“Mommy, I’ll be right back.” Irene Rosenberg — then Irene Grunfeld — said as she was leaving the apartment of her cousin Mancy Weiss, where she and her mother were staying temporarily. It was a Friday afternoon in May 1944, and Irene, who was almost 22, was stepping out to shop for food and looking forward to a last Shabbat before all three fanned out to different hiding places in Budapest, as Irene’s father and sisters had already done. But when Irene returned, no one was there. Her mother had left a note that read, “I will be back in half an hour.” Irene waited.
“My mother never came back,” she said.
Born on June 25, 1922, in Budapest, to Herman and Fanny Grunfeld, Irene had a twin sister, Chava, and an older sister, Rose, born in 1921. The family was Orthodox and lived in an apartment in relative comfort.
In 1927, however, Irene’s father lost his import business and the family moved to Vác, a town about 20 miles north of Budapest, where Irene’s mother’s family resided.
Irene attended a Jewish school. After graduation, her parents advised her to learn a trade, and she became a seamstress. In 1939, she and her sisters rented a room in Budapest, where Irene worked for a dressmaking company.
While Irene experienced anti-Semitism from a young age, it wasn’t until Germany invaded Hungary on March 19, 1944, that her “whole life changed.” Suddenly Jews could not travel safely, and they were forbidden to be outdoors except from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. “Every day there came out a new law,” Irene said.
Irene would sit riveted to the radio, which was forbidden, and hear stories from refugees who had escaped to Budapest from Poland, Germany and Austria. “We knew everything,” she said. “We knew about Auschwitz.”
Still, she and her family didn’t believe Hitler had the power to harm them as the Russians were moving in. “We thought there was no time to deport or kill us,” Irene said.
When Irene and her sisters returned to Vác in April, their father decided they should go into hiding in Budapest, separately and under false names.
In May, after Irene’s mother and Mancy disappeared, Irene began using the false surname Landau, and, along with her cousin Paula Zicherman, she moved into an apartment in a building designated for Jews. They had little money or food. “I don’t know how we managed,” she said.
One summer afternoon, Irene went to the post office and searched the Swedish telephone book for people named Grunfeld. She found an Alex Grunfeld and sent him a telegram, telling him they were related and asking him to send a schutz-pass, a special protective pass, for her and her family. He replied, instructing her to pick up the papers at the Swedish Embassy.
Irene stood in a long line at the embassy. But when she noticed police picking people out of the line, she became frightened and left.
In August or September, all women ages 18 to 40 were ordered to report for work. Irene was sent to a labor camp outside Budapest.
After a month she was transferred to a hospital on Wesselényi Street in Budapest, where she lived and worked as a nurse.
One day, however, after learning that the young hospital workers were to be transferred to a labor camp, Irene escaped. Using papers with the non-Jewish name Irene Beke, she moved in with a Christian woman, caring for the woman’s 10-year-old son.
During this time, Irene learned that her father had been sent on a forced march to the Austrian border. There, Raoul Wallenberg, Sweden’s special envoy in Budapest, approached the group, who were waiting to be transported to a camp, and asked if anyone had Swedish papers. Irene’s father, although half-dead at that point, knew about the schutz-pass at the embassy sent by Alex Grunfeld and was taken to a Swedish safe house in Budapest.
On Feb. 16, 1945, the Russians liberated the Buda section of Budapest, and Irene was reunited with her father and her sisters, who had survived in hiding.
The family returned to Vác, but Shabbat dinners were no longer the same for Irene. “I felt that I didn’t have a hand because my mother didn’t sit next to me. Such a feeling never leaves me,” she said.
Irene’s father became business partners with a Christian baker whose Jewish wife and children had been taken away.
Every day Irene carried a large basket filled with fresh brioches and other pastries to the Vác station where trains carrying survivors stopped on their way to Budapest. She distributed the baked goods and always asked if anyone had seen her mother or her cousin Mancy. One day someone answered, “We know Mancy is alive.”
Indeed, Mancy returned, and she told Irene that she and Irene’s mother had been transported to Auschwitz. When they arrived in the pouring rain, Mancy had wrapped her raincoat around the two of them. But as they approached Josef Mengele, he separated them, sending Irene’s mother to the gas chamber.
In the summer of 1945, Irene and her family moved to Budapest, and in 1946 they moved to displaced persons camps in Linz and Ebelsberg, Austria.
In 1948, the family immigrated to Israel, living in Jerusalem. There, Irene met Moshe Israeli, a survivor from Beregszász, Czechoslovakia (now Berehove, Ukraine), and they married in December 1950. Their son, David, was born a year later. Irene and Moshe later immigrated to the United States, arriving in New York in 1956 and divorcing soon after.
In 1957, Irene moved with David to Montreal, where her sisters were living. She worked with her twin sister, who had a workshop in the basement of her two-story apartment building, where she made upholstery for the seats on Air Canada planes.
In August 1959, Irene met Tibor Rosenberg, whom she had known in Budapest. His wife had died in 1957, and he was a widower with three children: Gabe, born in 1942, Robert, in 1946, and Eva, in 1953. Irene and Tibor married in November 1959.
Two years later, Irene and Tibor moved to Los Angeles with David, the other children following later. Irene worked as a seamstress and also operated a business out of her home, Irene’s Discount Linens, which she closed only two years ago.
Tibor died in 1975.
In June 2011, Irene moved to the Jewish Home. Now 90, she enjoys walking daily, playing Bingo and spending time with her family, including her nine grandchildren and 40 great-grandchildren.
Irene credits her survival and that of her family to miracles. But she continues to mourn the loss of her mother. "My mother was the jewel of the family," she said.