I was born in Budapest in 1934. We lived on Elizabeth Boulevard; my father had a wholesale stationery business. I had a wonderful childhood and received an absolutely upper-crust upbringing. First, a German Fraulein took care of me, later on the English nanny was followed by a French mademoi- selle and these were the three languages that I already learned in my child- hood. We visited the Opera House regularly and I remember seeing Madame Butterfly for the very first time at the age of six; I wore this lovely, beautiful frock made of dark blue velvet. We travelled a lot: in summer we went on our summer holiday, in winter we went skiing. We were not religious, but we went to the Main Synagogue in Dohány Street Synagogue for the holidays.
My grandparents realized in ‘39 that something was not right with the world and that very same year they went on ‘vacation’ to America. My grand- mother would never have left her family of her own volition, especially not my mother or me, but my grandfather didn’t tell her that they weren’t ever going to return, so she agreed to the trip. We stayed in Hungary, where every- thing slowly got worse. My father was taken for forced labor in ‘41, but he for- tunately returned after several months.
Even though I was born on the 18th, we celebrated my tenth birthday on March 19th in ‘44 and the whole family was there, including the nannies, the staff, the chef, the cleaning lady and the driver. We heard the Germans marching down Elizabeth Boulevard and everyone ran to the windows and was watching them instead of paying attention to me. This upset me terribly. Then the party ended abruptly and absolutely nothing was the same from that moment on. That summer a regulation decreed that Jews could only live in houses marked with a Yellow Star. We were fortunate enough to be able stay in our home, as our house was declared a Jewish House, too, but we were all crowded into one room. The other rooms were occupied by rel- atives and friends, who’d been forced to move out of non-Jewish houses. We naturally couldn’t keep our staff at this point; still, they helped when they could and brought us food regardless of the ban. It was also laid out in the regulation that Jews could only leave their residences after five, and had to wear the Yellow Star even then. An eleven-year-old friend and I started selling newspapers and rolling cigarettes for those who weren’t able to do their shopping during the daytime. This was how we tried to help our parents, who weren’t allowed to work by then. We, the children, actually enjoyed the situation: we considered it an adventure and the adults encouraged us to look at it this way. They showed not a sign of how very frightened they were and kept their fear to themselves even when we were being bombed and had to run for the cellar. My mother, a lady who’d formerly attended a fin- ishing school in Switzerland, learned how to do the wash, iron, and clean all by herself within a week. She never uttered a word of complaint: she simply adapted to the new situation as rapidly as possible.
At my father’s insistence we had ourselves baptized as Christians, but there wasn’t any need for this in the end and we destroyed these papers at the end of the war. We were Jews and that is what we stayed: Jews. We got protective passports from Wallenberg which enabled us to move into a safe house, but the mood there was so absolutely hysterical that my father said we should move to the home of some acquaintances instead. All I could take with me was a backpack and my pillow, which stayed with me for decades afterward and was still the pillow I slept on every night when I got married. To tell the truth, this struck me as the most tragic moment of all—when we were making our way through the empty streets in the middle of the night with only a backpack and I had not idea where we would sleep that night. But things somehow always managed to turn out in the end. My father was a kind, decent man whom everybody liked and he knew some people who worked as building concierges who could tell him where there were some empty flats that we could move into. They said we could stay if we needed to, but they don’t know a thing about us if anybody asks any questions. I remember I was a very picky eater and wouldn’t eat if I didn’t like the food. My mother was of course very worried because I wouldn’t eat, so she stole an egg and scram- bled it and that is what I ate.
The war ended in the spring ‘45 and we made our way back to Pest, where we were greeted by the sight of dead animals and corpses everywhere. My parents and I were fortunate to have survived, but all seven of my grand- mother’s sisters and brothers were killed in various concentration camps. We quickly put our home into order and moved back. My parents immediately went back to work at my grandfather’s wholesale business for Swiss watches. I still remember the name of the shop perfectly: Schwartz A. and Vogel O. Watches, Jewellery and Precious Stones.
We started to make a decent living again, but the Russians weren’t very fond of rich Jews and wanted to get their hands on our shop. In ’46 we met up with my grandfather in Switzerland and he begged us to leave with him to America. He’d brought all the documents with him, but could only get a visitor’s visa. My parents boxed up everything in the flat as they had no idea how long we’d be able to stay in New York. We became American citizens five years later and had our most important things sent to us from Budapest, but many things were naturally stolen. The piano never arrived, for example, and my father’s library was far smaller than it had been. Now even the few things we did managed to have sent are all gone.
I was thirteen when we emigrated. I got used to the place right away and was a real American teenager in no time. My mother also had an easy time getting used to the life, but my father found it difficult to adapt to the
American way of life. Plenty of people arrived here from Hungary in ‘47 and many were also wealthy Jews with whom my parents quickly became friends. Everyone launched some sort of new business and started a new life. Then the refugees from 1956 came, but they arrived with nothing. We crossed the ocean on the first-class deck of the Queen Elizabeth, while they arrived as ref- ugees. This was an enormous difference.
There were two attitudes among the Hungarians living in America: there were those who said that if we want to live here, we should be Americans and forget our Hungarian past. The other variation was when the parents dwelt in the past, where they lived in constant fear and passed on to their children the need to remain constantly vigilant, constantly on edge, because all those horrors could happen again at any time. Sooner or later their chil- dren rebelled against this and said this wasn’t their lives, it hadn’t been their war and the parents can’t put their fears on them. Not everyone managed to rebel, there are many who are still living back in that place even today, deep inside. The tragedy truly is inside of us all and will stay there forever: the only difference is in how we handle it. It all happened so long ago: I was ten back then, now I’m eighty-three. I learned how to put everything in its place and I am happy. The terrible memories don’t torture me.
Many years ago, a meeting held for the Jews who’d spent the war in hiding. Evi organized it. Before that I’d never thought that this was something I had to talk about, or that there was even anything at all to talk about. We all sat down and everyone told their story, which were pretty much the same. Nobody has been taken away and we’d all been children during the war. Everybody started by saying, and then the Germans entered on March 19th…. it was an incredible feeling to say the words. Since then I’ve been talking about it when- ever I can: it’s very important to pass our personal stories on to the next gen- erations. For a long, long time I hadn’t talked about it with either my daughter or my grandchild. When they asked, I answered, but I didn’t talk about it of my own accord. Then I said more and more, but I never wanted to emphasize how, oh my god it was just so horrible, as there is just no point to that. This wasn’t what I’d gotten from my parents. Even when everything was terrible, they still said that things would better later on and I never saw a trace of desperation on their faces. I felt that we could survive anything as long as we were together: this is what gave us strength. This is what I try to pass on at schools and pre- sentations: I am trying to show the positive side, too, and to tell people that we shouldn’t give in to our fears. There is always hope.
I have lived here for seventy years; during this time, I visited Pest three times and I do not wish to go back again. I don’t like what they are doing with the refugees there. At the same time, I have held on to many good mem- ories of Budapest, I often think about the city and my childhood. Strangely enough, I dream in Hungarian even though I don’t speak Hungarian with anyone other than the cleaning lady and my hairdresser. My daughter only knows a couple of words, such as I love you, monkey, because my mother always called me monkey. My husband is American, so it was no question that we would speak in English at home.
I used to teach the children of disadvantaged families in Harlem. I liked it very much, as it showed that the Jews aren’t the only one who have problems. Yes, six million people died, but others have suffered, too. Now I work for the Washington Jewish Museum, I give presentations to tourists and I encourage everyone to go and see the exhibition. I must go there, even if memories rush out at me then; it is imperative that we speak about it, so it is never forgotten.
I once saw a collection of poetry containing poems written in con- centration camps. I read this one line: there are no butterflies in Auschwitz. It brought me to tears: butterflies had been symbols of hope in our family, too. Once, while we were in hiding, my mother told me: if you see a butterfly that’s grandma who’s watching over us. I was ten years old then, but I remem- ber this perfectly. We saw many butterflies later on, too, since the only place we could relieve ourselves was in an outhouse outside the flat and butterflies were always fluttering around there. As long as we see a butterfly, everything will be fine. This is what my mother always told me.