In the pounding rain, lined up five abreast, Greti Herman — then Margit Berger — and her parents were marched from Hungary’s Csillaghegy Ghetto to the nearby train station. As they walked, her mother motioned for her and her father to remove five of the six threads that attached the yellow stars to their canvas raincoats. They arrived early evening, into “a big chaos,” according to Greti, as the Hungarian gendarmes — the police force — shoved people into the waiting cattle cars, tossing their belongings in after them.
Amid the pushing and shouting, as her mother instructed, Greti dashed across the street, in the semi-darkness, and lay down in a rain-filled ditch. Her parents joined her. A half-hour later, after the train connected with a second one filled with Jews from surrounding villages, it departed, headed, they later learned, for Auschwitz. It was July 9, 1944, Greti’s 21st birthday.
Greti was born in Vienna in 1923, the only child of Aladar and Irma Berger. The modern Jewish family lived comfortably. Her father, a mechanical engineer, manufactured sports equipment.
Things changed after Nazi Germany annexed Austria on March 12, 1938. Greti was soon banned from school. Some nights, Nazis pounded on the family’s apartment door, forcing them outside, on hands and knees, with a bucket and brush, to clean up anti-Semitic graffiti.
Later that year, Greti and her parents moved to her paternal grandparents’ farm in Pomaz, Hungary, outside Budapest. Greti was taught to sew until she learned Hungarian and enrolled in school. Meanwhile, her father was ordered to make ski poles for the Hungarian army.
In 1942, the family built a small house on the Pomaz farm property. In 1944, Greti’s mother returned to Vienna, smuggled out her own father and brought him to live with them. One morning in early April, after the Nazis had invaded Hungary, Greti walked into her grandfather’s bedroom to discover he had hanged himself. His note said he refused to wear a yellow star.
Soon after, the family was relocated to the Csillaghegy Ghetto, outside Budapest. They lived in one room. Greti commuted by train to Szentendre, where she sewed bread sacks for Hungarian soldiers all day.
On July 8, 1944, the ghetto residents were told they were being relocated the next day for work. Only those in mixed marriages, non-Hungarian citizens and people vital to the war industry were exempted. Greti approached Laszlo Endre, Csillaghegy’s gendarmerie commander (not to be confused with Laszlo Endre the vicious Nazi collaborator later convicted and hanged) to ask about exemptions. He offered to smuggle her out, but Greti refused to leave without her parents. The next day the family escaped the train to Auschwitz by hiding in the ditch.
After the train departed, Greti and her parents removed their yellow stars and walked to the home of a Jewish Romanian woman they knew. She hid them in one room, insisting on silence when her boarder, a shoemaker, was there.
Soon after, the Romanian woman went to Budapest, at their request, to get money from a Christian woman who had sold Greti’s mother’s fur coat. She never returned. Greti’s mother was sick, and they hadn’t eaten in two days. Greti then donned her mother’s glasses and scarf and headed to the gendarme’s office.
“For God’s sake, are you still here?” Laszlo Endre asked. That night, by his plan, Greti and her parents climbed out their window at midnight and walked to a prearranged spot at an old brick factory. The gendarme met them there, dressed in civilian clothes. He quietly led them back to the Csillaghegy Ghetto, where a few families, exempt from deportation, were living. They remained there for two months, until the ghetto closed.
Janos Kovacs, a locksmith, then hid them in a workshop behind his house. He had hollowed out a space in the wall, which could be accessed by pulling out the oversize drawers of worktables abutting the wall. At night, when the Nazis were conducting surprise raids, Janos pulled on a string that reached from the main house to Greti’s big toe, alerting them to climb into the wall cavity. This happened two or three times.
In March 1945, they heard on Voice of America that the Russians were entering Hungary. They then spotted them riding down a nearby hill on their small horses. “We were very happy,” Greti said.
They returned to Pomaz, where they restored their house, which had been stripped and heavily damaged by Russian soldiers.
Soon Greti met Ernest Herman, who had been the lumberyard manager and who had lost his wife and son at Auschwitz. Three years later, in 1948, they married. Meanwhile, Greti, with other survivors, testified on behalf of Laszlo Endre, who had been arrested by the Russians, and secured his release.
Greti and Ernest remained in Budapest, where Greti gave birth to Tom in 1948 and Pini in 1951. (Pini is now a demographer and also blogs for jewishjournal.com.) In 1956, after the Hungarian Revolution, the family fled, eventually arriving in Los Angeles. Ernest, who died in 2008, was an engineer, and Greti worked her way up from entry level to executive at Beneficial Standard Life Insurance Co.
A 20-year survivor of pancreatic cancer and survivor of two strokes, Greti, now 88, manages apartment buildings and actively volunteers for Shelters for Israel. Additionally, she enjoys taking photographs as well as cooking and hosting Shabbat dinner every week for her family, which now includes two sons and their wives, five grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
“I do what I can,” she said.