It is an idiosyncratic combination of patience, determination, genes, love, and luck that allows any married couple to reach their 75th anniversary. They are owed awed appreciation.
Given that truth, what to make of two Holocaust survivors — one 93 years old, the other about to turn 100 — who celebrated 75 years of marriage on January 6?
Joshua Garay, who grew up in Tenafly, where his parents still live, is enthralled by his grandparents’ story, which, he feels, has many less-than-obvious lessons to teach about resilience and hope, as well as unavoidable ones about grief, terror, and betrayal.
He plans to make Joseph and Olga Garay’s story into a documentary; as he begins that task, he details their lives.
Joseph Garay’s “entire family was killed in the Holocaust,” Josh Garay said. “The majority of his siblings were killed in Majdanek.” Joseph, who was born in 1921 and grew up in Piestany, a small town in what is now Slovakia, was the oldest of a large family. When he 19, he heard that the Germans were coming to round up the Jews; the operation was planned for a Friday night, “because they knew that all the Jews would be at home.” Joseph Garay decided that he was not going to get on that transport; he didn’t know exactly where it was going, but he knew that it no place good.
Joseph’s own father, who already was dead, had a non-Jewish friend, and that friend, Josef Paserin, “took him in,” Josh Garay said. “He sheltered my grandfather until the end of the war. When they felt they weren’t safe in town any more, they went to the mountains, and they took my grandfather with him.”
Mr. Paserin had a wife and a daughter. “I don’t think his daughter liked what her father did,” Mr. Garay said. “She was scared.” But Joseph Garay stayed with the family until the end of the war. Later, Mr. Paserin was honored, first in Bratislava and then by Yad VaShem. He explained why he took the risks that endangered both himself and his family. “He said that he didn’t have any choice,” Mr. Garay said. “This was another human being, who has a life. I never thought twice about it. There was nothing else to consider. I had to save my fellow human being.”
The families stayed in touch. “My grandfather would send the family money — not because they asked for it, they didn’t — and periodically, in the 1980s and 90s, he would visit,” Josh Garay said.
During the war, Joseph Garay “wasn’t exactly a partisan, but he was in the underground a little bit,” his grandson said. “He helped smuggle some people out of danger, including a famous rabbi.” Most of the time, his own hiding place was safe, but “a few times the Nazis came looking for him, and he had to run out the back door.”
Olga Gottesman was born in 1938 in Munkatch, Hungary; she lived a comfortable life until the Nazis rounded up the Jews. They’d been fairly safe until 1944, nearly the end of the war, when they were dispatched with brutal thoroughness. Most of his grandmother’s family died, Mr. Garay said; his grandmother and her sister, Goldie, were sent to Birkenau. In 1945, as the Nazis were losing, they dispatched their prisoners on a death march. “A lot of people just dropped dead,” Mr. Garay said. “You didn’t dare look backward at the Germans, because they would kill you.”
Eventually, the two sisters joined a group who were able to break off from the march; by then, the Nazis were just about done, their vigilance turning into desperate self-protection. The Jews found a little house, with a chimney, with smoke coming out of it. They were scared, but they were freezing and had no good options, so they went in — and this is where the story starts to sound like a bleak version of the Goldilocks and the Three Bears. The people who had been in the house had gotten scared and fled, leaving a fire in the hearth and food on the table. The Jews ate and slept; “in the morning there was a knock on the door. It was the Russians.” They were safe.
Now that the war was over, the dazed, half-starved, traumatized survivors had to figure out what to do next. Their understanding of the world had been shattered. Many of them tried to find survivors among their family, friends, or community. Olga and Goldie Gottesman went to Budapest, and so did Joseph Garay. They met at the train station as they searched – with no luck – for survivors they knew.
“It was not love at first sight,” Josh Garay said. “First, they became a little friendly with each other. It took time for them to fall in love.” But eventually they did. Soon, Olga and Joseph went to Prague, in that unsettled no-past-grim-present-maybe-hopeful-future time, and they were married by the chief rabbi there.
Next, Joseph went to America. “He was able to buy one ticket for the boat, so he went first,” Josh said. “He said, ‘I’ll be back for you.’” And he was, just a few months later.
(Meanwhile, Goldie Gottesman made her way to Brooklyn, where she got married and owned a dry cleaning shop. She died in the mid 1990s.)
The reunited Garays settled on the Lower East Side. Mr. Garay’s father had been a tailor, and had taught his son some of his craft. Joseph Garay started at the bottom and worked his way up various companies until he started his own clothing line, Gar Fashions, where he made and sold high-end women’s clothing to such stores as Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus, Bonwit Teller, and Sak’s Fifth Avenue. They had three sons — Stuart, Kenneth, who is Josh’s father, and Andrew — who grew up in Searingtown, on Long Island. Mr. Garay traveled frequently on business, going to London, Paris, and all over the country. “He was very ambitious,” Mr. Garay said, perhaps unnecessarily.
Throughout this time — perhaps more accurately, throughout that time and on until today — the Garays were active as philanthropists and in the Jewish community.
And then, “in the late 1970s, early 1980s, my grandfather got tired of the industry, and he walked away from it,” Mr. Garay said. “He went into real estate” — the business that Josh Garay is in today — and he became even more involved with different Jewish organizations and charities,” including the Museum of Jewish Heritage in lower Manhattan and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC.
The Garays have sent artifacts to the Manhattan museum. “One of them is a stool that was hidden in the Paserins’ house,” Josh said. “They put the address of a family member in New York on the bottom, so that after the war he would have a place to go to. He forgot about the stool, until about 20 years ago.” Then the family sent it to the museum.
The Garays also have been active in telling their stories, including to the Spielberg Foundation.
Kenneth Garay and his wife, Carole, moved to Tenafly; Josh went to the Moriah School and the family belongs to Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood.
The family celebrated Olga and Joseph’s anniversary as everything is celebrated during this odd pandemic time — on Zoom. “My grandparents aren’t happy about the pandemic, but they are optimistic,” Josh said. “They are optimistic about a brighter tomorrow, and they believe that we will get there sooner rather than later.”
The Holocaust could have hardened people or sensitized them, he continued, and his grandparents were sensitized. “They are very generous,” he said. “They are very good about taking care of other people.” If his grandmother is cooking and has leftovers, she gives them to the doorman. They remember many people’s birthdays — not just close friends or family members — and send flowers. Still, Josh said, getting old is hard. “It’s a blessing and a curse,” he said.
Josh Garay has decided that he wants to make a documentary about his grandparents’ experiences. “I want this to be a powerful piece, and I want my grandparents to be part of it,” he said. He wants to go to Europe and film himself talking to the descendants of the people who were there, so he can hear the stories as they were handed down. He plans on hiring professional filmmakers to work with him, and he has started a GoFundMe campaign to that end.
This work is urgent, Mr. Garay said. Anti-Semitism and intolerance are on the rise. And as for his grandparents, “time is of the essence.”
As of course they would know, as they look back on 75 years of marriage.