Here I must say that Raoul Wallenberg saved my life; it is because of him that I am alive today. On the second Death March headed to Austria, each set of two boys, about 18–19 years of age, had to cut down trees in the forest and carry a six-foot heavy piece of wood on their shoulders. If one boy tried to escape, his side of the wood would fall down and immediately the Germans would know that one prisoner had run off. For me it was too hard to march while holding the wood. The Nazis rode alongside us on horses. Attached to their riding boots was a piece of metal. One Nazi kicked me on my right lower back from which I still suffered pain years later, even after I arrived in the United States.
Suddenly Raoul Wallenberg appeared with a tiny little car and two young helpers. He promptly stopped the procession and got out. He approached the soldiers and said to them, “You have my people here.” He pulled out a list and began calling off names: “Schmidt, Cohen…” He wanted to save young people. As he was walking up and down he said, “You,” (pointing to me), “come over here!” I had no clue as to what was going on. My father saw me walk over to the other side and he followed me. When Wallenberg noticed that the Nazis were getting suspicious, he said, “That’s it. Let’s go,” and we began marching back. We had nowhere to go so we approached the “Jew House” with the yellow star and knocked on the door. The janitor opened it and my father and I pushed our way into the house. We were granted permission to remain in the house until 10:00 the following morning. At 5 a.m. we picked up my mother from the house of her gentile friend and the three of us headed to the Swedish house belonging to Raoul Wallenberg. The Swedish house was barricaded with high wooden boards. There were not enough facilities for the women, so my mother had to dress up in men’s clothing to gain entry. Next, I climbed onto my father’s shoulders and hoisted myself up over the wood planks. Using my shirt and my father’s shirt we tied them together as a rope and I lifted my father up. The two of us together helped my mother climb over the wall.
The Swedish house was officially closed but we snuck in through the back of the basement where we lay down on the basement floor, and in this way we were liberated in the Swedish House.
Once you were liberated, where did you go?
At the time I wanted to go to Palestine. On December 31, 1946, my parents crossed the border into Austria. This was the easiest day to escape over the border, since the border guards were off duty. They continued on to Prague and then to Paris and eventually to America. They left me in Hungary to collect the money owed to them by merchants prior to the war. Some of them had pity and paid me. I was secretly sent with a group [that was going] first to Prague and then to Bucharest and eventually to Palestine. However, when we arrived in Bucharest there was a large earthquake. People were robbing stores, so the police were checking everyone on the street for stolen goods. One of the members of our group was searched and it was discovered that we were there illegally. We were arrested and sent right back to Hungary. In the middle of 1948 I decided to try returning to Prague again. I approached the same Jewish organization and they put together a group of seven boys and six girls to go to America. Entry to America wasn’t simple. Just as I began seeing Ellis Island in the distance, the coast guard boarded the boat and began checking everyone’s documents, which of course were all false. My parents, although they had gained entry to the U.S., were not here legally.
We were transferred into a waiting boat and taken to Pier 62 in Manhattan, where we were locked in with a chain fence. Each day we were checked twice by the doctor. Anyone whose health was not perfectly up to par was sent back. This was a terrible experience for me. A short while later my aunt arrived with an affidavit, promising to take care of me.
However, I was there together with a good friend, Rabbi Landau. His parents were living in the United States legally. We were allowed one phone call. Rabbi Landau called his father, who gave us both well-needed chizuk.
Did you return to your home town?
I took each of my grandchildren when they were 16 ½ years old, on a two and a half week tour of Europe. I always felt that this was a worthwhile investment. This gave them a clearer picture of what we experienced.
What message can you impart to today’s generation?
Be nice to other people; help others; look forward to the future. Never be negative, always look at things positively. My father inspired me. He was always there for me. He was an optimist; he always said to me, “The future is always better than yesterday.”