With one hand motion of Josef Mengele pointing her to the right, Margit Rosenthal was sent to Freudenthal, a sub-camp of Auschwitz in 1944, where she worked at a cotton factory. The only one in her immediate family to survive the Shoah, 89-year-old Margit is now surrounded by her many descendants, and continues to live independently in her Brooklyn apartment with support from the Claims Conference.
Margit grew up in Zsurk, Hungary as one of six brothers and sisters. Her father had a general store on the main floor of their home in the village, where the family’s non-Jewish neighbors were customers and Margit’s schoolmates. She was 17 when the Nazis invaded in March, 1944.
Margit recalled when word came, just after Passover, that the Jews would be deported to the Kisvarda ghetto. “There was a phone call – all the Jews have to stay in the house,” Margit said. “My mother was up all night, cooking and baking, and the next day we were taken to the ghetto. We lived in one room. The day after Shavuot they put us in the wagon to deport us. My father saw someone he knew, who told my father to stay out (of that wagon) so he could have a couple more days of freedom. I never saw him again.”
When Margit and her family arrived at Auschwitz, Mengele met her transport. The Nazi doctor “pointed to me and then to the right,” Margit recalled somberly. “I looked at my mother. He did it again. I looked at my mother again. The third time, he grabbed me and pushed me to the right. He had selected me to work. My mother was standing with my siblings. We didn’t say goodbye. We didn’t know what was going on.”
Margit was sent to the forced labor camp Freudenthal, a sub-camp of Auschwitz. There, she and about 350 other women worked at cotton looms. From bits and pieces of peach-colored cotton thread that dropped on the floor, and a pair of knitting needles she found, Margit made herself a long slip, which she now keeps wrapped up in protective tissue paper in her Brooklyn apartment. She made another, for a supervisor at the camp, who gave her bread in return.
The Nazi guards at Freudenthal were cruel, Margit recalled. “One day, I found a raw potato, and I made for myself a sandwich, with margarine – 2 pieces of the potato with margarine inside. The SS guard, a woman, saw it. She said, ‘You are eating that?’ She got angry and slapped me, and threw it away, and said I wouldn’t eat that day.”
After liberation, Margit went to live with cousins who had also survived. She was able to come to the United States when another cousin, who had lived in the U.S. for several decades, sent her a student visa.
She married Herman Rosenthal, also a Holocaust survivor from Hungary, in 1950. Herman opened a clothing factory, where Margit worked until he died in 2003. She has four sons and a daughter, numerous grandchildren, and she laughed when asked how many great-grandchildren she has. The newest member of her family is a great-great-grandchild. “That is what I live for,” Margit said.
Margit receives assistance from the United Jewish Organizations (UJO) of Williamsburg and North Brooklyn, funded by the Claims Conference, which helps her to stay in her Brooklyn apartment. She receives Meals-on-Wheels food packages daily, and a housekeeper comes three times a week. “It’s also a help for my children that they don’t worry” about me, she said. The exercise class she attends every day at the local senior center is also supported by the Claims Conference.
Margit receives a compensation pension from the German government, negotiated by the Claims Conference in 1952. And she received payment from the Program for Former Slave and Forced Laborers.
She visits her case manager, Goldi Jacobowitz, at the UJO offices every week. Sometimes she brings paperwork with which UJO staff members help. “Case management includes giving Mrs. Rosenthal assistance with city bureaucracy,” said David Katz, associate director of UJO.
Margit is grateful to UJO and to the Claims Conference for the help she receives, knowing that this assistance enables her to live at home on her own. “I admire and appreciate how these people are so good, and help us to survive,” she said firmly.