Kati Preston is a holocaust survivor who lives in Barnstead, NH. We had a long talk over coffee recently in her rustic farmhouse kitchen. That afternoon she told me about her journey and her survival. The story below is told in Kati’s Hungarian dialect, in her own words.
Katy and her family moved to the United States to live in 1981.
Kati: “It was different. You know when I first moved here, I had neighbors. I never thought whether they were Republicans or Democrats. It didn’t make any difference. It’s never been like this. No. It was never an issue. I remember people talking about the president and I knew there was a president but he did not figure being in my life. It wasn’t like every morning I wanted to know what he said today. It was a totally different country. I’ve seen it destroyed by this one man. How is that possible? On the other hand, all of this must have been under the ground. All these people were there but now they came out from under the rocks. Their hoods have come off. They’re now proud to be KKK. Before that they used to hide. No more.
“They must be racist if they hate people because they are of a different color or come from somewhere else. They are the same people who were antisemitic in my world. There were no blacks in Hungary. There were only Jews. You hate whoever is different. It’s the same sort of thing. And you know when there’s any kind of poverty, like now, there’s so many poor people.
And when I saw those people marching [in Charlottesville] Oh my God. You know their faces were exactly the same as the people who marched in my hometown. I remember the people with the torches, except the torches then were real. They were screaming, “KILL the JEWS! KILL the JEWS!” Their faces… that contorted hatred face. It’s the same in every single country. Every generation. Hatred is uniform. I was horrified. I couldn’t believe it. It’s terrible. It’s like an illness. You know, evil is catching.
What happened to you and your family, Kati?
“I’m the child of a Catholic mother and a Jewish father. The whole Jewish family are gone. There was 28 people in that family. I’m the only person who is alive. My mother was not deported because in Hungary at the time, although she was converted to Judaism, it went by blood, not by religion. So, although they persecuted her, they did not deport her [to the ghetto where all the Jews were sent] because she was not considered Jewish by blood, but I was supposed to go because I was half Jewish, and even if you had one Jewish grandparent you were supposed to die. The Hungarian authorities had everybody sign up officially saying they will protect us. So, they knew where everybody was and they had everybody’s name. When they came and took everybody away, my mother hid me. She couldn’t have hidden me for very long because they realized that I was not in the ghetto and they were looking for me.
How did she hide you?
“Well, a woman who used to bring our milk. In those days you didn’t buy milk normally. There was a farm person who came with a horse and a cart and a big vat of milk in the back, and they came downstairs, laid out the milk and that’s how you got your milk. And she had been a poor orphan and my mother had made a wedding dress for her as a gift. She never forgot. And when she heard of the rounding of the Jews, she came to my mother and said, “Let me take the child to my farm. She’ll be safer there.” So, my mother gave me to her, which in itself was a courageous thing. The woman took me to her farm. To my surprise, she didn’t take me to her actual house, but put me in this stable that had a horse and a cow stall with a little hay attic above it. They used to throw the hay out, no bales, just hay. And she said, “You’re staying here.” And I said, “Why, why am I staying here? “Well,” she says, “because people want to kill you.” I was five, and it was a very interesting concept. I didn’t know what it meant. Even today, if somebody said to me something about death - I’m 81 almost 82. I still ignore death. Now imagine a 5-year-old. I didn’t believe her. I was being quite belligerent -crying. “I don’t want to stay here. This is horrible!” But she insisted that I stay there and told me that if anybody came that I had to make myself very small and not yell and scream because people want to kill me. Of course, I didn’t believe any of it. And you know it was strange because I remember she put me up there and it was getting dark and I remember crying and crying and crying. I wanted to go home to my mother and my daddy. It was scary. There was rustling in the hay. There was things in the hay, and it was getting darker and darker. You know you get used to things… I was there 3 months on my own. She would come several times a day to bring me food but I was not allowed out of there. She was afraid the neighbors might see me.
“And then very early one morning, I heard a commotion and I looked through the cracks of the barn and there were 3 soldiers. They had black feathers in their hats and they were slapping this woman and she was bleeding from the nose. They were slapping her saying, “We know you have a Jew here! Where’s the Jew? WHERE’S THE JEW?” And they were hitting her …so she said, “There’s no Jew here. Go find the Jew – go to my house!” So, they went up to her house which is on the hill and they ransacked the house and they throw crockery and furniture out of the window and they were making a lot of noise, and then they left.
“But as they were coming across the barn, one of them said, “Hey, wait a minute, let’s look here. Maybe the Jew is in the barn.” So, they came up these rickety stairs. They were wearing big black boots. And I remember I scooched under the hay, the eaves there. I pulled the hay over me and I made myself really small, and my heart was beating so loud I was afraid that they would hear it, you know? It was like a big bell! And ah, I shut my eyes you know because sometimes when you’re scared you close your eyes and you think well if I can’t see them, they don’t see me. And they didn’t, but they were there and they came closer and closer and I remember opening one eye and I saw this big black boot and then the bayonet came down about an inch from my face and it got stuck in the wood. Then he pulled it out….and they left.
They went all over the hay with a bayonet and just missed me. And after that, I didn’t complain anymore. I was very quiet. I was very quiet.”