Sylvia Jonas

Q: What is your birth name?
A: Sylvia Veronica Nemesh.

Q: And your married name?
A: Jonas.

Q: What city and country were you born in?
A: I was born in Budapest, Hungary.

Q: What is your birthdate?
A: December 23, 1932

Q: And where did you grow up?
A: I was in Budapest until December 1956. And then I left, thanks to the Hungarian Revolution, or Uprising.

Q: Tell us about your family before the war.
A: My mother was very Jewish, I am very Jewish, and my birth certificate says IZR, because in Hungary at that time, your religion was written on your birth certificate. That’s why it was so difficult during those critical years to hide, because your document showed you were Jewish. People were buying fake documents. My mother’s family was very well off. My grandmother was a widow due to some flu epidemic in the 1910s, before or during World War I. She was an exceptionally beautiful and wonderful little woman, with four sons. They considered her a ”holy mama”. The oldest was a physician of pulmonary diseases, especially important because in Hungary tuberculosis was epidemic and millions had it. My father was the second, he was an architect. Then we had two lawyers, members of the Royal Hungarian Bar. They have no graves.

Q: Did you all live in the same home, or near each other?
A: Yes, with one exception. An uncle lived in Buda, but the rest of us lived quite close to each other, in Pest. The Hungarian Jewish center was located in a very tight, narrow enclave, so my uncle, as a lawyer, lived right in the middle of it. Because he wasn’t married, my grandmother lived with him. The other uncle lived in the ”green part” of Budapest, because my aunt was a little bit uppity. So what? They are now all gone. But the boys, if I may refer to my uncles and fathers, were all lost. One committed suicide, one died during the forced march toward Austria, my father ended up in the Danube, and the fourth one was sent to Mauthausen.

Q: Did you live in a Jewish community?
A: Jews were extremely assimilated in the former Austrian-Hungarian Empire, especially in Austria. There was a particular part of Hungary (Elie Wiesel is from that part) which was very Orthodox Jewish. But the rest was very assimilated thanks to the Kaiser Francis Joseph. He emancipated the Jews (in his empire) 50 years before the British (Jews were) emancipated. He did it in 1849, during the summertime, (granted) full emancipation and legal rights to Jews. Hence, the Jews of Austria-Hungary flourished until the end of the First World War. For 75 years, for three generations, the Jews were extremely well off. Bourgeois, in the real European sense. It wasn’t upper or middle class, it was a totally different strata of society.The Prussian King Frederic the Great divided the Jews into four groups: the Hoff Jew, the intellectual class, the economic class, and the proletars. A Jewish underclass did exist, however, and it consisted mostly of the Orthodox. But I am sure you know the intellectuals and geniuses who came and worked on the Manhattan project, the Hungarian Jews, lived very well. We lived well. The Gestapo knew where to come, and they came to us.

Q: What kind of school did you attend?
A: My first day in school, you won’t believe it, was the day when the Second World War broke out: September 1, 1939. This was something you don’t forget. This was after World War I, of course, and there had been major changes.The Austrian-Hungarian empire had been broken up, parts of Hungary and Austria were given to Italy and Romania, and Czechoslovakia had been formed. Anti-Semitism really began in 1919, partly because of the Versailles Treaty and partly because of Bela Kun. He was the first head of state after the coup d’état. A group of Communists took over. Ninety percent of them were Jewish, and they did terrible things. The reaction– all the latent dislike which had not come out under the Kaiser broke out. When the standard of living declined the Jews were blamed, (of course) and it all broke out. By 1933 Hitler came to power, and things changed radically. The first law forbidding Jews to work in certain professions and limiting how many Jews could go to universities was in effect 1938. But the troubles started at the universities, really. The very first Nazis were professors and intellectuals. By the time I went to school, children were already beaten up and hurt, and there had been all sorts of traumatic experiences for little girls. I was the only granddaughter with these four boys. I had a jolly good life, so they decided that I should go to a private school. I went to the Scottish Mission, in Budapest. It was one of the very few schools that actively resisted and helped Jews after March 1944. It also had a boarding school part, and the director of this was a Scottish Presbyterian lady. They took her to Auschwitz the first week. I was not there, but I was told that when the Gestapo came, she was the only one in the building who had the guts to answer. Her name was Jane Maryanne Hanning. There was also a non-Jewish gentleman on my street who was taken away, and that I witnessed, because we lived on the same street. He was president of the Hungarian Adventist Church. I did not know what this meant- my parents did not make a point of telling me everything. So I went to this Scottish Mission, which was within walking distance from my home. I never knew what it meant that the Jews were bad, or anything. As a matter of fact, out of 38 girls in one class, I think only two were non-Jewish. The bourgeois, rich, well-off Jews were the ones who could pay. The education was sensational. Naturally, it was one of the first five schools nationalized by the Communists. I still have friends from that class. I exchange emails. That’s what I call friendship- it’s love. This is the school where I was when the Germans came on March 19, 1944. Within a week, they declared the order to have the yellow star. I have to tell you, psychology must be some kind of German specialty. We had to make our own yellow stars. I know that beating up people or hurting them physically is very bad, but breaking them psychologically is the worst. The yellow star I have at home was sewn by my mom. We had to wear the star but could stay in our apartment, from April 5th to June. However, going out to the street was limited. It was 11-1 at first, but then the regent (after the Bela Kun regime, we had a regent) said 11-5. But then came the designated house situation. We moved to this designated house and we had very lovely people who were already living there. It had nothing to do with how many Jews were living in that building, it was really very haphazard as I remember. We were welcomed in the apartment because they said that a professional family is entitled to two rooms- that’s not including a kitchen and hall. They were delighted, because there was only one child; we had two rooms and they had a third. I don’t know exactly how long my parents were there. I was shipped out soon, because my father and my mother started to inquire about the possibility of hiding me. This was slowed by many factors, one of which was D-Day. My parents were in each other’s arms, crying and yelling, ”The war is over! The war is over!” But then there were rumors of the Nazis trying to do something. The regent got letters from the Swedish king, and from Pius XII, who by that time was very active in saving the Jewish population of Hungary. The Jews were ten percent of the country’s population. So the Pope intervened and wrote a letter to Angelo Rotta, the regent. At that time I was at the convent, with the help of Raoul Wallenberg. Of course, it was because my parents knew someone. They put me in a convent in Buda, near to the royal palace. They were the Sisters of Mercy, on 27 Merciful Great Lady Street. I don’t know what happened to it: it’s difficult to find old places. The Germans change street names, the Russians change street names. Now it’s changed back, but probably not under the same name.

Q: Was that run by Raoul Wallenberg?
A: They got money from Raoul Wallenberg. But they were nuns. During that time, prominent Jews could petition for exemption from the law of wearing the yellow star. In early October, due to the fact that when my father was 18 and he had to go to the army, he got all sorts of stupid metals with Latin names and things like that… due to that and recommendations, we didn’t have to wear the star. So after that, my mother said, ”You have to bring the child home, I have no life without my little girl,” and they came to pick me up from the convent on October 15, 1944. Why didn’t they take me home? Because the Nazis arrested the regent, and my father told my mother, ”She will stay here.” That was the last time I saw my father. I stayed there until the bridges were dynamited by the Nazis. Because of these bombs, my friends and relatives were worried about me, staying by myself. They said that I should stay with them, that even though it’s in the ghetto, it’s with a relative. So they took me. I have all the addresses. By that time, it was an established, bonafide ghetto. A mini-Warsaw ghetto. The convent was under Raoul Wallenberg, and all of the funding was from the Swedish embassy, of course. Otherwise, the nuns would not have been able to feed me. The other girls at the convent were sweet, wonderful girls, and they all came with the help of Raoul Wallenberg, whether they met him directly or not. I know for a fact that I was where he lived. You know why? Because there was a very very nice table lamp, and silly little girls, while the adults talk, are busy looking around at pretty things- and I remember that table lamp. I’m not sure what building or house. But I have to tell you, that Raoul Wallenberg lived within walking distance from where Eichmann lived.

Q: He had his phone number right? There are documents saying he had his phone number.
A: Some people said they talked on the phone or they met in person. I don’t know. Eichmann left Hungary after the regent stopped deportation of the Jews. The way people were deported to Auschwitz was on a railway line the Germans built just for the Jews. Budapest had a quarter of a million of Jews, but how do you take the other hundreds of thousands? They had a brand-new railroad built. My only cousin from my mother’s side and his mother were taken to Auschwitz. The father died in a forced labor camp in the Ukraine that winter. So, how can I tell you, I don’t have to go to Hungary, nobody got buried.

So Eichmann left Budapest for a short while, so then the Arrowcross, the Hungarian Nazis, came back and took over, and Eichmann came back to finish the job. He left just a few hours before the Russian army circled Budapest, the 24th of December. Wallenberg was in Budapest until the last minute and more, and if he hadn’t been he would have stayed alive and well and could have written the most beautiful history of the Hungarian Holocaust. You cannot say enough bad things about the Russians and what they did to him… Maybe that’s how some people have to pass away, they become eternal legends. If you die normally, so what? They forget you. The circumstances of his death also preserve his memory. To live with Adolph Eichmann and Raoul Wallenberg, with the absolute satanic and the absolute good, this stays with a person. Whether or not you are a religious or spiritual person, this affects you. Where we lived was also possibly within walking distance of these two apartments (although only in wartime, when there is no public transportation). Budapest was the only city Eichmann attended in person, simply because of the size of the Hungarian Jewry. I tell you very honestly, without Raoul Wallenberg, there would not be one Jew in Budapest today. Honestly.

Q: Have you heard of the brickyard?
A: I was not there, but my mother was there, so I think that’s a reliable source. My parents were not yet in the designated housing. They had to go on foot, the distance from Suffolk to 5th Avenue, in three hours. They had to run – a forced march, regardless of age. They were there by the thousands, when Raoul Wallenberg came. My mother, who was a total atheist, described him as an angle sent by G-d. She was not a person of big theatrical words- that was me- my mother was a very dry, matter-of-fact person. So they got the Schutzpass and got to a Swiss house. Nobody talks very flatteringly about Pope Pius XII but there must have been a miracle because he did a 180 degree flip- I think that the example of Raoul Wallenberg was so overwhelming and so impressive, that the Pope was inspired. And a stranger- that a stranger from a rather cold, Scandinavian country has such a warm heart. It’s very easy to say, ”I don’t like this,” and then go home and close the door. Raoul Wallenberg never said, ”I don’t like it.” He lived it. Raoul Wallenberg influenced the worldview of many non-Jewish Hungarians, especially at the end of the war. In 1944, the Americans liberated Italy, and the Pope wanted to get on the good side of the Allies. Okay, I said it. I don’t want to insult anyone’s religion, but it was so obvious that the Church had to do something. I am sure that Raoul Wallenberg and Karl Lutz were communicating. There was also a man from Franco’s Spain, who got permission from Franco to give out 100 Schutz passes, and he put a 0 and it became 1,000. Not 1,000 Jews, but 1,000 families. With all honesty, Franco behaved better than the French and even the British, and certainly better than the Swiss. He did not throw back anyone who entered Spain. Actually, he was rumored to be the descendant of a Marrano family. Raoul Wallenberg alone, and that is very important for me, stepped up to the plate. It was his example that encouraged others that came after him. When I talked about the Holocaust with my only son, that was the first thing that I mentioned about Raoul Wallenberg. He became… think of Hercules, or Samson… someone who is ten feet tall and three hundred pounds. But he was a not very athletically-built young man, certainly not muscular or anything… he was a man of character, of great character. I cannot say enough big words about him enough. If he had survived I would have hoped that Michelangelo would have made a statue of him, and Raphael would have painted him. That’s where he belongs. The 20th century was lacking in good human beings. You start to count, and you pause… because no one else comes to your mind.

Everyone in the convent survived; every child. The reason that I’m asking about Raoul Wallenberg’s little girls, who grew up in Canada, is because I know it is definitely possible that one of the girls from the convent moved to Canada. One of them was from a very famous family in Budapest. Actually two- one family was in the wine business, and the other owned land, which was very rare because Jews couldn’t own land. Not only did they own land, they could probably buy Budapest. They had a double name, which means they were not of the official aristocracy, but they were central European gentry. Not like baron so-and-so, but as the Germans say, ”von”. She is somewhere in Israel. In Australia you probably have some people, and that’s all I can tell you. I think that if I had gone for a PhD, this would probably have been my subject. I would dedicate it to the memory of Raoul Wallenberg. We have this anemic conscience – I promised my son that I will write down everything. But I started it and my blood pressure went up. But I got together addresses, and all that I can tell you. What is interesting, is that this is such a loud country, everyone is always yelling- but Raoul Wallenberg’s apartment was silent. Everyone was whispering all the time he was there. He had a very nice voice, probably, I don’t remember. He was a very ordinary-looking person. If he had walked on the street, nobody would have known. It was not his ambition to stand out, but he commanded… My mother said that, although men (who) were the guards at the brick factory where they took her were taller and wider, when he showed up, my mother said, ”There was light around him, radiating.” Now, I really can’t vouch for that, and under those horrific circumstances, marching for three hours with no water, no food, I can imagine people seeing things. So, my mother is convinced that he had an air about him, and that he was like an angel. Until she died in 1988, my mother never said his name without saying ”that angel.” And she was not a religious or sentimental person.

Q: How old were you when you first met Raoul Wallenberg?
A: I was not yet 12.

Q: Do you remember what he looked like?
A: I could not see anything special. I have a stamp with Raoul Wallenberg at home, and I took a good look… but you know what it was? To go there, to see Raoul Wallenberg, we had to take off the yellow star. What I remember, really, was that everyone was very careful – not as a Jew, but just, ”don’t get Raoul Wallenberg in trouble.” The main thing was, behave so that he won’t get into trouble. I think that shows something. But I don’t remember anything that would be outstanding. He had a very average physical appearance. Pleasant- he didn’t have two noses or whatever. But who, at those times, analyzed his appearance? Everyone just wanted to be part of his soul. He was not Schindler; I want to emphasize that. He was not a criminal, buying this and selling that, and suddenly seeing the light and saving some Jews by accident. I don’t give a hoot about Mr. Schindler and Mr. Spielberg idolizing him. Raoul Wallenberg chose it as his life’s duty as a human being. This was no accident, not a chance encounter. He went into it risking everything, meaning his life, and he lost it. So here I am.

Q: You speaking about your family’s decision to send you to the convent. What was that like, the discussions in the family? How was the decision made?
A: You could leave the designated building from 11 to 5. My maternal grandmother was very ill, and my mother wanted to visit her. They got the idea that because I was such a cute little girl, that if I went with my mother people would just look at me and melt, as if I were Shirley Temple or something. You see how parents are? That’s a real Jewish way of thinking. So we went; we had to take the streetcar, and it was not ”Desire.” The rule was that two street cars had to be connected, just like trains Jews were allowed to get on only the back seat of the second car, so that you wouldn’t mingle with non-Jews. We were constantly spat at, and when we got home, we had to throw away our clothes. I was so traumatized that I moved under the dining table with my blanket. My father said that this shouldn’t happen to me, they had to send me to a safe place for Jews. That was probably the trigger. My mother was also terribly humiliated, but they were adults and they understood what was happening to them.. But I was a little, sheltered girl, and this was my first encounter with human-kind.

There was a special law about Jews who converted before a certain time. A private banker became really converted, in the classic sense, he wholly accepted the Catholic Church. He owned two accounts. One was the Hungarian branch of the [inaudible] princely family, and the other account was the Catholic church of Hungary. The Hungarian Church was so rich, you wouldn’t believe it. They could compete with the Vatican. His sister, through all the diplomatic channels, set up the appointment with Raoul Wallenberg. The reason we knew this banker was because my mother was his German commercial correspondent until she got married. My mother got married to the man who, as an architect, was remodeling the banker’s house. After the war this man was put in prison because of his ties with the Catholic Church. Have you ever heard of Cardinal Minsenti? The highest bishop or cardinal of a given country- of course, the communists imprisoned him. The banker, because he handled the money of the church, was in prison. This was my way to get into Raoul Wallenberg’s circle. I don’t know how you call it, but my mother used to say that ”silly stupid people like you have an angel to pull them through all difficulties.” My mother was convinced that my lighthearted attitude was too bohemian for her. She used to ask, ”Where did I get you from?” Because she was so dry. Those times in which the Nazis were winning were extraordinary.They were worse than the Inquisition, because the Inquisition only wanted your soul. They threw some water on you, and you said you’re accepting the Holy Trinity, and that’s it. The Inquisition was for Jews who said ”No, I am a Jew.” This somehow meshed with the philosophy and the outlook of 1492. What happened in 1938-45 did not mesh with the times. After the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the 19th century movement, how could people do this? That’s why the Budapest Jews probably did not want to escape. No one could imagine this horror. German Jews used to say, By Uns, by us, everything is the best. So the Holocaust was special because it was outside the times. The Crusades were what the 12th century was- cruel, horrible, barbarian. In 1933, the year of Hitler, this was passé. This was gone. This shock, this cancerous growth of racism… you couldn’t convert with the Nazis. It was racial. There was no regime on earth yet that was dedicated to erasing a racial group totally. The Spanish said, ”Pack up and go, leave the best here, but pack up and go.” You couldn’t pack up and go in 1933. That’s what’s so interesting. Raoul Wallenberg, they don’t talk about him like this, because so many still alive feel very guilty. Compared to him, they are enablers. They were silent. This business you are in is extremely important, because of this. People should have a social conscience. You cannot let certain things happen, and he did not. Can you name ten people in all of Europe on Raoul Wallenberg’s level? You can’t.

Q: You mentioned that you mother, once Wallenberg saved her, was given a Schutz-pass. Did you see it?
A: Never. They took this Schutz-pass with them to the international ghetto house, on the Pest side, very near to the Danube. From there, they took my mother, my father, my grandmother, and some cousins. The two men were tied together with leather belts, so the one who wasn’t shot was pulled down by the other and drowned. The women were not tied, so that’s how she survived. She thinks that my father pushed her into the water, and that’s how she survived. They tried to hypnotize her to forget it. I know that they got terrible beatings before they were shot. My mother obviously cannot understand how certain people behave in certain situations. It was an extremely cold winter, and the Danube froze solid. Thank G-d, because there were people by the thousands who were not buried, and there could have been a horrific plague. There was ice floating on the river, and I think that’s how she survived. When she got out of the river, she was taken into a home, and they dressed her, and then said, ”Please, go away, go away.” Because they realized that if someone came back, not only the ground floor people, but also the second, third and fourth floor also would be taken away. My mother had to leave. At that time, they didn’t have the Schutz-pass. Pest was liberated on January 18th, and Buda after the 10th of February. There was a Jewish orphanage where Raoul Wallenberg was in charge. The Nazis went in and killed all the children. They died with little teddy bears and toys in their hands. Can you imagine that this would happen, in 1945? When your parents were already around. And the biggest problem was a nice bar mitzvah, or whatever. Children with teddy bears were shot dead. One doesn’t like to show one’s sorrows very easily, but Raoul Wallenberg is worth it. He is a template of human behavior, I believe it. Even if you can’t become Raoul Wallenberg, because thank G-d, we don’t live in times that require it, I think that he will be an inspiration for people, to people who look for some kind of perfection. That little Swedish man, who came here from a very established, aristocratic family, he could have been anything, even an ambassador in Hitler’s Berlin. His family wasn’t anything great, they were not the nicest. Sweden was not the nicest place either.

Q: You mentioned the orphanages. Do you know how Raoul Wallenberg got the food and supplies to keep these running?
A: No, I wish. These orphanages were quite far from the ghetto; he was quite smart about that. Look, I know a man who was a twin. They were in a forced labor camp, and something happened, and the Germans came and lined them up and started to shoot every tenth man. Between this man and his twin brother, there was a man. His brother said to this man, ”Let me stand next to my twin brother.” This man was willing to change places with him. The brother was shot, and the man who had such a heart to change places with him stayed alive. This was how life went, and sometimes when Raoul Wallenberg came with a car and the crowd was parting, (Mother said, ”Like the Red Sea”) people became disciplined, just because he came. And this is during a life-or-death situation, after a lot of emotional and physical trauma. That’s what he was. Wherever he went, some kind of change went over to people.

Q: You father perished at the Danube?
A: With my grandmother, and my father’s cousins.

Q: Can you tell us about your reunion with your mother?
A: The fact that they made her leave the house was understandable. My mother lost a sense of fear. There were about 70,000 Germans in Budapest, and two big Russian armies, about 240,000, I’m not sure. The Germans fought so desperately that it was like a Stalingrad. When the Germans were finally kicked out, the first Russian word I learned was ”Budapest kaput.” After coming back from the Danube, my mother walked from the shore of the river to where I was, through all of this. There was shooting around her, and grenades. When a German fights a Russian, it is not Schumann’s unfinished symphony. It was horrible. We went home to our original home, and they were very surprised that we came back, and then we went back to the designated house. When we were walking across the Budapest version of Central Park, my mom used to tell me, ”Step high, close your eye.” We were stepping over dead bodies. I think it was about 10 days later that they arrested Raoul Wallenberg. I was already in the United States when the story of Raoul Wallenberg came out. The representative of the Soviet Union in the US said, ”We don’t know what you are talking about.”

Q: Emotionally, what was it like to see your mother?
A: It was a biggie for her, but I was natural about it. What couldn’t Mommy and Poppy do? They waited a little until they told me about my father’s fate, only after people started to come back from concentration camps. That’s when my mother told me that he would not be among those. But without Raoul Wallenberg, I wouldn’t even have a mother. Probably people who were touched by him were favorably judged by G-d. But if there is such a thing as heaven, I am quite sure he is there.

Q: Were all the people rescued by Raoul Wallenberg Jewish?
A: I think there may have been some non-Jews, but I’m not sure. As my mother used to say, and she was my main source, there was no Resistance in Hungary to hide. If there were a dozen, I’m sure he hid them. I personally know only one name, and he was such a resister that there are trees named for him in Israel. And one very big name who was shot – not because of the Jews, they did not do twiddly-twat for the ghetto Jews, they were fighting for Hungary. Resistance in Hungary was really, extremely limited. So I don’t think he had many sleepless nights. Although probably in those critical weeks, they probably looked for him. I know that the Scottish Mission is remembered in books written about the resistance, because there was not much that they could come up with. They helped people escape and gave them fake IDs. I was amazed, because when you have a hard-boiled egg and you roll it over print, the print goes on the egg, and then you can role it on paper, and make it look like an original document. I don’t know how they did it, but I had fake papers. The girl whose papers I have is now living in Sydney, Australia; her name is Susan Javor. She had a travel agency, unless she sold it already. Then, for a while I was a Transylvanian refugee. The Russians had already crossed the border, they were in the eastern part of Hungary. The plan of the Nazis to make European Judenrein took so much money, and cattle wagons and energy that it really added to their demise in losing the war. They really did not send the army to the East or the West because by the end of August the allied powers liberated Paris. In the middle of all of this, Raoul Wallenberg, who could have left, never never never stepped back. I don’t know if I could ever do 1/10 of what he did.

Q: If Raoul Wallenberg was sitting here today, what would you say to him?
A: I don’t think I could say anything to Raoul Wallenberg. I think I would not be able to talk to him. I would just stand there crying. What do I say? Thank you, sir. And then what? That is enough. I would stand there totally dumbfounded, and just cry.

Q: What do you think he would say to the world today?
A: I think that this decade is going to be one of the most important decades in human history. It’s a choice between good and evil. It’s very biblical – if you remember the story of the golden calf, Moses said, ”Who is on my side?” And we have to decide whose side we are on. Raoul Wallenberg was on the right side. He would probably say something like what you would hear from a great religious figure, or a professor. He would say some uplifting words. There wouldn’t have been a Rwanda if Raoul Wallenberg had been around. He would have gone to the United Nations, and probably would have punched Kofi Annan in the nose. He would have said, ”Again?!” He would have done something about Darfur, or he would have marched with Martin Luther King. Let’s say he survived this, who knows how much was left to pick up a new fight for justice? I’m quite sure he would have some strong words, some gentle words. I believe there wouldn’t have been a Rwanda or a Darfur. He would have something to say.

Q: What was life like after the war?
A: After the war, we had one egg for the whole week. There were no public works, no light, gas, or water. We either made our own candles or we stole from houses of worship. Water was good, because we collected fresh snow. We even cooked with it. Then, the women went to the Russian army kitchens and collected the potato peels and cooked them. My mother, who knew everything, knew that there were vitamins in the peels of potatoes and apples. The things she cooked, and the way she got wood to make fires… In May, the black markets started. The peasants came from the countryside, and brought things to exchange for what we had left. We didn’t have much left, because jewels and other things had to be handed in. There was not much to barter. I was very ill, my red blood cell count was half of what it should have been, and of course Mother was scarred from the experience. I don’t know how we ate. Of course the Swedish Red Cross came with trucks. I had their type of cereal – like rye flakes. You have to be as hungry as I was to eat it. Then the Americans sent food. So I ate these rye flakes with Hershey’s chocolates. There were lines that were ours long for food. The schools opened also, which was good, because we got food and were warm. So I was less of a problem than my poor mom. We went to bombed out grocery stores, and we picked the beans out from the broken glass. There was a lot of stealing. My mother was able to get a bigger portion of flour, and she would exchange it with things from the other housewives. That’s why I never learned to cook, because Mommy got one egg a week, so she could never afford to let me screw up a dish. She said ”Just got away from this dish.” For years, we bought food with those tickets. But I also must say to the Russians’ credit that they didn’t bother the women. Sometimes they said little things in Russian; I picked them up and I can curse like a sailor.

The building in which Adolph Eichmann lived was the Gestapo headquarters in Budapest. Would you believe that after they disappeared, the Russians immediately set up home in that very same building? My mommy said the color changed only. Instead of ”Love thy neighbor,” it was ”Rob thy neighbor.” The Germans stole, then the Russian took what was left. They probably hadn’t seen a bourgeois household. War makes people (even philosophers) into barbarians. To stay alive, you have to be a barbarian. Nothing made Raoul Wallenberg into a barbarian, though. From his first moment until his last, in prison, he was a good human being. If I ever get into prison I want to be his prison mate, because it’s more difficult to survive emotionally than physically. This man didn’t change; he didn’t have to. I am completely convinced, probably I should start to pray to him–he is better than anything I know. I keep my father’s last postcard for my birthday in my bible. I certainly haven’t seen anyone like him since his time. The most wonderful thing was when Ronald Reagan went to the Senate and the House and made him an honorary U.S. citizen. That was truly the minimum for his memory. Does he have a statue in the U.S.? -Yes, by the U.N. And on the street by the Holocaust Museum. Well, that is quite hidden. There is a Verdi street everywhere in Italy. There should be a Raoul Wallenberg everywhere.

Q: Why and when did you move to America?
A: Why? I didn’t like Russian tanks. It’s not where you want to be. I am very worried about what’s happening now in Russia. It’s not an ordinary country. Russia inspires awe in Western Europe because of its size and because they were afraid of the people. What’s happening today and tomorrow, that’s our history. It was interesting that the Hungarians didn’t rebel against the Nazis but they did against the Communists. This way, I don’t take it seriously. But when you go home, and your mother tells you that Mr. and Mrs. so-and-so were taken away last night, that is not a good regime. And when in school, you flunk Marxism-Leninism, like I did, you know you don’t belong there. Whether you were a music student or a medical student, you had to learn about Marxism-Leninism, before you learned how the heart ticks. There is a joke about this. A man collapses in Budapest, and someone yells, ”Is there a doctor around?” And a voice says, ”Yes, I am a doctor.” He goes to the man who is half-dead, and whispers in his ear, ”Lenin lived, Lenin lives, Lenin will live… but you will drop dead because that’s all I learned in medical school.” And for that joke, you could be in prison for six months. I have a very nice friend named George Mirsch, and someone complained about him not being Marxist enough. At night, the police came, they looked into everything, they didn’t find anything. They were ready to leave, but one of them looked back, and by sheer accident noticed that the radio needle was on the BBC station. They took him away.

I’ll tell you a story. One night, we heard a car stop nearby, and no cars stop nearby for any good reason. So my mom went to the window, and looked out, and said, ”Thank G-d it’s not our house.” And I looked at her, she looked at me, and my mother, who was not really a sentimental person, burst into tears. She said, ”Get out of here. Did you hear what I said? This is what happened to me.” She was actually happy that it was someone else who was taken. She wanted me to leave. So I left. I did one good thing in my life- I left Hungary. It’s a very blatantly, openly anti-Semitic country. They have a statue for Raoul Wallenberg which is regularly defaced. But it doesn’t matter. Statue or no statue, Raoul Wallenberg will stay with the people – through a parent’s person, through a brother’s story, he is immortal. I am surprised that there are no poems or great novels written about him. American Jews should have done a little bit more about this. Isn’t that a little embarrassing to the so-called Jewish community?.. .Rather fragmented. I can tell you this because I live in a neighborhood that is Sephardic, Orthodox, Reform… I live on Synagogue Road. They should have done more. I am very honest with you.

Interviewed by : Sharon Tobias, Falishia Ali, Adam Esrig
Transcription by: Sharone Tobias Editing by: Susan Wind