READING PEOPLE TO SURVIVE
Suzette Dutch grew up hearing her Hungarian parents' stories of how they survived the Holocaust. What she understood from their survival stories is the importance of being able to "read people." As she explains in her interview, "My parents navigated treacherous and awful experiences -- using judgment and instincts -- a combination of right and left brain to make life-saving decisions under the worst of circumstances. These circumstances included near starvation, inhumane treatment, being surrounded by those in power who hated them for their identities, and seeing those they care about die around them."
When asked how he survived through several labor camps, Suzette's father cryptically responded, "I found ways."
Suzette's mother shared many traits with him. They both had "strength and optimism," according to Suzette. They also had a way of relating their experiences by downplaying the violence and horror. They "emphasized their survival, not their victimhood. Not the cruelty of what was done to them, but how they reacted." Suzette is deeply grateful for her parents' spin on their ordeals, as it has allowed her to grow and thrive in a loving environment. She was not shielded from the facts of their Holocaust ordeals, but was presented with an approach that was easier to digest.
Suzette, pictured above, exudes pride in her parents. Her mother, born Katie Weiss, was a happy 13-year-old when the Nazis took over Hungary. Living in Budapest, Katie survived for a while by taking the identity of a 15-year-old non-Jewish girl who had died. She had this girl's identity papers and, since she was passing as a non-Jew, was not wearing the yellow star.
She was eventually captured when she spotted a Jewish friend of hers and went across the street to greet her. While they hugged, a Hungarian Arrowcross (a member of the Hungarian military) saw them and found it suspicious that a girl without a yellow star would be hugging a girl with a yellow star. He demanded her papers and upon seeing a typical Hungarian non-Jewish name on her fake ID, wanted to know how she knew a Jew. When she responded that they'd gone to school together, he concluded that she must be Jewish too and sent them both to register for Auschwitz.
Ironically, this precipitated the first meeting between her parents. As their names were being taken down, Katie noticed the man registering them and said to her friend in Hungarian, "What a shame that he's a German, he's really good-looking."
After he had registered them, this man said, in Hungarian, "Well, you're not bad-looking yourself. I'm a Hungarian Jew." This was the first contact between Suzette's father, who was 23, and her mother, who was 13 posing as 15. Her father's sense of humor was evident from this first encounter.
Suzette recognized that his sense of humor got him through many tough situations. She recalls her father telling funny stories that mocked his German captors, painting them as Hogan's Heroes-type caricatures. He was also able to read people and situations. When volunteers were needed for a job, he would assess if that job would give him an advantage. For example, he reasoned, working on a bakery truck might allow him to eat broken pieces of bread.
He was also unafraid to act. When he saw that the Germans were sending Jews from his slave labor camp to the Russian front, he dropped an anvil on his foot to break it so that he would not be sent.
Suzette's uncle - her mother's brother - was a true case study in bravery. As a teenager when the Germans invaded Hungary, he beat up a German officer in Budapest and stole his uniform. He was then able to move freely in and out of the ghetto, where his sister Katie was imprisoned. He spoke fluent German as well as English so could pass as an officer and managed to save many people. Once, when Katie got in trouble for some petty offense, he grabbed her and pretended to take her somewhere to punish her, thus saving her. He also managed to get papers for their mother so that she could stay in a "protected house" in Budapest while he was working in the Underground.
When Katie arrived at Auschwitz, she was fit and healthy, as she had been a competitive swimmer. The notorious Mengele was waiting to look over the new arrivals. Someone on the train had given her a tip -- in front of Mengele, don't look and act small. Act big and strong as you will then be needed for work and will have a chance to survive. Her mother sensed the correctness of this advice and was spared.
Out of her block of 80 in Auschwitz, she was among only 8 who survived, despite having contracted pleurisy and tuberculosis there. Weighing 140 pounds when she arrived, she weighed 80 pounds when liberated. The next stop for her was a Displaced Persons Camp.
Suzette's father, after liberation, was also in a DP camp, albeit a different one. He needed dental work, to which he was entitled, and the DP camp in which he was living did not have a dentist. Told that a nearby DP camp had a dentist, he went there, and coincidentally, it turned out to be the DP camp where Katie was living. Katie's friend with whom she had been arrested spotted him at the camp and raced to report it to Katie. They had found each other!
After leaving the DP camp, Katie headed back to Budapest, where her mother had remained. While there, she heard about a Canadian program that would bring girls ages 16 to 18 to Canada. By the time she found out about the program, she had just turned 18. Somehow, however, with the confusion over her true age, she managed to get in and was on her way to Canada.
Katie's mother -- Suzette's grandmother -- opted to remain in Budapest then but immigrated to the United States later, in 1956, escaping the Hungarian Revolution. Katie's brave brother, who also survived, had emigrated to Paris with his pregnant wife upon leaving a DP camp because his wife refused to give birth to a child in Germany.
Suzette's father, meanwhile, had signed up to be a woodcutter in Australia. When he found out that Katie was going to Canada, he decided to try to get into the United States to be closer to her. When representatives from HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) visited the DP camp, he asked them which city in the United States had the most Jews. When they told him New York, he asked for a New York telephone book.
His guts and perseverance saved the day. He wrote to everyone with the last name "Dutch" and told the truth -- that he knows they are not relatives but he is in love with this girl and wants to be near her and he is willing to do any kind of work. One family agreed to sponsor him. They owned a lamp factory and he worked there.
Katie was now living with a family in Canada who had become very fond of her. They eventually offered to bring Suzette's father to Canada and they made the couple a wedding.
At first, the newlyweds, pictured above, lived in Philadelphia, in a non-Jewish area. Suzette grew up there until she was nine. She did feel different there as everyone else seemed to be Catholic. Katie never hid her feelings about the horror of antisemitism, as evidenced by her outspoken reaction to a comment from the delivery man from the dairy company that delivered their milk. When he remarked that the neighborhood is being ruined by all these "dirty Jews," she told him that she is one of those dirty Jews and intended to report him. She was relentless in her contact with the dairy company and did manage to get that man fired.
When Suzette was nine, the family moved to a more Jewish area and Suzette made good friends there. Without realizing it, she gravitated to other 2Gs. The girl who became her best friend had parents from Lithuania, who had experienced a terrible time.
Suzette's mother always said that it is important to talk about what happened so that it should not happen again. However, there was a point beyond which her mother could not talk. Suzette described this as a "push-pull" -- her parents would tell her some things but not the really traumatic experiences. Suzette calls that "selective memory" and she learned to ascertain when a painful memory was crossing the line in her mother's mind.
For example, her mother liked all dogs except German Shepherds. She would cross the street to avoid a German Shepherd. Suzette knew enough about concentration camps to not need to ask about that.
Katie also could not stand to hear babies crying. She would turn pale and would not speak, and often had to leave the room or she would totally break down. It was a friend of Katie's who had also been in Auschwitz who provided Suzette with an explanation for this.
"Remember the babies," this friend said. It turns out that women inmates who came in pregnant and gave birth in Auschwitz would try to hide the babies from the Nazis. If the Nazi guards found a baby, they would kill him/her or torture the child in front of the mother in horrible ways. The mothers would resort to stifling their babies' cries by stuffing newspaper into their mouths, and this often killed them by suffocation.
This was not a memory that made it into the "selective memory" shared with Suzette. At some point, both of Suzette's parents participated in Steven Spielberg's Project Eternity. Through that, Suzette heard more than she knew they wanted her to hear. It forced her to ask herself: "Would I have survived? Would I have had the ability to navigate that world?" It also led her to appreciate her parents' selective approach to relaying their experiences to her.
Suzette had friends whose parents were American, and her mother was keenly aware of the differences between European and American parents. When one of Suzette's friends made a scene in a store and screamed at her American mother because the mother refused to buy her something she wanted, Katie was horrified at this disrespectful behavior. Respect for elders and table manners are valued in European families, and Katie lamented their absence in the American families she saw. Suzette's upbringing was very different from that of her friends with American parents.
"I was over-protected," she says. There was always the "fear that something would happen." Because of this, she was never allowed to sleep over at anyone's house.
Because her mother had had no childhood, "she lived my teenage years vicariously," Suzette explains. Growing up, Suzette willingly shared her experiences with her mother and did not resent her mother's extreme involvement in her life. While friends would point out that Suzette's mother was "over-involved," Suzette felt no resentment. She understood her mother's sense of loss and felt that if she could bring her mother joy by telling her about her teenage life, she was happy to do that.
After Suzette married, she and her husband planned to move to Cincinnati for a job opportunity. Her mother was so upset that her daughter would no longer be nearby that when Suzette suggested they move as well, they did. Her mother was certain that at her age, she would not make any new friends there. However, as fate would have it, once in Cincinnati, she attended a theater performance with Suzette and heard a woman behind them speaking Hungarian. When the two women got to talk after the performance, they found out they had been in the same block in Auschwitz, although they had not known each other. A new friendship was formed.
In Cincinnati, Suzette joined a Children of Survivors group. In 1992, she traveled to Hungary with her parents. They had both been happy there before being deported and had positive memories, so they felt ready to visit. At the home where Katie had grown up, a man was outside. It turned out, ironically, that this man remembered Katie's mother. This trip provided Suzette with another example of her mother's strength and protectiveness, as it turned out her mother had cancer then and had kept it a secret. Only after the trip did Suzette find out.
The issue of inherited trauma is personal to Suzette as her daughter suffers from it. Research, she points out, does indicate that changes to the genetic makeup sometimes do occur, and this can skip a generation. Suzette's daughter, who is named for her grandmother, whom she has never known, woke up one night in a horrible panic. She was 29 or 30 then, and she cried uncontrollably because she actually felt the losses her great-grandmother had experienced. During that traumatic night, the daughter's description of her sense of loss exactly tracked the great-grandmother's losses. She has the "vigilance and sensitivity" Suzette's grandmother had, Suzette explains. "She actually FELT the experiences," she emphasizes. "She felt the ancestral pull, and has the ability to sense danger."
Suzette's daughter has dedicated her life to healing from trauma, and has found a career helping others heal.
Suzette is now "aghast" at Holocaust denial. She believes more should be done to get more schools to visit Holocaust museums. Another solution she suggests is mandating that perpetrators of hate crimes receive some type of education "in order to see the humanity in others."
Suzette is aware of how much she has received from her parents. Because her parents had a knack for reading people and situations -- a knack which helped them survive -- Suzette claims that she has picked up this ability, and she considers that a tremendous advantage in life. Another gift is the talent and drive for competitive swimming. Suzette as well as her children became competitive swimmers, as her mother had been.
A surprise gift from her mother came in the form of a letter Katie had written when she had given birth to Suzette, and which she presented to Suzette when she gave birth to a daughter. In this letter, she expressed her fear for her baby. Apparently, the Nazis had administered shots to the women in Auschwitz so that they would not menstruate, and since the experiments Mengele had performed on twins was on Katie's mind, she worried that her baby would be born a monster. She was keenly aware that "things could go wrong." Expressing her love for her baby, she wrote: "I pray I have the wisdom to know this is your life and not my life continuing." Suzette was always aware of her mother's respect for her choices.
When it came time to select a career, Suzette knew she could not bear to work in any field where a mistake could cost a person's life. If she had become a physician, she explains, she could not live with knowing she had made a mistake that cost a life. She also eliminated the career of attorney because a mistake as an attorney could cost someone their freedom.
"I think as a 2G, losses are felt deeply and I couldn't fathom being a part of that."
Suzette became a biostatistician. Does this career choice have any connection to her 2G background? In this field, the only thing a mistake can lose is money, and "I can always make that up." Aside from the obvious fact that she must be good in math, Suzette points out that "venture investing is very much more than the numbers. It entails assessing people -- the management teams who run the companies we invest in."
She explains, "I think my skill at that and my confidence in that skill came from how my parents navigated their Holocaust experiences." She is able to compartmentalize and to judge people and situations well.
She quotes words her parents always told her: " They can take away your possessions, but they cannot take away your learning and your experiences." Suzette lives by that mantra, taking her children and grandchildren to special places and cultural events and teaching them skills. This way, what they gain is surely more precious and long-lasting than possessions.
Suzette has clearly learned from her parents' example to turn a negative around so that it becomes an advantage. It is surely likely that she is passing that on to her children and grandchildren as well.