In Christian Disguise
I agreed to tell my story because I feel that I have, or that my generation has, a moral obligation towards our young people. We are the last, and the only generation who eye-witnessed and lived through the Holocaust. We have memories. We have to pass these memories on to the next generation. It is our responsibility to help them understand the values of our Jewish people and of our heritage. Through our memories we show them that being Jewish for most of us, it is the epitome of the value of humanity, that we are the people who gave the moral code to the world. We are the people who have maintained that one single life is precious in a world where terrorism strikes regularly.
We have to remind them that our people survived the persecutions through the centuries because of remembering. If we won't do this, then there will be no one to carry on the torch of remembrance and pass it on to the next generation. We owe this to our parents, to all those millions who suffered and perished in the Holocaust. When I visited Yad Vashem, I saw an inscription engraved in the wall. It says: "Forgetfulness leads to exile, while remembrance is the secret of redemption."
Now, I will tell you "MY STORY" in a very condensed version....
I was born in Hungary in a small village on April 3rd, 1928. When I was 2 years old, we moved to a medium size town called: Nyiregyhaza, where we had a large flourishing Jewish community. Although my parents were quite religious, I went to a Protestant high school, because we didn't have a Jewish high school in this city. I was a normal, happy child. I had a large group of friends, Jews, and Christians as well. My favorite subject in school was Hungarian literature-poetry. I was always first in this subject. On national holidays, I was always selected to recite the appropriate patriotic poems. I was very proud of this. I am telling you all this because, I want to emphasize the fact that I considered myself Hungarian first, and my Jewishness was secondary to me. However, I never had a conflict of being Jewish and Hungarian at the same time. As I told you previously, I grew up in a Jewish milieu.
At this particular time, I was looking forward to my approaching sixteenth birthday. I could hardly wait to become A "young lady" a grown up. The Germans occupied Hungary on March 19, 1944. From that day on, everything changed rapidly. We were not allowed to go to school any longer, and then the order came, that the Jews had to wear a yellow star. For my long awaited sixteenth birthday (on the exact day), I got the yellow star as a birthday present. Soon after they herded us into the ghetto. Our friends and neighbours among whom I grew up with, watched us as we were marched in long lines into the ghetto. We were allowed to bring only the most necessary articles with us. The gendarme who came for us made a remark when he pulled my silver school ring off my finger: "Where you go, you won't need this any longer."
We stayed in the ghetto for a few weeks. During this time; my mother gathered information about our future destination, and she decided that the time had come to make plans about our escape. We knew a Hungarian peasant couple who sold us our weekly supply of poultry for years. They liked us, we were their favorite Jews. They bought Christian birth certificates for the whole family and the man agreed to accompany us to Budapest, when my mother decided on the date. I'll never forget that day as long as I live.
0n this particular day my mother, who by nature was a very active, energetic person was quiet all day. She was sitting motionless for a long time, absorbed in her thoughts, when suddenly she jumped as if she woke from a trance and said: "let's go, the time has come."
My father started to beg her, "please let us stay, someone would recognize us, they would catch us and what would happen to us then?" My mother didn't listen, she just kept on going straight to the door, and out onto the street. At the first corner she turned back and saw that my sister and I were following her. Miraculously nobody recognized us, and by hiring a carriage, we went to the train station. (The following morning they emptied the ghetto and deported my father.) At the station the man met us and accompanied us to Budapest. Arriving in Budapest he left us and we were on
our own. My mother had a brother who lived in Budapest with his family for a long time. We went to their apartment. When he saw us he got hysterical. He started to give us a lecture that we Jews from the countryside are the cause of anti-Semitism. What had happen to us, could never happen to the Jews in Budapest, because they were assimilated Jews, not like us ghetto Jews. It was obvious that we couldn't stay. We spent only one night there. The next morning my mother had to find another place for us. She had a cousin who got married in Budapest. They liked each other very much when they were children. My mother knew their address and we went to see them. They were not so happy to see us either, but they agreed to let us stay until my mother found another solution.
A few weeks after our arrival, the restrictions started for the Jews in Budapest. They had to move into the ghetto. They also designated a few buildings outside the ghetto with the yellow star on the front, which they called "Jewish Houses." Our building became one of those houses. My mother recognized the situation. She had this "dČja-vu" feeling and started to make plans again.
I had a Christian girlfriend in my home town with whom I went to school for years. We were very fond of each other. They moved to Budapest in 1942. Her father got a position as a concierge in a Seminary. We kept in contact with each other, we corresponded regularly. I wrote her a letter telling her where I was. A few days later she came to see me and took me to see her parents. They were very kind and after hearing my story, they decided that they would let me stay with them as a relative who escaped from Transylvania. My parents were supposed to be dead, that they died in an air raid. I stayed with them from the beginning of June until the 15th of October. I visited my mother and my sister once or twice a week. These visits were quite adventurous and dangerous.
On October 15th, I left the Seminary in the morning and stayed with my mother for a few hours. When I returned, I saw that the whole block was surrounded by the police and a big crowd was on the street. This was the day when the Horthy regime fell and Szalasi and his "arrow-cross" gang took over. The reason for the commotion was that the younger son of Admiral Horthy was hiding in one of the neighboring buildings. They caught him shot him and he was wounded. The crowd was screaming and cheering and the members of the Szalasi gang, drunk from their victory, were shooting in the air. It was chaos everywhere. I realized that I couldn't go back to the Seminary, so I turned back and went to my mother's place.
The 30 minute trip took me more then 2 hours. I found my mother in a "half-dead" state. They had heard what was happening in that part of the city. The situation worsened each day. Szalasi and his gang surpassed the Nazis in their hatred for Jews. Fourteen and fifteen year old youngsters, rifles on their shoulders, sometimes the rifles were bigger than themselves, were stopping people on the street. If they didnt like their faces or their papers weren't satisfactory for them, they either shot them on the spot, or herded them to the shore and shot them into the Danube.
It was time again for my mother to make plans. Her older sister who escaped from the ghetto the same time as we did with her three children, two teenage sons, and a twenty-year-old daughter, rented an apartment in a Christian suburb (they had money). They passed themselves off as refugees from Transylvania. Fortunately the city was full of these refugees. We moved in with them and stayed there until liberation.
Every minute of our staying there, we were in constant fear, because the members of the gang stormed into the building unexpectedly for inspection, looking for Jews in hiding and for deserters. Even after all these years. I have difficulty to talk about those scenes I had to witness. What they did with those who they found, I still have nightmares because of this. In our building, as we later found out, we had a few Jewish families in hiding. As I mentioned before, my aunt who escaped from the ghetto with her three children rented the apartment. Her daughter, who was about 20 years old, with her extraordinary courage managed to save approximately 30 people. There was a Christian gentleman in the building who together with my cousin, provided food for us, bribed those who were suspicious. This 20 year-old girl was like a tigress. She was constantly on the watch, day and night kept guard over all of us. Without her, and that Christian gentleman couldnt have survived. She was lying, cheating, and stealing if it was necessary. Nothing would deter her, she was fearless. As I mentioned, we had about 30 Jews hiding in the building. I just would like to mention one family with three children, aged three to ten years old. They never revealed their true identity. They stuck to their story to the end. As I said before, we were in constant fear. But when you are sixteen, you do not react to danger the same way as an adult does. My mother, who by this lime was well trained to any given situation, had a hard time with me because of my recklessness. I wanted to do something too. She sent me once or twice a week to the local bakery for our weekly ration. I became friendly with the owner. When we became more acquainted, he introduced me to his workers. They asked me if I wanted to help them. When I said yes, they took me to the cellar where they had a little printing office. They printed flyers with anti-fascist slogans, revealed news about the front line, forged birth certificates, ration cards and identity cards. I worked with them for a while.
In the beginning of December the air raids became frequent. Although our lives were in danger too, these air raids were blessings for us because the members of the gang could not come for their inspections. On quieter days we spent many hours in the movie-theater: that was the safest place. At the end of December our building got a direct hit and we had to move down to the shelter permanently. These last few weeks were the hardest for me to endure. We were about a hundred people jammed in one room. Everybody was irritated, hungry and exhausted. The children were crying all the time. Those who were suspicious about our identity started to make loud remarks about Jews in hiding. The atmosphere became very tense, heated and hostile. We were isolated from the outside world. Nobody knew what was going on.
Finally one morning we woke up to strange voices. Someone was banging the outside door of the shelter. A few minutes later, two Russian soldiers came in with machine guns in their hands. We were crying and laughing at the same time.
Our journey home took us more than a month. We started in the middle of January and arrived at the end of February. In the Spring my father came back from Auschwitz in a deplorable physical, mental and emotional state. it took him a long time to recover. One month after our return. I went back to school.
This is my story in a nutshell. There are stories, thousands of stories similar to mine. Stories filled with pain, horror and sufferings. I could consider myself as one of the "lucky" ones. I was not in Auschwitz, my parents were alive, I had them for a long time after.
I would like to talk about the psychological effects I had after our return. I told you at the beginning that I was looking forward to my sixteenth Birthday. I could hardly wait to become a grown-up. After our return my mother had a hard time with me, because I simply refused to acknowledge the fact that I was already seventeen years old. I did not want to be a grown-up. I wanted to remain a child forever. I let my hair grow and put large ribbons in it. I acted like a ten-twelve year old. I did not trust anybody. With this behavior, I wanted to erase all those painful experiences from my memory. Then I met my future husband. He needed more consolation than I did. He lost all his family. They all perished in the Holocaust. The reasons why we did not leave Hungary then, were firstly because of my father's condition, secondly because my husband was waiting for someone to return from his family. When he realized that no one ever would come back, he acted like a mad man. He wanted justice.
What I could never forgive is, that they deprived me of my youth, of my innocence. They forced me to cheat, to lie. They made me witness all that ugly, inhuman behavior. They tried to destroy my sanity, my belief in humanity in beauty, in life itself. You do not have to kill someone physically to destroy that person. They did it to thousands of children whose childhood vanished forever. To those who were forced to cheat and to lie in order to survive. (Like my cousin) That they did not succeed with me was due to my mother and those handful of Christian people who helped us. The real impact came in 1956 during the revolution, when we had to escape again. This time with three small children and when we had to leave our two year old daughter behind. It took us five agonizing months to get her back. But this is another "story" in itself....
When finally we arrived in Canada, in spite of the hardship we had at the beginning, for the first time in many years, I felt safe for ourselves and for our children. Then I made a vow. I promised that when I will be able financially and time wise, I would participate in community work. Since 1967 I am involved in many areas of the Jewish Community. This way I feel I have my personal revenge. Through my involvement I defeated them. In spite of all those experiences they made me go through, or because of them, I became a more tolerant, more understanding human being, a better person. What is more important to me, is to be a better Jew. My Jewishness comes first. I have found my true, my real identity.
Dear Agi, April 24, 1995.
At our last telephone conversation you had a request. You wanted us to recall, how we felt or reacted at the time or after our liberation. Neither of us had the idea how painful, this recollection would be for us.... I managed to do mine. After reading it to Dad, we had a lengthy reminiscence, had a good cry and he promised me that we will do his, shortly....
You already heard our "story" (more or less). You have a copy of mine, so I'll just tell you a more detailed version of the last paragraphs of that written testimony.
Because of our building got a direct hit, we had to move down to the shelter. We stayed there for a few weeks. These past few weeks were the hardest for me to endure. We were about a hundred people jammed in one room. Everybody was irritated, hungry and exhausted. The children were crying all the time. Those who were suspicious about our identity, started to make loud remarks about Jews in hiding. The atmosphere became very tense, heated and hostile. We were isolated from the outside world. Nobody knew what was going on. If we had to stay longer in that shelter, G-d knows what would have happened to us there.
Finally, one morning we woke up to strange voices. Someone was banging the outside door of the shelter. A few minutes later two Russian soldiers came in, machine-guns in their hands. We were crying and laughing at the same time. That was our first and natural reaction. I am sure that you heard stories about the behaviour of the Russian soldiers. My mother was afraid what they would do to me and to my sister and even to herself. I don't want to judge or justify their behavior, but after when they told us stories about the behaviour of the German and Hungarian soldiers in Russia, we understood them, but we were still afraid. Because I had very short hair, and I looked like a young boy, my mother dressed me as one. She hid my sister. She was 19 years old. My mother was 42 and a quite attractive woman. She dressed up as an old woman, put a kerchief on her head, and acted like an old woman. After the first week of our liberation the first group of Russian soldiers left and a new group came. Fortunately, the officer who was in charge was a Jew. He was very kind to us. We didn't have to disguise ourselves any longer. My mother was anxious to return home and asked the officer to help us leave the city. The war was still on. As you know, Budapest consists of two cities; Buda and Pest. The two cities are connected with several bridges. By this time, the Germans blew up all the bridges. While Pest was already liberated by the Russians, Buda was still occupied by the Germans. We could see the flames, and hear the heavy bombardment from our place.
In the middle of January (1945) we left our place. The Russian officer put us in a big army truck and took us to the train-station. We stayed there for a few days. Chaos was everywhere. The Russians didn't allow civilians to use the trains. Finally they took pity on us and let us climb up on the top of a wagon and we started our long and "adventurous" journey home We arrived to Debrecen (50 km from Nyiregyhata, our home-town) at the end of January. There, we were greeted by a few Jewish men. They came home from Labour Camps, or from hiding. They took us to their place. We stayed with them for about a week. They let us rest for a few days. We were totally exhausted. We didn't wash, or changed our clothes for 2 weeks. They had to burn our clothes because they were infested with lice. It took us a while to get rid of them.
By the beginning of February we arrived to Nyiregyhaza. We were the first women arriving back. A few men were already there, just like in Debrecen. Among them was your Dad. He arrived to Nyiregyhaza in the first week of November 1944 with a few other young men who escaped from the Labour Camp. They also put up a temporary shelter for those who came back and didn't have a place to stay. They occupied a large house (a former Jewish home) with a big kitchen and whoever went there, received all kind of help. Besides doing this, his main concern was to bring justice. When he found out that no one will ever come back from his family, he went after the collaborators and all those who participated in the deportation and persecution of the Jewish population in the City. With the help of the Russians, he had sent a large number of people to Siberia. He will tell you all about this in his "story".
Now, I go back to my first few months of our liberation. You asked me about our reactions. We were happy and thankful of course that our ordeal has ended, but the psychological and emotional trauma just started. Until then, we were too busy just to survive, that we didn't have time or maybe we didn't want to think about the future. We didn't dare to ask the question; "What's coming now?" I was one of the "lucky" ones. I had my mother who was always alert, always thinking about the next move, but then, even her, she never talked about my father, or her large family, or about our future when we return home. These questions were taboo. As I said, we were too busy to appease our constant hunger, or just surviving. When we arrived after our long journey to Nyiregyhaza, we met with the same hostility as we had before we left, There were a few people who were happy to see us, but most of the population reacted with open hostility toward us. We were like ghosts to them, Especially for those who took over Jewish homes with all the furnishing, or those who were collaborators or participated in the deportation process.
We were three of us: my mother, my sister and myself. For each of us the reactions were different. As I wrote in my "Story" I just didn't want to acknowledge that I was already 17 years old.
I detested grown-ups. I saw too much ugliness, inhuman behavior, I was exposed to all those horrors committed by grown-ups that I just didn't want to be one of "them". As I recall now, we never ever talked about our experiences, neither among us nor with friends or schoolmates. I guess, we were anxious to go on with our lives. For my mother, survival was the main concern again. She had to do something about making a living for the three of us. Before they took us to the ghetto, my father buried some merchandise from our store in our backyard and hid a few things in the attic. When my mother dug up the place, she found out that half of the things were rotten, or mildewy. I remember cleaning those stuff, trying to save the dry, usable parts. My mother started her "business" by exchanging threads, yarns, soaps. candles, needles, buttons, ribbons to all kinds of food. We were home for two months already when we realized that Passover was approaching. My mother didn't want to hear about it. She didn't want to prepare or even think about Seder night, not without my father.
Just a few days before Passover someone ran to our home, yelling: Mrs Guttmann, your husband just arrived He is at the train-station. The stationmaster was the son of our former landlady. He recognized my father. He was asking if there were any Jews in the city, where he can stay. When the man told him that his family was already home, waiting for him, he started to cry. The man brought him home. It is very hard to describe his condition. His look was beyond recognition. He didn't weigh more than 80 lbs. He looked like a skeleton. He wore the striped "uniform" of the Auschwitz inmates. His whole face was covered with scabs. Blood was oozing from both corners of his mouth. How and from where he got the strength to make the journey home, remains a mystery till this day. He was one of the very first ones arrived from a Concentration Camp. It was heartbreaking for us to see him in that condition. He behaved like a lost child. He was extremely sick, physically, mentally and emotionally. It was again my mother who took charge...Now, she wanted to celebrate Passover. With the help of the small Jewish Community, those few young men, she obtained the necessary dishes and food, and prepared our first Seder. Everybody was invited. My father, in that pitiful condition conducted the Seder. I will never forget that Seder as long as I live...We all were emotionally drained.
You asked me about my reactions, my feelings after liberation. As you know, I went back to school. You also heard that I didnt feel comfortable among adults. After my father's return from Birkenau I underwent a strange change. Now, I didn't feel comfortable among my schoolmates either. I had nothing in common with them. I was the only Jew in the class. Although I never talked about my experiences with anyone, they were always present. It couldn't have been otherwise. The constant quests for remaining survivors in our family, my fathers struggle for keeping his sanity, my sisters strange behavior your Dads (who was a frequent visitor in our home) suffering and longing for his lost family, my mother heroic struggle to cope with all these. We were liberated physically but the emotional scars were there. Everybody was looking for missing family members. Just to see our Dad's reaction every time he met returning survivors. He was hoping for months for some good news. Or my mother and father's desperate search. Both of them had very large families before the war. We never asked my father about his experiences or told him ours. We knew that he went through hell. He was screaming in his dreams. Many times he woke up in the middle of the night after a terrible nightmare, went to the kitchen, grabbed a big knife and wanted to kill my mother or my sister. He took them for kapos. He was screaming that they killed his little daughter. My mother and sister had to climb out the window when these incidents occurred. I sat down with him, took the knife and the same way as you talk to a child, tried to explain to him that I was there alive, and he was safe at home with his family. Yes, we were liberated, but emotionally we were crippled.
I just would like to mention two episodes from this period. Before the war I had many friends, but this particular girl (Zsuzsi Beck) was my dearest friend. We were inseparable. We shared our deepest secrets. When we returned home, I was desperately looking for her name among the list of names of survivors who returned back and looking for friends and relatives. One day one of my other friends came back and told me that she was together with Zsuzsi in the Camp. She got typhoid near the end of the war. She was very sick. She was with her the night before she died. Her last words were: " Kicsi, I give you my bread."
Before the war, like every other l 6 year-old girl, I had my first love. I was desperately in love with him. When we were in the ghetto, in spite of the inhuman condition we were in, I felt the happiest girl in the whole world. I was with him every day. I worshipped him. We walked hand in hand. During my hiding, and after our return I was hoping and dreaming of his return. One day we were walking on the street with your Dad, when this young man approached me. He said he wanted to speak to me. I knew right away that something terrible had happened. He was his best friend. He told me that he was very sick and when they had the death march he was too weak to walk, he collapsed and then shot him on the spot. I felt that this was the last blow. As I told you, your Dad was with me. I told him the whole story, my dreams, my hopes, everything that had accumulated inside me during all this long nightmare. I was only 17 years old. He understood me, we were very good friends. He started to tell me about his own feelings how he missed his family, especially his mother. We both started to cry. We had a common bond. I understood his loss, his loneliness. He started to drink heavily in order to forget. He used to work all night long, came to our home the next morning, his fingers were swollen from working all night. He came to our house, sat down, started to cry for his mother, and left. The next day he didnt remember anything. I realized then, how much he needed someone.
As time passed, our friendship grew and we decided that we would get married. The rest, you already know. This marriage based on friendship, trust, and most of all on our common experiences, common needs. Although we seldom talked about our experiences, we understood each other's mood changing, nightmares, fears. You and your sister Marta were named after his two beloved, beautiful sisters.
I don't know if I expressed myself clearly enough, or this is what you wanted from me, or my recollection was coherent enough. You can put together all those feelings, frustrations, pains, hopes, fears, and you will understand why we survivors call this period "The anguish of liberation."