Episode 10

Judith Perlaki

“They opened the doors and we saw prisoners. They had striped uniform and a striped cap on it. And they were whispering, “Let the children go, let your children go,” in Jewish. We didn’t understand it. Why? Some people did; some people, some mothers would not let their children go, that’s for sure. Well, get off the train, I was holding my little sister’s hand, one of the younger sister hand.”

1945 Sweden

Teenaged Judith Perlaki recalled cheating death twice after being deported from Hungary to Auschwitz. But most of her family wasn’t so fortunate. While assigned to sort the belongings of people sent to the gas chambers, Judith discovered the dresses of her little sister and aunt.

Photos and Artifacts

Judith Perlaki’s maternal grandparents, Miryam and Shaye Sharf. Credit: Courtesy of Diana Albalah.

Snapshot of life in prewar Hungary. The people pictured are dressed up, perhaps on their way to or from temple. Credit: Courtesy of Lawrence Perlaki.

Front cover of the passport (“Främlingspass”) of Judith Perlaki, née Weisz, issued in Uppsala, Sweden, October 21, 1947. Credit: Gift of Judith Perlaki, courtesy of the Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.

Identification page of the passport of Judith Perlaki, née Weisz, issued in Uppsala, Sweden, October 21, 1947. Credit: Gift of Judith Perlaki, courtesy of the Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust.

Survivors in the Weisz sisters’ Swedish DP camp, 1945. To the left of the soldier’s hat is Elizabeth, wearing a dark blouse with white buttons. Next to her, wearing a striped top with a white collar, is Judith. The young woman in front of Judith is Lily. Credit: Courtesy of Diana Albalah.

The Weisz sisters, Elizabeth, Lily, and Judith, and a friend in Sweden, ca. 1946. Credit: Courtesy of Diana Albalah.

Judith Perlaki in Sweden, ca. 1947. Credit: Courtesy of Diana Albalah.

Judith Perlaki and her sisters Elizabeth and Lily beneath the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign at the entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp, 1991. The three women are holding signs that say “Never again.” Credit: Courtesy of Lawrence Perlaki

Judith Perlaki and her sisters Elizabeth and Lily beneath the “Arbeit Macht Frei” sign at the entrance to the Auschwitz concentration camp, 1991. The three women are holding signs that say “Never again.” Credit: Courtesy of Lawrence Perlaki

Judith and Thomas Perlaki on their wedding day, Brooklyn, 1952. Credit: Courtesy of Lawrence Perlaki.

Judith and Thomas Perlaki in New York City, ca. early 1950s. Credit: Courtesy of Diana Albalah.

By Dr. Samuel Kassow

Like many Holocaust testimonies, Judith Perlaki’s story is a reminder that survival depended on luck and, quite often, on being able to maintain family bonds even in the worst of circumstances. After the war, as Judith was raising a family of her own in the United States, she decided to tell her story to high school students and to do what she could to ensure that the Holocaust would not be forgotten. But despite her sufferings, she cautioned against the dangers of bitterness and hate. 

Judith Perlaki, née Weisz, was born in Nagyrozvágy, Hungary, in 1925 into a religious Jewish family. Her father was a relatively wealthy wheat merchant. Judith was especially close to her mother’s parents, who lived in the same town. Her grandfather, who was extremely devout, ran a tavern. There were six children—five girls and a boy—of whom three survived the war: Judith and her sisters Elizabeth and Lily. Their father also survived, although they did not learn this until 1946.

Nagyrozvágy was located in Hungary’s Zemplen region, a multiethnic area that, according to the census of 1900, had a population of 327,000 people, of whom 10 percent were Jewish. After World War I, when Hungary lost 80 percent of its territory, the northern part of Zemplen became part of Czechoslovakia. Nagyrozvágy remained in Hungary, but it was close to the Czechoslovak border; Judith recalled that her father had property in Czechoslovakia (today’s Slovakia) and made frequent trips there. 

By the time Judith was born in 1925, the “golden age” of Hungarian Jewry had passed. During this golden age, which lasted from 1867 until 1914, Hungarian Jewry had prospered, enjoying full equality and extensive economic opportunities. By 1914 Jews constituted a large part of the Hungarian middle class and owned much of the country’s industry. To be sure, the Hungarian nobility that ruled the nation excluded Jews from their social orbit, but they nonetheless made Hungarian Jews feel that they were an integral part of the country. 

This close partnership between the Hungarian elite and the Jews rested on two pillars. The first was the major contribution Jews made to the Hungarian economy. The second was the indispensable role of the Jews in Magyarizing the vast tracts of Hungarian territory that were not ethnically Hungarian, including present-day Slovakia, Transylvania, and large parts of Croatia. Indeed, grateful for the recognition and support they received from the Hungarian nobility, most Hungarian Jews became avid patriots, “more Magyar than the Magyars.” Zionism made few inroads in Hungary proper, and even religious Jews, like Judith’s family, were more inclined to speak Hungarian than Yiddish. When Judith remarked in her testimony that she was a real Hungarian patriot, she was expressing what most Hungarian Jews felt at the time.

However, by the time Judith was born in 1925, the Hungarian Jewish honeymoon had come to an end, although the era of intense persecution had not yet begun. The Treaty of Trianon had stripped Hungary of 80 percent of its pre-World War I territory, including Slovakia, Transylvania, and Croatia. As a result, Jews had lost their former importance as defenders of Magyar language and schooling in these regions. In addition, the short-lived 1919 Communist dictatorship of Bela Kun, a Jew, had led to a violent counter-revolutionary backlash and, with it, a sudden outburst of vicious antisemitism. And with Hungary’s territory and economic potential greatly reduced, the massive Jewish presence in industry and the professions also sparked a backlash. (In 1920, half of all lawyers and 60 percent of all doctors were Jewish; in 1930, 60 percent of all firms employing more than 20 employees were owned by Jews.)

Judith had a stable and secure childhood in Nagyrozvágy, but her father and grandfather would certainly have begun to worry about the escalating calls to curtail the outsized Jewish presence in the Hungarian economy. Once Hitler came to power, more and more Hungarians began to look to Germany as the only possible ally in their quest to recover the lands lost after World War I. As Germany’s popularity grew, so too did calls to emulate the Nazis’ ruthless approach to the “Jewish Question.” 

By the late 1930s a new dynamic had developed in Hungarian politics. The conservative political elite began to feel increasing pressure from the radical right. The latter, grouped around such organizations as the Arrow Cross, began to demand tough measures to eliminate Jews from the economy and eventually force them to leave the country. In response, the conservative right, fearful of losing ground to the radicals, passed the first anti-Jewish law in 1938, which was succeeded by harsher anti-Jewish laws that eliminated Jews from 80 percent of the economy. 

Hungary’s anti-Jewish laws were accompanied by a conscription decree that forced Jewish men, including Judith’s father, into “labor battalions.” Largely employed on the Eastern Front, where the Hungarians fought the Soviets alongside the Germans beginning in 1941, the Jews in these labor battalions suffered a very high mortality rate due to malnutrition and dangerous assignments like mine-clearing. Thanks to his connections and his expertise with horses, Judith’s father was able to persuade the Hungarian authorities to let him perform his labor service at a horse farm close to home. But Judith’s family could not entirely escape the consequences of the new laws: her grandfather lost his pub, while the army confiscated her father’s horses. Meanwhile, local thugs had begun to throw stones through the windows of Jewish homes. 

Nonetheless, despite the growing antisemitism and persecution, until 1944 Hungarian Jews were in a much better position than Jews in neighboring countries. They lived in their own homes, continued to worship in their synagogues, and managed to make a living in spite of economic oppression. This certainly seems to have been the case for Judith’s father and grandfather. Judith herself continued to attend a Hungarian high school in a larger town nearby until 1942, when she was 17. Remarkably, even when millions of Polish Jews had already been murdered, most Hungarian Jews seemed largely oblivious to the “Final Solution.” Judith mentioned having heard rumors, but she also remarked that, as their deportation train rolled on towards Auschwitz, it was only her aunt who bleakly warned that they were all going to their deaths. 

It remains startling that between May 15 and July 7, 1944—so late in the war, when German defeats had removed all doubt about the final outcome of the conflict—Nazi Germany, enjoying the enthusiastic connivance of Hungarian authorities at all levels, was able to ship 437,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. Moreover, while the deportations were halted on July 7 just short of Budapest, the mass murder of the remaining Hungarian Jews resumed in October 1944 as another 100,000 Jews were killed. 

Beginning in 1938, Hungary’s deepening alliance with Nazi Germany had drawn handsome dividends, enabling the Hungarians to recover large swaths of territory lost at Trianon, including parts of Slovakia, Carpatho-Ukraine, and northern Transylvania. Hungary became Hitler’s ally, and Hungarian units committed anti-Jewish atrocities in Yugoslavia and Ukraine. Nonetheless, until 1944 the government, headed by Regent Miklós Horthy, rebuffed German calls, supported by the Arrow Cross, to deport Hungarian Jewry, even as it passed more antisemitic legislation. 

Everything suddenly changed in March 1944, when a furious Hitler summoned Horthy to an acrimonious meeting where he accused him of sending peace feelers to the Allies behind his back. Hitler told Horthy that Germany would immediately occupy Hungary and install a new government headed by Döme Sztójay, a fascist and rabid antisemite. Horthy remained as regent, but he now went along with German demands—including the mass deportation of Hungarian Jews. That same week, SS “Jewish expert” Adolf Eichmann arrived with a trusted team to start negotiations with the new Hungarian government. Together they quickly prepared a plan to expropriate Hungarian Jewry, force them into ghettos, and load them on trains to Auschwitz. The Hungarian civil service and gendarmerie lent their wholehearted cooperation. The Catholic Church made a few noises about Jewish converts to Catholicism but otherwise kept silent. 

One might ask how Hungarian Jewry allowed itself to be trapped and murdered so late in the war. Didn’t they know where they were going? What about the Hungarian Jewish leadership? One should remember, however, that while Hungarian Jews had become used to antisemitic persecution, they still refused to believe that the Hungarian government could betray them to the Germans. After all, hadn’t they shown over and over again their loyalty to Hungary? Furthermore, opportunities for resistance were limited. Most young Jewish men were in the labor battalions. Hungarian society was hostile, or at best indifferent. Judith recalled that a Christian friend offered to help her avoid deportation, an offer she rejected because she did not want to separate from her family. But such an offer of help from a Hungarian neighbor was rare indeed. In the end, what could Hungarian Jews have done? Where could they have hidden? Once Horthy betrayed them, they were trapped. To quote Yehuda Bauer, “They were caught on an island in shark-infested waters, and they had no boat. If the island was flooded, they were doomed.”

In her testimony, Judith recalled that when a girl suddenly appeared with the news that the Germans were in Budapest, she was met with disbelief. All the Jews were busy baking matzos in preparation for the approaching Passover holiday; it simply did not occur to them that their time had run out. On April 15, 1944, the Jews of Nagyrozvágy were suddenly thrown out of their homes, loaded onto wagons, and transported to the Sátoraljaújhely ghetto about 20 miles away. Severe overcrowding meant that 15 to 20 people had to share a single room. There was insufficient water. Judith’s grandfather died in that ghetto, spared the horrors of deportation. 

Judith and her family arrived in Auschwitz in May 1944, after enduring a nightmarish train journey. No sooner had they stepped off the train than prisoners in striped jackets—the “ramp commando”—began to tell girls who were carrying children to give them up. Judith was carrying her little sister Edith and was selected to follow her mother in the line to the gas chambers. But at the last minute, her mother took Edith and told Judith to join her two sisters who had been selected for work. It is not exactly clear how Judith managed to change lines—doing so was usually impossible—but she did.

Judith and her sisters stayed together, in Auschwitz and at subsequent camps—a major reason why they survived. In Birkenau they were first enlisted in field labor and then put to work in the so-called Kanada warehouses, enormous buildings close to Crematoria IV and V where the belongings of the deported Jews were sorted. Work in the Kanada warehouses was highly coveted since it gave prisoners a chance to find food as they went through the deportees’ possessions. Judith also used the opportunity to engage in acts of passive resistance, such as throwing gold, jewelry, and other valuables down the latrine rather than handing them over to the Germans. But the location of Kanada meant that Judith had to see unending lines of people marching into the gas chambers. 

Judith’s testimony reinforces other inmate recollections of Birkenau: tensions among different groups of prisoners, the callous attitude towards new arrivals, the thin line between life and death (e.g., during an outbreak of scabies, Judith was mistakenly selected for the gas chamber but managed to convince an SS man to let her go).  On the other hand, some of Judith’s assertions echo widely held but erroneous beliefs shared by Auschwitz inmates. For example, there is no evidence that the Germans made soap out of dead bodies. Nor is there any record of anyone (with one exception) coming out of the gas chamber alive. But Judith’s memory of the huge open-air pits where the Germans burned bodies in the summer of 1944 is absolutely correct: so many Hungarian Jews were arriving in Auschwitz that the existing crematoria could not cope. 

(While Judith indicated in her testimony that she left Auschwitz in September 1944, the fact that she remembered Yom Kippur in Birkenau as well as the Sonderkommando revolt of October 7, which blew up the camp’s Crematorium IV, meant that she must have left Auschwitz sometime in October 1944.) 

As Germany’s demand for slave labor escalated in late 1944, Judith and her sisters were transported from Birkenau first to Bergen-Belsen and then to SS-Reitschule in Braunschweig, one of the Neuengamme subcamps. This contingent from Bergen-Belsen included some 800 women, mostly Hungarian Jews, and arrived around Christmas 1944. As Judith testified, conditions in the camp were frightful; indeed, SS-Reitschule had the highest death rate of the entire Neuengamme system. The prisoners’ work—clearing rubble and making airplane parts—was grueling and performed without adequate winter clothing.

In 1945 Judith and her sisters became the beneficiaries of a Swedish initiative to rescue concentration camp prisoners. SS Chief Heinrich Himmler, anxious to launch peace talks with the western Allies and save his own skin, agreed to a proposal by Swedish diplomat Count Folke Bernadotte to allow prisoners to be transferred to Swedish jurisdiction and evacuated to Sweden. Originally slated just for Scandinavian prisoners, the initiative—which became known as the White Buses mission, after the distinctive transport vehicles it deployed—eventually rescued more than 15,000 prisoners, including many from Hungary and Poland. 

Once in Sweden, Judith and her sisters began to rebuild their lives. To their great surprise, they learned that their father had survived the war and remarried. While conditions in Sweden were good, none of the sisters stayed there. Judith and Elizabeth immigrated to the United States, Lily to Israel. During her immigration processing, Judith met Thomas Perlaki, a survivor from Budapest. They married and had two children, Lawrence and Diane, as well as four grandchildren. 

Judith Perlaki died on May 7, 2010. She was 84 years old.


Additional readings and information

Judith’s unedited testimony at the Fortunoff Video Archive (available at access sites worldwide): https://fortunoff.aviaryplatform.com/collections/5/collection_resources/2605.

Braham, Randolph L. The Politics of Genocide: The Holocaust in Hungary. Condensed ed. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2000.

Fenyvesi, Charles. When the World Was Whole: Three Centuries of Memories. New York, NY: Viking, 1990.