Uncle Imre 

I was born in 1920 in a hospice hospital on American Street in Budapest. My father was born to an Orthodox Jewish family in Losonc and he later rented a room from my mother’s parents in Pest, which is how they met. He was enlisted in ’14, but was immediately taken captive and spent the next four years in Russia, where he learned Russian. When he came back he married my mother and I was born roughly a year after that.

We lived in Debrecen and I was a student at a secondary school there in ’38. Two weeks after my final exams the First Anti-Jewish Decree was passed and I wasn’t allowed to go to university, my father fell into depression and our house was auctioned off, so we were living in pretty miserable conditions. I became a ribbon weaver, but was sent to the forced labor camp in Szolnok in October, ’41. We were building a bullet blind that winter, first under the command of this rotten bastard of a squadron captain, who, lucky for us, was replaced with a lieutenant from the Ludovika Academy who looked like some tin soldier who’d just stepped out of the tissue paper wrappings in his bandbox. He was very handsome in that tip-top uniform of his, so we called him Bonvin after the bon vivant figures you’d see in operettas. He really was a great, wonderful man and somehow managed to arrange it so our military unit didn’t have to go to Ukraine by saying that we had to be in charge of training the fresh recruits. This was only a cover story, of course, there was no training at all, but this is how he saved us from certain death while saving his own skin, too, at the same time. It was for this little idea of his that we arranged for him to get the Yad Vashem award for righteous Christians.

In the summer of ‘43 we were taken to this little Romanian town in Transylvania, where I was transferred to another military unit in spite of all my protest. I was torn away from my friends, who eventually ended up in Ukraine, so I escaped Ukraine again. At this camp we were given light duties and even got a bowl of cornmeal mush at the end of the day. My father even visited me there. Once this little snot-nosed brat ordered me to go peel potatoes. Me, the seasoned soldier? Like hell I will, I answered. Fine, he answered, then you’re reporting to the disciplinary hearings tomorrow morning. The next day, when they ordered those waiting for the hearings to appear front and center, I didn’t go. A few weeks later a command arrived ordering some of the older soldiers to be shipped to Ukraine. Our commander decided to send the ones who’d been up for discipline. Since I hadn’t gone to the hearing, I hadn’t been disciplined, so I escaped the Ukrainian front again.

In spring ‘44 our military unit was divided into platoons and I was taken to Aknaszlatina, where, as a third-year soldier on labor detail, I was made commander of our division. We had to unload these enormous tree stumps off of wagons. Lucky for us, the peasant Jews from the Upland Region

of Hungary knew what they were doing and things went without a hitch. The lieutenant gave us a day off for Pesach with the condition that we’d have to unload any wagon that arrived. He was showing us his human side for once. Then a few days later he called us together and said we’d taken advan- tage of his goodwill and ignored our orders: a shipment had arrived that we hadn’t unloaded. Our jaws dropped because we hadn’t a clue about what he was saying. I stepped out of the row and told the lieutenant there hadn’t been any orders. The lieutenant was furious and sputtering about how you coward Jews, you know how to ignore orders, but won’t take responsibil- ity for it! He gestured for me to start counting off every fifth person. I went pale: if I refused his command, somebody else would execute it instead of me. I was the leader, I had to take on the responsibility. I turned my back to him and started to count: one, two, three, four, and five and gestured for every fifth man to step forward. And then I lost my head: this bastard is taking his revenge on innocent people and we don’t even know what the revenge will be! When I finished I turned to the commander and said that I report that I am as guilty as these guys are and request permission to join them. He waved permission without saying a word and I stepped into the line, too. The lieutenant announced that he would impose our penalty and then commanded us to disperse. My comrades immediately told me off for having stood among them. To tell you the truth, I wanted to show that son of a bitch just who’s a ‘coward Jew.’ We eventually got off by doing some little extra job. It could have ended a whole lot worse, though.

From Aknaszlatina we were taken to build tank barriers in the Carpathian Mountains of Zemplén. The Hungarian military thought they could stop Russian tanks with a bunch of wooden branches! What a joke! The constant rain was no joke, though: we were sleeping on the ground in tents and practically lying in water all night long. We were barely given any food. I remember seeing one of my buddies eating some salami he’d managed to save and I couldn’t drag my eyes away from it. I realized that I was having a hard time working and my legs and face were swollen. There was a medic among us and he looked me over and decided something was up with my heart or kidneys, so he said he’d try to send me to a hospital. I’d spent almost six weeks laid up in a military hospital in Munkács with a kidney infection when a new medical lieutenant decided I was never going to recover anyway, so he shipped me off. From then on I was taken from one camp hospital to another, up until January ’45. At the ward in Sátoraljaújhely I met a soldier on labor detail from Miskolc who eventually died in that hospital from a gall bladder infection. I finally arrived home in the boots that I got from him. There was barely any wear in them.

But before that, in January, I was sent to a military camp in Szombathely, where hundreds of soldiers and troops from labor camps were just milling about restlessly. The situation did not look good. Szálasi and his gang had camped down here while Budapest was still under siege. I could have joined the military, but I didn’t exactly want to all that much. I met a guy whose company was doing labor at a mine in Úrkút. A few of us decided we’d go there, too. We threw together a hundred pengős so one of the unit leaders would take us to the command station. We couldn’t find the guy’s unit anymore, so we joined the Romanian labor troops. Thanks to my hos- pital papers I was assigned light duties and I never saw the inside of that manganese mine after all.

At the end of March our unit was directed west, but by that time I’d had it with labor camps and I escaped together with five others. I led them across the Bakony Mountains in the middle of the night, in the direction of the Russians, where we then spread out and everyone took off as best he could. And so I greeted the Red Army’s seventeen or eighteen-year old sol- diers all by myself. One of them was sure I was a spy and was going to shoot me. I suddenly remembered that my father had once told me about a time in WWI, when he’d thought he was going to be killed and he’d fallen to his knees and started begging for his life. And so I fell to my knees, too, and put my palms together like I was praying and waited for what would happen next. And the others told the guy just to let me go. I knew not one word in Russian, but I was sure they’d told him ‘Go to hell, what do you want with him, let the dumb fuck go.’ Thankfully he did let me go which is one reason why I am here telling you my story today.

I started home on foot, from Veszprém towards Székesfehérvár and then to Budapest. I saw this huge mass of something and actually asked myself what in hell that could be. It was Lake Balaton: that was the first time I’d ever seen it. In Székesfehérvár a truck gave me a lift and that’s how I got to Budapest. I had absolutely nothing on me but the clothes on my back. I went back to Debrecen where my parents lived. I got my high school diploma back from our neighbor who’d kept it for me and I took it and applied to the University of Medicine. I finished my studies there and became a psychiatrist. I was working with walk-ins at the hospital in Győr when they brought in a

former lieutenant who I immediately recognized as the officer who’d had me tied up when I was on labor detail because I’d left my place without permis- sion. I didn’t mention that we’d already met before.

I joined the Communist Party as soon as I could. In ’52, though, when I started criticizing the Party I was thrown out of the university where I was teaching by then and I was kicked out of the Party, too. They even arrested me for incitement and I was sentenced to three-and-a-half years. I was placed in the jail in Kőbánya where I sat out nine months. Everything in the jail was done by the prisoners, so I soon became the doctor. I immediately threw all the former Arrow Cross militia out of the infirmary. Then they suddenly announced that I was being taken back to Győr. There they stuck me in solitary confine- ment and all they’d say is that I’d be called later on. After about twelve hours an agent from the secret police showed up and asked me if I wanted to work for them. In exchange they’d let me out of prison and I could get my old job back, too. I said yes. I didn’t want to choose not to have a job: I had two kids to support. Besides, what do you think I am, some kind of a hero? Well, I’m not. It seemed strange that they didn’t make me sign anything. Still, I got my job back at the Department of Psychiatry at Győr Hospital. I did my best to avoid talking with anyone so I wouldn’t have anything to report, but the secret police never asked me for anything. They would have, sooner or later, I’m sure they would have, but then the revolution broke out.

My wife and I wanted to leave the country, there was absolutely no way we could stay in Hungary. My sister-in-law was living with us with her two kids, so we all got into this small car, the two women and four kids, and started off. Our first stop was to the synagogue where they set up the rest of our journey for the next day. We had nothing at all, just an English-Hungarian dictionary and our identification. We were among the very first to leave the country in ’56. We ended up waiting for our visas in a temporary refugee camp in Oberunterdorf. My older cousin was already waiting for us in New York.

I was hired to work at a hospital here right off the bat, but I had to start all over from scratch. At the beginning I earned seventy-five dollars a month as an intern. Then I got my residency. I was earning four thousand-five hundred dollars a year by that time. I took the boards and became a doctor here, too. I worked until the age of eighty-six.

I don’t consider myself a Hungarian. I am a Hungarian-born Jew, but I’ve lived in America for the past sixty years. The Hungarians could hardly wait for the Jews to be deported. When they were, they ran to rob their homes. There were exceptions, of course, but the majority profited from the depor- tations. What am I supposed to love about Hungarians?

But let’s eat up now. Tell me the soup’s good even if you don’t think so. ‘It’s delicious.’