Hungary Holocaust survivors are hard to find, and in this complete book Andrew Salamon shares his story of survival.
In 1939, Budapest, Hungary was a beautiful and lively metropolis, gracing the banks of the Danube River. Six years later, the city lay in shambles, and 460,000 Jews had been killed.
This is the remarkable story of one Jewish boy who survived those years…
Chapter 1: Before the War – 1932-1938
I lived a normal, happy childhood. Absolutely normal and average. Barely a cloud darkened the skies of my early childhood years.
My name is Andrew Salamon.
In 1930, my parents and my older brother moved to Budapest where, in May of that year, father started working for the Gruenfeld Brothers’ wholesale business.
Two years later, I was born. It was 1932, the year the Nazi party experienced its first success at the polls in Germany – not the best year for a Jewish child to come into this world in Europe.
My Childhood Home
Of the whole Salamon clan, I was the first and only child to be born in Budapest – the only one without a trace of rural background. There were approximately one million people (10% of the country’s population) living in Budapest at that time, 20% of whom were Jewish.
Budapest was a thriving, rich and cosmopolitan metropolis. Majestic museums, theatres, opera houses and concert halls were constructed. The Danube river was lined with expensive apartment houses.
Wide avenues and ring roads provided plenty of room for the growing traffic. The elegant restaurants on the ring roads – the city’s principal thoroughfare – were packed with pre-theatre crowds and the cafés with post-theatre revelers, enjoying modern jazz and gypsy music. In short, it was a lively, marvelous place to live.
We lived in a suburb called Kobanya. Our two-bedroom apartment was on the second floor of a low-rise building.
Next to our building, there was an empty lot, overgrown with wild bushes, where we fought battles, played football and cops and robbers, and chased each other around.
In my pre-school years, I used to roam the large courtyard, climb on top of wagons loaded up with crates, or walk around the offices and get in everyone’s way.
In short, I lived a normal, happy childhood.
My Jewish Heritage
Under the influence of my mother, Father became a Conservative Jew, leaving orthodoxy behind him, but he remained devout, never working on the Sabbath or other Jewish holidays.
We kept kosher at home (with two sets of dishes and a third one for Pesach), and we went to the synagogue every Friday night and on Saturday. Holidays were celebrated in all their splendour: we built a sukkah for the Sukkoth holiday – which we celebrate in September – and had two memorable Seder feasts every year, with many guests (sometimes total strangers that Father picked up at Synagogue) who shared 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 celebration never ended before midnight.
We did all the things Jews were supposed to do but, for the most part, we lived in a gentile world, surrounded by gentile neighbours, schoolmates, co-workers and friends. Jews lived in another part of town, close to the synagogue, which was a 15 to 20 minute walk from us. We attended synagogue every week, but as far as I remember, we had little contact with other Jewish families.
Pesach: The Hebrew word for Passover, the Jewish holiday that commemorates the Hebrews’ liberation from slavery in Egypt.
sukkah: A temporary shelter with a roof of branches and leaves that is used (especially for meals) during the Sukkoth holiday. Originally, these shelters were used by Jews as they travelled to the Promised Land. Once in Jerusalem, the city became so crowded during harvest time that such structures were also erected in and around the city.
Sukkoth: A Jewish harvest festival, lasting seven days, in remembrance of the Jews who lived in temporary shelters as they travelled to the Promised Land.
Seder: A service and ceremonial dinner held on the first or first and second evenings of Passover in commemoration of the Hebrews’ exodus from Egypt.
gentile: A gentile is anyone who is not a Jew.
When I turned six, I started going to school. Due to my June birthday, I was one of the youngest in my class and – not meaning to brag – one of the smartest.
The teachers also liked me and often selected me to perform special tasks like supervising the class, distributing books and cleaning the blackboard.
I was also expected to maintain peace and order while the teachers were away from the classroom and report mischievous behaviour. At the time, these seemed like tremendous honours.
During all my school years, I recall only one other Jewish boy in any of my classes. His name was Arpad.
With his glasses and big nose, he looked more like the stereotypical Jew illustrated in the racist newspapers than I did. He was not liked by the other kids and was often called disparaging names.
Children would tell racist jokes or make derogatory comments, then realizing that I was sitting there, they would turn to me and quickly add
“but you’re different, Bandi (Bandi was my nickname); you’re not like one of those dirty Jews.”
To my great shame today, I was very pleased that I wasn’t like “those Jews” and that I didn’t “look like a Jew.” It was very important for me to be liked by my schoolmates, to be one of them.
He couldn’t repair a bike to save his life, but he had a few real mechanics who reported to him. Upon returning from trips to Hungarian towns and villages, Uncle Joe would tell us stories about Jewish life in the army and in the towns.
Although I didn’t personally experience racism in those early years, Jews in general did, very much so. At one time, Uncle Joe’s unit was ordered to confiscate all the bicycles from Jewish store owners.
He went around, with his Hungarian mechanics in tow, advising the startled shopkeepers in Yiddish to hide their good bikes. Then he made a second round and collected the old, decripit bikes they had left behind in the stores.
I was six when Father first left us. I didn’t fully understand what was happening but I felt miserable nonetheless.
It was the fall of 1938. Hitler was dismembering Czechoslovakia. After Hungary was allowed to reoccupy land it had lost in World War I, the Hungarian army was marched into the Felvidek in Slovakia.
I had gone to the hospital to have my tonsils removed. The day after my operation, my father, an ordinary soldier in a foot brigade, received his marching orders.
He came to the hospital in his army uniform to kiss me goodbye.
“Be a good boy now. You’ll be going home soon and I’ll be back as soon as I can,” he said in a choked voice. Father was not very good at expressing his emotions; many things, then and later, were left understood but unsaid between us.
After he left, I stood by the window, watching his thin figure vanish around the corner. Alone in the room, I felt completely abandoned.
My eyes welled up with tears and I felt terribly sorry for myself. Even the ice cream the nurses offered me couldn’t erase the foreboding feeling I had in my heart.
This was my first inkling that something was wrong, that my father might be in danger, and that I might never see him again.
It was many months before he returned home. During those months, my mother decided that she and my father should start their own business so that she could work while he was away.
In August of 1939, they purchased a small, run-down store in the city where they sold glass and porcelain and repaired broken windows and mirrors. When Father was home, he continued to work at the Gruenfelds, while mother ran the shop with the help of a full-time employee.
The store changed our lives completely. David and I only saw our parents in the evenings and then, they were usually busy doing the books and planning for the future.
Early Encounters with Germans
Near my school, a widow had set up a small pension in her house where she served lunch to middle-class men who worked in nearby offices.
Mother arranged for me to join this crowd and I quickly learned to behave like them: I would say ‘good day’, take a newspaper from the wooden frames hanging by the entrance and seat myself at my regular table.
(Reading the paper while eating is one bad habit that has stayed with me for life!)
Two years later, when German officers replaced the regular customers, the daily paper selection was expanded to include the Volkische Beobachter and Der Sturmer – anti–semitic nazi papers which allowed me to practice my German and provided me with a new perspective on Jews and Judaism.
Seeing me reading their newspapers, the German officers would pat me on the head, inquire about school and praise my good German. I quickly became their little pet.
Who knows? They may have even missed me when I abruptly stopped eating there a little while later – never suspecting, of course, that it was a little Jew they were pampering.
Shortly afterwards, I was told by the woman of the house that it would be better if I didn’t come back, that she didn’t need Jews’ money; she had enough German customers.
That was when it finally hit home that I was one of those Jews, that I’d better beware of those German officers because I was on the wrong side of the fence.
anti-semitism: Prejudice or discrimination against Jews.
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.
Mein Kampf: A book written by Adolf Hitler in 1924 – years before he came to power in Germany – in which he outlined his philosophies and beliefs.
Kristallnacht: On November 9th and 10th, 1938, Nazis terrorized Jews throughout Germany and Austria. 30,000 Jews were arrested and sent to concentration camps; 91 were killed.
Thousands of Jewish shops, businesses and homes were looted and pillaged, and over 1000 synagogues were destroyed. Because the streets were covered with broken glass from the looting, this night came to be known as Kristallnacht, which means Night of the Broken Glass.
Two days earlier, Ernst von Rath (Third Secretary of the German Embassy in Paris) had been shot by a Polish Jew. The assassination was used as an excuse by the Nazis for their long-since planned pogrom.
Three days after Kristallnacht, the Nazis decided that Jews would have to pay for the damage they had provoked.
“Final Solution”: The name of the Nazis’ plan, executed by Adolf Eichmann, to kill all of the Jews in Europe.
Hungary Holocaust Survivors
Written by Andrew Salamon
Edited by Debbie Koenig
Designed and implemented by Jean Gillespie
To order the complete text in hard copy, please contact Andrew Salamon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos are reproduced with permission of:
Thomas Veres, photographer
USHMM Photo Archives
YIVO Institute for Jewish Research
Yad Vashem Photo Archives