It’s so important that people know about Wallenberg’s courage because persecution does not just happen to Jews. This is happening to other nations now too like in Darfur, Sudan, so we must continue the story of Wallenberg to spread the inspiration and courage to do something about it.
Q: What is your name?
A: My name is Ester Mejer.
Q: What city and country were you born in?
A: Budapest, Hungary.
Q: And who did you live with while growing up? Your parents, siblings…?
A: I lived with my family; my siblings, parents and grandparents lived together.
Q: How many siblings?
A: 11 siblings.
Q: Did you grow up in a Jewish community?
Q: Did you go to a Jewish school?
Q: What activities were you involved with before the war?
A: I was a child in school when the Germans came; I was a child survivor.
Q: What were the first signs of anti-Semitism that you noticed?
A: We had a villa near Budapest and the Otto-German people lived [in this village]. They were from Germany, and … they swore at us all the time and called us names. That was when I first started noticing anti-Semitism.
Q: And how did that affect you? What did you feel?
A: I felt very, very bad. I didn’t understand why they were doing this and I did not know the implications of what they were doing, but I could never have.
Q: Were there changes in your family’s religious practices?
A: They were very, very religious. Not Hasidic, because in Budapest we had no Hasidic individuals. My family were called Iber-landish.
Q: Can you tell us what happened to your family during the war? Were you separated from your family?
A: Yes, I was separated from my family. My family went to the safe house and I saved myself. I was living with Jewish people, but they did not know I was Jewish, and then I ended up in a convent.
Q: How were you separated from your family? Why did they go to the safe house and you to a convent?
A: Since I did not look Jewish and I did not even act it, and I was very blonde, with blue eyes, my father told me, ”We’re going to a safe house, but we don’t know how safe it is.” Nobody could know. ”So save yourself. You don’t look Jewish, and you are a very young girl. Try to save yourself. We don’t know what’s going to happen to us.”
Q: So they went to the safe house?
A: They went to the safe house.
Q: How did they learn about the safe house?
A: They learned about the Sweitzer Loots, the safe house. They were there first. Then Wallenberg came. Wallenberg came to our house because he collected everybody who was working to save people and my father was on the list. He came to us because he wanted to know what to start and how to start it. He and my father were very closely involved in it. After that, he started to somehow organize everything – he didn’t know where to start, so he made a meeting with all the people he had on the list and they suggested maybe we have houses that we designate, like ”Swedish diplomat houses.” What is the name?
Q: Like a consulate? Embassy?
A: As a consulate, yes. He realized the idea very good and he started to buy houses in the section where most of the Germans lived. That was the purpose.
Q: And do you know how Wallenberg composed that list of people? Where those names came from?
A: Yes, yes. When they elected Wallenberg, he was supposed to come to Hungary. He came here to America first and there were a lot of people who knew those on the list because they were in contact with them. So my father was in prior contact with these people. Before that, they established a hautssoload, which means ”to save people.”
Q: What was your father doing in Hungary to catch the attention of the Americans? What were the activities?
A: He was always involved. He was a big businessman, but he was an only child and he wanted to do something. His parents taught him if you are working only for yourself, (he was an only child) then you are not doing anything; so from a very early age, his life was meant to do something. He began by doing anything, starting out when he saw there were a lot of people who did not have enough food. These were very, very impoverished people. Then he went on and on, and did more and more. In’41, the deportations began to Poland. The people wanted to escape the deportation. A lot of people came to Budapest and my father got to them and they wanted him. They wanted him because nobody wanted to do anything – even the Jewish people – since the Germans hung big, big signs, ”Whoever have hidden the Polish will share the same thing with them.” That means the people who tried to save anyone, will also be deported – not just those who are hiding..
Q: Did you personally meet Raoul Wallenberg?
A: I personally met Wallenberg. He came to our house, and I opened the door and my father was there and invited him in; that is how I got to know Mr. Wallenberg.
Q: How did Wallenberg look?
A: He was a very tall man… Right away you could sense that he was something important – a diplomat or something. But he made a very, very good impression.
Q: A diplomatic type of personality?
A: Personality, yes. He projected a diplomatic personality.
Q: Did you have a Schutzpass? Or your family had a family Schutzpass?
A: My whole family had a Schutzpass. Wallenberg worked the date around when my father moved into the safe house, because our apartment was in the ghetto. So then they moved in. They were afraid to stay in the ghetto because they heard in the ghetto they were starting the deportation. So they moved into the safe house – what Wallenberg established. From that point on, my father worked with Wallenberg and he also had copies of all the Schutzpasses and wrote all the names because he knew the people in Budapest.
Q: Can you describe how a Schultzpass looks?
A: I wish I would have brought my book. I did not know about the interviews until I met my friend who was here before – Dreckas – in the city. I said, ”Where are you going?” She replied, ”You don’t know? You don’t know? We’re going to the Wallenberg testimonials.” I said, ”Well, what do you mean?” ”They’re making a memorial about Wallenberg,” she responded. I said, ”Okay, if it is about Wallenberg, I will go because I know the story. I know the whole story of Wallenberg, so I will go.”
Q: Can you describe the book for me? How did the Schutzpass look?
A: Okay, one second. Okay, I have a passport here, right? The Schutzpass was about the same size. And, naturally, it was not a passport. No, it was not a passport, but it was about this color. It also had the gold lettering. And it was Swedish – this is the Americana. Okay, and on the inside, instead of visas, it says ”Schutz-pass” in the Deutsch-German. That’s Deisheudenrequeni. It was in the Deutsch-German language – not Swedish; that way the Germans would understand what was going on. Instead of visas, they were Schutzpasses.
Q: Did you reunite with your family during the war, when you were in the convent, or did you have to wait until after the war?
A: Before the ghetto, my father told me, ”You don’t look Jewish. You are a young girl. Please save yourself.” He thought maybe the safe house would not be so very safe because every day the Germans would find more Jewish people living there. So I went out in the street. First, someone who knew me and was also pretending not to be Jewish said, ”Follow me. Follow me.” I followed him and we went into a dark area down in the basement and he told me he was working for the partisan side. He said if I wanted to, I could become a part of it, ”because you don’t look Jewish and you have a lot of guts, and you are a child and they wouldn’t even suspect you.” I thought about it a little and realized I have no other choice because I was on the street and I did not know where to go. I agreed to the idea and they sent me all over Budapest where they knew people were working and hiding. They gave me the address but I had to memorize it because they did not want to give me anything written. So that is what I did for a few weeks and then, October when the Gulash came, they were even more extreme than the Germans were. I got a little afraid so I started thinking about what to do. Then I found a ”Convent.” I went to the convent and they sent me to a place outside Budapest. They did not know I was Jewish; I did not tell them I was Jewish. The place they sent me,– called CuBano – was very, very far from Budapest, and they told me I should involve myself with the children. I found out, out of the 25 children, one of them was Jewish. They left every morning at 6 o’clock before they opened, and they always found a new bundle. Inside of the bundle was a child. I loved them and was very much involved with the children.
Q: How did you reunite with your family?
A: We were saved, I would say, about 15 months before Budapest. We were freed earlier; Russia came earlier. We were freed exactly between December 25 and January the first. We were freed, but I knew that Budapest was not free at this time. It took them three weeks. After that I prayed every day that I would find my family. And I made myself promise that I should do this and that until I found my family. When it was over, when we were freed, I knew, because of the reports in the papers, about Budapest. At this point, I did not want to stay anymore. I told them, ”I am Jewish,” and they were very, very shocked. They told me I did not act like a Jewish person, or what they thought of as Jewish, but they understood. I told them I wanted to be with my family now, and they told me they understood and, so they let me out. The first thing I did was go to the apartment where we lived and my family were already there. This was a week – exactly a week – after Budapest was freed, since before, nobody could have gone out. There was fighting – street fighting. House to house – not street – house to house fighting. The Jewish captain etc – all of that was going on. There was chaos, and tons of fighting in Budapest, so it took me one week before I got back to my house.
Q: What was that like? Going back to your house and seeing your family there?
A: It was very, very, very emotional. My grandmother called me over. She was extremely weak. She did not want to eat. No food was available. No food at all, and she did not want to eat. She thought the family’s needs should come before hers because we were younger than her.
At this time, and before the war, they did not have finished clothing. Our family always had someone who came to our house or we went to their shop to get clothing made because all of the Jewish people had a separate kind of clothing for work. My grandmother called me over and she told me I should go and get the woman who makes the clothing. I went to find the woman, but I could not find her. Naturally, I went upside-down to get people to help me find her, but they had moved to other places, so I could not find her. When I came back, I told my grandmother that I was sorry, I could not find her, but I would look for her tomorrow. She answered, ”There is no tomorrow for me.” And that night, my grandmother died.
Q: So when you met your parents and your siblings again, did they tell you anything about life in the safe house?
A: No. Nothing. Nothing. They could not. Everybody was so overwhelmed. They could not talk. And, everybody was very weak. No food. No food. Not at all. Not at all. We got bread, you know? Everybody got a thin, thin, thin slice; that was the ration for the whole day. One piece. Sometimes, a potato. One potato. That is all. That is all we ate for a whole 24 hours.
Q: In the safe house?
A: It was very, very, very, very bad for everybody. Everybody became very weak. No one could truly think [puts hand to forehead]. And everybody was busy thinking, ”Oh, maybe tomorrow, maybe tomorrow, maybe tomorrow,” and so on. Nobody could talk. Nothing. Nobody was interested, and nobody could talk. Everything was very, very…low, low, low, low, low, very low.
Q: When did your father learn that Wallenberg disappeared? They were close during the war, so when Wallenberg disappeared, did he know?
A: No. But he was in contact with him until the last day because they wanted to work to get the people some food. At this point, the war was over, so he did not need to save people from deportations. He wanted to save the people now, so that they would not die of hunger. So my father and Wallenberg were in contact. And he sent people out and he tried to get food from outside of Budapest since they had more food and outside they could bring in food from farms etc. So, a little food came in, but the prices were so unreal that nobody could buy them. So unreal nobody could buy them.
My father knew of Wallenberg’s disappearance when he did not show up as he usually would, in the place they usually met. They would meet in different places, and when he did not show, then my father thought that something happened. And he tried to find out, but there was no way to find out. No way.
Q: Do you know if all the people Raoul Wallenberg saved were Jewish, or were there others among them? Gypsies or resisters or…?
A: No, most of them were Jewish. That is why he came – only to save the Jews, only to save the Jews. That was all he wanted to do – to save the Jews. There are a lot of pictures showing that he went to the train stations where he gave out the Schutzpasses. He really went very far outside of Budapest. He had his car, a diplomatic car, so nobody would threaten him.
Q: What would you say to Wallenberg if he were sitting with us today?
A: What I would say? Naturally, I would say that what he did is unbelievable, what he did saved so many people. We Jewish people believe even if you save one person, it is the same as saving the whole world. Right? So, how many worlds you saved, and look here in America what is happening to all those people who you saved. How many people survived? The whole nation survived. That is what I would say.
Q: And what do you think he would say to you?
A: He was a very, very modest person. My father told me also that he was extremely modest. He never wanted to talk about himself or what he was doing. He tried to get people to join him, but that was very hard. So I would think he would say that what he did, he did because he felt the necessity, and he was really, really sorry for the people. He would say, ”I saw the whole situation. I saw that I was very much needed.” I do not think he would have blown it out of proportion or would have especially talked about himself. I do not think so because he was very modest.
Q: Do you think it is important to keep Wallenberg’s legacy alive?
A: Yes, yes. 100 percent. People should know. This was not the first time it happened to the Jewish people or any other nation. It is no different, and it is still going on in the world. It’s so important that people know about Wallenberg’s courage because persecution does not just happen to Jews. This is happening to other nations now too like in Darfur, Sudan, so we must continue the story of Wallenberg to spread the inspiration and courage to do something about it.
Q: Have you ever spoken to anyone else specifically about Wallenberg?
A: Not really because, after the war, the number one thought was, ”We are hungry; we should have something to eat.” Nobody was thinking for longer than just that moment. We thought, ”We have to survive. If we don’t have anything to eat, then we won’t survive.” After a few months, they started to bring in food from outside. It started to get a little better – not too much but a little better. Then, people started thinking, ”I don’t want to stay here. What will I do here?” So, we wanted to leave. We wanted to get away from the area. If we stayed there, we would always think about the past, because we went through so much.
Everybody wanted to get away, but my father, because he was involved so very much – he was the president of the synagogue, he was president of the community – he did not want to leave all that behind. He did not want to leave the people behind. He wanted to settle, but he was arrested. He was arrested by the Germans and he was arrested by the Russians, also. He was arrested because he had people who were very angry with Israel. These people thought, ”This Israel, they take things away from us, they rob the land too much….” My father did not do anything illegal; there was only a the rumor that he did something. People started this rumor.
The young people, naturally, wanted to get away. They did not want to stay there. But my father opened a business. He had a business before, so he opened his business and, after two years, they arrested him and took away the business, like they took away everybody’s businesses… This time, my father was arrested. He was there a few months until he got out, and this was a great, big miracle that he got out because usually this was a very, very big thing and the only way to get out was to escape. My father’s release happened during the day, in a normal fashion. My father was on the blacklist and he could have easily, easily ended up in Siberia like so many did. His friends ended up in Siberia. He could have ended up there but, fortunately…he was freed. It was very, very interesting. It was a big miracle.
After his release, we wanted to get away. There was no question because they could have done the same thing later, also. So we wanted to get away and we got a passport and we got away in the end of ‘49. At this time, we went to Vienna. … From Vienna, I first went to Switzerland because I had a brother there and he arranged for me to come in. After that, the whole family came in from Vienna. It was not the whole family because when the young people started to go out, and escape, my older brothers escaped. Only my younger brothers were there with me.
Q: And you stayed there in Vienna until when?
A: Until we got to Switzerland. In Switzerland it was much easier to get to America because the quota in Switzerland was very easy. So we got in, in two years. But I married there, and I stayed there; I stayed behind in Switzerland.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to share with us?
A: I hope for Shalom in Israel and for the children of Israel to be in Israel. Everybody. I could go to Israel if I wanted. I could go to Israel, but I could not afford Israel. Now I am retired. I am not working and I don’t think in Israel I would be able to work, and I cannot afford that myself. I cannot afford that. I tried. And, fortunately, my family is here, and that is the most important for everybody – the family.
- Interview conducted and filmed by Daniela Bajar, Adam Esrig and Aliza Klapholz
- Transcription by Katie Kellerman. Additional editing by Rebecca Zlouf and Adam Esrig
Interview filmed August 29, 2007, Borough Park, Brooklyn, New York