Hedy Orden was born in the small Romanian town of Reteag, where she enjoyed a safe and comfortable childhood. Hedy’s father, Samuel, was the President of the Jewish community and Hedy had many friends from different backgrounds and religions. But her idyllic childhood started to change when she turned 11 and watched as her neighbors were attacked and their homes burned down by an anti-Semitic mob. Things soon got worse and she was woken from her sleep when her own home’s windows were smashed. Their house of worship no longer felt safe and each night they had to bring home their bibles for fear their synagogue would be burned down. What started as isolated incidents soon led to formal policies that discriminated against Jews. It began with anti-Semitism in the schools and culminated with the rounding up of all the Jews and sending them to the ghetto. For weeks, Hedy and her family were imprisoned in a muddy forest, where disease was rampant and there was no water to drink. The only food they were given was pork, which was prohibited by their religion and only made available to humiliate them. Her father was beaten so ruthlessly, he couldn’t stand. A non-Jewish family friend offered Hedy an opportunity to escape, but she refused to abandon her parents.
Hedy didn’t believe things could get any worse, but a month later they did. The entire community was crammed into a windowless cattle car so crowded, no one could sit. For three days, they had no food nor water, despite the sweltering heat. When Hedy and others had to go to the bathroom, they just defected where they stood. When Hedy arrived in Auschwitz, she was separated from her father and grandmother, both of whom were immediately sent to the gas chambers. When she asked another prisoner about the ash falling from the sky like snowflakes and the dark clouds of smoke that smelled like burning flesh, she was told it was the remains of her father and grandmother, who had been incinerated in the camp’s ovens. Hedy only survived Auschwitz because of her mother, Helen, who starved herself so she could give Hedy the tiny bit of moldy bread and watery soup they received.
When the Nazis evacuated Auschwitz, they forced Hedy to march barefoot through the snow for three days without food or water. German Shepherds attacked Hedy and the other prisoners while the guards beat or shot anyone who stumbled. Her mother was so weak she could not walk. Hedy carried her on her back for much of the Death March. This week marks the 77 year anniversary of their liberation. Sadly, only seven days after they were freed, Hedy’s mother passed away. Hedy dug a grave and buried her mother with her own hands.
After the war, she met Ted Orden, to whom she was married for 69 years. Ted was a Holocaust survivor from a nearby town who also lost his parents and grandparents in Auschwitz. Together they escaped Communism and immigrated to California with their young daughters. They started a small business, which over decades of hard work eventually grew into one of the largest private employers in the state and helped them to fulfill the American Dream. They loved this country and how they never felt inferior as Jews nor as immigrants. They were invited to the White House multiple times, served on the Statue of Liberty Committee, and ended every family gathering with the words, “God Bless America.” Their sixteenth great-grandchild, born earlier this year, was named Hedy in loving memory of the family matriarch.