The Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program

Martha Salcudean

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Born
February 24, 1934 Cluj, Romania

Map of Mukacevo, Czechoslovakia

Immigrated
1976 Vancouver

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.

About Martha

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.

Photos and Artifacts

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    Martha’s parents, Sari (Charlotte) and Ödön (Edmond) Abel, soon after their marriage. Chiochiș, Romania, circa 1930s.

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    Martha’s father, Ödön. Chiochiș, Romania, date unknown.

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    Martha, age two, with her father in Chiochiș, Romania, the village where she grew up. Circa 1936.

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    Martha, age five. Chiochiș, Romania, 1939.

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    Martha at approximately age seven, after her family moved to Szamosújvár, Hungary (previously Gherla, Romania). Circa 1941.

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    Documents from the police division in Bern, Switzerland, confirming that Martha’s parents, Charlotte and Edmond, are Romanian nationals who fled from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and entered Switzerland as refugees on December 7, 1944. Bern, Switzerland, June 12, 1945.

  • Martha Salcudean larger image and caption

    Documents from the police division in Bern, Switzerland, confirming that Martha’s parents, Charlotte and Edmond, are Romanian nationals who fled from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and entered Switzerland as refugees on December 7, 1944. Bern, Switzerland, June 12, 1945.

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    Martha with Paulus Geheeb, the director of l’École d’Humanité, on a hike in the mountains. Switzerland, circa summer 1945.

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    Paulus Geheeb surrounded by children at l’École d’Humanité. Switzerland, 1945.

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

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    Martha, second from the left, with her family. Cluj, Romania, circa 1948.

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    Martha and her husband, George, soon after their wedding. Cluj, 1955.

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    Martha and George’s son, Tim, at ten months old. Cluj, 1958.

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    Martha, George and Tim. Cluj, 1958.

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    Martha and George. Ottawa, late 1970s.

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    Martha with her mother, Charlotte, and her son, Tim. Ottawa, 1978.

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    Martha and George. Ottawa, circa 1983.

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    Martha receiving an honorary doctorate from the University of Ottawa, 1992.

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    Martha and George on the occasion of Martha being awarded the prestigious Killam Memorial Prize in the field of engineering. Vancouver, 1998.

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    Martha and George celebrating her induction into the Order of British Columbia, the highest distinction given by the province to a citizen. Vancouver, 1998.

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    Martha (left) with Martha Piper, president of the University of British Columbia, on the occasion of her being recognized with an honorary doctor of science degree from the university. Vancouver, 2001.

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    Martha being awarded the honour of Officer, Order of Canada, by then Governor General Adrienne Clarskon. Ottawa, 2004.

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    Martha receiving an honorary doctor of engineering degree from the University of Waterloo. Waterloo, 2009.

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    Martha’s son, Tim, her daughter-in-law, Pnina, and her grandchildren, Hannah (left) and Jake (right). Vancouver, 1999.

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    Martha with her family. From left to right: Martha; her son, Tim; her grandson, Jake; her husband, George; her daughter-in-law, Sandy; and her granddaughter, Hannah. Vancouver, 2012.

The Book

Cover of In Search of Light

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."

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In Search of Light

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.