For the JC August 2020
When David Marks and Kathy Peck thought they might have to change their wedding arrangements because their rabbi would not be available, they suggested asking World Jewish Congress president Ronald Lauder to perform the ceremony.
That is because David and Kathy are not just any engaged couple. He has just turned 92 and is a Hungarian Holocaust survivor, and with the support and encouragement of Kathy, 70, he made his first return visit to Auschwitz in January this year, since being liberated 75 years ago.
The couple’s visit took place under the auspices of Mr Lauder’s Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Foundation. More than 100 survivors from all over the world attended an emotional dinner in Krakow, Poland, before going to the camp and showing their families where they had been imprisoned.
That visit to Poland helped establish a community of survivors which has continued to meet online during the coronavirus lockdown. Towards the end of last month, Mr Lauder hosted 60 survivors on Zoom to celebrate both David’s 92nd birthday and the couple’s engagement.
David, formerly David Markovits, is from a family of 12 children and arrived in Auschwitz in 1944, when he was just 15. On the day he arrived he saw 35 members of his immediate family sent to the crematorium. He was sent, by Joseph Mengele, in the opposite direction, avoiding immediate murder.
After liberation, David made his way to Palestine, but as an illegal immigrant was sent by the British to a camp in Cyprus, where he spent two years. Eventually he made it to Israel and served in its navy as a military policeman, before emigrating to New York in 1954.
Talking to David and Kathy is like speaking to giddy teenagers. They finish each other’s sentences and laugh and hug and kiss like those less than half their age. “We were neighbours for 10 years,” she says. “Close neighbours,” he says.
In fact, they lived two houses away from each other in Connecticut, in the US. After his wife died, David retired, handing over his furniture company to his three sons (his daughter lives in Israel). His companion, Lys, lived with him but she, too, died. He and Kathy grew closer, working together in the local Jewish Community Centre.
But Kathy thought they were “just good friends”, and was astonished when he asked her to marry him last year. She said she didn’t want to spoil a good relationship — “but he wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer”.
They were due to be married in June this year but the pandemic put paid to that. Instead, they have delayed their wedding until June 2021 so that their families — including David’s four children, 10 grandchildren and “almost two” great-grandchildren — can attend.
During the Zoom call last month, Mr Lauder told the couple: “I was moved by your love story and I could not miss celebrating this happy moment with the two of you. Let’s raise our glasses to Kathy and David and wish them many more happy and healthy celebrations to come. To both of you, to all of you: L’chaim!”
Like many Holocaust survivors, David Marks never discussed his experiences with his family. “My children did not know what had happened to me. They never asked questions and I wanted to raise ‘normal’ children without the baggage of the Holocaust.” But that changed after he gave testimony about his time at Auschwitz to Yale University archives, and then received an invitation from the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Foundation to attend the 75th anniversary event.
Kathy, a psychologist and expert in mental health, knew a visit could be traumatic for him. But she said she would be with him every step of the way — and four grandchildren and his nephew seized the opportunity to go too, and asked questions they had longed to have answered. She says: “We are forever grateful to Mr Lauder and the Foundation for providing us with the experience of going back to Auschwitz-Birkenau for the 75th anniversary of the liberation. It was a life-changing event, and David had a chance to grieve. It has helped him to a healthier closure and he was able to heal as never before.”
Optimistic to a fault, David and Kathy joke that they hope their marriage lasts “a minimum of 35 years”. After that, growls David, “we’re in negotiation”. Their message to their family — and to the family of survivors they have built up online?
“It is never too late for true happiness. We are living proof that sad stories can have beautiful happy endings. Never give up.”