Rising from the Ashes
August 4, 2022
Holocaust survivor Mrs. Golda Lowy (née Grunwald) shares her story
I was inexpressibly fortunate to spend an hour with Mrs. Golda Lowy. During our conversation, I was transported to a world of cattle cars and starvation portions, of dim barracks and dank mud, of the stench of fear and disease heavy in the air.
Throughout Mrs. Lowy’s journey in Gehinnom, her positivity, grace, strength, and unwavering bitachon served as guiding lights. Later, while rebuilding after ruin, her faith remained her source of strength. Today, five generations of bnei Torah and yerei Shamayim bring her boundless nachas and joy.
In her own words, Mrs. Lowy shares her story.
A happy childhood
I grew up in Kerestir, Hungary, in a happy home. My parents were very special; they taught us children everything we needed to know about Yiddishkeit. I attended public school, so my official Jewish education came from a melamed who taught me to read Hebrew and Yiddish. Also, the rabbiner taught Jewish history twice a week at the public school.
We lived in a beautiful home just a few doors down from R’ Shaya’la. In fact, I was a baby when R’ Shaya’la was niftar, and my mother missed his levayah because she couldn’t find a babysitter for me.
My grandfather, a widower, lived with our family. One of my sweetest childhood memories is going to sleep at night to the sound of his learning and waking up in the morning to his singsong voice.
The day everything changed
I was 20 years old in the spring of 1944. At that point, we all knew that there was a war taking place in Poland and that it wasn’t good for the Yidden there. But we didn’t realize how evil the Germans yemach shemam were, and we had been repeatedly told that they would never come to Hungary.
One day, I was sitting by the window when I saw German soldiers marching down our street.
My father came in and asked, “What happened?”
I couldn’t talk; I just pointed out the window with a shaking finger.
Suddenly, German soldiers were everywhere.
The first thing they did was take the valuables from every home and institute a curfew for the Yidden.
Some of our neighbors were taken right away, but we were allowed to stay at home.
As we washed and put away the dishes after Pesach that year, we wondered if we would ever make Pesach again.
Soon after Pesach, we were moved to the regional ghetto located in Ujhel. We had to leave everything: our home, our furniture, our sefarim. We were allowed only a single bag of personal items. At the ghetto, we moved into the locals’ homes and people who were free brought us food. It was a change, but at least our family was together.
Deportation to Auschwitz
As the weeks went by, the Germans began emptying out the ghetto. One night just before Shavuos, the Nazis rounded up the remaining Jews for the last of four transports. Under the cover of darkness, we were stuffed into cattle cars with only a knapsack of belongings for each person.
My mother had baked and packed honey cookies. I sat on the floor eating cookies with my family on the three-day journey to Auschwitz.
The first thing we saw when we got to Auschwitz was a mountain of packages. We were told to leave our bags there; we weren’t allowed to take anything with us.
It was then that we saw the chimneys belching smoke. A Polish woman told us in Yiddish, “You see those chimneys? If you are not careful, in a few minutes, that smoke will be you!”
We showered and had our heads shaved before facing Josef Mengele yemach shemo, for selektion.
Most people were sent to the left, to the crematorium. Only the young and strong were allowed to live.
Leah and Chani, my mother’s younger sisters, were sent to the left because they seemed old and broken. My mother was 42 at the time, and it was very rare for someone her age to be left alive. We were afraid she would be taken, but she was pointed to the right.
That fear stayed with us throughout our time in Auschwitz, where we went through many of Mengele’s selections.
My mother, my sister, and I were sent to block 19.
Every morning, we were woken at five a.m. We had to get up, wash ourselves, and be outside at seven for appel (roll call).
Adolf Eichmann yemach shemo came to appel every day. We had to stand and wait for him, often for four or five hours at a time. Early in the morning, before the sun came up, it was freezing cold. Later in the day, it was so hot, we were fainting. The ground was always muddy and we had to stand for hours.
When I think back, I don’t know how we survived. But we just kept going.
After appel, we would go to the barracks, where we’d spend the rest of the day.
We got two slices of bread each day, which most people ate right away. My sister always saved one piece for the night. One night, my sister saw that her slice had been stolen.
She was so broken and bitter, so I tried to comfort her. I said, “Don’t worry, we’ll be liberated soon.”
“We’ll never be free,” she answered.
It was so dark, it felt like we would never be liberated.
Because we didn’t get enough nutrients, I got a large pimple on my body. During a selection, Mengele noticed it and grabbed my hand to send me to the left. At that moment, a German woman came by, and he chatted with her. While Mengele was distracted, I slipped out of his hand and joined my mother and sister. A malach was with me. We can never understand Hashem’s ways; der Basheffer firt di velt (Hashem runs the world).
Every block was run by a kapo called a blockalteste. Our blockalteste was called Judith. She lived in Israel and had gone to Poland to visit her mother. There, she was taken to Auschwitz.
Judith liked me very much. She told me, “Leave your weak mother and sister. You’re young and beautiful; you have potential to survive.”
“I’m staying with them,” I told her.
Even though their hair was shaved, many of the married women in our barracks put tichels on their heads for tznius. Judith would yell at them, “Stupid women, take off your tichels.”
Judith made sure we behaved, but she wasn’t bad to us. When she saw that my mother had a Tehillim, she told her, “You can use it, but don’t let the Germans see it.”
The barracks next to ours had a terrible blockalteste who would beat the girls with a stick, but Judith was different. She was a good one, a smart one. Judith didn’t survive the war, nebach.
One day, someone told me that the men who had come with us to Auschwitz were across the barbed wire. I went to the window with my sister and called to my father.
He came to the fence and his eyes filled with tears as he looked at us, at our shaved heads and ragged dresses. “Zeese techter, what did they do to you?” he cried.
The next day, they took my father away.
He was 49 years old, thin and weak looking.
We never said goodbye.
In November, we were taken to Lenzing, Austria, a slave labor camp that was a satellite of the Mauthausen concentration camp.
My mother’s younger sister was just a few years older than I. She was taken on a train packed with people. There was no food, and they traveled for days. They didn’t know where they were going, but they knew it wouldn’t be good.
One night, my aunt and another girl decided that they would jump off the train at the next turn. My aunt jumped out with soldiers shooting after her. The other girl was too afraid and didn’t jump.
My aunt looked for a light and found a barn to sleep in. In the morning, when the owner came in, she came forward and said, “I’m a fugitive. Can you give me something to eat?”
The farmer gave her food and but said that he had to report her. They were close to Mauthausen concentration camp, so she was sent there.
When we came to Lenzing, we met my aunt. She didn’t say anything to us. Anytime we were next to her, she ran away; she was so afraid.
I worked six hours a day in a viscose factory where a Russian shikse taught me how to work the heavy machine. My mother had a good job cleaning the house of a German officer. Although it was illegal to give food to the prisoners, the kapo at the house took a liking to my mother. My mother would leave her jacket on the floor and the kapo would slip food under it. This food sustained us in Lenzing.
In May of 1945, the Nazis ran away from the camps. Soon, we were liberated by American soldiers. We were lucky. Those who were liberated by Russians said they were horrible; they acted like animals.
The Nazis wanted to kill everyone, but we were meant to live. Der Basheffer hut anderesh gevult (Hashem wanted otherwise). The fact that we survived is a nes.
I survived along with my mother, my sister, and my aunt.
All we wanted was to go home; we thought maybe my father or brother had survived.
Back at home, we found out about our father’s yahrtzeit from an eyewitness.
We saw that the goyim didn’t like us. After the war, they said, “More Jews returned than they took away.”
My aunt owned a store in Liska, near Kerestir, and we joined her there.
Later, I met and married my first husband, R’ Moshe Menachem Weiss, and we started a family.
My husband said, “There’s no rav, shochet, melamed,or ba’al tefillah here. We can’t live like this.” He traveled to Budapest and hired R’ Tuvia Ehrenfeld as shatzma”tz.My husband undertook R’ Ehrenfeld’s salary even though he didn’t have a nickel to his name.
At the time, Hungary was under USSR rule. Then the Hungarians rebelled against Russia. They opened the jails and allowed murderers and criminals to take control of the streets. At the town hall, protesters piled documents like birth, death, and marriage certificates and lit them on fire. They said, “Today, the documents; tomorrow, the Jews.”
These hooligans hated Yidden, and theywere able to do whatever they wanted to us.
Hungarian friends offered to house my family for the night, but my husband said, “There’s one Hashem and He’s not going to let anything happen.”
After a couple of weeks, the Russians regained control and ended the revolution.
At the time, my husband said, “I have no strength left to escape. We’ll leave Hungary when we can go legally.”
My brother-in-law who lived in Detroit sent us passports and an affidavit. Because the USSR’s ideology was directly opposed to America’s, we couldn’t get passage to the US. Instead, we got tickets to Eretz Yisrael. We traveled to Vienna and from there we went to America to settle in Detroit.
Detroit had frum boys’ and girls’ school. The girls were lucky to learn under the leadership of Rabbi Elias from Washington Heights and Rabbi Goldstein from Crown Heights.
When my sons started learning Chumash, the Lashon Hakodesh was translated into English instead of Yiddish. My husband said, “I didn’t come to America for this.”
We moved to New York, where Yiddish schools were available.
There was never any question about moving. Yiddishkeit was everything to us.
Mrs. Lowy’s daughter, Mrs. Chani Friedman, shares her experiences in postwar Hungary.
I have the happiest memories of life in Liska.
My mother was so proud of her children; she never gave up. She would go to the big town with fabric and make the most beautiful clothing for us; she dressed me like a princess. My mother was an excellent balabuste; the food in the house was delicious. She baked bread, kokosh cake, challah, ferfel, and lokshen from scratch and churned her own butter.
While normal life was carefree and lighthearted, the Sedarim were always filled with tears. We didn’t know that our parents were reliving their memories and trying to bring back what they had lost. When we said, “L’shanah haba’ah b’Yerushalayim,” my parents were very emotional. Geulah was so far from them, but they kept dreaming and davening that one day they would be freed from galus.
We children attended public school, so all the Yiddishkeit we had was from my parents, my grandmother, and the after-school melamed, R’ Tuvia Ehrenfeld.
When I was six years old, it was time for me to go to public school. My mother asked R’ Ehrenfeld if I could join the cheder in the afternoon, but he didn’t want me there with the boys. R’ Tuvia finally agreed to let me listen to the lessons at the back of the classroom.
One day, the melamed asked a question that no one could answer. I raised my hand and gave the correct answer. He said, “If you’re paying such close attention, Chanale, from now on, you can be a part of the class.”
My grandmother lived with us, and she was very instrumental in our Yiddishkeit. In those days, nobody had a grandmother; we were lucky. (My grandmother lived to her 80s and got to know all of her grandchildren.)
Our chinuch was taught by example. My parents were moser nefesh to raise their children with true Yiddishkeit,and they never took shortcuts. My mother kashered chickens. She sent us to the neighbors to buy eggs for baking before Purim and Pesach and had me act as mashgiach while the neighbors milked their cows for us. If my father didn’t have a minyan, he got on his bicycle, went to the next town, and davened with the minyan there. Each day was all about Yiddishkeit, about what Hashem wanted from us at that moment.