My aunt Kitty lower right and extreme right on the second photo died two weeks ago at 90. Of the five Hungarian Leba sisters, four were hauled to Auschwitz with their parents. My oldest aunt, Viola (upper left) was hidden by a Christian family in Budapest. Upon arrival their mother was sent in one direction and the other four girls the other. The eldest there, Heinal (upper right) said to the youngest, go stand with mother so she won’t be alone. She and her mother stepped into the gas chambers; the other three survived Auschwitz and a series of labor camps. At one point my mother painted swastikas on bombs and frail Kitty hid below that work window and passed up extra food to her.
I’ve been thinking, as I have before, about who all these people were before this horror. Kitty was the 4th born and when she emerged, another girl, no sons, her father rent his clothes in mourning. She took on the role of tom-boy, tied down her considerable breasts and climbed trees. My mother, way left on both photos was a year older, interested in handicrafts and farming.
Kitty was substantially stronger, I’m speculating that those many years acting boyish to please her father, toughened her. Mengele once approached Kitty and my mother and asked “Zwillinge?” Twins? Kitty always pinched my mother’s cheeks before selections to bring color to them, and though a year younger, proceeded to convince Herr Doktor that she was the older sister–and he left.I once asked Heinal how she felt about sending her sister to stand with their mother. She was calm as she said that it was the right thing to do. I agreed and told her so. At 93, the second oldest she is the only one still alive. Viola later brought the family who had saved her to America and the eldest by a handful of years, she was the first among the sisters to pass. My mother who had dementia the last five years of her life died several years ago. Though suffering from awful tinnitus, Kitty remained clear of mind until the end but could not recover from a fall getting out of a taxi. I was not surprised about that difference between she and my mother and I believe it was forged in childhood.
Kitty’s life in America was hard; long divorced she lived in a one-bedroom apartment with the younger of her two adult sons a mile from my parents. While my family enjoyed great prosperity and wealth, my mother did little to help Kitty–maybe because she could not part with money or possessions for fear that everything would be taken from her yet again. One of her last memories in the ghetto in Beregszasz was of the wedding ring being stripped by the Nazis from her mother’s finger. When my father left 15% tips in restaurants in cash, she often tried to snatch some of the money back. As a teen, I was embarrassed by her, and especially the parade of Cadillacs, mink coats and facelifts. I came later to greatly understand but I would be less than forthright if I said dealing with this parsimony day after day, decade after decade did not wear at my love for her.
So from all this in some way I understand, in not wanting any people to be considered The Other, as the Jews had been, I have spent a good deal of my life writing novels of reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians and creating characters on both sides with a breath of spirit.