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Hungary, Brexit and the General Crisis of Europe   Leave a comment

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The last time Europe was beset by a ‘general crisis’ was in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The crisis began with the Protestant Reformation in the territories and city states of the Holy Roman Empire and ended with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 after a Thirty Years War in which the population and economy of almost the whole continent was ravaged by civil conflict. Westphalia set the ground-plan for the reconstruction of Europe based on nation states. It is possible to suggest that Europe is beginning to emerge from a period, since 1848, when nation states became empires, destroyed once again from civil strife within the continent, and that we are now reaching the end of another century and a half which will culminate in a new system of international relations, replacing a system of balancing power between nation states with a less precarious and more permanent form of federalism. It is  the argument over exactly which form this new supra-national system should take which is provoking so much friction across the continent at present, but this continuing ‘crisis’, with its demographic and economic dimensions, should be viewed in the context of the long-term development of modern continental affairs, rather than that of short-term global developments, including that of globalisation itself. That is why both the ‘Brexiteers’ and other western European nationalists and the ‘Visegrád’ pan-nationalists of central Europe are misinterpreting recent events and allowing themselves and their countries to be dragged back into a reactionary authoritarianism which, in the longer term, will be unable to defeat modern liberal democracy.

008Viktor Orbán, as a Young Liberal, addressing the crowds at the reburial of Imre Nagy in 1989.

I have been forming this view for some months now, since even before the shock referendum result in Britain of 23rd June last year. It was therefore interesting to read a piece by the Hungarian premier, Viktór Orbán, in the bi-monthly journal, Hungarian Review. In a speech made some months earlier in Transylvania, Orbán had coined the phrase illiberal democracy to describe his vision of the resurgent nation-statism which he wished to see established, not just in Hungary, but throughout central Europe. This concept, I argued with friends and colleagues, was illogical and contradictory, since democracy can only ever be ‘liberal’ in its application and, likewise, liberalism can only ever express itself in democratic forms.

In his article, Orbán claims that the EU is faced with a series of unexpected crises of the Euro, illegal migration, and geo-politics that threaten it with disintegration. These crises began, he argued, not with the reintegration of central-eastern from 1989-2004, but in the rejection of the Maastricht Treaty by referenda in France and the Netherlands, the treaty which would have established a new Constitution for Europe.

He links the Lisbon Treaty, the global economic crisis and financial ‘meltdown’, to the ‘geopolitical conflict’ in the Ukraine in 2014 and the ‘migration’ crisis of 2015, as a narrative of failure by ‘the European elite’, not including himself or his governments, to guarantee uninterrupted, even growing, prosperity for all its citizens. This failure, he argues, culminated in the British referendum, signalling a major juncture: the EU is losing a member for the first time – a loss that may well be the harbinger of eventual disintegration. The leap from here from established fact to prophetic hyperbole is worthy of a prophet crying in the wilderness. Only the former UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, has made so fanciful a claim with such glee. This brings him to the crux of the matter:

Instead of tackling these problems in an effort to play its proper role internationally,… the EU seems to be content to wallow in self-tormenting recrimination, evidenced by its recent controversial attacks on Hungary and Poland.

Although Orbán acknowledges that the Union is made up of 28 member states, and that the European institutions are intended to advance cooperation among them, he believes that the European Union consists of institutions, and that member states only exist to support their operations. Yet only this last weekend, the UK was given the strong message that its ‘Brexit’ negotiations were primarily a matter for the member states, and that they remained united, and would remain united, on the terms on which the UK would be released from its Treaty obligations with all 27 of them. At the same time, a debate on Hungary’s suspension in the European Parliament left Orbán battered and isolated by criticism of his recent violations of European civil rights through his Education Act and other actions. It was reported that only Nigel Farage came to his defence, a sign of isolation in itself, though I have been unable to find any detail of such a speech.

It is therefore unsurprising that, of all the European institutions singled out for attack by Orbán, the most democratic one, the Parliament, is foremost. Boosting its role, he claims, impaired the operative efficiency of Europe’s institutions instead of enhancing it as intended. Of course, we all know that good democratic process takes time, and that debates and conversations can be difficult in a democratic institution, especially one in which heads of government can be challenged according to European and international law in a way in which their own sovereign Parliaments are unwilling or unable to do. At home in Hungary, Orbán has used every possible means to avoid confrontation with both legitimate opponents and critical friends on his own benches.

His secondary target is the European Commission, which he claims has recast itself as a political actor contrary to its original role as “the guardian of the treaties” as enshrined in the EEC Treaty itself. In this respect, he might attract considerable support across the member states, were it not for his belligerent dismissal of the Commission as a political committee, or Politburo, which usurps the function originally delegated by the Treaty to the European Council, the chief assembly of European heads of state and government. Yet he himself acknowledges that the Council retains the power to determine the EU’s future political course as its prerogative. He also admits that what he objects to is that when, as was the case on the mandatory migrant quota, the overwhelming majority of countries agree on an issue, the minority of countries should have the right to veto its operation, rather than the principled agreement being passed to the Commission for implementation. Rather than accepting that for democracy to work, minorities must sometimes give way, Orbán insists that the tiny minority of states who object to the migrant quota system should be able to obstruct the whole, urgent process. Again, in the most belligerent of terms, he attacks the Commission’s involvement as amounting to the self-promotion of a non-elected European institution to a political role, which in turn aggravates a crisis of democracy and legitimacy within the Union.

Of course, his representation of the Commission is deliberately misleading, since all national ‘executives’, with the exception of Presidents, are indirectly ‘elected’ or appointed by heads of state and heads of government, and not directly elected by a general franchise as in the case of MP’s or MEP’s in the legislature. In a democratic system, Government at any level does not work without a separation of powers along these lines, as Orbán might have learnt had he spent longer doing his George Soros-sponsored PPE course at Oxford. Yet even in referring to the decision of the European Council, he questions the legitimacy of a two-third majority vote. Presumably, he would only accept the decision if it had been made on a unanimous basis. In other words, he wants the right to veto any measure which he considers to impinge upon questions representing vital national interests for Member States. The fact that his own government in Hungary has made constitutional changes affecting the fundamental rights of its citizens on the same two-thirds basis, does not seem to have impinged on his own thinking, however.

As a demographic historian, it is unclear to me as to how the questions representing vital national interests of member states could be said to have been impinged upon by what Orbán refers to the crisis of illegal immigration. In the first place, inter-continental human migration such as that we witnessed in Europe in 2015, albeit on a massive scale, has always been as much of a ‘fact of life’ as human reproduction. In fact, the extent of any movement into or from a given geographical area is calculated by relating the natural increase or decrease in the population to overall population increase or decrease. At present, Hungary is experiencing net emigration as a result of the high levels of internal migration within the EU which have characterised the period since its accession to the EU in 2004. Even so, despite the large numbers who entered the country in 2015, this trend has continued, because most of those seeking to enter the ‘inner core’ of the Schengen area through Hungary’s eastern border with Serbia, have shown no inclination to settle in Hungary. Their presence in the country, although placing considerable temporary demands upon its infrastructure, has been simply a matter of transit to western European countries, especially Germany and Scandinavia. Yet the Fidesz government immediately recognised a means to propagandise against what it already viewed as liberal, western European values, even though Germany helped it to cope with its state of emergency by opening the German borders to the refugees from Syria.

Of course, it was impossible to assess the status of those entering Hungary, since, fearing that they would be returned to camps in Turkey or other Balkan countries, the vast majority of them refused to be moved to temporary holding camps where they could be registered as asylum seekers. So, although the UNHCR and other NGO’s estimated that upwards of 70% of them were genuine refugees, the Hungarian government referred to them as ‘illegal migrants’. Although this term was technically accurate, it resulted from the failure of international refugee management which was based on the notion that the refugees would be content to remain indefinitely in poorly equipped and overcrowded camps in neighbouring countries to their war-torn homelands. In addition, large numbers among the ‘migrants’ were from countries like Afghanistan, where outright war had ended, but where major civil insurgencies made normal life impossible. Those fleeing these countries were, and still are, seeking to secure their lives as well as better standards of living. Eye-witness accounts of Hungarian aid-workers working among the refugees along the transit route continues to confirm this confused picture. Some of this aid was provided by NGOs sponsored by George Soros, but much of it was directed through church organisations, hardly antagonistic to the government. Despite this, the contradiction between their reports and the government propaganda was what led to Orbán’s renewed hatred for Soros’ activities in Hungary.

In any case, although the EU became responsible for those crossing into its central territories, the problem did not originate in the EU, nor was it ever the EU’s exclusive responsibility. Refugees have been the responsibility of the League of Nations’ Refugee Agency  since the 1920s and the UNHCR and, with the exception of Greece, none of the Balkan countries were, or are, EU member states. Greece, besides having its own economic problems, mostly quite unique in character, also possesses a coastline border which is impossible to control people-smuggling. This was also the case with the African refugees arriving on the Mediterranean Italian islands. Nonetheless, whatever the rights and wrongs of the ‘exodus’ of 2015, none of the governmental or inter-governmental agencies come out of it with any great credit. None of them were prepared for such a huge tide of human souls to be cast upon them, but it was necessary to respond in humanitarian terms to a major humanitarian crisis which, despite its longer-term origins, had distinct short-term causes and catalysts.

Most historical migrations have resulted from a complex of ‘push’ and ‘pull’ factors, in this case further complicated by the use of new technologies among the migrants. Neither their possession of such devices, nor the relative wealth of those able to make the journey and pay the traffickers, should blind us to the primary factors in their migration. Yet, for example, the behaviour of a small number of them in Köln and elsewhere on New Years’ Eve, and the one terrorist attack proven to be carried out by an asylum seeker, acting alone, have been ruthlessly exploited by Hungarian politicians and media who want us to believe that all migrants pose a threat to our safety and security. That is how Viktor Órban has persuaded his own people, formerly one of the most hospitable in Europe, that there is an issue of national security at stake over the question of ‘migrant quotas’.  In reality, there is no security threat to any of the twelve national governments who have signalled their objection to the Commission’s proposal to revise the Directive. In recent months, the terrorist attacks which have occurred in London, Paris and elsewhere in Europe have proven to be of a ‘lone wolf’ nature, unrelated to known terror networks, and not carried out by migrants or asylum seekers. Neither have there been repeats of the kind of behaviour in Köln which, while unacceptable, have been characteristic of migration streams in the past, where individuals or groups of young men are detached from their normal familial and communal networks.

Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the EC, delivered his first State of the Union Address 2015

Next, Mr Orbán makes some ridiculous claims about the slighting of the UK in the election of the Commission President, which, he writes, played a great part in making the majority of the Brits fed up with the European Union. In reality, the opposition of the then British government to the election of Jean-Claude Jüncker (above) was rather the result of the Conservative Party’s decision, when in opposition, to break with the mainstream European People’s Party in favour of membership of the more right-wing grouping in the European Parliament. When he became PM, David Cameron was therefore obliged to oppose Jüncker’s presidency, which left him somewhat isolated when, in 2016, he came to negotiate his package of reforms in the run up to the referendum. Had Cameron remained, like Orbán, in his natural liberal-Conservative alliance, he might have avoided becoming prisoner to his own right-wing, got a better package from Brussels, especially on migration, and  thereby secured his majority in the referendum campaign. There might be a lesson there yet for Orbán and Hungarian conservatives to learn. In any case, there is little evidence to show that J C Jüncker’s election was of any great concern to anyone outside the British Conservative Party’s right-wing.

Putin and Orban Budapest2

On the subject of Brexit, Orbán adds that most people believe that the United Kingdom will suffer from Brexit. He was kind enough to David Cameron to issue a statement on the eve of poll hoping that it would vote to remain. It’s not clear what effect this had on the British electorate. Nigel Farage’s speech in the European Parliament about EU money wasted on dog-training schemes in Hungary had got more attention the year before. Almost a year later, the hard economic data is beginning to show that the UK is already beginning to suffer from Brexit, though not on the scale that George Osborne and other sooth-sayers had predicted in their ‘project fear’ campaign which produced such an angry reaction. The truth is that the British voters, whether pro-Remain or pro-Brexit always knew that there would be a cost to leaving: no rebirth without pain, as Orbán puts it. But he admits to being unworried about us, since we are the most seasoned democracy in Europe, a nuclear power, a member of the UN’s Security Council, and the fifth largest economy in the world. He adds, the British will find themselves sooner than we think. Maybe. But I’m not that worried about the British either, though I regret the isolationist image that they seem once again content to send to the continent. That’s what worries me more – the loss of influence in the process of European reintegration which we had in the 1990s, and which Hungary led. I worry about the British Council’s role and the future of English language teaching and learning, together with all the opportunities for inter-cultural exchange which membership of the two countries in the EU enabled. I worry about my son’s university place with the attempts to close down the Central European Union and Hungarian students again priced out of higher education in the UK, even those, like him, who were born in Britain. Yes, I also worry for those who have gone to the UK to work in the Health Service or in the hospitality industries. Most of all, I worry for the whole of central and eastern Europe with the ascendancy of Putin and Erdogan in the east.

Viktor Orbán is forging ahead

Yet, by his own admission, Orbán is only worried about the fight against the EU as an institution which seeks to replace the nation-state. He is driven not by the healthy resurgence of national identity and patriotism in Hungary, but seeks to pervert it into an authoritarian ‘nation-statism’ which belongs to the Horthy Era in recent Hungarian history, if not to the late nineteenth century, when the country was finally emerging from its first general crisis. If he were to put his faith in a more confederal states of Europe, I would have greater confidence in his attempt to get us to subscribe to the principle of “unity in diversity”, which I always have done, provided it is balanced by “diversity in unity”. We must pool our resources and share our sovereignty if we are to face the challenges of the twenty-first century. We cannot afford to go back to the perpetual competition between nation states which led to the second general crisis of totalitarian empires at war and proxi-wars from which we have spent the last generation emerging.

Orban in Brussels2

Orbán’s basic concept and strategy for European unity starts from his observation that the EU is wealthy but weak. This, he suggests, is the worst possible combination… one that is acutely vulnerable to the single greatest threat confronting Europe – and Hungary. It is a threat, he claims, which is undermining his country’s financial stability and its precarious achievement in modernising the economy. Nowhere does he mention the ongoing role of EU funds in enabling this transformation, funds without which, according to many economists, the country would have been bankrupted in the early part of his ‘reign’. These funds continue to be ploughed into higher education in a desperate attempt to stem the flow of young Hungarians to more prosperous parts of Europe. In the meantime, salaries and wages, even those offered by foreign companies, continue to stagnate and, for all the weakness of the Eurozone, there is little prospect of Hungary joining it at current rates of exchange. Private funds are being wasted on pet projects on a massive scale. In one three km stretch of Budapest, three new football stadia have been erected within the last few years, perfectly reflecting the PM’s obsession with the sport which is not shared by his people, those who do share it preferring to watch Barcelona or Real Madrid on their flat screens at home.

If the EU is wealthy but weak, Hungary is both poor and weak, with its wealth increasingly concentrated in the hands of an ever-decreasing oligarchy. The hard-working middle classes are reminded that they have his government to thank for its national foreign policy (influence over its neighbours in and surrounding the Carpathian basin with Hungarian minorities), its restoration of law and order, its public safety against terrorism and its national culture that has slowly begun to flourish again after the long years of Communist sterility. The threat to all this comes, not from within, which has seen Hungary under his watch being returned to being one of the most corrupt nations in Europe, but from outside, from mass migration and its ‘mismanagement’ by the institutions the European Union. He spends most of the rest of his article setting out his view of this issue, before returning to Brexit. I have dealt with what I regard as his distorted view of the principles of migration and asylum above. On the significance of the Brexit vote, he draws these conclusion that until it happened…

… there used to be little doubt that the European Union was a major actor in global politics, capable of influencing developments not only back home but in remote corners of the globe. The secession of the UK marks the end of that era. The EU’s influence is even weakening closer to home, as it is apparent in the conflict in Ukraine. 

Yet, for all that we might worry about the effect of Brexit on European integration, the early signs are that it will, paradoxically, strengthen the Atlantic Alliance which Hungary was so proud to become a member of earlier this century, before it joined the EU. Yet it seems to be Hungary and others among the Visegrád countries which are deliberately seeking to undermine the efforts of NATO to deal with Russian aggression in the Ukraine, in concert with the EU, and in its sending of clear signals to Putin about the independence of the Baltic states within the NATO-EU ‘umbrella’, which, as he rightly admits, Hungary has benefited in the recent past, especially during the wars in former Yugoslavia, but to which it contributes very little. By contrast, the recent deployment of troops and hardware to the region by the UK government are a sign of its continuing commitment to European security in the face of Russian threats. The Hungarian government will have to make up its mind in the near future whether it wishes to continue its commitment to NATO, as well as to the EU. To many western observers, it seems that it wants to keep the resources from the west and east alike, but does not want to keep up its commitments as a member of these ‘clubs’.

Source: Viktor Orbán (2017), Hungary and the Crisis of Europe, in Gyula Kodalányi (ed.), Hungarian Review, Volume VIII, No.1, January 2017. Budapest: Danube Institute.

  

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Budapest Between the Holocaust and the Uprising, part one: The Ghosts of War, 1946-1948.   1 comment

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.

juliandi-janiMy 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.

childhood-memories

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.

Little friends:

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.

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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:

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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.

Budapest, 1944-45: A Child Survivor of the Holocaust.   Leave a comment

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Dancing with the Devil Himself:

Had Horthy decided to do his little dance with Hitler before the Italians pulled out, there might have been a small chance that Hitler would have overlooked his effrontery in attempting to pull Hungary out of the war. In the early Spring of 1944, Edmund Veesenmayer, Hitler’s envoy to Budapest had been reporting that, at best, Hungary was a hesitant and unreliable ally. At worst, Hungary was a liability. At seventy-six, the Regent was befuddled by age, and would have to be swept aside. Prime Minister Kállay had made the mistake of his predecessors in thinking that the Russians were the greater threat to Hungarian independence. Veesenmayer was made Reich plenipotentiary, and Hungary ceased, in effect, to be an independent country. Jewish matters would be administered by the SS, two detachments of which soon arrived in Budapest. Lieutenant-Colonel Adolf Eichmann’s special unit arrived in the capital a few days later. Himmler had already decided to do away with the services of the Abwehr intelligence network, and to absorb it into the SS and the Security Service.

Before his arrest, the Abwehr leader, Winninger did however suggest to Brand and Kasztner that money and valuables might prove to be useful in dealing with the SS, in exchange for something of no value to them: Jewish lives. That was the first suggestion of what became known as the blood for goods deal. Despite what the Abwehr men had said, however, a Jewish community meeting at Samuel Stern’s house concluded that the Reich had greater problems than the Jews. They refused to accept that Hitler and Himmler had already ordered the liquidation of the Jews of Hungary, the last large Jewish population left in central Europe.

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Above: Dohányi Street Synagogue

As long as Horthy was still in power, Stern believed, they would still be safe.The Hungarians would not abandon their Jewish citizens. We have lived here for a thousand years, he reminded his friends. Hungarian Jews were fully integrated at all levels of society, especially in manufacturing and commerce, the legal and medical professions, teaching, musical life and the media. Tom’s grandfather, Ármin Leimdörfer (Dádi) had been an officer in the imperial army in the First World War, serving in Serbia, as had many Jews. Nearly twenty per cent of Budapest was Jewish and even the aristocracy and the senior government figures had inter-married and had some Jewish relatives. There was also the poor Jewish quarter in Pest. It was true that these Jews had been prominent (along with other socialists) in the communist revolution of 1919, which had been crushed. There had been no further association with revolutionary violence, but these fears were easy to stoke up by home-grown fascists. The government under Regent Horthy was reluctant to agree to full-scale deportations, but was in no position to resist. Rezső Kasztner described the situation which existed from 19 April onwards:

From now on, the Gestapo ruled unhindered. They spied on the government, arrested every Hungarian who did not suit them, no matter how high their position and, by their presence, instilled fear into those who would have attempted to save the remnants of Hungarian sovereignty or protest against German orders. Concerning the Jewish question, the supreme, the absolute and the unfettered will of the monster ruled… the head of the Jewish command, Lieutenant-Colonel Adolf Eichmann. 

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Sam Springmann was one of the first to ‘disappear’. He had known that he would be high up on the list since, as he told Kasztner, they have me both ways. I am Polish and I am a Jew. Reviving the Europa Plan seemed the only hope now that the German Eagle had landed. Regent Horthy, whose train had been held up near Vienna while the Germans occupied Hungary, announced a new government under the protection of the Reich. Döme Sztójay was named PM. A devout follower of National Socialism, he was a vocal anti-Semite who had been Hungary’s minister in Berlin, where he had formed close relationships with several high-ranking Nazis. German cars sped like angry wasps from street to street, their back seats occupied by machine-gun-wielding SS men. They stopped in front of houses and apartment blocks, dragged people from their homes and took them to the Buda jail or to the Astoria Hotel. Not long before, there had been spring dances in the ballroom of the stately hotel; now the Gestapo had taken over all the floors. Prisoners were held in the basement, their piercing screams keeping pedestrians from the nearby pavements for more than a year following.

On 20 March, Wisliceny called a meeting of representatives of the entire Jewish community at which he instructed them to establish a council whose orders would be obeyed, with no questions asked, by all Jews in the country, not just in the capital. As a first task, the new council had to invite Jewish leaders from across the country to an information meeting to be held on 28 March. The Budapest Jewish leaders were impressed with the respect shown to them by the gentlemanly SS officers. Their job, unbeknown to the assembled Jewish leaders, was to annihilate every one of them as well as all the other Jews in Hungary. They simply wanted to achieve it as calmly and cleanly as possible, without the unpleasantness of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. The means to do this lay with the Jewish Council. Despite this plan, more than ten thousand people were arrested during the following week, about a third of them Jewish. Their valuables, including furniture and paintings, were then put into trucks and transported to Germany. The prisoners were beaten, deprived of sleep and tortured.

On 22 March, PM Sztójay informed the government that Dr Veesenmayer had insisted that Jews throughout the country wear a distinguishing yellow star. Regent Horthy asked that, in future, such “requests” should not be made to him. He told Samuel Stern that his hands were tied and that Veesenmayer had told him that, in future, he would be excluded from all political decisions. He had held out for far too long on the Jewish question. The order  went into effect on 5 April. Members of the Council were exempted, together with war invalids and heroes, and those who had converted to Christianity before 1 August 1919. But on 31 March, after a meeting with Adolf Eichmann, the Jewish leaders were stunned by several new decrees regarding Hungarian Jews: they could no longer work as lawyers, journalists, or public servants, or in the theatrical and film arts; they were not allowed to own motor vehicles or to drive them, even if they belonged to someone else. Nor could they own motorbikes or bicycles. They also had to hand in their radios and telephones and all were now expected to wear yellow stars.

On the morning of 3 April, British and American aircraft bombed Budapest for the first time since the beginning of the war. In response, the Hungarian security police demanded that the Jewish Council provide five hundred apartments for Christians who had been affected by the raid. Those Jews moving out of their homes were to be concentrated in apartment buildings in an area between the National Theatre and the Dohány Street synagogue. The following day, 4 April, László Baky and Lieutenant-Colonel László Ferenczy of the gendarmerie met to firm up plans for the ghettoisation and deportation of the Jews of Hungary. All Jews, irrespective of age, sex or illness, were to be concentrated into ghettos and schedules were to be would be set for their deportation to Poland. The few people who were still employed in armaments production or in the mines were temporarily spared, but only until suitable replacements could be found for them. Each regional office would be responsible for its own actions. The “rounding up” of the Jews was to be carried out by the local police and the Royal Hungarian Gendarmerie units. If necessary, the police would assist the gendarmerie in urban districts by providing armed help.  It took until 16 April for the full directive and extensive explanations to be typed in multiple copies and sent to local authorities, but the ghettoisation had already begun on 7 April. The orders were marked “secret” and bore the signature of László Baky. He declared:

The Royal Hungarian government will cleanse the country of Jews within a short time. I hereby order the cleansing to be conducted district by district. Jews are to be taken to designated collection camps regardless of gender and age

This was the basis on which the Hungarian government agreed that the Gestapo could organise the removal of the roughly 450,000 Jews from the provinces, but not the 200,000 from Budapest. It was Adolf Eichmann’s task to organise the liquidation of Hungarian Jews. Between 7 April 1944 and 8 July 1944, we know (from the meticulous records kept) that 437,402 men, women and children of all ages were forced to leave their homes, first herded in to ‘collection camps’ or ghettos and then transported to Auschwitz. They were transported in 148 long trains of cattle wagons. Few survived, and of those who did, even fewer returned to their former homes. Once gathered in the collection camps, they were effectively doomed to annihilation, even before they boarded the trains. My wife’s mother avoided deportation herself because, although she had both a Jewish father and step-father, Imre Rosenthal, she was illegitimate and adopted, so there was no proof of her Jewish parentage. As a sixteen year-old, she remembers a Jewish family from the same apartment block in Békescsaba being taken to the detention camp. Some days later her mother made some stew for them and asked her to take it to them, as the camp was not far from the centre of the town. When she approached the guard, a Hungarian gendarme, at the gate to the compound, he raised his machine-gun and threatened to shoot her. She immediately knew this was no bluff, and never tried to make  contact with the family again. The story underlines the futility of resistance to the almost overnight operation which was put into effect across the Hungarian countryside.

Tom Leimdörfer’s Breuer great grandparents were spared the ordeal. They both died the year before and their daughter, Zelma cared for them in their last months. Tom’s grandfather Aladár spent much of his time on his allotment just outside the town, where he also kept bees, enjoying the simple life in retirement. Tom’s mother told him that we visited them in the early spring of 1944, when he was 18 months old, just a few weeks before they were taken. The story of the lively Jewish community in Szécsény was told by the photographer Irén Ács in a moving account and photos of her friends and family. She also survived in Budapest, but nearly all her friends and family perished. Early in May, the Jews of Szécsény were ordered to leave their homes and belongings apart from a small case with a change of clothes and essentials. They were restricted to a ghetto of a few houses near the school. On the 10 June 1944, they were taken under special forces’ escort to the county town of Balassagyarmat, some 20 km away. There were no Germans in Szécsény, the whole operation was carried out by Hungarian special forces. In Balassagyarmat, the Germans supervised the loading of the wagons from the whole region with ruthless efficiency. By nightfall, the long train of cattle wagons carrying over 2,500 men, women and children were on their way to Auschwitz. Tom is in no doubt that his grandparents would have been taken straight to the gas chambers on arrival. The memorial in the Jewish cemetery of  Szécsény has 303 names of those killed in the holocaust from that town of around 6,000 people. A similar fate befell villages across Hungary, where there was no time for any reaction, let alone organised resistance, by the Jewish families or their Christian neighbours. I have recently documented the recollections of the people of Apostag, and these appear in an article elsewhere on this site. The large village, roughly the same size as Szécsény, lost all of its six hundred Jews in one afternoon, transported on their own carts to Kalocsa, with their neighbours watching from the woods. Two weeks later, they were taken in cattle trucks from Kalocsa to Auschwitz.

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Apostag

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The deportations soon became common knowledge in Budapest and this terrible news was added to the rumours about the extermination camps. One of Tom’s German relatives, having escaped from Dachau had already given an account of the dreadful nature of the camps. Two Slovak men, Rudolf Vrba and Alfréd Wetzler escaped from Auschwitz on 7 April 1944. For a week they travelled at night, avoiding the local residents and hiding in barns or outbuildings during the day. When they reached Bratislava, they contacted the Jewish Council the next day. They told their incredible story, illustrated by drawings of the barracks, the gas chambers and crematoria. They reported on the selection process that sent women and children directly from the trains to be gassed, on the desperate attempts of people to save themselves, on the collection of valuables, and on the systematic disposal of bodies. Only twenty years old, Vrba was already a veteran of the most terrifying place on earth. He felt overwhelmed by the importance of his message to all surviving Jews, particularly the Hungarians: do not board the trains.

The Auschwitz Protocols, as Vrba and Wetzler’s report was labeled by the Bratislava Working Group, was translated into German and English within a fortnight. Then they tried to decide what to do with the information, knowing that anyone caught with the document in the occupied countries would be executed, along with its authors. For this reason, the awful truth about Auschwitz was not fully and widely told until after the war. By the time Tom’s second birthday approached, his mother suspected, but did not know for sure, that she had lost her husband and both her parents.

A significant birthday:

While the dreadful events were unfolding in rural Hungary, the Jews of Budapest were living with increasing fear and repression. All had to wear yellow stars and live in homes marked with a yellow star of David. Tom’s house was marked, so they were allowed to stay at home. His grandfather’s timber business was confiscated; his business partner (Imre Révész) had recognised the signs and emigrated to England just before the war. The warm summer of 1944 was also a summer of allied (mainly RAF) airstrikes. Tom often played outside in their small but secluded front garden. They had a radio and were generally the first to hear the air raid warnings. The bombers normally came from the south and the direction given over the air waves was: ‘Baja, Bácska, Budapest’. These were amongst Tom’s first words, acting as an air raid warning to people in the flats above us as he ran around naked in the garden shouting ‘Baja, Bácska, Budapest’! We would then all go down to the cellar, which served as a very inadequate air raid shelter.

Tom’s mother’s brother Bandi had emigrated in 1939 and was in the British Army. He left for a tennis tournament and did not return. He was an illegal immigrant in Britain, sheltered by tennis playing friends, till he had the opportunity to volunteer for the army, change his name to Roy Andrew Fred (R. A. F.) Reynolds and was allowed to stay. The RAF was bombing us, but they were not ‘the enemy’ even though our lives were threatened by them. My father was ‘missing’ on the Russian front, Russian troops were advancing towards Hungary with all the uncertainties and horrors of a siege of Budapest approaching, but they were not our ‘enemy’, but hoped-for liberators. Yet Tom’s maternal grandparents were taken by Hungarian special forces on the orders of the Gestapo with no objection or resistance from their neighbours. Looking back, the ‘enemy’ was war and inhumanity, hatred and anti-Semitism.

There were some signs of hope that summer. Regent Miklós Horthy could no longer stomach the activities of Eichmann. On 29 August he sent word to Edmund Veesenmayer that he had decided there would be no more deportations, at least for the time being. With the transportation of Jews from the provinces completed, there were only the Jews in the capital left. Himmler approved the suspension of deportations and the continuation of negotiations through Kasztner and Brand. Himmler, like the Hungarian government itself, had been thinking of an acceptable way of bringing the war to an end. Once back in his office in Budapest, Kasztner was astonished to learn from Dieter Wisliceny that Eichmann and his unit had been ordered out of Hungary. You have won, the Nazi officer told him, the Sonderkommando is leaving. Eichmann, furious with Himmler’s vacillations, retired to sulk at his estate near Linz. The latter later compensated him with the order of an Iron Cross, Second Class. Kasztner, unlike the members of the Jewish Council, had no faith in Horthy’s protestations that he had been duped into allowing deportations in the first place and even less faith in Himmler’s change of heart. He pressed on with his negotiations for the lives of the remaining Jews of Budapest, Bratislava and Kolozsvár. In the late summer of 1944 a bloody insurrection erupted in Slovakia. A few parachutists from Britain and two Soviet airborne brigades also took part in the uprising, as did some Jewish partisans, including Rudolf Vrba, one of the authors of The Auschwitz Protocols. The uprising failed and led to further reprisals against Bratislava’s Jewish community. In Budapest itself, there was what Kasztner thought of as a brief lull in the terror in the early autumn. Nevertheless, there was a widespread belief that the Germans would pack up and go home. The cafés and restaurants were full, and no-one left even when the sirens sounded.

By mid-October the Second and Third Ukrainian Fronts were ready to execute Stalin’s order to take Budapest quickly. Arrow Cross newspapers accused the Jews of signaling bombers from rooftops, directing bombs to specific targets. Raoul Wallenberg had opened the door of the Swedish Embassy and directed his staff to hand out Swedish protection papers to all Jewish applicants. The certificates claimed that the holders were Swedish citizens awaiting exit visas. The number of Jews with official Swedish papers exceeded 4,500 by the end of October, and another three thousand fake Swedish certificates were handed out by the Rescue Committee and its halutz workers. They all waited for permits to leave the country and be allowed into Palestine. The Swiss Red Cross had received over three million Swiss francs from the Jewish ‘Joint’ in the US to pay for food in the protected Star Houses bearing the Swedish colours, and in the Columbus Street camp.

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Throughout the period of Géza Lakatos’ premiership, rumours abounded that Horthy was getting ready to exit the war, and that all he needed was an honourable way out. He wanted to sue for peace, but not if that peace included Stalin. The British and the Americans were not interested and insisted that nothing less than unconditional surrender would do. I have written elsewhere on this site about these unsuccessful diplomatic overtures and how Horthy’s insistence on hanging onto his German alliance, however reluctantly, did not help his country’s cause. In final desperation, Horthy sent Lieutenant General Gábor Faragho across the front lines to present Hungary’s case to the Russians. On 11 October, Faragho returned with a draft armistice agreement requiring Hungary to give up, once again, its historic territories in Transylvania, everything he had fought for during his years as head of state. His hesitation gave the Germans the time they needed to prepare a coup.

On Sunday morning, 15 October, Tom Leimdörfer’s second birthday, there were rumours that the Regent’s son had been abducted, together with a general and two senior officers. It was a warm, sunny autumn morning. German planes had dropped leaflets over the city urging a rebellion against the government. Politicians had also been arrested. Hungarian Radio announced that the Regent would make a general proclamation at 1 p.m. In a soft and shaky voice, Horthy gave a long, detailed statement, in which he announced his decision to sign a separate peace treaty with the Allies, that Hungary had withdrawn from the war and had declared that it is returning to its neutral status. All laws relating to the repression of the Jewish population were revoked. The Reich had lost the war and had also broken its obligations to its Hungarian partner when it had occupied the country in March and arrested many Hungarian citizens. He blamed the Gestapo for dealing with the “Jewish problem” in an inhumane way and claimed that his nation had been forced to persecute the Jews.  The news spread like wildfire on what was a glorious autumn afternoon: Anna Porter has described the scenes…

…the sun was shining and the trees along the boulevards displayed their startling red, yellow and deep-purple colours as if the horrors of the past few weeks had not happened, as if the houses lining the avenues had not been turned into rubble. People came out of their cellars, put on their best clothes and walked, holding hands and greeting each other as in peacetime. Many Jews who had been in hiding paraded their newfound freedom; some tore the yellow stars off their breasts and ordered shots of pálinka in bars where they used to go, or dared to use a public telephone and take rides on streetcars where the tracks had not yet been bombed..

But the atmosphere of general euphoria did not last long. The Germans had listened into every conversation in the castle, and were not surprised by the attempt to break free. They were aware of the plan to bring two Hungarian regiments into the city, and knew of the arming of the Jewish battalions. German troops and armoured vehicles appeared on the streets of Budapest and set up control points. A further announcement came over the waves: Horthy had been forced to abdicate, and the Hungarian Arrow Cross (Nazi) party has formed a government under its leader Ferenc Szálasi. Hungary was back in the war on the Axis side, and all anti-Jewish legislation was back in force. With the Arrow Cross in charge, the Jews realised that Eichmann would be back to complete their transportation and that random killings would be carried out by the Arrow Cross units themselves. Tom Leimdörfer recalls his family’s fears:

The lives of all of us were in immediate danger. What followed was six months of hell redeemed by some amazing bravery and kindness on the part of some who were willing to risk their lives for us.

In hiding…

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Edit Leimdörfer, Tom’s mother, in 1957

Tom continues the family’s story:

By now, my grandparents (Sári and Ármin) and my aunt Juci all lived in our flat. Juci’s husband Gyuri was in a labour camp. He had a dreadful accident there in March 1943 when he fell off a scaffolding. For some time, his life was in the balance, but he recovered albeit with a back injury which gave him much pain for the rest of his life. He was allowed home when he was in plaster recuperating, but was then back again in the forced labour camp outside Budapest. As the family wondered what to do on the evening of my eventful second birthday, Dr. Groh arrived. A kindly medical consultant, he was one of my grandfather’s customers who became a friend. He was a Roman Catholic who was appalled by the treatment of Jews and by the apparent acquiescence of his church. He said we were in danger and should leave our home immediately as Jews were being herded from ‘marked’ houses to designated ghettos. He insisted that we should all (15 of us!) go into hiding with his family even though that risked their lives

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Dr.Groh and his wife had six children. They made a room available for us and kept its shutters closed. For the next eight days we huddled together in that room, joining the family when there was nobody around who might report our presence. With Arrow Cross gangs and police raids everywhere, this was not a safe hiding place and the Groh family were at great risk. In spite of their protests, we crept back to our home one night to pick up some essentials and left for different destinations. Soon after we left, an Allied air raid hit the Groh’s house and tragically one of their daughters was killed. The room where we had been hiding was a pile of rubble.

My mother and I first headed across the Danube to the Pest side, to a house protected by the Swedish Embassy, where Feri bácsi and Manci néni (my grandparents younger siblings) were already staying. The Swiss and Swedish embassies as well as some churches had tried to set up ‘protected houses’ outside the overcrowded main Jewish ghettos. These were not always ‘safe’ as the Arrow Cross raids were unpredictable and (depending on the particular gang commander) would carry out atrocities without respect for any foreign diplomacy or even orders from their own Nazi puppet government, with its very thin veneer of legality. There were no more trains for Auschwitz, but there were the ‘death marches’ towards Austria organised by Eichmann as well as the random Arrow Cross raids. Diplomats such as Raoul Wallenberg did all they could to thwart the murderous onslaught by distributing Swedish and Swiss passports and demanding safety for their ‘citizens’, by declaring houses as being under their protection and by threatening allied retribution after the war. With the Russian army advancing, this had some effect.

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One Arrow Cross raid resulted in tragic losses for our wider family. On Christmas Day 1944, six members of the family were marched to the banks of the Danube and shot into the river. This included my grandmother’s sister Erzsi, her husband and son as well as three members of Juci’s husband Gyuri’s family. Gyuri’s  mother (Ilonka néni) had a miraculous escape. The shots missed her, she jumped into the freezing cold water and managed to swim far enough downstream to clamber ashore unseen. It was a compassionate policeman who found her shivering and took her along to the Swiss embassy.

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My mother followed her instincts as she balanced risks in those desperate weeks as she moved between places of hiding. When she ventured out she did not wear the compulsory yellow star, gambling on her Aryan looks and her false identity documents with no trace of Jewish origin and using her hungarianised maiden name of Lakatos. She told me she had a narrow scrape on one occasion when she was stopped and interrogated and the papers were carefully examined. Even though my mother was a devout  Jewess, I was not circumcised precisely because my mother could foresee the possibility of having to negotiate checkpoints. On this occasion, my genitals were part of the ‘proof’ that we were not Jewish.

For a while, my mother joined Juci and others at a flat provided by Emil and Mary Hajós, which was like a crowded refugee camp. Gyuri (Juci’s husband) managed to get away from the labour camp as a result of Sári mama’s brave and brazen ingenuity and the use of more forged documents. Emil and Mary were friends of the family. They were a Jewish couple who became Christians and worked for a Presbyterian (Calvinist) mission known as ‘Jó Pásztor (Good Shepherd)’, helping to shelter Jews and at the same time-sharing their newfound Christian faith. Their bravery, kindness and fervour had a great influence.  Juci first, then Gyuri embraced Christianity during those times of crisis and Edit, my mother, gradually moved in that direction. While my father’s family were secular Jews (observing the festivals but not much else), my mother was brought up as an observing, though not orthodox, Jewess. Unlike Juci and Gyuri, she did not get baptised till much later. She did not wish to change her religion while still hoping for my father to return.

Day by day, the dangers shifted. By January, the siege of Budapest was in full swing. As the threats from the Arrow Cross and the Gestapo reduced, the danger of being killed by shelling increased. We huddled together crowded in cellars, hardly venturing out to try to get whatever food we could. At least the freezing temperatures helped to preserve any perishable supplies. I am told that I provided some welcome entertainment in those desperate days. Amidst the deafening noise of artillery, I appeared to display premature military knowledge by declaiming: ‘This is shelling in!’ or ‘This is shelling out!’

Budapest was liberated by Russian troops on the 26 February. Those days were a mixed experience for the population as a whole depending on contact with the actual units. There were instances of rape and other atrocities, but also acts of kindness. The soldiers who found us were keen on acquiring watches. When some were handed over, they became all smiles and one of them gave me a piece of chocolate.

Gradually the remains of the family found each other and counted the loss. Altogether sixteen members of our wider family were killed in the holocaust by one means or another. Those of us who remained started to put our lives together. Our flat was intact, but empty. Gradually, some items of furniture and possessions were returned by neighbours who said they kept them ‘safe’ in case we came back. There was much that was not returned. Amidst all the tragedy of war and losses I could not guess at or comprehend, I knew that I had lost my lovely large panda bear. Whatever happened to it, my mother told me ‘it was taken by the Germans’. On more mature reflection this was  unlikely, but for years I had the image of German troops retreating, blowing up all the bridges over the Danube (which they did) taking with them priceless treasures (which they did) and worst of all – my panda. Perhaps my panda was for my mother just one symbol for her happiness – ‘taken by the Germans’.

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By contrast, Tom recalls the happier times he experienced as a young child growing up in Budapest after the war:

Paradoxically, my early memories of the post war years were mostly happy. Children can be very resilient. The love and care I received soon healed the scars left by the horrors. The remnants of the family became very close-knit. I was the first of my generation in the family on my grandmother’s side. One small baby second cousin was separated from her parents during an Arrow Cross raid and tragically starved to death. On my grandfather’s side, my second cousin Éva survived but lost her father and three of her grandparents. She is two years older than me and we had great fun playing ‘hide and seek’ on the monthly ‘family days’ while the adults discussed the latest political turn of events and sorted out how help could be given to anyone in the family who was in need.

with-second-cousin-kati Tom with second cousin Kati at New Year, 1946?

Secondary Source:

Anna Porter (2007), Kasztner’s Train: The True Story of an Unknown Hero of the Holocaust. London: Constable (2008).

Budapest, 1942-44: A Child Survivor of the Holocaust.   Leave a comment

Every Picture Tells a Story:

Tom Leimdörfer was born in Budapest, seventy-five years ago this year, on 15 October 1942.  In Tom’s case, this is a milestone which is certainly well-worth celebrating. After all, in the mere fifteen years between his birth and mine, he had already survived the Holocaust and had endured two Soviet invasions of Hungary, his native land, a revolution, a counter-revolution and a hair-raising escape as a refugee across the Austrian border. He had also, as a young teenager, adapted to the very different language and culture of his adopted country, England. Tom has kept and carefully recorded the family’s archives and stories from these fifteen years, perhaps most importantly in respect of the first three, for which he has, of course, few direct memories of his own. As the older Holocaust survivors gradually pass on, the role of these younger ones in transmitting the experiences of this time will, no doubt, become increasingly important. In Tom’s case, as in many, the photographs and artefacts which they cherish provide the emblematic sources around which the transmitted stories and information are woven. In the initial part of this chapter, I have left Tom’s words as his own, indicated by the use of italics.

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A picture I treasure is taken on balcony. It was almost certainly the flat belonging to my great uncle Feri and great aunt Manci. Feri was my grandfather (Dádi) Ármin’s younger brother and Manci was Sári mama’s younger sister. Two brothers married two sisters and to make matters even more bizarre, they were cousins (once removed). I expect it was Feri who took the picture on one of their family days. The five people in the picture look happy, even though war clouds were gathering and laws restricting basic human rights for Jews were in the process of enactment. It was the spring of 1939. The photo shows my grandparents (Sári mama and Dádi) and my aunt Juci aged 16. The other two smiling figures are my parents. My father (András Leimdörfer) is in uniform, looking lovingly at my mother (Edit) and having his arms around her. They were married about six months before. My father is in his proper army uniform, with three stars on the lapels.  Two years later that was exchanged for the plain uniform of the Jewish (unarmed) forced labour unit serving with the Hungarian army. He was first sent to Transylvania in the autumn of 1941. His brief few months back home resulted in my conception. In June 1942, he was off to the Russian front, never to return. The war and the bitter winter took his life in February 1943 but the family only learnt the facts four years later.

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On the same page in the old album are two more pictures of my parents. One (above) relaxing, reclining on a grassy slope in summer (1939 or 1940), though looking far too smartly dressed for such a pose. The other (right) is taken in December 1938 in Venice outside St. Mark’s Cathedral, surrounded by pigeons and snow. It was their brief honeymoon in the last winter of peace in Europe.

The father I never knew was a very good-looking and bright young man. Known as Bandi to his family, he had an Economics degree from high school in St. Gallen in Switzerland and a doctorate from the University of Szeged in southern Hungary. It was the effect of the law known as ‘numerus clausus’ (restricting the percentage of Jewish entrance to universities in Hungary) that led to his going to Switzerland for his first degree. There he formed strong friendship with three other young Hungarian Jews. One of these, Pál Katona, was head of the BBC’s Hungarian broadcast section for many years. The second, Fritz Fischer, emigrated to America. The third and his closest friend was Gyuri Schustek, who was to play a significant role in my life as well.

My parents met on the social round of the Jewish middle class in Budapest. My mother’s elder brother (also called András and also known as Bandi) was the same age as my father and also an economics graduate as well as a first class tennis player. So one day, probably at a party, Bandi Lakatos introduced his younger sister Edit to Bandi Leimdörfer who promptly fell in love with her. Their months of courtship included outings to the Buda hills and rowing on the Danube, which they both loved. Their special friends Gyuri (Schustek) and Lonci (or Ilona) were also planning to get married. My father was nearly 27 and my mother nearly 23 when they married in December 1938. Unusually, everyone wore black at their wedding as my father’s grandmother had died just before. With the increasing anti-Semitism at home and uncertainties of a possible war, they decided to delay having any children and concentrate on setting up a life for themselves in their pleasant flat in the quiet Zsombolyai street in the suburb of Kelenföld. It was also conveniently near my grandfather’s timber yard and the office of their firm of Leimdörfer & Révész, where my father also worked.

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So back to the pictures in the album. There is a small photo of a group of Jewish forced labour unit workers in the deep snow along the banks of the River Don, not far from the city of Voronezh. There is another of my father on top of tank in the snow. After much internal political strife, Hungary entered the war on the German side in June 1941 in exchange for the return of part of the territories lost after the first World War. The 2nd Hungarian Army, sent to the Russian front in the late spring of 1942, included ‘disposable’ elements like the unarmed Jewish labour brigades, conscripted socialists and trade unionists as well as parts of the professional army from all over Hungary (‘to spread the sacrifice’). Their job was to hold the Red Army on the banks of the river Don (over 2000 km from their homeland) while the battle of Stalingrad was raging. On the 12th January 1943, in the depth of the bitterest winter with temperatures of –20 to –30 degrees, the Soviet Army attacked and broke through. They took over 25,000 prisoners within days. The food supplies were scarce and a typhoid epidemic broke out. My father died of typhoid in February 1943, five months before his 31st birthday. A Jewish doctor was there, one of his brigade, and he was released in the summer of 1947. When he arrived in Budapest, he informed my mother and my father’s parents. Till then, they hoped in vain. Only one-third of the army of 200,000 returned. Hungary then refused to send any more troops to help the German cause.

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The next pictures are those taken of me as a tiny baby. Plenty were taken and sent to the front for my father. There is the one in the hospital bed with my mother, just after I was born on the 15 October 1942. Then there are some professionally taken pictures. The one in sepia by a firm called ‘Mosoly Album’ (album of smiles) shows a cheeky nine weeks old doing a press-up a sticking out his tongue. It was the last picture to reach my father and he wrote back with joy. The other baby pictures were taken in hope of sending them to the prisoner of war camp, but there was no news and no way of communication. I am amazed at the quality of these pictures, taken at a time of war. One of the photos shows me holding a bottle and drinking from it, looking up with wide eyes. This picture appeared in a magazine, sent by the photographer. I wonder if the editor realised that he was publishing the picture of Jewish baby! If so, he was taking a risk.

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One poignant picture, taken in the spring 1944, shows me sitting on a chair with a toy lorry on my knee. It is the identical pose as a picture taken of my father when he was a little boy. Clearly my mother was thinking of him when she had that taken of me. At the same time, there is a photo with me clutching a large panda. I was told it was my favourite toy – and it has its story.

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One of my older pictures shows a strikingly elegant and beautiful woman in her thirties. Born Zelma Breuer, my maternal grandmother was the object of admiration both in her home town of Szécsény in northern Hungary and in her social circles in Budapest, where she lived most of her married life. My mother got her beauty from her and the two of them were very close. There is a lovely picture of the two of them, arms round each other in the garden in Szécsény. My mother’s father was a lot older than her mother. Grandfather Aladár Lakatos worked his way up in the Post Office in Budapest to the rank of a senior civil servant. He had changed his name from Pollitzer in order to feel more fully integrated. When the laws forbidding Jews from holding such senior posts came into effect, he was nearing retirement age. So his dismissal was in the form of early retirement. Zelma’s ageing parents still lived in Szécsény, so they decided to retire there, selling the flat in Budapest and buying a substantial brick house next door to the old Breuers wattle house. With increasing threat to the Jewish population, they thought they would be safer in a quiet town where the Breuers were well-known and well liked. How wrong they were! When my father did not return from the front in 1943, they urged my mother to join them. The air was also healthier for small child, they said. My mother decided to stay in her own flat in Buda and to stay close to her husband’s family. Whatever her reasons were, it saved our lives.

The Growing Shadow of the Eagle:

To give some broader context to these early years of Hungary’s war into which Tom was born, I have been reading Anna Porter’s book, Kasztner’s Train, which, in dealing with the controversial ‘hero’ of the Holocaust, also provides the most comprehensive information about the situation in the Jewish communities of Budapest and Hungary during the war. In January 1942, Hungarian military units executed more than three thousand civilians in the recently occupied part of Yugoslavia, including 140 children, who, according to one of the commanding officers, could grow up to be enemies. Joel Brand, Rezső Kasztner’s colleague, found out that close to a third of those murdered had been Jews. The thin pretext that they were likely to have joined the Serb partisans was no more than a nod to the government authorities who had demanded an explanation. The flood of refugees into Hungary now included Jews from the Délvidék, or southern lands, as Hungarians referred to lands which had once been part of Hungary until the Treaty of Trianon awarded them to Yugoslavia. The new arrivals had terrible tales of mass executions: people had been shoved into the icy waters of the Danube, and the men in charge of this so-called military expedition continued the killings even after they received orders to stop.

By the early summer of 1942, Baron Fülöp von Freudiger of the Budapest Orthodox Jewish congregation had received a letter from a little-known Orthodox rabbi in Bratislava, Slovakia. It was a cry for help, mostly financial, but also for advice on how to deal with the Jewish Agency on the survival of the surviving Jews of Slovakia. Deportations had begun on 26 March 1942, with a transport of girls aged sixteen and older. The Germans had already deported 52,000 Slovak Jews by the summer and Rabbi Weissmandel, together with a woman called Gizi Fleischmann, had founded a Working Group as an offshoot of the local Jewish Council, with the sole object of saving the remaining Jews in Slovakia. In subsequent meetings with Wisliceny, a Nazi officer, the Working Group became convinced that some of the Nazis could be bribed to leave the Jews at home. It also realised that this could, potentially, be extended to the other occupied countries in Europe. Weissmandel called it the Europa Plan, a means by which further deportations could be stopped. Rezső Kasztner and Joel Brand, working for the Va’ada, the Zionist organisation, from still sovereign Hungary were unconvinced: Hitler would not, they said, tolerate any Jews in Europe. But Kasztner agreed that fewer barriers would be put in the way of Jewish emigration, provided it was paid for, and quickly. The rabbi’s Europa Plan sounded very much like the Europa Plan devised by Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, which had earlier allowed large-scale emigration from Germany to Palestine, until it had encountered stiff opposition from the Arabs and had led to the imposition of harsh quotas by the British.

In December 1942, Sam Springmann, a leading Zionist in Budapest, received a message from the Jewish Agency office in Istanbul that the Refugee Rescue Committee should prepare to receive a visit from Oskar Schindler who would tell them, directly, about those regions of Eastern Europe occupied by the Wehrmacht. Schindler endured two days of uncomfortable travel in a freight car filled with Nazi newspapers to arrive in Budapest. He talked of the atrocities in Kraków and the remaining ghetto, the hunger in Lodz and of the freight trains leaving Warsaw full of Jews whose final destination was not labour camps, as they had assumed, but vernichtungslager, extermination camps. In the midst of this stupid war, he said, the Nazis were using the railway system, expensive engineering, and an untold number of guards and bureaucrats whose sole purpose was to apply scientific methods of murdering large numbers of people. Once they became inmates, there was no hope of reaching or rescuing them. Kasztner did not believe that adverse publicity would deter the Germans from further atrocities, but public opinion might delay some of their plans, and delay was good. With luck, the war would end before the annihilation of the Jews was realised.

By this time, but unbeknown to the Va’ada leaders in Budapest, most of the politicians in Europe already knew about the disaster which was befalling the Jews. During October and November 1942, more than 600,000 Jews had already been deported to Auschwitz, including 106,000 from Holland and 77,000 from France. Newspapers in the United Kingdom, as well as in the United States and Palestine, carried reports, some firsthand, from traveling diplomats, businessmen, and refugees, that the Germans were systematically murdering the European Jews. But anyone who followed these news stories assumed that the German’ resolve to annihilate the Jews would likely be slowed down by defeats on the battlefields. Stephen Wise, Budapest-born president of the American Jewish Congress, had announced at the end of November that two million Jews had already been exterminated and that Nazi policy was to exterminate them all, using mass killing centres in Poland. In hindsight, it is surprising that the extermination camps were not better anticipated.

Oskar Schindler’s firsthand information was a warning that the use of extermination camps could spread to the whole population of Poland and Slovakia, but Rezső Kasztner and the Aid and Rescue Committee still hoped that the ghettos would remain as sources for local labour. They knew of several camps, such as Dachau and Bergen-Belsen, where the treatment, though harsh, could be relieved by a supply of food parcels, clothing and bribes. The couriers reported the starvation and the rounding up of work gangs, but not the extermination camps. As Schindler’s story circulated to the different Jewish groups in Budapest, it initiated an immediate if limited response. Fülöp von Freudiger called for more generous donations to help the Orthodox Jews in Poland.The leader of the Reformed Jewish Community in the city, Samuel Stern, remained confident, however, that these terrible stories were isolated incidents. His group was busy providing financial assistance for recently impoverished intellectuals who could no longer work in their professions because of the Hungarian exclusionary laws. Stern did not want to listen to horror stories about systematic murder. Such facilities were impossible to imagine. He told Kasztner that in the months to come we may be left without our money and comforts, but we shall survive. The very idea of vernichtungslager, of extermination, seemed improbable. Why would the Germans sacrifice men, transportation and scarce resources to murder unarmed civilians with no means to defend themselves?

The Times in London reported from Paris that four thousand Jewish children had been deported to a Nazi concentration camp, while in the House of Commons, British PM Winston Churchill gave a scating adddress that was broadcast by the BBC and heard throughout Budapest. Referring to the mass deportation of Jews from France, he claimed that this tragedy illustrates… the utter degradation of the Nazi nature and theme. Meanwhile, Jewish organisations in Budapest continued to provide learned lectures in their well-appointed halls on every conceivable subject except the one which might have concerned them most, the ongoing fate of the Jews in Germany, Austria, France, Poland and Slovakia, and what it meant for the Jews of Hungary. Two million Polish Jews had already disappeared without a trace.

In January 1943 the Second Hungarian Army was destroyed in the Battle of Voronezh. The losses were terrible: 40,000 dead, 35,000 wounded, 60,000 taken prisoner by the Soviets. The news was played down by the media and the politicians. In Budapest, news of the disaster was only available by listening to the BBC’s Hungarian broadcasts, or to the Soviet broadcasts. Under the premiership of Miklós Kállay, Hungary’s industries continued to thrive, supplying the German army with raw materials. Mines were busy, agricultural production was in full flow and the manufacture of armaments, military uniforms and buttons kept most people employed and earning good wages. Kállay’s personal antipathy towards further anti-Jewish laws lent credence to Samuel Stern’s belief that it cannot happen here.

By the summer of 1943, rumours were circulating among Budapest’s cafés of an armistice agreement with Britain and the United States. Kállay’s emissaries to Istanbul and other neutral capitals had been fishing for acceptable terms. Kállay even went to see Mussolini in Rome to propose a new alliance of Italy, Hungary, Romania and Greece against Hitler. Mussolini declined, and it soon became obvious to ministers in Budapest that the Germans would soon have to terminate these breakaway plans.

Samuel Stern knew in advance about Regent Horthy’s meeting with Hitler in late April 1943. He had been at Horthy’s official residence in Buda Castle playing cards, when the call came from Hitler’s headquarters inviting Horthy to Schloss Klessheim. Horthy was too frightened to decline the invitation, although he detested the ‘uncultured’ German leader. Hitler ranted about Kállay’s clumsy overtures to the British. As a show of loyalty, he demanded another Hungarian army at the front. Horthy stood his ground. He would not agree to sending Hungarian troops to the Balkans, nor to further extreme measures against the Jews. Hitler, his hands clenched behind his back, screamed and marched about. Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda minister attended the dinner that followed, and wrote in his diary that Horthy’s humanitarian attitude regarding The Jewish Question convinced the Führer that all the rubbish of small nations still existing in Europe must be liquidated as soon as possible. 

Meanwhile, terrible stories were circulating in Budapest about the actions of Hungary’s soldiers as they returned from the front with the Soviet Union. In late April 1943, retreating Hungarian soldiers in the Ukraine ordered eight hundred sick men from the Jewish labour force into a hospital shed and then set fire to it. Officers commanded the soldiers to shoot anyone who tried to escape from the flames. Neither the Hungarian press nor the Hungarian Jewish newspaper reported these deaths. Instead, the pro-Nazi press increased its vitriolic attacks on Jewish influence at home, persisting blaming food shortages on the Jews, who were falsely accused of hoarding lard, sugar and flour, engaging in black market activities, and reaping enormous war profits from the industries they controlled. That summer, Oskar Schindler returned to Budapest, bringing letters to be forwarded to Istanbul for the relatives of his Jews. He gave a detailed report of the situation in Poland and of the possibilities of rescue and escape from the ghettos.

In a letter she wrote to the Jewish Agency in Istanbul, dated 10 May 1943, Gizi Fleischmann reported from Bratislava:

Over a million Jews have been resettled from Poland. Hundreds of thousands have lost their lives due to starvation, disease, cold and many more have fallen victim to violence. The reports state that the corpses are used for chemical raw materials.

She did not know that by that time 2.5 million of Poland’s Jews were already dead. On 16 May, members of the Hungarian Rescue Committee gathered around their radios and toasted the Warsaw ghetto’s last heroic stand. On 11 June, Reichsführer ss Himmler ordered the liquidation of all Polish ghettos. By 5 September she wrote to the American Joint Distribution Committee’s representative in Geneva that we know today that Sobibór, Treblinka, Belzec and Auschwitz are annihilation camps. Later that month, Fleischmann traveled to Budapest, where she visited the offices of both Komoly and Kasztner. Both had already seen copies of her correspondence, as had Samuel Stern, but his group met her case for funding with colossal indifference. They made it clear that they thought her allegations about the fate of the Polish and Slovak Jews were preposterous. She also informed Kasztner that Dieter Wisliceny, the ss man in charge of the deportations from Slovakia, had told her of a dinner he had attended on Swabian Hill with a senior functionary from the Hungarian prime minister’s office. They had discussed the extermination of the Hungarian Jews. After her visit, Kasztner wrote to Nathan Schwalb of the Hechalutz, the international Zionist youth movement:

The gas chambers in Poland have already consumed the bodies of more than half a million Jews. There are horrible, unbelievable photographs of starving children, of dead, emaciated bodies on the streets of the Warsaw ghetto.

Kasztner raised the money for Gizi Fleischmann to offer a bribe to Wisliceny in exchange for the lives of the remaining Slovak Jews. Whether it contributed to the two-year hiatus in murdering the Slovak Jews is still disputed, but there is no doubt that Fleischmann and Rabbi Weissmandel believed it had.

The late autumn of 1943 was spectacular with its bright colours: the old chestnut trees along the Danube turning crimson and rich sienna browns, the oranges of the dogwood trees rising up Gellert Hill. Musicians still played in the outdoor cafés and young women paraded in their winter furs. Late in the evenings there was frost in the air. Throughout that autumn and winter, many inside the Hungarian government sought ways of quitting the war and starting negotiations with the Allies. On 24 January, 1944, the chief of the Hungarian general staff met with Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel and suggested that Hungarian forces might withdraw from the Eastern Front. The Germans had been aware of Hungary’s vacillations about the war, its fear of Allied attacks, and its appeal to the British not to bomb  Hungary while it was reassessing its position. Several more Hungarian emissaries had approached both British and American agencies, including the OSS in Turkey, and offered separate peace agreements. Of course, Hitler had got to know about all these overtures, and had called Kállay a swine for his double-dealing.

Admiral Horthy followed suit within a month in a formal letter to Hitler, suggesting the withdrawal of the Hungarian troops to aid in the defence of the Carpathians. The soldiers would perform better if they were defending their homeland, he said. He also stressed his anxiety about Budapest, asking that German troops not be stationed too close to the capital, since they would attract heavy air-raids. Hitler thought Horthy’s plan was as ridiculous as the old man himself, and summoned him to Schloss Klessheim again for a meeting on 17 March 1944, a Friday. Hitler insisted that Jewish influence in Hungary had to cease, and that the German Army would occupy the country to ensure this happened. If Horthy did not agree to the occupation, or if he ordered resistance, Germany would launch a full-scale invasion, enlisting the support of the surrounding axis allies, leading to a dismemberment of Hungary back to its Trianon Treaty borders. This was Horthy’s worst nightmare, so he agreed to the occupation and the replacement of Kállay with a prime minister more to Hitler’s liking. The Admiral could remain as Regent, nominally in charge, but with a German Reich plenipotentiary in charge. Horthy also agreed to supply a hundred thousand Jewish workers to work in the armaments industry under Albert Speer.

Over the winter months of 1943-44, many of the labour camps had become death sentences for the underfed and poorly clothed Jews. In some Hungarian army labour units the brutality meted out to Jews was comparable to Nazi tactics in occupied Poland. In one division, sergeants doused Jews with water and cheered as their victims turned into ice sculptures. In another camp, officers ordered men in the work detail to climb trees and shout I am a dirty Jew as they leapt from branch to branch, the officers taking pot-shots at them. Of the fifty thousand men in the labour companies, only about seven thousand survived.

Secondary Source:

Anna Porter (2007), Kasztner’s Train: The True Story of an Unknown Hero of the Holocaust. London: Constable.

A Hundred Years Ago: The Great War in the winter of 1916-17.   Leave a comment

It is impossible for us to go on with the war if losses like this continue.

First Sea Lord John Jellicoe,  April 1917

Germany is finished.

German Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg, on the decision made by the Kaiser and the military chiefs allowing unrestricted U-boat warfare.

The U-boat Menace:

Although they had been used in warfare since the eighteenth century, it was during the First World War that the submarine, especially the German U-boat (Unterseeboot), came to play a crucial role. But this did not develop until 1916-17. In 1914 to 15 the number of Allied ships lost to U-boat raids increased from just three to almost four hundred, and this number had increased to 964 in 1916. Debate raged in Germany over whether their submarines should attack civilian ships without warning or conform to prize rules and warn the ship’s crew first. Some amongst the German high command thought that unrestricted submarine war could antagonise America to enter the war; others reasoned it would finish the war early. Those who reasoned the latter were justified by the increase of allied ships lost to 2,439 in 1917, and even in 1918 over a thousand were lost. Even more costly was the loss of British merchant ship tonnage, which reached its peak of 545,282 in April 1917. Before the introduction of the convoy system, the rate of British shipping loss was at a rate of twenty-five per cent, dropping to just one per cent afterwards.

In February 1917 Germany opted to allow unrestricted U-boat warfare. In the next three months they sank over five hundred ships. This action had a major effect on the transportation to Britain of supplies, leading even to the banning of rice being thrown at weddings. New tactical and technical methods were brought in, such as the use of convoys, Q-ships (disguised armed merchant ships) and depth charges, which could sink  U-boats while still submerged, or force it to the surface where it could be fired upon, so that by the end of 1917 the Atlantic was safe enough to allow huge numbers of American troops to be transported to Europe. One of the Austro-Hungarian submarine commanders, Georg Ludwig von Trapp, became an Austrian national hero for sinking thirteen ships. His later marriage to his children’s tutor and their escape from the Nazis after the Anschluss of 1938 provided the inspiration for the 1960s musical, The Sound of Music.

Heaven grant us its peace, but not the King of Hungary’s!

In Germany itself, the Royal Navy’s blockade of its ports was starting to ‘bite’ by the winter of 1916-17, with a scarcity of home-grown potatoes leading to turnips and other foods being turned into sustenance. Up to this point the War had been fought by traditional methods, by combatants whose national integration was still intact. But with the coming of the New Year of 1917 a change came over the scene. Ancient constitutions began to crack, old faiths were questioned, and potent, undreamed of historical forces began to be released. Everywhere in the world the sound of the old order beginning to crack was heard but, as yet, it was drowned out by the noise of war.

Nevertheless, in half-conscious anticipation of these permanent fractures, a fumbling movement towards peace began across the continent. The wiser heads in every country were coming to fear that their nations might crumble through sheer weariness, and that absolute victory, even if it were won, might only mean chaos. The first sign of movement came from Germany, but its peace offer of December 1916 was framed in the arrogant terms of one who felt that they had the winning cards. The main German motive was prudential. The Somme had shown them that their military machine was being strained to breaking-point; if it broke all would be over, and at any cost that catastrophe must be averted. If the belligerents consented to come to terms, however, the Germans believed that they would have certain advantages at any peace conference. They had much to lose which they might have difficulty holding on to by fighting on, whereas their renunciation of the war might help them win things considered by them, at least, to be vital to Germany’s future.

Moreover, once Germany’s opponents were entangled in discussion, there was a chance of breaking up their unity and shifting the argument to minor issues. For the German government, it was a matter of life and death that a rift should appear among the Entente powers before they suffered any irremediable disaster. They also had an eye on neutral states, especially the USA, which was interested in promoting negotiations. Finally, there was a tactical motive, since the Kaiser and the high command were contemplating their new and anarchic methods of naval warfare. To justify an all-out war at sea, Germany had to appear as an angel of peace, rudely repulsed in its efforts to secure a truce. Action proceeding from so many mixed motives was likely to result in blunders, and the Allies saw through this strategy. On 30 December, they rejected the German overtures, and the German Chancellor agreed to the policy of unrestricted submarine warfare which very nearly led to Britain’s defeat in the short-term, but ultimately helped to secure its victory. Writing in April 1935, John Buchan put the German strategy of the winter of 1916-17 into a broader contemporary context:

The effects of the War were so catastrophic and terrible that the historian, looking back, is not inclined to be contemptuous of any effort to end it. But it is clear that the German offer was impossible. There was more hope in the overtures of Austria, whose new Emperor Charles , through the medium of his brother-in-law, Prince Sixtus of Bourbon, made secret proposals for a separate peace. They shipwrecked principally upon the opposition of Italy and France, whose reply was that of Lucio’s comrade in ‘Measure for Measure’ – “Heaven grant us its peace, but not the King of Hungary’s!”

President Wilson’s re-election as a peace President also strengthened the case for an agreement to end the war and led to his offer of mediation at the end of 1916. He saw the clouds thickening ahead, and knew he would have to justify himself to the American people were he to be forced into a less pacific, more pragmatic, reality. He asked for a definition of war aims,

… that soundings be taken in order that we may learn, the neutral nations with the belligerents, how near the haven of peace may be for which all mankind longs.

The Allied governments, in spite of certain of a certain irritation among their peoples, had the wit to see Mr Wilson’s purpose. In a remarkable document the American diplomats set out, calmly and clearly, not a set of war aims as such, but a general purpose, which was wholly consistent with the ideals of the USA. More than two years before the Treaty of Versailles, what came to be known as Wilson’s Fourteen Points stated almost all the principles on which the Paris peace settlement was founded.

Lloyd George’s rarer gift: A sense of political atmosphere…

Alone among the Allies, Britain had now attained a certain unity in the political direction of the war, with a Prime Minister who could draw together and maximise all the powers of the nation as a whole. His pre-War record had revealed his unsurpassed talents as a demagogue, but his Premiership was also beginning to demonstrate his sense of political atmosphere. He might make mistakes in his ultimate judgments, but rarely did so in his initial intuitions; his quick sense of reality made him at heart an opportunist, so that, as Buchan found of him…

This elasticity, combined with his high political courage, had made him even in his bitterest campaigns not wholly repugnant to his opponents, for he was always human and had none of the dogmatic rigidity, the lean spiritual pride of the elder Liberalism.

Lloyd George had now found his proper task, Buchan felt, and was emerging as one of the most formidable figures in the world. Lord Milner, with a strong sense of historical perspective, considered him the greatest War Minister since Chatham. His social, legal and then political campaigning had shown that he was ‘in his element’ when leading in times of strife, including war. He was more than a democrat, a representative of democracy, he was a personification of it, both in its strengths and weaknesses. For his critics who often accused him of inconsistency, Buchan cautioned…

… for a tyrant or an oligarchy may be consistent, but not a free people. He had a democracy’s short memory, and its brittle personal loyalties. Perhaps his supreme merit as a popular leader was his comprehensibility. No mystery surrounded his character or his talents. The qualities and the defects were evident to all, and the plain man found in them something which he could not himself assess – positive merits, positive weaknesses, so that he could give or withhold his confidence as if he were dealing with a familiar. This power of diffusing a personality, of producing a sense of intimacy among millions who have never seen his face or heard his voice, is the greatest of assets for a democratic statesman, and Mr Lloyd George had it not only for Britain but for all the world…

Lacking the normal education of British public servants, he had large gaps in his mental furniture, and consequently was without that traditional sense of proportion which often gives an air of wisdom to mediocrities. He had a unique power of assimilating knowledge, but not an equal power of retaining it. Hence his mental processes were somewhat lacking in continuity; all was atomic and episodic, rather than a steady light. His mind had in it little of the scientific, it was insensitive to guiding principles, and there was no even diffusion of its power through many channels…

The fact that his mind was not a ‘continuum’,… but a thing discrete and perpetually re-made, kept him from lassitude and staleness… His loose hold on principles kept him from formalism, and opportunism is often the right attitude in a crisis… Many of his endowments, such as his parliamentary  tact, his subtlety in the management of colleagues, his debating skill, … however invaluable to a statesman in in normal times, were of less account in war. But that one gift he had which is so rare and inexplicable that it may rightly be called genius… He could not be defeated, because his spirit and buoyancy and zeal was insatiable… and that spirit he communicated to the nation.

The machine which he fashioned, the War Cabinet, worked with a synchronised vigour, on the whole, though not always with great precision. Its secretary, Sir Maurice Hankey, showed an uncanny foresight and a supreme competence. The special executive duties fell to General Smuts, who was often charged with almost impossible diplomatic missions, and to Lord Milner, who was the ablest living British administrator, with a powerful intellect and devoted to public service. Milner cared little for personal popularity, and possessed none of Lloyd George’s oratorical gifts, which made him a natural ‘foil’ for his Prime Minister. The presence of these two men underlined that the War Cabinet was actually an Imperial Council, especially as it also contained representatives from India and the Dominions. The Prime Minister of Canada pointed out at the time that the establishment of the cabinet turned a new page in the history of the Empire. There was a war purpose in this step, since the whole Empire was in arms. Under the pressure of war, the old individualism of industry was breaking down as the state enlarged its sphere of interest and duty, and on some there broke the vision of a new and wiser world coming to birth while the old world was dying.

Women at War: The Rise of the ‘Business Girl’.

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Woman working on a cartridge machine during the First World War

One of the signs of an old world dying and a new one dawning was the impact of the imposition of universal conscription in the previous year on the growth of women’s employment. It determined that the changes involved would go far beyond a limited expansion and upgrading of industrial labour. In July 1914 there had been 212,000 women employed in the various metal and engineering industries that were to become the ones most directly connected with war production. The figure for July 1915 was 256,000, a relatively small increase; but by July 1916 this had more than doubled 520,000 and by July 1917 the figure had reached 819,000. In industry as a whole 800,000 more women were in employment in 1918 than in 1914.

By February 1917 the total number of bus conductresses had jumped to around 2,500, and transport in general showed the biggest proportionate increase in women’s employment – from 18,000 in 1914 to 117,000 in 1918. There were also big proportionate increases in clerical, commercial, administrative and educational activities. In banking and finances there was a fantastic rate of growth, from a mere 9,500 in 1914 to 63,700 in 1917. In these statistics we can discern what Arthur Marwick referred to as a central phenomenon in the sociology of women’s employment in the twentieth century, the rise of the business girl. By creating simultaneously a proliferation of Government Committees and departments and a shortage of male labour (all men aged 18 to 41 were eligible for call-up from May 1916, except ministers of religion those engaged in the ‘reserved occupations’ of munitions, mining and farming), the war had brought a sudden and irreversible advance in the economic and social power of a category of women employees. They worked as lamplighters and window cleaners as well as doing heavy work in gasworks and foundries, carrying bags of coke and working among the furnaces. A simple remedy for when women succumbed to these arduous conditions was, afterwards, well-remembered:

Many is the time the girls would be affected by the gas, the remedy being to walk them up and down in the fresh air, and then (get them to) drink a bottle of Guinness.

Despite repeated government-initiated attempts to recruit women workers for the land, these had not been conspicuously successful. In fact, in July 1915 there were actually 20,000 fewer permanent female workers on the land than there had been twelve months earlier. As was the case with domestic service, the war provided a blessed release for women who had had very little alternative employment, if any, available to them beforehand. However, as Marwick has pointed out, we must be careful to see the question of changes in women’s roles and rights in the broader context of social relationships and political change. Many men also preferred a move into the army or reserved occupations to poorly-paid work on the land or in service, and many women found it impossible to hold on to factory jobs once the able-bodied men returned. Nevertheless, the war did bring a new self-confidence to many women, dissipating apathy and silencing the female anti-suffragists. Undoubtedly, the replacement of militant suffragette activity by determined patriotic endeavour also played its part.

More than this, by 1917 the all-out, total war was generating a tremendous mood favourable to change and democratic innovation. Whatever might or might not have happened to the roles of women in British society had there been no war, and therefore no ‘home front’, only that concentrated experience, as Marwick put it, showed up the absurdities of the many preconceptions about what they were capable of. Millicent Garrett Fawcett, speaking in January 1918, was already claiming victory in the long campaign for women’s rights:

The great searchlight of war showed things in their true light, and they gave us enfranchisement with open hands. 

Sources:

Norman Ferguson (2014), The First World War: A Miscellany. Chichester: Summersdale.

John Buchan (1935), The King’s Grace, 1910-35. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Michael Clark & Peter Teed (1972), Portraits and Documents: The Twentieth Century, 1906-1960. London: Hutchinson Educational.

Arthur Marwick (1977), Women at War, 1914-18. London: Croom Helm.

Advent and Christmas Exiled in England, 1956-57.   Leave a comment

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Tom’s mother, Edit Leimdörfer,

London, December 1956

A Seven-day Sojourn in Austria: 10-17 December 1956… 

As the black Cadillac belonging to Gyuri Schustek’s business associate drove Tom Leimdörfer’s refugee family into the outskirts of Vienna on that Sunday afternoon following their escape from Hungary, the contrast with Budapest could not have been more stark. Quite apart from Budapest having suffered the ravages of the recent fighting, the Austrian capital was already showing signs of becoming part of the wealthy west. The shops, the cars, the bright lights all spoke volumes of a different world. Tom describes how…

We were taken to a large flat, sumptuously furnished, where Sunday dinner was being laid for the family and for us. I remember going to the bathroom and having trouble looking for a cistern and a chain to pull for the toilet, till I risked turning a strange lever on the beautifully tiled wall and being relieved that it worked. We were conscious of being under-dressed for the occasion, thankful for the meal and needing to be at our most polite when addressed in Hungarian. Some phone calls were made and then we were escorted to a quiet back-street ‘Pension’ (guest house) where two dingy rooms were rented for us. We never saw the family again, but I assume Gyuri was given or lent enough money to see us through the coming days, till we could get to England. Mami had already rung my uncle ‘Bandi’ and asked him to try to make arrangements for us to get visa permits as soon as possible.

Memories of next few days in Vienna merged together: long waits at the British Embassy for visas and travel documents, long walks on the streets of Vienna gaping at the wide range of goods in brightly lit shops, walking down the Kartner Strasse with its Christmas lights glowing, rides on trams and buses, a visit to the Stefankirche, more long waits at the British Embassy. They had no money to buy anything, of course, and mainly ate snacks in their rooms. Tom associated that week in Vienna with feeling really hungry, perhaps for the first time in his life. However, they were given a special treat one day by way of their first banana. Oranges had appeared in Hungary occasionally since 1954, but it was in Vienna that Tom ate his first banana. In the evenings, they were back to playing rummy and canasta again to relieve the boredom.

The following Friday, 15 December, came the great news that the authorities had all their papers and they made their final trip to the British Embassy. From there they were sent to the offices of British European Airways (as it was known then) to collect flight tickets for the Sunday. They had assumed that they would go by train, but BEA had some empty seats to offer to refugees and so they would be going to London in style. Of course, none of them had ever flown before. Tom had been taken to Ferihegy airport a couple of times, most recently to see his aunt ‘Compie’ fly back to London in the summer. Apart from the communist countries, the only airlines that flew to Budapest were KLM (Dutch airlines) and SAS (Scandinavian Airlines). On their last day in Vienna, a full week after their adventures getting to the Austrian border, they were able to do some sightseeing around the capital:

Naturally, we were full of excitement. With our spirits lifted, we enjoyed Saturday by going out to Schönbrunn Palace. It was bitterly cold, but for a few hours we felt like a family on holiday and not like refugees in transit.

On returning to the pension, they began packing for the onward journey. There was not much for them to do as they still carried all the worldly goods they had escaped with in the same rucksacks, and wore the same clothes. They had managed to get them all clean and washed at the guest house, which they were not at all sorry to leave. Arriving at Vienna airport on the Sunday afternoon, they were surprised to see a stark, cold, unfriendly looking hangar used as a temporary departure lounge. A sparking new terminal was being built, but they waited for what seemed ages in a very unpleasant place before being called to board the plane:

The Vickers Viscount waited on the tarmac. It was a lovely aeroplane with its shining white exterior, the BEA logo with the Union Jack. Inside, the seats were comfortable and the large portholes gave a panoramic view looking out. We were treated same as all the other passengers and made to feel at ease by the stewardesses. It was getting dark by the time we took off and most of the flight across Europe was in cloud, with the occasional jolts of turbulence. Then as we started to descend over London and we came below the cloud level, I caught my breath at the sight of a vast carpet of orange lights as far as the eye could see. This was our first sight of London and I will never forget the impression of its enormity. I had never seen orange sodium streetlights before either, so that was new. Everything was going to be new and strange and bewildering and exciting.

A New Name and a Second-hand Bright Yellow Woolly Jumper…

They had arrived in what was to become their new homeland. They were sent to a separate area, away from other passengers, where immigration officials were waiting for us. They looked carefully at the travel documents and asked some questions, which Edit Leimdörfer tried to answer:

She struggled with English, but the conversations with ‘Compie’ in the summer must have helped. I was asked if I spoke any English. “A little”, I replied. “You will learn quickly” the official assured me with a kindly smile. Then they made out some fresh documents for us and we were each asked for the names we wanted to be known by in England. I said “Thomas Charles Leimdorfer” without hesitation. So Tamás Károly was left behind, but did resurface when I applied for a Hungarian passport (in addition to my British passport) some three decades later.

After the immigration officers, they found themselves being paraded in front of some middle-aged ladies wearing the uniform of the WRVS (Women’s Royal Voluntary Service). They looked them up and down and asked them to show what clothes we had with them. The ladies then selected items from a large pile of used clothing and asked each of the family if they would like to have this or that:

One kind looking lady offered me a hideous bright yellow woolly jumper. It looked warm and I did not want be choosy, so I accepted with a polite “thank you”. I grew to like that jumper and kept it for years.

When they eventually emerged  into the arrivals hall, Edit was looking for my uncle ‘Bandi’, but instead they were met by his friend and business partner, Irwin Reynolds. He explained that ‘Bandi’ was waiting at the terminus of the airport bus in London. He got them all on the bus:

We barely understood, but it had something to do with Suez and petrol rationing and the airport being too far. It was a bit disappointing, but totally understandable in retrospect. The main topic of conversation between Ferkó, Marika and me on the bus was the fact that all the cars drove on the ‘wrong’ side of the road.

Bandi was waiting for them as we got off the bus and gave Mami and me a warm hug. It was the first time they had seen him since his brief visit in 1947, when Tom had been sick with jaundice. They were taken by two cars, Irwin’s and Bandi’s from Cromwell Road to Muswell Hill:

I was in Irwin’s car and he gave us a commentary of the sights as we drove through central London. We did not understand any of it, but I remember catching sight of the bright neon signs of Piccadilly Circus. Of course, there were Christmas lights everywhere. 

Mostly it was all a blur, till we walked through the doors of 10 Vallance Road, where ‘Compie néni’ and her son Roy (who was just coming up to his 18th birthday) were waiting for us. They did their best to look joyful at our arrival. Five homeless guests eight days before Christmas at a couple of days’ warning was hardly undiluted good news. To make matters worse, Ági, the relative who was also part of our original ill-fated group of escapees, also managed to make it to England and arrived at their doorstep two days later.

Vallance Road, Muswell Hill

The house at Vallance Road seemed a suburban palace after their accommodation in Vienna, and their small flat in down-town Pest. The downstairs consisted of a large entrance hall, a dining room, lounge, kitchen and breakfast area and another reception room called the ‘Chinese Room’. On the first floor, there were three bedrooms and a fourth large room used as the ‘table tennis room’. It had a full size good quality table with just sufficient room around for a proper game. There were three rooms in the loft, an extra bedroom, a study and a room kitted out as a gymnasium. Physical exercise was Uncle Bandi’s priority. The large garden was also on three levels; a large patio with borders at the top, a lawn with borders in the middle and a full size tennis court on the lowest level. Apart from the oddity of the Chinese room, there was nothing ostentatious, but it was all mind-blowing. Bandi, Compie and Roy were keen tennis players, played table tennis and exercised avidly each day, so the house just reflected their dominant interests.

Tom knew that his Uncle Bandi had done well for himself in London. He had seen a small picture of the front of the house, but the reality was overwhelming. After his time of hiding as an illegal immigrant and then serving in the British Army, Bandi had struggled in the immediate post-war years on a clerk’s salary at the Milk Marketing Board. He made his money in the fifties by getting together with a tennis partner and setting up a small factory in Holloway. They manufactured a range of household goods and ornaments all made of black-coated steel cable with bright plastic knobs on the end. These made coat racks, toaster racks, letter racks, candle holders, lamp-holders, pen-holders. They were bent in all kinds of shapes, including cats, dogs, snakes etc.. They were sold all over the place, but mainly in every Woolworth chain store. As there was a store in every town of any size by then, Bandi’s small factory made a lot of money and he bought the house in Vallance Road.

Though they were treated kindly on arrival, it was soon obvious that the refugees’ presence meant a huge disruption to the Reynolds household. Neighbours and friends from the tennis club called, there were parties and preparations for Christmas and we tried our best not be in the way. The children started to explore Muswell Hill Broadway, walking up to Alexandra Palace, where they had a splendid view of the city. The palace itself was a ghostly place, recently abandoned as the main centre for BBC television broadcasts. They walked a lot, but also wanted to learn how to use the buses and the underground:

Our first ride on top of a red London Routemaster bus was yet another new experience. While the three of us were getting gradually more adventurous, Mami and Gyuri were busy trying to work out what their next step should be. Gyuri had an old pre-war business contact who lived and had a small business in south London, so they went to see him.

Our momentous year of 1956 ended with blurry haze of new experiences, a kind of limbo existence after the traumatic events, (accompanied by) feelings of uncertainty and not belonging.  

The New Year of 1957 should have been one to look forward to, but it brought further suffering and tragedy for Tom and his family.  Edit Leimdörfer was just 41 years old when the family celebrated her birthday at Vallance Road on the 4 January. She was such a strong person and her spirit through the previous months had been indomitable. She led the family to England with all the adventures of the escape over the border. Shortly after her birthday, Gyuri Schustek’s business contact found him a low-paid job in Richmond, and the couple moved there and married, leaving the children in Vallance Road for the time being. The following March Edit fell ill with what seemed at first to be a bad cough, but then her breathing got worse and she was admitted to hospital with what was first diagnosed as pleurisy. However, an operation revealed widespread cancer from which she died in the middle of April. Tom was not simply a refugee, but had now lost both his father and mother:

The mother who hid and protected me from the Nazis, struggled to bring me up after losing her parents and her husband, introduced me to concerts and operas, started to treat me as a young man and who loved me always, was no longer. I felt a huge void, but almost at the same time a very strong sense of a real ‘presence’. It felt like her presence and the ‘presence’ I associated with the faith she tried hard to introduce to me, all rolled into one. God, Jesus, Mami, I did not question. It was a strong loving presence and I was not letting go of it.

Exodus & Asylum at Advent: Refugee Experiences in the Aftermath of the Soviet Invasion of Hungary, 1956   1 comment

Part One, 1-9 December – Fleeing the Homeland

Revolutionary Sportsmen and their families…

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The famous footballers of Honvéd Budapest had left Hungary on 1 November, just before the second Soviet intervention, in order to prepare for their European Cup match against Athletico Bilbao. After the invasion, the players suddenly found themselves cut off from their homeland and their families, but, accompanied by the solidarity and compassion of their western European hosts, they played matches for charity and to cover their expenses. They donned black armbands and cut the red-starred Honvéd badge from their shirts.

The players did everything they could to get their families out of the country from behind the even more strictly controlled border fences of their homeland. Puskás’ wife and their four-year-old daughter, Anikó, had managed to cross into Austria on 1 December, making their way through muddy, ploughed fields, in the cold, wet night. Anikó had been told when they set off that they were going to visit relatives in Dunaföldvár, on the western bank of the Danube, some forty kilometres south of Budapest. She slept most of the way, carried for part of it by a young man, Tamás Csonka.

The family was reunited in Milan, receiving the attention of the world’s press. They spent Christmas together in the team’s hotel, together with the other players and the relatives who had managed to escape. Eventually Puskás, emboldened by his wife, along with Zoltán Czibor, who had taken part in the Uprising and was elected as the Honved sports’ club’s Revolutionary Committee, Sándor Kocsis, coach Jenő Kalmár, and technical director Emil Öestreicher, all chose to remain in the west, despite the pleading of Gusztáv Sebes, the Hungarian national team coach, as well as thinly-veiled threats from the Kádár regime.

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Meanwhile, at the Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia, Hungary’s highly successful water-polo team, who had also left the country just before the Soviet invasion, defeated the USSR team 4-0 in what became known as the Blood in the Water match, played on 6 December. After winning the gold medal, defeating the Yugoslav team, some of their star players also decided to defect and settle for a life in exile.

Leaving Love…

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Tom Leimdorfer, on a Geography school trip in the Bakony Hills, September 1956

In these highly sensitive times for the Soviets and their puppet régime in Budapest, it was natural for those who chose to leave to be very cautious and only let their closest family know. Arrests had already begun, and many of those caught fleeing were among those detained. Edit Leimdorfer told her sister-in-law Juci, but they did not go to say goodbye to them or anyone else. There were still army checkpoints across the city, so that only essential trips were made.

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Above: The Leimdörfer family: Grandparents, Aunt Juci, his father and his mother, Edit.

On Friday, the 7th of December, Tom and his mother went back to their flat. Everything had to be done so as not to arouse suspicion from neighbours. They packed essential clothing in a rucksack each with just a few treasured possessions. In Tom’s case, this included a few photographs of family and friends, including that of his girlfriend Kati, whom he had known for three years:

My last piano teacher lived on Rózsa Domb (Rose Hill), some distance from our flat. I needed to take a tram and then a bus to get there, but by the age of eleven I travelled independently all over the city. This teacher was recommended by my mother’s colleague, István. He and his wife Katalin were friends of my mother’s and I was getting increasingly attracted to their very talented daughter Kati, who was a year younger than me. We visited them at their lovely flat in the Buda hills, with great views of János Hegy (John peak) across the valley. The flat had a balcony and a steep hillside garden with steps and paths leading round shrubs and rockeries. Wonderful for hide and seek.

Kati was very musical and well ahead of me on the piano, in spite of being younger. It was her teacher who took me on and my weekly lesson usually followed hers. I made sure I was early and waited outside, so I could snatch a brief few moments alone with Kati. I was not yet a teenager, but I was definitely in love. I thought of Kati as embodying perfection in a girl and unattainable for mere mortal boys like me. Her parents were far better off than my mother and I always felt I had to be on my very best and formal behaviour when we visited their spotless and beautiful flat. Besides, the family were Catholics and such religious divides mattered, communism or no communism.

Their budding childhood relationship had been dealt a further blow when Edit Leimdörfer decided that they should move to the much smaller flat in Pest, a lot further away on the opposite side of the Danube, from where they were now escaping Hungary. Shortly before the October Revolution in the capital, the parents of the ‘couple’ had found an ingenious way of bringing the young lovers together again:

The piano had to be sold and my piano lessons ceased. With it went my weekly rendezvous with Kati and I barely saw her during the first nine months of 1956. This did not diminish my longing and teenage fantasies. One day in September 1956, my mother gave me an envelope with a mysterious smile as an ‘early 14th birthday present’. When I opened it, two season tickets to the opera dropped out. I was very pleased and asked her when we were going to the first performance. ‘Oh, you are not going with me’ she said. ‘Then who is the other ticket for?’ I enquired. ‘Well, who would you really like to take instead of me?’ she teased. I was both delighted and astounded.  ‘But did Pista bácsi agree?’ I asked. ‘Yes, it was his idea’, my mother answered. This really surprised me. I knew Kati’s mother doted on me, but I thought her father would be protective and not regard me as altogether suitable… Kati and I talked excitedly on the phone about our forthcoming first date.

We arranged to meet on the day at the terminus of the old underground by the statue of the poet Vörösmarthy and travel together to the opera. We were both very smartly dressed and Kati looked stunning. I remember little of the performance itself, which was the Hungarian epic opera ‘Hunyadi László’, by Erkel. This time, the interval was more important, getting Kati her drink and impressing her with my attentions. Afterwards, we walked slowly hand in hand towards the underground station. To my disappointment, Mami and Kati’s parents were waiting there, having had a meal out in a nearby restaurant. That was just two weeks before the fateful day of the  October revolution. The next time I saw Kati was sixteen and a half years later. We were both married, introducing our spouses to each other and watching our children play in the garden where we had played as young children.

Little over a month later, back in the city centre flat with his mother, Tom had to leave his now useless season ticket and settle for collecting the other things which could be packed in his rucksack. These included a pocket chess set and his button football team. Not being allowed to phone Kati made him feel miserable. He knew she would be fine, as they lived up in the Buda hills where there was no fighting, but guessed that she would be worried about them. It was a strange day, but he could not feel sentimental about leaving the flat as it never really felt like home. His real childhood home was the flat in Buda with the garden which he had been so sad to leave the year before. Now it was his desk, originally belonging to his father (killed on the Russian front during World War II), to which he bade a regretful farewell:

The beautiful green baize surface, which was the scene of button football triumphs and the backdrop to long hours of homework, the lovely inlaid marquetry patterns, all remained imprinted in my memory. The painful thought of leaving family and friends was pushed well into the subconscious as we prepared for our big adventure.

Initial Escapades…

In the early hours of the 8th December, Gyuri, Ferkó and Marika rang the bell of the flat and they all met by the front door. It was still dark as they walked by the least conspicuous route to the railway station, hardly saying a word to each other. They had a rucksack each, looking as if they were going for a brief outing. Walking past piles of rubble, burnt-out lorries, broken power tram lines, shell holes in apartment blocks, some blocks totally in ruins, they could see for the first time the full extent of the damage in the war-torn, grey, sad, defeated city. It made sense to them then that they were leaving that scene.

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The train was packed with similar ‘holiday makers’ all favouring unlikely resorts near the Austrian border, all eyeing each other curiously but not communicating. They had no idea if there were plainclothes police or ÁVH agents amongst us. Everyone watched the countryside rushing by the windows, all with memories of a homeland they were leaving behind, with hopes and fears of what lay ahead. The five got off the train before most of the others and joined what seemed to Tom to be a pre-arranged group:

I assumed this was the arrangement made by Mami through contacts. Apart from the five of us, there was a distant relative of ours in the same group. We were met by someone with a lorry and got on the back. Sandwiches were eaten en route and we arrived at some railway sidings, by a village near the border. There we waited for a while, then our ‘guide’ appeared and we followed him. Within minutes, we were faced with a small detachment of border police who asked for our documents. As I glanced round, I saw our ‘guide’ disappear under a stationary goods wagon and run as fast as his legs could carry him. None of the border guards bothered to run after him. We were summarily arrested.

The next few hours were like something out of a Kafka novel. The Hungarian border guards marched us to their base and took our details. They had clearly no real enthusiasm for what they were doing, but the new orders were to arrest people trying to flee, so they went through the motions. We were all interrogated separately. I was asked how many Russian tanks I blew up with Molotov cocktails. The guard seemed disappointed when I answered truthfully that I did no fighting. Many young teenagers did. Then a dozen or so Russian soldiers turned up and asked the Hungarian border guards if we were the refugees who stole their lorry. The border guards pretended to speak no Russian, so Ferkó was asked to translate. No, we affirmed, we did not steal their lorry. So the Russians left, with much shrugging of shoulders on the part of the Hungarian border guards. It was getting late and we were starving.

There certainly were many among the escapees who had been involved in attacking tanks, both in Budapest and the provincial towns, some of whom had actually killed Soviet soldiers and were unable to return to Hungary until the 1990s when a full amnesty was declared. With these Russians gone, however, Tom’s mother sprung into action again. She produced her (quite useless) documentation for the Hungarian officer, showing that they were going for a holiday as a respite from the trauma of recent events. Yes, they did join the refugee group once they were nearing the border, but this was an impulsive action they soon regretted. The children were tired and bewildered, she said, as they just expected to go on holiday. Would the officer allow them to seek to lodge for the night with someone in the village? They would report promptly in the morning to be transported back to Budapest under arrest. Edit Leimdörfer was at her most persuasive and the officer agreed, even suggesting which house they could try for a night’s lodgings.

Guests, a Guide and his Grenades…

The middle-aged couple who offered them refuge and hospitality were getting ready for bed when the family of five knocked on the door and explained their situation. They immediately rushed about getting food, getting spare beds ready and mattresses on the floor with duvets. Then the peasant-farmer started talking to Edit and Gyuri:

Surely, we were not going to give up our plans? “Oh yes”, we said, our attempt had failed and we would go back home. The man looked at us in earnest: “Is that really what you want to do?” He knew the border like the back of his hands. He ploughed the fields and had special permission to go right up to the fences. He could safely get us through before dawn. Mami and Gyuri hesitated, perhaps wondering if the man was an agent provocateur, but he looked like an honest peasant farmer, who would have had no interest in tricking us. By why would he take the risk? Mami explained that she had already given her money to the ‘guide’ who led us straight into the hands of the border guards. The best she could do was to give him an address in Budapest and a letter where he would get financial compensation if we were successful. The adults looked at us, Ferkó nodded in agreement, so did Marika and I, although we were too exhausted to care.

After no more than three hours’ sleep in their clothes, they were woken at 3.00 am on the Sunday morning of the 9th December. The wife hurriedly gave them some bread and milk before they set off:

It was a cold, clear night. The crescent moon had set already and the sky was bedecked with countless stars, the full glory of the Milky Way high and bright above us. All was still and we were very conscious of the noise of our footsteps. The man, in his late forties or early fifties, gave us brief military type instructions. The only lights visible apart from the stars were rotating searchlights of the border guards’ observation towers and we were making for a spot roughly halfway between two of these. We were crossing a plain with no trees, no shelter. Once my eyes got used to the dark, I felt very conspicuous and wondered why we could not be seen from the towers. We were walking through what had been a field of maize and there was enough stubble left for cover if we lay flat on the ground. As we reached the area within reach of the searchlight beams, the man gave precise commands to ‘lie down’ as the beam neared us and ‘walk on’ as it passed. Then at one point he said ‘stay down, stay still’ and we did just that till he said ‘walk on’ again. We reached the first set of wires without seeing them ahead of us. They were not formidable and there was a point where they had been cut and we could get through. The second set of barbed wires, a few meters on looked more difficult, but the man found a place where the bottom strand was missing so we could pass our rucksacks through and then crawl underneath. Even that did not seem as formidable an ‘iron curtain’ as the high electrified wire installation I was to witness being dismantled in May 1989 about thirty miles from where we were crawling to freedom that night.

The farmer warned them that they were not yet safe as the wires were well inside the actual border with Austria. They needed to walk towards what they had just started to make out was a line of trees. He told them to look carefully where they trod. Their flight and that of tens of thousands of others was only made possible by the de-mining of the border region as a goodwill gesture to neutral Austria earlier in the year, but they could not be sure that there were not still some active mines left in the ground. Tom could not resist the occasional glance upwards into the night sky:

All this time, none of us spoke. I felt a sense of danger, of course, mixed with a feeling of excitement at the adventure and pure wonder at the glorious firmament above, the sight of which has stayed with me all my life.

As we approached the lines of trees and bushes, it was clear that we were getting to a river bank. Suddenly, there was a shout of ‘Halt!’ and we froze until it was followed by a milder sounding: ‘Achtung, hier entlang’ (or something like it) as two young Austrian guards emerged to direct us towards a crossing point. Gyuri started to talk to them in his fluent German. It was time to express our immense gratitude to our guide, which he tried to shrug off. My mother gave him the letter with the address to visit in Budapest for his reward. She then said: “It was not as dangerous as I feared”. The man replied: “Did you not see the border guards passing when I asked you lie still on the ground?” None of us had. Then he said: “But I was prepared anyway” and he took two hand grenades out of his pockets. Even in the dark I thought I saw Mami go pale and a shiver went down my spine. Still, we had to concentrate on crossing the wide stream by balancing on the makeshift planks and tree-trunks, helped across by the two Austrian guards. We clambered on to the back of an army jeep waiting nearby. We made it. We were safe. We were refugees.

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Asylum in Austria…

It was a short ride to the village of Andau where they were deposited outside a large hall. It was teeming with refugees, all of them new arrivals awaiting transportation to one of the large transit camps set up for Hungarian refugees under the auspices of the United Nations. An official took our details. ‘Gyuri bácsi’ was now in charge of the situation as he not only spoke totally fluent German (Edit’s was almost fluent, but less confident), but he also had some friends and a pre-war business partner living in Vienna. So, he explained, we only needed shelter till they could collect us.

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Meanwhile, they were given a drink and some chocolate and a place on the floor to sleep. It was around six o’clock in the morning, but still dark. They were utterly drained and exhausted, sleeping on blankets on the hard floor until about ten in spite of people milling around in the noisy hall. There was some food on a long table for breakfast and a chance for a quick wash. Gyuri said his former business partner was very pleased to hear from him and was on his way down from Vienna to collect them:

We hardly had time to take in fully the scene of the motley, fairly bedraggled crowd of Hungarian refugees of which we were a part for just six hours. At midday, we went outside the hall in the bright sunshine of the village square. I remember the church bells ringing and villagers in local traditional rural Sunday best clothes standing around. They did not look any different from a Hungarian village over the border. Affluence had not yet reached rural Austria.

Then the heads of several people turned towards the road leading to the square and we saw a large black Cadillac approach. When it stopped, a portly man emerged and greeted Gyuri as a long-lost friend. I saw several villagers staring with open mouths as these refugees with their rucksacks piled into that luxury car and were driven off towards the capital. A few kind questions were addressed to us in Hungarian, before the conversation switched to German. Ferkó listened with interest, while Marika and I just watched the countryside go by. Actually, in many ways Marika was the real the real hero of this adventure. She was not yet twelve years of age, but she showed no fear, no tears, no complaints throughout those extraordinary couple of days.

(to be continued).

Secondary Source:

Gzörgy Szöllősi (2015), Ferenc Puskás, The Most Famous Hungarian. Budapest: Rézbong Kiadó.

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