In Search of Light

“I understood that we were different, that we were considered as aliens — more correctly, enemy aliens and that there was a different set of rules for us.”

Martha Salcudean is ten years old when her childhood comes to an abrupt end. The war has been raging around her for years, but in Northern Transylvania, now a part of Hungary, the atrocities intensify with the Nazi invasion in 1944. Suddenly, Martha and her family are imprisoned in ghettos and surrounded by incomprehensible cruelty. As she and her family are lined up in front of a cattle car train, a split-second decision her father makes changes their fate in an instant — instead of heading to almost certain death in Auschwitz, Martha and her family become destined to be saved by Rudolf Kasztner, a man riskily negotiating with the Nazis. After the war, Martha returns home, only to be caught in the grip of a new Communist dictatorship. Martha’s journey In Search of Light takes her through the darkness of two oppressive regimes to the beginning of freedom in Canada, where she is finally able to choose her own path.

The Abel family after the war. From left to right: Martha's sister, Eta, her mother, Sari, her father, Ödön, and Martha. Cluj, Romania, cira 1946.

The End of My Childhood

After the Nazis took power, they confiscated part of our house and gave it to German army officers, including a number of SS. Once, a German officer told my father, “Herr Doktor, wir haben das Krieg verloren.” (Doctor, we have lost the war.) My father was absolutely terrified. He couldn’t say yes and he couldn’t say no; he didn’t know how to react because it could have been a provocation. Remember that this was 1944, late in the war, so some soldiers might have realized that the war was not going all that well. But Hitler’s propaganda was extremely powerful and effective nonetheless.

At one point, the German officers told my mother and father that they wanted to have a party in our house and that my mother should cook for them and my father should help with the cleaning. My parents were not allowed to leave, and they were very afraid that the soldiers might get drunk, and then God knows what might happen. My parents told me to leave the house and stay overnight with some friends, and they also told me that if the officers killed them that night, I should go to a certain person who would help me. I still remember vividly that, at ten years old, I did not cry; at this point I felt like I was an adult looking at the world the way it was, not the way it had looked in my childhood dreams.

In early May, the second of the month, a high school teacher, an ethnic German, came and knocked on the window of our house and told my father that the next morning we were going to be taken away. There was nowhere to go, there was nowhere to hide, and so we just got up and packed during the night. But before getting to this point, the preceding months had been so terrifying that I don’t actually remember when I grew up. I just knew that over a period of a few months, I was no longer a child.

Indeed, on the morning of May 3, 1944, members of the Hungarian csendőrség (gendarmerie) came to our house, forced us to unpack and take less than we had planned — allowing for only one change of clothes — and put us in a truck to be carried away. In the truck, an officer noticed that my parents still had their wedding rings on and said that they were not allowed to keep them. My dad then took off my mother’s wedding ring and his own and threw them on the road. Interestingly, and very touchingly for me, these are the only things that survived from all our belongings. Everything else disappeared, but my parents found the two wedding rings in an envelope at the city hall when we got back.

The gendarmes took us to a ghetto in a brick factory some distance out of town, where, among the Jews, they were two of three medical doctors. When we got there, an SS officer took out his gun and, holding it against my parents’ heads said, “Well, if somebody escapes, I am going to shoot you, or you, or you.” I watched that, and the image is still vivid in my mind. But nobody had a chance to escape. It was just another way to terrorize us.

About the Author

Dr. Martha Salcudean was born in 1934 in Cluj, Romania, and immigrated to Canada in 1976. She was a professor at the University of Ottawa and head of mechanical engineering at the University of British Columbia. She has received three honorary doctorates and a number of prestigious awards and honours. Martha Salcudean is professor emeritus at UBC and lives in Vancouver.

Martha’s memoir is available for purchase here.