Holocaust survivor Zoltan Sorell dies at 87

He could glide effortlessly from Hungarian to Portuguese to English. He would gallantly kiss the hand of the women he met. And despite losing most of his family in the Holocaust, Zoltan Sorell lived a full life centered on love of family, especially his wife of 63 years, Dora.

Sorell died in Oakland on Oct. 3 following complications from a fall. He was 87.

By the time Zoltan and Dora Sorell moved to California in the mid-1990s, both were retired — he from a career as a mechanical engineer, she as a physician. They settled in the Bay Area to be near their children and grandchildren.

“My parents were very well adjusted and prepared to look to the future,” said daughter Silvia Sorell of Berkeley. “They put all their energy into building family and career.”

Zoltan Sorell was born into a Jewish family in Sighet, Romania, where his father owned a textile store. From an early age, Sorell exhibited a passion for understanding how things worked.

In 1939, he met Dora Apsan at a Chanukah party. It was the beginning of a lifelong romance interrupted only by war. After fighting broke out, Sorell was arrested by Hungarian fascists and sentenced to prison. While he languished in a jail cell, the Apsan and Sorell families were herded into the Sighet ghetto and later deported to Auschwitz.

With the exception of two siblings, the rest of Sorell’s family was murdered.

When Sorell was released from prison before the war’s end, he returned to Sighet to find the Jewish community gone. But he stayed, and finally, in June 1945, Dora made it back from Auschwitz.

“There was no home,” said Dora Sorell. “No parents, no brothers, no relatives. But my boyfriend was there waiting for me.”

The couple soon married and began studying for their careers. They had three children and lived comfortable lives in communist Romania. Sorell was a gifted mechanic, and hand-built his own car and motorcycle. He would lead the family on hikes into the Carpathian Mountains and on long bike rides.

But as Jews, the family experienced discrimination and eventually applied for passports. It took 16 years to get their exit visas; in 1961, the family moved to Brazil.

“He liked it there,” noted Silvia, “but my mother needed to be a professional woman. She didn’t see a future there.”

A few years later, the family moved again — this time to New Rochelle, N.Y. There, Zoltan became manager of a large solid waste management company in Stamford, Conn.

Once retired, Sorell indulged his avocations of photography and woodworking. He and his wife later moved to San Rafael to be closer to children and grandchildren.

Dora went on to write a memoir, “Tell the Children: Letters to Miriam,” which detailed the couple’s Holocaust experiences and ultimate happiness. She is an in-demand lecturer and Holocaust educator. “If there ever was a love story, it was ours,” she said. “Our happy marriage of 63 years was a miracle.”

Sorell suffered from dementia in his later years, but never lost his zest for life or love of his family.

Silvia said her parents “did not dwell on what happened and they never talked as if they had been victimized. They were an incredibly happy, fortunate couple.”

Zoltan Sorell is survived by wife Dora Sorell of Berkeley; children Vali Sorell of Charlotte, N.C., Iancu Sorell of New York, and Silvia Sorell of Berkeley; eight grandchildren and many nieces and nephews.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at dan@jweekly.com.