Archive for October 28th, 2013

Surviving the Holocaust: One man remembers Raoul Wallenberg’s safe house

Monday, October 28th, 2013
PS portrait

The face of a survivor

During Bengt Jangfeldt‘s presentation on Raoul Wallenberg last week , one man in the audience asked a question about the Holocaust hero’s safe houses in Budapest, where Jews were protected from deportation and almost certain death.  His interest was personal: he had been a child in one of them.  When the Book Haven asked him to write a little about his experiences, Peter Stangl, who has written an unpublished memoir, gave us more than we had hoped for.

Stangl is director emeritus of Stanford Medical Center’s Lane Library. He was born in Budapest on December 19, 1936.  His father was a businessman, his mother a graphic artist and illustrator.  His mother perished in the Holocaust, probably at Dachau.  The boy, however, was hidden by nuns, then took shelter with his father in a Wallenberg safe house in the Budapest ghetto.  After the war, he graduated from high school in Communist Hungary in 1955.  He signed up for a lathe mechanic apprentice program after high school to avoid the draft, but was a few months shy of finishing the program when the 1956 October uprising broke out.  He escaped to Vienna with a school buddy and then emigrated to the U.S., arriving in December 1956.

He received a scholarship to go to Yale, where he received a B.A. in Russian Area studies in 1962.  He studied linguistics at the Sorbonne and Yale School of Graduate Studies, 1963-64.  He received an M.S. in Library Science, Southern Connecticut State College, 1968. He worked at the Yale University library system 1964-71, and became director of Lane Library, 1971 -1996. 

Here’s a shard of his Holocaust memories:

In 1944, I was seven years old.  That was the year of mass deportation of Jews from Budapest.  My father was among the first, being an able-bodied man in his forties.  Young Nazi soldiers came to the house to take him away and he was taken to work camp.   Within hours he was back, having escaped from the train station where they were loaded onto trains.  He knew he would be rearrested shortly, so he gave hurried instructions to my mother to stay put, not to respond to calls of reporting for deportation.  He kept repeating that he would be back, no matter where he would be taken, and that he would take care of everyone and everything.

stangl2And sure enough, the soldiers were back and took him away again.  Posters appeared all over the city announcing times and gathering places for Jews, by age and gender, to report for registration – meaning to be transported to concentration camps.  This is what my father was talking about.  But my mother was too scared not to report, and she went.

My father escaped again and came home (altogether he escaped seven times) and was furious with my grandmother for letting mother go.  He made arrangements for me to go to a half-finished house on the edge of the city, where two nuns were hiding about a dozen jewish children and trying to keep us safe. I stayed there for some weeks, until my father – back again – sent for me. Dad explained that we were going to move to a new place where we will be safe, thanks to a very good man named Wallenberg. We walked a short distance and entered a big apartment house with the emblem of the Swedish Embassy by the gate.

Most of this period is a jumble in my mind. The building was teaming with people, five or six persons to a room.  Food was scarce; I remember the constant feeling of hunger and stomach aches.  I know from accounts that I was quite sick there: I had a severe case of multiple vitamin deficiencies.

A notable episode, still painful in its memory, is worth retelling here. One day, as my father called me, I could tell from the tone of his voice that there was something special.  “Listen carefully,” he said. “Through an old friend I managed to get a little cocoa powder and dried milk.  Grandmother will fix you a cup.”

“Really??” I could hardly believe it. “Now?

“Yes, in just a minute.  You know the nice lady two floors down, who always wears that red robe?”

I knew.  I didn’t like her.  She had false teeth that always seemed like they were about to fall out.  She scared me when she smiled at me.

Budapest, Festnahme von Juden

Jewish women in Budapest, October 1944 (Photo: Deutsches Bundesarchiv)

He continued, “I want you to go downstairs to her.  Be very polite, and tell her that your Daddy sent you.  She will give you some saccharine.  She is diabetic, you know?  Since there is no sugar, we will use that in your cocoa.”

“Thanks, Dad, can I go now?” I asked breathlessly.

“Yes, go.  Just one other thing — don’t say anything about this to any of the other kids, they would only feel jealous or envious.  You don’t have to share it, you are sick.”

I was enormously thrilled, and flew down the stairs, two steps at a time.  The lady was very nice.  She knew about the cocoa.  She told me to wait a moment while she went inside to get her saccharin.  I held out my hand and she dropped the tiny pill, just a little bigger than the head of a pin, into it.  I held it tight, said thank you, and was gone.  The smell of the cocoa, as I reached the door upstairs, was almost unbearable.  I went racing through the hallway to Grandmother, just as she was pouring the cocoa into a cup.  I opened my tight fist to drop the little tablet on the table — nothing.  It wasn’t there.  I felt like lightning had struck me.  I stared at my empty hand and started to cry.  My father went crawling down the stairs, looking everywhere, finding nothing.

After a long time and with much cajoling from Grandmother, I stopped crying long enough to taste the cocoa. It was bitter, very, very bitter.  I cried some more. . .