christian neighbor, widower Mihaly Toath, offered to put Kitty up. He didn’t have children of his own and he felt protective of Kitty, his friend Mor’s last child at home. And so for a month she whiled away the daylight hours at home before secreting away to the old man’s tiny place at night. He slept in the one bed and she slept under it, his chickens clucking and pecking all about. She called him “uncle.” The ruse could only buy Kitty and her father so much time.
Kitty’s home was confiscated, the guest bedroom taken over by a wounded German pilot. He stayed two weeks. “We had to take care of him. My father changed his dressing — he had a leg injury — and I fed him.” One thing led to another. “He was a young man and I was a young girl. He wanted to meet me after the war. I remember he gave me a note with his town’s name — Dusseldorf — and his address. He gave us so much encouragement. He kept saying, ‘Don’t worry, it’s going to end, we are losing the war. Everything will be wonderful for you.’ And, of course, that is not how it happened, but it was a nice fantasy — until he was sent home.”
Even after the ghettos, right up through arriving at Auschwitz, she clung to hope they might meet again. “I remember I had this little note I was holding that I finally dropped just before they shaved us and everything, because it was sort of like my security blanket.” Any sense of security she still had was shattered.
In April the roundup of Jews began. Kitty’s large home was designated a ghetto. Mr. and Mrs Leitner and daughter Ica were taken there. The girls became friends. A doctor’s widow, Mrs. Kovacs, was brought there, too. Only part Jewish, she’d lived as a Christian. “She came with all her furs and jewelry and she kept saying, ‘I believe in Jesus Christ, how can this happen to me?’ But, you know, it didn’t matter,” said Kitty. “If they knew you had even an ounce of Jewish blood…”
As insurance, Kitty’s father had a shoemaker fashion false soles in his shoe. Mor stashed some 5,000 pengos in each cavity. A fortune then. “Maybe that’s all he had, I don’t know,” said Kitty. “At any rate I remember my dad saying to me, ‘You know, maybe it will buy you a loaf of bread some day.’”
After two weeks all the occupants were taken to a ghetto in another town, where they joined more Jews. Then in June everyone was trudged off to Nagyvarad, whose factory-works complex of barns with dirt floors became a makeshift camp for some 2,000 prisoners. Men, women, children. Sick and healthy. Rich and poor. That many people crammed into a space not made for human habitation made for “horrible conditions.” She said, “It was a huge place. All the Jews taken from the surrounding towns and small ghettos were concentrated in this one facility. They let us take some food, clothing, supplies along. The food didn’t last very long. We were already starting to be hungry.”
Kitty and Ica were ordered into evacuated outlying ghettos, with an armed guard escort, to forage for food left behind. “That’s how we supplied the camp,” said Kitty. “We went from house to house and picked up food left here and there. The sight of it, it still chills me, because I would see children’s things, a shoe here, a shoe there, toys, furniture, clothes. It looked like they must have been taken in the middle of the night and that they weren’t prepared for it.” She couldn’t shake the scene of quiet lives so violently interrupted.
Weeks passed. Rumors of death camps and gas chambers spread. As did counter rumors the Germans needed the Jews for war labor. Kitty, her father and most others chose to believe their lives were too precious to be snuffed out. They were even hoping the railroad tracks that ran nearby would soon bring a train to transport them to a labor camp. Anything would be better than this, they thought. “You can’t imagine the brutality from the Hungarians,” said Kitty.
It was “a relief” when a train did come for them in August. Relief gave way to dread as they were herded onto the cattle cars in the summer heat. “The horror of that I can’t even…” she said, her voice breaking. “It’s very hard for anybody in the free world to imagine what they did to us. Anything you’ve seen or read, it was much worse. They put us in there on top of each other with no water and a bucket for a toilet. We could never lie down. You couldn’t see out. Total darkness. Just one little hole. And by this time we hardly had any food.”
No one knew the destination. The journey was interminable, impossible, awful. “It seemed to me like it was at least five days,” said Kitty. “I do know you can get there overnight by train.” She refers to Auschwitz, the death camp they were en route to. It’s a trip she’s remade twice in the ensuing years. Getting there that first time was like a slow, agonizing death. “We stopped and slowed down, again and again. It was like torture on purpose, even to go to our death it was torture.”
“It was death and smoke and smell.”
It all had the intended dehumanizing effect. “I know at first there was some modesty left in us,” said Kitty. “We hung up a sheet or something when somebody had to relieve themselves. But after awhile nobody even cared. What surprised me is we didn’t go mad, we were still functioning. I mean, I know there were people dead around me because I know we left bodies in there when we finally got out. But it’s like I didn’t want to even believe it’s happening. It didn’t register.”
At a stop German soldiers replaced the Hungarian guards. An officer announced anyone carrying valuables must surrender them or be subject to execution. Kitty and her father exchanged glances and whispers. What to do? They decided they couldn’t chance it. She said as their drama played out others in the car wrestled with the same dilemma. The deliberations grew animated. Some decried their fellow Jews as hoarders, lashing out, “See, that’s why we’re in the state we’re in — you don’t obey the law.’ Others commented, “You were smart to do it.”
Mor used a tool to wedge his soles off, handing over the money to a pair of young soldiers. “At the next stop,” said Kitty, “the same two soldiers came with buckets of water and big baskets of French bread and they flung the bread into the car, and only our car. Loaf after loaf. Everybody was reaching for it. I know everybody got at least two loaves. My dad was treated like a hero.” The lost fortune “did buy us a loaf of bread,” after all, she said.
The further the train went the more unfamiliar the surroundings appeared. But Mor knew the territory. He recognized they’d crossed into Poland. Then they were there — Auschwitz. “At least we weren’t hungry when we got there,” said Kitty. She would know real hunger and deprivation soon enough.
Kitty, her sisters, her father, the Leitners, the rich widow — they were part of the flood of refugees the Nazis evacuated from Hungary in ‘44, the last major contingent of Jews targeted for death. The war was being lost and what Kitty calls “the killing machine” had to be fed before the advancing Allies arrived.
“We arrived early morning, the sun was just coming up. Nobody spoke to you, everybody yelled, they always yelled. ‘Get out, get out! Leave your luggage, you’ll get it later! Stand in line!’ In the distance I saw this beautiful, tall German officer all in white with several dogs and soldiers around. He was sitting and looking at us, pointing — right, left. I found out later it was Dr. (Josef) Mengele.” The selection separated Kitty from her father. “I went to the right with my friend and her parents and my dad went to the left.” Kitty asked men in striped garb where the others were being taken. The cryptic reply: “You’ll see.” She learned “the striped ones were inmates who had the job of getting us organized. Everything was so organized. The method was so perfect. There were typists, barbers.” Lines and names and counts. Chilling efficiency. Always, guns, whips, clubs at the ready.
Before her father was led away, she recalls embracing him, “looking over and saying something like, ‘See you later.’ Well, later never came. That was the last sight of him I ever had.” She learned he was killed that same day. Her sister Elizabeth, who arrived before, was on a work detail sifting through clothes of those killed in the gas chambers. “It was,” said Kitty, “a plum job. You would give your right arm for it because you were able to go through pockets and find food.” A friend was rifling through a man’s overcoat when she found a wedding picture she recognized as Elizabeth’s. The overcoat belonged to Mor. He’d carried the photo with him. “That’s how Elizabeth knew our father was dead. I have the picture.”
The dead at least were free of degradation. The living had to endure more misery. In Kitty’s experience, the worst brutality was meted out not by Germans but arm-banded kapos, prisoners working for the Nazis.
“They were so hardened by then. They’d been in concentration camps for years and seen so much that they weren’t even like human beings anymore. Whatever beatings I had in the camp were always from a kapo.”
A gray pall hung over this killing zone. “I don’t think a blade of grass ever grew and I don’t think a bird ever flew in Auschwitz. It was the most devastating place. It was death and smoke and smell. When it rained, it was mud. It was unbelievable.
“A reason to live”
Kitty said she was still “in denial” even with the crematoriums going full blast, the flames licking the sky, the stench of human flesh permeating the air. “I didn’t want to face it. I could not believe it.” The kapos didn’t mince words when asked, “When will we see our parents?’ The cold answer: “They’re up in the smoke.”
Stripped, shaved, showered, disinfected, the inmates got mismatched rags as clothes, a metal pan as a pillow. The newly built barrack or lager she and Ica were assigned was within a half-block of a crematorium. The barrack was a windowless barn with a dirt floor. No partitions. Approaching it, she said, “we saw these shaven heads atop walking skeletons. They were inquiring where we were from and did we know so-and-so.” She passed another lager whose inmates “were even in worse shape. They were dark-skinned and there were entire families together.” The identities of these exotics puzzled Kitty until learning they were gypsies.
“The first night was my introduction to seeing somebody dying. Somebody next to me had a diabetic reaction and died.”
Death became numbingly routine. With no bunks, people were “half way on top of each other — a thousand of us in this one huge barrack. We were there a few days and new transports were coming from Hungary almost daily. The Germans were in a rush to kill us. They couldn’t do it fast enough.”
“August 2nd, 1944 we woke-up to this horrible noise, people begging for help. We went outside and saw smoke and flames from the crematorium chimney near us. Next to the crematorium was a ditch and from that direction there were screams and flames going up, the smell of human flesh burning. And that screaming, sometimes I wake up and it comes back to me. It just pierces to your soul.”
When Kitty learned her sister Magda was in camp she managed finding her in another barrack. Magda had been expecting while in the Debrecen ghetto and so Kitty anticipated meeting the newborn, but there was no baby. It died in the ghetto. Unburied. Magda was desolate and weak. Kitty became her caregiver. “I fought for her to get even a drip of water, anything, because she really didn’t have the strength. I moved over to her barrack. They kept track of us but not to the point where it made any difference because people were dying constantly.” Kitty begged Ica to come with her but declined. One day Kitty went to her old barrack to check on Ica and it was empty. The Germans had liquidated it.
Getting Magda back to a semblance of health gave Kitty “a reason to live. We were together.” In mid August the sisters were fortunate to be selected for forced labor. Before boarding the train the Germans made a second cut, eliminating the sick. When a guard noticed Magda’s lactating breasts she was pulled from the line.
“I was just devastated,” said Kitty. “I was sure she would never make it. Neither of us could run back to the other without getting shot. She ended up with a lot worse fate than I did, but she did make it. She died a year ago at 96.”
“We were just happy to get out”
A book written by a camp mate of Kitty’s reveals that male workers had been requested. Either due to lack of able-bodied men or a mix-up, said Kitty, “us girls” ended up in Allendorf, Germany. 1,000 of them. “We were just happy to get out,” she said. By war’s end, virtually all the women survived. Everything about Allendorf was an improvement over Auschwitz. Training in, the cattle cars were far less crowded. Kitty recalls her surprise looking out and seeing ordinary people going about their daily lives. “Life goes on on the outside? Not everybody is like us?”
The women’s quarters were in the woods, the barracks built for free workers and “so it was not unbearable,” said Kitty. The munitions factory was an hour’s walk. “The work was heavy, it wasn’t designed for females. My work was to chisel powder out of dud (undetonated) bombs, shells, grenades. Other people were filling them and putting them on the conveyor belt. The Germans were so desperate for war materials they were remixing, reusing explosives. It was a tremendous operation.”
The workers handled toxic chemicals without protection — no gloves, no masks. The poison made people sick. Hair turned purple. Skin assumed a yellow cast. Shifts lasted 12 hours. The factory operated around the clock. The workers were issued wooden shoes and coming back and forth from the factory to camp the women clopped, clopped on the town’s cobblestone streets.
Supervising were mostly civilian German overseers. Kitty described them as “more neutral” and “not really brutal.” The few guards were mostly women and, she said, they “were particularly cruel. They punished us for just petty things.” One German woman, however, did befriend Kitty and even though they couldn’t speak each other’s language a weakened Kitty was allowed respites from work at a forest hideaway. The German gave her extra food Kitty then shared with camp mates.
The prisoners heard snatches of news about the war’s progress: the Allies landing, the war going badly for Germany. “But we didn’t believe it,” said Kitty. By March ‘45 food was scarce for everyone. In late March the commandant gathered the camp’s entire contingent in a courtyard to announce he and his staff were leaving. The Americans were approaching. The war was over. “He told us, ‘You’re free to go, you’re on your own. Good luck,’” Kitty said. It was a shock. Some survivors followed the commander and his staff. Most hit the road in groups. Kitty was among a group of 20 women who’d shared a room and become like sisters.
“We decided to stick together. We went one direction. We had no idea really. We ate anything we could find — grass, vegetables in the fields, eggs in hen houses. We feared knocking on the doors of German houses. We were afraid of the reception we would get. Once in a while some of us, probably not me, was brave enough to knock. There was hostility from some, generosity from others.”
One day on the road someone in Kitty’s group spied a convoy of U.S. tanks. She took off her white slip, tied it to tree branch and flagged them down. It was April 1, 1945. Mor’s birthday. The G.I.s became the survivors’ liberators. “They showered us with candy and gum. I’d never had chewing gum. The Americans were almost childlike, so good, so unspoiled. They were like angels that dropped down from heaven,” Kitty recalled. She and the others were trucked to the nearest village, whose burgomeister was pressed into putting them up, the villagers ordered to wait on them hand and foot. G.I.s stood guard to prevent reprisals. After a few days the Army decided it wasn’t safe and relocated the women to Fritzlar, a former Luftwaffe air base. The women were offered housing, food, jobs, protection. They readily accepted. For two years Kitty lived and worked there, first as a mess hall waitress, then, having quickly picked up English, as a PBX operator. Affairs and romances between G.I.s and native girls were common. Kitty was not immune.
“My holocaust here”
In the post-war limbo of piecing together broken lives, everybody was searching forloved ones in displaced persons camps. Communication and transportation were slow in a region reduced to rubble. Kitty had no desire to return to her hometown. Too painful. An old beau from Hungary who “never stopped looking” found Kitty. “He wanted me,” she said. Once reunited, the engaged couple set marriage plans. She even had a wedding dress made from sheets. But then she called it off. She’d met a WASP American flyer with whom she wanted to make a fresh start in the U.S. “I didn’t want to go back to the past. It was a mistake. I paid a really terrible price to come here. But that was my decision at the time.”
After an epic struggle to send for her, over the Army’s strenuous objections, she met him in New York and they caught a train for Iowa. “On the train he asked me not to ever mention I’m Jewish, not to talk about Auschwitz. He said, ‘My family would not accept you — no reason for you to repeat that. I want you to be treated like everybody else.’ And, you know, he made sense. But it’s very difficult to deny your heritage. For years, because of his family, nobody knew. I can’t say it was all his fault. It was two different worlds. We were worlds apart.”
His drinking further drove a wedge between them. They had three children together. After 12 years they separated. Kitty became a single working mom. She was a bank teller and later trained tellers. Her first-born, Mike, earned a college scholarship, but never used it. Nobody knew it but he was troubled. At 19 he committed suicide. “It was the ‘60s. No father, me working long hours. We were abandoned. I blame myself,” she said. “I expected him (Mike) to be the head of the household and concentrated on the other two kids and didn’t realize he was slipping away. That was my Holocaust here. That had a lot to do with the divorce.”
But life went on. Kitty’s surviving children, Mark and Pamela, earned scholarships to Yale and Grinnell, respectively. Kitty rose to vice president. She finally spoke about her Jewish heritage and survivor past. She met a good man in Bill, her husband of 32 years now. He’s embraced her past. “I’ve had a lot of bad things happen but the good outweighs the bad. Bill’s the best thing that ever happened to me.”
“I am so fortunate in so many ways. Now I’m sort of out of the closet.”
In 1990 Kitty was invited back to Allendorf for a reunion with her fellow camp mates. All expenses paid. She’d sworn never to step foot again in Germany. But this was something she hadn’t counted on — a reunion and reconciliation. She went with family. All told, 333 of the 1,000 women came. She renewed old friendships and made new ones. The Germans’ “kindness and sympathy and regret” struck her. “They rolled out the red carpet. It was like magical. They even had a kosher table and brought in rabbis from Frankfurt. They couldn’t do enough for us. It changed my outlook.” She also visited Auschwitz. She remade the trip in 2000. She returned again this summer with a grand-niece and granddaughter.
She treasures these visits. She’s glad she’s shared her story. The past still haunts her though. “My most vivid memory of Auschwitz is seeing the carts carrying the dead bodies. Whenever I can’t sleep it comes back to me — this image of people in striped uniforms pulling this wagon and throwing the bodies on it. The pile got so high the limbs were hanging out, and nobody knew who they were. We just went on existing. You get used to it, you’re callous, you just think about your own survival. Sometimes I feel like, Was there a life before Auschwitz?”
There was. More importantly, there’s been a life after. A reminder of change is a new Allendorf museum dedicated to the 1,000. All their names inscribed there, Kitty’s included. “It’s a memory forever,” she said. “It’s pretty remarkable.” She especially likes that school kids tour the site. “That’s what’s most outstanding.”
Through it all, Kitty’s never lost her humanity. “I love people — the interaction.” Visit her and this doting Jewish mother will humble you with her warmth and hospitality. She’s amazed by the new life she made for herself in America after everything she knew was gone. Times got tough, sure, but help was always there. “I am so fortunate in so many ways.” She’s even glad her survivor identity is known. “Now I’m sort of out of the closet.”
Kitty Williams’ Holocaust survivor story came full circle in September when she retraced her odyssey accompanied by a granddaughter and a grandniece. The trio’s journey began in her homeland of Hungary and traveled to Poland and Germany.
A Holocaust remembrance trip is not for everyone. This was Kitty’s fourth.
“It’s very hard,” she said. “Some people never want to go back and yet I feel a connection. I think it’s like going to a cemetery. In a way it doesn’t accomplish anything but you feel this is where you lost your family and you need to actually physically make the effort of seeing it.”
She said she mainly went back “to show the girls. Even though I can tell them it’s just not the same as actually seeing it, and I am hoping that it impressed them enough they can pass it on to their children and pass it on to another generation. I don’t know what it will stir up in them. I’m sure they’ll never forget it.”
Amanda Peters, whose father is Kitty’s son Mark Peters, confirmed how powerful it was visiting the sites where her grandmother and aunts suffered. Kitty described what she lived through in each place.
“When you’re sitting and hearing first hand about things that happened it really brings it to life,” said Amanda, who lives in Brooklyn. Growing up, she said, her elders would “recollect stories here and there but you didn’t really get an order of what happened.” The trip, she said, gave a personal, visceral chronology of her grandma “Kati’s” Holocaust trials she never had before.
The former Katalin Ehrenfeld lived at home with her father, Mor, when Germany occupied Hungary and enacted anti-Jewish laws. They were taken from their home in Sarand to the nearby Debrecen ghetto. From there, they were transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where two sisters were imprisoned. Kitty was among 1,000 females sent to a munitions factory in Allendorf, Germany, where she was liberated.
A decade ago Amanda and her dad went with Kitty to the old country. She was 14. The family’s Holocaust heritage influenced her decision to work in El Salvador, a nation healing from genocide. She feels a connection to that people’s struggles.
“That’s why I’ve taken that direction. I think it’s extremely important to remember that although on smaller scales and using different methods these atrocities still occur today and happen all over the world — in Africa, in Central and South America, in Asia,” said Amanda. “So, although my work is not directly Holocaust education, I think it’s important we bridge these experiences and realize it’s not just the Holocaust we have to remember.”
When she got the chance, she eagerly returned to Europe with her grandma.
“It’s not really something you can turn down, you know, just considering the history of our family. It’s just an opportunity I really couldn’t pass up.”
It was the first such trip for her cousin, Kristi Miller of Phoenix, whose grandmother was Kitty’s late sister Elizabeth. Kristi said she felt compelled to “see where I’m from, to see my roots, to see what transpired in the camps. I’ve wanted to go since I was a small girl. It was absolutely amazing. Prior to going I didn’t know where my great-aunt was in the camps. I had heard a story about my grandma seeing her.” With that new clarity she’s keen to learn even more. “It has increased my desire to learn and read about the Holocaust. I will go back again. It’s not a pleasant experience but it’s very important and meaningful.”
Kristi said while her grandma “never spoke about it with her kids or with us grandchildren — she didn’t want to talk about it — Kati’s much more open to talking about it. So, absolutely, I’ll keep asking her questions.”
Unlike her siblings, who wouldn’t broach the subject, Kitty was forthcoming about the family’s Holocaust ordeal. Still, she remained cautious. The Council Bluffs resident kept a low profile making a new start in the States. She married, she bore children, she worked. Other things crowded out the Holocaust.
“It was pushed way back,” she said.
As if enduring the Shoah wasn’t enough, she lost her eldest child to suicide and saw her first marriage dissolve. She called it “my own private Holocaust” in America. Dredging up the awful past meant more pain. Besides, she wished to spare her kids the baggage. But in 1982 she went back with two sisters and her daughter Pam. In ‘91 she and her son Mark went for a reunion of the Allendorf survivors. She then gave her first extensive Holocaust accounting for the Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Project. Her videotape testimony was more a memorial to her father, killed shortly after their arrival at Birkenau, then a chronicle of her own experience.
She returned to Europe in 1999 with Mark and Amanda. With the passage of time the burden of memory became more oppressive.
“It’s with you. It haunts you forever when you think about. You try not to but somehow the older I get the more I think about it,” Kitty said.
For years she was urged to tell her story for publication, but begged off. Finally, she relented and the Press published her tale in this past New Year’s edition. She’s glad she did it. Her family’s grateful, too. Grand niece Hilary Gray of Atlanta hungered to know more. Her grandma Klara (Klari) passed without sharing much.
Said Hilary, “I am always eager to hear the stories because I want to know what happened, and I want to pass on their stories when they no longer can.” She said the article is “something physical to pass down to my children and my children’s children, and not just the oral memories. Now, my family’s struggles and victories will not be forgotten.” She’s already “shared” the experience with all her friends and family. She and her father are planning to visit Kitty next year.
For Amanda, the September trip to Europe with Kitty left an indelible impression.
“I wasn’t quite prepared for how emotionally challenging it was going to be for her,” Amanda said. “It’s not that she completely lost it or broke down, but I felt all of us were put on edge as she recollected all these really horrific memories. And not just horrific, but things that were just really difficult and sad. Just missing someone like her father that badly can create emotional turmoil.
“There were definitely some very difficult moments.”
The women visited the gravesites of Kitty’s mother, Anna, and her baby sister, in Debrecen’s Jewish cemetery. Both died before the war. A family friend has erected a plaque there in honor of Kitty’s father.
Among the toughest things they did was visit Birkenau.
“I could never possibly have imagined how huge it was,” said Amanda. “The barrack conditions were terrible. The way they had to use the bathroom, the way they slept, just how little they had. The other thing that is haunting about that place is the smell. It’s like no smell you’ve ever experienced before — what you can imagine death would smell like. One of those things you don’t ever really forget.”
Kristi said, “It just made my heart ache. Very, very sad.”
As tough as it got, Amanda said, “it was just a really excellent experience to have the opportunity to go there and to hear things I hadn’t heard before. The thing that fascinates me is how many stories there are just in my family. It’s incredible the number of times they escaped death. It blows your mind.”
There were tender, joyful moments, too. Kitty reunited with childhood friends and neighbors. She visited her high school. She finally visited the museum in Stadtallendorf, Germany that honors the women who survived Allendorf. Their names, including Kitty’s, are inscribed on a wall. Kitty and Co. were given a special tour and feted by staff and town officials.
Ironically, for years Kitty withheld her story because she felt it wasn’t special, but even she says the museum is proof that “it’s a little bit different than the other stories. At least I don’t know of anywhere else in Germany where they created a museum in our honor.” It’s theme — The secret of reconciliation is remembering.
“It’s a satisfaction of knowing the Germans are not only admitting what they did to us but this generation has a lot of sympathy for us and a lot of regret for what their parents and grandparents did. At least they don’t shrug it off like the Hungarians do: ‘Oh, that’s ancient history, we don’t need to talk about that.’ I have yet to hear a Hungarian say, ‘I’m sorry it happened.’ I feel really sad about that.”
One of her motivations in going again was documentation.
“I wanted to get some specifics of some of the people who helped me, who helped my family, that deserve to be mentioned in the Righteous Christian list at Yad Vashem. I wasn’t very successful because there’s hardly anybody left (from that time). The younger generations don’t know the dates. So we went to the cemetery, but we didn’t get a whole lot of information there either.”
She did meet for the first time a branch from her mother’s side raised Catholic after the war. They knew little of the family’s Holocaust lineage, but her visit changed that. “It was very important for me and the girls to meet them,” said Kitty.
“My highlight was to be able to see my family in Hungary,” said Amanda. “We were able to visit her brother Joska’s (Josef’s) son, also named Joska, and his wife Piroska, and their son Joska and his wife Agi and their children Balazs and Regina.”
The middle Joska was discovered years after the war. He’d been fathered out-of-wedlock by Kitty’s brother, who was killed on the frontlines. The Christian mother and boy escaped persecution. But the chaos of the war and its aftermath disconnected him from his Jewish roots.
Years later, Amanda said, “a friend of the family saw him on a train platform and went up to him and said, ‘Either you’re the ghost of Joska Ehrenfeld or you are his son.’ Because the resemblance is absolutely striking. You see it in photos. He said, ‘Well, I never knew my father,’ and the friend was able to give him the contact info. for my grandmother and all her siblings in the States, and he wrote them all letters. Kati said when she got his letter her reaction was, ‘Oh my God, Joska’s alive,’ because the handwriting was exactly the same. He came to the U.S. for a family reunion and they’ve stayed in contact and visited him.”
“It’s a miracle in itself we discovered him. It’s unmistakable who he is, his resemblance to my brother is just uncanny,” said Kitty.
Amanda feels a bond with Joska. “He’s a really excellent person. We don’t even speak the same language but I remember being able to connect with him when I was 14 and it was the same thing now at 24. He and his wife are just absolutely beautiful, giving, welcoming people. They fed us this huge meal. We ate, we drank, we talked. For me it was so much fun to look through all the photos.”
“It’s really, really important for me on a personal level to keep in touch with my family,” said Amanda, who’s sending them all photos from the trip. “I think it would be such a loss for us not to keep in touch just because my grandmother’s generation is getting older. Being that we have Internet and so many ways of communicating these days, why not?”
Although a fit 85, Kitty said she returned “emotionally and physically exhausted,” adding, “I’m glad I went and I’m glad I’m back.” She says it was her last trip there, but she still has things to see and do there. To close the circle once and for all.