The Horthy Era and Fascism
An excerpt from the autobiography
Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation started collecting the memoirs of Holocaust survivors on video recordings, and this is how a three-hour video was compiled of my own story. When I listened to it, I realized that however forgetful I may be, my remaining memories opened up and I figured they might be of interest to my children and their children, or to researchers in this field. So I wrote my autobiography...
My maternal uncle was given a computer at age 94 to write his autobiography. As I read it, I was impressed by how well my older relation could recall the past. So much of my own life had passed into oblivion, I considered myself an incapable autobiographer.
Steven Spielberg's Shoah Foundation started collecting the memoirs of Holocaust survivors on video recordings, and this is how a three-hour video was compiled of my own story. When I listened to it, I realized that however forgetful I may be, my remaining memories opened up and I figured they might be of interest to my children and their children, or to researchers in this field.
So I wrote my autobiography.
The first chapter describing my youth, entitled "The Horthy Era and Fascism", is available to readers on this website. The full text of the biography is available in Hungarian through this link: http://sites.google.com/site/19vago24/
Throughout my life, I have encountered individuals whose overall behavior was dominated by negative characteristics. I have for the most part omitted these people's names. I have no impetuous feelings of vengeance for their actions against me.
The Horthy Era and Fascism
I was born in late 1924. At the time we lived in Budapest, in Bezerédi utca. I don't remember the apartment, I must have been 2 or 3 years old when we moved to the nearby Népszínház utca to a newly built apartment block. It was state-of-the-art by the standards of the time, with a large coal oven in the hall that heated the whole flat (known as Étage heating). Warm water for the bathroom was provided by a gas water heater. If I remember correctly, we had three rooms and a maid’s room. My father carried on his father's business at this time.
The family was originally from the town of Szentendre. When I was still a child, my great-grandfather's name, Márk Weisz, was still inscribed legibly over the grocery store front. Across the street in Népszínház utca was my father's shop.
[My grandfather's house on the Szentendre stretch of the Danube’s bank]
Before the age of one, I was afflicted with an ear infection and had a severe fever. I remember nothing of this, my mother told me the story. My crying signaled my illness, and I could not tell the doctor that it was my ear that hurt. On the other hand, it never occurred to him to examine my ear. By the time another doctor made the correct diagnosis, I was beyond mere medical help. (Penicillin was not yet in use.) So they had to operate. They removed a piece of my skull behind the left ear and ridded me of the pus thus. I had a high fever after the operation. The doctors were skeptical about my survival. I may have heard them say as much, for all I know. Whether or not I wanted to disprove them, I ceased my bawling and sat up in my cot to play. This is of course an approximate narrative. I just tried to express that I had it in me to fight for my survival even at such a young age.
[My paternal great-grandparents and their family]
My paternal uncle moved to Budapest at the turn of the century. Ha ran a paper store here, and during the First World War he donated a war loan which was never reimbursed, and which took up most of his wealth. He was the first person in Hungary to issue a picture post card. At the time within my recollection, he was no longer at work. My grandmother died rather young, and afterwards my grandfather lived out his days at a decent retirement home.
My father had three siblings. The eldest was my aunt Paula, followed by the three brothers: Simon, my father Benő, and finally Gyula. It was a definite family objective for one or more of the brothers to earn a university degree. My father enrolled at the Technical University, my uncle Gyula to went to law school. Then the First World War broke out and all three brothers were enlisted. After being discharged, my father went back to study at the university, while Gyula became a lawyer.
[My maternal grandparents and my mother]
My mother was born in the town of Baja, where her family lived. My grandfather was born in Nagykanizsa, and my grandmother in Kecskemét. Zsigmond Rothschild, my grandfather was employed at a dry goods and groceries distributor in Baja. According to him, we were related to the wealthy Rothschilds of Frankfurt. Even if this was the truth, the relation was otherwise unobserved. My mother's father, János Klauber, taught and was a principal at the Jewish schools in Izsák and Kecskemét, respectively, which he had founded himself. I guess these must have been the first Jewish schools in Hungary. The facilities were honored by a visit from Minister of Culture Count József Eötvös. It was this János Klauber who compiled the first Hungarian-Hebrew dictionary. My grandmother also held a master's degree in History, Hungarian and Geography, something of a novelty in the 19th century. She was headmistress of the Baja Jewish School of Trade. She was the kind of agile woman portrayed in Magda Szabó's play An Old-fashioned Story (Régi módi történet). Her strength and mettle guided the family's fate. When my grandfather's earnings lapsed, she took in boarders at our flat in order to alleviate the family's financial situation. I think it was due to her ambition that all three of her children gained their college degrees. My mother, Boriska, was the eldest, and proceeded to earn a teacher's diploma first in Szabadka, then master's degrees in Hungarian and History at the Budapest state civil school. Her sister Rózsi finished the Conservatory and became a violinist. János earned his medical degree at the University of Pécs and became a doctor. One of my mother's sisters emigrated to the United States with her husband, had a daughter there called Rózsi, then died on the boat trip home. My grandmother adopted the girl and brought her up. She was known as Kisrózsi (Little Rózsi), or by the nickname Paca.
[My mother before her marriage]
My parents met at Lake Palicsi near Szabadka, where both families were on an excursion.
[My parents at their wedding]
Until I was about 4, a governess attended us with my brother while our mother taught.
[My brother Gyuri and I, Age 3 and 2]
I am not much younger than my brother Gyuri, he is only one year, two months, and three days ahead. My first memory ever is from between age two and three, when the governess took us to Tisza Kálmán tér (now called Köztársaság tér). She held my brother's hand, but she ignored me. So I just stopped and let them go on without me. I looked on after them, but they were out of my view. I saw a policeman. I told him I was lost, and where my father's shop is. He of course took me there. There was another governess who, whenever we were on our own in the apartment, beat me for no reason whatsoever. She grabbed my legs and yanked them so as to hit my head on the bathroom tile. During one such session I mauled my own mouth. That is how her despicable game came to light. The bite mark is still visible today. It is remarkable how I have only bad memories of my governesses. When I was five, I attended some sort of children's dance school- I remember I was in love with a girl named Évi.
I got my elementary education at the Jewish school in Wesselényi utca. My mother also taught there. As I recall, our teacher was an unfair man. He divided the class into two distinct groups: good and bad pupils. This segregation didn't strictly follow our actual demonstrated knowledge, in fact the good pupils were mostly children with rich parents, while poorer folks' kids were categorized as bad. The teacher wasn't fond of me, as my parents were of average income and I was grouped with the bad pupils (perhaps he had a feud with my mom). I may have formed a biased impression of my teacher, I cannot decide now in hindsight. We wrote an essay in second grade on our summer experience. There was a weekly fair on the Szentendre, with puppet shows and other features to entertain young and old. I wrote an account of the event for my composition. My work pleased the teacher so much that he read it out in front of the class. He went on to announce that the essays were generally very poor so they will not be graded, and we had to write it all over again. I went to third grade in my mother's class. This didn't work out well either, I took advantage of my situation. Thus I finished fourth grade at the state elementary school in Bezerédi utca. My grades were close to outstanding. The music teacher once called me out to sing, but this experiment was never repeated. Despite the fact that he beat all of our palms with a cane, I have quite fond memories of Mr. Árpád Bálint. Apparently I considered being caned a natural condition. I was touched when the principal held a speech for the Israelite pupils, who were called together for some reason or other. In his speech, he elaborated the historical sufferings of both Hungarians and Jews. Hungarian Jews were thereby twofold struck by fate, and deserved a tranquil life. I no longer remember the name of that principal.
Around this time, my father took me to his graduation reunion at Madách High School. Considering how this was my father's old school, I made up my mind to study here myself.
I enrolled in the high school in 1935, and once again found myself among the bad students. Apart from math class, I found school altogether boring. Most of the teachers held dull, gray classes. I had the impression that most of our teachers were condescending to their students, making exhibits of their power over us and without any attempt to endear us to their subject. (For example I was required to learn by heart a none too poetic composition by one Péter Selymes Ilosvay regarding Toldi Miklós, a piece which may have had some merits for literary history.) Reality is of course more differentiated than this, but to this day I maintain that despite its good name, this was one of the weaker high schools. This judgement of mine is due partly to incidents of antisemitism on part of the staff. Hitler was in power in Germany by this time, and this propelled certain German-sympathizing teachers toward injustice. To cite a personal example: I was definitely among the best athletes. Whenever a group was selected to perform athletic feats at a school function, I was up there with them. Despite this, our infamously antisemitic PE teacher would never gave me an A. High jumps were my forte. There was a certain height that only two of our class could jump. The other fellow was a gentile. This situation unnerved our teacher considerably. He instructed me to desist from further high jumps. He was compelled to disprove that a Jew could be top of the class at the high jump. We really loved athletics and sports, my brother and I even took lessons after school. Our coach once asked to see our grades in our latest semester evaluation. When I reported I was given a B, he passed some unambiguous comments regarding my school teacher. The grade itself was of course only of minor significance. It is shocking how inefficient language teaching was in Hungarian schools - very few exceptions aside. Learning by rote was the rule. I believe foreign languages are best taught during play, in constant dialogue. It is my opinion that language is taught really well if students do not perceive that they are involved in a learning process at all. Grammar of course is essential, and it's also important to keep expanding vocabulary. My art teacher Kamillo Römer was a member of the governing MÉP (Hungarian Life Party) which had devised the Anti-Jewish laws. He was an artist with no real political perspectives, and he would often indiscriminately repeat to us whatever he had heard at party rallies. When he graded us, he ignored his students' religious backgrounds. Another one of my teachers was discredited after the liberation, though I don't remember any political overtones in that particular class. (After the war, every one of the intelligentsia was brought before a tribunal and accounted for their political activities during the war.) Another one of my teachers, whose right-wing leaning was evident for me from his history lessons - was vouched for. Word has it he became an avid communist. It once also happened that the person sitting next to me was copying his Latin test from my paper and got better marks for it than I did. I only received my first four years of schooling at Madách Imre High. I therefore have no experience of later, more politically severe periods there. I have decidedly positive recollections of two of my teachers there. One of these is the math teacher Gyula Volenszky, whose lessons raised my curiosity toward mathematics, and I could learn so well from his lectures I knew I only had to open my course book to copy the homework assignments. Regrettably, I don't recall the other teacher by name. Our music teacher was on sick leave, and a substitute teacher came instead. This substitute teacher gave us lectures on music history. I still remember the stories today. Based on that experience I can now say that it is worthwhile to teach the history of culture, arts and sciences, religions, and technology to high school students. Mankind’s arrival to the current age and the cultivation of its culture is a fundamental and exciting matter. I consider a familiarity with this process a solid base for a general education. Other factual matters are no doubt also important to learn, but I consider familiarity with the development of culture and the interrelations of its various aspects to be the distinguishing mark of a well educated person.
We spent our summers in Szentendre, where my grandfather had a two story apartment block on the bank of the Danube.
The house was built by an ancestor of mine, and as a Jew, he was only granted a building permit because he took part in the Revolution. This was the first residential building in Szentendre with a second floor. We spent our summers in this apartment with only a single room and a kitchenette. When I was 10 years old, I contracted an illness called diphtheria.
[My grandfather's house on the Danube bank in Szentendre]
Around this time my father went bankrupt a second time. His first bankruptcy happened before I was born. Back then they started a bank with his brother Simon, and went bust during the Great Depression. The second time, my father's business partner in the grocery store cheated him. I'll say it was a stroke of luck, as this was a prelude to an upturn in our financial situation. As the saying went back then, never fear for those who've hit rock-bottom twice, meaning that once you could get back on your feet, you'll manage again. The proverb held good in my father's case.
[My Father, Benő Weisz]
By virtue of my aunt Paula's husband, my father became president of a wholesale distribution company. Seven or eight companies made wainscoting and paper carpets. One was owned by my aunt Paula's husband. The companies decided to open a joint sales office, of which my father was appointed president. It wasn't a large company, only 2-3 administrators and 2-4 manual laborers loading the goods, and only a couple of agents engaged in actual sales. My parents had money to save up for an apartment and eventually for a small summer house in Szentendre.
The apartment was in the Újlipótváros district near Szent István park, in Hollán utca. It was a large apartment with three bedrooms, a hall and a servant's room, over a hundred square meters. The summer house was about a kilometer off Main Square, on the road to Izbég. I always think back to those Szentendre summers with a sense of nostalgia. We had a really good group of friends there with kids my age. We had bikes, boats. We would gather on the sandy beach in Szentendre for fun and sports. I learned to swim in the Danube. We would lay down in the sand in a row and pass on pages of dissected P. Howard novels in group reading sessions. The sand was where we played volley ball and rugby. We would cook out there, lecsó and fish soup, spinning pancakes in the air. On our rowing expeditions we discovered little islands in the Danube, and gave them all names, and planted flags with the names on each one. We took long bicycle trips and even staged a few plays. For the stage we used empty beer barrels from a nearby beer brewery and planks from a local wood trader. All that gear we bartered for free tickets. We even managed a curtain and rows of seats for the audience. Our amateur theater had many of the features of the real thing. We mostly put on short cabaret acts and one-act plays. My brother and I did a double act routine inspired by the Hungarian comedy duo Hacsek and Sajó. The chemistry worked so well we could improvise new gags and keep it going without the audience noticing the change. All takings were donated to charity. So we were young and getting our kicks.
I first encountered Zionists in Szentendre. Zionists held the notion that Jews should emigrate to Palestine and try to start a Jewish state there. (The reason I explicate this is that the term Zionist is often used in a different context nowadays.) The Zionists had a camp in Izbég. They dabbled in agricultural work and sustained themselves, that is to say, they formed a Hungarian kibbutz.
Szentendre was originally a Serbian settlement, formed by Serb refugees who came to Hungary to flee the Turks. Seven wealthy Serbian families had built their own churches there. These can be observed approaching the town by boat from Budapest. What are now Catholic and Protestant churches had once been places of Orthodox worship. To this day, Szentendre remains a Greek Catholic eparchy. In one of the churchyards, the Serbs held a regular Easter kolo dance, a curious sight for us. The Szentendre Synagogue was built by some ancestor of mine, possibly my great-great-grandfather. The building also housed the Jewish elementary school and the temple servant's lodge. There was a single classroom where all the students of the school were taught. The headmaster also doubled as a cantor. Another cantor tended to the mashgiach's duties and handled circumcisions.
Szentendre grew to be a real town in the 18th century during the reign of Queen Maria Theresa. But even in the early 20th century its atmosphere was decidedly rural. The town had no running water or sewer system. This posed a problem because most of the water from wells on the Danube bank was unsuitable for drinking. There was no hospital, high school, or hotel in the settlement. Most parents conducted births at home with the help of midwives. There was however an orthodox bishop, a civic school for girls. an art community, and a youth sports facility. There were factories producing Eternit and wagons. A paper plant was under construction at the time as well.
With its hillsides, Szentendre was a scenic sight. This made it a popular setting for many works of art. I once saw a painting of Molnár utca and the hilly environs at an art exhibition. But one thing no artist could reproduce was the stench of sewage spilling onto the streets. (This wasn't generally typical of the whole town, but definitely true of the street pictured.) It was a summer holiday hotspot. Aladár Komlós and his wife Erzsi Palotai often paid a visit to our Szentendre summer house. Komlós was by then a renowned literary scholar and became a University professor after the war. Erzsi Palotai was an excellent actress. Aladár Komlós also asked her sister, the author Boris Palotai to our house for a week or two. Another recurrent guest was the author Frigyes Karinthy's sister Ada, accompanied by the wife of a Social Democratic member of the National Assembly.
In the summer of 1937 my brother spent a month boarding with an Austrian family in the village of Krizendorf learning German. Toward the end of his sojourn, my mother and I took a boat to Vienna, and father soon followed by plane. The family was thus reunited in the Austrian capital. This four-day excursion was my first trip abroad. It was agreed upon at the time that I was due to be next in line to travel there and learn the language, only Hitler had meanwhile occupied Austria.
At age twelve I got a general impression that my intellectual skills underwent rapid development. The current political events were no doubt contributory to this. The rise of Hitler and the consequent rise of Hungarian antisemitism - and the drive to degrade Jews to mere second-class citizens - made me contemplative. Above all, my interest turned toward mathematics. Under my mother's influence I started reading literary works (books from writers like Tolstoy, Thomas Mann, Victor Hugo, Mór Jókai and Kálmán Mikszáth), and also skimmed through a few philosophical works. I got my hands on some works by Nietzsche, which may not have been the best direction to take at the time, but still it did much to further my intellectual development. I should mention that my progress went largely unnoticed by my teachers. Be that as it may, our school literature course requirements had little to do with literature as such. My mathematics teacher was the exception. Sure enough though, he only noticed me when I solved a word problem with an equation on my own.
My brother and I would occasionally visit events at the János Vajda Association. Here we heard recitals by Oszkár Ascher, among others. He introduced me to the pathos-free interpretation of poetry. He recited as if it were prose. I still find this style enjoyable today because the rhythms and rhymes of a poem are brought out much better this way. When the poet Mihály Babits heard his own poem Jób Lázadása (The Mutiny of Job) recited by Ascher, he said it gave the piece a new depth. My mother bought us theater tickets. I enjoyed the performances immensely. She also got us tickets to the Opera. I'm afraid my first Opera experience was The Flying Dutchman, which again wasn't really fortunate, but I am still grateful to my mother for guiding our attention toward culture.
My brother and I were members of the József Kiss Boy Scout Troop’s Wolf Cubs division.
[At the 1932 Gödöllő Jamboree]
were participants at the 1932 Jamboree in Gödöllő. (Jamborees are international
scout meetings.) My only memory of this is the following: my mother visited us
and found us dirty and gave us both a good scrubbing. Later on we were active
in the József Eötvös Scout Troop. After the liberation, many were outspokenly
critical of scouting on account of the political beliefs held by its leaders.
There were several varieties of scouts groups in Hungary. There were indeed
right wing groups, some religious groups led by clerics, and also apolitical
groups. While the two groups we were active in had exclusively Jewish membership,
they had no religious program whatsoever. As I recall, non-Jewish scout groups
had been rejecting Jewish members as far back as the early 1930
practice definitely became the norm during the second half of the decade. The
scout groups organized hiking trips, quizzes, sports competitions, and various
games suitable for our entertainment. We were given the daily task of doing
something good for our fellow citizens. This would be something like helping a
blind man across the street or giving our seat over to handicapped person or a
pregnant lady. I considered scouting a useful activity. The climate in each
group was largely dependent on its scoutmasters, so their critique could only
reasonably be targeted at specific leaders. Of course today it seems utterly
bizarre that in accordance with the times, Jews were allowed to enter scouthood
exclusively in Jewish scout groups. Then again, the country's head scoutmaster
was the same Count Pál Teleki whose administration introduced the so-called
Numerus Clausus Act in Hungary. This was the first discriminatory Anti-Jewish
law in 20th century Europe. Paradoxically, Jewish scouts were also
allowed to participate at the Jamboree. My scoutmaster there didn't like me
much. He organized competitions for us.
He promised that all winners were to be exempt from one exam of the initiation. I won one. I was told the promise did not hold for me. So I left the team. This was probably exactly what was expected of me. (I'm not a hundred percent sure, but I guess an underlying reason was that I got friendly with his girlfriend who had shown sympathy for me.)
As I've mentioned, my interest was focused on mathematics from the age of twelve or thirteen. When you take a quantitative approach to real life problems, unknown values may be abstracted from their interrelations and in turn applied to reality. This is an exciting and beautiful process. Its beauty can be compared to a poetry of sorts, at least in my opinion. My reason for saying so is twofold. First, I think it should be a priority to highlight word problems in teaching mathematics. Also, many students find mathematics dry and tedious. I am convinced that this is largely due to incompetent math teachers. I became convinced of this in high school when I started dating girls who found mathematics uninteresting, and I enthusiastically illuminated their disinterest. Results were usually achieved within a couple of hours. Math should never be rote-learned without a deeper understanding of its underlying logic. If I ever managed to achieve anything, it was due to the mathematical way of thinking that I developed around the age of 13 or 14. This wasn't limited to the mechanical issues where the mathematical apparatus is applied, but generally affected problem solving, organizing, decision making and debating.
I got hold of an atheist book by a French author. I regret that the title and author are now beyond my recall. The book's scientific argumentation had an impact on my thinking. I doubted the existence of God and whether he had a bearing on the events of the world. There are many religions in the world. My problem was deciding which of them had the right idea.
My brother and I had been close ever since we were little. We often had company over together. He attended a Jewish high school. I was friendly with most of his classmates.
In 1938, the belligerent atmosphere which arose with the Spanish Civil War intensified. In March, Hitler occupied Austria. Germany increasingly laid claims to the Sudetenland territories. England and France ratified the Münich Agreement under the condition that the peace be kept in Europe. Seeing this as weakness on the part of the British and French, Hitler occupied the whole of Czechoslovakia, and Germany attacked Poland, conquering the country in a matter of weeks. As England and France declared war against Germany, the Second World War commenced.
My aunt Kisrózsi was trying to get to Italian-occupied Abbazia (now found in Croatia and called Opatija) for a vacation at the time. She applied for a passport, but only got a Nansen passport issued for stateless persons. The official explanation was that having been born in the United States, she wasn't a Hungarian citizen. She then decided to emigrate to the USA. She had a half-sister to welcome her, and she tackled the administrative steps toward citizenship with considerable speed. If I remember correctly, my aunt emigrated with five dollars in her pocket.
Vocational School of Electronics and Mechanics
In 1939, my parents decided that after my four years in high school I should enroll in the Vocational School of Electronics and Mechanics in Tavaszmező utca. Back then it seemed reasonable to acquire applicable and directly profitable knowledge as soon as possible. The original plan was for me to continue these studies in a similar industrial school in England. We even got into correspondence with Faraday House, the school in question, when we had to change our mind on account of financial uncertainty. Looking back, I can say that leaving high school had its advantages as well as its drawbacks. The advantage arose from the fact that I was among the more accomplished students in my new school.I had many good teachers so I took pleasure in most of my studies, and what I learned turned out useful later on in college. This education gave a solid foundation to my thinking and enabled my later career. The disadvantage was that to this day I lack an overall erudition in the humanities that I could have acquired as an upperclassman in high school. Even though I've since read up on the history of the world, it couldn't make up for how I would have been compelled to study at school.
In legal terms my school was an industrial school, but its structure was quite unique. The course was divided into two degrees, a three-year vocational school and a 2-year specialization class.
The school's atmosphere was more humane than that of Madách High. Though it wasn't easy to get in if you were Jewish, but principal Bertalan Vigh - as far as he had a say in it - wouldn't tolerate any form of ethnic discrimination among the students. So it happened that when Jewish and gentile boys were segregated for their health- and paramilitary education in schools throughout the country, our school declined to segregate students. Once political pressure became irresistible, we had a long spell of manufacturing bicycle frames as part of our Levente education. And of course as the war progressed, this too became unsustainable. We had to take our Jewish Levente classes at a remote suburban parade ground where a housing project now stands. I have only one memory of these classes. One winter, we were instructed to shovel the snow piles from one corner of the grounds to the other corner. We were followed by another company, who were in turn told to shovel the snow back to its original position. We were kept busy alright. Bertalan Vigh's exemplary conduct is all the more remarkable considering how the contemporary government propaganda had turned most of the public toward antisemitism. Citizens were required to provide documentation concerning their ethnic backgrounds in order to establish who to downgrade to second-class citizens.
The school staff were a well-prepared crew. One of my teachers was József Keush, whose lessons conveyed a remarkably broad sphere of knowledge. We regretted his regular tardiness from his own classes. From passing remarks of his we learned that his leanings were toward the Anglo-Saxons. I also held István Taraba in high regard as the most prominent lecturer at the school. During our higher forms he quickly conveyed the mathematical knowledge we were supposed to have picked up from a different teacher via vocational education, and by doing so he broadened our understanding of a whole range of higher mathematical knowledge due in no small part to his excellent lecturing skills. He was, by the way a teacher, a teacher of telecommunications technology. He never called me up to the board, but still knew somehow that I was the top math student in my class. Of course I was honored with an A.
It was in this vocational school that I got into conflict with a teacher of mathematics and physics. During one of our classes he expounded on how the theory of relativity was unacceptable. He took up this very subject in college just so that he could berate it at will. As he liked to put it, don't criticize what you can't understand. He related to us that it is simply impossible for two light beams heading in opposite directions to have a relative speed identical to the speed of light in relation to a static system. I had by then a considerable interest in physics. I managed to get hold of one of the more comprehensible books dealing with Einstein's theory, and I had read it too. I stood up and reported on the Michelson-Morley experiment which was one of the cornerstones of the theory of relativity. The experiment measured the return speed of light both spinward and counter spinward in relation to the Earth's rotation. (Both measurements produced the same result.) The teacher wasn't happy about this. My mathematics grade that midterm was a C. Instead of grading our reports, he gave out good and bad marks arbitrarily, so he had a solid basis for subjective grading. It didn't even matter that I had only good marks. Before the end of the term, he asked who would like to improve over their half-term grade. I of course volunteered. He told me I could have a B. I replied that I'd like to try for an A. So he called me out and quizzed me on our whole course material at random. But I knew all the answers. That's how I finally got an A. We had final exams for every subject. It was a formal exam with an examination committee chaired by one of our teachers, so essentially the teacher was running the exam. Every student was notified of their exam question in advance before our exam, except for me. As for the teacher, he at least remembered which question to ask which student. Three or four students thus gave their report to the committee. Then I was called out by the teacher, who told the presiding teacher to feel free to ask me whatever came to mind. So I was seen fit to brag about. I must also remark that this same teacher later became a colleague of mine at the university, whereby we established a fair working relationship.
Our practical geometry teacher was an interesting person. He must have been of German descent, judging by his name. He could draw beautifully on the blackboard with both his right and left hand. He was a regular authority on his subject. He held several political lectures. He praised the youthfulness and energy of the German government, as opposed to attitude of the British. This notion was starkly opposed to his other ideas. I am confident of this fact, because I repeatedly asked him about various technical matters outside the realm of practical geometry and he readily discussed just about anything. I could detect no trace of the fascist mentality or antisemitism in him. He honored many Jewish scientists. He seemed to me more like a cultured person with a broad horizon rather than a nazi.
Lessons took up 8 hours a day. In the first year, half of our classes were workshop sessions. The first task we undertook was filing the six sides of a metal shaft using a coarse rasp, and working the edges so that the neighboring sides were at right angles while the opposite sides were parallel. The task took me several months to complete. I was sweating blood, but I met the standards to get a passing grade. I felt inferior because the filing proved harder for me than for the others. My classmates sensed this somehow, and I became a target of their taunting and battering. As they outnumbered me, I accepted this at first. Then I got mad and I returned someone’s punch. Almost instantaneously, the taunting and assaults ceased as if by magic, and I became good friends with several of my classmates. The school had once been a watchmaker's academy. The elder foremen were all certified watchmakers by trade. When we completed our courses, we became electricians and assistant mechanics.
My father decided that I was to take up summer work in Szentendre, at a blacksmith's shop called Ljubolevits. The idea was that I should gain experience in physical labor. Interestingly enough, my employer also maintained the church clock for the bishop. I once helped him with that job. After the war, whenever I showed guests around Szentendre I would point out the church tower and its timepiece and joke that it was well known for my onetime repair work there.
After completing the vocational school, one could only move on to the two-year specialization course with a B grade average, both in theoretic subjects and workshop practice. Workshop was by then, for the most part, electrical maintenance, and as this proved easier for me than previous workshop activities, I was soon admitted to the specialty class. There were three fields of study available there: low-voltage, high-voltage and instrumentation. I attended the high-voltage course. We had two main subjects, Electrical Machinery and Electrical Works. Both classes were taught at a university level. Our Electrical Machinery teacher was László Szily, a one-time engineer for the Ganz Electrical Plant. Electrical Works was held by a college assistant professor dressed in an officer's uniform. He gave lectures of Professor Verebély's course material following it to the letter. He was one of the teachers who would occasionally express his political opinions. When Mussolini resigned in Italy, he told us that it was merely an Italian internal affair and of no international consequence. In about two weeks, Italy quit the war. I quite liked this teacher for the clear delivery of his lectures. I thought he might be decent enough to give grades according to one's knowledge. All my reports to him were marked A. At the final examinations, he told the presiding teacher that all my marks were excellent, my written exam was excellent too, so no oral examination is necessary, and sent me to my place. I was consequently marked B.
[my graduation photograph]
the early 1940
's the Jewish Community organized an Open University. I
was thrilled at the opportunity to participate. I learned the basics of higher
mathematics here from the excellent mathematician and first-rate teacher Rózsa
Péter. I took my first physics course from Imre Bródy. He was head of the
internationally renowned research laboratory at Tungsram. He was credited with
the invention and manufacturing of the krypton lamp. Regrettably, Bródy used a
special mathematical apparatus for his lectures that was unfamiliar to me, so I
couldn't follow his course. Instead, I opted to take the lectures of Pál
Selényi, whose course was perfect for me to increase my knowledge of high
school physics to a higher level. Bródy was deported to Auschwitz, and that is
where he died. Beforehand, he was awarded a house by the Tungsram company for
his excellent achievements. The site was outside of Budapest. At the
commencement of Hungarian deportations, the Vice Ispán of
Pest-Pilis-Solt-Kiskun County was the fascist László Endre. Due to his
diligence, the Jews living in the area of Újpest were among the first
deportees, and this tragedy befell Bródy imre and his family too. Rózsa Péter
and Pál Selényi became college lecturers after the war.
In 1943, we did not have a summer break from school. The military needed specialists, and so we had to start our final term in the summer and finish by January.
In the second half of 1943, they held an anti-Bolshevik exhibition somewhere on the Pest side of the Danube. Our school class was taken on an organized excursion to see it. My classmates were largely disinterested in the spectacle and they left the hall hurriedly. I on the other hand was interested in the matter, even though the presentation was grossly biased. The exhibition was only fleetingly concerned with Soviet Russia, and focused for the most part on the Hungarian Soviet Republic of 1919. What I remember are the following: we were shown a really bad men's suit labeled "the best suit of clothes offered by the Soviet Union". We heard a phonograph recording of either Stalin or Lenin. The names of the Hungarian Soviet's leaders and their deputies' were shown on charts, with the Jews' inscribed in red, the rest in plain black. There sure were a lot in red.
The anti-Jewish laws prohibited me from getting a while collar position, so after I finished my education in 1944, I was promoted to the Laub Electric Plant as an assistant mechanic. The plant manufactured light electric motorcycles. My job was assembling these. A lot of Jewish boys my age worked there. The morale among us was high.
The German Occupation
The 19th of March fell on a Sunday in 1944. My parents were out in the cemetery visiting our grandparents' grave. My uncle Gyula telephoned and told me the Germans have occupied Hungary. That is the last time I spoke to him. When my parents came home that day, I passed on what I heard from my uncle to them. Their first reaction was that that explains why there were more German soldiers around than usual. The occupation wasn't exactly spectacular. German soldiers on the streets had already become a regular sight by then. The country was occupied basically without a single gunshot. For 3 or 4 days, the country was without a government. Then according to German instructions, Regent Miklós Horthy appointed Döme Sztójay, the former Hungarian ambassador to Berlin, as the Prime Minister of Hungary. Veesenmeyer became the German ambassador to Hungary. He essentially ran the country from there on. On the second day of the occupation, a number of Jewish lawyers and journalists were detained by Hungarian and German authorities. They took my uncle Gyula, and my mother's cousin, Józsi Barta. They were both eventually killed. Soon enough, a decree compelling Jewish citizens to wear yellow stars on their clothing was put into force. I started wearing one even before it was required by law. I must say that I had no experience of any atrocities from the general population's part.
For a while many Jews nursed the hope that Miklós Horthy would not let Hungarian Jews be deported. The specter of deportation only presented itself as Hitler held most of Europe under his rule, and we had word that wherever he went, Jews were put into concentration camps. All such hopes shattered as posters appeared requiring us to wear the yellow stars. There was a rumor that married women were to be exempt from deportation. A colleague of mine, Sanyi Klug, asked me if I would seek out a certain girl who wanted a convenience marriage in order to escape deportation. I told Sanyi this was stupid, no marriage could grant one immunity, this was so unlike the Germans, and I have no intention to marry. Sanyi managed to convince me to make the visit as a favor, and that it wasn't binding in any way. So I gave in. I was also a little curious to see what happens. So we visited the family. The bride-to-be introduced herself and promptly disappeared, so I was left alone with the Papa. He proceeded to ask me a series of questions implying that the marriage proposal was my own idea and interest. Relieved, I left and headed home.
Mass deportation of the rural Jewish population to Germany commenced. Jewish citizens were first confined to ghettos by the gendarmerie, then packed into freight trains and deported to Germany. They proceeded with this until all but the Budapest Jews were deported. I am not familiar with the background of these events. As far as I've heard, it was Horthy who put a stop to the deportations.
[My uncle, Dr János Rothschild]
My mother's younger brother, my uncle János lived in the town of Zalaegerszeg. There were few general practitioners in the country, so all Jewish doctors were summoned to labor service even before the German occupation, and certain doctors were relocated within Hungary to practice medicine. My uncle was taken to Verpelét. His wife was allowed to go with him. After the occupation, this state of affairs was abolished and they were returned to their original residence. Carrying out the final annihilation of the Jews was a more pressing priority than ensuring medical aid for the population. My uncle's boss suggested that they journey to Budapest instead of Zalaegerszeg. My aunt, however, wanted to be with her family, and they didn't heed his good advice. The Jews of Zalaegerszeg were rounded up for deportation soon enough. We of course had no clue where they were taken. We soon received a postcard from my uncle saying they were all fine. The postal stamp said Waldsee. We later learned this was a codename for Auschwitz. My mother naively mailed him 10 dollars.
My brother was summoned to labor service in mid-April, and I followed in mid-May. Labor service was a form of unarmed military service. It had already been established before March 19th. My father had been a labor serviceman before, but back then he had kept his First World War rank as an officer. Today, labor service is identified as an institution of human debasement, and rightly so. But I also owe it to the truth that I didn't mind enlisting. I had three reasons for this. First, it was by then known that in countries under German occupation, Jews were confined to ghettoes and concentration camps. Given due consideration, this was to be expected in Hungary too. It seemed possible that labor service would offer some degree of protection, given how labor service is less life-threateningly hazardous (except of course for those labor servicemen who were taken to the Ukrainian front without weapons). My second reason was that while labor service was a form of military service, we were definitely not to be armed there. By that time, I was a pacifist. I considered war to be a form of legalized murder, and I continue to do so today. I condemn those who cause the outbreak of war, those who coerce their fellow men to murder people they never met and never had any from of conflict with. This at least was out of the question for a labor serviceman. I already felt quite grown up. My third reason was the notion that now I could demonstrate how I can face the challenges of life without help from my parents.
Labor servicemen were at that point dressed in street clothes. Religious Jewish laborers were required to wear yellow armbands, while laborers of Christian faith who were still considered Jewish wore white armbands.
I was assigned to serve in Jolsva, a town located in Slovakia today. I met my brother there. I was assigned to a division and we were quartered in the neighboring village of Süvete. As far as I can recall, there were hardly any men living there. They must have been enlisted into the military. In each house, two or three of us laborers were quartered. At first, the Slovak girls were mortally afraid of us. They must have thought we were about to commit some acts of indecency. We were assigned to help the women with their agricultural work in the fields. So I was out in the fields to thin out the crop. Here I first tasted spit-roast bacon, which I liked a lot. We must have spent about 10 days there. When we left, the women and girls stood in ranks to see us off, waving their handkerchiefs and crying.
We were taken to Miskolc, or more exactly to Hejőcsaba, to join the 107th Labor Company. By then, the Jews of Miskolc were being interned in a ghetto, and we were given shelter in the empty Jewish shops. Our commander treated us humanely. The scant company of overseers followed the commander's example. We worked in shifts out at the Tisza railway station. We worked loading freight trains. It was hard work, but not especially exerting for us. We were in good physical shape, so we were up to the task. Once there was an air raid on Miskolc. After the raid, went looking to help out. At Búza tér, one of the ground-floor buildings on the square was reduced to rubble. A man asked us to help clear the ruins, because his wife had gone into that house. We started to clear the rubble right away. Suddenly, we heard crying from inside. Then soldiers came and drove us away, so they could claim the glory of the rescue for themselves. They rescued a gypsy child of about 10 years from that bombed building, and all because that man was looking for his wife and we were there to lend a hand.
The waves truly crashed over the heads of Hungarian Jews that June. There was a notable escalation in deportations of Jews outside of Budapest. We met people locked in stock cars at the rail station. We gave them food, we still had some left over from home, but they were reluctant to accept it.
Suddenly our area was run over by troops from the gendarmerie. We had to take all our own stuff out to a courtyard. The gendarmes searched through our things and took away whatever they thought was "unnecessary". This extended to wristwatches and rings. As far as I know this same thing happened to every labor service company.
Unexpectedly, the order was received to transfer all youths of my age group to the 120th Rail Building Company in Ercsi. Our arrival was followed up by the attention of our welcoming committee, the company overseers who repeated the same ritual inspection and robbery the gendarmes had performed earlier. This was however probably done on the camp commander's own initiative. He must have figured that if it can be carried out on demand from the center of operations, he may as well take the matter in his own hands. That's how one of my blankets ended up with the sergeant major’s wife. Our company's job was to replace the old wooden sleepers and the rail tracks on the line between Érd and Ercsi. It was strenuous labor, and we had to slave at it endlessly. We had to compress the broken rocks using a heavy hand-powered roller. We got up at six AM, and curfew was at ten PM. Our only break from labor during that time was for meals. A crew of over 10 overseers supervised our work. I could never get a good night's sleep. For the most insignificant misdemeanor, whether justly or unjustly observed, we received the penalty of forced physical exercise. My first thought was that we must have been assigned to some penal labor unit. As it turned out, this was far from the truth, and the state of affairs within the 120th Company were all due to the carefully premeditated organizing of our company commander, Captain Győző Stolmár. Beside administering the strictest military disciplinary measures, Stolmár considered us slaves. By this I mean he considered it his duty to provide our food and shelter, but would not pressure higher command in any other respect to alleviate our situation. Thus when he later received instructions to apportion the sum transferred by the Ministry of Defense to replenish our worn-out workwear, we never saw any of it. When 13 of our Company received protective schutzpaß passports from the Swedish and Swiss embassies, instead of sending us accordingly to Budapest, the commander delivered us to the Arrow Cross militia instead. The unit commanders were officers and generally seemed to be simple folks. They weren't openly hostile toward us, nor did they try to help. They followed Stolmár's instructions, but at least they didn't make any creative additions to our misery. One of the lieutenants appeared markedly effeminate. We called him Miss Hanni. (Regrettably, such pathetic wisecracks were our only means of entertainment.) Overseers would fall into roughly two groups. The first group were those with lesser mental capability. They really enjoyed the opportunity to humiliate us and the thrill of subduing people of better education. Members of the second group were those with more wit about them, and they used their creative genius to cause us laborers sorrow and misery. It is hard to judge which group had the worse effect on us. Our Company included 4 or 5 horses. These horses were hardly ever ridden on. Perhaps they were meant to pull that heavy roller? We were living in a farm. There was a well. By rotating a long rod, water could be pumped from the well into a container in the farm attic. The design implied that the apparatus should be powered by a horse. We, on the other hand, had to manage the task using our own strength.
A few men were in a privileged situation. There were two doctors in the Company. They had the task of attending to our health. Their privilege was exemption from the grunt work, and they got to keep their wrist watches. If someone had a toothache, then for some compensation, the company’s dental practitioner would pull it for him. I lost two of my teeth through this unsophisticated therapy. The Company also had a hairdresser. For a little money, one could get a shave and a haircut.
One time I was on stable duty. I had the night shift, which meant I worked all day before as well as working the whole day after. Stable duty entailed no task whatsoever except staying up all night. I sat on a chair and watched the starry night sky thinking perhaps right now my mother or father or brother are watching this same sky. It gave a sense of contact with them, despite this prison-like confinement. One of the overseers came sauntering up to me. He tells me that he'd caught me sleeping and that I'm to report for interrogation the next day. I was reprimanded with an hour of penal labor.
of the unit commanders had been transferred. In his place came another called
Sergeant Major Lajos Nagy. He was a tall
, person with a powerful build.
To our befuddlement, he started acting friendly toward us. He kept saying that
after so many liabilities, he was looking to gain assets. (Or it may have been
vice versa.) Anyway, he obviously had a terminology issue. What he probably
tried to tell us was that he had done too many fascist deeds and was looking to
Many from our company were drafted from Transcarpathia. They were very religious, strictly orthodox. They didn't really consider us Jewish at all, we weren't nearly religious enough for that. We called them "fins". The word "fin" is derived from the German word "von" in the Yiddish dialect. When asked where they were from, these fellows would reply "fin Ungvár, fin Munkács" and so on. Some of the fins refused to eat the lunch and dinner they received, on account of its not being kosher. They managed to acquire cold rations from somewhere. They worked diligently at their arduous work. Paired with their unsociability, this posed a serious threat to their survival. (We would of course ease our labor at any and every opportunity.) In exchange for money, some of these people supplied us with bread and melons.
The Soviet troops advanced to the Hungarian border. The Sztójay administration was replaced with the Lakatos government. If I remember correctly, Lakatos was a general who kept a distance from politics. The political climate mellowed out some. Our railway refurbishment project drew to a close in August. The company was relocated to Soroksár. Our lodgings bore the inscription "Leé Ádám" and "bar". The building had been a former Volksbund post, and their posters still adorned the walls inside. One of these posters displayed a map of Germany which contained the territory of Hungary. Apparently the Germans did not need to maintain any inward pretense of Hungary's independence.
We built a delta rail junction at Soroksár. The idea was to enable three oncoming trains from three different directions to pick their course. The severe policies of our Ecser sojourn were somewhat eased. Several factors may have contributed to this. Our lodgings weren't as closed off from our surroundings anymore, and our overseers couldn't prevent us from meeting people from outside the building. In fact, the overseers in command had a difficult time readjusting to this new arrangement. The general political atmosphere became more lax. We gained plenty of experience and knew how to to best represent our interests from case to case. One time a Jewish friend of mine called Laci Wiedner visited me and brought food sent by my mother. He put on a yellow armband to avoid suspicion. Laci was in fact more a friend of my brother's, but I considered him my friend too.
The air raids over Budapest became more and more frequent. These also did damage to the railway network. We were dispatched to repair the rail lines. That is how we ended up repairing the tracks at the Kőbánya Felső station. The Southern Railway Bridge had been bombed. This bridge relayed all traffic from Keleti Station bound for Transdanubia. Planks were laid on the bridge and we had to cross the Danube from Pest to Buda over these. I had severe vertigo and it proved to be a serious challenge, but I didn't look down and made it all the way across. After my acrobatic feat I met up with my brother on the other side, his company was stationed in Buda and participating in the same operation.
Authorities decided we should connect the rail and tram tracks so that trains could pass over the Horthy Bridge (now Petőfi Bridge) using the tram tracks. The operation required the dispatching of several military and labor companies, including us. Though all laborers had to keep working night and day, the objective was never completed, not then or ever since. Meanwhile an air raid struck down on us. During the ensuing chaos, I took the opportunity to pay my mother an unauthorized visit. (Of course, no such authorization was ever issued to anyone.) Later on I repeated the illicit leave from my station in Soroksár. On one of these occasions I also visited a brothel. My boldness was no doubt bolstered by the lightening political climate.
In the days following October 10th the news reached us that we were relocating to Felsőgalla. This is now a district of Tatabánya. We had been harboring a fear that we were to be taken to the Transdanubian area. We figured since that was closer to the Western border, the move would enable our deportation. There was some truth to our deliberations, but we learned later that only Transylvania would have proved far enough to be safe. Through the Horthy Proclamation, the regent declared our withdrawal from the war. Naturally, many opposed this move in leading political and military circles, and many of Horthy's associates were either extraordinarily poor organizers or just plain unwilling to obey their superiors. The attempt failed in an astonishingly short time. Presumably the Germans were well aware in advance of Horthy's intent to quit the war. Ruling power was officially granted to the Arrow Cross Party and its leader, Szálasi. Real control continued to belong to the Germans of course. The last remainders of resistance which had put off the Budapest Jewry’s deportation had been put down. Up to this point, no mass murder of Jews had been perpetrated by Hungarian authorities outside of the Novi Sad massacre. After October 15, 1944, the armband-bearing Arrow Cross paramilitary joined forces with the gendarmerie in gathering up groups of Jews and marching them to the banks of the Danube to shoot them dead, dumping the bodies into the river. This fate befell my aunt Paula's ex-husband, Márton Neumann. The ex was a wealthy man, and his demeanor was quite opposed to my puritanical aunt's. The divorce failed to surprise me. There was a Swedish protected house on Jókai tér, that is where Márton Neumann and his new wife moved into. The Arrow Cross militia took all the protected inmates out by the Danube and shot them dead. It is quite typical of the unpredictability of those times how my aunt owed her life to her divorce.
Right after the Arrow Cross takeover, a ghetto was established in Budapest. Those who had received Swiss or Swedish protective passports were allowed to move into protected houses. This suggested somewhat improved chances of survival, and conditions of living were better for the inmates. But for all Jews, life or death depended on random trifles. Most of the elderly never survived the long forced marches. Then again, general deportation was a lot harder to manage efficiently in the capital than in the rest of the country.
We were relocated to Felsőgalla on the 16th of October. I didn't know at the time that the attempt to quit the war had been quashed, so right after the wake up call I escaped. I wanted to get to Budapest. The streets were being patrolled by mixed regiments of Arrow Cross militia and gendarmes. I judged that escape was impossible so I returned to my post, the others were eating their breakfasts and never noticed my temporary absence.
After Horthy's proclamation was aired on the radio, eight from our company made an escape back in Soroksár. Two of them were brought back to the company. After the Horthy proclamation, many deserted from the ranks of the military as well. Amnesty was declared for all those who turn themselves in by a specified date. The two boys opted to do exactly that. The company commander took no notice of the amnesty and had them strung up for two hours. This meant they were bound and hung by their arm so their legs didn't reach the ground. I later heard that one of the eight boys died in an air raid. We saw another one of them later on in a company of Jewish deportees from Budapest being marched on the road to Komárom right in front of us. He survived the deportation. I have no knowledge of the four other escapee's fates.
There were several labor outfits stationed in Felsőgálla and one way or another Győző Stolmár became commander-in-chief to them all, thereby the loving care he had dispensed upon us was extended to all the labor servicemen. During an air raid we were refused entrance to the shelter. There was another air raid shelter 3 kilometers away. We decided against this option for lack of time, as well as the uncertainty of whether we would be allowed in there at all. So we lay low in a ditch. We watched the sky. Planes came and they dropped some bombs. Somebody died in another labor company. The following day commander-in-chief Stolmár addressed the whole battalion with a lengthy cadence. He told us he was well aware we must somehow be in touch with the Americans. We were expressly forbidden to give them signals of any kind, using white sheets or otherwise, under penalty of death. I had no clue what he was so concerned about. What possible information could we try to share with the Americans? If we were to lay out white sheets in full view, what would that signify? And supposing we did try to signal something, how was an American to know what our coded message was supposed to mean?
In early November, the company was relocated once again, this time to Komárom. We made the 40 kilometer trek with full gear in one night, on foot. All the officers and non-coms had cars to ride in, and the militia men goaded us on while carrying only their loaded weapons. After 12 hours on the march we arrived to Komárom. We stopped in a square and we were permitted to sit on the ground. I immediately fell asleep. We were sheltered in the Czech part of Komárom called Révkomárom. Here too we were ordered to construct a delta junction. This was designed so that trains arriving both from Vienna and Budapest could access the rail bridge over the Danube, and oncoming regional trains could make their way in either direction.
of our Company, 13 of us were mailed Swedish and Swiss protective passports. My
mother had work at her church community. It was here that she arranged for my
father, brother and myself to receive Swiss schutzpaßes. Orders from the
Ministry of Defense were for labor servicemen with protectives to be transferred
to Budapest to the barracks on Aréna út (today called Dózsa Gyögy út).
Meanwhile, my father had been conscripted for labor service and his transfer
there was seen through, as well as my brother's. Lieutenant Stolmár, however,
was not pleased about this particular order. He conspired with the local Arrow
Cross honchos of Komárom that as soon as he releases us they are to arrest us
on our way across the bridge. Under the stewardship of
Juhász, we were discharged sometime in late November. Even at the post it
struck us as odd that our escorts only carried loaded weapons with them, not
even personal belongings or overcoats. The Arrow Cross men were waiting for us
at the rendezvous point. We were ordered to "halt". I was last in
line among the laborers, and Drill Sergeant Juhász stood right behind me
as he greeted the patrol, "Well, here we are." It became clear to me
that this was a pre-arranged encounter. Our escorts disappeared
instantaneously, and the Arrow Cross men saw us to their Komárom headquarters.
To our utter bewilderment we were met there by Sergeant Major Lajos Nagy. We
were ordered to hand over all of our cash. There were a few hundred-Pengő notes
sewn into my leather jacket, but I was confident they would not be found, so I
decided not to give it over voluntarily. They found it though and took my
jacket. Lajos Nagy gave me such a smack he nearly threw me through the window.
It was his way of gaining liabilities. Later, after the liberation I heard he
had been made State Secretary under the Arrow Cross regime.
The Arrow Cross men took us to the Csillag Fortress. This was a prison. It would be more exact to call it a deportation prison, because there were regular transports to German concentration camps from there. The prison building was on the east side of town next to the rail embankment, near the Danube river. When we arrived, we were made to stand out in the yard for a couple of minutes facing the prison wall. I couldn't figure out why.
The detainees were quite a mixed bunch. Some were political and military detainees were transferred here from the military prison on Margit körút. Among them were several members of the Communist and Social Democratic parties. We also encountered ordinary criminals, among them some inmates from the Kozma utca penitentiary. Some of the detainees were women from Jehovah's Witnesses who were taken there from somewhere in Transylvania. The Arrow Cross militia also gathered up the local gypsies and locked them all up with us. Many of the gypsies were little children around age 10. (It is now more accepted to use the term Roma rather than gypsy, but I did not know the expression even existed back then. I otherwise intend no offense whatever in using the word gypsy.) And of course the local Arrow Cross men also locked up whichever Jews they could get their hands on. Prison conditions were spartan. The rooms we were held in had as many as ten beds. There was a receptacle set conveniently in the corner for a lavatory. We were free to perambulate within the prison confines. We hardly had to work at all. Sometimes we had to do the menial odd jobs. Breakfast and lunch was acceptably abundant, but we received no dinner. This was said to be the norm in Hungarian prisons at the time. I got acquainted with the Jehovah's Witness women. Their self-conscious bearing made quite a good impression on me. As far as I know, the Jehovah's Witness men were detained for refusing to bear arms. I still don't know why the women were imprisoned. After the liberation I heard that this resolute religious group was all but annihilated by the Arrow Cross and the Germans. The first time I encountered Communists was in prison. Since the fall of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, the Communist Party had been illegal and it was difficult to make any sort of contact with them. They too were a resolute community who looked out for each other, and this earned my respect and admiration.
We passed the time making conversation and playing games, mostly literary ones. We met a Freudian psychologist called Eisler. We would tell him about our dreams. One fellow dreamed that he stepped out through a gateway. We figured this expressed his desire to be free. To our utter surprise the primary meaning of the dream turned out to be the ascension from the womb, an image of birth. In another dream, someone was writing with a pencil. Apparently the very shape of a pencil would suggest a phallus. Could it be that our psychologist friend had the right idea?
The Arrow Cross had stripped me of my jacket so I was underdressed in an increasingly winter-like clime. Regrettably, many of the elderly detainees died in prison. I took a coat off one of them. It gave me a guilty feeling. I felt like I was defiling a grave.
A plain-clothes SS or Gestapo agent with fluent Hungarian took into registry a batch of detainees He administered 13 of us. I had already been issued a concentration camp serial number, 136139. After a few days, on December 18th, those of us thus registered were put in stock cars and sent on our way. We were given about 20 dekagrams (half a pound) of marmalade for the trip, a gelatinous substance one could cut with a knife. It was standard issue for military provisions at the time. Perhaps we were given a piece of bread to go with it, I can't remember. As it turned out, this was in itself our three-day food supply. The stock car I was shoved into didn't even have a window. The only source of light was whatever filtered through the crannies, for all 30 of us locked inside that rail wagon. The train moved mostly by night, and we spent the days idling on the open tracks. There were two young ethnic Rusyn men with us who must have been absolutely famished, and ate up one of their two marmalades. That must have given them the runs, and this had a devastating effect on the overall sanitary conditions in our car. Also in the wagon was László Békeffy, formerly incarcerated in the military prison facility on Margit körút, under charges of spying for the British, if my information is correct. Successor to Endre Nagy, Békeffy was the best known Hungarian emcee of the age, the coiner of countless jokes targeting Hitler and fascism. He was reputed to have been Horthy's card playing partner, but that seems highly unlikely. In our wagon he gave the impression of being a broken old man, bullied into fear of the Germans. He told us not to fear, for we were only Jews, while he was Békeffy. We of course didn't find this very reassuring. Békeffy also said that his political gags were made up by Jews. He had two overcoats. He complained about how the Germans would be sure to take one of these away. I still had with me a water bottle left over from the labor service. So I had water. Although it later turned out that thirst was harder to bear than hunger, I didn't feel particularly thirsty. I knew Békeffy to be a great artist and turning a blind eye to my currently negative impressions, I offered him water to drink. Békeffy promised to pay a large sum to anyone who would aid his escape. Two people died in our stock car. At one of our stops in Germany the corpses could be unloaded. Those who took them outside saw "nach Dachau" written on our train. That is how we learned we were being taken to the Dachau concentration camp. Dachau was the only camp that I knew of by name, from some novel I'd read at home. It had been among the first, if not in fact the first of the hundreds of concentration camps the Nazis had built, and we arrived there after three days on the tracks on the 21st of December, the darkest day of the year.
I regret that I failed to make an accurate plan of the camp's layout right after the liberation when my memory would have been more exact. I now have only my memories to go on when I make this sketch. It corresponds in most relevant details to reality, but the proportions are only rough approximations. The train pulled in right near the entrance (7). This way when the stock car door was opened we had a view of the motto over the gates: "Arbeit macht frei” (Work sets you free). There were some unusual appendages at this camp quite beyond the norm, as far as such places go. These included a separate zone for special political prisoners (1), a library (6), a brothel (10) and a hospital which was considerably better equipped than one might expect (5). There were repeated rumors that the International Red Cross was going to inspect us. Though I personally never met any of their people, I guess there must have been more frequent inspections at first, then gradually less. (Perhaps this was due to the typhus epidemic in the camp.) The facilities I had listed were most probably created for the benefit of these inspections.
In a closed-off section which they had all to themselves were the more prominent political prisoners (1). They wore their street clothes, were left unshaven, and were allowed to keep their wristwatches. The great writer György Faludy once spoke on television about the horrors of the concentration camps. To my surprise he considered the institution at Dachau an exception. Perhaps he was only informed of this particular section (1). The numbers (2), (3) and (4) denote the kitchen, the bathroom. and the office, respectively. The camp hospital (5) or reviere as it was known, facilitated surgery with the participation of doctors and patients from among the prisoners. Unlike at the barracks, here patients were laid in separate beds with actual bedclothes. The camp library (6) was established using the prisoners' confiscated books. This meant there were quite a few Hungarian volumes there. The number (8) indicates the Appelplatz or parade ground, which may be familiar as a feature of many movies dealing with the camps. Prisoners quartered in the open barracks were lined up here every morning, supposedly for a head count, and were made to stand there for anywhere between a half hour to an hour just to be dismissed. My impression had been that no actual head count was ever conducted, the whole ordeal was devised purely for the inconvenience of the häflings, or prisoners.
Prisoners wore striped uniforms, the jacket marked with the detainee's serial number and a colored triangle denoting their ethnicity. German prisoners wore a black colored triangle. Many of them were ordinary criminals, some were homosexuals. Jewish prisoners were considered of Jewish ethnicity and wore a yellow triangle. The color of one's triangle also defined one's place in the prisoners' hierarchy. The Germans were at the top, and the Jews at the very bottom. Some national Red Cross organizations sent out parcels to prisoners from their respective countries. I never encountered a Hungarian Red Cross parcel as such. It was irrelevant from our point of view anyway, we were considered Jews, not Hungarians. Jews weren't allowed to receive parcels.
As we got out of our stock cars we had to strip naked right there in the open, only shoes and belts were allowed to remain on. We had to leave the rest of our stuff as we went on to the bathrooms. For a few minutes they let the warm water flow in there. After the shower, we were given striped prison clothes and taken to our closed barracks. Two men were assigned to each bed and blanket (Ein Bett, zwei Männer, eine Decke). The beds were furnished with a bare sack of straw. We were given some warm soup that evening, which went down well after three days of starvation. We received three meals a day throughout, but the quantity of these meals gradually decreased. For breakfast we were given army bread and tea. The bread ration was for the whole day. The first 2 or 3 days this meant a quarter loaf of army bread per day per person. Standard issue army bread was the basis of military rations in Hungary. It was a rectangular bran loaf. German army bread was much similar, only it had a strong tang of sawdust. One army loaf would have been about 1 kg in weight. After a couple of days, our daily bread ration was reduced to ⅕ of a loaf, and after a series of reductions the ration bottomed out at a daily one-twelfth of a loaf. This was a finger-thick slice of bread. Lunch on the first day was meat and potatoes. After Christmas day, this was replaced by a watery soup. Our daily rations held around 400-500 calories at this point. Starvation brought about a fundamental change in people, with an animal urge toward acquiring food.
Life in the closed barracks was extremely dull. Conversations focused mostly on a fantasizing about various foods. During our first few days there I had thought it was possible to keep alive in these circumstances, although it was highly uncertain what the Germans might do to us right before the liberation. I was of course mistaken. Little did I know that there would be an outbreak of a typhus epidemic tithing us, nor did I foresee the gradual diminishment of our daily bread ration and the decline of our cooked meals. Some lost all motivation to go on, and regrettably many of them died within three day's time. Starvation increasingly taxed our bodies. With rations becoming so reduced, some of the prisoners simply starved to death. The typhus epidemic took its ample toll. Corpses lay piled up before the barracks for weeks on end before finally being burned.
Occasionally teams of prisoners were organized and sent to labor, where to we did not know. Once the muster for one of these groups for non-Jews was over, two boys switched their numbers and triangles. One of them was one of ours, he served as a labor serviceman with me. He didn't want to be registered as a Jew. The other was a non-Jewish Hungarian boy who was assigned to the group but didn't want to leave into the unknown. It would be of some interest to learn the later fates of these two men.
Even during labor service we were rachitic. There was no cure for our rickets. Whenever we put on a clean, freshly-washed shirt its seams would be full of nits. These were easily burst using one's fingernails, but there was no effective way to keep the lice at bay. We didn't actually transfer our lice into the concentration camp, as all our clothing had been taken beforehand. Yet everyone had lice. Lice bore the epidemic typhus disease, which manifested itself as a rash. As far as I know there are three distinct types of typhus, affecting the abdomen, the head, and the skin. [In fact, typhoid fever and epidemic typhus are often confused but otherwise unrelated conditions - the translator.] All that they have in common is a resulting high fever and a delirious state of mind. The lice caught on to me quite quickly. Beside the fever and loss of appetite, I also developed a bad case of diarrhea. There I was lying on the cot with my cot mate, when an elderly Polish man came along and pointed us out with a vicious air of hatred, saying those are Jews. The next day he filed a complaint against us to our stubeälterster, alleging that we stole his bread. Without any further ado the Czech stubeälterster set about to beat us with a stick. He must have been locked up in that camp for years, and showing signs of unraveling at the seams. Not much later his brain finally gave in and he died. I was lucky because after five or six hits the stick broke. I couldn't sleep at night, I had palpitations.
The next day I was taken to the infirmary with a group. It was cold out in the open and I had no overcoat, yet I somehow made it to the hospital without catching a cold. I wouldn't have thought one could endure so much with such a weakened constitution. When I got to the hospital I could hardly eat a thing for 4 or 5 days. As far as I could judge, my weight diminished to about two-thirds what it was before my illness. The hospital staff wanted to take a urine sample from me. I couldn't possibly urinate without passing feces, I asked for a chamber pot. Apparently the nurses couldn't fathom why this would be necessary. So I couldn't produce a urine sample. The doctors diagnosed me straight off for typhus. According to my knowledge there was no medicinal cure, perhaps there still isn't one today. I was given some sort of medicine, probably to fortify me. The doctors and nurses were prisoners themselves. The Belgian physician was friendly and tried to offer me some mental support as well. After 4-5 days my diarrhea subsided and I recovered my appetite. Provisions at the infirmary were gruel for the most part, and one could ask for seconds. I tried to make the most of this.
When I had managed to pull myself together, I was visited by an SS physician. It was our second encounter. The first time was when we arrived to the concentration camp. He was probably a commander or deputy commander at the camp. For a long time I believed the SS had maintained such a high standard of organization that they deemed it unnecessary to take part in controlling the camp personally. László Erdős wrote that the reason we so rarely saw Germans inside the camp was their fear of the typhus epidemic. He probably has a point. The SS doctor came to take a blood sample from me. They would have needed the blood to develop an antidote for the disease. One could deduce two conclusions from this. One, that the SS didn't trust the camp doctors enough to let them manage the blood samples. Two, it also appears that if their own health was at risk they were willing to settle for "inferior" Jewish blood, they had no qualms of the Semitic blood mingling with the Aryan. The blood sample was taken by puncturing my vein with a needle and withdrawing 3 vials of blood quite rapidly, pumping some 3 dl of blood out of me in total. The rapid blood loss made me sick for a few hours. I saw a corridor at the hospital with a door marked Malaria Laboratory. I guess they must have infected some prisoners with malaria in order to try develop a malaria antidote.
I must have been in hospital for about 2 weeks, after that I was transferred to a barrack. I may have put on a kilo or two of body weight, but all through my time at the concentration camp I never recovered the shape I was in before my illness. Here too there was frequent mustering for labor squads, and the selected were then taken to an unknown destination. Seeing my diminished physical condition, I was shunned by the organizers. Perhaps misery can also have its advantages.
On my sorties from the open barracks I made myself familiar with the camp grounds. I located the library where I was able to borrow books. Among other things I managed to acquire the complete poems of Petőfi. Reading lent me some presence of mind that aided my survival. One time we were delivering some furniture to the prominent politicals' section. That is how I first learned of its existence. We had to stand around every morning on the Appelplatz. It was the disadvantage of an open barrack.
I was in the same stube with many non-Jewish Poles. I once got in the back of a line cueing for the breakfast ration. A Pole came up to me and started yelling that I'd already got my share of breakfast. I told him he was mistaken. Four or five Polish fellows ganged up on me and threatened me. Two Dutch prisoners stood up for me, but I never got my breakfast. I was really surprised by the viciously blatant antisemitism of some of those Polish prisoners. The inhuman conditions we lived in at that camp were probably a contributing factor.
Once I heard a prisoner say there was going to be a lice inspection. I asked if there were consequences for harboring lice. He told me they were all sent to the baths. I asked him what was wrong with that. His answer was blunt: Just hope you don't find out. I found out. We had to go to the baths in the evening. There was an ethnic Transylvanian Saxon young man of about 17, an SS trooper with fluent Hungarian. I don't know what business brought him to that place. He was spitting foam as he expounded to us about the final annihilation of the Jews. We undressed in the bath. Our clothes were taken away. All night we stood there naked and cold in the damp bath building. I was once again surprised how much one could take. One needed inner strength just to survive. When morning came, the warm water was turned on for a few minutes. We were given our clothes back and returned to our barracks.
Luckily it's only from hearsay that I know of how some prisoners were punished with solitary confinement without food or water or lighting, in a cramped dark chamber of about 1 meter each way. This left one no room to stand or to lay down.
My cotmate at the new barrack was Gyurka László, we were the same age. Together we got acquainted to a man 10 years our senior called Pál Schiffer, who was one of the leaders of the then still active Hungarian Social Democratic Party. With his intelligence and calmly level-headed reasoning, he gave us inner strength and this helped us to make it through. We also got to know Mr. Salamon and his son. They were Transylvanians and worked with the Todt organization. The Todt was a German paramilitary labor service. They contributed to the construction of motorways and a series of various military installations. They were an inexpensive labor force for the State. Thus far I was under the impression that Jewish detainees weren't permitted to labor. I then learned that there are three Jewish units within the Todt organization. Those who worked received special rations. One would also receive the standard camp "Zulage", a daily ration of 1-2 dkg of margarine. A further extra food supply was available at labor. This would vary according to one's appointed workplace. The Salamons gave us food. I can't easily find words to express the level of human morality this meant in light of the general self-centered tendencies in the camp. The elder Salamon even arranged for us to work with the Todt organization. Garden work was the best job. The worst one could do, though still an improvement over life in the camp, was storehouse labor. That is what we were assigned to. The group worked outside the camp perimeter. Workers at the storehouse wore nice striped overcoats. We were not issued overcoats. So we were cold on the way to and from our work. After 3-4 weeks we were laid off without any explanation.
I met a Hungarian Jewish boy of 16 or 17 who had been an inmate at Auschwitz beforehand. He told me about the gas chambers and the crematorium they operated there, the mass murders that constituted the "final solution". I had trouble believing the horrific story, but I had to, you just don't make up something like that.
Passing a barrack I heard the familiar melody of a Hungarian song. I went in. A Gypsy master violinist of about fifty was playing his fiddle. The barrack commander must have somehow got him a violin so that they could hear him play.
News of the war got around the camp. Once we acquired a copy of the fascist newspaper Völkischer Beobachter. We were amused to read - however unfunny it was - that Hungarian troops rushed their enemies with the ancient Hungarian battle cry "No bazd meg" [which roughly translates to "fuck you"]. By April we learned that the "straightening out" of various front lines referred to the fact that Soviet forces had Berlin under siege and the Anglo-Saxon forces are also fighting on German soil. It seemed reasonable to assume that the war will soon be over. For fear of bitter disappointment I avoided the thought of liberation. I was sick from vitamin deficiency by then, with lesions inside my mouth. My ankles were swollen in the evenings due to my inadequate heart functions. Despite these ordeals I kept my spirits up. I never considered that these symptoms or our living conditions would lead to my eventual death.
I don't remember how my arm was injured during all this. I went to the hospital’s emergency ward and received treatment for my wound there. I was told to return in two days for a bandage change. As I was about to start for my appointment at the infirmary, they were right in the middle of gathering up all the Jews in the camp. This was arranged so that each Jewish prisoner was picked up by a non-Jewish detainee to escort him to the Appelplatz. I told my escort that I'll walk with him to the parade ground, but may I just get my bandage changed first. My request was denied. I told him not to worry, I wouldn't disappear, if he had any doubts he could come right in with me. I was just told no again. We spent hours waiting out on the Appelplatz, Then we were all sent back to our barracks. Of course the emergency ward was no longer taking appointments that late. The story was repeated exactly on the following day. On day three, the 26th of April, my escort showed up again but abandoned me on the way. So I went in to the emergency ward. As I waited for my turn, my escort showed up again and took me away. It would have been better if I'd never said a word, at least he wouldn't have known where to come looking for me. We were given out paper sleeping bags, striped overcoats, a canteen and a Red Cross package. I reckoned this meant the Americans were soon to arrive and the Germans didn't want them to find a lot of undistributed parcels. This was probably true enough, but in hindsight I would say it's more likely they were going to execute us all and this ceremony was a diversionary measure. Simultaneously the SS was evacuating other concentration camps and bringing more and more prisoners to Dachau. There were plenty of Jewish prisoners among them.
Before I tell you the story of our liberation, let me try to convey the general atmosphere of the concentration camp. It's a really difficult task. I haven't yet read a book, seen a film or play that entirely lived up to my experience. Of course they do reflect a lot of the reality, but something important is missing. Starving people are often like starving animals, they want to live and in order to do that, the moral norm and human integrity may be bypassed. Conditions at a concentration camp may lead people to a distorted view of reality. This is beyond my means to describe. Of course, it isn't our fellows in starvation themselves who are to blame, rather those who had forced them into such a miserable condition in the first place. Many individuals had found the means to maintain their humanity and I've made an effort to cite some prominent examples. The various people connected to the organizing and operating of these camps belong to a criminal element with no moral scruples whatsoever regarding genocide. It was blatantly obvious that some people have the capacity for this, but they are normally restrained by social conventions. Moral values, humanitarian religions, laws, and punitive measures all serve to restrain these instinctive acts of cruelty. However, when extraneous circumstances like war or a regime of terror provide channels for these brutish inclinations, they will surface.
I'll try to compare the Dachau Concentration Camp to other similar sites where Hungarian Jews were kept. I of course have no personal experience of these places. Most horrific of all must have been the regular mass murders at the Auschwitz gas chambers. Many camps held exclusively Jewish prisoners. They at least were exempt of the mixed prisons' hierarchy structure so disadvantageous for Jewish prisoners. Prisoners at Dachau weren't required to carry heavy rocks up the "stairway of death" like in Mauthausen, and we had no heavy physical forced labor the way many similar places did. I'm in no position to compare food rations, but our provisions were probably less life-sustaining than those in many other concentration camps. In the early days of the Dachau camp, Red Cross inspections were held regularly. This probably explains the better-equipped medical and recreational facilities. I have no access to statistics of mortality, but Dachau would probably do no better than average.
I estimate that the concentration camp survival rate for men in my age group of around 20 to be about 60%.
This percentage decreases in proportion to age, and tapers out to around 1% for those aged 60.
[Certificate for Dachau prisoner no. 136. 139]
My feelings had changed several times regarding my process of remembering. At first I felt depressed by my memories of mass murders and humiliation. In a year or two the memories started changing, and they became like memories of images from a movie screen. Some 8 or 10 years on, I had nightmares where I was chased by fascists and I just ran. My evaluation was that I am subconsciously trying to undo these events by fleeing from them.
An exhibition in Prague evoked strong emotions in me. It was set in a synagogue, and showed the drawings of five or six year old children who had lived in the Tereziendtadt concentration camp. For a while at least, the prisoners of that camp enjoyed somewhat better living conditions than most. Some of the families were left together. A less severe environment allowed children to access colored pencils and paper. Next to the drawings one could read the names and the ages when they died. The pictures conveyed that these children wanted to live, but instead they were murdered.
The mass murders of fascism were a gigantic loss in terms of human culture, too. A great number of talented people were liquidated without a chance for their ability to unfold.
The Bible says that after the exodus from Egypt, the Jews had to wander in the desert for 40 years before the new generation, which was free from the traumas of slavery could enter the Promised Land. I feel that likewise I myself can never be truly free from the oppressive memory of fascist slavery, but that future generations of Jews who follow in my wake will be liberated.
I've been asked many times how I managed to stay alive. It required luck, most of all. Physical fitness was also important, but inner strength and the will to keep living were indispensable. I tried to behave as inconspicuously as possible. This isn't necessarily the surefire way to go, but I think it contributed to my survival.
Liberation and homecoming
Jews collected from the camp were crammed into a third class train with wooden seats. There were more of us to a wagon than there were seats. So we squeezed together. Some found room for themselves on the luggage racks. Anyway, we all found our place. On the April 26 the train left with us on board. We didn't know the locomotive's destination.
Red Cross parcels varied according to their countries of origin. The boxes contained canned goods, chocolate, hard bread, cigarettes. Some packages contained canned condensed tomatoes from the Hungarian Globus company. We no longer faced starvation, but it took years for my ravenous appetite to subside.
The following day, on April 27, the train stopped midday. We later learned that we had been in the Garmisch-Partenkirchen district of Bavaria. Word had it the rail bridge had been blown up and the train was stranded here. After a few hours of idling it became apparent we might as well all get off the train. Our SS guards weren't shooting at us or threatening to shoot, or even shouting at all, in fact they talked to us in a rather friendly tone. They told us the Münich radio had announced that the war was over. It seemed unbelievable that it could happen so unexpectedly, without any buildup as far as we were aware. The war was in fact not over. Someone or other must have stormed the Münich radio and announced something ambiguous. I found an allusion to this in a later novelette but it never clarified what had actually taken place.
A while later, the SS guards told us they were taking us to a shelter. We had to make a choice. Either we trust the guards, or we take our own initiative. The latter choice seemed very uncertain, so most of us if not in fact everyone followed the guards. As we ascended the path - the ragged, subhuman-looking bunch we were - it led us up to a peak somewhere in the Alps. There was still snow up there, and the air was moist. A stream flowed right beside the path, its flow fed by the molten snow making its way down. Most of our people were barely dragging themselves along. At first they tried to lighten their load, casting away canteens and sleeping bags, then many just sat down and refused to go any further. Of course we did our best to keep their spirits up, assuring them that we were nearly there now. We helped them get back on their feet, gave them a helping hand. The way was marked by the discarded clutter and people beyond help left to their doom. I guess they must have frozen to death at night. After a 3-4 kilometer hike, we got to a large house. We climbed up to the attic, huddled on the scattered straw we found littered there, and tried to catch some sleep. Next morning we returned to the same path we were on. By then, all signs of our passage had been cleared away. At the railway station we had to acknowledge that we were back to the old way again with the Germans. They told us that for the rest of the trip we would be shuttled in turns by a single-carriage train. Gyuri László and I made the third transport. The train took us to a deserted peninsula on the river Isar. We weren't closely guarded there. Because of the return to their severe tone, we were afraid that once we they have us in one group again, the SS would slaughter us all. I told Gyuri we should make a break for it. Parallel to the river there was a motorway. Between the river and the motorway was a belt of trees. For fear of armed troopers we wouldn't dare take the motorway, so we plodded along the forest. After a few kilometers we arrived to a settlement called Mittenwald. We went door-to-door asking for shelter. Our miserable looks and the striped pajamas were a dead giveaway. We were handed out a loaf of bread or a can of meat, sometimes a lecture on who had relatives interned in concentration camps, sometimes just the cold shoulder. But nobody would give us shelter. Their justification was that there were soldiers everywhere. Once it got dark we were giving up hope on finding a sheltered place to stay for the night. Then finally someone told us there was no bed but some kind of cot can be arranged. They took us to a cellar where there were many people already lying on benches, and there were some empty spots. I laid down one, an SS was asleep on the one next to me. Apparently they'd told us the truth and the village was full of soldiers deserting the front.
The next day I told Gyuri we should try and find a hospital. We realized this village was much bigger than we thought it was. It even had a hospital and some barracks. We went into the hospital. They gave us a bath and clean underwear and we were treated to warm soup and a bed on the corridor. That very day the rest of the group from the Istar peninsula joined us in Mittenwald. They told us that the SS guards had started shooting, and then a woman drove up in a car and told the SS that the Americans are here, the German army has collapsed, and that they might as well ignore the Jews and run for it. The SS guards just took off after that.
There was a great food warehouse in Mittenwald. The next day the villagers raided the warehouse. When word of this reached us we joined in as quickly as possible. (While I was inquiring directions to the warehouse a soldier pointed a gun at me.) I remember there was canned meat and rice, potatoes and white onions from Makó. I guess there must have been many such storehouses throughout Germany. We got ourselves two cans of meat.
American forces took over Mittenwald without any struggle on May 1, 1945. The unit was made up of black soldiers and mulatto officers. It surprised me that the US Army should segregate blacks. The soldiers were in a good mood. They tried to help us out with small gifts. More importantly we could feel that we were liberated at last.
[Bilingual certificate of deportation]
The American command decided that we were to live in the Mittenwald barracks and the newly formed German government was obliged to feed us. The barracks were an acceptable accommodation, but provisions were meager. The lesions in my mouth from my vitamin deficiency had become infected, and my face became swollen. I told one of the American soldiers that I needed medical care. He sat me in his car and drove me to a German dentist. The dentist treated my infection and I gradually recovered. I wasn't starving, but an inner compulsion to eat overpowered me. I ate a one kilo can of canned meat cold. I knew I shouldn't do this, but I couldn't resist eating with the food right in front of me. My weakness gave me years of diarrhea.
I decided to improve our inferior provisions. To go through with my plan, I acquired an electric stove I could cook on. I had some basic ideas about cooking. I got lucky, there was a boy at the barracks who had been a cook in a kosher restaurant in the Óbuda district. I can't seem to remember the boy's name. He was happy to answer all my questions on cooking. I shopped for my ingredients in the village. Currency consisted of cigarettes. An initial stock of cigarettes was provided in the Red Cross parcels. The rest I acquired through trading. One could trade three cigarettes for a can of meat at the barracks. In the village I bartered a can of meat for a pack of cigarettes. Of course I also got other foodstuffs beside the cans such as potatoes, beans, smoked meat, bread, and eggs. It was a short period in my life which I spent trading, or more exactly bartering. I never resumed business after that. Apparently unlike my forefathers, I only have a talent for the most primitive kind of dealing. I made meat loaf out of the canned meat and a delicious soup from the beans and smoked meat. Another feature on the menu was potato paprikás. I also tried to spice up the mess hall lunches. That's how I fried the boiled beef. My trading and cooking, besides being useful activities, also kept me busy and helped pass the time.
We had a problem getting any word on our family members. Our family had agreed that if we were separated and lived through the horrors, we should try contacting Kisrózsi, my mother's stepsister living in New York. Though I'd memorized the address, the postal service was still down. I learned later that Kisrózsi had found my name on a list and alerted my mother. That is how she learned that I had made it through the ordeals of the concentration camp alive.
recived received a hand-written lists of the names of concentration
camp survivors. I scoured them over meticulously. I had a feeling my father or
brother may have been taken to Mauthausen, but I never found their names.
However, on a list of Landsberg survivors I did find the name of Jolán Rothschild
of Zalaegerszeg. My uncle János had been a doctor in the town of Zalaegerszeg.
I asked around if any of the people from Zalaegerszeg knew of any other
Rothschilds there. The answer was a definite ly "no". After
some contemplation I realized that János must have been translated to Johann in
German, and this in turn was either misheard or mistyped. The name on the list
was the name of my uncle. I decided to go to Landsberg. Gyuri László came along
with me. We were issued ID cards in Hungarian and German at Mittenwald.
Identification had not yet been standardized in Germany at that point, and our
papers were better than average. We could come and go at will. Naively I
thought I could just leave behind the stuff I didn't need for the trip. So I
left a suit and a slide-rule I had found at the barracks. I got hold of a map
and we were on our way. We made most of our journey by rail. Some stretches we
had to hitchhike and American soldiers picked us up. We passed through some
French-controlled territory. Finally we arrived to Landsberg. I figured that
since he's a doctor, I'd find my uncle in a hospital. So we found the local hospital.
A man who appeared to be a doctor came up to us and I asked if he knows Dr
Rothschild. I was lucky, the doctor was Hungarian. He asked why we wanted to
find him. After I told him, he said my uncle had been working there until the
day before yesterday, and that he transferred to the Vörishofen Sanatorium just
yesterday. I should try and find him there. It was a holiday resort close to
Landsberg. I don't remember how we finally got there. We found the sanatorium
and my uncle was there. He persuaded me to stay there with him. I said goodbye
to Gyuri László, who returned to Mittenwald. We didn't stay long in Vörishofen.
Orders arrived from somewhere for all deportees to relocate to the hospital in
Kempten. The international staff there was a mix of deportees and refugees from
the Soviet advance in Eastern Europe. A small number of Germans also worked
there. My uncle became head of the department of medicine and was entitled to
fully furnished official quarters. Our standard of living rose considerably. I
worked beside him as a nurse. While examining patients, he lectured me on the
basics of his work. I gained some medical know-how.
As time went on we couldn't figure out what was keeping us from going home. One of the inpatients was Oszi Adler, who had excellent fluent English. With him we found the UN commander and asked for his help to get us home. He told us that as an Englishman he couldn't do anything for us, it's all up to the American command. So we went and talked to the American commander, who flatly refused us. I was flabbergasted that as deportees, who had not months but years of our lives stolen by the Fascists and were even tortured and mistreated, we were forced to give up further months of our time.
Several delegations came to win us with their propaganda. A high-ranking Horthyist officer came and told us of the horrors being perpetrated by the Soviet forces in Hungary. He tried to dissuade us from returning home. A Zionist delegation came to invite us to Israel. (It later came to my attention that those who opted to emigrate spent years living in Cyprus, kept there by the British from entering Israeli territory.)
Most of us did want to return home, which is understandable considering that we knew nothing about the fate of our family members. In September someone told my uncle heard that the Czech Consulate in Munich can help us get home. The following day we both took the train to visit the Consul, who kindly welcomed us. He explained that until we are dispatched we will be given shelter in the Funk Barracks. We may travel as far as Prague as Czech citizens, and the Hungarian Red Cross organization will make further arrangements for us there. These were the first humane and helpful words I had heard in a long time. Munich was in ruins. Most windows were shattered and there were streets where they hadn't even started to clear away the rubble. Nevertheless, we could detect the signs of life returning. Some tram lines were operational. We found a functioning synagogue. As it was a Jewish holiday, we went in. Most of those attending the service were American soldiers. We went back to get the others from Kempten. We told the Hungarians there what news we had, and we started off in a short while. We reported to the Czech Consulate, where they put us up in the Funk Barracks, a haven for citizens of many nations. They even had a Yiddish theater. They put on an interesting play, but I couldn't understand any of the dialogue. On September 19, 1945, we embarked on the train ride to Prague. At the station I came across a group of fellow deportees I knew and who were taking the same route home through Prague. This was the onset of the relocation of Hungarian deportees out of Bavaria. After all the bombed-out German towns I'd seen, Prague made a stunning impression on me. I saw no trace of the war on that town, except for a single Soviet tank displayed on a public square. It was probably the first tank that headed the liberation of Prague. My uncle and I walked through this beautiful city appreciatively, taking in the medieval-style buildings, including the Charles Bridge, the old Town Hall, the Powder Tower, the medieval Old Jewish Cemetery. Suddenly we saw a shop window display of cakes and pastries. We went in to buy some. The shop owner asked us for bread stamps. We told him we had none, that we had been deported to Germany and are making are way home to Hungary. Without a question asked, we were given long-missed connections, and for no charge. I read of a similar incident in a book by László Erdős. They were fed lunch without having any food stamps or cash. His explanation for this was that certain foodstuffs were only permitted to be sold in exchange for food stamps, but giving food away wasn't prohibited. Whatever the legal background was, such charity substantiates the highest humanity and merits on part of certain Czech citizens. The Hungarian Red Cross’ Prague office made arrangements for the rest of our trip. We had two unpleasant setbacks on this final leg of our tour. First, there wasn't room for us on the train. To be exact, the train was crammed full. Those who had climbed onboard didn't want to cram in any more passengers, so we were denied boarding. Our patience was coming to an end at that point, so I persuaded my uncle that we travel on the roof. So we climbed up and sat on our suitcases, and journeyed that way for a while. Suddenly, Russian soldiers appeared on the roof and tried to relieve us of our belongings. When I put up resistance, one of them aimed a pistol at me. I relented, and they took away our three pieces of luggage. Then we started banging on the roof, calling for the emergency brake. That worked. They let us into the carriage. The train entered Hungary via Szob. At the Czechoslovakian border post, the snide and nasty border patrol herded everyone off the train and goaded us all through a meticulous customs inspection. Any military artifacts were confiscated. Some had to give up their ragged and insignia-stripped German military overcoats. Later on, however, our spirits were lifted when we passed through familiar places. Vác, the Rákos shunting yard, then shuffling on under the Ferdinánd Bridge and finally on to Nyugati Station. We were excited as we made our way on foot to our apartment in Hollán utca, with no idea who or what we'll find waiting for us there. When we got home, we found my mother and brother living there in the apartment. They told us that my father, who had been deported along with Gyuri to Mauthausen, had died. My brother Gyuri was still very sick back then, and had to be hospitalized. My father went with him of course. The American medics at the hospital gave all the emaciated survivors a blood transfusion. Due to a clinical error my father was given the wrong blood type, and he died the next morning. My uncle’s wife, sister-in-law, and niece had survived deportation and are in Bergen-Belsen.
There were gaping holes on the walls of our apartment, the house was shot up and most of the firing hit the interiors. About half of our furniture and possessions were riddled with bullets during the war. About 15 people had been moved into the apartment during the building's operation as a Swiss protected house. They had moved out since.
Ordinances were passed requiring the Jews of Budapest to relocate to the ghetto. Those holding Swiss or Swedish protective passports were gathered into the protected houses. Ghetto life was very hard. Food was difficult to come by and as far as I know the water supply was also failing. Inmates were confined to the area of the ghetto and all exits were watched over by armed Arrow Cross militia. Many elderly people died in the ghetto. Protected houses weren't confined, one could come and go wearing a yellow star, of course, and it was thus easier to get food. The Arrow Cross men took people away from both the ghetto and from protected houses, and these people were never to be seen again. Most were taken down to the Danube to be shot, and the bodies were dumped into the river. Groups of Budapest Jews were deported on foot, too. Because people weren't safe in protected houses, my mother decided to go into hiding. As a teacher, she possessed a Hungarian Rail Pass with her photo on it, and it was considered as an official public official's credential. With this document, she passed herself off as a Transylvanian refugee and managed to stay in hiding. Before the Soviet troops reached Transylvania, many people fled the reclaimed territory. Because of their hasty evacuation, many lacked documents, and my mother's credential could be considered sufficient, though it omitted her religion and maiden name.
Recently there has been much talk of the Swedish diplomat Wallenberg, who had rescued thousands of people. A less well-known name is that of the Swiss diplomat Friedrich Born, who, like Wallenberg, had offered much help to the persecuted. Their labors were successful, as far as I know. Their activities extended to the distribution of schutzpaßses, or protective passports to the persecuted. While these passes were officially recognized by the authorities, ignoring them was tolerated without retribution. The protective passes gave at least some Budapest Jews access to protected houses instead of living in the ghetto. For labor servicemen, the schutzpaß offered no protection whatsoever. My own example clearly illustrates this when my commander turned me over to the Arrow Cross militia because of my schutzpaß. This is also evident from the fate of my father and brother, who had been deported alongside labor servicemen who had no protective papers. I know of no statistic that measures how many of the countless Jews crammed into the protected houses and the ghetto actually made it to the liberation. Protected houses were somewhat safer than the ghetto, because people had better living conditions there. But life or death was often decided by random and minor circumstances. Both diplomats helped persecuted people in hiding, and they helped them acquire forged papers for traveling abroad, amongst other things. Nevertheless, Wallenberg and Born, as well as other diplomats, did all they possibly could to aid the escape of persecuted Hungarians. They turned out to be good and righteous men.