We would like to thank Mr. Felix de la Concha for letting us use this interview in our ”Documenting Wallenberg” project. The interview is a part of a larger series of interviews he has done with Holocaust survivors while simultaneously portraying them.
FC: First, please tell me your full name and today’s date for the archival recording.
TW: My full name is spelled T-H-O-M-A-S, Thomas. Thomas Weisshaus. W-E-I-S-S-H-A-U-S. And today is June 4, 2008, and we are in Exeter, New Hampshire, at my house.
FC: Is this the first time someone has been painted you this way, that you have posed for a painter?
TW: This is the first time that I have sat for a painting, yes.
FC: OK. I hope you will enjoy the experience then. This is a conversation that I hope will last about two hours. First, I want to know a little about your life. Maybe we can start with where you were born, what was your life like in your country…?
TW: Sure. Well, I was born in Budapest, the capital city of Hungary, in 1928, and I lived my first 16 years there and went to school there. I followed the Hungarian football players and football teams. I was a very big fan. My father was, too. He took me to all the matches against the Italians, especially, but also against the Austrians, Czechoslovakians, Yugoslavians…. They all came to Budapest to play and we went to see them. That was one of the big experiences when I was young, going to these games with my father.
Aside from that, there was school, obviously, but if I want to tell you about my life, I’d like to give you what I’ve learned about myself lately, because it takes 80 years to get to know yourself a little bit. I think in the few months since my wife passed away I have really begun to know myself a little more. Up until then, I was living kind of a spoiled life. I had a wife who took care of all the basic daily problems of life and I didn’t have to worry about them. But, little by little, you get to know yourself this way. What I got to know is this: there have been two great events in my life and the way I responded to them tells you everything about me.
The first event was when some of my family was murdered by Hungarian thugs around Christmastime 1944, near the end of the war. I found out about it the day after it happened. All my life, people have asked me, ”How did you get through that? How did you manage to live through such a thing and go on with your life?,” and I always had trouble answering because I didn’t really know. I would say that I didn’t know how I got through it. All I know is that, when I heard about it, I had to worry about how to get away from the place where I found out because I was in danger, too. That was number one.
The next thing I had to worry about was how to get food because I had to keep eating. Before I could think about what happened to my mother and grandmother and aunt and others, I had to worry about eating something.
So, day by day, I was occupied with the process of keeping busy, of finding food, of finding shelter. The war was finished on January 8, 1945, as far as Budapest went, and after that, I was free to move around. But I still had to worry, day by day, about how to start a new life. And I was 16 years old. I had no profession. I had no vocation. I was a school boy, basically, but I had no one who would support me while I went to school. That was something else I had to worry about. So, as days and weeks and months went by, the problem of sitting down and grieving and living through a long bereavement became no problem at all, no question at all, because I had to worry about my daily life.
The second great tragedy that happened to me was when my wife passed away a year ago, in March 2007. She died of lung cancer. This was a person I had lived with for 55 years. So, unlike the first great event in my life when I was 16, here I was, 79, and after 55 years of living with someone, I lost her. And the strange thing was that I felt like my life, along with hers, was over – except for the fact that I was committed to talking about the Holocaust at schools. I had to keep traveling from one school to another, making speeches to classes, explaining to them how I went through the Holocaust. When my wife passed away and I had to keep going to perform in this way in the schools, little by little, I found that if I hadn’t had that daily commitment to keep busy that it – my wife’s passing away – would have destroyed me, too.
But the same thing that had happened to me at the time of the Holocaust happened again. I was kept so busy with these daily commitments and with friends who came to talk to me and others who came to help me out that, little by little, that became the way to for me to survive – to keep engaged, engaged in what I considered an important daily activity. So, both in 1944, which was 64 years ago, and today, I am going through the same experience.
I also found that, although for months, I felt like the losing of my wife would destroy me and I would not be able to live alone (I couldn’t stand being alone), as time went by, something came to my attention about one of the ghettos in Poland. It reminded me that, here I was, I had lost one person and it is destroying my life, but I’m forgetting the fact that I lived through a historical event. I’m part of a history that took place more than 60 years ago when millions of people were destroyed.
If I thought about a sort of landscape in which I had lived, at first, the death of my wife was like a huge obelisk standing in this landscape, standing out as that one that will destroy me. But, when I remembered the history that took place 60 years ago that I was a part of, the landscape changed. It became a number of sculptures and obelisks and disasters, tragedies that included the losing of my family. The whole five or six years of 1939 through 1945 became a part of that landscape, and so the one great loss of my wife became something else in that perspective. It was not the only thing standing there. It became one of many things. Not that I allowed it to minimize the loss of my wife, but still, it became a different picture. It’s a different landscape, a different horizon. And I have to tell you that it has made my performing of the speeches and doing my duties in the schools a bit easier. I’m able to concentrate more on that rather than on what I’ve lost.
Not long ago, I was sitting in a support group and I told this experience to the support group because there were two ladies there. One of them was losing her husband to cancer, the other one had a husband who was undergoing chemotherapy and she was worried about him. The two of them listened to my story about how, by remembering the Holocaust and putting the perspective together with my wife’s passing away, the two things have evened the landscape out a little bit. And they looked at me and they said, ”Yes, but we don’t have a holocaust to give us a comparison!” At the time, it struck me as being strange, but then afterward, I thought about it and I realized that was the first time since 1944 that I had heard anyone say that they were feeling deprived because they didn’t have a holocaust in their experience. I have to tell you, that was very strange to think about because most people don’t want to have a holocaust. But to these ladies, it seemed like I was getting a break, that I was getting it easier because of the Holocaust.
So, this is what I’m finding out about myself: when it comes to survival, you’re either a person who must immediately follow the steps necessary for you to go from day to day and be there to see what happens and keep going or you fall apart. I didn’t fall apart in either case. In both cases – with my wife and with my family back in 1944 – I found that I had something in me that demanded I take the next step to keep myself together and to keep going and to keep finding out what was going to happen next.
And this is what is happening to me now: I go day by day. Sometimes I find myself feeling that it’s not something I want to go on with – a life alone without the one person who was with me for so long – but when I’m busy, having to go to a school and talk to the children there about history and about my experiences, all of that disappears and I become something else.
So, I have at least three different lives that I’m dealing with at this point. But, if I really thought about it, if I thought about how many other things I had to do between 1944 and 2008 for me to sit here, I can actually count eight different lives, and I would probably be remiss if I didn’t tell you how some of those things happened, what some of those lives were.
The name of the school I attended was the Hebrew Gymnasium of Budapest. Very interestingly, my first day in that school was September 1, 1939, exactly the same day that the Germans invaded Poland. I went to school in the morning and it was peacetime. I sat in school for one morning, I went home, and by that time, the world was at war. It was a very strange combination of events. I never finished school there because the war interrupted everything. My father was taken away from us in 1942 when I was in my 13th or 14th year of school. I still had four years left to complete (it was an eight-year school), but when my father was taken away from us, I had to help my mother bring in some needed income. I went to work at a local little factory located in the basement of an apartment house. I finished high school in America so that I could go on to college.
I have to say that I was never – and my family was never – observant. We were not an observant Jewish family. We were secular. I was more of a European than I was a Hungarian and I was more of a European than I was a Jew. Although I went to a Hebrew school in the sense that it had one class in Hebrew and I had to read the Torah, the Jewish Bible, in Hebrew, in every other way, it was a classical school. It was a classical school like they have in France where you learn Latin or Greek, French and English and German (the modern languages), algebra, calculus, and anything you want to hear, in the hardest way possible. You had to work from morning ’til night to keep up with the work that had to be done. It was a very hard school, as good schools everywhere are.
The anti-Jewish laws began in Hungary in 1938, before people talk about the Holocaust. Traditionally, Hungary has been a very anti-Semitic country where, even today, you can find signs that they have not changed like Germany has. In Germany today, there is such a thing as a hate crime. It’s a crime and you go to jail for it. In Hungary, it does not exist. That definition still does not exist there. So, Germany is ahead of Hungary in terms of acknowledging what the Holocaust did.
When the new pope made a speech in Poland recently, he explained that the German people had been misled by a gang of criminals who made them believe that they would become the super-race that would rule the world for a thousand years, etc., etc. Well, when that got into the newspapers in Germany, there was an outcry from the German people who have for generations announced that they take responsibility for what happened in the Holocaust, that they knew they were guilty of what had happened in the Holocaust. They didn’t want to have somebody come along to take them off the hook regarding the Holocaust because they accepted their feelings of guilt. They were not going to allow the pope to take them off the hook or to take the church off the hook. That acceptance of guilt has not happened in Hungary.
A friend of mine who just came back from a visit to Hungary told me a story two days ago, and I have to tell you because it describes what is going on in Hungary. Along the great Danube River, which dissects Budapest into two parts, Buda and Pest, there are steps on which you can walk down to the embankment of the river – just like in Paris. During the war, when I was living in a safe house one block from the Danube – living in that safe house was another life that I have to tell you about – I could look down on the embankment to the river, and it was covered with ice and snow. The snow was probably two or three feet high on the ice, but the snow was full of huge red spots where people had been shot into the Danube. And this was, remember, during the war. I’m talking about December 1944, near the end of the war. December 1944. People, who were mostly Jewish, were being shot into the river.
My friend who was in Budapest last week said he and his wife were walking along the Danube and they came to a spot that they had never seen before. There was a lengthy sculpture of iron shoes secured on the cement and facing the river. Near this sculpture, there was an inscription in Hebrew – in Hebrew – which said something about the shoes signifying the people who were shot during the war. This inscription is in Hebrew only. There are just the shoes and the Hebrew text.
As my friend and his wife were standing there reading this – my friend knows Hebrew – along came a group of Hungarian men who had just come down to the embankment. They came to the spot where the shoes were and they looked at the shoes and they looked at the inscription under it, but it was in Hebrew and they couldn’t understand it. They asked my friend to translate it, and he did. He said, ”You don’t understand what this says because it’s in Hebrew, right?” ”That’s right,” they said, ”We don’t.”
So, this is what the Hungarians do: they put the shoes of the victims on the embankment where they were shot but they don’t explain it in Hungarian for the population who lives there. You have to be a Hebrew reader to be able to understand what the shoes are about. And this is what the Hungarians, generally speaking, have done. They have avoided facing up to what happened there.
Now, about my father. He was a wonderful and very, very, very nice-looking guy. He was just wonderful. He went through a period in Hungarian history when it was very difficult for a Jewish male to make a life for himself. He was 19 years old when the First World War ended and a period of all sorts of political upheavals began. Just like in Germany, there were the Communists versus the right wings and it was very difficult for him to establish a profession. While his brother, for some reason, was able to become a banker and work as a banker all his life, my father didn’t quite have it that easy. He worked in different kinds of jobs to earn what he could but he was never established in a real profession. In the 1930s, he finally became the manager of a delicatessen type of store where they sold all kinds of foodstuffs. That was it.
Yet, my father was very talented in art. He was very good at drawing pictures and things of that kind – like what you’re doing, except he worked with pencils and things like that. He was talented in many other ways, too, and he was very much liked by people. He became the father of two sons, and my family – my parents and my brother and I – lived with my mother’s parents and shared their large apartment with them. So, we always had our grandparents with us.
In 1942, the German armies were deep into Russia and they called on the Hungarians to provide them with Jewish men to work behind the lines in that, if you can imagine, Russian winter climate. So the Hungarians collected every Jewish man between the age of 24 and 42, and that just happened to include my father. In 1942, he was 42 years old. They took these Jewish men to Russia without equipping them with the right kind of clothing or materials. They just took them.
The last time I saw my father, it was five in the morning and I was still sleeping because I did not have to be at school until eight. He came to my bed and he took me by the shoulders and he pulled me up to him for a last hug. I didn’t know. I was – I guess I just didn’t know enough to know that that was the last time. I may not have opened my eyes fully. That’s how it was. That was the last time that I knew about him.
Three months later, a Hungarian soldier in uniform showed up at our door. I was standing at the door with my mother and he handed her a ring that I knew my father had worn. It was a ring with a big green stone. He said that this was the last thing that he could do. My father had given him that ring because he wanted a loaf of bread and that’s all he had. And after that, he died in Russia. We never found out where – or even if – he was buried. We never found out. That was the end of my father. My father’s death in 1942 was the beginning of our tragedies in the family. I was 14.
The whole picture of Hungary in the war is kind of unbelievable because, all around us, there was destruction and bombing. The Germans had taken over but they thought that the Hungarians were their natural allies and that they didn’t have to conquer and occupy Hungary. They had to use their soldiers in places like France and Russia, and so forth, so they left us alone, and unlike the Jews in the outlying districts, the Jews in Budapest lived as if we were living on an island, an island of unbelievable privileges. Life went on, except for the fact that my father was taken away.
In fact, in the summer of 1943, I had some time off from the neighborhood factory where I worked and an adventurous friend of mine and I decided to make some real money by going out to one of the film studios outside of Budapest. We applied for jobs as extras in the Hungarian movie industry and we got them. Hungary was always very much interested in the movies, and consequently, a lot of great Hungarian filmmakers came to Hollywood. In fact, if you look at a movie like Casablanca, you’ll see that it was directed by a Hungarian. Look at Alexander Korda in England; he established the whole English film industry at the time. It was one Hungarian after another. And they were Jewish, not just Hungarian. They were Hungarian Jews.
FC: What is the name of the movie that you were in?
TW: The name of the movie is Szovathy – S-Z-O-V-A-T-H-Y – Eva – E-V-A. That’s a Hungarian ”Eve.” As a matter of fact, I got a hold of a VHS copy and I’ve got it right here.
FC: What does the title mean?
TW: It’s the name of a woman. Szovathy is her last name. In Hungarian, the last name comes first – as in everything else in Hungary. And her first name, Eva, comes separately.
Anyway, I play this drummer boy and I have to stand on a hill with a drum hanging in front of me and I play the drum. Then I get shot and fall down. I get exactly three seconds on screen. But I had the privilege of using the same dressing room as the star of the movie who was, at that time, the greatest star in Hungary. She had to get dressed in the same dressing room as I did, and she had no problem at all getting, you know, changed while I was still in there. That was one of the high points of my summer 1943.
So, because we were in that movie, my friend and I had a great summer. We had enough money that we never walked; we took taxicabs everywhere we went. And my poor mother didn’t know anything about it. I told her that I was working at the movies but I didn’t tell her how much money I was earning. You know, there I was, 15 years old and a selfish little character….
But that came to an end a year later, in 1944, when the Germans decided that they needed to occupy Hungary. The Germans learned that the Hungarian government was secretly talking with the Russians and the Americans about how to get out of the war. (By that time, Romania and all of the small countries that had joined the Germans were getting out of the war so Hungary was pretty much the only country left.) The Russians were coming into Hungary from the east with tanks and huge armies of millions of men, and the Germans were worried that if the Russians had a free passage through Hungary that they would attack Germany from the south by going through Austria. So the Germans wanted to make sure that the Hungarians would stand up to the Russians and start fighting the war. They hoped for this even though the Hungarians had earlier sent an army of 150,000 men into Russia to help the Germans. That army of 150,000 was put into a place on the Don River and the Russians started a huge attack and they destroyed that whole army in one attack. This left the Hungarians without an army, and so, when the Russians came in to occupy Hungary on March 19, 1944, they walked right in.
During the period that I will be telling you about, in the summer – May, June and part of July – of 1944, they shipped off 400,000 – again, I will repeat, 400,000 – Jews from the small towns and villages in the outlying districts of the eastern part of Hungary. These were villages that were made up of around 4-, 5-, 6,000 people who could very easily be packed into cattle cars. They were shipped off to Auschwitz where they were immediately gassed. 400,000 in something like two months.
I was very lucky that we were living in Budapest. Because there were 120,000 or so Jews in one place, it was not as easy for the Germans to pack us up and ship us off. In addition to that, they knew that they had lost the war in 1944. This was long after Stalingrad and the Germans were retreating through Hungary and there were some feelings among the German officers in charge that perhaps they should take it a little easy because there were going to be trials after the war and they didn’t want to be caught up in that. The local Hungarian Nazi thugs, however, had no such feelings. They kept on killing people in the streets, in the buildings, wherever they went. They weren’t worried because they had probably made up their minds that they were going to have to escape anyway. And they did, most of them.
In my case, there was a very beautiful woman in my family, and though she was not my blood relative, she was married to an uncle of mine. My uncle died and she then had to live as a widow for the rest of her life. She gave a Jewish Hungarian university student shelter in a room of her apartment. This was discovered by someone and they reported her. The Hungarian Nazis came to her apartment – she lived on the third floor – and they threw her out the window into the street. That was her punishment for allowing a university student to occupy one of the rooms in her house. That kind of thing happened time after time after time.
I was at a jazz concert on the morning of March 19, 1944. It was a beautiful, sunny Sunday morning and my friends and I went to a jazz concert at nine in the morning in downtown Budapest. When we came out at noon, the streets were full of marching German soldiers and motorcycles and trucks. Entering Hungary on the Danube River were some small German boats. That was the German navy. And suddenly the war was with us. Hungary was in the war, and within two weeks, we had to wear yellow stars on our chests. That was two weeks after the Germans got there.
FC: Did you know about the yellow stars before you were forced to wear them? Were you aware of what was happening in other countries?
TW: Yes, but we didn’t know about details. I happened to hear a little bit because, when I was working at the factory, there were three or four boys who had escaped from Poland and come to Hungary. They tried to tell me in Yiddish, which I didn’t understand. I understood a little bit of what they were saying was happening in Poland. But that was the first time I had ever heard – and that was in 1943, 1944, if you can imagine. That was three or four years after the war began that we started to hear about what was really happening. We didn’t know anything about Auschwitz, we didn’t know anything about the concentration camps. The Germans were very clever in keeping it even from us.
FC: Did you have a radio?
TW: You couldn’t get radio stations. You couldn’t listen to the BBC; that was against the law. If someone heard that you were listening to an English station, you were done. But there were people who managed somehow and they would pass the news out. But we didn’t know anything about the concentration camps. Nothing. Only after the war did we find out about Auschwitz.
FC: Well, that was something even the German people ignored.
TW: That’s right.
FC: Did you know about the ghettos?
TW: If you traveled into Poland, you could see the ghettos. Otherwise, you only knew that there were lots of poor, Jewish people living in cities. For instance, we didn’t know anything about the famous battle that took place in Warsaw, and that happened in 1944. I learned about that after the war. And the same thing happened with the other cities in Poland. We knew that there were a lot of poor, Jewish people out in the countryside – the kind of thing that you would see in the play Fiddler on the Roof – but we had no contact with them at all in Budapest. Nothing. Once in a while, you would see an Orthodox Jew dressed up in a long black coat with a big black hat, almost like a cowboy hat but straight, and that looked, to me, like a very strange vision. And you couldn’t talk to him because he didn’t speak Hungarian.
On that day, March 19, 1944, everything started to happen. After the yellow stars that people had to wear were passed out, they selected 2,600 of the one million apartment buildings in Budapest that all Jews had to move to. If you were lucky, like we were, the building you were already living in was selected. They put a large yellow star on the front door that led to the street to show that it was a Jewish building. Then, as many people as could live together in one apartment had to move in. I had an aunt and an uncle move into our apartment. One of my other aunts and her daughter had already moved in, so we were kind of crowded. We had an extra room that used to be the maid’s and it was given to a young Jewish couple. They didn’t have any relatives in our building, but we had an extra room, so they put them into that room. The whole house, at that point, consisted of all Jewish individuals. And this happened to 2,600 apartment buildings.
Eventually, we were imprisoned. The doors were locked. You could go out for two hours in the afternoon to shop and most of the people just ran out to get food at a market not far from there. Basically, that’s all you could do. You couldn’t go anywhere. You couldn’t go to the movies. You couldn’t go to any public places. With a yellow star, you were not supposed to do anything that was not legal.
To the teenagers like me – I was 15 going on 16 – that was like living in prison. There were no movies. There was, obviously, no television. There was nothing entertaining except records. We had a lot of good American jazz records, and we knew as much about American jazz as anybody in America, I’ll bet you that. And we could dance, so we started to have parties. There were a lot more girls than boys so, if you were a boy, you had all the girls you could possibly want, and it was a great summer. That’s how it was for me. It was, perhaps, one of the most enjoyable summers of my life.
FC: When you were imprisoned in the apartment building, you didn’t have a radio, but did you have access to books? Did you read any books during that time?
TW: Yes, I was a reader. I read all the time before and after the war, and I read during the period that we were locked into that building, too, but since I had so many other things on my mind, I can’t remember that it was one of the great periods of my reading. But, let me tell you what I did read as a 14-, 15-, 16-year-old. I read the books written by – I’m sure you know the name – Thomas Mann, the great German writer.
TW: I read Mann’s stories about Joseph and his brothers. They were based on the Bible, and they were very, very well-liked books at the time, and I loved them. I read those stories all the time. I read many other things as well. We couldn’t have parties all the time.
FC: What else did you do to occupy your time?
TW: Well, the Russians in the east were getting closer and closer and were beginning to bomb the city. When the Americans bombed Budapest, they seemed to know where the Germans were because they would only bomb the district where the Germans were located; they didn’t bomb the rest of the city. The topic of the bombings is a story in itself. Either way, the streets were becoming covered with rubble due to the bombings and machine gunnings.
There were times when they would come with a truck and ask if there was anybody who wanted to go out and pick up rubble. I volunteered a couple of times, and one day, I was taken out to the city park. It was like a central park in the outskirts of Budapest. They took us out there because the bombers had been firebombing (dropping some of the bombs that cause fires) and a lot of the trees were burning.
We found a car parked on one of the streets inside the park, and it was so hot that we couldn’t go near it. It had been hit by one of the firebombs and it became an oven. When we got close enough, we noticed that the glass windows were so milky from the heat that we couldn’t see what was inside. We threw wet sand all over the car to cool it off so we could open it up. When it started to cool off and the glass started to clean up, I got to see through the glass and I beheld one of those things that you don’t forget. What I saw in the front seat, on the passenger side, was a turkey, a large turkey like I see at Thanksgiving, all brown and dripping. And I don’t have to tell you that it was a human being who had been reduced by the heat, baked. That’s all I can compare it to. It looked like a huge turkey, all brown. We had to clean out the car and help them take it away so that the street would be clear of it.
At other times, I remember they would take us to buildings that had been hit by bombs. We had to go up to the sixth or seventh floors and all the walls were gone but you could walk around on the floors of the apartments. They asked us to make sure that there were no bricks that were about to fall down to the street, and if there were, to move them in so that they would not fall. We found dead bodies that we had to pick up and all of that business. That was the kind of thing that we had to do. That was the only thing that we could get out of the building for, so that’s what I helped out with.
Aside from that, the war began to come to us when the Americans began to fly from Italy. Their planes would come through Hungary on their way to Vienna, or maybe to Germany, up north. But they did not really bomb us very heavily.
In our apartment building, the superintendent made a schedule designating times for each young man – or other person he could use – to go up to the roof of the building and keep watch for fires. Everyone had to take his turn. It was a building with windows in a mansard roof like they have in France. In the attic, there was a ladder that went up to a window that opened onto the roof. You had to stand at the end of the ladder and stick your head out and keep your eye on the neighborhood to watch for fires. If there were fires, you had to run downstairs and tell everyone so they could escape before the building caught on fire. They were all in the basement in the air-raid cellar to keep safe from the bombing.
One day while on the roof, I counted 1,250 American planes. Twelve-hundred and 50. I’ll never forget it. The reason I don’t forget it is that much, much later, in 1996, I was living in Chicago and I went to a swimming pool almost every day. I met someone who was working out and swimming there, too. He was a tall, blond guy, about my age, and we started talking a little bit, and he told me that he was in the American Air Force during the Second World War. I said, ”Where were you stationed?” ”In Italy.” I said, ”Can you tell me some of the places that you flew to?” ”Oh,” he said, ”You know, we flew up to Germany, and so forth.” I said, ”Did you ever go over Hungary? Budapest? Do you remember?” ”Oh, ya,” he said, ”We flew over Budapest all the time.” So I realized that I was in the swimming pool with a guy who was up in the air when I was counting the planes. There was also someone in the pool that landed in Normandy in June 1944.
I really wanted to let them know what I thought about what the Americans did in coming to our rescue, so I took them and their families out to dinner. Without the Americans, I don’t know what would have happened. And, after all, they were safe in America. They were not being attacked. They didn’t have to give up their children to go to war, but they did, just as they are doing now in Iraq.
I took them out to dinner at a place north of Chicago, near the Palwaukee Airport. The restaurant has an airplane museum next to it, and as you sit in the dining room, you look out the windows at the bombers and the fighter planes and the rest of the American airplanes that were in the war. So, there was a lot of conversation and a very good dinner.
But I want to cover this business about the teenagers’ parties and what happened afterward because it became a fantastic sort of situation. You can’t imagine what it was like. Again, this was the early part of the war, 1944. The dancing went on and we were enjoying ourselves and I don’t know exactly how we could imagine that it would go on, but it didn’t go on. The Hungarian government continued to work behind the Germans’ backs, trying to make this separate peace with the Russians because the Russians were, all this time, pushing, pushing, pushing into Hungary. Pretty soon, the Russians were only about 50 miles from Budapest. They continued bombing and machine gunning and coming closer and closer and we knew that something was going to happen very soon.
What happened was that the Germans put a group of Hungarian fascists in power. These were the individuals I was telling you about earlier. They were the ones who had no inhibitions at all about murdering as many people as possible, especially Jews in Budapest because they knew the Jews of Budapest were at their mercy. They began to have all kinds of pogroms and massacres on the Danube, and when my mother found out about that….
My brother was five years older than I was, and by that time, those who were older than 20 years of age had already been called for. He had been shipped down to Yugoslavia where there was a workforce where they did things that were not important, just so they would be out of the way. I think the Germans, the Nazis, wanted to get all the men out of the way so that the women would be easy to kill.
This new government of Hungarian fascists that was put in place by the Germans began at five in the morning on October 15. (They liked that time of five in the morning.) They came to our building and ordered every Jewish male from the age of 16 to 55 to come downstairs into the courtyard.
When I was ready to walk downstairs, my poor mother came out to the stairs with me and she went down on her knees and she was crying, she was hysterical, and she said, ”They’ve taken your father, and they’ve taken your brother, and now you’re the last one. And now you will be gone, too.” She thought that her family was done, finished.
FC: Could you have lied about your age and not gone downstairs into the courtyard?
TW: The superintendent had records of all the people living in the building. You couldn’t hide.
In the courtyard, they formed us into a column. And that was it. March. We started marching through the streets and out of the city. Jewish men from other buildings joined up with us, and finally, we became a long, big column of men – and boys – marching out of the city. They had us going to the eastern part of Budapest to dig ditches to stop tanks because tanks, you know, get caught in ditches.
They had no food for us. They had no places to sleep. They had nothing prepared. All they did was give us some Hungarian soldiers to march us from place to place. Every day we went to another place to dig. Dig, dig, dig. Without good food. We got something called ”soup.” It was a black soup, some kind of black water; I don’t know what was in it. That’s all that we had to eat, and we were out there for something like four weeks.
After the four weeks, something happened that I always tell the kids about in my school visits. It has to do with one of my aunts, and I’ll show you her picture again because she is really worth looking at.
We ended up on one of the islands in the Danube River. The Danube has several islands and the one we were on was a large industrial island on the southern end of Budapest. There were 20,000 men, all of them like us, having been made to march around and dig ditches. It had been raining for days and days and days, and by the time we got to the island, it was all mud and puddles. They told us to sit down, so we sat down in the middle of all the puddles and the mud and waited. There we sat, in the middle of this island, with the mud and the puddles around us. I looked at all the men around me and they were all doing the same thing: sitting in the mud, looking down at the water, just sleeping or doing whatever…. What can you do? You sit there and wait. They didn’t allow us to do anything. They didn’t give us any food. Everybody was hungry and weak and tired.
Then we realized that, on both sides of the Danube, there was movement. On the western side, there were trains, and the trains were being filled with people and they were taken west, which was bad because that was in the direction of Germany. On the east side of the Danube, there were streetcars like the kind that you would use to go to work or somewhere if you lived in the city. They were going in the opposite direction; they were going back into the city, into Budapest.
I sat there with my uncle, who was 55 years old. He’s in the picture also. He was at the upper end of the age scale, which ranged from age 16 to 55. I was 16. He was 55. We had gone through the four weeks digging ditches together, and we ended up sitting together on the island. Everybody had given up. We knew that the end was coming. We knew that the trains were going somewhere in the west. So what can you do? You sit there. Until the third or fourth day, it began to happen.
We heard a soldier or someone calling out a name. It was far away at first and we couldn’t tell what the name was, but it was coming closer and closer. Finally, when he got close enough, we heard it was the last name of my uncle: Hiosh. As the soldier came closer, we got up and waved to him, saying, ”Here, here he is. Hiosh is here.” He came over to us and he said, ”Come on, follow me.” My uncle took me by the hand – he didn’t want to leave me behind – and we followed the soldier.
He took us a few steps away, and we saw a hut that we hadn’t seen before. We went through the hut door, and right inside there was a large desk. Behind the desk there was a very highly placed officer of the Hungarian army, all dressed up with his stars and everything, and he looked us up and down, and he kept staring at my uncle. Finally, he called out in Hungarian, ”Where did you find her? Where did you find that woman!?” My uncle said, ”What? Who? What woman? What are you talking?” He said, ”That woman who came out here. Your wife! Where did you find her? Where did you find such a woman?” And my uncle said, ”I married her,” and he gave the date that they were married, back around the First World War. The officer never said anything else. That’s all he wanted to know: ”Where did you find her?”
Then, after a few minutes, he said to the soldier, ”Alright, take ‘em over there,” and he pointed to the streetcars – not the trains, the streetcars. The soldier walked us across a bridge over to the streetcars, he put us on a streetcar going back to the city, and my uncle and I were back with our families within an hour or two. We had to hide a little bit when we got off the streetcar because we didn’t want to get caught, but we got back and we found our families and my mother went down on her knees again.
You will see in the picture that I will show you that my aunt Marishca looks like a queen. She was. She survived and ended up in Australia after the war. She and her husband – my uncle who was with me in the work service – went to Australia, and I talked to her through letters, asking her, ”What did you do? How did you do it? What did you do to get us out of there?” The only thing I ever found out from her was that they threw her into a dark dungeon when she first went out there, and somehow she worked with them and convinced them to let us go. She had some kind of influence from someone that she knew back in the city that she could use on this officer to get us out of there. That’s all I ever found out.
One of the reasons my aunt may have had some influence was that she and my uncle were in the butchering business; they were butchers. They owned a butcher store, and they knew influential people who were wholesalers in the butchering business. In Hungary, that’s very big business and they probably got to know some pretty influential people that way. That’s the only thing that I can think of as to how she knew someone who had some influence.
I’m going to see her daughter, who is now 90 years old and lives in an apartment in Sydney. She told me the same thing. She said she never found out anything else from her mother about how she got her father and me out of that horrible area.
That was the first big escape that I can point to before my ”Schwarzenegger” period. When I talk to the students in the schools, I tell them of my ”Schwarzenegger experiences” – the times I had to jump through windows and make turns and choices on a moment’s notice that could have been either right or wrong. (They happened to turn out right, because I’m still here.) At that time, though, I didn’t have to do anything; I was just following along. But after we got away and we got back to Budapest, several things happened, little events where I had to make choices to help me escape. I got confident that I knew how to navigate in difficult, dangerous situations.
My mother put me into a Red Cross villa to hide me for a couple of weeks, but somewhere, she heard that the Red Cross villa was going to be raided by the SS. She and my cousin, who was 16 years old, a girl – poor thing, she was killed along with the rest of them – came and got me the night before the raid. They said, ”You have to get out of here right now because tomorrow morning there is going to be a raid.”
I went with them and we walked through just about all of Budapest, at night, with the Nazi sentries standing on the corners and in the squares. Imagine, two Jewish women with a 16-year-old Jewish boy walking between the two of them. They held me by the arms and they just about carried me; they wanted to keep me safe because, for some reason, they thought that I was the one in more danger. For women, they were not so worried.
We would hide and wait along the sides of buildings and in doorways when it looked dangerous and then continue on. Because of the bombings, they had all the lights out and that helped us get through the whole city of Budapest. The Nazis who were standing on the corners couldn’t really see everybody and they imagined that we were just normal people. They didn’t ask us any questions, they didn’t stop us, and we got by.
Eventually, my mother got me to the apartment that she lived in with her mother (my grandmother), my aunt Olga and Olga’s daughter, 16-year-old Judy, who was with us. My mother kept me in her apartment for one night, I told her I didn’t like the feeling (it was too dangerous), and she got me out of there and into the safe house.
There was a safe house available because there was a Swedish diplomat by the name of Raoul Wallenberg who had come to Budapest and was giving Swedish passports to those people who could get to him. My mother knew how to get to him, and she took me to him and I got a passport. She put me into a safe house right on the shores of the Danube. As I told you, I was on the seventh floor of the house and I could look down and see people getting shot into the snow on the river.
FC: Let me ask you something about Raoul Wallenberg.
TW: Raoul Wallenberg. I met him –
FC: Did you!?
TW: – in person.
FC: How was that?
TW: My mother took me to him. He was sitting at a bridge table, one of those small tables that has four legs you can open up and play cards on, out in the street, on the sidewalk, not far from the safe houses. He had his table set up, he was sitting in a chair, and people were standing in line, and one by one, he was signing passports and handing them out. That’s how I got the passport. He wrote my name in it, and then he pointed to the safe house. We went to the safe house, and from that point on, I stayed there.
FC: How did your mother know about Raoul Wallenberg?
TW: She heard about what Wallenberg was doing. She had some kind of contact. Just like she knew when the Germans would raid the Red Cross building and she got me out of there. It wasn’t that she had any special contact with Wallenberg. She knew that people were getting passports, Swedish passports. That was getting around. And she wanted me to have one.
FC: Your testimony is interesting. How much did you know about Wallenberg and his heroic acts? We know now about how he got individuals off the trains at the train stations, for instance, but did you know about these things at the time? Was he someone people talked about?
TW: At that point, I didn’t know who he was. If somebody would have told me, ”This is Raoul Wallenberg,” I would have said, ”OK, so what?”
There was not a lot of talk during that time as far as I knew, but then, I was not in contact with a lot of people. I was in contact with the family that lived in the same apartment as I did in the safe house, but we were not very close, we were not friendly in any special way. I was on my own. I was just a boy who was put in there.
I found out about Wallenberg later on. After the Russians arrested him and thought he was an American spy, you read about him everywhere. You can read about Wallenberg nowadays; there are books about him all over the place. But the only time that I was in his presence was when he was sitting behind that bridge table on the street signing the passports and handing them out. That’s the only personal contact that I had with him.
Handing out passports was not the only thing he was doing. He was doing a lot more than that. He would get on the trains that were leaving for the concentration camps and tell the Germans that those people were all Swedish citizens and he would take them off the trains.
FC: What was life like in the safe house?
TW: The problem with the house was that there was no food. They didn’t provide food. They just provided a bunk bed. But my mother, grandmother, aunt and cousin had gone out and bought false papers to show that they were Christians and they were living in the apartment under false pretenses because my mother had a plan. She bought the false papers because she wanted to stay in the city, as dangerous as it was, so she would be able to bring me food in the safe house. She was worried that if she left the city she wouldn’t be able to feed me, that I would not be able to eat and that I would not survive. What I don’t understand is why she and the rest of them didn’t come with me, but as I explained, they wanted to be able to get food and the only way that you could get food was to be out in the city. In the safe house, you were locked in and so it would have been a problem to get food.
My mother came to the safe house with something that she knew would last for several days, like a pot of Hungarian goulash, and I would have food for days. She started bringing me food in late November and she continued through December, day after day, week after week. There was bombing going on, there was machine gunning. This woman, my mother, who was 42, 44 years old at that time, was a little lady. She was not big but she was very powerful, and she did all of that to save me.
But one day, my mother stopped coming. She didn’t come for three or four days and I was hungry and I had no idea what to do. But I got a break. The family that I lived with in the apartment had a sack of flour. Now, why did I not have a sack of flour? Because I was by myself and they were a whole family that had taken everything with them when they left their own apartment. They had cans of food and they had this sack of flour. They kept making dishes of pasta and baking bread, and so forth. Once in a while, they would give me something but not enough to really feed me.
One day, the family made a big, huge dish filled with bread dough and was going to bake it, but their oven went on the blink. They couldn’t bake it. They had to think about where to take the bread to have it baked and I told them I knew of a bakery two blocks away. I told them that it was illegal for me to go out there and it was dangerous, but ”I will take your bread out there if I get part of it.” And they said, ”We’ll give you half of the bread if you take it out to have it baked.” And, you know, I was going to take chances; I didn’t like being hungry.
So I took the bread dough thing in my arms, took off my yellow star and started to go. I had to walk two blocks south and then half a block over to get to the bakery. I walked the two blocks south without any event, no problem. I got to the corner and made my turn, and I saw the bakery window, which was a huge, long, plate glass window. In front of it was a mob of people with dishes in their arms, all waiting to bake bread. And I knew that most of them were Jewish; I could tell, looking at them from a distance. As I turned the corner, almost immediately, on the other corner at the end of the block, I saw a huge truck pull up and I saw German soldiers, in their greeny gray uniforms, jump off the truck and lock down the block at that end. Then I looked around and I heard the truck pulling up behind me and the German soldiers jumping off and locking down my side of the block. I’m trying as hard as I can, as quickly as I can, to lose myself, sort of disappear, in the crowd that is standing in front of the bakery. I got into the crowd and stood behind everybody and waited for the German soldiers. They were coming slowly, coming with machine guns from both ends, and they knew that they had us trapped. There was no way to get out of there. A couple of people I saw, older people, went down on their knees on the street, started to pray. I just stood there. I was hoping for a miracle, which happened. One came along.
The entire time that I was on the street, I was aware of the bombing that was going on. The Russians were attacking the city and they were fighting their way through the streets, beginning on the outskirts, and bombing everything ahead of them. There were bombs falling all over the place. You could also hear machine gunning; this was war. But just as I had given up on it – I mean, I could see that the Germans were getting closer and that they were going to arrest everyone, put us on the trucks and take us wherever they wanted to – imagine, a bomb hit a big apartment building across the street from the bakery. Exactly across from the bakery.
The building came down as nothing but rubble, covered the street and covered part of the crowd standing there with the bread dough in their hands, hitting people left and right. They were bleeding everywhere. The bakery’s huge plate glass window exploded because of the air pressure from the bomb. It cut people in the face and other places. I was standing there and everybody around me got hurt but I just happened to be in the middle of a crowd of people and I didn’t get hurt. I could see the window still had part of its base left, which was not very high from the ground, and gosh, it took me two steps to get over there. I jumped over it, and I was inside the bakery. There was somebody behind the counter, and I slammed the dish with the bread dough down on the counter and I told them, ”I want this baked,” and I kept running through the bakery.
There was a narrow corridor that led to the back of the bakery. I figured that was a way out. I just wanted to get away from the street. I didn’t want the German soldiers to catch up with me. I didn’t realize that they had turned around and run back to the trucks and taken off. They didn’t want to have anything to do with the bombing. I got out into the courtyard of the building and it had gangways like European apartment buildings have that go around each floor and lead to the entrances of the apartments. It had gangways that went up six or seven floors and I was down on the main floor of the courtyard looking for a door, but I couldn’t see one because these were all apartments.
There must have been some door that was not easy to see or something – I was in a hurry. But then I spotted something that looked like a door. I went up to it and it turned out to be a door without a handle. I tried to pull it open with my nails and I pushed my nails in between the door frame and then I realized what it was. It looked like a door that would have a handle on the other side but not on my side because they didn’t want people getting in from my side. It came to my mind that it must be a movie house because those are the kinds of doors that they have, where you have an exit but not an entrance. I made up my mind that I had to open it. Somehow, I got my nails into it and I kept pulling and pulling and pulling and I opened it up, and guess what. I opened up the door and it was all dark inside and it actually turned out to be a movie house.
The door I opened suddenly let some light in and I could see all the seats were empty except for one. There was a girl sitting in one seat. I closed the door behind me. I ran in, and I sat down next to her. She was crying. She told me that she was a servant girl who had escaped from the family that she was working for. They lived in that apartment building and they were not treating her well. (Middle-class people had servants all the time in Hungary. We had maids. We had at least one maid all the time that I can remember. It was very easy to hire a maid because in the small villages of Hungary, people lived in such conditions that the goal of every young girl, every young person, was to get away and go to the city and find a life. That’s what this girl had done.)
So I sat next to her and she was crying. I put my arm around her as she put her head on my shoulder and she cried and she told me what they had done to her and I told her something about my story. The two of us had somebody to tell our stories to. I sat there with her for at least an hour and a half, and then I decided that the bread may be done. I went back to the bakery, and by God, there was the dish on the counter with my bread in it. There was nobody there to collect money. I picked up the dish and I saw no Nazis on the street so I went through the window and I walked through the crowd that was still lying on the ground outside. I just walked away, went back to the safe house and got my half of the bread. That was one adventure that falls under the combination heading of luck, a miracle and a little bit of presence of mind on my part to run away from there. But who wouldn’t? If you were in good shape, why would you stay there?
After that, I still didn’t hear from my mother too much, but she did come again a few more times. Then she stopped coming altogether toward the end of December. At that point, I didn’t hear from her for so long that I decided I had to go into the town no matter how dangerous it was. I had to go to her apartment to find out what was going on.
The safe houses were in the northern end of the city, right on the Danube, in the most modern and most expensive part of Budapest. The area where my mother and the three others lived was in a good area but more in the center of the city so you had to negotiate the distance to get there. There was still bombing going on and the street fighting was getting closer and closer. It was not safe but I was lucky because along came a truck. They were collecting young people from the safe houses who were willing to take a chance on going into the city to help clean up the streets. The rubble was getting so bad that traffic was completely stopped so they were trying to collect people to do this work – even Jews. I volunteered because I said to myself, ”I’m going to get into the city and then escape and go over to the house and find out what’s happened with my family.” I couldn’t go on without knowing. Not to mention the fact that I was without food. I had some bread I had gotten somewhere and I put a little piece of bread into a briefcase that I took with me.
In Budapest, there are underground passages that connect buildings. In Chicago, the same thing is true. You can go from one building through several others and go to a whole different part of the city solely underground. It’s almost like a subway, but you have to walk. I knew about these places in Budapest, so when we got into the city, I got away from the group that was cleaning up the rubble and escaped at a place that was close to one of these subway entrances. I was very happy that I could get off of the street and not be too visible. I sneaked down there and I walked all the way to the avenue that I knew my mother’s building was on.
I got back onto the street and I had several blocks to go. I tried to stay out of view, out of sight. This was in late December, and there was about a foot of snow, I would say, on the streets. So, aside from the fact that it was in the afternoon and it was starting to get dark, it was also snowing and the visibility was not too good, which helped me. I didn’t want anyone to see me so I stayed as close to the buildings as possible and I kept going through the snow, which was coming down pretty thickly. It was not easy to see me.
The snow, however, also prevented me from seeing what was ahead and I didn’t see this huge figure standing in the middle of the avenue, about a block away. I had my head down, trying to make myself as little as possible, you know, and I wasn’t watching, but there he was. It was a gendarme and gendarmes were the scariest people that you could run into because they were known to be the greatest anti-Semites. They were the ones that you really had to watch out for. The local police were something else. The gendarmes were national police. And this guy was something like, I’m probably exaggerating, but to me, he looked like a giant. He looked seven feet tall and he was wearing one of those gendarme caps, the kind that has the big black feathers on the top. That made him look like he was eight feet tall. And then he was wearing a long coat, down to his ankles, black boots and he had a black mustache. And his eyes were black as the devil. He saw me and he was making motions for me to come over to him before I ever saw him. I finally saw him and I realized he was calling me over there, and I don’t have to tell you how I felt.
Across the street from him, there was a huge doorway, the kind of doorway that you can drive a huge carriage through. It was opening and closing, opening and closing, and while it was opening and closing, I’d catch glimpses of a whole bunch of people. It looked like a beehive of people. It was just full of people behind the door, and I had just a guess in my mind. I said to myself, These are people who were caught and are prisoners and they are being prepared to be taken somewhere. That’s where he’s going to send me. I was sure that he would send me across the street to join that group.
So, as I was getting closer and closer to him, something formulated itself in my mind. I cannot tell you that it was a conscious plan, but I think it is a normal thing that happens to a 16-year-old when he is completely lost and he’s given up and he’s desperate to find his family. That’s what I was. As I got closer, I began to say to him, ”My mother is not well. She is not well and she has no food and this is what I have for her,” and I opened up my briefcase and I showed him the corner of bread. It was just a piece of bread and it was kind of dry. I said to him, ”This is all I have to take to her,” and I pointed out the building that my mother’s apartment was in, because it was just one block away, and you could see it. I pointed and said, ”That’s the one I’m going to. Just let me go to that.” And you know what? This monster looked me up and down, and I think he was trying to be very careful because he probably had some superior officer or someone over in that group behind the door. He didn’t want to do it very openly, but he made a movement and he went like this, ”Run, just run,” with his hand, without letting them see it, and he said, ”Run.” And he just believed me. He believed the story.
I started running. Because the snow was coming down pretty thickly, I was probably not too visible and I probably got away with it because of that. I was afraid that he might change his mind and shoot me from behind or something, but that didn’t happen. I got away with it, and I made it to the building.
Now, years and years later, I wrote a story about the irony of that situation and how funny things can be. Here he was, probably thinking that he was taking pity on me and doing me a favor. Later on, I decided that that’s the kind of thing that happens. People don’t know what they’re doing. They think they’re taking pity on someone, maybe they are doing something good for a change, and what he did was let me go to the building where I found out what I didn’t want to find out.