You are meeting a victim and a witness to the most horrendous period in human history; it is special for me as a survivor, as a messenger, to re-establish this direct link with you in the hope that this abhorrent, monstrous time would not happen again. My address to you is more an eyewitness account; it is oral history. It is an honest story that has been enriched by my studies at Adelaide University in Modern History, in particular specializing in Nazi Germany.
I was born in Budapest, capital of Hungary, in 1933, and my name is Andras Somogyi. My family on my father’s side had lived in Hungary for many generations and they were totally indistinguishable from other ethnic Hungarians. They were very patriotic, proud to be Hungarians, to serve their country in peace and war, and were in every sense part of that society. My father had four brothers and two sisters. He was the most educated in his family and he became a solicitor but as events unfolded he was not able to practice. They were not very religious, they were more secular and they spoke Hungarian only. On my mother’s side of the family, my great grandparents came to Hungary in the 1880s from Galicia, which is part of Poland, and they arrived with grown-up siblings. My grandparents were part of that group. Contrary to my father’s family, these maternal ancestors were very religious. They were totally Orthodox, they observed all the various rules and commandments and they spoke Yiddish, which was a special language used mainly in central and Eastern Europe. There were a number of Rabbi’s and eminent scholars within that family. For them it was a strictly observant Jewish life.
My mother had five sisters and one brother. Apart from one sister, all the children were born in Hungary, which meant they were automatically Hungarian citizens. In my family, I have one sister, Agnes, two years older than I. My parents had their own villa and we had a live-in housekeeper, governesses, and we were probably in between being religious and non-religious, certainly we were not any where as religious as my mothers family and largely we felt very much part of the overall society. We had a very comfortable life. I went to a Jewish Primary School from 1939 till 1943. In those days we normally just walked and so it meant that very often, sometimes daily, there were beatings and stone throwing and name-callings by Aryan youth. These weren’t organized in any sense, but manifestations of latent anti-Semitism, and certainly condoned by the population. With these big, strong, powerful lads there was not much one could do, so I became a very fast runner. After a while it was accepted as the norm. In 1939 numerous clauses legislation came into force, which meant that a lot of possibilities became prohibited for Jewish people. They were barred from certain professions, from entering university – the list went on. This was really the beginning of official discrimination. The Jewish people are law-abiding people; we are called the “People of the Book”, because we tend to observe and follow the rules, so therefore when these edicts became official, we had no real choice but to follow them.
In 1939/40 they started to call young men aged between 20 and 60 to do service, a forced labour service, attached to the army. These people were sometimes taken away for six months. They had done nothing at all but happened to be Jewish. In 1941, March 22nd, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. In order to get to the east, they had to pass the street where we lived; our street joined the main highway coming from Vienna. There were thousands and thousands of these young men, very clean-cut, with shining uniforms, tanks, artillery trucks, motorbikes – a really awesome sight and it was somewhat like a parade to observe. Most people were outside on the footpath, looking at this extraordinary site. A Nazi sympathizers daughter, who was a neighbour of ours, remarked to the Germans that I was a “dirty, filthy, stinking Jew”. Fortunately Germans don’t understand Hungarian; otherwise I very likely wouldn’t be here today. At that stage, Germany didn’t have much interest in the affairs of Hungary. Hungarians were Germany’s allies, and they just wanted to get access through the country. In the meantime, especially in the country, the Hungarian authorities, the Hungarian Nazi’s and ethnic Germans, started dealing with the Hungarian Jews within the country.
Various restrictions were imposed and atrocities committed, but essentially, for us in Budapest, things were by and large as usual. There were some restrictions regarding food, but at the beginning it was done in a very fair way, everybody was treated equally. In other words, they didn’t have any special discrimination against us, subsequently later on of course, that wasn’t the case. I finished my primary school and then there was great difficulty in being able to enroll in a high school because of the restrictions mentioned earlier.
My father served in the First World War, and had high decorations and excellent connections, and through one of those I was enrolled in a fine High School (Gymnasium). I was the only Jewish student in my class. There was some discrimination leveled against me: I wasn’t allowed to join the school cadet’s and occasionally there was a bit of name-calling. They arranged for me to have Jewish religious lessons once a week, which is pretty remarkable and I am still grateful for that. Then in 1943 Germany decided that they would get more involved in the Hungarian affairs and in April the real edicts and total discrimination began. There were lots of edicts. All the Jewish councils were disbanded and new ones were appointed, subservient to the Nazi authorities. They had to provide lists of all their members. Jewish parliamentarians were barred, Jewish doctors were prevented from practicing, specifically they were forbidden from treating Aryans, and their instruments were confiscated. Jews were not allowed to travel, were not allowed to have pedigreed animals, Jewish telephone services were disconnected and Jews were compelled to wear a Yellow Star on their left breast pocket. It had to be firmly fixed and always visible.
Jewish Star Houses were ordered to be established, which were not anything like a ghetto, these were just individual houses, which became the residencies of purely Jewish people. If they had some non-Jewish people then they moved out. There were restrictions; we were allowed to go outside of these Jewish houses between 11 and 2. Of course, schooling was totally out of the question. Thus we became quite isolated. Our house became one of these Jewish Star Houses and in order to achieve that, three of my aunts and three uncles and cousins joined our family. It meant that each family had one room, and two families shared bathrooms and kitchen. It was a little cramped. In the meantime, the adults were called up to go to what they called auxiliary forces, which is really a euphemism to getting people to these assembly points calmly, and believing that everything would be all right for them, which was not the case at all. These assembly points were adjacent to railway stations, which meant they could very quickly be put on trains and sent to concentration camps. Progressively, most of the adults were either taken away this way, or else once they realized what was happening, they went into hiding.
My father was amongst those that went away, and out of his group of several hundred, there were only two survivors, my father and another person. They only survived because they escaped from the group. My mother went to a number of these call-ups and each time, somehow miraculously, she escaped, and then ultimately she went into hiding.
Various additional restrictions were happening all the time. The “tightening of the noose”, and then the main turning point in Hungary during the war was October 15th. This was a beautiful mild autumn day, Sunday, and I was visiting a friend of mine for his birthday. He was a gentile, which was rare in those days to maintain such a friendship. Early that afternoon my friend’s father told us very excitedly that Admiral Horthy, the Regent of Hungary, has declared independence from German and no involvement in the war. This was fantastic and we thought it would mean the end of discrimination and back to normality. He suggested that I could take off my yellow star now that everything is finished. But George’s mother sensibility felt it was premature and cautioned me against it, and thought it is better to wait unit there is an official announcement to the effect. I accepted that. On my way home, about – hour walk, I held up a book and sort of semi-covered up the star so that it was not all that visible, not such a crime as removing it. It was unsettling to be in that situation. On my way home I met various people and nobody paid any attention to me except when I got a few blocks from my home, an elderly gentleman beckoned me and asked me if I knew the danger I was in, and because of the uncertainly and insecurity at that particular time, he said that he would accompany me home so I got there safely. He told me that he was Jewish himself, but as a much decorated war hero, he didn’t have to wear the yellow star. My family was pleased to have me back. Bear in mind we were totally isolated, no phones, and no radios.
Later on that afternoon my mother thought that it would be a good thing to remove the yellow star from the front of the building, just in case there were hooligans wanting to take revenge on us, or something like that. One of my aunts said “no, better not do it” because if they find out we might get punished for it. My mother and I went up to the attic to get a better view of the outside world, and see what was happening. A couple of times my mother sneaked outside, but each time, she just couldn’t take off the star. As the day progressed we heard shooting, and then silence and then more sporadic shooting – it was a very uncertain and unpleasant feeling of not knowing, and at the same time, sensing that something is happening. By the evening, there were quite a number of heavy firings and we decided to go down to the cellar for protection. Coincidently this cellar of ours was also the official air raid shelter for the whole neighbourhood. All these people who hated us, threatened us, wanted to kill us, still came down to our air raid shelter for protection when there was bombing.
We couldn’t really sleep, just fitfully on and off, and at dawn there was loud banging at the main entrance. Most of these European houses were totally sealed off from the street by the main entrance. There was terrible loud banging, and shouting to open up or else they would break the door down. My father opened the main entrance and they pushed him away and three armed Nazi sympathizers, called the Arrow Cross, the equivalent of the German Nazi’s, came in with guns ready, ordered us to line up and raise our hands. One of my uncles asked them to cover up the children’s eyes because everybody felt that was it; we were going to be executed. My mother said to us not to worry, nothing will happen, and fortunately she was right. However, we had to stand there for quite some time with our hands raised up, the time is totally indeterminable in a situation like that. We were ordered to march outside. Along the main street, as far as the eye could see, there were army trucks with their tailgates down. This was always part of their psychology, never tell people what would happen to them, and if they did, it wasn’t the truth anyway. This creates an awful lot of anxiety and then it progresses into dehumanization. The command was given that we could lower our arms, and then after a while, we were ordered to march, never told where to march, and in a few minutes we reached the destination, which was the local school. There we were ordered to go to the basement, which was dark, the steps were steep and slippery, and our eyes were not accustomed to the darkness. We could smell a dreadful stench there. Once we got down and could see, we found two bathtubs full of blood and some blood soaked clothes, the evidence of a massacre.
Before we got there, just as we were about to leave our house, another group of Arrow Cross arrived offering help to the first group, but they said they could handle the situation. Subsequently we learned that this second group executed a whole household of 16 people diagonally across from us, and those people were accused, we shall never know the truth, that they in fact removed the yellow star from their house. One could say that there were enormous dangers, and split seconds made the difference between life and death.
We had to be very optimistic and realistic and also we had to have a lot of good fortune to survive. My mother in particular was very resourceful and brave. Later on, my sister and I, by the time all the adults were taken away, were advised to go to an International Red Cross protected children’s home. To get there it was quite an adventure. We had to take off our yellow stars, which was punishable by execution. We had to take a tram ride to the other side of Budapest, which even then was a huge metropolis, and get to a district totally unknown to us, and seek the help of a policeman for directions. Ultimately, the majority of these children’s shelters were liquidated. My mother heard about that, she was hiding with false papers at the time, and she came and rescued Agnes and I.
The saddest part would be that ordinary human beings, like you and I, are capable of perpetrating these unthinkable, unimaginable hideous crimes. There is probably no end to mans’ cruelty and inhumanity and at the same time, we all have the capacity to be good and kind and considerate, and treat everybody the way we ourselves would like to be treated. The other observation I have made is that there is absolutely no room for hatred or revenge, to do that is not the answer. We as individuals have the choice, to do one or the other. My generation has made a great mess of things, so I’m hoping that yours will come up with a much better world than ours has been. It is within your hands.