As Kitty Byk shares the stories of her harrowing experience during the Holocaust in Austria, she laughs. She laughs as she describes lying in the yard of a work camp, staring up at the sky and listening to the whistles of bombs falling all around her. She laughs as she recounts hacking a cow to pieces and eating the raw shreds because she hadn’t eaten meat in ten years. Kitty’s ability to recall these traumatic events with laughter rather than tears or terror serves as a testament to her resilience. Hearing her speak is a moving, and also somewhat mystifying journey into the human spirit.
Kitty was 12 years old when Hitler’s Nazi party took over her hometown of Vienna, Austria in 1938. Her father was Jewish, and lost his job when race laws took effect and businesses were no longer allowed to employ Jews. When Kitty’s uncle, a WWI veteran, was sent to a concentration camp and executed, Kitty’s father realized he was in grave danger. Sponsored by a cousin living in the United States, Kitty’s father escaped from Austria in 1939, begrudgingly leaving his family behind. Because she had Jewish blood, Kitty was not allowed to attend school. She was told to report for work at a place that sewed army uniforms. Kitty was a hard worker, and did well, until one day when a large needle in her sewing machine slipped and punctured her thumb. The wound became infected, and Jews were not allowed medical care, so Kitty was forced to stay home. Because she was not working, she lost her food ration benefits.
Kitty explains, “Of course I hadn’t been getting any food on those days that I wasn’t working, so I immediately went back to the Labor Department when I was healed. The minute I got there, they took me and put me in one of their vehicles. They took me to the Siemens factory on the outskirts of Vienna. And that’s where I spent the next two years.” Kitty smiles as she remembers the other inhabitants of the work camp where she spent ages 14 to 16. It was a “funny group of people,” she recalls, consisting of French POWs, Czechoslovakian prisoners, a group of nuns who had been caught harboring Jews, and a few of what the Nazis called “undesirables,” Kitty explains, “including me, but also prostitutes and homosexuals.” The motley crew was sheltered in a warehouse with a makeshift wall separating the men and women, some uncomfortable bunks without mattresses, pillows, or blankets, and one toilet in a corner.
“Every morning we were marched out and inspected… and if we were found ready to work, you were ok. If not, you disappeared,” Kitty says matter-of-factly. Two years of grueling work manufacturing parts for V-2 rockets passed by, during which Kitty survived on a daily ration of one piece of bread, a cup of hot water mixed with milk powder, and a small cup of “mush” made from boiled vegetable peels. On days when fighting came close to the factory, the “undesirables” were not allowed to enter the air raid shelter, so Kitty often sat in the courtyard, watching the planes. “We would see the planes and we would make bets, because you can tell from the whistle of a bomb whether it’s going to land close to you or not.”
One morning in 1945, the prisoners lined up as usual, but no one came to inspect them. The group emerged from the barracks to find the camp deserted, the German soldiers having fled due to the advance of the Russian army. Kitty and a French POW friend decided to walk back to her hometown of Vienna— a trip that took two days. She arrived at her old apartment to find her mother gone, but most of the buildings on her street miraculously still intact. Russian soldiers occupied the city, “taking almost anything that wasn’t nailed down and shipping it off to Russia,” Kitty says. “We had no electricity, and food was almost impossible to get.” The next few years involved both amusing and heartbreaking tales of survival, including working for the Russians at a leather factory, hiding from soldiers to avoid being assaulted, moonlighting as a magician’s assistant in an embarrassingly skimpy costume to earn money, and tumbling into a bomb crater and badly wounding a knee on the way to the country to beg farmers for food. “War is terrible,” Kitty muses, “but the aftermath for a conquered city is much, much worse. When I’m asked what we ate, I always say, ‘You don’t want to know, but this I can tell you. There were no cats, dogs, squirrels, pigeons or even crows alive in the end.’”
In May of 1946, just after her 20th birthday, Kitty received a letter from her father. He had remarried and wanted Kitty to join him in the United States. Immigration laws allowed her to travel as a dependent only as long as she was under the age of 21, so Kitty hastily made the decision to leave her mother in Vienna and make the journey. She joined a transport of concentration camp survivors on a freight train to Bremerhaven, encountering harsh winter conditions without food, heat, or toilet facilities. Crossing the Atlantic on a freight ship, she endured storms and the violent seasickness of nearly all on board, before finally arriving at Ellis Island to meet her father.
Kitty’s story is so vast and rich in detail, it is almost impossible to capture it in print. Whether time has softened the sting of her suffering, or circumstances necessitated fortitude that not many of us cannot imagine, Kitty insists, “I must say that I wasn’t scared at all… pretty much the whole time. I guess I’m just lucky that way.”