(John Bradford 1510-1555, English Protestant martyr)
He was the modern St. George who saved thousands of people, fighting the ferocious occupying power, his only arms being sagacity temerity and wit, motivated by compassion for the persecuted, the tortured, while he himself becoming the victim of another totalitarian power.
I close my eyes and try to remember when it was I saw him for the last time. It was around 16th January 1945. Budapest was liberated – or occupied, depending on people’s ideology – by the Soviet troops. We were a small group of the Swedish Special Mission employees, staying at the vaults of the former British Embassy and the National Bank and were supposed to spend the night in the air raid shelter. It was probably too dangerous to go home in the evening. Somewhere in the building there must have been a burst pipe, water was rising always higher and we were moving up from one wooden shelf to a higher one, wondering if, having survived the German occupation and the Szalasy Arrow Cross government, are we now going to be drowned or only frozen to death? But our Guardian Angels saved us, the water stopped and we fell into an exhausted sleep.
Next morning with bleary eyes we said goodbye to Wallenberg who came by for a short visit prior to his going to Debrecen where he was to meet the Provisory Hungarian Government. We never saw him again. The Swedish Mission was rounded up; their task of saving the remaining Jewish population of Budapest was accomplished as far as was humanly possible.
Now, while I was looking down at the memorial on the ground, I recognized Wallenberg’s signature. The same signature that figured on my identity card certifying that I was employed by the Special Mission of the Swedish Embassy. How proud I was when I received it, I didn’t have to wear the hated, humiliating yellow star. Was I as proud when I had received my first Swiss passport, after marrying my husband in 1949? The first was supposed to – with luck and cunning – save my life, and the second, the Swiss passport, what did it save me from?
When I met my husband in London in 1948, we were opponents in a German debating circle, led by Prof. Dr. Salomon, a German Jew. It was the Linguists’s Club, where English and foreign students came to practice languages, mainly English, but also German, French and Spanish. I was working during the day and studying at the London School of Economics in the evening. I wanted to meet English people, perhaps secretly hoping to marry a nice Englishman. But I met my husband and came to live in Switzerland.
How did I fall in love with my husband? While walking in Hyde Park, discussing the topic of our coming debate where we were opponents, he suddenly asked what my religion was. I told him I was baptized Protestant, but I was born Jewish. His reaction was wonderfully unexpected Oh, do you speak Hebrew? Not making the usual remarks, I have nothing against Jews, but or saying: I have some good Jewish friends, or changing the subject, but considering Hebrew as another language he was interested in, that was a most welcome surprise.
Later, I told him what I had lived through during the war. When we decided to get married he told me: “When you come to Switzerland you don’t have to be afraid of anything anymore. If only it was true! Apart from anything else I have always been worrying about my children’s and my husband’s health and my being a handicap in his carrier because of my origin and my father living in Hungary. Maybe I am the worrying type. Had it always been like this? I have to think back to my early childhood. What made me what I have become today? What was it like when I was a child, a young girl?
Early Childhood in Debrecen, Hungary (1926 – 1930)
I remember a big old apartment a covered veranda, sunshine, a red carpet where I am allowed to play on the floor, my family, my mother, my father, my grandmother and my nanny a “Fraulein”. She speaks German, a language I have to learn. Her name is Lisa. We live on the street St. Anna. There is a beautiful church where Lisa takes me when we go for a walk. I like to go there, there are beautiful pictures and statues, I especially like the “Heilige Maria”, she smiles at me. There are also candles; at home we have candles but only on special days or evenings. These little “excursions” are a secret, I am not to tell my mother, Lisa says, she wouldn’t like it. She cannot or wouldn’t explain why. I am proud to have a secret, even though I don’t understand why it has to be a secret. In the evening at bedtime I am taken to my grandmother’s private quarters, to say good night. She teaches me a prayer in Hebrew, I don’t understand it, but I repeat it after her, it obviously makes her happy, she takes me in her arms and smiles. Lisa takes me back to my room, to my bed. She also says a prayer, probably in German. I don’t understand it either but somehow I feel safe, so many Angels are protecting me
We are living in a nice villa, my mother and my father only, no grandmother, no Lisa. There is a maid, not so nice as Lisa. I have nobody to play with after school. There is a garden with big trees and flowers. One day I suddenly see a little boy in the garden. I am happy, maybe he can stay and play with me.
Mariska the maid arrives, she is very angry, I am not supposed to play with this little boy, and she sends him away. The little boy cries, his mother arrives, she used to deliver the newspapers to us. She takes her little boy in her arms; they look very angry and very sad too. I am sure he was a nice little boy, his mother was so sad when she took him in her arms. My mother didn’t like it when I played with children whose family she didn’t know. She was always afraid I would pick up some germs. I didn’t understand why.
I don’t think my mother was a snob. She was always worried about my health. When I was one year old I had diphtheria and I nearly died. Perhaps this is the reason why up to this day I have always been worrying about my children’s health and always imagined they had some serious illness or they were going to have an accident.
Budapest some years later
My father lost his position, his money in 1933 due to the crises at the New York Stock Exchange. We are now in Budapest, we are very poor, my mother has to cut out any unnecessary expenses, no new dresses for me, no holidays, etc. Nevertheless, I am enrolled in an excellent Grammar School, called after Lea Raskay a Hungarian nun from the XII century and the official religion is Roman Catholic. When we have the first lesson in religion, the pupil who is sitting next to me, takes my hand and says: “Let’s go together” I follow her, but when in the classroom, the teacher, a priest, asks me my religion, I tell him I’m Israelite, I think. He tells me that I don’t belong there, I have to leave the classroom, and all the children look at me. I feel very embarrassed. I keep back my tears with difficulty. This is my first experience, alas, not the last one, of not belonging, of being different.
In the Hungarian lesson the teacher tells me I speak a nice, clear language, not like the people in Budapest. Naturally, I come from the country. But the children laugh at me and tell me I speak like a peasant. I try to lose my accent, what a pity, if only I knew what a mistake that was; one has to know that the Budapest accent was considered typically Jewish. My father spoke with the accent from Debrecen, my mother that of Transylvania, where she was born. According to the family chronicles her mother came from a Protestant sect, the Sabbatists and she was converted to the Jewish faith when she married my grandfather. However, she became a very religious woman. She taught me the only prayer I still know by heart, the Schema Yisroel. I often pray it together with The Lord’s Prayer up to these days, another example of my double identity.
My mother finds a lady to teach me English, she offers her meals instead of money, and everybody is satisfied. I love the English language, and all that she teaches me about England. She is from Prague, her mother was English. From that time on I have been dreaming about going to England. At school I am best at English, that compensates me for not having any nice clothes and not being pretty, or does it really?
It’s 1938; there are a lot of changes in politics, the first law against the Jews. Hitler is a friend of Hungary; he will give us back the territories that were annexed to Czechoslovakia, Rumania and Yugoslavia, after the First World War. One of the conditions is that Jews are eliminated from the economic and public life. My father was a decorated officer in the First World War and is considered an exception for the time being.
From England back to Budapest
I correspond with an English girl and we arrange an exchange. This year in 1939, I’m going to England, next year she is coming to Hungary. My aunt has a large house in the country, we can go and stay with her. I have a lot of wonderful plans, I can hardly believe it, I am going to England, a dream has come true, a ray of sunshine amid the dark clouds threatening us. After an exciting journey with my English teacher – Paris, London – I arrive in a lovely little village in the Cotswolds. Phyllis, the girl I have been corresponding with is very kind and so are her parents, though I have some difficulty understanding them, they speak with an accent of the area. On Sunday, the whole family is going to church and they find it natural for me to be going with them. Of course, I’m looking forward to it. It’s a small chapel, it somehow reminds me of the St. Anna church of my childhood, there are candles and I recognize the statue of the Virgin Mary. I listen to the sermon very carefully and try to understand every word the minister says. Then something happens that I shall never forget and that makes me love the English even more. The Minister says a prayer for the persecuted Jews all over Europe. Coming from a country where Jews are considered as the scum of the earth, the origin of everything that is wicked and corrupt, it is a revelation. There is a priest who prays for the Jews and there is a congregation that does not stand up and leave the church, as they would have done in Budapest. How I wish I could stay in this country and belong to this church. The next time I hear a prayer for the Jews it’s by a Jesuit priest, many, many years later, after having survived the Holocaust, in Switzerland and I again I hope and wish I could belong to this church.
My wish to stay in England was nearly fulfilled. The Germans and the Russians have concluded a non-aggression pact, so by the end of August the war was imminent. My host family were worried; how could I get back to Hungary if the war broke out? I realized they wanted me to leave as soon as possible. I had cousins in London, so I had to go and stay with them. According to the original plan I was to return to Hungary, together with my English teacher, at the beginning of September, when school was to start. We tried to get in touch with her, but she had already found out that travelling through France and Germany was practically impossible. My cousins, a young couple, decided to leave London and go to Bournemouth, a fashionable seaside town. Willy-nilly, they had to take me with them. So it happened that on the 3rd September 1939 we were all gathered together at a small hotel, listening to the Prime Minister announcing: “The German government refused our ultimatum to withdraw their troops from Poland, so we are at war with Germany.”
The impact of his speech was shattering. Except for my cousins and me, all the other guests were English, who had come to enjoy a seaside holiday. People, who before had only exchanged polite greetings or a few remarks about the weather – we were in England after all! – started to talk animatedly to each other. “Will my husband, father, son be called up to join the army? Will London, Manchester or other big towns be evacuated? An elderly lady, the widow of a high Government official from India started to talk about her souvenirs from the 1st World War. My cousins who were still Hungarian citizens, were worried about their status as foreigners. To say that my presence was inconvenient was an understatement!
I was confused. I knew how much I would have liked to stay in England and I was not afraid of the war, but I was thinking of my parents. How the war would affect Hungary in general and the Jewish population in particular. Two laws restricting their activities in public and economic life were already implemented. And the third law against Jews became effective 1942, restricting marriages between Christians and Jews. However, I was aware how much my cousins wanted to get rid of me. Not only was I responsibility because of my young age, but I also cost money and they were not quite at ease about their own financial situation. They made me very unwelcome, but I was powerless.
Then, unexpectedly a solution turned up. A middle-aged couple that had no children was also staying in the same hotel, offered to look after me. They had a house near Croydon. I could go to school there and live with them as their daughter. My cousins turned down this offer. They were afraid that if this arrangement would not work I would eventually be returned to them. They considered me a difficult teenager and “nobody could put up with me for long”, as they told. This certainly didn’t boost my ego and made me even more miserable, was I really so impossible to live with?!
Had I been older I could have joined the Women Voluntary Service or the Land Army, but that was out of the question. Anyway, today I am convinced that it was God’s hand that lead me back to Hungary, so that I could save the life of my parents, some of my relatives and maybe that of some other persecuted people. By the end of November my private English teacher with whom I had come to England, succeeded in organizing our journey together with a group of children, back to Hungary. We had to have visas to travel through France, Switzerland Italy and Yugoslavia. In Italy we even had a police escort from Domodossola, the Swiss Italian frontier, all the way to the Italo-Yugoslavian Frontier, some of us were Jews, undesirable elements in Fascists Italy.
Ten years later, in 1949, happily married, I went to Italy with my husband and with my Swiss passport. It was my first trip to Italy after my marriage. Actually, my suitcase still carried a label of my former London address. Indeed I had met my husband in England in 1948 and got married in August 1949. When I passed through the frontier at Domodossola the Italian customs officer questioned me rather severely about the label on my suitcase and my identity. I showed him my brand new Swiss passport that he examined suspiciously. Luckily, at this moment my husband arrived and “saved” me. Stresa, the Isola Bella are still magic for me, which I realized at our last carefree holiday with my husband; he passed away in 1994.
On the whole, my first journey through northern Italy during the first months of the war was exciting and beautiful. When I caught glimpse of the Lago Maggiore, surrounded by snow-capped mountains I thought it was the most wonderful scenery I had ever seen. I arrived in Budapest safe and sound. The smile on my mother’s face and the hug my father gave me convinced me that coming home was the best solution.
So in December 1939 I went back to school to study for my finals, the Maturity examination (A level). The reception of my teachers was not unanimously friendly. My teacher of English was delighted to see me again and immediately gave me several assignments to talk to my fellow students about my adventures in wartime England. My teacher of Hungarian literature and History of Art, however, didn’t miss any occasion to make scornful remarks, accusing me of having forgotten my mother tongue, whenever I had to describe a painting, a statue or another work of art. She even asked me – with an ironic smile – to explain to the class what the English were fighting for. As I knew she was a great admirer of Nazi Germany, I gave a very non-committal answer. Actually, she nearly made me fail my final examination. She was invigilator at our English test, – a translation from Hungarian into English. She accused me of helping my fellow students. In fact I had only lent my annoted dictionary. As for my teacher of German, she was very kind. She must have heard that I had told my friends “either I get Heine as the theme of my oral examination or I won’t say a word’. I am not sure I would have had the courage to carry out this through, but I did get Heine.
Many years later, after the war I heard my teacher was half-Jewish and had died in a concentration camp. I mourned for her as for so many members of my family and friends.
In June 1940 I obtained with fairly good results my Certificate of Maturity. What shall I do now? I would have liked to read English in Budapest University, but that was out of question, the numerus clausus applied to Jewish students.
Luckily, I heard about the Notre Dame de Sion Language Institute where I could obtain a Certificate of Proficiency in English. Our teacher, an Irish Sister was excellent, kind with a fantastic sense of humour. One of our set books was “The Merchant of Venice” by Shakespeare. She always cut short any anti-Semitic remarks coming from some of the students. An amusing fact, some of the students were converted Jews. I loved the atmosphere of the convent I sometimes went to the Chapel of our Lady, but I was afraid, perhaps I was not entitled to. When I asked our teacher she kindly assured me that everybody was welcome.
Budapest 1942- 1944
There I am with a Teaching Certificate obtained at the Our Lady of Sion Language Institute, but with not much chance of finding a teaching job. I am not allowed to teach at a state school, but eventually I find a part time job at an adult education college, once or twice a week, in the evenings. I wouldn’t earn very much but at least I am doing something.
I was succeeding andI can still remember my first day of teaching. I was to replace the teacher who was English and had to leave Hungary because of the war. Before the first lesson started, I was walking along the corridor in front of the classroom, not very sure how to capture the interest of my future students, they probably were all middle-aged. While I stopped at the window, near the classroom where I was supposed to teach in ten minutes, a lady came up to me and asked in Hungarian: “Are you here for the English Course?”, “Well, sort of.” I didn’t know exactly what to say. Then she continued: “I wonder who is going to be our new teacher, such a pity Mr. A. had to leave.” I couldn’t hesitate any longer and told her: ÓActually, I am your new teacher.”She looked at me from top to toe and nearly burst out laughing. “You must be joking. You are so young, practically a child.” I was 19 years old but probably looked much younger. I told her I had been to England and had teaching qualifications.
So I went into the class, there were about 14 people between approximatively 40-60 years old. I was definitely the youngest. Outwardly at ease but feeling insecure nevertheless, I smiled at them, introduced myself and talked about my souvenirs of wartime in England. They were listening spellbound, not because I was such a good speaker, but because the majority of them were Jewish and pro-English hoping to emigrate to England or the United States. I assured them I understood their disappointment seeing such a young girl as a teacher, but asked them to give me a chance. I think I managed to convince them, because they continued to come until the very end of the term.
What an irony it was that about 30 years later when I started teaching at the “Universit? Populaire de Fribourg in Switzerland I was often older than most of my students. While that time in Budapest I could “apologize” for being young, I couldn’t do the same in Fribourg. Nowadays, the cult of youth prevailing in Switzerland does not leave much scope for the ageing generation. Nevertheless, I wasn’t doing too badly as my classes were generally full for 22 years.
As teaching at an evening school didn’t fill either my time or my pocket, I had to look for a better paying job. Life in Hungary for a Jewish girl even with a Maturity Certificate and teaching qualifications didn’t offer much possibility. Then out of blue there was an opening, a ray of hope. A large electro technical factory, Remix Ltd, whose director and chief engineer were of Jewish origin but not of faith were looking for a trainee preferably for a Jewish girl who could do simple calculations and was interested in doing some chemical experiments and tests, while accepting the status of a factory worker. As all factories were working for the war industry – to help the German war efforts – there was a Military commander supervising both production and staff. This meant, making sure no Jewish employee was doing any intellectual work.
My colleagues at the laboratory were exceptionally supportive. We agreed on a secret code; when the commander was expected at the laboratory, I washed test tubes, cleaned the floor and emptied the rubbish bin. We were a good team; a chemical engineer, head of the laboratory, two laboratory assistants and one trainee, me. One of the laboratory assistants happened to be a former schoolmate of mine, who helped me wherever she could. During the German occupation she got me false identity papers, but that’s another story.-
The chemical engineer, Marianne Aulich, came from an old military family, a devout Catholic, brought up in a convent. She was engaged to a German officer, soon to be married. We got on very well and were sorry to think that she was to leave us by the end of the year. But fate was against her. The German military authorities, before giving permission to an officer to marry a Hungarian woman wanted a proof that she was 100% Aryan. Unfortunately, it was found out that her Mother was Jewish born, converted to the Catholic faith before her marriage, still subject to the restrictions of the present law, applied to Jews. Consequently, a German officer could not marry Marianne Aulich who was half-Jewish. She was deeply hurt, not only because her fianc? had decided to cut short all contacts with her, but because she didn’t know her mother had been born Jewish. Naturally, she turned to me for comfort and understanding. For a while even her position, as head of the laboratory was in jeopardy. She could, however, stay on until a new chemical engineer was found. After her departure, the whole of the friendly atmosphere at the laboratory was changed. I stayed on for another 6 months, my situation became precarious. I was to do less testing and more washing up that I hated then, and I still do.
I managed to get some coaching lessons and also enrolled for a German typing and shorthand course. I didn’t particularly like it and I don’t think I was very good at it. Later it stood me in good stead when I got a job at the Swedish Mission in Budapest. I also met a young man and fell in love with him. We were to get engaged but there was no question of marriage for the time being.
After so many years it is difficult to recapture what my feelings were at that time. The political situation for Jewish people was certainly not pleasant, but it was not quite life threatening, especially for women. Young men were called up to work in camps, partly near Budapest, but mostly on the Russian front to help the German war effort during the invasion of the Soviet Republic in 1943.
It is a rather a peculiar fact that my father, who was a decorated officer in the 1st World War, was called up as the Commander of a work camp near Budapest. He served for about 6 months, earning the respect and affection of those under his command. This was in 1943. As irony of fate, after the German occupation of Hungary in 1944, he was ordered to do road works in a camp from where people were later taken to concentration camps in Germany. Thanks to my contact and work at the Swedish Mission my father was liberated by Dr. Ivan Szekely. Here I should pause, as my life has taken a very different turn after 19th March 1944.
The 19th of March started just as any other Sunday. I would stay in bed late, read or sleep and the afternoon would be spent walking or having coffee with friends. Nothing very special. However, it was meant to be otherwise.
At about half past seven I was awakened by a telephone call. “Who the hell” I said to myself when I lifted the receiver sleepily. But sleep had gone irrevocably for the day and for the next couple of months to come. The voice on the phone – I recognized it as one of the boys of our group of friends – said one sentence: “The Germans entered Hungary, don’t leave the house”. Before I could ask any question, he hung up. My first thought was, “What a stupid joke!”, but practical joking could hardly prompt the urgency of the voice.
My parents were still asleep, besides what point would there be to alarm them, if it was true, they would know it soon enough. But, I had to do something. I switched on the radio, they were playing military marches, that surely wasn’t a good omen. They generally did that when they wanted to fill the time before transmitting the news. I got dressed, had a cup of coffee and went to the window. We lived in a middle-class, predominantly Jewish neighbourhood, near the Danube. On normal Sundays, couples with children used to walk past, going to the park nearby. Now not a soul. The street looked deserted. In the meantime my parents got up and we tried to discuss the situation, of course pure guesswork, my father, had always been an optimist and tried to assure my mother that we should wait and see and not imagine the worst, after all, the Germans were friends of Hungary. I didn’t believe a word, but no use to worry my mother, so I kept quiet.
Later in the afternoon, we were “officially” informed by the radio that our “Allies” had entered the country to protect us from the Judeo-plutocrate-bolshevic conspiracy. Plutocracy and bolshevism being opposite concepts never worried the authorities; one more fallacy, who cares, as long as the people believed them.
Suddenly, there was a ring at the door; we looked at each other, who could that be? My father went to the door, it was one of our neighbours, he was Catholic, his wife Jewish but converted, we were. They were not close friends, occasionally the lady and my mother went shopping together.
Now he came to warn us not to go near any of the railway stations because German soldiers were asking identity papers from everybody and Jewish people were immediately arrested. Nobody knew where they were taken. The Germans were working fast and the Hungarian authorities were only too willing to help. The task was to set up the Budapest ghetto. Two areas were chosen, one in the 7th district, near the Central Synagogue in the Dohany street, the other was near a small Reformed Synagogue, in the 5th district, the Csaky street where I lived with my parents.
A Jewish Council, consisting of important personalities was formed, they were ordered to help. They established an office of “voluntary” workers. Their task was to count the number of Jewish inhabitants in certain streets of the above mentioned districts. Houses with predominantly Jewish tenants were declared “Jewish houses”. After a certain date all the Jews had to live in those houses, and all the Christian inhabitants had to leave their flats. Naturally, the Government compensated them. Besides, they could occupy the houses or the flats vacated by the Jews.
There were other regulations. There was a curfew, from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m. All the Jews had to wear a badge, the yellow star, sewn visibly on their clothes. In every so called Jewish house, there was a janitor who was responsible to control if only people whose name figured on a register lived in the house, and if all the people registered were at home after the curfew when the doors had to be closed. Jews were excluded from public life, doctors, lawyers couldn’t practice, and employees couldn’t work for Christian firms. Jews had to give up their cars – there were not very many – and bicycles.
At a recent visit with my daughter in Budapest, where I showed her some monuments, visited the Jewish cemetery and explained certain events on the spot, she was most shocked by the idea that they took away my bicycle. Of course, she is Swiss, thank God, she has never had to accept such restrictions and I very much hope that having a mother of Jewish origin will never cause her any prejudice.
I was asked by the Jewish Council to work for the preparation of selecting the Jewish houses after a census of inhabitants. Now, when I look back at 60 years distance, I am ashamed that we all worked so hard to satisfy the German authorities and be ready by the stipulated time limit. Some of the members of the Jewish council even wanted us to terminate some tasks sooner, to show the Germans how efficient we were and never thinking of refusing the work or doing an act of sabotage. I was deeply shocked and decided to leave under the pretext of health problems.
After I had left I decided to do something else. Ever since my stay in England and my studies at the college of “Notre Dame de Sion”, I felt deeply drawn to the Catholic religion. But it was perfectly clear to me that this would not change my situation as a Jew, on the contrary I would be looked upon with scorn and contempt. Heine, the German poet and philosopher said, “The Christian religion is a passport to the Western world”. I certainly needed a passport, but not this way. It would have looked hypocritical. However, I heard about an association, called the Sisters of the Holy Cross. They tried to look after children coming from mixed religion families, they were also instructing anyone who was interested to know more about the New Testament, the teaching of Jesus. They also prepared people for conversion. I did not want to be converted, at least not yet, but I wanted to know more about the Catholic religion.
So one day, I arrived at the Congregation, nervous at the thought of possibly being refused when I explained my quest. But the Sister, who received me, was very kind. She said I could come and stay as often as I wanted and I could help with the children and participate at the study session. I learned quite a lot about the Gospel, about Jesus being born as a Jew and was wondering if he knew what was happening now to the Jews. He surely could not have wanted so many people to be killed in his name during the centuries; in Spain, in England, in FranceÉ and now all over Europe.
However, the Centre of the Holy Cross had to be closed, order of the government. In Hungary there have always been a great number of interfaith marriages, especially between Catholics and Jews, several members of the Clergy were converted Jews. There were Convents where half Jewish and even Jewish children were hidden, unfortunately, due to betrayal, some of the convents were raided, the children killed on the spot, the nuns were arrested and later sent to concentration camps.
While I was working at the Jewish Council I met a young pharmacist, Dr. Ivan Szekely. He told me about the rumours that a Swedish diplomat is supposed to come to Budapest to set up a special rescue service at the Swedish Embassy, to save the persecuted Jews who still lived in Hungary. Dr. Szekely was hoping he could work at this service, making use of his knowledge of German and English and help with the organization. As we got on very well and shared opinions about the work and false efficiency of the Jewish Council, I asked him if there might be as possibility of my working there too. I had to offer my assets, my excellent knowledge of English, a working knowledge of German – even though I hated the German occupying power I always loved German poetry and literature – plus a moderate skill of typing and shorthand and last but not least, an indomitable spirit to do anything, “to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them” (Shakespeare). Ivan Szekely promised to let me know if there was a post for me.
In the meantime, around May 15th, the deportations started in the country. We did not know exact details. The newspapers, if they mentioned anything at all, called it “purification of the country” or “eliminating subversive elements”. We lived in one of the “Jewish houses”. My aunt came to live with us and we also had to put up an unknown middle-aged lady. We were five people in our two and a half room flat, but we were still lucky as we could live in the same house where we had lived before, as we had our own kitchen and bathroom. The janitor, a fairly decent woman, obviously not Jewish, had the list of all the inhabitants in the flats. She had the authority to check that after 6 p.m. every body was at home and to report if anybody was missing, or if by chance there was somebody whose name didn’t figure on the list. She was powerful with an important function she had never had before, however she didn’t abuse it.
Dr. Szekely didn’t contact me again, but through the grapevine and a business friend of my father, I found out that Raoul Wallenberg arrived from Sweden at the beginning of July. He set up an office at the Swedish Embassy. One fine day I left home, covering my yellow star with a big shawl and set out for the Swedish Embassy. Luckily, the janitor didn’t see me. I did not know what I was expecting. All the way, it was about a 40 minutes walk, I did not dare to take the tram, I was imagining all kinds of scenario: I shall not be admitted, I shall be arrested by the Hungarian police at the door, or maybe, just maybe, I shall be asked to stay. Whatever happened, I had to try.
There was a long queue in front of the building; there was a guard, but luckily not a policeman. I had a letter from the Hungarian Red-Cross thanks to my father’s business friend and I insisted on seeing Dr. Szekely. I was not at all sure he was there, but I hoped for the best. After some argument, the guard let me in. Luckily Dr. Szekely was there, already functioning in one of the offices. He recognized me, explaining that the service had just started, he was very busy but he introduced me to the head of the Personnel Department and left me. There I was! The Head of the Personnel Department, after hearing my name, found out that he used to know my father when they were both students at Debrecen, a large town where we came from. So he agreed to give me a job as a typist. Fortunately, he didn’t check my typing skills. Family connection was enough. I could start the next day. To say that I was pleased is an understatement! I was ecstatic! On the top of the world!
When I arrived the next day I realized that the “Special service” of the Swedish Embassy was facing teething problems. Raoul Wallenberg was a young Swedish businessman. He had travelled extensively in Europe, studied in the United States and had also worked in Haifa where he met German Jewish refugees. He was deeply shocked when he heard about the atrocities committed by the German Nazi Government. He had also been in Hungary on business 1942 where he was appalled to see how Jewish people were treated as a consequence of the law against Jews. When the Swedish Government was urged by Washington to undertake a humanitarian mission to save the Jewish population of Hungary, Wallenberg was the ideal candidate to carry out such a task and he was more than willing to undertake such a challenging but perilous mission. At that time I only knew he was there trying to set up a rescue service to save people from deportation. The ways and means had to be organized and negotiated with the German and Hungarian authorities.
His plan was to issue a “Schutzpass”, a document of safe conduct, for people who had close family or business contacts with Sweden. This document was to guarantee that these people would be admitted to Sweden as soon as possible, in the meantime they were under the protection of the Swedish Embassy. It was both in Hungarian and in German and was supposed to be respected by the Hungarian and German authorities. The holders of these documents were to stay in protected Swedish houses. There were not a very large number of people with close Swedish contacts. Some people even took names and addresses from telephone directories of Stockholm, Göteborg and other Swedish towns. So we, the typists, were working sometimes late at night filling in these so called passports, ready to give them to people, if possible the next day.
Unfortunately, there were people who had already been assembled in an unused brick factory, outside Budapest, before being taken to the wagons to be deported to concentration camps, probably in Germany. So our task was to take the “Schutzpasse” to the people who were entitled to receive them. It was not an easy assignment, we had to present our own identity card as employees, issued by the Swedish Embassy, present ourselves to the commander of the camp and give a list of the people who were to receive the documents. I volunteered gladly, I was young, I did not look Jewish, – I preferred it to typing anyway and I was probably not fully aware of the danger. But when I was inside the camp the sight of the people, looking at us with hope in their eyes, taking my hand and imploring me to do something for them was unbearable. But there was no way to take people out of the camp unless they were on the list. I had never felt so helpless. I also realized that I could have been easily one of them sitting there, huddled in a corner, waiting to be deported. Those people whom we were able to get out of the camp were taken to the Swedish houses. These houses had the Swedish flag on the door and the inhabitants were supposed to be protected from deportation.
The deportations from Budapest were in full swing. Wallenberg went to Hegyesshalom, the Austro-Hungarian frontier several times and succeeded in liberating people who were en route for Germany and the various concentration camps. So a few wagons arrived at Budapest with people who – thanks to Wallenberg – could return to relative safety. Once or twice, it was my task to go to the railway station, receive these people and arrange for their transfer to the “Swedish Houses”. Their state of health was unimaginable, suffering from dysentery, exhaustion and shock. I had never seen anything like this before. But it certainly confirmed the rumours about the conditions and suffering in the German concentration camps. There was a Hungarian police officer supervising the transport who was also supposed to check the papers of these unfortunate people. I was told to distract the officer while other employees of the Swedish embassy were taking care of the transfer to the “safe houses”. On one occasion I was politely questioned by the police officer what I – a nice Christian girl according to him – was doing with those miserable Jews. I had been prepared for any questions. I told him I had worked for the Hungarian Red Cross and was temporarily transferred to the Swedish mission. I smiled at him and I think he believed me. If he hadn’t I might not have been writing this report today.
There were several occasions when I was skating on very thin ice but it was nothing compared to the danger that other Jewish people were facing. I must admit I was quite proud of myself. By then, my parents were living in the building of the Swedish Special Service; they were relatively safe. I continued to work in the Special Service of the Swedish Embassy, keeping irregular hours, sometimes late at night. Since I lived in the same building it was not a problem, I wouldn’t have liked to be on the streets after dark. Danger was everywhere even in broad daylight. One of my colleagues, Peter Sugar, with whom I went to the camp at the brick factory to hand out “Schutzpasse” was arrested at the steps of one of the big Catholic churches. He was born Catholic after his mother but his father was Jewish. Somebody had recognized him and alerted one of the ever-present Gestapo Agents. We never saw him again. It was a terrible shock to all of us at the Embassy. Wallenberg tried to find out where he was sent, but without success. This must have affected him as he cared very much for the safety of his employees. He was such a role model for us, risking his own life while negotiating with the authorities and stopping convoys at the Austro-Hungarian border. Another evidence of his caring and compassion was his offering his villa to the wife of one of the employees to give birth to her baby. Being Jewish she couldn’t have been admitted to a hospital.
The Last Year of the War
The Allied Forces disembarked at Omaha Beach in June 1944. We were hoping that the war would be finished for us too. There were rumours about Admiral Horthy planning negotiations with the Allies. On October 19th all our hopes were shattered. The Hungarian Nazis, the Arrow Cross Party, had taken over the country, forming a government of terrorist criminals. The concept of diplomatic immunity, based on international law was unknown to them. This was not surprising as except for one member of the government, Baron Kemeny, they were uneducated brutal, sadistic monsters.
But Wallenberg didn’t give up his mission. With the help of Baroness Kemeny – who was of Jewish origin – he managed to maintain the validity of the Swedish “Schutzpass” and the protection of the Swedish houses. There were, however tragic incidents. Even if the so-called Government was ready to negotiate with Wallenberg, uniformed members of the Party broke into several Swedish houses that were situated in the area of the Szent Istvan district near the Danube. The inhabitants, children included, were dragged to the bank of the river, shot and thrown into the water. A very few escaped, keeping under the water. Later they came to the offices of the Swedish Mission to report what had happened. Again Wallenberg protested but of no avail. His own life was also in danger, there were several plans to eliminate him, but he was fearless. He often said he came to Budapest to accomplish a mission and he was determined to carry it through. His example induced the Swiss, the Spanish and Portuguese Embassies and the Representative of the Vatican, Nuncius Angelo Rotta, to issue protective passes. But Wallenberg was the only one who was willing to risk his own life, by negotiating with Eichmann, going to the Austrian-Hungarian frontier, trying to stop the deportations, handing our “SchutzpŠsse” to the people in the cattle-wagons, with or without Swedish connections.
The Soviet troops were approaching Budapest. The Headquarters of the Swedish Special Mission had already been transferred from the Tigris street in Buda to the Ullöi road in Pest. We were continuing to work in the office, listening to contradictory news, wondering how quickly the Soviet troops were advancing and if the Germans and the Arrow Cross soldiers would have time to carry out their diabolic plan, the final solution, blowing up the Ghetto and kill all the remaining Jews. We must have been worrying about our own safety but we had trust in Wallenberg. Indeed, he succeeded in negotiating with the Commander of the German troops and this massacre was not carried out.
Sometime, in the middle of December there were rumours that Eichmann was trying to eliminate Wallenberg and the offices where we worked would be raided. We were advised that anyone of us who had the possibility should try to find a safe house elsewhere. I had an option. After certain hesitation, I decided to take it up. As I have mentioned before, I was more or less engaged. My fianc?, although Jewish was considered an exception, being protected by an important politician, as a reward for his pro-Hungary activity in a territory formerly belonging to Hungary, before the 1st World War, but occupied by Czechoslovakia. So he was actually a soldier, wearing the uniform of the Hungarian Army. He was entitled to occupy a flat that was vacated by a Jewish family. He suggested that I try to obtain false identity papers so that we could live together as husband and wife, together with his mother. My former colleague and friend with whom I had worked at the electro-technical factory got me a forged birth certificate with my own name, but born and baptized Roman Catholic. With this document, accompanied by the Aryan wife of my fianc’s cousin I went to the Housing Department of the Arrow Cross Party. To say that I was scarred, is an understatement, I was terrified but at the same time I was ashamed. How could I possibly ask a favour from those criminals? But the instinct of survival and the persuasion of my fianc? was probably stronger. Anyway, we got the apartment. Where we spent Christmas, partly in the air raid shelter, because of the constant heavy bombarding. This apartment was in a house near the Danube and to one of the bridges that the German blew up a few days later. We were practically living in the air raid shelter. However, we had to go up to the streets to get bread or some milk, or whatever was available. The office of the Swedish Mission where I had worked was at another part of the town and it would have been impossible to go there.
There were several families at the air raid shelter, we were careful to communicate with each other not to disclose our identity. Later we found out that several of the people were Jewish or half-Jewish hiding with false papers.
After the Russian soldiers entered we realized that the Germans must have left so it was possible to go to the streets, in spite of the danger of the shells exploding around us. I remembered that there used to be another office of the Swedish Mission in the Harmincad utca, where the National Bank was. I also remembered hearing that even before the end of the war Wallenberg had been working on a social and economic relief plan for Hungary, in general and the Jewish community in particular. This other office was not very far from where I was staying during the last days of the war, so I went there to find out what was happening and whether there was a possibility for me to do any work. There I heard that Wallenberg was planning to go to Debrecen to take up contact with the Hungarian Provisional Government. Actually, he was to leave the following day.
When I think back to the first weeks of January 1945, I see pictures of desolation, houses in ruins, the sounds of bombs falling outside the air raid shelter where we were hiding. Hiding from whom, the Hungarian Arrow Cross thugs, from the German soldiers, were there still any left, from the Soviet “liberating troops” who were looking for alcohol or even eau de perfume would do, and last but not least for women of any age, to quench their thirst? Again I was lucky, I was unharmed, at least physically. Men, there were very few, women and adolescents were ordered to clear up the rubble on the roof of the houses that were partly bombarded. I was hoping there were no unexploded bombs among the ruins. My Guardian Angel – was it Michael? – was doing a full time job. Looking back, I must have felt relieved, especially after I had found my parents, famished but alive.-
We went back to our old apartment or what was left after being plundered by unscrupulous elements. Life had slowly started, people were selling home made food on the streets, and Soviet soldiers were trading flour against watches. Sometimes the flour was chalk; the watches did not always work. The famous Swiss manufacturers PatekPhilippe, IWC, Doxa did not foresee the rough treatment their products were subjected to. I think human beings are more resilient than Swiss watches. We went on living, getting used to seeing Soviet soldiers on the street without being afraid of what they might do to us. Not all of them were aggressive and they were definitely not looking out to kill Jews. That was a great improvement after the Germans and the Hungarian Arrow Cross troops.
I had two fervent desires to become a Christian and to go to England. I wanted to go to England but definitely not as a Jew. I have always, been attracted to the Christian religion, particularly to the Roman Catholic faith, especially since my studies at Notre Dame de Sion Language Institute.
Two years ago, in an Anglican Church in Rome I found a small book about Fr. Theodore Ratisbonne, the founder of the Congregation of Priests of Our Lady of Sion and learned that he was the one who set up a school for converted Jewish girls. In his book “Journey by the Light of the Word” he expressed his wish to live in a relationship of greater love between Christians and his Jewish brethren and all people on earth. Was this the beginning of the Christian-Jewish dialogue that has been encouraged by the official Church later on? Reading this book helped me with my uncertainty of how to cope with my double identity, born a Jew, becoming a Christian, being converted after the war, before going to England.
If I want to be absolutely honest, one of the reasons I wanted to be converted before going to England was the political situation in the Middle East. A bitter fight was going on in Palestine between the English occupying power and Jewish terrorist groups. I was convinced at the time and I still am, that without the English and American forces Germany may have won the Second World War. So, for Jews to kill English soldiers, destroy barracks and English property was stupid and wicked. I did not want to belong to such a religious group.
Soon after May 1945 a Scottish Presbyterian Mission came to Budapest. Apart from the Sunday Service that I had attended regularly, they organized study sessions for anybody who was interested to learn more about the New Testament and its derivation from the Old Testament, the teaching of Jesus, his death and resurrection. Several of us from the study group asked to be baptized. The Scottish Minister didn’t have the authority to carry out the ceremony in Hungary; it had to be done by a Hungarian clergyman. And so I was baptized in a Calvinist church in Budapest. As a matter of fact, I would have liked to be baptized in an English or in a Scottish church. I did not feel any spiritual communion with the Hungarian minister and I don’t think he had any sympathy for me.
Anti-Semitism in Hungary has always been very strong and no political regime, fascist or communist, would ever change it. All that I have lived through the war and after the war strengthened my desire to leave Hungary, to go to England, belong to a Scottish or English Christian community. No wonder I did not teach my children Hungarian, I wanted them to speak English, live, study and work in England However, things have turned out differently, here I am in a small German Swiss village. My husband came from Lausanne, even while he was alive we were considered not quite belonging here to the Welsh, the Suisse Romand.
According to Maslow, the American psychologist, one of the most important basic needs of a human being is the “sense of belonging”. I have never really achieved this, however, both of my children have. They are Swiss, Christian and I am grateful to God.
In March 1947, I could finally leave for England. I obtained a permit, working as a mother’s help (a euphuism for resident domestic), and a passport valid for one year. Leaving my parents was not easy. I have always been grateful for the support and unselfishness of my parents in letting me leave without knowing when they will see me again. Looking out of the window of the train leaving the East railway station in Budapest I could see my mother leaning over my father, deeply distressed. I carried this picture with me into my new life, with a very bad conscience. If I think how anxious I am whenever my children travel by air, I think of my mother, I admire her and I am ashamed.
Anybody who reads this account of my souvenirs may wonder why I have decided to write this after so many years. I am aware that there have been a large number of articles, reports, documents written by people who have survived persecution, concentration camps, suffered humiliation, loss of family and fortune. This is not quite my case. Thanks to God and my Guardian Angel in whom I believe, I have survived the Nazi and Soviet occupation, the status of “alien” in England, a mistrusted spouse of Jewish origin to a high ranking Swiss officer and civil servant, a serious car accident and three pancreatitis. I am a survivor. I don’t know for how long.
The fact, however, that I survived the German occupation in Budapest and the Hungarian Arrow Cross fascist regime is undoubtedly thanks to Raoul Wallenberg, the righteous gentile commemorated in Israel, a honorary citizen in Canada, but not sufficiently honoured in his own country, Sweden. It is not for me to judge why the Swedish government hasn”t made more effort to find and liberate Wallenberg from the Soviet prisons. Was it because of his origin from the rich and famous Wallenberg family?!
It was certainly a privilege to have worked in his mission, to learn about his compassion for the persecuted people, to see him work at his desk, sometimes late at night. Again, we had to finish filling out the “Schutzpasse” for him to sign, ready to take them with him when he went to the Austro-Hungarian border the following day. He had never worried about his own safety, whether facing Eichmann or the Arrow Cross criminals.
The other reason for my writing this report is being encouraged by Fr. Dr. Christian Rutishauser, a charismatic Jesuit priest, a scholar of the Bible and of Jewish studies and a friend of the Jewish people. Before I first attended a workshop at the Lassalle House in Bad Schönbrunn I didn’t know very much about the Jesuit Order. I was interested to find out how and why do they promote and encourage Christian-Jewish dialogue, just as I was trying to accomplish that myself. After attending several workshops and having met Fr. Rutishauser, I was overwhelmed by his genuine interest and compassion for the quest of the Jewish people.
From my early childhood I have been attracted to the Roman Catholic Faith, and particularly to the figure of the Virgin Mary. In my room I have several pictures representing her and I also have a small icon in my car. When I had my first interview with Fr. Rutishauser I explained him my problem of dealing with my double identity, a Hungarian Jew and a Swiss Christian. I was trying and hoping to become a real Christian, but I realized I had to learn more about the origin of the Christian faith, by first studying the Jewish tradition and the Old Testament that I had never really done before, and then continue to understand the teachings of Jesus Christ by becoming more and more familiar with the New Testament.
Among other encouraging and compassionate words he said to me: “The Virgin Mary was a Jewish mother”. What a consolation! This helped me to accept and cope with my double identity. And so I continue to pray to the Virgin Mary for the safety and happiness of my children.
This report is dedicated to Fr. Dr. Christian Rutishauser with respect and thanks for his guidance.
Marianne Vaney, born Bach
Bad Schönbrunn and Kerzers 2004-