Julian Szirtes, founder of Ottawa’s West-Way Taxi survived Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Dachau

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On his 14th birthday, July 7, 1944, Julian Szirtes was abducted from his home in Hungary as part of a roundup of the country’s Jews. He arrived at the train platform in Auschwitz-Birkenau with his mother, Regina, a few weeks later.

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They lined up with thousands of other Jews deported from Hungary. A German SS officer, Captain Josef Mengele, asked Szirtes about his age. Mengele, a physician and anthropologist, often presided over the selection process at Auschwitz to research subjects for his inhuman medical experiments.

At the time, most children under the age of 14 – and others deemed unfit for work – were sent directly to the gas chamber.

“I was tall for my age,” Szirtes recalls at the time, in a video made by his granddaughter, Sabrina, for a school project in 2013. at the time, and he told me to go to law. And that’s how I survived.

Szirtes will never see his mother again: she died in the gas chamber. He eventually survived the horrors of at least three concentration camps – Auschwitz-Birkenau, Bergen-Belsen and Dachau – before being liberated at the end of April 1945.

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Szirtes would return to Hungary, start a family and immigrate to Canada more than a decade after the end of the war. Energetic and ambitious, he worked in a factory, worked as a designer, drove overnight cabs, and invested in a series of taxi licenses before founding an Ottawa taxi company, West-Way, in 1982.

He continued to go to the office at least twice a week for the rest of his life.

Szirtes died of heart failure on October 27. He was 91 years old.

“He saw so many deaths and so much horror and he lost so much in the camps that when he came out everything was a gift to him,” said his son Peter Szirtes. “So he embraced life. He loved to sing, dance, celebrate every possible occasion. He was very generous: he liked to share what he had.

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Julian Szirtes and his wife Elizabeth Roth.  (Photos courtesy of the Szirtes family)
Julian Szirtes and his wife Elizabeth Roth. (Photos courtesy of the Szirtes family) Photo by Richard Szirtes /jpg

Julian Szirtes was born in the town of Zalaegerszeg, in western Hungary, on July 7, 1930. His father was a shoemaker. He lived what he described as a normal childhood until the German army moved to Hungary in March 1944 to install a new, more docile government.

Soon after, the mass deportation of Hungarian Jews began. In four months, more than 400,000 had been sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, in southern Poland, where the vast majority of them perished.

Szirtes told his children that he survived Auschwitz, in part because one of the camp guards liked his singing voice. “My dad entertained this guy with singing to him, and he took my dad under his wing and protected him,” said Peter Szirtes.

Szirtes was assigned to a Jewish section of the Auschwitz complex known as the Zigeunerlager, or Gypsy Camp, and he was there in early August 1944 when the SS began loading thousands of Gypsy prisoners into trucks. The prisoners retaliated – they knew they were being sent to the gas chambers – but the SS crushed their resistance. “We heard nothing but screams and screams,” Szirtes told her granddaughter.

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As the advancing Russian army neared Auschwitz in January 1945, SS units evacuated the prisoners and walked them from one concentration camp to another within Germany. Szirtes survived a death march to Bergen-Belsen, which he described as the worst of the camps he visited.

“People were thrown out into the streets, crowded together. There was no way to put them in the ground, ”he told his granddaughter. When British forces liberated the camp on April 15, 1945, they found thousands of dead bodies not buried.

Szirtes was then taken to Dachau where he fell desperately ill. On April 29, US soldiers liberated the camp and took the then unconscious Szirtes to hospital. He had no memory of the next four months.

“Until the end of August,” he told his granddaughter, “I had no knowledge of my existence.”

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After recovering, Szirtes returned to Hungary and reunited with his father, who had survived the war as a slave. He trained as an electrical engineer and met his future wife, Holocaust survivor Elizabeth Roth, at a school ball.

“During their first dance he looked her in the eye and told her he was going to marry her,” said Peter Szirtes. “They have become inseparable.

In 1956, the Hungarian revolution shook the country as demonstrators took to the streets to demand an end to Soviet oppression. In November, Soviet troops intervened to crush the political uprising, which led Szirtes, his wife and two-year-old son to flee the country. They snuck across the Austrian border and immigrated to Canada in 1957.

The family moved first to Winnipeg, then to Toronto, where Szirtes worked as a designer. He drove a taxi at night and, sensing a business opportunity in the uproar industry, began to buy taxi licenses.

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“My father had the personality to persevere,” said his youngest son, Richard Szirtes, now president of West-Way Taxi.

In 1974 Szirtes moved to Ottawa after learning that two Hungarians were looking for another partner in a local taxi company, Alpha Taxi. Szirtes became president of the Ottawa Taxi Owners and Brokers Association, accumulated over 30 taxi licenses, and separated from Julian Taxi.

In 1982, he started West-Way Taxi with his son Peter.

“My dad loved to take risks,” said Peter Szirtes, now president of Sommer Transportation Service, a charter bus company. “He was always full of energy, lively, straightforward. He was always honest and never mean. He just said it like it was because he didn’t have enough time for BS… My dad was always moving: he always wanted more.

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Julian Szirtes and his wife Elizabeth Roth.  (Photos courtesy of the Szirtes family)
Julian Szirtes and his wife Elizabeth Roth. (Photos courtesy of the Szirtes family) jpg

Richard Szirtes said his father had two personalities. “He was very driven and determined on the business side, and on the other side he was the accomplished family man. He cherished my mother and would do anything for her and her family… I never saw him really sad until my mother passed away (in 2020).

Peter Szirtes said he was a kind and supportive father: “He listened; he gave advice.

Szirtes rarely spoke about his experience with the Holocaust, but he provided a two-and-a-half-hour oral history at the USC Shoah Foundation Institute, founded in 1994 by director Steven Spielberg. The institute houses nearly 55,000 videotaped testimonies of Holocaust survivors.

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