Remarkable memoir of Holocaust survivor and the 'angel' cat which saved her life
- Credit: Courtesy of Kacenberg family
There have been many memorable testimonies of surviving the Holocaust but few involve a cat which followed its young owner through unimaginable horrors.
Until her death at the age of 90, Mala Kacenberg believed Malach was a guardian angel who shielded her while hiding in the Polish forests, then living under a false identity in Germany.
While running a Stoke Newington B&B, she would tell her five children remarkable stories of when the cat chose the right road, led her from danger, deflected unwanted attention, or inexplicably appeared miles from where she'd last seen her.
Daughter Frimchy Geller, who lives in Golders Green, says: "My mother would tell us stories, especially on a Friday night, through her tears about how her loving childhood was torn away and how, as a child, she had to fight for her life, using the tools and strengths she was given by her dear parents. These were in snippets, not in chronological order, but they seemed incredible to our innocent ears. We knew these stories must be written down, but my mother was too busy raising her family with as much love as she could muster. This was not the time to look back, only forward.
"When we had all flown the nest, my mother’s determination not to allow her experiences to be forgotten came to the fore and she began to write short handwritten notes giving the bare-bones of her story. It took several years to find the strength and time to write until she was able to present her manuscript to a small Jewish publisher."
Told in straightforward, child's-eye detail, Mala's Cat (originally Alone In The Forest), is republished by Penguin to coincide with Holocaust Memorial Day.
Mala Szorer was born in 1927 to an observant Jewish family in Tarnogrod, Poland, where in 1939 her life turned upside down. She recalls a teacher beating her unconscious for not standing up, and Nazi soldiers marching into town on September 15, shooting dead a small Jewish boy who ran to tell his parents. So began six years of brutality and survival as her neighbourhood became a ghetto where her family slowly starved - then the horrific day she and her brother ventured out for food and he was shot dead.
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Removing her yellow star, and with blonde hair, blue eyes, excellent Polish, and "a very strong will to survive", 12-year-old Mala survived on her wits in the forest, meeting Jewish partisans, working, begging and enduring near scrapes.
"This cat and I had a longstanding relationship. Since a small child she had followed me all over and sat silently near me when I played with other children," explains Mala. "I began to think that the cat with its soft eyes understood my suffering. I nicknamed her Malach which means 'angel' in Hebrew and imagined that she was a real angel watching over me."
Returning to the ghetto periodically with food, Mala is devastated when her family are rounded up and murdered in September 1942. Lying to obtain papers as a Polish Christian girl she's sent to a town near Leipzig, Germany and spends perilous years as a hotel maid before the US army liberation in April 1945. Free to return to Poland, she finds no family and applies to go to England in November 1945.
There she meets fellow survivor Meir Kacenberg, but around the time of their wedding in February 1949, Malach disappears: "My beloved cat who had stayed by my side in the most desperate situations for six awful years, vanished. I never saw her again, I never had a photograph of her but I will keep her image in my mind for as long as I live.
"There is no doubt in my mind that she was no ordinary cat. Time and again she showed an uncanny ability to warn me of danger and extricate me from it. Even when she became separated by great distances she would somehow reappear at my side in defiance of all logical explanation. In all our years of companionship I never saw Malach eat or drink. I am convinced she was indeed a guardian angel sent by Heaven to guide me through the inferno that destroyed my family and six million of my people."
Mala wanted her book to be called An Angel by My Side, adds Frimchy: "She most definitely believed it was a guardian angel sent by G-d. Her only question was why it was she who merited this special treatment. Her whole life was lived trying to justify her survival and bring good to the world. And she always left a saucer of milk for passing cats by our back door."
Mala maintained her courage, strength and resourcefulness in adult life: "Despite her very small stature, nothing deterred her. My mother was also an extremely religious woman. She had many opportunities, and yes, even reasons, to forget her religious upbringing, but as soon as she was able, when she arrived in England she sought to live amongst an orthodox Jewish community. She married my father who was also very religious, and brought up her family to follow in her ways."
Remarkably, Mala never "verbalised anger" at the atrocities she endured.
"She only taught us tolerance and that no peoples should be judged as a group, but that everyone is an individual who should be respected for who they are. She did, however, lose her trust in people and was always wary of people’s intentions."
Frimchy said the family is "immensely proud and happy" to satisfy Mala's "deep desire to see her story published for the world to read and never forget this darkest time in human history".
"It was her fervent wish that the horrors of the Holocaust never be denied or forgotten. We feel this book is not just a legacy for our family but for the entire world.”
Holocaust Memorial Day on January 27 will be marked by events across north London.