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TABLE OF CONTENTS

Key Words & Abstract

1. The Dream

2. Prologue and Disclaimer

3. Let the Story Begin

4. Hanging Clouds

5. And Then the War

6. Mobilization!

7. Year Two

8. Year Two etc

9. Peace?

10. The Mark of Cain

11. How to Obtain a New Identity

12. Bolt of Lightning

13. Brush with Death

14. Liberation!

15. Credo

16. Epilogue

17. A Brief History of Hungary's Jewry

Volume 19

Andrew Salamon

Childhood in Times of War

published by the
Concordia University Chair in Canadian Jewish Studies

Copyright © Andrew Salamon, 2001

N.B. An interactive version of this memoir will be online shortly.
-webmaster (June 2002)


From the depth of desperation did I call out to you, O Lord.

But You have not heard me, nor did You answer me.


With dedication to ruthy, my ever patient wife, the Salamons who are unable to read it and to Joe, friend, critic and editor, without whose help and encouragement this would have never been published .


OR WAS IT A DREAM I'VE DREAMT?

And eprhaps these things never happened at all...

Perhaps - it seems now -

I never rose at dawn to work in the valley

By the sweat of my brow.

And never, high on the sheaf laden wagon, during the long

And scorching days of harvest, did my voice rise in song?

And never I bathed in the silent and blue innocent gleam

Of my Kinereth   Was it real? Or did I dream a dream?

Rachel


Key Words

Hungary; Budapest; Kobanya (suburb of Budapest); Budszentmihaly (village in Hungary); General Horthy; antisemitism; BBC broadcasts; invasion of Czechoslovakia; forced labour unit; hiding; bombing of Budapest; Budapest ghetto; Nazi Youth; Arrow Cross brigades; Yellow star; Swiss consulate; Raoul Wallenberg; assumed identity; labour camp; Father Kun; Adolf Eichmann; Hanoar Hatzioni; Russian soldiers.


Abstract

Born in 1932, the author's father was a glazier, his mother was well-educated. Father left Orthodoxy in favour of Conservative Judaism. Describes his childhood before the war as idyllic. Parents open a store in Budapest for glassware repair and as a showroom for glassware and porcelain. His brother Mordi was four years older. Author attended a local elementary school, describes several antisemitic incidents he experienced in school after 1939. Father was sent into the Hungarian army as a foot soldier in the invasion of Czechoslovakia. As Germany's influence within the Hungarian army increases, his father is sent to a forced labour camp and later to a forced labour unit. Describes the onset of various restrictive laws against Jews, the wearing of the Yellow star, the restriction on movement, curfews, etc. After the Nazi takeover in 1944, Hungarian Jews face more restrictions and deportations to concetration camps. Author states that many Hungarian Jews were aware of Nazi concentration camps by 1944. Describes air bombing of Budapest, how Jews were forbidden from entering air-raid shelters. Author and his mother are forced to leave their apartment and are sent to a Yellow Star building attached to the synagogue in Kobanya. Describes living conditions as cramped, food becoming more scarce. After it became clear that living in that building would be too dangerous and facing the increasing danger of being arrested and sent to a concentration camp, mother decides they must all live separately, believing the family would have a better chance at survival. Author takes on an assumed identity, robs corpse of clothing and identity papers. He also assumes the identity of a young Nazi, spending time with various groups of Nazi youth. Describes one group's beating of an old Jewish couple and hearing of their murder the following day. Group of Nazi youths discover author's Jewish identity: he is beaten and then sent to be shot into the Danube. Describes being rescued by members of the Zionist group Hanoar Hatzioni masquerading as SS officers. Father is saved by Raoul Wallenberg. Family reunites and hides in a lumberyard for last weeks of the war. Family is liberated by Russian soldiers on January 5, 1945. author discusses how his survival has affected his beliefs. Provides a brief history of Hungarian Jewry at the end of his memoir.


THE DREAM

I am walking inside a deep forest. Light filters weakly through the heavy foliage. The dark wide path is lined with tall trees, leading straight towards some unknown destination. In the dark forest I cannot see much further than the row of trees standing in front of me.

I can hear a conversation--a group of people, unseen but not too far from me. I can also hear the vicious barking of dogs; they are close to where I stand. I speed up my steps, to avoid the animals. To no avail; the barking grows louder and my unknown destination still far away. All of a sudden the dogs emerge in the small clearing of the footpath. They are large and ferocious as I have feared. And they rush straight at me.

I open my mouth and want to scream, scream of fear as well as to cry for help. Surely the people nearby will hear me and come to my rescue, they will call off the dogs and save me from the attacking wild pack. Surely they will not let me perish in such a cruel way. I want to scream, but my throat chokes up and the only sound escaping it is a small, pitiful whimper.

The dogs are at my side. They snap at my legs and try to bite my hands. One of the dogs leaps straight at my neck, baring his huge fangs, as the head stretches upwards. I desperately try to cry out, to scream once again. A last call for help, before being gored to death by the attacking wild beasts. But, as before, I am unable to scream. All I can make is the same whimpering sound. I whine and whimper in desperation, but to no avail. Nobody hears my call for help, no one will come to rescue me. Still I whimper and whimper...

I am awakened by the sound of my own whimper and my wife's voice: "It is all right, Shlomo, it is only a dream." I slowly shake myself out of my nightmare and fall back onto the pillow, drenched with perspiration.

For many years after the War I had neither the reason nor the occasion to think about what I had gone through. Resuming a normal life, aliyah, life on the kibbutz, army service and marriage life was too rich and active to wallow in self pity or remembrances. I believed, that if those years had had any impact on my psyche, it has been erased long ago. Yet, unexpectedly, the nightmare began.

The vicious attacking dogs, my inability to call out for help and the final realization, that there would be no help in coming to rescue me--this nightmare haunted me night after night for many months. I understood what had prompted this dream and I was puzzled by it. Why such intense feelings? And why now, when I found complete fulfillment and happiness in my life?

I refused to give the dream any importance and did nto contact a psychiatrist, did not discuss it with family or friends. Only my wife knew about my recurring nightmare and was puzzled and confused by it. Life continued and the nightmares stopped, as suddenly as they had come. Never again did I dream, think or even talk about the war years. I was not affected by the Holocaust, had no emotional wounds, no bad memories, none of the symptoms survivors so often displayed. I simply put those years out of my mind. No more useless memories, no more nightmares.


PROLOGUE AND DISCLAIMER

Let me start off by stating that I don't believe in the Holocaust.

No, no, put down that receiver. There is no need to call the B'nei Brith Anti-Defamation League or the Human Rights Commission. I don't mean to say that I do not believe the Holocaust really occurred. After all, I am one of the survivors, remember.

What I am saying is that I don't believe in the perpetuation or mystification of a period, which took place half a century ago. I don't agree with those who cultivate the ethos of living through and surviving an assault on all of humanity, not just on us. I don't find it necessary or justified to portray us as the unique victims of a cruel system and to claim that all other sufferings, past and future, and insignificant or at least somewhat diminished in light of this horrendous event. In brief, I don't believe that by simply surviving this period of madness, we have obtained some unique hold over suffering or righteousness. I believe and hope, that those who have who have experienced this assault have come out of it with a keen sensitivity to discrimination and racial hatred. But that is another story and a disappointment to me. And I don't want the Holocaust to be used forever as a cover up, an excuse for Jewish or Israeli deeds and misdeeds, which need to be condemned. There must come a time, when we are able to set aside this giant shadow and go on living without it, under the sun.

So why am I writing this book, nevertheless? A good question! The answer is not as good, nor is it a simple one. It started with my son, Ilan, who asked me one day, if I could recount for him some of my wartime experiences. A simple request.

In the past, I never believed that my feelings toward the memories of those years were ambiguous in any way. I never consciously tried to put them out of my mind, but neither did I mull over them. To tell the truth, I never considered them significant or profound. My memories were of a wartime childhood, that's all. No active resistance, no heroic fighting the oppressor, only a struggle for mere survival, the most basic human and animal instinct.

I also did not keep my memories inside myself because of some inner pain, that recalling my memories would cause. There was no pain, only ever more distant memories. Simply put, nobody ever asked me to talk about my childhood years, so, short of some brief anecdote or other, I never talked about them. It seemed to me that my experience must be quite uninteresting, if nobody wishes to hear about it.

I am generally a rather unassuming person. Whereas others can talk about the most insignificant details of their lives, as if they were important events that should interest everyone (not only themselves), I seldom life to be the center of attention or the heart of the party. While rich in experience, well read and travelled, I usually fell that people are not (and have no reason to be) interested in hearing my stories. In any case, others usually believe that their own stories are so much more amusing, entertaining, worthy of being told. On such occasions, I listen patiently, with indulgence and a slight, hidden boredom. Most peoples' stories are rather mundane, predictable and not at all unique or profound.

Then Ilan came with his simple question. Asking hesitantly, still not knowing what my reaction would be. It was triggered by him attending some conference or another on the children of survivors. As I never called myself a Survivor, I also prevented them, my sons, from considering themselves as the children of a Survivor.

Now there is another idea, which seems very offensive to me: that simply being born to one who survived the war bestows on the children some unique distinction or status. Those spoiled children, who were provided with all the privileges of petit bourgeois famelies, the Yuppies who grew up into carefree, aggressive young adulthood are now claiming some new sort of privilege: that a sainthood, nurtured in the shadow of their parents' past. No, I did not think my children needed that kind of moral crutch. They are definitely not part of the babyboomer generation, a generation of grabbers and complainers, claiming to have the right to a good life, without making any effort to achieve it. The Jewish "boomers" extended their grab to include the halo of the Holocaust. Without going through suffering, even without understanding what the holocaust was about. They do not understand, perhaps because there is nothing to understand. Man's cruelty to man is nothing new: Josephus in The Jewish War recounts massacre after massacre of entire villages, inflicted by the various Jewish tribes and sects upon each other. So the Holocaust was not a new phenomenon, it was only better organized and executed, using the advanced technology and machinery of a modern state. Of course, rather than just random mass killings, the Nazis strove to wipe out an entire race. There is no mystique here. But I am digressing.

So my son's quest caught me by surprise. Still I responded in the positive, reassuring him that discussing my childhood will not rip open some deeply hidden, barely healed wound. Yet when he sat down beside me, ready to listen to my recounting of the tales of another time, I had to beg off, for the moment at least. give me some time to recollect my memories, I said. let me put together some old pictures to illustrate my story. I just wanted to gain some time and also to set up the scene properly. Not a casual afternoon chat for me. I needed some more dramatic set up. If already I am going to talk, let the talk take place on my terms.

Ilan agreed, though, I suspect, a bit disappointed. You see, Ilan is quite an impulsive young man. Once he decided to pose the question, he expected an immediate response. Even so, he agreed to postpone our talk.

And then I recalled Jim. Professor Simeon is my brother-in-law and a fellow child survivor. James found a way to get his memories out of his system: he contacted some Jewish organization, which was taping interviews with survivors and arranged to have a video taping session. It took place some time ago and at the time I did not react. He is an academic, I thought, more articulate than myself. Of course they would be interested in taping his recollections, but who would be interested in mine? So I let the subject drop.

Now I became interested. Found out who the organization was and put my name on some waiting list. Then a few days later a telephone interview. Did you live in a ghetto? No. Have you been in a concentration camp? no. Have you been in a forced labour camp? No. A few more similar questions, a few mroe negative answers and the interview was over. I felt foolish, as if I've just flunked some entrance test for being accepted into a prestigious club. I knew it, I told myself, who would be interested in the experiences of a little child in war-torn Hungary, who just managed to stay alive, simply, without any heroism or great suffering? What is my meagre experience vis-ą-vis the truly horrific experiences of the camp survivors, or the ghetto fighters?

So I put the whole thing out of my mind for a few days. Until the call came. It caught me by surprise. The call was simply to set a date for the taping and to arrange for a preliminary interview. I still had my doubts when I put down the receiver. Very likely the interview will confirm my inability to ofer anything worth taping and saving, anything profound and original.

Nevertheless, as a well-organized and planned individual, I set out to prepare myself for the interview. I put together some jotted down one liners on key events of the war and looked up some old photographs from those years.

The interview was a morale booster for me. The questions showed genuine interest and empathy. The details came easy and quick. I felt truly flattered that, for the first time, someone actually showed interest in my past, my childhood.

You see, I grew up with a lot of complexes. The least of them was caused by my being Jewish in an anti Semitic land. I am talking about the later years. A Hungarian in Israel, with a quite heavy Hebrew accent. Hungarians were always the butt of jokes (igen-migen). Later an Ashkenazi among my wife's Sefardi family and friends. Even later an immigrant to Canada, again with a mixed background and a heavy foreigner's English accent. And a quiet, somewhat subdued member of an almost purely francophone friends' circle, with the handicap of speaking fairly limited and intellectually limiting French. All in all, I was used to be a participant, not a leader of social intercourse. And now here I am going to be an interviewee, the focus of the show, not its spectator.

Of course, thanks to my professional background and experience, I am used to public speaking. I am not a shy person, I can conduct seminars and workshops, presentations and demonstrations. But these are business activities, where the topic is some business subject or another, requiring only my professional knowledge, not myself, the individual. Also, with the advantage of dispensing my expertise to people who lack this knowledge--thus being placed in a privileged central position.

Now it  is time to begin telling the story. I am sorry I have taken up so much of your time, dear reader, with what I planned to be a short introduction. But by now I cannot help myself--I have to get the whole story out of my system. The events, the background, all of it. So you must be patient with me if I cannot stop the flow of words from pouring out of me. Perhaps I have misjudged my emotions on this matter all along, perhaps these memories wanted to come out all that time and it was me, subconsciously, holding down the lid, pressing on the cork not to let the whole bottle explode into thousands of shards. And now it is happening--the flow is coming out and there is no way to stop it.

There is one more thing, though. I have to do this now, when my faculties are still fairly intact, my long-term memory is functioning in an acceptable manner. Before old age, or Alzheimer's, or some other form of senility robs me of all my memories of the past. Before I begin to forget and to confuse memories. After all, these might be valuable memories, in a certain sense, which will go when I will be gone, forever. Ruthy, my wife, always tells me, that I am already confusing things, that I have managed to culminate a selective memory, which recollects only items, which are pleasing for me and in a rather free edited format. So what--who will be offended by some small inaccuracies? I have no intention of writing a history book on the Second World War. these pages are my personal recollection and interpretation of events past. They might disagree with official version and with other people's recollection. This I cannot help--I can only recount my story, the way I remember it, from a distance of fifty years.

The Israeli writer, Appelfeld, said that there is nothing more that can be told about the holocaust; yet it is necessary to retell the story again and again. So let me tell my story.


LET THE STORY BEGIN.

Let us start from the beginning: something about myself and my family.

My name is Andrew Salamon. Endre in the original Hungarian, Bandi to my family and close friends (no "t" at the end, just Bandi). Hebrew name Hillel, changed during my aliyah to Israel to Shlomo (which is somewhat redundant, since Shlomo is the original Hebrew name of the Biblical king Salamon). Born in 1932, the year when the Nazi party in Germany experienced their first successes at the polling booth - not the best choice of a year for a Jewish child to come into this world in Europe. Parents are Herman and Gizella. Only one brother, Michael/Miki/Mordi.

My parents came from contrasting backgrounds. Our documentable genealogy begins on my paternal side with a certain Isaac (Yitzhak), born around 1780. His son, Jakob, was born around the year 1810. Hersh Salamon, Jakob's son, was born in 1833, lived in Barabas in Bereg Megye (County) and made a living as collar maker. Married to a Roth girl (the two family names run right through our family tree), they lived in the village of Barabas, in an area which was constantly transferred between Poland, Russia and Hungary. His son and my paternal Grandfather, Abraham, was born in 1868 in Tiszakerecseny, where he had a shoemaker's shop and where all his children were born. They retired to Mandok, another village, where my Uncle Bert built for them a house on a plot called vitezi telek, which my grandfather received for his WWI military service. Both he and my paternal Grandmother died in 1944, she peacefully in her bed, while he perished on the way to concentration camp.

Salamon Pere (Herman Zvi) was the son of orthodox Jews, born in a small village (Tiszakerecseny), peopled by other orthodox Jews and gentile peasants. The son of a shoemaker, born in March, 1902, he dropped out of school early and, following a two-year compulsory military service, took on vocational training - that of glazier. After completing his apprenticeship he lived in Vienna for a while. Learned to speak German with a sweet, soft Austrian accent. When he came back to Hungary to settle down, he was swiftly snared by his first cousin and led into marriage in June 1927. Note that this is an apocryphal story, recalled by my uncles, whose impartiality in this matter is dubious, to say the least. But there might be something behind the rumour: mother's real birth date is also in doubt. The year is 1905, according to mother, or 1902 as some old document has shown. The latter would put both of them of the same age. Perhaps this was something shameful in those days, so mother made a slight adjustment to her birth date - who can tell?

The young couple settled down in a small village, where brother Mordi was born, a respectable nine months later. While not an educated man, father was intelligent and quick minded. He enjoyed studying the Torah and spent the Shabat afternoons in quiet reading of his old sacred tomes. Most of all, he was a good man, in the true sense of the word. Patient and compassionate, he was not made for the struggle, which was his share all his life. He was always ready to give his shirt off his back to someone more needy than himself- as mother was often heard to point out. Two of his brothers, my uncles, have outlived him into happy old age. The third brother and his only sister both died in 1944. My uncle was murdered in the forced labour camps, while my aunt died in one of the extermination camps.

Mother was the complete opposite. Her father, my maternal grandfather, Samuel Roth, born in 1858, was an innkeeper, quite well off, living in a larger village (Budszentmihaly), where Jews were just a tiny, tolerated minority. At some point in his life he went to America, but returned around 1900 and married Ester Gutfreind. They had two sons and mother. Later they moved to Debrecen, where he opened a pub. Grandmother died there in 1924, later Grandfather moved to Budapest. Grandfather passed away peacefully in 1941, Two uncles from mother's side, both died in wars. The younger one perished in Russia in 1918, during the First World War. Miksa, the older brother owned a general store in Balkany where father also had a small glassware store. Miksa died in 1944. Born in June 1902 or 1905, mother was an early liberated woman - she won the right to higher education and a professional career, at a time when this was unheard of for young Jewish girls. She finished Gymnasium and apparently even worked for a short period at the local bank branch. Still in high school, she befriended a Christian girl from the same village, who remained her life-long friend, a friendship, which lasted even through the dark years of persecution. She took a liking to her cousin and pulled certain strings to be brought together with him. Mother was the strong partner in the family. Firm, energetic, she ran the family and her husband as well. After marriage she went to live with him and his family in Balkany for a short time. Mordi was born in that village in March, 1928. My parents moved to Budapest in 1930 where, in May 1930, father took employment with the Gruenfeld Brothers' wholesale business. Just two years later, I came along.

For a while father worked in the Company's city store. They rented a small apartment in the Ghetto, without electricity and sharing a washroom with other tenants. That is where I came along, in 1932. Later father was appointed warehouse manager in the Kobanya suburb. In 1937 the family moved there, into a modern three-room apartment. That is where my early recollections begin.

 

My early childhood recollections.

I have a unique distinction - of the whole Salamon family, a family of village origins, I was the first and only child born in Budapest, the only one without a trace of rural background. By the time I was born, our family already settled down in the suburbs of the big city - Budapest contained one million people, or 10% of the population of the country. More significantly for my story, a full 20% of the citizenry of Budapest was Jewish. And among those 20% were counted the financial, industrial, cultural and political elite of the country. Most newspapers were published and edited by Jews. Most theatres were owned and run by Jews, performing plays written by Jews, with Jewish actors in the cast. Writers, composers, members of Parliament, aristocrats - Jews were everywhere in Hungarian society of between the two World Wars. Of course, anti-Semites never failed to point out this powerful Jewish cultural/economical presence. Without justification: in the best Shakespearean tradition of medieval Venice, they took the gold, but cursed the Jew.

Budapest was a thriving, rich and cosmopolitan metropolis at that time. The city fathers learned from other European cities, mostly from the Wien and Paris of Haussmann, and developed the city along the same lines. Wide avenues and ring roads provided ample room for the growing vehicular circulation. They built Europe's first subway, which opened at the turn of the century. Majestic museums, theatres, opera houses and concert halls were constructed. The Danube river was lined with elegant and expensive apartment houses. The citizenry and certainly the Jewish portion of it, was wealthy and showed it. The elegant restaurants on the Ring Roads, the city's principal thoroughfare, were packed with pre-theatre crowds, the cafes with post-theatre revellers, enjoying gypsy or modern jazz music. Bookstores displayed the latest French or English writers' product, naturally in rich Hungarian translation. The more than a dozen daily papers appeared in several daily editions, loudly hawked on the street corners by the young (and old) newspaper boys. In brief, it was a lively, marvellous place to live in. It was also a marvellous, lively time to be alive.

Gruenfeld Brothers, where father took on employment as warehouse manager, was a Jewish firm of wholesale distributors. They handled the importation and wholesale distribution of glassware and porcelain in a large, rambling warehouse area. Among their merchandise were the best products the factories in Germany, England and Czechoslovakia could produce. The firm had a huge yard for storage and their own railway siding. They also employed master painters, true artists of their profession, who transformed white porcelain pieces into beautifully decorated objects, by applying pre-printed patterns or by hand-painting wonderful images of flowers, butterflies and gold or cobalt blue borderlines on plates and coffee cups. Later I would spend hours watching these creative simple people at their work. Here I learned to appreciate beautiful objects and the people, who make them. Crystal vases and delicate tea-cups, decorated with flower or butterfly pattern and finished with gold or cobalt rim were my favourites.

Still in pre-school age, I had the run of the place. I could roam the large courtyard, climb on top of the wagons loaded with large crates, or walk around the offices and get in everybody's way. I was the darling of the clerks, who patted me and played with me in their free time. After all, I was the son of the Manager! Even the much feared Gruenfelds gave me chocolate candy when they bumped into me.

As I mentioned earlier, we were living in the suburbs called Kobanya, a working class township, only steps away from father's work place. Our apartment was located in a better area - a few comfortable, low- rise apartment buildings in a quiet, respectable neighbourhood . Only a block from us, though, was located a large and ugly monster apartment building - the "Bat castle" we called it - housing a large number of poor families and teeming with hundreds of children, including some of my future schoolmates. The neighbours in our building were all gentiles. We maintained a very good relationship with our next door neighbour, a Protestant family, with girls our own age. Father's colleague and best friend, also a gentile, lived in the building next to ours.

Our home was a comfortable, two-bedroom apartment, on the first floor (second floor in Canada) of the low-rise building. A short flight of stairs brought me to our door. The concierge family lived in a basement apartment and served as all-purpose guardian angels, security guards and all-around repairmen. They knew about all the comings and goings in the building. Upon returning from school, when I opened the big door of our building, she always poked her head out and greeted me with a warm smile and inquired about my day at school. At a later time, when I knew that an empty apartment was waiting for me, it was heart-warming to hear her voice, to know that someone was there, looking out for my return home.

We lived in a small but pretty apartment building, with only three apartments on each floor and windows overlooking a small courtyard-garden, where the housekeepers would hang out the thick feather bedding and beat it with a large broom-like object, to shake the dust out. The garden, enclosed by the apartments, was a hub of daily activity. Wandering vendors came and called out in a loud sing-song to hawk their wares. A Gypsy repairman offered to mend broken or leaking utensils. Someone came regularly to sharpen knives and scissors. Another proposed to buy old cloths and other throw-away knickknacks (alte Sachen). Wandering minstrels came to perform for us, children and for the house wives and servant girls: playing their violins, with a little girl in tow to sing with a pitiful voice. The player piano (verkli we called it), turned it's punched tape to produce sounds resembling a song from the latest popular operetta. Whenever he came, I would carefully roll a few filler coins in newspaper wrapping and throw it down at his feet. He would always stop the music, remove his hat and give me a big smile.

The building still stands. During my last visit I went for a sentimental walk, from the streetcar stop to our old home. It did not change much, nor did the surrounding. The pig sties were gone and so was the familiar stink. The door to the building was locked and no one to answer the bell. Someone was looking out of a first-story window, but when I raised my camera, she slammed the shutters closed in a great hurry.

 

So I lived a normal, happy childhood.

Absolutely normal and average. Not a cloud to darken the skies of my early childhood years. We were not rich, but lived comfortably within the tight limits of father's salary. Being four years younger than my brother, my social life depended on him. Poor Mordi had to drag me everywhere, including his football (soccer) games. The football team was remarkable in that it was coached by the chazan or cantor of our synagogue (more about him later) and was comprised of all the pre-bar mitzvah age Jewish boys of the congregation. The ball used was not one of an official specimen - that was too expensive. All members of the team contributed by bringing from home old pieces of rags, which were stuffed into an old sock and shaped into a ball. I cannot recall this team ever playing a game or match with any other team - they were always in training. I was just hanging on at the sidelines, catching the occasional stray ball and dragging it back to the playing field. Mordi was not overly happy to have me hanging around his neck, but he was a good brother overall. Apparently I was a restless child, always fidgeting, always on the move. My brother took to calling me "little worm", for all the wiggling. The nickname stuck to me for quite a long time. The nickname bugged me, but I was too proud to show it.

I don't recall having many store bought toys at home, we were not that well off. I had a "roller", a wooden contraption which travelled on two wheels. Later on I got my own bicycle (or was that a discard from my brother?) and spent a few pleasurable days with father in the nearby park, mastering the art of bicycling. Probably I had to learn to ride pretty fast, as father was not very likely to run beside me for too long, to help me in learning the art of balancing myself on the bike. I do not remember father ever running or doing any other form of sport or exercise. (Until, that is, the time when the fascist guards of his forced labour unit provided him with the necessary physical education).

We did have (this is just a vague recollection) a big Lego construction set (or did it only seem big at the time?) and books for children. One of the "giant" picture books was about a bear family and I can still see in front of me the picture of huge and warm Papa Bear. What we played with, mostly, was our imagination. For instance, I built many castles with empty match boxes. Father was a heavy smoker (the only passion I remember him having), so there were lots of discarded matchboxes in the house.

Father rolled his own cigarettes, first by hand and later with a small tubular contraption. One of my joys was when he allowed me to roll some cigarettes for him, with the sweet smelling tobacco leaves he used. Another game we played with great artistry and excitement was button soccer. A set of eleven larger buttons represented each side's team, while a smaller button was used as the soccer ball. The field was our kitchen table top, cleared of all dishes. The goals: two pairs of match boxes at each side. The games were intense, we both had our private collection of "players", guarding jealously some of the better ones, the scoring stars. Mordi and I certainly did not know what "I am bored" meant.

One of my earliest recollections is from about the age of three. It was decided, that I will start to attend a nursery class, away from home. I did not participate in the decision making, nor did I approve of it. On my first day, within half an hour after arrival, I walked out of the nursery and walked all the way home, where I showed up suddenly, unexpected.

"What are you doing at home so early?" - asked mother, in a shocked and slightly menacing voice.

"I will never go back to that place again" - I responded, with a shaking but firm voice, - "the lady there let me sit in the corner all morning, without ever even looking at me. I was bored and lonely. I hate that place".

Mother did not know how to respond to this. So she waited for the Arbiter - father - to come home. Mother always tried to bring father into our disputes and disagreements, but he was too sweet tempered to get involved, or to punish us. The principal of the nursery came to our house in the evening for some serious discussion, but my stubbornness won out and I was allowed to stay home and to retain my freedom..

Another adventure took place when I was around five. An aunt of mine lived, with her two little daughters, in the village of Ujpest, near Budapest. One summer it was decided (again by my parents alone), that the country air will do me a lot of good and that I will spend the summer with the aunt. I was packed up and taken, by streetcar, to their house. It was a spacious house, with a very large garden, full of shady trees. But the household was crowded: beside the three females there lived also a young couple, refugees from the north, Poland or somewhere. I felt lonely, as the aunt was busy with her daughters and the household. On the second day I managed to smash my head into a tree, while flying on the swing too high, probably to impress the girls. The threesome, by the way, have survived the war (the only surviving children of our family) and are now living in Israel. The father was killed, tortured to death by the police in the early Ō40s.

In any case, I was bored and not one to take it too kindly. As soon as my head wound healed, I decided that it is time to go home. On the following Saturday morning I got up early, packed my belongings and started to walk home, following simply the streetcar lines - vaguely remembering the way we came. After a walk of many hours and some five kilometers, I got home safely and gave my parents a real shock, knocking on our door and walking in, as if I just returned from school. Apparently, the wanderlust was in my blood from a very early age. After that incident, they never sent me away again.

Other small pleasures (which I refused to give up for the nursery) were all found out of doors. Near our home there was a very long line of pigsties, where huge, smelly and noisy pigs were raised. I could spend hours watching the pigs grunt and roll in the mud, or suckle the countless piglets, which always seemed to be around in great numbers. The place was enclosed by a low, old, wooden fence. I could lean over it and watch the caretaker bring out huge dishes of slop and pour them into the long trowels. The pigs would pounce on the fresh food, pushing and shoving each other's huge bodies aside, making angry grunts and snorts as they fought and fed themselves, at the same time. They were ugly, dirty and hairy - and absolutely fascinating to watch.

The world, my small world, was full of wonders. The unpaved road from school to home was lined with wildflowers: tall blue wheat flowers and ugly, prickly bushes, with thorny leaves that would scratch the skin and cause a painful swelling. Yet they were crowned by beautiful flowers, which invited a careful touch. Inside each flower was hiding a lady bug (katicabogar or Katebug in Hungarian). Risking the painful prick, I always plucked the little pink bugs off the flowers. Placing them gently on the back of my hand, I would count the dots on their tiny backs. If they were even (or odd) in number, or added up to seven - I don't remember exactly, which - they would bring me good luck.

Next door to our apartment building stood an empty lot (a "ground", as we called it), overgrown with wild bushes, the sight of many outdoor games we played - cops and robbers, football and the like. We filled this empty lot with our imagination - castles and dungeons, palaces and skyscrapers. Also close to our home was situated the neighbourhood bakery. As the youngest family member (of two children), a few specific duties were assigned to me. On Sunday mornings, it was my duty to get down early to the baker and to pick up a dozen fresh, crunchy kifli, the Hungarian version of the croissant, larger and crunchier than the French variety. Legend has it that the kifli preceded the croissant by a few centuries. It was created by a Hungarian baker, who wanted to find favour with the sixteenth century Turkish ruler of the city, by creating a roll in the shape of the half moon, the Moslem symbol displayed on the Turkish occupiers' flag. I enjoyed the fresh warmth and good smell all the way home. Dipping one into the hot, fresh coffee while enjoying a slow, leisurely Sunday breakfast, was one of the few luxuries my parents indulged in.

Another of my duties involved the cooking of the cholent, the special Shabat dish of beans, barley, beef and stuffed goose neck. This dish was prepared Friday afternoon and I had to take the big pot down to the bakery. The baker, a goy naturally, knew what to do with the dish. It was placed inside the oven and sat there, the meal slowly cooking overnight. As a child not yet Bar Mitzva'd, I was permitted to perform on the Shabat the small task of fetching the pot and carrying it home for the Saturday noon meal, piping hot and steaming with all the delicious flavours.

That meal was always something special. After spending the morning in the Synagogue, we arrived home from the long walk, tired and famished. Mother left earlier, to set the table. I arrived, proud and huffing, hugging the big dish to my chest. We always had two chalot: father made the Friday night blessing over the pair, but only one was consumed with the evening meal. The other one showed up on the Shabat noon meal table. Father made the blessing, broke off pieces and dipped them in honey for the blessing, than made the blessing on the silver cup of wine, from which we all took a good sip (all Jewish children are under-aged alcoholics). We did not make gefilte fish - that was a Polish custom. Instead, our traditional appetizer was chopped liver, mixed with eggs and onions. Then came the piece de resistance - the steaming hot cholent. The beef was so well cooked, it melted in our mouths. The stuffed goose neck was sliced up, the filling yellow-red from the hot red pepper mixed into it. After dinner, father would lean back contentedly in his chair, singing the after-meal prayer and other zmirot - religious songs from the Shabat service or from King Solomon's Shir haShirim (Song of Songs). Mordi and I would quietly and happily hum the tunes along with him. Poor father did not have a good singing voice and could not hold a tune. We, children, fortunately did not recognise this deficiency and thoroughly enjoyed his thin, wavering voice, intoning the Shabat tunes or the ancient, warmly familiar songs of Chanukah (father was the only person I knew, who could recite all three verses of the Maoz Tzur), or the many songs sung during the hours-long Seder service.

In front of the warehouse where father worked, stood a large open square, a kind of green space, next to the railway station, where a number of horse-and-buggies were parking, waiting for customers. These were not actual buggies, but large flat platforms, used for carrying merchandise, pulled by a pair of solid, wide-flanked horses. The platforms were covered with straw and whenever one of the drivers got an engagement, we children would hop onto the platform and take a free ride. When idle, the driver would tie a bag full of oats onto the horses' heads and the horses would stand there munching on the oats and urinating in great, hot, smelly streams. Those were the smells of my childhood: the smell of pigs and of horse urine.

 

The Jewish aspects of my childhood.

For some reason, father became a Conservative Jew, leaving orthodoxy behind him. Perhaps under the influence of mother, who came from a more modern background, or perhaps because no Orthodox congregation existed in our neighbourhood - I do not know. Most likely he found out that the simple but strict orthodox religion served Jews well in the small, remote villages, but created constant conflicts when transplanted to the big city. Of course he remained a devout Jew, who never worked on the Shabbat or other Jewish holidays. We observed strict kashrut at home , with two sets of dishes (and a third one for Pesach). Father used some smelly cream and a wooden knife to shave his beard (religious Jews were not allowed to put a metal blade to their beards and payot) and we went to the synagogue every Friday and on the Sabbath day. Mother lit the Sabbath candles before the Friday night meal, moving her hands above the flickering lights, her lips reciting a silent prayer. Mother's eyes were always filled with tears on these occasions. Only much later did I understand her reason for crying every Friday night... Holidays were celebrated in all their splendor; we built a sukkah for the Succoth holiday and had two memorable Seder nights every year, with many invitees (sometime total strangers, picked up by father in the Synagogue) partaking in the meal with us. I learned all the prayers by heart, without understanding a single word of them. There was much singing on these occasions, plenty of good food and the celebrations never ended before midnight. To my great chagrin, I have forgotten all those ancient tunes, with the exception of the one for the four Kushiot (questions).

At about the age of four, I was sent to the local Cheder (school for religious teaching). My recollection on this is very vague. It was held in a dark and damp room, where a long table was placed in the middle of the room. At the head sat an old man, sporting a large grey beard and holding a stick in his hand. We were seated in two rows, with large books placed on the middle of the table. We were taught the aleph-beit (the Hebrew alphabet) and were expected to be able to read the great tomes from either side of the table. We studied the Gemarah (one element of the Talmud), I think, by reading out loudly in a sing-song from the book. The reading, or rather chanting, was in Hebrew and Yiddish - a short phrase sang in the original and repeated in translation. As both languages were totally alien to me, I evidently did not enjoy the exercise. The stick often came down on the hands of those who were caught daydreaming.

I did not last in the Cheder for too long either. I cannot recall exactly the reason or the circumstances of my early departure. It might have been initiated by my venerable old teacher, who might have found my inquisitive and questioning nature slightly disturbing. Yet I have gained something from these studies; a skill, which came very useful in my working life: the ability to read any text upside down. In later years in business, while visiting my customers or prospects, it gave me great pleasure (and the occasional insight) , to read their correspondence, notes etc., while sitting at the opposite side of their desks.

My Jewish consciousness was, at best, superficial. We were surrounded by a gentile world of neighbours, schoolmates and co-workers. Jews lived in another part of our town, nearer to where the synagogue was located. We were there every week, but as far as I can recall, we made no close contact with them. On the other hand, Easter, Saint Nicholas (Mikulas) and Christmas were real holidays, celebrated by everyone living around us. For them, my neighbours and friends from the "ground," Saint Nicholas came down their chimneys and brought them lovely presents. They lit the splendid Christmas trees, with coloured lights, sweet candies hanging off the branches, a huge angel towering over the highest branch. They went on egg hunts at Easter and carved big slices off the huge Easter hams, which all the households seemed to have. We, on the other hand, received small presents, exacted in exchange for the Afikomen on the Sedernight. We also received Chanukah coins - but were not supposed to spend them on chocolates. So as far as presents were concerned, we, Jewish children were clearly the losers. Of course, Saint Sylvester (New Year's eve) was universally celebrated as the most significant night of the year, by Christians, Jews and (if there were any) Mohammedans.

 

Something about my larger family.

As I mentioned earlier, our families were living in distant villages. But there were some relatives whom I saw from time to time. Two of my uncles lived in another suburb of Budapest, (Ujpest), a fair distance from us. They were both married to very religious and meek women and each had a lovely little child. They lived in small houses, with pretty treed courtyards where we were served good meals and where we played ball games around the trees. Uncle Bert's wife, Szeren, was a large bosomed, warm woman who constantly hugged me to her ample chest. This uncle, Bert, was a well to do industrialist and he behaved as such. On every occasion we visited them, he berated father for taking on employment rather than becoming independent. He never offered assistance, only criticism. During every visit I remember, the question came up, sooner or later:

"And how much do the Gruenfelds pay you now?". And, when the expected answer came, mentioning a fairly modest sum, he continued: "That for a week?", - knowing full well that father received a monthly salary - "How can you live on that small sum?". Father just smiled, indulgently, while mother's cheeks flushed with anger and shame.

Uncle Bert was a loud, jovial man who nurtured a poorly disguised dislike for mother, for reasons which remained hidden from me. The other uncle, Joe, worked for Bert and was thus friendlier and quieter. As a marginal note, both my Aunts and little cousins perished in Auschwitz; while their fathers survived.

There was also Aunt Vilma, who lived with her two children in the city itself. They made a living out of a basement coal storage, from where they were selling and delivering the coal for the winter heating season. We did not see them too often - visits to the centre of the city were not undertaken too lightly in those days. The father died around 1941.

My maternal grandparents died when I was quite a small child. As a vague recollection I recall a visit to their village. Grandfather was a tall, strong man even in his old age. His long white beard is the only image of him that stayed with me. On the other hand, grandmother was a tiny bird-like woman who looked much older. Unfortunately that is all I can remember about them and the large, grey kerchief which always covered grandmother's birdlike little head. I admire them for their wisdom to die in peace, in their own time.

The grandparents from my father's side were still living in their village at that time. We did not meet them often either, not until they decided to move to the city, where they lived not far from us. We went to visit them from time to time, but I don't ever recall being held or hugged by these grandparents. My only clear picture of them is that of an old couple, standing behind a wrought iron gate, at the entrance to one of the old houses located in our neighbourhood, the noisy and hectic market square, the infamous Teleki Ter. Grandmother died just around the outbreak of the war.

After the death of grandmother, my grandfather moved in to live with Uncle Joe. In the summer of 1944, they were ordered to move into the small Ghetto, created around the local synagogue. Uncle Joe was at that time in a forced labour camp, not too far from the city. He managed to procure false papers for all of them and, risking greatly his own life, entered the Ghetto to deliver the papers and to tell them where to go into hiding. They refused to go - the Rabbi told all the Jews of the Ghetto, that they will be safer in the Ghetto, than risking their lives outside. So they decided to stay. A few weeks later the Ghetto was liquidated, all it's inhabitants loaded onto a train, heading for Auschwitz. Without food or water, overcrowded inside the cattle cars, many of them died on the way - among them grandfather. At the age of 76, he perished in the overcrowded cattle car, of thirst or suffocation, or his heart just gave up. He was surrounded by his daughters in law and his beloved grandchildren, who would outlive him by only a few days . Uncle Jeno died in the labour camps. My aunts and the little children were probably "processed" through the death showers (gas chambers), immediately upon arrival to the Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination camp.

This was the one missing aspect of my early childhood - the absence of the big, loving Jewish family.

 

Then I reached school age.

I cannot remember when and how did I finally leave home to attend school. Our home was warm and cosy and I resisted all attempts to get me out of it. But when I became six years old, the inevitable had to come.

Public school was a good walking distance from us, along the road leading by the pigsties and the big square and the streetcar tracks. It was a one-story building, a public school for boys only. The girls' school was next door, with a fence separating the two school yards. We spent many pleasurable hours playing in that schoolyard and ogling at the girls across the fence. That's where my first short-lived love affair blossomed.

I was, due to my June birthday, one of the youngest in my class and (without false modesty) one of the smartest. Thanks to mother's efforts and perhaps also the influence of my older brother, I could read and count by the time I entered first grade. This set me aside from my classmates and earned their respect from day one. The teachers also liked me instantly. They were mostly women, middle-aged and warm. The classes were large, with mostly working class children. They were slow learners and a rather unruly, rough lot. I, on the other hand, was goody two-shoes, a fast learner, quiet and disciplined. So I often received such honorary roles as supervisor over the class. This entailed important roles: distributing books and workbooks, cleaning the blackboard and, when the teacher was called away, trying to maintain peace and order in the classroom. This task also included the reporting of mischievous students for punishment. I was often called up to the blackboard to solve mathematical problems and was generally set as an example for the rest of the class. It all sounds like pretty boring stuff today, but it seemed very rewarding at the time.

Discipline was kept with a cane, prominently displayed on the teacher's desk. When a boy did not have his homework done, or was reported as misbehaving, he was called up to the front. The teacher made him bend over her knees and a few swift whacks were delivered to his bottom. They must have been pretty stinging, because the spankings made them always jump around, scratching their backsides. After grade one or two all the teachers were male. The criminal was ordered to bend over the teacher's desk, the canings became longer and harsher and instilled real fear in the hearts of the little boys. I never received this public humiliation, being always on the good side of the teachers. I think I would have died of shame, if I had.

One of the students was the principal's son. He was, naturally, another child, who received privileged treatment from the teachers. Once, when he was to receive public flogging, he was instead sent to the principal's (his father's) office for punishment, which was probably never meted out..

My first day at school was a way of introduction. A ritual has developed, which repeated itself every following year. As I announced my name, the teacher lifted up her (his) head, smiled and said:

"So, you are Salamon Miki's younger brother. He was a very good student. You will have to work hard to maintain the good reputation he earned".

"Yes, Ma'am (or Sir)," - I would mumble - "I will try my best".

Or something to that effect. I followed my smart brother four years later, to the same schools, the same classes and the same teachers that he had. I often sat at the same desks he kept warm a few years earlier, even saw his name carved into the desk tops. I inherited his text books, maps, rulers and triangles. I also had to live up to his reputation, which was not easy. Mordi was a smart student. He was also a good and serious kid. So for the next six years, I could never permit myself to fool around a little in school, knowing full well the disappointed reaction of my teachers: "Your brother would never do such a thing..." It did not make my life any easier, but I did not quite resent the added burden on my shoulder. I guess I actually enjoyed being known as the second smart Salamon brother in the school.

I mentioned the school books. We had to buy all our own books and every other supplies we used at school. On the first day we received the all important list of supplies we were to bring to school: books, exercise books, workbooks - so many plain, so many with squared or lined pages. Pencils, erasers, rulers - a long list of items. The first afternoon was spent in the neighbourhood bookstore, conveniently located around the high school. The whole list cost a fair penny and we were lucky, that Mordi's books were always in perfect condition for me to be reused. But we had to buy sheets of blue paper and spend the evenings carefully covering each book and exercise book, sticking over the front a label carrying our names, in clear and pretty letters. A missing book, or one in poor condition, would draw a bad mark and a few whacks of the cane over the bum.

Making friends at school was difficult. Not because of my being Jewish: at that time it did not matter, on the contrary. But I came from a better-off family, while the other children came from working class families with poorer backgrounds. They mostly knew each other from their homes and also played together after school. But I made one friend right in grade one, a boy from the "Bat castle." He was intelligent and friendly and, I guess, proud of my friendship. Some years later, this boy set me up for my underground life. The Jewish children of the suburb attended a private Jewish school. During all my school years, I recall only one other Jewish boy attending any of my classes.

Oh, yes, the girls. This might have happened either in grade one or two, when I spied from across the fence a pretty looking little girl. I found out her name and, not daring to try to talk to her directly, I wrote her secret love letters, which I naturally always destroyed. On one occasion, one of the boys discovered my latest creation and read it out aloud to the class at recess time. Word of my "love affair" went quickly over the fence and a plot was hatched. Next recess I was dragged to the fence and the object of my infatuation to the other side. I was made to hand her over my love note, mumbling some introduction and explanation, after which I swiftly ran away, my cheeks burning. Probably nothing came out of this first flame, or else I would have remembered at least her name...

Time thus went by pleasantly, between playing and studying (which did not take great effort ). Around that time I had the first experience of childhood interruptus, at the advanced age of almost seven years, a small event boding ill for the future.

 

I am now getting to the outbreak of the war.

Yes, the phoney war, if you wish. I was seven years old at the time and did not understand full well the geopolitical significance of the events. But I felt very miserable, nevertheless.

It was around May 1939, when our doctor ordered the removal of my tonsils. I had to enter the hospital for the operation and stay there for a few days to recover. Just a footnote on this: the neighbourhood had two hospitals: the General one for common people, who entered using the Workmen's Insurance and the Grand Hospital for those in possession of private insurance. The one had only public wards, the other provided private and semi-private rooms. I was privileged to use the services of the latter and therefore enjoyed the loneliness of a private room.

Around the same time, Hitler decided to dismember our northern neighbour, Czechoslovakia, in order to occupy the country. All the neighbouring countries were given a scrap of land and thus were co-opted into the rape of the Czech people. Hungary was "allowed" to reoccupy land taken away from it after World War I, in what was called the Trianon Peace Treaty. This land had a large and "oppressed" Hungarian population, therefore Hungary marched in to free our oppressed brethren from foreign rule. The Hungarian army was ordered to march into the Felvidek in Slovakia at the same time as I marched into the hospital.

Jews at that time were still allowed to serve in the regular army, wearing full uniforms and filling in various ranks. Father was just an ordinary soldier in a foot brigade. The day following my operation, he received his marching orders and came to the hospital, in his army uniform, to kiss me good bye.

"Be a good boy now, you will go home soon. And I will come back as soon as I can", said father, in a funnily choked voice. It was the first time, he was taken away so abruptly and we were as yet inexperienced in saying good-byes. In any case, father was not good at expressing his emotions, many things, then and later, were left understood but unsaid between ourselves.

When he left, I remained standing by the window, watching his thin soldierly figure vanishing at the street corner. Alone in the room, I felt completely abandoned and forgotten in the world. I was a very miserable little boy at that moment, my eyes filled up with tears and I felt terribly sorry for myself. Even the ice cream offered by the nurses could not erase from my heart this feeling. It was a foreboding of things to come.

This was, in a perverse way, an amusing period in the history of the country. Our brave soldiers marched into the enemy territory totally un-opposed, facing only the resistance of the curses of women and children of non-Hungarian extraction. The Hungarian population received them as liberators - or so it was made to appear. Father, in his letters, recounted many amusing episodes of how much they were pampered, wined and dined by the local Hungarians. He was also fed many anti-Semitic stories about the local Jews, people not realising, that many of the "brave" liberators were also Jewish. Father spoke a fluent German, with an Austrian, not a Jewish accent and was never "suspected" of being one of them.

The many towns and villages had large Jewish populations, mostly of Polish or Ukrainian origin. Galizianer they were called and were despised by the locals. They were mostly shopkeepers, catering to a hostile clientele, living in the usual Orthodox isolation. They spoke neither Hungarian, nor Slovak, but only Yiddish and practised a fervent Hasidic-type religion. The region was breeding ground for the infamous fanatical sects, the Neturei Kartha or Guardians of the Charter in Israel and the equally known Satmar clan in Brooklyn. I must state here, that among the Hungarian Jews there was also no love lost for these Jews - they were differently dressed, spoke funnily and were an acute embarrassment to the cultivated, urbane Jews of Budapest.

My uncle Joe was also in the army. He was in the bicycle unit (believe it or not, the mechanised units of the army rode bicycles), as master mechanic. He could not repair a bike, even if his life depended on it, but had a few real mechanics reporting to him. They were on the march for many weeks, often ending up in towns, which they never heard of and which did not even show on their maps. Luckily for them, resistance to the occupation was non-existent. Uncle Joe brought back many stories about Jewish life in the army and the towns under occupation.

Anti-Semitism was a fact of life in Hungary. The first anti-Semitic laws were enacted in May 1938, by Admiral Horthy's "liberal" government, limiting Jewish representation in the various professions. While I stated earlier, that I personally did not experience my Jewish identity vis-ˆ-vis my gentile friends, Jews in general did, very much so. And the foreign Jews in the occupied land were a fair game for any anti-Semitic officer. So Joe was called more than once to help out some local Jews. At one time his unit was ordered to confiscate all the bicycles from the store owners. He went around, with his Hungarian mechanics in tow, advising in Yiddish the startled shopkeepers to hide their good bikes, then making a second round and collecting some old, decrepit bikes, which they were wise enough to leave in the stores.

It was many months, before the men were allowed to return home. During that time, the Gruenfeld brothers dutifully paid father his salary, thus saving us from starvation. That was when my parents hatched the idea of becoming independent, so mother could take over when (not if) father was again called up to service. Less than a year later, in August 1939, their dream came true with the purchase of a small, run-down store in the city. The Gruenfelds generously helped my parents by offering them merchandise on easy credit, thus encouraging father to enter the world of independence.

 

Has anything changed at school for me during that period?

In a certain way, these were still years of innocence. Hungary was fully allied with Germany and the winds of war were blowing stronger and stronger every day. But anti-Semitism was still controlled and the Hungarian fascists were held at bay.

Life in the city continued uninterrupted, for another couple of years, until Hungary formally entered the war on the side of Germany. That happened two years later, in the Summer of 1941, by which time I reached the ripe age of nine. During those two years many events have changed our lives. As I mentioned, my parents have decided to become independent. They found and rented a store in the city, fairly close to the commercial centre (more about the neighbourhood later). Father's former employer, who himself had a store in the city, helped to set us up with merchandise and a good credit line. The business functioned on two levels: on one hand a workshop, repairing broken glass windows and damaged mirrors, on the other, a glass- and porcelain housewares store.

The store changed our lives completely. Father continued to work at the Gruenfelds, while mother ran the shop with the help of a full time employee. We, the children, saw them only in evenings and even then, they were busy keeping the books and making plans. Mordi and I attended different schools by that time: I was still in public school, which continued until grade four, while he was already in high school, in grade six or seven. Soon we became two quite independent children. For a while some neighbour (or was it the concierge) provided us with lunch. Later I started to bring lunch to school. After school I would go home and do my homework, or take the streetcar and go to the store. Luckily there was a direct streetcar line from home to the store, streetcars number 28 and 37. I was astonished to discover fifty years later that the same streetcars still travelled the same route.

The family event of 1941 was Mordi's Bar Mitzvah. I have no recollection of it, but he received from the Gruenfelds a handsome present: a brand new bicycle. It was his pride and joy and lasted until the confiscation decree of 1944.

 

Life as a young boarder.

Some time later mother found a better arrangement for me. Near my school, a widow set up a small pension in her house. She provided lunch on a monthly subscription basis, to middle-class gentlemen, who worked in nearby offices. I joined this crowd and learned quickly to behave like them. On arrival, I seated myself at my regular table, bade politely good day to my neighbours and took one of the daily papers, which were put on wooden frames and were hanging at the entrance. As the meal was served (no ordering from a menu; you ate what was cooked for the day), I would eat my lunch while reading the papers, just like all the other gentlemen. This is one bad habit which has stayed with me for life and caused my wife great discomfort in later years.

This arrangement worked out very well, though it must have cost my parents a fair penny. It turned into quite a farce two years later, when German officers, who were billeted in the city as "friendly" visitors, replaced the regular customers. The lady of the house spoke German and became very popular among the German officer corps. In consideration to the new guests, the daily paper selection was expanded to include the Všlkische Beobachter and Der Stürmer, papers which allowed me to practice my German and provided me with a new perspective on Jewishness. Der Stürmer was the leading Nazi anti-Semitic paper, "humorously" publishing the most vicious anti-Jewish caricatures and diatribe. It was quite an education for me to read it!

German was taught in all Hungarian school, as second language. Not only on the conversational level: we studied the heavy-heavy German grammar and sentence structuring. We had to recite by heart the wonderful poetry of Goethe and Heine (the latter only until 1941). The dark and stormy lines of the Erlkšnig rolled off our lips, as if it was Hungarian poetry. After the war the country switched it's cultural allegiance towards the Anglo-Saxon world. We began reciting, by heart, the long and complex Shakespearean monologues and the poems of Lord Byron.

The lady of the establishment, knowing that I was Jewish, set me at the remotest corner of the dining room, and suggested that I should not reveal my religious affiliation to anyone. So it was that the German officers, upon seeing me reading their newspapers, patted me on the head and engaged me in polite conversation about school, all the time praising my good German. I rapidly became their favourite pet and they probably missed me, when I abruptly stopped eating there, some time later. Never suspecting, of course, that it was a little Jude they were pampering.


HANGING CLOUDS.

The son of shopkeepers.

When the store opened, in the summer of 1939, life changed for all of us . Father found himself reverting to his old profession of glazier. He spent much of his time repairing broken windows, which were brought into the store. For the first two years, this work was done by Mordi and an employee, until father quit his employment and joined the store full time.

He also set up a workshop for the repair of damaged mirrors. This was a very complex task. First the old mirror surface had to be scraped completely off with used razor blades. This work became my favourite occupation - scraping away at the old silvery coating, I could let my imagination run away as I scraped, designing various shapes and forms on the back of the mirror. This was also a delicate operation: the small blade, held between two fingers, without the protection of gloves, often slipped on the hard surface, resulting in many small cuts on my burning fingers. Once this silvery coat was removed, the glass had to be cleaned up with a smelly broth of some acidy material (it is strange how fondly I recall all those unpleasant sharp smells of my childhood). Then a fresh batch of silvery liquid was prepared and poured evenly over the glass. Slowly, as it settled on the glass, the mirrored surface was formed. This was a great lesson in chemistry for me.

The mirrors were beautiful antique pieces, elaborately bevelled and framed in richly carved and gilded wood. We also framed pictures and had a wide selection of frames, heavily gilded and decorated. This was all fascinating for me and I tried to spend as many of my afternoons in the store, as possible. One of my favourite toys was the putty used in the repaired windows. This clay-like material always stood in a big mount on father's workbench, smelling of linseed oil and inviting one to dig in with both hands and knead this soft, warm material into various shapes. Tradition had it, that glaziers used to chew the putty in their mouths, to retain it's softness and flexibility. Looking at the smelly, oil-soaked material, I was glad that the good old days were not with us anymore.

Mother occupied herself with the selling side of the business. We had everything in stock: from cheap and ordinary glasses and plates to expensive Meissen porcelain dining sets, wonderfully painted Herendi porcelain figurines and heavy Czech crystal vases. The merchandise was kept in the basement, under the store, in a damp and smelly dark storage area, where I was sent frequently to look for some boxed item or another. While I loved the musty smell, it gave me a bit of the shivers to step down into the semi-darkness of the large storage room. I always suspected, and probably with good reason, the presence of rats just next to where I was poking around.

The ceiling of the store, in the fashion of European construction, was very high and later father exploited this feature by constructing a wooden structure, a kind of second floor platform, where the workshop was situated. So we had a three storey store, all rolled into one. We even had a store window, a real display window. This offered a permanent battle-ground between my brother and father. Mordi wanted to tastefully decorate the window, displaying only a few select items and using the space for decoration, which would reflect the changing seasons and holidays. Father wanted simply to load up the display area with as much merchandise as possible, with prices shown, to attract customers. These two approaches to advertising and aesthetics caused ongoing arguments between the two of them. As it happened, father was away most of the time, so Mordi had many opportunities to have the last word regarding window arrangement. Several times a year we performed, with great relish, this task of removing displayed goods and replacing them with others, more recently received or seasonally appropriate. We also had to prepare price markers and place them on the displayed items. This latter exercise became a daily activity in the frantic inflationary days after the war, when prices were changed practically on the hour.

My parents were hard workers and Mordi and I tried to provide as much support as possible. Business flourished and the store provided us with a comfortable living. At some phase, we were able to hire a helper cum apprentice, a simple fellow, who turned out to be an honest and reliable man. He - Joska Gal - was a thin, unassuming smallish man, who came without any education (that was not very unusual in Hungary) or skill. Father took him under his wing and taught him many of the tricks of his trade. But mostly he was busy doing the menial tasks, repairing broken windows, delivering parcels on his bicycle and keeping the stove in the store going in the winter months. He was very polite, quiet and friendly. Our exuberant Jewish behaviour seemed to overwhelm him into total submission and readiness to do any labour required of him. This man stayed with us through all the dark years, doing father's work in his absence and helping mother in all he could. He never betrayed us, Jewish shopkeepers, not even when he could have easily dispossessed us. He even came back to work for us when the war was over. He was one of the honest gentiles I remember, someone who never betrayed his true self.

Mother did very well as shopkeeper. She handled the simple, poor customers with as much ease as the rich, elegant ladies who came to purchase the expensive gift items. At later years, that is after 1941, we developed a new clientele. German officers, cultivated and possessing a good taste for beautiful things and a full purse. They bought up the expensive china figurines to send home to their Liebchen. Mother spoke German fluently and without a trace of accent. The officers had good conversations with her about how lonely it was to be far away from home (father at that time was away already, so mother could sympathize with their plight). They also discussed music and German writers, the officers being after all an educated lot. At one time, one of the officers made some anti-Jewish remark and mother, being a proud woman, quietly replied that not all Jews were like that and that she happened to be Jewish herself. The officer was shocked, assuring mother that she did not at all sound or look like a Jew and, in any case, she was cultured and different. He continued to come to our store and the subject was never raised again.

Those few childhood years in the store were quite enjoyable. I would spent my late afternoons daydreaming, looking at the passing streetcars and people and helping with small things. It felt safe, this little world of our store, where I had to move carefully as everything in it was breakable. I did my school homework there, sitting at the corner of a big desk, munching on a late afternoon sandwich, looking at the outside, so close yet so safely closed out of my world. Whiling the time away, I developed a game of numbers. I took down the serial numbers of streetcars, as they passed in front of the store. Then I noted the time and the time of their return, thus calculating the total time they took making one direction or the other. The aim was to remember the car numbers and to quickly recognise them on the return trip. I was always good at memorizing numbers and used my skill both for private games and for my school work. I could perform fairly complex mathematical exercises in my head and often astonished my teachers by blurting out the result of a formula or question they just finished writing on the blackboard.

Late evenings we would all take the streetcar homebound, walking home to our apartment, where mother would warm up a late supper for our small family. Although we all missed father, at least we did not have to fear for his safety or well being - Jews were not yet mistreated or simply murdered in the army camps at that time. Then we would listen to the radio, while reading some adventure book about Indians. Sleep came easily to this eight-year old child.

Our store was situated at 30 Nepszinhaz utca, in one corner of a large, octagonal square, at the meeting point of four busy streets. The store was located on the ground floor of a large old three-story apartment building. Another, almost identical apartment building stood across the street; our future apartment would be found in this building. The square also housed a movie house and two drinking establishments. We were located well in the city centre, only steps away from one of the more elegant and busiest streets of Budapest. Behind our street sat one of the inner city's larger parks, Tisza Kalman Ter, renamed after liberation to Koztarsasag Ter or Republic Square. The park contained a playground, wading pool and the large City Theatre, where we often spent our afternoons watching school performances of plays and operettas.

At the opposite end of the park one of the smallish buildings, with a balcony, was the headquarters of the Socialist Party, where the emblem of the Socialists, an arm holding a heavy hammer, was proudly displayed. After the war the Communist Party took over the building and organised it as its Headquarters. All the major political events of the next four years took place around and in front of this building. Mathias Rakosi, the Communist Party chief, often gave speeches from the balcony, to the crowds of party faithful and others (like myself). There was always movement on the street, street cars rolling by clanking their warning bells, trucks and bicyclists.

There were few private cars at that time, but there was a steady pedestrian traffic - always interesting enough to watch. The cinema presented a constant temptation. It was known in the neighbourhood as The Stinker, due to the unwashed nature of it's patrons. When there was little to do in the store, I would sneak in through the side door and watch the remainder of the film being shown. The reason for sneaking in without paying was not for the lack of money, but rather because that was the way it was done by all the little children. Just as one did not buy a streetcar ticket, if one could avoid it - we would stand on the stairs, hanging halfway down, ready to jump at the first sight of the ticket collector. At the stops we would move from the steps of one car to the other, depending on the progress of the conductor inside. It was also not manly to get on and off at the regular stop: one had to jump on and off the stairs when the streetcar was just slowing down for a curve or intersection, thus saving a few steps to the nearest stop.

The movie house provided an ongoing update to my education. Each show consisted of two parts: first the Hungarian and German newsreels, which, over time, presented increasingly virulent anti-Semitic propaganda, coupled with reportage on Nazi rallies and the progress of the victorious German army. The second half, by contrast, usually consisted of an American feature film: Chaplin, Tom Mix (our favourite cowboy hero) or some other Hollywood cowboy films. I laughed and cried with Chaplin and got excited over the exploits of the cowboys. These films made me read books - in Hungarian translation, naturally - such as Fenimore Cooper's Tale of the Last Mohican and all the Jules Verne books. There was also a complete series of books about the golden cowboy Tom Mix, his horse, Silver (Hi-ho Silver!) and life on the Wild West, written by a writer who never left Budapest during his entire life...

The American films were soon replaced by propaganda films made by the great German film studio, UFA. We saw father Kruger (Ohm Kruger) about the Afrikaners' fight against the evil British occupiers, who invented the concentration camps to defeat the plucky Boer fighters. There was Jude Süss, a viciously anti-Semitic distortion of the great Feuchtwanger's book. Also Lenny Riefenstahl's epic films Olympia on the 1936 Berlin Olympics (Hitler's great showpiece) and Triumph des Willens on an assortment of Nazi monster rallies in München - faithfully recorded for their thousand-year posterity.

Quite an idyllic childhood. But then things started to change.

The changes occurred gradually, not in any dramatic fashion. Once again, I have to paint the historical background for you to better understand the events.

While Hungarian Jewry was over-represented in the country's industrial and cultural elite, it was also a community forced to exist under the first full fledged fascist regime in Europe. The humoristic figure of Admiral Horthy, leader of a land-locked nation with not even a sailboat navy to its name, was brought to power in 1919, in order to break down a Communist Republic, which was led by a Jew and which was later identified with Judeo-Bolshevik dominance. In order to achieve his goal, Horthy united all the elements of the extreme right: feudalists, nationalists, the Church and assorted anti-Semites. From that point on, anti-Semitism became a permanent feature of the Hungarian landscape.

For instance, numerus clausus, the limitation on the number of Jewish students allowed to pursue higher education, was introduced in Hungary in 1924, years earlier than in any other country in Europe. Of course, thanks to the teachings of the Catholic Church, anti-Semitism did not have to be introduced into Hungary by the new regime. It was deeply imbedded into the Christian souls of the faithful. Also, perhaps for simplicity's sake, Communism/Bolshevism and Judaism were equated by the Nazi propaganda machinery in phrases such as Judeo-Bolshevik. They never mentioned the one without the other. Defending Christianity from the Bolshevik Antichrist therefore became an anti-Semitic crusade.

After the destruction of the Communist Republic (mostly at the hands of an invading Romanian army), Horthy's regime became more benign. He made an alliance with Jewish leaders, kept the fascist movement at bay and cultivated his family connections with England. So the anti-Semitic virus, while ever-present in Hungarian society, never took over the patient's entire body. For instance I was totally unaware of it's existence, or at least of it's relevance to my entire future. Yet Mordi, my brother, who's brilliant mind made him a clear candidate for higher academic education, realised full well how little he could hope to be accepted by any University to become one of the limited number of Jewish students allowed. This limit, a maximum 6% of all the University places available to Jewish students, was set by the already mentioned numerous clausus law.

This ambiguous period lasted for two decades. During that time, Horthy brought Hungary into the Anti-Comintern alliance, which aimed at keeping the menacing Soviet neighbours in isolation. He also brought Hungary, in spite of his personal convictions and preference, closer and closer into the rapidly emerging pro-German camp, making Hungary one of the first to join the new alliance between Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy. The Hungarian government gradually became more and more right-wing, ultimately headed by an open admirer and supporter of Hitler. These governments enacted ever stronger anti-Jewish laws, which limited the freedom of Jews in the country. These actions began to inflame the naturally anti-Semitic sentiments of a mostly Catholic population. Yet the daily effect of these laws and sentiments was mostly felt in the small towns and villages of the countryside, not in the large cities and to an even lesser degree in Budapest.

In the countryside, Horthy's regime created a new police force, fashioned somewhat after the old Imperial police, the dreaded Gendarmes. This force, conscripted entirely from among the uneducated young peasantry, was given the task of breaking down any signs of peasant organization against the feudal landlords and, as a by-product, to keep the Jewish population, many of it's members professing strong leftist leaning, under control. Their uniform included a hat adorned with an arrogantly displayed cock feather and the omnipresent heavy shoulder arm. The leaders of this unit were extreme right wing, anti-Semitic officers, under whose direction many atrocities were committed against the population. They were the unchecked masters of the countryside and their high command excelled itself in cruelty toward the Jewish labourers during the last years of the war.

So, right up to the outbreak of World War Two in 1939, shortly following my seventh birthday, we, middle-class Jews, were afforded the luxury of continuing existence in relative freedom, pushing the worries of the future into a far corner of our minds. Not that we were quite naive about the future. We knew about Kristallnacht and the atrocities committed against Jews in Germany. These events were shown, time and time again, in the German newsreels. The same activities, in a smaller scale, went on in Hungarian villages, where, from time to time, Jews were beaten up, synagogues and cemeteries attacked and damaged. Of course, it was impossible to foresee from these "incidents" the emergence of the Final Solution.

 

Could people like my family have hedged their bets on the future?

Naturally, with hindsight that is what we should have done. And matter of fact, my parents tried quite early to take steps in that direction. We, like all European Jews, had family in "America". Rich uncles in New York, some poorer relatives also. I clearly remember a photo we cherished: my Uncle's family standing around a shining big car, all wearing strange clothing as out of some movie and the uncle himself wearing a fedora hat, like some Chicago gangster. We were all very impressed by the apparent wealth and comfort of these relatives of ours. We maintained contact with these people and sometime around 1938 or 1939 we asked them to obtain for us immigration visas to the US. This entailed some complicated and lengthy bureaucratic steps, the filling out of many forms, such as their personal commitment to ensure our financial independence etc. This was followed by lengthy correspondence with our American relatives. Of course, the American authorities did not see much urgency in these requests for visas. At some point we were advised that, due to the small Hungarian immigration quota, our visa application was due to be approved sometime in the 1950's... For us, living from year to year and day to day, this date appeared to be centuries away.

Like so many other Jewish families, we were trapped. Up to a certain point, our strong Hungarian identity kept us from even thinking of emigrating. In 1940, when the situation demanded some fast action, we discovered that there was nowhere we could go. Exit visas and passports to Jews were granted only on the basis of the availability of an entry visa to another country, which by that time was impossible to obtain. Of course, we could have attempted to request Palestinian visas - that option remained open for some time. We, like all other Jewish families, kept the blue Keren Kayemet collection box at home and regularly put pennies into it. We gave money whenever a schnorrer for Palestine knocked on our doors. We regularly repeated the prayers asking to be returned to Zion and expressed our annual wish to be Next Year in Jerusalem. And also, like most other Jews, we never for a moment contemplated emigration to Palestine.

Emigration was never an easy choice. There was the financial consideration: we just began to enjoy the fruits of our hard work, building up a successful business, into which all our resources were invested. To liquidate it all meant selling it to some clever Hungarian for a fraction of it's value and being forced to start a new life in a new country virtually penniless. Also, all our families were living around or near us. Hungary was the country of our birth, our language and culture. As for living in Palestine - we had visions of an arid land, deserted by all but a handful of camel-riding nomads. In the centre a great mound of stones: Jerusalem, or whatever was left of the Temple and city destroyed by the Romans millenniums earlier. Who wanted to live in such a place? So Jews continued to complain about the situation and tell bitter jokes about it to each other - yet we all stayed put. And when the need to depart became a burning issue, it was already impossible to do so.


AND THEN THE WAR...

 

And then the war began...

Yes, then came late 1939 and the official outbreak of the war. Before that, though, I must mention another event. Father was once again called up to liberate another oppressed Hungarian community: that of Ruthenia, a part Slovak, part Ukrainian land. In March, 1939, the army was once again on the move. This time the "liberated" land was the land of my Grandparents, which contained a significant ultra-Orthodox Jewish population. Father's absence made my brother's eleventh and my seventh birthdays sad events. We did not know anymore when will he be away once again.

At that point in time, in September 1939, things began to accelerate. Suddenly the old ghost of the Judeo-Bolshevik enemy reappeared and Jews became unreliable and untrustworthy. Hungary mobilised it's army, even though it did not formally join Germany and did not participate in the action in Poland. Suddenly, men began to disappear from civilian life and reappear as uniformed soldiers and elegant, well dressed officers on the streets of the city.

Jews were also conscripted. Father was recalled to his old unit, to some camp in the countryside. This was a deja vu situation for our family. We closed ranks to continue our more or less normal daily routine. Mother now ran the store on her own, my brother and I spent longer ours helping (or hindering?) her and waiting for the irregular, unexpected visits of father who, like all other conscripts, managed to weasel or buy his way out of the camp for short furloughs. In his green soldier's uniform father looked skinny and unhappy and mother spent considerable effort to feed him well and send him back to camp with enough food packages to last at least a few days. Father was not one to tell us stories about his time in the army, so we never knew how well or badly he and the other Jews were treated. He wanted to know all about our schooling and how we managed at home, how we helped mother. But not much about himself.

The transition from equal to subservient happened gradually, with a carefully measured timing. A new decree declared that Jews were no longer allowed to serve as armed soldiers in the Hungarian army; rather, they were to serve in work battalions, lead by Hungarian officers and managed by lower ranking Hungarian soldiers. They will continue to wear the uniform of the army, but now they were identified by an arm band, as members of the Jewish work units. Of course, they were not permitted to carry arms. These regulations were part of a second wave of anti-Semitic laws, which further limited Jewish participation in the cultural and business life of the country. These laws also were the first attempt to define who was to be recognized as a proper Hungarian Jew: length of residency and ancestry had to be proven, in order to maintain citizenship and voting rights. This was necessary, due to the great influx of Jews from the occupied territories, Jews without any Hungarian ancestry. Alien Jews faced the constant threat of expulsion to their original homeland, one of the dreadful war zones, generally under Nazi occupation. Those expelled usually ended up in the ghettos, deported to camps and ultimately murdered.

This was a shock to many Jews, particularly to those Jewish officers, who managed to achieve fairly high ranks in the army. These decorated dandies were gradually forced to shed their insignia and epaulets, remove their dangling medals and join the ranks of ordinary Jewish conscripts. Many of these Jews were well assimilated into Hungarian life, inter-married into prominent Christian families and avoided any association with other Jews. Now they found themselves in the company of their undesirable brethren, as equals in misfortune. They, as father recounted occasionally, behaved arrogantly and refused to accept their Jewishness and the stigma attached to it. Coming with large sums of money, they constantly tried to buy their comfort, leisure, food and visiting rights. Gladly catered to by the Hungarian officers and staff, they were deeply despised by their fellow Jews in the work units.

The government made some concessions. Jews converted to the Christian faith, high ranking officers and those to whom some of the highest medals of the realm were granted, were exempt at the beginning from this service. This was a temporary measure only, made to soothe the sensitive nerves of the assimilated Jewish leadership and the leaders of the various Christian churches; also to dangle some hope in front them.

 

So two classes of Jews started to emerge at that time.

This process started long before that time. It was always necessary to know which definition of "Jew" one wanted to use. There were many assimilants and converts among the community. Some converted formally, some by marrying into Christian families, others only socially, or via business associates. There were titled Jewish aristocrats, Members of Parliament, industrialists, who did not consider themselves Jewish any more.

Through the new army service regulations, many of these converts discovered that the outside world still considered them Jews, their self-delusion notwithstanding. Others had to gather documented proof of their hopefully exempt status, such as baptism certificates of their own or that of their parents, documents of rank, past military service and decorations received. A completely new bureaucracy sprang into existence, occupying itself with the examination and verification of these Jewish claims and approving or withholding recognition of their exempt status.

There was also another kind of hunt for documents, which involved the Jewish community as a whole. The need had its roots in the history of the Habsburg (Austro-Hungarian Empire) monarchy and the free movement of people within it's boundaries. Until it's break-up in 1918, the Empire, ruled by the Habsburgs, encompassed many lands and peoples, which became independent states after 1918. Jews from Austrian Poland, Slovakia and so on, were able to move freely within the boundaries of the monarchy and to settle down wherever they could make a living. Thus, for instance, many thousands of Polish Jews settled within the boundaries of Hungary, forming large religious communities in the northern parts of the country. They never became Hungarian citizens - those niceties had no relevance to the daily life of the villagers. They never adopted the Hungarian language either, remaining, for better or for worse, faithful to Yiddish, their mame loshen (mother tongue). Hebrew, of course, was not a spoken language for these ultra-orthodox - it was the lashon kodesh, the holy language, to be used solely for studies and prayers. Our family origins were also from this background, but went through periods of modernization over time. My grandparents were still bearded, Yiddish-speaking orthodox Jews, yet my parents left orthodoxy behind and spoke Hungarian, or German if needed.

Compounding this situation was the unique nature of Jewish communal life. In the Habsburg Empire for a long time birth, marriage and death were events handled not by the civilian, but by the religious authorities. These were not registered officially and many Jewish families' entire history was recorded only in the family Siddur or prayer book. Religious authorities kept records of marriages, births and burials, but first, these records were not officially recognized, second, they were written in foreign languages, such as Yiddish or Russian and third, they often disappeared, with the movements of the populations. Official record keeping did not commence in these territories until the late 1860s. Later, when the synagogues and cemeteries were destroyed, up in flames went not only the Jewish communities, but also all vestiges of their past existence and recorded history.

Then there was the small matter of family names. The need to take on a family name was not enforced until the middle of the 19th century, or even later in certain territories. When forced to do so, Jews took on German or Hungarian names describing their trade, the colour of their hair or other physical appearances. Black (Schwartz), Red (Roth), White (Weiss), Blue (Blau) and Green (Grün) became common Jewish names, similarly Tailor (Schneider) and Glazier (Glazer), to just mention a few. Others took on the name of their town: Krakower and Tarnopolski as examples. Often the name was chosen, in jest and with much irony, by the government bureaucrats themselves. Once again, documented evidence of residency based on family tracing was difficult to find. Often all that was registered was the fact, that Shloyme the butcher has paid his annual taxes to the village council. Fortunately for all of us, these documents were accepted as proof of residency.

In 1940, mother made several trips to the villages of our origin, in an effort to obtain whatever documentation was available about our families. Some of these hard earned documents - marriage and birth certificates, extracts from taxation registers, death certificates - are in my hand today and show, that she was successful to trace our ancestry back to 1833, although part of it originated in Ruthenia, which was outside the boundaries of Hungary proper. Some of the papers are also written in Russian, the language of the occupational forces at some point in history. Mother even discovered an alleged Salamon, who, as one of the famed "redcaps" (much revered anti-Habsburg Hungarian freedom fighters), participated on the "correct" (read Hungarian) side of the 1848 Hungarian war of liberation (or uprising). In any case, enough documents were collected to prove beyond any doubt our proper Hungarian identity.

Here a little aside is due on our family name. The name "Salamon" and it's dozen or so variations are common in many countries, both European and African. The origin is of course biblical. The name travelled from Judea to North Africa, with the Arab invaders it reached Spain and France, with the exiles from Spain the name continued to Holland and Turkey. Our family forefathers could have come to Hungary from Turkey, Russia, in a round-about way from Germany - there is no telling the actual route. I like to believe, that we are descendants of Spanish exiles, who lived in Turkey and came to Hungary with the occupying Turkish forces. As a popular Jewish/Algerian singer sang: "There is a little Spanish in every Jew."

 

And how did a Jewish child get along in those turbulent times?

This Jewish child got along fine. Looking at the little innocent and naive children of today it sounds incredible today, that I was only seven-eight years old at that time. The things which one had to learn to cope with those days... When I am looking at a child of that age today, I am seeing a child. Myself I remember not as a child, but a small adult, partaking in all the adult worries and concerns of the times. The process of maturing accelerated with the complexity of events I had to face and handle. Among the lessons learned were: never to trust anyone, to keep my emotions to myself, to pretend that I am whatever people or the situation want me to be, to never share my thoughts with anyone and to always pretend, pretend, pretend...

We were, at that time, two Jewish children in my class. The other boy, with his glasses and slightly curving nose, was the prototype of the caricature Jew I saw often on the pages of certain papers, illustrating the "typical" Jew. We instinctively did not associate with each other, perhaps not wanting to form a Jewish clique. He was not liked by my classmates, often called disparaging names by some of the children. Curiously enough, he was called Arpad or Arpi, a true blue ancient Hungarian name (one of the ten tribal chieftains who occupied Hungary in the tenth century). By that time one could often hear vicious anti-Semitic remarks, even in the classroom. The children would say things to me, than quickly adding "but you are different, you are not like one of those dirty Jews." To my eternal shame, I felt good about being different, about being a "good" Jew. Being a bad Jew meant having a crooked nose, wearing glasses, long curly payot, smelling bad and having lice in the hair. I did not suffer from any of these afflictions.

As a good boy I, like my brother before me, also belonged to the Boy Scout movement. Mordi joined the Scouts in 1940. He was kicked out of his unit when his Jewish origins were discovered. He was also removed from the Cheder when one day he appeared for his lesson wearing the Scout uniform. Perhaps I even inherited Mordi's uniform - I don't remember and probably did not care. The uniform carried the three-leafed fleur de lis symbol of world scouting and at the beginning of the Scout meetings we proudly held up three fingers while swearing the oath to the spirit of Baden-Powel, the mysterious and magical Englishman, patron saint of the Scout movement.

It was almost mandatory to be a Cub and wear the uniform on certain days to school, to show, that you are a good little Hungarian. We had fine activities: sang patriotic songs about liberating our oppressed brothers, read stories about our great ancestors (not the Maccabees or Maimonides, but Kossuth and Rakoczy and the ten Hun tribes). We did all the usual things little nationalistic boys do everywhere: we proudly sang the Hungarian anthem "God bless the Hungarian" (seriously, these are the exact words), while saluting the flag. We did a lot of physical exercises and camped out, lighting campfires and singing patriotic songs about the poor oppressed Hungarians, whom we will liberate one day. By that time, all other Hungarians, except those in America, were "liberated." so one might find our vocal efforts rather futile. In our little eight-year old heads such doubts never entered.

We also did more serious work for the fatherland, in later years, when our fatherland needed us. Once the war began, we became busy, collecting scrap metal and bringing it to school as our contribution to the war effort. We also wrote patriotic letters to some poor sod in the Russian front, the name and army unit number being handed out to us. Such a post card almost became my first failure in literature. Paraphrasing a well known poem, I wrote to the hapless soldier on the front: "Write, who knows how much longer can you write". Mother was horrified, when she saw the yet unmailed postcard. Fortunately the army censor was not given such an opportunity.

 

Were all the Jewish children so dedicated?

Confused is a better word for it. Even today it is hard to sort out my feelings during those years. I was a good student and a dedicated reader. I devoured books of adventure, history and poetry. Hungarian literature was richly endowed with all three. I was also a born romantic and, in a childish way, bought into the great mythology of this literature. I loved to recite the patriotic poetry of Petofi, listened to and sang along the songs about exiled Hungarians in Turkey, just loved the romantic Hungarian operettas, filled with striking Austro-Hungarian officers and Gypsy princesses

(composed by Jewish composers). The lesson of true identity was learned but very slowly!

Besides, I was isolated from the great Jewish community of the city. And at home, politics were discussed only in whisper and in German, so we children would not understand the discussions that went on between my parents late at night. In our home, like in the homes of all Jewish families of middle-Europe, the blue Keren Kayemet box was prominently displayed. We religiously (no pun intended) dropped our pennies into it and once in a while an old, bearded Jew came around to empty the box and mumble some sort of Yiddish thanks and promises of redemption coming soon. Zionism as such was not a subject of discussion at our dinner table. I was not aware, at that time, of my great compatriot, Dr. Herzl and his teachings. Jerusalem for us was not a reality, a travel destination - it was only the spiritual Jerusalem of above.

Two adventures remain outstanding in my memory, of those times. The one is associated with father, probably during one of his stay-at-home periods. As member of a private health insurance club, he received a one-week stay at one of the sanatoriums (spas) in the mountains. Father decided to take me with him. It was a marvellous week, full of good food, swimming, mountain climbing and some good company. We took the train to the lower Karpat mountains and I watched for hours the wonderful scenery of mountains and virgin forests rushing by us. Naturally, everybody but us was Christian. We befriended a couple with a little girl of my age. Luckily I always kept my trunks on, so my Jewish identity was not disclosed to her. A picture showing us cavorting in the pool was one of my cherished mementoes for many years to come. It shows a group of sweetly plump Hungarian families smiling contentedly - father and me among them, fitting in quite well, I must admit.

Another summer travel took mother and me to her birth village, Budszentmihaly. The trip was long: we went by train and at some point transferred to another, smaller train. It ran on a narrow-gauge rail and was pulled by an old steam locomotive, which whistled constantly - probably to scare the grazing cows off the tracks. I could have descended and walked beside the train, without falling behind.

This was quite an adventure, because by that time Jews travelled very little. The routs were unsafe, Jews were frequently attacked by their Christian travelling companions, or by the Gendarmes guarding every train station. Mother and I did not look Jewish, spoke a good Hungarian and German and carefully concealed our true identities. Nevertheless, the fear stayed with us all through our journey. I had to sit all through the trip very quietly, without running around or talking to our fellow travellers. The trip was long and boring, taking us through the Hungarian puszta or prairies. The locomotive or engine was powered by coal and it let out a constant stream of black fumes, making it impossible to open the windows and relieve the oppressing heat.

The trip took longer than half a day. Shortly after departure, our mostly peasant neighbours opened their ample baskets of goodies and presented a splendid lunch spread on the folding tables. Invitations to join them came from all sides and none of our refusals were accepted. I received a huge slice of solid brown bread, loaded with all sorts of porky products, accompanied by a glass of solid red wine. Mother bravely struggled with a bit of her food, but I polished everything off. Eating chazerey (non-kosher) is permissible in the case of pikuach nefesh (to save an endangered life).

After many hours of that, we had to transfer to a smaller train, a local line which served the smaller communities. That train was even smaller, if at all possible, than the first one, stopping at the smallest of stations and one-house villages. Service on the train was non-existent, the travelling public carried onto the train basketfuls of food. Once again the huge blocks of bread, meter long sausages and large onions made their appearance. Naturally, flasks of red wine completed the meal. The passengers spent most of the trip chewing on their heavy food and guzzling the wine straight from the bottles The view through the window was rather desolate. We passed tiny villages filled with mud houses and thatched roofs. The roads were unpaved mud. In the fields scrawny cows were grazing listlessly on the barely visible corn stalks. Ugly, skinny and vicious-looking dogs appeared at each village, barking furiously and running along the train for some distance.

At the station of Budszentmihaly we were received by a horse-and-buggy, sent for us by our hostess, mother's old school chum. This Christian girl, Sari Juliska (Julia) grew into a mature, quite largish but pleasant looking young woman, unmarried, living with her parents and remaining forever a warm and faithful friend.

We loaded our luggage and climbed on, me in the front, of course. A young peasant boy was the driver and I was allowed to hold the reins and "steer" the buggy. I remember that the road was long, hot and dusty, we raised a great cloud of dust, which remained hovering between the two rows of tall trees enclosing the road in a green-grey canopy. We went by flocks of white geese and brown cows - marvels to the city-bred eyes. The lady friend was an important person in the village: she owned the only tobacco store and was also the postmistress. Her store was situated in the heart of the village and I walked several times a day from her house to the store. I was sternly warned not to reveal to anyone, that we were Jewish; not to talk to strangers when alone and whenever I saw gendarmes from the distance , to cross to the other side of the road. I feared them: they looked menacing and cruel to me, without quite understanding the particular menace they represented.

The village was large, filled with brick-and-mud walled houses, with thatched roofs. Each roof was adorned by a large chimney, which in turn was crowned by large stork nests . The popular belief was that storks brought babies into this world, therefore having a stork nest on the top of your chimney was a sign of blessing and good luck (provided the lady of the house was married and not too advanced in years). The village roads were unpaved and only some had primitive sidewalks.

On arrival, we entered through a gate and into a world of marvels. A large white-washed house stood in the middle of a large courtyard, filled with fruit trees, all laden with ripe plums and pears. The family we were staying with were mother's girlhood friend and her parents. They were simple, warm-hearted peasants, Juliska, their only daughter was the educated one in the family. But they opened their house and heart to us, especially to me, the pale little city boy. They set out to fatten me during our short stay and made a great effort to avoid serving any pork products - which was not an easy task for them.

We spent a few weeks in that village I divided my time between lingering around the tobacco store and stuffing myself with fresh fruit, picked off the trees in the courtyard. As all city children, I was fascinated by all manifestations of village life: the chickens wandering underfoot, the cocks waking us up in early dawn and, most of all, the fresh fruit hanging from the trees, begging to be picked.

As in all the villages and small towns, the store was the meeting place of the villagers.They gathered to pick up the mail, purchase tobacco, exchange gossip and for the gentlemen of the village it was an opportunity just to be around the fetching and single postmistress.

We had some relatives still living in the village and I vaguely recall visiting a frightened older couple at their home. We went there cautiously and made sure that no one saw us entering or leaving their home. They were a gloomy couple and little did I understand at the time the reason for their gloom. They told mother in hushed tones how badly they were treated as one of the few Jewish families of the village. I think they had a mill or some sort of a store and the Gentile customers sometimes refused to pay them , but they had to carry on providing their service, in order to avoid a visit by the dreaded Gendarmes. It was very confusing and I could not see what it had to do with us. This was the last time we saw those relatives. They were among the victims of the 1944 summer deportations to Auschwitz.

For several reasons, we did not travel much around the country. For one thing, father was away much of the time, for another, travelling for Jews was risky, even dangerous. That is why I cherished these two trips in my memory for a long time and even today, jaded traveller that I have become, I still recall those places and people with tender feelings.

 

When did the War begin for real?

Shortly after my eighth birthday (by that time, birthdays were only events on the calendar; we held no birthday parties, school friends were not invited and the family did not gather to celebrate the big event), father was once again called up. In August 1940, following the partition of Poland between the Nazis and the Soviets, the Hungarian Regent Horthy was once again called upon to express his faithful support of Nazi Germany. The reward was not long to come: Transsylvania. This large, mountainous region, with some one million Hungarians forming the majority of the population, was given to Romania in the post-World War I Trianon peace treaty of 1920. Now Hungary was allowed to re-occupy the region and "liberate" the oppressed etc. This campaign was short and father was soon home again with us.

Not for very long, though. The complicated international jockeying continued, with Germany pressing with more and more demands. This time, it was the turn of Yugoslavia. This land being populated by Slavs (Bosniak/Horvat or Serbian), their natural and historical allegiance pulled them towards the Russians. When Germany pressed Yugoslavia with their demands, due to the German-Soviet pact signed in September 1939, no Russian help for the Serbs was forthcoming. One of the fallouts of this affair was the re-occupation of another piece of "lost" homeland: the province of Bacska, or as it is now known, Vojvodina. Once again soldiers were called up to march into another neighbouring region and raise the Hungarian flag. This time the excursion lasted longer, the Serbs being more forceful in expressing their displeasure about the turn of events. This took place in March, 1941, scarcely three months before the event, which became the major turning point of the Second World War.

The occupation of these lands increased Hungary's Jewish population by 50% - to over 700,000 people. This number increased by another 100,000 converted, or "Aryan" Jews, who were re-classified as Jews, when Hungary joined the war. A total of some 800,000 Jews were living within the new borders of Hungary, almost a quarter million of them in Budapest alone - nearly a quarter of the city's population.

So father was home once again, but this time things did not get back to normal. He never talked about his military exploits, but we heard him recounting quietly to mother (in German, so the children will not understand), his experiences during this latest campaign. Anti-Semitism was rampant by that time in the army and Jewish servicemen were subjected to every sort of humiliation and physical punishment. I did not know what were father's personal experiences, but he returned taut, pale and tense. Around that time the family intensified our attempts to obtain American visas. Letters went back and forth to New York, but the only tangible evidence of our family there were some pictures showing fat, smiling and content people, dressed in some fancy fashion we only saw in the movies, leaning on a large and shiny automobile. With their careless, self-satisfied smile, our American family looked to us as if they were living on the moon.

Mother and I celebrated birthdays only two days apart. Mine is on the 25th of June, hers on the 27th. In the year 1941, neither of these anniversaries received any family attention. These birthdays were overshadowed by momentous news, reaching us three days earlier, on June 22, 1941: Germany broke the pact with the Soviets and invaded Russia. On that morning, the four of us gathered around the radio and listened to the maddened screams of the Fuhrer, as he was denouncing the Judeo-Bolsheviks and promising his faithful Nazi troops the rapid annihilation of both: Bolsheviks and Jews. That speech gave us the first inkling of things to come. We were shivering in the warm June day, a giant shadow descended over our lives. Mein Kampf, Hitler's literary masterpiece, was widely read by all of us. The anti-Jewish ranting and threats expressed in it were never taken seriously, they were thought to be only the rantings of a frustrated madman. Now we were to find out how badly we all misjudged this book and it's author.

We were well informed about what went on in the German-occupied territories. Not to the full extent, of course - extermination camps and mass executions were not public knowledge yet. But we knew of the ghettos, into which Jews were herded by the tens of thousands. We heard of the atrocities committed in Austria and Poland. Refugees started to arrive, cautiously, from Polish ghettos. They spoke of mass evacuation of Jewish communities and the disappearance of those deported to some unknown destination. We were not quite naive and our innocence was long gone. Of course, we could not fathom the full meaning of what the anti-Semitic press described as the "final solution" of the Jewish question. We imagined to ourselves some mass, forced exodus of all of us to some far away, inhospitable land - Uganda, perhaps, or Mauritius.

The mostly Polish refugees talked very little about their horrifying experiences. The reason was the fierce warnings and threats issued by the Hungarian Jewish Council: talk too much and we will hand you over to the Hungarian authorities for deportation. These self-appointed leaders of the Jewish community wanted to stop the alarming truth from spreading amongst the Jewish population, lest the frightening truth would induce some youth groups (mostly the Zionists, deadly enemies of the religious establishment), to take desperate action and destroy their (the leadership's) attempts of co-operation and appeasement vis-ˆ-vis the fascist authorities. This policy was a major contributor to the Nazis' easy success to manage, control and ultimately annihilate, the greatest part of the 800,000 large Jewish population of Hungary. My deep mistrust and resentment of Jewish organizations and leaders (machers) originates in my recollection of these honourable fools and cowards.

One leading member of the Council, a certain Rudolf Kasztner, went as far as negotiating the shipment of army trucks from England through Turkey, for the German army, in exchange for the release of a certain number of Jews for each truck delivered. Naturally the list of the to-be-released (and allowed to emigrate to Turkey) Jews contained members of the Jewish Council, their families and friends. Kasztner was ready to sacrifice the great majority of Hungary's Jewry. Of course, the whole foolish scheme came to naught. The Allies were not interested in saving Jewish lives, certainly not in exchange for supplying the enemy with even low-grade military equipment. That was not the end of his machinations: the man still managed to pay (with Jewish Council money) for the shipping of 1700 wealthy Jews, including his own family members, to Switzerland. Kasztner was tried in the 1950's in Israel and was found not guilty of betraying his fellow Jews. The verdict was expected: it was unthinkable to admit, the existence of Jewish leaders, who were willing to sell out their brothers for the sake of their own safety. The ultimate verdict though was delivered a few weeks later, when Kasztner was shot and killed by a Hungarian Jewish survivor.

This was the first time, as I remember, when late at night, behind closed windows and locked doors, we tuned our radio to the Hungarian broadcast of the BBC. This furtive activity became an integral part of every Jew's daily life in the city. The act itself was a small act of defiance and resistance. Immediately after Hungary joined the war (on the German side, needless to say), listening to the BBC was declared illegal, equal to spreading false rumours and subject to severe punishment. Nevertheless, or perhaps because of the prohibition, listen everybody did. Ordinary conversations between two Jews invariably opened with the following: "Did you hear last night on the BBC...?" The famous BBC signal of four muffled drum beats, three short and one long, is the Morse code for "V", to represent Victory. More importantly, it is also the motif of fate's ominous knock on the door, taken from the opening movement of Beethoven's Fifth symphony, This sound still echoes in my ears.. Fate was knocking on Germany's doors, promising us the inevitable ultimate victory and liberation from the impending dangers. There was something deeply symbolic in this sound, something tremendously reassuring: being surrounded by Nazis, enemies of our faith and threatening our own lives, yet within the sound waves of our deliverers. Fortunately our understanding of science did not extend to the transmission of radio waves, or else we would have realised, how little the BBC and those behind it could help us.

Even as a nine year old, I could grasp the difference between the amount of misinformation and propaganda thrown at us every day and the reassuring, authoritative and calm voice of TRUTH incarnate. The BBC broadcasts were like a ray of light piercing the darkness surrounding us. This is a theme to which I will return later: how hopeless it is to live under constant threat and danger, when the propaganda machine works so well that you begin to believe in the finality of the situation and even in your own guilt. The best, surest way to break the spirit is not let truth reach the victim. Surround him with lies, manufactured by the ruling system and spread via all means of communications - the newspapers, radio etc. - and sooner or later one finds nothing to hang one's hopes on. Totalitarian propaganda was one of the great German inventions, their gift to twentieth century humanity.


MOBILIZATION!

 

Only nine years old when war became a reality.

We did not know at that time (June 1941), that all those earlier years were only a mild prelude to things to come. But the real war has really commenced for us. In June 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union and we, that is Hungary, had to live up to our obligation as member of the Iron Alliance (that is, the German-Italian military alliance) and enter the war on the side of Germany. So there was general mobilization, all the males up to the age of 48 were called up. It was summer and the streets were filled with young men in uniforms, walking arm in arm with young women, or with their arms around the waists of the young girls. The first months of the war passed almost cheerfully. Soldiers and officers paraded in the streets and parks of the city in their shiny new uniforms.

It was not so cheerful for us, the Jewish population. The atmosphere vis-ˆ-vis the Jews has changed drastically. There existed, for a long time, a small extremist fascist movement called the Arrow Cross party. The movement was named after their symbol, prominently displayed on their flags and on the arm bands worn by their parading members. It originated in an ancient tribal symbol of crossed arrows. This band freely and slavishly borrowed from the mythical nonsense of their German Nazi fellows. Until the outbreak of the war they were considered as a lunatic fringe, a collection of misfits, unemployed labourers and youth who failed their university entrance exams. This is a familiar description today - the only difference being, that they did not sport shaved heads. They never managed to gain respectability, yet were never banned either. The regime tolerated this fascist movement, as a warning to the Jewish community: play ball with the government, or else the mad dogs will be let loose.

But now the mad dogs were parading on the streets, with their banners and German Nazi flags, spouting anti-Semitic virulence and, occasionally, attacking Jewish-looking passers-by. They would sing at the top of their voices such anti-Semitic classics, as:

Jew, Jew, you stinking Jew,

What are you doing here? God damn your mother!

Under your payot the lice is crawling

Your old mother in the shack

After the goose is chasing.

Or this little, similarly ugly and non-sensical ditty:

One Rabbi, two Rabbis The Chief Rabbi croaked Hold on! Long live Szalasi!

Long live Szalasi and the Hitler

Let's beat the Jews with whips!

One Rabbi, two Rabbis...

Police, probably following instructions from above, just stood by and watched the disorderly marchers, even displaying an indulgent smile. Passers-by mostly turned away in disgust, only a few greeted these thugs with the Nazi salute. The Iron Cross troops appeared often on the streets, out of nowhere and I had to learn quickly to tune into the street sounds and recognise their shouts and screams from far away. Young thugs have taken to wearing the "uniform" popularized by the Nazis: a black leather coat with an arm band displaying the arrow cross, black military look-alike hat and a wide leather belt with cross-bands - imitating ammunition belts. At that point the belt was still empty and there was no arrogant display of weapons. These thugs would mount street cars and verbally or physically assault Jewish-looking riders, while other riders looked on with a smile, or gazed away in embarrassment. Rarely did anyone stand up to them. My "Aryan" appearance made me immune to these attacks, but it took a great amount of self-discipline and forced calm to look on neutrally, blandly, as fellow Jews were slapped around and kicked off the street car. This period provided a great opportunity to practice self-control and to overcome my fear of detection. These skills came in very handy later on. But I was terrified, my heart beat constantly in my throat and I was shaking inside. I felt like a tiny mouse, trying to avoid attracting the attention of the big bad tomcat.

Luckily for me, school was already out and I did not have to face my classmates for a few more months. Our gentile neighbours remained loyal to us and continued to maintain a friendly relationship. The little girls living next door to us seemed to be double kind to me, assuring me that these insane times would not last too long and that I had nothing to fear from the crazies. Their mother invited me often to their apartment for a light snack and a chat. They really went out of their way to demonstrate their loyalty to old friends. Their kindness caused me some acute embarrassment earlier on. In April that year, Passover and Easter overlapped each other. On Easter Monday, the mother invited me to join them at their table, an invitation I could not refuse, as it included a typical Easter egg hunt, with the promise of small gifts. Unfortunately, the meal served was typical for the holiday: Easter ham, consumed with great slices of bread. I ate everything with great appetite, only later contemplating the compounding of sins I have just committed - eating not only chametz (leavened food) but also taref (the ham) on the Passover holiday. The gravity of the situation only struck me at our next meal, when the matza was placed on the table. In my childish enthusiasm I had completely forgotten about our holiday.

The concierges of our apartment building always played a key role in the life of its tenants. Now their role became critical. In many instances, frustrated with their rich and often aggressive tenants, concierges informed on them, or even joined the fascist movement themselves. In any case, they often found the opportunity to get back at their masters, making life miserable for the Jewish residents. We were lucky on that count: our concierges, husband and wife, remained kind to us, looking after my safety when alone at home and assisting us in any way possible. This became very important as soon as father left, once again, to join the war that was not ours. With the three of us left on our own resources for a very long period to come, the concierge helped us to obtain a supply of coal for the winter, to carry the heavy pails of coal to our apartment and to give us many other signs of standing by us. Periodically, some fascist band would march into our building and demand to know, whether any dirty Jewish scum was living there. Our friendly concierge always put on a great show of outrage, swearing that she would never serve dirty, stinking Jews in her building. After that, she would came to us to apologise for the filthy language she had to use with the hoodlums. It was heart-warming and reassuring to know, that at least in our home life, we were offered some protection.


THE COUNT DOWN BEGINS: YEAR ONE.

Indeed, it was a countdown, but, unfortunately, we did not know what the final count was going to be. Hitler promised the Germans a thousand-year Reich and we did not care much for that figure.

Father had been called up, along with another million or so men, to join his unit somewhere in the countryside. This time, the service he was called to perform, was of a different nature. Gone was the uniform, weapons were not carried any more. So he reported for service in a forced labour unit attached to the army, composed of Jews, gypsies, criminals and other undesirable elements. The official name was Labour Service, or Las. The so called Laseshes (lasists) were treated as some punishment brigades by the Hungarian officers and soldiers, who served as commanders and guards. The Jews also served as the golden geese to these men, laying rich gold eggs, to be collected by the Hungarian guards, in exchange for small and big favours.

Jews thus served as excellent sources of income which neither the elegant, "aristocratic" officers, nor the riffraff ordinary soldiers could resist. In the Labour units everything functioned by the way of briberies and every favour and privilege had it's set price. Sending or receiving mail, receiving parcels from home (in any case, the best contents of these were stolen by the soldiers before delivery), or the ultimate privilege: a pass for a few days' visit home - all these had to be paid in hard cash or gold. The wealthy Jews were ready to pay and fatten the pockets of the Hungarian hoodlums, while the poorer victims received none of the privileges, only the harshest treatment. These units provided the framework for the first instances of individual and mass murder of Jews in Hungary.

Father had to report to his camp wearing civilian cloths. He had to supply his own strong work boots and, fashionable at the time, a semi-long, brown leather coat. Later, he sent us a photo of a group of camp inmates: four Salamons, all serving in the same unit, all wearing almost identical leather coats. They looked cheerful in the picture, which is still in my possession. The other three had a prosperous, well-to-do appearance, while father seemed skinny and a bit worn out next to them. Their fate was not so cheerful: out of the four, only father survived. One was beaten to death in the camp by the soldiers. The other two perished in the Russian front, frozen to death.

As mentioned earlier, some Jews were still allowed to serve in the regular army, at this early phase of the war. These were made up of two categories: officers, who had received high military decorations in the First World War and converted Jews or those of mixed marriages, who were considered gentiles at that time. But not for long: in August of that year new laws were issued by the government, defining, modelled on the infamous so-called Nuremberg laws of Nazi Germany, who was to be considered Jewish. The law, confirming the adage of the law often being an ass, defined full, half and quarter Jews (no mention was made of just which quarter of a person would be considered Jewish? Certainly included was the circumcised lower part!).

Individuals with one Jewish or partially Jewish parent were half Jews, having at least one Jewish grandparent made one into at least a quarter Jew. What it meant was that converted Jews, born even third generation Christians, suddenly found themselves being kicked back down into the ranks of their abandoned brethren. That was not something to gloat over, nevertheless a good lesson on the futility of assimilation. Once a Yid...

Only those of one quarter and less Jewish origin were at that time declared exempt from the laws effecting Jews. This regulation started up a renewed flurry of paper chase: third generation converts to Christianity suddenly discovered Grandma Gittle in the closet and hurried to collect the necessary baptism certificates, in order to prove their genuine gentileness.

A popular joke of the time played on the familiar image of Jesus on the cross, as displayed in all the churches. Around his head a halo, with the letters I.N.R.I, for the Latin Iesus de Nazareth, Rex Iudeus (Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews). The new meaning of the initials, in Hungarian, became: Leaving for Nazareth to Organise my Documents...

The labour camps quickly put an end to the differentiation between the full and half Jews. These camps were created with two purposes in mind:

First, to provide the required labour force and logistic support to the regular army units. This service included the digging of trenches, carrying heavy supplies, pushing and pulling heavy guns in the deep mud of the Russian front, later even the deadly task of searching for land mines, etc.

Second, with the Labour camps the authorities removed all Jewish males from the community, thus eliminating all possible resistance to future anti-Semitic legislation and action. The only Jewish males exempt from this service were the very young and very old and the community and religious leaders. This latter group, to ensure it's own safety, was to make sure, that the community carefully complies with all the anti-Jewish legislation. The purpose also was to humiliate and punish the Jews in a fairly public way, but without the ugly public displays seen in Germany or Poland.

The Labour camps were set up mostly in the recently (re)occupied territories around the country. Father served in a camp located in the south, in what had been Yugoslav Bacska (Vojvodina). At the beginning, life was manageable. The inmates had the chance to buy their own food, heavily overpriced of course, but available nevertheless. They could even sleep outside the camp, in the peasant homes, in relative comfort. They were allowed to receive packages of clothing and food from home, provided the Hungarian guards were properly bribed. On rare occasions, individuals were allowed brief leaves to visit their families or, more frequently, families were allowed to visit them. A prerequisite, not spelled out but firm nevertheless, was never to discuss with anyone the conditions found or experienced in those horrible slave camps. I remember one such occasion, when mother managed to obtain permission ( after paying out the appropriate bribes) to visit the camp. She decided to take me with her, brother Mordi was already 13 or 14 at that time and looking mature and tall enough to be a 16-year old, the age of conscription to the Labour units.

Mother was always a dogged and resolute organiser, who allowed no roadblocks to hinder her. This time, she managed to hire a small truck, which was loaded up with packages, given by the wives of the other Salamons and other inmates of the camp. The narrow road leading south from Budapest was almost empty. Gasoline was a rare commodity and travel, other than by train, was quite rare. With the exception of army trucks, we met very few other cars on the road.

We reached the small border town, or rather village, just south of the old Hungarian/Yugoslav border, where someone met us and guided us to the camp. I sat on the back of the truck, on top of the parcels. Suddenly I saw someone running after the truck and yelling for it to stop. In my excitement, I failed to bang on the roof of the driver's cabin, to signal him to stop and could only wave to the poor fellow to keep running and reach out with my thin arms to him so that he could hoist himself onto the truck - an offer which, luckily for me, he did not accept.

We arrived at the camp. It was not much of a camp. A large empty ground, surrounded by endless rows of barracks - these were for the "inmates". Further away I saw smaller houses, with smoking chimneys and small patches of garden around them. I assumed these to be housing for the soldiers and officers. At one corner of the ground a few tables were piled up on the top of each other. A number of bare trees stood at the edges, adding a look of singular sadness to the desolate picture. I expected the worst - gallows or whipping posts. Fortunately we saw no signs of physical abuse in the area.

As we went by the gatehouse, a few soldiers came out and waved at us to stop. The guards examined our paper and loudly told us, that it was worthless. After a not-so discreet handing over of some money, they raised the barrier and directed the truck to a secluded spot. A sergeant, sporting a large Hungarian moustache, approached us.

"What are you doing here? Which Jew do you want to see?" - he demanded, aggressively.

"We received permission to visit my husband, Herman Salamon" - answered mother, with as quiet and dignified voice, as she could muster.

"The Salamon? He is unavailable. He is on latrine duty all day" - responded the sergeant in a mocking voice. He had to bring up the most disgusting, demeaning job in the camp. At that, he abruptly turned away from us. Mother knew the song and the routine. In a second, she grabbed his hand and said in a humble tone:

"Dear Mister Sergeant! We came such a long way for this short visit. Could not you just release my husband for a few minutes?" She was begging this animal, humbling herself in front of him. But she would not be turned away.

He removed his hand from hers and examined the slip of paper left in his palm. A twenty pengo note (worth some ten dollars) was sitting in it, neatly folded up. He unashamedly unfolded the money, examined it and said:

"Well, those stinking latrines can wait a few minutes. Let's see what can I arrange."

With that, he strolled away and in a moment we were joined by father and a few more men. Father was very subdued, thinner than when I saw him last. His hesitant behaviour belied the cheerful letters he usually sent us. He hugged mother awkwardly, then kissed me on the forehead. My throat was dry, I wanted to hug him, to tell him stories about how we are getting along. But I realised, that there was no time for emotions, so I just stood on the side, silently, listening to my parents' subdued exchange of words. We were allowed only a short time to stay, so the parcels were quickly unloaded, quick kisses were exchanged (my parents were never openly demonstrative with each other), harried advice was given on how to avoid cold and treat blisters on the hands - and we were on our way once again. One of the guards hovered around all that time, keeping an eye on the parcels unloaded, undoubtedly wanting to make sure, that nothing would be smuggled in without them taking their share. His presence limited our conversation, as if a jail guard was standing by. Not a word was said about what went on inside the camp and none was necessary.

We, father and I, were never demonstrative with our emotions. But this time before leaving I grabbed his hand and squeezed it to my face.

"Don't worry, Apuka (father)" - I whispered with as much maturity as I could muster - "We manage all right Just look after yourself!"

"Be a good boy and help your mother as much as you can" - he answered and hugged me to his thin chest, kissing me on the forehead. That was the warmest I have ever seen him. Then he slowly turned away and walked back, toward the barracks. We dejectedly climbed back onto the truck and backtracked our way out of the camp.

We were both silent during the return voyage, even the driver, a goy, was subdued. Mother hovered between sobs and sighs - one more farewell, which could be the last. The drive back home was slow and miserable, even the skies clouded up, to add to our sadness. We brought back with us many slips of paper with names and phone numbers of families to call, just to signal that the man of the house was still alive and reasonably well.

This trip took place sometimes in the fall of 1941, before father's unit joined other labour units on the dreaded Russian front. I was crushed by this experience - seeing first hand the miserable conditions father and the others had to live in and the way they were so completely at the mercy of the Hungarian keret (frame, that is the group of soldiers guarding the "inmates"). I felt humiliated for father and so helpless. Mother discussed the situation with Mordi, the elder brother. I was left out to handle my own feelings - I was too young to be included.


YEAR TWO.

1941 went by... and 1942 came

Then came the winter of 1941/42, the first war winter. The Hungarian army was thrown into the Russian front and the Jewish labour units along with them. There was one crucial thing these two, the oppressor and the oppressed, had in common (besides both being, in the final count, victims of the Germans): everyone, soldiers and labourers alike, left for to the Russian front in the heat of summer, without carrying with them the vitally important winter clothes, coats, boots, hats and gloves. It never occurred to the high military command that these poor devils would be forced to spend the harsh winter in Russia. They all fell for Hitler's boastful promise: that the victorious armies will be home by Christmas. As a result, shoes fell apart, light coats and jackets provided scant protection from the bitter cold. Bare hands and fingers froze to the ice-cold weapons and the tools they were forced to handle.

We lost track of father who, among the other hundreds of thousands, tried quietly to survive the terrible ordeal. Death came to the Jewish labourers in many ways and forms. Some were sent out to the minefields left behind by the retreating Red Army and were blown up to pieces. Some contracted typhoid or starved to death. But most of the men, in their thousands, were murdered by the Hungarian soldiers, who became increasingly frustrated as the war dragged on and the promised rapid victory was slipping away. Thus, the mass murder of Hungary's Jews, at the hands of the Hungarian soldiers and military police, began on the snow-covered frozen fields of far-away Russia.

The Hungarian and Rumanian armies were used by the Germans as cannon fodder, under equipped and insufficiently clothed, thrown into battle at the most difficult stretches of the front, namely the infamous Don River Bend. Winter was frighteningly cold, something never before experienced by the Hungarians. There was not enough food. The Russians had burned up and destroyed, in the best guerrilla warfare tradition, their crops and homes, before retreating. Their Hungarian uniforms were fit for the Hungarian summer, not for the bitterly cold Russian winter. Their guns jammed in the cold and became useless. During this first winter, a hundred thousand Hungarian soldiers died at the Don river - a catastrophe unequalled until that time, in any warfare.

So the soldiers were angry and the Jews were handy scapegoats. Army propaganda continuously fed the image of the "Judeo-Bolshevik" Lenin and Stalin (and later, Roosevelt), with payot and schtreiml. Their captive Jews were easy pray to the frustrated soldiers, whose only diversion available was the torture and murder of their victims. The horror stories we heard a year later, when some survivors managed to filter back into Budapest, were difficult to believe. As punishment, Jews were stripped, doused with ice cold water and forced to stand at attention in the snow, until frozen to death. Those who contacted typhoid were herded into barns and churches, which were set on fire. Many of the weakened men were unable to do any work and were simply beaten to death. The sadistic imagination of the torturers was endless.

Fortunately, in the winter of 1941/42 we did not have any inkling of all these happenings. We were only concerned with how father manages to handle the hard physical labour, to which he was not used. Our main concern was to try to get food and clothing to him. We did not know where he was, but from time to time a soldier would enter our store, bearing a scrap of paper with father's handwriting, giving only our address. These were occasions for quiet celebration and prayer, for they meant that father was still alive and capable of writing. The soldiers were always offered generous rewards for bearing the good news and even larger rewards, if they consented to take a parcel back with them. We found out later, that these parcels almost never reached their destination without first removing the best part of their contents. We still believed in the goodness of heart of these criminals.

We did return to school in the fall. I became increasingly isolated from my classmates and only a few even dared to speak to me. At the age of ten, anti-Semitism finally hit me personally. I was kicked out of the gymnastic class, which became a para-military training group in the hands of a rabidly anti-Semitic teacher. There were no physical attacks on me, just sly bumps and shoves, ugly laughter and yelled out curses of "dirty Jew". I rapidly learned to ignore these attacks and never to mention them at home. The teachers, by and large, were reasonable and even kind to me, sending out the occasional signal of helpless sympathy. But the school, as an institute and the principal as an individual, made it clear that we Jewish pupils were just temporarily tolerated and would soon be altogether removed so we would stop poisoning the air. I was never called up to the blackboard any more nor was I given the task of supervising the class. Somehow I became a non-entity, a ghost who just refused to go away. Even my seat was moved from the front to the back of the classroom.

The hardest were the recesses when all the children ran out to the courtyard to form football teams and other playful groups. I was not allowed to join any of these groups. On the contrary, I had to try very hard to hide myself, to avoid attacks and threats from boys who were not my classmates. We were all forced to exit to the courtyard, or else I would have rather stayed in the safety of my classroom. There was no such safety in the courtyard. I was frequently hit by "stray" balls or stones thrown by "mistake". The supervising teachers either enjoyed the spectacle or were powerless, afraid to defend a Jewish student from the bullies.

Another danger was posed by groups of older students, who were stalking the streets around the school, beating up Jewish children they encountered. Many a time I had to use various ruses to avoid being beaten up. Once again, my non-Jewish appearance saved me many times. On other occasions, I had to use my quick mind to escape an attack. Once, when accosted by a group of young thugs who seemed to have identified my racial origin, I went straight to the leader and asked for directions to find some street. This confused them sufficiently to allow me to walk away quietly. This ruse was used later to escape from more dangerous situations: asking for the time or taking out a cigarette and asking for light, were favourite methods. This small child was a fast learner and a deception once learned was never again forgotten.

Apart from these diversions, our daily routine has not changed very much. We all left the apartment early - Mordi to high school, which was situated a bit further away, mother to take the streetcar to the store and I to my own school. I still ate at the Pension, which by now was frequented almost solely by German officers. The few Hungarian gentlemen took tables placed at the dining room's edges and became as inconspicuous as possible. I kept burying my nose even deeper into the German publications; a lunch companion that often took my appetite away as the anti-Semitic hate propaganda became more virulent and despicable. Fortunately, the food also became less tasty and varied, as shipments of all sorts of food supply now went to the Russian front and butter, meat, eggs and other food items became often unavailable in the stores. I also had to submit food coupons, in exchange for my lunch. Food rationing was introduced some time earlier: so many grams of bread, butter, so many eggs etc. per week. The quantity of food served depended on the number of coupons I was able to provide. That meant that some of the better meat dishes were no longer available to me.

After school I made my way to the city, taking the streetcar every day. I got used to standing on the outside platform or even riding standing on the stairs, always ready to jump off, at the first site of a youth gang getting on the streetcar. All these daily insults and dangers I had to learn to tolerate and handle on my own, there was no one I could pour my heart out to. Mother had enough worries of her own, making a living for the family and forever trying to get news of father. I could not burden her with my problems. So I learned to manage on my own, gradually developing various loneliness survival techniques. Brother Mordi was not much help either, as he faced much more serious difficulties than I. His high school was a real hotbed of fascism, teachers and students as one body harassed Jewish pupils and made their lives almost intolerable. He also had to constantly be alert to the danger of being taken for a 16-year old boy and accused of avoiding forced labour service. He was also more involved with the store and with helping mother.

In the evening we made our weary way home, ate whatever mother managed to prepare for us and settled down to do our homework. There was always an hour or two of work and study to do for the next day. At the end of the day, the friendly, reassuring voice of the BBC came on, mostly carrying bad news, such as the true dimension of the losses on the Russian front and, sometimes, greetings from Jews and others, who managed to reach some neutral territory - Turkey or Switzerland and found the BBC the only avenue to communicate with their families. But the news in the winter of 1941-42 was sad and gloomy. News of atrocities committed against the Jews of Poland and the Ukraine started to appear, providing more and more evidence of a systematic mass murder, rather than "just" the usual anti-Semitic violence, we had gotten used to. The idea that the whole of European Jewry was doomed did not yet enter into our heads. We would silently turn off the radio without having much discussion of the news we had just heard. Coal was also in short supply, so we would go to bed early and cover up well with the huge fluffy feather downs, to keep the frost of winter out of our beds and spirits.

Saturdays, now that father was gone, became ordinary work days. Also, it was not the right time for Jewish pupils to be absent from school on account of the Shabat and the store also had to be kept open, not to give any indication of its Jewish ownership. On Friday nights my brother and I still made our way to the synagogue. The service was subdued; only the very old, women and children were still at home to attend it. The Rabbi made very carefully-worded speeches, in which he spoke of the traditional suffering of our brethren and how God wanted us to accept this punishment in silence. He also made (in Hungarian) the obligatory blessing on the Admiral and the Fascist government. The old Jews nodded their heads: they had already survived much suffering and believed that these times were just a continuation of what they had already experienced. We, the young, were angry and agitated, but did not dare to speak up. We prayed in silence, answered the anxious inquiries of the old men about father's whereabouts and asked in return for news about their sons. The news, when there was any, was always bad: names of the dead were mentioned and the terrible way they died; names of labour camp locations and of Russian villages, where particularly cruel Hungarian officers rode roughshod over their Jewish victims. No, the Friday night and holiday services were not joyous occasions any more. The Chazan was also gone, leaving behind a leaderless congregation. Of course, the football team had disbanded long before. Jewish children had no place under the sun to chase a ball and enjoy themselves.

Sundays were days of rest and gloom. We had a full day to reflect on the difficult times and on the distinct possibility, that father was no longer among the living. Mother would quietly cry in some corner. We did not see our friends any more, did not go out to have snowball fights or to play football. The highlight of the day was the early afternoon radio broadcast of plays, mostly operettas (musicals), live from the theatre. The big stars of the day, Hanna Honthy and every boy's favourite "Latyi Matyi", Kalman Latabar, made their weekly appearance in the big musicals broadcast directly from the Operetta Theatre.

The radio became my principal and only contact with the outside world. We seldom went to see a play or operetta any more - theatres were too far and too expensive. It was also dangerous, though not yet forbidden, for Jews to attend public performances. The radio brought into our home concerts by the famous Berlin and Vienna Philharmonics, great plays and all the popular musicals of the day, sung and acted by my favourite actors, each so familiar and dear to me. I recognized them by their so familiar voices and learned all the popular songs from these musicals by heart. Today, fifty years later, I can still recall many of the old melodies and even the words of these light, playful and cheerful musicals.

Another of my favourites were German war songs, soldier songs. The haunting trumpet introduction to Lily Marlene (the German version was more catching than the one the BBC broadcasted frequently). Also songs about the time, when all this will be over and our boys return victorious:

"Es geht alles vorüber,

es geht alles vorbei...".

Later in the evening we might go to the movies. That was one pleasure not yet taken away from us. Not that the pleasure was so great: first we had to go through the gauntlet of German propaganda newsreels, news of victory in Russia and Africa, see the faces of captured and tortured Russian and Jewish prisoners, taunted by laughing German soldiers. Then the main feature came on. It was also very often some Nazi film, such as Father (Ohm) Kruger, an anti-British diatribe attempting to justify the existence of the Nazi concentration camps, or Jud Süss, a German remake of the beautiful novel by Lion Feuchtwanger, the great Jewish-German writer, transformed by the Nazis into a vicious piece of anti-Semitic propaganda. No, there was no escaping from the outside reality, even in the cinema.

 

Any good news in 1942?

There was only short-lived good news. By the spring of that year, the full horror of the Russian campaign became known. The Hungarian units had been sacrificed at the most difficult positions, in order to protect the German army and to reduce its losses. The horrendous figures became widely known in Budapest. Also, trainload after trainload of the injured and maimed started to arrive daily, to be treated in overloaded hospitals. Unfortunately, we could not rejoice in the suffering of our enemies. The Jewish labour units were decimated several times over. The dead were counted in the thousands and the wounded never made it home: they were left to die a horrible death, of typhoid, hunger or frost. Worst of all, all this was only rumoured, no hard news was ever available.

Most of the news reached us through Hungarian soldiers on leave, the very same people who did the killings and committed the atrocities on our fathers, brothers and sons. We had to rejoice, when one of them appeared in our store, with news of father or even with a list of names. They recounted what was happening in the East. Of course in all their stories the other soldiers were the animals and they the good people, protecting and helping the victims. We had to pretend that we swallowed these lies and even had to richly reward these criminals with presents or money. Strangely enough, these boys in uniform, mostly of common stock, were eager to tell it all, the mass starvation and murders, the large numbers of victims, sometimes whole units, which had perished under their hands. They figured that the more horrible the stories, the deeper will be our sympathy and the larger their reward.

After these people left the store, we remained silent, stunned by the stories we had just heard. Mother would cry bitterly, while we tried to occupy ourselves with some work, to cover up our frustration. Even if the visiting soldier had spoken with father personally, that did not mean that he was still alive. The journey to Budapest took weeks and during that time so much could have happened. So each time news about him reached us, it was a renewed reason not for hope, but for desperation. I had to keep the depression which fell over me after such visits inside myself. Outwardly Mordi and I pretended that the news was good and gave us more hope. Inwardly I was crying for father to come home and talk to me. There was no one to whom I could pour my heart out.

A dramatic change happened in March of that year. Horthy, under pressure from the Hungarian nationalists to stop the bloody hemorrhage, dismissed the pro-German government and appointed a new, liberal Prime Minister, who was rumoured to be married to a partially Jewish woman. The new government of Kallay was a godsend for us, Jews. The day this happened was a memorable day. March 15 is the Hungarian national holiday, commemorating the War of Independence of 1848, waged against the ruling Habsburgs. One of the heroes of that war was the poet Petofi, the greatest Hungarian poet of all times, who disappeared and probably was killed during that war. Every year, in front of the statue of Petofi, a large commemoration celebrates the dead poet and the idea of freedom. This year of 1942, the celebration took on a distinctly anti-German character. People loudly recited his poems, among them one banned earlier, warning the Hungarians to

do not trust the Germans,

no matter what they promise you.

These lines were recited over and over again, loudly, by people who climbed the statue in their enthusiasm.

These demonstrations were a prelude to the change of government. The news was announced on the radio on a sunny Sunday morning. I rushed immediately to the centre of the town to pick up a paper. The large central square of our suburb was surrounded by high-rise apartment buildings. On the ground floor there were a number of stores, which generated continuous pedestrian traffic. The streetcar crossed the square and disgorged a constant stream of travellers. A railway line cut through the other end of the square. There was a small station at that end, but it was seldom used, except to accommodate freight trains stopping to pick up water or coal, required for their steam engines.

It took me five anxious minutes to reach the centre. I found it busier than usual for a Sunday morning. The paper boys were surrounded by solemn looking people; the boys did not, as usual, yell out the headlines; the buyers picked up the papers and, without glancing at the front page, folded them up and walked away rapidly. We all knew, somehow, that this was not yet the time for celebration. I also grabbed a few of the papers, quickly paid and sauntered away, as casually as I could. Only after going some distance did I dare to open the papers and glance at the large headlines: "NEW GOVERNMENT! END OF THE MILITARY ACTION ON THE RUSSIAN FRONT!". Breathlessly I ran all the way home and proudly unloaded my cache of good news.

This was not yet the end, but changes did occur. Most of the army was removed from the front and brought back into support positions and units were brought home for recuperation on a rotating basis. The remnants of the Jewish forced labour units were also removed and brought home, into the camps they previously occupied. Some of them even received home leaves and so, after almost nine months, father was at home once again. This was not a joyful reunion, but a hectic few days during which mother took sole possession of father, trying to heal his wounds and feed him the best food we could muster. We never heard father telling much about his experiences. He told us about the fate of the other Salamons, his fellow camp mates. Mostly he and mother talked in whispers during the whole night. They were feverishly trying to find some way out of the disaster, an escape route, an idea for salvation. We knew, that their deep concern was to save the lives of their children. But they have not managed to come up with any solution. Mother's eyes were constantly red in those days. It was such a hopeless situation!

After that visit, life returned to normal. At least we knew where father was. The nightmare of the Russian front was over for the time being. Also, we could communicate with him and mother could ask for his advice on various problems she had to handle alone until then. Our young apprentice was still with us, doing his share of the work in the store, mostly the jobs usually handled by father. He was immensely cheered up by father's presence and worked even harder to please us.

The situation stabilized, but did not improve for us. The German pressure was great to force Hungary to fall back into line, as far as the Jewish question was concerned. So Kallay was obligated to issue further anti-Jewish regulations. Jews were ordered to deliver all their jewellery and other valuables, such as foreign currency, to the National Bank, for "safekeeping." Mother obligingly delivered a valueless old gold watch, just to receive the obligatory receipt from the bank.

A bigger blow to all of us was the order to deliver all radios and other communications instruments to the nearest police station. Clearly, the intent was to further and further isolate the Jewish community from the outside world. The argument was that every Jew was a potential spy for the enemy and the radios were used as means of communication with British agents. This ridiculous hogwash served to cover up on the real purpose, which became very clear when the deportations began: the isolation of the Jewish community from the larger Gentile world. The isolation was designed to break down any thought by the Jews to attempt resistance or by the Gentiles to help them.

In any case, like most resourceful Jewish families, we handed in an old crystal radio set, which had ceased to work years before, thanks to the expert hands of Mordi and myself. We also handed in the large furniture-sized radio which would have been impossible to conceal. As we paid license for two radios, we had to make sure to hand in two units of any sort, to avoid suspicion. We kept for ourselves a smaller radio apparatus. This was a dangerous defiance of the law which some families paid for dearly. If a radio was found, the owners were heavily fined and jailed; later on the punishment became immediate candidacy for deportation to the camps. Nevertheless, we did not hesitate for a moment to keep one radio: it was our lifeline to the outside world. Maintaining contact with the world meant maintaining our sanity and that was worth all the risk.

 

How we "sold" the store

Another major legislation stipulated, that Jews were no longer allowed to own businesses. Jews had already been removed from all the professions long before that time. Now the remaining means of existence were also taken away from us. Once again, though, the ever creative Jewish kopf came to the rescue.

Jewish businessmen had discovered earlier on, that to run Jewish owned businesses was in poor form in German-controlled Europe. So the concept of the strohmann or straw man came into being. There were ample aspiring and lazy gentiles who, for appropriate remuneration, were ready to lend their name as co-owners of these Jewish businesses. Of course ownership was transferred on paper only and only money has changed hands, never control of the business. The strohmann understood nothing in business matters and was usually wise enough to stay away from it.

Now we all had to try to find our own straw men who would be ready, preferably on paper only, to "buy" our businesses and lend us their names as cover. We knew a gentile family from the time when father was still employed in the warehouse. Mr Horvath, an ex-policeman, was hired by the Gruenfelds as a goy bully. He became very friendly with father and stayed in touch with us, even after father became independent. Our two families became good friends, they even invited us to the greatest village feast of the year, the Slaughter of the Pig ceremony. This had taken place some years earlier. The family lived in a nearby village and, like all villagers, raised a number of animals, among them pigs. Every fall, after the wheat was harvested and the grapes had been turned into strong red wine, a large pig was slaughtered and the meat processed, to provide food for the whole family during the long winter months. This annual event became a large festivity and one year, still in the days before the war, we were invited to attend.

 

The Slaughter of the Pig ceremony.

This event took place still in peacetime, that is before the summer of 1941. Father's friend who lived in a large house in a small village, invited all four of us to celebrate with them the arrival of the fall and of the new wine. The festivities took place in his large village house, where his extended family lived. The main event was the traditional fall pig slaughter.

The proceedings took three days and nights. We slept in their house, in deep beds covered with eiderdowns. The kitchen was huge, decorated with dozens of colourful wall plates and handmade wall hangers. In the centre stood an enormous wood burning stove, which provided a continuous stream of hot water for the ritual. The late fall days were beautiful, with softly warm days and full mooned mellow nights. The enormous courtyard was full with the sweet smell of the ripe fruit, hanging heavily on the tree branches. We were introduced to a large family of children, uncles and aunts - several dozen people, who came to celebrate the feast with our well-to-do friends. They knew that we were Jewish and took us in with good humour.

The centre of attention was the pig, an immensely large animal, weighing a few hundred kilograms, fattened during the whole year for that purpose. Long tables were set outside, loaded with large chunks of bread piled high and assorted salads and pickled vegetables. Bottles of red wine were scattered around the tables by the dozens, the wine siphoned out of the huge barrels laying in the basement.

A huge fire was lit and the pig was brought into our circle, squealing and desperately trying to escape. Three big men were pulling it by it's ears and tail. The pig squealed loudly and the men laughed and cursed it in a playful way. Our friend came out of the kitchen, brandishing a large butcher knife. He went straight at the pig and, while the three people held it down, stuck the knife deep into the pig's throat. All hell broke loose. The pig let out some heartrending squeals, blood spurted sky high from the wound and the helpers lost hold of the animal. It began to run around in mad circles, blinded by it's own blood. Blood spurted all over us, which caused great hilarity among the family. Everybody joined in the chase, trying to catch the pig and, when caught, to hang on to it by the curly tail. The poor animal gradually quieted and slowed down as the loss of blood weakened it's resistance.

We sat there, stunned. Never had I observed such a cruel scene before But the laughter was contagious and soon we also joined in the merriment, if not in the chase. Once the poor pig was subdued, great pails of water were brought out to wash off as much of the blood, as possible. By then the pig was quiet, only an occasional kick of its legs showing the last signs of life. Our friend took the knife again and, with rapid movements, cut through the animal's throat, severing the head completely. That brought on great cheers and the emptying of glassfuls of the home made red wine, which had already started before the pig's first and final appearance, resumed with gusto.

At that point the women appeared, with dishes and knives, to begin dissecting the huge carcass. To the sound of laughter and happy cries, the pig was cut up to pieces. I had already heard of such occasions at which the frugal farmers use up every bit of the animal, but had never actually witnessed it. Now I saw how it was done: the blood was collected in big pails, to be used later for making blood sausage. The skin was removed, to be scraped free of hair later, to be used by shoemakers or to make purses with. The head and feet would be used for frozen delicacies. The thick layers of fat under the skin were sliced off, to be made into bacon. The meaty part was used as ham, to be smoked over the open fire, or as roasted meat. All other scraps of meat and fat were gathered, to be ground up and stuffed into the cleaned and washed intestines of the pig, to be turned into sausages. All this material was cut out of the huge carcass, in immense quantities.

Fires were lit in the open space and the cooking and frying began at once. The long tables were filled with large, home-baked wheels of bread, pickled cucumbers and countless other delicacies. At that magic moment, the gypsies arrived, waiting in the dark until the smell of fried meat began to waft in the air. Joyous music filled the air, another barrel of the red was rolled out and conversation became even louder and more raucous. The revellers started banging on the table with their spoons and scream, rather than sing:

No, no, no, we won't go

Until the lord of the house

With a stick chases us away.

If the Lord of the house

Does not like our enjoyment

He can pull up his stakes.

But here we stay

It is difficult to describe the three days and nights this merriment lasted. It seemed to me that the whole pig, plus some chickens and goats, were all consumed during the festivities. We ate and drank through the whole night and the next day and night again. At the beginning we tried daintily to avoid the pig's remnants and stuck to the other meat, however non-kosher it was. Later on all the food consumed became one great blur. I could not imagine, that anything was actually left for the family's winter feeding. But of course, our friend was not a farmer, but a good income earner and the slaughter and feast were done for fun, not out of necessity. I passed out several times on the hard bench, half drunk, half asleep. Every time some kindred spirit would pick me up and tuck me into the deep bed. After a while I would wake up to the noise of music and singing and, not wanting to miss anything, I would crawl out of bed and join the celebration once again.

This friend was our candidate for strawmanship. A small incident during the festivities should have send us a warning flag. During one of the evenings, quite inebriated, the friend turned to father and said in a loud, drunken voice: "Salamon, perhaps you are a dirty Jewish swine, but you are a good man!" Then he slapped father on the back and all burst out in laughter.

I think it was father who, in one of his rare visits, contacted him and approached the delicate subject. The man understood immediately what the conversation was about and agreed to co-operate. A sale agreement was drawn up, whereby ownership was transferred to his name with only the inventory remaining in our hands. The new owner was duly registered and mother, now only as employee, continued to run the shop. Our friend kept the bargain and did not even bother to enter the store once in a while. He never tried to take advantage of the situation and, as far as I remember, money never changed hands.

An epilogue to this episode puts a different light on this man. In the summer of 1944, when Jews were forbidden to use public transportation, we were finally forced to close the store. Once again, we contacted our friend with a request to help us out. This time we were trying to rescue as much of the expensive inventory, as possible. He agreed once again to come to our help. We packed all the most valuable china and crystal into two large crates and took them out to his house in the village. Of course, no papers were signed at that time, his willingness to safeguard the goods spoke for itself. This time, though, the temptation proved to be too great. When the war was over and travel finally resumed, we went out to his village to see if we could pick up the crates. The man sadly reported, that the goods had been destroyed during the last phase of the war and nothing remained, not even some broken pieces, to reassure us, that he was not cheating us. What could we do - sadder, but somewhat wiser - we accepted the lie and the fact that we had to go home empty-handed and start all over again.

 

What was the public reaction to all these events?

It was varied. We did not sense that there was an unreserved, enthusiastic and unified support of the Germans and the war on Russia. Opposition to the war expressed itself in many ways, as did a cautiously reserved sentiment of sympathy towards the Jews. We picked up vibes almost by osmosis, as these ideas were never allowed to appear in the open. My daily newspaper reading, which included the still existing Social Democratic paper, repeated the standard anti-Semitic, anti-Bolshevik, pro-Nazi drivel day in, day out. Neither the papers nor the state controlled radio were good places to look for sympathy or opposition. All of them, even the Social Democrats, were obliged to deliver the daily doses of prescribed venom. So did the state controlled radio, with what seemed to be almost daily broadcasts of Hitler's speeches and follow-up discussions. Other Hungarian propaganda programs included radio dramas that portrayed Jews as bloodsuckers and usurers, exploiters of the poor Aryans.

One of the popular weekly magazines began around that time to publish a serialised novel with the title "He started in Tarnopol." The seemingly never ending story centred on a filthy rich Jewish industrialist family and their criminal exploits. The central character's ancestors, only a generation before, were poor and primitive peasants in Tarnopol, a similarly poor and primitive Polish village. They eked out a living by pushing a cart from hovel to hovel, buying and selling used clothing and other household items. By steadily cheating their innocent Christian customer/victims, they amassed a large enough fortune to come to Budapest and establish a large and respectable house of business. Raping and pillaging their way amongst the countless innocent servant girls and office staff, they went from one atrocity to the next, contaminating in the process countless lily-white Christian lives. Fortunately the writer of this masterpiece finally ran out of ideas and the horrible fictional Jewish family met it's just deserts, long before the many thousands of real Jewish families met theirs.

On the personal level, my contacts with the Hungarian neighbours and shopkeepers were also uneven. Three more shops were located in our building. One of those was owned by a Jewish tailor, whom we befriended, until he also disappeared in the labour camps. We had no contact with the other store owners , other than the brief and perfunctory "Good morning" greetings. Two of our neighbours in the apartment building were very correct, even friendly. They never changed their polite behaviour with us. On the other hand I had to be much more cautious with the other residents of the apartment. With some of them I felt I had better squeeze myself into a corner, when they went by me, so much hatred emanated from their faces. Some of the shopkeepers pretended, that they did not see me, demonstratively ignoring me for the longest time. A few others remained friendly, even sympathetic. These small acts of kindness were one way they could express their resistance and opposition to the prevailing mood.

There was also another way to offer careful resistance. You had to be born and live in one of the Eastern European countries in order to develop this finely honed sense of picking up resistance signals. Hungarians were experts in the game, having lived under foreign occupation of one sort or another for centuries. The Turkish occupation lasted three centuries, followed by the Habsburg monarchy and Austrian rule, Russian and later Rumanian interventionist army occupation and then the dictatorship of Horthy. Now the country lived under virtual, if not actual, German occupation. Through all these centuries, opposition to the rulers has expressed itself not via the use of the force of the gun, but of a much more dangerous weapon: the ridicule of the word. Hungarians developed the world's probably sharpest style of political satire and innuendoes. Jokes, that could pass the enemy's ire and the censor's sharp scissors.

This art of subtle resistance found many forms of expression. The one commonalty was the satire, ridiculing rather then attacking the enemy openly. Political jokes were whispered, told and retold in secret on the street, in stores and restaurants, wherever two people met. Even supporters of the regime repeated the jokes aimed at themselves and had good laughs at their own account. Sadly, much of the satire was of the gallows humour variety, foreboding the tragic end awaiting us. A satirical magazine managed to remain in publication right until the actual German occupation in 1944, a Hungarian version of the famous Parisian Canard Enchaine. It then went underground, only to be reborn after liberation.

Another forum was the night-club or cabaret, where the conferencier or Master of Ceremony delivered long monologues, in which many of the anti-nazi jokes were retold. This was also tolerated by the regime, as some kind of privilege or tolerance permitted the middle class audiences. German officers and high ranking Hungarian officials were often seen in the audience, laughing heartily at the satire and the sharp humour aimed at them. Most of these legendary MCs, until banned from the stage, were Jewish, as was much of the audience. In any case, all through the dark years of the war we took encouragement from these rapidly circulating jokes and from the fact, that our gentile friends and acquaintances were eager to recount to us every anti-German story they have heard.

These jokes, told by the legendary conferenciers, began circulating as soon as the evening was over. They were repeated time and time again, in whispers, providing us with the only opportunity for laughter. There were jokes with sexual innuendo or play on words, that I did not quite understand. Nevertheless, I laughed heartily at the stories and repeated them to adult audiences - to their great amusement.

Not too surprisingly, the more the Germans' fortunes declined, the more these "resistance" jokes were circulated. The German armies bogged down on two fronts: in Russia they failed to take Moscow and Leningrad and got stuck along the Dnieper river. In North Africa, the battle raged around El Alamein, with the BBC reporting nightly on the first successes of the Allied armies - our allies. Finally, the late summer brought to open the long rumoured, disastrous German defeat at Stalingrad. This was the first significant Allied victory over Germany, a battle, which lasted over one year and resulted in the surrender of an entire German army corps, with it's generals and staff officers.

Once again, we stood grim faced, but with joyous hearts, on the street, buying up eagerly all the papers we could find. The news was glorious, or devastating, depending where you stood on the fascist scale. The radio was blaring sad funeral music, repeating the German broadcasting station's tragic announcements every few minutes. The Russian victory was so decisive and the German losses so monumental, that the probability of a German defeat finally dawned on all of us. The BBC was gloating for days. This was the first time in many years, that we had a quiet toast at home to our ultimate liberation, even mother affording a smile and a cheerful countenance.

If we had only known that it would take two and a half more years for this liberation to reach us, if we had any inklings of the horrors awaiting us two years hence, the celebration might have been more subdued. But we had already lived with grim news for far too long and learned to cling with hope to any news which was even slightly encouraging. So, for a short period of time, optimism ruled again and even the Hungarian papers made strange sounds about the possibility of some sort of a peaceful Hungarian exit and the need to end the military adventure.


YEAR TWO...ETC.

1942...1943.

This is becoming a long story and we are still in the second-third year of the war. How those years went by, I do not remember. I entered high school and for a period of time both Mordi and myself went to the same school. Of course, we never ever met in the corridor or the schoolyard, or if we did, we pretended not to relate to each other. There was nothing nasty about this, we just figured that too Salamon Jews in one place were one two many and why not let sleeping dogs lie? Especially, when those dogs were quite vicious.

The worst was the para-military "levente" training class. The burned anti-Semite phys-ed teacher, our leader, missed no opportunity to ridicule us, Jews, or to single us out for some difficult, demeaning task. His behaviour, of course, encouraged the kids to imitate him. After some particularly bad news from the front we were ready for the worst. We were the representatives of the evil enemy who threatened the innocent civilian population. We were meted out punishment exercises and were not allowed to wear the uniform or insignia of the movement, even though Jews were not expelled from it as of yet. These almost daily "training" periods were humiliating and demeaning. Little did we know how much more humiliation we would experience.

Mordi being the older had it much worse than me. The "comander" set up a separate unit for the Jewish boys. They had to meet weekly and practice formations and marching. Later they were ordered to report to the phys-ed teacher's home to clean the school sports team's shoes and equipment.

Another painful event was the occasional daytime air raid exercise. When the sirens sounded, the class was ordered to line up and march in formation towards the shelter, located in the courtyard. All lined up, except for us, Jewish students. We were not allowed to contaminate the valuable air of the shelters - we were ordered to remain at our desks and not to move anywhere. So Arpi (the other Jewish student) and I often found ourselves locked together into the classroom. It was awkward: we did not dare to move away from our desks, or to talk loudly to each other. Fortunately, actual daytime bombing seldom occurred, so the isolation was more embarrassing than dangerous. To complete our shame, the students, upon return to the class, were ordered to check all their belongings, to verify that the Jews did not steal something in their absence.

Still, somehow I got through the school year. The report card shows no deterioration in my academic performance, thanks to a large extent to the silent support given to me by some of my teachers, who, secretly of course, showed small acts of kindness and sympathy. They made sure that I would be allowed to take all the exams, in order to pass the grade successfully.

The summer of 1943 brought for us significant changes and new hopes. In July the Americans crossed the Mediterranean Sea from their North-African bases and landed in Calabria, on the southernmost tip of Sicily. This was great news to us and to many progressive Hungarians as well. Suddenly the Liberators were only a few hundred kilometers distance from us, on the European continent itself. We were certain that in a matter of months the war will be over, at least for us in Hungary. Everybody knew how bad soldiers the Italians were (as the old joke had it: the Italian tanks had only one gear: reverse). They certainly will not be able to withstand the great American army, with it's modern mechanized divisions. Knowledge of geography was brandished, as we discussed the speed, at which various Italian towns will fall to the Americans. Three weeks, four at the outset and they will reach northern Italy and Trieste, the Hungarian border. When that happens, the country will "jump out" of the war and it's alliance with Germany and we will be rescued.

The truth about the Italian campaign has only been revealed recently. In spite of our high hopes for a fast liberation, the front remained bogged down in the Southernmost corner of the peninsula. It took two more months to land in Italy proper. Thanks to the stupidity, inexperience and wish for personal glorification of some American officers, crucial momentum and time was lost on several occasions. The Germans exploited these mistakes to rush in reinforcements and the expected American breakthrough rapidly became a stalemate. While the Italian government opened peace negotiations that summer, the Fascist Council voted down Mussolini. He was removed from power by the King and the German army took over the defence of Italy. Rome fell only in June 1944.

The spring and summer months were full of hope and promise. The city was rife with rumours. The army is being pulled out of the front, the government is negotiating with the Allies through Turkey, Jews will be allowed to leave Hungary for Palestine or for some neutral country. Generally false rumours, products of much wishful thinking. And yet, there was a softening of attitudes towards us. Father, together with many others from the labour camps, was allowed once again to return home for a short period. Our neighbours once again greeted us, when passing on the stairways. Attacks on Jews on streetcars ceased, the young nazi thugs were less visible on the streets. I could, once again, travel without fear. I even met some of my schoolmates and we chatted amicably, pretending that nothing happened in the past. The newspapers published less anti-Semitic drivel and the MCs in the cabarets became bolder with their anti-German jokes.

Towards late summer the Italian government asked for separate peace with the Allies. Mussolini was deposed and had to flee to the north. It took longer, than we hoped, but now the beginning of the end was near - or so we thought. The Soviet bombing raids lessened significantly, as if the Allies wanted to give Hungary a chance to follow the Italian lead. People would enter our store and quite openly discuss the latest rumours. Everyone was smiling and telling each other anti-nazi jokes. Suddenly all our friends and acquaintances became strong anti-nazis. They all assured us how outraged they were of the treatment we had received in the past and how they felt differently about Jews than the Nazis did. Our friendship was searched out, became important, as if to ensure that, when the war will be over (next week?), we will remember how good they behaved with us, the persecuted.

The rumours proved to be true. The government indeed put out peace feelers toward the West: ready to sign a separate peace agreement, which would take Hungary out of the war and break the alliance with Germany. The Jews would be saved. Unfortunately, Horthy has attached several conditions to the offer, which were intended to save his regime and his own skin. The country was to be occupied by British/American, not Soviet forces. The government was to remain in control, the Hungarian army was not to be disarmed and there was to be no retribution against war criminals. We of course did not know the details of the negotiations, only that something definitely was going on. We also knew, that the fate of the Jewish population was, to a great extent, in the balance. Horthy, very wisely, refused until then, repeated German demands for the liquidation of Hungarian Jewry. There was not going to be large scale deportations for the "resettlement" of his Jews. We were kept as hostages for a future trade, an ace in the hands of Horthy's gang. Apparently, they swallowed their own propaganda about an international Jewish conspiracy and were certain, that American Jewry would force the USA to accept all Hungarian demands, just to save us from extermination. Tragically for both sides, that is for the government and for the Jews, that was not the case. The offer was turned down, the Allies demanded unconditional surrender.

So far the regime protected it's Jews. It went even further and took under it's unofficial protection non-Hungarian Jews, who escaped from German occupied territories and entered Hungarian territory. This was done very unofficially, because if caught by the police, they were expelled to their country of origin, which was mostly Poland. That meant deportation and certain death in one of the extermination camps. Polish Jews had begun to escape into Hungary for over a year now. We became acquainted with several of the refugees: frequently some young, haggard looking man or woman would enter our store and hesitantly, speaking Yiddish, ask for food or money. They were sent by some organization or another which could not provide them with any formal assistance. In fact the Jewish Community Office publicly washed its hands off these refugees and warned that it was illegal to harbour foreigners. The fear was, it seems, that these refugees would spread the word about the atrocities and mass murder committed in the ghettos and concentration camps and create unnecessary anxiety among the Jewish population. The Jewish Community Office's task, vis-ˆ-vis the government, was to maintain order and calm, so that all the anti-Semitic measures will be accepted and obeyed, without resistance. Therefore the JCO issued a stern warning to these refugees: start spreading "false" rumours about the camps and we will hand you over to the authorities.

Poland's Jewish population was being liquidated since the occupation of half the country by Germany in 1939. The second half fell into their hands after the 1941 attack on the Soviet Union. All Jews were first concentrated into ghettos, from where they were taken either to the infamous extermination camps or were murdered in cold blood, in the forests and ravines near their hometowns. The three-million strong Polish Jewry thus had been largely liquidated by the second year of the war (1943). That was the fate our Polish refugees were escaping from, finding a temporary haven in Hungary. They were mostly young, often belonging to Zionist groups which made their members aware of the coming liquidation and advised them to escape while they could.

 

So the much hoped for relief failed to materialise.

The 1943 summer of hope was short lived. Italy did not fall into American hands. The German army occupied the country and presented fierce resistance to the advancing Americans, who bogged down in the northern mountains. Mussolini was spirited out of prison and

reestablished the Fascist regime in the north. Our southern neighbour, Yugoslavia, remained under German occupation, even though Tito's partisans fought the occupiers with great bravery and success. In Hungary there was also a small Communist-led resistance movement, handing out leaflets which called for resistance and armed uprising. There were small acts of sabotage, a whole print industry sprang into existence, producing these leaflets and false documents. Some government offices were raided and official paper stocks and stamps were stolen for the purpose of producing a variety of these false documents.

But overall, the population remained docile and by the fall of 1943 the mood and the propaganda machinery swung back to full scale anti-Semitism and pro-Nazi declarations. The army units were once again shipped out to the Eastern front, with the forced-labour Jewish work units following them. Except that the front was not that far anymore. The Red Army had pushed the German lines further and further to the west and were near the new, expanded frontiers of Hungary. This emerging Bolshevik threat had once again pushed the fascist regime of Hungary into German arms.

The winter of 1943 descended upon us and it brought with it feelings of gloom and doom. All our hopes for an early redemption were quashed. I returned to school (grade six, as I recall), for more physical and emotional abuse. The lady at the pension refused to accept me for another season - by then she only catered to the German officers' needs and could manage without the Jews' money. I took to bringing a meagre lunch to school and eating it in an isolated corner of the schoolyard. Food had by that time became a major issue and occupation for everyone, especially for us Jews. Food ration books had already been introduced some time before that and by the winter there were serious food shortages. I spent much of my waking hours standing in line in front of some bakery or grocery store. It was a somewhat dangerous and demeaning experience. Jews were often kicked out of the food lines. Our ration books, which provided smaller quantities, were clearly marked as issued to Jews. The storekeepers frequently refused to sell any food to holders of these "Jewish" books. We were reduced to the most basic staple food items: black bread, dry peas, potatoes.

Of course an extensive black market had developed almost instantly, selling ration books as well as food. Fresh vegetables, milk, meat and eggs were all available at several times the official price. Suddenly we had money problems. Large sums of money were spent on bribing the soldiers who agreed to take parcels of food and clothing to father. Now feeding ourselves also began to cost substantial amounts of money. Of course there was no question of borrowing or buying on credit. So the money went out as fast as it came in from the store. We had to learn fast to tighten our belts and to do away without anything not absolutely necessary for existence. Mother bravely carried all these problems on her shoulders and managed our lives. Mordi and I could only offer our spiritual support. We stayed longer hours in the store, accepted more work and tried everything possible to sustain ourselves. We also learned never to complain about hunger, to eat whenever and whatever was available and to be genuinely thankful for any scrap of food mother was able to provide us.

The cold winter created for us ample opportunities for repairing broken windows in homes and stores. The difficulty lay in obtaining sheet glass and other materials which were also rationed. This restriction opened up another black market, where we did the work not for money, but in exchange for food, gold or dollars. Our suppliers in turn also refused to accept money, so we used some of the dollars to purchase glass and used the rest for buying food and other essentials. The official currency was used only to purchase the newspaper or for riding the streetcar. On occasion we ate in a restaurant, because mother had no time at all to cook for us. That was also a unique experience: restaurants often refused to serve customers they did not know, so we frequented the same family-run restaurant all the time. Food ration coupons were required for everything: a slice of bread, the soup, the main course. If meat dishes were available, the meat content was measured in grams and the appropriate ration coupon had to be handed over. A coupon book allowed for about two meat dishes per month. But even a common Hungarian dish, such as a plate of egg noodles with cottage cheese or poppy seeds, required the remittance of several coupons, including one whole egg coupon, to be recompensed for the fraction which appeared in the form of some powdered egg in the noodles. It was a complicated system of calculations and figuring out the bill was the easiest task.

All in all, 1943, the year I became eleven years old, was a crazy year, a year to prepare us for things to come. It gave us ample opportunity to further hone our survival techniques, to deal with events turning from hopeful to desperate in a matter of days. Most of all, we learned to just exist, without really living. Our position in society became that of outcasts, persecuted and hunted outcasts. We learned to humble ourselves, to accept the kicks and blows of hostile neighbours, to get over the daily portions of humiliation meted out for us by even those we thought we can trust. Not accepting any of this, not adapting ourselves to the new circumstances, would have meant either a very high risk to our lives, or the pangs of mental anguish, which drove many Jews to suicide. I am sure that mother suffered emotionally far more than me, but she never shared her feelings with us. Her time was totally taken up by the very basic daily struggle to just get over one more day, physically and emotionally.

The winter of 1943 arrived and made life even more miserable. There were no Chanukah candles and no jam for the traditional sufganiot (doughnuts). We lit one lonely candle each night, symbolically, quietly singing the traditional songs and chewing on the dark bread, our staple food, then put the candle out, saving it for the next day. The usual cheerful Christmas lights were nowhere to be seen - the demand to darken the lights for fear of air raids eliminated all gaiety from city streets and windows. Fuel supplies were low, as all raw materials were used for military purposes. Streetcars were not heated any more. The usually jovial riders turned into a morose crowd, bundled in an assortment of warm clothes, constantly bumping into each other and cursing under their frozen breath. We tried to heat our store with a wood-burning stove, using scraps of boxes and picture frames to feed it. We could barely keep our hands warm enough to enable our fingers to perform simple tasks: to pick up and pack up an item just purchased, or to repair a picture frame brought in.

Our school was also unheated. It was hard to tell whether the teachers or pupils suffered more from the cold. We were allowed to wear our coats, hats and gloves inside the class rooms and every ten minutes we were given time to stand up and perform warm-up exercises at our desks. By one o'clock classes were dismissed and I was free to head into the city, back to our store. There we ate our meagre lunch: a small sandwich or some light, watery soup, with a piece of dark bread. The mood at the school was so sour that even the usual anti-Semitic barbs were not heard any more. The earlier fervent nationalistic and victorious sentiments, which had been so strong among the youth, were now replaced by a sense of quiet desperation. We all, Jews and gentiles, just wanted to survive these hard times and see the end of the miserable war, a war no one wanted any more. The days of glory were definitely over.

 

1944 - the turning point.

The usually happy event of New Year's day came and went by. If there were any celebrations, they were literally kept underground. Theatres had already eliminated their evening performances, due to the cold and the constant fear of air raids. Afternoon performances were often interrupted by the alarm sounding of the sirens. The public would quietly file out of the hall and march down into the air raid shelters. When the raid was over, everyone would return and take up their prior position and the show would continue where it stopped before. This was not an atmosphere conducive of celebrating the New Year. So we all remained inside our darkened, cold rooms and spent the evening remembering past New Year's days and saying a quiet prayer for the safe return of our fathers.

It seemed that we lived in constant darkness. We walked to school in the early morning dark. Lights were kept to a minimum and often were cut off completely, due to some power station being hit, or the damage done to overhead wires. Windows and doors were now kept under permanent cover, not to allow any light to escape outside, for fear of sudden air raids. That of course also kept the weak outside light from entering the dark interior. Streetcars and other vehicles travelled without their lights on, or completely blackened out. We kept a constant supply of candles and matches ready in the store and very often resorted to working in the flickering light of a few candles, for hours at a time, before electric service would resume. The late afternoon streets were dark, cold and nearly abandoned. Only a few desperate and unhappy pedestrians were scampering on the streets. We did not close the shop until late; not because we were kept so busy, but because it provided more comfort, than our apartment. We were at least in one single space, our breath kept the store warm. We did our homework there, from time to time interrupted by a rare customer, who usually brought in a broken window frame for repair. We felt strangely protected by each other's presence in our little store, drawing a feeling of security from each other. As if we managed to shut out the outside world and enter another space, removed from danger and hatred. We stayed during air raids, pulling down the shutters and huddling a bit closer together, whenever a bomb hit some close-by target.

Going home was a sad affair. The city was in total darkness, when we finally closed up and headed to the street car stop. The cars came, darkened and in silence. The usual merry ring of the conductor's bells had been silenced long before. The faces were familiar, the same passengers day in, day out. The sport of harassing Jews was long gone, so that we could travel quietly, without fear. This did not mean, that we could travel in comfort. Jews were not allowed to take a seat, not even when the streetcar was empty. Neither women, the sick nor the old were exempt. We were ordered to stand, crowded together at the end of the streetcar, in the open area, fully exposed to the cold and the blowing winds. This regulation came into force even before the identifying badge of the Yellow Star had been introduced. Our identification papers, which we were obliged to carry with us at all times, clearly identified us as Jews and the marauding bands and occasional controllers used physiognomy to demand the document from suspected "criminals".

The long walk home, through dark streets, the cold air enveloping us, was made in silence. Our building, like all others, was dark, cold and inhospitable. With hands shaking from the cold, we opened the door and entered the freezing apartment. Dinner was some unmemorable concoction of watery soup, cooked vegetables and bread. It was all mother could provide us with and we ate it in silence, never commenting on the quality or quantity of the dinner. I went to sleep every evening hungry, dreaming of some big meal we had in the past. After a while hunger did not bother us anymore, it was the smallest of the inconveniences we had to adapt ourselves to.

We talked very little, there was so little to say. Mother sat at the table in quiet desperation, Mordi and I trying to occupy ourselves, not to provoke mother to start crying. Friday nights candles were lit and mother said the silent prayer, tears streaming down her cheeks. There was no way to go to the synagogue anymore, it was too far to walk to in the dark and cold winter nights. We just took our Siddurim and read to ourselves the words of the Shabbat evening prayers in the flickering candle lights. In earlier times, these lights warmed the dining room and filled our hearts with joy and a feeling of peace. Now they were only lights, barely enough for reading from the prayer book. There was no more Challah on the table, or the plate of honey to dip the kiddush (sanctification) piece into, nor the usual home baked chocolate cake for Saturday and Sunday mornings. The days seemed to flow into each other, with little difference between week and week-end days.

And that is how we passed the winter months of 1943/44. Our skill to live for the day, to block out all emotions and become very bloody mindedly practical about daily survival, a skill so much required later, was perfected during these months. Our radio was gone by now, I cannot recall, under what circumstances. I suspect that mother became concerned with the danger listening to the BBC represented and decided to get rid of it. In any case, we were more and more isolated from the outside world and from real news. The newspapers were very untrustworthy, reports from the front were distorted. Reading the usual propaganda drivel and interpreting it required great skill. The Germans constantly reported victories and "successful disengagement from the enemy" at such and such a town. This meant further withdrawal and defeat. Out came our much studied high school map and we would discover, that the Red Army broke through the lines somewhere and occupied another Polish or Ukrainian city. Now the names were Hungarian, as the war crossed the extended frontiers of Hungary and moved, slowly but unstoppably, towards Budapest.

The mood in the city has changed drastically. The feeling of an

inevitable defeat has descended and filled the air with desperation and anticipation. Refugees from the border towns started to arrive by the trainload, bringing with them horror stories about the cruel Asiatic hordes of the Red Army. A great fear started to grip the city, the fear of occupation by the Russians. The matter of defeat became a certainty, only a matter of time. More and more people were grumbling openly about the futility of the war and the stupidity of the Germans. More and more frequently one heard the sentiment expressed, that Hungary should abandon the war and surrender to the West, before it is too late and the East swallows us once again. Some of our earlier acquaintances and neighbours would enter our store with increased frequency. They would tell us of the difficulties they were experiencing, as if trying to convince us, that they also, not only us Jews, were suffering from the ravages of the war. The talk soon came around to the wish to terminate the war and the hope, that we will all survive it together. They would hint how, in some small ways, they helped some Jewish family they knew. All wanted to ensure that we would remember all the good deeds they performed during these dark years. As if the day of reckoning was so close. We would not risk commenting on these claims in any way, only limited our responses to sympathetic grunts of agreement. One could never know...

All this talk did not mislead us into false hopes. We stopped dreaming about an early and rapid end of the war. Father was at some unknown place, if he was alive at all. Soviet airplanes flew over the city, dropping not only bombs but leaflets, calling on the Hungarians to resist the German pressure and to surrender. The news of extermination camps started to spread around the community. The full horror of the fate of the Jewish population in neighbouring countries descended on us. We knew now about the liquidation of the Polish ghettos, the concentration camps and the Nazi "re-settlement" plans. The Jewish community leaders kept very quiet on these topics, insisting that "this cannot happen here", because the Hungarians were a civilised nation, not barbarians like the Poles or Ukrainians or even the Germans. So we passed on the latest horror stories to each other, but added the rider: "but, of course, it cannot happen here." And we actually believed it!


PEACE?

 

What was the turning point, then?

It came suddenly, out of the blue. We have already accepted the fact that our future was inexorably tied to the advance of the Red Army. Our eyes were set on the East, from where we expected our salvation to arrive. We "knew", that the war cannot last any longer than a few more months, so our lives were organised around this time frame. Surviving these next few months - that was the motto we lived by. In the meantime, winter was over and March has arrived, a bright spring month. At least the cold did not torture us any more. The sun was shining and our hopes began to revive once again. There was no doubting that we were going to survive.

It was a sunny, quiet Sunday morning, March 19, 1944, when our good neighbours came running to call us into their apartment, to listen to the radio. It was playing military music, which was always the forbearer of some great, usually bad and sad, news. But this time an ominous voice promised to make some important announcement. It did not bode well at all..

We sat around the radio in silence, without even daring to make any guesses about the content of the pending announcement. Although they were our friends, we would not dream of expressing openly our hopes and dreams in front of our neighbours. One could not trust anyone, least of all a gentile!

The music was playing on and on, the announcer kept repeating the same statement over and over again. Then the radio station began playing nationalistic Hungarian music. Cheerful czardas music filled the air. While no announcement was actually made, the message was clear to understand: Horthy has decided to take the decisive step towards a separate peace for Hungary. If it succeeded, the triumphant announcement is coming forthwith.

We sat there, breathless, afraid to say anything, afraid even to look at each other. My mind was racing madly: could it be true, or is this a trap? Is it possible, that it is all over, that we are saved? Or is this only a trick to force the opposition, the so-called traitors, out of their hiding places? And what will the Germans do?

So many questions without answer. We quietly thanked our neighbours and entered our own apartment. We set around the kitchen table, shaking and trembling - of fear and of hope. Mordi and I discussed the possibilities, while mother just sat there and tears streamed down her face. We did not know whether these were tears of joy or of despair over father's unknown fate. As always, we did not know how to make her stop crying, how to cheer her up. How could we - so many questions remained unanswered. Is it really the end? Are we, Jews, now free? Is father still alive and safe?

Mordi and I went out to the centre of our suburb and walked around, waiting for the newspapers to arrive. It was a bright, sunny Sunday morning. The air was brisk, filled with the warmth of the weak spring sun. Usually at this time all the families were out in the Peoples' Park, with their children and picnic baskets. Not on this Sunday morning. The streetcars were filled with people, others were walking around without talking, eyes sparkling but turned cautiously downward. This was a strange way to celebrate the hopefully good news. No cheers, no marching bands and the church bells were not ringing either. Yet we all celebrated - inside. We did not dare to talk to each other, or even to look at each other. We have been through too many false deliverances before. Too many times have our hopes been quashed in the past. Also, we knew that among the crowd there were many pro-Nazis, laying low now, but observing everything and registering the faces of those who dared to smile, to celebrate. They were sure, that their day of reckoning will come.

The newspapers never arrived. There were no papers published on that sunny Sunday. The air was filled with the cheerful sounds of cigany (gypsy) music, coming from the many open windows, but nothing more. Strange silence descended on the city, no further news, no further announcements. Clouds began to move in, covered the sun and we were shivering lightly. In silence we returned to our homes.

The answer to this puzzle was not long coming. Once again, the radio interrupted the program and, once again, the sound of military music was heard. But that was a different kind of music - German military marches. We looked at each other, pale and trembling. There was no need to express our fears - they were written all over our faces.

By now all the windows were open and all the radios of our neighbours were playing the music so loud, that we could hear it clearly, across our open window. And then, once again, the almost panic-filled voice of the announcer came on the air. Further announcements can be expected any minute. We knew then and there that peace was not going to happen. The attempt has failed, the pro-Germans took over and it is all over for us. We will not, after all, survive this war. Mordi and I pressed ourselves into one corner, as far away from mother, as possible. We did not want to cause her more anxiety, yet we had to discuss the events and their implication.

"That stupid Horthy could not do anything right," said my brother, seething with anger. "Now we will become just another country occupied by the Germans and they will do with us as they please."

"You think we will be like Poland," I asked somewhat timidly. The question left much unsaid: are we going to be forced into ghettos and finally taken to camps, like the Polish Jews were?

Mordi understood the question behind my question. "Yes, I am certain of that. We have to start immediately to make plans for the future. We might not have too much time."

"There is nowhere we can escape to," I said desolately. I had no idea, which direction Mordi was going to lead the conversation.

"No, we are trapped here, in Budapest. We have to think up some hiding place, where we can go when the ghetto will be set up," he said. Evidently the idea was brewing inside him for some time now. "We can get false papers, or find some gentile friends who will hide us. It cannot last much longer, we only need to survive the next few months and the country will be liberated."

We continued this whispered conversation for a while, realising that we had not the faintest idea how and where to begin to organise ourselves. But it became clear to me that Mordi was not going to be dragged into the ghetto and certain death. My own resolve began to take shape: I also will not surrender, I will find a way to survive, on my own, if necessary.

Confirmation of our worst fears was provided by a sharp, military voice on the radio, interrupting our whispers: there were attempts of trickery by enemies of the country. They tried to weaken the resolve of decent Hungarians. We remain engaged in the war with our German allies, stronger than ever before. Horthy dismissed the cabinet which betrayed the nation and appointed a new Prime Minister, a staunch pro-German, the past ambassador to Berlin. The new government takes over immediately and will make sure that retribution for the traitors will not be delayed.

Among the new ministers named we counted three very well known, staunch anti-Semites, responsible for much of the killing in the countryside and among the forced labour units. This was as clear a language as we needed to understand that as of now, we were under German occupation. Now our very lives became endangered.

Furthermore, the announcement said, Horthy has been flown to Berchtesgaden, the Eagle's Nest, where Hitler was to receive him. Germany, in the meantime, "agreed" to strengthen its ties with us, by sending troops to be stationed in the country. The traitors, Jews and other enemies will be severely punished. Expect further announcements.

The full story of the events of that fateful Sunday reached us the next morning. The German troops reached us much sooner. This was a well planned invasion of Ōfriendly" Hungary and it's blatant take-over by the Nazis. From the early morning hours of that Sunday, truckloads of German soldiers, preceded by tanks and followed by motorcyclists, rolled across the open Austrian border into Hungary. Arriving in Budapest within the hour, they filled up all the major streets, intersections and key positions in the city. They came to occupy the train station nearby to us and we stood on the sidewalk, watching with sinking hearts as the German soldiers were pouring in and spreading out, taking up positions all around us. So that was it; finally we were under German occupation. Now there will be no one to protect us, we will be also deported, liquidated, annihilated.

As was my habit, I silently left the apartment and took the streetcar into the city where things were happening. On the road running parallel with the streetcar, German military trucks and command cars were already rolling eastbound, towards the more remote suburbs. As we neared the city centre, we saw German tanks and armoured carriers taking up position at key intersections. My eyes watched with horror the unfolding spectre, while my mind was racing madly around the events I so strongly anticipated. German military police, sporting the familiar breast plates and motorcyclist's goggles, were standing at all the intersections, directing the traffic. With each approach of a military convoy, they directed civilians to the side of the road, to allow the army to pass. No one dared to dispute their authority.

The story was one of sheer stupidity and betrayal . Without taking any military precautions, Horthy was plotting to get Hungary out of the war. He made contacts with the allies through neutral countries. The Germans were fully aware, through their informers inside the Hungarian government, of these attempts. Hitler has already stopped trusting Horthy for a long time and was not taken by surprise. He has given orders to plan Operation Margarita, the invasion of Hungary. Before Horthy realised what was happening, the German troops were already pouring down the highways leading from Austria to Budapest. They reached Budapest within the hour and immediately put the Royal Palace, Admiral Horthy's residence, under siege. The only resistance they encountered came from the Royal Guards, with their pretty uniforms, lances and shields. The "battle" was quite one-sided and came to a swift end. Very few shots were fired. By the time the radio announcement was made, all resistance ceased. The defenders surrendered, Horthy was captured and bundled into a waiting small plane, to be flown to Hitler's headquarters. The Germans put their own trusted man into the position of power. The feeble attempt to end the war was over.

Now, as I re-read these last paragraphs, we have just "celebrated" the fiftieth anniversary of that day, the day of the German take-over of Hungary. Fifty years have passed since - in my childhood that counted for a whole lifetime. Now I can look back at those events, still in good health and not too far into old age. From a distance of half a century, the events seem to be less momentous, time has distanced my feelings and softened the anger and bitterness, the fear and sadness.

 

What was the significance of this change?

For us, Jews, it made the whole difference. Hungary and Italy were the only two German allies in Europe not under direct German occupation. In neither country did they succeed in imposing and enforcing the Final Solution: anti-Jewish measures that were implemented everywhere else: the concentration of all Jews in ghettos, liquidation of these ghettos either by physical force, that is, extermination on the spot, or by deportation of all the inhabitants to concentration camps and finally, the mass murder of the Jews as they arrived in these camps. The Jews of Hungary still lived in relative freedom, even if it was a fool's freedom. We were allowed to remain in our homes, did not have to wear identifying marks to announce that we were Jewish, there had been no massive attacks on Jews anywhere in old Hungary.

Of course all males of military age were taken to labour camps, where large numbers of them were murdered or otherwise perished. Mordi was 16 years old at that time - he still did his compulsory service with his Levente unit. In October, when all males aged 16-60 were called up, he also joined the forced labour force.

There were small-scale pogroms, attacks on Jewish communities in the villages. But these were isolated incidents, carefully propagated and controlled by the authorities. They were used only as warnings for the Jewish community leaders to behave, to toe the line and make sure that all the Jews behave and keep silent. Also, these were just "diversions" thrown in the way of the Nazi elements for their pacification. But I could, until that time, continue with my life more or less as before. I could ignore the silly regulations and go to the movies, ride the streetcar, buy food in the stores and walk around in complete freedom.

Now all that was over for us. Perhaps, we wondered, they even murdered Horthy, who, after all, was our reluctant protector. The new government was to be composed of pro-Nazis and we could expect unimaginably harsh measures. The German army was now running the country's affairs and could impose it's will on everyone. We knew too well, what that meant, the Nazis made repeated statements about their intention to liquidate the whole of European Jewry. As far as we knew, we were the last remnant of that Jewry and the Nazis had been biding their time, waiting patiently until the time comes for our liquidation. Well, the time has just arrived.

It must seem that all this was too much to be absorbed by a twelve years old mind. And yet absorb I had to. There was no one to discuss the events with, no one to consult. Mordi was away every day, doing his para-military labour service. He came home only in the evening. I did not have the heart to pose questions to mother - she had enough on her mind and heart already. Our gentile friends, whom we met sporadically, could not possibly comprehend how I felt, confused, fearing the worst. The rumours, discussed and spread by the other Jews, multiplied, all the guesses and assumptions were gloomy, predicting that the Polish experience will be imminently repeated in Hungary - and we all knew now how the Jewish community had disappeared there.

 

The bombs are falling!

As Hungary has entered the war on the side of Germany, it became the declared enemy of all the Allied forces. As a result, beginning in September 1942, we were bombarded with more than just propaganda words: Soviet bombers brought directly to Hungarian homes the full horror of war. Now, following the German occupation of Hungary, British and later American (and of course Soviet) planes began their regular, systematic bombing missions over the country. At first the purpose of the initially small scale bombing raids was political and strategic. England was determined, early in the war, to bring it directly to the doorsteps of the aggressor. As the build-up of the RAF progressed and more bombers were available, Germany and it's allies were attacked regularly from the air.

Hungary is strategically located at an important geographic juncture and that has been its downfall all through history. It is situated at the cross-roads between Eastern and Western Europe. For centuries it proudly called itself the last bastion of Christianity against the Eastern hordes. During the Turkish invasion of Europe, in the fifteenth century, it was on Hungarian territory that the victorious Turkish armies got bogged down and advanced no further West. For that reason, Hungarians always insisted and still do so, that they are not part of the Eastern European Slavic world, but rather, that they belong to Mittel Europa, which includes Austria and parts of Germany and Italy. Consequently, the railroads were heavily used for the shipment of army supplies, troops and equipment from Germany to the Russian front. This made Hungarian cities and towns prime bombing targets.

The first actual bombing raid created chaos and confusion. We should have been amply ready for it - drills were frequently held in schools and workplaces. Orders were given to set up bomb shelters in every apartment building. Subway stations and other public underground places were converted to public bomb shelters, equipped with vital medical and food supplies. Schools were ordered to dig air raid shelters large enough to accommodate all their students. The authorities held several test alarms - the radio announcing the event well in advance. The sirens would start up screaming, everybody would look up to the direction of the nearest sirens, stop whatever activity went on, then a dismissing wave of the hand, "Another bombing test" mumbled under one's breath and we would all go back to our previous occupation. We were ready - or so we thought..

Budapest was ready - on paper. In reality, the airplanes appeared out of the blue, the air raid sirens sounded when we could already hear the droning of the planes overhead and the first anti-aircraft guns had opened up on them. Only then did the sirens and the radio began to scream, both at the same time. We were sitting in the store, all three of us plus our worker, when the air-raid wardens appeared on the street, shouting at the passers-by and trying to herd them toward the direction of the shelter at the corner of the park. Not knowing, what to do with the store, we stayed put and watched with growing amusement as the warden tried and failed to open the trap door of the shelter. It was locked and no one had the key to open it. A mad scramble began, the people were herded under the shelter of the house entrances, while the first remote explosions were already heard. I had no appreciation as to the danger looming above, so I stood at the door, watching the spectacle from the cover of the door. Suddenly one of the wardens ripped open the door and screamed at all of us to get into the shelter instantly.

We hurriedly obliged; there was no need to demonstrate our lack of fear of the bombing raid. We locked the store and moved into what used to be the apartment building's basement store room, now cleaned out to become the air raid shelter. They had not done a very good job with the cleaning; piles of boxes and refuse were piled all around us. People could not sit down because there was nothing to sit on. A few lights flickered in the semi-darkness. The air was foul with so many people squeezing into the small room. There was no water, no emergency supplies, no one had brought a radio with him. We stood in discomfort for what seemed to be hours, until the door opened from the outside and someone announced that the raid was over, the air was clear once again.

We scampered up the stairs, not knowing what to expect to find. Coming out into the daylight, we found everything in our street back to normal. From some distance away we noticed columns of smoke rising to the sky. As the sun set, we could see in the descending semi-darkness that the skies on the horizon were red with flames. I did my usual number, sprinting around the neighbouring streets, looking for bomb damage, dead bodies, downed pilots - my head was full of imagination from the war movies. Instead what I found were piles of bricks fallen onto the road, some deep holes in the middle of the streets, fire-fighters, policemen and ordinary citizens frantically running around the damaged buildings, from where the sound of moaning and shrill cries were heard. This first attack demonstrated the total failure of the preparations. It was followed by some strict regulations and inspections. A warden visited us the next day and explained to us our obligation in case of any future raid, while assuring us, that the bloody Bolsheviks (the English variety, evidently) would never again risk attacking us, as our brave boys and allies shot down more than a hundred of them. Knowing full well our Jewish identity, he looked sharply at us, waiting for some contradiction or a smile. We only nodded very seriously, in unison, a well practised reaction to a sad joke.

But return they did. In the beginning, the air raids were carried out mostly at night. The bomber planes came a great distance, from England, without fighter plane support and protection. They flew at very high altitudes, to avoid the German anti-aircraft defenses and they released their bomb loads from these altitudes, resulting, at the beginning, in missed targets and high civilian casualties. That caused some embarrassment to those in charge of British war propaganda directed towards Hungary. The BBC repeatedly stated that their enemy was not Hungary or the Hungarian people, but only the fascist, pro-Nazi regime. Consequently, the broadcasts made noises of outrage about the heavy losses of life on the eastern front and promised, that the Allies would avoid killing Hungarians as much, as possible, provided the country got out of the war and soon took on a neutral stand. Now, that the British bombs were falling over "innocent" civilian targets, the BBC had to change it's tack and begin to issue dire warnings about ever greater losses in the future if the government did not take some important steps soon.

German cities had already been bombed for some time now, in retaliation for the destructive bombing raids carried out by the Luftwaffe on British cities since the very first days of the declared war. The UFA Nazi newsreels showed some "heart-rending" scenes of burning streets and injured frauleins with their children, looking into the cameras with tearful eyes. The damage caused could not have been be played up, so as not to aid and abet the enemies of the German people everywhere.

Now suddenly we, the civilian population in the hinterland found ourselves in the middle of the battlefield. The city began large scale construction of public civilian bomb shelters in major traffic areas and public squares. In apartment and public buildings, all basements and underground storage rooms had to be cleared out and converted into shelters. These had to be equipped with first-aid kits and food supplies, such as water, biscuits and canned food. Air raid wardens were appointed, with the task of ensuring that all the emergency regulations were carried out. These included the following:

1. All windows had to be covered with dark blue sheets of paper, to ensure that no light escapes to the outside after dark, providing directional guidance to the attacking planes.

2. Car headlights were to be painted over with a dark blue paint, leaving only a narrow clear slit for the light to shine on the road, which reduced road visibility to a couple of meters only. This slowed down traffic and at first caused more civilian casualties, as a result of accidents, than the bombings themselves.

3. Air raid sirens were installed all over town. The sound provided two tones in three phases: a long, continuous alert tone as warning that enemy planes have entered the general air space. A rising and sinking, shrieking sound announcing the air raid alarm. This sound has preceded the actual attack by a few minutes. Later on, the planes became faster and more efficient, with the result, that by the time the alarm was sounded, bombs were already exploding all over the city. Finally, a second long sound announced the end of the raid.

4. At the sound of the warning signal, everyone was ordered to pick up the emergency kits, which were obligatory to keep handy in each house, school and workplace. We all had to carry a knapsack to school, with first aid and food supply, matches, candles and a flashlight. People were requested to start heading towards the shelters. By the sound of the alarm signal, everyone had to be inside the shelters. The doors were to be locked from the inside and anyone found outside by the wardens was arrested and fined heavily. This locking of the shelter doors at the beginning of the air raid has created many tragicomic/comic incidents. People rushing in the last minute to safety would desperately bang on the shelter doors, begging to be admitted. Often it was a member of one of the families inside, who made this belated attempt. The man in charge inside the shelter would absolutely refuse to grant admission, stating that there might be spies or British parachutists trying to gain entrance in order to take civilians as captives. No amount of begging and screaming altered their minds. Those left outside were often arrested at the shelter doors or worse, wounded or killed by a flying shrapnel, brick or simply by a heart attack.

5. Schools, apartment buildings and all public places had to execute air raid exercises, at least once a week. At random intervals, the school principal issued an air raid test order. Our infamous gym teacher, whistle in mouth, rushed madly about, ordering all the classes to evacuate and assemble in the shelter, in order of age - the youngest ones first. The exercise was timed, the target being two minutes to the locking of the shelter door. Sometimes we would achieve the target times and lock the door promptly, only to reopen it again in response to the frantic knockings from the outside by some lost group. Some of these lost souls forgot completely that it was only an exercise and began to scream and cry in genuine fear. It was absurdly amusing and difficult to watch the show, without cracking even a hint of a smile.

There was a rush on blue wrapping paper. I had to stand in line for a long time and then managed to buy only a few sheets at a time. Ink, used to paint over the bulbs, candles, matches, flashlights and batteries was also in short supply - we stood in line for days for these strategic items. Same for bottles of iodine and bandages. Food was already scarce for a long time, so obtaining the necessary items for the kits was near impossible. Yet, at school our kits were inspected almost daily and we were severely reprimanded if they were short of any item. We, Jewish students, had to be doubly careful to follow each instruction to it's letter, or else we would be singled out and punished even more severely.

The bomb raids managed to heighten the anti-Semitic sentiment of the populace, more than any earlier Nazi propaganda effort did. We welcomed these sounds from the sky, as messengers from our liberators and rejoiced with every explosion. Of course, this was not a sentiment one dared to express in public. Nevertheless, the frustration and anger quickly turned against the Jews. If a Jew was caught in the street after curfew hours or during an air raid, he or she was certain to receive a stiff jail sentence. If a light was turned on in a Jewish home, forgetting to lower the darkening shield and light escaped to the outside, the warden immediately alerted the police and the culprit was arrested.

Later on, these offences elicited very sharp reprisals. Jews were accused of collaborating with the enemy, spying for the British and sending secret directional signals to the airplanes. In many cases, Jews were attacked in their homes by self-appointed air warden teams and beaten up or even shot on the spot. The news media spread fantastic horror stories about booby-trapped dolls and pens, allegedly dropped by the thousands from the airplanes. They recounted how scores of innocent children had their fingers or arms blown off by these wanton devices. The propaganda war was thick and heavy - and it was targeting us, Jews, more than the British themselves.

We were quite busy at home and in the store: cutting and pasting sheets of blue paper all over the window coverings and painting all the bulbs blue. It took great effort to be able to read in the evening. In the store, we had to devise a method to keep the lights on inside, without letting them show outside, when someone opened the door. But in any case, the store had to close at a certain hour, which meant darkness in winter. We had to be concerned with petty thievery, which was committed under the cover of dark in many stores.

When air raid signals were sounded, we obediently took our kits and blankets and headed to the basement shelter. Our concierge cleaned out the basement storage area and converted it neatly into an air raid shelter. He was the master there, assigning space to each family and generally maintaining peace and order. After the first few nights a certain routine developed. We overcame our embarrassments over appearing in night-gowns and dressing gowns in public. Each family took possession of a certain corner of the shelter and that corner became their territory. Blankets were spread out and candles lit, conversation started (cautiously avoiding the air raid itself). Food and drinks were brought out and offered all around. In general, a very jovial atmosphere existed during the first few weeks. The air raids came fairly punctually, starting at around two in the morning and lasting a few hours. In the beginning we were awakened from deep slumber and made our way drowsily and morosely through the darkened stairs into the shelter. Later on, once we got used to the schedule, we went to sleep earlier and awoke fairly fresh and well rested for some late night socialization. Many people brought down candles and books, proceeding to spread out their blankets and retreating behind their book covers, in complete tranquility.

As the intensity of the bombing raids increased, the mood in the shelters became uglier. There were territorial disputes, someone's legs were too long and stretched into another family's space. If a stranger happened to be around and was forced to come down into the shelter, he was eyed with suspicion and grumbling could be heard about using up valuable space and breathing in the air. Gradually the grumbling turned against the Jewish residents. After all, they were the cause of these bombing attacks, they and their allied friends. As the grumbling turned into outright, vicious verbal and sometimes physical attacks, we realised that it became more dangerous for us to go to the shelter, than to remain in our apartment. And so, after the first weeks we began to ignore the sirens and stayed hidden inside our apartment. We still regularly got up, dressed and prepared our emergency kits. Only we stayed put inside the apartment, remaining as quiet as possible, as it was an offence not to go to the shelter.

This was a good arrangement for the nights and for people, like us, who had a shelter right in their apartment buildings. If you were caught in the street during the day, or if you had to go to a communal air raid shelter, the situation was much nastier. During the day everyone was ordered into the shelters, want it or not. The ones recognized as Jews had to suffer the acrimony of the people around them, stand crowded in the worst part of the shelter (usually near the door, where the explosions were heard the loudest and which was expected to be blown open any minute), shrinking so as to occupy as little space, as possible. Later, Jews were not allowed to take to the shelters at all. Accused of co-operating with the enemy, or at least cheering for it, we were ordered to stay in our homes and be put at maximum risk.

 

It must have been a scary experience.

Not all of it. Of course I felt scared, ashamed, miserable and playful at the same time. By then I fully understood the dangers threatening my life and the risks I had to face daily, as a Jew. But through all that, the free spirit of the child in me came through, easing the misery somewhat. You have to view these things through the eyes of a child of ten. It was exciting, like a game. Actually, I developed a game around the bombing raids. We always left the radio on at night, at a very low volume, of course. The planes entered the Hungarian airspace at one of several points. When the radio announced the names of the border cities under air raid alert, we could continue naming the other towns on the route and figure out the real target city. Only when the planes' direction became clear, did the radio announce the alert status in Budapest. At some point, I began to log into a notebook the various air raids, flight patterns and attack targets. It was even possible to estimate the time left, from the point of entry across the border and until the attackers actually reached our city. It was stupid to keep these notes and it represented an unnecessary risk: if the notes were read by stranger eyes, I would have been accused of keeping secret notes for the enemy and therefore spying.

Not that the air raids were some innocent, harmless game, lacking all elements of danger. Quite the contrary. Our house was situated in the vicinity of some very significant targets for the raiders. First, the principal west-east railway line (running from Austria to the Soviet border) was only a few hundred yards from us. Second, a series of large oil tanks was also situated within a bomb's distance. As a result, the Hungarian air force set up several anti-aircraft batteries nearby. These guns of course drew the bombers towards our area even more than the actual targets.

When the air raid alarm signal sounded, I would carefully sneak up to the rooftop and crouch down beside the wall, waiting for the show to begin. At first, there was only darkness and silence. Then, imperceptibly at first, a deep droning sound began to fill the air. The planes were flying very high. The guns began to send into the air short bursts of totally useless tracer bullets, followed by real shells. These tracers, more than anything else, provided clear directional signal for the bomber pilots. As soon as the first wave reached above the intended target, which could have been any specific part of the city or it's vicinity, they released a number of flares. These were high powered lighting devices, which illuminated the skies with daylight brightness. Later, when the Soviet bombers joined the fray, they used flares which we called "Stalin's candles". The yellow and red tracer bullets, the bright illumination and the angry red of the explosions and flames reaching high into the sky, created an atmosphere of some huge fireworks being played out above our city.

Next joining the fireworks came the searchlights. These powerful lights were attached to anti-aircraft guns and scanned the skies for enemy aircraft. They were able to penetrate the night skies far into great distances. When one of these lights "locked in" onto an enemy plane, the adjoined guns began to fire with furious rapidity. Very seldom we saw one of the planes being hit with a tiny explosion. Traces of smoke began to filter from the engine and the plane began it's slow descent. Slowly it began to turn it's nose downward and to spin around the cone of it's nose. At that point, tiny parcels fall out from the hurt plane and soon toy parachutes opened up around the still circling airplane. The escaping airmen were still descending slowly toward earth when the plane hit ground in a giant explosion and eruption of a huge fireball. The air raid marshals and army units began their frantic search for the surviving airmen and most of the time discovered them, before they could fold up their parachutes and find a hiding place.

By now the skyline of the neighbourhood was awash with the bright lights. The outline of each building became sharply delineated. The huge refinery tanks were clearly visible, as well as the railway bridge and all the other buildings. Then, over the loud ack-ack yelping of the anti-aircraft guns, one could hear the sound of the first wave of bombs descending. This was a sound similar to a high-pitched, but quiet, whistle. It became louder and louder until it turned into an ear-shattering and nerve breaking shriek. Moments later the first explosions were heard. Then more whistles and more explosions. Soon the earth began to shake and a veritable inferno erupted. Flames shot up from some distant building, sometimes secondary explosions followed when some munitions dump was hit.

From my vantage point I had a royal view of this son et lumiere show. I felt no fear, only excitement and a silent prayer, that the bombers manage to hit their targets and return in safety to their bases. Some people went crazy with fear, not from the explosions, but rather from hearing the whistles announcing the arrival of the bombs. This was in a way really scary, hearing he bombs getting nearer and nearer and not knowing how close to where one was will they hit. In the dark of the night, each whistle sounded as if the bomb was directly being aimed at my hiding place.

In the middle of all this ruckus a few smaller planes appeared in the sky, rapidly descending on the larger bombers. These were the Hungarian or German fighter planes, the chasseurs (they both carried the German insignia of the Luftwaffe's double cross, so one could not tell them apart), trying to shoot down the heavy bombers, or at least to force them to abort the bombing raids. Soon individual "dogfights" developed between the fierce attackers and the mostly defenseless bombers, which were forced to operate without protection. I saw some spectacular ballet in the air being performed by these flyers, pirouetting and loopy-looping around their target, to get into a better shooting position. This was a fascinating part of my nightly show and I got caught up in the excitement to the point, that I forgot to say a silent prayer for the brave English pilots, risking their very lives for our ultimate liberation. These fights took place at immense heights (for those times), so when one of the planes was hit, it was difficult to tell at first which one was the loser. Most of the time the bombers ascended into greater heights to escape the attack and continued the bombings from the new elevation.

All this show was by no means an innocent spectacle. There were many close calls. One of the refinery storage tanks received a direct hit one night and the heat of the flames hit my face, from a distance of hundreds of yards . I lay flat on my face, afraid to inhale the hot air, afraid to move, lest I will be detected from the air or the ground. The night was so bright, I had the impression that the pilots could see me lying on the rooftop, through their sightings. Would they know that I am Jewish, or would they send another bomb down on the top of my head - I was wondering.

Another night the target was clearly the railway line, a very short distance from us. It was missed and instead an apartment building, almost next to ours, received a direct hit. Our own building shook heavily and the air suddenly filled with the sound of shrieking and moaning. Fire fighters raced to the spot, air wardens were yelling at the top of their voices and one could almost smell the acrid smell of the charred bodies in the shelter. Whispered news next morning confirmed, that almost all the residents, trapped in the shelter under the rubble of the building, perished. For a few days, we moved around with our eyes cast to the ground, avoiding contact with everyone. Damage to our own house was limited to broken windows and blown-in doors - in addition to the general hysteria, which reigned in the shelter for the remainder of the night.

One night a large bomb dropped on the ground, just outside of our own building. Like so many other bombs, it dug a deep hole in the ground, but did not explode. If it had, it would have wiped out our building and all of us with it. Next morning, the army sappers arrived and cordoned the area off. We were removed from our apartments and ordered to disappear, until the bomb was diffused. All of us, some twelve families, became instant refugees. The others went to the nearby church, while we were taken in by our good friends and neighbours. The bomb was defused a few days later, but left in place for the remainder of the war, forever titillating us, children, with it's silent threat. That was the ground we used, as children, to play out our war games. Now it became the playground for a real war.

 

Did the results of the bombings show on the City?

Shockingly so and very rapidly. Within a few weeks, Budapest took on the look of a city under siege. Whole buildings and even entire city blocks disappeared in heaps of rubble and crater-like deep holes. The streets were filled with work crews trying to dig up collapsed walls and clear away the mountains of brick and steel-beam rubble left behind. The purpose was to find victims, still alive or dead, under the rubble and to support dangerously weakened walls and structures. After a few months of these daily attacks, the attempt to clear out and repair the damage slackened and finally ceased completely, as the work crews fought a losing battle with the airplanes. From that time on, their work became limited to demolishing walls and ceilings which were hanging in the air, presenting danger to the passers-by.

The planes used three different bombing methods:

- a specific target, such as a strategic plant or railway station, was attacked by direct hits, usually by dive bombers aiming directly and carefully at the target.

- incendiary bombs were dropped on large areas. These did not explode but caused enormous damage by starting numerous fires. The British planes perfected this method to the point where they could create a giant fire storm, burning up entire city blocks and their inhabitants.

- carpet bombing: bombs in large numbers were released over a specific area, wiping out whole city blocks with one single stroke. The bombs were often chained together, to ensure that they will not scatter, but fall on a concentrated area. This was the most frightening form of destruction: during the coming months, I saw entire city blocks wiped out completely, rows of five-story high apartment buildings being turned into meter-high piles of rubble.

In addition to the damage being caused to the buildings, huge bomb craters appeared on the roads, ripping up streetcar rails and causing the closing down of main city arteries for many days. This played absolute havoc with the traffic. Sometimes one had to disembark the street car, walk around a bombed out portion of the road for a few blocks and then mount another car, which came from the opposite direction to pick up passengers and continue the journey.

I might have given you earlier the impression that for me the whole bombing experience was just a child's game. This was definitely not true. When the anti-aircraft guns, positioned around our building, began shooting at the planes, the noise was unbearable, gunpowder smoke filled the air for kilometers and the earth was shaking violently. Sometimes I found it hard to breathe, so intense was the smoke and the smell. These rapid-fire guns could shoot without stopping for minutes at a time. On the other hand, when I heard the high-pitched whistle of the approaching bombs, I held my breath in silent prayer and expectation: how close will this bomb drop? Will the power of the explosion blow away the house and all of us inside it? Is it heading straight at me? Fear became my nightly companion, fear from an imminent danger, from which there was no escaping or hiding. I had no real appreciation of the mortal danger, of death itself, but often I said a whispered silent prayer for the safety of our little family.

The explosions were deafening. They drove some people literally mad. We were such an open target, so defenseless, so tiny and insignificant against the huge explosions, the collapsing buildings, the walls of flame shooting up against the sky. Through all this, pieces of sharp metal - shrapnel casings and parts of the exploding bombs, mixed with bricks and steel beams from the collapsing buildings - were showered down from the sky, flying around us and presenting a secondary, but equally deadly, danger.

All through this ordeal, we developed new living habits: sleeping standing up, a few minutes at a time, whenever a lull occurred between the waves of bombing attacks. Never, not even in whisper, did we talk about the danger we were facing, of the possibility of being killed or maimed. Whenever a building collapsed near us and the window panes rattled violently or blew out and the ceiling came down on our heads in large chunks, we would quickly and silently dust ourselves off and clear up the debris the best we could. The mention or thought of impending death was never allowed to surface.

It was not our home town that was being destroyed around us, not our fellow citizens who were killed by the hundreds. The bombers, messengers from our future saviours, were attacking enemy territory, killing and hurting our enemies. We rejoiced in the punishment meted out to them even while we were suffering together with them.

Our daily routine has changed significantly since the Americans invaded Italy. Now, that they have established air bases in continental Europe, their planes joined in with the British and a new air raid pattern, of daytime attacks, has developed. The air raid alert game became more complicated and challenging. Now, based on the initial entry point, one had to guess whether the bombers were British or American. The Americans, of course, flew in from the South, across Italy and Yugoslavia, while the British arrived from the West, through Austria. The routes they took were different and the whole style of bombing also differed. The American planes were larger and carried more bombs. They were supported by fighter planes and were more daring in attacking us. The planes would descend quite low and could, therefore, achieve higher accuracy in attacking their selected targets. Within a few months, oil refineries, railway stations and key industrial targets were successfully destroyed. Strictly civilian targets were generally avoided during this period, as much as possible.

The American planes arrived faster, than the Brits, being able to be above their target and begin dropping their bombs almost as soon as the alarm was sounded. This caused great panic among the population. As soon as the alert siren sounded, people began running on the streets to be able to reach the nearest shelter. Often shelters filled up and had to turn people, seeking refuge, away. These had to run in panic to another shelter. We did not leave our store during air raids, as no shelter would allow us to stay. We just rolled down the corrugated iron covers over the door and stayed put. Being locked inside the store, without the ability to look out and follow the raids, was a really bad experience. Totally isolated from the outside, we felt trapped inside, under a large apartment building, which could have been hit and collapse over our heads at any moment. We spent many fearful hours in this claustrophobic way, the bombing attacks becoming a daily occurrence.


THE MARK OF CAIN.

Otherwise known as the Yellow Star.

Following the swift and bloodless occupation of the country, one more person has arrived in Budapest from Germany. We have not heard of his arrival until many days later, but by then his name was on everyone's lips. His name was Adolf Eichmann and he installed himself in one of the best hotels, in the centre of the city.

I don't want to bore you with historical details - you must have read about this man and his mission and how he managed to carry it out. I am here only to record the direct and personal recollections of one Jewish child. So I will make the assumption, that you , dear reader, will understand the events I am going to write about. The Star and all it implied. It was only a symbol we all were branded with, but it was also a deadly identifier for friend and foe alike to see. A mark of death.

The severe anti-Jewish measures were not long in coming. Within a couple of weeks following Eichmann's arrival, all Jews were ordered to wear, at all times, a yellow star made of strong material and sewed firmly on to the outer garments. Paper stars were not allowed, the pinning on of stars was not allowed either. One had to affix the star on all pieces of clothing which was likely to be used as outer clothing: overcoats, jackets, shirts. One had to wear the Star even inside one's home.

I had my daily dose of bad news. As the one responsible to buy the daily newspaper, I had the "privilege" to be the first to be informed of the latest regulations. Jews were not supposed to possess radios, therefore all the new government's orders were published in the daily papers and posted on the walls in the form of announcements. After the first few days, I rapidly turned the pages to locate the by now familiar announcements, well outlined by heavy borderlines. The wording was always the same, only the contents changed from one day to the next. But they came in rapid-fire fashion, practically daily.

Jews were ordered to collect and deliver all remaining items of value: jewels, coins, foreign currency. Final delivery of all communication equipment was set. All exceptions for Jewish presence in any forms of business or professional activity were cancelled. And Jews were allowed to be outside only during certain hours of the day. We were banned from all public places, except for stores. Banned from using streetcar cars or taxis. Forbidden to attend any public performances, movies, theatre shows, concerts. Forbidden to eat in restaurants. The regulations were pouring on and on. The walls of the city were plastered with the new anti-Jewish edicts, which were appearing with almost daily regularity.

These were harsh measures. We had to make immediate adjustments to our lives, our daily routine had to be drastically altered. The first challenge was to obtain, urgently, yellow material for the fabrication of the stars. This gave cause for some merriment, to choose the proper colour of yellow to suit the various items of clothing. Should it be silk, satin or just linen? Yellow cloth disappeared instantly, only to reappear at bonus prices. A whole industry has sprang up, sewing regulation size stars and selling them in the open market. Midinettes, who in the past were sewing together the elegant gowns of Jewish ladies, were now occupied full time, sewing the Yellow Star on the very same gowns. One had to remain stylish even under these grave circumstances. Once again I, the impudent little Jew, was running around from store to store, buying yellow cloth and thread. The shop owners served me with a haughty look, a blend of pity and mocking. They knew all too well for what purpose was I buying that ugly colour.

The Arrow Cross Party members (Hungarian fascists) were jubilant. Now they could easily identify Jews on the streets and streetcars and attack their easy targets at will. These mindless vicious attacks began almost immediately. Almost harmless, as they did not claim fatalities, only humiliating and threatening, these attacks nevertheless served as instant warning and prelude of things to come. Like warm-up exercises for both the victim and the victimizer.

Mother was kept busy for days. I was measuring and cutting out the stars, making sure, that they comply to the millimeter with the regulations, while mother piled up all our outer clothing and busied herself with sewing the stars on. When the yellow thread run out, she reluctantly began using white thread. But she was a smart woman: the stitches she used were large, the ends sewed on loosely, easy to rip off, if necessary. We knew at that moment that to survive was to look far enough ahead, to envisage the situations we will find ourselves in. To anticipate and prepare alternate plans - that was the key to survival.

Going outside with the Star was a horrible experience for the first few times. It was early spring, we were still wearing our overcoats. The Star was prominently displayed on the left side, just above the heart. There was no way to hide it; to cover it with a dangling scarf - that was illegal. Mother and I looked at each other, at the ugly yellow patch so shamefully displayed on our coats. We hugged each other, half crying, half laughing. My cheeks were burning. Stubbornly, I tried to establish eye contact with people I encountered in the street, to convey a plea and also to measure the reaction. The reaction was varied. Some looked away, some lowered their eyes as they passed me. Others looked straight into my face, a mocking grin indicating their feelings. Still others muttered or loudly expressed their disapproval of the entire Jewish race. These comments had always to do with being dirty, full of lice, a sub-human who deserves the worst fate; family relations to the pig population were often mentioned, as well as relatives such as mothers and sisters - not in any favourable light. Suggestions were also made as to how mother and I should be specifically dealt with.

On the other hand, I was never slapped or physically abused in the street-car. No one spit in my face, nor was my hat knocked off my head, the way I witnessed some older Jews being attacked. Thanks for small mercies...

The shame and embarrassment soon disappeared, replaced by a constant confusion, as often, by sheer forgetfulness, we almost ventured outside wearing some top garment, which did not have the star sewn on. It became a regular source of frustration, having to turn back from the door, or waiting for one of us to make a quick dress change. Once in a while the Star was completely forgotten, until it was too late to rectify the situation. At times like this, when I encountered some gentile acquaintance, they would signal with their eyes, that my chest is bare, or would, almost invisibly, mouth the word "your star," as a warning. Nobody ever called the police on me. This was another small mercy, as many Jews were informed on and ended up with stiff jail sentences.

The real difficulty was caused by the limited hours we were allowed to be in the street. That meant not being able to go to school any more, or to the stores with any hope of finding some left over food item there. Fortunately all the schools closed their doors by the end of April, so we had to carry our shame to school for a few days only. The year end closing ceremony exhibited a few of the yellow stars; none of the wearers were called on the stage to receive awards...

We could not travel long distances for fear of not being able to return home on time. For me this represented an irresistible challenge: to be outside during "illegal" hours, naturally without wearing the Star. As mother could not take the risk to visit our store every day, I took this role upon myself. I went daily to inspect it. Our assistant opened up regularly, but did only the minimal work required. I dropped in daily, just to stay in contact with him. But the fear of being attacked one day, on the streetcar or in the streets, followed me everywhere.

That happened more and more often. Ugly scenes were played out on the streets, with red faced "patriots" insisting, that a Jew be arrested for not wearing the Star, while the police, embarrassed and reluctantly, performed their distasteful duty. Often the policeman would march away his victim just far enough to be out of sight and, after a short admonishment, would tell the "criminal" to disappear quickly. In the early months of the spring, policemen still behaved with a degree of decency. These were so outstanding, even these simple, insignificant acts, that they begged the question: why did not more people behave with decency when this was quite possible?

 

Sounds like the people were supportive of the Jewish population.

Oh, no. Unfortunately, acts of decency were the exception, not the rule. As a humanist and eternal optimist, I now probably recall the few and far between acts of decency and forget the norm, which was anti-Semitic and ugly. What I am recounting here is from my own childhood, from the perspective of the relative safety of Budapest. The Hungarians by and large were unhappy with the German occupation. One way to demonstrate this sentiment was to express sympathy with the Jews' plight. Besides, almost every Gentile knew one or more Jewish families. Their Jews were never as bad, as Jews were in general. It was Jews in general that people hated and wanted to be annihilated, not their Jews. So we often encountered small acts of mercy and consideration.

This was not the case in the countryside, in the small villages. Outside of Budapest, many forces were working against the Jewish population. First, the Gendarmes, a proto-fascist police force, which was now unleashed in full fury. Second, the young peasants, who always hated the "wealthy" Jews, the shopkeepers and small mill owners, could now take their revenge on their defenseless victims. Third, the peasantry, which was traditionally a greedy bunch, saw the opportunity to put their hands on Jewish property. The anti-Semitic teachings of the Catholic church found a fertile ground amongst this simple minded, uneducated peasantry. And fourth, there was Adolf Eichmann.

Eichmann arrived immediately after the German occupation and set out to organise his task: the liquidation of Hungarian Jewry. The plans for this were laid out much earlier, in Germany, under the direction of Himmler. The Germans were only waiting patiently for the right time to execute this plan. That time has now, finally, arrived. In Budapest, he dealt with the Jewish Council, a body of elders and "leading members of the community", who would carry out the Germans' orders to the letter. In the rest of the country the situation was quite different. There the forced concentration of the Jewish population began immediately, as did the deportations.

"Deportation." A word, which entered our daily vocabulary instantly. Officially, the act consisted of the removal of all Jews from the countryside and their transportation to areas "in the East," where they would be resettled and allowed to live and work peacefully. In reality it meant a whole range of things - forceful marches to larger concentration centers with many of the sick and elderly shot or beaten to death on the road if they were unable to keep up with the marchers. A sudden order to pack a small bag and report to some point, usually some abandoned factory or stone quarry, within a few short hours. Being marched through the streets of the towns or villages, with the gentiles lining up along the road on the two sides, some looking on sadly or even crying, but most of the others smiling with satisfaction and loudly expressing their agreement with the treatment meted out to the Jewish scum. The confusion, shouting and yelling at the train station, while group after group was pushed up into the waiting cattle cars. Finally, the travel in the packed cars, locked up, even the windows covered with barbed wire, to an unknown destination, an unknown fate.

Within a few months of the German occupation, between April and June of 1944, the countryside was emptied of it's Jews. Four hundred thousand people were shipped out to the various concentration camps. These people disappeared and we never heard of most of them again. Included were my aunts, nieces and nephews. The trains were rolling through Budapest at night, long rows of locked up cattle cars. During the day, the rails were required by the military authorities, for shipping out tanks and trucks to the front and shipping back the endless thousands of the wounded. Occasionally at night a train would stop at some station and voices would be heard from the wired up windows, begging for water or medical help. The macabre parade went on for some four months. That's how long it took to process the mass of Hungarian Jewry in the death factories of Auschwitz.

Everyone was aware of these happenings. All railway stations were guarded by soldiers and were declared out-of-bounds for the civilian population. Thus we were unable to help the victims with food or water supplies. But the railway workers were there and heard the cries and pleadings. They risked their own safety by smuggling cans of water into the cattle cars. They picked up the little pieces of paper thrown out through the barbed wire-covered windows, with names and phone numbers of relatives to call. These simple workers proved to be decent human beings; they carried the sad messages to their destination.

The railway line which carried these victims passed closely by us. Often I had the temptation, morbid curiosity perhaps, to watch these trains roll by. But that was one thing for which courage abandoned me. It was not personal fear that kept me away, even though the vicinity was always closely scrutinized for too nosy observers. I was afraid to see those trains. Perhaps I feared to see the face of one of my relatives peering out through the wired-up small windows. Or to hear their cries for help, as they rolled by. We had countless family members, grandparents, uncles and aunts, cousins and others, living outside Budapest. Mother and I knew, understood without speaking about it, that we would probably never see any of them again.

The trains were unmistakable: a long row of cattle cars, doors padlocked, windows covered with barbed wire, an open car at the front, another at the back, packed with armed soldiers. I could imagine myself inside one of these cars - and that was one sight I had no desire to imagine.

We in Budapest were protected from deportation, for the time being. The Hungarians insisted on keeping us alive, as pawns for some future negotiation. The Germans did not press the point; as long as the liquidation process was going on in the countryside, Eichmann was satisfied and was willing to bide his time. But we knew about everything that was happening. We knew which towns were being emptied and when. Frequently, pieces of paper would be thrown out of the train windows, naming the locations the "passengers" were from and sending messages to their surviving relatives in Budapest. We also knew that the whole horrendously large and complex exercise was carried out entirely by the Hungarians. Usually the gendarmes handled the rounding up of the Jews and their assembly at the train stations. There, mostly Hungarian and a handful of German soldiers assisted in the loading onto the cars. It was told that the liquidation of the Jewish population was carried out with less than 200 German soldiers.

In late June 1944 the right wing in the government attempted to implement the deportation of Budapest's Jews. A large contingent of gendarmes was ordered to the city in preparation. A group of them set up their tent camps in Kobanya, right in the middle of the big square we had to pass to and from our home. We were forced to make a wide circle around the square to avoid these vicious dogs. Fortunately the coup failed and after a week or so they disappeared, returning to where they came from.

 

Our family's reaction to these events.

Mother and I were by now the only family that was left. Our lives have changed drastically from the day of the occupation. The store had to be closed up, we could not continue running it wearing our Stars. School was over for me, I could not attend classes with the Star. New regulations specified, that we were allowed on the street for two afternoon hours a day only. That meant, that we had two hours for shopping for food, getting from and to home. The rest of the time we were locked up inside our apartments.

With my recklessness of a twelve year old, the new rules did not stop me from sneaking out during the forbidden hours. If only to buy a paper (a highly illegal and risky act), or to see the trains rolling by. Sometimes, to sneak into a movie house and watch the Nazi newsreels, trying to interpret the lies and falsifications into some guesstimate of what was really going on. Or a syrupy, schmaltzy German love story, produced by the giant film studios of Berlin. With our radio gone by that time we had lost all contact with the outside world. From time to time I would meet someone I knew, sometimes another "illegal" Jew and we would exchange whispered rumours on the situation on the front and the position of the advancing Soviet armies. That was the extent of the news we received

Mother's skills were seriously tested within a month, when the next strike against us was announced: all Jews were to move into designated buildings, marked with the Yellow Star, within a matter of a few weeks. That was a serious blow. Now the entire Jewish population of the city was to be concentrated into well defined, narrow enclaves, from where liquidation could be achieved much easier. That was the end of our freedom. In the city, the whole designated ghetto area , some six or seven city blocks wide, was surrounded by a hastily constructed high wall with four gates, entry points, through which Jews were forced to enter and exit the ghetto. In the suburb, where we lived, the nearest such building was the one attached to our synagogue, owned by the Jewish Kehila. Rabbi Kalman, the Cantor, the Shamash (synagogue functionary) and their families lived there. This was the same Cantor (Chazan) who trained my brother's football team in earlier, better times. The synagogue has ceased to function long before. Many members lived in another district and could not reach us on Friday nights and, in any case, Jews were not permitted to be outside their homes in the evenings, so the gathering of a minyan was quite impossible.

A footnote to these events is due here. In 1989, on our second visit to Hungary, I made my pilgrimage to our old synagogue and Yellow Star home. The building is located in a very busy centre of the suburb, surrounded by newish apartment buildings. The synagogue and house are standing still, closed in by the old iron fence. Signs are posted, declaring the buildings to be a protected religious site. The signs offer limited protection from vandals, as several windows were broken and not repaired. But nothing can protect old, abandoned buildings from the ravages of time. They were dirty, unkempt, the grass in the courtyard uncut. The synagogue towers and portico rose in dilapidated splendour, the large Magen David surprisingly intact on the top. No one was living there and I was unable to locate someone to open the rusty gates for me. Just as well - at least I did not have to witness the sad state of the interior, so I could continue to remember it in the bright light of my childhood memories.

Mother immediately sprang into action. She managed to arrange a room for us in the house, including shared use of the kitchen. We moved in within a few days, carrying with us only some hand luggage and our bedding. Everything else, furniture, clothing, were left behind. Including my beloved violin, which, together with our other belongings, later disappeared from our apartment. That loss put an early end to my brief and unpromising musical career. It all happened so fast, at such a hectic pace, that I did not have enough time to say farewell to our neighbours, or to mourn the loss of the familiar surroundings of my childhood, the comfort we were forced to leave behind. As a child, I was not bothered too much about this total loss of everything we possessed. Mother must have suffered terribly: gone were all her treasures, her kitchen ware, all her clothing, the accumulation of two decades of wedded life just disappeared behind the door we have closed, when we left our apartment, perhaps forever.

 

Life in the Yellow Star Building.

At the beginning it was like some summer vacation. There was a large Star posted on the entrance door to the building. It was not necessary, as the house was attached to the large and beautiful synagogue next door to us. The doors were kept always locked, except for the two daily hours of freedom. The super lived in a ground-floor apartment. We were five families in the small building, which earlier housed just three. That meant five women together and us, three children. Each family had a separate room, but the kitchen and the only bathroom were shared. The cantor and one of the families had a young daughter each. Under these crowded conditions there was very little privacy; that affected mother much more than me.

We became very close friends. I set up a play school with the girls, playing teacher and pupils and doing some reading and writing in the process. The important thing was to be kept occupied and to keep our spirits up. All our fathers and older brothers were away in forced labour camps, somewhere in the eastern front. We were joined together by the bonds of common anxiety about their safety and of fear for our own future. There were surprisingly few arguments and clashes, even though we were confined into a small space, twenty-two hours a day.

After a short while, there developed a serious shortage of water and it was not possible to take showers anymore. The one bathroom was, in any case, overburdened by so many users. So the women set up a system of rotation, whereby each family will use the kitchen, in it's turn, for major wash-ups. A small wash basin was filled with water and served as a mini-bathtub. Carefully leaning over it and straddling it, one could perform a perfunctory ablution. It was embarrassing to strip naked for the wash-up in this busy cross-roads of our home, but each of us was honour bound to avert his eyes from the "bathers". The building was attached to the synagogue, so I could go across and sneak out through a side door. We were very close to the town centre and also to my school and the railway station. Often I would furtively walk by and look on with envy, as my ex-schoolmates walked to and from school. I did not dare nor did I have the heart to return to our abandoned apartment, for fear of detection and of becoming depressed.

One of the new neighbours was a young man, Gruenwald Robi. He was an avid saxophone player who entertained us for hours playing forbidden American jazz tunes. He and Mordi became very close friends in a short time.

There was also a single man living with us. He was also called Salamon. Actually, his name was Bela, but we all called him Salamon. A tall, strongly built young man, he was exempt from forced labour on account of his being a deaf-mute. A man of very high intelligence, he managed to develop close and extensive communications with us. He learned to lip-read and taught me both lip-reading and the hand signals he used. He was a typical sweet, soft giant, very strong but patient and quiet. He was a chess genius and we would spend hours every day playing one game after another. Needless to say, he beat me almost all the time.

A footnote is due here. Salamon did not survive the war. Up to that time he received exemption from the labour camps, due to his severe handicap. Late that summer though, he was taken away by one of the raiding parties to join a labour camp, refusing to accept his handicap as reason for exemption. There, not understanding the orders given to him and not being understood by the soldiers/guards, he was beaten to death by an enraged, shovel-wielding Hungarian soldier. We heard the news shortly after his death and I grieved for him, as if he was a member of my own family. In my mind's eye I could visualize the whole brutal incident - Salamon standing in the middle, taller than his Hungarian tormentors, not understanding what is happening to him. Watching the mad, distorted faces in growing confusion. Receiving the first blow from the shovel, which brings him down on his knees. He would not defend himself, would not raise a hand on his attackers, or to cover his bloodied head. The blows would rain down on him, he slowly crumbles flat onto the ground. The other soldiers watching with glee and delight the slow, tormented death of the strong young man. One last blow and he stops moving... Never have I known a gentler, better human being. My heart aches even today, when I recall his memory.

The building had a small backyard. It was put into use by mother almost immediately. Around that time, that is, during the summer months, many Jewish labour units were moving through Budapest, on the way to some new military position. Mother somehow arranged with the station master, or the officer in charge, to allow these groups a few hours of freedom. I cannot imagine, what kind of bribe had to be paid to achieve this. In any case, groups of twenty to fifty ragged, skin-and-bones Jewish men would be marched to our building, guarded by a single Hungarian soldier. On the days, when we expected a group, mother and the other women would be out in the backyard, cooking up a storm. Where they got the food I do not know. But when the hungry troops arrived, there was soup, bread and potatoes with some vegetables waiting on long, prepared tables. One day, I recall, the women even made plum balls, hundreds of them. The emotional and culinary significance of this Hungarian delicacy is difficult for a non-Hungarian reader to appreciate. The soldier was given a bottle and a few pengos and told to come back within the hour.

These were remarkable scenes. These men have not eaten hot food for months. Starved and mistreated almost to death, they were as if in a daze. Still, they washed up before the meal and the religious among them donned kipot (skullcaps) - we had a large supply from next door and recited the blessing over the food, before starting to eat. There was much dignity left in these human beings, that no one would ever be able to beat out of them. They stood in patient lines to receive the food, starved as they were. They told us about the places they came from and the people they met. They left us with pieces of paper with the names and addresses of people to notify that so-and-so is still alive and remembers them. They kissed my mother's hand before leaving and we all remained choked with tears, when the last of the group disappeared on the road.

 

An attempt at conversion.

Unbeknown to us at the time, the deportation of Hungary's rural Jewish population had already been half accomplished. From early April on, the trains rolled day and night towards the Austrian border. When the first rumours reached us, we were horrified. Then the details started to arrive: names of towns, names of whole regions, emptied of Jews. Mother and I were shaking: all our families lived outside Budapest. Even my grandfather, recently widowed, decided to join his two daughters-in-law in the country. What happened to them? Were they still safe?

By June Hungary, outside of Budapest, became completely Judenrein (rid of Jews). The Nazis then turned their attention to the two hundred thousand of us, locked up in vulnerable ghettos. One morning someone scratched on our door and told us, breathlessly, that a group of Jews were on the way to the near-by freight railway station. We knew, what this meant: our turn, the turn of the last European remnants, has come. I had to find out the truth. Sneaking out through my usual back door route, I headed towards the railway station . I did not have to go too far. The station, usually handling only freight traffic, was a hub of activity. Surrounded by a cordon of Hungarian soldiers, it now contained a great assembly of people, standing besides their luggage. They were wearing the Yellow Star - the first Jewish deportees from Budapest. A long freight train was standing on the rails next to them, the locomotive steaming and belching smoke.

I did not dare to stay around for too long. Turning around carefully, I returned to our home, to confirm the tragic news. The women listened silently, they immediately understood our predicament. Living in an outlying suburb of Budapest, we would be destined to be amongst the earlier deportees. And even without evoking images of death showers and smoke stacks, the word instilled deathly fear in our hearts. So the time has come to take some critical action.

Mother was tireless in trying to devise schemes to save ourselves. She was definitely not a Jew to lie down and await certain death. We had heard stories of whole families who converted to Catholicism and were saved by the priest from deportation. We of course did not know for how long they were saved before their turn came. That gave mother the idea. She entered a nearby Protestant church and spoke with the priest in residence. He was a kindly, greying, heavy-set middle-aged man. He made no commitments, except the willingness to teach us catechism, in preparation for a future conversion.

That is how, one day, mother and I found ourselves, in an "illegal " hour, in the Protestant (Reformatus) priest's study. The man made us understand, that he knew clearly the purpose of our wanting to convert. He was willing to give us the required instructions and later to actually baptise us. That was the real purpose of the exercise - to obtain a baptism certificate. With this document, we could attempt to hide out as Christians. The exercise did not go too far. I attended a few lessons with the kind elderly priest. He explained the concept of the Holy Trinity and other Christian dogma. It all went well over my head. He never mentioned the Star missing from our dress, nor the hour of the day, when we were supposed to be locked up inside our homes. After a few lessons mother decided, that conversion would not save us after all and the whole thing was dropped. Whether we would have been ready to go through the conversion, I don't know. At the time, I had no guilt feelings about abandoning my Judaism. The whole thing was a game, a charade, not to be taken seriously. One thing I gained from it: I learned by heart to recite prayers, such as the "Our Father" and the "Hail Mary." These skills became very valuable at a later time.

 

My brother's close call with the police...

As I mentioned earlier, Mordi finally had to report to labour camp. That was in late summer. One day a few policemen entered our building and ordered all men 16 to 60 to gather in the courtyard. They were all taken outside the city to dig ditches and gun emplacements. Two or three weeks later ( I cannot anymore place events into their exact time frame), Mordi decided to escape and to head home. Until that time they were stationed in a town not too far from Budapest. Then he heard rumours about being shipped to the east and made up his mind to risk immediate death rather than to chance a slow, prolonged one.

One day they were marched back to the city. They crossed the Danube over one of the bridges, lined with Arrow Cross armbanded soldiers. That evening the local fascists visited them and shot one of the Jewish men. That very night Mordi decided to escape. In the dusk he climbed a fence and kept marching, straight toward Budapest. One of the guards might have seen him, but did not alert the others. Fortunately, he was still wearing civilian cloths. He was a good looking boy, with what the mad Nazis would call solid and very good looking "Aryan" features. So he was not challenged on the road, he even managed to take the streetcar back to Kobanya. He returned to our apartment and was let in by the concierge's son. He also kept silent about the visit..

When Mordi entered our house, everyone agreed to accept the risk of hiding him in our room. He could not, of course, ever leave the building. Mordi spent his days reading and playing chess with Salamon. His skills in lip-reading and deaf-mute signal reading developed rapidly.

By early June mob rule began to take over in the city. The Jewish Yellow Star houses were frequently raided by combined forces of young Arrow Cross members and the police. The alleged purpose of these raids was to verify that no one was hiding inside without proper papers, to confiscate illegal radios etc. The real purpose was to steal and rob whatever caught the eyes of the raiders. If any resistance to the robbery was attempted, the residents were beaten up or arrested under some allegation or another, or both beaten and then arrested. These raids, or "razzias", as they were called, were totally random and the police was forced to participate, often as reluctant partners.

Shortly after Mordi's return home our house was raided in this fashion. We heard someone banging violently on the outside door. Looking out through the peephole, we saw a handful of young fascists and two policemen standing in front of the house. The fascist thugs carried heavy weapons on their shoulders. As we opened the door, it was violently pushed in, almost injuring the first woman who stood in front of the door.

We were pushed to the side with yelled threats and with violence. There was no reason given for the raid, no search warrant was presented, nor did the leader of the group indicate, what were they looking for. We immediately returned to our own rooms and let them roam at will through the house. We heard doors and drawers ripped open, dishes crashing onto the floor. The group spread out through the house.

Mordi was inside our room, standing pale, half hidden behind the partially open door of a large commode. Mother pulled down the bedding to the floor and silently motioned him to lay down on the bed. She piled the bedding on top of him and smoothed out the bedspread - all this calmly and in total silence. Then she motioned to me to get busy with something. This was a desperate gamble on her part - if found, Mordi would be taken away and probably shot as a deserter. Mother and I were also endangered as accomplices to the hiding. We would be taken away and jailed and/or deported. In any case I was also at risk. They might claim, that I should be in a labour camp and take me away with them.

The minutes crept by slowly. We heard another door open and someone yell out an order. Then our door flew open and one of the young thugs marched in, followed by one of the policemen, an elderly man, who clearly looked very uncomfortable. They began to search around the room, opening drawers and throwing things on the floor. The policeman searched methodically, going around the room, until he reached the bed, piled high with the bedding. He took his baton and pushed it between the layers of the bedding. Then he roughed up the bedding on the top and called out to the fascist boy: "Nothing here, brother. Let's go on to the next room". With that, he looked straight into mother's eyes and walked out.

All that time I had been standing by the wall, holding an exercise book and pencil in my hand, pretending to study. They pushed me aside a couple of times, but otherwise did not bother with me. It was difficult to control my hands so that they would not tremble. I did not dare to look at the direction of the bed nor at mother, even after they had left the room. We both remained frozen, motionless. I feared that Mordi will be smothered under the heavy layer of the eiderdown bedding and prayed that the raiders leave the house quickly.

They did, finally, leave, the young Nazis carrying small items they had grabbed in the various rooms - robbery had been the real reason for this raid. We pulled the heavy eiderdowns off Mordi. He was pale but none the worse for wear. He had managed to maintain a tiny opening at the back of the bed, towards the wall. He heard everything, felt the push of the policeman's baton. He did not pray, did not think what might happen to him - he had only lain there, motionless. We tried to act calm, we did not hug each other in triumph, we did not celebrate Mordi's miraculous survival. We knew, that only one battle was won and that the war was still on. There would be more raids of the kind we have just experienced, more risk and danger in hiding a young man in our already vulnerable house.

Did the policeman knowingly saved Mordi's life? I was then and I am convinced now, that he did. By acting this way, he had put himself at risk. If the young fascist had discovered Mordi, after the policeman finished his search, he would have been accused of helping the Jews and severely punished. Yet this elderly man did not hesitate to put his own safety at risk. As policeman, he was used to helping people, not to hand them over to the criminals. He managed to maintain this old tradition. Here was one good gentile I will remember forever. Not the only one I have encountered in those dangerous months - there were the butcher and the baker who set aside small portions of food for us, knowing that, due to the curfew, we will never be able to reach the stores while the food supply still lasted. There were the remote acquaintances who met us in the street or on a streetcar at some illegal time when we were not wearing the Star and did not point us out to the fascists searching for people just like us. All these people I remember - for their humane behaviour only underlined the inhumanity and cowardice of the others. And then there was my school friend.


HOW TO OBTAIN A NEW IDENTITY.

We were all desperate to find ways to save ourselves and at the same time to reduce the risk our presence imposed on other people. While we never discussed this, it turned out that both mother, Mordi and myself were devising various schemes to prepare for the situation which was becoming more threatening by the day. These schemes were so dangerous and preposterous, that neither one of us discussed our ideas and plans with the others.

Mordi apparently got in touch with some of his ex "colleagues" from the labour camp and prepared to go underground at the first opportunity, mainly to remove the danger his presence created for us all. His friends were members of various Zionist groups, such as Hanoar Hatzioni, Hashomer Hatzair and Betar, who were used to underground living and who helped him also to get organised for the coming months.

Mother contacted an old family friend, who owned a lumber factory in the neighbourhood. The plant had, of course, been taken away from it's previous Jewish owner, but he still had access to it. This owner, a Mr. Banyasz, managed to wrangle permission to organise an orphanage in the office building attached to the plant. He installed bunk beds, wood burning stoves and a kitchen. He took in several children, but mostly whole families. A Jewish woman was hired to manage the place and run the kitchen. mother and some other people managed to convince him that taking in a few fellow escapees, who could provide food supplies and mutual care for each other, would enhance his own and the children's chances of survival.

Mother had other plans also, concerning the rescue of father from the labour camp. Once he was safely home, both would be able to go into hiding in the lumber mill. But more about that later.

My plan was more hair-brained. I had no one to discuss this with, because there was no one of my age around. I had the feeling that the best for all of us would be if I also left and tried to survive on my own. From the episode with the priest I got the notion of obtaining a baptism certificate and, with that document, to take on a new identity - that of a Christian boy. Then I could move around the city in safety and stay somewhere, until the Russians liberate us. This idea was so full of holes that I did not dare to think it out fully, lest I would come to the conclusion, that I stood no chance of surviving on my own. Instead, I concentrated on the first step - how and where to obtain a genuine baptism certificate. I heard stories about false documents, distributed by some resistance groups, but that idea did not appeal to me. I found it too dangerous and, besides, I had no contact with any resistance groups.

On the other hand, I had maintained a relatively good relationship, right through the past two years, with a gentile boy of my age, a certain Joseph Kovacs, a fellow student in my class. He was always sympathizing with me and my situation and proved on several occasion his friendly attitude, free of prejudice. I had decided that this boy would supply me with the much desired document.

It was all so simple. Two teen aged boys playing a game of hide and seek, where the stake happened to be my life. Joseph, my Gentile friend, heard me out and immediately agreed to help me. I tried to explain to him how I planned to use his documents, but Joseph preferred not to know about that. We agreed, that if I was caught, I would claim to have stolen the document from him. Joseph did not request this from me; it was I who suggested this, in order to protect him.

Joseph was afraid to discuss the matter with his parent and so asked me to have patience, until he could find an opportune moment to steal his own certificates of birth and baptism. We were of the same age, therefore the date of his birth would more or less suit me. We met several times and at our last meeting he handed over an envelope containing the much desired documents. Joseph expected no thanks, just an exchange of best wishes. We also agreed that it would be the best not to meet again until the war was over and then to celebrate our mutual survival. With that, we separated.

I put the envelope in a safe hiding place and began, now more seriously, to think about a survival plan. For starters I began to pay much more attention to discussions around me. Some of these concerned people, who were hiding Jews, or helping them to find hiding places. I heard other stories about underground Communist and Zionist cells which developed safe hiding places and circulated freely among the gentile population, with false documents in their possession. Some of these groups set up "safe houses", often under the false protection of a foreign state, such as Switzerland or Sweden, or the International Red Cross. I even heard a rumour that mentioned some young Jews, who had obtained fascist uniforms and were parading openly on the street-car, pretending to be members of fascist units. That was too much to believe, but I learned much from these stories and diligently filed all the ideas away, for the time they might become useful.

 

Mother was successful in obtaining some protective documents.

Sometime around June or July mother decided to take action. Here you have to remember, that our Yellow Star building was located in the suburbs, away from the main concentration of Jews in the city. We were out of touch with what was going on in the city but we heard many rumours and stories.

It appeared, that many foreign countries initiated large scale rescue operations in Budapest. Hungary's Jews were the last surviving Jewish population in Europe and many countries, knowing full well by now the fate of the Jews from other countries, were ready to provide as much help and protection, as possible under the circumstances. Among these countries were:

- The Vatican, or rather its Hungarian representative, issued false baptism and other certificates. As the Pope was an ardent supporter of Hitler, I assume that the Papal Nunzio (his title in the Vatican, equal to that of ambassador), decided to act on his own initiative.

- The Spanish embassy, distributing false citizenship documents, demanding safety and protection for their citizens. This was also a curious action, as Franco was a strong fascist and pro-Nazi. It was Hitler's Luftwaffe, which helped him win the 1936 insurrection in Spain. Nevertheless, just like Mussolini, Franco did not subscribe to Hitler's "solution" of the Jewish question.

- The Swiss embassy, distributing the same type of documents. While doing everything possible to keep Jewish refugees out of their country, the Swiss nevertheless did much in participating in the rescue operation, especially of children. By the end of the year, some 15,000 protective documents or Schutzpasse had been distributed.

- Both the Vatican and the Swiss identified several buildings in the city as under their territorial protection. These buildings were packed with Jews, all carrying the false documents of their protectors.

- Sweden provided both fake citizenship papers and also sent to Budapest a special envoy, Raoul Wallenberg, to see on the spot, what other steps could be taken. More about this angel of mercy later.

Mother knew some people who had received the protective Swiss papers and decided, that she would get these papers for the entire family. So one morning, she and I removed our Stars and took the streetcar to the centre of the city, where the Swiss embassy was situated. The ride was a replay of an earlier one. Once again, we were outside in illegal hours, without wearing the Star. Once again, the street-car was halted by a roving group of fascists, who mounted the cars, demanding from selected passengers identification papers. We were seated on one side of our car and, sure enough, a previous neighbour of ours was sitting on the side opposite to us. I tried to make immediate eye contact with her, but without any success - she was looking out through the window, as if completely oblivious of the commotion around her. As the young thugs entered our car, some people were commenting loudly about them wasting their time. Somehow that rattled the group enough to force them to shortcut their "visit." The leader loudly demanded if there were any Jews present. No one budged, no one reacted to his demand. Then he asked the passengers, if anybody recognized a Jew in disguise. I peeked at our neighbour; she continued to stare out through the window with a bored expression. Soon, the thugs departed and our life was saved once again; another of the countless miracles that kept us alive all through those months.

We arrived at the streetcar stop near the Swiss embassy and descended. Immediately we saw much activity around us: policemen and fascists brandishing their armbands and shoulder weapons, roaming or rather lounging around. The street in front of the embassy was packed with people. With desperate shoving and pushing, we managed to get to the gate, where someone handed us a piece of paper with the advice to disappear quickly, go home, read the note and come back at the specified time. We walked away, taking a different route in order to avoid the uniforms surrounding the place. This was an amazing experience, considering that all those Jews were on the street without wearing their Yellow Stars, at an hour when it was illegal for Jews to be outside. Clearly the street in front of the Embassy also enjoyed some kind of diplomatic immunity from the fascists.

The note we received explained that if we can name some Swiss citizen, whom we claim to be related to, we can receive the protective document, called a Schutzpass. We should return with the name and address of the person at the time assigned to us. This requirement was a game only, as we well knew. All we had to do was to fabricate some fictitious data and appear with it in front of an embassy official.

On the given day mother gathered our birth certificates and we left once again for the city. This time we had an eventless ride and found the street as packed as before. This time we were treated to an extraordinary scene: the fascists decided to demand identification papers from those standing in line and began taking some of the Jews away, upon discovering their identity, of being found in the street without wearing the Star and outside the permitted hours. At that point several embassy officials marched out and placed themselves in front the group being led away. One of them loudly and in fluent German stated that these people are all potential Swiss citizens and under the temporary protection of the embassy, until their status was clarified. The young fascists of course did not speak German and hesitated to react. A police officer translated the short speech and advised the fascists not to touch anyone, unless they wanted to create an international incident. The Jews were allowed to return to the waiting line.

We were in possession of the much desired appointment paper and were allowed to enter the building. There were crowds everywhere we looked. Seemingly total confusion reigned inside. People were milling around the courtyard, sitting on the stairs, crowding in front of various doors and generally blocking the way for everyone. But behind this crowd scene there worked an efficient Swiss machinery. We were given another paper and were directed to a certain room number. The wait was long, the crowd loud and full of anxiety. After many hours we were allowed to enter the room and meet our embassy official. Fortunately mother's fluent German established instant positive contact between them. He helpfully guided mother through the preparation of her statement about our Swiss relative. She swore on some book (the Bible? the New Testament? who cared!) and the official began filling out the forms - one for each member of the family. I did not need one, being an under age child. My parents' document should cover me. With much smiling and shaking of hands, we were shown outside the office and told to wait.

Another few hours passed and our names were called. We were let into a large office, decorated with the Swiss flag. Someone handed mother the so desperately sought documents and declared in an official tone that as of that moment, our entire family had been placed under the protection of the Swiss state. He warned us, that the protection they could offer was limited and should not be abused. With that, we were dismissed. Mother tried to exploit this spirit of goodwill and inquired about the possibility of moving into one of the so-called Swiss houses. She was told in no uncertain terms to forget about it: the buildings were already overcrowded.

This was a big and important event in our lives. We firmly believed in the great power our newly acquired documents possessed. We were a bit naive about this, but for the moment we were luxuriating in what would prove to be a false sense of safety. As we left the building into the darkness, we were immediately pounced upon by some uniformed men. The document and the aura of Swiss protection worked their magic: we were allowed to continue. The documents were actually used several times by my parents. They were accepted, grudgingly. The second time mother was told that if they were caught once again, the papers would be ripped up and ignored. They were not and I still have those miraculous Shutzpasses in my possession to this very day.

D-day and its impact.

In the summer of 1944 we were still living in the twilight zone, where fantasy prevailed and reality took a back seat.

June 6, D-day was a red letter day for all of us. It was a sunny week day when the news started to float around the city. From the early morning hours everyone talked only about the landing in Normandy. The radio finally made a passing mention of it, following the German propaganda line: the enemy forces landed but were being liquidated as we spoke. Soon not one allied soldier would remain alive on the French coast. The newspapers also mentioned the landing in their evening edition, similarly underplaying the significance of the invasion. But the people of Budapest knew better...

"Just a few more weeks and we will be liberated" I assured mother, trying to sound as mature as I could. "By then they will all come home. We will survive, you will see!"

Clearly the war has entered it's terminal phase, the Germans were once again destined to come out the losers. The question was: who will be able to survive and witness the actual day of liberation. After the fiasco in Italy, we did not dare to raise our hopes in the Allied forces too high. Normandy was much farther away than Monte Cassino, Italy, where the Americans once again were held down by the desperate German forces. Further, the Führer made it clear, that if he and his "thousand year Reich" go down, Germany and all of Europe would go down in flames with him. We knew that this was not an idle threat and, at the very least, the remnants of European Jewry, that means us, would easily be dragged down into the bottom of the pit, long before the last German died on the battle front. So while celebrating in our hearts, our eyes were on the Eastern horizon, from where our liberators would appear, hopefully not too late.

In the meantime, my frequent wanderings around the railway station resulted in a new discovery: the movement of armaments and troops to the Eastern front has stopped almost totally. The trains were still coming from the East, loaded with the human wreckage of wounded soldiers, but they returned empty. Thanks to the invasion, the Germans were forced to move their troops and equipment to the West. The flatbed wagons were carrying tanks and heavy armour to the Western front. The collapse of the Eastern front became imminent and with that, so was the liberation of Hungary.

The Hungarian leadership saw that too and used the resulting confusion for it's advantage. A new minor putsch was performed by Horthy's people. General Lakatos, a moderate army officer, was appointed as Prime Minister, while the pro-German government was replaced almost entirely. The intent was clear - it was Lakatos, the high ranking officer, who would negotiate peace with the Soviet generals, as equal with equals. The Nazi mobs were reined in once again, random attacks on the streets have ceased. We were permitted to leave our homes for longer daily periods of time. The Yellow Star houses became safe again and the guards around the ghetto, until that time mostly young Nazis, were replaced by the regular police forces, who were much more lenient in allowing people to leave and enter the area.

 

I made my first visit to the ghetto around this time.

We had some friends and relatives in the Budapest ghetto, whom we had not heard from since the spring. The ghetto was surrounded by a high fence, with only a handful of openings to the outside world, guarded by the young hoodlums. Jews were allowed to leave only for a few hours per day. No one was allowed to enter from the outside - this to prevent the smuggling of food into the ghetto and of Jews to the outside. Although the six blocks of the Ghetto area included many stores and restaurants, these ran out of food supplies very early and, not being able to replenish them, were forced to close down completely. Now crossing the gates became easier if you had proper papers.

I put together a small parcel of food, took out my Christian certificates and headed for the ghetto. I had decided to test both the power of my new documents and my own capability to lie without being detected. No traffic entered the ghetto, even though it was several city blocks long and wide. The streetcar lines skirted the fence, the roads were blocked at the entrances. I walked straight toward the gate, waving my paper nonchalantly. There was much movement to and fro and a policeman just waved me through. A young boy, idling by, yelled at me "Bringing food to the kikes, you dirty Jew lover!" I just shrugged my shoulders and walked on.

I knew these parts of the city well, the narrow streets and unkempt old houses. The ghetto was the old Jewish quarter, with hundreds of large apartment buildings, several Jewish schools and synagogues, including the Great Synagogue of the city. There had been parks in the area and stores and restaurants lining the streets. Now, just a few months into the existence of the ghetto, I felt as if I was entering this territory for the first time. The full horror of the living conditions hit me hard in the face. What I saw was beyond my worst expectations. I had heard of what went on in the Polish ghettos of course, but this was Budapest, not some primitive city with it's primitive Polish Jews and primitive Polish Gentiles.

In only a few short months the Budapest ghetto had managed to sink into the most primitive conditions. With the long isolation from the outside food stocks had run out, garbage collection was non existent and diseases, such as typhoid were rampant. Thousands of people were homeless, either forced to leave the crowded rooms assigned to them, or because they never received accommodation assignments. Any Jews arrested in the city (outside the ghetto area) for any infraction, were simply delivered into the ghetto and left on the street to fend for themselves. Schools were of course closed and armies of children roamed the streets, in desperate idleness. The whole social fabric, which in normal times managed to bridge over the gap of poverty, was now in tatters, under these desperate conditions. All the misery, poverty and suffering were out in the open, without shame and mercy. The Jewish Council, the manager of this mess, seemed quite incapable to organise life in the ghetto, short of faithfully carrying out the Nazi orders, with the use of a small Jewish police force. The only activity they managed to organise and sustain, was the nightly pickup, with carts pulled by men, of the bodies of those who died during the previous day. That was done to contain the spread of typhoid and other contagious diseases.

The streets were crowded as if for some holiday fair. The sidewalks were lined with people offering for sale all kinds of useless merchandise, the remnants of a distant "normal" life: books, pillows, clothing items, even typewriters and record players. In every corner, house entrance and store door people were lying prostrated or curled up in a foetal position. Some were the homeless, sleeping on the street, the only space available to them. Others were dead, simply left to be picked up later by the collection brigades. Among the crowds filling the street there were people on old bicycles and others with pushcarts trying to navigate their way. They were carrying all sorts of objects: old people unable to walk, the sick, who were too weak to walk even to the nearest doctor's "office" on the street corner, even pieces of furniture. Several pushcarts were carrying dead bodies, collected off the streets and carried to their temporary burial place, large pits dug in a park situated inside the ghetto. The bodies were buried quickly, without any attempt at identification, due to the oppressive heat of the summer. The minimum ritual was observed: someone said the El Male Rachamim (a memorial prayer) at the grave side and there were no burials on Shabat and holidays. Later, with the arrival of fall, when the air was cooler and the shortage of manpower was more serious, the bodies were left at one of the dumping places: either one of the public parks inside the ghetto or the garden of the Great Synagogue. As winter came early this miserable year of 1944, the bodies soon froze to each other, forming solid, inseparable blocks of ice. At least the cold has eliminated the very real danger of a cholera or typhoid outbreak and reduced the urgency for quick burial. The streets were full of filth. Dirty water ran down along the gutters, carrying with it garbage, dead rats, faeces and urine. No one noticed, it seems as if the residents had gotten used to all this long ago.

I could not find my way. The street signs were removed or defaced, it was impossible to recognise the old familiar places. I tried to ask for direction, politely, in a civilised tone. But all I received were blank, uncomprehending stares from people who seemed dazed, not understanding the simple question or not able or willing to respond. Of course, I was taken for a Gentile, perhaps a Fascist, so everyone tried to avoid talking to me. It was a nightmarish experience. A hundred thousand people, locked up in animal conditions, had sunk back within a short time into the basest existence.

Finally someone took pity on me and, taking me by the arm, guided me through the throngs towards a building, which I just barely recognized. That's where my relatives lived. The glass in the windows had been all broken and replaced with cardboard, newspaper or anything else available to provide some cover . The entrance gate was locked and only after long and persistent banging did someone open it a notch. I began to feel very uncomfortable - here I am, pretending to be a gentile, in the midst of the ghetto, making all this commotion. If the Jewish Police, which circulated around, attempting to keep some semblance of order, stopped me, I would be arrested on the spot. So I felt relieved when the door opened a crack and a face appeared on the other side.

"What do you want?"- whispered the face in the crack.

"Looking for the Weismanns"- I whispered back.

He let me in, quickly locking the gate behind us. Homeless people often tried to force their way into already crowded buildings. It was illegal to be on the street after curfew and often members of the Jewish Police came to round up everyone found on the street and handed them over to the regular police for deportation. This was the most feared event, a certain death sentence. Jews did everything possible in order to avoid being arrested.

Inside, the commotion reflected the outside world. The courtyard was dark, but filled with children playing, jumping, running around. They all looked at me with suspicion. Someone whisked me up the stairs and called out for our relatives. The whole visit took place in a furtive atmosphere. I quickly entered their apartment, which consisted of several rooms, all apparently occupied to the last inch. Beds were unmade and mattresses, blankets were strewn over all the floors. It was difficult to move around, people were sitting or standing everywhere. My relatives accepted the food parcel with warm thanks, too proud to open it on the spot. They were eager to get me out of there. I was an outsider, a stranger and therefore dangerous. They did not want to create too much attention with their neighbours sharing the apartment.

After exchanging some brief news about other family members - who was already dead and who still lived - I handed over my small parcel and quickly fled to the outside. The air was putrid with the smell of rotting garbage, perspiration and other body odours which hang oppressively in the air. Pushing my way through the crowds I became panic stricken, like a drowning man trying to come up for air. I was afraid that the gates of the ghetto would close and trap me inside and that I would become one of the living dead wandering aimlessly on the street. I was also scared that I will not find the gates to get out. In panic I started to violently push and shove people around me. Suddenly I stood in front of the gate to the outside.

Quickly putting my clothing in order, I calmly walked outside, waving a casual "hello" to the bored policeman standing there. He murmured a lazy good-bye, not caring to see my identification papers. With the new political atmosphere, it was easy to leave the ghetto. But where would one go? For the "inmates", the walls, even the guards at the gates, represented some kind of protection, security, home. And the leaders of the community kept telling them that as long as they behaved and followed their instructions, they would be safe and be saved. How could they reconcile this attitude with the dead and dying, of hunger and disease? With the hundreds who had already been taken out of the ghetto and deported? Stories about the fate of the Polish ghettos have circulated; we all heard of the heroic uprising and terrible destruction of Ghetto Warsaw. But this was Budapest and there was no risk of an uprising here. In these cruel times everyone, the leaders and the led, were for themselves only. Save your life and the lives of your closest family members and forget about the rest of the world. You cannot help everybody...

I entered the ghetto several more times, under much worse conditions. I wore the fascist uniform and people were forced to walk around me, getting off the sidewalk to avoid encountering me face to face. The piles of the dead grew higher, the barely alive bodies of women, children and old men, too weak from hunger to move, covered most of the sidewalks. But my first visit was the most memorable experience. It was frightening and depressing. These were people like us, educated, middle class Jews. Only three or four months into ghetto confinement they have been pushed back into living conditions which, we always thought, belonged to the most primitive villages and shtetls. Stripped of all civility, all that remained was the struggle for the most basic daily existence. There but for the grace of God...

My resolve to stay free became firm. I would never be forced to enter the ghetto or be locked up in one of the cattle cars and taken to the camps. The documents in my possession proved to be immensely valuable, they gave me a tremendous sense of power and freedom. It was time now to start using them and to collect other documents, to create a fictitious identity, which would allow me to survive the next few months in freedom and relative safety.

 

So I decided to take on a new identity.

Yes, and this proved to be fairly easy to arrange. Normal communications with other parts of the country broke down completely by that time. Offices still functioned in a haphazard way, but the telephone service was now unreliable at best. There was not much opportunity to cross check claims, to verify identities and documents. Fortunately, the old bureaucrats were still staffing the government offices, harmless and senile old men, to whom any old sob story could be fed easily. They were by no means "Jew lovers", but neither were they Nazis. They just performed their jobs, without getting into trouble, without thinking of the consequences.

By the late summer of 1944 Budapest was flooded with refugees arriving by the thousands from the war zone. The much dreaded Red Army was rolling forward into Hungary and the Nazi propaganda stories about the cruelty of the fast approaching enemy were preceding them. The Hungarian population did not wait to find out whether these stories were true or false. The refugees fled by train, trucks, horse carts or on foot, they carried little of their belongings and often left without any papers. Many families lost each other on the way, children and the old were abandoned, left to fend for themselves. This gave me the idea of claiming similar refugee status with the authorities and thus obtaining more valid documents. I carefully formulated a story about being a war orphan, from the town of Kolozsvar (Cluj) in Transylvania, a town already occupied by the Russians. I had lost all my relatives, my documents and my belongings. I was all alone in the world. As an address I chose Rakoczy Street, an address to be found in almost any Hungarian city or town. For my school - St. Mary or St. Joseph School would be a safe bet. I rounded out my story with names of parents, brothers and sisters and the new identity was complete. The family name was a given: Kocsis, a good old Hungarian peasant name, written into my cherished documents.

Obtaining a new food coupon booklet was the easiest task. I headed to the nearest refugee centre and tried to look hungry and exhausted and I was given a bowl of soup and the much desired coupon book. With that and my birth and baptism certificates in hand, I began my wanderings from office to office. I received a card for temporary shelter, a registration card and a coupon book for clothing. I was assigned a small place in a hospice and the local police station issued a temporary residency card for that address. All these papers had a very limited usefulness, as they were valid for a limited time only. But they provided the initial cover and gave me the self confidence to circulate freely in the city, without fear of arrest.

It was more difficult to protect my phoney identity from being unmasked. I began to go through a period of refinement to make my story more detailed and believable. I often went to a temporary shelter for a meal or a short rest. People would always ask me about my parents and why I, a little boy, was living alone. When I recounted my cover sob story, sometimes someone would say:

"I am also from Kolozsvar. Where did you live?"

"On Rakoczy Street" - would I respond, hesitantly.

"So did I" - came the much feared answer. "At what number?"

I would mumble a number and some story about forgetting the details during the turbulence of the past few months. The stranger would nod and say, that he lived on the other end of the street, near the Catholic church named Saint Catherine. Next time I would add the Catholic church and the blessed Saint to my story. Or if someone asked whether I knew the Katona family, living on the same street - my answer was evasive, but the Katona family became our neighbours in my story, from that point on.

About my "parents" I did not have to lie too much. Just a hint of how they both perished under the cruel hands of the damned Bolsheviks, a few teardrops in the eye and all questioning on that subject ceased. School was a different story, as many families with children my age were among the refugees. Once again I selected a fictitious school - the Petofi Street Gymnasium - and a few popular names for teachers. When someone pointed out to me, that I must be wrong, there was no gymnasium on Petofi Street, I probably meant Arpadi Street - I only had to laugh in embarrassment and admit my mistake. Next time I had the school situated on the correct street.

My cover story had become well rounded out by the time it became critical to have all the details worked out correctly. In the meantime I had learned to live on my own, away from our Yellow Star home for several days at a time. It was more dangerous to go to and from our "mini ghetto," than to live like this, all alone. In the early months the refugee shelters, opened in school gymnasiums and church halls, offered plentiful accommodation for the night. Although we slept on the floor, we were given old blankets to cover ourselves. As a good little boy, I repeated my little Christian prayers on any occasion, to the great approval of the women around me. I also learned to enter and leave the Yellow Star house discreetly, as Jewish presence on the streets was still limited to specific hours of the day.

The few catechism lessons I had taken from the priest came in very handy now. In the public shelter for the homeless before we sat down to eat, we always had to recite a few prayers. The "Our fathers" and "Hail Marys" came rolling off my mouth, as if I had been saying them from my earliest childhood. I also had to remember to make the sign of the Cross during prayers and whenever I walked by a church. When a priest was present, we had to greet him humbly and always genuflect in front of the cross hanging on almost every wall of the shelter. Another aspect of hiding my religious identity was more difficult and embarrassing. In washrooms I had to hide my penis behind my hands if others were present. Similarly, I had difficulty taking showers at the shelters, as I could never count on being alone. Being discovered as circumcised was the surest, deadliest give-away for many Jews.

All in all, I quite enjoyed my privileged status as a poor refugee child from the East. The game of playing someone else became part of me; I never forgot that I was posing as someone else. But it made me laugh inside to see how easy it was to fool so many people and to milk their sympathy. "If only they knew..." - I thought sometimes, when I sold my story to yet another person. Policemen were the easiest targets, as many of them had children my age and were therefore ready to help in any situation. I could also receive used clothes, which was specially useful. I picked up the typical clothing items of a Christian boy, with breeches, military style shirt and hat and various school and youth movement insignia. The clothes had the typical sweaty smell of an unwashed goy, providing the scent of authenticity. As this was a quiet time on the political front, it was just the right moment to perfect my disguise and new identity. I never had the urge to recite the"Shema Yisrael" (Confession of faith) before going to sleep and I never worried that in my sleep I will give myself away. I felt myself to be quite a little actor to so successfully impersonate someone else.


BOLT OF LIGHTING.

 

Matters took a tragic turn in October, 1944.

Then came the event, which I call the beginning of the end. In many senses of the word. End to the relatively peaceful existence, end to the false comfort, an end to a large part of the still surviving Jewish community, end of all illusions about a quick liberation. Almost the end to this little Jewish child, as well.

It was evident that the negotiations with the Allied states have failed. The Soviet Army crossed the borders of old Hungary and was rolling across the puszta, the great eastern plains. On the Western front the Germans were in retreat. Romania, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria were practically liberated from German occupation. The importance of Hungary has greatly diminished. The Soviets were in no mood to compromise on the future treatment of Hungarian fascists. They demanded unconditional surrender - something that Horthy and his entourage could not swallow. A new, democratic Hungarian Government had already been formed in the Eastern town of Debrecen, under Soviet tutelage. Headed by a Hungarian general, it signed a provisional peace treaty with the Soviet government and thus established the post-war reality of Hungary. We knew about this event from the thousands of leaflets dumped on the city by Russian planes. It was forbidden to pick these leaflets up, let alone to read one openly - people were arrested on the spot for this crime of treason. Nevertheless, the leaflets were read and circulated fervently, specifically among Jews. From these leaflets and those dumped earlier by the Allies, we learned about the progress of the war and about our pending future. Also about the future treatment the new rulers of Hungary could expect. The many crimes committed, for decades, against Jews, Communists and many other opponents of the regime now came to haunt them. There was not going to be any peaceful "bailing out" of the German alliance.

Like most critical days during this dark period, it was once again a Sunday. A late fall chill filled the air. I came back to our Yellow Star" "home" for the week-end, to wash up and rest a bit in the comfort of mother's presence and that of the other women. They had long since stopped asking me about my doings and whereabouts, so I could came back and rest peacefully, even being a child again for a short while. It was mid-October 1944 and the war raged all around us without bringing the liberators to our embattled city. It was quiet in our suburb, no raids, no harassment. Just a peaceful October Sunday. Then someone banged on our door. It was one of the Zionist network members, who visited us on occasion, to keep us up-to-date with news and to break the sense of isolation the women suffered.

"Great news! Horthy asked for peace! It might be finally over!" - he yelled through the half-opened door.

On October 15, the most fateful day in the annals of this war, Horthy decided to act unilaterally. I left our house immediately and went out to the deserted city centre. Once again I heard the cheerful music blaring from the radios and the announcement of a pending speech by the Admiral. His speech was brief and to the point: Hungary declares the end of all military activities and requests that a separate peace treaty be signed with the allies at once. Orders to the army units had already been sent out. A Hungarian general, the Chief of Staff, has been sent to cross the lines on the Soviet front and to negotiate with the Soviets on the details of the army's surrender.

The impossible has happened once again. Once more we were going around in a daze, not believing what was happening, yet hoping beyond hope that it was true. The city sank into deadly silence. It was a cold October Sunday, very few people were on the streets. The radio fell silent, all army and police units disappeared. The fascist thugs, usually parading on the streets in small groups, were not to be seen anywhere. Even the regular daily bombing raid failed to materialize on this day. An oppressive silence descended and the tension was building up with each passing hour. The radio continued playing inane Hungarian folk music, totally inappropriate during these tense hours. Then rumours began to circulate: Horthy had escaped, he had been executed, the Americans had parachuted into the city, the Russians were marching at full speed on Budapest...

The uncertainty did not last very long. By early afternoon the Nazi uniforms started to reappear in the city, marching in small groups, carrying their Arrow Cross flags around with great arrogance. The streets emptied rapidly and I fled back to our house, bringing home the sad news of what appeared to be the situation.

The day ended with the most disastrous series of radio announcements. First the Hungarian anthem, the Nazi anthem and the Horst Wessel song were played. In case anyone failed to get the hint, the announcements followed. Horthy had been flown to Berchtesgaden, Hitler's mountain base, taken into "protective custody". The leader of the Arrow Cross party, Ferenc Szalasi, had been asked to form the new government. The traitors attempting the putsch were under arrest. Hungary was standing firm side by side with its great German allies. The Jews, Bolsheviks and other plotting scum would pay dearly for this attempt to stab our great friends and our brave soldiers on the Eastern front in the back.

We felt as if we just heard our death sentence being pronounced on the radio. Now there was no hope for any of us to survive. The Hungarian fascist party formed the new government. The party consisted of the most extreme elements, violent anti-Semites from way back, reinforced by large gangs of youth who joined it for the opportunity to kill and pillage. They were well organised and well equipped, so much so that the police had never tried to interfere with their little games. Now the games turned into serious and real action. No longer just the beating up of an old Jew, the breaking of a shop window or the burning of a synagogue. The target now was all Jews, all Jewish homes and property, the entire ghetto. The prize: the very lives of the whole Jewish community of Budapest.

What I have described so far was quite bad. What I am going to describe now will be far worse and quite incredible. Fifty years later, living in civilised times, in a civilised, organised society, stories about a reign of terror in a progressive, developed large city in Central Europe do not sound credible. You, my reader, will have to suspend all your conventional ideas about time and space, about normal human behaviour. Accept being transported to another time, another place. To a place, where ordinary rules of law and humanity did not apply, where lives were cheap and death had no meaning. To a time which harkened back to the ages when the Inquisition's fires were burning, when the hooves of the Cossack horses were heralding the coming of yet another pogrom on the heads of the Jewish victims. When I reflect today on the situation I find it difficult to explain this even to myself: I, a twelve year old child, was the target of the murderous intent of an entire state machinery, targeted to be murdered simply because I was born into the Jewish faith.

 

Reign of terror in Budapest.

The events I am going to describe now are unique in the annals of civilised societies. This is the story of how a modern city, with it's cultivated population and institutions turned it's back on all of its Western traditions and retreated into a medieval age of savagery. This was not the case of people being removed from their homes and surroundings, put into camps and prisons and treated cruelly. We all stayed within our familiar surroundings. The same houses, streets and street-cars, same neighbours, storekeepers and newspaper sellers. The only thing that changed was that within one day, total insanity took hold of the whole city. Camus' Plague describes this well: how the rats came out of their hiding places and managed to spread the plague through the entire city, how the entire population has succumbed, in panic, to a wave of inhumanity, retreating into a regime of cruelty not seen since the middle ages.

Events took place at a fast and furious pace. Within twenty-four hours all forces of the evil new regime had descended all over the city. Fighting on the Eastern front resumed and all soldiers were ordered to report to their units immediately. Those found away from the front, would be shot on the spot. "Dismembered" as the new regime's order papers stated. The police forces were put under the control of the Hungarian fascist units. Jews were ordered to stay inside their marked houses, 24 hours a day. Those not yet living inside the ghetto were now ordered to move in. Within three days, the Yellow Star homes would cease to exist. The gates of the ghetto were locked up and placed under strict Nazi control. All the marauding Nazi units, comprised mostly of 12-15 year old youth, were armed. The Nazi take-over was swift and complete. The Germans performed a critical supporting role in this putsch. They had arrested Horthy and flew him out of the country, under threat of executing his beloved son, a pilot in the Hungarian Air Force, who had been seized by the Germans earlier. Horthy surrendered to the Germans without putting up a fight. It did not help him. While he survived the war in Austria, his son died in a German-manufactured aerial "accident" a few days after the putsch.

It all happened so fast that we had very little time to react. I went home with the tragic news, recounting all I saw happening in the city. At the same time, the first air raid of the day was signalled. The bombings have restarted with great force. Both Russian and American planes were attacking the city which was left almost totally defenseless. The days, when the Luftwaffe fighter planes were trying to intercept the bombers were long gone. There were only scattered anti-aircraft gun positions left around the city. The attacking planes could now bomb their targets with great precision. They could also descend to low altitudes and strafe the streets with machine gun fire. From that day on, the air attacks came at unpredictable hours, with little advance warning. More and more buildings and many entire city blocks collapsed, more roads and street car lines were in ruins. So much happened so quickly that now I find myself unable to describe it all fast enough, to keep up with my recollections of those days.

Within days following the Nazi take-over our little family unit dissolved into three individuals, with little contact with each other. We all decided that it would be suicidal to move into the ghetto. There was no place for additional people there. We would sentence ourselves to death, by starvation, disease or Nazi violence. So, for the time being, the three families stayed put, postponing the inevitable.

I was not at home, when the first gang of raiders entered the building. They smashed up everything, beat up the women and threatened to come back for more. As soon as they left, mother took her already prepared pack and left for the planned hideaway. When I returned home that night, I found the place in shambles. The remaining people were hysterical, desperately trying to find a better hiding place than the isolated, defenseless marked building. There was no question of saving possessions - our very lives were at stake. So mother was installed in the relative safety of the fake orphanage, where she could not find a place for us. Mordi and I went on our individual ways. There was not even a tearful good-bye or a farewell hug. We just quietly slipped away, each to our own destination.

As a side note: on that day we lost all contact with the other two families . After the war though, we met again. Chazan Kohn's family survived and left for Australia shortly after liberation. We met again, in Israel, when Kohn and his by now grown-up daughter came for a short visit and looked me up. Since that time unfortunately we lost contact with each other for good. We were not family related, but the few short months of living together tied us to the Kohn family with the closest brotherly and emotional ties.

Although I knew that it was unsafe to sleep in the house even one more night, I was too tired to leave. I had nowhere to go. It seemed that in just a few days all the residents of Budapest had turned into ardent Nazis. The aim of the game was to discover hidden Jews and hand them over to the authorities who in this case were not the police, but the Nazi gangs. In those first few days I made my usual tour around the food distribution and shelter places, only to discover that every location had its self-appointed Nazi supervisors. Papers were closely examined, as were the faces and clothing. People were dragged away under the slightest suspicion of using false documents. This happened not too far ahead of me, while I was waiting in a lunch line. Walking away was just as dangerous, as staying in line. Fate decided for me: the Nazi inspector had to go to the toilet and I managed to receive my last lunch from that place in peace.

The same situation existed now at the night shelters. These places were located in church basements and school gymnasiums. Some straw mattresses on the floor provided accommodation for hundreds of people at each location. The smell of overflowing toilets was almost unbearable, but just almost. The term "unbearable" became very relative and flexible. How much can one bear in order to survive? How base can this simple animal instinct be!

The shelters opened only in the evenings to let the refugees enter for a night's sleep. Where were we supposed to spend the daytime? Now guards were positioned at the entrance, checking documents and questioning each person as we entered. I was once again lucky: some people in the line knew my "story" and called out to the Nazi guard, reassuring him, that I was truly an innocent victim of the Bolsheviks. With my size, smaller than my age, hungry and dirty look, they always took pity on me. But how much longer could this luck of mine last? When will the absence of credible documents put an end to this charade?

 

And so a young Nazi was born...

It sounds funny and ironic today. It was not that humorous at the time.

Within a short time, all aspects of existence became dangerous. It became evident that the Hungarian Nazis were driven by one single obsession: to unearth and kill all the Jews of the city. Long gone were the dreams of a war won by Germany, of a peaceful arrangement with the Western powers, which would save the country from the much dreaded Soviet occupation. There was no escape from this reality. The only diversion was hunting down the Jews. The rule of law was summarily suspended, the rule of the naked gun was in full force. This is a flowery play of words, but that was the literal truth.

In my earlier wanderings around the city I heard rumours, stories going around about young Jewish Zionist groups, masquerading as Nazis, hiding out in the city and helping other Jews escape from arrest. These young boys set up complete print shops, where false documents were produced. Raiding Nazi party clubs, they stole arm bands, hats and insignia and even weapons. They set up safe hiding places in the city and wandered around, out-Naziing the real Nazis in their appearance, their loud curses and even in their occasional beatings of Jews they were trying to rescue from the clutches of the real Nazis.

That gave me the idea that the sheep can escape the wolves if he can don a wolf's skin and blend in with the attackers. All I would need was to steal the necessary paraphernalia and a few documents. The idea was good, now I only had to execute it. After all the lying, I had no moral problem with a little theft. On the other hand I had no contact with Zionists or other resistance groups, no one to turn to for help or advice.

It was surprisingly easy. Once again, I have to paint a picture of Budapest in those days of early November 1944. The daily bombing raids had made the efforts to remove the rubble of collapsed buildings, or even to dig for possible survivors, near impossible. Although Jewish forced labour groups were "recruited" in the ghetto for the dangerous digging, many people were trapped and died under the ruins of their homes. In addition, people often were simply led to isolated spots and shot by the Nazi gangs, for various reasons. The reasons were varied: soldiers, trying to blend into the civilian population, if caught without the required pass, were shot on the spot. So were Jews, or those suspected of being Jewish. The bodies were left on the sidewalks, or in the entrance ways of

buildings. Dead bodies were not collected any more. Fortunately, the days turned quite cold and these bodies froze to the spot where they lay, without causing the spread of diseases. The bodies were often stripped of their possessions and good clothing. Good shoes, army boots and overcoats were particularly prized items. The executed soldiers often carried their guns with them; these were also removed quickly.

So there was a constant supply of fresh dead bodies, providing valuable documents, weapons, army and Nazi uniforms and so on. As the air raid marshals no longer supervised the streets, one could, with relative safety (here is another "relative" term!), scout the streets and look out for a desirable corpse to be stripped of it's overcoat, boots, cap and other insignia, as well as any documents found in the pockets and weaponry. It had to be done swiftly and adroitly, under the cover of a half collapsed wall, an entrance to a bombed out air raid shelter or, at the minimum, at the entrance door of an apartment building. Many of these poor soldiers were themselves only young children, conscripted in the emergency rush of the past weeks. So their clothing and documents would fit me reasonably well too.

The first time I "robbed" a corpse, I had to fight back a constant strange feeling that it was actually alive, that it would open it's eyes at any moment and slap my hand for messing around in it's pockets. I cannot recall feeling any remorse or queasiness about it. He was dead and that was that. I needed boots, documents, money and an overcoat - all things which a dead person has no use for. It was the body of a youngish man, bigger than me and older. But the streets were full of urchins wandering about with overcoats hanging down to the ground and hats covering their eyes. Budapest in November, 1944 was not a fashion show...

From another corpse I peeled off the Nazi arm band, wide belts with a holster and again from another, a dead soldier, his shoulder weapon and bullets. Now I was a genuine young Nazi, as ridiculous, scrawny and scary looking as any thug on the street corners. It took some time to get used to it, to remember that I was now a member of the select race, the worst scum my beloved city ever produced. But with a little practice, I managed to shout louder and earlier than those I've encountered, the Nazi greeting: "Hang in there, Brother! Long live Szalasi!" while stretching out my right arm, as if checking whether it was raining. I had a kind of child-like roundish face, which gave me a too-healthy look. But after a few weeks of starvation and sleeping all over the place, my appearance became quite acceptable by Budapest street standards: pallid, haggard, skin taunt from hunger, an unwashable layer of dirt covering my face, neck, feet and hands, hair overgrown and hanging over my eyes which were sunken from the lack of sleep - a credible little vicious horrible-looking homeless 12-year old refugee.

 

How did I feed and lodge myself during this time?

I would not call it neither feeding nor lodging. Matter of fact, from the day I left the relative safety of the Yellow Star Jewish home, the days, weeks and months became one blurry period of sheer animal survival. I cannot give a detailed account of where I ate and slept during this time. But I can attempt to give a general outline of how the days and nights went by.

The days were the easier to manage. There was always some broken water main or a tap for washing up. Then the daily walk began. The important thing was to be on the move, never to stay in the same area for too long. One could enter a church for a short "prayer", but could not stay for too long a rest. Before the Nazi take-over young priests would walk around quietly, closing an eye on an occasional worshipper slumping back in his pew in deep sleep. They would even offer me some bread and a piece of ersatz sausage. These good willing fathers no longer dared to make their rounds anymore. Now the Nazi gangs regularly surveyed the churches for Jews and frowned upon anyone to be found there, other than old women. A young fascist was supposed to be free of the superstition of religion. Nevertheless, if I was not wearing my Nazi paraphernalia, a priest would still come out once in a while, beckon me to follow him behind the altar and give me some food - a hot drink, a piece of bread. This was one source of breakfast, although very unreliable.

During or shortly after a bombing raid one could always climb through the blown out windows into an abandoned apartment and scavenge around for whatever scraps of food were left behind. This had to be done fast, before the owners returned from the shelter - if they were still alive, that is. Sometimes I managed to put a small package together, which lasted a day or even for a few days.

The safest way to spend a few hours, strangely enough, was in the company of a group of young Nazis. Whenever we met on the street, the others always wanted to know where I was from and where was I heading. The usual sob story always had it's effect. They often invited me to spend the day in their party house, offered me food and often shelter for the night. These encounters created some humorous but often quite dangerous situations. The party houses were set up all over the city, in abandoned homes, shelters or basements. They served multiple purposes: housing for these, mostly young, Nazi groups, a cache for food, weapons, ammunition and the loot, robbed mostly from Jewish homes. Some of the larger party houses also had cells in their cellar, to hold Jews and other suspicious characters, picked up the day before.

But mostly these were places to hang out, to rest between raids and to tell tall stories about the escapades and adventures of what were mostly young boys. Their stories were always dirty and, without fail, about the atrocities they have committed against Jews. This was a game of competition to see who could use the foulest language to describe their Jewish victims and who had the most vicious stories to tell about the treatment of Jews they had captured. Beatings, rapes, executions, every possible method of degradation were employed by these children and recounted in great detail. Yes, it was true, these 12-15 year old boys raped and then killed young Jewish girls and women - and they bragged about their exploits in great detail.

I could not compete with their dirty mouths, but I had one over them. I was a heroic refugee from the East and "recounted" in great detail the horrible way the dreaded Red soldiers behaved towards us, good Christian Hungarians. My delivery improved with each telling, the horror stories became more detailed, the atrocities worse. It was fun watching the little heroes cursing the bloody Ruskies, but at the same time showing clear signs of fear in their eyes. They knew that the Red Army was heading their way and it was only a matter of time before they would be on the receiving end of my stories. They declared, in loud childish voices, that they would defend Budapest to the last man and that the Russians would never be allowed to capture the city. But I was an eye witness and my stories had a ring of reality to them. I was popular.

Of course this game was playing with fire. Often they asked me to join them for the day, as a member of their raiding party. These roving bands were scouring the streets for anyone in the least suspicious: Jews, soldiers, spies. There were persistent rumours that the Allies parachuted a number of spies into the city to report on the mood in the city, to direct the bombing raids and the artillery fire. The Nazi gangs were out to capture these imaginary spies and anyone else suspicious. In that final phase of the war, any male older than ten and younger than seventy was suspicious - all the males, healthy or crippled, were supposed to be in the army, on the Eastern front (which was now just a village away), defending us from the approaching Bolsheviks.

And anyone suspicious found on the street was a free target for these marauding bands. Documents, valid or false, were ignored, ripped up and thrown to the side. The captured suspects were treated in one of several ways, depending on the mood the leader of the gang was in. Capture could result in execution on the spot: the victim was stood against the nearest wall and shot by one or several of the gang. His body was left where it fell crumpled up. Or the victim's hands were tied and he was led, in a victory parade, to one of the nearby large party houses, where he would be interrogated and then disposed of. During the arrest and the parade, these men were severely beaten by the whole gang, with fists and gun butts. Jewish captives , if they were lucky, were marched into the ghetto and left there to fend for themselves.

Everyone was a suspect on the street. The real police almost completely disappeared from the city, or kept far away from these gangs. There was no authority over the gangs. They acted more or less independently of each other. Once in a while there was a gathering of the Fascist party, where the leaders exhorted the faithful to defend their city and punish the traitors. There were only a few such meetings held - it was too dangerous to gather, either in the open or in a large hall.

The gangs' marching orders were clear. They were exhorted daily via wild radio announcements and leaflets, handed out or plastered on the walls still standing. They were masters of the city, free to enter any building, to take what they wanted, to take away people for interrogation and execution. Whenever I was forced to join a raiding party for the day, I did so with great trepidation. For the first few times I felt terrible, being among the criminals. Being one of the youngest and smallest of the gang, I did not have to actively participate in these terror actions, but just to be present and witness the victims' sufferings was enough. Also, all the time the fear of being discovered by someone who knew me from earlier times, lurked constantly in the back of my mind. Fortunately, previously living in the suburbs eliminated this danger. Still, the threat was always present. My "brothers" would not have hesitated to rip me to pieces, if my true identity was discovered.

Another problem was staying overnight in one of these party houses. It offered me the luxury of a safe corner on the floor, warmth and a hot meal before going to sleep. Being discovered in the washroom, or saying something that will give me away in my dream, were constantly worrying me, to the point, that I usually left the group before dark. Better to sleep in a doorway or under the rubble, cold and uncomfortable, but alone and safe.

For these reasons my short stays with the Nazis were rare, as I tried to avoid the encounters as much as possible. There were also food kitchens for the homeless, though by late November most had all but disappeared, closed down due to the food shortage. School gyms and auditoriums continued to open up for a while as night shelters, but these were overrun by the growing number of homeless refugees and finally abandoned by the authorities. It was also quite dangerous to stay in these places: at the entrance someone always demanded identification papers and scrutinized them very closely. Also, the Nazi raiders came by during the night and kicked everyone awake to check their documents once again. One had to be very careful, not to raise the ire of these gangs, as they were completely unpredictable and could lash out against anyone, without fear of retribution.

So if I ask myself where did I eat, sleep and hide during this period of two-three months, my answer is rather vague: here and there, wherever I found an opportunity. Every day was difficult to survive and it became harder and harder with the passage of time. I was constantly hungry and cold. The winter of 1944 was a hard one, the temperature dropped below zero quite early in the winter. Sleeping under some rubble, I would try to cover myself with an old overcoat or a scrap of blanket. It was never enough. Nor was the little food I could find. Sometimes I went for a day or two without anything to eat. After a while the hunger became less painful, the gut-wrenching stomach cramps eased. I could gnaw on something - a dry piece of bread or a piece of leather - just to satisfy my craving to have something in my mouth.

By this time, the food situation had become absolutely horrendous in the entire city. There were no food supplies coming in from anywhere. The farmers were unable to bring in their potatoes, as they usually did in winter and bakeries operated sporadically, using worm-infested sacks of flour, chewed over by rats. To make up for the shortage of flour, sawdust was added. It made the bread hard and chewy, yet it was a treasure more precious than gold. Meat was also unavailable and the only source, short of using the many dead dogs and cats (which even hungry Hungarians refused to eat), was the occasional dead horse on the streets. Horse drawn carts were the only means of transportation in the city. From time to time, one of the horses fell victim to a stray shell or bomb fragment and it lay wounded on the street, pitifully kicking with its hind legs, as it desperately tried to get up once more on its feet. As soon as the shelling eased a bit, women would descend on the (sometimes) still kicking animal with sharp butcher knives and carve out large chunks of steaming hot meat from the carcass. This was a delicacy, a rarity in the hungry city, worth risking one's life for. I also ate horse meat, when it was available. It had a sweetish taste, no smell and quite tender. It resembled veal and we all ate it with great relish, even if it was only quickly grilled over the fire.

It is difficult now to explain how a human being can get used to every sort of depravations and still keep on going. I wanted to survive the war and I wanted to see the day of liberation. Every night I dreamed awake about the day of my liberation. Giving up and just lying down to die was not an alternative I considered, not even for one moment. In any case there was no time for philosophizing over life's purpose or meaning. I did not make an intellectual choice of life over death - every day made this choice for me over and over again.

 

Some of the more horrific experiences.

Life in the city in those days was cheap and death lurked just around any corner all the time. The Nazi killing squads were swarming around the city, unchecked. At one time, while forced to join one of these squads in one of their daily forays, I witnessed what I had only heard about before.

We were marching around the city, keeping close to the walls because of the danger of flying shrapnel and shells exploding without warning. Ahead of us we saw two figures disappearing hurriedly in a doorway. Suspicious, our leader rushed after the two figures and pushed violently through the door. There, huddled in one corner, were two old people, covered with what I can only call rags. It was immediately evident that we had discovered two Jews in hiding, an old man and probably his wife. They could not present any papers and after receiving a few hard slaps, the old man confessed that they were escapees from the ghetto.

This time there was no on the spot execution. The leader told us, grinning, that these old victims would be "sent to have a swim.".We surrounded the two miserable figures and in a victorious march took them to a nearby party house, which served as collection centre for captured Jews and other "criminals." With great laughter, the two were literally kicked down the stairs, into the cellar. Our gang leader received the praises of the local head man for his alertness. Then we were told, that they will need people for next morning's "swim" and that we should stay around for the night. We were given a corner to sleep in and some food. Luckily I was not carrying a firearm at that time and therefore found an easy excuse for not participating in the "action."

During the night the young thugs hardly slept. They were going to participate in a mass execution and this excited them. Fortunately the local resident Nazis, being older and in authority, ordered our group to shut up and go to sleep.

We were awakened early in the morning and handed a cup of ersatz coffee, or rather some hot black water passing as such. Then the pitiful group of prisoners was ordered to climb outside from the cellars. Out came an assortment of people, mostly old, some bleeding, limping and supporting each other. Presumably they were all Jews, although none wore the Yellow Star. I stood well back and kept away from the victims as much as I could. They were tied together with crude ropes in groups of three and started out on their march toward the Danube river. I learned later from the foul mouth of the returning heroes the rest of this story. As for myself, I had volunteered to sacrifice my enjoyment and stay back in the party house.

This is the story my "kameraden" told upon their return. On the way everyone was silent, perhaps because of the sharp cold or the excitement. The semi-dark city streets were all empty, their group was the only one around. It took a long time in the cold winter morning to reach the river. They all knew what was going to happen, but all of them, victims and murderers, just walked calmly on, without a word. Near the river someone joined them, a dark shadowy figure, also carrying a rifle. As they arrived to the quay of the Danube they realised that the man who just joined them was a priest, dressed in a black cassock. He stood aside from the group, his rifle slung over his shoulder. The youngest members of the group, my kameraden, were told to stand back and wait.

The action took place very quickly. There were no more jokes, no one mocked the ragged group of victims. No one was hit or abused any more. These people were condemned to die at the hands of their captors and that fact seemed to dampen the usually crude behaviour of the gang. The victims were quickly lined up along the edge of the river. The ropes were checked and tightened. From this part of the story I realised what they were for. In case one of the victims was not killed by the bullets, he or she would be pulled into the river with the others and drown anyway. The older Nazis walked away from the group huddling together on the cold quay. They casually walked a bit back from the river, lifted their guns and began to shoot. No order was given, just a slow, almost lazy process of execution. The bodies jerked as they were hit, crumpled and fell backward under the impact of the bullets. The row of people started to fall into the river, the executioners could hear the heavy thump of the bodies as they hit the thick layer of ice.

It lasted perhaps one minute. The last body disappeared over the edge of the quay, the last rifle was lowered, the shooting stopped abruptly and a deadly silence descended over the river's edge. At that moment the man in the black cassock, the infamous Father Kun, stepped forward. Raising the large wooden cross hanging around his neck, he began to pray. Some of the Nazis in the group knelt down to receive from this representative of the Catholic Church the absolution. The crime just committed was instantly erased in front of their God.

Here ended the story, as recounted by my "kolleges". I never found out who the victims were, although I could have guessed, by their age or appearance. I had not scrutinized their faces too closely. Finding myself on the other side of the barrier caused me grief and a deep sense of shame. I was afraid to look at them, or to look at my Nazi "brothers", lest my burning cheeks will give me away. I felt deep remorse for witnessing their humiliation and for being so powerless to do anything at all, to stop the murders or to at least alleviate their suffering.

At the same time, I had become immunised by the omnipresence of death and of dead bodies. There was a burning shame, but not much sense of the horror of what just took place. I had lived for too long in a vacuum, hovering day and night in the twilight region of insecurity, of imminent death. Hearing about a few people being shot into the frozen river hardly touched a new cord in my sensibility. There was a certain feeling of inevitability in the proceedings of this early morning. Like a Greek tragedy, moving unstoppably towards it's culmination, the final scene of death. The people climbing out from the cellars this morning were doomed to die and the final act of shooting them into the river was just one of the steps towards the denouement - their death. Was this going to be my own final destiny too?

The recounting of the big event continued. After the shooting, the killers walked up to the edge of the Danube and looked down. Deep below them the heavy ice cover was littered with the dead bodies, still bound together. None of them moved. The ice was slowly floating down stream and, after a minute or two, the bodies started to sink into the water that opened up between the big blocks of ice floes. Another minute or two and the victims had completely disappeared from sight. One of the ice blocks, still stained with the blood of some of the murdered, got caught in an ice jam and the red blotches of blood remained visible from the distance. The rising sun was already washing over the hills across the river. The air was clean and strangely still - strangely after the sharp burst of the gunfire, which still rang in the ears.

Some of the murderers went up to father Kun and kissed the cross hanging on his neck. The Church gave them instant absolution from the crimes just committed. When one of them recounted this episode, deep inside I hoped, that our society will not absolve them and that they would meet ultimate justice one day. In the meantime they were my "brothers" and I had to join in the merriment, which now broke out unfettered. It was time to celebrate a good job well done, with some crude jokes and slaps on the back. The youngest ones who had not actually participate in the killings, were the loudest and crudest. These murderers were used to all this, this was an almost daily routine visit to the Danube. As one of them casually remarked, they just wiped out a few more vermin off the surface of the earth. That's all - just a few vermin!

I had very little time to brood over these events. They were flushed out of my memory almost immediately. It is only when I remember that dark, cold winter morning, that I recall some of the details, the view, the smells and the strange feeling of standing on the wrong side and of the fear of being found out any minute. I was a fatalist then, the risks I took never bothered me. Now the memory takes my breath away.

A footnote to this episode: shortly after the war Father Kun was captured in Austria and in early 1946 was brought back to Hungary, to stand in trial. He was tried by one of the Peoples' Courts, found guilty and hanged in a public square of the city, along with a number of other murderers. I stood among the small crowd which gathered for the occasion. The sight of his kicking feet, as his body swung on the rope gave me very little satisfaction. He died too fast, without suffering enough.


BRUSH WITH DEATH.

I myself almost ended up as one of the victims.

The days and weeks passed, followed each other in endless grey sequence; yet each day I lived was like another small victory. I've lost all count of time, no longer thought in terms of weeks or months. Each morning, when I woke up, I surveyed the area, listened to the intensity of the gunfire from the distance and took a deep breath. I was ready for the new day, with it's unpredictable events. Perhaps there would be food today, or at least a small warm corner will be found somewhere, to thaw out my frozen face, fingers and limbs. Daily danger was just a game to be played. In my child's head everything was a game: dodging the bombs and shells, which rained down almost constantly on the buildings and streets; fooling the Nazi thugs with my tearjerker stories and getting away with it, or just finding a safe shelter for the day or the night.

That is how I was caught. I became too cocky, too sure of myself, too careless. It was already December, probably the middle of the month. The streets had become increasingly unsafe, very few people risked their lives to even try crossing the street. The bombing attacks continued unabated, pieces of shrapnel and flying bricks made any movement on the streets extremely dangerous. The dead bodies lay, frozen to the pavement, untouched, unmolested. The piles of rubble became mountains, lying at the foot of the walls which were still standing, but teetering dangerously, ready to collapse with the next explosion to shake up the nearby earth. It was a bad day for me: I found neither food nor warm shelter for the night. Snow nearly covered the ground, darkness fall early on the city, which lay dead under the double cover of snow and darkening skies. I decided to go to sleep early, not bothering to look too carefully for a good shelter. I was cold and bone tired, only wanted to lie down, cover up with something warm and sleep through the night.

I climbed in under a pile of safe looking rubble. There was a small space inside, somewhat protected by pieces of lumber. I dragged with me inside my little cave some pieces of old rags that I had removed from one of the dead bodies. My boots were quite good but wet, so I wrapped my feet with other bits of rag and stretched out. Sleeping through the night had become for a long time now an impossibility. The bombs and shells kept falling, the ground shook and rumbled all around and the occasional nearby hit woke me up rudely. The thought that I myself might be hit, or that the building above me could collapse and suffocate me under the falling rubble, had stopped bothering me already for a long time. One took these dangers as part of one's daily existence, not worth spending a moment's thought over. Death loomed over me every minute of the day and night and became part of daily existence. This was not some fatalistic attitude, or a devil-may-care bravado. It was a very matter of fact feeling: I could do nothing to reduce the danger or the risk - so why even think about them? I needed all my energy and faculties to handle issues of survival: food, warmth, shelter, refuge, warm clothing, documents. These needs were real and the fear only a feeling for which I had no time. And that was that.

But this night I was too cocky and careless. My stretched out legs stuck outside of my little shelter and were visible from the street. The night must have been noisier than usual and so I had slept only fitfully. I had trained myself to wake up early, in the safety of the semi-darkness of early morning. There was much to do by dawn: clear out of my hiding place, wash up with the fresh snow, put my clothing in acceptable order. Then look for new corpses, which might offer some new treasures. This morning I slept in. This was my near fatal mistake.

Restlessly turning around, my feet also must have been kicking around. I felt a tug on my legs and a sharp kick on my shin. An angry voice shouted: "Get out of there immediately!" It took a few kicks and yells, before I was awake enough to understand, what was happening. Feeling secure in my Nazi identity, I crawled outside and tried to stand up. I was immediately knocked to the ground by a powerful slap on the face. There I was, crawling at the feet of a group of young thugs, brandishing rifles and looking at me with contempt. I instantly understood my predicament. Here I was, dressed up like one of them, yet sleeping under a rubble, as if in a hiding place. I had some explaining to do.

Trying to stand up once again, I immediately started to mumble my explanations to the Nazi "brothers." They were ready to hit me again, but refrained for the moment. The apparent leader demanded my documents. I pulled out the bundle from my jacket's pocket and handed them over. He reached in and pulled out all the rest of my papers, the whole collection. They were genuine, but quite an assortment of stolen papers from different sources. After scanning them briefly, he demanded angrily: "If these documents are real, why are you sleeping on the street, like one of the Jewish dogs or escaping soldiers?" I started with my refugee routine, but this time it did not work. Suddenly I lost my sense of security. I was caught off guard and ended up stammering something incomprehensible. The truth was, that I had no good way explaining why a uniformed Nazi would sleep amongst the ruins, in the open cold air, rather than entering his party house for the night.

"Pull down your pants" - demanded one of them. I began to shiver, feeling, that this is the end of the game. Claiming, that it is too cold, I refused. They grabbed my arms and one of them stripped off my pants and shorts. They looked at my circumcised penis with triumph and derision. Semi-naked as I was I was immediately knocked to the ground once again. I received a few kicks, before they ordered me to stand up and pull up my pants. With shaking hands I obeyed. The game was clearly up. In the terminology of the times, I had "fallen down," into enemy hands.

It was not over yet. They demanded an explanation for how I obtained the uniforms and the documents. "They are false," - said the leader - "and we will beat out of you the names of the people who supplied them." With this threat they ripped off my arm band, knocked the Nazi cap off my head, took off my belt and used it to tie my hands behind my back. They ordered me to remove my boots, which were instantly scooped up by one of them. Then, with a few kicks and blows from their rifle butts, they marched me away, barefoot and shivering. I remembered my rifle, lying back inside the rubble. Fortunately they did not find it, or else I could have been in an even worse situation.

It was bad enough. We did not have to march too far, the party house was located inside one of the more or less intact buildings. It was one of the larger centers, home to a large contingent of Nazis. The leader of the little group that had captured me reported about me to his leader and I was shoved inside a room. They sat me on a chair and tied me to it with a rope, with my hands behind the back of the chair. Then a few older men entered and started to ask questions about the origin of the documents, which they waved in my face. One of them pushed his face against mine, until his spittle showered my face.

"Dirty Jewish swine, your pocket is full of false documents. From whom did you receive them?"

"No, Sir, they are not false" - I answered with exaggerated politeness that was totally wasted on the brute - "I took them from dead peoples' pockets."

That response triggered a violent series of slaps by a second man, while the first one continued to scream:

"We know you got them from the Zionists. These are fake and you will tell us who gave them to you. Names! Give me the names of the document falsifiers! Where are they hiding out?"

I was slapped and interrogated for quite a while. Each blow on my face felt as if an electric shock was applied to my head. My head twisted to one side and to the other, the shocks shook my brain inside my skull and made my ears ring. The chair was knocked over and I fell down, rolled on the floor with my battered body tied to it. They set the chair straight up once again. The interrogation continued. At some point I lost consciousness and came to as ice cold water was being poured over my head and drenched my shoulders. More slaps. I kept mumbling my innocence, but no one listened any more.

It is impossible to guess for how long the beating lasted. Perhaps only minutes, perhaps half an hour, but it seemed like forever, as if the blows would never stop. At some point during the beating I stopped mumbling my explanations and began a monologue inside my head.

"If I survive this" - I told myself - "nobody will ever again be allowed to touch me or to hit me. If I live, no one will ever slap my face again. If I live..." Somehow this inner conversation helped me to survive the beating and not to faint again.

After a while they stopped slapping me and left me alone in the room, still tied to the chair. My head cleared up gradually, the urge to vomit went away and my hearing slowly returned. I realised that I had suffered no serious injury. Somehow this knowledge gave me back my will of survival. I heard voices through the door. The rope was tight, my arms and legs went numb. I started to feel extreme discomfort and began to pray that somebody would remembers me and remove the ropes from my wrists.

One of the thugs entered, untied me without a word and pulled me up by my hair. I was pushed toward the door. We went outside and he opened another door. It lead to the cellar below. With a shove and a kick I was sent rolling down the stairs, into the cellar. With my numb arms I tried to protect my head from further damage. Finally my body reached the damp and smelly floor of the cellar. I lay on the ground for a while, then slowly stood up, leaning against the dirty wall.

I was not alone in the cellar. A group of shadowy figures huddled around the walls, almost trying to melt into them, to become one with them, to disappear from the cellar. They did not react to my unceremonious arrival, nobody stood up to lend me a helping hand, no one greeted me. They just stared in front of them, a group of people blind and deaf to their surroundings. I advanced toward the group and leaned against the wall near one of them. He did not budge, did not even look at me. For a long time the silence continued. My senses slowly recovered, my hands touched my swollen face and felt the pain beginning to burn, with the return of the blood flow to my head. "If I live, no one will slap me again," - I mumbled into the silence. I felt feverish and weak, almost fainting.

Later I looked around, in the dark cellar, to see, who my fellow captives were. There were a few old, bearded Jews, one of them constantly mumbling prayers into his beard. There were a few younger men, possibly soldiers on AWOL. One of them had blood all over his face, still seeping slowly from his nose, his eyes swollen from the beating he had received. Two old women were weeping silently. All together we were about a dozen people, standing around listlessly, almost lifelessly. Instantly I realised the situation I was in: I had become one of the victims of the next death squad. My hours were numbered, my destiny sealed.

Some of the people started, or restarted, a whispering conversation. They discussed what will happen next. Some of them, it appeared, were captured a day or two earlier and had been kept in the damp and cold cellar, without any food or water. Weak from thirst, hunger and cold, they were already like living dead. Those who spoke guessed that we would all be deported, marched on foot towards the west. Perhaps forced to enter the ghetto - suggested another. I immediately understood the fate awaiting us. Jews collected from the isolated Jewish Yellow Star or protected buildings were taken to the ghetto. But there was another fate waiting those picked up while hiding out as non-Jews. The same held true for the escaping soldiers on whose heads an official death sentence was declared. I was also sadly familiar with the routine that would be followed. Next morning at dawn we will be ordered outside, marched to the river and shot into the icy waters. I knew it - but should I tell these people how hopeless our situation was? Finally I decided to tell the truth. Most of them did not even listen, just continued to pray or to stare into the dark space. Some of the younger ones said that I was crazy, that those killings are only rumours, that they do not really happen. I fell silent and retreated into myself. So did the others. Silently we lay down on the dirty, cold floor. I knew that no one had slept. We had one last night to make peace with ourselves and with our conscience.

Strangely, I felt almost a kind of relief. So this was all over now. No more hiding, no more hunger and cold, no more role playing. I was weary of going through the daily struggle, weary to the bone. Now there was nothing more to fear from, I was captured and that was that. This was the end. The struggle had lasted far too long and became too hopeless as our liberation had moved further and further away. We were surrounded by the Nazi hordes, they ran the city and everyone inside it. It was hopeless to believe, that any of us stood a chance to survive. So I lay on the cold ground and relived some of the events of the past weeks. I could not pray - what kind of God could I turn to from inside this dark cellar, among a handful of people condemned to die? To the God of my father, so long ago my God too, who has abandoned us all? There was no use in praying - knowing about that other execution routine earlier gave me a feeling of finality. I could not cry and I did not feel sorry for myself. We played a game and I was winning for a while, but lost on the final move. There were no tears to shed, no one to say final good byes to. I thought of my family and hoped that the others would all survive. They would cry over me when they realised that I would not be coming back. My body will disappear under the floating ice as if it never lived, never existed. That was that.

Sometime late that night I fall asleep, still on my feet, leaning against the wet wall. Then I heard the door bursting open and heavy boots descending the stairs. It was still dark, as I had expected, when we were marched outside the cellar to the street. The group of Nazis was already dressed, shouldering their rifles. It all happened exactly as I had seen it before. I had a feeling that this was not happening to me, that I was only watching the replay of a film I had seen a long time ago. As if I was outside of my body, a silent observer of a strange ritual that would take place very soon. We were lined up in rows of twos, our hands were tied to the person standing beside us. Then the other Nazis came outside and ordered us to start marching. "We are going toward the ghetto" - whispered someone behind me. I felt pity for the man: to be so close to one's death, without realising it!

It was a repeat performance of the execution scene described to me earlier. The streets were empty, shrouded in the darkness of early winter morning. No light escaped the shuttered windows, as we groped our way silently in the almost total darkness. There was a lull in the bombing and shelling and the only sound heard was the echo of the marching Nazi boots. My good boots were gone and now I was limping with my wet and frozen feet, wrapped only in the rags I had worn inside my boots. But the cold did not bother me, I felt nothing. We were marching toward our death and I wanted to live my last minutes on this earth at peace with myself, without being bothered by small inconveniences. I felt something deeply spiritual, a warm closeness to the man to whose hands I was tied and to the other marchers. We were fellows in suffering and in death. If the others had hopes until that moment, they certainly should have realised by now where were we heading.

Then the impossible happened. The reason I am here today, being able to recount my story for my grandchildren is that the impossible did happen. Suddenly another group appeared from a dark alley. Led by an elegantly uniformed SS man, the group was a mixed lot of Nazis and soldiers, tall and well fed, heavily armed and looking imposing in their clean uniforms. We were slightly ahead of them, but at the SS man's command: "Halt!"- the leader of our group stopped and looked back in surprise. We, the captives, did not dare to move. The other group caught up with us and the SS man, in a sharp and aggressive tone only an SS officer possesses, began to question our group about our destination. The Hungarian Nazis did not understand German, of course, so one of the soldiers from the other group translated. The leader explained that they were taking a bunch of Jews and other scum to the Danube to be shot. Hearing that, the man behind me let out a muffled cry. He finally realised how things stood.

There ensued a sharp exchange of words. The SS man called the Hungarians a bunch of idiots, wasting bullets, instead of preparing themselves for the final defence of their city against the Russian onslaught. Our Nazi responded, that they were doing what they did almost every day, eliminating the traitors before the final battle begins. But the SS man and his comrades slowly gained the upper hand. One of them grabbed the beard of one of the old Jews and began pulling him away. Another delivered a few hard blows to two of the captives and ordered them to move over to where they stood. The SS man said with a grin:

"We know how to handle this scum without wasting a single bullet. Leave them to us and return to your place." With that, they began to steer us away and march us with them, in the direction from where they had come.

The Hungarian Nazis grumblingly yielded and slowly marched away. They were unhappy to have their morning fun spoiled. We did not utter a word; the SS man and his cohorts looked even more frightening than the other Nazis. Now I could not even guess what fate was waiting for us. Would we be beaten to death with bricks or shovels, as someone once told us the SS dealt with Jews? We stumbled along, receiving an occasional blow on the back to speed up our march. The group turned into another street and another. We found ourselves on an empty ground, the houses which stood there before all collapsed.

Suddenly the SS man stopped, turned towards us and said in good and fluent Hungarian: "You are saved. We are not fascists, we are rescuers. At the end of this ground there is a passage way to another street. Move fast and disappear, before the Nazis return or the shelling begins." With that they quickly pulled out a few knives, cut our ropes with a few swift moves and began to move away.

Our group reacted to this amazing announcement like robots in a daze. There was no time to celebrate, to express our thanks or to feel a sense of relief. Most of the captives immediately, unquestioningly, began to walk away, as fast as they could, in the direction indicated. The old people were almost pushed along towards the pathway, forced to disappear from sight. There was no time to shake hands or exchange words of encouragement with the others. We had to keep moving, to clear out of the area fast and to find new hiding places.

I was stunned but realised instantly that we had been saved by one of those legendary Zionist Hechalutz rescue groups I had heard so much about. But there was no time to contemplate the fantastic turn of events. Saved or not, I was now in a desperate situation. My cover was blown and my documents were all gone, I had nowhere to go, nowhere to hide. I ran after the "SS man" and told him my predicament in a few words. I wanted to join his small group, I told him. This was a laughable proposition from a small twelve year old child in the company of these big bullies. He looked at me for a moment and said: "You can come with us now. We can give you some help, but we cannot offer you a permanent shelter." With that, they tied me up again and marched on, with me, a captured Jew, in the middle.

It was as if it happened in a dream. I was rescued, alive again, filled with new hope. As it was confirmed later, the rescuers were one of the famed Zionist groups, masquerading in uniforms and intimidating the real Nazis. We were going to a safe house, the famous Glass House on Vadasz Utca, a Jewish home under the protection of the Swiss consulate. It was filled to the rafters and could not shelter even one more person, without endangering the safety of all those hiding out there. The group of Zionists paraded in full uniforms and carried home-made false documents, they pretended to guard the house and made occasional forays into the city. They could give me some documents, clothing, food and shelter for the day. At nightfall, I would have to move on.

We entered the building without incident. It was truly cramped, even at this early morning hour the corridors were teaming with people. I found out later, that the group, which saved my life was the Hanoar Hatzioni, a liberal Zionist group, whose members I encountered after the war when I myself became a member of the Zionist organization. But that came later. They were very well organised, equipped with uniforms, weapons and false identification papers. They were also connected to other similar groups through a messenger service, young men who constantly risked their lives, commuting between the isolated buildings and carrying documents and news from one group to another.

Inside the building confusion reigned. People of all ages filled every available space, waiting for washrooms or for food. The "SS man" and his cohorts disappeared, I was sent to have something to eat and to lay down to rest. I silently obeyed, too tired and intimidated to disobey their orders. I was afraid to talk to anyone. They reappeared later, wearing normal clothes, asking for my cover name and other information. The group had a small false document production set-up in the building and I was given some new documents in the afternoon. Somehow, a pair of well worn shoes also appeared to protect my bare frozen feet. Later that evening I was invited to join one of the groups, which left the building to scout the city for news. When we reached a quiet, safe corner, I was told to beat it. I was once again on my own.

That is the whole story of my miraculous rescue. No, this was not a miracle; these were not angels, messengers from an ignorant God, who intervened on my behalf. I was rescued from death by ordinary brave human beings who had risked their own lives for me and the others.

That night I resumed my life of wandering and hiding but I did not feel lonely anymore. Now I knew that there was still Jewish life in the city, that there were resistance fighters and survivors. Even if I had to scrounge for my own existence on my own, at least I knew now that I was not alone. I was determined to never again repeat the stupid mistake I had made and never to be caught again. And yes, I will survive and live to see the arrival of our liberators. Now I had no doubt about this.

 

Budapest in the late winter of 1944.

By the time the Nazis seized power in October 1944, the Red Army was already rolling through the Great Plains of Hungary, occupying city after city and coming within a few hundred kilometers of Budapest. By early November, we could hear the big field guns pounding the Hungarian front lines. It was a distant rumbling, akin to the sound of a distant summer storm. But as the weak sound of the field guns gradually, ever so slowly grew in volume, it gave us the faith and courage to continue hiding out and to carry on living. Our liberators were closing in on us, but unfortunately the Germans decided to defend Budapest "to the last building and the last defender," according to their public declarations. Naturally that also meant the last inhabitants living in the city. Budapest was a major intersection on the road to the West. Even in times of the Turkish invasion of Europe, Budapest and Western Hungary protected Western Europe from falling into the hands of the Turks. That geographical significance has not diminished with the mechanization of warfare, it had only intensified. The army which controlled Budapest also controlled the vital railway lines and roads leading toward Austria and Germany. So for the Germans, Budapest had to be defended at all costs.

The Red Army generals also recognized this and decided to make a pincer move around the city to the north and the south. Rather than risking massive casualties to their fighting units, they were going to starve the defenders into surrender by isolating the city from the outside world. While heavy bombing and shelling of the city continued, the Russians moved towards the west and threatened to completely encircle the city. This had taken place during the early weeks of December. The radio and newspapers (by then mostly single page affairs) daily broadcast the mad declarations by Hitler and Szalasi, regarding the defence of Budapest to the last man. And they meant it! Orders were issued to enlist every male over twelve years of age to report for defence duties. Their duties ranged from digging ditches and tank traps to active military duty. The announcements also warned everyone that those trying to escape this service, if caught, would be "dismembered." And they were: anyone caught away from his military unit was shot on the spot.

By mid-December, the city itself was under siege. The front was only a few kilometers from the eastern suburbs. It did not move any further. The encirclement also meant the starvation of a million civilian residents of the city, including over one hundred thousand Jews, trapped inside the ghetto. The regular commercial life in the city stopped completely, no store dared to open for fear of the bombings and also of attacks by the marauding Nazis. Food supplies were available largely on a robbery basis. Whenever a warehouse or a railway car containing food was damaged by shells or bombs, word went around immediately. Hundreds of people descended on the place, risking their lives to carry away whatever they could gather from the ruins. The valuable finds could have been dried peas or beans, powdered egg, corn or potatoes, anything edible. The war turned everyone into thieves and robbers. One could see elder gentlemen, dressed in three piece suites, carrying paper bags filled with the loot. There was no room for refined living, the law of elementary survival ruled.

Nowhere was this more true than in the ghetto. Conditions there had became completely inhuman. The residents had been confined inside since mid-October, totally isolated from the outside world and left to their own resources. The gates were locked, no one beside the Nazi troops was allowed to leave or enter. Anyone caught entering illegally or trying to climb the high fence surrounding it, was shot on the spot. Many small children, the only ones with enough dexterity to climb the fence, risked their lives to sneak out in search of some food. Many of them lost their lives on these hopeless missions. I knew that some of our family members and friends were locked inside and wanted to help somehow. I also knew that I could enter but I could not risk smuggling in a food package. I saw that even those wearing uniforms were searched by the guards before entering or leaving. If they were found with hidden parcels they were beaten mercilessly. Still, I had to enter, if only once.

Decked out in my Nazi best, I marched up to the gate one day, ready with a prepared story. A Jew owed us some money (the story went) and I was going to collect the debt before the Jew scum died inside. Told with the appropriated curses, the story was credible enough and I was allowed to enter for one hour. I did not last even that long. The inside resembled more a living morgue than normal city streets. Dead bodies now were piled high in the corners, mostly stripped of their clothing down to their underwear, with thin bones sticking out from the piles. Burial was unthinkable due to the cold and nobody had the strength to pull the carts any more, that had been used earlier to collect the dead bodies each day. The piles of frozen skeleton-like bodies would remain on the streets until after liberation.

People died of hunger and of typhoid. The diseases spread fast under the unsanitary conditions. Garbage and sewage covered the sidewalks and huge rats scurried among the rich offerings. In the middle of all this dirt, children and old people sat leaning against the walls, too hungry and tired to move. They were living skeletons, with small heads sitting on bones, sticks for arms and legs, huge ears and eyes bulging out of their skeletal faces. Besides the dead and the dying there was very little movement on the streets. A few groups of the Jewish police (yes, the Jews policed themselves, thanks to the sell-out Jewish Council) were seen walking around. When I, wearing my Nazi uniform, went by, they moved from the sidewalk to the road, doffing their caps in a sign of submission.

I was too ashamed to continue for long. Reaching the Great Synagogue I saw that the wrought iron fence around the once beautiful gardens was removed and the grounds were covered with high piles of dead bodies. I did not dare to visit anyone I knew. Barely managing to hold back my tears I turned back toward the nearest gate and walked out. The Nazi guard searched me and, with an ironic smile, asked if I enjoyed what I saw inside. I had to force myself to make an inane anti-Semitic remark and fled the area. I was convinced that nobody inside could survive the horrors of these last months. Eichmann was ultimately victorious. There was no need to deport the Jews of Budapest to the death camps: they were left to die slowly, but die they would, every last one of them.

A frightening rumour going around at that time was that, failing to transport the Jews of Budapest to the extermination camps, the Nazis mined the whole area with explosive charges and were planning to blow the whole ghetto up. This sounded completely crazy but unfortunately not unbelievable. After the trap around the city closed completely by the Red Army and the rats remained, captured together with their victims, it was fully expected that the Nazis would attempt one last mad act to wipe out the remaining Hungarian Jewry. If there was one greater obsession for these people than winning the war against the Bolsheviks, it was the total annihilation of the Jews. As it turned out, after the war we found out that the plan to blow up the ghetto was very real. Eichmann planned it and issued the order, before escaping to the West. It was only the haste with which the German army retreated from the Pest side of the Danube that prevented them from carrying out his mad order. We held our breath every day; even after we were liberated we waited for the fatal explosion, which fortunately never came.

For information we had to rely on rumours alone. The newspapers stopped publishing by that time. Some, like the Social Democrats paper had been closed down by the Nazis. By early December the other papers had disappeared too. The Government communicated with its citizens through posters, pasted on every available still standing wall. Only a handful of the Nazi trash sheets continued to print, in reduced tabloid format, four pages a day. These rags printed only Nazi drivel: reprints of speeches made by various Nazi leaders, anti-Semitic diatribes and a continuous stream of orders issued by the new Government. Statements about the final and ultimate victory, brought on by the use of the V2 secret weapon just ready to be launched, were printed and re-printed. There was no news printed about the war, not about the Eastern front nor about the Western. The radio also limited it's broadcasts to martial music and periodic announcements. It still faithfully delivered each one of Hitler's increasingly mad speeches from Berlin in which he ranted about the latest secret weapon which would change the face of the war and bring the Germans and their allies the ultimate victory. The mad screams of Hitler and the hysterical shouts of the Nazi crowds frequently filled the airwaves. The Hungarian Nazis tried, but failed miserably, to organise such victory rallies in Budapest. At one of their few attempts, in the City Theatre, a bomb exploded during the rally. This cooled them off even more...

We could only guess about the movement of the front by listening to the most recently arrived refugees from the Eastern towns. The names of the places they came from gave us an indication as to the progress of the Red Army. They were close - twenty, thirty kilometers from us, less than a day's walk. But they showed no inclination of risking a direct assault on the city. So the Eastern front bogged down, just a short distance from us.

The two jaws of the Red Army closed finally, far away west of the city, on the Budapest-Vienna highway and Budapest's encirclement became complete Both the railway line and the highway to Vienna were now cut, there was no escape from the approaching Russians. That happened around mid-December and the long battle for Budapest had begun in earnest. By that time the fascist government has escaped to Austria, carrying with them the accumulated treasures of the country including those stolen from wealthy Jews. The Nazis had also forced the Jewish labour brigades into a futile and deadly march toward the Austrian border; my father among them.

As for my own family, all four of us had survived. We were the only fortunate ones in our entire large family. All the others lost at least a father, mother, wife, daughters, brothers or sisters. Each of us survived thanks to an individual miracle. I will briefly recount each one of these.

Mother was safely installed at her hiding place, in the lumberyard cum orphanage. More than that - she became indispensable for the small group with her talent to organise and bring a sense of discipline. I maintained contact with her, risking a nocturnal visit about once a week. This was possible because I was familiar with the lumber yard. It was surrounded by a wire fence, but fortunately the wire around the place did not have the most vicious kind of barbs on it so I managed, in the dark of night, to loosen a fence post and make myself a spot where I could crawl under the fence. Inside I found a group of people who were all hiding out together. The pretence of the Jewish children's' orphanage did not provide a valid refuge any more as all Jews were now ordered to enter the dreaded ghetto. Luckily mother and I agreed on an identification signal, so my appearance in the Nazi uniform did not create instant turmoil. In any case I was not the only one visiting the place in such a disguise. Mordi and a Polish boy (more about him later) also slipped in once in a while. The place was well equipped with basic food supplies, enough to last for a few weeks if necessary. I left each time reassured that mother at least was safe. If only she could feel the same way about my safety...

Mordi was also safe. Since his earlier escape from his labour unit, as they were marched across the city towards Austria, he had also been hiding out somewhere in the city. However late in December we both decided that the city had become too dangerous a place to live in. We both joined mother and stayed with her till the end. More about that later.

 

Father was saved by the magical Wallenberg.

Father's survival was perhaps the most miraculous. In late October, when movement around the city was still possible and news still travelled from mouth to mouth, mother heard through the grapevine that he was alive. His forced labour unit was stationed on the eastern front, moving slowly back towards the city. She also managed to find out from the latest visiting soldier what father's unit number was and the names of a few other members of his unit.

Then in late November the great retreat from the city toward the West began. Those who tried to escape had to race for time against the encircling forces of the Red Army. Among those who tried to make it were leading Nazis and their families, in cars and trucks loaded with Jewish loot. Another group taking part in the race to the West, but not by choice, were the Jews. The Nazis herded the Jewish labour units ahead of themselves toward the Austrian border. Thus, the infamous Death March toward the Austrian frontier began. Thousands of Jewish men, without food, water or adequate clothing for the winter, were forced to march on the Budapest-Vienna highway. Each day hundreds of them fall dead of exhaustion, or were shot by the soldiers guarding them. Sleeping on the side of the road, eating the occasional frozen potato or other roots they managed to dig out of the frozen earth with their bare hands, they continued their slow progress towards the Austrian border. This was indeed a death march, without any other purpose or destination. The mad Hungarian Nazis could no longer exterminate them all at once, nor could they let them go, so they sentenced them to slow death.

It was from these columns of the doomed that the Swedish envoy, Raoul Wallenberg, managed from time to time to snatch back to safety a handful of people. Wallenberg was a Swedish businessman, who was sent to Budapest with the specific task of helping the Jewish population however he could. He accomplished far more than he thought possible, as we know today. He personally rescued thousands of people. He never stopped, never gave up, right to the last days of the war.

Father was in one of these labour groups marching toward the border. How this slightly build, not very strong man managed to survive the years of mistreatment, hunger, cold and physical effort, I cannot tell. But survive he did and when his unit passed the city, he even managed to send word to mother about his whereabouts. Mother, the lioness, was not going to give up on her man at that late point in the war. She was going to fight for his life to the end. Somehow she managed to get to the Swedish building housing Wallenberg and to see one of his assistants. She gave him the unit number, the names of the people she knew were in the unit and their approximate location.

That was exactly the information Wallenberg needed to do his work. He and his group prepared letters of protection using the names of people they were given. Then he or an associate would race by car after the targeted group. Upon reaching the marching unit, wherever they were, he would jump out of his car and, in impeccable German, order the Hungarian Nazis to stop the march. He would whip out his documents and call out the names. As the men stepped out, he would hand each one his "document" and order them into his car. Before the Nazis realised, what has happened, his car was already speeding back to Budapest with the rescued Jews.

And that is, how father survived. Wallenberg brought him back, depositing him at the house under Swedish protection. That was where mother picked him up and both returned safely to the lumberyard/orphanage. I never had a chance to question father about those days and now it is too late. So I can only use my imagination. In my mind's eye I see the rugged group winding it's weary way along the highway, between the racing army trucks and horse drawn wagons. Barely able to drag on their tired bodies, they march without any hope of survival, like machines, unable to stop and lie down to die at the side of the road. Suddenly - screeching tires, an arrogant young man standing on the running board of his car, waving papers and calling out names, among them my father's. Father staggers out of the line toward the car. Fearful to look at the Nazi guards, expecting a blow or a bullet at any moment, he reaches the car, picks up the paper and scampers inside, crouching down on the back seat. He is scarcely able to believe that this is really happening to him.

Thanks to mother alone all four of us survived. She was the one who discovered and organised what became ultimately the hiding place for all four of us. She hid Mordi when he first escaped. She rescued father from certain death. And she gave me the encouragement to keep on living. During the last weeks of the siege, all four of us ended up at her hiding place, recognizing that her hunch about a safe place proved to be the best one. If the expression Eshet Chayil (Woman of Valour) should be applied to anyone, mother deserved it many times over.

 

How much longer?

We could not have gone on much longer. By mid-December any remaining semblance of order or of civilised existence had broken down in Budapest. The city was surrounded by all sides, cut off from the outside world. The Red Army was occupying the outlying villages and could shell the city at will. Those inside, Jews and Nazis, Hungarians and Germans, victims and criminals, all became captives, stuck together, unable to destroy each other, nor to get rid of each other.

Here a small geography lesson on Budapest may help. The city consists of two distinct parts, separated by the river Danube. About a dozen bridges, amongst them a few true architectural masterpieces, link the two parts. Buda, the western half, is built on a range of hills, including Castle Hill with the Royal Palace on top and Mount Gellert, the highest spot in the area. Pest, the newer half of the city on the east shores of the river, is flat. This is the residential half, rolling out towards the industrial areas and all the way towards the eastern prairies.

The Russian armies rolled in from the east and there were no natural obstacles to slow down their advance. The German army received direct orders from Hitler to defend the city to death. Their strategy, as we discovered by mid-December, was to withdraw their forces westward across the Danube and build new defensive positions on the top of the hills. This strategy meant that Budapest would suffer maximum damage from the bombardment and the street fighting which the Russians will be forced to conduct. Even after the larger eastern half of the city fell to the Red Army, the battle for Budapest would not yet be over. The Germans were capable of blowing up all the bridges over the river, those beautiful historic old bridges. Then they could shell the city from their elevated positions. It would take a major effort to dislodge them from their well entrenched positions, desperate defenders as they became.

All these considerations made living on the streets virtually impossible. The Nazis were no longer my main enemy, dangerous as they still were. Now it was the non-stop shelling and bombing of the city, the fragments of flying shrapnel that came without warning. Crossing any open space became deadly dangerous. The Russians used a mysterious new weapon which they called Katyusha. This was a rocket launcher consisting of a dozen or more launching tubes linked together. When this weapon started to sing (Katyusha is the title of a popular Russian folk song) it could send a rain of shells over a large target area, hitting everything and every person in it's range.

Feeding myself became a major challenge. I cannot recall what I ate and how often did I manage to scrounge it. Most of the time I found myself stuck for hours at a time in some more or less protected spot, too frightened to move out onto the street. Not even my growing hunger would entice me out into the midst of the raining shells and collapsing walls. The streets were now literally covered with dead bodies, uncollected for weeks. This was enough warning to discourage my usually careless bravery.

In the harsh winter of 1944, everything froze to the ground as soon as it stopped moving. The bodies were frozen solid, nothing, neither coats, hats, gloves or boots, could be pried loose. Light snow covered everything and it created small whitish mounds everywhere. Beneath could lie a dead body, the remnants of a dead horse or just a pile of rubble.

The Nazi gangs became even wilder and more dangerous. They now received new orders and a new mission. They did not only hunt for Jews and fleeing soldiers. They now became the defenders of the city, the last line of resistance in front of the approaching Russian lines which were moving in slowly from the outskirts. This suicidal task made the untrained, inexperienced thugs doubly dangerous. They did not stop people anymore to investigate their identity. Scared out of their minds of the Russians, they shot first and then ran like hell. Their fear was feeding on stories of atrocities committed by the murderous Bolsheviks. These stories, retold and elaborated, whipped the marauding youth into a frenzy of fear and murderousness. Young troops, often twelve to fifteen years' old, ordered out to the streets by their more cowardly and wiser superiors, would creep along the walls, run from corner to corner and shoot at anything that moved. They saw Russian soldiers in every direction and were deadly scared of them, although the actual front was still outside the city proper. These heroic defenders of Western civilization were already killing each other and anyone else, with their careless, indiscriminate and random shootings. This became the ultimate danger for me in the city. It was time now to retreat into a safe hiding place.

 

Moving into the underground, my last hiding place.

My parents were in relative safety during the first half of December. The remote location of the lumberyard, located in the eastern suburbs in an industrial area, somewhat away from the residential streets, provided some protection in that movement of strangers in the area could be easily detected. The place no longer had the official designation of a home for orphaned Jewish children. A family of the owner's employees continued to smuggle in food supplies and thanks to the good organizational capability of mother and other women, these supplies were rationed out so frugally that they lasted all through the siege. According to the Government edict all these people should have moved into the ghetto two months earlier. They were now there illegally and could have been arrested and dragged away at any time.

By that time some two or three dozen people were living in the yard. There were whole families and a few individuals of all ages. Father became a kind of authority figure who arbitrated in the territorial disputes that arose quite frequently in the cramped space. They had organised their daily life quite well. The yard consisted of a number of work sheds, containing the woodworking machinery and a larger warehouse which was connected to the office building. Under each machine in the work sheds was located a large cement-lined pit where the sawdust from the cuttings was collected. The pits were covered with concrete lids to keep the sawdust inside. These pits were cleaned out and served as daytime emergency hiding places for the families - each family was assigned its own shed and pit. As the siege started in earnest around mid-December, emergency measures were implemented. During the day everyone retreated into the pits and stayed there under cover until dark. There was no food, no access to toilets, no room to walk or even to stand up straight. The pits were just large enough for three or four people to sit or crouch together. Fortunately the days were short and after eight or ten hours in these cramped pits they could cautiously climb out and gather in the warehouse or the converted office space which had been organised as the night time living area.

The warehouse had many shelves to hold the large sheets of plywood and lumber. These shelves now served as bunk beds for the families. Each family unit was assigned a portion of the bunks. The small kitchen was used for primitive cooking - boiling water, making weak pea soups and cooking dried peas and beans into some sort of a vegetarian stew. On lucky days a piece of horse meat was added to this stew to provide some variety. This change of diet was welcomed by most of the residents, with only a few ultra-orthodox exceptions. Electricity and water were cut off by that time. Fortunately there was plenty of sawdust available for burning in the cooking stove. Water was melted from snow and ice. In each hiding pit there was a small stove, burning the wood chips that had accumulated and been piled up in small mountains. So, considering the primitive conditions, basic survival needs were ensured.

The social organization, bringing people of diverse backgrounds to live together, if not in harmony then at least with a minimum of civility, became father's responsibility. Among the refugees were a few upper middle class families, who bought their way into the yard. They had put on a lot of airs at the beginning, but the veneer kept peeling off and by the end it had become quite possible to live with them. In contrast, there were two families of Polish refugees, escapees from the horrors of ghetto life. One family, parents and three children, was of wealthy and Orthodox background. The other, mother and teenage son, poor and non-believers.

The sanitary conditions were pretty disastrous, washing and keeping clean was an impossible task. There was a weekly humiliating head lice inspection and the kerosene was liberally used on the heads of the young who were infested. There was constant bickering about flushing the toilets, which, without running water and due to the cold, often got blocked and backed up. Food distribution to the children, the sick, the old, was also a constant topic for arguments. Under the circumstances it was surprising and spoke well for father's leadership capability that the arguments were not sharper and that we all managed to get through those months together to the end.

Mordi and I joined this group in mid-December and shared the pit hiding our parents. The space became even tighter but there was no complaining because moving to another location would have endangered all of us. We were hoping that in just a matter of days only our liberators would arrive. We were located in one of the easternmost suburbs of the city, the Russian armies were only a few kilometers from us. However the front moved very slowly, house-to-house combat ensued and this meant that it took almost another month for the front line to reach our area. A very long month...

 

Stories from the hiding place.

One of the Polish families consisted of two people only: mother and son. The boy was a tall, emaciated older teenager. His father had been murdered by the Germans in the Polish ghetto, the two of them escaped from there and wandered through Poland and into Hungary, surviving like animals in the forests. In Budapest they were caught by the Nazis. Taken to the Danube, the Nazis shot them into the river. On the way to their execution, aware of their fate, he told his mother to fall backwards into the river as soon as the shooting began. Luckily for them, they were standing at the end of the line. Together they fell into the river, pretending to be shot dead. The son floated on top of the ice, dragging his mother's body into the icy water, hiding under and behind the big floating chunks of ice, until they were well down river, out of the sight of people on the quay. They climbed out of the water and hid until nightfall, then retraced their way into the city, where they found a group of Jews who helped them. He was already a member of the Betar Zionist movement in Poland. The Hungarian Betarniks provided the help and the German parachutist uniform he was often sporting when he made a sortie outside to find some food. During the long evenings together, he told us many stories about Betar, Jabotinsky and Palestine. These were stirring and quite eye-opening stories about Jewish pride, the need to fight back and the desire to go to Palestine after liberation. Mordi and I absorbed every word and, not surprisingly, it was Betar that both of us joined as soon as it was possible in 1945. After liberation mother and son immediately disappeared, joining their Zionist brethren and left for Palestine with one of the first groups.

The other Polish family was as different from the first, as possible. The Shimovits family was of wealthy business background and deeply Orthodox. There were the parents, two boys and a lovely, exotic looking dark haired girl; we became close friends almost instantly. The father lived somewhere outside, appearing from time to time with much needed food, medication and other necessities. The children, close in age to Mordi and me, spoke a sweet, accented Hungarian and made delightfully amusing mistakes speaking our impossible language. This family remained true to their religion, refused to eat the rarely-available horse meat and insisted on washing hands and praying before each meal. They were simply good people, always helpful and peaceful. They saw many horrors, but refused to talk about their experiences. All three became our best friends, a friendship which lasted even after the war. Thanks to these good friends, we managed to get through the month of December in relative sanity.

Life was not only tension and hardship; we, the young ones quickly established our little games. One of the couples had a daughter, somewhat older than me. She had a crush on an older boy and their relationship blossomed. Sometimes, though, she flirted with me to tease her boyfriend. I was of course too young to realise my role and took the game seriously. Sometimes we were kissing, making sure that her boyfriend saw us. I quite enjoyed the game.

One favourite game which we, the younger children, played was called "imaginary banquet." The preferred time for the game was just after supper, that is after devouring the tiny bit of indescribable food, which had been given to us. The selected player had to recall a memorable meal he or she had partaken in and describe to us in the greatest possible detail the various courses, from the appetizer and soup through the main dishes and (most importantly) the deserts and fruit. There was a great competition to try and make all of us swoon at the mere mention of delicacies which we had not seen for years and which we might never live to enjoy again. The game called for maximum exaggeration in recalling appearance and taste, smell and flavour. Occasionally a serious argument erupted over the relative merit of one kind of caviar over another, or the preferred wine to be served with a certain dish. The mention of chocolate, linzer or dobos tortes always elicited the strongest reaction from the small band of starving dreamers. Oh, but when the war is over...what quantities of palacsinta are we going to devour, how many slices of watermelon will we eat at one sitting...When the war will be over...

The other people in hiding remain faceless and I have no recollection of them. The people I do remember was the couple who came to visit us in the middle of the night, several times each week. This Christian couple, employees of the lumberyard we were hiding in, remained faithful to their manager and continued to visit the yard, in the guise of conducting safety inspections. They brought us food when they could; even more important, they brought us news from the outside world. Always encouraging us to hold on to our hopes of survival, they reported on the Russians' progress and warned us to stay well under cover, because roaming Nazi and army units were constantly searching in the area and were setting up defensive positions around us. We were completely isolated from the outside world. During the daylight hours we were hiding in our pits, stayed outside only at night. Sometimes I would sneak up to the fence and look outside, on the abandoned street. From time to time I saw groups of soldiers groping their way around the rubble, pulling behind them heavy guns and boxes of ammunition. No one else beside the soldiers was seen on the street.

It was difficult for me to live in this group. I had been independent for so long, deciding for myself when and where I was going to go and now I was forced to become a child once again. I was told when to move and when to sit still. When to wash and when to go to the washroom (we had assigned times, whether we needed to go or not). Father and the other adults took no nonsense from us youngsters and I was craving for my lost freedom. But I learned to swallow my pride and submit to the adults' rule without protest. Slipping back into the irresponsible, easy life of a child was not too difficult after all those months...

 

Mother near death.

No matter how careful we were in our nocturnal wanderings inside the yard, some sliver of light or a small noise must have escaped to the outside from time to time. Twice in late December this tiny carelessness nearly brought disaster upon us. The neighbouring factory guard led groups of Nazis and policemen into the lumberyard, claiming that someone was hiding in the area. Unfortunately a few of the older people were discovered and were at once taken to the ghetto, from where they managed to escape after a fortnight and return to us. The rest of us remained in hiding. Finding any traces of our existence would have triggered a detailed search. There was nothing these gangs wanted more than discovering a group of Jews in hiding. We would have satisfied their sadistic instincts and for a short time helped them to forget their own predicament. We were determined not to give anyone this satisfaction.

The third time such an incursion took place, it almost ended in disaster for our family. This time the searchers seemed more certain than ever that people were hiding in the yard. Fortunately lifting up the concrete lids covering our hiding places never occurred to them, or perhaps they were too lazy and cold to make the effort. In any case they marched around the yard and inside the machine sheds for a long time, their heavy boots thumping on the floor above our heads.

That was the moment when mother had a hernia attack. She had been in fragile health since childhood. Her back had been injured in an early age and she was slightly hunchbacked since. She also suffered from a hiatus hernia which could not be operated on, but which came out at times and caused her immense pain. One of those episodes took place while the Nazi searchers were just above us. We sat still, not daring even to breathe, separated from our pursuers by a thin cement slab. Suddenly mother clutched her side and turned deadly pale. We could see the bundle of hernia under her dress, bulging out dangerously from her stomach. We carefully made room at best we could, letting her lie down ever so slowly and massage her hernia. She was pale, biting her lips in pain and tears rolled down her cheeks. One moan and we would have been doomed.

It seemed like an eternity. Mother twisted in agony on the floor, while the searchers paraded around above our heads. We felt terribly helpless. We could not even move to hold her hand, to wipe the perspiration off her forehead, to massage her hernia back. She was out of reach for all of us; all we could do was huddle as close to each other as possible to make enough room for her. Mother's breathing became erratic and she mercifully passed out from the pain.

Then we heard a command above us and heard the boots marching away. We still did not dare to move. Often they would play this trick: march away while one of them stayed behind in stealth to see if there was any sound or movement. Those of us who survived this far were experienced in these game and did not fall for the ruse. For a long eternity we remained silent, motionless. We did not dare to change our cramped positions. Then mother gradually came to and began the painful exercise of pushing her hernia back in place. We began to crawl around. One of us handed her some water, another loosened her dress and wiped her forehead.

We remained inside our pit until nightfall, not daring even to peek outside. By then our heroic mother had recovered and was able to slowly get up and crawl out of the pit. This was probably the closest call for our entire underground period. I do not know if anyone else would have managed to suffer the pain in silence, determined not to give in and not to fail us. Once again her determination and bravery saved our lives.


LIBERATION!

At last the horrific year of 1944 was creeping to an end.

The awful month of December, the horrible year of 1944, this terrible war, were all creeping interminably to their end. Nothing has changed, none of the dangers have diminished, but deep down, in our heart of hearts, we knew that we have managed to survive this unimaginable ordeal. We have managed to stay alive and to avoid the fate of the countless others, those frozen cadavers, whose image haunted me even in my waking hours.

Not that it was a clear sailing to liberation. One day a Nazi/police unit made a surprise razzia and force-marched away those found outside, inside the warehouse. They were taken to a military building, where normally captured suspects were interrogated. Among the group were the children of the Shimovits family, also the mother of the Polish boy. Mordi and I immediately went out to sniff around and try to find their traces. Turned out that in the confusion they had managed to join another group that was being marched towards the ghetto and thus avoided interrogation in the dreaded military torture base. They were locked up inside one of the Jewish buildings, from where another Zionist group managed to free them and take them to one of the protected Swiss houses. It sounds confusing now, but these events and the rapidity with which they happened, might give a sense of the turmoil we were living in. In any event, a few days later they all reappeared in the yard, smuggled back by the Polish boy.

The Gentile couple, that had kept us in touch with the outside world, disappeared. On their last visit, a few days earlier, they brought us good news: the Russians were only a few city blocks away from us. Of course, in view of the desperate, almost suicidal defense by the Nazis of every house and city block, this could have meant a long and prolonged battle for those last few kilometers. But the fact was that the attacking guns now sounded as if they came from just outside the lumberyard. We could actually distinguish between shells shot out from a cannon, a tank or a Katyusha.

To make matters even worse, the defenders decided to make their last desperate stand right in the middle of our lumberyard. They rolled into the yard a large cannon and a platoon of soldiers, loaded down with boxes of shells settled in around it. Of course there was a lot of digging and positioning of the gun. When that cannon went into action, the earth shook around us. In our underground pits the shock waves hit us almost directly and the sensation was terrifying. The installation of the gun meant that our nightly lifeline to the communal hall was cut off. We had to make a painful decision about how to survive these last days of our suffering.

At least the soldiers did not threaten us as Jews. They could not have cared less who we were. Still, for a while we stayed inside our bunkers day and night, if only to protect ourselves from the incessant shelling which did not let up even for a minute. When finally the soldiers actually saw us, they had only one request: give us civilian cloths. They were eager to shed their uniforms and dress in civilian clothing, eager to abandon their units and the mad defense of the city. They disappeared one-by-one, leaving behind great quantities of weapons, hand grenades and boxes of shells.

We lost all count of the days and dates. Of course Christmas had always gone by un-noticed by us; on the other hand, New Year's day was always celebrated, even by the Jews of Hungary, as the greatest holiday of the year. But not New Year's day of 1945 - we somehow missed count of the days and it went by, without any of us realizing it. With heavy guns rolling by on the street, shells literally pouring over our lumberyard and the crazy Hungarian cannon shooting away at some distant target, day and night flowed into one great confusion. There was absolutely no respite from the battlefield noises and ruckus around us. Thanks to the good construction work done on our hiding places, we survived the street fight. Our greatest fear was that the lumber piled up in the yard will catch fire and we will burn alive in our pits. Although some small fires did break out at the remote ends of the yard, these were either put out immediately by the soldiers or they did not spread around.

We still had to eat and to keep contact with each other. Sneaking outside under the cover of night, we observed that the people in the yard were only soldiers. There was not a single Nazi arm band in sight; those rats had already disappeared, shedding their uniforms, as they fled. We hoped that the soldiers' least concern would be to find a handful of Jews around them. Considering the imminent fall of the quarter they might even find it beneficial to have us around for protection. After long deliberation our family decided, on the second night and after two long days of starvation, to take the risk and sneak over to the warehouse building. This turned out to be quite easy, as the soldiers were taking cover most of the time and kept their eyes fixed on the eastern horizon, from where they expected the Russians to appear momentarily.

When we got to the warehouse we discovered that all the others had already taken the same decision the previous night. We were the last to join the group. We decided to stay above ground and take our chances. Cooking was not allowed, matches and candles remained unlit. All conversation was kept to whispers, even though most of the time we could not hear each other for the din outside, even if we had shouted. We were not allowed to move unless it was to go to the washroom or for food distribution. What food? Some bread, leftover cold peas and uncooked corn, beans, just something to chew on. Electricity and water had been cut off days earlier. For the next several days there was no real food available. The intense cold in the unheated warehouse forced us to stay in our bunks, covered as much as possible. Families and lovers were sitting closely together, hugging each other as if to provide warmth and some imaginary protection. Hours, days and nights passed this way. We had no idea about the situation outside and no one dared to risk looking outside. For the outside world this was a long-abandoned, empty warehouse.

At one point the big gun in the yard went silent and even though the exchange of shells overhead continued, it seemed to us as if the world around us had gone mute. Apparently the soldiers in our yard had decided to withdraw, leaving behind gun and ammunition. We had no idea what was going on outside but we realized instantly that we were now situated in the most dangerous zone: the no-man's land between the two armies. Each side could now shell us with the knowledge that their own soldiers would not be hit. This went on for some more time.

Then the shelling suddenly stopped. It took us some time to realize that there were no more explosions, or rather that the sound now came from farther away. An ominous silence descended over the yard and the street next to us. And then we heard machine gun fire and a cry in a strange language: "Igyi Suda!" The voice came from just outside the door. The Polish boy stood up, broke into a huge smile and said: "He speaks Russian". Next moment the door flew open and a wild looking, sub-machine gun toting creature appeared at the doorstep. We all climbed out of our beds and stood, glued to the floor with fright and hope. He gave out a yell and motioned us to move into the middle of the room, training his gun on us. He looked as if ready at any moment to turn his weapon on us. We began to explain, in all the languages we could, that we were Jewish. He interrupted us with a bloodcurdling yell and a menacing wave of his gun. We shut up and moved, crowded, to the middle of the room. The day was January 5, 1945. Our liberators had arrived.

Liberation did not happen Hollywood newsreel style. There were no hugs and kisses for the liberators, no instant feast was spread out to celebrate the end of the war, at least for us. The band did not play, nor did the blue and white flag of Zion wave in the spring air. One deadly danger has disappeared, only to be replaced by another. The Soviet units entering our area were from the Asiatic republics, they were Kirgiz or Tatar, fierce fighters and mad as hell for the great losses they had suffered in the battle for Budapest. They did not come to party - they knew well that they were in enemy territory, among people who had destroyed their homes and motherland, murdered their families and left total destruction in their once beautiful country. They were here to do a job - to defeat the fascist enemy - and to take their revenge.

We were immediately suspect. Here we were, people of all ages, some in civilian clothing, some in partial military uniforms that had been shed by the escaping soldiers. More discarded uniforms were spread all around us. Piles of weapons and ammunition were lying everywhere. We were definitely suspect. As more soldiers entered the building, we were ordered to crowd into a narrow corridor and stay there. Some of the soldiers, seeing the obviously hungry children, reached into their knapsacks and pulled out small chunks of black bread, handing them out to us, the children. All our attempts to communicate with them had failed. For these soldiers, who had gone through living hell in the last four years, we were the Hungarian enemy - and that was that. Then they all disappeared to continue their street battle with the retreating Hungarians. Only one soldier remained, guarding us as prisoners.

The small chunks of bread were carefully distributed amongst all of us. In retrospect it was terrible - hard and gummy, made of some unrecognizable substance. Needless to say, to us it tasted like some of the finest cake we had ever eaten. Under guard, we squatted, huddled close to each other in a corner and happily chewed on this manna from heaven (well, not quite...).

Outside the bursts of machine gun fire slowly died out as the front rapidly moved further to the west. The battle zone has rolled over us in a matter of hours; the Russians managed to rapidly mop up all resistance and to move further and further toward the city core. By nightfall a second wave of soldiers had arrived. These were less savage looking, more disciplined. They were the regular units backing up the fighting units and formed the regular occupational force. They moved into our place, took over all the bunk beds, blankets and even expropriated all the clothing they could find. We spent the first night of freedom huddled together in the corridor, lying on the cold floor, without cover and shivering. No food, no place to sleep - what kind of liberation was that? It certainly was not the fulfillment of our dreams.

Next day things started to get sorted out. Someone among the soldiers must have understood the word Yevrei (Jew) we mumbled in Russian, because suddenly a well dressed young captain, wearing an elegant leather coat, appeared and spoke a broken Yiddish to us It was amazing: here was a genuine Russian Jew who also spoke Yiddish - a shocking discovery for both parties. He was sympathetic to our plight but explained that as far as the Russian occupation forces were concerned, we were Hungarian enemies, Jewish or not. They did not discriminate between victims and victimizers. In any case, he said, Jews were not great favourites with the Red Army - there were many anti-Semites among the soldiers.

Our Jewish captain gave us a document, which he said would perhaps provide some protection from the army units to follow. He also brought us some food, bread and a few other basic staples; not much because they themselves had been fighting with little to eat - the field kitchens were left further behind in their rapid advance. The only food the Russian soldiers had was carried on their own backs.

Unfortunately, the Jewish captain had to leave to move forward with his unit. Before leaving, he managed to free up some more space for us to sit and sleep in. The document he gave us did not provide much protection. Although nobody threatened to shoot us anymore, but the next night soldiers came and tried to drag one of the women away with them to entertain the officers. Only our almost hysterical cries and shouts managed to change their minds. But it was evident that the Russians did not come to play Santa Claus for the Hungarians and that it has became increasingly dangerous to remain in the freshly occupied territories.

That night the German defenders on the hillsides of Buda opened up with their big guns, bombarding the city indiscriminately. Once again, after only one day of relative calm, shells were exploding around us and shrapnel pieces were flying everywhere, presenting a new danger to everyone living in the already liberated areas. That plus the tough attitude of the Russians forced us to make the decision to move out. We rounded up several small handcarts from the lumberyard, piled up our meager belongings and the whole group began a slow march towards the Eastern villages which had been liberated earlier. We ourselves served as horses, taking turn pulling the carts or leaning on them, and so slowly shuffled our feet down the road. Dodging the many shell holes, we managed to reach a village before nightfall. Waving our precious document toward the Russian guards we managed to obtain permission to occupy some of the abandoned houses, including one which had belonged to a Jewish family. The houses had been looted several times over and there was nothing useful left for us, neither food, nor clothing.

On the next day we managed to make contact with a German-speaking Russian officer who appreciated the fact that we were Jewish refugees and sympathized with our situation. He directed us toward the army kitchen and issued us a whole pail of meatless bean stew and whole loaves of bread. Finally, after more than a week, we had our first filling, warm meal! In exchange all of the men and boys in our group went to the kitchen and cut wood for their fire. We managed to develop an almost cordial relationship with the soldiers. The officer helped us in many ways, he even arranged for father and Mordi a ride into the city, where they managed to enter our apartment. They found it standing undamaged but empty; all furniture, clothing, dishes, everything had been removed. They came back empty-handed and with the clear understanding that there was nothing to rush home to and that we were better off to stay in the village a few days longer.

So father found us a better accommodation and we continued to work around the kitchen, in exchange for food. When they heard the news that great parts of the city core have been already liberated, the rest of the group decided to get going. Our family stayed behind alone. We exchanged addresses and phone numbers, just like in normal peace time and hugged each other. We had survived together and we were sure that we would never forget each other or what we had endured.

Then a few days later we also decided to make the move. Once again we tied ourselves to the cart and made the long trek home. This time the trip went off eventless, no more shelling or bombing of the road, no wild Ruskis menacing us. We went straight to our apartment. Nobody was around when we entered the building. I had always dreamt of some triumphal return, with all the neighbours standing outside, smiling at us and holding out small gifts to celebrate our safe return home. Well, another unfulfilled dream. But we were still lucky - the building stood almost undamaged, with the roof and walls intact. The doors to the apartment were open and we found a squatter family living there, after being bombed out of their own home. Father did not have the heart to turf them out, so we took possession of another empty apartment in the building. Its owners abandoned it and escaped to the West with the retreating German army, so we had no compunction taking it over. We never found out who had lived in our own apartment in the past months and who had taken our furniture and belongings. We wanted to erase the past and make a fresh start, so we talked very little of our material losses. The main thing was that our family was together. We were going to start all over again. Although we had nothing, but we were alive and together. And in Budapest, in 1945, what more could a Jewish family possibly have wished for?


CREDO.

In the Passover Hagadah we read every Seder night, is the following admonition: "In every generation one must look upon himself as if he personally has come out of Egypt." Our generation did come out of deadly enslavement and worst. I, for one, have learned a valuable lesson from it, one our sages has taught us over the centuries: that by remembering the Egyptian slavery, we should be incapable of enslaving, or in any way dehumanizing other peoples. If there is any lesson to be learned from this mad epoch, this must be the paramount one!

All of us who emerged from the trauma of the Second World War, all Jewish survivors, came out profoundly changed. This horrific experience has not left any of us untouched. And as always is the case, our similar experiences have had widely different consequences for each of us.

For me the experience had an effect on multiple levels: as a practicing religious Jew, as member of a despised group subjected to the effects of discrimination and as a young human being who personally experienced the injustice of it all. When the war broke out, I was an innocent, easy going simple child of nine. Four years later, when it ended, I had matured into a street smart, independent and deeply disillusioned young man of thirteen.

My religion, simple, honest, based on my father's strong tradition, came out in tatters. Many nights, shivering and alone, I asked the naive question, looking distrustfully at the dark skies above: where is that force, that God, who is the overseer of the just and the innocent, like myself? Where is He, where is His mercifully protective wing, which should be extended over little child victims like myself? When the dust settled, so to speak, my belief (none too strong to begin with) in the omnipotent Yahve. has disappeared. I had no use any more for that God. Not the God, who allowed deeply religious Jews, their beards and payot frozen on their dead faces, to die of starvation or typhoid or of brutal violence. I had no use for a God who turned away, when His innocent people were shot into the frozen Danube by fanatic murderers. I had no use for a God who had no tear to shed over the blood- and fire-covered Earth. If this was the merciful God, I did not need His mercy - I preferred to handle the hatred of a vicious world by myself.

On a different level, my Jewish identity and my Jewish values came out of the debacle, stronger than ever. We Jews, hunted and suffering, had known the burden of slavery back from the days of Egypt. Did we not commemorate it yearly, every Seder night? Were we not told that each one of us must feel as if he himself has come out of Egyptian slavery? That means that we must be humble, compassionate, understanding to the suffering of others. Where there is discrimination, hatred and torture, there must be Jews speaking out and protesting, as a living testimony for the equality of all races and all religions. Surely we, Jews, must have learned from the war that much - never to hate anyone because of the colour of his skin, or of his ancestry? That we could and should never inflict upon others the injustice, the cruel treatment we ourselves suffered under the Nazis. Oh, how naive were my assumptions!

As a human being, I had experienced hunger, cold, homelessness and suffered the most extreme depravations imaginable. Once you have experienced this misery, you cannot accept it as a permanent condition of life for so many millions. So I concluded, that all human beings must have the basic right to share in the wealth of the world, to have enough food for themselves and their children, to have some basic shelter over their heads, to be allowed to live in safety and peace. This is not just a favour granted to the "less fortunate", but rather a basic right of every human being on this earth.

That is the person I have become. A non-believing yet traditional Jew who paid dearly for the right to be and to remain Jewish, under all circumstances. A firm believer in socialism, a political credo preaching the fundamentals of social justice for all. These fundamental beliefs, sometimes deeply shaken and strongly tried, have nevertheless stayed with me for the rest of my life. I cannot help it, if some of my fellow Jews, quite differently, became fanatically ultra-orthodox, or ultra-nationalistic Arab- (or Schwartze) haters, greedy, hungry for wealth and power. They evidently learned a different lesson than mine. I am not responsible for them. I am not one of them. I am what I am - and I stand erect and proud of who I am. Without apologies and without compromises.


EPILOGUE

That is how liberty reached us, after over five years of struggle for survival. The net human balance of that period: one grandfather, uncle, several aunts, nieces and nephews were murdered. Others who had survived, were yet to send us a sign of life. But our little family was alive. We had a home to return to, a home to welcome the returning survivors into as well. We were the only family members remaining alive in Budapest, so our future task was clear. Not only did we have to restart our own lives from the beginning, but we became the core of the whole family around which the returning relatives could settle, even if only for a very short period of transition. We were at home, alive and together. What a miracle!

As to the future - it went as far as the day we were living in. We had left the past instantly behind us and never spent a moment contemplating our losses or our sufferings. In the same way we did not spend any time planning too far ahead. A day at a time - it was never so true than then. To have a bed to sleep in, blankets to cover ourselves with, some food to reduce our hunger. These were the ordinary daily chores which required extraordinary talent to achieve. So we threw ourselves into the task of a new kind of survival. This time it was hope and trust in the future which drove us, not fear. There was a spirit of renewal in the air, an opportunity to shed all the ugly mess of the past and leave it behind us. Spiritual renewal for father, political renewal for Mordi and me, family renewal for mother. Whatever form it took, it was the positive life force which kept us going.

There was no time yet for tears. Our losses were great, of that we were sure. But we were not allowed to cry over the dead while still hoping to find those alive. So we threw ourselves into rebuilding our lives. The apartment needed a clean-up, painting and furniture. We needed food and the money to pay for it. Our store was left intact, but with no merchandise remaining. A thousand and one mundane, daily tasks had to be performed just to restore a semblance of normalcy into our lives. Feeling very isolated and uncomfortable in our old surroundings, we made the move into the city. We managed to secure a large apartment, next door to our store. Enough room for several families to stay together.

1945 was my thirteenth year, my Bar Mitzvah year. There was a continuity in Jewish life: we still counted the few who stayed alive and received, gradually, news of all those who did not survive. Yet the Jewish community as a whole, as a living entity, survived and resumed its various functions. Synagogue service and the procedure whereby a young boy is being accepted and initiated into the world of adult responsibility, were among the normal activities, which had to resume. So in spite of my spiritual emptiness, I was ready to perform this last religious act, if not for my own sake, than for the sake of my father and of the recovering Jewish community. This will be my last religious act for many years to come.

It took another month for the entire city to be liberated and for all the fighting, bombing and shelling to cease. Then the streets once again filled up with people. Pale and frightened at first, they soon set to the enormous task of cleaning up the ruined city and slowly, brick by brick, to rebuild their homes and their own lives. Food was scarce all that spring. The Russians brought in the occasional truck load of potatoes and set up an instant curb-side distribution centre. They shipped in bread from their own bakeries. The Communist Party became active and managed to organize food distribution for the needy population. The dead bodies were removed from the public parks and gardens and buried in huge mass graves. The entire fascist government and leadership, with Szalasi at it's head, was captured in Austria and in 1946 was shipped back to Budapest by the Americans. A two-day open session of the new People's Court found all of them guilty of war crimes; all, more than twenty of them, were hanged side by side, in a large public execution. The last chapter of an ugly period has just been written. Now that book could be closed.

In our book, the book of the Jews, still more chapters were added. Now the nerve- wracking wait for news about our family members began. The concentration camps were being liberated in Poland, Austria and Germany. The Red Cross and the Joint or Jewish Agency began publishing lists of known survivors and the known dead. Every day I made a sad pilgrimage to the city centre, where these lists were posted. A few weeks later, when the trains started to arrive from the west, more lists, those expected to arrive on next day's train, were posted at the train station. Now I had to make a daily walk there too. The train station was crowded with people holding up a forest of signs into the faces of the arrivals: "Looking for my wife, brother, sister". Pictures and names were attached. We were all waiting, for someone to show up, for some news to be received. Good or bad but we needed to know.

Sadly, we still needed confirmation of our dead. Only then could we enter into our private mourning for those who had not survived. As Jews, we were not permitted to mourn otherwise, not for anyone who might still be alive somewhere. As long as there was the thinnest thread of hope, we were obliged to hang on to it. So the period of mourning was postponed, sometimes for years.

Then the survivors began to arrive. My uncles, a cousin, a niece. They brought with them news about the others, who were last seen in such and such a camp, on such and such a date. So there was still hope and expectation. Some had been seen just days after liberation, still alive, though looking more dead than alive. So we postponed both the celebration and the mourning and dedicated our lives to looking after the survivors. After all we had our whole family, a shelter to offer, some food, meager as it was. Our home became the cross roads for the survivors, for those who came back to search for their family members. When they returned to the city without finding anyone, they left an address somewhere in the west and were gone once again. Not all Jews could resettle in the hated land which so cruelly rejected them.

Although we were also among the survivors, we did not consider ourselves as such. We had one task: to provide a solid anchor and a fixed address for all the remnant of the Salamon clan. It was already spring, news of the German surrender, on May 8, came and triggered a tremendous demonstration in the city. The marching throng spontaneously turned towards the headquarters of the Communist Party, where the leadership stood outside on a balcony, smiling and waving, but sparing us any redundant speeches. It was a spring of hope and renewal. Suddenly everything seemed possible, attainable. We were alive and free. Although left with nothing, we were eager to start from the beginning once again. There was only one way to go and we were determined to make the climb. We were faced with two more new beginnings: in Israel, the land our Jewish destiny had chosen for us and again in Canada, our third new home in the far shores. But this is already the subject of another book.

 


A Brief History of Hungary's Jewry.

1867 Parliament gives equal rights to Jews.

1910 911,000 Jews, 21 million Hungarians - 5% of total population

Number of Jewish lawyers over 68%, doctors 48%.

1918 October - end of World War I.

1919 Six months of Communist Republic, many Jewish. leaders (Bela Kun etc.). Red terror = 5-600 victims.

1919 November white counter-revolution with Horthy, French and Romanian troops defeat the Republic. White terror = 15,000 victims.

1920 First anti-Jewish law in Europe: 6% numerus clausus.

1921 Trianon treaty: 66% of land, 60% of population taken away from Hungary. Jews remain 5% of the population, 445,000.

In Budapest: 215,000 or 23%.

1925 Jewish leaders/organizations object to foreign intervention regarding anti-Semitic laws.

1921- Various anti-Semitic governments.

1939

1930 55% of doctors in Hungary are Jewish

30% of engineers

32% academicians/writers

15% of painters, 25% of musicians, 27% of actors

51% of independent commerce, 11% of industry

75% of salesmen, 59% of bank clerks, 45% of merchants

59% of accountants, 19% of clerks

1935 Rightist parties unite under Ferenc Szalasi

1941 With return of territories:

400, 000 + 324,000 = 725,000 Jews in the larger Hungary

90,000 + 10,000 = 100,000 baptised Jews

1938 Occupation of Slovakia: 146,000 more Jews.

1940 Occupation of Transylvania from Romania: 164,000 more Jews.

1941 Occupation of Vojvodina from Yugoslavia: 14,000 more Jews.

1938 New government's program: anti-Bolshevik re-armament and settling of the Jewish question: restricting Jews' role in the economy.

First Jewish laws: limit role to 20%, in film and journalism 5% only. Define which Jews are exempt (reconverts).

1939 Second Jewish laws: who is a Jew - two grandparents.

Jews cannot become citizens or hold government positions including teaching. 6% limit in all professions, limit in cultural activities. 250,000 Jews effected.

Establishment of forced labour units for Jews and criminals.

1941 June: Hungary enters the war against the Soviet Union

100,000 Jews form labour units, still wearing uniforms

August: Third Jewish Laws: no mixed marriages, Racial definition of who is a Jew, including converts.

1942 January: Wannsee conference: decision on final solution .

"Homeless" Jews deported from Hungary to Poland and murdered.

380,000 Jews and others in labour units, not wearing uniforms any more.

1943 Hungarian army destroyed at Voronyezs, Russia - many Jewish victims.

Hungary negotiating with the Allies.

1944 March 15: Hungary occupied by German units. New pro- nazi government. Extreme right included. Gestapo and Eichmann also arrive with 200 strong Sonderkommando to impose the Final Solution in Hungary .

March 30: All opposition parties disbanded.

April 2: Americans begin bombing Hungary.

April 3: British bombing of Hungary begins.

April 4: Jews ordered to move into the ghetto or marked Jewish houses.

April 5: Yellow star must be worn.

April 16: Round-up of Jews into internment camps and ghettos begins preparation for deportations from the countryside.

April 30: No more Jewish publications allowed. Jewish books are burned or shredded from public libraries.

May 16: Deportation from the countryside to Auschwitz begins.

June 16: 450,000 Jewish books burned.

June 17: Budapest Jews move into Yellow Star buildings

Before: 20% Jews - 40% of homes, 45% of rooms

Yellow Star - only 5% of buildings.

June 25: Jews allowed on the streets 3 hours a day, must ride on last part of streetcars, not allowed in public places, no Gentile-Jewish contacts allowed.

July 7: Horthy orders to stop deportations.

Budapest Jewry saved. 147 trains took 435,000 people to concentration camps.

In Budapest: 170,000 Jews in Yellow Star buildings

100,000 others as converts, exempt or in hiding.

July end: International ghetto of "protected" houses established

Jewish labour force to repair bomb damage in Budapest

Aug. 29: New government, General Lakatos - moderate

Eichmann prepares schedule of deportation of Budapest Jews.

Oct. 15: Horthy declares exit from alliance, cease-fire with Soviets.

Gestapo arrest his son, taken to Mauthausen.

Nazis take over, Szalasi government of Hungarian fascists formed.

Oct. 20: All Jewish males 16-60 ordered to labour camps.

Nov. 8: Death marches to Austria (Hegyeshalom) begin Tenths of thousands murdered on the way.

Nov. 29: Budapest ghetto organised, 70,000 in 0.3 sq. Km.

14 people per room. High fence, 4 gates.

Jewish police force.

Food supply 700 calories per day.

December: Unbridled, uncontrolled terror all over the city.

Dec. 22: Free Hungarian government set up in Debrecen.

Dec. 26: Budapest encircled, all Nazis escaped to Austria. Plan to blow up the entire ghetto.

1945 Jan. 16: Pest liberated by the Red Army. 17,000 Jews killed in Budapest during the Nazi reign of terror.

Feb. 13: Buda liberated.

April 4: Hungary liberated. All anti-Semitic laws annulled by the new government.

October: Hungarian Nazi criminals returned, Peoples' Courts begin to sentence all the captured leaders to death.

November: Election victory to Small Landholders Party.

 

Summary:

Before 1944 825,000 Jews in Hungary.

In 1945 255,000 - 120,000 survived in Budapest. 115,000 returned from deportation.

20,000 survived labour camps.

Total loss 1941-45: 570,000 people.

 

 

 

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