I’ve already told my story to all my three children. It’s been recorded and written down in all kinds of places. Even so, there are still a lot of ques- tions I don’t know the answers to, and there’s nobody left for me to ask. But at least my children and grandchildren have everything that I know.
I was born in Pest, in ’34, and I lived there with my parents until ’56. My father had a wholesale paper business and he worked in the same house where we lived. He was deported during the war, but he survived. He was very strong and used to physical labor, he was always lifting these huge bales of paper. He got through Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Mauthausen and was finally freed from Theresienstadt in May, ’45. He came back home sick and weak, but he got better and started to work again. Up until ’48, when the Russians took his shop away. My father moved away from home that same year, and he would have divorced my mother, too, but my mother wouldn’t agree to it. The law said a divorce could only be granted after five years of separation, so on paper at least they remained married until ’53. At the age of fourteen I was living with my mother and my grandmother, who moved in with us.
I don’t remember all that much about the war, I somehow shut all those memories out. I remember when my grandparents dropped in to see us, on Sas Street, on their way to the Opera House. We were sitting there, chatting, when we all of a sudden heard on the radio that the Germans had invaded Hungary. Everybody fell into total panic and my grandpar- ents stayed with us, they didn’t go to the opera after all that day. My father was taken to a forced labor camp. When he was on his way back home, the Germans took him off the train and deported him. This was the last we heard of him, there was no news, nothing at all about him for a year after- ward. We tried to find him, but couldn’t.
My mother was taken to work in the brick factory and I stayed with my grandmother in our a Yellow Star house. She escaped after a couple of days and was making her way back home when, just out of nowhere, a German soldier appeared on a motorbike and offered her a seat behind him. My mother thought and was in fact dead positive that he was taking her back to the brick factory. Instead he asked her where she wanted to go. My mother was so sur- prised that she didn’t dare tell him the place where I was, so she told him to take her to the ghetto instead, where her parents were. She visited them, then she came to get me after. Then she took me to some Christian relatives who hid me. I don’t know where she went, she probably didn’t think it safe for us to stay together, so she was hiding somewhere else. Later on, the two of us survived the bombings together in a cellar one of our other relatives used for storing firewood. We lived there for months, and my mother wouldn’t let me out even when the Russians came because this rumor was going around that they were raping girls.
When things had quieted down a bit we went back to our flat. The windows had all been broken and some things were missing which we actu- ally saw later on in the possession of our dear neighbors. But it didn’t matter. We put our home back in order so we could live there again. My father was still missing and my mother and I were there alone. I tried to help her as best I could and sold soap and eau de cologne at Oktogon Square. And I tried to pitch in in other ways, too: plenty of Russians were coming to the neigh- boring toy shop next to our flat. I guess they were buying presents for their kids. One of them was looking over a porcelain doll, when I stepped up to him and told him I had one just like that at home, I could sell it to him. He said all right, he’d give me five kilos of flour for it. I told him I wasn’t giving it up for five, but he could take it for ten. He came up to our flat, handed over the flour, I gave him the doll in exchange, and he left. I was eleven when I made my first business deal with a Russian soldier. I think that was the exact moment when I grew up. When my first granddaughter was born the first thing I did was to buy her a porcelain doll.
I distinctly remember when my father came home. We were washing dishes in the kitchen. The kitchen window overlooked the porch. We heard a voice asking whether Mrs. Erdős was there. I recognized my father’s voice and ran out and saw him. He was terribly bloated all over, he had edema because they’d been staying in a chocolate factory after the city was freed. Even though he was careful about eating, he still got so bloated that he didn’t fit in the building’s small elevator, so the neighbors helped him climb up the stairs. He was sick and broken, but he’d come back to us and, what’s more, he’d even brought my mother a rose that he’d begged for on the way home.
They both tried to figure out a way for us to make a living. Both of them were heavy smokers, maybe that’s where the idea of rolling cigarettes came from. We bought the papers, rolled in the tobacco and sold them. After a couple of months, my father decided that we should start making toilet paper. We’d never done it before, but it actually went well and things started to improve. I was going to school at the Lutheran School on Deák Square, as that was the closest school to where we lived. Our class was the last one to take the final exams before all the religious schools were closed. I wasn’t accepted to the University of Medicine, so I studied to be a chemist and then started working at a research company. Meanwhile I got married and our first child was born in ’53.
Then ’56 came and I was in the thick of it all, I was involved in everything and my husband even more so, as he was a journalist and also worked at the radio. I was there at the Technical University, where I followed all the events. I marched with the young people to the Kossuth Statue, to the Parliament, everywhere. My husband was stuck in the radio building and couldn’t leave it the whole night. After this we didn’t work for quite a few days and didn’t want to go back to our workplaces either. We decided to go to America. We’d already talked about it earlier, but in ’56 we were sure that it was time to leave. I didn’t like Hungary. When I was fourteen we almost moved to London because my mother had a brain tumor and the only doctor who could operate on her lived in London. My parents went there because of the operation and I was about to follow them, but my grandfather fell ill and they returned because they hadn’t wanted to leave him all alone. Then they were about to send me to a school in Switzerland, but that didn’t pan out, either. So, I’d really wanted to leave ever since my childhood. Just to get away the farther the better. I imag- ined I could have a calmer and more peaceful life for myself elsewhere. I had many problems with my job, too, my mouth was too big and I always said what I thought. We didn’t want to stay any longer.
The first place we arrived to was Vienna, where we submitted our travel request at the American Embassy. My husband had reported for the Voice of America, which may have been why we were able to get our visas within three weeks, so we arrived in America that same year. We settled down first in Denver with a family we knew. Laci and I started to work and we enrolled our child in kindergarten. We lived very well there. Then my husband wanted to do another degree and he applied to the University of California, Los Angeles. He was accepted to the Department of Journalism, and he got a job as a teacher and so we moved to California. Two years later our daughter was born. Laci was appointed to the chair of a department, then dean, meanwhile he was worked on his PhD, which he finished in ’68. Then he got a job as Chancellor. He managed seven schools with one hundred and thirty-five thousand stu- dents; a total of ten thousand people worked under him. He was in this posi- tion for fifteen years; nobody has broken this record this since, at most they stayed in this position for a maximum of two to three years. He died in 2001 after having two strokes. I stayed in California for another twelve years. Then my children persuaded me to move to New York. I came here three years ago, as my family is all here, my children and my twelve grandchildren. Out of the tiny family where I was the only child, we got to be so big. This is more import- ant than anything else to me now.
Only my oldest child speaks Hungarian, he even taught himself how to read and write in Hungarian. When we came here they learned English so quickly that they never wanted to say another word in Hungarian. They only switched to Hungarian when they spoke with my mother, who moved to Los Angeles in ’61, too. But it was twenty years before I dared go back home and returning wasn’t a good feeling at all because I was worried I wouldn’t be let back to America. But after ’76 we visited Budapest almost every year as my husband worked a lot in Hungary. Four years ago, I was visiting Europe with my youngest child and his family and we went to Budapest, too. It was Shabbat and we were standing on Elizabeth Square and I was telling them about my childhood when all of a sudden a crowd of young men all dressed in black marched past us. I thought I would faint dead away. It brought every- thing back in seconds and it was then that I decided I’d never step foot in that country again. I haven’t been back since, and I won’t either. Anyone who wants to see me can find me right here.