Yom HaShoah - Sunday April 23 2017
We are honored to publish a live testimony of our member Peter Tarjan- child survivor at the Holocaust
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by Peter Tarjan
During the autumn of 1944 I was eight years old. Six months earlier, on March 19, Hungary was invaded by its ally, Nazi Germany, for Hitler’s fear of Hungary abandoning its alliance against the Soviet Union. Regent Horthy, the head of state since 1920, had been secretly negotiating for a separate peace with Moscow. A few days after the invasion a multitude of new ordinances were issued by the newly appointed pro-Nazi government to exclude all Jews from the economic and social life of the country. One of the most hostile ordinances required all Jewish persons over the age of six to wear a yellow Star of David on their clothes.
The building, where my parents had rented an apartment since before I was born, became a Star House in June, 1944. Jews were only allowed to reside in such buildings, which were scattered throughout Budapest. It was rumored that this design was to protect the rest of the residents of the city in the false belief that the Allies would not bomb areas with Star Houses. We were sharing that apartment with many people–relatives, friends and complete strangers–on October 15, 1944 when Regent Horthy–still the official head of state–declared the country's neutrality. A few hours later the Arrowcross Party grabbed power from him. During the previous weeks my parents had acquired three separate Swiss Schutzpasse–protective papers–issued either by the Swiss Consulate led by Mr. Carl Lutz, or forgeries produced by various underground groups, including a team of Zionists. I was fascinated by those documents. I studied them side-by-side and noticed they were slightly different from each other. It seemed to me the shield on top of each sheet was a little different from the other two. Anyhow, looking back from the distance of seven decades, I have to assume that at least two out of the three, if not all three were forgeries.
My father was away in November in a forced labor unit–munkaszolgálat–for Jewish men, and a note from him survived in which he made a reference to having acquired an important paper that he was trying to send to my mother in the Star House.
Sometime in November my mother and her friend and neighbor–Mrs. Jolán Deutsch–decided to walk from ʺourʺ Star House in the VII. District, Király utca 31, to one of the ʺprotectedʺ buildings in the International Ghetto. Those buildings were established by Swiss, Swedish, Spanish and Portuguese diplomats, and by Angelo Rotta, the Papal Nuntio representing the Vatican. Jolán's daughter, Trudi, was not quite three, her birthday was in January. Jolán somehow hired a young man in a soldier's uniform with a rifle on his shoulder, who accompanied us to V. Szent István Park 25, a tall building by the Danube, one of the buildings under Swiss protection. I don't know whether anyone checked our papers for authenticity, but we settled in an apartment on the 6. floor with some 70 people, with a single bathroom for all those people. My memories from that period include playing in the stairway with other children; problems and fights at night on account of the crowdedness and using the bathroom. Lastly, at the end of November, Arrowcross men broke into our building and ordered all the women of a certain age range who either had no children, or children older than two, to gather in the back of the building for some work. The city had been severly bombed and those women were told they were needed to help clear the rubble for a few days. My mother, who was 34, had to go and left me in charge of Jolán, who was exempt on account of Trudi's age. I last saw my mother from the rear window while she was waiting with the other women, ready to go. It turned out to be the infamous ʺEichmann March.ʺ The Red Army was already outside Budapest, but Eichmann was determined to finish off the remaining Jews in the city. There were no more cattle cars available for transporting Jews to the concentration camps as all the trains were assigned to carry the retreating troops westward. The camps in Poland had already been shut down, and Hitler needed workers to fortify Vienna against the approaching Soviets. Forty thousand Jews, mostly women and some older men, were driven on foot from Budapest toward the western border under the most inhumane conditions by Hungarian Gendarmes and members of the Arrowcross. My mother was able to send an open postcard from Bánhida–a village outside Budapest–at the beginning of December. That was the last news from her.
Jolán, a blue-eyed blond woman, decided to go underground with false papers and she survived with Trudi, but first she handed me over to a Christian military tailor, who made uniforms for officers. Over a few days this man tried to place me in several children's shelters without success, but finally, he left me at a makeshift orphanage operated by the Swedish Red Cross at V. Szent István körút 29.
It is not clear how my mother's closest friend, "Panni"–Anna Kertèsz–had learned about my whereabouts, but she came to visit me and gave me her temporary address at V. Tátra utca 4, a building under Swedish protection. She and her 20 or so relatives occupied a room in an apartment under Swiss protection. Panni and her family had genuine protective papers as her brother, Georg "Gyuri" Kertèsz, a violinist, had been a member of the Zürich Tonnhalle since about 1931 and was able to obtain genuine papers not only for his mother and sister, but also for several aunts, uncles and cousins. One of these cousins was Miklós Balla, whose daughter, Edith Csontos lives in Sydney, Australia. Edith was born after the war.
Panni thought that the Swedish orphanage was a better place for me than to be with her group in a crowded room with a cousin, Miklós's younger brother, who was suffering from dysentery. But she said, if worse comes to worst, I should come to her address.
A few days before Christmas, the director called the children into his office one by one. He asked me whether I had any place to go as the orphanage was about to be closed and he didn't know where the children would end up. — In retrospect, there were only two likely places: the Budapest Ghetto or execution by the Danube. — I told him about Panni’s address and he instructed me to be ready to leave at 7 in the evening.
As planned, the superintendent let me out through the front door that was normally locked. I had no clue how to get to the address, but a woman noticed me in the boulevard's relatively busy pre-Christmas crowd, she asked me what I was doing and eventually, against the instructions for not speaking to anyone, I told her or showed her the address and she led me there. Again, the front portal was locked and the superintendent wouldn't let me in. The lady did manage to talk the superintendent into calling down Panni, who did come tp the gate, and probably for a bribe, managed to get permission from the superintendent for me to stay for only one night. I will never know the name of the lady who led me there, but she certainly saved my life.
The siege began in a day or two and everyone from our room was in the building's cellar most of the time, trying to be safe in case the building were hit and collapsed. The only people who stayed up in our room on the third floor were Panni, her Uncle Bèla and I. When I asked why we didn't go with the rest to the cellar, they said something about how bad the air was down there. The only food we had for weeks was dried peas boiled in water on a tiny stove in the middle of the room, and not much of it. We were liberated in mid-January by the Red Army.
Panni left for Switzerland in 1946 and was allowed to spend only 6 months there while she completed a course in hospitality. Panni and my mother–Bözsi–were piano teachers and they became friends while they were studying for their careers. Panni then immigrated to the UK and ran a small hotel in the Kensington area in London for many years.
I left Hungary in 1956 and came to the USA. The first time I saw Panni again was in 1968 in London, when I was already 31 years old. We talked a little about the events of 1945 and that is when I realized that the reason Panni and Uncle Bèla stayed in the airy room was because I was there illegally. They were hiding me from the eyes of the superintendent and the other tenants. They risked their own lives for me.
When people ask me about my survival, I tell them I was hidden by Jewish people who were in an apartment under the protection of the Swiss government, but in a building that was set up by Raoul Wallenberg's group of Swedish diplomats.
I have always been and to the end of my life will continue to be grateful to Carl Lutz and Raoul Wallenberg for their humanity and heroism, and it saddens me to think about the unfair treatment Mr. Lutz suffered from his own government and the horrors Mr. Wallenberg experienced after his capture by the Soviet government during his years in the gulag.