Did you feel anti-Semitism prior to the onset of war in your town?
Of course there was anti-Semitism, but in the city we didn’t feel it as much. The general population in Budapest really didn’t care much about the typical person; however, towards the rich people, the doctors, lawyers and important businessmen, there was outright anti-Semitism. By 1942 we were scared to leave town; stores were closed down but we were not directly affected by it. Nevertheless, we no longer traveled to Serench, where my grandmother lived. Serench was not considered a small town; it had a train station and even a big chocolate factory. My uncle, who was the Rav of the town, gave a hechsher on the chocolate. In good times we worked together with the gentiles to create a good work atmosphere.
People who were escaping from Poland came to our town. It was forbidden to hide these people. But as long as we could, my mother had an open-house policy. At this time I would say that life was very difficult but not bad, not intolerable. Food was scarce. My father would bring back a small bag of meat, whatever he could get his hands on, and my mother would cook it so that we got the most out of it.
When did you begin feeling the pressures of the war?
At this time, around 1942, my father and my uncle were taken to a labor camp. My cousins who were over 18 were taken to work at different types of labor. My father was not taken to the front; he remained in Hungary. His unit survived because the soldier in charge of this unit was a family-oriented person who was afraid for his own life. He did not want to go out to the front. So although they worked very hard their lives were not in immediate danger.
My cousins prepared false identification papers for us. My mother hid the papers at the top of a tall chimney extending from the fireplace. In 1943 the situation was getting worse. A lot of people came from hiding in Czechoslovakia and many were encouraged to cross the border into Romania. Hitler gave back part of Romania to Hungary. In those towns anti-Semitism was widespread.
In March of 1944, very close to Pesach, when Eichmann came into town, the situation changed from one day to the next. Schools and businesses were all shut down. They took over the government and took over the country. The general response was — Don’t worry, we will not allow them to take over; it will be hard but we will prevail. Hitler was sweeping through Europe. Those that had the understanding and/or the courage to escape did.
My father still worked in the labor camps but from time to time he was allowed to come home. He was extremely thin but there was nothing much to cook, nor any wood or coal to feed the tall stove.
The first edict that was enforced was the new law that no one may live in an apartment by themselves. Our building became a yellow star house. Many families moved into our apartment. We had one large bedroom, one small bedroom where my uncle stayed (but he had been taken away, never to return) and one large living room; the small room and one of the two larger rooms had to be given up to other families. We shared the kitchen and bathroom. Once the houses were marked with a yellow star, the Germans insisted that we wear yellow stars on all our clothing. All belongings such as radios and jewelry and any other important possessions had to be turned over to the police. Next we were given curfews. Store owners were forced to give up their stores. Ghettos were formed in each town.
To be continued…