Homework Assignment: Design A Monument For Non-Jewish Rescuers Who Rescued Jewish Survivors

Ella: So we are here at Maria's, it's May 2nd, 2004, and Alex has a homework assignment. He is studying about the Holocaust and he has an assignment to do a visual monument or memorial. What do you need to do, Alex?
Alex: Basically I just have to design a monument.
Maria: Sit down.
A: I just have to design a monument for non-Jewish rescuers who rescued Jewish survivors.
E: Okay. Well, I think it’s a great idea.
M: What kind of monument?
E: A memorial to celebrate people like you.
M: In what way? Writing something about it or constructing?
A: What it would look like, basically?
E: Well, I think it could be a multimedia thing. You could have a picture, or have photographs, and play the tape with it, you know.
M: Do you have something in mind?
A: No, not really.
E: Well, I think it would be a great idea if we listen to Maria and then as she says her story, her memories of this event some image would come to you. And nobody would have such a lovely material like you do. This is an original material.
M: I can tell you some of the images I remember.
E: Yeah. That would be great.
M: Because I was a ten-year-old child at the time. What stayed with me was, the one thing I remember, I really didn’t know the preparation for this, because of course this had to be done very secretly, I'm sure. But when Hungary was actually occupied by the Germans, that’s when they really started to get hard on the Jewish people, because until that time--this I only know looking back--the governor of Hungary was resisting to enforce what the Germans were trying to force what they did in Germany, and Czechoslovakia and all the other places. But what I remember, my cousin was also, he was one year younger, we did sense that something pretty bad was happening, because everyone was very tense and afraid. And one of the very vivid pictures was we did go down when actually they started to have all these people from the country collected, and we heard that they were herding them on one of the main roads that went through this town where we lived, we lived just outside the Budapest, the Országút/National Road is what I'm trying to say. We went there and there were all these poor people, young and old, like cattle, and the Hungarian soldiers were… I'm lost for the words now, but they were just going and they had little pieces in their hands. It was a horrible scene. I just recently read something about that some people were really acting terrible. But at that point I don't remember anybody saying anything. Everybody the people who were there looking were just stunned, and were afraid to say anything. At least this is my memory of it. The next thing was…
E: What did they have in their hands?
M: They had their belongings, you know, kis batyukat/little bundles something that they were able to carry, not much.
The next thing I remember was that my father who was a shoemaker, worked with this family who owned a leather store, and they were Jewish and they lived in the next little town. And they had asked us to bring the only one big thing—I remember it was a chair. That if we would save that for them. And it was there. Eventually I was sitting and even sleeping in that chair, and crying. Because I do remember crying and thinking "Is my father ever going to come back?" because he was in the army too.
But we did go and see them off; actually they put them on these trains that were also used for the cattle. The wagons, that you probably remember, marha vagon. In fact after the war we were also traveling in that, because the regular train wasn’t operating yet. But they were taken, and they never came back!
In school I had only one girl that, in the elementary school, and she, I knew she was taken too on that train [Crying and smiling in pain] and she never came back.
The next thing was… [Clears her throat] It's too bad that we didn’t write all this down at the time. There was again my cousin and I were wondering what was going on because something was happening and that was the time that his mother and also, not… my mother, she was not able to go in, or for some reason she wasn't there, but my father was able to take some time out from the service. And he brought this family of a mother and the two daughters out to live with us, because they were in the city. Now, I didn't know at the time everything. Eventually I knew that they were already collected in some big place. There were these houses at the time where all the Jewish people had to go, into an area which even today it's know that was kind of like a ghetto at that time. And all the people had to wear the yellow stars.
Now our connection was that my father had this little store where there were six or seven people working, making the shoes. And the man who was doing the upper part of the shoe, was the first one taken away. At that time he wasn’t taken away like Auschwitz or anything like that but they collected just the Jewish men to, they called it some kind of a service, it was actually something like forced labor, but they were kind of like a backup for the military, for the army. [Sobs.] When this man was taken away he asked my father if he could do anything to save his family, so this was the family that came to us, the mother and the two daughters, the little girl was two and a half and Éva, was my age and… and I honestly don't know how the next two sisters of the mother came with another young man, who was dressed up like a soldier but he was also Jewish, and he must've gotten them out from some other collecting places, and so they were the three sisters, the youngest one I think was about eighteen. She is the one who is still alive, actually I just saw her recently in Florida. And so they all came and at the time we had long hair and they were already captive in that place where they couldn't even wash their hair, and it was a bad memory, we all had lice in our hair and we were trying with kerosene, petroleum, to get the lice out, and all the time the…
At the same time of course the Hungarian part of the Nazis, the supporters of the Nazis who came into power at that time, because they eventually they removed the governor of Hungary and it became a Nazi government or something, and they got harder and harder on trying to enforce the Jewish law and collect all the Jews, so there was a constant fear of what is going to happen if they find out if anybody is hiding, and of course it was also compulsory if you knew that anybody is hiding you're supposed to give them up and inform of. All I knew was that they had false papers, that they were refugees from Transylvania. [Laughs softly.] There was a police system in Hungary, especially in the country, a csendörség/the gendarmes. I don't know if there was anything like that in Romania, that they were kinda, it's interesting now that I'm looking back, they were the best looking. They really selected them very big and strong men and they had this very fancy outfits, I think they were modeled probably after the Italians and all I remember is that we were really scared of them. Because they were supposed to be pretty rough and tough, so they would be going kinda like house to house or searching or watching and so we were just scared, and I think it's still that when I talk about it, [Crying] that it comes out and not only that, but we were also scared of maybe… We weren't really, we were not on good, on bad terms with our next door neighbors, but we were not on really friendly.... They were not friendly people. So that was a worrying thing that maybe if they… We didn't know on whose side they were on or if they suspect anything. Fortunately they had never done any harm, except later on they did. I forgot when maybe it was the last time, they knew my father had a motorbike, and that had to be, they wanted everything collected: radios and all those things that was…
E: The military?
M: The military. They just got really paranoid about everything. You were not supposed to listen to the radio, especially the BBC, of course. They wanted to keep people believing that the Germans are going to win no matter what and you couldn't listen to the radio and you were not supposed to have any, even bicycles, but the motorbike I do remember at one point we had to make a bunker for air raids. We had to built one, we only had a little cellar and my father really liked motor things and he hid the motor bike in different parts and one day they did come and it was a funny thing because my aunt also had a baby during the war and she had a kecsket?
E: A goat?
E: A goat to help her with the milk to nurse the baby, so one big part of the motorbike was behind this thing in the, in the, in this little bunker and the time they were coming they were putting the bayonets all in the garden to look if there is anything. It was a stupid thing, when I think about it! We kinda suspected that it was our neighbor telling them that we do have, because they found his, and I'm just saying that because we kinda feared that maybe they are going to tell that we are hiding people, and… we even had to go to dig trenches. I remember my mother was almost like hysterical. She was so nervous at the time and of course the family. They all put the babushka, the kendőt on and hoped that they will not recognize or find out anything.
Especially the two young ones, they were very pretty girls, eighteen year old, I think Bozsi was eighteen, Klári was twenty. [Clears her throat] I don't know if I can think of anything else now.
E: But where did you sleep?
M: [Smiles.] We slept, we had a very small house. When the two extra girls came… my parents lived in one room, I lived, actually this was a one-room house with a kitchen and a pantry and my room was made from the kitchen into a room which actually we just had carpets, rugs put down on, it was a stone floor and that was my room, and we had a little building that was originally like a summer kitchen that was our kitchen, and there was also a little shop where my father would do all kinds of things, make shoes, do whatever, at home and there was a little cellar in there and I was fortunate enough that I had a very nice rekamié, that was my bed. Éva and I slept on that, sometimes the little girl Erika would also sneak in there, but of course we thought we were so big by then we didn't like her to be with us, and she still remembers sometime. [Laughs.] We joke about that, which is nice that we are able to do that. And my mother and Manyi néni and Klári and Bozsi slept in the two beds that my mom and dad used to sleep. And I think there was a time when they were able to go over to my aunt’s house, the two girls.
But I remember when, actually the Christmas Eve it was, the Romanian army that came into that place where we lived and we were so afraid, we were all women. My father was gone, disappeared. The last time I saw him he, it was a little further up in Budapest and we didn't know what happened to him and he came back much later after the Budapest siege was over, but we didn't know if he was alive or not, and that's why I said I was sleeping in that chair. Actually we had that chair that you could open up and I think Erika slept in that chair, and when it was put together I would be sitting there at night and just crying and thinking, "Is my father ever going to come back?" Maybe I said that already? But when the Romanian army came, we had, we knew that the Russians are coming, we knew that they are getting closer and closer, we could see actually occasionally when the bombings went on. We lived on a pretty high hill, just about the level of Gellért Hegy, the top of Gellért Hegy, so we could see the bombing of Budapest from the house, which was pretty terrible at times and also I had this horrible picture, sometimes I still get that watching the dogfights of the fighter planes when they were, the fighters came with the bombers and they would be chasing each other. [Pause.] I don't know if you can make anything out of this…
E: Yeah, yeah.
M: But we were so afraid because we were only women and there was a young man a few years older that we used to play out on the street together and actually his older brother did go off with the Germans, one of this, they were actually recruiting young people and Matyi was still not,--maybe he was older than you are, maybe he was your age, 13, not more than 15 definitely--we asked him and asked his parents if he could come over and stay with us because we were also scared, everybody was scared actually that when the Russians are coming they are going to do terrible things, which they did occasionally.
And jott a kis dobos és kidobolt/the drummer came and beat his drum… That was the thing at the time, and that's another thing I'll never forget: that was the order from the town hall that everybody has to leave because the Russians are coming and they're just going to devastate the place and do horrible things, and cut your fingers off to get your rings and take everything away, and then when the drummer read the paper, afterwards he said, “Well, everybody do whatever you want to do,” you know, but he had to read the order.
So we went and got Matyi, and Matyi was there and we got a little vas ágy/one of these iron beds that maybe he brought over, I don't know. So there were all these, one, two, three women, and two bigger girls, and Erika, and he sleeping there.
When they came, Christmas, it was Christmas! And we were still fortunate we had beigli, which is walnut and poppy seed roll, Alex, our traditional Christmas pastry, and the soldiers came and I don't know how many they came in and they were looking for food and we offered them the beigli and they took the beigli and unfortunately it was a few houses not that far away, there was an old woman and her spinster daughter and they did… pretty bad things with those women because they were not protected and now I couldn't tell you if they were Romanians or Russians or whatever.
A few days later when the Russians were coming we had chicken and they took the chicken and the dog ran after them and they shot the dog! Fortunately the dog didn't die, they just got the foot, we nursed it back. We didn't say that we don't give it to them, it was just the dog's instinct to see what happens, and we were pretty lucky other than that that we survived and my father came much later and he almost got at the end of the war, when the siege ended, the Russians were collecting men, all men, and he was able to escape from that collection. But I have an uncle who was taken back to Russia into forced labor and he was pretty young, at the time, I think he was 16 or something and you know, my husband was 15 when they took him when the Germans were retreating and they put him in uniform and they put him behind the gun and he couldn't come home for 2 years, so that was really bad.
But this family, I'm still very close with the two girls, they are like my sisters, and one of the sisters, the mother's younger sister is still alive, so I don't know if that gives you some picture to draw.
[Laughs softly] E: What happened with them after the war?
M: When the war ended, the three sisters were part of a big family of eight brothers and sisters, and the rest of them they all came back, they all survived, and there was one sister, and her family, were in the ghetto in Budapest and they were all very sick, and so they came out and they were put in the little house where it was the summer kitchen, I don't know where the cooking was done! they also came out to recover because they had pretty small children, in fact I just met the girl who was the oldest and of course very young at the time, she's also living in Florida.
For a year they stayed until they were able to go back. In fact even before that they rented, not far from us, another house that was abandoned at first. The house where they lived in Budapest it was pretty much very badly damaged so they couldn’t go back there for some time, but all the rest of the family for many years, for years they would be coming there to us, especially in the summer, because we also had my family coming out from the city in the summer because it was a nice place, with the garden and my father did have two aunts in the country, I would never know if they were his sisters, I still have to find out because they were so much older and they would help us, bring us food, like ducks and goose, so that we had something to eat and of course these people also were very hungry in the city, everybody was starving in the city because the siege was going on for too long and people were stuck in the shelters under the houses, so they all came and there were several of them, especially the little ones would come out in the summer. There is another one living not far from here, she was the cousin of these girls, and she spent some summers there. Then I think it was ‘49, the war ended in ‘45, in ‘49 half of the eight brothers and sisters went to Israel ‘cause there was an opportunity that time.
And the only person that didn’t come back was their father. And this was the oldest sister, the one who was with us, whose husband didn’t come back, and there was one older brother and one younger brother, and in '56 I think it was the older brother already was in Vienna, back from Israel, and she and Erika went to visit, just before the revolution, so Manyi néni and Erika at that time in '56 was what? Still very young, I don’t know, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelve, anyway they were in Austria, in Vienna, and after '56 when this happened of course she came here. She came here and she got organized the whole rest of the brothers and sisters eventually, except one that never, two went to Canada and out of the two one came here too, that was Klári, that was the one who was with us, and one stayed in Canada, so they were all here, all got together here, which was quite a miracle when you think of what was going on. I really don’t know too much of the details of the rest of them, where were they, except of that family who was in the ghetto.
I just lost a friend of mine who died, I think I may have told you, she and her mother and grandmother were on their way to Auschwitz when fortunately the Germans got defeated, so they were able to come back to Hungary. And her father already thought that they were dead and had another woman replacing the mother, and that woman was living with them until the parents died! The wife came back with the daughter and the mother, and then this woman never left! When I met Éva for sometime I didn’t even ask who she was, I just thought maybe that was an aunt or somebody who lived with them and gradually I found out that that was… that was what it was, and can you imagine that the parents died and there she was still living with the daughter? And she could not get rid of her until she got married to a, she was teaching school and at the time the custom was that the teachers was going to visit the families and so she went to visit the families and there was this man who just lost his wife and they got married. They got to know each other and got married and eventually they had to sue the woman to leave the apartment, she didn’t do it on her own! How can a woman do that? And Éva’s mother was, I think she was a saint! [Laughs gently] ‘Cause she knew!
E: But back to the girls: if you remember, Maria, they would be able to walk around and work with you, or they were too afraid…
M: Well, when they came to us it was when things got really hard and it was the end of the school year, so there was summer, and then the beginning of the next school year that was when the government was defeated, and I, quite honestly I don’t know, I have to ask Éva now, I just talked to her yesterday on the phone, she’s not well, but what I remember was in the beginning I was still able to take the train to go to school. [Wall clock chimes.] I don’t know how that was because obviously she should have gone to school too and I was only going to school until the train was going but then the bombing was so bad and we couldn’t even use the shelter in the school because there was a military hospital in the basement so I had to scram, everybody just had to go as far as we could go and find a shelter somewhere, just go into any strange places! So I don’t know that period… [Long silence.] We were just kids!
They are like my sisters and I was always looking for, I mean my cousin was always, he was always in trouble and we did like each other, I don’t remember fighting with him. I remember my aunt fighting with him because he was a mad little boy; I never met his father 'cause that was also some mysterious thing why my aunt divorced his father. And other than that my cousin was on the other end of Budapest, on the other side and I loved him very much but we would only get together sometimes on weekends or holydays and I would just always look for friends because I was an only child, and I was always seeking others who had brothers and sisters, so it was nice for me to have Éva. But of course Erika was seven years younger, and how old is your brother and sister? You’re going to fall asleep. You don’t drink coffee or tea?
E: No…
M: How much difference is between your younger brother and yourself, or your sister?
E: Like eight or ten years…
M: That’s a lot. That’s a big difference. They are that much younger?
E: Yeah.
M: Both. So you are the oldest?
E: No, I’m the second.
M: You’re the second…
[Phone rings. Phone conversation. Back.]
M: [Referring to the caller’s husband.] Her husband is Jewish, was Jewish, her son's father, and he was put in Bucharest—she met him in Bucharest—and he was put into this work service and he had to go to Moldova to dig out some big rocks or boulders or something from some place, and he escaped twice, and he was sentenced to death because he escaped and they arrested him, and his mother begged him to go back so that they don’t kill him and he survived….
E: You were saying something about lice…
M: When he came home he was full of lice. Although Moldova is a separate state now?
E: Some of it.
M: ‘Cause I remember when I went on this tour, we did go to see Iaşi? That place where they have those painted churches? And I thought it was part of Romania.
E: Yes, but there is another part of it… Thank you very much.
M: Oh, I just go off.
E: But that’s good. Do you remember what the girls used to like to do, or what they would talk about?
M: Well, I remember one thing: that we were really bad. That was in the winter! We took, we were supposed to take out the little girl on a sled and we tied her on the sled so that she doesn’t fall off and it was very cold and she was a little hysterical. Now I don’t remember that we did anything to her, but it was just that we tied her down, because we were afraid we lose her or something! [Laughs.] So she remembers, she supposedly remembers! Maybe just because we talked about it, but I know that she was not minding her mother and she put her in the pantry and she kicked and screamed like crazy, she wanted to come out. This was Erika! And unfortunately the mother had a lot of problems with her as she was growing up, she just wanted to do her own thing. It took her a long time to mature, and also she had a lot of trouble with her own daughter. She actually had a Hungarian husband here in America and after she had her daughter they divorced, so she was raising the daughter with her mother’s help and her mother did help her a lot and she got into all kinds of trouble and then she got married again and she got divorced again. And her daughter actually got married also. They didn’t like to go to school. They had real trouble in school and she, I think, she went to modelling and eventually she ended up being a hairdresser, and the daughter is also a hairdresser now.
There were a lot of hairdressers, but the two sisters were hairdressers, the two sisters, the younger sisters who were with us, they were both hairdressers. I think they were already trained. And then Erika became a hairdresser, Erika’s daughter is a hairdresser, [Laughs.] and one of the six sisters' daughter and son also hairdressers, and I cannot think of anymore of them, but a lot of hairdressers! [Laughs throatily.]
E: Do they thank you? Or…
M: We kept in touch. I was very close with the mother, in New York. The older daughter, Éva, who’s my age, never left Hungary. In ‘56 she was married and she just didn’t want to leave! She didn’t want to leave and after years when she did come to visit her mother, her mother was hoping, she divorced also, she divorced her husband, and they stayed friends forever with the husband, but she started a new family, but the mother was so disappointed that she did not want to have anything to do with America, she didn’t want to come here, she just liked Hungary so much, she didn’t want to leave it! And now I forgot what was the question!
[Laughs amused.]

E: Did they at any time acknowledge your gesture, or this was not something extraordinary, this was something that people would do. Did they do something similar for you when you came here?
M: Well, that was what I wanted to make a point of. While Éva stayed home, my mother was like her pseudo-mother to her, and Manyi néni was in New York when we came here. Actually she was one of the people who either told us that this is where we should come, 'cause we lived in England for a few years and we had two other friends who kept telling us that we should come to America and she also, I was in touch with her, and we did come and it was very comforting to me that she was here, because I was very homesick, even though at the time I was 25.
And every time we got together they would always tell people that they owed their lives to my parents, that my parents saved them. My mother was here once visiting and of course they were very glad to see her, and I think every time the older sister, she'd go back to Hungary she’d always visit them while they were alive.
And well, that’s about it. I just stayed very close friends with them and while she was alive she would very often come to visit with us, and also one or two of the brothers and the sisters would also come. We would just be like a close family.
E: Okay, thank you.
M: You’re very welcome.

Maria’s family members were awarded posthumously the honorary title "Righteous among the Nations" by Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority, to commemorate the fact that her family were among the non-Jewish people who risked their lives to save Jewish people during the Holocaust from extermination by the Nazis. 

Well, here you have it: If you’d like to throw a bit of money my way to keep my endeavors going, and also enable me to spread the money to my various causes, witnessing democracy, freedom of speech and faith, and engineering social change thru art being some of them, I’d be grateful.

New York,
August 13th, 2013 

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