Living Past the Holocaust: a Survivor's Story

    April 2011 Passover          
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Edith, with daughter Judy, in 2005


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More Than Surviving, Thriving In Australia

By Harvey Gotliffe © 2011

Relatives Relatively Near

My youngest relative, grand niece Brooke Isabella Halprin was born on November 7, 2010 in Detroit. I doubt if she will ever meet her oldest relative, my first cousin twice removed Edith Guttmann Tarjan, who was also a November “baby” in 1914. Edith recently celebrated her ninety-sixth birthday in Melbourne, Australia.

Within a five-minute drive of my Santa Cruz home, is my second oldest relative; my first cousin once removed Isabel Hart Cress turned ninety-six on February 23. Isabel and Edith would be great friends if they weren’t living 7868 miles apart. They both have a towering presence yet each barely reaches five feet in height. Each has an incorrigible sense of humor that at times is a bit bizarre and off-color, both are alert and well spoken, and they love having their entire families close by.

Relatives Near But Far Away

Edith and her immediate family were born in Budapest, Hungary and she unknowingly experienced tragedy when she was less than two years old. Ima, her mother, was minding the family’s jewelry store when a burglar came in and asked for something to distract her and when she turned around, he killed her with an axe.

Their aunt brought up Edith and her six-year-old brother Miklosh. When she was twenty-one, she met her husband Erno Tarjan (Tachauer) in Budapest at a friend’s place in 1935 and they were married on May 10, 1936. Erno was then a thirty-three-year-old chartered account and their daughter Judy was born two years later.

World War II Comes Home

When the Nazis overran Hungary, Judy was given to Erno’s sister Boszi and although Erno was able to hide at a friend’s place, Edith was not able to do so. She found temporary refuge in her crowded building “In our two-room flat on the fourth floor, twenty-eight people were living.” Edith is still distraught with the caretaker’s actions. “He gave them up to the fascists. Then they were taken to the ghetto. Never saw them anymore.”

The anger in Edith’s voice reverberates when she denounces what happened. “Fascists. Everything they said was a lie. We won’t be taken away.” She remembers swastika-wearing Nazis first surrounding the building and then forced everybody to march every day that November in 1944. “It was my thirtieth birthday present,” she said facetiously.

“I would be a survivor”

“There were no leaders, we just started to walk miles every day. It was rainy and muddy. Whenever possible we slept in a barn,” Edith recalls. The arduous journey was rife with anxiety along the way. “The fascists threatened us, ‘Be careful. We will shoot you if you try and run away.’” The group marched in rows of five for it was easier to keep track of the prisoners. Edith was unaware what awaited her but her resolve was strong; “I thought that I would be a survivor.”

She arrived at the Dachau Concentration Camp where she stayed for two to three weeks waiting for transport. “I had heard about Auschwitz,” she remembered, but had no knowledge whatsoever about her destination — Bergen Belsen Concentration Camp. On that journey, a German struck her in the back with a thick rod and she still suffers from that injury. She facetiously calls it a “souvenir.”

When she came to Bergen Belsen she had to undress; “A German fascist woman hosed us down with ice water. We were full of lice.” She was fortunate to meet a friend there whom she knew from Dachau who was fluent in German. Edith bribed her with a hanky to get a job in the mills where Edith made plastic parts for airplanes until she was released in August of 1945.

Edith’s father Armin Guttmann was fifty-five when he was killed in Auschwitz in 1944, one year after her brother Miklosh died of kidney failure at the age of thirty-three. Although she rarely reflects on those days except when asked, the memories are still embedded more than sixty-five years after being released from her forced Nazi imprisonment for the crime of being Jewish.

After the war, she and Erno were reunited when they both went back to the home where they had lived. When Erno reclaimed their seven-year-old daughter Judy, she plaintively said, “Papa, take me home.” Erno went back to work, and Edith stayed home with Judy but she wanted to prepare herself for the future and took shorthand and typing courses.

The Land of Oz

Judy moved to Australia, aka Oz, and lived with Edith’s second cousin. It was there that she met Emil Braun, an Auschwitz survivor who had left Europe in 1949. When the couple were set to marry, Edith and Erno wanted to be close to their daughter and immigrated to Australia in June 1959 in time for the wedding. Five years later, Edith became an Australian citizen. The two-generation family became one immediately as Edith and Erno moved in with the Braun’s. It was a beautiful, loving arrangement situation that still exists. With the passing of both Erno and Emil, now mother and daughter are there for one another.

In a pre-e-mail time, I first contacted my Australian family by postal mail after her European cousins gave me Edith’s address. After both of my parents died in 1981, I set out to learn of my family’s history by trying to find relatives around the world. A cousin I located in Romania sent me to a cousin in Budapest who then steered me to Australia. Edith and I wrote to each other on a regular basis through the years and in October 1984 she wrote about the death of her husband Erno. Although we hadn’t yet met, she noted “How sad that he didn’t have the opportunity of meeting his ‘new’ relative.”

I first met Edith, her daughter Judy, son-in-law Emil and their three adult children in 1985. Ten years later, I took my daughter to meet the family in the Land of Oz, and in 2005 I took my wife Carmen there. In each instance, the relatives’ welcome was warm was deep, genuine and loving.

There’s No Place Like Home

We were always given part of their lovely home as our home, provided with either a car or a tour or a trip together, and was watched over to be sure that we were enjoying ourselves. The first time I traveled there, I also visited with Rhonda, a friend of mine whom I had met in Israel in 1975 and lived close by to Edith.

Rhonda thought I might be in need of female companionship for I was spending too much time with family, so she fixed me up with a lady friend of hers. As I was leaving my cousin’s home on my date, the then seventy-year-old Edith asked whether I would be coming back that night and I answered, “It all depends.” When I did return much later, I found her hand-written note on my pillow, “Be it ever so humble, there’s no place like home.”

The Write Way

After my summer 1985 visit, Edith sent an aerogram telling me “Although faraway, you are still with us in our mind.” She sent a postcard from Budapest in August 1986 noting, “ I am enjoying being together with my relatives and childhood friends. But B__pest has changed a lot.” I learned more about Edith’s life in Europe before the war in another aerogram I received in March 1988 when she told me that she had a visitor, “A first cousin from New Jersey whose mother had brought me up from two to eight years of age.” It wasn’t until I interviewed Edith that I learned the whole, heart-rending story.

In 1993 she proudly wrote that her youngest grandchild Suzy had gotten married and at the wedding both the new husband and Edith’s son-in-law Emil mentioned to the gathering how much she helped in bringing up the grandchildren. ”There was big applause and it made me feel good.” In May 1994 at the age of eighty, she lamented that Emil might close down the jewelry business at the end of the year. “For me it will be very hard since I have been working for forty years.”

From 1965 to 2004 Edith traveled “home” to Hungary to visit family and friends and receive compensation from the government for her World War II ordeal. In January 1995, Edith wrote; “In June I might fly to Budapest because I get compensation and the amount can only be spent in Hungary. I haven’t decided yet whether to go or not go, but I guess at my age I don’t have too much time to wait.”

In December 2009, I wrote a long letter to my Australian family:

“What a tremendous, uplifting feeling I get each time we speak with one another. This week when the voice was first Edith’s, it especially gave me joy. With the New Year approaching I think that the best New Year celebration occurred when the four of us (Edith, Judy, wife Carmen and I) sat at the Kookaburra Club together in 2005 toasting life and enjoying the beauty of being together.

I am sorry we didn’t meet earlier and the irony is that it took my parents’ deaths in 1981 that set me up to take a glorious journey to find out more about my family and myself — and so I met the Tachauers in Romania, Hungary, Israel and the USA — and best of all, in the land of Oz.

Edith and Judy, I feel as close to you as first cousins, and always felt that your home was my home, and that your family was also my family.

Edith, you are so very special and inspirational to me, and mere words cannot express the extent of the goodness that you are.”

Keep on Laughing

On December 31, 2010, I called Edith for the fourth time this year to wish her and the family a healthy year ahead and to finish my interview with her. She admitted that she’s slowing down and getting older. When I told her that I would be seventy-five in January, she laughed and said, “You are a chicken. I am jealous of your brain and your age,” and added, “We have to keep laughing.”

Although she was ill last September and “thought it was the end of my life,” she has regained strength and continues to do house cleaning, trying to “make the house spic and span." Edith still misses working and from 1966 until four years ago she was doing bookkeeping and also sold watches and learned to make jewelry. “I could also sign checks for them. They trusted me.”

She is still an avid consumer of the news whether it’s on BBC radio, in Time magazine, in the Australian Jewish News, or the daily paper which she reads “From A to Zed. I know everything that’s going on in the world.” Although she doesn’t roam the world anymore, on Saturday she removes the travel section from the paper and devours its stories. She will even watch television but with one caveat, “It must be educational.”

She loves her grandchildren who have busy lives of their own and haven’t yet interviewed her extensively about her other life of long ago. Others have interviewed her and her story is in the local library and in the Holocaust Museum in Melbourne. She has eight great-grandchildren who range from eight to eighteen and Edith laments, “You can’t do anything with great-grandchildren. There’s a big difference in generations.”

Edith becomes a bit wistful as she laments about what old age has brought. “I hardly have any friends anymore, and most of the time I am by myself.” However, there is a major exception for she has a wonderful, close relationship with her daughter Judy and is not bragging when she says, “She is my best friend. Mine is an exceptional daughter and is very good to me. When I am sick, she is my nurse. Sometimes she takes me out.”

We Are Family

When my wife and I stayed with them in 2005, the four of us went out together to restaurants, to sanctuaries, to the sea, and to the Grampian Mountains where we hiked and then celebrated New Years’ Eve together. Edith’s laughter and enjoyment of the little things in life are invigorating and inspirational whether we are sitting side-by-side or talking over the phone 7868 miles apart, as I have done for many years with my Australian first cousin twice removed.

For someone who has endured so such suffering and separation in her lifetime, Edith’s attitude has enabled her to be more than just a survivor; she has captured the heart of anyone who has known her. My wife knows that each time that I call Edith, when the conversation is over and I hang up, I will want to go to Australia again and be with my not so distant family once more. It was no exception after our last conversation on December 31.


from the April 2011 Passover Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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