Survivor STORY

“I thought after the war the world would be better. When Israel became Israel, I thought this was the price we had to pay, and I thought it was worth it. It’s a better world coming, it’s a better life comes. […] And the world isn’t better. It’s still so much hate and everything. So that’s why it hurts more. It was for nothing.”

Sari Klein was born in the Hungarian town of Sorduc in 1912. Her father died in World War One, and Sorduc was ceded to Romania, prompting Sari’s mother to move the family to the Hungarian capital of Budapest. However, Sari’s mother could not afford to care for Sari and her brother, so she put the children up for adoption. A family with the surname of Muenz adopted Sari and pampered her. She had a wonderful childhood with her adopted parents, who were kindhearted and loving people. In 1925, Sari’s adopted father died, putting financial strains on the family. At the urging of her adopted mother, Sari got a job as a sewing apprentice, destroying her dream of becoming a teacher, but Sari used money she saved to continue her education with a private tutor. At the age of 18, Sari took over her adopted mother’s ladies’ coats business. While anti-Semitism did not affect Sari’s business, she was discriminated against socially; she was not allowed to attend a university due to a Jewish quota. Nevertheless, Sari enjoyed a vibrant social life, attending theater, opera, and dances in hotel ballrooms. Sari married a man named Lazlo in 1941, and her daughter, Eve, was born the next year.

Until 1944, the dictator Miklos Horthy ruled Hungary. Although he allied Hungary with Germany and the Axis, he largely prevented the deportation of Hungarian Jews to German territory. However, Jews did suffer terribly under the Horthy regime; all Jewish men were enslaved as forced laborers, and thousands of Jews were deported to German-occupied Ukraine. In March 1944, convinced that the Allies would win the war, Horthy tried to negotiate an armistice with them. Infuriated, Hitler invaded Hungary and installed a new government led by the ruthless fascist Arrow Cross party. Under the Arrow Cross regime, hundreds of thousands of Jews were deported to the death camps.

Luckily for Sari, the Jews of Budapest were not deported, partly due to the heroic actions of Raoul Wallenberg, who saved tens of thousands of Jews by presenting them with Swedish passports or hiding them in Swedish safehouses. Sari and the other Jews of Budapest were forced to wear the yellow star, obey curfews, and move into the Budapest ghetto. Lazlo was taken for slave labor on the Russian front and never heard from again. Before being taken to a concentration camp, Sari left Eve in the care of a sister-in-law. They would survive the war.

Sari and other Jewish women were rounded up and marched out of Budapest. They were temporarily taken to a factory and guarded by Hungarian police, gendarmes, and Arrow Cross police. The Hungarian police did not want to kill Jews and rebelled against Arrow Cross orders. They plotted to kill the Arrow Cross, but never executed their plan. Sari and the other prisoners marched to the Austrian border and were made to anti-tank dig ditches. They were beaten ruthlessly if they dug too slowly, and they slept in a cold barn at night.

The prisoners were then marched across the Austrian border to the town of Lichtenberg. They were locked in a starvation camp in a former factory and given no food for a week, only water. One of Sari’s fellow inmates was a male poet who would write about their experiences, ending every stanza with “God, let me survive, and I will be better man.” The poet did not survive.”

Ultimately, the prisoners were fed prior to a selection. A high-ranking German whom Sali believes was Dr. Josef Mengele, placed her with the workers group. However, before she could be deported, the Germans fled. Ill with typhus, Sari and her friends fled into the countryside. They were found by escaped French POWs and taken to a deserted house. The French fled, and Russians later found the girls. They fed Sari and gave her medical treatment.

Sari returned to Budapest and found her sister-in-law and daughter. Due to her mistrust of the Hungarian people, she wished to leave Europe. She married an adopted cousin named Mauree now living in America and moved to America in May 1948. Although Mauree legally adopted Eve, she was not allowed to come to America immediately. Once her quota number was called, Eve miraculously traveled to America alone in February 1949, at the age of six. Sari lived on Long Island and worked as a design teacher at the Pratt Institute. She separated from Mauree in 1957. The couple later divorced, and Sari married Morton Klein in 1971. In what Sari describes as “the only happy years in my life” , she lived with Morton in Florida until his death in 1979. She moved to St. Petersburg to be near her daughter. However, Eve was transferred to Atlanta, and Sari later followed. She still lives there today, at the age of 99.

“In Europe especially in those days, America was an El Dorado, it was a heaven. And when I got here I felt like I’m in heaven. I thought in America, everybody is good. And I didn’t have that cloud over me that I cannot trust the people.”

Life and Survival in Europe

And one night, one day, everybody disappeared. We didn't get food or anything. I say we, because [name of friend] was stayed with me. That girl stayed with me, we stayed together, the two of us. And we wake up that somebody is striking matches, lighting matches. It was Russian soldiers. So again, the people from the village had disappeared, because they were running away from the, they knew the Russians are coming, so there was nobody in the village. And they didn't know what to, what to make of us. So finally he said, "Yid?" And I said, "Yid." There were two or three of them, but especially one was the one who cared so much. And I understood that he wants, he asked me what we want. I said, "I'm hungry. We're hungry". So they went away and they came back with milk warm from the cow. And his hands were rough, it must have been a farmer or something, and he kneeled down and held it to my mouth and he kept on saying, "Kushai, kushai, (eat, eat)."

And then disappeared and came back with preserves. And all night long was coming and going. And finally he brought a Yid. He brought a Jew. He spoke Yiddish. I didn't speak Yiddish. So, Yid, Yid, but we couldn't communicate. Finally, they brought the army doctor, and when he looked - I said we had coats on and everything - he pushed up the, my coat sleeve, and you saw pictures of the skeletons, so we were skeletons. His face changed when he looked at us. And they brought a man who was a villager, who was a prisoner of war in Russia in the First World War, so he spoke Russian and I spoke German, so we could communicate. And the doctor asked if we want to go home or go to a hospital. I wanted to go home. I wanted to know what happened to my child.

I love people. And after what, all this, when I knew what people did and then they all acted so good afterwards, I couldn't trust anybody. I couldn't, I didn't want to start up business again. I didn't want to stay in Hungary. I couldn't live with people I cannot trust. To look at them and in the back of my mind to, what they did. I didn't want to build up the business. Well, when I came back, I was still sick. I couldn't even work. The American Jews, the Joint, they were wonderful. We got food, we got medical care, we got everything what we needed. They kept us alive. We got firewood and coal and everything whatever we needed. My daughter went to a kindergarten. As a matter of fact, they had a little camp at the Bolleton [phonetic]. My daughter was there for a few weeks. And so, that was wonderful.

And then I started to sew. I didn't have any employees. As a matter of fact, my place was bombed. And only my workroom was, and another, where I used to have customers, I have only these two rooms. And as many houses, many apartment were bombed, people were without home. So the one room was given to another, to a couple. So I would have only one room that was a workroom I had. That's where I lived with my daughter, so I couldn't even start the business or anything. But I didn't even want to. I didn't want to stay in Hungary. I wanted to get out in the worst way, but I was waiting for my husband. I didn't know what happened to my husband, because, as I said, I wasn't notified that he died, only that he was missing in action. But by that time I had a pretty good idea that he didn't survive, because nobody from his whole battalion ever came back. But I still didn't give up hope. And I wanted to get out.

American Dream

Well, I don't have to tell you that in Europe, especially in those days, America was an El Dorado. It was a heaven. And when I got here, I felt like I'm in heaven. I thought in America everybody is good, and I didn't have that cloud over me that I cannot trust the people. It's interesting to come to a country. Well, a little episode. I spoke a few words English, but I didn't speak well, you know, English. And I went to the green grocer to buy some groceries and I asked him how much. And he told me. I understood the figures he said. But I looked at the money and I didn't know which one is what. So I gave him a certain amount of coins. He shook his head, it's not enough. And I gave him back a dime. Not enough. So I looked at a nickel, which is bigger, so that should be more money, it's bigger, so I gave that to him. He got so angry. He got so angry that I started to laugh. Then he started to laugh too. Then I took out the money and I held out my palm and I told him take it. So he'd take everything. So these kinds of episodes, so if you have a sense of humor, you enjoy it. I enjoyed everything about it.

Israel

I thought after the war, the world will be better. When Israel became Israel, I thought this was the price we had to pay, and I felt it was worth it. It's a better world coming, it's a better life comes. And that trouble is still terrible in Israel. A terrible disappointment. And the world isn't better. It's still so much hate and everything. So that's why it hurts more. It was for nothing.

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Sari Klein