Vera Koppel

Q: What is your birth name, and when and where were you born?
A: I was born Veronica Hausen in Budapest, Hungary on August 19, 1935.

Q: Your married name is Koppel?
A: Yes. I was born Veronica, but everybody always calls me Vera.

Q: Tell us about your family. Do you have any siblings?
A: I am an only child. In those days, around 1935, people were already starting to worry about the war, so I don’t think people could, or wanted, to have many children.

Q: Did you grow up in a Jewish community?
A: We lived in District 7 of Budapest, which had a lot of Jewish people. I think all of my friends were Jewish, but the subject didn’t come up, or if it did, I don’t remember it.

We were religious people. I went to a religious all-girls’ school but only for three grades before the Jewish school was closed and the persecution started.

Q: What was your life like as a little girl before the war?
A: I went to school. Because I lived in the big city of Budapest, I walked to the school. I walked to school, as far as I can remember, from at least the second grade on. It was far away, and I had to cross major streets. I still remember my mother would give me two slices of salami and five cents – or something like that – and every day on my way to school, I would go to a bakery, where they cut my roll, and I would take my lunch with me.

Before I was old enough to attend school, my mother took me to the park, which was the central park, City Park, every single day. Later, every afternoon, we went ice-skating. It was a nice middle-class life.

My parents tried to leave the country in 1938. They sold everything they had, and they bought tickets on a ship to Palestine. I’m not sure about the exact date, but that ship was the first ship to be stopped and the individuals told they could no longer leave. So, we went back with a little furniture and whatever we had left, and we lived our lives in hunger.

Because I was young, I was not aware of what was going on at that time. In Budapest, there were not really many restrictions until late 1943 or 1944. After that, we were not allowed to have too many things because of the war.

Q: When did you first notice anti-Semitism?
A: I first noticed anti-Semitism with the advent of the labor camps. Still, though, it did not hit me because all of my friends’ fathers went. I didn’t know these camps were strictly for the Jews because all of my friends were Jewish.

When anti-Semitism really hit me for the first time was when the notice came that the Jews had to move to certain houses designated with yellow stars and our house was not one of them.

I don’t know how they communicated with each other, but my mother found out from a friend of hers who had a son and whom she knew from the park, that they had a house, or building, that was designated with a yellow star. We moved in there, not knowing it was still a luxury that we got a room of our own and were able to take one or two pieces of our furniture with us. Life was different because, at that time, the whole building only had women, children and elderly individuals.

I do remember that one day an ordinance came stating that all the women had to pack food and clothing, and they all had to go to a large soccer field, I think it was. Everybody was worried they were never going to come back, and they wondered what was going to happen. (My mother told me much later that the superintendent in our house, in our building, who was not Jewish, said to her as she was leaving the building, ”Don’t worry! We will all be in charge of your children,” meaning [she believed] they would never come back.)

The women left, and then the building only had children and the elderly as occupants. Luckily, late one night, the people who had been taken came back. The transport hadn’t gone. Where they were supposed to go, what was supposed to happen, I don’t think anybody knew.

Q: When was this?
A: It was 1944. The men were in Hungarian labor camps where they did coal work.

In Hungary, we knew very little about what was going on, but every day on the radio, we heard which city, which little town was clean of Jews. This meant the Jews in these towns had had to pack their clothing again and be taken to the working camps.

Q: They started removing Jews from the small towns around Budapest before concentrating on those in the city.
A: Right. The towns outside of Budapest were the first to be ”Jews-free.”

One particular day, my mother heard that the towns her sister and mother lived in had been taken, so she said to her friends, ”Okay, I am going. I want to be with them,” and her friends said, ”Don’t be silly! Don’t go! You never know who you are going to meet.” But, again, nobody knew where they were going. That’s what I remember.

Q: Can you tell us how your mother received a Schutzpass?
A: I don’t know how people knew what they did because you could only go out during designated hours. I don’t know where people met. This was before cars, before telephones. People would tell you things and you never knew, I suppose, if the news you heard was true or not. But, this was Europe.

All I know is that one day, my mother went out and didn’t tell me where she was going. The next day, she went out again, and only after the war did I really find out that she had heard that in one embassy they were giving certificates, and with these certificates, you could move into some protected houses. Her friends kept telling her not to go because it was dangerous. (As people stood in line waiting for those certificates, the Nazis would come. They obviously knew that everybody standing there was Jewish, and if you were not lucky then they would take you away, who knows to where.)

But, one day, my mother came home with this winning face. She had gotten this certificate. At the time, we didn’t know it was a Schutzpass. I had no idea what it meant. To tell you the honest truth, I didn’t know, and I’m not sure my mother knew, that it was Mr. Raoul Wallenberg who had issued it. All we knew was that there was this man who gave her this certificate.

Q: After receiving the Schutzpass, you moved into the safe house with your mother?
A: Yes. A few days after we received the Schutzpass, we packed and moved to this beautiful neighborhood close to the Danube River. This time, nobody had their own room. There were lots of people already there at this time, and we had a corner of a room. I still remember where that corner was. I don’t remember how we ate, I don’t remember what we ate, I don’t remember how we got the food. The only thing I remember was that the European houses had high staircases all made out of marble.

At least once a day, every single day, the Nazis would come to check the people’s identification papers. Even today, I can still hear them as they came upstairs, step by step, in their boots. One day, as they came closer and closer, everybody in the room got more scared and more scared, except for this one family with several children. Everybody was scared when the Nazis came, no matter what, but this family was less scared than the rest of us because they had legal documents. When the Nazis came, though, they took this family away because their papers looked different than the rest of ours. I never heard from them again.

Q: While you and your mother were in the safe house, you didn’t know it was Raoul Wallenberg who had established it, right?
A: No. That is a very good question. We had no idea, and I’m not even sure if my mother found out before we left Hungary. I’m not sure. But, when we came to the United States, we started to hear stories, and we knew that we had been in a Swedish protected house. That’s when I found out.

Q: How long did you stay in the safe house?
A: I’m not sure how long I was there before my mother heard of an orphanage that was also protected by somebody and took me there. Again, I don’t know how she received this news and found out about it.

I’m not sure how many children lived in the orphanage during peacetime, but by the time I got there – again, I can’t forget it – there were mattresses from wall to wall, and we slept on these mattresses next to each other.

The other thing my mother was always able to do, though I don’t know how, was get us kosher food when kosher food was hard to come by. I’m not sure how this came about, but my mother gave me a small piece of salami when she took me to this orphanage, and she said, ”You eat this only when you are starving.” I took this salami and put it under my mattress, and every night, when the children went to sleep, I took out my salami to smell it.

I remember this long, long hall in the orphanage, and at the end of the hall, behind this window, there were women. I am not sure if they were nurses or what their positions were. One night, I heard them say they were going to take the children to the ghetto. There was no ghetto in Budapest before so I had no idea what the ghetto was, but by the way they were talking about it, it didn’t sound good. I woke up the girl who was sleeping right next to me, and I said, ”They are going to take us to the ghetto.” (As an adult, I realize the girl I woke up didn’t know what the ghetto was either.) She was even more scared than I was, and she started to scream, ”Vera said they are taking us to the ghetto!” That was the one and only time in my life that I was beaten by somebody. I said I had lied and the subject was closed. However, I wrote this little, open postcard to my mother, telling her they were going to take us to the ghetto, and I sent the postcard, but she didn’t receive it.

Weeks later (I don’t know how long afterward), we were lined up so they could take us to the ghetto. I was the smallest child there (I was only nine years old), and the policeman (the police took us, not the Nazis) was holding my hand. (The Hungarian police were probably worse to Jews than the Nazis because the Nazis did what they did because it was their job. The Hungarians took pleasure in it.) I still remember what I looked like in the wintertime. We were standing in a line, and I was in the front, and then I saw my mother. I said, ”Mommy, mommy,” and my mother said, ”Don’t call me mommy.” I didn’t understand why she said that. Much, much, much later, she explained that she hadn’t been wearing a yellow star. She told the policeman that she had promised my mother, the Jew who was dying, that she would come and look for me. Here, our stories are different. I said to the policeman, ”Somebody was looking for you over there.” My mother told me he knew what was going on, so he left. My mother grabbed my hand, and we left the place.

That was the first day there was no public transportation because the bombing was so severe. We probably walked three hours. It might not have been a long walk, but I was still a child. I didn’t know it at the time, but my mother had left Raoul Wallenberg’s house because it was not safe anymore. There were too many razias, and they came to make the Jews’ lives miserable.

Q: What are razias?
A: Raziar means ”raiding.” The Nazis just came, as I said, to make sure everybody had a paper. They checked more than once a day. By that time, there were lots of people who came from Romania, from Czechoslovakia, from Poland and had no identification papers of any kind. Even in the Wallenberg house, it was not enough to be a Hungarian Jew. You had to have the Schutzpass [or you would be taken away by the Nazis].

Q: What did you do after you and your mother reunited?
A: That was during wartime when the bombing was really severe in Budapest, and nobody had basements or shelters. Everybody who was able left the vicinity and went as far away from Budapest as possible. My mother talked to this lady who told her she knew where all the empty houses in the suburbs were. One particular family had left, and their house was empty. My mother and I moved in there.

Q: How did you survive before the end of the war?
A: People ask me, ”What did you eat in those days?” Europe is different and certainly was different. There were no refrigerators, so everybody bought supplies for the whole year. [In the house] there were potatoes, there were onions, there was flour and there certainly were beans. We ate that food first. I do remember that during the last couple of days we had nothing left but beans, beans, beans and beans.

One night, we went out of our apartment to get some fresh air, and the next day there was bombing between us and the neighboring house. Between our houses was a tall, big fence, and that fence was bombed, so then we couldn’t even get out We looked between the curtains, and we didn’t know whether or not the war was over because and we saw soldiers moving all the time.

One day, my mother said, ”You know, I didn’t see anybody moving yesterday.” The following day, we specifically made a point to look outside, and there was no movement, so the day after, my mother got dressed as a peasant woman, putting on a handkerchief. She went out and, when she came back, she said the war was over. That was how we found out the war was over. (It was not really over officially because Hungary did not declare peace until April 4, 1945)

When my mother returned, she also came back with meat. (As I told you, we kept kosher, but that was not part of the picture during the war because there was hardly any food anyway) My mother cooked this meat, and she made some kind of stew, and I couldn’t eat it. I’m pretty sure it had nothing to do with whether or not it was kosher. My mother begged me. She begged me to eat it, but I just couldn’t eat it. I couldn’t eat it.

Later, after the war, I tasted meat like that I had tasted in the stew, and I found out it was horsemeat. My mother told me that while she had been out that day, she had happened upon a street where horses were dying from the bombings, and that’s where she got the meat. Anyway, I paid for it because, a couple of months later, I came down with a vitamin deficiency. My whole body was covered with sores.

Q: And then the Russians entered in January 1945.
A: It was about that time, and we knew so little that my mother said, ”We have to go back to grandmother’s house, and I have to make sure we clean it up before she comes back.” (It was not far away from the suburb, so we walked there.)

When we arrived, somebody was living in my grandmother’s house; there was a family with children living there. We went back through our rooms and kitchen. I don’t really remember much of what we saw – just that there was no furniture, no nothing. I don’t understand all of the politics but, by that time, the communist regime was in place. Of course, the family living there said communism did not allow for two women to have an apartment with several rooms like that to themselves, so we left and went from house to house, to the good friends of my grandmother. Everybody was very sorry, and they said, ”Don’t worry. They will be back soon.”

We left one house, and I said to my mother, ”You know, that lady has grandmother’s bedroom set.” We went back, and my mother looked, and it was my grandmother’s bedroom set. But, by that time, the communist party was in charge [so there was nothing we could do about it].

Q: Was the lady a friend of your grandmother’s?
A: No, she was just a neighbor.

Q: Where was your grandmother?
A: My grandmother was taken to Auschwitz, but we didn’t know that at the time. They never came back. Nobody from my mother’s family came back.

Toward the end, my grandmother, who lived in a non-Jewish neighborhood, had neighbors who were helping Jews. I was a child, and even I knew that.

Q: What happened to your father?
A: We did not know it for a while, but my father had escaped from the working camp and gone into hiding. During the very last days of the war, the peasant, or the person who was hiding him – I don’t know who it was – got scared and reported him to the authority, and he was caught. By that time, the area was already Jew-free, and it was too late to take him to the prison.

Interestingly, my father died on the day of liberation. He was buried in Sopron. He has a grave with two other people who died on the same day. There was a priest in that town of Sopron who kept records of Jews. He had a tiny little book that had the name of every individual who had gone to Sopron and when I looked up my father’s name, there was a note: ”Hausen from Budapest. Died at age 34.”

Q: Did you go back to Budapest after the war?
A: No, we were in grandmother’s house, and that is another thing: We were in the communist regime. If you had an apartment, you could not have another apartment, so we stayed there in the suburb. All the Jews who lived in this suburb before the war were taken to Auschwitz.

I don’t know what ever happened to our apartment in Budapest. Interestingly, I didn’t go back until five years ago. That’s another story.

Q: What did you do after the war? Did you go back to school?
A: I had been in the third grade for only a few months before the war started, and by the time the war was over, I should have been halfway through the fourth grade. Somehow, I skipped some schooling, and I started the fourth grade in a public school.

There was one other Jewish girl in my class. (I found out later they were in hiding during the war.) This girl was the one and only friend I had. We went to the fourth grade together, and soon after we started, the United States sent money, and in a little town, they made a little home and called it a home for children. We didn’t have much food, so the Americans sent us food, and there was a woman they hired to cook at this home. She cooked meals every day. My friend and I spent the afternoons there. I’m not sure, but more than ten children, of varying ages, may have survived the war because of this home. That’s what happened to me, in fact, and my friend lives in Israel, and we still correspond with each other.

In Hungary, the fifth grade is considered junior high school, so my friend and I went to a new school but kept up with this afternoon activity of going to the children’s home. Soon enough, teachers arrived. They were teachers sent to teach our group. We learned a little bit about Israel and a little about Jewish holidays and a little bit about other things.

This was in 1948 when Israel became a state. Israel, at that time, was considered a socialist country. Suddenly, we went to Budapest every day. We took three cars, and we met other Jewish children from Budapest. We learned Hebrew.

By the way, I forgot to tell you one thing. When I went to the fifth grade, we were under Russian control, and learning Russian was mandatory, though I cannot tell you why because we were saved by the Russians, and yet in no time, everybody hated Russians. And, as children, we were so foolish that we did not really try to learn the language, and I can hardly read Russian these days.

So, we went to the sixth grade in the Hebrew school. All of sudden, I’m not sure what happened, but they didn’t allow people to go anywhere. I don’t know why, but they just didn’t allow people to leave the country. It was not any different if you wanted to go Israel, or even to the next country. As a matter of fact, my father was buried in Hungary, but it bordered Austria. Until I came to this country as an adult and went back to Hungary with my husband, my mother never told me that my father was buried there because she could not get the piece of paper that said she could visit my father’s grave in a town that bordered a non-communist country. She had no reason to tell me this, but when I went back with my husband, she told me to visit my father’s grave, so that was the first time I heard about this.

Anyway, from this school of mine, some people slowly started to leave illegally to go to Israel. One day, I got a letter from a friend of mine, hand-delivered by her sister. It stated that she had left the night before but couldn’t say goodbye because it was too dangerous.

I also wanted to leave. In those days, people were sure that once you left the country, whoever you leave behind would never see you again. Because they believed they would never again see those they left behind, they left in little groups. I didn’t realize or appreciate my mother’s sacrifice until I had a child of my own because my mother had said, ”You should go also.” So I saw my mother for as long as I could, and when it was time to leave, I said goodbye. My group got to the border and was caught. The group leaders got 18 years in jail. When I met one leader later in Vienna, he told me it was not a coincidence that we were caught. Someone from the movement didn’t want to leave and told the authority, ”If you give me a good job, I will tell you about the group.”

There is another side-story I never told anyone [about what happened after we were caught]. At that time, I was 13 years old, and we were taken to the police station. We were children (I was probably the youngest), and that’s why they did not bother with us; it was only the group leader they wanted. I don’t know how the leader arranged it, but we had a few minutes alone, just the two of us, and he said, ”Take this suitcase. It is full of cash,” and he gave me an address. ”Take it back, and tell them we couldn’t make it.” I was a 13-year-old girl, who took a train, and like some spy story, I was continually looking behind my back to see if anybody was following me. I got to the place where I was supposed to go, and I gave them the money.

Q: What did you do after your trip to Israel fell through?
A: Life went on. I made new friends and had a new life in 1956 and 1957, after I got out of Hungary.

Q: Did you try again to get to Israel?
A: I was a swimmer on a high school team, and I got pneumonia. By the time I returned to school, there was no one left from that group I was going to go to Israel with. And, again, I could have gone to Israel easily, but I was a child. I was startled that my group had left me behind. Plus, the Egyptian war that was occurring in Israel discouraged me from going, and an uncle of mine in Israel told me, ”Don’t come in here now. They always come to Israel. Go to America if you ever have the chance.”

Q: So you went to the States with your mother?
A: Yes, just the two of us. That, too, is a story in itself. We were listening to the radio in Europe and heard, ”Dear Mother, I got to America. Your loving son, Yanoshi.” My mother was like, ”Come on, that’s just a story,” because whenever anyone thought about leaving Hungary, they always thought about going to London, about going to Paris. Nobody really thought about going to America.

But, mother had a cousin who lived in Vienna. One day, she heard – again, I don’t know through whom – that the cousin had hired a truck, and was going to pick up a family and take them to Vienna. This was already weeks after the revolution. The borders were not fully watched, but the Russians were still there, so it was still dangerous. So, the cousin asked my mother if she could go with them so that they don’t look suspicious. The family was supposed to be picked up on a certain corner. The man with two suitcases and two children, would stand in a corner. Everybody would know what it was, for sure, so her cousin said, ”Could you just come along?” My mother walked with one little boy up the street, and I walked with another boy on the other side of the street. The truck driver came and lifted up the boy and gave me his hand. I looked at my mother, and we winked and got up on the truck. We stopped in one corner and another in another corner and coming close to the border the truck driver said, ”I don’t know you people. I have two extra passengers, and I’m not going on unless you tell me who you are.” Of course, today I know better; I know what we would do. But, we were honorable people, I guess, and we told him who we were. We gave him all the jewelry and money we had and told him our cousin would pay him whatever we owed. That’s why, when you asked me if I had any documents, I said no. Even if I had had documents, they would have stayed in Hungary.

Q: Do you tell your friends and family about Raoul Wallenberg?
A: I can only tell you that there are, obviously, horror stories about the war. Everybody knows these stories by now. It is so unfortunate. All of us know that, but the story of what happened to the Jews is probably the worst. There is no justice in life at all. Jews were persecuted only because they were Jewish. And Wallenberg didn’t have to do the things he did. He put his life at stake. I think the Wallenberg story is publicized but never enough, never enough.

Q: Thank you so much for the interview.
A: Thank you.

Interviewed by: Yeo Young Yoon and Svetlana Platisa
Transcription by: Yeo Young Yoon
Editing by: Katie Kellerman