June 17, 2024
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Survivor Karmela Waldman Tells Her Story in West Orange

On April 28, as Yom HaShoah was ending, six yahrzeit candles stood on a table in the front of the room at Congregation AABJ&D of West Orange. Over the next few minutes, each would be lit by members of the community who are the grandchildren of survivors.

“I am lighting this candle in memory of my great-grandfather Leon Rosenn, who survived the Holocaust in hiding. and in the memory of all of his family members who did not survive,” said Joey Esses, age 11. “Grandpa Leon moved to the United States after the war, got married and had four children, 15 grandchildren, and 20 great-grandchildren so far.”

Eden Fusman, a student at Rae Kushner Yeshiva High School, lit the final candle in honor of her grandmother Karmela Waldman, who survived the Holocaust. And then, to a room of over 60 people and a Zoom audience of even more, Karmela Waldman, co-host of the podcast “Surviving the Survivor,” told the West Orange community her story.

Karmela lived in Subotica, Yugoslavia, on the border of Hungary. She was an only child. Rumors had already been flooding in about work and concentration camps, about gas chambers and mass graves. But Karmela’s father, who had received his education in Germany, couldn’t believe it. He knew the German people. He had lived among them. The Germans were too civilized to do such things. When Germany invaded, Karmela was not even 5 years old.

In 1944, when the Nazis came to deport the 5,000 Jews of her ghetto, Karmela’s mother, Vera, took her hand and they walked out the gate in their backyard fence. And they kept walking. Karmela’s father had been an eyeglasses technician and the family were friends with the local eye doctor, a Catholic man in town. When Vera and Karmela arrived on the eye doctor’s doorstep, he led them to a local nunnery, for which he was a benefactor.

Vera decided it would be safer for Karmela to stay on her own in the nunnery, while Vera sought refuge in Budapest. That way, if anyone in town or on the train recognized her, it would not put Karmela in danger. The nuns agreed to take little Karmela in.

Every day, Karmela learned Catholic prayers and sacraments. She learned the right blessings to say before eating and the right blessings to say before bed. At 5, Karmela knew she was Jewish, but she also knew it was important to learn everything the nuns would teach her.

Though the nuns took good care of Karmela, Vera got word that Karmela was getting sick. Six months after she left her daughter with the nuns, Vera bribed a railroad worker to bring Karmela to her in Budapest. It was 1945, and just after mother and daughter were reunited, the Germans began their 50-day siege of the city.

As the siege raged on, Karmela and Vera lived in the basement of a large apartment complex, alongside dozens of others. During the day, Vera would be among the civilians of Budapest cutting meat off of dead horses in the street so they had food to eat. At night before bed, Karmela loudly said the Catholic prayers she learned from the nuns, a successful effort to persuade the others in the basement that she and her mother were not Jewish.

After the Russians liberated Budapest, Vera and Karmela returned to their home in Yugoslavia. When they arrived, their house was as they had left it. All of their belongings were still there. Local non-Jewish neighbors had taken care of the property and handed over the keys upon their return.

After other Jews returned home post-liberation, Karmela learned that her father had been killed upon arrival at Auschwitz.

“Did you ever return home again after the war?” someone in the audience asked.

“I didn’t leave,” Karmela said, explaining she graduated from high school in the same town she had been raised in. “I returned in 2008 for my 50th reunion.”

“A lot of miracles happened to my family,” Karmela said, reflecting on her survival and looking out at her granddaughter in the audience.

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