Testimonies

Here is a selection of testimonies submitted to us via e-mail or Facebook, and originally published on our Hungarian-language website. These testimonies were selected and, unless stated otherwise, translated into English by Gwen Jones. To submit a story, please write to gwen.jones@gmail.com.

2014. January 30., Thursday

V. Károly Boulevard 26. - Dr. Anna Gelei

My maternal grandmother had been living for many years in a large fourth-floor apartment looking onto Buda, and in June 1944, my mother, 9-year-old younger brother, my 12-year-old cousin who was an orphan living with us, and I moved in. I was 12 at the time, and we left our own apartment at Szent István Boulevard. My mother was taken away on November 9, 1944, and they were force-marched to Lichtenwörth. (Before this they had already taken her a few times to the Tattersaal race track or one of the brick factories for a day, but then let them go home.) My grandmother went somewhere—into hiding, it turned out—but we stayed there alone. We were the only Jews left in the house, although the others had already gone somewhere, which we learned later when we went down to the basement during air-raids, and there was nobody we knew there.

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I fed the children and myself from groceries we had at home (I also baked bread because my mother had taught me cooking from an early age), but the situation was completely impossible. One day after the air raid, the manager of the Wolfner leather factory on the second floor asked me in the stairwell where my mother was. We were wearing the yellow star!! I said that she’d been taken away and we were left alone. When we reached the next floor, he said that any time I felt we were in big trouble, I should come to find him, and he showed me his room.

As far as I remember, a few days later, someone whispered to me that I should go and find the man. I was relieved, and they told me I should get the children ready because in the evening, rescuers would come and take us to a Red Cross home, because we couldn’t stay here any longer. This is what happened. This is how an unknown benefactor saved us, and we don’t even know their name. Even now, I can only talk about it with the greatest gratitude. (They took us to Király Street 34 in the late evening. There were already lots of other small children there, supervised by a few adults, but in what today are unimaginably miserable conditions. This is how our next Calvary began, because this wasn’t the last stop, as this house was outside the ghetto.)

Our apartment was immediately occupied by one of the most senior officials of the Totenkopf legion, the completely boorish house supervisor who had already chosen it for himself. After the liberation, in February 1945, we walked back to the abandoned, run-down apartment stuffed with stolen goods (the Buda Castle was not yet under Russian control), looking for our mother. The residents were still in the basement, and on the street, the snow and dead bodies were piled up on the ruins as high as the first floor. Of course, we didn’t find anyone we could talk to. A year and a half later, we moved back with our mother who had returned, into that slightly destroyed house, apartment ... The house was hit 40 times.

All three children miraculously escaped and are still alive today, but are very old. I am 82 years of age. 

V. Stollár Béla Street 22. - László Poós

I was born here in one of the rooms of our apartment, which we were allocated in the 1970s, when there was still a trace of the oil stains on the walls and floor from parts taken out of the printing machines. These stains could only be removed by plastering the walls and installing a new floor ... when the Stollár family fled, they jumped out of the WC window into the neighboring house, which was 4 meters away. Stollár was ill by then and couldn’t make it, he fell approximately 15 meters where the Germans heard his whimpering, and silenced him.

They were resistance members and hid machine parts in the apartment so that the printing press couldn’t be used. The Zrínyi press was opposite house no. 22. After the war, the apartment stood empty right up until it was broken up into smaller apartments and allocated to us; five of us moved in, including my grandmother. I don’t know when that was, I’ll take a look at the memorial plaque when I go past. 

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XIII. Hegedűs Gyula Street 15 - Gábor Fandagabo

This is the house where my grandfather lived from the 1920s with his four sons and three daughters (my grandmother died young, at that time, diabetes could not be treated…). Of the four boys, two returned from forced labor (and a few years as Soviet prisoners of war), the two youngest ones did not survive. My mother and family were taken from here to the ghetto at the end of 1944, or maybe early 1945. The story: after “our homeland lost its independence," masses of the “misfortunate coerced Arrow Cross” (a bitter irony) took the Jews from the yellow-star houses (too) to the Danube banks… Terrified, my mother and family obediently took their place in the line, but a cousin of theirs who also lived here “commanded them,” and they managed to step out of the line while still in the stairwell. All four of them survived the Holocaust! Since then, they have died, and it’s possible that I don’t remember correctly what they told me when I was a child. In any case my mother didn’t like to talk about this, and it was only mentioned very rarely… One more interesting thing: an “Aunt Herzl” also lived in this house, was she Theodor Herzl’s mother? Or sister? Or cousin? I don’t remember precisely. In the 1950s, she was already very old.

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XIV. Abonyi Street 5 - Györgyi Róth

With my mother and older sister, we moved into the yellow-star house at Abonyi Street 5 in the 14th district in July 1944. Next door was the former Jewish grammar school, where there was a military barracks. As children, we didn’t feel our lives were in danger until we moved into the ghetto or protected house.

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When it was dark, my mother got me, aged 10, and my 13-year-old sister over the fence and into the former grammar school, which had been appointed as a Red Cross house. There were still a few soldiers left there, making black coffee in a great kettle. These nice soldiers offered us a mug of coffee.

The school gym had been converted to house refugees, and there were 80 of us in there. Imre Ráday and Zsuzsa Simon were also there. Auntie Zsuzsa gathered all the children around her and told us poems. Perhaps it’s since then that I love literature.

We were liberated around January 15, 1945, but in the meantime, there were two Arrow Cross raids, and they took away lots of men and a few families. We were hidden in what was called the “knitting shop,” where there were school benches. I settled onto one of the benches. We heard an Arrow Cross man trying to come in, he’d already turned the door handle, the adult Jews were silently praying, and all of a sudden the door handle was released. I still have many painful memories from those times, but my mother’s love let me forget the terrible situation. We sometimes played there too, forgetting where we were. Captain Ocskay saved the remainder of the refugees at the grammar school.

Regards, Györgyi Róth (80-year-old teacher)

XIV. Erzsébet királyné Road 83 - Éva Sugár

It was upsetting to see the photo of a simple family house. Erzsébet királyné Road 83 belonged to my grandparents: Zsigmond Rattin, a goods deliverer, and his wife Julianna Fried, retail owner. The Mandel family lived in the house too, and they were relatives of my Grandmother’s older sister. The men, my Grandfather Zsigmond Rattin (who held the Small Silver Medal of Valor), my father Miklós Schaffer, and my uncle György Mandel were all “naturally” on forced labor service. My mother Sára Rattin went into hiding with the help of good people, the Török family who were spice dealers and also lived on Erzsébet királyné Road. One of our dear friends, Mrs. János Scheirich (Erzsók) secretly brought food to the yellow-star house to her friend, my Grandmother. The women were transported from the house to Bergen Belsen and had to walk to the border. Only my Grandmother returned home… The house and their belongings were guarded and returned to the family by a kind-hearted and honourable employee, Rézi Freulein, who was of Austrian origin. She remained with us until her death, and we loved her as a family member. May their memories be blessed!

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V. Szalay Street 3 - Dr. Illés Dési

Yellow-star house, hiding, 1945-45
March 19, 1944, the day of the Germans’ arrival, was a beautiful, sunny spring Sunday. We were at home, sitting on the balcony with my Mother. My father, Dr. Imre Deutsch (1896-1944), a physician and head of the urology department at the Chevra Charity Hospital (today the Neurosurgery Institute), went into work. At noon, he telephoned home, telling us to cancel the invitation I had to visit a boy my own age, and not go anywhere. He’d be home soon and explain then. After he arrived and told us what had happened, my mother, Dr. Anna Adler (1899-1994), also a physician, had her mother come over to us, so that she would be safe. My grandmother sat there until evening, when she announced that she was going home, which she did.

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We knew of no omens, and only afterwards made connections. My father had a patient who was a very big-name banker with connections to senior types. He paid what was called a “tariff,” a monthly transfer of a certain amount, separate from treatment bills. He sent the next month’s payment in advance, on March 18. We didn’t understand why. And on the 19th, he disappeared. It seemed he already knew.

At the beginning of April 1944, my father was ordered by the Interior Ministry (under state secretary Béla Johan) to work as a physician near Nagybánya [today Baia Mare in Transylvania], to replace the original doctor who had been conscripted. He was foolish enough to go. After liberation, we learned that the rest of his colleagues had all got out of it under various pretexts (illness, etc.). In this huge district he had lots to do, but that was good, and they were pleased to have finally received a doctor. So much so, that when the local Jews were taken to the Baia Mare ghetto (he wrote a long letter about the infernal scenes he’d seen there), the local authorities had enough common sense to leave my father in place (although he had to wear the star), and he was even allowed to enter the ghetto to treat people. Two weeks later, the above-mentioned Johan and friends issued a decree according to which all remaining Jewish doctors right across the country—regardless of whether large districts would once again remain without a physician—would also be transported to the ghetto. My father was deported from there to Auschwitz and then Mauthausen-Melke, where he had to work in the stone mine, and from where he didn’t come back. We heard that the wooden clogs broke his feet and he got blood poisoning, while according to others, he died of severe undernourishment while suffering incurable diarrhea, sometime in November.

We moved into the 5th district yellow-star house at Szalay Street 3. We ended up there as my father’s colleague, who was Jewish with a Christian wife, and therefore counted as an “Aryan’s partner” and thus didn’t have to wear the star, wanted to leave the yellow-star house and offered to swap apartments while we were living on Honvéd Street [which runs perpendicular to Szalay Street]. We received a full, four-bedroom apartment, where six of us lived. My mother was also a physician, and so she had a clinic separate from the living room, and thus could keep (until the Arrow Cross period) the telephone too. A friendly couple came with us too, we’d lived in the same house as them: Sándor Csekő who was a director at Generali [the insurance company], his wife and their 14-year-old daughter Éva, as well as a lonely man who was a refugee from Austria. I was 13 years old.

(Originally, we were to move in with my mother’s older brother, the doctor Dr. Sándor Adler (1898-1950), into his rather overcrowded apartment at Andrássy Road 32. In the end, we chose the swap I mentioned above. In any case, my Mother had already sent one of her prized possessions over to Andrássy Road, a recently-purchased Maria Theresa chandelier, which was hung in the maid’s room. During the siege, the house was hit many times and partly collapsed, the stairwell came away from the wall too. Looking at the house after the siege, it turned out that the maid’s room had remained in one piece, nothing happened to the chandelier, which cheerily hung there with all its glass jewels. It had to be lowered into the courtyard on a rope.)

We lived relatively well in the house, we had good, and there were countless children still living there whom we played with together. You could go down to the concierge, who was an Arrow Cross member, but everyone knew that he was secretly a member of the Communist Party as well, and listen to the BBC in his apartment. His brother-in-law lived there too, and he was an engine driver. He said he’d taken trains transporting Jews, but he didn’t know where to, because at the border, a German member of staff took over. He told us this right up until once, when we were there, he come home from work and his five-year-old daughter ran out to meet him, shouting “Daddy, did you take them for some cyanide again today?” After the war, the concierge was imprisoned.

October 15 was also a pleasant, sunny Sunday. The Csekő family, who had converted to Catholicism a long time ago, went to church for confession. A large cross hung above their bed, which they thought would help. Their 21-year-old son was on forced labor service. After his high school graduation, he wasn’t admitted to university of course, but went to work at the Glasner bakery, run by relatives of theirs, where he became a Communist Party member, for which he was imprisoned in Vác [a penitentiary north of Budapest] for one year. When we went in, he promised that if he could, he’d go over to join the Russians. After liberation we waited for him to arrive with the Russians, but there was no sign of him anywhere. We enquired, and it turned out they’ been near Miskolc somewhere, where he escaped with a few of his fellows-in-arms, and went into hiding somewhere. The news came that the gendarmes were looking for them. He agreed to waylay the gendarmes while the others escaped. They exchanged fire, and fell. They are buried in Miskolc. It transpired afterwards that it wasn’t them the gendarmes were looking for, they didn’t even know about them, but were looking for a later, post-war sheriff.

We greeted Horthy’s proclamation [that Hungary was leaving the war] with enthusiasm, and happily removed the star from the front gate. But it was more and more suspicious that after the broadcast of the speech, the radio played only marches. Late afternoon, we heard: “Now we shall read out Ferenc Szálasi’s military order.” In fright, we moved down into the cellar so they wouldn’t be able to find us. We sat there until midnight when we grew sleepy, and went back upstairs to the apartment. In the apartment next door to us lived the younger brother of Andor Gábor, the writer.

Late at night in November, we’d go up to the flat room and look at flashes of light coming from the east. Optimists claimed that these were flashes of Russian cannon-fire, and these patches of light grew bigger, as if they were approaching (at that point, the Russians must have been somewhere around Kesckemét [53 miles south-east of Budapest]).

One November dawn, the Arrow Cross came into he apartment and announced they were taking everyone away, so we should get dressed. Mrs. Csekő gave food and drink to the policeman who was with them, who then told the Arrow Cross that these ones were staying put...

Towards the end of November, a new group of Arrow Cross men came, and ordered everyone down into the courtyard. Together with Éva who lived with us, we escaped onto the street via the hairdresser’s shop which opened onto the courtyard, and with the knowledge of Mr. Besenyő, the shop’s owner. My mother and the others couldn’t do this, so they went into the concierge’s apartment. But they came and said that the Arrow Cross would enter every apartment to see whether anyone was left behind. And so they had to leave the concierge’s place too. There was no other solution, so my mother jumped out of the mezzanine window onto Vajkai Street. As she fell, her bag fell out of her hand, and the mirror fell to the ground with a huge clatter. People looked out at this from the Kúria [supreme court] building opposite, but nobody reacted. One minute later, a group of Jews was led past by the Arrow Cross, and if she’d jumped any later, they would have met. My mother set off in the direction of Szalay Street, and ran into one of her patients, who hadn’t seen anything. He politely lifted his cap: “I kiss your hand Doctor, how are you?,” to which she charmingly smiled and replied: “Oh thank you Mr. Kékesy, I’m very well…”

I ended up together with Éva at a Calvinist children’s mission thanks to the intercession of a Calvinist deaconess who was of Jewish origin (I wasn’t converted), at the former Scottish school on Vörösmarty Street (the school’s Scottish headmistress who stayed behind was deported by the Germans and died in Auschwitz). As we learned after the war, that’s also where Zoltán Tildy, later the State President, and Ferenc Nagy, later the Prime Minister, were hiding. Smart people in the mission decided to move Christian forced laborers into the house, saying that they would provide protection. However, instead, they reported to the Arrow Cross, saying that there were suspicious children here. And so the Arrow Cross came, and took all the children together with the adults to the ghetto. Éva and I hid in the bathroom behind the coal so they didn’t find us, and when they left, we came out.

In the meantime, my mother asked around for refuge, and found it with a social democrat patient of hers (Máté Berki), and together with the married couple living with us, they lay low at Váci Road 146, beyond Árpád bridge; the house was knocked down not long ago. After our escape from the mission, Éva went over there on the tram while I spent a night at our original apartment with the concierge (Farkas), and the next day, one of Berki’s relatives came to collect me and take me to the others.

We were pretty fine, and had enough to eat right up to the end. There was another of their relatives hiding there, a deserter (Sándor Berki), and a massive mill-hand too, who went out to Váci Road every night with his friends, and if they found a lonely Arrow Cross man, they hit him round the head and chucked him in the Danube.

My mother got false papers from another one of her patients (Irén Szirbik). Her husband (Dezső Both) was a colonel in the army, and after the Germans arrived, he retired himself. After liberation he was reactivated, but because he didn’t want to join the Communist Party, they kicked him out. Later they were forcibly removed from Budapest to the countryside, and my mother sent them 100 forints a month under an assumed name.

One more thing about them: in November, they packed a huge rucksack with our bedding and kitchen wear. After the siege, my mother and I went around various places collecting our things. Lots of times we were told sorry, the Russians took everything away. (For example, the concierge Farkas and his family, who had promised to bury our jewelry in their garden in the countryside. They later claimed that the Russians had gone though the garden with a metal detector, found the silver, and taken it away.) Either this was true, or it wasn’t. When we turned up at Irén’s, she started explaining, “guess what, a few days ago the Russians were her, they broke up the long cabinet in the front room and unpacked everything in it.” Well, we thought, that’s the end of that too. “And guess what,” she continued, “just as they reached the part where your things were stored, they got bored and left. So everything’s still here.”

I had acquired false papers from the deaconess I mentioned earlier. I answered to the name of János Nagy, I am from Budakeszi and came here at Christmas to see relatives, but couldn’t return because the Russians had arrived, and that’s why I’m here. The only awkward thing was that I had to call my mother Irénke. Of course, sometimes I got it wrong, but later, in the basement air-raid shelter, nobody noticed. Anyway, the false papers provided protection until I was asked to produce them. In my case for example, it would have been easy enough to ascertain what I am. The Csekő family received the Besenyős’ papers.

Going back to the Berki family: on December 24, the lady of the family held a Christmas dinner for all of us. During supper, the glasses suddenly started shaking and dancing on the table from nearby impacts, although no sound could yet be heard. We understood that the siege had started, and all we had to was wait until the Russians reached us. This wasn’t easy, because the Russians came in from Újpest along Váci Road, while the Arrow Cross raided Váci Road going north, and the only question was which side would reach our apartment first.

At the supper was another relative of the Berki family, an artillery sergeant who was stationed with his battery in Hűvösvölgy [in the Buda hills]. At the shootings, he jumped up and announced he would return to base. They asked him to stay, if there were so many already hiding here, one more didn’t make a difference. But he stated that he couldn’t leave his men to themselves, and stormed off. He was never heard from since. Meanwhile his wife, who also lived there, was pierced in the stomach by shrapnel, but survived.

My mother was almost hit by a mine, and had only gone to the WC at the end of the house minutes before it struck and killed a girl on the spot.

For the whole of the siege, one of our relatives (Sándor Szolnok) constantly talked about what would happen when the Russians arrive. He had been a solider in Ukraine, and when they entered a village, if they saw a local residents looking at what was going on from the gate, they immediately shot them in the stomach from the truck. They gathered up the babies, threw them up in the air and used them as target shooting practice. Clearly, the Russians would repay all of this upon arrival. After the Russians did arrive, he hid for three days in the wood cellar, then realized he couldn’t stay there forever, and came out. The Russians were very pleased to see him, because he’d learned a little Russian and interpreted for them.

We remained upstairs in the apartment until January 1, so that no outsider would spot us in the basement air-raid shelter. But after that point it was no longer possible to stay above ground, and so we moved downstairs too. A very mixed group was camped out there in the shelter: there were enthusiastic Arrow Cross members who were still fantasizing of German victory. There were others we got to know later, who were also in hiding. A strapping military officer later turned out to have deserter (or, as it was called then, he went on “télach”). As soon as it looked like the Russians were going to arrive, he quickly changed into civilian clothing, but if they were pushed back, he put his uniform on.

The Russians reached us on January 13. In the afternoon, a tank stopped in front of the house, and in the evening, they hammered on the gate and two of them strolled into the shelter. They asked whether there were any Germans here. On hearing the answer “no,” they left. That night, more of these patrols came. Optimists concluded form this that they were pushing onwards, and every unit was sending out its own security. This might have been the case, because by morning, they had reached Nyugati [railway station]. A patrol asked for vinegar. They took onions out of their packs, cut them up in vinegar, ate them and left.

They stationed a young, 24-year-old major with us, and he was a little fop. He went about in full dress uniform, and in the mornings, his batman would hand him the water for mouth-washing, and prepare his toothbrush with toothpaste. But then both of them took their machine-guns and magazines, and went to Margit Island to fight. The vast majority of the officers were as young as he was. There were two other captains living in the house, and they were 19 years old.

Our major regularly brought all of us good things to eat from the officers’ mess, for as long as they lived there. He gave my mother separately two loaves of bread when she complained somewhat pointedly that although we had such good things to eat, her mother didn’t even have bread. At this, the office rushed out, and came back with two loaves under his arms, and put them in my mother’s lap. He made her promise that she would tell her “stary mama” [old mother] that he had sent the bread, but also that Russian bread was normally soft and while, and was only black, heavy and square because of the war. His name was Mikhail Yosipovich Prihodko, and he explained that his father had been killed as a partisan, and that he hadn’t seen his daughter for three years. While he lived with us, the letter from his mother arrived. He sat the whole afternoon in the armchair crying, kissing the letter, crying “Mama, mama.”

At night, the Russians set off in small, light tanks across the ice on the Danube to Margit Island. The Germans were shooting blindly, but didn’t even need to hit a tank if the ice broke and the tank fell in, sinking into the deep from where it couldn’t be rescued. The other little break-out attempts continued. After occupying the island they came back to us, and brought a huge jar of marmalade for us, which had obviously come from the hotel.
Every night we went down into the shelter to sleep, because the major and his batman, Misha, slept in our room. Once, Misha caught hold of Éva there with a pretty clear intention; the major had lain down to sleep. Éva’s parents woke up the other major living in our house, whom we thought was terribly old, he was around 45, and dragged him downstairs. He thundered at Misha, don’t be stupid, and he let Éva go.

On another occasion when we were alone—because the majors had left for Berlin, they said—an officer came in with two soldiers and asked for plates and cutlery. They took cold boiled beef out of their packs. They looked up and saw that on the other side of the table, Éva was glaring at them. They laughed out loud and moved over to us. We explained that we should at least share the food, but they waved and said no, they’d be getting some more. They waited until we ate it, and left happily.

The Soviet army displayed an interesting duality. On the one hand, they moved with huge military equipment, processing along the roads with masses of tanks and cannons lasting from Szent István Park to Margit Island, the air-defense guns lined up densely side by side along the “Manci” pontoon bridge (during the war, the Hungarian Royal Armed Forces had one anti-aircraft cannon at the Pest side of each bridge). Packs of small aircraft in the air. There was a machine-gun pit on the turret of the house opposite ours, even when the Russians had already occupied the street. Two Rata fighters flew overhead (we watched them from the front gate), but the machine-gun pit, turret, and half of the house were nowhere to be seen.

On the other side, when we went along Váci Road outwards away from the city to our apartment, a multitude of peasant carts processed continually along the whole stretch, slowly ambling, and the line was so dense that you couldn’t get through them to the other side. They were obviously transporting reinforcements, who knows where from. They were typical Russian carts, with two rods held together in an inverted-U shape, and between them a horse, while on the box dozed old peasants with walrus moustaches. This is how Kutuzov’s troops must have marched towards Borodino. However, each cart-driver had a loaded pistol hanging from his neck.

On Vaci Road on the way into the city center galloped soldiers in Cossack dress and fur caps on horseback, probably messengers.

The front soldiers before us gathered up the prisoners of war. The Germans were driven onto the trucks by kicks in the backside. They took the Hungarians’ rifles away—staring in wonder at the ancient Mannlicher guns from the First World War that could hold six cartridges at once, which had to be individually cocked and fired, and there thus very slow and inefficient in comparison to the Russian machine guns that could fire 81 bullets in one go with a quick pull of the trigger—and broke the rifles over their knees, before waving at the soldiers to get lost. Those who collected civilians as PoWs were camp gendarmes in green caps.

After the liberation of the city, and after much difficulty, we got our original Honvéd Street apartment back. In December a decree had been issued, according to which the Aryan partners of Jews also had to go to the ghetto. The wife of our exchange partner had gone downstairs to get a newspaper for the details, and by the time she returned, her husband had committed suicide; but in the newspaper, it said that the decree had been repealed. After the siege, the wife didn’t want to leave our Honvéd Street apartment or go back to her original place on Szalay Street, which was much shoddier, and although the Honvéd Street house had taken a few hits, its owner, the Electricity Works, soon restored it. We only recovered it after a long struggle.

Professor Dr Illés Dési.

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