‘After So Many Years Of What We Went Through, We Are Still Here’
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‘After So Many Years Of What We Went Through, We Are Still Here’

From Budapest to the camps to Queens, the Aratos define survivor grit.

Photos by Chrystie Sherman
Photos by Chrystie Sherman

This is a love story. It goes back more than 63 years to post-war Budapest, when Friderika Klein and Steven Arato attended night school after working long days in manufacturing. When Steven missed a class, he spoke to Friderika for the first time and asked to borrow her notes. Two years later, they got married. Now, at home in the Forest Hills, Queens, apartment where they have lived for more than 50 years, they still hold hands on their couch.

Looking back on their early times together, Friderika, known to most these days as Frida, says, “I loved him because he was so very nice to me. I didn’t have parents and we understood each other.” He says, about seeking her out, “I have a very good eye.”

He is now 91, and she recently turned 89. She gets around with a rolling walker, which she calls her limousine, and he is about to get one too. They carry themselves with much pride and dignity.

They warmly greet visitors who have come to hear their stories of surviving the Shoah, and insist on first serving espresso. Although the retelling isn’t easy, they share their memories with candor. She grew up in an Orthodox family and was taken from her home in Fehergyarmat, Hungary, in 1944 to Auschwitz, along with her parents, brother, sister and her sister’s young children. Frida was the only one to survive. When they first arrived, she was carrying her sister’s baby in her arms, and her mother grabbed the child. Her mother, sister and the two children were murdered immediately, and her father and brother a bit later. She seems back in that moment as she rolls up her shirtsleeve to show the number tattooed on her arm. The ink is blurry and the digits are no longer legible, but she recites the number, 18546, with ease. “How can I forget it,” she asks. Steven reaches out to support her when she is describing the experience, whispering words of comfort in Hungarian.

She still dreams about Auschwitz and Ravensbruck and the other places where she was taken; nightmares actually. “All good places not to remember. This will never go away.”

After liberation, she worked for the Russian soldiers as a nurse and remembers the kindness of many of them, bringing her gifts like fruit, which was very special. Then she returned to Hungary and lived in a home for orphaned girls in Budapest and returned to her studies.

Steven, who was born in Paks, Hungary, was taken from his family in 1944 and sent to a forced labor camp in Bor, in what is now Serbia, where the prisoners mined the nearby mountains and did back-breaking work. He was freed by a group of partisans but most of the other men in the camp were murdered. He made his way back to Budapest to find that his parents were still alive, although not well.

While every story of the Shoah is unforgettable, their stories are striking in the details, and also in the resilient spirit of the Aratos. Their son Peter was born in Budapest, and they left for the United States when he was 9 years old. After a six-month waiting period in Rome, they arrived in New York, aided by HIAS. Frida had a stepbrother already here, who was about 30 years older and was like a father to her when they arrived. Steven, who was a skilled glove maker, learned electrical engineering from a friend at night. After three months on his first job in New York, he became the lead engineer, even though he didn’t yet know English. He worked at Berkey Photo for 25 years and then at another firm before retiring.

Frida worked at CBS for 19 years as an administrator. When her department was moved to Florida, she was dispatched to train the new staff, and in a “once-in-a-
lifetime experience,” stayed in a sprawling private home with a pool, and the company brought Steven down to visit every other week. In recent years, she has learned to use a computer and sometimes participates in online classes.

Soon after arriving in New York, they traveled to Israel, which was their dream, and have been back to Budapest to see Steven’s brother when he was still alive and to visit the now-overgrown cemetery. They once had a wide social circle and enjoyed dancing, but they have outlived most of their friends and now have some trouble walking. One friend, also a survivor, lives in the building and visits every day. The Aratos go everywhere together.

Their handiwork adorns their home — she knits and has done works in petit point embroidery, and his photographs include streetscapes and candid shots. Near their entryway, two miniature dancing figures in folkloric dress are collaged of scraps of leather — from his former work making gloves — set on Hungarian trimmed postcards.

Their home is kosher, and Frida enjoys cooking Hungarian dishes as well as some Italian specialties she learned when they were living in Italy. Every Friday night, she lights Shabbat candles, remembering her family. And every week she talks with a cousin in Israel and a friend in Budapest, both survivors.

They are most excited about the anticipated birth of a great-grandson (and great news is that Hudson Meyer Hirsch was born since this interview, and he’s flourishing!) Their son and his wife, who live on Long Island, have a son and daughter, and the Aratos speak lovingly of their family. They also have six “adopted” grandchildren, the sons and daughters of Rabbi Yitzhok and Tzippy Wurem, former neighbors who visit, call frequently and help with shopping. Their photos too are displayed around the apartment. They do Havdalah together on the phone as each new week begins.

The Aratos express gratitude to Selfhelp Community Services, a New York City social welfare agency, which receives funding from the Claims Conference. Selfhelp provides them with a home health aide, and that helps them to continue to live independently in their Queens home. Also through the efforts of ongoing Claims Conference negotiations with Germany, the Aratos both receive Article 2 pensions, and each received payment from the Program for Former Slave and Forced Laborers. Frida also received a one-time payment through the Child Survivor Fund.

“It’s amazing. After so many years of what we went through, we are still here,” she says.

About remaining in their own home, she says, “Baruch Hashem,” Thank God. “I’m not going anywhere, as long as we are able to manage here.” She adds, “Most important, we are together.”

Claims Conference Aid To Selfhelp Is ‘Immense’

Funds from the Claims Conference enable organizations around the world, like Selfhelp Community Services, to assist Jewish Holocaust survivors with services such as homecare, case management, transportation, food and medication assistance, emergency cash assistance and socialization opportunities.

In New York City and parts of Long Island, Selfhelp assists more than 4,300 Holocaust survivors with enhanced case management, homecare, housekeeping, emergency financial assistance, and socialization/education programs with $17.5 million in Claims Conference allocations for 2018.

The impact of financial assistance from the Claims Conference is “immense,” said Hanan Simhon, vice president of Selfhelp’s Holocaust Survivor Program. “It’s 85 percent of our funding, providing help so survivors can stay at home living in safety and dignity. Without it there would be no program.” Most of the remaining funds come from UJA-Federation of New York.

This year, Selfhelp has embarked on a unique outreach program to find underserved survivors in the New York City area. “Our window of opportunity to help survivors is closing and we must all act now to ensure all survivors who need help are found.” 

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