As part of Greenwood’s Holocaust Education Week, we had the honour of welcoming Holocaust survivor Mary Seldon. Mary spoke to the students about her experience in the Holocaust and the horrific hardships she had to endure.
Mary was born in 1936 in Debrecen, Hungary. Her family was Jewish by religion but considered themselves completely Hungarian. In 1944, everything in Mary’s life changed. The Germans invaded Hungary and her family was forced to wear yellow stars so everyone knew they were Jewish. Her father was taken to a labour camp and her mother was forced to make a list of all their assets so the Nazis could confiscate them. Not too long after this, Mary’s family received postcards from her mother’s side who lived in a small town in Hungary, saying they were on vacation. “We later found out that they had all been taken to Auschwitz, directly to the gas chambers, along with all of the other Jews from small towns,” Mary said.
By the time Mary was eight years old and her brother Andy was six, they had been moved with their mother to a Jewish ghetto in Debrecen. It was here they experienced their first bombing and had to hide in the cellar of their house to stay safe. It wasn’t until June 21st that the deportations from the ghetto started. Mary and her family were among the lucky ones. Their train was intended to travel to Auschwitz but ended up in Strasshof, Austria instead. They were told it was diverted because the tracks had been bombed but later found out the real reason was because one of Hitler’s top officials, Adolf Eichmann, made a deal with the Hungarian government and Jewish leaders that they could keep 20,000 Jews in exchange for goods needed for the war.
Mary was reunited with her father and uncle at the Strasshof distribution camp and the five of them remained together from that moment forward. Mary said “at one time, a Ukrainian guard wanted to separate Andy and me from my mother. When my mother wouldn’t let us go, he raised his whip to hit us and my mother grabbed his whip in mid-air. Miraculously, he let us stay with her.” Her mother was a strong woman who did what she could to protect them.
Shortly after arriving at Strasshof, Mary’s family, along with 30 other people, were selected by citizens to work as labourers in Vienna. They lived in large classrooms with bunk beds and they cleaned up the bricks from buildings that were bombed. Mary said this was one of the better places she stayed and she never remembered being hungry.
A few months later, as the Russians were nearing Vienna, the Germans forced thousands of Jews on a death march to Mauthausen. “We knew some of the people on the march tried to escape, but we never saw anyone make it. We walked a total of 165 kilometers in one week. I don’t know how long I was walking for,” Mary said. After a few weeks, there was overcrowding in Mauthausen. Mary and her family were forced to march again to another camp called Gunskirchen. “We later learned that the SS were preparing to kill us there as they couldn’t kill us fast enough in Mauthausen. Luckily for us, time had run out and the Allies were on the verge of victory.”
On May 5th, 1945, the Americans came to the camp and freed all of the Jews. Mary’s family was taken to Wells, Austria, to an American military hospital. After one month of being free, her father died at the age of forty-five from typhoid disease. This was extremely hard for Mary’s family because they had all been together through the camps. Out of her very large family, only nine of them survived. Mary ended up staying in Paris for a year until she got official permission to move to Canada, which she said “was the luckiest day.” In 1950, Mary moved to Toronto.
We would like to express our thanks to Mary Seldon for coming in to speak with the students about her experience. We are extremely grateful for her sharing this part of her lives with all of us.