Rabbi Yosef Herman – Part I

I was born in 1938 in Budapest.  My father’s hometown was Bonyhad, which is located about 150 miles south of Budapest, in the Ashkenazi part of Hungary. Before the war, Bonyhad had about 2,000 Jews, which formed about 20 percent of the village’s population. It was a dynamic community with yeshivos and all other community organizations.

My parents were married on 1 Iyar 1937.  My father was traveling constantly as part of the family lumber and coal business. Usually, he was gone all week, only to return for Shabbos. My mother would speak of the pain of receiving the occasional telegram telling her that my father had missed the train home and she would be without him even for Shabbos.

My mother was very close to her family in Miskolc and missed them very much. Fortunately, my mother was able to forge a close bond with her in-laws, whom she grew to love greatly.

When did your family start experiencing the war?

The Jews of Hungary were the last major Jewish community to be destroyed by the Nazis. Until then, they provided support to many refugees from the horrors of Eastern Europe. However, they felt secure in their belief that the Hungarian government would protect all its citizens, including the Jews. Not until the Nazis openly took control of Budapest, with their tanks rolling down the main boulevards on March 19, 1944, did they realize their fatal error.

The Nazis started their activities in the outlying parts of Hungary, away from Budapest. Soon, my parent’s apartment was filled with refugees, friends and family who needed temporary shelter. My grandfather was taken to a forced labor camp.  My mother was left alone with her six-year-old son. She was expecting her second child.

The Nazis issued orders for all Jews of Budapest to gather in a ghetto. They made it clear that any Jew caught without wearing the yellow star would be executed on the spot. This was in preparation for the final deportation. Right before the deadline for moving into the ghetto, a strange man appeared at our door and offered my mother forged documents so that she and I could pass as gentiles. He urged her to take the documents and go into hiding. My mother was confused and frightened. She did not know if she should trust this stranger whom she had never seen. She sent him away and decided to go with the other Jews into the ghetto. The man came back two more times. Finally, the third time, he succeeded in convincing her to take up his offer. He gave her the forged documents, spending money and two gold Napoleon coins for an emergency. (We still have those two coins.)

It was arranged for my mother to hide with the sister of the gentile superintendent of my parents’ Budapest apartment house. He lived in Balatonszarszo, a small village near the resort lake of Balaton, some 150 miles from Budapest. The stranger sent his secretary to accompany my mother to this distant village. I still remember the yellow star being torn off my coat in a dark alleyway before we went to the train station.

We never discovered who this stranger was. The only hint we had was that he first made the same offer to my Aunt Goldy. But then he reconsidered, because he felt that she looked too Jewish for the plan to work. So Aunt Goldy sent the man to us. This was a clear miracle from Hashem, one of many to come.

We settled in a small, dirt-floored apartment in Balatonszarszo. Our hostess did not know that we were Jewish, although later she began to suspect that my mother might have had a Jewish husband. During all the months of hiding, my mother never ate non-kosher food. She would cook pork with the other women. Then, late at night, she would sneak out and throw away the non-kosher food.

My mother wrote a letter to my Aunt Goldy, asking her to send some baby clothes for the child that she was expecting shortly. The situation was so desperate that in the return letter, my aunt wrote that it would be a waste to send baby clothing since we all would perish soon anyhow. My mother made a neder that if Hashem would save her family, she would see to it that her son and the child to be born would receive a good Torah education. To her, a good girl’s education meant the Bais Yaakov in Vienna. That is where she had hoped to send the new child if it was a girl.

On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, 1944, my mother gave birth to my sister, Eva. It was a difficult delivery. The midwife came to the house to help. She told my mother that she had better say her prayers. When my mother would not say the appropriate Catholic prayers, the midwife realized that she must be Jewish. The midwife reported us to the local authorities, only to be told to leave us alone. This was yet another miracle from Hashem.

Where was your father while you were in hiding?

My father was in the labor camps.  On the second day of Rosh Hashanah, he was davening Mussaf for the amud when an air-raid siren sounded. All the people in the minyan ran to the shelter. As the bombs were falling nearby, my father remained alone at the amud. He had a feeling that his wife had given birth to a child and noted the time. Later, it was confirmed that my sister had been born just at that moment when he was davening alone.

To Be Continued…

These survivors’ memoirs are being compiled by Project Witness.