Sara (Kati) Israeli was born in 1937 in Pestszenterzsebet, Hungary (today Budapest), the daughter of Laszlo and Ilus Semjen. With the German invasion of Hungary in March 1944, Israeli’s father was forced to sell his share of the pharmacy he owned to his partner when it became illegal for Jews to own any property.
At the beginning of May 1944, Israeli and her family were forced to live in the town’s ghetto. At the beginning of June, they were transported to a brick factory in the Monor concentration camp, whose inmates were sent to Auschwitz. However, instead of being taken on to Auschwitz, the family was put on a truck back to a camp on Columbus Street in Budapest.
Although she still does not understand why their fate was not Auschwitz like all the other residents of the Pestszenterzsebet ghetto, Israeli found out many years later that her family was supposed to have been put on a train to Switzerland – similar to the so-called Kastner train – but the plan was never carried out. At the beginning of October, the camp was dismantled, and the Semjens moved into her grandmother’s apartment.
A few days later Ilus Semjen, Israeli’s mother, was arrested and imprisoned in Hungary. The family’s nanny Gizella (Gizi) Benkovits stayed with the family, bringing them medicines and food and putting her own life at risk (in 2001, Benkovits was honored as a Righteous Among the Nations). When she heard that the entire area was to become Budapest’s central ghetto, Benkovits moved Israeli, her older brother Ivan and their cousin Paul to an orphanage established by the Zionist underground movement and the Red Cross. Sara and Ivan survived the war.
Meanwhile, Israeli’s father was incarcerated in the ghetto. Her mother was sent to Ravensbruck and then to Berlin-Schönholz. After liberation, she returned to Budapest. In September 1945, Laszlo Semjen was killed in an accident, making Ilus the family’s sole provider.
With its borders closed by the communist authorities, Israeli and her
brother left Hungary illegally as members of the Gordonia Youth
Movement, arriving in Israel in December 1949.
Israeli grew up and remained on a kibbutz, working in various
capacities before managing the Kibbutz Guesthouse Association. She also
coordinated a group of volunteers who translated Holocaust testimonies
from Hungarian into Hebrew. Today she volunteers with an American
Jewish genealogy organization, helping preserve archival documents. In
addition, she volunteers with Amcha, an organization dedicated to
providing emotional support for Holocaust survivors, and visits
survivors in their homes.
Israeli’s husband Betzalel died many years ago. She has two children and two grandchildren.