“Hey, you Jew. Open up the door.” It was 4 a.m. on a Sunday morning, just before Passover 1944, when two gendarmes in the village of Chiesd, Transylvania, banged on the door where 12-year-old Edith Izsak lived with her parents, three siblings and two young cousins. “Take all the food you can carry,” said the men, who just the previous evening had been guests of the Izsaks, enjoying their food, wine and classical music. They loaded the Izsaks and the village’s three other Jewish families into horse-drawn wagons.
A short drive later, they arrived at a building with dark, heavy doors on the outskirts of Szilágysomlyó, where more than 6,000 Jews from neighboring communities were crammed together into an open, muddy brickyard that served as a ghetto.
Born Edith Izsak on Dec. 6, 1931, to Ernest and Sara Izsak, Edith was the second of four children. Her father was a successful farmer who raised crops and livestock and also operated a winery. On Friday evenings, families from neighboring villages came to their home for Shabbat services.
“We had a very good life. We weren’t spoiled at all,” Edith said.
Hungary occupied Transylvania in 1940, but life continued smoothly for Edith’s family until March 19, 1944, when Germany invaded Hungary. The next day, Jews were ordered to wear yellow stars, and at Edith’s school, “all the dear friends who were playing with us were now hitting us and calling us ‘dirty Jew,’ ” she said.
On May 31, 1944, Edith and her family were marched to the train station and loaded onto a cattle car with 150 people and little ventilation. “People were praying, people were moaning. And that smell,” Edith recalled.
The next day, as soon as the train arrived at Auschwitz, Edith’s brother and father were sent to one side, while Edith, her mother, sisters and the two young cousins were sent to the other. “I never saw my father and brother again. I never said goodbye,” Edith said.
The women and children faced a second selection. Edith was first in line, holding her 2-year-old cousin’s hand. “There’s enough fat on you. You go over there,” an SS officer ordered, while her sister Eva was directed straight ahead with the young cousins. Edith’s mother grabbed the cousins’ hands and sent Eva after Edith.
After registration, an all-day ordeal with no water and no bathroom breaks, Edith, Eva and the other young women were herded into a big room where they were ordered to undress, shower with “disinfectant-smelling” water and have their body hair shorn. The German soldiers then paraded the pretty girls up and down the room. “You feel so humiliated. You feel you’re just dreaming.” Edith said. Afterward, they were issued gray dresses and work boots.
They were taken to another room and seated in rows of five. Finally, after 36 hours of sitting, with only a sip of water and one trip to the latrine, they were marched out and again loaded onto cattle cars.
They were sent to a labor camp in Riga, Latvia. Edith, part of a group of 50 girls, was assigned to dig up tombstones in the Jewish cemetery, carry them to the main square and smash them with sledgehammers. Meanwhile, civilians threw moldy apples at them, shouting, “Dirty Jews, we are giving you food not fit for our pigs.”
Five days later the group was taken to a forest to dig out tree roots. “We were beaten because we weren’t digging fast enough,” Edith said. Then, in August 1944, they were marched to the Baltic Sea, put on a boat and taken to Stutthof Concentration Camp, near Gdansk, Poland.
There, 500 Transylvanian women, including Edith and Eva, were selected to travel by regular train to a small labor camp where they worked 12-hour days digging foxholes and building brick bunkers. Looking back, Edith believes they were recruited by someone like Oskar Schindler as they were given their own bunk beds, toothbrush, toothpaste and blanket. “He was very decent,” she said.
One day, however, the girls returned from work to find their bunk beds replaced by slabs covered with one inch of straw for six people, and SS women in charge.
At the end of March 1945, with artillery planes flying overhead, the 500 girls were taken on a forced march. In early May, after stops in Bergen-Belsen and Ravensbruck, they arrived at Malchow, where they promptly fell asleep. The next morning they heard people shouting, “The gates are open. The SS are gone.” Edith was 13.
Edith and her sister, as well as 19 other girls and young women who knew each other from the Szilágysomlyó ghetto, decided to stick together. Afraid to go anywhere, and especially wary of the Russian soldiers, they remained for several months at a nearby camp that had formerly housed American POWs.
In September, before the High Holy Days, they took a transport to Budapest. Edith and Eva, the only survivors in their immediate family, then made their way to Chiesd, where some “good people,” Edith said, had saved family photographs and memorabilia.
Edith and her sister traveled to Szamosújvár, where their uncle, who had returned from Canada, helped them procure a visa and move to Paris. There they studied English and French at ORT while waiting to leave.
Finally, in spring 1947, Edith and Eva arrived in Port Hope, Canada, where their uncle operated a bakery. But wanting a larger city, they soon moved to Toronto.
In November 1950, Edith met George Frankie, a Hungarian labor camp survivor. They married on March 25, 1951, and their son Richard Andrew Frankie was born March 9, 1956. In 1961 they moved to Los Angeles.
Edith worked as a hairdresser and hair salon manager until retiring after the 1994 Northridge earthquake. She became a volunteer and later a speaker at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust. Over the years, she has also talked to students at Burbank and Los Angeles public schools and through the organization Facing History Ourselves. A treadmill fall in May 2010, however, has curtailed her activities.
Today, Edith and George live in Studio City. She does aqua-aerobics three mornings a week, enjoys spending time with her son and daughter-in-law and serves on the board of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust.
Edith still occasionally speaks publicly, and she always tells students: “Remember one thing. Don’t ever hate anybody, because you are just hating yourself.”