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Anti-Semitism Before the War

We had heard Hitler’s speeches and read Mein Kampf. To me, Mein Kampf seemed like a fantasy–like the science fiction stories of Jules Verne, or the American cowboy stories I had read. It never occurred to me that that man Hitler might really mean what he had written. When I listened to his speeches, he sounded more like an actor putting on an act to entertain people than a real menace. It just never seemed real; it was too fantastic, too ridiculous, too extremist to be real.

But then we heard about Kristallnacht and the atrocities committed against Jews in Germany. These events were shown over and over again in the newsreels. Similar things went on in Hungarian villages: Jews were beaten up, synagogues and cemeteries were defaced. But Jews living in the villages were treated much worse than those in Budapest who were quite assimilated. Right up to the outbreak of World War II in 1939, shortly after my seventh birthday, middle-class Jews living in Budapest were able to live in relative freedom.

There was no way we could have foreseen Hitler’s “Final Solution“, but my parents did sense that the situation would likely worsen and they tried to get us out of Hungary. Like many European Jews, we had family in America. I clearly remember a photo of our rich uncle and his family in New York. They’re standing around a shiny car, all wearing strange clothing, like in a movie. Our uncle is wearing a fedora, like some Chicago gangster. We asked them to obtain immigration visas for us so we could join them in the U.S. but the American authorities didn’t see much urgency. We were told that due to the small Hungarian immigration quota, our application for visas would be up for approval sometime in the 1950s! They may as well have said the year 2000…

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