February 15, 2019

Survivor: Gabriella Karin

Gabriella Karin (then Foldes) tightly clasped her Uncle Sandor’s waist as she traveled on the back of his bicycle along the back roads of Slovakia from Malzenice to Bratislava, a 40-mile journey. It was the summer of 1942, and the 11-year-old had been visiting her grandmother, who was living with a Christian family in Malzenice, when she became ill and needed to return home. Hours later, when the two arrived in Bratislava’s town center, Gabriella was shocked to see swarms of uniformed soldiers and police officers, as well as townspeople, crowding the streets. She and her uncle disembarked and began making their way to her father’s delicatessen, when a German soldier suddenly grabbed her. Gabriella’s uncle immediately took hold of her shoulders, yanking her free from the soldier’s grip. She dropped to the ground and began crawling through people’s legs, disappearing into the crowd and eventually reaching the delicatessen. “That was my most frightening experience,” she recalled. 

Gabriella was born Nov. 17, 1930, in Bratislava, then Czechoslovakia, to Arpad and Sari Foldes. 

Her maternal grandmother, Franciska Kulka, lived with them, caring for Gabriella while her parents worked at the delicatessen. “I really loved her,” Gabriella said. 

In March 1939, when Slovakia declared itself independent, persecutions of Jews increased and specific anti-Jewish measures were enacted.

Then, after World War II broke out Sept. 1, 1939, all Slovakian men were required to report to the army. Arpad promptly enlisted. But two weeks later, he and the other Jews were dismissed. “He was a proud Slovak. He was devastated,” Gabriella said. 

While Arpad was away, Sari felt unsafe and moved the family from their middle-class apartment to a one-room warehouse behind the delicatessen.

In fall 1941, when Gabriella could no longer attend school, her parents obtained false papers for her and sent her to the Ursuline convent school in Bratislava as a boarder. She didn’t see her parents during the school year and constantly worried about them, crying herself to sleep. Still, she was a good student. 

In June 1942, Gabriella’s mother brought her home, arranging for her to continue as a day student. During that summer, Gabriella traveled to Malzenice to visit her grandmother (who died of natural causes the following year).

Mass deportations of Jews began in March 1942. Sari, who worked with the Slovakian underground, received a daily list of families targeted for deportation each night and set off to warn the families. After Gabriella returned from Malzenice, she accompanied her mother. The visits were difficult. “You see them crying. And we knew they would not be there the next day,” Gabriella said. 

One night, five Slovak soldiers unexpectedly knocked on Gabriella’s family’s door,  each peeking in and then leaving. “I thought, ‘This is it,’ ” Gabriella said. A few minutes later, the building’s manager entered and explained that the soldiers had come by inquiring if any Jews lived in the building. He had told them there was one family, but they had been born Christian, which “made no sense,” Gabriella said. The Slovak soldiers had only wanted to see them.

In October 1942, Slovakia’s President Josef Tiso halted the deportations. A period of relative calm followed.

But by August 1944, Gabriella’s family was sleeping in an apartment owned by Karol Blanar, who was a lawyer and her aunt’s boyfriend and whose parents had hidden her grandmother. Gabriella’s aunt, two uncles and a family friend joined them in the one-bedroom apartment in the center of town. During the day, the adults worked.

Then, on Aug. 29, 1944, German soldiers entered Slovakia to quell an uprising by Slovakia’s resistance and instituted a new round of deportations. Gabriella’s parents, who learned the Nazis were looking for them, remained in the apartment. But the Germans never searched Karol’s apartment because, Gabriella later learned, the building’s bylaws specifically banned Jews from living there.

During the nine months of hiding, which Gabriella found oppressive, she spent 14 hours a day reading classic novels and history books. Occasionally she peered out through a tear in the black cardboard that covered the windows, and one day she glimpsed two Jewish girls she had known from the convent running from German soldiers, who chased them and pulled them into Nazi headquarters. 

By late March 1945, the Russians were bombing the city heavily. As the apartment building shook for seven days, Gabriella kept begging her father to go to the basement bomb shelter. Finally, it was time. As Gabriella headed down the staircase, a bomb whistled past their window, falling on the roof of the neighboring building and throwing Gabriella from side to side. The bomb didn’t explode, but a sharp piece of shrapnel flew in the window, landing two feet from Arpad.

The group joined some 100 people in the shelter. Six days later, they ventured upstairs. But the Russians now occupied the city, and two young soldiers came after Gabriella, who had returned to the apartment. Arpad told them to leave her alone, that she was only 10, but they ignored him. Gabriella’s uncle then appeared. He quickly assessed the situation and came back with 30 men from downstairs. The soldiers left. “My mother started to cry and couldn’t stop for days,” Gabriella said.

Six weeks later, the family returned to their apartment, finding all their belongings broken or stolen. The delicatessen was in similar condition, though Arpad retrieved an envelope with 500 korunas that he had hidden on a back shelf. The money bought them two weeks’ worth of groceries. 

Gabriella, who had lost no time academically because of all her reading, enrolled in a professional school for women’s occupations, earning a diploma in fashion design and business in just three years.

On Jan. 7, 1948, Gabriella met Frantisek (Feri) Lederer at a family party, and married him on Oct. 5, 1948. Soon after, the couple immigrated to Israel, arriving on Jan. 2, 1949. Gabriella’s parents followed two months later, and Feri and Arpad opened a machine shop, with Feri creating the first recycling machine in Israel.

Gabriella and Feri changed their surname to Karin, a name they liked, and Feri became Ofer just before their son, Rom, was born in September 1958. Two years later, the entire family moved to Los Angeles, arriving on Nov. 24, 1960.

Ofer worked in construction while Gabriella worked as a fashion designer until she retired, in 1992. Then, after just three weeks, desiring to do something different and three-dimensional, she began studying and making art professionally.

An exhibition of Gabriella’s sculptures is currently on display at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust (LAMOTH) through Jan. 23. The show also includes a documentary, “Gabriella,” by David Nonberg and James Geyer. 

In addition, Gabriella illustrated the book “Memories That Won’t Go Away: A Tribute to the Children of the Kindertransport,” written by Michele Gold and published in October 2014. 

Ofer died in 2013. Gabriella, now 84 and a grandmother of three, has been a speaker at LAMOTH since 2002 and a docent there since 2009. She has actively participated in Righteous Conversations — which connects students with survivors — almost since that organization’s founding in 2011, and this year she will accompany the Los Angeles March of the Living delegation for the fourth time.

Gabriella spent years searching for the family’s savior, Karol Blanar, who escaped from communist Slovakia in 1948. Finally, in 2001, she learned he had immigrated to the United States and died in Ohio in 1980. She nominated him posthumously to be named Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, and he was accepted on Jan. 26, 2006. She also had a headstone carved for his unmarked grave in Columbus, Ohio, and traveled there in 2010 with her grandson to install it.

Whenever Gabriella speaks to school groups, she leaves them with this message: 

“Even if you had a hard time in your life, you can still be happy. It’s up to you, nobody else.”