November 19, 2008

Testimony of Thomas Strasser

My name is Thomas Strasser. I was born in the year 1926, in Nove Zamky, Slovak Republic (at present), a town of about 40,000 inhabitants, of which about 4,000 were Jewish.

Around 1930, my parents and I –I was an only child- moved to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia, where I started my schooling. Although my grandparents,- who remained in my home town, were religious and prominent in the community of Nove Zamky- my parents, and thereby, myself, were secular.

The then Czechoslovak Republic, was known throughout Europe as the most democratic country, of the continent. One never heard the word ”Jew”: everybody was the same, until 1938, when the Allies offered Hitler my country on a platter, to avoid Germany declare war. As we unfortunately know, it did not help, however, my parents were ordered to leave Bratislava, and return to my hometown, which was ceded to Hungary.

In 1942, after completing 4 years of gymnasium (equivalent to a high school graduation), I became bored with school, and my parents’ decision was for me to learn a trade, for which they sent me to Budapest.

On Sunday, March 15th, 1944, the day the German army occupied Hungary, I was at home visiting my family on a short week-end trip, and I returned the same day, although with much apprehension, to Budapest to work.

Unbeknown to all of us, that was the last time I saw my family alive, as there was no way of leaving the city anymore….

Shortly after my return, the Germans came around recruiting able bodied males for various labor tasks. Mine was to empty confiscated Jewish residences of all furniture, hauling them to a warehouse, where German officers chose them to their liking, and transport them to their acquired houses.

I did this until about May 1944, when we were herded unto a soccer playing field, mustered in battalions, and taken to various forced labor camps, to dig tank traps against the oncoming Russian Army.

As the Russians advanced on Budapest, the powers-at-be decided to put us on one of their famous(or infamous?) ”death marches”, towards the Austrian border.

That was my first encounter with Mr.Wallenberg. Although, I never met him personally, I know he was one of the men, who showed up every evening, as we stopped for a nights’ rest, be it in an open field, a brick yard, or a soccer stadium, with folding tables and chairs, carrying portable typewriters, and sat down to type out ”Schutzpasses”, until they were chased away by our guards of the day (they alternated between the field gendarmerie, the Arrow Cross, or some Army units), but they were back, relentlessly, the following evening, continuing issuing the documents!

And so it went for several days, until finally, we were told that a deal was reached with the Germans by Mr.Wallenberg, that all those, under 16 and over 60 years of age, will be permitted to return to the recently created Budapest Ghetto.

Although I did not qualify officially, I destroyed all my ID’s, and thanks to my young looks, I succeeded to become part of the saved ones, who, given the choice of waiting for a train to take us back, if and when it became available, or march back on foot, we chose the latter……

I never saw Mr.Wallenberg again, nor was I aware of him, until after the liberation of the Ghetto, in January 1945.

I consider myself lucky and privileged to call myself one of his ”saved ones”

After the liberation, I returned to my hometown, hoping to find some survivors of my family: unfortunately, none came back. Of the 4,000 Jews, only about 100 survived.

I started trekking to the west, with the eventual hope of leaving Europe, and it’s bitter memories behind me, and after a three-year sojourn in Germany and France, I succeeded in emigrating to Canada.

I got married in 1960, raised three children with my wonderful wife, who, unfortunately passed away in 2007, and have 6 grandchildren, ranging in age from 2 to 10

I partook in two video-taping testimonials, on for the local McGill University project, and the other one for Steven Spielberg’s Shoah foundation.

I am retired now, and spend my time volunteering, one of which is giving living testimonies of my wartime experiences to students of various ages, and thus, in a way keeping the memory of Raoul Wallenberg, and my thanks for saving my life, alive.