Here’s the complete story of a survivor of the Hungary Holocaust from the book, Childhood in Times of War by Andrew Salamon. His story of survival of his family and Budapest neighbors gives a personal insight to the events.
The following is from Chapter 4 of the book, the entire book is here:
4. Part 2 “THE FINAL SOLUTION” | 5. Liberation & Beyond
Refugee Status in the Hungary Holocaust
People fled by train, truck, horse cart or on foot, carrying minimal belongings, often without any papers. This gave me an idea: I could claim refugee status and obtain more valid documents.
The dreaded Red Army was rolling forward into Hungary and Nazi propaganda about the cruelty of the fast approaching enemy was in full force.
I carefully concocted a story about being a war orphan, from the town of Kolozsvar in Transylvania, a town occupied by the Russians.
The story included losing all my relatives as well as my papers and other belongings. All alone in the world.
Rounding out my story with the name of the street I had lived on, the names of my parents, brothers and sisters.
My last name, Kocsis, a good old Hungarian peasant name, which was written into my cherished documents.
Obtaining food coupons was now easy. I headed to the nearest refugee community kitchen, looking hungry and exhausted, and was given a bowl of soup and food coupons.
Then visiting a number of offices and received coupons for clothing, and a card that allowed me to sleep in a refugee shelter. I was assigned a small place in a hospice and the local police station issued a temporary residency card for that address.
These papers were of limited use as they were only valid for a certain amount of time.
But they provided temporary cover and gave me the self-confidence I needed to move around the city without fear of arrest.
My New Identity
I went through a period of refining my story so that it would be sufficiently detailed and believable.
When going for a meal or a rest at one of the shelters and people asked me why a 12-year-old boy was living alone, I would tell them my sob story.
Someone would say: “Oh, I am also from Kolozsvar! Where did you live?“
“On Rakoczy Street,” I would respond, hesitantly.
“Me too. 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 Sainte Catherine.
The next time adding the Catholic church to my story. Or if someone asked about the Katona family who lived on the same street?
My answer was evasive, but the Katona family became our neighbours in my story from that point on.
When it came to my people, just had to start talking about how they had both perished at the cruel hands of the damned Bolsheviks. Shed a few tears and all questioning on the subject would cease.
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 because there was no Gymnasium on Petofi Street?
Maybe it was Arpadi Street, I would laugh out of embarrassment and admit my mistake. The next time, my school was situated on the correct street.
My story was pretty solid by the time it was critical to have all the details worked out.
In the meantime, learning 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 on my own in the refugee shelters.
The few catechism lessons I had taken from a priest back in 1943 came in very handy now.
In the public shelter before we sat down to eat, we always recited a few prayers. The “Our Fathers” and “Hail Marys” came rolling off my tongue, as if saying them forever.
Also made the sign of the cross when walking by a church or reciting prayers. When a priest was present, we had to greet him humbly and genuflect in front of the crosses that hung 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.
Similar difficulty taking showers at the shelters, as you could never count on being alone. Being discovered as circumcised was the surest, deadliest giveaway.
All in all, I kind of enjoyed my privileged status as a poor refugee child from the east. Never forgetting posing as someone else, but it made me laugh inside to see how easy it was to fool people and milk their sympathy.
“If only they knew…“, I sometimes thought, when selling my story to yet another person. Felt myself to be quite the little actor.
Reign of Terror in the Hungary Holocaust
October 15th, 1944 is a date that is forever etched in my memory.
On that day, the Hungarian Nazi Party took control of the country and unleashed a reign of terror:
The leader of the Hungarian Nazi party, Ferenc Szálasi, became prime minister.
The police forces were put under the control of the Hungarian fascists.
Jews not yet living in the ghetto were ordered to move in, and the ghetto gates were locked and placed under strict Nazi surveillance.
Jews were ordered to stay inside their marked houses, 24 hours a day.
All the marauding nazi units, comprised mostly of 12- to 15-year-old youths, were armed.
The Nazi take-over was swift and complete. Within days, it seemed like all the residents of Budapest turned into ardent Nazis.
The day after the take-over, I headed home to our yellow star house to tell David, Mother and the others the tragic news.
About the atrocities I had witnessed in the city. At this time, the first air raid of the day was signaled.
The bombings started again with great force. Finally both Russian and American planes attacked the city, destroying entire city blocks and leaving roads and streetcar lines in ruins.
I found our yellow star house in shambles. The door had been broken down and the women were hysterical, sitting in a corner crying.
An Arrow Cross group had raided the house the day before. They had smashed everything, beaten up the women, stolen anything worth stealing, and threatened to come back.
Five minutes after they left, Mother had taken her already packed bag and left for her planned hideaway. She moved to the relative safety of a fake orphanage, where there was no room for David and me.
Mother, David and I had decided earlier that moving to the ghetto would be a death sentence. We would die of starvation, disease or as a result of Nazi violence.
Or we would be deported to a concentration camp, and deportation also meant death. So David and I decided to go our separate ways and fend for ourselves.
As I made my usual tour around the food and shelter places, I discovered that every location was being guarded by Nazis.
Papers were closely scrutinized and people were dragged away when there was the slightest suspicion of false documents. One day while waiting in a lunch line, this happened not too far ahead of me.
I wasn’t sure what to do since walking away was just as dangerous as staying in line. But 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.
At the shelters, where there were also Nazis checking documents and questioning each one of us before letting us in, luck once again intervened.
Some people in the line called out to the Nazi guard, reassuring him that I was truly an innocent victim of the Bolsheviks. And he let me in.
How much longer could this luck of mine last?
A Young Nazi Is Born…a Hungary Holocaust story
I had heard stories about young Jews stealing uniforms and pretending to be Nazis, thinking:
‘This is a brilliant idea! Why can’t I do that?‘
Siimply steal the necessary clothing and a few documents.
It was surprisingly easy. There were many bodies on the sidewalks and in building doorways, as they were no longer collected off the streets.
Jews, people suspected of being Jewish, and soldiers who were caught hiding among the civilian population were all shot on the spot. Fortunately, with the cold weather, the corpses froze, preventing the spread of disease.
So there was a constant supply of dead bodies with valuable documents, weapons, army and Nazi uniforms, shoes, boots, and so on.
As the air raid marshals no longer supervised the streets, I could, in relative safety, scout around for a corpse to strip of its belongings. It had to be done swiftly and adroitly.
I spotted the body of a young person about my size, lying under the ruins. Many of these poor soldiers were children who had been conscripted in the emergency rush of the past weeks.
I crawled up to him, took his leather jacket, boots, money, and documents. From another corpse, peeled off the Nazi armband and wide belt with a holster.
From a third body, obtained a weapon and bullets.
Now I was dressed and armed like a little Nazi. The clothes didn’t fit me perfectly, but the streets were full of urchins wandering around in oversized overcoats, with hats covering their eyes.
Budapest, in November, 1944, was no fashion show.
That first time I “robbed” a corpse, fighting the feeling that it was actually alive, that it would open its eyes, slap my hand, and say, “Don’t touch me!”
It was so strange to touch a dead body, but after doing it a few times, I got used to it.
Also took some getting used to being a member of the “select race,” the worst scum my beloved city had ever produced.
But with a little practice, I managed to shout the Nazi greeting just as loudly as anyone else, while stretching out my right arm:
“Hang in there, Brother! Long live Szálasi!“
Finding Food and Shelter in the Budapest Hungary Holocaust
From the day I left the relative safety of the yellow star home, the days, weeks and months became one blurry period of sheer animal survival.
Wake up, under ruins or in the doorway of a house, and look for water to clean myself with. Then the daily walk began.
It was important to be on the move, and not stay in one place for too long. I would enter a church for a short “prayer.”
Once in a while, a priest would come out and offer me some food – a piece of bread or ersatz sausage, or a hot drink. This was one source of breakfast, although unreliable.
It was also dangerous, because the Nazi gangs regularly searched churches for Jews. And young fascists were supposed to be free of the superstition of religion.
During or shortly after a bombing raid, I would climb through the blown out windows of an abandoned apartment.
Scavenge around for food. This had to be done fast, before the owners returned home from the shelter.
if they were still alive, that is. Sometimes I managed to put a small package together, which would last me a day, or even for a few days.
Come night time, I had to figure out where to sleep again.
The question was never: What am I going to do tomorrow?
Nazi “Party Houses”
Strangely enough, one of the safer ways to spend a few hours was in the company of young Nazis. When I met a group of them on the street, they always wanted to know where you were from and where you were heading.
After telling my sob story, they would invite me to their party houses, offering me food and sometimes shelter for the night. These party houses were set up all over the city, in abandoned homes, shelters and basements.
They were used to house the young Nazis, and store food, weapons, ammunition and robbed loot. Some of the larger houses also had cellars used for holding Jews and other “suspect” characters.
But mostly, these houses were places for young Nazis to hang out in between raids, a place where they could boast about their escapades and adventures.
Their stories were, without fail, about the atrocities they had committed against Jews. They would compete to see who could use the foulest language to describe their victims, and who had the most vicious stories to tell.
Beatings, rapes, executions, every possible method of degradation was employed by these children and recounted in great detail.
Boys between the ages of 12 and 15 raped and killed young Jewish girls and women. Then they bragged about their exploits!
I couldn’t compete with their foul mouths, telling my tale about being a heroic refugee from the east, and recounting in detail the horrible way in which the Red soldiers behaved towards us good Christian Hungarians.
My delivery improved with each telling, the horror stories became more detailed, the atrocities worse. They declared in loud childish voices that they would defend Budapest and that the Russians would never be allowed to capture the city.
As an eyewitness, my stories had a ring of truth to them. I became popular.
For a few months, I ate, slept and hid wherever I could. Every day, the challenge to survive became harder and harder.
The temperature dropped below zero early on in the winter of 1944. Sleeping under rubble, I would try to cover myself with an old overcoat or a blanket, but was perpetually cold.
And the little food I could find was never enough. Sometimes going for a day or two without anything to eat.
After a while, the hunger became less painful and the gut-wrenching stomach cramps eased. I would gnaw on a dry piece of bread, or on a piece of leather just to satisfy my craving to chew on something.
Graves of the Danube in the Hungary Holocaust
In those days, death lurked just around every corner, all the time. The Nazi killing squads swarmed the city unchecked.
One time, while forced to join one of these squads on one of their daily forays, I witnessed what I had only heard about before.
We were marching around, keeping close to the walls to avoid flying shrapnel and exploding shells. Ahead of us, we saw two figures disappear through a doorway.
Suspicious, our leader rushed after them. There, behind the door, huddled in the corner, was an elderly Jewish couple.
They couldn’t produce any papers and after being slapped a few times, the old man confessed that they had escaped from the ghetto.
This time, there was no on-the-spot execution. The leader told us, grinning, that these victims would be “sent to have a swim.”
We surrounded the couple and marched them to a nearby party house, which served as a collection centre for captured Jews and other “criminals.” The couple was literally kicked down the stairs, into the cellar.
The gang leader received praise from the local head man for his alertness. Then we were told that they would need people for the next morning’s “swim,” and that we should stay around for the night.
Luckily, I wasn’t carrying a firearm and had a good excuse for not participating in the “action.”
We were woken early the next morning and handed a cup of ersatz coffee. Some hot black water trying to pass as coffee.
Then the prisoners were ordered to climb up from the cellar. Out came an assortment of people, mostly elderly, some bleeding, limping and supporting each other.
Although none wore yellow stars, they were likely all Jews. I stood away from the victims as much as I could.
They were tied together with ropes in groups of three, and marched towards the Danube river. I stayed back at the party house.
I found out later what happened, from the foul mouths of the returning heroes. This is the story my “kameraden” told upon their return…
On the way to the river, everyone was silent as they walked through the semi-dark, deserted city streets.
It took a long time in the cold winter morning to reach the river. They knew what was going to happen.
all of them, victims and murderers, just walked on, without a word.
Near the river, someone joined them, also carrying a rifle. It was a priest dressed in a black cassock.
As they arrived at the quay of the Danube, the priest stepped aside. The younger Nazis were told to stand back and wait.
None of the victims were 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.
(It was at this point in the story that I realized what the ropes were for.
in case some of the victims were not killed by the bullets, they would be pulled into the river with the others and drown anyway.)
Next, the older Nazis walked away from the group, and away from the river.
They lifted their guns and began shooting. No orders were given.
it was just a slow, almost lazy process of execution.
The bodies jerked as they were hit, then fell backward under the impact of the bullets into the river.
The executioners could hear the heavy thump of the bodies as they hit the 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, Father Kun, stepped forward.
Raising the large wooden cross that hung around his neck, he began to pray.
Some of the Nazis in the group knelt down to receive absolution from this representative of the Catholic Church.
Never found out who the victims were. Finding myself on the other side caused me tremendous grief and a deep sense of shame.
I had been afraid to look at the victims, remorseful for witnessing their humiliation and for being so powerless to do anything.
Stop the murders, or at least alleviate their suffering. Been afraid to look at my Nazi “brothers,” worried that my burning cheeks might give me away.
After the shooting, the killers walked to the edge of the Danube and looked down.
The ice was littered with the dead bodies. still bound together. None of them moved.
The ice was slowly floating downstream.
after a minute or two, the bodies started sinking into the water that opened up between big ice floes.
A couple of minutes later, the victims had completely disappeared.
One of the ice blocks, still stained with the blood of some of the murdered, got caught in an ice jam.
the red blotches of blood remained visible from the distance. The rising sun was already washing over the hills across the river.
Some of the murderers went up to Father Kun and kissed the cross hanging from his neck.
The Church instantly absolved them of the crimes they had just committed.
When one of them recounted this episode, deep inside, I hoped that our society would not absolve them and that they would meet justice one day.
In the meantime, pretending they were my “brothers” and joining in in the merriment, which now broke out unfettered. It was time to celebrate a job well done.
These murderers were used to all this, as this was a routine visit to the Danube. One of them casually remarked that they had just wiped a few more vermin off the face of the earth.
That’s all, just a few vermin!
It was December, around the middle of the month. The streets had become increasingly unsafe.
The bombing attacks continued unabated and flying bricks and shrapnel made any movement on the streets extremely dangerous. Dead bodies lay frozen on the pavement.
Piles of rubble became mountains, at the foot of walls which were teetering, ready to collapse with the next explosion.
It was a bad day for me: finding neither food nor warm shelter for the night. Darkness fell early on the city, which lay dead under the snow and darkening skies.
Decided to go to sleep early, not looking too carefully for a good shelter. Cold and exhausted, I just wanted to lie down, cover up with something warm and sleep through the night.
I climbed under a pile of rubble, somewhat protected by pieces of lumber. Dragging with me old rags that I had removed from one of the bodies.
My boots were wet so wrapped my feet with other bits of rag and stretched out.
The next thing I knew, waking up to somebody kicking my feet to see whether I was dead or alive. It turned out that I stuck my feet out a little too far.
An angry voice shouted: “Get out of there immediately!” I crawled out and tried to stand up.
Immediately knocked to the ground by a powerful slap on the face, which brought me to the feet of young Nazi thugs who were brandishing rifles and looking at me with contempt.
Instantly understood my predicament: here dressed up like one of them, yet sleeping under rubble, as if hiding. I had some explaining to do.
Started mumbling my explanation to the Nazi “brothers.” The leader demanded to see my documents.
I pulled out my bundle from my jacket pocket and handed them over. They were genuine, but quite an assortment of papers stolen from different sources.
After scanning them, 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 didn’t work. Caught off guard, losing my confidence and stammering something incomprehensible.
The truth was that I could think of no reason why a uniformed Nazi would sleep among the ruins, in the cold open air rather than entering a party house for the night.
“Pull down your pants!” one of them ordered. I refused, claiming that it was too cold. They grabbed my arms and one of them pulled down my pants and shorts.
Seeing my circumcised penis, they started to beat me up with their gun butts and fists. Then they ordered me to stand up and pull up my pants.
With shaking hands, I obeyed. The game was clearly up. I had fallen into enemy hands.
They demanded to know how I had obtained the uniforms and the documents.
“They’re 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 armband, 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.
The party house we went to was one of the larger ones. The leader of the group that had captured me reported me to his leader and I was shoved in a room.
They sat me on a chair and tied me up, my hands behind the back of the chair. A few older men entered and started interrogating me about the origin of the documents, which they waved in my face.
One of them pushed his face against mine. His spittle showered my face as he spoke:
“Dirty Jewish swine, your pocket is full of false documents. From whom did you get them?“
“No Sir, they are not false,” answering with exaggerated politeness totally wasted on the brute.
“I took them from dead peoples’ pockets.”
This 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 to my face felt like an electric shock.
My head twisted from side to side, the shocks shook my skull and made my ears ring. They knocked the chair over, with my battered body tied to it, then set it up again and continued the interrogation.
At one point, I lost consciousness and came to as they poured ice cold water over my head. More slaps. I kept mumbling that I was innocent, but no one was listening anymore.
It is impossible to say how long the beating lasted. It could have been only minutes, or it could have been 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. No one will ever slap my face again. If I live…‘
Somehow, this inner conversation helped me survive the beating.
They eventually 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 had suffered no serious injury. However, the rope was tight, and my arms and legs were numb.
I started to feel extreme discomfort and prayed that somebody would remove the ropes from my wrists.
One of the thugs entered, untied me, pulled me up by my hair, and pushed me toward the door. We went outside and he opened another door that led 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.
My body landed on the damp and smelly cellar floor, where I lay for a while, then slowly stood up.
Brush With Death in the Hungary Holocaust
I wasn’t alone. A group of shadowy figures, who had been captured earlier, huddled around the walls.
They didn’t 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, blind and deaf to their surroundings.
For a long time the silence continued. My senses slowly recovered. I touched my swollen face and felt a burning pain.
“If I live, no one will slap me again,” I mumbled into the silence, feeling feverish, weak, and faint.
I looked around the dark cellar to see who my fellow captives were. Altogether we were about a dozen people, standing around listlessly, almost lifelessly.
There were a few old, religious Jews, one of them mumbling prayers into his beard. There were a few younger men, possibly soldiers on AWOL.
One of them had blood all over his face and swollen eyes from the beating he had received. Two old women were weeping silently. I realized that I had become a victim of the next death squad.
My hours were numbered, my destiny sealed.
Some of the people started to whisper, discussing what would happen next. They had been captured a day or two earlier and had been kept in the damp, cold cellar, without any food or water.
Weak from thirst, hunger and cold, they were already like living dead. They guessed that we would all be deported. Marched on foot towards the west, perhaps forced to enter the ghetto.
But I knew what was awaiting us.
Jews collected from the protected buildings or the yellow star buildings were taken to the ghetto. But another fate awaited escaping soldiers and those of us who had been hiding out as non-Jews.
Should I tell these people how hopeless our situation was? How, come dawn, we would be ordered outside, marched to the river and shot into the icy waters?
I decided to tell them the truth. Most of them didn’t listen, but just continued to pray or stare into space.
Some of the younger ones said that I was crazy, that those killings were only rumours.
Fell silent and retreated into myself. So did the others. Silently, we lay on the cold, dirty floor.
Strangely, I almost felt relieved. It was all over now: no more hiding, no more hunger and cold, no more role-playing. Tired of the daily struggle. Now captured and that was that.
This was the end. It had all lasted far too long and had become too hopeless as our liberation seemed more and more distant.
We were surrounded by the Nazi hordes who ran the city and everyone in it. It was hopeless to believe that any of us stood a chance of surviving.
I thought: ‘There should be a God watching over me. But he’s certainly not here.’
What kind of God could I turn to from inside this dark cellar, among people who were condemned to die?
To the God of my father, once my God too, who had abandoned us all? There was no use in praying.
Knowing about the execution routine gave me a feeling of finality. I had no tears to shed, no one to say final goodbyes to. Thought of my family and hoped that they would all survive.
They would cry over me when they realized I wasn’t coming back. My body would disappear under the floating ice as if it had never lived, never existed. That was that.
Sometime late that night, fell asleep. In the morning, we heard the door burst open and heavy boots coming down the stairs.
It happened exactly as I had imagined. It was still dark when we were marched outside to the street.
The young Arrow Cross members were dressed, shouldering their rifles. We were tied together in twos and ordered to start marching.
I had a feeling that this was not happening to me, that I was watching a film seen a long time ago. As if outside my body, a silent observer of a strange ritual.
It was a repeat performance of the execution scene that had been described. The streets were empty, shrouded in the darkness of early winter morning.
No light escaped from behind the shuttered windows as we made our way silently, in almost total darkness.
There was a lull in the bombing and shelling and the only sound was the echo of marching Nazi boots.
My good boots were gone now and was limping with my wet, frozen feet, wrapped in the rags worn inside my boots.
But the cold didn’t bother me. I felt nothing.
We were marching towards our death and 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 whose hand I was tied to, and to the other captives. We were fellows in suffering and in death.
Then, a miracle happened. Suddenly, we saw a group of Nazis and soldiers marching towards us.
Leading them was a tall, well-fed SS man who was heavily armed and imposing-looking in his clean uniform. In fluent German, he started yelling at the leader of our group.
The Hungarian Nazis didn’t understand German, so one of the soldiers from the other group translated.
The leader of our group explained that they were taking a bunch of Jews and other scum to the Danube to be executed.
Hearing that, the man behind me let out a muffled cry.
There ensued a sharp exchange of words. The SS man called the Hungarians a bunch of idiots for wasting bullets instead of preparing to defend the 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.
But the SS man and his comrades slowly gained the upper hand.
One of them grabbed the beard of one of the older Jews and began pulling him away. Another delivered a few hard blows to two of the captives.
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 marching us in the direction they had come from.
The Hungarian Nazis marched away. We didn’t utter a word.
The SS man and his cohorts looked even more frightening than the other Nazis. I couldn’t even guess what would happen to us now.
We stumbled along, receiving an occasional blow on the back to speed up our march. Eventually we found ourselves in an empty lot where all the houses had been bombed.
The SS man stopped, turned towards us and said in fluent Hungarian:
“You are saved. We are not fascists, we are rescuers. At the end of this lot there’s a passageway to another street.
Move fast and disappear before the Nazis return or the shelling begins.”
They quickly pulled out knives, cut our ropes with a few swift movements, and began moving away.
Zionist Rescue Group
Our group reacted to this amazing announcement like robots in a daze. Most of the captives, immediately, unquestioningly, started walking away as fast as they could.
There was no time to feel relieved, express our thanks or celebrate. 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 find new hiding places.
I was stunned. We had been saved by one of the Zionist rescue groups
But there was no time to contemplate the fantastic turn of events. Saved or not, I was now in a desperate situation.
My cover had been blown and my documents were all gone. Nowhere to go, nowhere to hide.
Telling the “SS man” about my predicament in a few words, that I wanted to join their group.
He looked at me for a moment and said:
“You can come with us and we can help you, but we can’t offer you permanent shelter.”
With that, they tied me up again and marched on, with me, a captured Jew, in the middle.
Now alive again and filled with new hope. We went to a safe house, that was under international protection, in the heart of the city, called the Glass House.
It was completely full and couldn’t shelter another person without endangering the safety of the others. The Zionists paraded in full nazi uniforms and pretended to guard the house.
Inside the building, confusion reigned. It was packed with people of all ages, waiting for washrooms and food.
I was sent to have something to eat and to lay down to rest. They provided me with new false documents, clothing, food and shelter for the day, along with a pair of shoes to protect my cold bare feet.
Later that evening, invited to join one of the groups that left to scout the city for news.
When we reached a quiet, safe corner, I was told to beat it. Once again, I was on my own.
It was confirmed later that my rescuers, the group that saved my life, was Hanoar Hazioni, one of the famed Zionist groups that masqueraded in uniforms and intimidated real Nazis.
They were very well organized, equipped with uniforms, weapons and false identification papers. They were also connected to other similar groups through a messenger service.
Young men who risked their lives, commuting between buildings, carrying documents and news from one group to another.
I later met the members of this liberal Zionist organization, when becoming a member after the war.
Survivors of the Hungarian Holocaust
That night I resumed my life of wandering and hiding, but didn’t feel lonely any more.
Now I knew that there was still Jewish life in the city, that there were resistance fighters and survivors. Determined to survive and live to see the arrival of our liberators.
My mother, my father, David and I were all still alive, thanks to individual miracles. Let me briefly recount each one of these.
Mother was hiding in the lumberyard cum orphanage, where I visited her a couple of times. David and a Polish boy also snuck in once in a while.
The place had enough basic food supplies to last for a few weeks, if necessary. Each time I left feeling reassured that at least Mother was safe. If only she could have felt the same way about me…
David had also survived these rotten months. Since escaping from his labour unit, like me, he had been hiding out in Budapest.
However, late in December 1944, we decided that the city had become too dangerous a place to live.
We both joined Mother and stayed with her till the end.
In late November, the great retreat from Budapest towards the west had begun.
Leading Nazis and their families fled in cars and trucks loaded with loot stolen from Jews. Racing for time against the encircling forces of the Red Army.
Escaping Nazis also herded Jewish labour units towards the Austrian border. Thus, the infamous Death March began.
Thousands of Jewish men without food, water or adequate winter clothing, were forced to march on the Budapest-Vienna highway. They slept on the side of the road, and ate the odd potato or root dug out of the frozen earth with their bare hands.
Each day, hundreds dropped dead from exhaustion, or were shot by the soldiers guarding them. This was indeed a death march, without any purpose or destination.
The mad Hungarian Nazis could no longer exterminate the remaining Jews all at once, so they sentenced them to slow death.
It was from these columns of doomed that the Swedish envoy Raoul Wallenberg rescued people. Wallenberg was a businessman who was sent to Budapest to help the Jewish population however he could.
He personally rescued thousands of people, never stopping, never giving up, right up to the last days of the war.
Father Saved by Wallenberg (and many others during the Hungary Holocaust)
In late October of 1944, Mother heard by word of mouth that Father was alive.
His forced labour unit, stationed on the eastern front, was on a Death March, slowly moving back towards the city, and then on to Austria.
She also managed to find out from a visiting soldier what Father’s unit number was and the names of a few other men in his unit.
Mother, the lioness, was not going to give up on her man at this late point in the war. She visited the Swedish building housing Wallenberg.
Gave them Father’s unit number, the names of other men in the unit, and their approximate location.
Precisely the information Wallenberg needed to do his work.
They prepared letters of protection and then raced after the targeted group by car.
Upon reaching the marching unit, wherever they were, Wallenberg would jump out of his car. 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 handed each one his document and ordered them into the car.
Before the Nazis realized what was happening, his car was already speeding back to Budapest with the rescued Jews in it.
That is how Father was saved.
Wallenberg brought Father back to the Swedish house in Budapest, from where Mother picked him up and brought him to her hiding place.
How my father, a slightly built, not very strong man survived years of mistreatment, hunger, cold and physical exertion, I cannot tell.
I never had a chance to question him about those days and now it is too late. But survive he did.
Woman of Valor
Thanks to Mother, all four of us survived the war. She hid David when he escaped.
She rescued Father from certain death. She encouraged me to keep on living.
And she organized what became the hiding place for all four of us.
During the last weeks of the siege, we all ended up in the lumberyard, her choice of a safe place proving to have been the best one.
If the expression Eshet Chayil, meaning “woman of valor,” should be applied to anyone, my mother deserves it many times over.
My Last Hiding Place in the Hungary Holocaust
The remote location of the lumberyard offered a relatively safe hiding place.
The family of one of the owner’s employees smuggled in food supplies.
Thanks to the organizational abilities of Mother and other women, supplies were rationed out frugally so that they lasted throughout the siege.
By December, two or three dozen people were living in the yard. Including individuals and families of all ages.
There were work sheds in the yard, containing woodworking machinery and a larger warehouse that was connected to the office building.
Under each machine in the work sheds was a large cement-lined pit with a concrete lid where the sawdust was collected.
This is where we hid. Each family was assigned its own shed and pit.
When the siege of Budapest started around mid-December, emergency measures were implemented. During the day, everyone stayed in their pits until dark.
There was no food, no access to toilets, no room to walk or even stand up straight.
The pits were just large enough for three or four people to sit or crouch in.
After eight to ten hours in these cramped spaces, we would cautiously climb out.
Then we’d gather in the warehouse or the converted office space, which was the designated night time living area.
The many shelves in the warehouse that used to hold large sheets of plywood and lumber now served as bunk beds. The small kitchen was used for primitive cooking.
Boiling water, cooking weak pea soups, dried peas and vegetarian stews were our meals. On lucky days, a piece of horse meat was added to this stew to provide some variety.
Electricity and water supplies were cut off by that time. But there was plenty of sawdust available for burning in the cooking stove.
Water was melted from snow and ice. Considering the primitive conditions, our basic survival needs were met quite well.
The conditions were extremely unsanitary. Washing and keeping clean were practically impossible tasks.
There was a humiliating head lice inspection every week, which involved pouring kerosene on the heads of those who were infested. The toilets often got blocked and backed up due to the cold and the lack of running water.
This was the source of constant bickering, as was food distribution.
But under the circumstances, it was surprising that the arguments weren’t sharper. We all managed to get through those months together.
When David and I arrived in mid-December and shared our parents’ pit with them, the space became even tighter. But we were hopeful that our liberators would arrive in a matter of days.
We were in one of the eastern most suburbs of the city and the Russian armies were only a few kilometres from us. But the front moved very slowly.
It took almost another month for the front line to reach our area. That was a very long month.
Tales From the Hiding Place
Among the families hiding was a Polish mother and son. After the father of the family had been murdered by the Germans in the Polish ghetto, they escaped into Hungary, surviving like animals in the forests.
In Budapest, they were caught by the Nazis who took them to the Danube, to shoot them into the river.
On the way to their execution, knowing what was about to happen, the boy 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 dead.
The son floated on top of an ice floe, dragging his mother through the freezing water until they were out of sight from the Nazis.
They climbed out of the water and hid until nightfall, then retraced their way to the city where they found a group of Jews who helped them.
The boy was a member of the Betar Zionist movement in Poland. The Hungarian Betarniks had provided help, as well as the German parachutist uniform he wore when making a sortie outside to find food.
During the long evenings together he told us many stirring and eye-opening stories about Jewish pride. About the need to fight back and the desire to go to Palestine after liberation.
David and I absorbed every word and, not surprisingly, it was Betar that both of us joined as soon as we could in 1945.
Immediately after liberation, the Polish mother and son joined their Zionist brethren and left for Palestine.
A favourite game, which we younger children played, was called “imaginary banquet.”
One player would recall a memorable meal he or she had eaten and describe it to us.
Using the greatest possible detail for each of the various courses, from appetizer and soup through to the main dish and, most importantly, the dessert and fruit.
The game called for maximum exaggeration in recalling appearance, smell and flavour.
Occasionally, an argument would erupt over the relative merit of one kind of caviar over another, or the best wine to serve with a certain dish.
There was great competition to make the group swoon at the mere mention of delicacies we hadn’t seen for years and which we might never live to enjoy again.
The mention of chocolate, linzer or dobos tortes elicited the strongest reaction from the small band of starving dreamers.
We would fantasize when the war is over. What quantities of palacsinta we will devour, how many slices of watermelon we will eat…when the war is over.
Mother Near Death
Even though we walked around the yard very carefully at night, a sliver of light or a faint sound must have escaped to the outside from time to time.
Twice in late December, this nearly brought disaster upon us. One time, a guard from the neighbouring factory led groups of Nazis and policemen into the lumberyard, claiming that someone was hiding in the area.
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 other time, the searchers seemed more certain than ever that people were hiding in the yard. But lifting up the concrete lids covering our hiding places never occurred to them, or perhaps they were too cold and lazy to make the effort.
As they marched around the yard and inside the sheds for a long time, their heavy boots thumping on the floor above our heads, Mother had a hernia attack.
Suddenly, she clutched her side and turned deadly pale. We could see the bundle of hernia bulging out from under her dress.
We carefully made as much room for her as we could, so she could lie down ever so slowly.
She was pale, biting her lips in pain, as tears rolled down her cheeks. One moan and we would have been doomed.
As the Nazi searchers walked just above us, we sat still, not daring to even breathe, separated from our pursuers by only a thin cement slab. Mother twisted in agony on the floor while the searchers walked around above us, for what seemed like an eternity.
We felt terribly helpless. We couldn’t even move to hold her hand, to wipe the perspiration off her forehead, or massage her hernia.
All we could do was huddle as close together as possible to make room for her. Mother’s breathing became erratic and she mercifully passed out from the pain.
Then we heard a command above us, and the boots marched away. We didn’t dare move, in case they were pulling their trick of marching away while one of them stayed behind in stealth to see if there was any sound or movement.
Those of us who had survived this far knew about these games. We remained still and silent for a long time.
Then Mother gradually came to and began the painful exercise of pushing her hernia back in place. We began to move around.
One of us handed her some water, and somebody else loosened her dress and wiped her forehead.
By nightfall, Mother was able to slowly get up and crawl out of the pit. This was probably the closest call we had during our underground period.
I don’t 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, our mother’s determination and bravery saved our lives.
Red Army: The official name of the army of the Soviet Union during World War II.
Szálasi, Ferenc (1897-1946):
The leader of the Hungarian fascist Arrow Cross party. On October 15th, 1944, he replaced Horthy as head of state with the help of the Germans.
Szálasi’s brutal and murderous regime lasted until the end of the war.
When the war ended, he was captured by the Americans and extradited to Hungary. Found guilty of war crimes and crimes against the people, he was executed on March 12, 1946.
SS: Originally, the SS acted as Hitler’s bodyguards. As the organization grew, it became the Third Reich’s principal instrument of terror, and the body responsible for murdering the Jews of Europe.
Zionism/Zionists: Zionism is an international movement, originally for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, and later for the support of modern Israel.
A Zionist is an advocate or supporter of Zionism.
In the 1930s, there were several small Zionist youth movements in Hungary. These grew when Hungary reoccupied the territories it had lost after the World War I.
They grew further after each wave of anti-semitic laws, and when Jewish refugees arrived after 1942.
These youth movements played an important role in the Hungarian resistance, creating false identification papers, getting news out about what was happening in nazi-occupied countries, rescuing Jews, smuggling refugees across the border to Romania, and setting up homes to protect thousands of Jewish children and adults.
death marches: Forced marches of prisoners under heavy guard to evade the advancing Red Army.
Jewish prisoners were marched deeper into Nazi-held territory, often with no clear destination in mind.
Many prisoners died of disease, mistreatment or exhaustion, and were simply left where they fell.
Wallenberg, Raoul (1912-1947):
A Swedish diplomat who led a rescue operation that saved the lives of approximately 100 000 Jews in Hungary. He is one of the great heroes of World War II.
Appointed first secretary of the Royal Swedish Legation in Budapest in June 1944, Wallenberg’s mission was to rescue Jews from Nazi persecution.
With the help of several hundred Jewish co-workers, he issued thousands of Swedish passes to protect Jews from the Germans and Hungarians.
He erected approximately 30 “Swedish houses” in Budapest which were declared Swedish territory, providing shelters where Jews could seek refuge.
Before long, the population in these houses reached 15 000. Wallenberg’s initiatives influenced other legations in Budapest to offer similar protections.
Raoul Wallenberg also rescued hundreds of Jews from Eichmann’s death marches.
He saved approximately 100,000 Jews in Budapest’s two ghettos from a joint SS/Arrow Cross plan to blow them up right before the city was liberated.
After liberation, Wallenberg was summoned by the Soviets -who were very suspicious of the Swedish mission -to army headquarters in Debrecen.
On January 17th, 1945, he was escorted back to Budapest by two Soviet soldiers, and was overheard saying that he didn’t know whether he was their guest or prisoner. That same day, he disappeared.
In 1956, the Soviets informed Sweden that they had discovered a report saying Wallenberg died in a Soviet prison in 1947.