In the first of our guest blogs to mark Holocaust Memorial Day 2016, Holocaust survivor John Dobai writes of how he and his family were saved by Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg.
November 1944, Budapest, Hungary
Winter arrived early that year and the temperature was near zero. My mother and I were staying in an apartment house, with several hundred others, on the Buda side of the city. Previously we lived in a villa with about 14 other mothers and 15 children; this house had a large yellow star on the gate – for Jews only – and had several similar villas nearby. They were occupied by mothers and children mostly, with some old people as well. All the men of working age have been in forced labour camps for two or more years.
One day the occupants of all these villas were told to form a column in the street carrying what we could. I was nine years old and carried a pillow and a rucksack. The column was guarded by gendarmes armed with rifles, some with whips. We were on our way probably to a railway station to be 'deported'. While the railway line to the north east was open transports left for Kosice and Auschwitz. Between April and August some 170 trains carried over 400,000 Jews from Hungarian territory to Auschwitz, most from areas outside Budapest. Few returned.
When this line was cut trains went to other camps and finally columns were made to walk towards the west; several thousand died or were shot if they could not keep up.
On the way to the station we were pushed into an apartment house. This house had water but no electricity or gas; my mother organised a soup kitchen in the inner courtyard. There were about 25 people to a room, all in a high state of anxiety about the future. From time to time gendarmes would take people away; a group of women, including my mother were taken one day to scrub the floor of the barracks; I did not know if she would return!
A few old people jumped off the 6th floor roof.
The fighting had reached the Hungarian frontier and my father's camp was dissolved; all were given discharge papers to allow them to travel (while wearing yellow armbands to show they are Jews). My father arrived back in Budapest having walked most of the 250km. He managed to trace us, we were so happy to see him!
It was known that the Swedish Diplomatic Mission was issuing papers (Schutzpass) which declared the holder to be under Swedish protection.
This courageous project was due to one man, Raoul Wallenberg, a 32 year old businessman who asked to join the Swedish diplomatic service, came to Hungary to save lives. He realised the Nazis and their allies were intent on the wholesale destruction of all the Jews of Hungary and many others. He used his diplomatic status to issue Schutzpasses, to bribe, bully and threaten the perpetrators.
Wallenberg did not have to do this, he was a member of one of the most influential and richest families of Sweden and yet, as he travelled round Europe and heard about the events in Hungary he felt compelled to go there.
As Jews were not allowed to move around, my father used his discharge papers to reach the legation. When he returned he had not only a Schutzpass for all of us but also a paper allowing us a place in an apartment house the Swedes had bought to accommodate those they were trying to save.
But there were considerable problems and danger to be overcome. There were frequent bombing raids by the Soviet and US air forces and the so called International Ghetto was several kilometres away on the other side of the Danube. This was the main area where the embassies of neutral countries could house the people to whom their papers were issued. The government allowed certain embassies to operate here in order to improve their credentials with the Allies. The embassies included Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and even the Vatican.
The main ghetto into which tens of thousands were crammed under the most dreadful condition was nearer the city centre.
The traffic on the roads was mostly military, armoured vehicles and lorries. German and Hungarian army units were not interested in civilians but the police and the gendarmes were manning check points and holding people. More dangerous still were gangs of members of the Nazi Party of Hungary, the Arrow Cross.
When in the autumn of 1944 it became clear also to the Hungarian government that the war was lost, the head of state, Regent Nicholas Horthy declared that Hungary was leaving the war and asked for an armistice.
He was swiftly captured by German special forces.
Power was handed to a government led by the Arrow Cross, a violently anti-Semitic Nazi party. Members were issued with guns. They were allowed to search for, rob, evict, beat and kill Jews.
When it was time for us to leave the house we said tearful goodbyes to many we have been living with for months; we did not know when and if we would ever see each other again.
My parents then told me to be totally, totally silent on the journey, not one word!
We made the journey on foot passing through a number of check points.I could see that the checks at the bridgeheads caused us extra worry. But we made it to Tulipan (now Raoul Wallenberg) Street. We knocked on the designated house door and were let in. Nearly all the people of the house were living in the air raid shelter. When we tried to join them it was clear there was no room, so we went up to the 4th floor where the previous occupants left some mattresses and blankets behind.
As in the previous house there was no gas and electricity but there was no water either. We had to use snow for water and the sanitary conditions were terrible.
Later, the Red Army completed the encirclement of the city and the siege began; every day and night shells, bombs, mines mortar bombs rained down. Most windows were blown out, food supplies disappeared.
As the house to house fighting got nearer our enemies realized that the our protection was on paper only. They started to empty houses like ours of people, taking them down to the banks of the Danube and using machine guns to shoot them into the water.
On the 13th January 1945 the first Red army soldier arrived at our house; liberation!
On 17th January Raoul Wallenberg set out for Soviet HQ to try to secure food supplies for all the inhabitants of Budapest.
When he arrived, he was arrested and was never seen again.
Raoul Wallenberg of Sweden, Carl Lutz of Switzerland saved the lives of tens of thousands of people. The other countries also contributed. Many Hungarians also sheltered children as well as families.
We hold their memory dear.
John Dobai regularly shares his testimony in schools through the Holocaust Educational Trust's Outreach Programme. To find out more, please click here.