I will never forget that cold winter afternoon on January 8, 1945, when I watched hundreds of Jews in the Swedish-protected housing complex rounded up by the Arrow Cross execution brigade and dragged away, regardless of their age or gender, to the banks of the Danube. I was twelve years old.

I had moved into the Swedish-protected housing shortly after my escape from the roundup of hundreds of Jews in a park near the yellow-star–tagged housing from where my father was taken. One morning, without warning the Germans had busted into our courtyard, rounded up all the men from the building, shoved them into trucks with bayonets pointed at their backs, then hauled them off to an unknown destination. As my mother was dead and I had no other family to turn to, once my father was taken from me, I was left to fend for myself. I became a lone fugitive—forever on the lookout for a place to hide without being detected or killed.
In some ways, being a child was in my favor for it made it relatively easy for me to melt into places where I did not belong. In the chaos we lived under, everyone thought I belonged to someone else. So it was that while others had to pay a large sum of money to live in the Swedish protection housing, I was able to slip in unnoticed and stay for free, my very presence making people believe that I had a right to be there.

There were hundreds of people from the upper class who had given up their life’s savings to buy into the Swedish protection program. To them it was like investing in their lives, for after all, they were made to believe that they would be safe and protected under Swedish law from Nazi persecution. And because there were a limited number of these houses, they soon became terribly overcrowded. To make room for all these desperate people hanging on to their lives, all the furniture in the apartments was taken out and made into piles in the downstairs courtyard. Soon we found ourselves huddled together like penguins—men, women, and children of all ages who together shared a common goal: to try keep warm, fight off hunger, and stay alive. Yet for all our efforts to keep ourselves from freezing, it was clear we needed some added heat, especially since young and old all slept next to each other on bare floors. Finally, a collective decision was made by the family heads to sacrifice their cherished, expensive furniture. It was chopped up and thrown into the fire, because at the end of the day all that mattered to us was to stay warm.

The fact that we were harbored under the Swedish-protected housing system gave us some degree of security. We lived under the assumption of safety, which in turn gave us courage and some modicum of hope for the future. On the evening before my story begins, I don’t think any of us, as we sat by the fire trying to keep ourselves warm, suspected the horrific fate that was awaiting us.

It happened late afternoon when without the slightest warning—as was the Fascists’ usual modus operandi—the Nazis and the Arrow Cross army (comprised of Hungarian Nazi sympathizers who for the most part were more merciless than the Germans themselves) invaded our housing complex. Judging from their commands it didn’t take long for any of us to realize that the Germans had broken their treaty with the Swedish government. In their eagerness to kill as many Jews as they could find, large groups of soldiers barged into our four-story apartment building and forced all the tenants to step out onto the communal balcony with hands held high. Pointing their rifles in our direction, the soldiers stood at attention waiting for their leader’s command. Then, at the sound of the word “Aufeuern!” the soldiers obediently aimed their machine guns and sprayed their bullets into the helpless victims who stood humbly awaiting their inevitable death.

As soon as I heard the first shot, I let myself fall to the ground. Still, I was able to see and to hear people’s cries. Dozens of victims folded like paper dolls; their lifeless bodies fell, one by one, and piled on top of each other in a pool of blood, while I lay motionless, feigning my death. I shut my eyes and tried to block off the sound of gunshots by pretending that I was someplace else. After all that had happened to me, I was an expert at being able to shut out reality by turning to happy memories and by fantasizing.

On this particular occasion I thought of a movie my father once took me to see. It was an American movie called Sun Valley Serenade, in which Sonja Henie skated on ice in a lovely, shiny costume. The pine trees around her were all lit up like Christmas trees, making the scene magical. I promised myself that I would not rest until one day I could immigrate to America just like Sonja Henie.

But soon I was awakened from my daydream by a harsh kick to my rib cage. Knowing full well that my life hung in the balance, I forced myself to remain limp and motionless without showing my pain. The soldier who had kicked me with his boot was easily satisfied by my lifeless appearance and since there was so many other bodies he needed to inspect, he quickly moved on. I lay still in that same spot, without moving a muscle, long after darkness set in. In a strange way I felt safe lying there, assuming that since everyone was dead the soldiers would not return, but after a while that eerie silence became unbearable and I was eager to move on. It was clear that I was the only survivor. Wasting no time I rose from the dead, climbed over their bodies, ran down the stairs from the second floor, then slipped into the dark street with the stealth of an accomplished burglar. Realizing that apartment buildings were unsafe, this time I was headed toward a nearby park alongside the Danube, where I remembered Mother would often take me to listen to Sunday concerts of Johann Strauss music when I was a toddler.

Being familiar with the park, I knew it had many bushes so I was confident that I could find a safe hiding place. I selected a bush at the very edge of the park closest to the Danube and brushed away my footprints in the snow; then, camouflaged by the branches, curled up like a cat and settled in for the night, trying to keep warm and nursing my sore side from the soldier’s kick. I thought about what had happened earlier in the day and I congratulated myself, knowing how proud my parents would have been of me for my bravery and my cleverness. I thought about my mother and how she couldn’t possibly have survived this terrible war. For the first time since I lost her, I was actually glad that she was no longer alive. It was comforting to know that she at least did not have to be exposed to humiliation and torture. She had been so fragile, so delicate.

It also felt reassuring to remember some of the tender moments Mother and I shared together during our better days, before she became ill with tuberculosis. I recalled the times the two of us walked arm-in-arm along the fashionable avenues, looking at all the pretty shoes and dresses in shop windows. Mother was opposed to buying ready-made clothes or shoes. To her it was just as inconceivable as wearing fake jewelry. People of class only wore real jewelry and tailor-made shoes and clothes. Accordingly all my clothes and shoes had to be hand-made to which I objected heartily since I resented having to stand—for what I considered to be hours—for proper fittings.

I cherished the times Mother confided in me that I was her best friend, for I admired her beauty, her slim figure, and her elegant manner—all of which made me feel proud that she was my mother and my friend. Compared to other children whose mothers were so ordinary, I felt like the luckiest child on the planet. At times I wondered if I could or would ever take after her when I grew up.

Then there were the times when Mother and I would stroll along the banks of the Danube, not far from where I was hiding, and listen to gypsies play their tambourines and violins, sending out their young children to solicit money from the people listening. Their costumes always fascinated me with their layers of multicolored skirts, ornamented with lots of fake jewelry. There was never a time when Mother did not turn men’s heads as we passed by. In this very park was where, in my younger years, I used to chase pigeons. Mother would say, “You can only catch them if you throw salt on their tails.” I recalled her delightful laughter as she playfully teased me with the prospect.

My thoughts turned to my father. I wondered how far the Germans had taken him from me, and if he were still somewhere in Budapest. I worried about the Germans hurting him and about how we would find each other again once all this madness was over. We should have made plans but then again we were never even given a chance to say goodbye to each other. He was taken away so quickly. I decided that we would simply return to the house from where he was taken—which to me made perfect sense. Finally, comforted by this thought, I found my eyes closing from exhaustion. I must have dozed off, because the next thing I heard were harsh commands both in German and in Hungarian, followed by the familiar sound of machine guns.

It was freezing cold that foggy dawn near the Danube, but my fear of being discovered kept me perfectly still. As I peeked through the bushes, I witnessed a horrendous sight. A long row of Jews—men, women, and children—was lined up along the edge of the river. While I could not see their faces, I could see their shoes well enough to recognize that these were shoes of good quality, belonging to the members of an affluent society. Yet regardless of their stature, there they stood, humbled and humiliated in the last moments of their lives. I could hear their loud agonizing cries as they begged for their lives. But their pleading fell on deaf ears and before long the soldiers of the Hungarian Arrow Cross aimed their rifles and shot them point blank. Hundreds of limp bodies fell straight into the cold waters of the Danube.

My heart ached for those victims even as I held my breath for fear of being discovered. Suddenly I found myself thinking, Do I even want to live in this kind of misery? How long can this war last? Isn’t there anyone out there who can save us? From my vantage point I could both see and hear some of the lifeless bodies fall into the river, tinting the blue Danube deep red with the endless flow of their Jewish blood.

I covered my eyes. I couldn’t understand the reason for all the hatred that was so suddenly directed at us. What was so terrible about being Jewish? How were we different from anyone else? What could the Jews have done to deserve such cruel execution? I suddenly hated myself for who I was. For a brief moment I became my own Nazi, wishing I had been born someone else. I was living in this terrible nightmare all the while hoping that I would soon awake in the arms of my parents and all my misery would be over. But there was no time to reflect on my feelings. I knew that if I wanted to stay alive to see my father again I had to remain focused on my survival—to find a way out of this hell and move on.

Realizing that my chances of escaping death in the city were practically nil, I decided to head for the outskirts of Budapest where I assumed Jews were less likely to be persecuted, since they were far fewer in number. Once again I waited till sunset. Then I took off on foot toward my grandfather’s house in the outskirts of Budapest, in a town called Angels Pasture. While I walked on my lengthy journey, I reflected once again on my narrow escape from death, and began to believe that perhaps my mother or some sort of unknown forces were protecting me. How else could I have managed, over and over again, to survive? I began to wonder who I was. How and why did I get here?


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