Years before the Germans occupied Hungary, a segment of the semi-fascist Hungarian army of the day, fighting on the Nazi side, embarked on the project to liquidate as many young Jewish men as they possibly could.
The gray military booklet issued to all soldiers had been modified for the Jews. It was emblazoned with a bright red, hand-painted sign: ”zs”; that is, ”zsido,” or Jew. This booklet became the ”passport of death”: good for two destinations, to the east or to the south.
East meant the Russian front with starvation and backbreaking labor. The Jews wore their civilian clothes and some worked wearing their city shoes in the dead of the Russian winter. It often happened that the slave laborers were herded into stables or barns to be set ablaze and incarcerated alive, while those who tried to escape the inferno were machine-gunned down. My cousin, Stephan, died this way. The other direction was south, and it meant the infamous lead and copper mines of Bor, Serbia, from where only a few returned. Sixty thousand Jewish boys were murdered by the Hungarian military in those remote work camps. This was the passport to death.
The German troops took over Hungary on March 19, 1944. In the following fourteen months, more than half a million (569,000) Hungarian Jews were killed by the Hungarian-German efforts…that is sixty-nine percent of the Hungarian Jewish population, quite an accomplishment.
I was twenty years old then, and was fervently in love with Alice-Lici. I married her in May of the same year, thus saving her from the obligation of having to return to the rural ghetto, Kormend, from where Lici’s mother, father, and sister were deported to Auschwitz, never to come back. Of the four hundred Jews who lived in that little town, fewer than ten survived. At the same time, Lici’s brother anguished in one of those forced labor camps.
One day, Lici was arrested by the Hungarian police in Budapest for having left the house where we lived one minute before 11:00 a.m. The Jews were allowed to be on the street for only two hours each day, from 11:00 a.m. ’till 1:00 p.m. According to regulations, the house where we were assigned to live before the formal ghetto was established had been marked with a huge yellow star.
Lici was taken to Kistarcsa, a holding camp on the way to Auschwitz. I was desperate. In trying to save her, I even negotiated with some gangsters. It was a futile effort.
It was then that I first heard that a young Swedish diplomat had arrived in Budapest with the explicit task of saving Jewish lives. I could not believe it, but just the same, I went to the Swedish embassy in Budapest.
It was there that I met that intense, energetic young man, Raoul Wallenberg. He listened to me, and issued a Swedish ”defense passport”-not just for me but for the entire family, for Lici, and even for Lici’s brother. My passport number was ”196,” a very low number indeed. This was our passport to life.
Wallenberg brought Lici out from the camp, and freed me from the forced labor where I had to toil under the command of Adolph Eichmann, in Swabenburg of Budapest, Eichmann’s notorious headquarters. Thus, Wallenberg saved our lives, as he saved probably one hundred thousand other people.
The number of Jews he actually saved is difficult to tell; some people who he saved one day may have been murdered at a later time.
But Wallenberg daringly appeared at train-stations, where the Jews were already locked in the cattle carts, waiting to be deported. Meanwhile Per Anger, Wallenberg’s Swedish assistant, collected as many names from the doomed group as he could, handing the list to Wallenberg, who vigorously negotiated with the murderers…. Or else Wallenberg turned up unexpectedly, like a ”red pimpernel,” at places where mass executions took place, to save people from their sure death….
For us too, this was not the only occasion when Wallenberg saved our lives! Some six months later we fell into a ghastly situation and at the very last minute Wallenberg brought Lici and me back from the threshold of execution by the Hungarian Arrow Cross murderers when we were destined to be killed at the shore of the river Danube, like so many others. There were still other time when either our good fortune, or our then keen senses and premonitions, rescued us.
Though Lici and I are divorced, we remain friends and we are in contact. Lici lives in Stockholm, a Swedish citizen and a practicing physician.
We all know, of course, the tragedy that befell Raoul Wallenberg, although the details are still shrouded in mystery.
A few years ago, I got a note from Lici along with the copy of a particular page from Wallenberg’s 1944 diary. This had been found in the Lublinka Prison in Moscow and was brought to Sweden and reprinted page by page in the newspaper Expressen.
The diary shows in Wallenberg’s handwriting my name and my appointment with him, at 16:00 hour on Saturday, August 5th, 1944.
The next Monday, on the 7th, Lici was released along with four other prisoners, and this was marked in Wallenberg’s diary in his handwriting: at 10:00 a.m. the ”five fanger,” or five prisoners, were released.
This is the brief history of my ”passport of death” issued by the Hungarian military, and my ”passport of life,” granted by Raoul Wallenberg.
Erwin K. Koranyi, M.D.