Sunday, April 16, 2017

Some of the Things I Remember from World War Two

War is on my mind lately, because of the saber rattling by the boy who leads North Korea and our own man-boy leader. It’s scary, when two mentally unstable heads of state face off, and they both have nukes.

Also, I just saw The Zookeeper’s Wife. The movie is better than the credit it gets. It’s about World War Two, in Warsaw.

I was barely over 4 years old when the war ended in Europe, and I grew up in Budapest, which is “next door” to Warsaw, so to speak. This movie brought back many memories. It’s interesting how one becomes more forgetful in the short-term when one ages, but also how long-term memory sometimes resurfaces.

The Battle of Budapest between the Soviet Red Army and the Axis Powers - Germany and Hungary, primarily - took place in the winter of 1944-45, one of the coldest on record. It is estimated that it resulted in 40,000 civilian deaths, 150,000 Soviet casualties, dozens of thousands of German and Hungarian combat deaths, and half a million Hungarians transported to the Soviet Union (Siege of Budapest).

Those are the conditions under which I spent the first four years of my life. Most of my memories of that time consist of visual imagery. I don’t think the war screwed me up, but I’ll leave this question to the psychologists.

Our house was a beautiful three-story mansion built by my great-grandfather on the slopes of Buda’s Rozsadomb - the Hill of Roses. By 1945, our house still stood, but I remember well how utterly pockmarked with bullet holes every wall of it was.

I remember the bombings vividly, especially the night raids. The whole family had to run down to the basement for cover. My grandfather carried me, and I was mesmerized by the explosions in the sky, a veritable feast of fireworks in a child’s eyes.

One afternoon, my grandmother took me down the Hill of Roses to the Margit Ter, near the Danube. This was one of Buda’s busiest and most urban areas, with six and seven-story apartments. The only thing was, most of the apartments were SECTIONS of apartments, cut-through halfway, with the interior of living rooms and kitchens visible. As a four or five-year old, I was wondering: Wouldn’t the people who lived there fall out and splatter on the pavement five floors below?

The winter was so fierce that the Danube was full of huge, house-sized icebergs floating down the majestic river. I remember seeing drunk Russian soldiers playing dare-devil and jumping from one ice chunk to the next, attempting to cross the river. Once, as my mother and I crossed the zoo grounds by Varosliget, I  saw a Russian soldier jump into an enclosure to taunt a huge, old, emaciated, half starved, polar bear whose fur was a sickly yellow and who probably no longer presented a danger to anyone..

I remember the Russians well. For a while, we went underground in a vacant house in Balaton Boglar, on the shore of Lake Balaton. Then, the Red Army requisitioned the house and a bunch of Russian soldiers moved in with us. In the evening, some of them would take me on their lap and show me how to take apart, clean and use their weapons. I was fascinated.

We also spent part of the war on a farm in the Hungarian outback, in a godforsaken village named Somogy Döröcske (population today: 185, I just Googled it). I remember dozens of tiny shiny airplanes flying over, way up in the distant sky. My father explained to me that these were the Americans flying to drop their bombs on Budapest.

The villagers and my father had a miserable old crackling radio, and they monitored the allies’ progress, marking it on a disheveled map of Europe. They also played a weird game which I never understood, something about “going to America,” or coming from America...”

But many things confused me. For example, back in the city, I often saw posters that depicted incredibly handsome, helmeted soldiers, heroically stepping on dragon-like or snake-like vermin that wore labels which I could not yet decipher. I learned later that these were words such as “Jew” and “Communist.” The brave and handsome heroes stamping out such vermin on these posters were the glorious Aryan Wehrmacht. It was difficult, at age 4 and 5, to understand who the bad guys were.

For a year or so after the end of the war, there was a huge German tank right in front of our house on the Hill of Roses. It had been disabled and no doubt its occupants had been killed. But I remember how much fun I had, climbing up and playing around its turret.

My grandparents on my mother’s side were Jewish. In 1944, they were rounded up, along with hundreds of thousands of other Hungarian Jews. Carrying their suitcases, with a mandatory yellow star plastered on their vest, they were taken and corralled into the barbed-wire enclosed Budapest ghetto, prepped for deportation and gassing at Auschwitz.

Of the nearly one million Jews who lived in Hungary before World War Two, over half a million perished, half of these being gassed at Auschwitz-Birkenau. They included some of my relatives. (Holocaust Encyclopedia)

My grandparents survived because the Red Army liberated Budapest in early 1945, before my grandparents’ turn to be shoved into a cattle car. Every time I see a film such as Schindler’s List, I cry, because I know that those people included my grandparents. For a gripping account of their captivity, see my grandmother’s Letters from the House of the Yellow Star.

Equally tragic was my aunt Iça’s death, in the winter of 1944-45: She stepped on a landmine buried in the snow in front of our house of refuge, and she was instantaneously pulverized, along with two others.

What I am most proud of is what my parents did during the war: After the war, many people all over Europe came out of the woodwork, claiming to have done heroic resistance things. At first, I pooh-poohed the stories I heard about my parents’ alleged war-time heroism. But years later, there came proof:

From 1943 through 1945, they forged false identity papers for numerous Jewish relatives and friends.
In 1944, my father donned a home-made Nazi armband and traveled to the train station in Kassa in Northern Hungary, where deportation trains stopped en route to Auschwitz. He boarded such a train, packed with Jews being transported to their deaths. Acting as though in a position of authority, he ordered off the train several friends that he recognized.

In that year, my mother’s best friend, Biro Gaborne, became pregnant. At great personal risk my mother gave Biro original certificates that helped her get into the maternity hospital, where she delivered a baby named Anna. Later, my father supplied Biro with forged certificates “proving” that she was an Aryan Hungarian. Then my parents took Biro and the baby to their home pretending that Anna was their own daughter and Biro was the wet-nurse. In this way the group survived the Nazi atrocities.

Their remarkable acts of bravery saved many lives. (see Jewish Chronicle, Sept. 17, 1999; Embassy of Israel Press Release, Aug. 1999; Protocol from the Committee Meeting of Righteous Among the Nations, Jerusalem, Nov. 1, 1998, File No.8253). On November 1, 1998, the government of Israel awarded my mother - and my father posthumously - the Righteous Among the Nations Award for this. The ceremony was held on September 3, 1999 at the Israeli Embassy in London. The official document states: The award of Righteous Among the Nations is rare and is given to non-Jews who put themselves at risk helping save Jewish lives during the Nazi era. It is awarded by Yad Vashem, Israel’s national Holocaust Memorial, and the recipient’s name appears on the Wall of Honor in the Garden of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.

© Tom Kando 2017;All Rights Reserved

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