Dedicated to my granddaughter Susi. Bratislava, 1 August 1993
Dedicated to my grandson Misko. Bratislava, 16 April 1996
Dedicated to the World-Conference of ‘Hidden children’ [Jewish children who survived the Shoah] held in Prague on 2nd September 1999
It all started in the summer of 1944, when Budapest experienced the horrors of war in its penultimate year. We did not know that it would be less than a year for victory over fascism to be achieved, but we just felt that it could not last much longer. Our biggest worry was how we were going to last long enough, how we would survive, to know what we had to do to live until liberation came.
I came in 1942, together with my parents, my cousin and my grandmother illegally to Hungary form Czechoslovakia. As we were Jewish aliens they put us in an internment camp. We children – because we were too young – and grandmother – because she was too old – were subsequently discharged from the camp, but our parents had to remain.
By 1944 there were problems for everybody. The citizens of Budapest were trying to evacuate their children into the country where they would be presumably safe from air raids. The Hungarian fascists wanted to show how efficient they really were, how many Jews they could send to Auschwitz (in the official jargon – to work). Jews, whether Hungarian or of other nationalities, asked themselves: ”When are the Russians coming? What can we do to prevent our deportation?” Every day was the same, every morning there were air raids – the American planes made the very air vibrate and in the evening came the Russian planes – not quite so many – and they did not cause so much damage either. When the wind was in the right direction we could even hear the sound of artillery fire as the Russian front came nearer and nearer. Many people were afraid of the Russians, but for us it was melodious music that could not have been improved even by the greatest works of Beethoven.
In June 1944 my parents were transported to Auschwitz, ” to work”. At the station I wanted to join them, but my father told me in unequivocal terms that I should ‘get lost’ straight away and then go either to the Swiss or the Swedish embassy, that they would help me. The Hungarian gendarme, who stood nearby and was officially supervising the transport, turned to us and said, using strong language, that I should be gone immediately, before it was too late. With a heavy heart I left; I had no inkling that I would never see my father again. My father’s insistence saved my life.
So I went to the Swedish Embassy, which was in Budapest’s Gyopar Street. The Ambassador Mr. Danielsen was just about to drive away in his chauffeur-driven car. The chauffeur, a Mr. Toth from Palarikovo in Czechoslovakia (this part then belonged to Hungary), stopped the car and asked me what I wanted. I told him the truth: I had nowhere to stay, my parents had just been taken away, I was a Jew from Czechoslovakia and was looking for somewhere to sleep. I would do any work, whatever it was. Mr. Toth told the Ambassador: ”let us take the poor lad in – we’ll find something for him to do.” The Ambassador agreed and told me to wait until he returned. I slept at the bottom of the elevator shaft, washed cars, ran messages, went to the Post Office, did whatever was asked of me and was happy: I had somewhere to sleep, something to eat and I also had an Identity Card from the Hungarian Foreign Office which stated that I was a member of the Swedish Embassy! Thanks to my parents I had the advantage of speaking perfect German and reasonably good Hungarian, beside Slovak.
In July 1944 Mrs. Birgit, the Embassy Secretary called me in and asked me to go with the chauffeur, Mr. Toth, to the station in the official car and meet the new Embassy Secretary. The station was in a dreadful state, half the buildings had been wrecked by air attacks, the place was swarming with soldiers, refugees and members of the uniformed Hungarian fascist organization ”Nyilas”, who were trying to ferret out any Jews who might be trying to get away.
On the way from the station the new Secretary, Mr. Wallenberg, asked me who I was and what I was doing in the Embassy. I told him the truth. Mr. Wallenberg then suggested that I should help him with his mission. I could not imagine what that mission could be, but I agreed anyhow. Our first contact had been positive and very friendly.
The Embassy rented a house in Minerva Street, near the Embassy, for Mr. Wallenberg’s ‘mission’. Mr. Wallenberg lived and worked there. I slept in the Embassy’s main building in Gyopar Street. In the morning I went to his house and stayed there until the evening. I was the gatekeeper, admitted visitors, went to the Post Office and dealt with anything I was asked to do. Mr. Wallenberg did not know Budapest, so I accompanied him frequently when he went into town and waited in the car until he had transacted his business. Every evening I went to the Post Office, to send coded telegrams to Sweden. I remember that the Embassy code consisted of groups of 5 letters, for which the Military Attach? had the number sequence.
Gradually, there appeared a change in the type of person who came to do business with the Swedish Embassy. Jewish people were being issued with a ”Schutzpass” – a Protection Card in the traditional yellow color of Sweden. This Protection Card provided proof that the individual came under the aegis of the Swedish king. These cards were issued within 24 hours of application and were in reality a method to protect Jews, as far as possible, from persecution. Persons who held such cards were placed in so-called Swedish houses in the Ghetto. The Swedish flag flew from these houses and this method was usually successful. Officially, there were conditions to these cards, but no one checked up on them. The applicant had to have a relative (unspecified) in Sweden. For those people who did not have such relatives and could not think up such a person, I had been supplied with telephone directories of Stockholm and other Swedish towns where they could find for themselves a fictitious relative. Mr. Wallenberg gave me those directories with instructions of how to use them. He was certain I would be able to distinguish between a real Jew and an agent provocateur and added that I should be circumspect. Should problems arise, the telephone directories were to be dropped down the elevator shaft, which was beside the main entrance.
I now went only rarely into town, because passes were being produced day and night. I had to stamp them with the official oval stamp of the Embassy and, if the bearer did not have a photo, then I had to go to a big box of photographs and find one, which tallied with the sex and age of the bearer, and was, if possible, a reasonable likeness and stick that on the pass. Later on, Mr. Wallenberg’s department moved to a building near the castle and still later to the other side of the Danube, to 2 Ulloi ut. Now the department grew ever bigger; new members and colleagues – all Jews – slept in the offices so that they should not be at risk in town. Contact with officials, be they Hungarian or German was restricted to the building in Minerva street, in order that the size of the ‘Wallenberg-Department’ should not become apparent.
In the autumn of 1944 the transports no longer went to Auschwitz, but left Budapest in a westerly direction. The trains left Hungary at the border town of Sopron. I heard that my 60 years old aunt was in one of the transports. I immediately prepared a pass for her and, on the assumption that the train had not yet left Hungary, I rode on a motorbike to Sopron. There I went to the gendarme office, which was supervising the deportation. In the office were, beside the gendarmes, also armed members of the fascist movement ”Nyilas”. Resolutely, I showed them my documents, which proved that I was a member of the Swedish Embassy and gave them my aunt’s pass. In my German-accented Hungarian I told them, in the name of the Swedish Embassy, that when my aunt arrived in Sopron, she should be sent back to Budapest. I was successful! My aunt returned, I put her in a ‘Swedish house’ and she survived to see the liberation. This was not my only successful coup.
One day Mr. Wallenberg told me not to go to the building in Minerva Street on the next day, but to remain at Gyopar street, as he would have a high-ranking visitor and he did not want him to see me. The visitor came in the evening – it was Adolf Eichmann.
One day at the beginning of November 1944 when we could hear the cannonade of the approaching front, all the embassy staff packed up and drove through Germany back to Sweden. I noticed with some surprise that Mr. Wallenberg had not gone with them. He told me that he had not yet completed his mission. My pass, which was written in German, Hungarian and now Swedish, received a Russian translation, an I was instructed to use it only for crossing the frontier. At the beginning of December Mr. Wallenberg moved to live with a Hungarian family in the castle, which had direct access to a bomb shelter under the castle. Until the Germans retreated from Budapest, Mr. Wallenberg did not appear at the Embassy.
At the end of December the Russian troops encircled Budapest. On 19th January they liberated Pest on the left bank of the Danube; earlier, the retreating German forces had blown up all the bridges across the Danube. On 12th February * the Russian troops liberated also the right bank of the Danube.
I searched everywhere for Mr. Wallenberg – without success. I found him by accident. I was standing nearby so I could see everything that happened. High-ranking Russian officers got out of the cars and behind them were Mr. Wallenberg with his typical long coat and wide hat. Mr. Wallenberg spoke to the officers only through a military interpreter; He said something and pointed at both the Embassy buildings. I was so happy to see him, but it all somehow did not seem real. I started to approach and was about to speak to him, but behind his back he indicated, that I should go away and said quickly; ”schlecht – verschwinde” ”It’s bad – disappear!” Then all of them got back into the cars and drove off and nobody saw him ever again in Hungary.
I had no idea what it was I had witnessed. How was it possible, that a man should be persecuted, who had saved so many people from certain death, who had organized the Swedish houses in the Ghetto, who had not been afraid even of Eichmann. We were free, we had survived, but with all of my sixteen years I could not understand such a world.
On the next day I left Budapest and drove to Kosice, where I volunteered for the Czechoslovak Army. I wanted to be armed, to help to liberate our land, to find my family and to chase away the hated fascist murderers.
Reality caught up with me when I returned to Bratislava in May 1945. My mother had returned but not my father; he was murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz in October 1944. He was one of the six millions that could not be saved by Wallenberg.
* It is to note that Mr. Kaufmann’s recollections date his last encounter with Raoul Wallenberg after the 12th of February. The accepted date of his arrest and disappearance is the 16th of January 1945.
The IRWF thanks Johnny Moser for providing us with Tomas Kaufmann’s story and authorizing its publication in our website.