John Dobai

John Dobai 220

John was born in 1934 in Budapest, Hungary. His father worked in a bank and his mother was a housewife; John was their only child. Worried by the rise of Nazism and far-right nationalists in Hungary in the 1930s, John’s parents decided that the family should convert to Roman Catholicism. John was raised in that faith and started school at the age of six.

In 1941 Hungary joined Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union. John’s father had served in the Hungarian army in the First World War and was still on the reserve list. He was called up to fight but then sent home a few weeks later as people of Jewish origin were not permitted to serve. Six months after returning home he was sent to a forced labour camp.

In March 1944 Hungary was occupied by Germany after it had attempted to leave the war. A new pro-Nazi Hungarian government was appointed and it immediately began to increase antisemitic persecution. For example, all people classified as Jews, including John and his family despite their conversion to Christianity, had to wear the Star of David. Soon after, during the school holidays, John met a friend and told him how excited he was about the start of the new term. His friend replied that John would not be allowed to go back to school as he was a Jew. When John returned home his mother confirmed this and said that they had to abide by the antisemitic laws.

In June 1944 John and his mother were ordered to move into a so-called yellow-star house along with around 15 other families. Yellow-star houses were buildings which had been designated as compulsory places of Jewish residence by the Mayor of Budapest and were marked by a Star of David. This forcible relocation of Jews within the city was a prelude to their intended deportation.

The deportation of Hungarian Jews, including John’s aunts and cousins, to Auschwitz-Birkenau had begun in May 1944. The operation was carried out one region at a time, with Budapest intended to be the final target. Whilst this meant that the Hungarian capital was temporarily spared the deportations, John’s mother believed that he would be safer in the countryside and was able to arrange for a family to take him in. He stayed there for six weeks, but he caught chickenpox and was sent back to his mother. Soon after the Jews of Budapest began to be deported but the transports suddenly stopped in early July when the Hungarian head of state, Admiral Horthy, ordered a halt. However, many Jews in Budapest were worried that the deportations would resume.

John and his mother’s fears increased in September 1944 when they were moved to another house. However, around this time, John’s father was released from forced labour and made it back to Budapest. He heard that a Swedish diplomat, Raoul Wallenberg, was handing out papers which said the holders were protected by the Swedish government. John’s father managed to get hold of passes for the family which would protect them from deportation.

Wallenberg had also used embassy money to rent houses for Jews with the passes; these houses were given protected status because they were treated as Swedish property. The Dobai family were able to move into one of these houses where they endured the siege of Budapest which lasted over three months. The situation became more dangerous following the Nazi-supported seizure of power by the Arrow Cross, a Hungarian fascist party, in October 1944. Arrow Cross members began seizing Jews from houses across the city, sometimes including the safe houses established by Wallenberg and other diplomats of neutral countries, and shot them by the banks of the Danube. It was only in January 1945 that the terror ended with the Soviet capture of Budapest. Tragically Raoul Wallenberg was arrested by the Soviets just days later and he died in Soviet captivity although mystery surrounds when, where, and how he died.

John and his family moved to the UK in 1948, where he completed school and studied Chemistry at university. Today he is married with two daughters and three grandchildren. John continues to talk in schools and universities about his experiences and the Holocaust.