Q: What is your birth name?
A: Vera Herman.
Q: What is your married name?
A: Vera Goodkin.
Q: What is your birth date?
A: June 13, 1930.
Q: What city and country were you born in?
A: I was born in Uzhorod, Czechoslovakia.
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: Well, I grew up in many places. My first nine years – or almost nine years – were spent in my hometown. The next four years were spent in hiding, always just a couple of steps ahead of our pursuers. Then we were imprisoned. I was in a holding prison – Kistarcsa Prison – in Budapest, where you grow up very quickly.
I was rescued by Wallenberg’s people, and I spent time in a children’s home, in an orphanage and, ultimately, reunited with my parents, courtesy of Raoul Wallenberg, in the cellar of one of the protected houses. That was during the last ten weeks of the siege of Budapest, whereupon we were liberated by the Russians and started walking back to the life we had left behind.
All of this took a little over 14 years.
Q: Who did you live with? Parents? Siblings? Extended family?
A: I was an only child – a spoiled rotten only child – and I lived with my parents.
Q: What activities were you involved in before the war?
A: Before the war, I was just a little girl. Obviously, I played with my friends. I skated. I was my parents’ ball boy in their tennis games, and I skied. We spent a lot of time in the mountains.
Q: Did you grow up in a Jewish community?
A: No, not really. The Czech Jewish community was very, very assimilated and emancipated. It was a very non-Jewish Jewish community and a very small one. While we did have a synagogue and we did have a rabbi, when my grandfather – my mother’s father – came to visit my parents there on Yom Kipper, he went to the synagogue and he was absolutely horrified because he could smell food down the hallway from the rabbi’s residence. He said to my mother, ”This is not a synagogue.” So, thereafter, we always went to her hometown and spent the high holy days there.
Now, my mother had a kosher home – mostly to please her parents. Her kosher meat was flown in on ice from Prague.
Q: Was your family religious before the war?
A: Well, both of my parents came from orthodox families, but not orthodox in the inflexible way we know today. My mother’s five brothers went to the university, and they were not strict observers of the Sabbath. My grandfather said he didn’t care if they beat him in gehenna, his sons were going to have a better life than he did.
Q: How did you learn your Jewish religion and customs?
A: My parents hired a kibbutznik to come to our home. He was in an experimental kibbutz, not far from my hometown, where idealistic youngsters who were going to a kibbutz in Israel trained to work. It was an experimental farm, and one of the faculty was Israeli. He taught me Hebrew and customs.
Q: What school did you attend?
A: I attended a public school until the third grade when the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia and things started going downhill.
Q: When did you first notice signs of anti-Semitism?
A: All of a sudden. All of a sudden. Maybe two weeks after the Ides of March. After March 15, 1939, when we were occupied, I walked into my classroom, and one of my classmates called me a dirty Jew. And, as if that wasn’t enough, she said, ”And she’s Hungarian, too,” because there was no love lost between the Slavs and the Hungarians. (They knew my mother was of Hungarian descent because she had a Hungarian accent. My father was Hungarian, too, but his Czech was so perfect that nobody could tell). And, so, I was not only a Jew, but I was a Hungarian.
You can see upbringing during that incident. Another one of my classmates got up and said, ”That’s not right. That’s not nice. Everybody is the same. My parents tell me that.”
Q: How did you first hear about what was happening to the Jewish people?
A: Well, we heard about it for years, actually, because, from the time I was three years old, there were visitors in the home who I didn’t know. When, at age five, I was finally able to ask an intelligent question, I was told that these were German Jews who were escaping anti-Semitism and persecution and that homes were arranged for them to use as shelters on their way to England, to the United States, to Australia, to Canada, and so on.
So, we heard what was happening to Jews from these people, but we didn’t believe it any more than the Hungarian Jews believed what we told them when we went there. This disbelief cost a lot of lives.
It was my mother’s mother who, when she saw all these German Jews in our home, said, ”Don’t you think they know they had writing on the wall? Don’t you think you and your little family ought to find a safer haven?” My mother was out of her mind with indignation, and she said, ”How can you say a thing like that? This is a perfect democracy. It’ll never happen here.”
My mother never forgave herself for that because she felt that, had she taken her mother’s advice and, had we come to the United States, maybe we would have been able to save our family, or some of them. You know, survivor guilt is a real thing and, when you add to that something you feel is really worth being guilty about, it’s hard.
Q: What were your thoughts, feelings and reactions to what was happening?
A: Well, that depends on when it occurred. The first time I was called a dirty Jew, I was totally confused. I didn’t know where that came from. Little by little, as we lost our civil rights, as we were subject to the Nuremberg Laws, as we lost the protection of the law and we lost the ability to make a living or to get an education, we began a gradual process of dehumanization. Your self-image plummets. When people ask me these days why the Jews went like lambs to the slaughter, the answer is, we didn’t go to death camps from our affluent homes with our personalities intact. It was preceded by two years or more of dehumanization and, by that time, there was very little left in us. (Not that it would have been practical to fight back. We didn’t have weapons. We were not fighting people. We were, indeed, the ”People of the Book”). It was a horribly dehumanizing process.
A number of years ago, I taught an extension class which was contracted with our college for prisoners in the Prison Education Network, and we were talking about prison mentality. Actually, we were reading Camus’ Stranger, and I told this story to my students to illustrate what happens to you when these unspeakable things happen.
When I was five years old, I got a Shirley Temple doll. Later, in our miserable state, I would fantasize about my Shirley Temple doll. Then, the memory got fainter and fainter and fainter, and I convinced myself that I had just been dreaming – that doll didn’t exist; I didn’t have a Shirley Temple doll.
Now, my parents were able to ship some of their furnishings and belongings to the United States in early 1939. These belongings were put in storage, and when we arrived on these shores in 1947, we claimed them. When we were unpacking, I saw a large shoebox. I lifted the lid, and I lifted a layer of cotton, and there was the Shirley Temple doll.
Q: Sometimes the perpetrators used the fact that victims questioned themselves to their advantage in order to re-victimize.
A: Sure, sure.
Q: You make a strong point in reminding people about the dehumanizing process. It is important to note that the Jewish people didn’t just ”let this happen.” This was a process that was very, very shrewdly planned.
A: Absolutely. Starting with the Evian Conference and the Nuremberg Laws.
Q: I think the fact that there was a planned, dehumanizing process is something people are not reminded of enough. The victims were hungry and thirsty. They were not protected from the heat or the cold, and they did not have fresh air to breath. Individuals do not think straight under such conditions.
A: It isn’t clear to most people because, with a sane mentality, you really can’t imagine it.
Q: Even what we watch on television – even if well done – can, oftentimes, romanticize what happened. The focus on rescues or love stories – even though such actions may have taken place, and thank God those beautiful stories did, it’s not…
A: It’s still on screen; it can trivialize it sometimes.
Q: What changes did you experience during the war?
A: Well, the most dramatic change was [experiencing the emotion of] fear for your life. You wake up hungry, you go to sleep hungry, and you don’t know whether you’re going to survive the day. That’s really a major change. It informs all of your thoughts and all of your actions. And, yet, there was hope because, without hope, none of the survivors would have made it.
Q: Do you know where that hope came from?
A: I guess it’s an instinct of self-preservation.
Now, those of us who were fortunate enough to meet the rescuers, had logical reason for hope beyond a certain point. Up to that point, it was kind of foolhardy, but it was there.
Q: How did your family manage to continue their religious traditions during the war?
A: At most points, we did not have many ration cards, and we had even fewer ration cards before and during the time we decided to hide out, so, we never had meat. I remember one instance, just before the high holy days, my mother moved heaven and earth to get us a goose. And she got a live goose. It was my job to carry that live goose to the slaughter (of course, kosher slaughter was forbidden; it was a criminal act). So, they gave this 10-year-old child a goose, in a bag, and all I could do – boy, I was religious – I was praying all the way that this goose would make no goose sounds or noises or I was done for.
Why, I think in retrospect, take chances like that? But, it was tradition and, of course, I got to the shochet and the goose was slaughtered and, on the way back, I didn’t have to worry about its noise.
So, we tried to practice as much as we could, as much as circumstances permitted.
Q: Tell me how you and your parents made it to Budapest and how Raoul Wallenberg saved you.
A: When we were in our last hiding place in Slovakia, someone betrayed us, and we were visited by a Jewish property confiscation team – a real joke because we had nothing left to confiscate. Along with the team came a member of the SS, a member of the local secret police, a local collaborator (probably the person who betrayed us) and the poor benighted Jewish attorney, who they dragged along to draw up confiscation papers. They took an extra pair of shoes – that’s about all we had.
The event was a good warning to us that we would be in the next transport to Auschwitz. My father, I think by that time, had had it up to here with the running and the forced labor and he was, perhaps, just content to be a sitting duck. But mothers in the Holocaust were not inclined to be sitting ducks.
My mother had heard about this ”underground railroad,” so to speak, of farmers whose properties spanned the Hungarian and the Slovak border and who would guide people across that border to get them to Budapest (Budapest was the only remaining Jewish community in central Europe that had yet to be deported). So, my mother, literally, went from house to house, and after she had a lot of doors slammed in her face, ultimately made contact with this underground organization. We were told to take off our yellow stars, make sure that we removed all the telltale threads, walk to the local railroad station, take a local train, get off at a certain village and, when we got on the platform, look to the left. At the end of the platform there would be a young man. We were to follow him, at a reasonable distance, to his farm.
Well, we did all this. We were very lucky. We were not asked to identify ourselves, and we made it to the village, and we followed this man to his very poor little farm. It was just one large room for three generations of family and some farm animals.
The man propped a ladder against his attic window, and as we were climbing, he said, ”Please be very careful. Don’t move around too much because my mother-in-law is here, and she’s a Nazi sympathizer. If she finds out about you, you won’t be here very long.” So, we did that.
We climbed up to the attic, and as we were trying to be very quiet, we realized we were not alone. The rat population of the farm was up there. It’s sort of seared in my consciousness. I was afraid because my father was bald and I worried that the rats would get at his scalp, so I put my scarf around his head.
We were there for 24 hours, at which time, the farmer again propped the ladder against the window and we descended. We had heard the rain all day – we were right underneath the roof – but we didn’t know just how torrential the rain had been and how it had affected the soil. First of all, by the time we got to the bottom of the ladder, we were soaked to the skin. Then we started walking in that black mud. We sank into the mud, to mid-calf, and we, literally, had to lift each foot out to take the next step. I was just so exhausted that I wanted to sit down in the mud and lean against one of the trees and take a nap. I said that to my mother, but she wasn’t impressed.
We weren’t watching anything but that procedure when the young man who was guiding us saw a flicker of light in a place where none had been before. To him, that meant there may be a new guard or that the old guard had tried another route that day. The man didn’t want to be left there with us, so he turned on his heels and started walking back, leaving us in the pitch-dark forest in the pouring rain.
The next thing I knew, my mother started running, following this man, screaming in the forest – she didn’t care if anybody heard her because, by this time, it didn’t matter. She said, ”You have children of your own. Are you going to let this one die?” And, because he was basically a nice man, he slowed down and let us follow him back to his cottage, where we stayed for another two days, until we made the crossing.
We made the crossing into Hungary and did the reverse of what we had done before. We got on the local train and took it into Budapest. This maneuver saved us for another two months. In that time, the people convinced Adolf Eichmann that it wouldn’t matter where he left the Jews if the Allies decide to bomb Budapest.
The reason the Jews of Budapest were still there was because somebody convinced Adolf Eichmann that his headquarters would be safe from bombing if he left the Jews in Budapest, judiciously scattered throughout the city. He did that, but after two months, he realized they were giving him invalid information, and he started finishing his assignment of the final solution. He put the native Jews – the Jews of Budapest, some of whose families had been there a thousand years – into ghettos, and he put people like us – known as alien Jews – into holding prisons).
The first holding prison we were in was a medieval fortress called Tolonc, in the city of Budapest. That is where we were separated from my father. Then, a month later, my mother and I were transported 30 kilometers closer to the Austrian border, to a place called Kistarcsa. That is where I was taken out of prison by Kasser and his two colleagues.
Q: So, you and your parents were separated?
A: Oh, yes! Yes, we were. First, we were separated from and lost contact with my father when we were arrested in Budapest. Then, in the next holding prison, in Kistarcsa – when I was taken out by Wallenberg’s people – all three of us were separated.
Q: Can you tell me the role the Red Cross played in helping you?
A: Well, when Dr. Kasser and two of his colleagues arrived, they introduced themselves as a Swedish Red Cross inspection team. They persuaded the commander of Kistarcsa that the prison was not a nice place to keep children and elicited an agreement which let the children below the age of 14 leave the prison in their custody. When they got me outside of the prison, they said, ”Well, this was not really a Red Cross project. This was a project of Raoul Wallenberg (which was the first time I had heard the name), a Swedish diplomat who wants to save as many innocent victims as possible and, above all, children,” because children are the hope of the world.
The second home I was in was also a Swedish Red Cross home. They ran the children’s homes.
Q: Do you know how the Red Cross was organized?
A: All I know is that the president of the Swedish Red Cross in Hungary was Dr. Alexander Kasza-Kasser.
Q: Can you tell me about Dr. Kasser?
A: Dr. Kasser was a member of an Austro-Hungarian aristocratic family, a very bright man who didn’t just sit back and lean on the wealth and prestige of his family. He was a very successful and wealthy exporter-importer and he, with his volunteer function in the Swedish Red Cross, became friendly with Wallenberg. His wife, Elizabeth, became Wallenberg’s interpreter.
After Dr. Kasser got me out of prison, I didn’t even remember his face, but in 1985, NBC presented a two-day miniseries on the life of Raoul Wallenberg (Richard Chamberlain played Wallenberg). The miniseries itself ran on a Monday and Tuesday night; the Saturday afternoon prior to that Monday and Tuesday, there was a historical background shown on NBC, and I did the narration for that historical retrospective. As a result, I was invited to a gala at NBC for the launching of this miniseries. At the gala, someone brought over a short, elderly gentleman and said to me, ”Oh, this is Alexander Kasza-Kasser.” Well, it didn’t mean anything to me. We shook hands and this person said, ”You know, Dr. Kasser was president of the Swedish Red Cross in 1944 and 1945 in Budapest.” I looked at him, and I said, ”Dr. Kasser, did you ever go to prisons?” He said, ”Yes.” I said, ”Did you ever take children out of prisons?” He said, ”Yes,” and he was getting more and more suspicious, and I said, ”Well, take a good look at me; I’m one of your children.” He said, ”No, can’t be. My children were killed.”
That’s when I knew I was really looking at the right man because, in the first children’s home I was in, I became very ill. I got scarlet fever, and I was taken to a hospital for contagious diseases. While I was quarantined – it was a six-week quarantine – the Hungarian Arrow Cross, bunch of bums, got drunk one Sunday afternoon and, with no respect for territorial integrity, they broke into the home, and they killed the children I had left behind. That’s what Dr. Kasser knew, and that’s why he thought I must be a fake – because all his children were killed. He took me over to Elizabeth, and I met with his daughter; I’m still in touch with her.
Q: Can you tell me a little bit about the Arrow Cross?
A: The Arrow Cross was the Hungarian equivalent of the SS, the difference being that they were strictly hooligans. They did not even have any military discipline. They were truly the soft underbelly of society. Of course, they didn’t want to copy the swastika, so they had a logo of their own. It was a horizontal arrow and a vertical arrow, and it formed a cross; hence, the Arrow Cross.
Q: When Dr. Kasser rescued you from Kistarcsa Prison, you left your mother behind. What happened to her while you were in the children’s home?
A: Now, my mother then found herself in a cattle wagon en route to Auschwitz. Her train was chugging along and, all of a sudden, the people who still had the strength to try to look out the iron-grated openings saw that the train was going in another direction and they were approaching a walled-in facility. The gates to the facility opened, and the train pulled into the enclosure.
(Admiral Horthy was the Regent of Hungary, and he was trying to do the Nazi’s bidding, so they left him alone. One of his sons married a Jewish girl, and he couldn’t keep the Hungarian authorities from putting her in prison, but he made them promise that she would never go to a death camp)
My mother’s train entered the facility because the Horthys found out that somebody, either accidentally or on purpose, had stuck this young Horthy wife in this transport, and they ordered the train stopped on Hungarian soil. They wanted this young lady, this needle in the haystack, found in a group of wagons that had no passenger lists. For safety’s sake, they stopped the train in a prison enclosure so they could unlock all the wagons and disgorge the entire human cargo.
When my mother jumped off the train and got used to the light, she saw a man across the yard that looked very much like her husband. In fact, that was who it was. My father had been transported there and served as prisoner physician. He saw this chaos, so he passed by to see what was going on and, when he saw her, he disappeared and returned with a little vial of liquid. He brushed by her and, as he did so, he put the vial in her hand and whispered, ”Take this.” (What he wanted, obviously, was for her to pass out so he could put her on a stretcher and take her to the makeshift infirmary and out of harm’s way). His plan worked. It almost didn’t. One of the guards ran after the stretcher yelling, ”I have to deliver 2,000 bodies, and I don’t care whether they’re dead or alive”. Just then, though, the guard got a telephone call from headquarters which said, ”Don’t bother bringing them anymore. Just take them outside of the prison and machine-gun them”.
There were only four survivors from that transport of 2,000: the young Horthy lady who they did find, my mother and two resourceful souls who must have hidden somewhere. These four remained in this facility, in this last holding prison on Hungarian soil. My mother made uniforms for the SS in the tailor shop, and she and my father did not see each other again for three months.
Three months after my mother arrived, the partisans in the woods surrounding the prison, sabotaged some of the gates, and some prisoners – quite a few prisoners – tried to escape. Most were recaptured, but my parents were lucky because a) they ran into each other, and b) since the Russians were advancing, the countryside was pretty well burned and bombed out, so, a lot of the farmhouses were abandoned. They walked for three weeks, hiding out and getting food in these farmhouses as best they could and, when they got to Budapest, they heard about Wallenberg.
Q: How did Wallenberg save your parents?
A: The rumor mill had Wallenberg’s name, and he became so well known that his name preceded him. When my parents escaped from the last holding prison on Hungarian soil and walked back to Budapest, my father said, ”We’re going to get recaptured anyway, so I’ll take a chance, and I’ll try to get to the Swedish embassy and see if I can meet Raoul Wallenberg, this miraculous Swede.” As it happened, he was lucky. Wallenberg was at the embassy when my father reached him and, within five minutes, my father had a Schutzpass for himself and his wife and permission to go into one of the protected houses. Then Wallenberg smiled, and he said, ”Do you know we still have your little girl?”
Q: When did you first hear of Raoul Wallenberg?
A: I heard of him from the men who took me – really, forcibly – away from my mother. When they seated me in the car, they said, ”We’re doing this for a Mr. Wallenberg.”
Q: How old were you when you met Raoul Wallenberg?
A: I was 13.
Q: Do you know how old he was at the time?
A: Well, I didn’t know then. I know now. He was born in 1912, and I met him in 1944.
Q: What did he look like? How would you describe him?
A: He was very handsome. He was slender, and he had a uniquely intense face, and yet, he had such a wonderful sense of humor. He used to come to the homes and bring food at night, and he would joke and play with the children.
Q: And, generally, who was Raoul Wallenberg?
A: He was a member of a very, very wealthy banking and diplomatic family. There were actually two sides to the Wallenberg family; one side was not as humanitarian as the other, but Raoul had a remarkable and unique history. He was unique.
First of all, his young father died before he was born. Raoul was the only son of the only son, and he was brought up by his grandfather Wallenberg. It was this very, very wise man who had an influence on the boy. He wanted to fulfill the promise he made to make Raoul a citizen of the world. From the time Wallenberg was eight or nine, he and his grandfather exchanged ideas on directed readings, geography, history, and so on. Then, of course, he was sent to the University of Michigan.
When I met his sister, Nina Lagergren, many years later, she approached me, and I said to myself, ”I wonder what she’s thinking. I wonder whether she’s thinking, If it weren’t for people like her, my brother would have a wonderful life in Sweden.” As she came up to me, she put her hand on my shoulder and said, ”May I touch you? When I touch the people he rescued, I feel his presence.” Then she said something I have never forgotten, and that is, ”His American education taught him the art of the possible.” In other words, she attributed his ability to think outside the box to the fact that he didn’t go to a rigid European university, but that he came here, where he met people from all walks of life, and that gave him the one extra push toward being his brothers’ keeper.
Q: Raoul Wallenberg was given the status of legation secretary, and he arrived in Budapest in July 1944. Do you recall hearing about the existence of the legation and what it was and did?
A: Well, the legation usually takes care of the business and trade needs between nations – the host nation and the diplomats – but those were unusual times, and the legation had various other functions. I don’t think I thought about its function during the war. I did know that one of its functions was to save Jews.
Q: What was the Schutzpass?
A: Schutzpass means ”protective pass.” Some of the Wallenberg survivors I know are very intent on making sure that the documents Wallenberg gave out are not viewed as passports. They did not entitle you to cross a border. Instead, they were a takeoff on the diplomatic immunity passes that embassy and legation employees carried with them in host countries to indicate that they were not subject to the host country’s laws. When Wallenberg arrived at the legation, though, he looked at those little IDs and he figured they weren’t going to impress anyone, so he redesigned the diplomatic immunity pass. It was a document, eight and a half by eleven inches, on parchment, in the Swedish royal colors, with lots of stamps and seals to impress the SS and, perhaps, hopefully intimidate the Arrow Cross. That was what the diplomatic immunity pass did, and it became what is called the ”protective pass.” Schutzen in German means ”to protect,” so a Schutzpass is ”a pass that protects.”
Q: Do you know how the Schutzpasses were created, manufactured and distributed?
A: They were manufactured, I guess, in conjunction with the underground – with the partisans. They were distributed by the 500 or 600 young, Jewish volunteers who Wallenberg had recruited.
Wallenberg had his little side joke as well: He took some of the young men who looked remarkably Aryan and dressed them in SS uniforms. He let them loose around the streets and they would, occasionally, commandeer groups of Jews who were being taken away by the real SS. They’d pull rank on the real SS.
Q: Did the way the Schutzpasses were created, manufactured and given out change with time?
A: I don’t think so. The only thing that changed was that they were supposed to be limited in number, and the partisans started manufacturing their own. They started manufacturing fake Wallenberg passes, and the people around Wallenberg were very concerned. They were very upset and they wanted to stop this, but Wallenberg said, ”More power to them.”
Q: How did Raoul Wallenberg save those on the cattle cars who did not have Schutzpasses?
A: What he gave those he rescued were the Schutzpasses. What he asked for from them were papers – anything they could hand him that he could pass off as ”proof” that he had given them a Schutzpass. So, when he called all the fictitious names and people started playing his game, he would say, ”Well, you must have a Schutzpass that I gave you when you came to the legation.” Those who caught on to the charade would hand him any scrap of paper or ID they had. He then passed off these papers as proof of his having given them a Schutzpass. And, of course, he would say, ”I realize that most of you didn’t bring your Schutzpasses (on the way to oblivion), so stop by the legation, and I’ll give you another copy.”
Q: Do you know how these Jewish people were able to use these documents once they were rescued from the cattle cars and returned to Budapest?
A: Well, they could use them only if they also stayed in one of the protected houses. Otherwise, they weren’t worth the parchment they were written on.
Q: What were the protected, or safe, houses?
A: They were houses either offered to Wallenberg or solicited by Wallenberg. They were offered, very often, because the people or corporations who owned them were very much afraid of having them confiscated by the Nazis and maybe, they thought, they could even keep them away from the Russians. (They were not right about that). Anyway, they tried to protect their property, and Wallenberg took advantage of this, and he used the funds given to him by the Swedish king and by the United States War Refugee Board. In the end, there were about 33 high-rise apartment houses that flew the Swedish flag.
Q: Did Wallenberg obtain and organize the safe houses himself?
A: He had a staff, mostly made up of volunteers – young people between the ages of 18 and 25 – who were still in Budapest and who thought this was the grand adventure. They adored Wallenberg and would follow him to hell.
Q: What did people say about Wallenberg at the time? What were the stories that came back to the safe houses about Wallenberg?
A: Well, the stories most people know are his forays to the railway stations and his ”readings” of hundreds of names off completely blank rosters. The point of doing that was to get the victims to catch on to his game. They would jump out of the wagons and get into trucks so he could take them back to Budapest.
People also know about all the times Wallenberg and his volunteers were on the shores of the Danube, jumping in every time the Nazis decided to play their ”turkey shoot,” where they tied three Jews together and put a bullet in the middle one. With all of these stories, he became legendary.
Q: Can you tell me more about what happened at the Danube?
A: Yes. Because of the bombings, there was a blackout in the city, and no public lights were on at night. Wallenberg found out when these ”turkey shoots” were to take place and, in the shadows, he would station a couple of ambulances and a number of swimmers. Every time a shot rang out and they heard a plop into the icy water, they’d jump in and pull out the victims. The victims were dragged over to the ambulances and wrapped in blankets and given hot liquids and, on a good night, Wallenberg could save 20, 25 people.
Q: How did Raoul Wallenberg obtain the food, clothing and other necessities for those he helped rescue?
A: I think he used some of the funds from the Swedish king and the United States War Refugee Board, but I don’t really know the details.
Q: Do you know how Wallenberg was able to open and run a hospital?
A: No, I really don’t.
Q: He also opened and maintained an orphanage, which you talked about earlier. Do you know how he managed to create it?
A: He created it through a partnership with the Swedish Red Cross.
Q: Do you know how Raoul Wallenberg obtained the trucks and drivers that he used to help the people?
A: Other than he appeared to be a magician, I really don’t know.
Q: On the outskirts of Budapest, there was a death camp in a mason factory where thousands of people were held. Do you know how Raoul Wallenberg learned about it and what he did to help the people there?
A: How he learned about it, I don’t know, but he had a tremendous network of intelligence who gave him information he needed.
The mason factory was used after the trainings stopped working. They had forced marches. My father was in one of the forced marches.
My friend, who became a librarian at a New York university, told me her story about the mason, or brick, factory. She said she and her aunt and her mother were caught in Budapest, and they were put in this brick factory in preparation for forced march, where they would walk, on foot, toward the border. The people were herded in at night and, since it was dark, some of them fell into the brick pits. They, of course, didn’t have to worry about going on in the morning. This factory simply served as a gathering place for the night (During the march, those who fell by the wayside fell by the wayside, and those who couldn’t go fast enough were shot and left behind).
But, early in the morning, my friend and her mother and aunt saw this handsome young man in a long, leather coat, bustling among them, and he kept saying, ”Don’t worry. Don’t worry. I’ll come back for you.” They thought they must be imagining things, but when he did come back, she said 500 people, who had not uttered a word all night long, said as one Shema Yisrael, ”Hear, O Israel….” They said it, she said, not because he saved their lives, but because there was somebody who found them worthy of saving.
Q: Were all of the people rescued by Raoul Wallenberg, and those who worked with Raoul, Jewish, or were there others among them like gypsies or resisters?
A: Resisters, yes. I have not heard of any gypsies. To the best of my knowledge, he just wasn’t in touch with any gypsy groups.
It is an interesting question because I had a black student ask me, ”If Wallenberg had seen black people in the position that you were in, do you think he would have saved them?” and I said, ”Absolutely.”
Q: If Raoul Wallenberg were sitting with us, what would you say to him?
A: I would ask him to look out in the yard where my granddaughter is playing. Look at my granddaughter. He saved three generations by now. The 100,000 he saved in 1945 can easily be half a million today.
Q: What do you think Wallenberg would say to the world today?
A: I think he would be sad. I think he would see that the world hasn’t learned anything. We have not learned. I tell young people that the Holocaust, the experiences of the Holocaust, are not just 60-plus-year-old history; they’re all around us. The perpetrators are different, and the victims are different, but ethnic cleansing is alive and well, and that would be a very sad commentary for him, as it is for so many of us.
Q: After the war, what happened to you and your family?
A: After the war, the Russians liberated us. It was a battle siege in Budapest; it was street by street, house by house, almost floor by floor. When our house was liberated, it was January 16, 1945. Within 24 hours, in a hail of bullets and in a terrible snowstorm, we started walking again. There was no public transportation anywhere, so we walked toward the Czech border. I was very, very weak, so my parents left me with an uncle, and they went back to Czechoslovakia.
Then, of course, we went back to my hometown, and my father established himself and, for two years, I thought I had died and gone to heaven because I was back in school, and my father had a wonderful practice, and the Czechs provided us with a beautiful villa. And, so, it was lovely. But my father was watching the political situation, and he said to my mother, one fateful day, ”One totalitarian regime for a lifetime is enough. We’re going to the United States.”
We were on the American quota before the war. As a matter of fact, our number had come up, which is why my parents were able to transport their furnishings to the United States. My father was director of Patient Relations for the Czech Railroad, and he had connections with the ministry, so, when our quote number came up to go to the United States, he had shown them the papers and he asked if he could ship some of his belongings, and he got permission to do so. So, my parents took a very small part of their furniture and filled all the drawers and all the shelves with memorabilia. That’s how my very precious photographs are here and, as I said, my Shirley Temple doll.
At the time, my father was such a law-abiding citizen that when the authorities wouldn’t give us a valid passport, we remained behind as hostages. But, you know, when the name of the game was survival, we ran without regard to papers. After the war – that’s after the process of dehumanization – we simply reactivated our quota number and, on Czech Independence Day, October 28, 1947, we arrived in the port in New York.
My father was a physician; he was a psychiatrist. He had to study to take all the exams and practice medicine in the United States. It took him about a year and a half to get established, and he practiced until he died in 1972.
Q: And your mom? When did she pass away?
A: My mom was a remarkable lady. She passed away in 1995 at the age of 93, still an active hospital volunteer. She ran the gift shop in one of the local hospitals two days a week.
Q: What happened to your extended family after the war?
A: My maternal grandparents and two maternal aunts and uncles and their children and all of my father’s seven brothers and their families perished in Auschwitz.
Q: You mentioned your maternal grandparents earlier. Tell me about them.
A: My mother’s parents were a remarkable couple, at least in my estimation. My maternal grandmother’s name was Sally Burger and she was, perhaps, the wisest and most compassionate person I knew. I adored her. I truly, truly adored her. The thought of how she died is something I still can’t deal with.
My grandfather was William Burger. He was a small shop owner and an amateur psychologist. When one of his sons wanted to quit the university and help him in the store, he said, ”Yes, I surely need you, but think of it this way: when your brother, the doctor, and your brother, the lawyer, and the engineer come and visit, will you be shining their shoes?” Nothing more was ever said, and the son returned to the university.
He was a man of vision. He saw that the young men of his sons’ generation needed more than he had and, so, he struggled with his little store and saw to it that all five of his sons went to the university. I hope my grandfather knows there’s a state of Israel.
My grandmother, who raised six children, was his helpmate in his business and hid Flaubert and Baudelaire underneath all the good books that she was supposed to read on the Sabbath. The couple studied Greek and Latin with their sons.
They’re still very much alive in my memory, but they died in Auschwitz.
Q: That reminds me of the story you mention in your book [In Sunshine and Shadow: We Remember Them] about your grandfather hiding the jewels in the hope that you would remember them later. Can you tell us that story?
A: I think it was the last time I saw my grandparents that my grandfather said to me, ”Come with me.” I went to the woodshed with him, and he dug up the threshold – it was a plank of wood. Underneath it, he dug a little hole. He was carrying a little leather pouch in his hand, and he put it in that hole and sort of covered it over and nailed the threshold back on. He said, ”You know, when this nightmare is over, perhaps you can tell someone.”
After the war, when my parents were going back to my mother’s hometown (I was still staying with my uncle, recuperating), I said to them, ”Don’t laugh at me, but I have a very faint memory.” I told them the story, and I told them where to look, and I said, ”Look. You know, it can’t hurt.” And they came back with the satchel.
Q: Will you tell us about your mother’s siblings?
A: My mother was the only girl.
My mother’s oldest brother was a country doctor whose patients, for the most part, paid the going rate. But, not only did his poor patients not pay, he had his cook prepare nutritious meals to send them. His payment, because he was a social democrat, was his kidnapping in September 1938. He was kidnapped by the Black Shirts, the precursor of the Arrow Cross. He was held for ransom, which was paid, and he was killed by the Black Shirts. His wife and daughter died in Auschwitz.
My mother’s second oldest brother was a very successful attorney in Budapest. He represented the cardinal, the Holy See and a lot of aristocratic families. He became what is known as ”unentbehrliche Jude,” an indispensable Jew. By virtue of this decree, he was not exposed to the danger of deportation.
He had two children. His son and daughter, along with their parents, suffered imprisonment and horrors during the communist regime. So, their payback came, not during the Nazis’ reign, but later.
My mother’s middle brother was a pharmacist who was a very sensitive man. He died at a young age because he found out what had happened to his parents, and he became an asthmatic.
He and his wife had two sons. One is now a retired professor of chemistry in Koln, Germany. One became a professor of chemistry in Budapest and just recently passed away.
The second youngest of the brothers was an officer in the Austro-Hungarian army – in the emperor’s army. He died in 1917 in the First World War. He held great promise; he was a concert violinist, and he was studying engineering because my grandfather didn’t believe that violinists made a living. He didn’t live to be more than 19. I have a postcard he wrote to my mother in which he said, ”There are so many things, dear, I would like to tell you. If I come back, I will. And if I don’t, let this postcard serve as a reminder.”
The youngest brother was also a pharmacist. His young wife was a pianist. She was 33 years old and she died of exposure when we were all forced to surrender our winter coats in the harsh winters of Slovakia. They had a daughter.
Q: I like how you weave your family history and genealogy into this process. Victims of the Holocaust were treated like objects. You show that they were human beings. They had curly hair. They had smiles and different facial expressions. They had children. They had parents. It really gives your story another dimension.
A: There was a project done by a photographer – I’ve forgotten the young woman’s name [Ann Weiss] – who went to Auschwitz. Somebody gave her a key to a long-forgotten room and, there, she saw piles and piles of photographs that had come with the victims. She started working on them. She researched them for a number of years to find an identity for each face, to give each face a name. She has a video called Eyes from the Ashes.
Q: How did the war affect your family’s religious and cultural traditions?
A: That’s a question a lot of young people ask me. You know, ”After all this, how can you believe in God?”
My grandparents were very religious people, but they were also worldly-wise. They were very remarkable people. In their memory, my mother, perhaps, became more observant after the war than she had been before the war. It was a tribute she paid to them.
Now, the relatives who survived and remained behind the Iron Curtain, on the other hand, became total atheists.
Q: How did the war and what happened to you and your family affect your relationship with religion?
A: Well, I had very little control over [how we practiced our religion]. I mean, I was 14, 15, 16, and I didn’t make the policy. My father was never particularly observant, but since it’s the woman who runs the house and sets the tone, it was an observant, kosher home.
Q: After the war, what happened to Raoul Wallenberg?
A: Well, the same day we left the protected house, after we were liberated (which was the January 17, 1945), Wallenberg finally had an arranged meeting with General Malinovsky of the Russian forces, essentially to buy food from him for the protected houses that had not yet been liberated. He has not been seen a free man since.
Now, people say to me, ”What happened? Why?” We can only guess, and the guess is twofold: One is that the Russians could not believe anyone would put his life on the line for western civilization’s favorite scapegoat, the Jews, so, therefore, he must have had an ulterior motive; he must have had another agenda. These activities that were humanitarian in nature must have been used to cover up espionage. Once the Russians realized they were wrong, there was very little they wanted to do about it. Wallenberg knew too much by then.
And, the other part of it is, Per Anger always said that Raoul carried papers, proposals for the rehabilitation of war-torn Europe, and that posed a threat to the Russians.
Q: Why is it important to keep Raoul Wallenberg’s legacy and story alive?
A: Because it’s a timeless story. Because it’s unalloyed human kindness, and it’s coupled with resourcefulness. But, even without the resourcefulness, standing up for what is right, and in the highest degree, putting your own life in danger, is a much better example to set than those set by rock stars, for instance.
Q: You visit schools to share your story and teach people about Raoul Wallenberg. When did you begin doing so, and why?
A: It’s very interesting. When I came to the United States, aged 16 going on 45, I was very anxious to share what had happened, and I got only two kinds of reactions: ”Oh, you’ve suffered so much. Why don’t you just put it behind you?” which is very well meaning, but impossible. The other reaction was responsible for my keeping quiet for 37 years, and that was, ”You must be exaggerating. Human beings don’t do things like that to other human beings.” What?
In October 1983, I got a phone call, and it came from someone in the Jewish community who knew I was European and, even though I never talked about it, knew that I was a survivor. She said to me, ”Would you consider helping put on a commemorative event for a Swedish hero? His name is Raoul Wallenberg. Do you know who he is?” I laughed, and I said, ”If I didn’t know who he was, you wouldn’t be talking to me today.”
This got their attention and got me the keynote speech at the event. It was held on the second anniversary of Wallenberg’s conferment as honorary United States citizen. (He became an honorary United States citizen on October 5, 1981, and it was, essentially, a bill that was introduced into congress by Congressman Tom Lantos of California – one of Wallenberg’s children. It was a bill that was signed by Ronald Reagan).
The first anniversary event was held at Rutgers University. That was in 1982. In 1983, Rider University wanted the honor, and so, six weeks after this telephone call, I stood in front of 800 people and spoke for the first time in 37 years, and I haven’t stopped. I haven’t shut up since.
Q: You wrote a book called In Sunshine and Shadow: We Remember Them as well as a teacher’s guide. Can you describe both, and explain why you wrote them?
A: The book is a family memoir that was years in the making – 50 years in incubation and one year in the writing. I wrote the book because I wanted to pay tribute to a remarkable family. That was my first consideration, but the considerations changed through the years. The other components, of course, are equally important.
The consideration I began with was to show the readers that we were not meant to be victims but an integral part of vibrant society and what prejudice and hatred and persecution did to us. I wanted to show what happened during the ravages and the dichotomy of what happened afterward, even to the survivors – the ones who remained behind the Iron Curtain – who endured more hardships, more persecution because they had been capitalists before the Holocaust.
The last consideration, of course, and certainly not the least, was to describe how I arrived at the place I’m at now and my activities to try to convince young people that hatred is not the way to go.
As far as the teacher’s guide is concerned, when I wrote the book, I wrote it for general consumption. Then, a couple of people at colleges said they would like to use it as a textbook for their Holocaust literature courses. Then, teachers on the secondary level said, ”Well, I would use it if I had a teacher’s guide.” The guide gives background material, assignments and information pertaining to the book and the time in which the book takes place.
Q: You have also developed another type of educational material pertaining to the Holocaust. What are the teaching trunks?
A: The teaching trunks are self-contained classrooms, and they are available in three levels. We have an elementary school trunk, a middle school trunk and a high school trunk. Each consists of background, or study, materials for the teacher to use in preparation for the unit he or she wants to teach. The trunks also include enough textbooks for a class of 30, video and audio materials, posters, newspapers, and extra books to read aloud and do reports on. Signing out one of these trunks means the teacher can concentrate on preparing and teaching rather than scrambling to gather materials and so on.
Q: Tell me about your children and grandchildren.
A: Our older daughter, Kathy, is a Law School graduate but a stay-at-home mom. Her husband is an economist and works for the state of Nevada. They have one little boy, Willie, who is nine.
Our youngest daughter, Debbie, is a high school teacher of drama. Her husband, Mark, is also a teacher. Their children are Jacob and Margaret. Jacob is 13 and Margaret’s going on 11.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to share with us today?
A: Well, I suppose it’s the message I leave with students, and it’s twofold: Realize that we are all human beings first. Only then do we belong to a race, an ethnicity, a religious background, an economic background, an educational level, and so on. If we realize that what’s most important is the thing that unites us, and that’s our common humanity, then what divides us is not really that important. I tell youngsters if they can achieve that – even in today’s world – then this would be a world worth living in.
On a more practical level, this is a country of great diversity. Just look around, and you’ll see people very different from yourself. You need to get to know them as individuals because, if you only know them as members of a group who look different, eat different foods, worship differently, wear different clothes and have different customs, you’ll be just a little suspicious of them, and suspicion breeds fear, and fear breeds hate, and hate breeds persecution, and we, the survivors, know where that can take us. That’s usually my message to the young people I speak to.
Q: It was really an honor to come here and visit with you.
A: I guess [we Holocaust survivors] are disappearing at the rate of 2,000 a month these days.
Q: Really? Those are the statistics?
A: Yes. So, we have to train the next generation. There is a very active second generation.
Q: Your book and teacher’s guide and your willingness to do an interview is so important because it honors memories, whether they’re faint or strong. And it doesn’t matter if people believe it or not. You’re telling the story for those who couldn’t, so, thank you. Thank you very much.
A: My pleasure.
Interview: Mari Rodriguez and Michael Ragsdale
Transcript and Editing: Katie Kellerman