Interview with Ms. Marta Sebor
Q: What is your birth name?
A: Marta Koranyi. (K-O-R-A-N-Y-I)
Q: In what year were you born?
A: I was born May 24, 1921. Next month, I will be 88 years old.
Q: Were you born in Budapest?
A: Yes, I was born in Budapest. I apologize for my English. I didn’t learn it until I came to this country when I was 38. However, I speak German, Hungarian, and a little bit of Slovak. After the war, I lived for six years in Israel.
Q: So, you grew up in Budapest. Can you tell us a little bit about growing up in Budapest and about your family?
A: Yes, I was born in Budapest and went to Maria Theresa Gymnasium [high school]. My father had an electro-technique factory, and we had a very good middle-class life. We had a condominium in Pest and a beautiful summer home in Buda.
Q: Was your family religious before the war? Did you go to a Jewish school?
A: We were not and we are not religious. I think I believe in God, because I am here and only God could do that. I will tell you later how I survived. My Gymnasium was in Hungarian but it was not religious. My brother went to medical school but then he had to stop because he was Jewish. With the German occupation, there were lots of Polish and Czechoslovakian Jews who came over because there were no deportations yet in Budapest. At that time, there were just deportations in the countryside. A lot of immigrants were coming to Budapest, and my father would find them on the streets and hire them to work in [his] factory. It was very nice of him to hire people because it was dangerous for them to walk in the streets, since all the young men were already either in a forced labor camp or in the army. My future husband was one of those immigrants. He was from Czechoslovakia. He used to be an actor in Prague before he came to Budapest in 1942.
Q: Did you meet your future husband in the factory?
A: No, he got us a package of coffee from friends in Prague. Budapest didn’t have real coffee yet and we loved coffee. I met my husband when he was trying to sell coffee in Budapest to make some money. So he went over to his friend who said to him, ”let’s go ask Mr. Koranyi, and maybe he will buy it.” My husband came upstairs and my father bought the coffee because he wanted to help him. When I looked out the door and saw him with his friend, I said to myself, ”Oh, Marta, if only that could be your husband…” He was very, very good looking and a very intelligent man. He had gone through a lot. [The Nazis] killed his parents and then he lost his job. He was a very famous actor. He had quite a few films.
That was in 1942 that he came over. During those two years, we became friends and my father and I tried to help him. Later we fell in love. We couldn’t get married because he had no papers. He was an immigrant.
It was still a pretty normal life in Budapest in 1942. However, life in the countryside was not easy. [Holding a letter from a friend] Here is a letter from my girlfriend. It says, ”We don’t know where they will take us. Think of me and pray.”
Q: So what happened in 1944? What happened to your family?
On Sunday March 19, 1944, the Germans came to Budapest, but thankfully my whole family was already gathered together. My brother decided to marry his colleague Alice, whom we all called Lizzy. She lived in the countryside with her parents. My brother married her so she could have a Budapest address, since all the people who didn’t have one were not allowed to stay in Budapest. On one occasion, when my sister-in-law was in the countryside with her parents and sister, she went out onto the street, a minute or two after curfew. The Arrow Cross caught her and took her to the police station. When he heard what happened, my brother went to the Wallenberg office. I think that the office was in the Buda part of the town. He went to Wallenberg and I think he was one of the first few to get a Schutz Pass. He got one right away for his wife. So they sent the Schutz pass to the police station and the guard came over to her [and said], ”Mrs. Koranyi, please come. You are a Swedish citizen. You are free to go.” She didn’t understand. She was thinking ”am I crazy, or is he crazy?” But she was happy and left for Budapest with some papers.
Q: So where did your brother and sister-in-law live after that? What did they do?
A: They had a furnished apartment in Buda. But time was running out. In the meantime, the Nazis had deported Lizzy’s parents and sister. It was a very tragic thing to learn but they lived in Buda and we lived in Pest.
Q: What happened to the rest of your family?
A: My husband lived in a furnished room. He managed to get some false papers and was allowed to work. He was helping us as much as he could and that was dangerous because if somebody got caught helping Jews, he would be sent to Auschwitz or some [other] camp.
When the Germans came on March 19, we moved to a little restaurant not far from us. There, all of the immigrants came together, young and old, girls and boys. We had a secret code for when there was a razzia [military raid] on the street.
However, on March 19, things changed. My brother was still going to the university, but one day the professor advised him not to return. He said he should go and take care of himself. Soon after, we had to move to a Jewish star house. Not far from our old house, we found a small apartment – not the type of house we had before. We left our furniture, pictures – everything – and went to this star house. We had a very small apartment that we had to share with other families.
One day, the Arrow Cross came to the star house. They came in, caught me, and started to hit me. The police knew me because my father used to have an office near their station. We had known them for a long time. I was taken away, but they said, ”Don’t worry, we are taking you to the police station.” They took me to the police station and then let me go. That was already October. On October 15, Szálasi came into power. We decided that we couldn’t stay in the star house and that we should go to Buda, to our summer house.
Q: What happened in Buda?
A: In Buda, our next door neighbor was the Budapest Mayor. He said, ”Take out the fence that separates our estates. When somebody comes, then you can just run over to my house.”
We also went to another neighbor but he wouldn’t let us in. He told us that Szalasi was saying that every Jew was the enemy and that every enemy should be killed. So it was a terrible day. But we were all together. Then, one night, Mr. Homonnay, the Mayor, allowed us to hide in his garage. We were there; my brother, his wife, my father, my mother, me, my fiancé and a 6 or 7 year-old little orphan boy. He was a very sweet little boy. We were all in the garage one night. Then, somebody gave us an address in Budapest in a very tall building. We went there, my parents, my fiancé and I. It was an empty apartment. There was nothing there, just a curtain, so we were sleeping on the floor with curtains. We were there a few days. Then my brother said, ”We can’t be here because they think that it’s empty but everybody else in the building heard that people are here.”
So, I came up with an idea because my brother said that we had to do something. I can’t perfectly remember why, but I went to 1 Jokai Street, since people were saying that Wallenberg was there.
I went to that address and started to climb the stairs. I think I was on the 2nd or 3rd floor when I looked up and saw a very handsome, tall, brown-haired, and brown-eyed gentleman coming down. I asked him, ”Excuse me, where is the office of Mr. Wallenberg? He said, ”Go up one more flight of stairs. But by the way, I am Wallenberg.” I had never seen him before, but he was very handsome. I was 21 years old. I was a young woman. And he was very kind to me. He said, ”What is your name?” I said, ”Marta Koranyi.” He said, ”So what do you want? I am Wallenberg.” I said, ”Oh, Mr. Wallenberg.” I had already heard a lot about him. Then I said, ”I need papers. My fiancé doesn’t have papers. He is a Czechoslovakian actor and he has been here many years.” So he said, ”Come with me.” I went to his office with him. People who were there immediately started to ask for his attention, but he said, ”I want to talk to this woman.” And he was very nice. He asked me, ”Do you know how to type?” My husband always said that I should say I know everything, so I told him ”Yes, I know how to type.” ”Do you want to work here?” I said, ”Sure, Mr. Wallenberg.” He said, ”Come tomorrow. We don’t pay anybody for work but you will get a room here and you can bring everyone from your family. This is an extraterritorial house.”
Wallenberg was such a good man. So I said, ”Mr. Wallenberg, thank you very much. I will run and get my family and bring them over right away.” Then, he said, ”Okay, you will do it.” Then he was talking to the people that were in the room, and he said, ”That woman over there, she will come to join you.” One man in the room was Robert Markovics, a hat factory owner, who later on committed suicide.
I was so excited; it was worth more than a million dollars to live there. I ran to get my family. We moved there right away. All we had brought with us were a few pairs of underwear. We had one room – my father, my mother, my fiancé, my brother Erwin, his wife Alice, and me. The little boy was with us, but later somebody took him to the orphanage. The person who took him to the orphanage later told us that the boy said, ”Please let me go. I have one bangle [one dollar] in my pocket. I want to live.” He thought they were taking him away but he was going to a good place.
Q: Can you tell us something about life in the Safe House? How did Wallenberg manage to get food for the people?
A: He knew special people. Wallenberg knew everything. He was a Messiah. He was really, I think, a Messiah.
Q: He organized everything?
A: Yes, everything. We would wear name tags and we worked in this long office. The room next to us had another 3-5 women working. We all typed all day long. It was crazy but we were happy.
Q: What were they typing? Schutz passes?
A: Yes, Schutz Passes. There was a line of people around the house. Mr. Wallenberg came to me and said, ”Marta, fast, fast, fast!” He spoke German. People were lined up all around the house and I didn’t want them to have to wait to get their papers. He asked: ”So how do you like your new home?” I said, ”Thank you very much. I am very, very thankful.”
Q: Was Wallneberg there every day?
A: No. He was a busy man. He went to every house. He took many Schutz Passes with him to the train stations. Those were empty Schutz Passes with no names on them. He would take them and go to the trains and distribute them. He didn’t eat. He didn’t sleep. He had one gun. Everybody respected him because of his voice and his appearance. That one young man saved hundreds of thousands of people. Can you imagine?
Q: Who would go with him when he was going to the train station?
A: I forgot his name but it was his driver. He was a Jewish boy. He took him also on his last journey on January 17, 1945.
Q: Do you remember any stories from that time? What did people say about him?
A: Everybody loved him. Everybody prayed for him.
Q: How many of you were typing Schutz-Passes?
A: It was a big, big room and there were 5 or 6 others. I don’t remember exactly.
Q: Do you remember whether you kept files with the names of the people?
A: I don’t think so. People just came in and said their names and then we would just put their names on the Schutz Pass and that was all.
Q: What happened next?
It was safe until January 8 at 2 a.m. The Arrow Cross came in. The building super was a sympathizer of the Arrow Cross and he helped them. When they entered, I was with my mother in the cellar. My father, my brother, and Alice were in the rooms upstairs. We heard screaming and shooting. The Arrow Cross were lining people up in the courtyard and interrogating them. I took my mother’s hand and I pulled her upstairs. My fiancé disappeared. I held my mother’s hand the whole the time.
We went upstairs to the office, and there was this door there [holding the picture with the door]. Behind the door there was a built-in closet. I opened it and it looked empty but then I heard something. Someone was already in there and he said ”Pst, pst, be quiet.” I went in with my mother. This is the prayer book I got from my mother that I had in my hands then [pointing to the book]. I was holding my mother and we were very quiet because there was shooting and screaming all around us. They shot an 8-year-old girl. She had run under the piano in the apartment. They killed an elderly man and they went through the entire house in search of people. We were very lucky.
Q: Wallenberg was not there at that time?
A: No, they tried to call him but he was sleeping at different locations every night and they could not find him.
Q: What did the Arrow Cross do with the people from the Jokai Street building? Did they kill them?
A: They took them to the Arrow Cross building at the Varoshaz Street. Every day they killed some of them by the Danube River and others in the nearby streets. My fiancé was there. They took him away with other people. I don’t know how long he stayed there. They took him, but he had already experienced what it was like to be an immigrant and he knew how to get around. He claimed to be Aryan, so they treated him better. Markovics [the hat factory owner] wasn’t as lucky. First they tried to poison him, then he jumped out of the window.
As for my fiancée, he was among the few who survived. The Arrow Cross was retreating to the Buda part of the city and they decided to take with them the people from Jokai Street who claimed to be Aryan. They made the ”Aryans” carry their stuff. My fiancée had to carry two suitcases. He said that they were full of gold, money, and other stolen things.
It was very, very dark in Budapest; there were no street lights. At dawn, he threw away the suitcases and managed to escape with two other men from the group. He went back to Jokai Street but they took us from Jokai the next morning.
Q: What happened to your father and brother when the Arrow Cross entered?
A: My fiancé took my father and hid him in the sofa and covered him with the pillows so it looked like nobody was there. And Erwin was in a chute on the third floor. Erwin was very strong. He was a gymnast and his wife was perched on his shoulders for two hours on the third floor.
In the morning, when we came out of the closet, it was quiet already. My father came in the morning. He was there. My mother was there. Erwin and Lizzy were there. I was there. Only my husband was not there.
Erwin and Lizzy had decided to go to another safe house in Revai Street, but the Arrow Cross came there and took all the people from the building. Luckily, someone managed to inform Wallenberg so he came and successfully negotiated for all the people to be returned to the safe house.
We stayed at the Jokai Street house. The next day, men wearing police uniforms who worked with Wallenberg came and took me, my mother, and my father to 4 Ulloi Street, where the Swedish office was.
We were there when the Russians came. The Russians were there on one side of the building and on the other were the Germans. We were in the building. There were a few hundred of us sitting in two very big rooms. I was with my mother and my father was in the other part that was closer to the Russian side in the basement. My father had a hammer or something of that sort, and he made a hole and all the people escaped to that side, which was the Russian side already. A lot of murdering was going on in the streets. There were dead people and horses everywhere.
Q: What happened next?
We decided to go back to the star house at 13 Vorosmarty Street. Erwin, Alice and my fiancée all came there, too, so we were reunited. Alice and Erwin witnessed the liberation from a safe house that was next to the Opera.
They went there from the Revai Street safe house during the night. The next day, the Russians came. Lizzy’s shoes were so worn out, she had to tie them up with some string and Erwin had a beard and a Red Cross on his arm. When the Russians came, one of them gave a bottle of champagne to Erwin. He stood there with no shoes and with champagne as the Russian was going away. Another Russian came and said, ”Give me that,” and he took the champagne.
Q: What happened to your extended family members, to your grandparents?
A: They were all killed. They lived in Czechoslovakia. We were the only ones in Budapest.
Q: What happened after the war?
A: I got married and we went to Israel with my mother and father. Erwin and Alice went back to university. They studied in Innsbruck, Austria.
We stayed in Israel for six and a half years. Then I went from Israel to Canada with my parents. My husband had a sister in Hollywood and he went there and his other brothers and sisters went there as well. He was in Hollywood and I was with my parents in Canada for half a year. Then he came to pick me up. I traveled from Montreal, Canada on an American visa.
We came to New York and we started a life here. He was working on the Radio Free Europe. He was not acting any more because of the language barrier but he was broadcasting in Czech and Hungarian. We were together for 56 years. He passed away. He was the greatest man I ever met and he was very, very handsome.
Q: So now when you think about it, if it wasn’t for Wallenberg, then what would have happened to you?
A: Oh, I would be in the other world.
Q: Did you hear what happened to him after the war?
A: No, but whenever I hear Wallenberg, I feel emotional.
Q: But nobody knows what actually happened after the Russians took him?
A: People told him, ”Don’t go. Don’t go.” But he didn’t listen. Two Russians came and took him. I think the Russians killed him. Who knows?
I met his sister Nina. They found a note from Wallenberg that had the Koranyi name on it. Wallenberg mentioned that he had met Erwin Koranyi, my brother.
Q: Do you talk to your grandchildren about Mr. Wallenberg?
A: Oh, yes. They all know. I told them.
Interviewed and transcribed by:
Yeo Yong Yong and Svetlana Platisa