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

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  When the Book Haven asked him to write a little about his experiences, Peter Stangl, who has written an unpublished memoir, gave us more than we had hoped for.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. . .

The Swedish safe houses lost their protected status at one point and the day came when the Hungarian Nazi Party came to relocate us.  That day is one of the clearest memories in detail that I have of this whole period.  It started with a scene that could easily be substituted for one in Schindler’s List.  It is when the Nazis start organizing for the end, and start the whole sale roundup of all the Jews.  Schindler and his girl friend go for a ride on horseback around Warsaw one morning, and as they clear the crest of a rise they stop to look over the city.  What they see knocks them for quite a loop: a multi-story apartment house in front of them is being raided by Nazi storm troopers.  They herd and push people down the stairs with guns drawn, throw their bags and bundles over the banister of the upstairs corridors, kick them and shove them into a kind of line-up down in the courtyard.  If I remember correctly, Schindler’s girl, who is otherwise a rather callused sort, actually sheds a tear or two and turns away from this scene.

stangl3Well, subtract the horses and the audience over the hill top, and you have an outline of what happened to our Swedish house.  Hungarian Nazi troopers appeared downstairs in the central courtyard one morning and using hand-held loudspeakers, repeated a few brief announcements over and over, something like  this:  “This house is no longer protected.  All Jewish occupants are to gather downstairs in the courtyard in 15 minutes.  You will be relocated.  Bring only essentials with you.”  Over and over, very loud.  What I remember most of this moment is the terror and perplexity on every face around me.  Of course, practically all residents were Jewish in the building.  I went to my dad, who picked me up and held me tight, without saying anything.  I am not sure I asked any questions, I think I somehow knew that neither he nor anyone else quite knew the answers.  Virtually everyone was standing still, as if rooted to the spot, unable to function.  I heard the same rhetorical question a hundred times, addressed to no one in particular: “Where are they taking us?”  And the answers that people were offering, also rhetorically: “Where we would not want to go,” “You don’t want to know,” or “Who knows?”…

After the first couple of minutes of absolute shock, people started moving again, first like zombies, then gradually at a more and more frenzied pace.  Opening closets, pulling out drawers, scrambling around and pulling out things, throwing them back, heaving deep sighs, looking totally desperate.  My dad rarely lost his cool, and he didn’t now.  He dug up his rucksack, the one he had taken with him each time he was hauled away from our apartment and stuffed a few things in it.  He told me I could bring something small that I did not want to lose.  I had very few things of my old toys with us in the Swedish house.  I got the cloth parachute that my mother had sewn for me, with the little stuffed animal that we had since substituted for the paratrooper attached to it.  We then got our warm clothes on and went downstairs.

The courtyard was pandemonium.  Snow was slowly falling, a few inches on the ground.  The few people who were already down there were mostly screaming up at other family members either telling them to hurry, or telling them to go back inside and get this, that, or the other thing.  Meanwhile others were arriving downstairs, with increasing jostling and pushing, people trying to stay under the overhang and out of the snow.  Some were trying to go back upstairs, only to be stopped by one of the soldiers guarding the courtyard.  The soldiers were all armed and they were all very young.  They were not violent for the most part, unlike in Schindler’s List, but they were not about to be pushed around.  When a near-hysterical woman was shouting at one, saying that she must go back up to help her mom, the young soldier just yelled at her to shut up and pushed her back with his submachine gun held with two hands straight across, not pointing it.  Gradually more and more people gathered in the courtyard and there was less and less room.  Some were dragging enormous bundles of things with them, wrapped in bed sheets, unable to lift or balance them, staggering around and trying to slide them on the ground.  One of the old couples living in the same apartment with us appeared downstairs exactly like that.  My dad let my hand go and told me stay put.  He went to talk to the old man.  I went after him and listened to them talk.  My father was his usual, practical self.  He was telling the old guy that it was going to be impossible to carry this enormous bundle through the streets.  He said that it was their bedding and that his sick wife was not going to be able to sleep without her usual pillows and comforter.  My father could not talk him into giving up the bundle.  He then had an idea.  He turned, saw me stand right behind him, and signaled for me to come with him.  The ground floor apartments opened directly onto the courtyard.  He took a quick look around and saw that several of the doors were standing open – people had already vacated these.  He went striding into one of the apartments.  There happened to be no young soldier right near, so no one stopped him.  I followed closely.  He went through the first rooms, looking for a bedroom.  Finding it, he flipped the mattress against the wall and told me to pull the sheets off it.  It was not difficult – this was before the days of contour sheets.


German tanks rolling into Budapest, 1944 (Photo: Deutsches Bundesarchiv)

Meanwhile, Dad was dragging the spring out of the bed frame.  The standard bed design consisted of a wooden frame with legs, and with rails along the two sides.  A metal spring structure rested on the rails, supporting the mattress over it.  The spring was made with two rectangular metal frames stretching a mesh-like sheet of springy metal “cloth,” with coil springs separating the two frames about five inches.  A favorite forbidden game for kids my age was to leap on the spring frame when mattresses were periodically turned over or taken off for dusting and stuff, and practice trampoline jumping until we were physically chased off the scene.  At this juncture, however, it did not occur to me that this was a good opportunity for that kind of fun…

By the time I had the sheets off, Dad had the metal spring on edge, pulling it on the ground out the door.  Within moments we were back in the courtyard where Dad flopped the spring flat on the ground with a huge clattering noise.  Everyone watched as it landed on the two lateral edges of the lower frame, then watched Dad take one of the sheets from me and tie a corner of it to one side of the spring frame.  He then twisted the sheet into a thick rope and tied the other end to the other side.  He then grabbed the middle of the rope loop and pulled the assembly to our old friend, took the huge bundle of bedding and plopped it all on top of the spring.  What we had here was a primitive cargo sled.

This demonstration started a minor stampede.  Quite a lot of folks went raiding the vacated apartments on the ground floor and bringing bedsprings to the courtyard and loading them up with all the heavy stuff they had originally stuffed into bed sheet bundles.  Soon, however, the loudspeakers started up again saying that it was time, we are going to be starting the relocation NOW.  Everyone is to fall into line and start filing out into the street.  Again, over and over, and louder and louder.

This is where true panic breaks out.  Everyone is not yet downstairs.  While the loudspeakers scream, the soldiers push and shove people out of the courtyard, through the entry hall, into the street.  Meanwhile, other soldiers run up the stairs and start manhandling the old folks who have not yet left their apartments.  A lot of yelling, groaning, and screaming everywhere.  People fall, scramble up, or are helped up by equally unstable others.  Eventually everyone is lined up in a motley queue in front of the house.  A young officer sets out in front at a moderate marching pace and it is clear that we are to follow.

Dad and I are right up front.  Dad is holding my hand on his left, and has his right arm and shoulder through the sheet-rope of the spring-sled he invented, as the old guy he made it for is not strong enough to drag it.  Dad is leaning forward at an acute angle, applying his whole weight against the job.  It is not a very good sled, really.  The spring frame was not meant for this.  It has right angle corners which get stuck every few inches on the uneven cobble stone under the snow.  So dad has to shorten the sheet by twisting it in a loop and hitch it higher on his shoulder, so the front of the “sled” is slightly off the ground.  This way it doesn’t get stuck, but of course, it is a lot heavier.  The pace is a bit fast for my short legs.  I am walking fast, occasionally having to skip or run for a step or two at a time.

1389.9 Holocaust B

Thank you.

The old couple whose bundle Dad is dragging are right behind me, on the left side of their sled.  As the sled bumps over the uneven street, the bundle gradually shifts toward the side and the woman is trying to push it back so things don’t start tumbling down all over.  She pushes a bit harder than necessary, and the bundle starts leaning the other way.  She stops and yells at her husband to run to the other side and hold it up from there.  One of the soldiers yells loud, “Keep it moving there!”  Dad continues close to his former pace while turning around a little and trying to urge the old couple on, telling them not to worry about the bundle.  The old guy, while telling his wife to start walking again, does run over to the other side, and now they are both pushing the bundle from opposite sides.  But at the same time they are making my dad’s load a lot heavier.  He leans forward harder, and keeps talking to the old couple, saying that he will not be able to keep pulling if they keep this up.  The guy says he will help.  He moves back to the rear of the sled and tries to push.  Meanwhile his wife is still trying to balance the bundle from the left side only.  Within moments the bundle topples over the right side of the sled and stuff rolls all over the street.

Progress of our caravan is disrupted.  People trip over boxes and bags of things that had rolled out from the bundle and the line spreads wider and slows down.  One of the soldiers comes running from the rear, yelling to keep going.  He has a submachine gun in two hands in front of him and uses it to herd people back in line.  As he gets to us, he pushes the flustered old guy who stumbles against his wife and comes right up to my Dad, who still has the sheet hitched up over his shoulder, the sled at a slight angle.  He comes face to face with Dad, very close.  He tries to stare dad down, but he is inches shorter and this is difficult to do.  So he shoves Dad back a little and tells him to drop the sled, holding the submachine gun on the ready.  Dad does so, and as the sled lands, more things roll on the street.  The soldier yells at the crowd to fall in and start moving.  As Dad makes a gesture to start pulling the sled again, he waves his gun and says, “No, leave that junk and go.”  So on we continue, the old woman hanging on to her husband and crying behind us.

The young punk of a soldier now stays abreast with us instead of dropping back to the rear.  He walks on the left side of our column, and I notice that he keeps looking over at my dad often.  He keeps looking him over from top to bottom, time after time.  After several minutes he starts coming closer till he is right next to me.  He reaches over me and lightly punches my dad in the shoulder and says, “You, come with me,” and starts moving away from the column to the sidewalk.  Dad falls out of line and we follow him.  The soldier turns into the door of an apartment house and enters the dark hallway.

He stops, turns, leans his gun against the wall, then abruptly crouches down and starts to undo his shoes.  He looks up and throws a command at my father, “Take off your boots!”  Dad starts to unlace them.  They are very heavy duty, military type, solid boots, going high over his ankles, an excellent quality.  The punk stands in his socks, kicks his shoes over to my Dad and tells him to give the boots to him.  His shoes are like slippers almost, light, thin, worn.  Dad tries to push a foot into one and it is obvious that it is far too small.  He can barely get his toes inside.  He says in a quiet voice to the soldier, “Let me keep mine at least till we get to where we are going – I will give them to you then.” “Shut up and do as I tell you!  And give me your jacket too!”  Dad looks stunned.  Without saying anything, he slips off his warm parka and continues to struggle with the shoes.  At that moment, without any warning, a hot wave suddenly envelopes me completely, and like a demon I rush against the punk.  He is leaning over, getting one boot on.  I crash against his knees and knock him against the wall and start pounding him with both fists, taking wide swings with straight arms and screaming at him, “Leave my dad alone!  Leave my dad alone!” over and over.  At this point I weigh maybe 35 pounds, can only reach as high as his hips, so I clearly am doing no damage.  But my outburst is a complete surprise not only to myself and my dad, but to the punk too, and for a few moments he is frozen, leaning against the wall in a bent over position, and does nothing.  My father is the first to come out of a trance.  He reaches over and grabs my arms as I am still swinging and yanks me back to himself, telling me firmly, “Stop that and behave yourself!”  I start crying uncontrollably.

Somehow the punk does not respond to all this.  He continues to get into Dad’s boots, picks up his gun and strides to the door.  He turns around and commands, “Get going, back to the line!  And make that kid shut up!”

Dad starts shuffling to the door, pulling me along.  The shoes are only half on.  His heels are treading down the back of the shoes and are dragging on the ground, they stick out about two inches.  We step out, Dad’s feet immediately getting wet from the snow.  At this point, the end of the column had just passed in front of the door, so we fall in at the end.  The soldier follows, without a glance at us, and moves on ahead a bit.  I am holding on to Dad’s hand and look up at him.  He is walking like an automaton, looking straight ahead, but obviously not focusing on anything.  I see a single tear slowly roll down the left side of his face.  I had never seen him cry before.  I tell him, “He forgot to take your parka!”  He squeezes my hand a little, looks at me and tries to smile.  Then I see the other tear on the other side.

They are taking us all the way across town to the old part of Budapest, a part that I was not familiar with.  We pass an old looking building with a round dome and I hear people keep repeating the word ‘synagogue.’  I ask my dad what that building is.  He tells me he would explain later.

The streets are narrower here.  The sidewalks are empty, there is no one about besides our scraggly column of  marchers.  Eventually the front of the line stops and a soldier up front directs us to enter an apartment house.  As we go through the door, soldiers are guarding the front door with guns drawn on either side.  Once we are all in the front door slams shut and I can hear the lock turn.  The soldiers do not follow us in.

This building is not too different from the Swedish house we left earlier.  A central courtyard with gangways on every floor above.  Gradually more and more people appear on the gangways, looking down, trying to get a measure of the new arrivals.  A few greetings are exchanged – people from above and below recognize old acquaintances.  My father waves at someone, I am not sure whom.  He starts toward the stairs and we climb to the fourth floor.  A plump woman with a friendly face is at the top of the stairs and gives my father a long hug.  She is older.  Then she turns to me, leans down and holds me with two outstretched arms, giving me the once-over.  I just stand there, looking her in the eye.  She looks at my dad and says, “You have a serious young man here!” and follows it with a question, “Where is Nusi?”  My father quietly replies, “Well, I am not really sure, you know… I have been trying to find out where they took her.”  The woman replies. “Well, we have to do our best to take care of your young man here.  Kornél, I suggest you go across the gangway to the apartment in the corner, they have more room than any of us on this side.  You might even be able to get a room by yourself – at least until more people arrive…”

So over we go to the other side and Dad knocks on the door.  I say nothing during all this.  I am a bit confused about it all – all these people are strangers – what are we doing here?  Why are we here?  Are we to stay here?  But it happens too fast for me to try to ask actual questions of my dad.

The door opens and another plump lady stands there.  I wonder how many plump ladies there are in this house.  She looks at my dad in a resigned way, but says nothing at all.  My dad announces: “I am told this apartment has an extra room.  We have just arrived and I am with my son.  We could use the space.”

The woman just sighs and says, “I guess I might just as well let you in.  At the rate they bring more and more people, we will all have to be sleeping on the floor pretty soon…” and with this she turns to lead the way.  We go to a small room with a single bed in it.  It is much like the maid’s room was in our old apartment.  I suppose it is the maid’s room here too, except these days there are no maids any more, at least not in the ghetto…

We settle in, which really means nothing as we have no belongings at all.  The only ones who do are the original occupants of these apartments.  As more and more folks arrive on a daily basis, a kind of commune spirit develops and everything gets shared between the ones already there and the newcomers.  Whatever sense of materialism there had been in these people, it has evaporated as a result of the mass assault on the integrity of the individual staged by the Nazis.  The plump lady, seeing that we had nothing with us, gave us sheets, pillows, and a towel.

I was hungry and told my dad so.  He sat me on his lap, held me in a comfortable way, and quietly explained that he had no idea in what kind of situation we ended up here.  He said he hoped there was going to be some system to provide food for everyone, and that he was going to find out.  He said that one way or another he was going to see that we are OK.  Only, I should try to be patient, because there are a lot of people here and everyone has the same problems…

Again, I am not sure how long we ended up staying in the ghetto, but it was a lot longer than in the Swedish house.  It was also even more boring than it had been there.  It was more crowded, and getting more so every few days when more people arrived.  The room Dad and I stayed in was small, but we got more people to share it with anyway.  We had the one bed, but several others slept on the floor, piled on one another.  I remember that it was getting to be serious problem to go to the bathroom.  It was always occupied.  A system was developed: if you had to go to pee or more serious business, you had to knock three times.  If the person in the bathroom was only washing or doing other non-essential things, they would open the door and let you in.  If they were engaged in something of equal priority, they would yell out saying “in a minute” or something.  The bathroom was practically never unoccupied.

I also remember being hungry much of the time.  When we were in the Swedish house, we were not under “house arrest.”  Dad went out regularly and came back with provisions often enough.  In the ghetto, however, there was no possibility of leaving the building.  There was a lot of discussion about what there was to eat, mostly lamenting that all reserves had been used up.  Father kept going off to talk with various people trying to negotiate for some edible or other.  I have no idea what he could offer in exchange, but every so often he came back with something like a couple of potatoes, or a small bag of flour, which the plump lady would then fix for all the occupants of the apartment.  I remember hating most of what there was to eat, but being too hungry to make a fuss over it.

People’s spirit is hard to crush completely.  During all this deprivation there was nevertheless a lot of optimism.  People kept talking enthusiastically about rumors of a community kitchen that was about to be opened.  In retrospect, I can only wonder what the source of these rumors could have been, considering that it was a closed system without access to the outside world.  Just the same, the rumors multiplied.  Any day now we will have a kitchen distributing food for everyone!  Then one day, lo and behold, someone in the courtyard yelled an alert for the whole house that a kitchen was serving food in the street, and that the doors were opened for all and we can go eat!!

My dad went downstairs with two bowls to get food for both of us.  He came back saying that they were distributing bean soup.  I do remember getting excited – I loved bean soup.  Dad brought me a small bowl.  And I do remember seeing the bowl – it had a translucent, light green liquid in it.  Nothing like the bean soup I had expected.  It had something small floating in it.  I spooned it up first.  It was tough and had no taste.  Something like a small piece of twig.  I suppose it was a fragment of bean stalk or something.  I remember crying, saying “this is no bean soup!”  I also remember a young man, who also lived in the apartment, giving me a single bean he had found in his soup.  I guess everyone was feeling sorry for me…

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2 Responses to “Surviving the Holocaust: One man remembers Raoul Wallenberg’s safe house”

  1. Gordie Says:

    I hope his memoir gets published. I was entranced and flet like I was there in Budapest circa 1944.

  2. Says:

    Surviving the Holocaust: One man remembers Raoul Wallenberg’s safe house | The Book Haven