Homage to a Woman of Valour - Gizella Tova (Roth) Salamon

By Andrew Salamon, her son.

Eshet Chayil… The Biblical title so many Jewish women have deserved. Those raising a family all alone, with the husband far away to earn a living. Women not hesitating to place the life of their family ahead of that of their own. Women who struggled to maintain a Jewish home, with warmth and candles and Shabat meals. 

Eshet Chayil mi yimtza…My Father has found a woman of valour for a spouse and they lived happily ever after, together  in good and bad, in sorrow and in happiness. Unfortunately they had more share in bad than good, more of sorrow than joy. 

My Mother was that woman. That exceptional woman who, like thousands others, fought as lioness to save the lives of her loved ones. This is her story, dedicated to her memory. 

Mother - I will continue calling her that, or Anyuka, in Hungarian, the way I called her from the first time I could talk to the last time she could hear and understand me - Mother was a strong willed girl from the beginning. At the age of 14 she convinced her innkeeper Father to enrol her to the local Gymnasium or high school. In 1919 there were not too many Jewish girls from orthodox homes who did that. But  she graduated and became a bookkeeper, a working girl - another novelty in her circle. And then came a third one - she wanted marry without the help of a shadchan. She has already chosen her beshert whom she must have known from childhood - her first cousin, shy and withdrawn Hermann. 

Father was a tradesman, glassmaker, who went to Vienna to apprentice. Shortly after his return they were married. She never talked about those times, it was other members of the family who implied that her choice met some disapproval, so the wedding might not have been a great affair. But she was a strong willed girl and right from the beginning she stood and prodded forward her new husband. They opened a small shop in his village, Balkany,  where he was content to eke out a living and study Torah.  He was an uneducated but intelligent and quick minded man. 

Mother came from a different background.  In her village, Budaszentmihaly, Jews were a tiny tolerated minority. Her best friend, from school, was a wonderful Christian girl with whom we remained closely connected right through the war years. Mother was the educated, firm, strong partner in their marriage. She prodded Father to move to Budapest and take on employment with a solid Jewish firm where he was allowed not to work on the Shabat and other Jewish holidays.  They rented a small, dark apartment in the ghetto, without electricity and sharing a washroom with other neighbours. I was born in that dark, dank apartment.  She struggled vainly to keep  a clean and kosher home, encouraging her husband to advance in his position. He managed to become the new warehouse manager in the suburb of Kobanya and later to rent a modern, three-room apartment.  When the family moved into this comfortable space, all her worries seemed to have stayed behind her. 

Kobanya  was a middle-class suburb of Budapest, with a good sized Jewish community and a lovely large synagogue. Unfortunately we lived away from the community and were surrounded by non-Jews. Brother and I attended public schools where very few Jewish children studied - I had one single Jewish classmate - while Father, although working for a Jewish firm, worked exclusively with Christian colleagues and underlings. Our neighbours and best friends were Protestant, with girls about our own age.  We became, with our parents’ blessing, good friends. 

Of course our Judaism was richly cultivated by our parents. We made the long trek to the synagogue every Friday night and on the Sabbath day. Mother tirelessly  worked at home to maintain a proper kosher household. The three sets of dishes - fleishchik, milchchik and for Pesach - were kept strictly separated. Friday nights the candles were lit and blessed by Mother with a tearful silent prayer. When we returned from the synagogue the table was always set and the scent of familiar dishes filled the house. Father often, and on Seder night always, invited some lonely Jewish man to our dinner table and Mother never complained as she set another plate on the table. As Father often said “You can always add some water to the soup”. 

Still, we were isolated from our fellow Jews and fairly well assimilated into our Hungarian Christian neighbourhood. My parents spoke German between themselves - nicht für die Kindern - and not Yiddish. The radio always played some cheerful Hungarian melody from the current operetta sang by the latest Hungarian star. At school we learned about the heroics of the great Hungarian kings. Of course we new how to pray, learned all by heart, but in a language not ours. Mother always kept the little blue collection box filled with coins and once a month she mad us open it and hand the contents over to the bearded young man wearing a wide-rimmed hat, who stood at our doorstep, never being invited to enter. We knew it was something about Palestine, the land where Yerushalayim   was located, the place, we prayed every year to be allowed to visit. Of course it was only a prayer… 

Mother was a proud woman.  My rich uncle often criticized Father for working for such a modest income. Mother’s cheeks flushed on every occasion it came up. We lived modestly, but thanks to her handling the family finances, well. While we never indulged in luxuries, there was never shortage of anything we needed.  At the beginning of each school year we made the visit, with Mother, to the local bookstore where we purchased the all-important school supplies - book (second hand of course), exercise books, workbooks and the special blue paper with which Mother carefully covered every book and labelled them in clear letters. 

Gizella Tova Roth Salamon 
cca. 1937

What we did miss was a rich family life. Our grandparents lived in far away villages and some died before the war. Our uncles and ants lived fairly far from us, far for those days. We only got together once or twice a year and so knew very little our cousins.  

May 1939  was a memorable month for us. That was the month when, for the first time, Father was conscripted to the Army, at that time still as a uniformed soldier.  Mother and we, children, were devastated. This was the first time in their 14-year marriage that they were separated and for an unknown period of time. Actually it lasted for several months. During that time Father continued to draw his salary so that we could survive and Mother could send her regular food parcels to Father. But her Friday night tears were even more plentiful. Even so, she sprang into action once again. She hatched the idea of opening a store in the city, so she can step into Father’s place any time it will be necessary.  She arranged with Father’s bosses enough financial support to make this happen. When Father returned from the army, the location has been chosen and our new life was ready to begin. 

At the beginning Mother ran the store on her own while Father continued at his employment. That meant for Mother to prepare us for school and take the streetcar to the city. For the first time we children were left on our own. In the evening she would rush in, prepare dinner and do all the other household chores men were incapable of doing. While we all performed our duties as employees or students, she did everything: store keeping, house keeping, cooking, cleaning and mothering us.   She was tireless.  Soon Father joined her in the store, which was kept open for long hours. Gradually we developed a new routine: after school we would hop on the streetcar and join our parents. We would do our homework and help in some small ways. As darkness fall, we would take the streetcar back home and have dinner together. 

Shopkeeper. Mother did very well in her new role. She handled the poor customers as easily as the rich, elegant ladies who came to purchase expensive gift items. In later years she developed a new kind of clientele: German officers came to buy gifts for their liebchen back home and upon discovering that Mother spoke German fluently, became regular shoppers. They were polite, cultivated and deeply shocked upon discovering that Mother was Jewish - a fact she never tried to hide. They assured her that she was different, not a typical Jewess and continued to come back. 

Father was called up once again, this time to serve in an un-uniformed labour force. He came home often for visits, serving not too far from Budapest. Our parents began serious arguments about the future. Mother was desperately searching for a way out of the country while Father was much less alarmed by the situation. We had relatives in “Amerika” and finally we started the procedure of requesting entry visas. Mother became more and more alarmed and insistent and on many nights we listened to their bitter dispute. She had a strong foresight and instinct. Unfortunately the borders were rapidly closing  on us and there was no country that would take us in as refugees. The waiting period for American visas exceeded 14 years…By 1941 our fate had been sealed. 

Anti-Semitism broke out into the open with full force. Mother had to make a special and rather dangerous  trip to her birth village to gather documents which prove that we were multi-generation Hungarians. Without these documents we could have been deported to Poland as aliens. I went with her and we stayed with her childhood friend. On the train we had to behave like a proper Christian family. Some peasant women started a conversation with me, scaring Mother to death. One offered me some cakes which, knowing well they were not kosher nevertheless I accepted and ate with great gusto, much to Mother’s relief. 

Mother circulated very little in the village and I was told to avoid the gendarmes  at all cost. It was the last time they have seen each other, as Jews were forbidden to ravel by train. The Hungarian nazi Arrow Cross, wearing their ugly brown shirts and pistol holsters, were everywhere, attacking Jews and parading to the tune of wildly anti-Semitic songs. We had to huddle, standing up, at the back of the streetcar and be constantly being humiliated in many small ways.  Mother took the hardship in her stride. She became harder, learning to live from day to day. She taught us to ignore the taunts and to be proud of our Jewishness.  Thanks to her we all developed inner strength which would serve us well in the coming years.  I never complained to her about the bad treatment I received, not so much from my schoolmates than the pro-fascist teachers. I never told - and she never asked. We formed a silent bond, not wanting to add to the burden each of us was forced to bear. 

Labour camp. From the time the war (World War II) broke out, Father was away on and off. He had to report to a forced labour camp where the “inmates” were Jewish men and the guards mostly sadistic Hungarian soldiers. Mother quickly developed a small network of these soldiers who, when on leave in Budapest, would come into our store and deliver short notes from Father - for a good fee of course. That was the only way we could know that he was still alive. The soldiers also told us some of the horror stories that went on in the camps. Mother never showed any emotions while they were there, but once alone she began sobbing uncontrollably.  She alone understood the terrible trials Father must have gone through and the strong possibility that he won’t come out of the camp alive. 

That’s when she had an ingenious idea.  We were in contact with several other “inmates” of the camp, among them three other Salamons.  Mother told them that she is organizing a trip to visit the camp.  They all brought food parcels and letters, to be delivered. We hired an old truck and its even older driver and, me as added protection, we set out on this dubious trip. Mother, clever Mother managed earlier to obtain a letter of permission from one of the camp officers for a visit. Now as we arrived, after hours of driving on lonely, dusty and rickety roads, at the gate of the camp, Mother proudly waved the letter at the surprised guard.  We entered, only to be stopped by a large, beefy sergeant.  He read the letter, ripped it in two and threw it on the ground. 

“The Salamon Jew is cleaning the latrines” - he sneered. “He has no time to come here”. 

Mother begged him, meekly and with deep humility. 

“Brave Mister Officer, we came such a long way just to bring a small parcel. Can we at least leave it with you?” 

Saying that, she slipped a banknote into his hands.  The sergeant shamelessly unfolded it and, verified the size of the bill, permitted the Jew Salamon to be called out.  Father, pale and unbelieving, walked towards us. There were no hugs or kisses, no display of emotions. We greeted each other quietly. Father assured us, to the loud guffaws of the soldiers standing around us, that he is being treated well and is eating enough. He was gaunt and pale but showed no visible effects of the hardship he must have experienced. He quickly unloaded the truck, we handed over the slips of paper we brought and, with a last desperate look at each other we climbed back onto the truck and drove away.

Mother set tearless, in the cab. "I hope they will leave him something" - she said indicating that the soldiers will steal all the best items from the packages. We didn’t exchange another word until home. Only then could she cry her heart out for her husband. She did her duty, risked her own safety not only to deliver a small parcel but also more - to deliver a message of hope to Father and a reminder of his family, waiting for him to come home alive.

War years. The years of war went by in an almost eventless monotony. Mother ran the store, our home and , bravely, she tried to run our lives also. That was not easy as we two had to learn fast to be totally independent. That meant occasionally to stand up to her, argue with her or simply ignore her commands and do things our way. She suffered a lot for feeling powerless to control us, but we were fundamentally good boys and she provided us with the most important aspects of our lives: a solid, warm home to return to after long tiring days in the store or on the street. Father’s visits became more and more infrequent, the cost of bribing the soldiers for a leave became exorbitant and, with all of Mother’s economizing, money flew out faster than it came in. When Father came home, he was received as if on sick leave. He tried to get involved in the affairs of the store and our schooling, but time was too short for any of that. It was rather Mother and us who took care of him, to recover a bit before returning to the camp. He never told us anything about the goings on, but once in a while Mother would ask about someone or another and Father tersely would reply that he was not alive any more. Then he quickly changed the subject.

All hell broke loose in March 1944. German armies occupied the country, a nazi government took power. Anti-Semitic laws and regulations, controlling and limiting every aspect of life, appeared in rapid succession. And as the situation worsend around us, Mother’s determination to save us also increased. She sprang into action, devising new solutions to newly arriving problems. We had to hand in all our radios - she found an old, useless one which allowed us to hide away one in working condition. All jewelry had to be handed in - not by Mother, who hid away some good pieces for the hard times. Jews were not allowed to own stores - Mother found a Gentile friend who accepted to become owner on paper, for a symbolic sum.

So far only our livelihood and life quality were under attack and Mother sparred bravely with the authorities. We were told not to report to school any more, so she found a way to occupy us in the store. The Government introduced the Yellow Star to mark and humiliate us - Mother stitched by hand a star on every item of outer closing. Stitches were easy to remove in case of emergency. She arranged with a baker and a butcher who, sympathizing with us, were ready to keep those valuable commodities for us until, being illegally on the street, one of us could go and, without wearing the star of course, could exchange our useless Jewish food coupons for some real food.

She became a real tiger in those weeks. The harder they hit us with regulations, the stronger her resistance became. When we were ordered to move into the ghetto, Mother decided that doing so would sign our death warrants. Deportation to the "east" was on everyone’s mind. So she befriended the chazan of our synagogue who lived in a small house attached to the synagogue itself. When the day came we packed three suitcases and closed the door on our apartment without ever looking back. We moved into the building marked with a star, a "Jewish building" and shared the small apartment with two other families. Mother suffered greatly from the crowded conditions, the lack of privacy, the shared kitchen. Mostly she suffered from inactivity. So she organized learning sessions for the children, where we studied on our own and helped each other.

An event showing her bravery stands out. My older brother has also been taken to forced labour, having reached the critical age of 16 years. One fall day he appeared at the door telling us that his unit was passing through the city and he found an occasion to escape. Mother immediately arranged for him to stay and remain invisible. Until one day we had visitors: a nazi raiding party came to search the house and to steal what was valuable. Mother told my brother to lie flat on the bed and piled huge eiderdowns over him hoping not to suffocate him. When the nazi raiders burst into the room, we looked normally occupied. Pulling drawers and overturning tables, the raiders left finally without discovering Brother. All that time Mother showed no emotion or fear.

Wallenberg was our saviour too - he brought Father home. As matters became harder, Mother took three important steps. First, risking being caught on the street at the illegal hours, we went to the Swiss consulate and obtained from Mr. Lutz a Swiss schutzpass claiming protection. Second she contacted a wealthy industrialist we knew who, to set up a final hideaway, organized in his closed factory a Jewish orphanage. Mother convinced her to take her in as Supervisor. By that time we had to move out of the Jewish house and go into hiding. We boys disappeared under the protection of false documents.

When the final stages of the tragedy began and the city was gradually collapsing over our heads, Mother’s hiding place proved to be the only safe place for all of us. In the late fall Mother found out that Father’s labour unit was marching through the city on the way to the West. It was already Winter and she has heard rumors of "death marches" heading towards the Austrian border. Once again, Mother didn’t hesitate. She left her safe hiding place and rushed to the Swede delegate’s office, where she was received by a sympathetic clerk. She provided the information: unit number and the names she had of forced labourers. We don’t know what has taken place, but by nightfall Father was united with Mother and they both returned to the factory warehouse cum Jewish orphanage.

By early December it was impossible to hide in safety in the city. The constant bombing coupled with the omnipresent, Jew-hunting Nazi units roaming the streets, made our existence doubly perilous. It was time for family reunification. We joined our parents and set up a family hiding place where we spent the last weeks of the war. In early January we were liberated by Soviet army units and our nightmare ended.

Mother’s role though has not ended, only changed. As we resumed normal life we found ourselves in the middle of returning family members, seeking shelter for short periods of time. We were the only ones who survived together, in our entire family. So our home in Budapest became temporary refuge to the returnees where hot food and a place to sleep was always found. Mother was the provider of both, naturally. And more than that: she somehow collected twelve lonely, old and frail Jewish ladies who struggled alone in the cold city to stay alive. She rented an abandoned apartment and organized a proper home for the twelve. She hired and paid a live-in caretaker and weekly we lugged food packages over for them. Friday nights Mother went over to attend the lighting of the candles, before lighting our own.

Peacetime brought some much wanted relief in her life. Now there was time to attend concerts and theater performances, dine in restaurants and in general enjoy life. That period lasted a few years. In 1948 Brother left for Israel where he fought in the War of Independence. A year later I followed, leaving our parents to face the coming harsh changes all alone. The new Communist government nationalized all businesses, so Father became just an employee of his co-operative. Two families were installed with our parents, sharing all the facilities. Life became harsh and difficult.

In 1951 we managed to obtain exit visas for our parents and they joined us in Israel. It was a glorious time, Father resumed his trade and they lived in a lovely house with an orchard for garden. But the years took their toll and they never felt at home in Israel. It was too late to learn Hebrew, too late to get used to the extreme climate, Israel’s famous bureaucracy also contributed to their difficulties. Finally, ten years after arriving to Israel, they immigrated to Canada. It was much too late at their age to start a new life in a new world. Within a year Father was gone, the victim of lung cancer which, in those days, was untreatable. Mother, for the second time in her life but this time with painful finality, was left alone.

Mother’s whole life was a continuous saga of struggle against tragedy which was forever lurking around the corner of her existence. She spent her last years in the safe harbour of the Baycrest Centre, victim of dementia or Alzheimer’s - I will never know. She contracted pneumonia and struggled for an entire day and night to overcome it - without success.

At last her frail, emaciated body laid in peace and I could have had some private hours with her, to cry over my loss and over her sufferings which were, at last, over.

This story is published here with the permission of Andrew Salamon. 
© Andrew Salamon, 2001.


© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
All rights reserved.