Judith Borit, 74; psychiatrist survived Nazis and revolution

By Emma R. Stickgold
Globe Correspondent / February 16, 2011

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Crossing a sandy beach on the Galapagos Islands, Dr. Judith Borit paused to take in two large sea turtles.

“It’s incredible,’’ she quietly exclaimed, her delight in and fascination with the sea creatures digitally captured by a camera held by her filmmaker nephew Jake Boritt.

Many in the family marveled at how she had made the strenuous hike, having lost portions of her lungs, and while suffering from melanoma; she had been given only a year to live. She defied that timeframe, living a year and one day.

Dr. Borit, who survived in Hungary during the Holocaust and later worked as a psychiatrist in Cambridge, died Jan. 3, at her home in New York City. The former longtime Arlington resident was 74.

Defying death was something she had some experience with, growing up in Hungary during the German invasion under Adolf Hitler’s regime. Her younger years were spent in a large stone home on Gul Baba Street, a well-known cobblestoned road in the hills of Buda. She would later regale family members with stories of the Friday night Sabbath services when her father blessed her and a chocolate bar that was named after her and made in her grandfather’s candy factory.

But 1944 saw the German invasion of Hungary, and the family of five — Dr. Borit and her two brothers, Gabor and Adam, along with their parents — was forced to relocate to a makeshift Jewish hospital at the edge of the main Jewish ghetto in Budapest. Their new quarters were a closet on the first floor, and they stayed there several months.

Her father, Paul, would remove the yellow Star of David that Jews were required to wear and head into Teleki Square, where Jews were being rounded up to be deported. He would pretend to be a medical doctor and select people from the crowds, mostly women, saying they were too sick to go to the camps.

Her mother, Rosa, had kept a kosher kitchen, but with food scarce, she once had to ask a rabbi for a special dispensation to feed her family what was available to them: bacon.

A group of Nazi supporters once came looking for her father, threatening the family; and during one attack, a shell exploded in their room, killing a man and woman with whom they shared the space.

Most of her mother’s family was killed at Auschwitz, and her mother died shortly after the war, in 1949, after a long illness.

After attending high school at the Anne Frank Gymnasium, she began studying medicine in the city of Szeged.

But in the mid-1950s, the enemy for Dr. Borit and her family shifted from the Germans to the Soviet-backed government. During the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, she returned to Budapest to rejoin her family.

Near the end of the revolt, they became trapped in their apartment building’s basement, and although the upper floors of the building collapsed, the family survived the Soviet tank bombardment.

When the Hungarian Freedom Fighters did not prevail, the family fled to Austria, so Dr. Borit and her brother Gabor took a train west, ultimately joining their brother Adam in America. At one point, she would later recall, Soviet Army soldiers were grabbing people from the trains to turn them over to the Hungarian Army.

She had to rely on her “wit, charm, and moxie,’’ her nephew Jake said.

Arriving near the Austrian border, they made their way, with the help of others, to the edge of a wide section of plowed ground, marked occasionally by guard towers. Dr. Borit led the sprint across the border, but her family said her poor sense of direction led them to wander aimlessly in the woods for quite some time. At last, they found a sign that she would remember fondly, a sign in German that read, “Smoking forbidden,’’ which meant they were safely in Austria.

It took a tractor, train, and truck to get to a refugee camp, where they lived for four months before she arrived in April 1957 at Camp Kilmer in New Jersey. After the family came to the United States, she spelled her last name differently than did other relatives.

She soon moved to Boston to study at Boston University’s School of Medicine, receiving her medical degree in 1963. For the next half-century, she worked as a psychiatrist, helping some of the toughest mental health patients get treatment.

The family’s journey to the United States is chronicled in her nephew’s film “Budapest to Gettysburg,’’ which featured one scene in which she and her brother Gabor showed how differently they viewed their shared past. She preferred to talk about it and analyze what happened. He did not.

“She could talk for hours about the issues,’’ said Jake Boritt, of Harlem. “My dad mentioned a few stories, but never really talked about it. She would talk about stories very matter-of-factly, and then I think she would get into the abstract and the emotional significance.’’

Helping others with their emotions became very important.

“She actually did very well in medical school, and she identified with people who had difficulties,’’ said her longtime friend, Mary Jane England, president of Regis College.

She had a private practice on Mt. Auburn Street in Cambridge, but also saw patients at various hospitals.

“She was not a wallflower,’’ England said. “She truly had opinions, and it’s interesting — in medicine, she was always ahead of the curve.’’

“She was a big advocate for mental health [services] for people who couldn’t afford it,’’ her nephew said.

Part of what drew patients to her was that matter-of-fact approach, England said.

“She was very direct at a time when not a lot of psychiatrists were,’’ she said. “If the person was having a hallucination, she would bring them back to reality and say, ‘That is not what is happening.’ ’’

Still, she was compassionate, her nephew said. “She was extremely loving. She certainly had issues with what had happened in her life, but she sort of dealt with that by loving people.’’

She began focusing on geriatric psychiatry, England said.

And she had a “feisty sense of justice,’’ her nephew said. “She really embraced and loved life and would get so excited about something so simple,’’ he said, later adding, “She laughed about herself and had a good sense of humor about her shortcomings.’’

She always kept Starburst candies close by, and went out of her way to search for unusual birds.

About 13 years ago, she was diagnosed with melanoma, and she tried many treatments, which kept her going for many more years than is expected with such a diagnosis.

She recently moved from a home overlooking Spy Pond to New York. Last winter, she was told she had about a year left to live, so she organized a trip with her brother, nephews, and their families to the Galapagos, “almost absurd for a women of her condition,’’ her nephew said.

“She was so determined, too,’’ he said. “That’s what I love about that footage of her.’’

In addition to her brother Gabor and nephew Jake, Dr. Borit leaves two other nephews, Beowulf Boritt of New York City and Dan Boritt of Washington D.C.; and a grandnephew.

A memorial service is being planned for this spring.

Emma R. Stickgold can be reached at