Memories of the summer of 1944

A few weeks ago in a comment I mentioned that the overwhelming majority of my kindergarten class perished in the holocaust. Both Tom and Adam urged me to write about what I remember of those days, and Adam even suggested a day for publication: March 19th. After all, that was the day when the Germans occupied the country.

Hitler’s occupation of Hungary met no real resistance and unfortunately–at least in my opinion–the governor, Miklós Horthy, didn’t resign. Thus he became an accomplice. Although he refused to take an active part in governing, he appointed a new Hungarian government which soon after began the deportation of Hungarians of Jewish origin. The transportation of close to 600,000 people was entirely in the hands of the Hungarian authorities.

Although I was only eight years old at the time, I knew a lot about what was going on around me because my parents were keenly interested in politics and therefore politics was discussed at length in the house. Being an only child, I was always around adults and I picked up a lot from them. As my father later remarked, “Eva was saying such clever things about the outcome of the war, but of course she was just repeating what she heard at home.”

On March 19th I was sick with the measles and my father was in the army. My father was too young to serve in World War I, and Hungary after the war was severely restricted in maintaining a large army based on conscription. Therefore after 1938-39 when my father was almost forty years old he was dragged into basic training. He was a singularly non-military personality, and all that “soldiering” was an awful bother to me. As far as I can figure out today, he was called up every time Hungary decided to expand Trianon Hungary, starting with the occupation of the Bánát-Bácska region, continuing with the Carpatho-Ukraine, and then on to Transylvania.

On March 19th father was off supervising the digging of trenches somewhere; he was in the engineering corps, being a mechnical engineer by training. Before he left, my parents discussed all eventualities and the decision was made that “if anything unusual happens” mother and I were supposed to move to Bálics. Bálics is an area of the Mecsek mountain north of Pécs where my grandparents had purchased a vineyard with a house that was completely renovated and winterized. My mother decided that the occupation of Hungary by Germany was “an unusual thing” and therefore we ought to move. My aunt, whose husband was also in the army, was consulted and the decision was made that although I had the measles and her daughter didn’t, we would all move out to Bálics: the two sisters and the two cousins.

There was the “little problem” of the measles and the quarantine, but mother bundled me up and off we went for the twenty-minute ride in a taxi. Luckily the house was built in such a way that I could be isolated and my cousin never caught the measles.

A couple of months later both my father and my uncle by marriage were released from the army and they returned to run their small business making shoe lasts. The little factory was on a road running parallel to the railroad tracks. The street today is called Street of the Martyrs because it was there that a couple of gendarmes herded Pécs’s Jewish population toward the railway station only a block or so away from our buildings.

Because we were not living in our normal apartment in downtown Pécs I didn’t witness the emptying of our apartment house. We lived in a fairly new apartment building in which the majority of the inhabitants happened to be Jewish. The authorities had to create a “ghetto,” and the decision was made that the Jews would be moved into a block of apartment houses owned by the Hungarian Railways for their own employees. So, the owners of the apartments in our house were moved to the ghetto while the employees of the railroad were moved into their apartments. Thus when in January 1945 we returned, a new world was waiting for me. With the exception of one family everybody was a stranger.

One day during the summer (later I learned that it was July 4) my father phoned: “They emptied the ghetto and about 3-4,000 people accompanied by a couple of gendarmes are going toward the railway station.” My cousin who was only five years old started crying and kept repeating “Doj néni, Doj néni.” When she was very little she abbreviated the word “doktor” to “doj.” Father announced that he and my uncle would immediately go to the railroad station. Later I learned that the station was completely empty. Only my father and my uncle were running from freight car to freight car looking for friends and acquaintances. Almost nobody returned.

And now about my kindergarten class. It was a private Montessori kindergarten where we were also supposed to learn some German. The kindergarten teacher and owner was Márta néni (Aunt Martha) who was Jewish. She was married to a doctor in town; I believe that their family name was Frankel. Both perished. I spent two happy years there although at the beginning I wasn’t too thrilled about going to kindergarten. However, in a couple of weeks I felt at home and when a crying Gyuri Pollák was escorted by his mother I was called out to make him feel at home.


Gyuri on the attached picture is sitting on Márta néni’s left. Gyuri’s father owned a bakery in town. They delivered warm croissants every morning before breakfast to their customers. The Polláks lived in a nice house not very far from us, and they also purchased the apartment right across from our own when the apartment house was built in 1940-41. Behind Gyuri stands Zsuzsi Bürger whose father owned a shoe store. She also vanished. I’m second on the left in the first row and next to me sits a red-headed boy called Miki. He also died. Out of all these children, I believe only Éva, standing behind Miki, survived. She was an adopted child.

I heard that just last year the Jewish community in Pécs erected a memorial specifically for the children who perished in the holocaust. This is my modest memorial for some of them.

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HJ40
Guest

This is a sad posting.
The German leaders forced this tragedy on Europe.
To many Hungariam Eichmanns embraced the mission. The temptation of material gain was irresistible.
It is amazing that the Hungarian Jewish leaders could not mount resistance. They had time to prepare for the disaster.
The next generations of Jewish leaders failed to come up with reforms and a correct answer.
The reply can not be based on religion or on race.
It must be organizational, smartly managed, to escape prejudices, not to accuse unnecessarily, and unite the liberal elements of the society.
And a better future is still possible.

Paul
Guest

“It is amazing that the Hungarian Jewish leaders could not mount resistance. They had time to prepare for the disaster.
The next generations of Jewish leaders failed to come up with reforms and a correct answer.”
I assume that you are not a native English speaker, so I may have got the wrong end of the stick here, but are you really saying that the Jews were in some way to blame for the ease with which Hungarians sent so many of them to such a terrible death??

Anna
Guest

Very beautiful post. Thank you Eva.

Bela Nemeth
Guest

Thanks for sharing this with us, touching story of a very sad chapter in history.

Member

I grew up in Hungary in the 70s and the 80s. It was all movies and tests in the high school history classes. Were we insensitive or was this a taboo in communist era? Dang, I don’t remember…
I could listen to you for hours … thank you.

Member

Oh Eva, this is truly a sad post. I am looking all this little, innocent children, and I just cannot comprehend how did something like this happen.

Jo Peattie
Guest

Thanks for posting this. Until commentaries are changed for example in the National Museum the Hungarian part in the genocide will never be acknowledged. I know that many would wish that no Hungarian was complicit in this tragedy but some were. Acknowledge it- and move on. Vow that it, or something like it is never repeated. I am an optimist- but with Jobbik amd their supporters it is hard….

latefor
Guest

HJ40 -“It is amazing that the Hungarian Jewish leaders could not mount resistance. They had time to prepare for the disaster.”
I have been told by Holocaust survivors that they did not want to believe the messengers from Poland.
To them, the stories about the gas chambers were to far fetched…..

Karl Pfeifer
Guest
Thank you Eva for remembering. HJ40 The Hungarian Jewish leaders were in first line law abiding Hungarian patriots, they could not believe, that the Hungarian government will be active to get them deported. When after the first World War Hungarian Jews were offered the possibility to become an ethnic minority they refused. When Hungary occupied “Kárpátalja” the govt. asked the Jews – most of them did not speak Hungarian – to note in the census questionaire their native tongue as Hungarian. István Bibó remarked, that they were the first ones to be deported from Hungary. The Zionist tried to save as many Jews as they could by fabricating forged papers and by warning. But Jews had no weapons and the population was not – as a rule – helpful. István Bibó compared the chances of a Jew in Denmark and Hungary to be saved. I have tried to inform my uncle Puskás Arthur in Balatonboglár in November 1942 about what happens in Poland and to urge him to sell everything and move to Rumania. I was at the time 14 years old. His answer was: “This is not Poland, this is not Germany, this is Hungary with a 1000 years… Read more »
Odin's lost eye
Guest

The only real answer and true memorial to these poor little mites is that ‘Honest Folk’ see through the machinations of such evil little toads and megalomaniacs and never allow them to get their grubby paws on the levers of power again.
Any society which allowes such people who can do this sort of thing again is to my mind forever cursed.

Mouse
Guest

Thanks for sharing this Eva it is much appreciated an important reminder. Anti semitism is alive and well in most countries in Europe in the words and action of right wing organizations and those that subscribe to their ideas. Sadly in Hungary there still seems to be an acceptance of anti semitism in the mainstream. When I challenged a colleague on a statement he made I was told I was impolite to raise an objection.

littlelambfound
Guest

Eva, thank you so much for sharing this. Using names and a photo brings home the fact that we are talking about people, not just numbers.

Odin's lost eye
Guest

Mouse – the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.
To Hades with politeness, your truths are more important that the filth that these twerps are preaching.

Adam LeBor
Guest

Eva, thanks so much for publishing this heart-rending posting.
Readers interested in who among the Jewish leadership and Hungarian govt knew about Auschwitz, and when, may be interested in this link:
https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Vrba-Wetzler_report
Of course, knowing and believing are two different things. As Karl says, most Hungarian Jews simply could not imagine that their own government would deport them to their deaths.
Eva’s photograph is haunting.

Kirsten
Guest

Éva, thank you very much for this post.
I was wondering when did you learn about this tragic fate of the other children in your kindergarten class? And was it somehow “official” or rather through talk among people? It is often said that people were overwhelmed by the chaos in 1945 and the terror after 1949 which made it difficult to adequately address the earlier events. Would you share such an opinion?
I read that when the Soviets switched back and forth with the support of Rakosi, they used his Jewish background as an “explanation”, it might have been a problem in view of the prevailing anti-semitism of Hungarians. I am not sure that I remember that fully correctly, but it would perhaps have contributed to a rather ambivalent approach of the Communists to the genocide of the Nazis (and little coverage of it in the history classes later). (Perhaps this is also a question to Karl Pfeifer.)

Member
A relative of mine who survived Auschwitz told me the story that when they deported her and her family (mother, father, brother) to Auschwitz from Karpatalja, no one, not one single person on the train knew what lies ahead. When they were separated from each other, they still did not suspect anything. Some of younger women were put together in the same barrack, and they were singing and generally being at ease when one of the Polish woman who was there already started yelling at them to be quite and respectful to the dead. They were mad at her and they thought she is crazy. She told them about he chimney and that probably their parents are being cremated right then. I am not sure how long it took for the truth to sink in. She has survived, and returned to Nagyszollos, and never found any of her family. My great uncle married her, who’s mother, father and a brother were also killed in Auschwitz. Budapest was different from the countryside, and Jews learned sooner about the faith of the transported. Still, they did not think it will happen to them. My grandfather signed over his businesses to a Hungarian… Read more »
Guest

Éva, thank you for that very moving story – it took me some time to get ready to comment on it.
My mother told me similar stories (of course from the outsider’s viewpoint) about her Jewish friends from the neighbouring German village of Rexingen.
She was still a teenager when they told her in 1935 they were all planning to move to Palestine, which they did in 1938 – at least those who realised what was coming …
Those who stayed were later all deported – more than a hundred died, only a handful survived …
You can find a very moving story by one of the survivors here: http://www.nmajh.org/content.aspx?id=758
He and his sister (both less than 10 years old!) were sent by their family to the USA via very complicated routes, they must have been among the last to get out of Nazi Germany …
Just to lighten up this sad story:
My mother often told me that she and her Jewish friends used to exchange their foodstuff in school that they got from their parents – she really liked those “matzen” – and the jewish girls devoured her “liverwurst sandwiches” which of course were extremely un-kosher …

HJ40
Guest

Karl Pfeifer is absolutely right.
Of course, I knew the Hungarian Colonel Nemes Takach Lajos, the Josika utcai super Bosze Jozsef, the Protestant reverend Dr. Mathe Elek who saved many people.
It is also true that the deportees were interrogated before transported to Auschwitz.
The detectives wanted bank accounts, business deposits, and hidden jewellery.
And I visited Auschwitz, Dachau, Yad Vashem, Yad Mordechai….
I also know John Ranz, Generation After, who fought misguided New York individuals who wrote incitement or sold Swastika decorated tee-shirts.
I also listened to a lecture of Konrad Gyorgy.
In summary. Most historical leaders displayed a partial or complete incompetence.
We need some Maxwellian unity equations to cure human greed and cruelty.
The comments to this post should be constructive, but they are not.
I will be in Budapest in April, and would like to meet Karl Pfeifer. What is his phone number?

Member

“We need some Maxwellian unity equations to cure human greed and cruelty.”
What?

Guest

Thank you all, Eva and everyone, for these posts. Visiting the nursery school of a friend’s son in Budapest, I noticed a father wearing a large Star of David pendant. In my country (USA) I would have considered it a piece of unnecessary chutzpah, in Budapest, it seemed, perhaps, a piece of bravery. I wondered if and when he buttoned his coat over it…These issues of the holocaust, the siege and aftermath continue to live and inform lives whether we wish it or not.

Sackhoes Contributor
Guest

A fascinating and detailed story of the events of 1944 and the attempts to save at least a few Jews in Hungary is found in the Canadian author (born in Hungary) book Kasztner’s Train: The True Story of an Unknown Hero of the Holocaust by Anna Porter.
Read and weep…

Member

Sackhoes: Anne Porter is a fantastic writer. I loved her book and her previous one too, The Storyteller, speaks about Hungary from WWI to 1956. It is a must read, and you can order it online from Amazon.
HJ40: “The comments to this post should be constructive, but they are not.” Can you expand on that?

HJ40-abc
Guest

Constructive!
I would be delighted to read posts:
positive personal initiatives, personal development, enriching reading material, political role models,philosophical discoveries, feedback from travels….
Things to assist us in our self-improvement, and hopefully, in stopping the murder-bullies here and everywhere.
I will enjoy the learning if you share your thoughts with me.

Pythias
Guest

Watch Oprah.

Sandor
Guest

In answering those, incredulous about the Hungarian Jews and their reluctance putting up any resistance, I would like to offer the example Samu Stern’s.
He was the president of the Hungarian Jewish Congress just prior to the Holocaust.
In 1939, or 40, he published a manifesto, or perhaps a pamflet, as he probably meant it to be the confession of the Hungarian Jewry. This slim little booklet, only 6 pages long, he explained that the Jews of Hungary are as Hungarian as anyone else in the country. In some cases, he reached over his task, they are even more Hungarian then many. He recounted the contributions Jews made to the commonwealth of the country and in conclusion he restated that all they are and want to be is Hungarians. In the coda he stated that if the Jews will have to go into their death for being Jews, they will go, but with the Hungarian National Anthem on their lips.
This is how naive, how deluded they were.

Member

Why are we taking this question seriously? What kind of “resistance” could have they put up? Writing to their representatives or something like the Warshaw Gettho uprising? I guess this was their 66% moment when they believed in the Christian traditions of the Hungarian society,
The wiki article from Adam was very interesting but I doubt that the fact the Horthy received this report in 1944 was significant. We can’t seriously believe that this was the only source of information. The Hungarian government very likely was perfectly aware what was going on in Germany and Poland. They shut the boxcar door on the 2/3 of the deported (around 400,000) before the admiral ordered to stop the deportations.

Karl Pfeifer
Guest

Adam Lebor I beg to differ, Wikipedia is not reliable. Anyone really interested can read The Politics of Genocide The Holocaust in Hungary by Randolph L. Braham.
I can also recommend: We Struggled for Life: The Hungarian Zionist Youth Resistance During the Nazi Era by Rafi Benshalom and Efraim Agmon

Jano
Guest

Eva: Thank you for this truly moving post, you are a lot better when you are not writing about actual politics.

Adam LeBor
Guest
@ Sandor: thanks for that – I did not know about that pamphlet by Samu Stern. The role of the Jewish Council in the Hungarian Holocaust remains incredibly sensitive and deeply controversial. Hannah Arendt in her book on the Eichmann trial quotes Hungarian survivors screaming at Fulop Freudiger when he testified in Jerusalem in 1961 that he had saved himself and his family and sacrificed others. Rudolf Vrba, one of the author of the Auschwitz Protocol, the document that detailed what was happening at Auschwitz that reached some of the Hungarian Jewish leadership and sections of the government and churches, said that the Jewish Council should have issued instructions to the Jews not to follow orders to assemble for deportation and to flee for their lives. He is right, of course. This historical debate and investigation is naturally loved by those who are not friends of the Jews, but nonetheless needs to take place. The wider point is the context in which the Jewish Council operated: in fear, terror and under a Nazi regime with substantial cooperation from its local allies. Indeed Veesenmayer, the Nazi ambassador, testified at his trial at Nuremberg that the Nazis could never have deported the… Read more »
Adam LeBor
Guest

@ Karl: thanks for those recommendations. Wikipedia is just a snapshot, a starting point.
Yes, Braham is the work of record and essential reading for anyone who wants to know what happened. I had not heard of ‘We struggled for life’ and will seek it out.