Judita Hruza, the kind, articulate woman approaching 86 who shares a home in Johnson Bay with her husband of 59 years, Zdenek, never takes the view of the turquoise seas or the warmth of Caribbean sun for granted.
Born and raised in Czechoslovakia on the Hungarian border, Hruza was just a young girl when the events of the Holocaust — the genocide of approximately six million European Jews during World War II led by Nazi Germany — began to unfold.
“I was 19 when the Germans came, and my brother was 14,” Hruza said.
At the time, she and her brother were living with family friends in Budapest to continue their education after they were no longer allowed to attend school in Prešov.
“It was a real disaster when the Germans came because we were Jewish and wanted to be with our parents, but we weren’t allowed to leave Budapest,” she recalled. “But later we found out our parents were deported to Auschwitz and they were killed. We never saw them again.”
In October of 1944, the ultra-fascist Hungarian Nazi party began deporting Jewish women between 16 and 40 and men between 16 and 60 living in Budapest. While her brother was only 15, Hruza was sent off to a series of horrific death marches and camps at age 20.
“Our first death march was from Budapest to the Austrian border – that lasted about 12 days,” Hruza said.
Granted food every other day, Hruza recalled the sheer exhaustion that accompanied near constant marching and zero shelter from the freezing rain and frost.
“We tried and we tried to drag ourselves along, but we were sick,” she said. “We didn’t get any water, so we were drinking water from puddles on the road and we all had dysentery. But we had to go on — if we couldn’t go any further, we were shot on the spot.”
While many people died during Hruza’s first march, she made it to a working camp where she stayed for four months.
“It was winter, very hard to dig (trenches), but you had to or they would shoot you,” she said. “We were over 1,000 people there, men and women, and there were 30 of us in one tent. There was no heat, we were lying on the naked ground on top of frost and snow and we got food once a day.”
At the end of March 1945, the camp was evacuated and Hruza was led on another death march through Austria to Mauthausen.
“The march lasted 17 days, and during those 17 days, we got food four times,” Hruza recalled. “We were in the mountains and it was very cold — people were dying on the way, but if you sat down, you were shot.”
Hruza recalls being fed a meal on April 7, 1945 — some thick soup she ate immediately accompanied by one piece of bread she put in her backpack to save — before being led up a mountain where she witnessed a horrific massacre.
“We had to climb up a mountain and when we got there, we heard a lot of shooting — not like occasional shooting, but uninterrupted shooting,” she said, recalling what she saw as she reached the peak and began her descent on the spiraling downhill road. “The road in front of us was filled with bodies, dead or injured, and lots of blood.”
Hruza said the group immediately knew why they were fed — to gain the strength to climb up the mountain only to be illegally killed by the Nazis on the other side. She vividly recalls her stream of thoughts: knowing she would die, calling for her mother, never having the chance to see the ocean and longing for just a few more breaths.
But the shooting stopped and Hruza remained among the approximate 500 survivors who marched on to one of the fiercest Nazi concentration camps in history.
“The worst thing there was the hunger — it was so awful,” she said. “My brain changed with the hunger — I could just think of eating. I was starving and I felt it everywhere, not just in my stomach but in my bones. My entire body was screaming for food.”
Another three-day march to Gunskirchen found Hruza at the worst camp yet — hundreds died daily and she witnessed Cannibalism for the first time in her life. But just one week later, her horror ended. On May 4, 1945, the 71st Infantry Division of the U.S. Army liberated Gunskirchen.
“We saw the American jeeps and all those G.I.’s signaling us the peace sign and we didn’t know what it meant, but they called ‘hurrah’ and we called ‘hurrah’ and they were throwing us goodies,” she recalled.
Hruza caught a Hershey bar and still remembers the moment it her tongue.
“It was like a shock — something familiar from a long time ago and it was sweet and fragrant and it reminded me of my family and my childhood,” she said. “And I realized I am really free right now.”
A few days later, Hruza became infected with typhus and was picked up by a Red Cross medic and taken to the hospital for several weeks.
“It was a horrible illness, but my memories of it are wonderful because I was lying between clean sheets and people were taking care of me and I could relax and I didn’t have to march or conceal that I was sick,” she said.
Hruza and her brother were the only survivors in their immediate family – between 1942 and 1944 their parents, both sets of grandparents, and their uncle, aunt and 7-year-old cousin were killed in Auschwitz.
“It was much worse than going through it myself because at the end, I survived,” she said. “But coming home and finding out you are an orphan and all your family is wiped out, I cannot get over it. Not even now.”
Hruza went back to Czechoslovakia to attend medical school where she met her lifetime partner, Zdenek. They married in 1951 in Prague, had two children and were all living in New York by 1970.
Hruza, a pediatrician-turned-psychiatrist enjoyed 20 years working in the Manhattan State Hospital before retiring in 1992 to join her husband, a retired pathologist, in building their dream house on St. John.
“My life turned out pretty well,” she said. “Not only did I have the chance to see the sea, but now I even have a house somewhere I can walk to the sea.”
To this day, Hruza enjoys the things that often go unnoticed by others — she gets elated walking in the cold wind and rain because she knows she will be dry and warm in a few minutes, and she still carries a piece of bread in her purse every time she leaves the house — maybe out of habit, maybe to serve as a reminder of the security she has now.
As a Holocaust survivor, she also feels obligated to tell her story.
“Nothing makes me angrier than when people say it didn’t happen or that the Jews just made it up,” she said. “So as long as I can talk, I will be obsessed with talking about it to whoever wants to listen.”
Hruza will speak at Gifft Hill School on April 8 at 9 a.m. and at St. Thomas Synagogue on April 9 at 6:30 p.m.