Personal Reflections - In Ghettos
I was born in Pecs, the capital city of the province of Baranya, in Hungary. My parents had a small tinsmith shop where my father made cans, buckets, cake pans and other household items from tin.
I had four sisters. The two oldest were half-sisters
from my father's first marriage. I finished my schooling in Pecs. The first
four years in the Jewish elementary school and the subsequent years in
middle school called "State Polgari".
At age fifteen I joined a Zionist group and during one summer while attending this Zionist Camp I met my future husband, Zolti. We corresponded for two years. At the age of seventeen I moved to Budapest where I worked hard to support myself. Zolti and I were married in 1939, on the threshold of World War II. When in 1941 I became pregnant, I was frightened and confused. I wondered about life and what kind of future will it hold for a Jewish child? But I also remember well my husband's words "Don't cry darling, we need this baby, just wait and see". My dear Zolti couldn't have known how true his words were.
Hungary was the last country to be occupied by the German Nazis. On March 19, 1944, they invaded the country. After this date, bad events, against the Jewish population, occurred quickly, every day. The following month, on April 6, 1944, every Jewish person had to wear the Yellow Star of David on her or his outer garment around the chest area. This was mandatory from age six on.
Many other discriminatory restrictions followed. We were not allowed to go to any public places; on the streetcars and buses we were restricted to the back seats of the vehicle; to go shopping, during the day we were allowed only certain hours; and many other similar restrictions. A ghetto was created in the heart of the city, houses were equipped with huge yellow stars on their fronts called "Jewish Houses" and here is where they concentrated the Jewish population of Budapest. Fifteen persons to a room.
On October 15, 1944 the Hungarian ruling Regent, Miklos Horthy, spoke on the radio and made a declaration to the nation that Hungary will cease to fight. He wanted to get out of the war and this was a welcome news for all of us Jews. But it was too late for a change of heart.
The Hungarian Nazi Party, called the Arrow Cross Party, with its leader Szalasi Ferenc, staged a coup, took over the Regent's office and he became President. The bloodthirsty Szalasi swore that he would help the German Nazis to annihilate all the Hungarian Jews, who were not yet deported. And they started to do this the very next morning.
Arrow Cross bandits came into our building and one of them barked on top of his lungs, "every Jew must get down to the yard or I'll shoot." Once downstairs, we had to march, with raised arms, to a racetrack called Tattersal. There we spent two horrible days and nights, without food, water or a roof over our heads. Arrow Cross Hungarians were guarding us from a platform above and one of them roared: "You rotten Jews, all of you will die within a few hours". Some of the guards were women and they proved to be worse than the men. They carried whips and beat everyone they could reach. I tried hard to avoid these beasts. Two and a half days of this terror and we were allowed to go home. After this traumatic episode I didn't have even a minute of peace, either during the day or at night.
My dearest Zolti and his father, by now, as part of the Hungarian Army's forced labour battalion, were taken away from Budapest. My baby son and I were on our own and lived with my mother-in-law.
The Hungarian Nazis kept up their terror by constantly searching all the apartments, looking for young people. I tried to hide wherever I could. Even under the bed. One day I heard that on Columbus Street there was a Red Cross house that accepted refugees. So a group of us parents, with our children, escorted by two policemen, went there to seek refuge. ( Without the police escort, the Hungarian Nazis surely would have lynched us. ) We were accepted..
However, two weeks later, because someone betrayed us, we were all taken from this refuge to a huge sports field, for some kind of a selection. As a young person I was kicked out from the group where only the elderly and the children were suppose to gather. I was selected and forced to go with the other young people to the railway station, from where all train loads were destined to go to Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Luckily I found a way to escape from the railway station. Managed, with great difficulty, to re-join my mother-in-law and my young son Andy, and finally we were marched back to the ghetto with all the others. There were about 70,000 people in the ghetto by the time they closed it. In the ghetto conditions were terrible. Many of us starved to death or were killed by other means. We heard rumors that the German and Hungarian Nazis together planned to finish off the ghetto by bombing and by machine guns, just two days before the liberation. We lived in constant terror and fear.
Much later, after the war, I learned that it was Raoul Wallenberg, the young Swedish diplomat's intervention that saved us from being butchered. Appearantly, Wallenberg sent a message to the German General Schmidthuber, saying that he'll make sure that the General will be tried as a murderer after the war if he didn't stop this planned killing. The General stopped it.
As a result, in the morning, on January 17, 1945, as I looked out from my window, I couldn't beleive my eyes for I saw a young Russian soldier in the yard. At that instant I realized that we were liberated. I was overjoyed for my baby, Andy, was near death due to starvation. And I myself was also extremely week for the same reason.
In the spring of 1945, those Jewish men who survived, started to come back, home. Every single day I went to the railway station hoping to see my Zolti among the returning men. Then one day I saw one of his comrades who told me that Zolti was shot by the German Nazis because he got sick.
After this news I thought my life was not worth living any more. I was devastated. But, there was my young son Andy, who needed me. I had to live for his sake!
My parents and the two oldest sisters were taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau from Pecs and perished there. My other two sisters survived. One of them was hiding with her ten year old daughter in a convent and the other returned from a concentration camp, but very sick from typhus. My father-in-law survived also. After the war, my son Andy and I lived, with my in-laws, until my first attempt to escape from Hungary with Andy, in 1949. Unfortunately we were caught and I was jailed for six months.
In 1956, during the Hungarian Revolution, I tried to escape again with Andy who was 14 years old by then. This time we were lucky and the escape was successful. Eventually we immigrated to Canada.
To start a new life as a single mother in a new country without knowing any English or having any skills, with a teen-age boy, was indeed very, very difficult. More than words can say. But I was determined to succeed.
I studied English diligently at night and tried to make a living, for both of us, during the day. Eventually, being able to speak English, helped me to get a better job, as a clerk, in a bank.
This short biography cannot possible tell all the trials and tribulations my son and I had in Canada, especially in the beginning. But we made it and we are happy to be here. A few years later I married again to a nice and gentle man, Emil, who is also a Holocaust survivor.
My son Andy grew up, married and now the father of two children, Kathy and David.
Now my life is complete with having gained a daughter, Andy's wife, and being the grandmother of two wonderful grandchildren.
Ibi Grossman is the author of the book: An Ordinary Woman in Extraordinary Times. See details in the Bibliography Section. The above article is a short version of her extraordinary times.
© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.