by lyle e davis
You tend to cringe a lot when you hear 90 year-old Livia Szabo Krancberg describe the absolute horrors she survived before and during World War II.
Deported to Birchenau, the women’s unit of the Auschwitz Concentration Camp, when she was only 24 years old, watching her mother and her nephew being led off to be gassed to death on the first day in camp, seeing Dr. Mengele every Friday and, on average, three times weekly . . . watching people being sent to their deaths . . . and somehow . . . she continued to elude death. But just barely.
Today she lives in a modest apartment in San Diego, close to San Diego State University. She is alone now, her husband of 60 years, Dr. Sigmund Krancberg, passed away one year ago, on October 21st, 2008. He had been a professor in political science but had been afflicted for the past 10 years with Parkinson’s Disease. “I was his nurse, his wife, his friend, his dietician, I was everything . . . for 10 years. And then he died.”
A daughter, Beth, also has a Phd, in Philosophy; her other daughter, Shelley Lewis, graduated from San Diego State and lives in Carlsbad.
Even today, at age 90 (she just celebrated her 90th on October 13th), Livia is on the go. She lectures to schools, churches, any number of venues where she can tell her story of surviving the Holocaust. The essence of her message deals with how hate can change a people, how it can destroy a people, how it can destroy not only the victims but the perpetrators of those hate crimes.
To understand Livia and her story it is important to begin at the beginning. She was raised in Sziget, Romania, in the northern part of Transylvania.
During the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, Franz Josef had allied with the Germans. Following the war, at the Treaty of Versailles, the Austrian-Hungarian Empire was given to different nations. All of Transylvnia which was part of Hungary was given to Romania following WWI. During World War II, Hungary once again allied itself with Germany. In 1940, the northern part of Transylvania was given to Hungary by Hitler, so in 1940, Livia became a Hungarian Jew.
Livia had been born a Romanian Jew. She spoke Romanian as her mother tongue but after the transfer of her part of the country to Hungary, she also had to learn to speak and read Hungarian.
Learning a new language was not difficult for Livia. She was an outstanding student; so outstanding that she eventually became a professional tutor for other students. She was such a strong student she earned a four year scholarship to high school Additionally, she became a paid tutor for other students. This career as a tutor was eventually to almost cost her her life.
The high school system in Romania was greatly different from what we know as a high school. There, you had to have eight years of high school and the progression began in the fifth grade. Further, you did not just matriculate into high school. You had to pass entrance exams just to get into high school. All teachers in high school had to have a doctorate. More often than not it was either students whose parents had money . . . or students who were exceptionally bright and earned scholarships. Livia was the latter.
If accepted into high school, the student was then presented with what we in America would judge to be university courses. Chemistry, physics, algebra, geometry, calculus, Latin, German, French, English, - a challenging curriculum. Livia would study for eight years in French, four years in German, four in Latin and two in English. Yiddish, of course, was her native tongue.
Livia was such a good student that she soon came into demand as a paid tutor for other students. She would even arrive a half-hour early so she could tutor the other students. Three of them were Gentiles.
All was going fairly well. It was still a rough life financially, but she managed, by rotating from relative to relative, to have one meal a day at each home. She would sleep at the homes of the children she tutored and would receive one glass of milk for breakfast. Often, one of the children she tutored would swipe a loaf of bread and give it to Livia. With this loaf she would cut thin slices and have a slice with her morning milk, with her only full meal of the day, and in the evening. Obesity was never a problem with Livia.
In spite of this Spartan type lifestyle, relatively speaking, Livia was better off than a lot of others who were not as academically bright as she was. Then, in 1937, a strongly anti-Semitic atmosphere quickly developed as a new political party assumed power. Suddenly, Livia’s life had changed for the worse. She was met at the schoolhouse door by her classmates, former friends, or so she thought. They would throw her books on the floor and demand, “pick your books up, Jew dog!”
Livia had been tutoring three Gentiles in the class and in the neighborhood. Even they turned on Livia and harassed her and insulted her. However, in only about six weeks the new politcal power suddenly lost power. Now, the chickens came home to roost. “Oh, Livia,” her classmates would say, “we were so wrong. Please forgive us.”
A reluctant accommodation was reached and, within her heart, Livia never forgot . . . though she tried to forgive. Things settled down for awhile but then, in 1940, the Hungarians came in and reoccupied Transylvania, with Germany’s support.
Livia’s father had emigrated to the United States in 1938. An older sister had sponsored his emigration. The father had worked hard to earn the money and prepare the necessary documents for the rest of this family to emigrate. He made the necessary arrangements and sent the paperwork to Romania for his wife and eight children to emigrate.
The Minister in charge of immigration soon posed a major problem. The mother’s papers were in order and she was free to emigrate along with one child who was under 21. The remaining children, all over 21, however, were not. They would have to remain behind, fill out all new papers, and, if and when approved, perhaps would then be able to follow the family.
Livia’s mother declined, not wanting to separate the family. An older brother had already emigrated to Israel, and an older sister was already in the United States. In declining the opportunity to emigrate, Livia’s mother had sealed her death warrant. In 1942 there came down an order to conduct a special pogrom that would require 400 Jews from Livia’s hometown to be scheduled for execution in three days.
To her great horror, Livia was one of the students selected to be included in this pogram by none other than one of the Gentile students she had tutored.
As it happened, there was a Gentile boy, the brother of the girl who had turned Livia in, who was in love with Livia. Livia, however, was in love with another boy. Nonetheless, the love-struck boy arranged for Livia to escape from the doomed 400. That Gentile boy would later die during the war. He did, however, save Livia’s life.
Her freedom was short-lived, however. On May 24, 1944, the Germans came and took Livia’s mother and all the remaining children out of their home and forced them onto prisoner trains headed for Auschwitz. They were shipped, along with many other Jews to Auschwitz.
Read the chilling account of this brave lady's life by going here: