Judith Saly

”So here comes this Swedish gentleman from a distinguished family and is willing to risk, we do know that he was risking his life, but he was risking a lot by taking on this task. And that gives one back some of this feeling that maybe we are worth saving. Maybe we are not the scum of the earth. So that was a very important message that his mere presence gave us.” Judith Saly.

Q: First of all, thank you very much and the first question is: what is your birth name?
A: My birth name was, in English you would say, Judith Maria Garai. G – A – R – A – I. In Hungarian you say the last name first. So my name was Garai Judith Maria.

Q: And what is your married name?
A: My… I was married twice. And this story that I’m going to talk about concerns very much my first husband. His name was John Kudar. K – U – D – A – R. My second husband was John Saly. In Hungarian: Sh-aly. S – A – L – Y. So my name today is Judith Saly.

Q: And what city and country were you born in?
A: I was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1921.

Q: And the month and the day?
A: August 21.

Q: Where did you grow up?
A: I grew up in Budapest. The summers we spent somewhere in the country, on the lake, on the Danube, but I grew up in Budapest.

Q: And whom did you live with? Parents, siblings, extended family?
A: Sure, my father was a dentist. Very well appreciated and loved. And he and my mother and my younger sister, we lived together, and we had family nearby. We lived near the Margarit Bridge across the Danube that divides Buda and Pest. We lived in Pest.

Q: And did you grow up in a Jewish Community?
A: Not really. I grew up very much in a simulated Jewish community. Most people and my friends were born Jewish and did not convert. But there was very little of the Jewish tradition kept. I am sorry now that we didn’t have more connection to the Jewish heritage because maybe it would have been easier to deal with everything that came. But in school we went to the Jewish religious instruction class. And we, however, we had a Christmas tree because my family, especially my mother’s family, was very much intermarried with Catholics. I had great-uncles who married Catholic women and uncles who married Catholic women. And one of my great-aunts sent us a Christmas tree, and every year with decorations and it was part of my growing up that we always had Christmas.

Q: What kind of schools did you attend?
A: At that time, elementary school was four years and high school was twelve years. And I went to a private school for both elementary and high school. And the high school was for girls only but the elementary school was co-ed. I loved to go to school. (Laughs) Most people don’t like schools, but I loved it.

[I love schools.
Yeah? And I had lots of friends. ]

Q: And how did you learn your Jewish customs and Jewish religion?
A: As I say, very little. My family did celebrate Yom Kippur and, you know, New Year, Jewish New Year. But that was just once a year. And we did not even celebrate Passover. Except once I was at that time at my relative’s, my father’s brother in the country, and there was a Passover. My uncle was impatient and he wanted matzo ball soup (Laughs) faster than the ritual would allow. But what was interesting was when the Germans occupied Hungary in, on March 19th 1944, of course, already before that we knew that there was big trouble. So actually it was after the Anschluss that we felt that we have to come closer to our Jewish heritage. So my parents, with an uncle and aunt who had two sons, and we were two girls, we were very close and we decided we would have a Passover Seder, which we did. And I still remember, which today still stirs me most, when one says, ”Today in captivity the tessiriture was on.” And as you see I’m still teary about this because the longing of the Jewish people, of the Jewish past, is so much in this. I just read a very interesting book about Jewish history. How the Jews would constantly undergo, how the Jews were always expelled from one country to the other and then they think, ”Now, here we can make it.” And before you know it there is another anti-Semitic wave and it’s again another country and again hiding or trying to make it melt into the population. Or, on the contrary, keep your heritage and, you know, it’s our history. That’s why I also think that the existence of Israel is the most important thing. As long as there is Israel there cannot be another Holocaust. That’s what I think.

Q: What activities were you involved with before the war?
A: Well, I wanted to be a doctor. But I was not admitted to the university because I was Jewish, and a Jewish girl. You see there was a rule that allowed Jews, Jewish students, only to be enrolled in the number, in the proportion that the establishment was in proportion of Jews in Hungary, which was six percent. So you can imagine, I was an A student but, and I applied to seven universities in the country, and I was not admitted into any of them. So, I enrolled in a training course for surgical nurses, what you call here a scrub nurse at the clinic of the University of Budapest. And I did that and I thought I should be at least in that kind of profession. Close to being a doctor so I did that. And I also did other things. I went to University as a, what do you call it, not registered, but could attend classes, in art history and philosophy. I did stuff like that.

[You’re very well rounded.
Well, I was hoping that I would survive and then things would change.]

Q: When did you notice signs of anti-Semitism?
A: It was in the air. In Hungary, at that time what happened was that after, before the First World War there was an era of liberalism, and Jews were allowed to do whatever they wanted. And it was very much encouraged for Jews to change their names, to mergerize their names. So for instance, my father’s name was Goldstein, and then he, before the First World War as a young doctor, he changed it to Garai. And there were lots of people who did the same thing. But there was anti-Semitism after the First World War; for a brief time there was a communist regime, which was rather brutal and many of the leaders were Jews, and therefore, when Admiral Horthy, the Regent of Hungary, came to liberate Hungary from that regime, I mean, it’s more complicated than this, then a right wing wind took over. Then that’s when there were all these decrees against Jews. You couldn’t do this and you couldn’t do that. But it was still… one could still have a normal life. And I personally never encountered anti-Semitism. So, nobody said to me, ”You dirty Jew.” But it happened, for instance, my favorite cousin who ended up in Brazil, he even, when he was in elementary school, one day another kid hit him and said, you know, ”You dirty Jew.” And, but as I say, it was in the air. One was very careful. One should not become too conspicuous. One should behave well and should know one’s place.

Q: How did you first hear about what was happening to the Jewish people?
A: What, you mean, in the parted grounds, in the gas chambers? I don’t know exactly when it was but obviously before the Germans invaded Hungary. Well before that. Also, there were a number of Polish non-Jewish refugees in Hungary. And from them we also heard all kinds of stories, and we knew. We knew about gas chambers, so one could not imagine what that was like. But we knew about it.

Q: What were your thoughts, feelings, or reactions, when you first heard of all of this?
A: Well, in credulity, one can’t really believe that this is happening and that nothing is done against it. Now, I, to this day, I feel that the Pope was really a miss. He did not do what he should have done, Pope Pius XII. He should have stood up against this atrocity and he should have at least thought that would have been enough but at least he should have said that those Catholics who are by Hitler, by his laws considered Jewish, the Catholic church does not consider them Jewish once they are baptized, and they should be, have said that that would not be enough. Because that would not have been the right moral and spiritual attitude, but even that he did not do. And we were expecting that. We were waiting for a paper, a cyclical, or a letter or some kind of a proclamation. Nothing happened.

Q: When did you first hear of Raoul Wallenberg?
A: Well, I heard about Wallenberg as soon as it was known that he was coming. Now, a little of my personal story here, that when the Germans came into Hungary, and that was on March 19th 1944, I think that was a Saturday. On Sunday I went over to my very good friend’s who lived in the very next building. And she was a concert pianist and the husband was a physicist. And there I met my future husband who came there, who was not Jewish at all, all his ancestors were okay. He went there to ask, ”What could I do, how could I help?” And that’s where we met. And the next day he came over to our house and there was such an instant connection that the minute we were alone he asked me if I would marry him. And then he could save me. He was going to go to Sweden. He had been in Sweden before. He spoke Swedish. He worked on some of his patterns in optics with a Swedish, at a Swedish company, factory, whatever. But he couldn’t get there because there was war, so you could not ever know flights, or any way to get from Hungary to Sweden. But he said, ”Well we could get married and we would find some way.” Of course, we could not get married because there was a law against Jews and non-Jews getting married. Then, well, a friend of mine appeared and said, ”Would you like a set of papers, because there is somebody who has two sets of papers?” And she bought the set of papers and my parents bought this other set of papers for me. So I had another name and there was a wonderful Frenchman, an artist, it was with whom I studied a bit of textiles and designing. And he forged documents. So he forged a document that showed that Yanjey Kudar and, my name was, Erjay Behtmuschani, were married. So this was – I dropped the, It’s okay – So I had all these papers. And then, as soon as, I already referred to him as Yanjey, which is John, you know, my first husband. As soon as he heard about the marriage, he immediately went and offered his services. So then from right at the beginning he went there and meanwhile I went into a very strange kind of hiding with him. He had a very close friend who was the director of the observatory on the highest mountain. You know, Budapest is surrounded by high hills, not very high mountains, but it’s mountainous and very lovely. And on top of one of them was, and sure there still is, the observatory, which was part of the University of Budapest. And the director, who was a friend of his, had said to him many times, ”Come and teach here a bit. We have students.” Because Yanjey was a mathematician and an astronomer, originally. Then he got more interested in optics. So he said, ”I’ll come one day.” And then he said, ”I’m ready to come. But I just got married and I’m bringing my wife.” Okay very nice. But of course nobody knew that I was Jewish. So we were there but he was very careful, he never, he really didn’t like to leave me alone anywhere. And so I went with him to this villa, which was further down the same, close to that mountain but you know, further down, where he established his office. And so I was sitting there not doing much, observing the scene. So that’s when I met Wallenberg. Well you know what he looked like. He was a very modest kind of person. He came in, he said Hello, and he was immediately going to work. I mean he wasn’t just hanging around, hanging out. And the funny thing was that sometimes people thought that Yanjey was Wallenberg because he was tall and blonde and Wallenberg was not that tall and had dark hair. And once I went with at least, this is what I remember very well, you must have heard how the Jews in Hungary had been deported earlier and there was not much anyone could do there. But with Wallenberg’s help, the Jews in Budapest were trying to withstand this. But still a lot of them were herded on foot towards the Austrian frontier and it was November and it was raining and I was in the car with Wallenberg. His driver – What was his name? Juantos. No. It was something else. I can’t remember – They were in front and I was with my husband, Yanjey, in the back. And we saw these columns of beheaded people in that rain, that was like, red, and mud, and they were just herded and they were wounded, and actually, Yanjey saw a friend of the family, a woman, there but didn’t tell me because he knew he couldn’t do anything at that moment. But what they did was that they got out and the two had a Swedish connection and tried to pull out anybody that they could. I don’t remember what happened to those people. How they came back, whether they still had to walk… It was horrible. And so I had a little contact with Wallenberg. You know, just a few words. Never a conversation. But also, I was very respectful. And somebody else whom I saw being interviewed in one of these events when I went said exactly what I felt. That, and I also want to say something else here before I go to that, I once saw an interview with Archbishop Tutu on television, and he was asked, what was the worst… So he was asked what was the worst: imprisonment, or torture or whatever that the African people in South Africa endured. And he said, ”No, the worst thing was that if you hear often enough that you are inferior, you will believe it.” And this was, I think, was the Jews’ also. That you hear all the while growing up that there is something wrong with being Jewish. And no matter what you know you are in some ways stained and inferior. And then you believe this. So here comes this Swedish gentleman from a distinguished family and is willing to risk, we do know that he was risking his life, but he was risking a lot by taking on this task. And that gives one back some of this feeling that maybe we are worth saving. Maybe we are not the scum of the earth. So that was a very important message that his mere presence gave us. So I had so much respect for him. I wouldn’t even try to talk to him. There wasn’t anything to talk about really because he was so focused on his task.

Q: Do you remember how old you were when you met Wallenberg?
A: Yeah, yeah, I must have been twenty-three.

Q: Do you have an idea how old he was at the time?
A: I… How old was he? I don’t know.

[He was thirty…
In his thirties
In his thirties. Yeah.]

Q: Just general questions about him like: what was he like? Was he serious? Did he have a sense of humor? You said he was focused?
A: Yes, yes. This is what I can most remember. That he was very focused and very devoted to his task. He really meant it. I don’t know how this happened to him. That this mantle descended on him and that he rose to this occasion. But then there was, which is still today a bit embarrassing for me to tell, but what happened was that one day when we went back to the observatory, the director said he has to talk to Yanjey, John. And he said to him there were two men here looking for him. They looked like detectives. One was tall and the other one was short. And then so Yanjey said, ”I can’t imagine why anybody would look for me,” and went back to our room. And immediately we packed our things in the small suitcase and split. We didn’t even dare to take that, what do you call, those cars that go up and down the mountain. You know that, it’s like a streetcar but it’s a cable car. And we just went down on foot through the fields because we didn’t know. Was this true? Did this man figure out there was something? We were really careful. We never said anything when they talked about the miracle weapons that the Germans have and are going to deploy very soon. We were very careful. But we, to this day, I don’t know. Were these two people there? Or did he invent it? So very quickly we go back to this house where Wallenberg’s office was because we didn’t know where to go. My parents and sister, they were by that time in one of the Swedish houses, where those people had passes to the house. So they said, ”Can we stay here for the night?” And Star said, No, we couldn’t. It’s not allowed. And we had no idea what to do. And then one of them took pity on us and said, ”Look, hide somewhere on the top floor. I am supposed to walk through the building and see that everybody has left at night before we close, but keep very quiet and stay for the night. But be very careful. Don’t flush the toilet and don’t turn on the light.” Well, they discovered us the next morning because I did flush the toilet before there were enough people there. And we had to, and Wallenberg wanted to see us. And everybody was around there, and he said we jeopardized his whole mission. Because he has an agreement with the Hungarian government that this is an extraterritorial space and we are not going to hide anybody there. Nobody can sleep. And we did that, and we have to go. We have to leave. So it’s very embarrassing. I still somehow see this whole scene. You know, like, we were standing there and trying to be as small as we could. And we left. And of course other things happened with us, which were miraculously helpful and I survived the whole thing. But this was my closest contact with Wallenberg.

Q: Do you remember, or have any experience, serving anyone he was close to?
A: Not really. No. But I saw that musical, which I loved. It was very nice. It was performed last, was it last year or two years ago?

[Yeah, it was two years ago.
I learned more from that than I knew from experience.]

Q: And can you tell us what Schutz-pass is?
A: Yes. This is a photocopy of my sister’s Schutz-pass. This was an ingenious invention that Wallenberg and his friends concocted. This was a provisional passport, which said that the person whose photograph is in this place and who owns it is protected by the Swedish crown. So miraculously, this worked most of the time. Not always because these, these hooligans, the Arrowcrosses which, that was their name, because their emblem was a cross that had on. Every end an arrow. Not like the swastika but similar. Some of them did not respect this but others did. And then the Swiss embassy and the Portuguese got the idea and they also issues Schutz-passports in smaller numbers. But after we left, anonymously, Wallenberg, Yanjey still wanted to continue saving Jews so we went over to the Portuguese embassy and offered his services there. And that’s when we got a Portuguese Shutz-pass. We, he, my husband, he was very smart and let’s have one together. Because then I am with him. So this is that. And very miraculously when we left Hungary, this was all traveling people and we went to Yugoslavia and Bulgaria and Greece and England with this. And also, maybe even the people issued some papers. He was a lovely man. Round face, rosy cheeks… His name was Angelo Rota. And, I don’t know why, but with the mother of a friend of mine who was a devout Catholic and had some connections, I once went to see him. I don’t know what we were asking him. And he did his best. And he had, there was Anonsino Verrolino who was also on his staff, and these two people were wonderful; In spite of, I’m sure, being encouraged by the Vatican.

Q: You mentioned that your sister and parents lived in a special house. Was that the safe house?
A: Well, you can call it a safe house. It wasn’t that safe. But what happened was that when the Germans came and everything was taken over by those laws, Jews were forced to move from certain buildings that were considered non-Jewish dwellings, and had to move to other houses that were designated as Jewish houses. Now, my parents’ house, which I had left, was designated as a non-Jewish house. My aunt, who was also a dentist, lived very close by. Her house was designated as a Jewish house, so my parents went there first as my aunt was deported and died in Auschwitz. That’s another story. But then when certain houses needed and were designated as being protected by the Swedish crown, then everybody who had the Swedish Schutz-pass moved there. So my parents, my grandmother, and my sister moved there.

Q: How long did they live there? How long were they able to stay?
A: Well, I don’t… I can’t tell you exactly, because, I don’t exactly… When they moved there it must have been in late spring, early summer. And they lived there until the Russian troops liberated Hungary, which was in, probably in January in ’45, where they were because every part was liberated at different times.

Q: Would you know, for example, how were the mechanisms of how the safehouses were organized and maintained?
A: Well everywhere there was a kind of a person who was in charge. But families had one room. And sometimes somebody, a friend or a relative, would arrive and they would make room for us. It was very crowded and they did their best of what one can do in such circumstances.

Q: There was mention that Wallenberg had opened an orphanage in the area of approximately 78 children in the orphanage. Do you know anything about that?
A: Yes, I know a little bit about it. I’m not sure, but it’s possible that my sister was there for a while because there was a time when we thought that my sister would be safer not being with the parents. And she was in some kind of a children’s home, although she was not a child. But I don’t remember much about it.

Q: And there were also descriptions of Raoul Wallenberg attaining trucks and drivers that he used to rescue people?
A: Oh yes, well that’s how it was. Yes.

Q: Do you know how he did that?
A: No.

Q: How did you get from Hungary to Yugoslavia?
A: Yanjey, who was a genius, anyways, he said, after the Russians liberated us, in quotes, he said, ”Let’s get out of here,” because he was much older than me, actually. He was nineteen years older. So he had seen more. He said that that at first when he was a young man, he was sympathizing with communism and all these idea. But then in the 1930s there were these mock trials in Russia, in the Soviet Union, where so many people were condemned, made to confess crimes against Stalin. And were executed and there was a dictatorship. And he said, ”Everything that’s now there is going to happen here. One will need not only a passport, but an exit visa, which one won’t get. And then if it’s a visa, it will be very difficult to get out of here. Let’s go now. Let’s try to make our way to Sweden.” Because he had a contract with the Swedish company called ”Nifer”, but how? So he said, ”The only way to get there is to get to somewhere by the sea.” How can we get to the sea? Going south to Yugoslavia. There will be, somewhere, a boat, and we can make our way by sea to Sweden. Of course it was absurd because the war was still going on. But there was no other way. Obviously we could not have gone through Germany. So, I said, ”Sure, whatever.” I trusted him so much. And how can we get to Yugoslavia? There were no trains, no nothing. But somehow we managed to get on a cattle car. There were no animals there but people. And so that was the first attempt. And then we got into another car, another train that had a little more shelter, and there were Russian soldiers but they didn’t care because there was, at the end of it there was a little space, and we were standing there, I don’t know, for twenty-four hours, I don’t even remember anymore. Until we got to Yugoslavia. And there we were questioned by the partisans. The partisans were in charge there. And, eventually they let us go and we thought then that we should go to Turkey. And for that one would have had to go to Bulgaria and for that one would have had to go… And these partisans in command, they said, ”Okay, we are not going to arrest you. But you have to get out of the country.” And how do we get out of the country? The Bulgarians, they didn’t give us the visa. We got on the train anyways; we made our way into Bulgaria. But it’s a long and interesting story, but from there, with the help of the British, we got to Greece. And from there to England.

Q: How long did you remain in England?
A: Five years, actually. Not that long after we settled in London where I had relatives, Yanjey thought, maybe we should go to America because meanwhile the Swedish company decided they don’t want to develop this invention that he had. This patent. That we should go to America because his patents had to do with high-speed cameras and film projectors and such. So we went to the American consult, and a very nice American young man said, ”Don’t apply for a visitor’s visa because you will only get into trouble. You will not want to leave, but you will have to leave, then you will have to enter again. Apply for an immigration visa.” And we said, ”That will take very long.” ”Oh, that won’t take that long.” It took five years. We were just about ready to apply for British citizenship when we got this letter that our turn has come. So we came here. That was in December 1950.

Q: If Raoul Wallenberg were with us here today, what would you say to him?
A: Don’t even ask. In a sentimental moment where I just said… No.

[Okay. We’ll take a little break.
Yeah. Maybe that’s enough. Don’t you think so?

This I told them, said if they want to take just one more thing, is that, not only that how one person can make a difference, because he started this, then the Portuguese and the others did that, but that there were some very good people. For instance, a friend of mine who was a young teacher and also a pianist, a teacher of philosophy in high school where I went, he lived with his mother and his sister. They took in, I think seven, or, a number of Jews. And hid them and fed them in their apartment and that was, you had to be very careful because you were not even supposed to, even to allow people to notice that there was more food going in there and there is more activity. And not only that they saved them, and fed them, and housed them, but they didn’t let them do anything. They treated them as honored guests. You know? Now this is something really very special. There are people like this. And of course, Yanjey Kudar, I think somewhere he should really be remembered. And others who I have known who have hidden Jews and risked their lives. But it is easy to forget that and it’s easy to remember all the people who were cruel and put Jews in cattle cars and shipped them out of the country. So I didn’t want to go back for a long time, but then I did go back and I realized that there are good people everywhere.

[It helps you reconcile with the entire thing.
And the other sad thing is that I am convinced that this can happen anywhere. I thought that this could not happen in America, but I don’t think that anymore. But if it’s not Jews, then of course, Indians, Negroes, et cetera. You know what’s going on now.]

Q: Do you know, or do you remember, what were your husband’s tasks when he was helping Wallenberg?
A: Well, to go and talk to people and see who has a connection and put a list together and bring them out. Also, at one time, he went to a brick factory, for some reason, brick factories were used as places where they put the Jews ready to be deported. And in one of these places, he found my best friend and her mother and father and little brother, and he got them out.

[That’s great.

Q: The writing said you wrote. What happened to the story?
A: I wrote up this whole thing with many more details. Not that I could give all the details about Wallenberg because I’ve been trying to say anything I can remember. But my personal story… before, after…

Q: Is it published?
A: No.

Q: Would you ever think of getting it published?
A: Well, I’ve been thinking of it.

[It would be quite a gift.
And I wrote another something that the people want me to publish, which is recipes that are from, that came from my mother’s recipe book where she started to put recipes when she was just married and later on. And most of them say who gave it to her, and then the stories of those people. I intermingle that with the recipes because some of them ended up in Auschwitz or similar places, which didn’t survive.

That would be beautiful.
And there are photographs. My son put that together.

That’s such a good idea because it makes two different things come together.
Yeah, yeah.

Food and family put together.
Yeah, yeah, so, we are thinking about it.

Let us know!
Okay, of course! If it happens… Thank you very much.]

Thank you.


Interview: Mari Rodriguez
Camera: Michael Ragsdale
Transcript: Yale Kim
Editing: Adriana Lee