Kitty Williams, 92, is now a public speaker who travels widely, but, in the 1920s, hers was the only Jewish family in Sáránd, Hungary, where most of her neighbors were deeply anti-Semitic. As a child, she lost a younger sister and a mother to illness, events that, Williams says, "haunted my entire life." At 19, she was herded onto a train for Auschwitz with her dad, who was sent to the gas chamber the day they arrived.*
After almost three horrific months in the concentration camp, Williams volunteered for a task force and did hard labor for the rest of the war. "Our mindset was to obey," she says, "because we were so outnumbered." When the American liberators came, it was "sheer ecstasy." She fell in love with one, an Air Force pilot, and followed him home. On the train to Iowa, "He asked me if I would do him a favor," she remembers, "and not talk about the Holocaust or tell anyone I was Jewish"—for her own safety. Williams was shocked but complied, even baptizing their three kids.
Her husband, an alcoholic, abandoned the family, leaving Williams a destitute single mother in 1950s Iowa. Having begun as a teller at State Bank and Trust, Williams worked her way up to vice president, but her salary remained less than half that of her male counterparts. She had to work so many hours that she didn't realize that her oldest son was slipping away. He went missing for a year, then committed suicide. Shattered, Williams stayed in a psychiatric hospital for a month. After that, she says, "I made up my mind I had to go on. From then on, things started to work out."
Ahead of her second marriage, Williams revealed her true identity to her new fiancé, and he embraced her Judaism with pride. "That's when I 'came out' and got involved with the Jewish community," she says. The Institute for Holocaust Education invited her to join its speakers' bureau, and now she tells her Holocaust story in schools, churches, and libraries—"It's kind of mushrooming," she says of her new role as orator. Big crowds show up, and kids send her letters saying that her story changed their life. "I tell them: 'If you've ever been bullied, stand up. Don't be silent. Genocide is what can happen when you're silent.'" Today, Williams' children identify as Jewish. And Williams has new purpose. "Old age isn't easy," she says, "but I'm still here."
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*Update — May 30th, 2017: This article has been updated to include the proper spelling of Kitty Williams' first name.