Peter Zwack

Q: What is your birth name?
A: My birth name is Peter.

Q: What city and country were you born in?
A: I was born in Budapest Hungary

Q: What is your birth date?
A: On 21st May 1927

Q: Where did you grow up?
A: I grew up in Budapest until 1948.

Q: Tell us about your family.
A: My mother was Vera von Wahl. She was related to the Weiss Manfred family who had Hungary’s largest steel mills and a country estate at Derekegyhaza. My father, Janos Zwack, with his brother Bela, was heir to the Zwack distillery, founded in 1840 by my great-grandfather, at that time one of the most important in Central and Eastern Europe. I had no brothers or sisters.

Q: Did you grow up in a Jewish community? Tell us about the Jewish community in Budapest.
A: All my family was converted to Catholicism in 1917. I myself was therefore born a Catholic. I had no idea that I was Jewish until 1944 when Eichmann came to Hungary. I had therefore very little contact with the Jewish community. Even our extended family, though of Jewish origin, was entirely integrated into Hungarian society. My relations played bridge with Admiral Horthy and were patrons of the arts, philanthropists, leading members of society.

Q: What kinds of schools did you attend? Did you learn your Jewish customs and religion in school?
A: A Catholic school run by Cistercian monks, one of the leading schools in Hungary.

Q: Was your family religious before the war?
A: Our family was all devoutly Catholic.

Q: Can you talk to us about daily life before the war?
A: Daily life before the war was very pleasant for people of our social class and income. We had town houses and country mansions and an elegant lifestyle. To give you and idea, my father had 120 made-to-measure silk shirts which were laundered for him in Switzerland.

Q: When did you first notice signs of anti-Semitism?
A: I never felt any anti-Semitism in Hungary until the war when we had to hide in a cellar from the Arrow Cross and I had to wear a yellow star if I went out.

Q: What changes did you experience?
A: Before we hid in Aunt Micy’s cellar, my father sent each of us separately to other families to hide. Once I escaped from my refuge to go to see a Ferencvaros football match and my father was furious with me.

Q: You meet Raoul Wallenberg at your aunt’s house. What was he like?
A: My father used to play bridge with Raoul Wallenberg between 1944 and 1945. I sometimes went too and watched them play. He was an unassuming, modest man, not someone whom I as a boy would have imagined as a hero.

Q: Could you tell us the story of Arrow Cross, Mr. Lars Berg and your cousin Lajos shoes?
A: We were hiding in the cellar when the Arrow Cross came to the building and marched us up the stairs. They started taunting my uncle and wanted us to walk down to the Danube where we knew we would be shot. They would tie people together and then shoot one of them so that his weight would drag the others into the Danube. My cousin Lajos asked if he could go and get his shoes. While he was away, someone had managed to sneak next door to the Swedish Embassy and Lars Berg came rushing into the house brandishing a machine pistol. He said that our house was under Swedish protection and he frightened the Arrow Cross away. While this was happening, I ate the entire chocolate bar they had given me to last the whole time that I would be hiding in the cellar. I was only a boy and I thought that I was going to die so I ate the chocolate bar then and there. The episode (without the chocolate!) is described in Lars Berg’s memoirs. Of course my parents must have been much more aware of the Nazi menace as we later found a letter from the Jewish Council addressed to our Company in 1944 with a list of things Jews were allowed to take with them when they were deported, inviting them to present themselves at the railway station at a certain time. My father had anticipated that we would be going into hiding. He had planned beforetime where we would hide and had filled the cellar with provisions. He just didn’t share his fears with me. I was going to school, playing ice hockey and dating girls.

Q: Did you keep in touch with friends during or after the war? What happened to them?
A: After the siege of Budapest, life went back to normal for us. We were busy rebuilding the factory that had been completely bombed. Most of the people we knew socially survived the Nazi occupation, although quite a number of our workers in the factory did not.

Q: What do you think about the ”Shoes on the Danube” monument?
A: I think the ”Shoes on the Danube” monument is very moving as is the Holocaust Museum.

Q: Tell us something more about Mr. Lars Berg. Did you have chance to see him after the war? Do you know what happened to him?
A: I am still in contact with Lars Berg’s widow Barbara who lives in Brazil. I was shocked when I found out that the Swedish government had made no provision for her welfare. Although less known than Raoul Wallenberg, Lars Berg made a heroic efforts to save the Hungarian Jews and not just our family.

Q: After the war, what happened to you and your parents and family?
A: In 1948 my father put me on a train to Yugoslavia. I crossed the border on foot and walked and hitched lifts as far as Trieste where my father had a banker friend who took me in. Later I went to the United States with my father where we were on Ellis Island for one month. A special bill of Congress to facilitate our entering the country was introduced by Congressman Emmanuel Cellar. We were joined by my mother. I was very happy to be in the United States. After the war and the Soviet occupation, it seemed to me a brave new world. My mother missed Europe and her life there but my father was totally engrossed in winning back the rights to his trademarks. Eventually he was successful and the Communist owners of his old factory were prevented by law from exporting products bearing our family name.

Q: How do you think the war changed you? Your family?
A: The United States offered me a brand new life and I embraced the American ideals of freedom and democracy wholeheartedly. While my childhood made me culturally and emotionally a European, America gave me the liberal viewpoint and positive outlook I have maintained ever since in my business and political life.

Q: How did the war and what happened to you and your family affect your relationship with religion after the war? Are you religious now?
A: I am still a Catholic because at this point I believe that important thing is to believe in God and try to be a good person and I think this is the core of all the monotheistic religions. I do however sponsor many Jewish events and am very supportive of Jewish causes. I give my voluntary tax contribution as provided for by Hungarian tax laws to the Jewish religion.

Q: Do you tell your children or grandchildren about the war? About Lars Berg and Raoul Wallenberg?
A: All my family has been brought up on the story of how we were rescued by Lars Berg and on the heroism of Raoul Wallenberg. My eldest son is a Colonel in the U.S. Army and he has devoted much time to research on this period in history. My two youngest children live in Hungary and work in the factory and are very proud of their Jewish origins.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to share with us today?
A: I am very glad that you are keeping the name of this truly great man alive. We need heroes to inspire us in today’s world