On June 6, 1944, all the Jews living in the area were rounded up and taken to the Szeged brick factory. Three weeks later, on July 1st, they were put in cattle cars and among them was my mother, too, who gave birth to me the following day in the cattle car. Fortunately, Sándor Nuszbaum, a pediatrician, was there, too, and he helped me get born and cut my umbili- cal cord with my mother’s nail scissors. It’s a miracle that I survived. Two days later the cattle car arrived at Theresienstadt, which was a labor camp. My father had been taken to Ukraine earlier on, in the forced labor service, so my mother was with her parents and me. My grandfather worked instead of my mother, too, in the camp, who still lost half of her body weight because she was breastfeeding me. We even got scabies toward the end. But the whole family survived; I wasn’t even one when Theresienstadt was liberated. I am turning seventy-three this year. I am one of the youngest survivors.
A couple lives not far from us: the man arrived at the same camp where we were, only as a liberating soldier, and he fell in love with a young girl who’d been deported there and married her. They’ve been together ever since, for more than seventy years now. It’s hard to imagine the things we have to thank our happiness for.
In May we made our way to Budapest where my mother’s brother and his wife lived. They took care of us and immediately scrubbed the lice out of our hair with petroleum. A couple of weeks later we went back to Szeged where my parents had lived before the war. Soon after my father returned from labor service, too. Our home was empty and completely bare, my parents found the neighbors had a lot of our valuables, which they did return to us, even if they did so reluctantly. We were trying to start a new life there. I went to a public primary school as there was no Jewish school. But we kept going to the synagogue, I even sang and with time I learned to lead prayers and read the Torah.
I finished secondary school with excellent grades in Szeged. I later wanted to go to the Technical University in Miskolc, but I wasn’t accepted as I’d been listed as a class alien. My father and his brother were put in prison as their business, the Southern Hungary Textile Company, went bankrupt. According to the judge, by going bankrupt they’d kept a lot of people from exercising their right to work. They were sentenced to three years. When my grandmother died they were allowed out for her funeral and I remember that the edge of their striped prisoner uniforms hung beneath the bottom of their coats. They were finally released after one-and-a-half years, but they were put on the kulak list since they’d owned a factory. I was already living here, in Brooklyn, when my younger brother sent me a letter signed by the mayor of Szeged in which it was stated that which my father, Ernő Mandler, had not been guilty of committing a criminal act. So, I said to myself, you can just take that to my father’s grave and read it aloud to him.
So, I couldn’t go to Miskolc because of this and then I worked on the assembly line in the hemp factory in Szeged for a year afterward. Then I was accepted to the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics Faculty at the
University of Szeged, but a year later I switched to the Faculty of Mathematics and Computer Programming. I started working as a programmer in ’68 in Budapest. After twenty-two years I told my superiors that I would be the very best worker and I did indeed excel. I founded a small co-operative and earned a bit more with this.
We came to America in ’90 because my wife wanted to be near her brother, who was already living here. Our kids were seventeen and twenty years old and the first couple of years were very hard on them. I came here with a work contract in hand and had no time to feel homesick, I was already working three days after I got here. A Russian guy had given me an interview over the phone back home, he asked questions and I replied to everything by saying yes, yes, I know this. When I arrived, I talked to them in person and was hired based on this interview. I didn’t earn much but we never starved, either. I climbed my way up the corporate ladder bit by bit and within ten years I was earning three times more than what they’d originally hired me for. I still work today, even though I’m retired. I love my job, I can still do it and the money doesn’t hurt, either.
My knowledge of the language was not perfect when we arrived here and I had to learn English well. But I still have a heavy Hungarian accent even now. I’ve never had any problems because of it, though, my grandchildren are the only ones to make fun of me for it. They speak Hungarian with us, but only as a special favor to us, as they are convinced that my wife and I don’t speak any English. Their accents are absolutely perfect and they even think in English, but when they say a sentence in Hungarian I can hear that they’re translating it from English. For me it’s easier to read in Hungarian, too.
I am primarily a Jew, secondly a Hungarian and thirdly an American. But I wouldn’t say that my home is in Hungary, I’d say it’s somewhere in-be- tween. I came here twenty-seven years ago and now, if I go back, I have to stay in a hotel. If I have to choose, I feel more at home here. My family is here, my grandchildren were born here. But we follow the news from Hungary and at times it’s good not to be there.
I became religious in my childhood, even though my father lost his faith because of the Holocaust and vowed never to stand in front of the Torah again. My mother’s faith remained, she lit a candle every Friday and she kept a kosher household. Of course, I was not circumcised at birth, and later, when we came back from the camp, my parents didn’t want it done. The memory was still too fresh: when they caught someone, the Arrow Cross militia pulled his pants down, and if they saw he was a Jew, they executed him on the spot. My parents didn’t want to risk it in case this happened again and I would be in danger because of it. Still, at the age of thirteen I decided to have it done. It was also required for the bar mitzvah. I decided that if all those terrible thing happen again, I don’t want to escape them just because of something like that. I wanted to embrace my Jewish identity no matter the cost.
My wife’s family is religious, too, and my children are as well. One of my sons has become even more religious than I. He visits the synagogue twice a day, I only go every morning. Continuing this is the most important thing of all, this is why I still work at the age of seventy-three, so we can help our children out financially. They wouldn’t be able to pay for the yeshiva for their kids by themselves, as it’s incredibly expensive. We’ve sacrificed a lot for this, but it’s worth it. We help in other ways, too. Right now, for example, I am pre- paring one of my grandchildren for his bar mitzvah.
I’ve somehow always managed to keep a balance between religion and science, even though they seem to contradict one another. In programming there are exact, concrete answers to everything while religion is founded on faith. This has never caused any conflict in me and I’ve never had to choose. Both are inevitable parts of my life. This reminds me of a joke: What’s the difference between faith and science? A little boy thinks his willy is only for peeing, but as an adult he knows that it isn’t.
You can say this balanced life took luck, too, and luck has followed me throughout my entire life, from the minute I was born. From staying alive in the concentration camp, to later meeting my wife and then my five beautiful grandchildren: it’s all a miracle. And we’re having our forty-eighth wedding anniversary pretty soon. I can’t complain.