Interviewer: Dora Sardi and Eszter Andor
I'm a terrible combination of things: one of my great-grandfathers was aTransylvanian baron. A second obtained a royal license - I'm not sure fromwhich king; the license was lost during the war - to start up a pipe-carving atelier at the foot of the Buda castle. He was a Turkish masterpipe-carver. The license authorized Almos Limo to practice the art of pipe-carving. He was Muslim, incidentally. Then there was my great-grandfatherKoppel Reich, who, if my information is correct, was the first Jewishrepresentative to the Hungarian parliament. And the fourth great-grandfather was from a nondescript Jewish family.
My great-grandfather on my father's side was Mor Berdach - Berdach was anacronym for his complete name, Ben Rabbi David Hacham. He lived in Austria,more precisely in Vienna. He was already quite an old gentleman when I wasborn, and he died in his nineties in Baden. I visited them on Kantstrassein Vienna when I was a child. When my great-grandmother died, my great-grandfather moved to Baden, where he died. He died the night the Germansinvaded Austria, on the night of the Anschluss. Nobody went to his burial.He was a teacher, and didn't speak a word of Hungarian. He had twodaughters and a son.
One of his daughters was my grandmother. She had a younger sister, Rachel,who was a well-known writer: a novelist, journalist and poet. For instance,when Queen Elisabeth of Austria was murdered, the German Writers'Association held a memorial and her poems were recited, poems written forthe occasion. Rachel married one of her cousins, Otto Bardach. (He was alsofrom the Berdach family, but due to clerical misspelling of their name,they went by Bardach.) Because they were cousins they did not want to havechildren. Rachel was a very beautiful, very graceful woman. She livedpermanently in a hotel because she had a passionate affair with a man, andthey agreed they would leave everything behind and get married. They renteda flat, arranged it, furnished it beautifully with all sorts of antiquefurniture and fantastic paintings. It was no easy thing at that time tosimply move in together. They could not get married right away because theman was married and had two children, but they decided to live togetheruntil his divorce was final. Her lover said he would move into the flatahead of Rachel in order to be there to welcome her to her new home. And soit happened. Rachel went to the flat, opened the door and as she stepped inshe saw an enormous Turkish Bukhara carpet, the size of this room. And onthis enormous carpet lay the man - with a bullet hole through his temple.There was a note lying next to him; he wrote that he was unable to choosebetween his children and Rachel. We called that carpet "Blut-Bukhara" fromthen on. We never had it cleaned, and we never used it.
My grandmother's younger brother was a lawyer who changed his name fromBerdach to the Hungarian Barna. As Karoly Barna, he was the general-director of the Danube Steamship Company. He was very rich. He lived herein Hungary.
My grandmother, Laura, was a woman of the Austrian monarchy. She spoke verylittle Hungarian, only a few words, and was very funny when she tried.Instead of "food" she said "tool." I don't exactly know why she made a lotof mistakes like that.
I did not know my grandfather on my father's side because he died veryyoung. I only know he was called Geyza. He was the illegitimate son of aTransylvanian baron, a very famous Transylvanian family. That baron,although he did not acknowledge his son - he was given the maiden name ofhis Jewish mother, and therefore called Bato - made sure that his sonreceived a proper education, which gave him a good start in life, andarranged a good marriage for him. So Grandfather most likely had a good jobat the Adria Insurance Company.
In 1910 he was assigned the task of organizing the network of the AdriaInsurance Company in Egypt (still a British colony) and the Middle East. SoGrandfather moved from one day to the next to Cairo. My father went to anEnglish gymnasium in Cairo for four years. Then my father and grandmothermoved back to Europe so that my father could get a Hungarian Matura [anexamination for graduation from school]. And my grandfather stayed inEgypt. He always said he did not want to die before going to the Holy Land;he wanted to see Jerusalem, since he was so close to it. I don't know whatmeans of transportation he took, but he went to Jerusalem, also underBritish authority, so there was no problem. He arrived in Jerusalem, and hetook a room in the King David Hotel. Then he went to have lunch in a palm-tree garden. The way the story is told he sat under a palm tree and hadlunch, then he ordered a coffee, the waiter brought him his coffee, andthere he was, dead, with his lit cigar still in his mouth. This was what hehad wanted: Jerusalem. That had been his wish, so they buried him there. Mygrandparents were good Jews. They observed the holidays, of course.
My father, Tibor Bato, was born in Budapest in 1896. On his return fromEgypt, he spoke excellent Arabic, English and French. He had a great talentfor languages. Back in Hungary, he passed his Matura, then went to Viennaand studied commerce at the Oriental Academy. When World War I began, myfather was sent to the front. He was taken prisoner and learned Russianwhile there. What's more, he learned almost all Slavic languages spoken bywar prisoners around him. He was wounded four times, and each time wentback to the front. His leg was full of shrapnel, from grenades, until theend of his life. My father was a many-times decorated officer. He was oneof the few - and this wasn't something given out lightly - reserve officerswho were allowed to wear their uniform at all times. When I was naughty atschool and my parents were called in, I always sent my dad in his uniform.It always made a very good impression and everything was smoothed outimmediately.
After the war, my father lived in Berlin, where he worked at Shell. When hemoved back to Hungary, he was the representative of the Shell Hungarianoffice. After the anti-Jewish laws were enacted, he started his owncompany, which bought oil from Shell and distributed it. He was a verytalented man.
The father or the grandfather of my mother's father was probably that pipe-carver I talked about, and that was a family from Janoshaza, in Vas. Thegreat-grandfather worked at the railways. He was born Beno Elias, but headopted the Hungarian name of Illes in 1894.
There were three boys in the Elias family, and they all became Illes. Theeldest was Gusztav (1865-1945); he was my grandfather. The middle one wasImre, he was a doctor, and spent his entire career as an army doctor. Hewas a colonel in the army, and the commanding officer in the Szegedgarrison. The youngest was Emil, who lived in Felvidek. He is buried inBratislava. He spent more time in prison than out. After the first worldwar and Trianon, he became the president of the Hungarian Association ofFelvidek. He liked to talk a lot. Each time, he was sent to jail. Emil hada daughter who would have grown up in uncertain circumstances. Her motherdied in childbirth, and her father was in prison all the time. But GusztavIlles had three daughters, and took up Emil's daughter as the fourth.
Grandfather worked at Hoffer and Srantz's engineering firm for more than 40years; when he retired, he was director of finance and exchange. He died inMarch 1945. He lived to see the end of the Arrow Cross commotion.Grandmother's name was Anna Lederer. She was from Felvidek, from Lipto orTurocz county. I don't have much to say about her. She was a grandmother, amother. She reared four children. She died in December 1942.
My grandparents had three daughters: Margit was the eldest, my motherErzsebet, and Magda.
Margit was born in Budapest in 1897 and died in 1993. She studied at theBudapest Academy of Music and became a pianist; she gave concerts abroad.And she was beautiful. Her husband was Geza Laczko, the writer from theNyugat group who also was a professor of French literature. He later becamethe editor-in-chief of the daily newspaper "Pesti Naplo." He was aChristian, and his wife lived through the Arrow Cross upheaval unharmed asthe wife of an Aryan. They hid me in 1944. From time to time, when thefascists would come by, I'd be standing on the balcony on the fourth floor,drenched in sunlight from the courtyard.
Magda was born in 1901 and died in 1992. She married Albert Mandaberg, agentleman from a very rich Viennese family. When she became pregnant, ormaybe after she gave birth to the child - I don't know exactly - sheconverted so that the child would not be Jewish.
My mother, Erzsebet Illes, was born in Budapest in 1899. She drewbeautifully, and was accepted into the Academy of Applied Arts. Let me justmention that all three girls had their Matura. She learned how to paintporcelain china and the like, but then she met my father while still veryyoung, was married, and left the Academy.
As far back as I can remember, she went to synagogue every Friday. Shecouldn't read Hebrew, but was a very good Jew, which was proven over thecourse of time. For there was only one person in the world who turned aprivate flat, that had been a modern flat for years, into a synagogue.Benosovszki, the chief rabbi of Buda, went there each and every Friday from1945 to 1950.
I was born in 1921. We went to my grandmother's in Berlin when I was 2months old. And our lifestyle was such that we were constantly travelingbetween my grandparents, or rather, my eldest aunt Margit, who never hadchildren, and Berlin. Aunt Margit behaved as though I were her child. Forexample, she went out to Berlin on Saturday morning to see me and returnedon Sunday night; that was no short journey by train. She saw me for two orthree hours and came back. She loved me madly, deeply, worshipped me.Still, if she hadn't, I wouldn't have survived the Nazi era in their flat.
We had a "small" summer house, a 15-room mansion in Cezn, near Berlin.Every member of the family had a car, and their own chauffeur. Father drovehimself. And I grew up there, not in Berlin. We had a gigantic park. Mymother raised me, and my grandmother, and all sorts of aunts. We bredracehorses. The property was simply huge. There were many servants: fromthe butler to the cook, from the chauffeur to the "lady's companion." Weobserved Shabbat, but they did not dare take me to synagogue. Anti-Semitismwas increasing. In 1927, it had become so bad that my mother declared shecould not stand it any longer, and she moved us back to Pest.
I had been private student in Berlin. I did not speak Hungarian very wellwhen we arrived back in Hungary, so I took private lessons, and only wentto a public school for the fourth grade, the last before gymnasium. And Ihad no idea what it meant to go to a public school. I loved learning and Iwas far ahead of the others, of course, because the cultural environmenthad done much for me, and I studied and read a good amount out of boredom.The teacher in the public school told us in the first half of the fourthgrade: "Children, now you all must start studying for the future, for theschool you will go to next year will be different. So I am not going togive any 'excellent' marks in the first semester so that none of you shouldbecome over-confident." To which I, who had no idea about schools, put upmy hand, and told her that I would certainly not become overconfident, soshe could give me the "excellent" mark without having to worry. Thatteacher, whom I later met from time to time, told me that story yearslater. And she did give me that "excellent" mark, and I received all"excellent" marks from then on. I had no problems in that school.
When we moved back to Hungary, my mother left me with my grandparents, herparents, and she went on to Switzerland where she took a course on tourism.When she came back after the six months, she bought a pension together witha lawyer for whom the pension was an investment. That pension was on NadorStreet, opposite the Exchange building. At that time, I mainly lived withmy grandparents. Then, one day, it turned out that the lawyer had hunghimself during the night. He had embezzled all the money. So the pensionhad to be closed.
My mother decided that she would stop traveling, and became a member of theBuda Jewish Women's Club. Back in Berlin, she had been involved with childwelfare funds, and she had worked a good deal at the International RedCross for children and youth protection. And my mother, who was anincredibly active person, said that they should establish a public soupkitchen. And the Jewish women's club did make a general soup kitchen -under her direction - on Medve Street. Then it turned out that there was avery rich Jewish man, Gyula Donner, from Buda, who had a villa on RoseHill. He was the general director of one of the large banks. When he died,his family sold the villa at 22 Keleti Karoly Street. And then the womenstarted to talk - well, you know, they were millionaire andmultimillionaire women, all Buda Jews, rich women talking among themselves,there was also an intellectual group among them - they made up their mindsto buy that villa. They bought the Donner villa, and nominated my mother tobe the director and told her to do what she could with that building. Mymother set herself to work. She had the second floor renovated and createda hospice for old women. Just by the entrance, opening onto the garden,there was a kindergarten, and there was the kitchen, and the staffbedrooms. It was a splendid villa: Mahogany doors with copper mountings, acircular hall in marble, and a huge ballroom with white marble fireplaceson both ends, two twisted columns of that marble supported the roof. It wasjust breathtakingly beautiful: Music room with white lacquered doors, goldeverywhere, just like in castles. Just as we had it in Cezn, I felt verymuch at home there. And we lived there. Better said, I slept at mygrandparents, but went there from school.
Some paid a membership fee, and some had financed a bed in the house, andthere was a plaque indicating that "this bed had been bought by so-and-so."I knew the very cream of the Buda Jews. Every Monday afternoon, there was atea party and dance for the young. A temple was made out of the ballroomfor the elderly who were unable to walk. They brought an Ark, a Torah. Itwas beautifully made, and it was a proper service. That's why I say thatthe only woman in the history of the world to have organized a synagoguewas my mother.
We invited many guests for the seder. Mostly young rabbis came - those whohadn't found their congregation yet. They observed the holidays. On Fridayevenings, everyone used to light candles, privately, which wasn't common.And these prestigious Rose Hill Jewish families were there, together withthe elderly. Incredible amounts were collected from donations. There weremaybe 100 elderly women, and many rich people, as well.
Musicians would give concerts, and gigantic balls were held during theseason. There was a charity bazaar once a year, to which I contributed. Iwent to the large shops, houses and factories owned by Jews and collecteddonations. My task was always to sell plants. If a cactus or another plantcost five Pengo, they paid 50. This was how the house was financed.
My father did not live with us by then. When we came back, he stayed inBerlin, and then my parents divorced. It was better that way for someofficial reason, so he moved to his mother's, who had, in the meantime,also moved from Berlin to Budapest. Back in Paris, in the 1930s, she hadbeen trained as a cosmetician and she opened a beauty parlor in her flat.Her clients were an exclusive crowd - mainly embassy employees.
I attended the Baar-Madas Calvinist Secondary School. It was the bestschool. There were 13 Jews in my class. I was the only one who survived thewar. I adored my religion teacher, and I also visited her privately. Therewas also a Jewish school literary and debating society at 49 ZsigmondStreet. Miklos Szabolcsi was also a member. I was incredibly enthusiasticabout that society. There were readings, and we also danced - Jews dancingtogether. It was wonderful.
I have been a student since the age of 5. Some nasty folks say that I wasasked when I was still a small girl what I wanted to be when I grew up, andI answered: Madame Curie. Well, this shows that I did not want to be adoctor knocking about chests, but a research doctor. And so I did. I swam,played tennis, hiked a lot. I went out hiking 52 Sundays of the year withmy aunt Margit, Geza Laczko and the whole lot of Hungarian literati. When Iwas a little older, we also traveled a lot with my father across Hungary.We traveled by car and, as he worked for Shell, the gas was free. I spentmy summer holidays in Baden with my grandfather when I was a child.Everything was quite elegant there.
There were already anti-Jewish laws in place when I passed my Matura. Myfather would have wanted me to have a diplomatic career, for I had a talentwith languages. Diplomacy was taught at the Viennese Oriental Academy. Thatwas all very well, but by then it was impossible to go to Vienna, and theBudapest university was inaccessible to me. I still wanted to be a researchphysician. The president of the Buda Women's Club was on friendly termswith my mother and tried to help me. She sent me to Samu Stern, who was thepresident of the Jewish community and had a high position in one of thelarge banks. He phoned the Jewish charity hospital - more precisely itslaboratory - and said, "There is a young girl here who would be ideal forwork in the lab." He asked them to give me a job. The answer was,"Unfortunately, there's no vacancy." He began explaining that it wasimpossible that they should say no to him, to which the head surgeonanswered, "All right then, let her come." When I got to the charityhospital, he said the wife of one of the head surgeons was working in thelab. And he added: "I'm not satisfied with her work. So do come in threetimes a week, and she will come in three times, too. I will keep the onewho does a better job. This is the only vacancy I have." After a while, thehead surgeon said: "Make sure you can come in every day in the future; youare the one I'm keeping." This is the way I became a doctor in the charityhospital.
During the war
One time I was in great hurry after work. There was a taxi in front of thehospital, and I rushed to catch it. And the head surgeon, whose wife hadbeen an assistant together with me and who had been fired, also rushedtoward the taxi. He said: "Don't take offense, young lady, I was called tosee a patient." "And I have a date," I replied cheekily. "All right, I'llgive you a lift downtown then." And by the time we got there, he said: "Youcould also have a date with me." I answered: "With a married man, doctor!Really!" "And if I weren't married?" he asked. "I'd put you down on thelist," I said. About three months later, his secretary called to tell methat that head surgeon was expecting me. God, I certainly messed upsomething; I went up thinking, "Good lord, what have I done?" He stoodbehind his desk, dead pale and rather severe, and asked: "Young lady, doyou remember our conversation?" I stood silently. "You told me you don'tdate married men. I'm now divorced; put me down on your list." That was myfirst husband, Karoly Rochlitz. Our wedding was on November 8, 1942. Threeweeks after the wedding, he was taken to Ujvidek as a forced labor surgeon.I went to see him on weekends. The second weekend, on my way home, thetrain was awfully crowded and I spent the whole trip standing. By the timeI arrived home, I was covered with blood. What with the tension and theincredible strain, the baby was gone. I had been two months pregnant.
In 1944, the Germans occupied the hospital and turned it into an air forcehospital, a war hospital. They insisted I stay as an interpreter and helpthem acquire supplies and also work in the lab for their patients. Needlessto say, I did not want to do it, and did not do it. But when the charityhospital was occupied, the school on Bethlen Square was available to beused as an emergency hospital. But who would do it? My mother, of course,who was known as an organizer throughout Budapest, who was able to createanything out of nothing. So it was transformed into an emergency hospitalon Bethlen Square. I worked there, and it was there that my aunt, who wasspared because of her Christian husband, came to take me to their home.They hid me.
Immediately after the war, I went back to work at the Jewish charityhospital. A TBC unit was opened, and I worked with their material, gotinfected, and I contracted an incredibly severe case of TBC. But I stillworked on and off; they gave me a room in the charity hospital, the wholehospital was devoted to me, from the director to the old porter. And Iadored the whole company. That was the kind of milieu you can't evenimagine today. Everybody was friendly there. My husband came back after 6years - he was taken prisoner of war. We could not find anything to say toeach other any more. We only had lived together for a few weeks before thewar. Life together didn't work out, and we were divorced.
They arrested my father on the street and took him to the police station.The only way we heard this was because, back then in 1943, we still livedin our own flat and the policeman who was looking after us met my father atthe police station. He said, "Believe me, I can't get him out, it'simpossible, even if I bet my life if I had the guts for that, I couldn'tget him out from the fascists." There was a group of people holdingprominent positions, around 40 of them. They were sent off in the summer of1944. It's not even certain they went to Auschwitz, but it is certain thatthey were immediately gassed. He disappeared, without a trace. Later, whenI went to Auschwitz, I saw that room filled with glasses. My father's mighthave been among them. My mother was in the urgent care hospital, then shewas moved to the ghetto. She lived through the liberation there.
Between 1945 and 1950, she opened an orphanage instead of reopening thehome for the elderly. There were masses of Jewish orphans. Those girls alllearned a trade. Those who were school-age went to school; those who weretoo young went to kindergarten. There were sewing courses, languagecourses. Those children were looked after properly. Each of their storieswas a unique tragedy. My mother tried to help each of them. In 1950, thewave of nationalization reached the villa. When the Jewish orphanage waskicked out of Keleti Karoly Street, they got the Town Hall ofBalassagyarmat, which was also a beautiful building. And my mother arrangedeverything there, started all over again. The whole group of them,including Mother, moved down there. In Budapest, my mother was allocated anawful flat, opening onto a courtyard on Marx Square. She had no choice;they put her onto a lorry with her furniture, and told her that she wouldsee where they would bring her. And when they arrived, she was told thatthis was what she got for the very good, very beautifully made flatoverlooking a garden on Rose Hill.
In Katona Jozsef Street there was a cafeteria for Jewish students. Mymother was asked whether she would do the menu planning. That meant thatshe had to calculate the amounts of rice, flour, etc., needed to feed 50people. So Mother went to work there for a while. Then when she did notwant to go there every day, they told her she could work from home. And shedid it, until the last day before she died. And as she had started with theJews, she finished with a Jewish kitchen. She worked for the Jews herentire life.
I went to the university, then got married two more times. Neither wasJewish. I quit working when I was 80 years old. I have no family, but I amnot alone.