“Get out, move,” Nazi and Arrow Cross soldiers shouted in German and Hungarian as they burst into the crowded four-story Swedish safe house in Budapest, Hungary, on Jan. 8, 1945. Marianne Klein — then 13 and called Marika Roth — had escaped to the house only days earlier. Shattering any illusion of immunity, the soldiers herded the residents onto balconies overlooking the building’s courtyard and ordered them to stand with their arms raised.
“People were shouting and screaming,” Marianne recalled. Suddenly, soldiers in the courtyard began firing. Marianne dropped to the floor, feigning death as bloodied bodies fell around her. After the shooting ceased, she lay motionless, even when a soldier kicked her sharply in the ribs to ascertain whether she was dead. “All I wanted was to survive so I could see my father,” she said. Later that night, convinced she was the only survivor, she sneaked down the stairs and made her way to a park alongside the Danube River, where she hid under a bush.
Marianne was born in Budapest on Nov. 24, 1931, to Erzsebet Weisz and Joszef Roth, a gambler by profession who afforded his wife and only child a comfortable life. Erzsebet, with her aristocratic aspirations, provided Marianne with a German nanny, piano lessons and excellent schooling. Marianne felt loved, although her parents’ marriage was strained and they separated when she was 6.
In early 1940, Erzsebet contracted tuberculosis. Ill and also fearing for Marianne’s safety amid increasing anti-Semitism, she placed her in a convent, where Marianne tried to adjust to the regimented life and teasing by other students. Gradually, she became familiar with Catholicism and took comfort in staring at the crucifix, identifying with Jesus’ pain. She was drawn to Saint Therese of Lisieux, who, like Erzsebet, had suffered from tuberculosis.
While Erzsebet had forbidden Joszef to visit Marianne, he occasionally appeared at the convent’s garden gate when the students were out walking. There, he and Marianne were able to chat briefly. Then one day, hearing how unhappy she was, he hoisted her over the fence to freedom.
When Erzsebet discovered that Marianne was living with Joszef, she moved Marianne to a children’s institution. But its owners were abusive, and, after a few weeks, Marianne escaped, returning to her mother.
Soon after, Erzsebet persuaded her father, Karoly Weisz, to take Marianne. She lived with Karoly and his 94-year-old father in a small, filthy room in the working-class neighborhood of Angyalfold, or Angels’ Pasture, where Karoly made Marianne do the cooking and cleaning and treated her with contempt. But Marianne’s great-grandfather was gentle and kind. When he died in his sleep on Dec. 9, 1940, “He took a piece of my heart with him,” she said.
By fall 1942, Karoly felt Marianne was too great a burden, so Erzsebet moved her to a Jewish orphanage with 200 girls. Now almost 11, Marianne enjoyed the purposeful environment, with school, chores and friends.
At Friday night services, Marianne, a choir soloist, was assigned a front-row seat in the balcony. From there she could see her father, who was forbidden to visit her but who attended the public services. He always hid a care package — cookies and a note — in the lobby for her.
On March 31, 1943, Marianne learned her mother had died. She felt an immense loneliness.
A year later, on March 19, 1944, German troops invaded Hungary, seizing the orphanage for offices. Marianne fled to her father. Three months later, they and all of Budapest’s Jews were forced to move into yellow-star apartments.
One night, German soldiers forcibly entered the apartment building where Marianne and her father lived, ordering the men and boys to line up in the courtyard. From her second-story balcony, Marianne threw kisses at her father, who returned them. Then she watched as he was marched away, recalling that he had recently promised, “No matter what happens, I’ll always come back to you.”
Soon after, Nazi soldiers rounded up the remaining residents in Marianne’s building, marched them to a nearby park and stole their valuables. Marianne slipped away after dark, eventually finding her way to the Swedish safe house.
After surviving the safe house massacre, curled up in the snow under a bush, Marianne woke to the sound of soldiers shouting, “Attention. Remove your shoes.” She heard people screaming and crying. Shots followed, then the sound of bodies splashing into the Danube River.
That night, Marianne hiked to her grandfather’s apartment in Angyalfold. But his apartment was boarded up and a neighbor informed her that her grandfather had been dragged outside and executed a week earlier.
With nowhere to go and the Russians bombing the city nightly, Marianne, calling herself Maria Nagy, made her way to a different shelter each night. Finally, she found a deserted fourth-floor apartment where she cut off her lice-infested hair, nursed her feverish body and subsisted on moldy bread.
Not long afterward, in mid-January 1945, she heard people shouting and dancing in the streets. Russian soldiers had liberated the area. A few days later, her scalp covered with scabs and her feet wrapped in newspaper, Marianne made her way back to Budapest, where she hoped to find her father. In the meantime, she stayed with her grandmother and other relatives, despite their inhospitality.
Marianne made regular visits to Budapest’s train station, where survivors were returning, and their names were posted at the entrance. Sometime in the spring, she learned that her father had been deported to Bergen-Belsen, where he died shortly before liberation. She remained in denial.
By November 1945, as Marianne came to accept that her father was not returning, and as she watched the Russians gaining political control, she knew she needed to leave Hungary. She joined a Zionist group, hoping to join the fight for independence in Palestine. After a stopover in Ulm, Germany, however, in an austere and crowded displaced persons camp, she instead moved to Paris in spring 1946.
There, Marianne, now 15, was accepted into a Canadian adoption program, and a year later, she traveled by ship to Montreal. But no adoption match materialized, so she was placed in foster care and sent to work sewing men’s shirts.
During this time, she befriended a boy she had met on the ship, a troubled lad named Frank. She became pregnant and, unwilling to give up the baby, married Frank in October 1948. Their daughter, Elizabeth, was born two months later and their son, Harry-Joszef, followed in May 1950. But Frank was uninvolved and increasingly abusive.
In 1953, having separated from Frank, Marianne moved to Toronto with her children, supporting her family by working as a waitress. Frank tracked her down a year later and demanded to visit the children in daycare, which Marianne had no legal right to refuse. He took them out for a walk one day and never returned.
Marianne hired an attorney to locate the children. She also worked on improving herself by reading and attending modeling school. Two years later, she learned that Frank had brought the children to the Jewish Welfare Bureau in Montreal, declared her an unfit mother and had them placed in foster care. Marianne was allowed to write to them and later to visit them. She returned to Montreal.
Her relationship with the children, awkward at first because they had been brainwashed by Frank, slowly improved. Finally, in 1963, when she was in a marriage-like relationship with a former boss, Robert Rossignol, and could be an at-home mother, she qualified for full custody.
But Robert gave up his fashion business and moved the family to a farm, where they struggled financially. He, too, began acting cruelly toward Marianne. Her children, Elizabeth and Harry, now in their 20s, moved out, and then Marianne left, as well, finding work in various hospital administrative jobs.
In 1978, Marianne moved to Los Angeles, where, over the years, she worked as a model for Juschi, a Beverly Hills boutique; as a special-events coordinator for Occidental Petroleum; and a director of membership for the Century City Chamber of Commerce.
In 1978, while taking creative writing classes at Beverly Hills Adult School, Marianne met Leonard Lipton. They remained together until his death in 2010.
After Leonard died, Marianne began volunteering weekly at UCLA Medical Center in Santa Monica. She also paints — her work was exhibited at Santa Monica’s Edgemar Center for the Arts in 2013 — and she has written scripts for two romantic comedies.
Now 83 with one grandchild, Marianne has written a memoir, “All the Pretty Shoes,” which was published in 2011 (alltheprettyshoes.com) and is available on Amazon (under the name Marika Roth). The book is meant to honor Leonard and leave a legacy for her children. But she doesn’t enjoy discussing her childhood tribulations.
“I prefer to look into the future than behind me,” she said.