At age 11, Kitty Salsberg was orphaned and was thrust into a parenting role for her younger sister, Ilonka.
“I didn’t voluntarily take over that role, but she had made me take over the role,” Salsberg says of her sister. “She clung to me, and of course, I responded.”
The sisters, born in Hungary in the 1930s, lost their father in 1942 when he was taken for slave labour by the Nazis. Two years later, their mother was taken to a concentration camp and never returned.
“My father was probably exploded on the Ukrainian front as a slave labourer because they used to have the Jewish guys go out and look for the mines,” Salsberg said. “I endured the trauma of the loss of my parents. They were young and good people, and they did not deserve (that) kind of life or death and (that) kind of suffering. … They loved their children so much, and they had no idea when they got separated from us, if we will ever survive.”
The sisters would survive, but barely.
Salsberg, now 90 and a North York resident, recalled how she and her sister and cousins were marched to the Budapest ghetto, thinking at the time that they were being walked to the Danube River where they would be shot.
“Some people sneaked close to us and said, ‘give us the babies,’ and my cousin Hedi gave her baby brother to a lady to save the baby,” Salsberg said. “The baby cousin, I think, was saved although we never found him.”
Salsberg said she remembers initially receiving a “cup of soup with a mixture of lentils and worms” in the ghetto. But the meals didn’t keep coming.
“I don’t know if you know what happens in a ghetto. Nothing happens, so they close the door and nobody comes in, nobody comes out and no food goes in … so we were at death’s door at that time,” Salsberg said. “We were starving in the cold, in the dirt … with rats and mice.”
The Budapest ghetto was established by the Nazis in late November 1944, in the final months of the Second World War.
Salsberg wasn’t conscious by the time she was liberated by the Soviet Army in January 1945. “Had they waited another day or two, I doubt we would have survived,” she said.
Salsberg and Ilonka, known later as Ellen Foster, wrote a book together titled “Never Far Apart,” published in 2015, to document their journey during the Holocaust and their new lives in Canada. (Ilonka died in November.)
The sisters are also among the Holocaust survivors featured in a free, online exhibition called “Education Disrupted,” which centres on the role of education in the lives of those who survived the Holocaust as children and youth.
Salsberg said the disruption in education was especially difficult for her sister because she was just beginning to learn to read and write. “She hardly learned how to do adding and subtracting, and she seriously was handicapped right through life,” added Salsberg, noting her sister would feel “very ill at ease with banking.”
The Education Disrupted exhibition, launched earlier this year, is part of non-profit organization Azrieli Foundation’s Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program, which aims to collect, preserve and share the memoirs written by Holocaust survivors who moved to Canada after the Second World War.