Cathy Renny made several major moves in her life — across battle lines, across national borderlines and across the Atlantic Ocean.
Her last move, to Ventnor in 1999, was the only time she could take anything more with her than a suitcase and her immediate family.
The younger of her two sons, Dr. Andrew Renny, of Linwood, and his family told her story a few weeks after Cathy died last month, at 89.
She was born Katalin Pollak in Szolnok, Hungary, south of Budapest, where her father did well in the furniture trade. But when the Germans invaded Hungary 70 years ago this month — March 19, 1944 — they took over the Pollak home as a headquarters. The family was sent to a ghetto along with thousands of other Jews, a move that cost them everything they owned.
From there, they were packed into a train and sent to a work camp in Strasshof, Austria, where they spent a year as Nazi prisoners, in brutal conditions with little food. But Cathy always told her American family she was lucky — because the very next train to leave the ghetto went to Auschwitz, the notorious death camp. And her family had been assigned to that Auschwitz train but managed to sneak onto the other one, she added.
She had another major stroke of luck a few weeks before the Germans came in, when she met Marcell Renny. He was a Jewish man from Budapest, sent to a labor camp near Cathy’s home. But the rules weren’t as harsh before the German occupation, and the workers could go out occasionally for meals in local Jewish homes. One day, Marcell went to the Pollak home, where he was greeted at the door by a girl of 19 who would be his wife for 61 years.
They didn’t see each other for a long year after they met, but after Germany lost World War II and her work camp was liberated, Cathy remembered where Marcell said he lived and went to Budapest to look for him. This time, she knocked on a door — and miraculously, his family was alive and was there. That was in the spring of 1945; by July, Marcell and Cathy were married.
They stayed in Budapest. He became a textile engineer and started his own factory. She went to college and worked as a bookkeeper. They had two young sons.
So her family was doing well again, but Marcell’s business was nationalized by the Soviet-dominated government. By 1956, it was clear to the Rennys that life was deteriorating in their native country, and during a brief period of political upheaval, they decided to flee the country.
That wasn’t easy to do. Cathy’s mother also lived in Budapest, and it meant leaving everything behind again, sneaking away from their home with only their suitcases — except for one thing.
“They drugged me, only 2 years old at the time, so I would not make any noise,” as Andrew Renny told the story in his mother’s eulogy, “and put me in a backpack for my father to carry while they ran across the guarded border” to Austria.
They spent two impoverished years in Vienna, waiting for visas to the United States. And when they did finally leave for New York in 1958, again it was just with suitcases and their sons.
The only work Marcell could get at first in America was as a janitor. But he kept applying and working and finally got a professional job — then moved his way up to vice president of a fabric company.
Cathy was office manager and bookkeeper at a tire business, and she adopted that new, American-sounding first name — although she never did lose her “Zsa Zsa Gabor accent,” as Andrew’s wife, Barbara Harvis, describes it, fondly.
The family lived a few places around New York before they found a permanent home in Bergen County. Their older son, Thomas, became a dentist. Andrew became a gastroenterologist and moved to Linwood in 1985.
In 1999, Cathy and Marcell made that last big move of their lives, to Ventnor, a few miles from their younger son, his wife and their three daughters. For this trip, they finally needed a moving truck.
But her family said the message Cathy took from all the loss in her life wasn’t to treasure her possessions, her stuff.
“They lost everything twice, so material things weren’t terribly important to them,” their daughter in law said. “What was important was relationships, family ... and memories.”
Melissa Renny, of Maplewood, Essex County, is Cathy’s granddaughter. Melissa wrote her senior thesis at Princeton University on her grandparents’ story — based partly on a trip she took with them back to Hungary in 2002.
Cathy and Marcell showed their family the places they lived — and the ones they escaped from. The younger generations saw things they’d heard about all their lives.
“They always told us the stories — but they framed it as kind of these miracles that had happened to them,” Melissa said. “They were always hopeful stories. They always talked to us about appreciating what we had, from a very young age. ... They were letting us know it could be taken away at any minute ... to teach us we should be really grateful.”
Marcell died in 2006, at 87. Cathy’s health suffered in the last few years; she had terrible back pain, among many more ills.
But until the end, “It was hard to get her to say what was bothering her,” said Harvis, “because she never complained.”
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