A truck had pulled up the night before and taken all four of them – my mother, my grandmother, my aunt and my cousin Judy – away, never to be heard from again. I never found out what happened. I never found out what was done to them. I never found out who was actually responsible. The only thing I heard was from the superintendent of the building who said that the person who had gotten them the false identity papers that allowed them to live in the city was the person who gave them away, who ratted on them. And he was gone; I couldn’t find him. I found his parents and I went to their house, a little hut that they were living in. They were two very old, very broken down, poor, poor, working-class people outside of Budapest. I confronted them and they told me the same sad story that I already knew: their son was a loser and they didn’t know what happened to him or what he was doing. They knew that he was involved in bad things – that’s what they said – but they didn’t know anything about him. He had gone away. Who knows whether he survived the war or not? In Budapest, when the Germans were completely beaten by the Russians, a lot of the Hungarian Nazis joined up with the Germans who were running west and they all escaped to Germany. Knowing this, my brother looked for some sort of evidence as to the man’s whereabouts, but he couldn’t find anything after the war either.
This was one of the very bad periods that I told you about earlier that I overcame only because I had to keep going on a daily basis. I just had to keep my body and soul going with food, and so forth. I didn’t have time to do much more than just try and figure out who had done something like that, and I couldn’t follow up on anything because the war was still going on. It took several weeks before I found his parents, and that was after the war had ended. The war ended in Budapest on January 8, and I found out about what happened to my family on the day after Christmas, so I had several days yet to go before I could really begin to investigate.
Would I be able to get a quick look at what you’ve done so far?
FC: I think it’s better to wait. If you’re patient and wait until the end of the process when everything is done…it’s better when I’m completely done. And then you have the surprise at the end.
TW: Oh, alright. It’s OK. I have a feeling I know what you are doing. Once, I watched a man do a nice color crayon sketch of my son when he was about four years old down in Massachusetts. In fact, I’ve still got it. It took him quite a few minutes to do it.
Anyway, let me know when you are ready and I’ll go on.
FC: You can resume; I’m listening.
TW: When the superintendent told me about my family, I backed out of the building. I began to feel a little strange being there asking about four Jewish women when I was not supposed to be out in the streets. I didn’t know what the superintendent might do, so I backed out of the building as soon as I could and went as fast as I could back to the safe house. I was lucky because it was snowing and it covered everything.
I got back to the safe house and I found out that there was an old man in the safe house who was selling food. I probably would have starved if I hadn’t done something; I must have been full of the will to live. I went to him, and I asked him, ”Where do you get the food?” He said, ”From the Russians.” I said, ”From the Russians? Where are the Russians?” He said, ”A couple of blocks away.”
By that time, the Russian front had moved closer and closer to the Danube and was fighting its way through buildings, and there we were, only a couple of blocks away. I said, ”When do you go next?” He said, ”This afternoon,” and I said, ”Can I go with you?” ”Ya,” he said, ”you can go with me.” So I could go from the Germans to the Russians by walking a couple of blocks!
I followed the elderly man. I didn’t know that there was shooting, machine gunning going on in the streets. On one side, there were the Germans and on the other side were the Russians and they were shooting at each other and we were in the middle. How I got through that, I don’t know. All I know is that, suddenly, I noticed holes being made in the wall of the building that I was running by and the wall was coming down on me. The stucco was falling down because bullets were hitting it.
So I ran faster, and the faster I ran, the better it was because I got to the other end of the block where there was a big door. I went through the door, and inside, a Cossack was standing there. He looked just like the gendarme except he was a Russian, and he was handing out cigarettes – not food – he was handing out cigarettes. They were either Hungarian cigarettes or Russian cigarettes. They were not good. I was not a smoker yet, but even I could tell that they smelled bad and they tasted bad. But I couldn’t help it. I took a cigarette and I lit it and tried to smoke because I was hungry. Later on, I found out what American cigarettes tasted like and, at that point, I decided that I wanted to go to America.
FC: Was that the first time you smoked?
TW: No, by that time I had smoked a lot of Russian cigarettes that were so bad there’s just no comparison. I saw a lot of Russian soldiers smoke something that looked like tobacco but it was more like dried leaves that you could pick up in the street. They would tear a piece of paper from a newspaper – it was a pretty large piece of newspaper – and crumple up a lot of this garbage and throw it in, roll it up and lick it and make it into something that looked like a cigarette – a very thick cigarette. They would light it and smoke it. You never smelled something so evil, so bad. And they would smoke that. And I even tried it once myself. It was terrible. Now, this was what Russian soldiers did during the war when they were really stuck without real cigarettes. I’m not saying that they always smoked like that.
But, then, to get an American cigarette, let me tell you, that was incredible. That was in Vienna. I was at a barber shop and right next to me there was an American soldier sitting in a chair, having his hair cut, and he gave me a cigarette, and I smoked a Lucky Strike for the first time in my life.
Maybe you have seen what the French make of a cigarette? It is all black –
FC: Well, I have never smoked…
TW: You never smoked? You’re lucky.
Well, I smoked the Russian cigarette, but then, I noticed that, behind the Cossack, there were people getting food and they were eating. It turned out that there was a field kitchen set up behind this Russian soldier and they were handing out big metallic plates, or canteens, that would be filled up with pasta, fresh pasta, OK? And I could see the woman slapping these huge spoonfuls of pasta onto this dish until there was a big heap of it. That’s what I wanted. And I got it.
Then, they told me to ”go over to that guy.” I went over to the guy and he put a big spoonful of raspberry preserves, like jam, on top of the pasta, OK? And then they told me to go to the next guy, too. I went to the next guy and he had a sack of powdered sugar and he took out a big spoonful of powdered sugar and put that on top of the jam. That’s the way the Russians eat – pasta and then raspberries and then sugar! I sat down and I did nothing but eat for the rest of the afternoon.
FC: What image do you have of the Russians? You said earlier that you were not aware of many of the things that were happening during the war. What knowledge did you have of the Russians, and what was your position toward them?
TW: What was my attitude toward them? Oh, I was very much in favor of the Russians coming.
FC: So you had knowledge of their position in the war, in the general picture?
TW: Oh, certainly. As it turned out, the Russians were no great friends of the Jews or anything. Later on, you found out more about that. But, as far as comparing them with the Germans, with the Nazis, we preferred the Russians.
FC: Anything was better than the Nazis, right?
TW: Well, of course. That was liberation, you know? It was called liberation. I tell you, I waited for the Russians like they were the greatest heroes in the world. My attitude toward the American bombers was the same. We would joke about how nice it would be to have a bomb fall on us; we joked about that because we knew that would hurt the Germans.
So, when the Russians were only two blocks away and this old man knew how to get to them, I thought it was a miracle. I couldn’t believe it. Because I was hungry. I was just looking for any food that I could get.
FC: Before we started, you told me about how important the sense of humor is for Hungarians.
TW: It is very important.
FC: Because you are Hungarian and Jewish, and humor is very important in both cultures, did you manage to keep your sense of humor during the war? Sometimes, we hear of individuals who faced repression and made jokes as a way to ”liberate” themselves. Did you use your sense of humor as a way to help you deal with what was happening to you?
TW: The humor didn’t happen then. It was not at the time. The humor takes place now, looking back. I find that when I talk about my experiences to students, they listen better and really understand things better if I let them see some of the humor. They really pay much more attention to what I’m saying. The more humor I can get into it, the better they like it. That’s what I want; I want them to really hear everything.
During the period itself, in 1944, I don’t remember having a lot of laughs. There was not a lot to laugh about in the situation, let me tell you. I can tell you one thing that kind of comes close. Remember I told you I was in a Red Cross villa for about 10 days? It was in a very, very nice district of the city and it had a garden with a fence around it. One day, I went out into the yard and up to the fence and I suddenly realized that there was an SS officer standing outside the fence. He was not watching me; he was not looking in my direction. He was looking away. Then, he turned around and it was a friend of mine, a boy who had been in the same school with me – the Hebrew school that I told you about. He was one year older than me because, one year, he had flunked every class that he had so he had to repeat a whole year. He was the friend I went into the movie business with; he was one of the extras in that movie with me. He was the son of a dentist and he had all kinds of money because his father had gold for dental fillings and such, and he would steal gold from his father. He was a bad boy.
When I saw him standing there in an SS uniform, I said, ”What are you doing!?” He said, ”I got a uniform.” You can imagine what you would feel like if you knew a kid, a boy from school, and during the war, when the SS is killing everybody, he suddenly shows up in the uniform of an SS officer. I’m not saying that it was funny, that it was a joke, but it was very strange, very weird.
Then, later on, he became a chemist. He got a college degree in chemistry and ended up in Washington, D.C., and according to a friend of ours who went to the Hebrew school with us, ended up a drug addict. He couldn’t help himself with all the drugs that he, as a chemist, could make. He got into drugs and became really sick and that’s how he passed away, poor guy. But, that’s just part of life.
During that period, though, I can’t remember anything that I would call funny. There was nothing at all that was funny about it, let me tell you. It’s only now, looking back, a long ways back, that I can see some things that were so absurd that they can be seen as funny.
FC: I understand.
TW: I told you about the summer when I was 15 and we were imprisoned in that apartment building and all the teenagers got together. There was a lot of laughter and joking and fun in that, but I told you why: because lots of girls were available. I can’t recall any jokes or anything though. In my circles, as a 15- or 16-year-old teenager and busy with all the things that were available to me, joking about the war and thinking that there was anything funny about it was not part of my life.
I’ll tell you something: the war was very serious. Very serious. It was so serious that we listened to the announcements and tried to follow everything that happened – the fighting and where the front was – on maps. When the Americans landed in Normandy in June 1944, believe me, we looked on the map, trying to follow exactly where the fighting was taking place. My grandfather was a very sick man by that time. He was dying, but he was interested and I showed him the map and where the Americans had landed. He died the day after June 6.
I think I really very much identified with my mother who worried about whether she would be able to feed the family and how she would keep everything going. That was a big enough problem in itself.
FC: What was the situation for the Gypsy community? Did it compare to that of the Jews? Because there was a large Gypsy community in Hungary, right?
TW: Oh, yes. I don’t remember having any real awareness of the Gypsies during that period. The gypsies were out of sight, out of view. They were not seen.
As a child, I remember that my family, like all families in Hungary, always warned the children about the Gypsies. For some reason, people believed that the Gypsies kidnapped children and that we had to be very scared and careful not to get into trouble with them.
The Gypsies were well known as being mistreated, as being victims of society, long before the whole thing with the Nazis started. Nowadays, the only thing you ever hear about the Gypsies is how unfair it was for them, and that’s probably true. They have been mistreated forever, much worse than the Jews, even. And the Germans probably put the Gypsies in the same place that they put the Jews: Auschwitz. The same as they did with homosexuals.
I have to tell you very frankly, very truly, that I came out of my own experiences without really thinking about these larger questions. Only in the past few years, since I have been giving speeches, have I learned about the kinds of things that occurred during the Holocaust. I have gone to the library at the University of New Hampshire – it’s not far from here – and read as many books as possible about the Holocaust. Lots of things have been written about the Holocaust and I have tried to find out all that I can because, when you live through it, you know your immediate circumstances, but you don’t necessarily hear about what happened in France or in Denmark or in Germany or in Spain or in Italy. All of those things went on and on and on, but I was limited to my immediate surroundings. What occurred in my surroundings was all I knew until I got to Germany after the war. There, I began to meet boys and girls from Poland and they would tell me what had happened there. The same thing happened everywhere I went.
FC: How did you end up in the United States? What happened after the liberation?
TW: Well, as you know, I got to the Russian side, and remember I told you I ate pasta the whole day? There was still fighting going on because the war was not over yet, so I got as far away from the front line as possible and found my way back to our old apartment where my family had lived. It was pretty far from the Danube so I got back safely. And I couldn’t believe it – it had hardly been touched. Everything was there. Nobody had taken anything away.
On the way back to the apartment, I had a lucky break and I ended up with a huge solid block of chocolate that was about a foot across. Can you imagine a block of chocolate a foot across both ways and weighing a ton? I knew that I could eat it if I didn’t have anything else, and that was one thing. But the main thing was that I was back in my apartment, in my family’s apartment, and I felt at home.
Then I found out that some of the aunts and uncles were living in a place not far from there, and I went to see them. They had no food, and I had my chocolate. I gave them a lot of the chocolate because there was a newborn baby and he was hungry and they had to have food for him. That ended up being important because, later on, when I was living in New York, I suddenly received a letter from one of the relatives who was in the apartment where I had left the chocolate. She was the mother of the baby, and when I got the letter, she was living in Washington, D.C. with her new husband. (Her first husband was killed in Russia. She later married an American and he went over there to get her and brought her over here to Washington, D.C.) She said, ”You can live with us for the rest of your life because of what you did.” She said, ”You gave us the chocolate and saved my baby’s life.” I didn’t stay with them forever because I wanted to get to California where my girl was, and so I eventually left them.
But that’s how life in war is. Strange things can happen. People who you don’t think you’ll ever see again suddenly turn up in Washington, D.C. and invite you to live with them. That’s what happened.
In 1945, after the war in Hungary, it was a very mixed up mess. My brother was not back yet; I didn’t know where he was. I didn’t know whether he was coming back or not. As I told you, he was five years older than me and he had been marched all over Hungary and made to dig ditches.
I was still in Budapest in the old apartment. An aunt and uncle of mine – the uncle who I had dug ditches with and his wife who saved us (they were the ones who eventually ended up in Australia) – came back to the apartment and I lived with them. They tried to set up the butcher business that they had before the war.
Then, one day, I heard my name being called from the street. I went to the window and somebody called up to me and said, ”Your brother is coming. Your brother is here.” I ran downstairs, and walking down the street in my direction, I saw this person who looked like all bones and skin. It was my brother. He had just come back from the Vienna area where he had been hiding in a brick oven, a brick kiln, at a factory where they make bricks. He had found a place to stay inside one of the ovens. He had no food, but somebody brought him water and that kept him going until he could get on a train. They helped him get on a train and get back to Budapest. Then, when he got back to Budapest, he found me in that apartment, and I saw that he had typhus that covered his skin. He had skin problems – big rashes that typhus causes – all over his body. I had to put oil on his whole body for weeks until it got better.
I lived in the apartment with my brother and I went to work with him and we tried to sort of start a new life together, but I told him right away that I was not going to stay in Europe, that I wanted to leave the continent. That was the first thing that I said to my brother: ”This continent…I’m finished. And it’s not just Hungary that I want to leave. I want to leave the continent. I must go.” And the only place that I could imagine going, at that point, was Israel. There were kibbutzim that were being collected in Hungary. You know, a kibbutz is a commune that works on the land, and I said to myself, If that’s what I have to do, fine. So I joined the kibbutz and the kibbutz got me out of Hungary. They got me through the line between Hungary and Austria where the Russians were standing. By that time, the Russians were the authority there, and you know what? We gave them American cigarettes and Hungarian wine, and with those two items, they let us go through. They liked the American cigarettes.
I got to Germany and there were places called displaced persons’ camps. Displaced persons were refugees who had come from the East – all over Poland and Germany and Russia and elsewhere – to escape from the Russians. They all wanted to live in the American zone and that’s where our kibbutz ended up: in the American zone. Do you remember there was a zone in Germany that was American? There was the English zone to the north and the Russians were in the East.
I lived in a displaced persons’ camp and worked for the American Army as a switchboard operator because I spoke a little English, I spoke some German and I could translate. I helped them out, and they gave me a carton of cigarettes every week; that was my salary – a carton of Lucky Strikes. And you know what? I smoked my salary every week! I didn’t need money for food because the camp gave us food and they gave us shelter and I didn’t need anything but cigarettes. So I smoked them…but not all the time. Finally, I got the idea that I was throwing money away because the Germans loved American cigarettes and they paid big money for them. So I started to sell the cigarettes and not smoke them.
Being a switchboard operator, I could connect to every town with a switchboard, so I got to know all the girls at the switchboards all over Germany. One day, I was on a date with a girl that I had gotten to know on the line. I was with her at a hotel in her town, about 20 miles away from my displaced persons’ camp, when a friend of mine called me and said, ”If you don’t get back here tonight before five o’clock, you will miss out on going to America.” I said, ”What?” He said, ”The American Congress passed a law that if you are under the age of 18 and you’re an orphan of the Holocaust, you can apply for an American passport.” As I said, passports are important in my life. I was a Swedish citizen and I could become an American.
FC: You were still a Swedish citizen because of the passport that Raoul Wallenberg gave you? You had kept that passport?
TW: I kept that passport as long as I could, but then I got the phone call that to get the American passport, I had to fill out the application and send it to the American consul that day. I went to the train, got back to the camp that afternoon and signed the passport application. I got the passport in Munich a couple of months later, and I was in Bremerhaven, Germany by the fall – November or December – of that year, 1946.
I was on a ship sometime in December. The ship’s name was the Ernie Pyle and the Ernie Pyle, of course, was named after the great American newspaperman who was killed in the war. The ship traveled across the Atlantic Ocean and reached New York Harbor on January 7, 1947. We sailed past the Statue of Liberty and up the Hudson River, and this is where some of the comedy begins.
There are piers along the Hudson River where the ships have to pull in, and on the Manhattan West Side, there is the West Side Highway which is up on stilts, built up high, so it’s like an elevated highway. You cannot see the highway all the time because there are buildings in front of it on the side near the river. But, between the buildings, there are streets which create gaps between the buildings, allowing you to see the highway again, like a bridge between buildings. Cars disappear behind the buildings and then you see them again on the ”bridge” in the space created by the next street.
As we were sailing up the Hudson River, we saw one West Side Highway ”bridge” after another. On the bridges, there were yellow cars rushing by. Standing around me were all these kids from central Europe and Germany and everywhere and they didn’t speak English very well. I spoke English better than they did, and I got an idea of what I wanted to tell them. I told them, ”Those yellow cars are ambulances and the ambulances are going around New York so much because – you’ve seen all those movies from America where the gangster shooting goes on all the time – people all over New York are getting hurt and they’re being taken to hospitals by those ambulances.” And they said, ”Oh, my God.” You know, they were really impressed, worried. After we got off the ship, I never saw them again, thank God, because I don’t know what they would have said to me. But that was the beginning of my having fun in America.
FC: Why did you decide to come to America instead of waiting to go to Israel?
While the kibbutz was in Germany, we waited to get to Marseille, the place where the ships leave for Israel. But, perhaps you remember from history, the British were having a problem with terrorism in Israel – not only with Arabs, but with Israeli terrorists. There was the Irgun and there was the Haganah; there were these terrorist organizations that were trying to chase the British out of Israel, so the British shut down the landing spots. Nobody could get into Israel anymore and they wouldn’t let the ships leave from Marseille. We waited in the kibbutz in Germany for months and months in 1946, and finally, along came this opportunity to get the American passport. I got it because I gave up on Israel.
When we got off the ship in New York, they divided us up and sent us to different motels all over Manhattan to spend the first night. They told me to go to a hotel up on 103rd Street and Broadway. They showed me how to get to the subway and take it to 96th Street. Then, they said if I walked just a few blocks from 96th Street to 103rd Street, I’d be at my hotel. So that’s what I did. I got to 103rd Street, turned left, and looked up. There was a big marquee with the name of the hotel. Can you guess what the name of the hotel was? The Marseille. And even then, I was someone who looked for a laugh; I looked up there and I put my hands up and I said, ”I made it to Marseille!” That’s how I was.
The next night, three men were waiting for me in the lobby of the hotel. They turned out to be cousins of my father. They had come to America in 1926 (this was 1947), but they had known my father and my mother when they were young and had first met; they knew about their Romeo and Juliet kind of story, and they cried, right there in front of me, because I had to tell them what happened.
So, there were three men who wanted to help me. One of them was a doctor, one was a pharmacist, and the third one was the head waiter at a great, famous restaurant in New York, Luchow’s. All three said they wanted to do everything they possibly could for me, but they wanted me to do what they wanted me to do, and I was already too much of my own person. I was 17 years old and I wanted to become a director – not an actor, a director – in the movies.
After I arrived in New York on January 7, 1947, I was given a chance to get acclimated to American life in New York for a year, and almost immediately, I found a place near Times Square in Manhattan. In fact, it looked down at Times Square, where people were playing chess on the second floor of a building. It was a huge, big floor on which tables were set up and rented for 25 cents an hour. You could sit down and play chess, and since I had played chess since I was four years old, I became interested in watching the people playing there. Then, when I found out they were playing for money and that they looked at me and saw a baby-faced young boy, 17 years old, who they thought they could easily beat and take money from, I started to play them. Little by little, I became one of the players there, and for something like a year and a half or two years, I did hardly anything but play chess day and night.
Later on, upon reflection, I came to understand why chess was so important to me at that time. It was because chess, of course, is a world of its own. It does not involve what happened in history or what’s happening on the outside in the streets. There’s only one thing. There’s the board with the pieces on it that are yours and your opponent’s and your only concentration is on how to play the game. For some very easily understood reason, that came at a time when I needed something that would take my mind off of everything else. Just as I had found something before, I found something else in chess. And I have to admit that the players eventually found out who I really was because I began to make enough money to eat on by playing chess.
Downstairs from the chess place, there was a place called Nedick’s, which was very famous in New York at the time because they had the best hotdogs and the best French fries and the best orange juice, and I lived on that for a year and a half. And I went to the movies on 42nd Street, caught up on all the movies that I had missed during the war. I went to the public library to read English and learn as much English as I could, as fast as I could. So, I kept busy. I would say that during that period I was disconnected from everything that had to do with the past. I found that there were other people my own age who had come from Europe who were taking about it all the time and I just, for some reason, stuck to chess and the library and movies. And, little by little, I found myself becoming interested in going to night school to get my American high school diploma so later on maybe I could go to college. So I got a job in a department store in the Bronx, and I worked in the daytime and then took a train to 14th Street, way downtown, to go to night school, and in a year and a half, I had myself an American high school diploma. Now, this was a boy who had not spoken English until a couple of years before that.
So, I got started on building a life – not that I was thinking about that necessarily, because I was also in love with a girl, a very nice Irish girl from Queens. The trouble was that she had to leave for California because she had relatives there. She expected me to follow her so I started to go by bus in the direction of California.
I stopped in Chicago to earn some more money for bus trips out to California, and while I was there, I went to a dance at a YMCA. I started to dance with a girl who was also very nice and very friendly, and she was very appreciative of my history. We talked a lot, we walked a lot along the lakefront; it was beautiful, the glass buildings of Chicago’s lakefront. That went on for several weeks, and by the end of it, she was convinced that I should go to college right away. She felt that I was wasting my life, not doing what I should be doing. I was getting to be 22, 23 years old, and she felt that I should go to college. So we talked and talked, and we got to know each other very well, and we even became people that loved each other. We got married on June 25, 1952, and I started college that fall. I finished two years at the University of Illinois, which was a two-year school in Chicago at that time.
From there, in 1955, I got a scholarship to go to Northwestern, which is in Evanston, and I got a bachelor’s degree in German. In 1957, I received a fellowship to go to Yale University without tuition. I was supposed to get my master’s degree in German, but when I got to Yale, they gave us a chance to change our majors and I changed to English because, by that time, I had fallen in love with Shakespeare and with English literature. I was also really interested in comparative literature because I knew three languages. I was very happy to be at Yale.
My wife and I moved to New Haven and that was the start of my second life, or third, or fourth, I’m not sure. By the time I had my master’s degree from Yale, I was a different person than the one who had sailed into New York Harbor on January 7, 1947. That was exactly 10 years later that I was at Yale – from 1957 to 1958.
As I was writing one of my last papers for my master’s degree, down in the basement of a building in New Haven, I looked out the window and a huge black Cadillac, driven by a chauffeur, pulled up. The chauffeur got out and came to my door, rang the bell and told me that the headmaster of Tabor Academy was sitting in the backseat of the Cadillac and wanted to talk to me, wanted to have an interview with me.
I got dressed quickly – because I had been writing on a typewriter downstairs, completely relaxed – and went out. I sat there in the backseat with Dr. Wickenden and he explained to me that the head of my department, Mr. Noise, had told him about me and that’s all he needed; he didn’t need any papers from me, he didn’t need any proof of my degrees. He already knew he wanted to hire me to teach at Tabor Academy – which is in Marion, Massachusetts, between New Bedford and Cape Cod, along the coast, not far from Buzzards Bay – because of what the head of my department had told him.
I accepted his offer and we moved to Marion. I was a prep school teacher at this old boys’ maritime school on the water – they had lots of boats and schooners – for seven years. They immediately made me a JV golf coach and I played a lot of golf; I learned what it was like to go out every afternoon on a beautiful course and play golf. I found that to be very easy. At the same time, because the classes were small and they gave you the chance to get started, I learned how to teach English. So, here I was, a Hungarian boy teaching native-born American boys English, and particularly, about literature and things of that kind. (By the way, I had gotten out of German because I didn’t want to teach grammar for 10 years, which is what you do if you’re a German teacher in college.)
I stayed at Tabor for seven years, at which point I had an offer to teach English at the University of Illinois, a new four-year school that was just opening up in Chicago. I accepted because I wanted to get my Ph.D. at the University of Chicago while I was teaching at the University of Illinois. So I started teaching there and thus began another very different life. I would say I was possibly on life number four or five at that point.
By that time, I had been a father for a few years. I had a son who was born in 1961 and then I had a daughter who was born in 1966. My daughter is now a psychologist working at Children’s Hospital Boston and she is convinced that I was in denial about the Holocaust all my life. Of course, being a psychologist, she has to find some explanation for things. I am not sure that I was in denial. I did what I’ve been telling you – I found ways to keep busy and to keep alive, and if that’s denial, then I was in denial. But, anyway, my daughter is a sweet, loving person. I see her once a month; we have dinner together either in Boston or here in Exeter.
I think my son, on the other hand, was very much impressed by the stories that I told him when he was little. For the first five or six years of his life, we made up stories together, particularly about a little cat that liked to go into the jungle and save other animals who were being hurt. In the jungle, animals get hurt and this little cat was convinced that he could help them. Actually, the cat was a stand-in for my son. At the time, he liked to think that he was the little cat. So we told story after story after story about the cat going into the jungle on his tricycle and handing out peanut butter sandwiches to animals that were hungry and helping those who were hurt, and so forth. Now, my son, who is 47 years old, lives in San Francisco. He cooks and hands out food to the homeless at the Civic Center and saves animals he picks up in the street by taking them to the hospitals.
About two weeks ago, I told him that I have a trip to make to Sydney, Australia and that I will be going through San Francisco and would like to stop and see him. He responded to me in his e-mail that if I’m going to fly by jet plane, I have to realize what I’m doing to the atmosphere and that even one person flying on a jet plane is enough to do harm. And that’s my son. I try now to think of how to explain to him that there’s no other way for me to get there to see him except to maybe go by bicycle or something; I don’t know if a train would do because trains also have to use energy. But it seems that that’s his devotion. He’s devoting himself to doing exactly that.
He lives in, or near, a mission house called St. Martin de Porres, which is named after a young man from Mexico who made his way to California and did very much the kinds of things my son is doing in helping the homeless. He became a saint because of that work. My son will not sleep inside the mission house, though, unless it’s raining. If it’s raining, he will accept the room that they keep for him. But they know that he will not sleep inside otherwise. He told me that he will not sleep inside as long as there are people who do not have a place to sleep inside.
FC: When did your daughter and son learn about your experience in the Holocaust?
TW: I told them things about what happened, but not details that I thought would upset them or leave an unhappy mark on their memory; I tried to keep things from them of that sort. I told you about my aunt who was thrown out of her window by the Hungarian Nazis. I did not tell my children all those details of my history. I didn’t want them to know about that kind of thing. I didn’t want them to know that that sort of thing happened in this world. But I did tell them who I was, where I was from, what happened, what destruction took place, and so forth. But I didn’t dwell on it day after day after day in detail.
So, I told you about how I got involved in playing chess. I played chess for a year and a half, almost two years. Then I ran into my wife in Chicago, got married, got into Northwestern, got into Yale, became an English teacher, spent my life teaching English and taking care of my children, telling stories and now having my portrait done.
FC: That is good…We are almost done.
TW: Oh, really? Very good timing.
FC: I have really enjoyed the stories so much; they’re great. I learned so much.
TW: I didn’t tell you about every single story. I can’t tell you about everything, because…
FC: No, that’s not necessary.
You told me that you became interested in reading books about what happened in other countries during the Holocaust. Why?
TW: That is a very good question because, for 50-some years, I’d never dealt with any of these things in public; I never talked about it anywhere. Then, my daughter got a degree at the University of Chicago and a master’s degree at Bryn Mawr in social work and psychology. She spent a year as an intern at Yale-New Haven Hospital, and after that, she settled down to a job here at Children’s Hospital Boston. She wanted to stay here, and my wife and I were retired so we decided to come here to be closer to her. We came back to New England – we had been here before – and settled down in New Hampshire. For the first year, we lived in Dover, and one night, we were looking at the newspaper for something to do, maybe a movie or something, but instead of that, there was an announcement about a middle school in Nottingham, a few miles away from Dover, that was putting on a play called ”Under a Yellow Star.” That’s all that it said. And I said to myself, ”Under a Yellow Star”? That sounds familiar. It must be something about the Holocaust. So we decided to go to Nottingham, and it turned out that 25 middle school children were in a play based on a script that was taken from the diaries and the journals of children who had lived through the Holocaust. A teacher at that school, A.M. Sheehan, had been able to collect passages from those diaries and journals and make them into a script for these children to read to an audience.
We sat through the first half of the play and I talked to the director in the intermission and told her that I was a survivor and she almost fainted. She asked me if I would I get up on stage when the play was over and tell the audience who I was and some of the things that had happened to me and then answer questions. I told her of course I would, and I did. But nobody would ask a question. They were mostly parents of the children who were in the play and they were scared, I think. Then I saw a hand go up way in the back of the audience, and guess what. It was my wife. She asked me a question and she got things started for everybody else; they had no trouble asking questions after that.
FC: What was the question she asked you? Do you remember?
TW: I think she asked me something like, ”How did you feel about coming to America?”
FC: How did you? What was your answer?
TW: I told them about the yellow cars on the West Side Highway.
FC: OK. That’s a good start.
TW: Then, the director, A.M. Sheehan, told me they were going to take this play to other schools in the area, all over the sea coast, to Portsmouth and Rye, and so forth, and she asked me if I would be interested in going with them.
Well, I was retired, I had nothing to do, so I was very happy to say, ”Sure, I will.” That’s how it got started. The play finished after two years and A.M. Sheehan moved to England where she teaches drama. At that point, Keene State College heard about the play and about me and they got in touch with me and asked if I would go to a summer institute and give a keynote speech. And I did. And now they have invited me to do it again this year. On July 19, I have to be there.
After my first keynote speech, Tom White, from the Cohen Center at Keene State College, got a hold of me. Tom White knew about all the schools that wanted to have this story told. Since then, we have gone to many schools to perform. He gives the historical background of the Holocaust and then I get up and tell my story. We have become friends, and he and I have a very good relationship.
FC: And what is the reaction of the public? How do they respond to your story?
TW: The more I make them laugh, the better they like it. But, at the same time, I don’t make a joke out of it. For instance, one of the topics I read about was dinner table conversations that Hitler had. In one conversation, he told a group of Roman Catholic clergyman that ”I want to punish the Jews because they did a terrible thing. They invented the conscience.” The Jews invented the conscience. So, I tell my audiences, ”Can you imagine doing something worse than that? Something worse than coming up with the conscience?” With eighth-grade students, I sometimes have to ask, ”Can anybody here tell me what the conscience is?” And there is always one student who knows what the conscience is and then I tell them, ”For that, Hitler said the Jews had to be punished.” That is the kind of comedy I use.
Another thing that I tell individuals about Hitler is that he wanted to have his body burned after he shot himself and Eva Braun at the end of the war in the bunker under the reichstargen in Berlin. So, he gave the order that he should be burned and then he shot himself. They took him out into the backyard of the bunker and they tried to burn him, but the Third Reich, which was supposed to last for a thousand years, didn’t have enough gasoline to burn him completely. They didn’t have enough gasoline in the Third Reich. I think that’s a good joke!
FC: You have probably read books about and by survivors. I don’t know if you know Primo Levi or his texts. What is your reaction to these interpretations and recountings of the Holocaust? What have you been most impressed with?
TW: I’m very much impressed by people who knew how to put into words something that many people said could not be described in words. There are people who said things like the following: If you meet a witness today, then tomorrow, you will be a witness. I like that. And that’s what I tell the kids. And, at first, I was very surprised at how much they wanted to come up to me, to touch me, just to shake hands or to hug – especially to hug me. I didn’t know why they did that, and then one of their teachers explained to me, ”You know, we read books about the Holocaust and we tell them about it, we show them pictures, we show them films, but they don’t meet someone who was really there. You are the first one, and so they really want to know that you are real and that you can be hugged, you can be touched.” And so that’s what they do. It’s a very good feeling. Now, since my wife passed away, I take my hugs anywhere I can get them.
FC: That is so good. That is so important, so relevant. I’m here because I want this direct contact through my humble portrait of you, and for me, that’s the way I approach it. All you have to say is very inspiring.
I don’t know what you’ll think about the portrait, but I tried to do my best, paying attention to your conversation.
TW: I’m not an artistic expert.
FC: You can tell me your opinion. I am going to show you. You don’t have to move; I can turn the painting around.
TW: OK. This will be quite a moment.
FC: Can you see it well? Is there any reflection?
TW: It’s just like photographs that I’ve seen of myself. It’s very good.
FC: Thank you.
TW: It’s very, very, very lifelike. What can I say? It looks like me, no question about it. Very much like a photograph. I thought that you would stylize it more. I mean, I had a feeling that the reason you wanted to do a portrait rather than copy a photograph was so you could add your interpretation.
FC: Well, there is always some interpretation as I try to get in contact with you as much as I can.
TW: It’s fantastically lifelike. There are very recognizable features. Like me.
FC: Well, thank you very much. I hope the experience of talking in this kind of situation has been enjoyable for you.
TW: You have a gift to make someone look exactly the way they do. Are you always very realistic in everything that you do? Is this typical of your style?
FC: I always try to be involved and – I don’t know how to explain it. Every person is different, but in this case, I want to grow closer to you in both senses: by hearing your story, how you express it, and also by looking at you. It’s a very interesting way to converse.
TW: It’s incredible how well you handled the reflection in the glass. It’s really very clever. So, what I can say?
FC: Well, thank you very much and I hope you have enjoyed the experience.
Transcribed and edited by Katie Kellerman.