With Mengele in Auschwitz.
After surviving the horrors of the Holocaust, Yantu Weisz lived independent and strong till age 109.
In 1944, Yantu Weisz was 35 years old when the Nazis entered the Hungarian town of Mezokovesd and rounded up the Jewish community. Yantu was herded – together with her sister and mother – onto a cattle car. The train chugged toward Auschwitz, with inhuman conditions of no food, water, or facilities.
Days later, the train pulled its weary and dispirited cargo through the notorious red brick gate. As the cattle car door opened, the first thing Yantu saw was a pair of shiny black boots. They belonged to an immaculately dressed soldier with a riding whip – the bespectacled Angel of Death, Yosef Mengele. Yantu and the others were quickly pushed into line where Mengele pointed his whip – to the right for slave labor, to the left for gas chambers and crematoria.
Though upset about being childless, that saved her life.
It was clear that Yantu's more elderly mother was destined for death, and the two sisters decided not to abandon her. In those perilous moments they were uncertain which sister will be spared, and which will accompany their mother to the gas chamber.
Because Yantu’s sister had a young child with her, she was automatically sent to the left with their mother.
Yantu was married for 10 years and childless. Though she’d been upset about not having children, it saved her life.
Yet prior to the fateful deportation, Yantu had become pregnant. As she stood in Mengele’s line, instructions were given for all pregnant women to step forward and “receive better care.” As Yantu was about to comply, another woman alerted her not to reveal the pregnancy: Being caught pregnant in Auschwitz meant certain death.
One night, after having been in Auschwitz for a few weeks, Yantu became very weak with abdominal pains. She went to the latrine and the baby slipped out.
Afterwards, Yantu received assistance from a Jewish nurse – perhaps the legendary Dr. Gisella Perl, a Hungarian prisoner in Auschwitz who was ordered to inform Dr. Mengele of any pregnant women in the camp. His evil intent: to perform cruel and excruciating “medical experiments.”
Yet Dr. Perl bravely defied these cruel orders. She would warn any pregnant woman of the life-threatening situation. Then, using no tools, anesthesia, bandages or antibiotics, Dr. Perl often saved the pregnant woman’s life – lovingly and compassionately performing an abortion… in the middle of the night… on the dirty barrack bunks.
(Dr. Perl survived the war and moved to New York City, where she specialized in infertility, making it her mission to bring life into the world, as chronicled in her autobiography, "I Was a Doctor in Auschwitz.")
Following the miscarriage, Yantu felt very sick and – against everyone’s advice – checked into the concentration camp “hospital.” There, Mengele would visit daily, walk around the beds, and point to those to be taken out and gassed. Miraculously, he never pointed at Yantu.
One evening, one of Yantu’s friends came to the hospital and told her to get up, as a transport was taking them to a better place. Yantu was very weak and told her friend to go on without her.
Not one person from that transport survived.
In the course of six months – first in Auschwitz, then in a munitions factory making bullets – Yantu endured the most horrific conditions – a Nazi tactic to make the Jews “subhuman.” Prisoners were given food only once daily – one small piece of bread and something to drink in the evening. Once, Yantu decided to save her bread for the morning as a way to have more strength during the day. She hid the bread under her head and in the morning it was gone – stolen! From then on, Yantu ate her bread immediately.
Whenever Yantu spoke about her Holocaust experience, she always said that no story, movie or book could adequately convey the sheer horror they endured.
Liberation and the New World
One day, all the Nazi guards ran away. Liberation! The war was over and Yantu survived due to physical strength and a tremendous determination to live. With humility, however, she did not regard her survival as commendable, saying that the finer, more genteel people died; only the tougher ones managed to survive.
Yantu's husband Azriel Chaim, despite suffering from diabetes, also survived the war, however in a weakened condition from which he never fully recovered. (When he died at age 67, the doctors said he was like 85.)
After the war, Yantu and Azriel Chaim returned to their hometown in Hungary, to see what remained. One of Yantu's sisters had gone into hiding in Budapest and survived. Additionally, two of Yantu's three brothers survived the slave labor camps.
Following the war, Yantu had difficulty getting pregnant again and suffered a few miscarriages – complications of her experience in Auschwitz. She was well into her 40s when two children were born, whom she referred to as "miracles." Her son, Rabbi Noson Weisz, is today a senior lecturer at Yeshivat Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem. Her daughter, Annie, lives in New York.
Religion was not allowed, and children were required to attend school on Shabbat.
For a few years, the Weisz family enjoyed the thriving Jewish community in Budapest – he with a government job and she as a seamstress. Yet when Hungary became a satellite of the communist Soviet Union, life became difficult. The open practice of religion was not allowed, and children were required to attend school on Shabbat.
The Weisz family wanted to leave – but the border was closed.
With the Hungarian revolution of 1956, the border opened again and Yantu insisted that they leave – so her children could grow up as proud Jews, not Communists. At the first opportunity, they escaped to Vienna, where they applied for exit visas to Israel, USA and Canada. The visa for Canada came first, so they immigrated to Toronto.
Within six months, the ever-adaptable Yantu was fluent in English and had reestablished her career as a successful, high-end dress designer who made wedding and evening gowns.
Yantu and Azriel Chaim Weisz
Independent and Strong
Yantu lived by herself in Toronto until age 102, working as a seamstress and remaining independent the entire time. She described work as “the best medicine for whatever bothers you.”
"Her independence was more important to her than anything," says her son, Rabbi Weisz. “Her eyesight and mental faculties remained sharp until the very end.”
Yantu wanted her son to be a doctor, but he wanted to be a rabbi. So concurrent with yeshiva studies, he attended University of Toronto night school, earning degrees in microbiology and in law. “My mother then wanted me to go to graduate school, so I consulted with the great Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, who said: 'She is a Holocaust survivor. Do what she asks,’” says Rabbi Weisz, who earned a Masters in Political Science.
“I want to be buried with a coffin made of my sewing machine.”
Though the children never knew their grandmother who perished that day in Auschwitz, she was a strong presence in their life. "My mother always followed in my grandmother’s ways and quoted her,” says Rabbi Weisz. “For example, my grandmother was a seamstress and said: 'I supported my family with my sewing machine, so I want to be buried with a coffin made of my sewing machine.' My mother was also a seamstress and the memories of her mother were never far."
Yantu passed away in April 2018 at age 109, bequeathing to 70 descendents a legacy of courage and goodness.
Rabbi Noson Weisz teaching at Yeshivat Aish HaTorah in Jerusalem.
"The Talmud says that someone who lives a long life can usually attribute it to a specific merit," says Rabbi Weisz. "My mother's outstanding trait was that if she could avoid it, she never took anything from anybody.”
When her son became engaged to a woman from a prominent, wealthy family, Yantu insisted on paying for half the wedding expenses. This was to the other family’s chagrin, as they could not countenance accepting money from a survivor who was eking out a living. The bride's parents had to come up with creative ways to assume as many expenses as possible since Yantu was always averse to "taking."
"If someone asked for tzedakah, she always gave. Even when people owed her money, she never asked for it back,” says Rabbi Weisz. “She always gave and never took. There aren't people like this around anymore."
Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance day, is Thursday May 2, 2019. That Thursday evening (Nissan 28) marks the first yahrtzeit of Yantu Weisz, may her memory be blessed.