Hitler didn’t comprehend that to have any chance of destroying us, he first had to destroy our love of food. While dating her granddaughter, the first time I met Mrs. Grunfeld (known affectionately as Anyu) was erev Passover 1998. Before I knew it, I was up to my elbows in gefilte fish and matza balls, selling them to the customers before the festival. It is no exaggeration that Anyu gave the Sydney Jewish community its identity through her traditional kosher cuisine.
Born Ester Hitter to Anne Precz and Martin Hitter on July 22, 1927, in Petnehaza, Hungary, younger sister to Brochi and Yona. Martin died tragically when she was just two. Her younger brother, Martin, was born shortly after.
When Ester was 13 years old, Anne remarried to David Gross and they moved to a small city, then in Hungary, called Marghita. In Marghita, Anne and David had three daughters. Rumors broke out that Jews were being taken away by the Nazis, but the Jews of Marghita were in denial.
On erev Passover 1944, Marghita was invaded by the Germans and all the Jews were rounded up and taken to a ghetto in Oradea. On May 23, 1944, they were all sent to Auschwitz, a three day journey without food or water.
On their arrival, Nazi ordered them out of the carriages. The men and women were separated. Anne, Ester and Brochi were each carrying a small girl. A female prisoner approached them and told Ester and Brochi to give the girls to their mother. After selection, anyone too old, too young, or too sick were pointed to the left. Everyone else, including Ester and Brochi, were sent to the right and taken to the women’s camp. There, they were ordered to strip, their heads shaved and donned striped uniforms. Ester’s mother and three half-sisters were sent to the left. Anne’s last words were to Brochi, “Look after Ester”.
Ester and Brochi worked in the kitchen and were able to get extra food. Later, Ester developed typhus. To hide Ester’s sickness, Brochi stole beetroot and rubbed it on Ester’s face so that she appeared healthy. Only 5,000 of the 30,000 women held in the camp at the time survived.
In December 1944, 500 women were sent to work in an aeroplane factory in Zittau, Germany. Brochi was chosen but Ester missed out. In a recount, the Nazis realized they had only 499 workers and they picked Ester as the 500th. The conditions in Zittau were considerably better and they were helped by British prisoners of war who passed food and medicine through grates to the Jewish prisoners. Ester’s work was to build V2 drones out of spare bits of metal. The drones carried German bombs. The workers loosened the screws on the drones so that they wouldn’t function correctly.
On April 31, 1945, Ester woke up to a silence; the war was over. They discovered that most of the SS guards had committed suicide or escaped, leaving the town empty of Nazis. Ester was nearly 18 years old and weighed 36 kg.
After five weeks of endless walking and train rides, Ester and Brochi arrived back in Marghita. Brochi found Maurice, her fiancé, and they married in Budapest. At the wedding Ester met Dezider, Maurice’s brother. They married two weeks later. Ester moved back to Marghita with Dezider, where Judy was born.
Due to the Cold War, they moved to the bigger city of Oradea to work. Most of the Jews who lived there were Holocaust survivors and were afraid of identifying themselves as Jewish: all synagogue services and religious ceremonies were held in secrecy. Many Jews began immigrating to Israel, France, America and Australia to begin new lives.
Miraculously, both of Ester’s brothers survived the Holocaust. Yonna and Martin moved to Melbourne, Australia, in 1948, while Brochi settled in Sydney in 1952. Ester stayed in Romania. In 1958, she gave birth to Anne, who tragically died from meningitis at the age of three months. Ester wanted to join her siblings in Australia but Dezider yearned for Israel. They decided they would apply for both visas and whichever one came first would be where they went.
In 1960, the Australian visa arrived and with the assistance of the JDC, Ester, Dezider and Judy sailed to Australia. Sixteen years after being separated in Auschwitz, all four Hitter siblings were reunited and shared Seder together for the first time since the war.
Ester moved in to her sister’s house in Bondi and started to cook take-away food to earn extra money. There was a large Jewish population in Bondi, so Dezider found an empty room in Bondi where Ester opened the Eden kosher restaurant.
In 1967, Ester gave birth to Deborah. The restaurant hours didn’t agree with motherhood so Ester established “Grunfeld’s Catering”. They catered bar/bat mitzvahs and weddings and created masterpieces for every occasion: fruit sculptures, croquembouches, bombe alaska and beautifully iced cakes.
In 1980 ,Dezider died of motor neuron disease, leaving Ester a widow at the age of 58. Ester continued to run the business successfully, providing the Sydney Jewish community with kosher catering for all their simchas. The business continues today and has been running for over 55 years.
Last Thursday, after a very short illness and aged nearly 95, our dearest Anyu passed away. She is an icon of the Sydney Jewish community. Although difficult to calculate, she probably catered kosher functions running into the tens of thousands and the number of gefilte fish balls that she rolled runs into the millions.
Ester suffered much loss throughout her life but would always tell her family that she had a good life. She leaves behind a large, loving family, many of whom now live in Israel. Even until her last weeks, Ester still prepared family Shabbat lunches every week and happily spent hours at the bridge table.
Some say that having such a large family is the best possible revenge on Hitler. Ester’s family was the entire Sydney Jewish community, one of the few Diaspora communities still growing today. There is no doubt that Ester’s role in this is unquantifiable. May her memory be blessed.
Amanda Klahr is the granddaughter of Ester Grunfeld. The article is based on research by Laila Reuven, Sydney.