I was born and lived in Budapest. I remember my 3rd birthday party; I had lots of toys and dolls, a stove and dishes, pots and pans to play with. Soon afterwards, in June 1941, my grandparents, aunts, and uncles were taken away, “relocated,” never to be seen again. They were brutally murdered in Kamenetz-Podolsk because they were born in Poland. They came from Poland, met and married in Hungary. My maternal grandfather served in World War I in the Austro-Hungarian Army in the medical team.
After 1941, our life started to change quickly. While we were still living in our own home. I remember having to wear the yellow star on my coat. My father was a clothing salesman. His boss was Jewish and had to sign over his business to a non-Jewish owner, and my father could not work there any longer. He started selling clothing to his former customers at night.
Later, all the Jews were ordered to move into a designated Jewish area. It was small, perhaps a ten square block area. It was difficult to find an apartment there. We were lucky to get a one bedroom apartment, because my father’s brother-in-law owned a building. Much later, after my father was taken to forced labor, the house became part of the Budapest ghetto. My father never returned. After the war, we learned that he perished in the concentration camp at Felixdorf, Austria.
After my father was taken away, we left the apartment and went into hiding. We did not take many things with us, perhaps a small suitcase. I remember my mother had a very large handbag. She put all her jewelry and a few pieces of my father’s in it. I also gave her my necklace, bracelet and ring. She also put all our important documents, photos and money into her handbag.
We went into hiding. Our first hiding place was in a cemetery, in a large family plot. We slept on the cement, but I do not remember much of that time. When the weather became cold, we moved on. Next we hid in the empty bins of an ice-cream factory.
Our last hiding place was in an orphanage. My mother got a job as a kitchen-maid. My brother was thirteen and was too old to stay with us and the nuns. He was placed with the soldiers who were guarding the orphanage. We rarely saw him.
By this time, the war was in full force. Planes were flying overhead and dropping many bombs. We neither had electricity nor water. We melted snow for water. I was left alone a lot. I was very scared from the bombs, tanks and shooting all around me. I sometimes did small jobs, such as peeling potatoes or cleaning up what others were doing.
I only saw my mother at night. We shared a narrow camp bed to sleep on. I was always hungry and cold. Although I could smell the food, I was given very little to eat. I don’t remember seeing other children. I was always by myself and very lonely.
I recently asked my brother about our experiences. He did not want to talk about it but later said the orphans were kept in another building which was hit by a bomb and they were all killed. We survived.
My mother became the head of the family and made sure we were safe. She went out into the streets when everyone else was running for shelter from the bombs. During that time she acquired false ID papers. We also had the Wallenberg papers which came in handy during our time in hiding.
Many times, we were in dangerous situations, facing death but somehow, we always escaped, survived or were saved by some miracle. By the end of 1944, the German and Russian soldiers were fighting house to house. Many Russian soldiers died fighting to save the Jews in the Budapest Ghetto, as well as to liberate Hungary.
By then it was clear that the Germans had lost the war, but the murder and torture did not stop. In a last ditch effort, they killed and tortured many people. They robbed the country of the valuables that were left, including paintings from both private homes and museums.
At the end of 1944, the priest at the orphanage asked us to leave. By hiding there, we were putting everyone’s lives in danger if we were discovered by the Germans.
I remember seeing all the dead people piled up like firewood on top of each other. Dead soldiers were lying in ditches, naked. People took the dead soldiers uniforms to cover themselves in the bitter cold.
The snow was so high, it nearly buried me. My brother took a pair of boots off a dead soldier. My mother cut out the front of my too small shoes so that I could walk. We saw a lot of strange looking people, survivors, looking like skeletons walking back on foot from the camps. People were hung by their feet from trees when they were recognized, by their neighbors who informed on them. The country was in total chaos. There were vigilantes everywhere.
On January 18, 1945, Budapest was liberated. We went to our apartment, but it was occupied. We stayed with a former neighbor, five of us sleeping in a single bed lying across the bed for about a month. With my uncle’s help, we got our apartment back. We continued to be good friends with the neighbors who helped us when we needed them. As soon as the war ended, Hungary was occupied by the Soviets, and became a communist country. There were public trials and hangings, followed by huge inflation.
My brother went back to finish school and helped my mother run the small business she opened. I was 7 years old when I started first grade. I too wanted to help like my brother. After school I would go to the farmers market and do the shopping for dinner. I had very little money to shop. The farmers knew me and they let me barter to buy the food. We had two nice neighbors who taught me to make a fire and cook.
When my brother turned 18 years old, he was called to service in the army for two years. The Yugoslavian border was a dangerous place to be at the time and he was mistreated. He was a talented singer, and joined the group who entertained troops. This may have saved his life.
In 1952 he was discharged, took on a job so he could learn a trade, and took singing lessons. I continued school, even though I was given a difficult time. I was always afraid of being transferred to different places, but I was a good student, and in 1956 I graduated with honors. I was chosen from my school to work at a great job with good pay.
After my mother found out that her parents had perished and my father did not survive, she wanted to leave Hungary to go to Palestine, but we heard that ships were not being let in to the country. We applied for passports to the U.S. in 1947 and were registered with a number for visa application. But we never received the visas to travel. Because of the passports, we were considered “capitalist sympathizers.”
In October, 1956, the revolution broke out. The borders were opened and my mother wanted to leave the country. At first my brother refused, but later relented to my mother’s constant pleading. After selling all our belongings and furniture to raise the money, we paid a smuggler to take us across the border.
On Christmas Eve 1956, my mother, brother and I along with about 50 other people left for the border. The children were given sleeping pills so they would be quiet. One child began to cry and the border guard heard the noise and began to chase us. They were shooting and chasing us. I was very scared. It was very cold and rainy. The rain froze to ice on our clothing. We dropped our backpacks and ran for our lives.
We made it to no-man’s land in all the commotion, but our smuggler got drunk to stay warm. He had no idea where we were. We saw lights in the distance, and as we got closer we saw an Austrian flag and soldiers. They were not allowed to come help us, but somehow we made it across the border to the town of Daitchkreitz.
We received a warm welcome. The townspeople gave us clothing, dried our shoes in their ovens and fed us. My mother spoke German so we had no language problem. I had some knowledge of English because I had lessons before our escape. A few days later we took a train to Vienna, and we were directed to the offices of HIAS (Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society).
They helped us by giving us food, shelter and money for one month. I will be forever grateful for their help. We try to donate for the past fifty years as a payback. Before the first month ended, we all had jobs. We did not care how little we were paid. We were grateful for the jobs and all the new experiences, the feeling of being free. I never knew the true feeling of freedom and all the blessings and opportunities it presented.
We registered at the American Embassy with our old passport. Within a year, our registration number came up. With help again, we were given plane tickets from Vienna to New York. We stayed in a hotel the first night where we were issued legal resident status (a white card and a social security card).
The following day we purchased train tickets to Boston with the money we earned and saved in Vienna. My mother’s uncle waited for us as the train arrived. Our long journey finally ended. After so many years of wandering, we found a home, were accepted and welcomed here. We were happy to be able to work and enjoy the fruits of our labor. We moved into our own apartment, furnished it, bought a used car and made new friends.
We finally had a country where we belonged, and now could make plans and dream about the future. I met my future husband, Thomas, and now in August, 2011, we will be celebrating our fiftieth wedding anniversary. We had a beautiful wedding, a dream only possible in this country. We have two wonderful daughters and four grandchildren who we adore. My brother also got married and has two children and five grandchildren. We also have a large extended family. We are on our way to recreating the family we once had.
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