Q: What is your grandmother’s birth name?
A: Berta. B-E-R-T-H-A. I think it’s a T-H… Hoffman. H-O-double F-M-A-N.
Q: What city and country was she born in?
A: She was born in Hungary. And then she married, she moved with her husband to Prague, Czechoslovakia. And that’s where my mother was born and also her younger sister.
My mother got married when she was quite young and didn’t get along with her husband… so when I was two years old she divorced him and she moved to Vienna to be with the man she wanted to be… Mr. Landsberger. And naturally she took me along, and I grew up in Vienna.
My grandfather, Hugo Hoffman, died when I was five years old. We went back to Prague, not by plane obviously, and I was at the funeral and since she [my grandmother] really couldn’t take care of herself financially she also moved to Vienna. For a while she had a beauty parlor in Vienna, which did not do very well, and my stepfather moved up in the world and we moved to a better district and we rented a room near us so that when we wanted to be alone, when he wanted to be with his family, she was in her room but she came for some of the meals.
In Europe at that time the main meal was around lunchtime and since I came home after school, which was after lunchtime, she [my grandmother] and I usually ate together while my father went back to work and my mother went to beauty parlor or library or whatever.
And then Hitler came. As a matter of fact the army of Hitler marched under our window. We had, they call them French windows I believe, it wasn’t a balcony, but it opened up like a fence that you could stand there. Our dog, who had to go urgently, we wouldn’t take him on the street, peed on the German army but they didn’t notice it. Luckily for us.
My biological father called and said, ”Look send him to me,” but my mother and he didn’t get along, and she said ”No,” but one day I got a letter from the police saying since I am still a Czech citizen, I was never adopted, I had to leave the country within 4 weeks. So my mother did call my father and I met him for the first time in 16 years… 15 years.
He had promised to send me as quickly as possible to England or someplace else. He was the sole representative of Parker Pen. And he sent me to, it was delayed because at that time there was a Munich crisis and then Chamberlain came back with this paper and saying there’ll be peace don’t worry about it and everybody believed him and right after that I traveled through Germany to Prague, I traveled through Germany on November 7 and November 9 was kristal night so I just got out in time. And I lived in England together with the export manager of Parker Pen.
At that time it was permitted to get affidavits from total strangers, and my father and my mother bought an affidavit from a lady who lived at the Dakota House building on 72nd Street [in New York], she was a very wealthy woman, and that way we could come to America.
And as I minor, I was not yet 18, I was living in England. Didn’t do very well, didn’t have any money, lived in a room without lights, had a cup of tea for breakfast and that’s it and I visited girlfriends to eat. And suddenly I got a visa to come to America.
Meanwhile my grandmother had come to Budapest where she had a cousin and some friends. And we knew she got the schutz-pass from Wallenberg, and we assumed that would be wonderful and we got news from relatives that she died in her sleep. Which I consider she was very lucky because who knows what would have happened to her and they sent me the schutz-pass. That was while Hungary was still involved in the war and everything. And that’s how I have it. And that’s why I think highly of Wallenberg… And that’s my story.
Q: What is your grandmother’s birthday?
A: I would have to look it up… She was born in January 9 1879 in Budapest. And the length of her body was 162 centimetres and gray hair… well she wasn’t a youngster, and blue eyes. And she was born Berta Eisler. And the only few relatives I had here on her side were all Eislers. And two of the Eislers went by the name of Eys. And they were very famous writers for the German movie Aufer (?). And they came to America and one of them I met, and he worked for MGM. As a matter of fact I was in the army there and before they sent me overseas my wife and I had a long hitchhike to Los Angeles and during the war MGM didn’t let any tourists there, but because of him we were able to walk around MGM and even we were bit players, so we never saw us in some of the movies.
Q: Do you know what kind of community your grandmother grew up in? Was it a Jewish community?
A: Uh, I would not say that we were exactly a very religious family. But yes, we were all Jewish and they were married… I may even have some of her old documents someplace. Because I got these too.
Q: Was your family religious before the war?
Q: Did the war affect their religion at all?
A: I don’t know. I know very little about her.
Q: Do you know when your grandmother first heard of Wallenberg?
Q: Was she in hiding?
A: At that time, most of the Jewish people lived in certain buildings that were assigned to them. And that’s where she lived. And that’s, from what I understand, [where] the messengers for Wallenberg came and looked for them. And whether she ever met him in person I have no idea.
Q: When did you first hear about Wallenberg?
A: Uh, after the war.
Q: Because of your grandmother’s story?
A: Yes, but there were also stories. Did you ever hear of the newspaper Aufbau? Well the Aufbau had many stories about Wallenberg and we subscribed to the paper…
Q: So it was not until after the war that you heard of the schutz-pass?
A: No. As a matter of fact, I don’t know I got it… much after the war.
Q: Who told you about the schutz-pass and your grandmother’s story?
A: As I said, it was a relative who survived. And she… she asked me whether I wanted it and I said yes, naturally, and she also told me she [my grandmother] died a natural death before most people were sent away to a camp.
Q: Do you know the date of her death?
Q: What were the stories about Wallenberg at the time?
A: I know very little about what people say. Everybody seems to know his name. As you have seen in the park. And they built a memorial in Parsippany, New Jersey. I was contacted by Etlinger, and we sent money for a stone but I was never able to find my stone there and I was there when they had the dedication. And obviously we feel very grateful [to Wallenberg]… there were not too many like him. So now we learn more of Righteous Gentiles who saved people.
Q: Why do you think it’s important to keep a story like Wallenberg’s alive today?
A: Well I wish we would have a Wallenberg in Darfur or some other places. Unfortunately we don’t. He’s one of the few people who actually did something, most people talk, he actually acted. And that’s not happening too often, even today. Whether it’s Kosovo or Darfur or wherever.
Q: How do you feel about Wallenberg?
A: How do I feel? I’m grateful that he tried to help my grandmother. I am sorry about what happened to him. And I do believe in the years to come Wallenberg will always be famous.
Q: What do you think he would say if he were sitting here today?
A: What’s for lunch? Haha. No, I don’t know. He would probably have an office in the UN. And participate.
Q: Do you think he’d have any advice?
A: Advice is very easy to give; the problem is very few people listen. That will happen to you when you grow up and get married and have children. You give them advice.
Q: Would you want to say anything to him, if you could?
A: To Wallenberg? Thank you. That’s about all I can say. Thank you, not only for my grandmother, but for what he has done. Because, there are really very few names that are famous… the diary of Anne Frank, and Wallenberg… and who else?
Q: Why did you donate money to the library?
A: My wife and I are paying for an ongoing collection at two public libraries. Most of the good collections of, in the Holocaust, are in universities or specialty places like Leo Beck or others and the average public library may have a few books but really nothing to speak of. So my wife and I are funding it both in New Jersey, near our corporate office, where very few Jewish people live, and also here in Verona.
And over the years, the collection grew, we have the pictures, and now because of the Internet and because of interlibrary… I understand that the books go out continuously because it’s rare that a library has so many books about the Holocaust… The libraries are in constant demand for books. So it’s come in very handy because of this, and I’m very happy we’re doing it. We do not decide what books to buy, that we don’t. It’s up to the librarian and they have done a wonderful job. In other words, if each library has all the money they wanted, I bet you we’d have lots of books we don’t have now, not just about the Holocaust.
Q: Do you feel it’s important to teach children about the Holocaust?
A: Absolutely. Not only about the Holocaust. But about any area of the world where they’re trying to kill people because of their race, color, creed. And after the war we said it would never happen again and it keeps happening all the time. I guess it will continue as long as this world lives. Unless one day, global warming, this world won’t exist anymore.
Q: Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?
A: No, I’m happy you came. I’m happy you gave so much time.
Interview and Transcript: Adriana Lee