On April 7th we commemorate Yom HaShoa, also known as Holocaust Remembrance Day. April’s Balaboosta of the Month honors the solemn day by interviewing one of our favorite Yiddishe mamas, our dear family friend and inspiration, Hedy Katz. 

Asking Hedy to participate in this interview was a natural and easy decision.  We have a multi-generational connection with her family. Her son and daughter-in-law are close friends with our parents and we have a warm relationship with the grandchildren. She was our late grandmother's dear friend and they had a standing weekly card game.  Our fondest memories include eating her delicious food.

As we have become adults and parents ourselves, we appreciate the ways that Hedy Katz is an amazing and independent woman.  We have a special love for her which stems, in part, from her ability to be a Holocaust survivor that has chosen to truly live and not just to survive.  Her secret to thriving after such horrific events is to feel thankful, positive, and blessed.  

Hedy Katz’s Amazing Story

Hedy Katz was born and raised in Hungary.  At 17 years old, she was studying in another city when she was suddenly told to return to her hometown of Sieget because of hostilities against Jews. As soon as she arrived back, her entire family was sent to a ghetto. Hedy lived in a house with 40-50 other people. She passed her time in the ghetto helping the sick because she wanted to study medicine. This was her passion and goal, and it gives us a glimpse of the giving and nurturing person that she has always been. In May 1944, she was ordered to pack her things to go “work” somewhere else. She walked to the train station where she was transported in a cattle wagon with hundreds of other Jewish people.  For three days and nights, in inhumane conditions, the large group traveled until they finally arrived at the Auschwitz Birkenau concentration camp. 

Mengele, the infamous German Nazi, known as the Angel of Death for his deadly experiments on prisoners, received them at the train station. His responsibility was the selection of those who would die and who would live when people arrived at the camp. Mengele selected Hedy and her mother, who was 36 years old at the time, to work because they were healthy and strong. Her grandmother and grandfather were separated and were never seen again. Her father was selected to work on the men's side. Hedy had her hair shaved and was tattooed with a number on her arm. 

Her time in Auschwitz was marked with constant mistreatment in inhumane conditions with forced labor and starvation. She worked carrying rocks from one side of the camp to the other to make a road. There were nights of suffering from extreme cold and sleeping in barracks with many people in one bed. In December 1944, Hedy turned 18 years old in the camp and in January 1945 she was liberated.  Her physical and mental strength, courage, and desire to live saved her from this horrific period. 

An Interview with Hedy Katz: Finding Joy in Life and the Meaning of Being A Balaboosta

Hedy’s  wonderful words of wisdom were shared with us during a recent interview.  We had a blast speaking with Hedy and we hope we can enjoy her for many more years in good health. You will read that we were promised her famous gefilte fish recipe, which we will not forget to get! 

When you were growing up in Europe, which Jewish traditions did you practice at home? Was your family observant?

We were not too religious or particularly observant, although we had respect for traditions. My grandparents were more religious than us, and they respected the laws of kashrut.  My grandfather on my mother’s side went to synagogue every morning. They believed in giving tzedakah to the poor. I remember, every Tuesday and Thursday a “Yeshiva Bocher” (Yeshiva Boy) would come to our house to eat. I grew up speaking Hungarian, and I learned Yiddish after the war.

We would go to synagogue for the holidays including Passover, Yom Kippur, Rosh Hashanah, Shavuot, and other chagim.  On Friday nights, we would light the candles and perform the Shabbat ceremony. We would not light fire on Saturdays and we would cook cholent to eat on Shabbat. There was a bakery near our house and since we did not have an oven at home, we would take our cholent to cook there after they were done cooking bread.  

Did you have an opportunity to keep any traditions during the Holocaust while you were in the concentration camp?

We were prisoners in Auschwitz. We would know it was the time around Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur, but we were prisoners and we could do nothing!  We would only think about food and we would reminisce about the tastes of our celebrations at home. We would fast every day because there was no food. This was a “forced tradition.”

I was not at a summer camp, I was at a concentration camp!  We were not allowed to do anything. If you sang or prayed or did something that was not allowed, they would punish you or kill you. They would take you to the crematories for those types of things.

We were mad with G-d  because we could not understand how He could allow this punishment. It was a very dark period.  

How did you instill Jewish traditions in your sons and grandkids?  What made you not give up on Judaism?

I believe that G-d wanted me to be saved so I could tell what happened to the Jews during the Holocaust and to make sure that it would never happen again.

After the war, people went back to their country of origin looking for any family who could have survived. I went to Romania but most people who survived moved away to other countries as there was not a community anymore. I wanted to stay with my husband, raise a family and own some property, but soon communism hit and it was already too late to leave so we lived under communism. I have two sons and when they were young my husband would take them to the synagogue and I would teach them the stories of the bible. I remember when my first son was born we had to travel 300km to find a mohel to do the mitzvah of the brit milah.

What is your favorite holiday and why?

I have always liked Pesach (Passover) since I was a little girl because we would get new clothes for the holiday! A nice dress and shiny patent leather shoes. It is not like girls today that have so many dresses all year round. In my time we had three or four dresses and we would only get new ones for the holidays. 

I remember going to my grandparents house. My favorite part was looking for the afikomen because they gave us money. I liked the food! I liked everything about Passover. I also like Purim because that is the date when I got married.

It makes me very happy to see all my family reunited over FaceTime. I do not complain because I have nice sons, grandkids, and great grandkids. I am going to turn 94 years old soon. I listen to music, watch TV, and I am self-sufficient.

How would you define a Balabosta?

The women who lived in small towns before the war, spoke Yiddish and were called “Yiddishe mamas.” They were very poor women with little resources. These women were “balabostas” because they made miracles with what they had! They made delicious matzo ball soups with very little food and they would feed seven or eight children.

Where we lived growing up, there was a small house in the garden where the family of the Gabay (guardian of the synagogue) lived. Every Thursday, my mama prepared a basket with food that I had to deliver as a donation. The basket had flour for the challah, chicken, yeast, and fish.

Rachel, the wife of the Gabay, was the perfect example of a balaboosta because she would manage her eight children to perfection. Before Shabbat all eight children were bathed and dressed up for shabbat. They had no resources. I remember that. Her older daughters were beautiful, white, and blonde. They also survived the holocaust.

How would you describe a modern balaboosta?

All women are balaboostas! They organize the house, they teach, they give an example and put the order in the house. YOU ARE ALL BALABOOSTAS! I am sure you girls are balaboostas. Now the meaning is a bit different because there is help, but the head is always the woman who has to organize the house. There is saying that men are the head but women are the neck, without the neck the head does not move!

What is your favorite recipe to cook?

Gefilte fish! I will send you my recipe!

If you could give one piece of advice to future Jewish generations, what would it be?

To maintain the Jewish traditions, you have to carry them with you all of your life! My heart melts when I see my great grandkids saying the Kiddush on Friday nights with their little kipas on their heads. Tears come down my eyes, at that moment I have to remind myself that all the suffering was worth it, because they will continue the chain to future generations.