Thursday, May 13, 2010

A tribute to my Grandmother

Tonight my niece is celebrating her Bat Mitzvah.

She is named after my paternal grandmother, Susan (Zsuzsa) Jane Cegledy, better known to my siblings and me as “Anya”. My brother asked me to say a few words about her at the dinner tonight.

I was always close to Anya. As a teenager I often walked over to her place on Shabbat afternoons, just to talk. Towards the end of her life, when she was interviewed by the Hungarian Consul he asked her about the Best memory of her life, she replied:

One of my best memories was when my second grandson just dropped in on a Saturday afternoon, just to talk to his grandmother. He might have been about 15, and he just dropped in. When they were little they liked to come and stay here. He doesn't travel on Saturday, but they don't live far, so he just dropped in.

Q: What do you talk about?

This particular grandson loves to hear about my memories, about old times. This was such a lovely experience.

One of my regrets is that I didn’t spend more time with both my grandmothers, recording their recollections of history.

Anyway – here is the tribute that I plan to share with my niece at the Bat Mitzvah in a few hours….


Anya, your father’s grandmother, your great-grandmother, whose name you carry was a very special person.

Anya was born December 12, 1905 at the beginning of the 20th century in Budapest Hungary. One of four sisters Anya was to see worlds destroyed and rebuilt within her lifetime.

Anya’s family were almost pioneers in women’s education. Her older sister Ella was one of the first Jewish women to be accepted to the Gymnasium, (High school that teaches Latin and Greek). Five years later when Anya was high school age it was already more acceptable for Jewish girls to go to high school.

Anya married Apa in 1930, but soon after their marriage their world was turned upside down. When they married, Anya and Apa lived what could be described as a middle class life. They lived in a respectable neighbourhood and had access to Anya’s parent’s summer house just outside the city in Matyasfold (not to be confused with Mattesdorf), however the Great Depression, combined with war reparations after World War One destroyed the Hungarian economy. Soon after they got married, Apa lost his job, and went through a series of less prestigious jobs until the anti-Semitic laws of the late 1930s made it illegal to employ Jews. At that time Apa set up a small business selling household products, like toothpaste, soap, and cleaning products, selling these to little corner stores who would not be big enough to have an account in their own directly with the manufacturers

During the NAZI occupation of Budapest, when Apa was taken away to a labour battalion and later to Mauthausen Concentration camp, Anya had to watch over her two young sons (your Grandpa and Uncle Janos) as well as care for her parents.

In the final months of the War, Eichmann made it a personal priority to destroy the last remnants of Hungarian Jewry. At that time Anya was called to report to a brick factory in Obuda (October). From there they rounded up the Jewish women who reported for work and marched them Eastwards in the general direction of Auschwitz.

By that late stage in the war, the trains were no longer running, but Eichmann’s plan was to march as many Jews as he could in the direction of Auschwitz until they died of exhaustion.

Anya and her friend Malvin (my Godmother) survived this death march together. For a few nights they were billeted in a barn or pig sty of a peasant in the town of Kophaza, some 200 km outside Budapest. One of Anya’s few memories that she shared with us of those years is that the peasant woman on whose property they were staying risked her life to sneak them food in the middle of the night. Had she been caught, she would almost certainly have been executed. What impressed Anya was not that this woman risked her life to bring them food, which probably saved their lives, but the fact that she made a point of brining the food a new bucket, one that had never been used to feed the pigs and treated them with respect and dignity. It was this act of humanity that impressed Anya and she stayed in touch with the woman for many decades after the war.

From Kophaza they were marched to the town of Lichtenwörth in Austria, about 40 km away, where the NAZIs had set up a temporary camp in a warehouse. It was in this concentration camp that Anya spent the remainder of the war until her liberation by Soviet soldiers on April 2, 1945. Over 2000 Jewish women were taken to Lichtenwörth Concentration Camp, only about 400 survived.

Anya and Malvin were amongst the survivors (Your grandma’s aunts, Liza and Klari, Helen’s mother were also there. Liza survived emotionally damaged, Klari died of typhus after liberation). Anya and Malvin gradually made their way back to Budapest where they found that both her children and her parents had survived. Later she was to find out that Apa was amongst a handful of survivors of Mauthausen. An entire Jewish family surviving the war was almost unheard of in Hungary, or anywhere else in Eastern or Central Europe.

After the war, Anya and her family left Europe behind to start a new life in New Zealand, the furthest corner of the World.

They arrived in New Zealand with almost no money and Anya was the only one in the family who spoke English. However it was Anya’s optimism and determination that helped them re-establish themselves in this strange land. When their belongings were held up in Antwerp because of the currency restrictions, Anya personally called the office of the Minister of Finance, Walter Nash, to get him to intercede on behalf of their belongings (which he did, on the condition that the belongings were shipped to New Zealand on a New Zealand ship).

Anya and Apa began their new lives in Palmerston North where they established a large circle of friends and often hosted guests in their home.

As the boys grew and your Grandpa went to university, they moved to Wellington in 1954.

In 1976 Apa departed this world and left Anya on her own. After his death Anya took up travelling, making a trip to Janos in Japan almost every year and also visiting her sisters in New Jersey and Budapest. After Janos settled in Japan, Anya started learning Japanese through the Correspondence School, making her the oldest high school student in the country.

In spite of the difficult times that she lived through, Anya was the ultimate optimist. In an interview in 1990 she summarized her life as follows:

It seems like boasting if I say I'm lucky, but I'm lucky. My children married well, I have lovely grandchildren. My husband was 75 years old when he died. I was only 70, but people were left on their own as widows at a younger age. I've had a fortunate life. I never expected much, but I had a fortunate life. I have always appreciated what I had. I had a lovely childhood. I had this positive outlook; you have to be born that way. But my sisters are also like that. We had a good childhood, and we are still alive.

On February 11, 1993, כ׳ בְּשְׁבָט תשנ״ג a few weeks after her eldest grandson, your Aba got married, Anya returned her soul to her Creator. She will always be remembered fondly.

May Her Soul Be Bound in the Bonds of Eternal Life.

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