Q: What’s your name?
A: My name is John Schiffer.
Q: In which city and country were you born?
A: I was born in Budapest, Hungary.
Q: When were you born?
A: November 22, 1930.
Q: What was your early life like? Could you describe your family?
A: My parents were both physicians. My father’s family was from Northern Hungary, which is now Slovakia. They settled in Budapest in about 1905, and my father was still in high school. He finished gimnázium and was the first of his family to go to university. He was a medical student when the First World War came, and he served in the Austro-Hungarian Army. He was a lieutenant on the Russian front, eventually in charge of a medical unit. My mother came from Southern Hungary, from a town called Mohács, which is on the Danube. Her father was a district judge in Mohács. She was one of four children and the youngest. Her brother was killed in WWI. She also was the first of her family to go to university. She went to a girl’s gimnázium among the first of these university-track secondary schools for girls, since women were beginning to be admitted to university.. The one for southern Hungary was in Fiume on the Adriatic (now Rijeka in Croatia), She then went to medical school and met my father in Budapest after the First World War in the 1920s when she was an intern and he the equivalent of a resident at the Jewish Hospital in Budapest. They married in 1928. My father became a radiologist, which was then a brand new technique in medicine. He studied in Vienna and Budapest, and then he spent time in Stockholm, which was the Swedish connection and the basis of his application for a Schutzpass some 20 years later. I think he was in Sweden for something like 6 months.
Q: How did Judaism survive in the empire? What was your family’s relationship with Judaism?
A: What I know is mostly from books I have read here, and from what I had learned in school in Hungary, and it fits with what I observed in my childhood. The Austro-Hungarian Empire came into being in about 1863 or 1867. This was the time of ””rapprochement” between Hungary and Austria. In 1848 there had been a big nationalist revolution in Hungary against direct Austrian rule. The revolution almost made it, but then Austria called in Russia (based on the ‘Holy Alliance’ treaty) and the Russians overwhelmed the revolution. Until that time, Jews were seen as somewhat outsiders although change was in the air and quite a few Jews fought with the Hungarians in the revolution. It was 1848, the year of revolutions all over Europe. Following the Russians defeating the Hungarian revolutionary army, there was repression of Hungarian nationalism for almost 20 years and then in 1867 there was that ”rapprochement”, and Hungary was given full rights as a Monarchy. The Habsburg Emperor became the King of Hungary, but Hungary had its own legislature and Hungarian became the official language of the empire. Hungary then was much larger than it is now. It included Slovakia, bits of Romania, Serbia, Croatia, and so on, from the Adriatic Sea to the Russian border. There was a strong movement to have Hungarian the official language to replace German and Jews were more flexible than many of the other minorities. They willingly spoke Hungarian. There was sort of sympathetic tie between the Hungarian speaking majority and the Jews who were adapting to Hungarian language easily. Also, the commercial and industrial revolution took place in Hungary at that time; industrial revolution came rather late, but many of the bankers, industrialists and traders were Jews. They didn’t feel particularly put down as a separate class. They spoke the same language. And there was relatively little competition in trade, manufacturing or the professions, from the Hungarian middle class. The atmosphere was quite different from Poland or Russia in that respect. My grandfather from my mother’s side was a judge. It was fairly unusual that a Jew would be appointed district judge at that point. In fact, my grandfather changed his surname, from a German sounding name to a Hungarian name, as did many Jews. But he would not change his religion, I was told, even though he was advised that this would reduce his chances of promotion.
The ideas that came to Western Europe at the time of the French Revolution gradually had their impact by the end of 19th century in Hungary. The revolt against the orthodoxies religion and the more rational, scientific way of looking at the world started to be accepted. Many of the younger Jews were not as religious as their parents. My maternal grandfather was actually president of the Jewish congregation in Mohács, yet, the household was not particularly observant. I remember my mother telling me stories. She went to the Jewish elementary school. She hadn’t fasted on Yom Kippur, so what, she asked her grandmother, if teacher asks her about whether she had fasted. Her mother told her ”don’t worry about it, they won’t ask” and they didn’t. This secular view of religion, which is more, less the way many Americans see religion, was coming in. There were people who were much more orthodox and much more observant, but it wasn’t unusual to have this attitude. Jews were seen somewhat more the way Jews are seen in the United States, not by everybody but by a good part of society. My father’s family was more religious. They were quite observant and kept kosher household, but my father walked away from that – he broke with religion. So my parents were completely secular. I know that my father never went to synagogue and didn’t keep any holiday. Yet the designation of a religion was required by Hungarian law. Everybody in school had to go to religion classes. You were registered from birth as this or that, and the record was kept officially. But other than that, the religion was not seen as something important. After WWI, the fascist regime with Horthy came. Hungary was still a kingdom at that time, even though Austro-Hungary had been dissolved and Hungary became a smaller country, more centered on the ethnic Hungarian part of the larger country. At that point, Horthy came in and his right-wing fraction did have a somewhat anti-Semitic overtone. It took the form of quotas. We have educational quotas, in a different sense here. But for instance, first there were the universities; there was a quota on how many Jews could be accepted to the university. It was supposed to be in proportion to the fraction of the population that was Jewish, about 6%. Yet more than half of all physicians in Hungary were Jewish. My younger uncle, for instance, immigrated to the U.S. right after in 1919 because they judged that he had no chance of getting into university (there was only one medical, science, and humanities university and one engineering university in Budapest).
Q: Were there a lot of Hungarian Jews at that point coming to the US?
A: Not then. The big exodus was in the decades before WW I, and for professionals somewhat later. Several, later famous, physicists such as Wigner and Neumann, left Hungary for the more liberal West in the 1920-s, they went first to Austria and then to Germany, because Germany was seen as more enlightened at that time. Wigner in fact, became a professor in Berlin and did much of his early work in Germany. But when Hitler came to power in the 1930s Wigner and many others came to the U.S..
Q: The Regent of Hungary was a patient of your father?
A: Yes. My father was probably one of the leading radiologists in Hungary. He was Jewish so he didn’t get to be professor in the University. There were two major private hospitals in Budapest. There were also public hospitals, but the private hospitals were thought to have better care and probably they did. He was a radiologist in both of them. So many of the top layers of the Hungarian society and government, the regent, ministers and ambassadors, came to that hospital and if they came he was likely to have them as his patients.
Q: How do you personally think about Judaism? What is your relationship with Judaism?
A: Religion to me is not important. Whoever it was, that said that more evil was done in name of religion than good — I am fully in sympathy. I do feel that religion as such is outside of my frame of reference. Basically I’m agnostic I don’t know whether there is such a thing as divine being or not and I don’t see that it should make any difference, as far as ethical decisions are concerned. We find ourselves in this world, aware of our surroundings and having the ability to think — we have to use our intelligence and make our own decisions. I’m proud of the fact that I am descendant of a group of people who managed to maintain high intellectual standard, of analytic thinking and ability to understand. I think that’s good. I do not feel any particular allegiance to the formal tradition of holy days or such. I don’t feel any attachment to the ceremonial aspects of it. Judaism as such doesn’t mean very much to me as philosophy of life.
Q: You chose to marry a Jewish woman, for instance. Do you think it was just pure happenstance?
A: No, I don’t think it was. Having gone through a period between the age of 10 and 14 of Nazified Hungary, it made a strong impression on me that I was a Jew. I can show you a picture of me with a yellow star. At the age of 13 or 14 that makes an impression on you, having been brought up in rather secular way, to be suddenly stamped as something which is obviously regarded by the prevailing culture as not a good thing, not a nice thing. That this label is one that you get at birth, not because of anything you did or your parents did — just that’s who you are. That certainly made an impression.
Q: Do you remember psychologically how that felt to be labeled in such an aggressive way?
A: That was interesting. I went to school, which was actually run by the Lutheran church. It happened that this school had a very good academic reputation, particularly in math and sciences. In fact, I later learned that Wigner, 20 or 30 years earlier, had gone to the same school. Most of my classmates knew that I was a Jew because I went to Jewish religion classes, but other than that, there were some jokes but nothing serious until after the German occupation. There was one boy in our class who had spent time in Germany and apparently he belonged to the Hitler-Jugend. In the few weeks between the occupation of Hungary by German troops on March 19, 1944, and the closing of all schools, this classmate organized the beating up of the Jews in the class. For some reason I wasn’t there that day and only heard about it the next day when our teacher asked for those who had participated in this incident to stand (this was most of the class). He asked what the Jewish students had done to provoke this and the Hitler-Jugend class mate answered that this was to repay the Jews for all that they had done. He did not elaborate. Our teacher then told them off in rather strong terms. Given that this was already under German occupation, it was a brave thing for him to speak up in this way. I think most of the class were pretty ashamed of themselves, though some were not. I would guess that of my closer friends, there were probably more Jews than non-Jews. But that was a sort of social stratification.
To show what I mean, I had a cousin in Mohács, who now lives in Cleveland, somewhat older than me. She recently wrote her recollections. She pointed out that there were two middle classes in Mohács, the Jewish and the gentile one. Each one had its own social functions; each one had its own tennis club, its own ways of getting together. There was some of this separation in Budapest also, but perhaps not so strong. You tended to associate more with Jews than non-Jews but by no means exclusively. For my birthday party when I was perhaps 10, perhaps half the boys I wanted invited were Jewish, half were not.
Q: Is that persistent in your adult life?
A: No. Having gone through that period made me feel, on some level, that perhaps Jews had been keeping themselves too much apart from the rest of the society and some of the problems came from that. It had its good side, but also had its negative side. Intellectually, it is not clear to me whether complete amalgamation is a good thing or whether maintaining some separate identity is good, it’s something one can discuss. I guess I have not come to terms with that myself.
Q: What about raising your children?
A: We did not belong to any synagogue. They certainly knew that they were Jewish. My son married a woman with Jewish background, but they both have a secular outlook. They don’t belong to any synagogue.
Q: How did things change in 1944?
A: Until March 19th, 1944, Hungary was fighting part of the War, on the side of Germany, fighting on the Russian Front. Our sympathies were of course with the allied side. My father listened to either the BBC or the Voice of America every evening. We all listened to the Hungarian language broadcast as well as the German one. His English wasn’t good enough to listen to the English broadcast. There were few air raids, but by and large life was going on as before. Some, slightly more restrictive laws were passed about Jews holding property, but most of it had no affect us. We had a rather good middle class existence. My father encouraged me to learn English earlier on. I had subscriptions to children’s magazines from England and from the US as long as it was possible, until about 1943. On March 19th the Russian front was getting closer and the Germans occupied Hungary. This was an cataclysmic change for us and all Jews in Hungary. This incident of beating up Jews in school, that I mentioned, happened maybe a week later. Schools closed about 2 or 3 weeks after that. The Russian front was getting closer, getting to the eastern border of the Hungary. The moving of Jews to designated Ghetto houses started. We had to leave our apartment, to a designated Jewish House. This was something like a month or 6 weeks after March 19th. From then on, we lived in a ghetto house. Then these ”Schutz pass”-es became available, first with Wallenberg one, then other Embassies started issuing Schutz passes also. At that point it wasn’t clear yet how you could get one, so my father applied for one based on his studies in Sweden in the 1920s. That dragged on for a while. In the summer of 1944, the Russian front was coming closer, the rate of deportations from towns outside of Budapest intensified. My mother’s family from southern town of Mohács disappeared. Later, we found out that they were taken to Auschwitz. The Germans, Eichmann, was more and more insistent on the deportation and things in Budapest, with quite a large Jewish population, were getting tighter. In the middle of the summer of 1944, Horthy’s government tried to negotiate a separate peace treaty with the Allies. As a result of this, he was put under house arrest by the Germans and they empowered the Hungarian Arrow Cross party, the Hungarian Nazi party, to take ove. Then atrocities in Budapest escalated. All the residents from some of the Jewish houses were taken to the Danube and then just machine-gunned, with the bodies carried away by the Danube.
Q: As a 14 year-old child, how did you process that?
A: Until the time that we heard of Auschwitz, after the war, we knew nothing about gas chambers. We knew there were deportations; my parents told us how, in case of need, we should go and try to get to some gentile friends. The Horthy incident happened in the latter part of August 1944 and at that point there were some houses designated to be under the protection of the Swedish embassy. Our Schutz-pass came through sometime in late August or early September of 1944.
Q: Were you in a panic?
A: No. It was obviously sort of a race between the Russians getting there and the Germans. We didn’t know that we were supposed to be deported to Auschwitz under Eichmann’s initiative but we knew that the situation was bad and that the laws were becoming more restrictive. One day, my father was not allowed to practice medicine on anyone but a Jew. At that point, he couldn’t go to the hospital where he had practiced, to use the x-ray equipment, or anything. But then they started to round up people between certain ages, men, women, to help dig trenches in the surroundings of Budapest. In Hungary a large fraction of physicians were Jews, something like 50 or 60% of the physicians in the country were Jews although Jews were only about 6% of the population.
Starting back in ’42 or ’43, they had taken younger Jewish men, between 18 and 40, to be auxiliary workers, in parallel with the military draft for gentile men in the same age group. This separation was a concession to the Germans; so these men didn’t fight but they dug trenches and did manual work. But not people my father’s age. In the summer of 1944, everybody up to age 50 or 55 was rounded up, men and then later women were taken away to dig defenses for the coming Russian front. My father was among them. He was in a brigade of 500 Jewish physicians. He was gone for about 6 weeks. After they had done the digging that they were supposed to do, they were moved westward. It became clear to my father that their destination was not to dig more trenches, but that they were marched westward to Germany.
Q: Do you remember the day your father was taken away? Did he have time to pack clothes?
A: Yes. It was known the day before, that the next morning at 6 o’clock all men in a certain age group had to line up in front of the house and that they were going to be taken away for working on fortifications. They were told to take suitable clothing and food with them.
Q: During this period he kept a diary and you translated it. What did he talk about?
A: He had written postcards home as often as he could. My mother of course had saved them. When he got back; and he did that by walking away from the group. It turns out that my wife’s uncle, who was a physician was in the same group and a friend of my father’s, This physician was marching with my father and refused to walk away with him — he never returned. Most of the people who did not escape in some form, died. Not in a gas chamber, they just died of malnutrition, dysentery or whatever. My father walked back to Budapest, stopping in small villages, looking for the houses of the local doctors, and asking for their help. None of them turned him away. Some were less comfortable with his visit than others, but most of them helped him along the way. When he got back he was physically in very bad shape. By that time we had moved to a Swedish protected house, which was not the same house where we had lived when he was taken away, our original house came to be designated as a ‘Swedish House’ a few days later , but this one was maybe 5 blocks away.
Q: Do you remember the interiors of these houses?
A: Vaguely. I remember on this second apartment, that it was very crowded. It was an apartment of maybe 4 rooms and there must have been about 50 people in it. I remember, one day there was some noise and I looked out the window, and there was a man taken away by Arrow Cross people. He was screaming and shouting, not clear what, but he was thrown on a horse cart and taken away. I remember things like this. I also remember that in our first Jewish house we had quite a bit of canned food that my parents had saved for emergencies. My father had alredy been taken away when we had to move, so I had to organize. My mother was completely out of it, both physically and mentally, and in no condition to do things. I had to try to organize getting some of our clothing and food and move it to the new place.
Q: How was your mother?
A: She was extremely upset because it was clear that my father’s postcards were coming from further and further west. Moving 500 middle-aged men you don’t get that far day-to-day, maybe 10 miles or so. But the mail service still worked, so we kept getting postcards. There were several attempts to get him out that were not successful. By that time we had our Swedish Schutz passes. We sent him a photocopy of one. The officer in charge just tore it up saying that tyou could buy these on the black market.
Q: Did you have the letter from the Regent for your father?
We had a letter from the Regent but it was not worth much by that time.
Q: You were a young boy but you were doing man like things?
A: Yes, I was doing what I could because there was nobody else to do it. There was not only my mother and sister but also my aunt and her daughter and my grandmother were with us at that stage, but I am not sure because I do not think they had Swedish Schutz passes. There were people from other families that had lived in the same apartment we did, and others we did not know the apartment was very full. We stayed in this new apartment about 10 days and then we found out that the previous house we had lived in, where we’d left many things including some food hidden away, was also declared a Swedish protected house, so we moved back. That was the day my father came back.
Q: Do you remember that day?
A: It’s hard to know what I remember directly and what I remembered from having read his diary. It’s 60-some years ago. My father just showed up early in the morning. And he was very tired and very bedraggled looking. He spent the next month, which was the time when Russian liberation occurred, essentially recuperating and writing his diary relying on the postcards to remind himself what was going on which day, as well as his memory.
Q: Why do you think he needed to document all that?
A: I think that the experience was such a shock to his worldview, to his beliefs about people, that he felt he just had to have some way of recording what his experiences were. Also, since he had known many of the people that were with him from earlier days and had become perhaps closer friends with some of them, he felt that he had to record what had happened to them as far as he could tell for their families.
Q: In the Schutz House, did you have a particular role or job to perform?
A: When we returned to the previous house, there was a sort of organization established there. There was someone called the commander of the house, that is a literal translation – it was more the chief administrator for the house. He was one of the people, Schutz-pass holders, who were in charge of administration and who the people from the Swedish Embassy could deal with, the Germans, if they needed, or the Hungarian authorities. Forms needed to be filled out, information had to be gathered. Some food came in from the Swedes. I don’t think I ever saw Wallenberg, at least not that I knew. I remember the first DDT that appeared I had ever seen was supplied by the Swedish Embassy. So, I became the assistant to this man. The building that we were in was a 6-story apartment house, 3 apartments on each floor. A total of maybe 300 or 400 people were in there. We had to go through the pretense of keeping records of who was there, what schutz pass they had, the number of the Schutz-pass, etc. There were supposed to be only the people with Swedish Schutz-passes, which wasn’t quite true. But all the information had to be collected and presented. Also there was some food and powdered milk supplied by the Swedes for young children. So we had to know how many children we had under the age of 12 or 10, and a great deal of other information — I was the one given the task to collect this.
Q: Why you?
A: There were some other young people. All the ones that were 16 and older had been taken away. There were some people in their 60s. I was among the older of kids that were not taken away. It was interesting. To me, at that time, it had the elements of adventure. Not that I enjoyed it or was excited, but basically, once my father got back I felt optimistic.
Q: You are hesitating. Do you feel guilty about saying that was ”an adventure”?
A: Yes. Well, once you learnt how many people were killed, taken off to Auschwitz, it doesn’t seem quite so much of an adventure. You had gone through period of extreme danger, but without quite understanding what things were about.
Q: Did the name ”Wallenberg” mean anything to you, when you were a 14-year-old boy?
A: Oh, yes! Wallenberg’s name was well known. That he was the principal person who was responsible for this protection. That I certainly knew. But what he looked like, I had no idea. There was a supply scheme, but I cannot remember how the supplies came. There was somebody who was the ‘super’ of the house from the old days, who was not Jewish, and he was still there. He was a rather simple, shambling man. He was the one who opened the gate when somebody rang the bell at night, employed by the owner of the house.
Q: Can you tell us about the repairs you and your father did?
A: That was after the Russians came in. The period just before that was sort of exciting. The Hungarian Nazis came to the house next to us and its inhabitants were actually taken off and killed. A few days later, that house took a direct hit and was completely destroyed by a bomb in an air raid. Then the Russian Army surrounded Budapest and their artillery started shelling the city. This was s0omewhere around early December.
Q: What were your feelings as the Russians were closing in?
A: Complete relief.
Q: How much do you know about the Russians?
A: Only what had been written in the Hungarian pro-German papers. But we knew how the regime was treating us, we had listened to the BBC and we did not believe the papers but were eagerly awaiting the Russians.
Q: You could hear the artillery?
A: Yes. The artillery noise was getting closer and closer, and the Russians surrounded the city. They sent an officer with a white flag to negotiate the surrender and the Germans shot him — then the Russians moved in the heavy artillery. We didn’t know that until later. I remember that my father felt that the basement level of the apartment house was too crowded and that we might as well stay in our apartment, which would be a 2nd floor in the U.S. with four floors above it and so reasonably well protected from above.
Q: Was there some hierarchy established in the house?
A: Within our apartment, yes. My father was a respected member and he was sort of the house physician for anybody that was ill in the house. Other than that, it was a very crowded apartment building.
Q: Did you discover girls in that house?
A: No, I did not discover girls in that sense; that came later.
Q: How about the social aspects in your life then?
A: There were a group of us. We played endless games of monopoly or card games. Since there was no school, we read books or played games, all the time. I remember a brother and sister, who were maybe 17 or 18. Their parents had been taken away. They were sort of admired as virtually adults. They would tell us stories and we had discussions with them, but I’ve no idea what happened to them later. One day the Russian artillery hit a German ammunition dump, about half a mile away from where we were. There was a tremendous explosion. The room where I was sleeping had a little balcony with a French door in front of it. The pressure from the explosion was so big that it pushed the whole door into the room and as I woke I say it suspended over the bed I was sleeping in. A brick hit some pillow next to my head. I remember waking up at this enormous noise and finding there was dust settling and the bricks sitting on the bed close to my pillow. I had to climb out from under this structure. We managed to get that frame into place but all the window panes were broken of course.
Q: What was your emotional state?
A: I took it very matter-of-factly. It wasn’t something particularly scary. Air raids were funny things. I remember air raids before the Germans came. Occasionally there were US air raids from Italy flying over. Some of them were bombing Budapest although not very heavily. We went to the basement shelter in 1943 and early ’44, before we moved to the designated ghetto house. I remember some of the neighbors being quite scared. But somehow, maybe because of my father, we just took it as a matter of fact thing, and were hoping that the alert would last until after 1 am, because that would mean no school the next day.
In the time we are talking about in the Swedish house I must have been scared at some level, but I don’t have a recollection of being scared. The noise was tremendous. The artillery was rumbling. The continuously rumbling of artillery is difficult to describe. It’s not an individual explosion, but sort of like a distant thunderstorm in the mountains, punctuated by loud thunderclaps nearby. The rumbling goes on and on and on, day and night. That’s a peculiar noise of that time; you have to experience it to know what I mean. OAnother special noise that remains with me is that of many airplanes flying overhead. That beating of the propellers against each other is again something very unique to itself; having 50 or 100 of airplanes flying overhead… Those are just the recollections of noises, but not particularly frightening ones.
Q: You describe it as almost interesting?
A: I remember fantasizing how I would run away and steal an airplane, and fly over to Italy, find an American airfield and land — things of this sort. Perhaps I had read too many of the children’s adventure magazines.
Q: You said playing games with other children, was that almost entirely inside? Did you go outside?
A: No. We were allowed to go outside until the Fall in 1944. But there was a curfew for Jews. I remember that I and another boy of same age, walked along the shore of Danube with yellow stars showing, during the summer. Nobody made any comments and nobody called you any names. Maybe I am imagining it, but many people seemed almost embarrassed by the fact of our having to wear the stars; some people undoubtedly took satisfaction in it.
Q: What percentage of the population do you think was anti-Semitic? From what you heard from other people and their interactions, was that a common thing?
A: Some survivors say that all Hungarians were against Jews, they ware all anti-Semitic. Some have more nuanced recollections. I tend to go with the latter, but there were no Gallup polls conducted at that time on how people felt about Jews. It’s very hard to say. I didn’t have enough direct contact to have evidence; just my impression was it was not as universal, that it was more something forced by the Germans that undoubtedly had echoes in some Hungarians but that it did not have the same general support as it had in Germany.
Q: What was it like inside of that house?
A:.We were all stuck there; some people were hysterical about what we should do about those who, for example, didn’t have a Swedish pass but only Swiss Schutz pass. Should they be forced to leave or should they stay? That was the sort of things my father would help smooth over. People were huddling in their own little rooms within the apartments. It was a question of who had how much food put away, what they would eat. You clearly don’t have enough food to feed everybody in the house, not even all those in the apartment ,you don’t have enough food to feed your own family … but if somebody is in very bad shape… who helps out whom and to what extent… All these nuances happened on a microscopic local level from room to room almost, not house wide. So there were no meetings of the house as such. I got some glimpse of it by being this messenger and my father did by being the physician in the house. There were all sorts of ugly tensions coming up at that time. Some people got hysterical. I remember, but that must be after the Russians came in, my father was called up to a lady that we didn’t think very much of. She had dyed red hair, looked like she was in her 50s; though she probably was in her 30s. Her husband was with her and he had not been taken away. They were having a fight and my father had to be called to help to make peace. When he came back he was beside himself with laughter. She was complaining about her husband who had used a candle to burn the bed bug on the wall and it set flame on her mother’s picture, not quite but almost. Bedbugs were a problem in the crowded apartments and Wallenberg’s mission managed to get DDT to us to control it.
Q: How did your family view themselves? What kind of family dynamic was there in your family? Did you generally get along? Was it a warm relationship between your father and mother?
A: Yes, they got along very well and had a warm, loving relationship, as far as I could see.
Q: Do you feel like you owe your life to Raoul Wallenberg? How did you recall him as a figure, as an individual?
A: I see him as an exceptional, brave man who did a lot at that time that very few people could accomplish. My chances of survival in Budapest with a Schutzpass, given how things developed, were maybe 80, 90%. Most Jews in Budapest survived; those who were not in Budapest did not survive. Wallenberg made a difference in that. Without Wallenberg it’s be difficult to say. The probability of survival may have been 50%, or it may have been 20%. He made a big difference. I owe that chunk of probability to him. In some considerable measure, I do owe my life to him.
Q: Have you ever visited any memorials, or read about him on your own?
A: Yes, of course. I followed for a long time bits and pieces of information about the probability of his having survived. Time is going on. After ”Perestroika” there was a hope that he might still be alive. In fact there was a gentleman at University of Chicago who had looked into this. He borrowed my Schutz-pass and photocopied it for educational purposes.
Q: Why do you think Wallenberg became a phenomenon?
A: First of all because of what he did as an individual and what he accomplished in a terrible period of history. That’s the most important. Secondly is of course the fact that he disappeared without a trace, immediately after the war. The combination, I think, made a mystery that kept people guessing. Had he survived, I think, he still would be a tremendously important person, one of the few people who really behaved humanely; Schindler has been immortalized by movies and books, but Wallenberg accomplished much more than Schindler did. The objective reason why this happens, the fact that he disappeared and this added an aura of mystery that captured people’s imagination, is difficult to quantify.
Q: Do you distinguish those who do large acts and those who do small acts?
A: I distinguish, that he did something far beyond what could have been expected from somebody in his position. He was an official in the Swedish Embassy, yet he took upon himself a much broader goal and did that successfully.
Q: How do feel about Budapest now? Do you still feel that is your home?
A: No, not really. We’ve been back, but I don’t have any relations. Marianne [John’s Wife] has some cousins that remained there.
Q:[Directed to his Wife] Why did you not want to go back to Budapest?
A: [Marianne, John’s Wife]: Well, I was so happy to get out of there. You know some Jews are not comfortable going to Germany. I had no trouble living in Germany for a year, because I did not know the people. But in Hungary I knew the people and if you scratch them a little bit about what they did in the war or in the communist era, you see the same people, or some of the same people, who were Nazis and became communist. I left in 1956. John does not have this feeling about Hungary. I think being there during the next phase… I was younger. In 1944 I was 9. The communist era I remember. Interestingly John’s cousin has the same feeling. It is not illogical.
Q: What was the transition like when the Russians came in?
A: [John] I remember that very well. I was sleeping and I heard my father talk, in what sounded like a Slavic language. Since he was born in Slovakia, he could speak Czech and Slovakian. In fact, he was talking with a Russian soldier who was there because the Russians occupied our part of city with no fighting. They set up a machine gun placement in the window for a few hours and with no Germans around, they just moved on. Fighting still went on for another month or so. That was the end of it. That was just a tremendous feeling of relief. It was the thing I (and all of us) had been fantasizing over and suddenly it happened.
Q: The feeling was sudden, but did you leave the house immediately?
A: No. The fight was still on. There were artillery bombardments, unexploded shells all over the place. There were dead bodies. It was a gradual process. After it was clear and the fighting was over, my father made his way to the hospital. The hospital where he had practiced was a Russian military hospital now, but it had been a German military hospital. He knew how all the equipment worked since he had overseen its installation and they were glad to have him. There was no electricity and I remember that he took a little lead battery, half the size of a car battery, charged it in the hospital, and brought it home every day. We gradually started going out, and my job was to collect firewood because there was no gas or heating in winter. It was January. I remember we went back to our old apartment before the ghetto. In the maid’s room there was a little iron stove. We took a child’s sled and brought the stove back to have some form of heating. But we needed fuel for it. So it was my job to collect wood from ruined houses. The houses were mostly brick except for window frames, doorframes, flooring and a few bits of structural wood. I collected anything that could be chopped up and used as fuel. Scavenging was sort of fun for a while as a challenge.. Many other people were doing the same thing, because that was the only source of fuel to be had. Our apartments had gas stoves, so we had to improvise with one-gallon (4 liter) cans, cutting off the tops and lighting a fire in them with a pot balanced on top. The smoke had to go out the window and the kitchen ceiling quickly turned black. Windows were all broken, so the window openings had to be covered as best we could to protect against the cold.
By March, my former school opened. It also had been some sort of a militaryhospital. Students were put to work cleaning up the classrooms and moving the benches back into the rooms. Whichever teachers were around started to teach us in their subjects. It was in March, early April.
Q: How were your parents emotionally at that time?
A: The Liberation had been a tremendous relief for them. They were doing all right. My mother was relieved that her husband was back but the news about her sisters was ominous. Some people started coming back from Germany. She was very upset about her sisters and their husbands having perished in Auschwitz, but she was devastated to hear that her 16-year old niece who had been taken to war work had also disappeared.
Q: Having gone through that period, what’s your last impression of what humans are capable of or not capable of? Has this changed the person you are today?
A: It certainly changed my worldview. People are capable of doing awful things to other humans. Certainly Germany carries a large burden for that. There are many examples of major cruelties to people in other countries, not on the same scale. In Hungary, the Arrow Cross Party was from the dregs of society that became suddenly empowered by the Germans in the last months before the Liberation, after Horthy was arrested. They were really murderers. But that is ordinary evil. The calculated extermination organized by Eichmann and the regime that enabled it are in a very different category, to my mind. It is scary what evil an organized society is capable of while fully believing in the moral righteousness of its cause.
Q: You’ve mentioned the Arrow Cross being a minority party. How much of a minority?
A: Out of perhaps 400 seats in parliament they had perhaps 40. It was really an extremist minority. They were put into power only because the Germans did not trust anybody else in the very last months of the war.
Q: You described them as ”murderers.” Do you think they were born in that way?
A: I fortunately had very little to do with people of that type in my life.
Q: Do you think we all are born with a full complement of values?
A: No, I think that people can develop certain levels of emotional insensitivity and then they are capable of enormous of atrocities against others. I read about it but fortunately I don’t have any direct experiences. I should mention that there is a Hungarian writer by the name of Kertész who won the Nobel Prize for Literature and I have read his books. He is roughly my age and he wrote about his experience in Auschwitz but also about the period before, in Hungary. Much of the tone of what he writes struck me as very close to what I felt. Unfortunately the English translation of his books, for instance ”Fateless”, are very-very poor. I was very disappointed when I read these. Then I got a hold of his books in Hungarian and the difference was enormous! The Hungarian version is overwhelming and feels very valid. The English translation must have been dione by somebody with very poor knowledge of Hungarian. It is stilted with literal translations of colloquial phrases, and much of the impact lost. I hope somebody can do a decent translation.
Marianne, John’s wife: My family was in a house across the street from John’s. It was also a Swedish controlled house. My parents saw the people John mentioned who were taken away, and that didn’t look good. So they said they were not waiting for that and they were not going to sit there. This was the end of December. We walked across town. Where my mother grew up there was a house where supposedly her mother and sister and children were hiding. So we walked across the city, the artillery, tanks. We did arrive and they were there, except a gentile friend of my aunt’s wasn’t there. By that time they were living in the basement. This is now a 3-family house in the different part of the city. The Russians came in much later. That was one of the few houses left standing in that part of the city. The Russians were rather suspicious about us, and the Swedish passport. They made us move out eventually. Before that, what John mentioned, my father was in a work brigade, my mother was taken away. This friend of my aunt’s put me in a cloister. There were kids hiding there, maybe 20 girls. When my mother and father got back to the Swedish house my mother collected me in mid December. My mother had lighter hair than yours, blue eyes and white skin. She wandered around without the yellow star happily. My mother got this Swedish Passport for my father when he came back from work camp to Budapest and she handed him the passport. That was how my father got his Swedish Passport. My father had a friend in the Swedish Embassy. (Did your mother know that she didn’t look Jewish?) Oh she did. (Did your father look Jewish?) Yes. Looking Jewish was a very relevant thing depending on where you were. My father had darker hair, darker eyes.
Q: Growing up did you think ”I look Jewish”?
John: You learnt it from the Nazis. There were cartoons about Jews with big noses. There were Hungarian articles in Nazi papers about Jews with curly black hair, hairy legs, and other comments. That sort of thing sticks with you. Maybe 4 or 5 times in the States, I’ve been mistaken for Egyptian or Arabic. People have come up to me and talked to me in Arabic because they thought I looked Egyptian or Arabic. That also reminds me the fact that Jews managed to remain a relatively separate genetic strain. I’m ambivalent about whether that is a good thing or not.
Q: What are the two sides?
A: I am clearly a product of that process so I’m glad of who I am and of the traditions that have allowed me to become who I am. In that sense I think it’s good. On the other hand it seems to me there are some aspects that I particularly don’t like, the interpretation that my genetic line is superior others. Would society be better if it were all homogenized genetically? Or would it be better to preserve the diversity that we have today? Yet, it is the rather obvious preservation of our distinctive Jewish line that allowed the Nazi regime to define us as the object of extermination. And genetic differences are used as justifications of killings over and over again in history. It would be better if humanity were to behave differently – but we seem to be creatures who evolved to protect our own genetic line against others. I am ambivalent and it is largely an intellectual thing.
Q: Why do you quickly separate the intellectual from emotional?
A: What is emotional and what is intellectual are mixed up. We are what we are. It’s a complex process. How you feel about it doesn’t matter.
Q: Can’t you make a mistake about your own belief of who you are?
A: Of course. For instance, throughout my professional life, I’ve made a point of helping and assisting German scientists. Partly because I felt that the feeling generated by the German Nazi thing was something that was rather despicable. The feeling started early in my career in the 1950s when Germany was still recovering in a scientific and educational way and economically. I met some good young German scientists and I invited them to come to Argonne Labs to work with me, to work with us. We spent a year in Munich on a Sabbatical. And generally I have maintained a friendly relationship with many German scientists. Unlike some people who feel that they don’t want to have anything to do with the Germans, I felt maybe a compulsion of trying to help them. Maybe it’s partially to prove to myself that these animosities are not inherent. I do not mean to imply that I did not have contact with other nationalities – I spent another sabbatical in England and have had many contact with Israeli scientists, also Japanese and French.
Q: What were the worldviews of your father that had been shaken that he mentioned in his diary.
A: He was very much a humanist in his outlook on the world. Actually I have a whole bunch of his letters that he sent to my uncle in New York. An interesting group of letters is from a period of a few weeks while he was in Switzerland in 1939, just as the war was threatening. He was explaining his worldview and why he felt that what had happened in Germany could not happen in Hungary, and why he felt that he should not take the step to emigrate to the United States. I’ve translated some of those letters for my children. It gives an interesting window on the times and on my father’s world view.
Q: When did you decide come to America?
A: After the war, about 1946. I had 2 uncles who had immigrated to the US, one before and one after the first World War. The son of one of them was 10 years older than I. He finished college before the start of WWII. He was a reporter for the New York Times and couldn’t serve in the Army. After the war he left Times for the JOINT Distribution Committee, the group that coordinated Jewish relief agencies’ work in Europe. He was stationed in Paris as their public relations person. He came to Hungary and he was one of the first Americans we saw. This was before mail services had been established, before we knew much of anything that was going on. I wanted to come, but the decision was my parents’. It was partly because of his influence, and probably the fact that my father saw the communist cloud getting darker and darker in Hungary. My uncle in New York invited me and they wrote and Affidavit of Support to enable my studies. I came on a student visa in 1947. I was enthusiastic about America. America was the ultimate in my imagination and in my fantasy. I was all for it. For my parents it was not so easy to let their16-year-old son to go.
Marianne, John’s wife: I left in ’56. This was after the Hungary Revolution. The borders were opened, meaning there were not any landmines. Essentially my generation at that stage left or tried to leave. What made it special was that my parents came with me. We had trouble in the communist era. At that stage, there was absolutely nothing left. I wasn’t accepted to university. My parents couldn’t live in Budapest. My house was a mess. We essentially walked out as proper refugees from Hungary to Austria and then stayed in Vienna for a while. Through the HIAS agency we were brought to New York. They were sponsoring us. (Did you stay with your friends in Vienna?) No, my father had business acquaintances and distant relatives there. They arranged some hotel accommodations. We were there about 2~3 weeks in Vienna. Many of my friends and schoolmates were there in Vienna. (Was that essentially an exodus for a whole generation?) Yes, especially for Jewish kids. Very few people I knew stayed in Hungary. (Do you think the drain of a whole class of mind, all these people leaving, had a real effect on post-war Hungarian society?) I really don’t know. (You just completely divorced yourself?) I know that I heard that you could get into university. (Was it easier?) It was a little bit easier. (Was it rigorous to go to Gymnasium? Did you have to perform very well in there?) Gymnasium was all right. I went to a technical high school that had a harder entrance exam. But my family was forced to leave Budapest and I had to quit school. For two years we sat in this little village. To get into university, depended on what your background was, a certain number of points were required. So I didn’t make it.
John: If you were from a Bourgeois background, the quota was almost zero.
Interviewed by: Jonathan Tabor and Blake Valenta
Transcribed by: Jin Nie