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Piri’s Hope – Piri Katz’s Holocaust Survival Story

Holocaust survivor Piri Katz and her daughter, Cherol.
Holocaust survivor Piri Katz and her daughter, Cherol.

Lamenting strains of the Yiddish prayer stirred darkness from the corners of my soul. Her voice, like the wind through tall grasses, was both immediate and eternal. Words and tune of the Shema[1]  rose as if from a secret well — a deathless song; an indomitable pledge. This was the answer Piri Katz gave to my question, “What thoughts kept you alive during the Holocaust?”

A sage-green Brittany Gardens home in Rossmoor shaded by a towering sycamore tree offers no hint of its inhabitant’s survival story. Original Rossmoor Homeowner Piri Katz recalls the horrors of Auschwitz, Geislingen and Dachau.

 I met with Piri and her daughter, Cherol at a Rossmoor-Los Alamitos Republican Women Federated breakfast at Courtyard Marriot in Cypress in October. 92-year-old Piri walked to the lectern with the aid of her daughter. Regal in a St. John blazer and suit, she addressed the topic of anti-Semitism in America. You could hear a pin drop.

Firm and genteel, her voice commanded attention. She told of early life on a 60-acre farm in Czechoslovakia and how respected citizens were redefined as vermin by a new propaganda, Nazism.

Nestled in the verdant Carpathian Mountains of Czechoslovakia in the rural town of Tibiva, was the home of Piri, her parents and 10 siblings until 1944. Rolling pastures, vast fruit orchards, livestock of horses, cows, sheep, goats, fowl and two water-powered mills for grinding flour were their livelihood and wealth.

Tibiva is a small town on the Slovakian border in Ukraine.
Tibiva is a small town on the Slovakian border in Ukraine.

On the first eve of Passover in 1944, Jewish holiday of freedom, her home was raided by Nazi soldiers and her family taken by force to a segregated community in Czecho-slovakia. Only fourteen years old at the time, Piri’s memories of Munkacs Ghetto remain vivid: A dreary brick factory where residents labored in mute terror fearing brutal execution, many starving and dying on the streets.

She recalls transport by cattle cars to Auschwitz weeks later, “It was such a frightening thing, you become like an animal. You don’t know what day it is; what time. You start to think you are on a string and can only do what you’re told; you stop feeling human.” Her gaze seemed fixed on images seared into her memory: little children in Auschwitz, bayoneted by soldiers for crying, some flung into the air and shot, the starved at Dachau, lifeless and numerous as dry leaves in autumn.  For several moments words did not come. As the Jewish Talmud records, “The deeper the sorrow, the less tongue it has.”

Memories of Piri’s first day at Auschwitz still haunt her dreams: “You could hear the screams and the smell; smoke like a barbeque.” Piri cleared her throat. “We came into the barracks – a Polish-Jewish girl was the Kapo[2].

We were all screaming and crying and the Kapo said, ‘What are you screaming and crying about? I’ve been here three years already, almost four. You’re lucky you just came here now. You’d better do what you’re told; all I have to do is blow my whistle and you’ll be in trouble. You have no parents now. You smell the smoke? They are being burned.’” Piri paused silently to dry her tears.

In July of 1944, one month following the Allied D-day Invasion, a mass transport of prisoners from Auschwitz to Geislingen took place.

“Arbeit Macht Frei” above the main gate at Auschwitz means, work sets you free.
“Arbeit Macht Frei” above the main gate at Auschwitz means, work sets you free.</strong

Piri and four other girls including her sister Ruchel were prevented from loading into the train car because the quota had been reached. Considered surplus, the five girls were separated for ‘disposal’. Locked in a small bathroom, they quickly realized their peril. Piri noticed a narrow window near the ceiling and the girls managed to escape. Rejoining the transport by slipping into the middle of the line, the girls eluded detection.

Geislingen, previously a tableware factory, operated as a munitions manufacturing plant where prisoners worked in 12-hour shifts around the clock making weapon components. The only regular meal was at 6:00 a.m. — a cup of weak tea. Famished, Piri and two other girls made a midnight raid on the kitchen to scavenge raw potatoes. “Guards must have seen some movement,” Piri recollected, “All of a sudden we saw the lights, so we knew there was trouble. We grabbed up the potatoes and threw them in the toilet so [the Germans] wouldn’t find anything.” On a separate occasion, she saw a girl executed for stealing a piece of bread. As it was, Piri had to stand in the snow for 24 hours, as did the other girls in her barracks. “Everyone was punished because of me — it’s very painful.”

Piri remained at Geislingen for ten months. In April of 1945, prisoners strong enough for transport were loaded like cattle into train cars again, this time bound for Dachau. “When we arrived — we had seen dead bodies [before], but not as much as when we came there — bodies all over the floor. When you’re hungry, the first thing you do is try to turn them over or look to see if they have some bread in their hand or something like that,” Piri sighed. “It was just horrible. It smelled from dead bodies lying all over, with flies, with filth, with dirt. It was awful.”

The Americans!

“We were there about a month and again, they took us on a train, Oh my God, now what? In the train we heard a lot of shooting; a lot of noise and we couldn’t figure out what was wrong — the train stopped.” Riotous cacophony alarmed all on board. Transports only stopped to take prisoners out for execution. Piri heard shouts coming from train cars, “Americans! Americans!” Many were too weak to move but those strong enough, reached out to their liberators, hugging and kissing the American soldiers. Piri added a note of humor, “I learned my first American phrase, ‘let’s go! let’s go!’” She smiled.

Piri speaks of her survivor’s guilt, “I had all my brothers and sisters and parents…and they were innocent. They did no harm to anyone. Why was I the lucky one? I would have liked them to be alive to be with me. I survived and they didn’t. Why?” Piri daubed her eyes with a tissue. “Don’t think I’m not happy; I have beautiful children and grandchildren!” Her smile was a sunbeam through a storm cloud.

The U.S. Army took Piri from Feldafing Displaced Persons Camp to Prosek on the Czech border. European train fares were suspended following the war and people could travel at their will. Piri returned briefly to Munkacs, repurposed as a Displaced Persons Camp where she and her sister Ruchel were eventually reunited with other surviving siblings, Zalman and Sheindl.

Piri traveled to the city of Uzhhorod to obtain passports for her and her 3 siblings. After a week of waiting, only three of four passports arrived. Piri decided to accept someone else’s unclaimed passport. Returning to Munkacs by train, Piri was arrested by Russians because she lacked proper identification. She and another girl, Belle, were detained for two days in a Munkacs prison. A warden knew Piri’s family and assisted in her escape.

Piri’s Escape

Piri and Belle ran across open countryside in the cover of night. Catching a train to the border town of Cheb, the girls were then apprehended by the Czechoslovakian police who also doubted their story. After days of frustration, they were finally released.

Piri found employment in the town of Liberec working in a zipper factory. Czechoslovakian police warned employees without identification to obtain documentation before the borders closed, an imminent certainty. One of the guards took pity on her circumstance and provided the address of a sanctuary in Prague.

From Prague, displaced persons were trucked to an American-occupied zone in Germany where a series of Displaced Persons Camps provided sustenance. Pocking, second largest in Germany, was her next destination. Piri learned to write Hebrew and English at the Kibbutz[3] there in early 1946, adding to her proficiency in the Czech, Hungarian, Ukrainian, Russian, Yiddish and German languages. From Pocking, Piri spent time at other large camps including Holtzhausen and Landsberg.

While applying for U.S. citizenship, Piri settled in Waseberg from 1947 to September 1949. “I wanted to come to America in the worst way!”

Piri Katz Comes To America

Reams of paperwork and three applications for her affidavit of support later, she received clearance to come to the United States. “Thank God I stayed there until I got the permission to come to America! In September of 1949 [I came] to famous Ellis Island. A lot of people [disembarked] very, very seasick. It was one of the big freighters, the General Sturgis.”

Displaced Person’s Transport Vessel, General S.D. Sturgis
Displaced Person’s Transport Vessel, General S.D. Sturgis

Even her long-anticipated arrival had its sorrows. No one met Piri at the dock. Seeing so many others embraced by loved-ones was agonizing. She began to weep. A Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society director noticed her distress and drove her to the station where she caught a train to Detroit. There she was greeted by her aunt and brother.

Piri’s eyes glittered with excitement, “First of all, when I came to this country, I thought I was in paradise, with all the beautiful lights — I was in seventh heaven! To be free, number one, to be free — that alone is paradise.” For the weeks that followed, Piri worked at a Detroit drapery shop during the day and attended night school to perfect her English skills.

Piri heard about another Holocaust survivor in Farrell, Pennsylvania the age of one of her sisters. Could it be? Piri traveled by train to find out. Unfortunately, the girl was not her sister, but she had a nephew, Milton Katz, home on holiday from medical school. Milton took interest in Piri and they enjoyed ice cream together that afternoon in 1955.

Eight months later, Milton invited Piri to a fraternity dance and at this second meeting, presented her with an engagement ring.

Milton had been decorated for courage under fire and for wounds received in the Battle of the Bulge under the command of George S. Patton.

While Dr. Katz was in his medical internship, the newlyweds resided in Merced, California. In the late 1950s, during Milton’s Residency at Harbor General Hospital in Torrance, the couple searched for a permanent home. In November 1960, Piri and Milt moved to Rossmoor where they raised their four daughters: Cherol, Randi, Simone and Michele. Tragically, Milton was killed in a small private plane crash in 1968. In the early ‘70s, the other survivors of Piri’s family settled in the United States — her brother Zalman, and sisters, Sheindl and Ruchel. “I wish my husband had lived to see it,” she said thoughtfully.

“When my husband and I first moved to Rossmoor, our neighbors had German Shepherd dogs. I was petrified of them having seen people torn to pieces by the guards’ dogs. My husband explained to the neighbors and they agreed to keep their dogs in the yard on the other side of the house. Even today, I sometimes still have nightmares about the prison camps.” On warm summer nights, distant train whistles that bring nostalgia to most of us fill Piri with dread. Train whistles mean only separation and anguish to her, a pang that does not fade with time.

“I thank God that I lived through it and am able to tell — even when I was in Washington D.C. for the opening of the [Holocaust Memorial] Museum, as we were listening to the presentation, there were a bunch of protesters shouting, ‘the Holocaust is a lie.’ They were screaming, yelling and chanting — then police came on horseback.” Again, Piri hesitated, wiping away tears in silence. “So, you live with that even up ‘til now. I thank God that I lived to say, ‘Yes, it did happen.’”

Piri’s beautiful sad eyes, finely chiseled features and enduring dignity made me think of a temple standing majestically amid the ruins of war.

My thoughts returned to the lavish breakfast buffet that morning. Cherol had filled her mother’s plate with scrambled eggs, potatoes, grapes, berries and pastries. Piri’s eyes brightened at the sight of browned potatoes with onions and peppers — did she think of the potatoes at Geislingen?

Today, Piri’s family is the joy of her life. Four daughters with advanced degrees, sons-in-law and eight grandchildren thrive, learning of their grandmother’s struggle and victory. This was Piri’s prayer, this was Piri’s hope. – End

Interview with Piri Katz

Watch the full 1995 interview with Piri Katz and her horrifying Holocaust experience.

 

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Notes:

[1] Shema is the centerpiece of morning and evening Jewish prayer services.

[2]A Kapo was a prisoner who defected to the Nazis in return for privileges.

[3] Jewish commune.






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