August 28, 2010

Always Remember the Holocaust


For nearly a decade, Pacific Palisades resident Anna Sorotzkin had thought about writing a book about her experiences during the Holocaust, but it was a trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., in 2005 that convinced her.

‘I realized how important it is,’ Sorotzkin told the Palisadian-Post. ‘I wanted my offspring and their offspring to know what had happened. This can happen to any people, not just the Jewish people.’

She also wanted to memorialize her grandfather and 13 aunts, uncles and cousins whom she lost in the Holocaust.

Originally, she wrote the book only for her family, but after completing it, she realized that her story could teach others about the Holocaust. She will now speak about her self-published book, ‘Panni’s Quest for Freedom,’ on Thursday, August 19 at 7:30 p.m. at Village Books on Swarthmore.

Sorotzkin spent about a year writing her autobiography (edited by Palisadian Reeva Mandelbaum Cohen). She not only had to recapitulate the details of her early life, but also had to re-educate herself on Hungarian history.

‘When I left, I was angry,’ said Sorotzkin, who escaped from Hungary to the United States after the 1956 revolution. ‘I almost mentally erased everything about Hungary.’

Born in Budapest in 1932, Sorotzkin recalls living comfortably in an apartment overlooking the Danube with her parents, Paul and Ilona Weisz Fulop, and older brother, Egon, until 1941. At that point, the government required Jews to turn in luxury items such as radios and bicycles, and a year later, prohibited them from attending public schools.

‘It hit very hard when I had to give up my dog, my little fox terrier, Suzy,’ Sorotzkin wrote in her book.

After the Nazis invaded Hungary in March 1944, Jews were forced to wear yellow stars, abide by a curfew and live in ‘yellow-star houses.’ Sorotzkin’s apartment complex was declared as such, so the family could remain.

In October 1944, her father and brother were taken to Mauthausen, a concentration camp in Austria, to work in the stone quarries. Sorotzkin’s mother was also taken by soldiers, but was able to escape and return to the apartment, where Sorotzkin was being taken care of by relatives.

When the yellow-star houses were ordered closed, Sorotzkin and her mother moved into a Swiss-protected house and later to a ghetto in early December 1944.

In the ghetto, Jews ages 16 to 45 were collected for work, and those older and younger were sent to Auschwitz. Since Sorotzkin was 12, she and her mother lied about her age.

‘We were fortunate to get away with it,’ Sorotzkin said. ‘I strongly feel that it was our way of resisting them. Some people ask why the Jews went quietly to their death, but the Jewish people resisted in any way we could. There were many small acts, whether it be hiding behind a door or sneaking from one group to the other to stay together.’

One morning, she and her mother were ordered to march toward a waiting train to be transported to a concentration camp, when Raoul Gustav Wallenberg, the first secretary to the Swedish Legation in Budapest, pulled them out of line and took them to a Swedish apartment, where they were reunited with her mother’s parents and uncle. Sorotzkin now wonders if Wallenberg selected them randomly or if her uncle arranged it.

Wallenberg rescued about 100,000 Jews in Budapest by issuing them Swedish identification papers.

‘Another main purpose of publishing my book was to publicize the story of Wallenberg,’ Sorotzkin said. ‘He was my savior.’

Shortly thereafter, the Russian Army arrived to fight the Germans, and she and her mother decided it would be safe to return to their apartment.

‘They saved our lives,’ Sorotzkin said of the Russian soldiers. ‘But they also acted cruelly to the population.’

One night, a Russian soldier grabbed her mother, intending to rape her. Throughout the war, Sorotzkin had carried a leather case containing a gold Mont Blanc fountain pen, a watch and a few gold charms under her clothing. Hoping to save her mother, she gave her treasures to the soldier.

‘When he looked inside, he gave out a happy yell and ran out,’ Sorotzkin wrote. ‘Fortunately, he totally forgot about my mother.’

Sorotzkin explained that she had risked being shot by the Nazis for carrying that case, but she never once considered discarding it.

‘It was like some voice up there was telling me to keep it for that moment,’ Sorotzkin told the Post.

By March 1945, the Russian Army had defeated the Germans. Four months later, Sorotzkin’s father and brother returned; both were about 6′ tall, but each weighed less than 80 pounds.

Her father recovered and resumed work as a lawyer, while Sorotzkin went back to school. They never discussed the tragic events.

‘We were just numb afterwards,’ Sorotzkin said. ‘It’s not like today, with psychiatrists and psychologists helping you process your thoughts. After the war, the adults were busy rebuilding and the children were left to deal with their own thoughts and feelings.’

The relative normalcy did not last long as a Communist government soon took root.

‘It was really hard to have to live through the Holocaust and then be confronted with Communism,’ Sorotzkin said, so she and the family escaped across the border to Austria and immigrated to the United States in winter 1956.

Sorotzkin studied at Penn State University and moved to Santa Paula in 1958 to work for the Burpee Seed Company. She met her husband Joshua, who worked for Shell Oil as a chemical engineer, and they married in 1959. That same year, Sorotzkin became a teacher, working at Oak View Elementary in Ventura.

They raised three children, Ruth Mandelbaum and Aliza Sorotzkin, both of whom live today in Pacific Palisades, and Dalia Attia of Studio City. In 1986, Sorotzkin commuted from Ventura to Pacific Palisades to teach at Village School.

In 1989, Sorotzkin returned to Budapest with her mother, whom she described as nostalgic. Sorotzkin, however, said she didn’t experience the same sentiment because she hardly has any memories of the good times before the war. She has since returned twice with two of her five grandchildren to show them their ancestral home.

Sorotzkin, who has lived with her husband in the Palisades Highlands for 14 years, says she mostly feels fortunate for the life she has built for herself in the United States.

‘I have always emphasized to my students to be grateful for all the freedoms we have here,’ said Sorotzkin, who retired from teaching in 1991.r