Klara's choice

by Ruth Nichol / 26 April, 2008
One Holocaust survivor's desire to start a normal life in New Zealand meant not talking about her time at the hands of the Nazis.

For more than 30 years Clare Winter never talked about her extraordinary experiences during World War II.

Just as she willingly relinquished her identity as Klara Galambos when a New Zealand immigration official changed her name to Clare in 1949 - "I thought, 'It makes no difference to me; from now on I am going to be Clare'" - so, too, was she determined to put her past behind her.

"I decided to start a completely new life at the bottom of the world, and I wasn't going to talk about my old life - that was finished," says Winter, who at almost 84 still has the same irrepressible smile as the two-year-old Klara in a photograph on the wall of her Wellington home.

"My past was pushed into the background, it was something I didn't want to touch. All those years I didn't want to think about it; I was having my jolly life here in New Zealand."

That included 33 "wonderful years" as a first violinist in the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Her colleagues were stunned when, at her retirement function in 1983, she revealed she had spent two months at Auschwitz-Birkenau, and two years as a slave labourer in a Nazi munitions factory. Even more shocking was that her parents and younger brother had been killed during the Holocaust.

"People asked why I hadn't told them. I said that if I had, I wouldn't have been able to live a normal life. It was so utterly strange they wouldn't have even understood it."

It was only at the insistence of her second husband, Otto Winter, that she began to think about and eventually write about her experiences. These form the basis of a biography being written by Sarah Gaitanos and expected to be published next year.

The process made Winter realise that, despite her silence, she hadn't forgotten what happened. It's a spellbinding tale of survival based partly on luck, partly on emotional fortitude and partly on Winter's willingness to take risks in apparently hopeless situations.

Her comfortable middle-class life as a young music student in Budapest came to an abrupt halt when Hitler invaded Hungary in 1944. Before the year was out, she and her Aunt Rosie were the only members of her immediate family still alive.

They had been corralled into a Jewish ghetto in the Hungarian city of Szombathely, endured the nightmarish train journey to Auschwitz, survived there for two months with almost no food, then were "selected" for transportation to a munitions factory in West Germany.

Rosie was central to her survival. From the moment the pair were separated from Winter's mother and younger brother by Josef Mengele after their arrival at Auschwitz, they were determined to stay together.

"I knew that if we were separated we could die, but maybe if we were together we could survive."

As is so often the case, it's the small manifestations of evil that have stayed with her most intensely: the unbearable stench that emanated from the two lavatory buckets that hundreds of people had to use on the train; the ashen-faced doctor who, after being summoned to help a woman in labour, returned to their cattle truck with the horrifying news that the newborn baby had been tossed into the woods.

"They didn't want any more Jewish children."

But there were moments of great humanity. At one point Winter was given a violin and became part of a group of entertainers who performed for German soldiers stationed at the munitions factory. One night, a German officer spoke to her in English: "He said to me, 'Hang on, girl, it won't last long.' I thought then that maybe I would survive."

Soon after, as Winter and her fellow workers were being marched along the road from the factory at the tail end of the war, a Hungarian soldier serving with the German army stopped and talked to them. "He told us to walk slowly, because the Americans were only two days away."

But it was music, rather than the memory of those small kindnesses, that was Winter's salvation in the ensuing years.

"It could have gone either way - I know people who just disintegrated," she says. "I think it was probably my violin. I had my violin and I knew that the violin and I, somehow, can make a new life."

There's no doubt that Winter is genuinely grateful for that new life, which began when she arrived in New Zealand as a refugee in 1949. She recently donated both her violins to the New Zealand School of Music, and set up two annual scholarships for violin students at the school, as a way of showing her gratitude. But she has no illusions that the Holocaust has taught us any long-term lessons.

"We have learnt absolutely nothing," she says firmly. "That is the tragedy of mankind. Tremendous upheavals happen and millions of people are being killed, people who have nothing to do with anything, and we never learn."

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