Q: What is your name?
A: My name is Otto Robus. I was born on December 16, 1932 in Budapest. I changed my name, or rather, I took a synonym, because I worked as a journalist and, when I used to spell it, it was difficult for others to understand. I took the name Romberg, which is much easier to understand: ”Rom,”like the eternal city, and ”Berg” – this everybody understands.
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: I grew up in Budapest.
Q: With whom did you live? Your parents? Siblings?
A: I was a single child and I lived with my parents.
Q: Did you grow up in a Jewish community?
A: No, we were not religious. I went to a civil elementary school; afterward, I went to a high school. I was at the high school and, until 1944, I was at the boarding school.
Q: Your family was not religious?
A: Not at all!
Q: When did you first notice signs of anti-Semitism?
A: In school. That was the first time they started to tease us. My father taught me to tell them three times that Jesus Christ was, himself, a Jew. If that did not help, then I should start to beat them up.
Q: How did you first hear about what was happening to the Jewish people?
A: That was in March 1944, after the invasion of the Germans. I was at the boarding school in Esztergom. My father picked me up from the boarding school and, on the way back, he told me what might happen to us and to the Jewish community in Hungary.
Q: What were your thoughts and feelings? What was your reaction?
A: I was very affected. I was 12 years old. I always knew that we Jewish people were not loved and had been marginalized through anti-Semitism and racism for hundreds of years, but this caused a very deep pain.
Q: What changes did you experience?
A: At first, we did not experience so many changes because, during the First World War, my father was a highly positioned soldier. Also, the Jewish laws did not apply to us until July 1, 1944. On July 1, 1944, things changed because Eichmann no longer tolerated exceptions for those groups of Jews who had fought bravely and heroically for their fatherland.
Q: What happened to your family during the war?
A: We – my mother and I – had to go to a Jew house. My father had to go to the labour force.
I have to add that my father was drafted in 1941 to work as a reserve officer to re-conquer the Hungarian areas that were separated through the The Treaty of Trianon. He was a soldier during the invasion of the Germans, and on July 1, a first officer went to him and ripped off his badge of rank and told him, ”Shit Jew, you have to go to the concentration camp.” That was the appreciation he received for his Hungarian patriotism.
Q: Then what happened to your father?
A: We don’t know because he had to go to a certain place to be registered for the labour force. My mother and I remained in the Jew house.
Q: Can you explain what a Jew house is?
A: A Jew house is a house where the Jews were crowded together. Slowly, non-Jewish tenants were also moved into those apartments – after the Jewish people left. In these houses, you had to wear the Jewish star and three to four families had to share one apartment. Everything came about very suddenly, and later, around the Jew houses, ghettos were established. Many Jews lived in the ghetto area.
Q: Did you ever hear from your father again?
A: I did; it was very dramatic. We saw him in July or August. That was when we heard about Wallenberg and that he had the ability to help us. We heard that he had Schutzpasses and so we went to Buda. I don’t remember the name of the street; I think the name of the street was Pickel Street – if I remember it correctly, but I am not sure. There, my mother and I waited in a queue for days to get the Schutzpasses and then, with the Schutzpasses, we moved into a Schutzhaus (Safe house). That was also very dramatic because, in an apartment with three rooms of about 100 square meters, there were 50 people or more. In the bathroom or at the restroom, it was a horror.
Unfortunately, this did not last long because, on October 15, the Arrow Cross gained power and they did not accept the Schutzpasses anymore. They wanted to deport us and forced us to the brick factory. It is about 20 – 25 kilometers from Budapest to Pilisvörösvár. There, they separated us according to age and forced us into wagons.
Just a second before the train was to start, Wallenberg appeared and yelled into every wagon that if you possessed a Schutzpass you could immediately step out and did not have to join the transport. Then, again, he came to the wagon – while my mother was already out of the wagon – and yelled again, ”Just show anything because, this gendarmerie, they are all-analphabets.” He spoke German, ”They cannot read. Just show any kind of document or paper. It does not matter; just come out!”
Then, from this brick factory and this transport, they brought us back to Budapest and all of us went back to the ghetto. That was after the 15th of October – sometime at the end of October. And, on this walk back to the ghetto, suddenly my father appeared. We don’t know from whom or from where he knew that we were participating in this march to the ghetto.
Then, when we arrived at the ghetto – Klauzál tér, it was called – there were big boxes and we were forced to give away everything that we possessed: watches, rings – just everything, all belongings!
Later, we went to a different house and we were again asked our ages. My father was 46 years old and they said if he were 48, he would have been able to stay with us. But my father was very ”Prussian” [people coming from the historic state of Prussia known for their organization, discipline, sacrifice and rule of law] in this aspect, and he was afraid that if he gave them a wrong age, it could have disadvantages – for him and for us. He said he was in the age where he had to go, and they deported him again or put him somewhere. He did not stay in the ghetto, and we were divided into different houses again.
Q: Was that the last time you heard from your father?
A: No, my father sent us a postcard on December 6 and it was probably thrown out of the train because the postcard reached us in very bad condition. He said they were forced to do a slow march toward the west. That was the last message from him. The card [was dated] December 6 and we received it some time at the end of December.
Q: Was that the first time you heard about Raoul Wallenberg – when he was yelling into the wagons?
A: No, no. We received the Schutzpasses from him. I don’t know 100 percent if he was there but, according to the pictures I am seeing today, he was probably one of the people who gave us the Schutzpasses. But I was 12 years old. I am not certain if that was Wallenberg, but I think so, when I look back.
Q: From whom did you receive the Schutzpasses? Where did you wait in line to pick them up?
A: We were waiting and then we went into the office. That was in Budapest.
Q: In an office where you knew there was help?
A: That was in a very big office. There were many people – all of them were very busy. There was a lady who asked my mother for her name and my name and other personal information like place of birth, date of birth, etc. Then we received the Schutzpasses. At the end, after we received the Schutzpasses, there we two or three gentlemen who shook our hands and wished us all the best. That was how it was.
Q: And that was probably a few months before you ended up in this transport?
A: That was at sometime in August – at the end of August – or at the beginning of September. I am not able to tell you exactly.
Q: Did you hear from other people that you would be able to get a Schutzpass there? How did you know about it?
A: No, that spread around like a fire – that not only the Swedish people, but also the Swiss people and the Spanish people, were giving out Schutzpasses. Even the Vatican gave out Schutzpasses, but only under the condition that you get baptised. That meant everybody could receive a Schutzpass from the Catholic Church if they were willing to get baptised. But that was not an option for us.
Later, we found out that a proper protection was only verified through the Spanish Schutzpass because Hitler and the dictator Franco allowed for diplomatic relations between Germany and Spain. That was not the case with Sweden, even though we today know that Wallenberg did some good business with the Nazis.
Q: Do you know anything about the documents – the insurance policies and drivers’ licenses – Raoul Wallenberg gave to the people he rescued?
A: No. I only know that we had a Schutzpass from him, only a Schutzpass.
Q: You and your mother each got a Schutzpass? They were issued individually?
A: That’s how it was.
Q: Do you know how the Jewish people were able to use these documents once they were rescued from the cattle cars and returned to Budapest?
A: Nobody asked for [anything on the basis of the document]. We did not dare. Maybe others did. To go to the gendarmerie or the Arrow Cross and tell them, ”You do not have the right to deport me because I am a Swedish citizen”? If somebody dared ask that, they could be shot right there. Nobody was messing around. Everybody who tried to escape from the authority, gangsters… they did not hesitate long.
Q: You were about 12 years old when you met Raoul Wallenberg?
A: I was exactly 12 years old. I turned 12 in December 1944.
Q: And your mother?
A: My mother was born in 1900; that means she was 44 years old.
Q: Can you estimate how old Raoul Wallenberg was when you saw him the first time?
A: I don’t know. I would estimate about 30 years old. (However much a 12-year-old boy is able to estimate.)
Q: What did he look like? How did you feel about him?
A: He was a very nice guy: open-minded, very friendly, trustful. I don’t know how else to put it.
Q: What are the Schutzhauser? Are they different from the Jew houses you mentioned?
A: No, they are the same. There was a sign above the house that read, ”This house is under the protection of the Swedish crown,” I think. I am not sure; I am not certain.
Q: But you were with your mother in a Jew house? Is that the same as a Schutzhaus?
A: No, no.
Q: No? What is the difference between the two?
A: From the Jew houses, people were constantly forced to go to the Danube or somewhere else. They were shot or deported from a railway station or from the brick factory and sent away. But in the Schutzhaus, nobody was allowed to enter until the 15th of November – October or November – because the Horthy government accepted the protection of the Swedish crown. But when Szálasi’s Arrow Cross gained the power, the protection lost its validity. The Arrow Cross did not accept the protection.
Q: Were you also placed in a Schutzhaus?
A: We – my mother and I – were placed in a Schutzhaus.
Q: After Raoul Wallenberg rescued you?
A: No, no, that is wrong. First, from the Jew house, we were allowed to move into a Schutzhaus. Then, later, after the proclamation from the Arrow Cross government (which did not accept the protection anymore), they came to pick us up and deport us as well. Wallenberg heard about that and about how people from the Schutzhauser and from the ghetto and from other places were forced together in the brick factory. (In this sense, it was not a ghetto, just the Jew house, yes.) Later, after the occupation from the Arrow Cross, the ghettos were established, and when Wallenberg found out that the people from the Schutzhauser were also forced to leave, he came into this kind of detention camp and saved the people who had a Schutzpass at least from the transport.
Q: You and your mother were saved and united?
A: And many, many others as well.
Q: Wallenberg saved and united you and your mother and, on the way back from there, you happily met your father again?
A: That’s how it was.
Q: Did you see Raoul Wallenberg in the Schutzhauser also?
A: No, no. I can’t remember that.
Q: Do you know how Raoul Wallenberg organized food, clothing, and other necessities for those he helped rescue?
A: No. About this I have no idea.
Q: Do you know how Raoul Wallenberg found out that people were forced to leave the Schutzhauser for the brick factory?
A: I don’t know. Probably somebody in the Schutzhaus had a contact telephone number. He had confidants there and they probably informed him.
Every house had a manager who reported to Wallenberg about the condition of the house. We were also provided with food and medical services, and somebody from this circle probably called Wallenberg and told him that now, after the proclamation, the Schutzpasses were no longer valid.
Q: That means he had to act within only a few hours.
A: Yes, he did so. You know, the walk lasted a whole day. It was about 20 kilometers from Budapest, and we slept there two or three days on the floor, without any food. And he appeared then – when the train was ready to leave – and rescued us.
Q: At the last minute you said?
A: Yes, in the very last minute.
Q: Do you know what happened at the Danube in 1944 and ’45?
A: Only from other people. When there was no longer any possibility, for whatever reasons, of transporting people, then the Arrow Cross and the SS forced Jews to the shore of the Danube. Then the Jews were forced to take off their clothes – that meant everybody had to take everything off – and they were shot into the Danube.
Q: Do you know if all the people Raoul Wallenberg rescued and those who worked with Raoul were all Jewish or were there others? Resisters and such?
A: The people said that many resisters and many non-Jews supported him, but I did not meet any of them. This is information I learned from other people. At the time, I did not know about it, but afterward we heard about that. You know how afterward you heard about many positive things? We did not know about many things at the time.
Q: If Raoul Wallenberg were sitting with us today, what would you say to him?
A: That he is a hero and that he should try to vaccinate humankind with his courage.
Q: What do you think he would say to the world today?
A: I think he would be worried about Jewish persecution and would think that the world has not changed very much. Only the headlines have changed.
Q: Yes? You think so?
A: I think he would say that, yes. When I think about how in Hungary there was always the fight of the big liberty land with the Soviet Union, together with China, fighting against western imperialism. And the first headline I read in Vienna in 1956 was about the fight of the democratic west against Soviet imperialism. That means they only changed the words and definition. That means everything remained the same.
Q: We talked about your father. What happened to you and your mother after the war?
A: Yes. First, we could not go back into our apartment because they put non-Jews there and all our belongings were destroyed. They lived very wild there. When they finally moved out, we went back into our apartment. (Immediately after the war we got our rights back, but it still took three to four months until they left our apartment.)
We were left with nothing. Everything was taken from us. Everything was stolen. Those things that remained accidentally were then taken by the Russians. We had the luck, but I do want to add that the Russians saved our lives. But with our property, they did not care.
Q: So all your property was taken and you got your rights back after an interim period of three to four months? Did you get any kind of compensation?
A: My mother received compensation but nothing else. My mother received the so-called – I don’t like the word – ”compensation” for the damage caused by health problems. My father was the president of a big foundation and they paid a property loss and a compensation for the damage caused through health problems for my mother.
Q: Do you know what happened to Raoul Wallenberg after the war?
A: Yes. This we only found out in the west; we did not know it in Hungary. That was a very well protected secret. Here, in the west, I found out that he was imprisoned in Russia and was treated as a German spy. The people thought he was a German spy because he also tried to buy the Jews freedom and that was odd to the Russians and, to them, meant that he was an ally for the Germans
And I also know that in Russia, for the Soviet Union, they tried to use him as a middleman for business connections. Because he was not willing to do that, they kept him imprisoned.
Q: Why do you think is it important to keep Raoul Wallenberg’s story alive?
A: Because we are slowly reaching an anti-Semitic level like we had in Nazi Germany. Today we have an unpredictable alliance of right wings, left-wing slobs and Islamists, and that is a very explosive mixture.
Q: You mean, anti-Semitism is getting stronger again?
A: Yes, from these three components. That is a very dangerous mixture.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to share with us today?
A: No. Only that if Wallenberg had not rescued us from the train, you would not be sitting here with me today. That is the only thing I have to add.
Ok. Many thanks.
Interview: Vanessa Reuter, July 19, 2007, Frankfurt am Main, Germany
Translation: Vanessa Reuter
Editing: Katie Kellerman