MONTREAL (JTA) — In her 96 years on earth, Lilly Toth hasn’t received much formal education. Born in Budapest in 1925, the self-proclaimed spoiled brat often misbehaved and was frequently suspended from school.
But instead of going to college in her late teens, the Holocaust survivor was literally running for her life – hiding with neighbors, surviving an attempted execution on the banks of the Danube, then working for the very fascist organization that tried to take his life.
Despite these huge upheavals and larger losses, Toth has managed to amass something very small and very valuable: a collection of 1,119 miniature books that testify to Toth’s resilience and worldliness.
Toth’s collection, which she bequeathed to the Jewish Public Library of Montreal before her death last May — and which the library will honor in an exhibition starting May 15 — is as diverse as the interior of a Barnes & Noble. There are cookbooks, sheet music, sports-themed books, novelties known as “mainstream minis” because of their ubiquity, and children’s literature, including “The Tales of Peter Rabbit”, first published between 1902 and 1909. Shakespeare figures prominently in two nearly complete 24-volume sets published between 1890 and 1930.
“I’ve never seen anything like it before and I’ve worked here for 26 years,” said Eddie Paul, senior director of Library and Learning Services at the Jewish Public Library.
It’s also one of the finest collections of miniature books in Canada, and probably of Hungarian miniature books in North America, according to the exhibit’s curator, historian Kristen Howard.
The first mini-books date back to around 2,000 BCE, Howard noted. To qualify as miniature, she says, a book must be bound and less than three inches in length and width. Books up to four inches are considered “macrominiatures”, while “microminiatures” are less than an inch and “ultra-microminiatures” are less than a quarter inch. Toth’s collection encompasses all of these, many of which are so small they can only be read with a magnifying glass. For collectors, the appeal of minis extends far beyond their cuteness.
“Miniature books are fascinating,” Howard said. “Apart from being scenic, they’re practically so portable. So if you have one that’s highly prized, like a religious book, you can keep it nearby and safe in a pocket or purse. There is also something really special about being able to carry all the words of God or the works of Shakespeare in your hands.
Toth’s collection also includes an early 20th-century English-Yiddish dictionary printed in Germany that contains 1,200 words, sample conversations, and vocabulary lists in a palm-sized book. As Howard discovered, vocabulary lists are oddly all food-related.
“They’re grouped by course,” she said. “Starters, main courses, desserts, drinks. It’s a good look at how it was meant to be used. You could take the dictionary with you to a restaurant and order efficiently.
Raised in a secular home, Toth treasured Jewish and Christian books, some dating back centuries. These include Bibles, an ornate Hebrew-Hungarian Passover haggadah, and an ultra-microminiature volume of “The Lord’s Prayer” in seven languages. There is an abbreviated Hebrew-English prayer book, for Jews serving in the US Armed Forces, first created in 1917 by the National Jewish Welfare Board a few days after the US declared war on Germany .
While the collection contains books in English, Hebrew, French, Spanish, German and Russian, a notable portion includes Hungarian literature and poetry – a nod to Toth’s roots.
“In the mid-twentieth century, miniature book collectors considered Hungarian miniatures to be among the finest and most prized in the world,” Howard said. “One of the reasons is that they were multilingual, which allowed people from various places to read them, instead of just admiring them.”
Howard thinks Toth was likely drawn to the Hungarian minis because they represented a connection to her past and a way to preserve her identity.
“Lilly stayed in touch with her family and friends in Hungary throughout her time in Canada,” Howard said. “These books were an important touchstone for his culture.”
To Paul, Toth’s rich collection speaks volumes about his family’s scholarship and sophistication.
“His parents were worldly,” he said. “They were from Austria-Hungary; it was their tradition. Lilly was likely exposed to music, art, various types of culture, and manifestations of beauty.
Paul also speculates that the Holocaust inspired his collection.
“The Holocaust motivated people to create and collect beautiful things and preserve them so others could enjoy them,” Paul said.
Although little is known about Toth later in life, she recorded her oral history in 1994 for the Montreal Holocaust Museum and the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.
“We only know Lilly’s story because she told it to us,” said Eszter Andor, Oral History and Commemorations Coordinator for the Montreal Museum. “Every testimony is valuable, and we are very grateful to all the survivors who have and continue to tell us their stories.”
Toth was born in Budapest, the only child of Viktor and Carla Gluck. After Germany invaded Hungary in 1944, the fascist Arrow Cross movement united with the Nazis and took over the Hungarian government. Viktor Gluck was sent to a forced labor unit and shot in Austria. His mother, aunt and uncle were arrested by the Arrow Cross and shot near Győr, near the Austrian border. Toth hid with neighbors until they were betrayed and forced to flee.
“She was taken with another friend to the banks of the Danube where they were tied together,” Paul said. Her friend was shot dead. “Lily managed to untie her bonds and swam a mile down the icy river.”
A Hungarian policeman rescued her and, after learning she was Jewish, handed her over to German soldiers who took her to a Jewish hospital for recovery. Toth survived the mass deportations of Hungarian Jews that began the May 15, 1944; she survived the rest of the war working under a false identity as a housekeeper in an Arrow Cross apartment building.
During the Hungarian Revolution in 1957, Toth moved to Canada to be closer to his family in Montreal. Some time later, she began collecting her treasured minis, which she displayed on bespoke shelves in her bedroom.
“The Hungarian Revolution was the second big break in Lilly’s life,” Howard said. “It makes sense that after these very traumatic experiences, one would be drawn to collecting something so easy to carry around.”
Says Andor: “If you think about the history of the Jewish people, how many times we had to flee in the short term, it’s interesting that a Holocaust survivor collected books that would be very easy to put in your pocket and run for it.”
A year before his death, Paul and a colleague visited Toth to view the collection the Jewish Public Library would inherit.
“Lilly was a remarkable woman,” Paul said. “She was very low-key in her assessment of her life and her legacy. For her, it was as if everyone had collections like this; it was not a big deal. I felt like because Lilly had never had children, these books were, in a way, symbolic children for her.
Andor is moved by Toth’s determination to rebuild her life after losing her parents and going through such trauma.
“Resilience is a common theme in the stories of many survivors,” she said. “They not only survived; they rebuilt their lives. It is very important that the next generation not only see destruction, but reconstruction.
On May 15, the Jewish Public Library of Montreal will launch the Lilly Toth Miniature Book Collection in collaboration with the Montreal Holocaust Museum and pay tribute to the life and legacy of Toth. There is an online version of the exhibition here.