Q: Could you please give us your name and the details of when and where you were born?
A: My name is Tibor Gonda. I was born on September 20th, 1929, in Debrecen, the second largest city in Hungary. When I was around age three, we moved to Budapest, and I stayed there until I left Hungary, in 1949.
Q: When you were living in Budapest, were you part of a larger Jewish community?
A: We were a family of four-my sister, my parents and I- and we live in a very nice section of Budapest. It was not a specifically Jewish community, but we had very many Jewish friends. My sister and I went to a Jewish High School, so my friends included many Jews. The neighborhood was very peaceful, and there were no serious problems until 1944.
Q: What was the name of the High School?
A: The Jewish Gymnasium. In Europe, gymnasium means ”High School”.
Q: Did you learn of Jewish culture and customs there or in another context?
A: While there? Absolutely. The Jewish High School was an excellent institution which was exclusive in terms of the teachers and professors. At that time, many of the Jewish University professors had already been laid off and could not find other jobs, so they were teaching at our High School, but they were all qualified to teach, and used to teach, at a higher level.
Q: So you had both general studies and Jewish studies?
A: Absolutely. Every day at school we had one ”religion” hour, which consisted of Jewish history, the Bible, the Torah, or Hebrew. It was very thorough.
Q: Did you learn conversational Hebrew?
A: Oh yes. By the time I graduated high school I was able to read Israeli newspapers.
Q: That’s a very high level. Which newspapers were there at that time?
A: I think it was Haaretz, a very old newspaper, which was at that time number one. There were a few others, but I don’t remember which ones. I wish I could still read them, but it is particularly difficult to read Israeli newspapers because the punctuations are limited, so you really have to be well trained to be able to read them.
Q: Before the war, what was your family’s religious practice like?
A: Other here, I think you would call it Orthodox. We went to Shul, in our neighborhood it was separated [by genders]. My mother would maintained Kosher home. Shabbat was always observed, and on Friday nights the candles were always lit.
Q: How did the war affect that practice of your family? Were you able to keep any of your cultural and religious traditions during the war?
A: There were distinct phases of that war as far as we were concerned. Relatively speaking, before the German occupation, which started March 19, 1944, life was more or less the same it had been; the war did not have much of an impact. The major impact was primarily on the economy class.
Certain practices were withheld from Jews, and we were often excluded from certain professions, such as teaching at universities. Jewish students were limited on where they could get higher educations. Other than that, there was little impact observing the Jewish traditions in daily lives. But everything changed after [March 19, 1944].
Q: Before March 19, you were under the Hungarian fascist regime?
A: Correct. Actually, the Hungarian fascist regime came later. At that time, it was more a cooperation with the Germans, not direct fascism. As a matter of fact, there were some attempts made by that government to make it easier and safer for the Jews.
Q: But they were still imposing economic restrictions?
A: There were some so-called ”Jewish Laws” which started imitating what happened in Germany and Austria.
Q: Did the Germans force the Jews to abide by these laws?
A: The Jews were so intimidated, no force was necessary.
Q: When did you first notice the anti-Semitism?
A: Very early on. In kindergarten, I was told that I was a very bright kid, so the teachers convinced my parents they should get me into the first grade early. It was a problem, because according to the regulations, you had to be six years old before September 15th. Since I was born on September 20th, I missed that cut off by five days, but they said they would still take me, get me some recommendations, and make an exception for me. They took me to the Department of Education, where they interviewed me, and they agreed I was qualified and ready for the first year. I went to a public school and complete the first year with the best grades.
Next year, I enrolled in the second grade, but the new principal found out that I was a Jew, and that I had gotten in earlier because I had a special permit. He said that it was not permitted and overruled the decision. I had to go back to the first grade. I was the only child I know of who had to go through the first grade twice.
Q: In other words, you had to repeat a grade because you were Jewish?
A: That is right. And that can have a major impact on a child of that age.
Q: And you still remember how you felt about it?
A: Of course. I knew it had happened because I was a Jew. That was my early experience with anti-Semitism
Q: During the war, what happened to your family? Were you separated, or did you manage to stay together? Do you know what happened to your parents?
A: Again, there were different time periods and different situations. Mostly, my mother, my sister (who was one year older than I am) and I stayed together. My father was taken to the labor camp relatively early and was not with us for most of the time.
That was the situation until toward the end of May or the beginning of June when they established ”Jewish houses”. They designated quite a large number of buildings in Budapest as a ”Jewish houses”, each marked by a huge Jewish Star, and every Jew who was living in a non-Jewish building had to move into one. They were very congested, as each family was crammed into one room. That was a big change in the family situation, because we had to live in an apartment with total strangers.
Q: So you had to move to this Jewish house and you lived there with others families?
A: Yes, it was a regular apartment with ten to twelve people crammed into a space which was formerly occupied by four.
Q: What happened to your previous apartment?
A: It went to whoever wanted it. The Nazi Party got hold of everything. Usually when you had to move, you had no way of moving your furniture or the contents of your apartment. You moved with just a little bit of luggage.
Q: Could you tell us the story of what happened next? When did you first hear of Raoul Wallenberg?
A: So that was the situation we were until the big break in the Hungarian government, when the Hungarian Nazi Party took over, which was on October 15th, 1944. That is when the collaborating Hungarian government was chased out of office.
When the Hungarian fascist government took over, Jews had already been deported from all over the country except from Budapest. The Jews from the rest of the country were already in concentration camps. The previous government had moved very systematically, from town to town, from village to village, and the rest of the country was already what they called ”Juden-free”. Budapest represented a relatively large Jewish population, so it had presented some strategic difficulties. Plus, the collaborating Hungarian government had many friends among the Hungarian Jews in Budapest, so the Jewish were able to be delayed. But after October 15th, that was over. This new Nazi government was determined to make their first action the riddance of the Jews in Budapest.
Three days after they took power, we were awaken in the morning and told to go down to the street in front of our building. They checked to make sure that every Jew had left the apartment and was in front of the building, and they took us for a long march. Jews from all over Budapest were taken on a long long march to the other side of the city without being told what was happening; they only said that we would be taken for some labor.
It was late in the evening when we arrived on the other side of town, which was designated as the assembly point for Jews from all parts of the city. This assembly point was a famous brick factory. A brick factory is an open structure, as raw brick has to dry outside. It was a terrible place, not designed for any human occupation. As I said, it was an open structure, and it can be very cold at the end of October. It was late in the evening and dark, and we were exhausted after the very long walk and waited for them to tell us what to do.
I was only 15 years old, and one of the most dramatic things that I will never forget was when a lady had to go to the bathroom. Since the place had no facilities, if we wanted to go to the bathroom, we had to get out and go somewhere that had at least some resemblance of privacy. But the place was very dark and tightly packed, so when this lady came back she couldn’t find her old spot and became mad and started screaming. Finally, a fascist took her away.
Our time in the brick factory lasted for a while. We spent a day or two there, in terrible conditions, but slowly, the emptied the factory out by starting the movement toward the west, without saying where they were taking us.
They separated the women and men. The issue was that people who had protection could stay because there was supposed to be a different arrangement for them. That is how I found out about Wallenberg. I knew about him already, because I had a Schutz-Pass, but I didn’t know him in person. So around our third day at the brick factory, Wallenberg showed up. He had the responsibility of checking every single Schutz-Pass and determining which were valid, and which were forged.
Q: Wallenberg had to determine that?
Q: And how did you get the Schutz-Pass?
A: We got it from the Zionist underground. I had a cousin who was very active in the Zionist underground. This had nothing to do with official Schultz-Passes.
Q: So yours was a forged one?
A: Yes, my cousin got it for us. They were being fabricated 24 hours a day. This was a major operation. As a matter of fact, there is a special exhibit at the UN with a replica of a very famous building in Budapest, which was originally established by the Swiss government…
Q: The Glass House?
A: Exactly. There’s an exhibit with the Glass House at the UN until March. So the Schulz-Passes were forged in the basement of this Glass House.
Q: What happened to those individuals with forged Schutz-Passes?
At the time it was very difficult to make a distinction between Germans and Hungarian fascists, because they looked and acted the same. When the Hungarian fascist found out that so many passes had been forged, they said they could not accept them, and Wallenberg had to come down. It was a situation similar to that with Mengele in the concentration camp, when an entire row of people had to go in front of him [their fate depend upon] whether he raised or lowered his thumb. It was a huge line with thousands and thousands of people.
Q: And Wallenberg himself was standing there?
A: Yes, and everyone had to go in front of him and show him their Schutz-Pass. His objective was to validate as many Schutz-Passes as possible, but if he had claimed all of them to be correct and original, they would have not accepted any.
So at that critical moment, after we had been standing on line for possibly half a day, we got to the point where we reached Wallenberg and showed him our Schutz-Pass. He had very little time to spend on each case, having to process hundreds and hundreds of them. Obviously, we knew that ours was not right, but when we got in front of him, he looked at my mother, my sister and me. We must have looked terrible, because it was already our third day at the brick factory. He looked at the Schutz-Pass and obviously saw right away that it was forged, but he said, ”This one is OK”. At that moment we were removed from the line, and went to the place where they collected all of those with Wallenberg-approved passes, and there we became human beings again. We were treated like human beings and were moved into a bus, which took us back to the city (By that time Wallenberg had already organized safe houses in the city, and we got assigned to a room in one of these safe houses. We had nothing to move in with, so we just tried to occupy our room).
Unfortunately, for the rest of the people, among who were many of my fiends, this was the beginning of the so-called ”Death March”. Equipment was very scarce, because the German and Hungarian armies were preoccupied with moving it as fast as possible, as the Russians were getting closer and closer. So there was no train or car available, and they had to walk, and the treatment was very brutal. If for whatever reason they slowed down or could not keep up, they were shot. When night came, they had to just lie down wherever was possible, under a tree or on the side of the road.
But, thanks to Wallenberg, we were brought back to a relatively safe life. Obviously, the problem was not resolved altogether, because there were very strict curfew regulations. We had to wear the Jewish Stars and only go out from three to five o’clock in the afternoon. The problem was- and this was true for the whole city of Budapest- that food was very scarce, because the Russians were enclosing the city. By the end of December the ring was closed, and Budapest was encircled by the Russian army.
Q: Was this curfew mandatory for all people?
A: No, it was mandatory for all Jews, and only for Jews. There were no general laws, only Jewish regulations.
One very cold December afternoon, I walked down our street before the curfew began for the evening (We were always trying to search for some food, whatever we could find-potatoes, carrots, or fruit- and grab as much as we could). I saw a bakery that was still open. That was very unusual, because even if they had bread, it was always sold out early in the morning before we (Jews) could go out anyway. It looked like they had a second batch, and people were lining up. So I got in line, but it was very long and moved very slowly.
The end of the curfew came and I was supposed to go back, but decided not to walk away, having waited for so long. I tried to cover the yellow star on my coat and waited until I could get my bread. Before I could even reach the store, they picked me out from the line, and without saying anything they took me to the bank of the Danube. (At that time this was the place where they took anyone they found). They were not making any secret out of it. They always said that you would not have to worry about anything, because you would certainly get shot. It was winter already, and the Danube was flowing in ice; they said that they had to wait until it cleared some. There were about a hundred people there, waiting to be shot and get it over with. Wallenberg showed up, and again he said that whoever lived in a safe house should come and see him. So I went, and it was a magical moment when our eyes met. He said that I would be protected…
Q: So Wallenberg saved you twice?
A: Yes, the first time was at the brick factory. I am not sure if that was a 100% chance of death, but he certainly saved me from suffering. It is highly probable that he did save my life then. But the second time definitely this was the case.
If you go to Budapest now you will see on the bank of the Danube a memorial with iron shoes. Before they shot you, all they wanted you to take off were your shoes. To me, this is a very touching and solemn memorial. It has inscriptions in Hungarian, English and Hebrew, and shows baby shoes, old shoes, brand new shoes, men’s and ladies’ shoes, all made out of iron which is mounted on the bank of the Danube. Unfortunately, nobody knows how many people were killed that way, but there were many, many thousands. That was going on for quite a long time until finally, on January 18th, 1945, the Russians took over the city.
Q: Do you know when they built this memorial?
A: A couple of years ago. It’s just a sculpture. An iron sculpture, with all kinds of different shoes. Very good sculpture work. It is permanently mounted.
Q: Some of the inscriptions on memorials in the former Soviet Union do not recognize the victim as Jews. But the victims shot by the Danube were Jews?
A: Oh yes. There were only Jews there. It was a ”privilege” to be a Jew and to be shot near the Danube.
Q: What was your normal day like at the safe house? How many people were there?
A: The safe houses were apartment buildings in a nice part of the city, the Jewish part of the city. They were occupied by at least as many families as there were rooms. If it was a three room apartment, then three families lived there. All we had was a regular mattress, no bed seat equipment.
The main concern of those safe houses regarded all the atrocities that could take place. Sometimes the Nazis came in and said, ”Somebody shot from this building”, which they had, really made up, and they ordered everyone to come down so they could search for weapons. We were always in fear.
The second concern was for getting food because it was extremely difficult to obtain anything. That was true for everyone, but obviously, if you were free to move you had much more opportunity to obtain something.
Q: Was Wallenberg able to bring in any necessities to you?
A: No. The only thing was the big sign on the building that said, ”This building is under protectorate of the Swedish Consulate”. There was always someone assigned to stand in front of the building. This was also a problem, as the guard were complaining of danger that someone might shoot, hit, or throw something at them. Not everyone respected these guards 100%, but it was good compared to the alternatives.
By the way, at the same time that we were at the safe house, they established the main ghetto in Budapest. When the new fascist government took over, they first decided to get rid of the Jews by taking them to labor camps. But only certain age groups were included. The rest of the people had to move into the ghetto. That was the end of it for us, too. On January 10th, 1945, which was about one week before Budapest was freed by the Russians, they ignored the safe house and took us into the ghetto.
Q: All the safe houses?
A: It was not scheduled for one day but most of the safe houses were liquidated by January 18th.
Q: What was it like in the ghetto?
A: The situation in the ghetto was indescribable. There was just no room available. We had to go in and find somewhere to live. We found this dark basement with a dirt floor. We had no other choice. Food was provided once a day by the Jewish community. The problem was that we could not take much advantage of the curfew-free hours because the Russians were constantly shooting cannons at the city, and we could not go out without putting our lives in danger.
Q: What did you do after getting out of the ghetto?
A: After January 18th, we tried to go back and re-occupy the apartment we had been removed from October. We found some not very nice people there who did not seem to understand what the heck was it that we wanted. We could not get in right away; we waited until someone opened the apartment and we could join them. A long time passed until we could really occupy the place. Obviously, anything of value was taken out.
Life slowly but surely got back to normal. I cannot say that it totally normalized, but the Jewish Gymnasium opened up again, and in 1948 I graduated. I faced the situation of what to do next, because I did not see myself spending my life in Hungary. There were two reasons for this: first, my past, with the memories of how I was treated; second, the future. It looked like the Iron Curtain was about to go down and would stay down forever. I was about to start University in the fall, but together with a group of friends we decided to get out. This was the time when Israel was created, so there was quite a strong Zionist movement called Briha, which was really trying to help us get out. So we decided to sneak out of Hungary.
Q: How old were you at the time?
A: Eighteen. I just finished High School.
Q: And how did you contact the Briha movement?
A: As I mentioned, I had a family member who was a Zionist. Also, after the war, the Zionist movement was freed, so we could openly join it.
Q: For how long was it free?
A: Probably for about two to three years. It was a very short period of time when Hungary had the so-called ”democratic” government, before the one-party system was declared in 1949. By that time, the Hungarian-Austrian border was already mined, so we could not escape. However, the Briha was not in Budapest. We got the information that they were going to help us get from Pressburg, or Bratislava, to Vienna. So we had to reach Bratislava first. We took a long trip from Budapest moving East through Czechoslovakia.
Q: Were you traveling with all of your family?
A: No, just friends.
Q: What about your mother, father, and sister? Where were they at this point?
A: I lost my father. My mother could not make it. We believed very strongly that once my sister and I managed to get out, the senior members of the family would get permission to leave.
Q: Did your sister go with you?
A: My sister went with a separate group. She left later, and luckily managed to get out. She went directly to Israel. As for me, I had reached Vienna with the help of Briha two weeks later. Most of it was walking at night. We had to give money to the people at the border to guide us across the border.
Q: Were the border guides bribed?
A: I don’t know how they managed, but they knew what the best time was for someone to sneak through. So, in this way we managed to get to Bratislava, and then to Vienna. Once we got to Vienna, there were a relatively large number of University students there; we thought that we might get a chance to continue our studies in Austria if we could get some help from the Joint Distribution Committee, so we approached them and applied, and they were very willing to help us. They said that they would give us some stipend.
Q: In Vienna, where were you living? Who was supporting you? How did you get food?
A: In Vienna it was the Joint Committee that operated through one of the hospitals. It worked both ways. People who were returning to Hungary got certain accommodations, as did people like us who were going the other way.
Q: And what year was that?
A: 1949. We started studying, but not in Vienna. There were two reasons for this. Number one was that we were political refugees, and at that time, Vienna was not a very comfortable designation because it was encircled by the Russians. The city itself had four zones. But Vienna is also part of the Eastern part of Austria, which was under Russian occupation. It was very uncomfortable to know that if you stepped out of the western zone you might find yourself in Siberia.
Q: So you had to be afraid that the Russians might send you back?
A: Absolutely. It was even more probable that they would send us to Siberia. So this was the first reason for being afraid, the political reason. The second was the financial reason. We found out that in Graz, which was the second largest city in Austria, we could find much cheaper accommodations. (The stipend was barely enough to survive, so it did not allow us any luxuries.) So we went to Graz, and that is where I finally got my diploma.
Q: And what did you study?
A: Electronic engineering. Graz was a very pleasant place. It was the capital of the British Zone and had a very large student population. It was a center of culture, and nature is very generous in that section of Austria.
And then, in 1957, I arrived here. Actually, I got my visa earlier, but I was able to postpone it, because I wanted to get my diploma first. It was a special Eisenhower program that gave 5,000 visas to refugees from Eastern Europe who left their homes after 1948.
I continued my studies, while working at IBM research Staff Member, and received the PhD degree in Computer Science.
Q: Where was your mother at this point?
A: This is the sad part of the story, because my poor mother was alone in Hungary. She had to apply for a passport every six months. She stayed in Budapest until the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. Then she could join my sister in Israel.
Q: So now your family lives in Israel and here?
A: No, my sister finally came here, and she lived here. Unfortunately, my mother passed away quite a few years ago.
Q: When you were in Austria, what was the relationship between the Jews-refugees and the Austrian population? How were you received?
A: I came to the conclusion that after the Hungarians, the Austrians were the biggest Nazis. I had only one good friend, who was Austrian-Christian. He was my colleague at the University. He felt very mush like I did. His father was a Social Democratic Party member, who had been taken away and executed.
Q: After the war, have you tried to find out what happened to Raoul Wallenberg?
A: Absolutely, all the time. I am familiar with every piece of information which came through.
Q: Did you know back then that he was captured by the Russians?
A: Absolutely. The ghetto was freed on January 18th, and the Russians invited him for a meeting. That was the last he was heard of. The problem was that the Russians were convinced that he was an American spy. Russian mentality was incapable to accept that this person did all his work for humanitarian purposes. He got money from the United States of America, but it was for carrying out his actions, not for spying. It is very shameful because it was never cleared what exactly happened. We had one member of Hungarian Community in U.S., who was actually my contemporary, Mr. [Tom] Lantos. He and I are the same age, and he went through the same things that I did in Budapest. His wife was saved by Wallenberg.
Q: He was also saved by Wallenberg. He is one of our co-founders and honorary members.
A: He was trying to determine the story of [what happened to] Wallenberg. He [sanctioned the bill that] declared Wallenberg a US citizen so the US could apply more pressure on the Russians and get information.
Q: We are also trying to gather 100,000 signatures for 100,000 lives saved by Wallenberg and to present them to Mr. Putin, to try to find out what actually happened. They issued a statement saying that he died in prison, but nobody actually believes in that, and the circumstances seem very strange.
A: The Russians do not feel that they are obliged to give any explanation. They did what they felt like doing, what they wanted to do. After the 1990s, when the Russian immigration opened to Israel, there were some immigrants who claimed they were in the same Siberian prison camps, and they claim that Wallenberg was there, but that was never confirmed.
Q: I know that it is very painful to remember this.
A: You never forget it, but bringing it up makes you relive it once again.
Q: One of the things I read about survivors is that they actually try not to think about it, or to deny all memory of it.
A: Yes, but everything should be done to remember what Wallenberg did. His story is so unique that it has to be done. Even if I can contribute a single brick to this memorial, it should be done.
Q: Were there years after the war that you didn’t want to think about it or talk about it?
A: My daughter was already born in the States. When she was growing up, at about the age of ten, she got very interested in the subject. My wife and I found out that she went to the library and was reading books about the Holocaust. It was impossible for me to talk about this and discuss it.
Q: Did she ask you questions?
A: Very much so… I had the innermost conviction that I would never set foot in Hungary again. During my 30-year High school class reunion in 1979, my classmates decided that they wanted to organize a reunion in Budapest. At that time there were four of us here, in the States. I was the only one determined not to participate. Finally they convinced me to come with them.( My little daughter was very upset at this. Because of a story she built up on her own, she thought that she would never see me again.) I told my classmates I would only participate during the banquet. As soon as the banquet was over, I was planning to get out of Hungary. But the situation didn’t work out the way I thought, because there is a certain magic in finding yourself back in your classroom thirty years later. You feel like you are seventeen or eighteen. So for the time being, you forget about what happened and feel like a very young High School student.
Q: Is your wife also from Hungary?
A: Yes, she is.
Q: Did you meet here?
A: Here, in the United States.
Q: Did you go back since that time in 1979?
A: I did. Once I ”survived” the first time and found out that Hungary had changed so much, I was there for all subsequent reunions. Now we are working on the 60 year reunion. I will have to organize it, which is sad. The first reunion was so depressing because we had to record all the classmates who did not survive the Holocaust, who were taken away. Now we have a different problem. Due to disease, illness and old age many cannot be with us anymore.
Q: Is there anything you miss about Hungary: the language, the literature?
A: Absolutely not. I lived in Austria for about seven and a half years, and I actually appreciate German literature more than the Hungarian literature.
Q: Thank you so much for coming.
A: Thank you. I appreciate the opportunity to add something to the memory of Wallenberg.
EPILOGUE TO MY WALLENBERG STORY
More than sixty years past since the Holocaust, but the memories of those dramatic times did not fade and the inflicted wounds did not heal. Six million Jews, among them many members of my family and friends did not survive. However we, survivors, moved on, and I, a once persecuted, hunted teenager became a proud grandfather.
I have a beautiful granddaughter and a wonderful grandson. He is a bright, curious, inquisitive first grader. His first name is Nathaniel, a Hebrew name, means: Present from God. His middle name is Raoul. In his room a framed picture of Raoul Wallenberg hangs on the wall.
The memory of the Great Humanitarian should be kept alive.
I appreciate the opportunity to say in a small way, however belatedly, thank you Raoul Wallenberg to save my life twice.
Interview by: Susan Wind and Svetlana Platisa
Transcription by: Mikhail Iglin
Editing by: Katie E. Kellerman