”I met [Raoul Wallenberg] in the stories of my father and I met him in the stories of other survivors who spoke about Raoul in the same way that my father did: the angelic being, the open heart; the man wasn’t Jewish, and yet he had an open heart to every living being, they mattered.” Kayla Kaufman
Q: What is your birth name?
A: Leifer. It is my father’s name. I was born in the Ukraine, on July 12, 1935, which makes me 71 years old. It is Kayla Kaufman now.
Q: What is your married name?
A: My first married name was Grosz, the second was Kaufman, the third was Etzyon. But I stayed with Kaufman because my publishers feel that Kay Kaufman, the name under which write, is a better byline. But Kayla is my name from the Hebrew Chayala.
Q: What city were you born in?
A: I was born in a little town called Chust. This is in the Ukraine.
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: I basically grew up in Budapest. I came to Budapest in 1940, and we were there until the end, until 1945.
Q: Whom did you live with? Parents or siblings, etc.?
A: I lived with my mom and dad. My father was a Rabbi in Budapest. I was the oldest child of four. I was nine in 1944. My sister was six, my other sister was two and a half, and my baby brother was two months old.
Q: Did you grow up in a Jewish community?
A: Yes, Budapest was the Jewishest community. We were Chasidic Jews. My mother wore a wig, my father wore a beard and a shtramel. They were very Chasidic.
Q: What kind of school did you attend?
A: Interestingly enough, I attended a Hebrew school that was Reform. The reason was that my mother was very modern. She was a Viennese woman and when we went to investigate the Jewish Orthodox school, she didn’t like the behavior of the kids there. They were too boisterous. She said, ”I am not sending my daughter there.” So I went to a Reform Hebrew school.
Q: How did you learn your Jewish customs and Jewish religion?
A: In the home. I learned everything that I have in the home, my mom and dad.
Q: Was your family religious before the war?
A: Yes, my family was very religious before the war. During the war and after the war, as we all are today.
Q: What activities were you involved with before the war?
A: Ate a lot of candy, went to school, played the piano, dancing lessons, stuff like that.
Q: When did you first notice signs of anti-Semitism?
A: You hear little things. The first time I noticed it was from almost nothing to a bomb in 1942 when we went to visit my father’s mother in Chust and the evacuation began. The night before my grandmother was taken we heard screaming from neighbors who were being evacuated. I remember my grandmother sitting up in her bed and crying to my father, ”Moishele,” she begged, ”What should I do?” He could do nothing. It was over for her and her family. The next morning they came. She could not hide because they knew exactly who and how many were living in each house. Also, she was a Polish citizen and they were taken first. My father, mother and us kids hid in the attic even though we had papers as Hungarian citizens. But that could become void at any moment and we did not know if in 1942 it was still valid. Later that morning we heard my grandmother screaming, begging the Nazis not to kill her children, a 14-year-old son and a nine year old daughter. Then they were gone. We don’t even know where they were buried. My father would have been very happy to know where there was a grave. Imagine, being happy with a grave. There is no grave. We don’t know when they were killed. That was the beginning of my knowledge of the Holocaust. Then you put it away, because you need to go on to the next day. I figured, we are going to go home. Things will be okay at home. Which, of course it was not. That was the beginning, 1942, I was not quite seven at the time.
Q: How did you first hear about what was happening to the Jewish people?
A: I personally did not. I began hearing about it after we were liberated by the Russians and we came to the American sector in Austria. I am sure my father knew more but he certainly didn’t tell us. When you are that young and someone says ”Six Million”, what does that mean? It doesn’t mean anything. I knew my grandmother was gone. I had no idea what six million is. I don’t think I even totally comprehend it today.
Q: What were your thoughts, feelings and reactions?
A: It was a combination of things. For a little kid, this is 1945, and I was almost 10. Here I was now in the American sector of Austria. I spoke German. There were new people I had to get to know. There were old people I had to get to re-know. The war was over. I had to forget about the hunger, the horrific fear. Then I had to get up in the morning and learn not to be frightened because during the Holocaust, in Budapest, when the bombs came, we never took off our clothes. We slept in pajamas. We had to relearn to put on PJ’s. To brush our teeth. You had so much to learn, you really couldn’t process it all. It took years and years for me to process it. And as we speak, have I really processed it? G-d only knows.
Q: What other changes did you experience?
A: I went from a serene childhood to this frightened little girl. Every morning I would get up with this pit in my stomach. And when you’re a kid, you can’t explain it. When you are a grownup, you still can’t explain it. It really never goes away. It just doesn’t go away. Until today. Not every morning. But until today, it will be there because you almost feel at home with that pit in your stomach. That is what you know, you don’t know anything else. Of course, again, until today, I will not go out without some food in my bag for fear of starvation. I cannot pass a policeman on the street without saying to myself, I have done nothing wrong, I have nothing to be afraid of. That started way back then. Until today. Good legacy. Hitler.
Q: How did the war affect your family’s religious and cultural traditions?
A: We were and are a very closely connected, strong family. It’s probably one of the reasons we survived. We were one of the few families whose immediate family came out whole. We kept the religion as if it were an oxygen source. As if it were a shelter, just to keep us going to the next day. My father never, ever blamed G-d. He taught us that it wasn’t G-d who brought us this cataclysm, humanity allowed this to happen. Today they allow Darfur, then they allowed the Holocaust. Today, even though you see the horrors on TV every morning and every night in full color, how many are doing anything? We eat our burgers, go to movies, buy cars, boats and houses. We are busy. Too busy to notice. We must never ever blamed G-d. People allow bad things to happen.
Q: How did you and your family manage to keep and continue to practice your religious traditions during the war?
A: There is a law in the Jewish religion that says the preservation of life is the only thing that matters when in danger. You can eat on Yom Kippur, you can travel on Shabbat, if your life is at stake. There were many times, when we found food and it was not kosher, but we ate it to save our lives. Many times we could not even observe the lighting of the Shabbat candles because there were no candles to be found. But we carried the religion in our hearts. We felt two things: either we will survive and continue the religion, or we won’t survive, and G-d will know that we carried the religion in our hearts. So one way or another, it was inside us. That was the strongest source that kept us going, our faith, our belief in G-d.
Q: How was your family separated?
A: Other than my father who was taken to labor camp in 1944, thank G-d, we were never separated. The Germans came into Budapest in 1944 and he was taken soon after, I believe in March or April. We five stayed together. My mother found a place in the Red Cross which was safe for the Jews for about two and a half minutes. When my father was taken, it became terribly difficult for us, as we felt we lost our protector, our father. He was the anchor of our lives. Strong, determined, tall and very handsome. It was very, very difficult.
Q: Where was your father taken to specifically?
A: I don’t know. Most Holocaust survivors, as my father, did not talk about their experiences. It was just too much to remember, to deal with. I started to talk about it because I will soon be gone and then who will tell my story? My father never told us the name of the labor camp, which was really a concentration camp because they worked you to death and when you were over, the next batch of Jews came in. Very easy. Enough Jews left. What is the big deal?
Q: Can you tell me the role the Red Cross played in helping you, your mother, and your siblings?
A: We were supposed to go to the Ghetto in Budapest. The Germans were very clever, they said ”We’ll take you to a place where all Jews will be together. It’s going to be real cool. You will all be in one place. You will not experience any anti-Semitism.” So a lot of people went. But my mother had this sixth sense, it just did not seem right to her. Even then she didn’t like the word ghetto. She started looking for someplace to go. To hide. And she found the Red Cross that was run by a friend of ours from better days. For the moment, this was a safe place. But by the time we asked for admission, it was already overcrowded. My mother offered to wash floors to get in. This from a woman who never picked up a broom. But with our friends persuasion, they took us in and that saved us from the ghetto which we later learned the death march to Auschwitz began.
Q: When did you first hear about Raoul Wallenberg?
A: You are in a hospital and you are very sick and someone injects you with something. You wake up and feel fine. Then, maybe six, seven years later you realize what saved you was penicillin. Raoul Wallenberg was our Penicillin. My dad was in labor camp. He was very sick with kidney failure and was on the way to be annihilated. He was a rabbi and most of the people in the camp knew him. Raoul Wallenberg came into the camp, my father later told me, he was very tall and very good looking and had this magic, this charisma about him.. He came in with his entourage. He came to the side with the healthier men giving them Schutzpasses, which was the ticket to life for the moment. Everything in those days was for the moment. My father was on the other side, the sick men’s side. Raoul was about to leave when some men pointed to my father and told Raoul’s interpreters to take ”…that man. He is a rabbi.” For some reason, my dad told me later, the Germans allowed Raoul to do as he pleased. Perhaps due to diplomatic immunity. So Raoul gave my father papers as well. My dad told the interpreter that he has a wife and four kids someplace in Budapest but the last time he tried to contact them they were no longer living in the old address. He did not know that we had moved to the Red Cross.
Through some wonderfully braves Jews who had infiltrated the Nazi regime, they miraculously found us after several weeks of searching. One Friday morning, they came to the Red Cross, Nazi uniforms and all, knocked at the gate, which horrified us, but we had to let them in. They then explained that they were Jews who had come to take the Leifer family to a Swiss safehouse. My mother was summoned. She was told that our father was safe and that we had to be taken in shifts to him so as not to cause attention. That at five thirty they would come to take her, my six year old sister and two month old brother. And at 7:30, they would come to get me and my two year old sister. My mother protested, wanting to be taken last. But they insisted that she come first because should something happen, my father was too sick to care for anyone. At five thirty, as planned, they came and took my mother, sister and brother. They told us to be ready at seven thirty when they would return for us. Seven thirty came. No Nazis. The clock kept ticking, eight, eight thirty, nine. Still no Nazis. I think it was at that point in my life that the permanent stamp of fear became a part of me. I just lost my mother, had no father, and here I was, with a two year old for whom I was totally responsible. What if something happened to me? But I saw that my sister was becoming frightened so I had to push down the fear and put on that calm, everything will be okay, smile. That was also when I learned how to suppress fear. It was now nine thirty. Was it over for the two of us? At ten thirty, they did come.
It seems they ran into some trouble on the way over and were held up. My mom and dad did not know what had happened, why we were so late and figured the worst. It’s interesting, I talk about keeping the faith. Remember, it was Friday night and my father knew he had to make kiddush, the Shabbat prayer over wine. My mother later told me that he stood for a very long time, waiting, praying for our safe arrival. After eleven, he was about to begin the kiddush when in we walked. When he saw us, and I have said this a million times, I have seen hundreds of movies, TV shows and such and never, ever in my life, have I seen such a torrential down pour of tears on a human being’s face. He managed to finish the kiddush, took a sip of wine, then stretched out his hands to embrace us. We ran to him and my mother, baby brother and sister, who till then seemed paralyzed, and joined in the family group hug. And we sobbed and sobbed and sobbed. This was a Raoul Wallenberg miracle.
Those 6 people he saved are now, Baruch Hashem, 159 souls. What I have been trying to find out for many years now, how many are alive today because of Raoul’s one hundred thousand souls he saved? How many? A million? Two million? Who can design an algorithm to answer that question? This man, who was not Jewish, risked his own life so that he could save Jews. Because of that, and who knows of some other reasons, he disappeared.
I was sixteen or 15, we were settled in the United States, we were living in Cleveland Ohio, my father was the Rabbi there and stories about Raoul began to surface. People now felt a bit more safe or less afraid to talk about ”those days.” At any rate, the stories started to come out about Raoul Wallenberg. Stories of a hero who courageously just walked about, at every risk to his own life, and plucked victims from the furnace. The survivors would sit in our kitchen and recall stories of how they were saved.
There are some people who walk the earth that you know are there for more than just walking the earth. They are there to do something, to be something, to discover something. In Jewish folklore, it’s supposed that there are thirty six righteous people who keep the world going. Each time one dies, one is born. There are always 36, which is twice eighteen. Eighteen stands for life by Jewish people. My father always maintained that Raoul Wallenberg was one of the 36. After having saved him, my father never saw Raoul again. I never saw him at all. Most of the young kids did not. Through the years we learned about it in school. I went to yeshiva and you learn about it there, but I put it away. I could not deal with it yet. I had to learn English, make new friends, get married, have kids of my own, the kids had to go to school, I had to get a job. There was just so much. Too much. I was running on such a speeding treadmill up the hill that there was just no time to look back. I knew that if I did look back, I would stumble and have a fall from which I could never recover.
It is time. Now I could do it. Now I have to do it. I must do it. I must talk about Raoul Wallenberg and his messianic work. The human being is the most phenomenal being. He can walk on the moon. He also does the most horrific things, like slicing off people’s heads. So you got the two extremes. So now I had to talk about the tragedy and the triumph. Hopefully I can help. I don’t now.
Q: When did you first meet Raoul Wallenberg?
A: As I said, I never met Raoul Wallenberg. I only saw his picture. As a result, I see him in my heart all the time and through the stories of my father and from stories of other survivors who still speak about him in the same way as my father had: Angelic. Hero. Courageous. The man was not Jewish and yet he saved one hundred thousand Jews. He was one of the few who mattered. I so regret never having met this unbelievable human being.
Q: How old were you when you and your family were saved by Raoul Wallenberg?
A: I was not quite nine years old because we were saved in June 1944 and I would turn nine that July.
Q: Do you know how old Raoul Wallenberg was at the time?
A: He was 33 years old. A very young man to have done all that. A man from an extremely comfortable home that went out on such a limb to do this until his unfortunate demise.
Q: Do you know what he looks like, or what people told you he looks like?
A: From the pictures I see, he is an extraordinarily handsome man, tall with very deep, wise eyes. My father described him that way as well. He had this vision. As if he knew what he had to do. And did it! At any cost. In this case, his life. Raoul was an unbelievable man. There was just nobody like him then or ever since. So the looks matched the deeds of this man.
Q: Do you know if he had a sense of humor or have you heard stories about his sense of humor?
A: I don’t know about that. But I am assuming that a man who had gone through so much had to be able to laugh about it all once in a while or he would have lost it. I can recall my own father, during the worst of times he would find things to laugh about. I think that when thing really became unbearable we often laugh the most just to be able to move on.
Q: Can you tell me what the schutzpasses were?
A: These were papers. A schutzpass is an actual passport or a piece of paper that says you are a citizen of that country. I have never seen them. I know it was a the most important document those Jewish people owned. Even today’s survivors feel that our papers are our tickets to life. I know that when the time nears that my passport is about to expire, oh my G-d, talk about a pit in my stomach. How would I travel? How would I run to safety? All survivors guard their papers with their lives. Nothing else matters. I am sure that my father had kept those Schutzpasses someplace. But I never saw them.
Q: Do you know how they were created, designed, manufactured or distributed?
A: I read that it was Raoul Wallenberg who created these documents that looked very official. Almost domineering. I believe the emblem was printed in blue ink. I can’t recall reading about the other colors. I don’t know how or where it was produced. He might have had it printed in some underground place. It did make an impression because it fortunately fooled the Nazis.
Q: Do you know if the process changed with time, did they catch on to it?
A: Apparently the Nazis did not catch on because he was able to save so many victims before they were to be deported. I assume he had to work very quickly. He must have known that time was running out because on the other end, Eichmann was trying to murder as many Jews as he could before the war was over. So here we had two people. Two extremes. Eichmann the killer, Raoul the savor. Never let it be said that the world is not balanced. We can choose which side of the scale we want to be on. Hopefully, most of us will choose to be on the side of life.
Q: What were the safehouses?
A: The safehouses I believe were like Swiss property where the people possessing proper paper were safe. They were a row of tall apartment houses in a rather nice neighborhood of Budapest. Interestingly enough, my best friend, Tamar Gil-Ad, who lives in Jerusalem, was in one of these houses. We never knew of each other till we met in Israel.
At first we were able to live in the apartments but when the bombing became too intense, we ended up in the basement shelters where there were no bathrooms and we had to go upstairs to use the facilities. As the war intensified, the food and water we did have became more scarce.
As the Nazis shipped more and more rations to the front, starvation became rampant and people began dying. Every morning we woke up and more bodies had to be dealt with. I was 9 years old. I was one of the strong ones, so I was on body duty, helping to drag the dead upstairs to the courtyard and pile them up like logs of wood. When I went to the bathroom, I would see those bodies and would have to say to myself, ”No, no, no, don’t let that get into your head now. You have to go to the bathroom and then go downstairs again where you will be safe.” Today, if I see a dead mouse, I totally freak. The mind has this way of learning how not to deal with things it cannot handle at the moment. It’s our instinctual way to survive. Later on, I did have to deal with it. With the dead, the sick, the terror, the bombs. It often is in my head, till this very moment, unfortunately.
Q: Can you describe what day to day life was like at the safehouse?
A: As I said, eventually we stayed in the basement permanently. Everybody was given a corner. We slept on blankets on the floor. All day, there was nothing to do. There were only emergency lights so reading was difficult, if not impossible. Because there were so many people the space was tight. Many people were crying, some from hunger, some from fear. The babies didn’t cry anymore. Some people, due to the overcrowding, did not get along, while others truly went out of their way to help each other. Many, not only the religious ones, kept praying for the Mashiach. I remember going upstairs to the bathroom one day and sort of peeked around the corner, sure that I would see the Mashiach. Of course he never came. Instead, six million of his souls perished. And he still did not come.
Q: How did Raoul Wallenberg obtain the food, clothing, and other necessities for those he helped?
A: I am sure he did the best he could as the food was being taken to the front. At times we had someone come in with some soup and old bread, but this was not often. That was why the starvation. And there was also sickness. Once in a while we would get a treat of good bread and some fruit. But it was so very, very seldom. We all knew that Raoul did the best he could. As for clothing most of us had brought a change of clothes with us which we washed whenever possible due to the bombing and the shortage of water.
Q: Do you recall or did you learn how Raoul Wallenberg was able to open run a hospital at the time.
A: I cannot. But I have a feeling that Raoul Wallenberg had a sense of how to do things right. How to knock on the right doors, for the right request, at the right time. To do what he did, he had to be a very talented person in many areas. He had to have that instinct to know how to deal with people and get the best from them.
Q: He also opened and maintained an orphanage. Do you know how he managed to create it and what happened to the children there?
A: Actually this is the first time I hear of this. But from what I heard and later read about him, Raoul Wallenberg was a multi talented, determined, strong individual. In that vain, I am sure he saved many orphans who would have perished otherwise.
Q: Do you know how he obtained trucks and drivers to rescue the people?
A: Again, as these rescues were taking place, none of us knew about anything. Later, reading about it, mostly in the States, we knew. But I don’t know, or remember reading about how he did these things. We only know the results that his power to influence, his charisma, his magic saved one hundred thousands Jews.
Q: Can you tell us anything you remember about the documents: the insurance policies and drivers licenses that Raoul Wallenberg gave to the people he rescued? For example, did these documents actually have people’s real names on them or were they just blank?
A: That is a very interesting question because until today I don’t know if my father and family were rescued under our name or some other. Again, I am so terribly sorry that I never pressed my dad to tell me more about his experiences, especially with Raoul Wallenberg. There was just so much going on in my life. New things to learn. Old things to forget. I guess most of us kids who survived were terrified to ask. We were afraid. Would we find a box full of treasures or skeletons? Today we know better. No matter what, you should always seek the truth.
Q: Do you know how the Jewish people were able to use these documents once the Jewish people were rescued from the cattle cars and taken back to Budapest?
A: The fact that the documents were good enough to release some Jews from the cattle cars is all that I know. All those rescued ended up in the safehouses and waited for the war to be over. As you know, Budapest was liberated by the Russians who also took the food that was still left to the front for their soldiers. So the starvation continued. Also, the Russians were a wild bunch. They would forever be drinking and shooting their guns all over the place. They also took a lot of the people to clean up the rubble. People who could not even stand up from hunger. So the dying continued.
One day, one of those bullets found its way to a neighbor. The bullet passed the mother, over the heads of the kids and miraculously did not hit anyone. After that my dad said, ”We are out of here! The Russians are the Red Nazis.” From there we went to a small village in Hungry where the Russians had not yet taken the food. So for a moment we were safe. At this point though, I had stopped walking from weakness and just laid on a cot and slept. My mom kept pushing bread and honey into me, with some milk. Until this day, I hate honey.
From the village we went to the Russian side of Austria. The borders were not that controlled yet.
From the Russian side my father knew he would have to go to the American sector in order to be able to get to America. Getting from the Russian sector to the American sector was a bit tricky. There was this no man’s strip in between Russian and the American sectors divided down the middle. We started walking toward the American sector. We knew that by and large the Russians would not stop us, but there were those flying bullets that could start at any time. My father kept cautioning us not to look back. Already conditioned to terror, we kept walking, walking, walking. We could hear screaming, singing, yelling from the Russian side, with fear our constant partner. The moment we reached the American half of the strip, a jeep sped toward us, picked us up and threw us into the car. A few moments later we were on the American side. For the first time in a very long time, I suddenly felt truly free.
A few weeks later, we went to Germany because that was where the DP Camps were. We ended up in Heidenhein. 7 months later we would leave for the US from Bremerhaven. While in German, my father and I visited many DP Camp to try and find family, friends or anyone we knew who had survived. We found a few. Far too few. We arrived in America on April 1, 1947. My life, at long last was about to begin. This, I knew, was due to one man and one man only: Raoul Wallenberg.
Q: On the outskirts of Budapest there was a death camp, it was located in a mason factory where thousands of people were cramped in there. Do you know how Raoul Wallenberg heard about it and was able to help the people there?
A: Unfortunately I heard nothing about that death camp. But again, if anyone could know about these places and try to save souls, Raoul Wallenberg could.
Q: Do you recall any stories about how Wallenberg obtained the assistance of nurses and doctors who helped out?
A: Probably the same way as he did everything to continue his mission, his calling. My father told me later that when people heard that Raoul Wallenberg was in a building or a particular place, those who could, and felt safe, would come running just to catch a glimpse of him. As if he had a message, ”I care and I want you to care as well.” I know that this man was chosen by G-d. He was G-d’s messenger. I believe this very strongly.
Q: Do you know how he was able to learn of the cattle-cars that were filled with Jewish people?
A: I don’t know personally. But I surmise that since he knew people in very high placed, this information came to him from various sources, especially toward the end when Eichmann sped up his extermination process to murder as many Jews as he could in the time left before the war would end. There were not enough cattle cars, or tracks to carry them because of the constant bombing, so he started the death marches. Later, when Eichmann was tried in Israel, it is said that he did not care what happens to him only that he was instrumental in killing six million Jews. That was more then enough for him. And nothing they could do to him could reverse that act. Six million. How many Jews would that be today? On the other hand, how many Jews are today from Raoul Wallenberg’s one hundred thousand?
Q: Do you recall any stories about what happened at the Danube River?
A: That was spoken about almost immediately after liberation. Again, the Germans wanted to get rid of as many Jews as possible. They would line up Jews several rows deep and take long, heavy logs with Germans holding each end of a log and they would press the log against the backs of the Jews standing and just push them into the Danube. The method proved speedy and went on till liberation. I don’t know how many were murdered in that manner. Many, I am sure.
Q: Were all of the people rescued by Raoul Wallenberg, and those who worked with Raoul, Jewish or were there others among them?
A: From what I understand most were not Jewish. Even in disguise, Jews could not move about town easily. Raoul knew a lot of people both in the diplomatic corps. as well as out. He had a lot of volunteers from many sources and I would think countries. Those who saved me and my family happened to be Jews. But I am not sure how many were successful in infiltrating the Nazis that way. I am sure he had many people who, what we call today, were righteous gentiles.
Q: If Raoul Wallenberg were sitting among us today, what would you say to him?
A: What do you say to someone who gave you back you life? There are no words. No music. No prayers or poems that one can recite for such a person. Still, I would say, thank you Raoul for my parents, my siblings, for my two daughters, my seven grandchildren, one a doctor, an other a designer, a business man, a future lawyer, a rabbinical student and two young ones with unlimited opportunities because of you. I am also blessed with a great grandson and another on the way. I would say thank you for my sibling’s kids, grandkids, great grandkids and for all the future souls that will come into this world because of you. On the other hand, I cannot begin to thank you, I will leave that to G-d.
Q: What do you think he would say to the world today?
A: The world is hemorrhaging. Do something! This cannot continue. Everyone’s blood is on everyone’s hands. And he, himself, would be putting his life on the line all the way, just as he had done before. This is what he knows. To matter. To stir. To save.
Q: After the war what happened to you?
A: As I said, we were liberated by the Russians. It was a door to door fight between the Russians and Germans. One day I went up to the bathroom and I saw a Russian soldiers and a Germans soldiers coming at each other from opposite directions. Instinctively I ducked. The German was killed. The Russian came over to calm me. Some were very nice, at least he was not drunk as I don’t think they were while they were still fighting. At first we felt great. After all, we were liberated. We were free. We could look at the sun and breathe free, fresh air. But as it turned out, after they were victorious, they started their drinking and we began out odyssey to leave Europe for America.
Q: Your parents and family, after the war, where did they go, what did they do?
A: As I said, we left Budapest for the farm, then to Austria. My father tried to find his brothers and sister and their children. The entire family, other then one sister perished. Four brothers and three sisters, and countless nieces and nephews were exterminated. They lived all over Europe. All gone. They did not have a Raoul Wallenberg.
My mother’s family, four sisters and three brothers survived because Hitler threw them out of Vienna when he annexed Austria to Germany. So they went to England and the US. When we arrived in the US, they took us in, still in shock that we had survived. We stayed with them for a few weeks then found our own apartment in Williamsburg. I started school, a yeshiva, learned English very quickly. I am good at languages. I made new friends. I only wanted to make American friends. I wanted to become Americanized as soon as possible. I still could not get over the fact that I could go to the store without fear. Talk to people without fear. Walk the streets without fear. Say my Hebrew name without fear. Well, almost without fear. As I said, some of the fear will remain forever. I am never quite sure what I am afraid of. That pit. But I was free.
Q: How did the war, and what happened to you and your family, affect your relationship with religion after the war?
A: It didn’t. I stayed the same affiliated religious person. I completely believe in G-d. I keep the holidays, pray, eat kosher, though I am a vegetarian. If anything, because G-d sent us Raoul Wallenberg, to save us, is a positive answer that there is a G-d. I am grateful to both G-d and Raoul for keeping me and my family on this earth.
Q: Do you have any photos or documents that you would like to include in this footage today?
A: Sadly, I do not. Unfortunately, most of the pictures were left behind when we ran for our lives. My mother took some family photos that would be irrelevant to this interview. We did recover some jewelry when we went back to our apartment after the war. Jewelry my father had hidden in the attic before we left. But all of that was traded in for food. Like a gold bracelet was exchanged for a loaf of bread. Yes, that was how scarce food was. And life certainly meant more that gold. The pictures were destroyed when the Nazis ransacked our apartment looking for valuable.
Q: After the war, what happened to Raoul Wallenberg?
A: If anyone has that answer I wish they would share it with the world. It’s almost like one of those fantasy movies. A man comes to earth to accomplish something. After he has done his job, you see him walking away, turning back once or twice, then waves Shalom and disappears in the fog. I know, the Russians took him. I know that some people claim to have seen him in prisons in the Gulag. I don’t want to see that image of him It is not fair. Of course the word fair is only in the dictionary. I prefer to see him in that mist, with a smile on his safe, satisfied that he had done what he was sent here to do, then moved on.
Q: Why is it important to keep Raoul Wallenberg’s legacy and story alive today?
A: Are you kidding me!? There are certain people’s memory who must be kept alive because of what they did and to show others how to get it right. This man save 100,000 Jews. Maybe more. Definitely not less. We keep our heroes alive because the world needs heroes. We need to reward them. And keep them in our memory, talking about them, writing about them, making films, TV shows and plays about them. That is a must.
The Talmud says that when you save one life it is as if you saved an entire world. Well, Raoul Wallenberg saved one hundred thousand lives. One hundred thousand worlds. If that is not a good enough reason to keep his memory alive then what is?
Q: I’ve learned that you have shared your story at schools etc., why do you do that?
A: For Seventy one years I kept quite. I was afraid to go down that road. What if I go there and crack and can’t come back? But suddenly, Holocaust deniers are cropping up like poison mushrooms in dark cellars. Then I knew I had to begin to tell my story. There are so few left who can confront these evil deniers and say, it is true. I was there. I suffered. I saw death. I saw the immeasurable hate. I felt the fear, the hunger, the panic. My kids will only be able to say ”My mother was there. She told us so.” How many would believe that? And who would tell them about Raoul Wallenberg? Who? It is my job now. And the job of those who are still left to bare witness before our voices are silenced forever.
Q: Is there anything else that you would like to share with us today?
A: I hope that we can come to a point in this world where we hold life dear. Every single life. We don’t have to love each other. No one can love everyone. But to hold life dear. And to remember men like Raoul Wallenberg who held life dear, even at the risk and eventual loss of his own life, then we will become a world of people worthy of life. We must say, enough! Enough!
Again, I want to thank Raoul Wallenberg for saving me and my family and thank him in the name of the 100,000 whom he saved. I also want to thank the Raoul Wallenberg foundation for honoring me and letting me tell my story.
Interview: Mari Rodriguez
Camera: Michael Ragsdale
Transcript: Evan Rosenbaum
Editing: Adriana Lee