My sister’s friend Judith Kallman has now become my new friend, as well. When I first met her over lunch in NYC, she seemed so beautiful, cultured and gracious that I never could have guessed what she’s survived.
But she’s put it all down in her moving memoir, A Candle in the Heart.
“1942 was the beginning of the end,” Judith recalls. At 5, she lived with her family in Piestany, Czechoslovakia. On April 1, the family celebrated the last Passover Seder they’d spend together. That day 1000 Jewish girls were deported to Auschwitz, 50 of them from Piestany.
Judith’s father’s shop was taken over. The family moved many times, dodging the Nazis. Judith last saw her parents, an older brother and sister as they boarded a cattle car bound for a Nazi death camp.
Waving her away from the train, her father shouted, “Choose life. Go away. Survive. Nothing else matters.” As the train moved off, Judith writes, “the vicious mob around us cheered and applauded.”
Protected by an underground network, Judith was separated from 2 surviving siblings. She and one older brother hid in haylofts and cellars and were moved from farm to farm. One winter day with snow drifts over 3 feet, they were smuggled, on foot, to Hungary. They landed in a lice and rat infested jail. After several weeks, a childless Jewish couple, restaurateurs Maurice and Ilonka Stern, took them in. They showered Judith with affection.
In March, 1944, Germany invaded Hungary, “and my world was turned upside down—again.” Jews were required to wear yellow stars and submit to curfews and round-ups. They were forced into a ghetto. Judith and thousands more lived in freezing tunnels under the Glass House, headquarters of the Swiss legation, protected by Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz, vice-consul in Budapest. When the tunnels were discovered, occupants were herded into the street by the Arrow Cross (Czech Nazis) and shot. Before the bullets reached Judith, a Red Cross vehicle pulled up. Swiss diplomats jumped out and halted the shooting.
She writes, “Once again, God had saved me from unspeakable carnage. It had to mean something, but I didn’t know what that was.”
After the war, rebuilding her life was “a daunting project, especially when the betrayals and murders of our families were often committed by neighbors and ‘friends.’” Her beloved foster mother died; her 2 surviving brothers emigrated to Palestine. Judith was sent to a summer camp she loathed.
She sums up what she’d been through as a child. “The months of running from place to place in Slovakia while my parents tried to save us, the separation from my siblings as we were scattered around the countryside to escape the Hlinka Guard; the winter trek to Budapest from Nitra; my experience in the Conti Street prison and the Glass House, all of that topped off by the death of Ilonka Stern and my exile to that disgusting summer camp, had taken their toll.” She developed a lung disease that lasted for weeks and was sent to a sanitarium.
Meanwhile, Maurice Stern remarried. Once recovered, Judith was placed in an orphanage and Catholic school. In winter ’47-’48, Rabbi Dr. Solomon Schonfeld, a rescue activist from England, returned to Europe seeking Jewish children. He had previously organized Kindertransports that brought thousands of Jewish children to England. After the war, the Iron Curtain was falling around eastern Europe. Judith writes, “The antisemitism that allowed Nazi regimes to flourish across the continent remained rooted in its soil.”
Rabbi Dr. Schonfeld walked through dorms at convents and monasteries though assured there were no Jewish children. Passing each bed, he murmured the Sh’ma (the most important Jewish prayer). If children began praying with him, he packed their belongings and took them along.
Of her inclusion on what was the last Kindertransport, Judith writes, “I was not yet 11 years old, but I sensed we were moving toward better lives.” In England, the rabbi insisted the exhausted children attend a Seder for the first night of Passover. “Its significance was not lost on any of us. As young as we were, we understood we were free at last.”
Judith and other orphans attended schools founded by Rabbi Schonfeld. She studied 4 languages. She was placed with yet another family and began learning ballet. She moved to Kfar Batya, a children’s village in Israel “filled with orphans from all over the world. Many had survived by their wits on the streets of Europe and Northern Africa.” Later, living in a boarding school in Tel Aviv, she reconnected with her surviving siblings. Because she could speak English, she escorted American visitors and greeted Eleanor Roosevelt. She guided Moses Schonfeld, a journalist with the U.N., who turned out to be the brother of the rabbi who rescued her from Europe.
After graduating, Judith began working for a bank in Tel Aviv and continued to guide American VIPs. One, Howard Alter, fell in love with and married her. He brought her to America where his family embraced her. The Alters had 3 children. Judith enjoyed being a suburban housewife. Because of Howard’s investments in Israeli companies, the couple met Prime Ministers Ben-Gurion, Meir and Begin.
“And then,” she writes, “the bottom fell out.” Howard died of a malignant melanoma. Judith focused on raising their children and running Howard’s business. She remained single for 8 years until she met and married lawyer Irwin Kallman. They live in Greenwich, Conn. and have been happily married for 36 years. Because of Irwin’s involvement in political causes, the couple met at the White House with President Bill Clinton.
Judith had another special experience in 1982. She represented children from the Kindertransports, then living in the U.S. or Canada, on stage at a testimonial dinner in London for Rabbi Dr. Schonfeld’s 70th birthday. She presented him with a book written by the now-grown children he had saved and educated.
“The auditorium was packed with Kindertransportees, many with their children and grandchildren in tow. And there on the stage sat the one man largely responsible for their existence. The thousands upon thousands of people born of the remnant saved by the Kindertransports represented a victory. …those who survived… were rebuilding the Jewish people all over the world.”
Her daughter Debbie’s college assignment led Judith to delve into her past. In the forward to Judith’s book, Debbie writes, “It has taken many years, but I know how determined she has been to bring this book into being. And when it is a question of having determination, my mother has few peers. Determination helped my mother survive—it was not just her desire to live that kept her going, it was also her insistence that she had no option but to choose life.”
Judith takes every opportunity to speak publicly about her experience. She writes, “I know my miraculous survival happened for a reason. I had to bear witness to my past, to speak for my parents and lost brother and sister. …I hope that readers… will learn something from these pages; to make better choices, to act when necessary, and to understand that we are all alike and all have goals and dreams.”
As an adult, Judith learned her parents and 2 siblings had been shipped to Auschwitz. “It happened to my family, as it happened to millions… Each one of those millions was a life, precious and unique.”
As are you, Judith Mannheimer Alter Kallman. Gai gezunterhait. Go in good health.