Q: What is your birth name? What city and country were you born in? What is your birth date?
A: My name is Judith Laski. I was born in Budapest on July 31, 1937.
Q: What is your married name?
A: Judith Friedlander
Q: Tell us about your family.
A: I was the daughter of Laski Rabbi, a well and active man who reached out to the community and, to everybody, Jews and Gentiles. He had many friends. When the holocaust started they tried to help him.
Q: Nazi soldiers began to enter Hungary in 1944. How did you experience the Nazi takeover of Hungary? What were your thoughts, feelings, and reactions?
A: The Germans took over Budapest and turned apartment buildings into yellow star buildings.
It was a month later when we moved into that hiding apartment. It was not a yellow star building. Everyone who needed a hiding place was there.
My father organized a small printing shop. Who ever needed a document was given one with a name taken from gentile people. No Jew was allowed to walk outside without proper identification papers. It was up to a person to decide how to conduct themselves if they were stopped. If they showed some nervousness and irritability the Germans knew something was not right. If you carry it off well, you passed. They would be asked questions in German. The Jews would not speak or answer as if pretending they don’t understand so they would pass through. I know my father had passed many times.
As a little girl, he would take me with him. I was very involved. I would stand by the corner and watch him on the other corner. He told me: ”In case I get caught you go and tell the others so they can be dispersed”. Thank God he was able to carry on.
He spoke beautiful Hungarian and once he cut his beard because he was a rabbi, he did not look Jewish at all. His accent was perfect.
I was thinking that bad times are coming. Terrible fright. I knew in my heart that something bad is going to happen. You grow up very quickly. I ran to my mother and said to her: ”Come to the window and see. The Germans are marching”.
The Hungarians welcomed the Germans with open arms; they can say whatever they want, what ever they like. They were with the Germans.
We lived outside the city with gentile papers so my father was able to go to different parts of the city to look for different bakeries to get bread and other food. At night he would deliver the bread dressed up as chimney sweeper. He had all kinds of disguise. No one could cook because everyone was afraid of the smell. During the day, the shades were drawn and we did not move too much, only at night when we went to the bathroom. We had a schedule of what to do so we took turns.
I was seven years old at the time. The following Monday the schools were closed down. We were not allowed to go there anymore.
I was 2nd grader, we start at age of 5. The Germans took over the building. We knew subsequently things are not going to be right.
My father immediately started making preparations. How to go about hiding. He knows he did not want to go to the yellow star buildings because he knew the faith of the Jews will be doomed… He knew the Germans were not allowing the Jews to go free and he was only thinking of hiding houses.
The Jews were afraid to walk on the street; those who were caught never came back. The Arrowcross decreed yellow stars buildings – designated houses. Who ever had a big apartment were pushed to one room. We had to wear the yellow stars. We were allowed to go shopping between 11:00am-2:00pm
Q: Can you talk to us about daily life before the war? Was your family religious before the war? Did you grow up in a Jewish community? Tell us about the Jewish community.
A: I had a very rich Jewish life. We spoke German, Hungarian and Yiddish. My German was perfect because I had a German governess. It was the spoken language.
I had a younger brother. We lived a very comfortable life in a beautiful apartment which faced 3 ways.
My father was a well known Rabbi who had a large group of followers. My grandfather was a well known Rabbi who lived on Olaskweska. The family dynasty came from there.
I grew up near our synagogue. My father had a lot of followers and we were very observant.
One Sunday, I was standing there at the window in the corner and as if I see it now. I see the Germans marching in. As a young child, people were talking about the danger. We knew it was a matter of time that doom was coming.
That Sunday, my father ordered groceries into the apartment. He spoke to Dr. Baragi and said: ”I want you to warn whoever you can to start hoarding food”. Not everybody wanted to believe it. They said: ”The Germans will not hurt us”. Hungarian Jews were very Hungarians; greatly admired by the government. They felt they were citizens and that they will be well treated by the government. They were wrong. My father told them of the demise of the Polish Jews and what happened to them: ”Polish Jews were persecuted. Don’t expect it to be different here”. As usual, some believed and some wanted to let it go.
Q: When did you first notice signs of anti-Semitism?
A: I remember that the Jews were afraid to travel on the train. Their beards would be cut off and they would be caught and sent to Russia or who knows were. The Hungarians had a Jewish battalion.
You knew in the air that anti-Semitism was there. I was in a Jewish school but we were afraid to go out at night. During Christmas it was terror. The priest would preach that the Jews killed Jesus. So if they found a Jew walk in the street they would beat him up or who knows what. It was very precarious time.
My father knew what was going on. On Saturday January 1944 two detectives appeared, looking for my father. They wanted to know if we were hiding polish Jews. One of them had a Jewish girlfriend. He started talking to my father who was very charismatic. This detective was very taken by my father said to him: ”You have to cut it out. You are in line to be taken in to the German headquarters”. My father knew what was happening and dispersed the people among other Jews. We stopped the synagogue activities. We closed it down except for twice a day. So he knew and tried to warn the Hungarian Jews. Some listen and some did not. That is an unfortunate thing.
Polish Jews escaped from Poland and came to Hungary to hide out. My father tried to help by giving those papers and sent them to different farms to hide with gentiles. The problem was they did not speak Hungarian so it was a lot harder for them.
I was one of the younger surviving at the time. Most of them were taken to concentration camp. My father was 38. My mother 35.
You age very quickly when life treats you such way. The whole family was alive. If the rest of the family could hide we knew we could be saved. We had cousins who came from different parts of Hungary to hide with us. Tried to sneak into our apartment. The printing shop was set in one part of the apartment.
January 1945 the apartment where we were hiding was bombed. We were forced to get out.
While my parents and my brother were living in the apartment outside the city, we were caught on the street probably because it was my brother who was teased and upset and got into fight with some of the gentiles he was playing with. We were taken to prison. We were very young children.
After 4 days my brother and I were released, and placed in a ghetto. My parents were destined to be transported to a camp near Germany. My father escaped and brought my mother back. He put on German uniform, found her and brought her back.
Once the government changed, the ”Arrow Cross” took over and took the Jews to the Danube and shot them. We moved into hiding into the apt the General found for us with 40 other people. That is where we had our printing store. We stayed there for 4-5 weeks.
In January 1945 we were bombed out.
Q: When did you first hear of Raoul Wallenberg? When did you first meet Raoul Wallenberg? How old were you when you met Raoul Wallenberg?
A: Dr Baragi, a very close friend of my father, was friendly with Wallenberg; he had dealing with him. One day he invited my father to a meeting in the heart of the city in this beautiful apartment, because of Dr. Baragi international dealings, he had connections and set a meeting with all the Jewish leaders of the city. They discussed which way to save the Jews.
I never heard of Wallenberg before. My father grouped us up. We met Wallenberg and Dr Baragi and my father said we need 40 Schutz-pass. Wallenberg asked: ”How can I find 40?” My father said: ”You give me one and I will make 40”.
He had the kindest blue eyes, was not a tall man. He patted me, I looked at him. I did not speak with him, I was only 5 years old so I did not speak to him. We did not spend more than 10 minutes.
So we forged 40 papers. All of us got the documents and were able to walk. We had no place to go so we were on our way to the Swedish embassy and were divided into groups. 30 of us walked. My father was not with us. I was with my mother, my brother, my grandmother, two uncles and a cousin. We were caught. The Arrow Cross caught us. It did not matter to them if we had the papers. We were told to go to the Swedish house. My mother was beaten, I was kicked. My grandmother was beaten. We were brought into the police station. The Swedish house was near the Danube. We had to walk, we had no choice. It was in the middle of the day.
Some of the Jewish boys were dressed as Arrow Cross. One of the boys said to my mother: ”I will try to get into conversation with the Arrow Cross, so when I say ”Telech” (a Hebrew word for go) like a hint, you start walking”. He distracted them by talking and offering him a golden cigarette case. We walked away and met my father who was already waiting for us at the gate. When he saw us all bloodied up we told him what happened. So that is how we were saved. Dr. Baragi was also there.
It happened within an hour.
We hide in the Swiss protected house – Glass house. People were hiding in the basement because we were bombed. It was January 17 not even 10 days before liberation.
A week later we stayed in the house in the basement. No food, all the people together. It was the only place Germans couldn’t touch because it was a foreign institution. I caught pneumonia. I was taken to the sick room for a day. My fever started going down. I was terrified when the bombs came and in the middle of the night my father came and carried me out. Within a minute as we left the room the bomb hit it and everyone who were there died. I was saved. It was a miraculous time, terrible times. Some are meant to live and some are meant to die. No medications, no food. Doctor came once to check us. My father ate my portions because I could not eat and he said to me -I could never believe I could eat my daughter’s portion.
Q: If Raoul Wallenberg were sitting with us here today what would you say to him? A: When you talk about miracles, what Wallenberg did, he will never get out of heaven because he saved so many souls and the Germans could never touch him. I think when the Russians caught him he knew too much, he knew too many Russian secrets. They killed him right away. When I heard he went to prison I did not believe that, he was a man with a mission and he would not think of taking his own life. He did it all on his own, He wanted to help and he asked Dr. Baragi to contact the Jewish agencies so he could help.
We stayed in the basement and heard the katyusha; street fighting so we knew the Russians arrived. The Germans were fighting with them. The Russians told the Germans they wanted to save the palace in Budapest which is beautiful and facing the Danube but the Germans couldn’t care less. My father looked outside the window and we knew the Russians have arrived. He took me on my shoulders and went outside and met the Russian soldiers. The Russians were good with children. They handed me a piece of candy I did not know what to do with it. We stayed for a few days and returned to our own apartment. We took one room; most of the city was destroyed. We hobbled around the stove. We went around and tried to find some food. We were able to find tofu cakes. Since than I can not touch tofu. Bad memories. People ate dogs, horses, hunger was terrible, lice and filth. It was horrible. The Russians took everything they could. We stayed about a week. My father got sick so he could not be moved.
Q: What were safe houses? Did you live in a safe house? What was the experience like?
A: In the safe house we were bunched together. People tried to make the best out of it. Tried to keep our tradition. Other wise you go out of your mind. Some really lost their mind. We played jokes; there was a father and daughter who were constantly fighting. The boys made a box, put the daughter in the box and said to the father she died. He was very upset and started crying, so suddenly she popped out of the box. He screamed.
So we tried to make it as livable as possible. There was fighting. Tiny place, played card. We did what we could.
How did the war affect your family’s religious and cultural traditions? How did you manage to continue practicing your religious traditions during the war?
We could not celebrate Sabbath. No food. Life was minute as it came. I don’t remember thinking about Sabbath. We were thought the Christian prayers; we never cooked because we were afraid the neighbors would smell the cooking.
Q: What was the most difficult change for you and your family during the war? Did the war affect your family’s relationships? What changes did you experience?
A: I was very young and lucky to be left with my family intact. I was not torn. I was not alone. My outlook is different. I was never separated from the family, I got a very hopeful upbringing and outlook. Tomorrow brings a better day. It’s carried over in my life style, still intact. Thank God I am grateful for that. Those people who did not have that strength of faith did not take it. People were so confined practically seating on top of each other. And no food. You could hear the bombs, the fear. By the sounds of the airplanes we could tell if there were English or Americans. I am still afraid when I hear lightening and thundering. Thank God I was young. There was hunger and a terrible fright.
The children would never feel I stayed closed. Even if I relieve and talk about it and renew it, I feel what I want the world to know. It is very important,
In the safe house we did know some of the people. We were full of lice. My mother cut my braids. It was filthy, infected; we only think of the next day, the feel of survival is very strong. The harder the condition, the harder the survival. I remember passing by the Danube hearing the screams of the people who were thrown and shot, some were swimming out. It was not the Germans, it was the Hungarians. They did not have to. Some of the Polish and Hungarians were worse than the Germans. I would not hug anybody. My feelings are strong. When my grandmother came back to Transylvania the neighbor said: ”So you came back”. And she said: ”Yes and I am going to take the furniture from you!”
We knew about the orphanage in Budapest. We tried to stay off community places where Jews were congregating because my father always knew we would be caught with all the Jews if we were there. He knew the Germans or Hungarians when they were ready they would take us, and grab you. We stayed isolated. The first apartment we took was outside the city.
The first time I went back and visited the house I was shaking and remembering how frightened we were to walk the street to go to the grocery store.
Utza Yotza Hungarian. There was the apartment we rented. Two beds, two cuts. The kitchen to the right, bathroom to the left. And my brother was always told not to let anybody bath you. Children had to be told not to tell and say the least that you can.
My father rented it from someone we didn’t know. We never met anybody. He knew the location was away from our previous apartment and the neighbors did not know us. He told them we were from out of town, and we came because we were bombed. We know the neighbors would be very suspicious, so we tried to stay away to ourselves. We knew not to say too much. It was a big house with a tremendous courtyard.
We supplied the people in the hiding houses with food. My father went to different parts of town to buy food.
Very famous sanatorium in Budapest where people tried to hide and were caught. We had a super who would keep our stuff and light on Shabbat for us. When the Germans came they were the first to report. Could not trust anybody.
In Transylvania the super did the same thing.
Q: After the war, what happened to you?
A: My grandmother took me, my brother and two uncles to Transylvania. They already had food there. When my parents got there and we stayed there. It was my mother family.
My father’s family was taken with my grandfather who did not want to leave his village. He had a chance to come to Budapest. He died in the holocaust.
We lost one aunt, she had two children and the super gave them out. An uncle was caught at the last minute in Budapest.
In Transylvania it was more normal life style. We stayed for 6 months. My father returned to Budapest to build a community. People returned from concentration camps and needed a rabbi.
We were there in late 47. Came out with a Hungarian passport to immigrate. My father signed off to the Russians everything we owned for a passport. It was not forged. All we got was a passport. I was very sad when we left. I was by then 11 years old. I went out with a cousin to the other side of the Danube where I could see the whole city. I wrote a poem as I was saying goodbye to the city. This was my home. I remember that. It was painful, we were crying, but my father never did want to go back to Hungary. My father went only once to visit the cemetery. He did not feel like a Hungarian anymore.
Interestingly, we went back several times but I felt nothing. It is all gone.
We ended up in Prague in 1947 for 4 months. We got a visa and arrived on American freighter. Took us 3 weeks. My father was here in America in 1939 for a year so he had papers. We ended up in Galveston, TX. On Shabbat. He was not going to get off and the captain let us stay, took the train to New York.
All of our family stayed intact and came together to the United States. Uncles, grandmother, my parents and brother.
We settled in Washington Heights. My mother picked me up right away and sent me to school and within a year I spoke English. We later moved to the Bronx. My father opened a synagogue. I moved here, studied at Hunter, later got a Fulbright scholarship and went to France to the Sorbonne.
I speak Hungarian, French, German, Italian and English.
Hungarian is not the easiest for me to speak. English is easier. I miss Hungarian here and there. Here in the States we spoke Hungarian at home with my mother and father.
Why close the world on your children because certain things happen? The bigger the world, the bigger you will learn.
Q: Did you keep in touch with friends during or after the war? What happened to them?
A: We stayed away from community places where we would meet some people. We never did meet anyone. We had no friends except our family. We tried to stay away from friends, we could not trust anybody.
After the war my father kept in touch with all the friends who helped him and took care of him.
Dr Baragi died in Budapest. My father sent him packages from here. He was not a young man, did not have children, he lived out his life and was supported by my father.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to share with us today?
A: I want to tell the story because it should be carried on and be taught. Young people don’t believe the holocaust happened. Europe now is anti-Semitic.
I was in Budapest in 2000. They did not know I was Hungarian and I have heard enough. I answered them back. I went to the museum and a group of French tourists did not have anyone to translate and I did. I was open. I went with the children. To the anniversary of my great grandparents. I went to their grave. Than we went back to Budapest and I wanted them to see what it was like. They enjoyed it but to me it was a foreign country. The house my father owned in the center of town. I went up to the apartment and I showed the kids where we were hiding.
We always talk about it. I always felt it is very wrong for parents to hide it and that it cripples the children when they don’t talk about it.
Interviewed and transcribed by: Michal Lavine
Editing by: Julie Rogani