At the age of 90, Suzy Ressler still comes into work every day.
She owns Mrs. Ressler’s Food Products, which she founded in 1954 with her husband, Emerich, soon after they arrived to the United States. They started with only one employee by selling chopped liver and, in the decades since, the company has expanded to selling more than 50 kinds of meat and employing more than 100 workers.
“I had a baby, and it was a difficult time,” Ressler said. “My husband was a wonderful guy — I was married 58 years — but he couldn’t find himself, and he said to me one day, ‘Maybe you could help me just this once.’ I’m the kind of person, when she feels that she’s needed, then she puts in 100 percent. That’s my nature.”
The Resslers started the company as a means to get by in the New World. Three generations now work at Mrs. Ressler’s — Ressler, her son-in-law, a granddaughter and two grandsons.
Ressler has no plans of retiring. She is a family-oriented person, and being involved in Mrs. Ressler’s is the same as being involved with her family. She said she wants the business to be a place that provides security and familiarity for her relatives.
“You work here as a kid in the summer, so you already knew you had a place to come to if you wanted to,” Ressler said. “If you didn’t want to, you choose a different store. But there’d be a place, which I know I didn’t have when I started.”
When Ressler first started, no one ever asked her about her story, even though she served a Jewish clientele. There was a sense, she believes, that her story was one that happened far away.
Ressler and her husband came to the United States after decades of turmoil and upheaval in Transylvania, now Romania. She survived the Holocaust, death marches and police states.
During Ressler’s childhood, Romania and Hungary fought over Transylvania, creating an uncertain political climate. Her school switched between teaching classes in Romanian and Hungarian.
Anti-Semitism was an assumed part of life as well.
She recalled one incident when she was pelted with rotten tomatoes by a young Hungarian man on her way to her first day of first grade.
“It was something that you had to be afraid of,” Ressler said. “You had to be watchful, but you didn’t know any better. You couldn’t complain. You were Jewish. You were fortunate or unfortunate to be born Jewish. You were not a citizen that people wanted.”
Laws increasingly discriminated against Jews and, in 1944, she was deported. The Nazis had full cooperation from Hungary in the extermination of the Jews. She spent the next year in concentration camps. For the 10 days before she was liberated, Ressler ate nothing but snow along her path as she and other prisoners were marched through the Polish countryside.
After the war, Ressler returned to Transylvania with her mother. She attended high school to finish her last year. She also got married.
Following World War II, Russia invaded Transylvania, which become part of Romania and the larger Soviet Union. Ressler and her husband fled in the middle of the night with few possessions. At that time, the border patrol was shooting at people who tried to cross borders, so it took two years for them to get to the United States.
Ressler said it is her duty to speak about the Holocaust, as one of the few survivors still alive.
She speaks whenever she is asked to and wants people to understand the climate of hatred that led up the Holocaust, to ensure it never happens again.
She also has been involved in the Philadelphia Holocaust Remembrance Foundation’s work in building the Holocaust Memorial Plaza. Her testimony is one on the plaza’s location-activated app.
“I grew up being afraid because a police state is a terrible thing,” she said. “I grew up in a police state, and then after I was liberated, I ended up in a police state because the Russians were occupying my birthplace. When I came to this country, that’s the first time that I felt safe. I didn’t feel like I had to be afraid. Lately, I am afraid again.”
What she sees in the news has her scared. She reads and listens to the news in different languages from various countries — she knows 11 languages — and is disconcerted by the anti-Semitism she finds there, particularly in the Hungarian press. It reminds her of the press she grew up with in the 1930s.
She is concerned about what she sees happening in the United States as well, such as the rally in Charlottesville, Va.
“Where I am today, I really have to speak about my experiences because somebody who was brighter than me said, ‘Those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it,’” Ressler said. “I would not like my grandchildren and great-grandchildren to go through that again, oh God forbid.”
Today, Ressler has a large family, including 12 great-grandchildren, who all live in the region. Last month, the whole family came together to celebrate Ressler’s 90th birthday. They get together about once a month.
“She’s an inspiration to our family,” said Michael Israeli, vice-president of Mrs. Ressler’s and Ressler’s grandson. “She started this company — her and her husband — when they came to this country. That was their way to make it, so that they could provide. This is the way that our family has been successful.”
Israeli has worked at Mrs. Ressler’s since 2000. He said that even in those 17 years — a short length of time considering when the company first started — the business has grown, increasing its number of employees and moving locations twice.
“We still have that family-type feeling to the business,” Israeli said. “We attract people that are looking for that kind of feeling, so even though we may have 130 or so employees, people still see Mrs. Ressler walking to work.”
[email protected]; 215-832-0729