WILMETTE – At 13, Harold Katz became a man in the most devastating way when he and his family were torn from their home in Czechoslovakia.
“The Nazis took us away before my Bar Mitzvah in 1941. The police put us in (trains) and took us to Poland,” said Katz.
Katz will fulfill his lifelong dream when he celebrates his Bar Mitzvah 76 years later on May 29 at Chabad of Wilmette. The festivities will begin on May 28 with a Torah Dedication Ceremony.
Rabbi Moshe Teldon said Katz commissioned the Torah that he’s donating on his 88th birthday.
“It takes about 11 months for a scribe to write each letter of over 300,000 letters in a Torah,” the rabbi said.
Katz’s daughter Lila Katz added, “The 613th mitzvah is to write a Torah, which is what Dad is doing.”
Katz was one of five brothers and four sisters. He and his older brother Maurie Katz were the only siblings to survive the Holocaust.
After Katz and his family were sent to Poland, his father took him, Maurie Katz, his sister, her baby, and family friends Shari Lansman and her brother Imre across the border to Czechoslovakia while his mother and the rest of the family stayed in Poland.
Along the journey, they saw a tailor and his family, who were the only remaining Jewish family in 1941, in a village in Czechoslovakia, because he made uniforms for the soldiers. Katz said he and his group stayed across the street from the tailor in a synagogue attic. Later the family and friends hid in a lumber truck in search of a safer destination. From there Katz and his older brother met up with Shari Lansman’s husband as they traveled to Budapest.
In Budapest, Katz lived with the Lansman’s grandparents, and he worked in the grandfather’s cap shop with his brother Maurie.
“Her family treated me like their own son,” he said.
During this time, Katz sent money and packages to help provide food for his family in Poland.
Lila Katz explained that in 1944, Maurie Katz wanted to go home for Passover, and that’s when he and the rest of the family were taken to Auschwitz.
“When the Nazis occupied Budapest in 1944, I decided to get false papers, but I got caught twice” and was sent to a concentration camp outside of Budapest, he said. At the camp, Katz worked for a Jewish barber giving haircuts and shaves to soldiers. He made his escape when he asked if he could unload the trains for the Germans.
He went back to Budapest and found the organization that gave him false papers.
While there, the resourceful 16-year-old brought food for the underground army.
When the Russians liberated Budapest in 1945, Katz said, that he and the other Jews in hiding were in the basement of the building where they lived, because of the bombings.
“I told the Russian liberators that I spoke Russian, so I worked with them as an interpreter.”
After the liberation, he went back home to see if anyone returned from Auschwitz, and learned that his brother was alive.
In 1947, while he and his brother were in Italy, their aunt and uncle responded to Katz’s ad in the paper, and sent them airplane tickets to Chicago.
When he was learning English he met the woman who would become his wife, Judy, an Auschwitz survivor. They married in 1949 and had three children: Jack, Larry and Lila. The Katz’s raised their family in Skokie, where he worked as a tailor and later owned Katz Construction Company.
Sadly, Judy Katz died from cancer in 2015 after about 65 years of marriage.
The Katz’s loved to travel, and one of Lila Katz’s most memorable trips with her parents occurred 18 years ago.
“I saw my dad reconnect with Shari Lansman, the woman who helped save him in Budapest,” said Lila Katz. “Before going with Mom and Dad to Budapest and Prague, I don’t think we really talked about his experience in the war. I think that our trip was a turning point for Dad that finally enabled him to open up.”
He looked at his daughter with loving eyes and said, “My daughter is my baby, my right hand, and after my wife passed away she has been helping me.”
With Katz’s kind disposition and innate goodness, it’s hard to imagine the atrocities he endured during the Holocaust.
Known for his generosity, below is a small sampling of donations he’s made throughout the years:
- Katz and another man were honored by the State of Israel Bonds in 1971 for raising $500,000 in one evening.
- He donated two ambulances to Magen David Adom in Israel.
- Various contributions to Chabad of Wilmette including the Jerusalem stone and a Torah.
“I wanted to donate a Torah in honor of my parents, my sisters and my brothers,” said Katz.
He also funded college educations for each of his eight grandchildren.
Katz said he never lost his faith in Judaism.
“No one could give me an answer about what happened. I’ll never forget that my father was such a religious man, and I’m following in my father’s footsteps,” he said.
A devoted family man, Katz is eagerly awaiting the arrival of his third great-grandchild. Katz recently celebrated his 89th birthday, and just passed his driver’s test.
He looks forward to the road ahead, with his family by his side.