A Survivor’s Tale:
Tom Leimdorfer was born in Budapest in 1942. Unlike sixteen members of his extended family, he survived the Holocaust in Hungary in 1944-45, both the deportations to the extermination camp of Auschwitz in the spring and summer of 1944, and the forced marches, starvation and shootings which happened throughout Hungary and in Budapest in particular in the winter of 1944-5. I have edited and published Tom’s account of this ‘survival’ already, and have also made use of his family’s recollections of the events and aftermath of the 1956 Uprising in an attempt to present a variety of perspectives of them.
In the following two ‘posts’ I aim to join these two narratives together by publishing the family’s recollections of childhood after the war in Budapest. For many historians, these years take up no more than a few pages, a few paragraphs even, in the post- world war two History of Hungary, between Soviet ‘liberation’ and invasion. Yet to those growing up in Budapest during these years, they were just as important in terms of their own formative experiences, as Tom’s accounts demonstrate. In any case, the effects of the Holocaust were still a daily presence in his consciousness, and the causes of the Uprising were also present, though less conscious.
The wreck of an engine:
The old steam engine stood there on the siding, a crumpled wreck of rusting metal, but still clearly recognisable as a steam engine. I clambered up the railway embankment through the mass of red poppies just ahead of Mami (my mother), who was anxiously telling me to stop and wait. It must have been a weekend afternoon as my mother worked on other days and I was looked after by my grandmother (Sári mama) or by my nanny Bözsi, who lived with us midweek. It was the summer of 1946 and I was nearing my fourth birthday. The time when children start to be insistent with questions. This occasion has stood out in my memory as the day when I started to open the door to some awful mysteries around my young life.
‘Why is that engine broken?’ The questions was simple enough. Perhaps I had already asked many other questions about ruined houses, holes in walls. Perhaps this happened to be the moment when my mother decided the time has come to tell. She took my hand and crouched down beside me as I kept staring at the engine. ‘There was a war – many things were broken. Houses, bridges, trains, lorries and many people died’. Her eyes filled with tears, but she did not try to hide them this time. The wreck of the engine remained fixed in my mind, the details of the conversation have faded, but gradually I started making links. The gaps between houses still littered with great heaps of fallen masonry, the bullet holes in walls, the wrecked bridgeheads on the Danube bank, the ruins of the Buda Castle. Then, one by one, the ghosts of missing family members started to emerge in my consciousness.
While time spent with Sári mama and Bözsi was mainly carefree play, my precious time with Mami was often overshadowed by her anxiety and tears. It took time for me to connect the tears with the loss of her parents and the (presumed, but still unconfirmed) loss of her husband. My little friend Éva, and my slightly older second cousin (also called Éva) did not have fathers either, so this did not seem unusual even though my other playmate András did have a dad. My father figure was Dádi (my paternal grandfather, whose real name was Ármin Leimdörfer) and there was a close-knit family of my aunt Juci, uncle Gyuri and great-aunts and uncles who all surrounded me with attention. So it took time for the ‘gaps’ to emerge as family members lost to the war and to the greatest mass murder of all times. Much of my memories of childhood is full of special early friendships, enjoyable holidays, adventures of schooldays and young boy gangs, sport and hobbies, family days and national festivals. These interact with awareness of hardship and my mother’s struggle to keep me safe and to give me the best she could, awareness of new clouds of political persecution and the dangers of living in a dictatorship. It would be easy to paint the picture in very dark colours. Holocaust survival as a toddler, followed by school days in the darkest years of Stalinist communism. Yet there was much fun and laughter and enjoyment and learning. Enduring friendships were formed and I had the precious gift of love in a very special family. It was a priceless childhood, for all the pain and the sombre background.
The story of the tears in my mother’s eyes on that summer’s day in 1946 must be told, but this is pieced together from her words, from my aunt Juci’s book (‘By Grace Alone’) and from history. The memories of the little boy who asked about the broken engine need this backdrop. A good starting point is my old family album.
My cousins: Juli, Andi and Jani
In my early conscious memory of family days, I also see the baby newcomers in the immediate post-war years, my cousins Jani (1946) and Andi (1947), Juci and Gyuri’s two boys, who were joined by my cousin Juli, born in in 1949. We were all treasured as precious signs of a future for the family as well as for ourselves.
Contemplative by the garden fence
Our flat and our garden were very special places for me. While I have no memories of it before we had to flee on my fateful second birthday, I feel sure that returning to a known home must have been part of the healing. Not many flats in Budapest have secluded private gardens and we were very fortunate.
That small garden was a wondrous place for me. Once I graduated from the sandpit, a section of the rough grassy patch (not even pretending to be a lawn) was gradually transformed by me to be a network of roads, bridges and tunnels. I created a small imaginary town and played with my cars and bricks and small figures for hours on end when the weather was fine. We had a hammock, which could be strung across near the patio end and where I could doze in the sunshine. As it was the front garden, I could also watch people passing by (through the Russian vine) without them seeing me. The houses opposite were flattened by an air raid or shelling. For a while it was a mysterious forbidden site of weeds and rubble till a new health centre was built there. The mystery was lost, but at least I did not have far to go for my X-rays.
My early recollections are of playing a good deal by myself, under the watchful eye of Bözsi who was calmness and gentleness personified. My mother went to work as secretary in my grandfather’s timber yard. I have no idea how she found Bözsi to look after me, but she was the perfect choice. She was a highly intelligent peasant woman of limited learning, but great wisdom and practical sense. She lived in our small room during the week and went home at the weekends. It never occurred to me at the time that she could be a mother and have children of her own, but she was. She left us when I started nursery school at the age of five in 1947 and I missed her terribly. Some years later, when I was nine, I spent a week with her family in the country in their typical peasant household. That was when I got to know her two children (a few years older than me), learnt to relate to geese and cows and oxen and sleep in one room with the whole family. Bözsi was the brains and the soul of the household and gently directed her husband and all her family. It was probably hard times after the war that made her seek midweek employment as a nanny and it must have been hard for her children, but I am eternally grateful.
The other dominant figure in my early life was Sári mama, my grandmother. She looked after me regularly while Bözsi did the shopping, which was a long complicated matter of queuing in several different shops. Bözsi also had a regular day for going home to her family midweek, when my grandmother took over. Sári mama was much more proactive in her approach to childcare. She had an endless repertoire of games to play indoors or out. She taught me songs to sing and rhymes to recite. We listened to music and she tried to get me to dance. She taught me the basics of draughts and chess and other board games from a very early age. She read stories, patiently answered my endless questions and opened doors to many of the mysteries of life.
Sundays were special times with Mami. She could be distant and preoccupied, anxious and angry, but I always knew that I was her treasure. She was obsessional about hygiene and nutrition. She had the highest expectations for the son for whom she tried to play the role of two parents. Apart from working in the timber yard, she sold English fashion magazines (such as Vogue) sent by her brother Bandi. This became risky, then impossible during the fifties. Most Sundays, except the monthly Family Days, we went to the Reformed (Calvinist) Church. On the whole, I found it boring, but usually came away with a question to ask Mami. We often went to a little restaurant in Buda called Zöld Fa (Green Tree) where my favourite food was Wiener Schnitzel (escalope of veal). I was her little gentleman escort from a very early age.
Occasionally, Mami took me with her to the timber yard, perhaps because neither Bözsi, nor Sári mama were free to look after me. My grandfather (Dádi) worked hard to restore the business, but on a much smaller scale than the pre-war firm. Part of the yard was bombed, the office was a small shed. I loved to play hide and seek amidst the piles of wood and enjoyed the scent of fresh shavings in the sawing shed. I now wonder about the health and safety aspect of a four year old running about in a timber yard, but all those working there were looking out for me. I loved watching the goods trains in the railway siding, where the timber was loaded. I was particularly friendly with one of the older workers (Béni bácsi) who occasionally lifted me onto a goods wagon or on a lorry and let me pretend to be in charge of operations.
An uncle returns from overseas:
There were two related events in my mother’s life in 1947. The first was the expected, but still devastating, confirmation that my father had died in 1943. Prisoners of war gradually returned from the Russian camps in small numbers over the post-war years. There was an article about one man who did not return till the 1990s as an elderly man with little memory left. For some families the uncertainty remained for a lifetime. The doctor friend of my father’s who returned in 1947 was there when he died, but could not get news to the family till he was freed in 1947. So my grandparents lost both their sons since young Sanyi died of Spanish flu in childhood. Juci was the one remaining child. By 1947, they had three grandsons and then a granddaughter in 1949. They made our future welfare their main purpose in life.
It may have been confirmation of my father’s death that prompted my uncle Bandi to visit us from London. There were no direct flights, he came by train. He had to leave the combatant units in the army quite early in the war, when they discovered he was colour blind. As an economics graduate, he was given a teaching job within the forces. After the war, he got a job with the Milk Marketing Board in the accounts department and this is where he met his future wife Lilian. He always called her ‘Compie’ (short for ‘companion’). Lilian was a widow with a young son, Roy. Bandi was becoming rapidly anglicised. He also nurtured a deep hatred of Germans (until the 1970s, when he went to work in Germany for while), but his resentment of Hungarians was even deeper and longer lasting. He could not forgive the people of Szécsény who watched his parents (and all their Jewish neighbours) being taken from their homes to Auschwitz and did not raise a murmur of protest. He blamed Hungarians as much as Germans for their death.
He visited my mother to see what support he could give. He also helped her to finalise the handover of my grandparents’ house to the state. A small sum was paid in compensation (houses in Nógrád County were not very valuable) and Bandi insisted that it should all go to my mother. This was generous as he was far from well off at the time. England was still a land of post-war austerity and rationing, while food was still relatively plentiful in Hungary with no rationing. However, Bandi had received help from the family when he left Hungary, so he was repaying a debt. I remember little of his visit as I was feeling very ill with jaundice (hepatitis A). The little model open top red Jaguar car he brought for me was, however, amazingly memorable and a source of pleasure for years. It had a clockwork motor, steering and forward and reverse gears. He must have taken to me, because he told my mother that if she ever decided that I should go to live in England, he would look after me. This tentative agreement that ‘someday’ I might go to England was something I learnt much later, but it was somehow in the background of our lives. He vowed never to return to Hungary.
Bandi remained a very keen and active tennis player for all but the last four years of his very long life. He won many minor tournaments, became a Wimbledon umpire and as a ‘veteran’ became a legend on the international over 60s circuit. It was a veteran’s tennis tournament in the late 1980s that (when he was well over 70) that made him break his vow of never returning to Budapest. He rather enjoyed it and met up with three cousins he had not seen for forty years.
My very first ‘girlfriend’ was Éva Fischer, who was just a few months older than me. Her mother (Irén néni) had been a close friend of my mother for many years. Her father also died in a forced labour unit. The two widows met as often as they could and Éva and I played for hours on end. We made up imaginary places and adventures, acted out stories we were told, made secret dens in corners of their flat or ours. In the autumn of 1947, I started going to nursery in the mornings. Mami normally took me and Sári mama collected me at lunchtime. It was a tram ride along the Buda side of the Danube and then a short walk up some steps as the nursery was in a street on the lower slopes of the Castle Hill. The main reason I loved to go was that Éva attended the same nursery. In fact the only thing I remember doing there all year was playing with Éva. The deep snow of that harsh winter is linked with memories of struggling up the icy steps to the nursery.
Our friendship was destined to be cut short by further events of history. The post-war democratic government of Hungary (dominated first by the Smallholder’s Party and then by a Socialist-Communist coalition) presided over a period of hyperinflation followed by a period of gradual reconstruction and land reform. Gradually, with the country under occupation by the Red Army and becoming increasingly linked economically to the Soviet Union, the Communist Party became the dominant force. During the course of 1948 they forced members of the Socialist Party to amalgamate. Those opposed to the process left the country or eventually ended up in prison on trumped up charges as the country moved towards one-party dictatorship by February 1949. Éva’s mother, Irén néni, saw it all coming and was determined not to live under another dictatorship. She was a jeweller by trade and worked hard in the post war years to rebuild her shop, which had been confiscated as part of the anti-Jewish legislation. She was not prepared to lose it again to the Communists. She had an acquaintance in Paris, a middle-aged widower, who was also a jeweller. He came to visit and marry her so she could get to Paris, with most of her merchandise. It was supposed to be a marriage of convenience, but it lasted till the day he died. They had separate shops and mainly separate lives, but seemed to love each other dearly.
I recall one evening in the autumn of 1948 when my mother and I were at the flat of Imre Budai, a colleague who was clearly smitten by her. By that time, Mami had left employment with my grandfather (who was negotiating the handover his timber yard to the state). As an attractive young widow, she was not short of admirers, but generally kept them at a distance. Budai was a kind balding and portly man, whom I found very boring. On this particular evening, he tried to distract me by allowing me to use his typewriter. I had just started school and Mami encouraged me to write a ‘letter’. So I did and it went like this: ‘Mami I am bored let us go to Éva’. This caused some amusement and Mami kept the missive to show Irén. We did go to see them that night and I was shocked to see Éva amidst trunks and packing cases. She was in tears as all her toys were being packed away. The next time I saw her was in Paris in the summer of 1959. She was seventeen and engaged to be married. She and her husband went to live Geneva for some years and then emigrated to Israel. Irén néni kept in touch with me till she died in her seventies, but I lost touch with Éva. Imre Budai had little success with my mother, though he courted her for months. One day, he produced an expensive Swiss Doxa watch as a gift for Mami, which must have cost him nearly a month’s salary. She refused to accept, he refused to take it back. So they agreed that I should have it and I have got it to this day (although I was not allowed to wear it till I was ten). I always thought of it as a gift from my mother.
My other little friend was András. His mother (Eszti) and and my mother met on the platform at the railway station saying goodbye to their husbands going to the Russian front. They were both pregnant, Eszti was just about to give birth, while my mother was four months pregnant. They became very close friends and shared news from the front, where the two men served in the same unit. Unlike my father, Jenő manage to escape both death and capture and made it back home after months of hiding and unspeakable deprivation. He did not stay with his unit and was officially missing. So he had to stay in hiding for eighteen months, till the end of the war. He could not even go down to cellars during bombing raids for fear of being seen and recognised.
András with Tom in his garden, and skiing in the Mátra Mountains
After the war, Eszti and Jenő helped my mother by including her and me in their outings and holidays. Jenő was a keen photographer and there are photos and films capturing happy moments by the Lake Balaton in the summer or skiing in the Buda Hills or the Mátra Mountains in winter. Skiing was not a luxury sport for us. If there was snow on a winter weekend, we just took our skis on the trams or buses to the cog-wheel railway, which ascends the Buda Hills. There we would have our sandwiches and flasks of hot drinks while the wooden skis were waxed with a hot iron (there was a small fee to be paid for this). Then we were off to the slopes. Often we also had András’ other little friend (also called Tamás) with us. The three little boys practised together and raced each other on the safe and gentle nursery slopes, but we often watched the experts on the steep slopes and the ski jumps. Eventually, we ventured further as Jenő felt we were ready. Most memorable was the ‘round trip’, when we would go right down to Hűvös Völgy (Cool Valley) for a meal in a tavern and then take the tram home before dark.
András was a good friend throughout our childhood and we often played in each other’s homes. Their fourth floor flat had a fantastic view over the Danube, across to the Castle and the hills. We always watched the firework displays on the 20 August (Constitution Day) from their balcony. We went to different schools except for the brief seven weeks in the autumn of 1956 before the Revolution and our flight to the west. It was always strange and comforting to be back where I had my childhood ‘sleepovers’ with András, still surrounded by some of the old furniture and looking out over the lit panorama of bridges over the Danube.
Another little friend, a year younger then me was Gyuri Sarkadi, son of my mother’s cousin Kornélia (Kori néni to me). His father also died in the war and he was also an only child. Their flat opened to a large overgrown garden with some statues and exciting hiding places where we played for hours. Later we also played button football (of which more later) and board games while our mothers caught up with each other’s news. It was always an enjoyable visit as Kori néni was always very kind and Gyuri’s nanny, Baja néni, always had some special treat for me. Gyuri became an electronic engineer and married a lovely paediatrician, Kati.
Early school days:
Veres Pálné experimental primary class 1, September 1948
I am in top row, extreme right. Bomb damage seen in background
Class teacher Sára Németh
On a hot weekend during the summer of 1948, I was just waking up from my afternoon siesta. The sun’s rays were streaming through the gaps in the heavy wooden roller blind. I became aware of Mami sitting by my bed. She started to talk about the end of the summer. What did I think about starting proper school? This was her style; she always consulted me about decisions which affected me even at that early age. I remember asking some questions. I would have to see the school and they might not take me because I was not six till October and school (even now) only starts at the age of six. Also, the school she had in mind was on the other side of the river (Pest side) and we would need to take the tram. But it was where she went as a young girl. I said I would go on the visit, but I was a bit scared about it.
All I remember of the interview was the beautiful young teacher who showed us round, asked me a few questions and set me down to play a game of dice with pieces going round a board. I tried to concentrate because I knew I just had to be in her class. At the end she asked me which was my right hand. That was alright, but then she asked me which was her left hand. I just looked at her in total confusion and was mortified that I failed. They offered me a place all the same. It was a new ‘experimental’ primary unit attached to the famous city centre Veres Pálné gimnázium (grammar school), which my grandmother and aunt had attended. The ‘experimental’ aspect included the fact that it was a mixed class and they taught French right from the start. I learnt very little French in the year, but I remember gazing through the window at the large tree outside, knowing it was ‘fenêtre’ and ‘arbre’.
I made friends easily with some girls and the parents of one of them (also called Éva) took me with group of her friends skating a few times to the outdoor ice rink. It was great fun, though not on a par with skiing. The large artificial lake at Városliget (City park) would be drained each winter down to a few centimetres and artificially frozen. The replica castle on the far bank made a magic backdrop. There were special areas for children, for adults, for expert dancers and also for ice hockey. It made a great outing and I enjoyed being the only boy amongst a group of girls.
The boys in the class were more of a problem. I was the youngest and also one of the smallest. It soon became clear that playtimes were dominated by two big boys who were quite physical and each had their ‘group’. These were games I generally did not wish to take part in. One of the ‘big boys’ was far from bright and quite early on I made a point of quietly helping him whenever he got stuck with schoolwork. This strategy succeeded as he always leapt to my defence in the playground without me even asking him.
Travelling to school is worth a moment of reflection. It meant walking a few steps from our road to the main road, crossing over to the raised platform in the centre, which was the tram stop, five stops by tram (going over the river), crossing the main road again (now there is an underpass), walking five minutes to the school buildings. For the first couple of weeks, Mami took me before going off to her work, but this probably made her late. After that, she saw me onto the tram before catching her bus and I did the trip alone. There was not much traffic and I was taught to cross roads carefully. It would not have occurred to anyone that a six year old was at risk from strangers. Most days, my grandmother (Sári mama) met me coming out of school and took me to her home for lunch and helped me with any problems I might have had at school. In reality, I learnt more from her than from anyone else. On Wednesdays, my great-aunt Manci took me to her home and I was spoilt with her kindness and home-made teacakes.
One day my teacher, Sarolta, was very cross with me. I absolutely cannot recall why. She was beautiful and charming, but quite firm. She insisted that I must write right-handed, which was a struggle and would tap my hand with a ruler if I tried to use my left hand. None of this reduced my ‘crush’ on her which started when I first saw her at interview. Solemnly she declared that day, that I must stay behind until my mother came from work to fetch me. On the one hand, this was sweet punishment as I had her all to myself when the rest of the class went home, but the worry of my mother’s anger spoilt it. Like most young children, I remember the punishment, but not the supposed misdemeanour.
The ‘experimental’ primary school was closed after a year. By September 1949, communism was in full swing and Stalinist centralised standardisation became the educational climate. In fact, it was a return to the Prussian model of very formal pedagogy which was favoured by the old Austro-Hungarian empire, only with communist propaganda colouring the content. Anything ‘experimental’ (favoured in Russia in the early years of the Revolution under Lenin) went out of the window, together with attempts to teach French at an early age. Russian became compulsory from the age of 10 and thousands of language teachers (mainly of English, French and German) had to become teachers of Russian within weeks. Forty year later, the process was repeated in reverse as teachers of Russian became a dying breed.