Survivor Suzy Ressler Found Success with Old World Recipes and Charm

Mon, 07/26/2021 - 4:58pm

Suzy Ressler, a survivor of Auschwitz who parlayed her family’s old-world recipes into the Philadelphia-based Mrs. Ressler’s Food Products, died July 3, 2021, at the age of 93.

She was remembered for her business savvy, her warmth and generosity, and her impeccable elegance.

“I don’t think there was a single person who met with her that didn’t remember her. She had a presence that most people don’t. One theme that I have heard most from family and friends in the last day or two was just how remarkable she was,” said her grandson, David Israeli, President of Mrs. Ressler’s Food Products, where Suzy worked nearly every day until the last two weeks of her life.

In her later years, Suzy spoke at schools and community groups about her experience as a teenager during the Holocaust. Her testimony is contained in USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive.  She also gave an oral history interview to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Born November 19, 1927, in the Transylvanian town of Oradea, Edith “Suzy” Czitrom had so much energy as a child her parents “used to say that I have mercury in my veins instead of blood,” she said in her 2013 testimony.

That vitality may have helped her escape the Nazis and the Communists.

Suzy was 12 in 1940 when Oradea passed from Romanian to German-allied Hungarian hands, ushering in a slew of antisemitic laws. Still, Suzy and her younger brother, Georg, continued to go to school and to work in her parent’s knitting factory until the Nazi invasion in March 1944.

Because the Czitrom home fell within an area designated as the ghetto, the Germans moved out all of their furniture and threw in a few mattresses to accommodate the many other people that were then placed in their home.

Transports out of the town started immediately, and the Czitrom family’s turn came in June 1944, when they were crammed into a cattle car destined for Auschwitz. On the first day of the transport, Suzy’s aunt and uncle ingested poisonous pills.

“We asked the Hungarian gendarmes to take them off, because they are dead, and they said ‘Oh, no, we get two marks for every Jew,’ ” Suzy recalled in her testimony.

On arrival at Auschwitz, the men and women on the train were separated, and Suzy, her mother, and cousins were among the few sent to the line for labor.

Suzy remembers being fed salty soup and no water for days on end, and of being locked in a barrack with no access to a latrine.  

After a few months in Auschwitz, Suzy and her mother were transferred to the Stutthoff Concentration Camp near Danzig, where they were forced to dig trenches for retreating German soldiers. The work was so grueling and the hunger and typhus so punishing that 20 of the women in her work detail died every day. Suzy volunteered to be on the burial squad, which earned her an extra bowl of soup that she shared with her sick and weakened mother.

One day the German major who ran her labor unit told Suzy that he had a daughter around her age. He had been a professor in civilian life, and occasionally snuck Suzy apples, tomatoes, or other items which she used to bribe the camp doctor to prescribe days off for her mother.

In the winter of 1945, as the Red Army pushed the Germans into retreat, the inmates of Stutthoff were marched into the forest, with only snow to eat. Suzy and a friend propped her mother between them to keep her upright so she wouldn’t be shot for lagging behind. After ten days of marching, the SS guards locked and abandoned the women in a prison. The next morning, Red Army soldiers freed them, and they were left on their own to beg for bread.

When the war ended, Suzy, her mother, and a small group of women from her town stole onto trains and returned to Oradea. An uncle, whose bakery was still there, took them in, offering them their first baths in months. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee brought them new clothes.

“We made a bonfire and we burned all those camp things, including [the patch with] the number I used to have,” Suzy said in her testimony. “I refused to memorize it, because I felt that if I memorized it, I’m only a number, I am not a person. I don’t know my Social Security number either, for that reason.”

Back in Oradea, Suzy learned that her father had been killed, but that her brother Georg had miraculously escaped from an Auschwitz gas chamber and was subsequently rescued with other children and taken to Paris, where he was then living.

Suzy finished high school, and reconnected with a family acquaintance, Emerich Ressler. And even though she was just 17 and Emerich much older, the couple married. By now Romania was under Soviet influence, and Suzy and Emerich had to flee Oradea because of communist threats against their small business.

The pair spent a few years in Austria, where their daughter, Katherine Eve (Kitty), was born, and then emigrated to the United States, eventually settling in Philadelphia. In 1957, Suzy’s mother, Elisabeth, and Elisabeth’s second husband, Arthur Ekstein, fled Romania to live with Georg and his family in Sweden, and then moved to Philadelphia a year later. Georg Citrom and his wife Elisabeth Citrom’s testimonies are also contained in the Visual History Archive.

In Philadelphia, Suzy and Emerich opened a small business selling prepared salads, and Suzy’s Hungarian chopped liver became the most popular item. Suzy approached a local supermarket about selling her signature dish.

“I said to the guy, that this is an item you don't have. You're not giving me a penny. You can put it in. And the week that you're not satisfied, you can throw me out,” she recalled telling him. “You might gain a good item. And if I'm not good, then I’ll fall on my face.”

That contract led to others, and when a supermarket chain asked if she could make roast beef, she figured out how to make and package deli meats.

Today, Mrs. Ressler’s Food Products, still family owned and based in Philadelphia, employs more than 150 people and distributes in 37 states.

Ressler family members occupy positions across the company, from her CEO son-in-law to grandchildren who work as officers and executives, to great-grandchildren who work in the loading docks or at offices during school breaks.

Emerich died in 2004. Suzy is survived by her daughter, Kitty Israeli, and Kitty’s husband, Joseph; four grandchildren and 13 great-grandchildren. Suzy’s nephew, Joel Citron, is Vice Chair of USC Shoah Foundation’s Board of Councilors and his wife, Ulrika Citron, is a member of the Next Generation Council.

Julie Gruenbaum Fax
Julie Gruenbaum Fax was a senior writer and editor at the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles and has co-authored six personal history books. She is currently writing a book about her grandmother’s Holocaust experience.