Ferenc SandorBudapestHungaryInterviewer: Dora Sardi and Eszter Andor
My great-grandmother Cili, Cecilia Rosenthal, was a great beauty even atthe age of 92. She had beautiful blue eyes and white hair, and her handswere soft and warm ... and out of vanity she said she was younger than sheactually was. She knocked a few years off her age. Because only when shepassed away did it turn out that she was already 92, not 90. She was theheart and soul of the family. She had a good sense of humor too.
Great-grandmother's sister, Aunt Fani, was a Jewish schoolteacher in Papa.She had two sons, Geza and Miklos. Geza committed suicide. I do not knowwhy, and I have no more knowledge of him. Miklos was apparently gifted.They apprenticed him to a bookbinder, but it was quite clear that hisambition was to pursue further studies and that was what he did. For someyears he spent his summer holidays with my grandmother and grandfather inSopron. He told my grandfather, his uncle, that he would get a doctorate."If you get one," Grandfather said, "I'll get my head chopped off." So whenMiklos got his first doctorate, he said, "Uncle Ferenc, I am coming to chopoff your head." And when he got his second doctorate, he said, "Uncle, I amcoming to chop off your second head!"
Granny Cili's husband was Beno Fogel. They were miserably poor.
We could never stand the so-called Polish Jews, those "fin" folks with thepayot (sidelocks). (Interviewer's note: The Jews of northeast Hungary whospoke Yiddish and followed the Orthodox tradition bore this nicknamebecause they twisted the Yiddish word fun, meaning "from, out of," intofin). There were no such people in the entire family.
It is not easy to say what my great-grandfather did for a living, becausehe worked at various jobs in various places. My grandmother was born inMezokovacshaza. In those days the family was so poor that they had to movefrom village to village in the hope of earning a better living at adifferent place. But by the time I was born, they owned a house and a smallstore in Megyesegyhaza; later a tavern, too. Fourteen children were born tothem and nine lived to adulthood. Of the nine, three were boys.
Uncle Jeno magyarized his name to Fodor.
Another one was some kind of backward creature, yet an absolute genius atfixing things. He lived in Megyesegyhaza, County Bekes. He had a motorscooter, which was a very big deal at that time, and he held movie shows.
Then there was Andor Fogel, who magyarized his name to Andras Vago. Hefought in World War One.
The eldest child was Etelka, who later became a schoolteacher. She ended upin a mental ward. She must have been quite a funny lady. I've got only thefaintest memories of her, maybe not even real memories, just from somephoto.
Then there was Rozsi. She lived in Mako with a husband who was a porter.He once wrote in a letter, "I live in beautiful harmonium here with my dearwife."
Then came Irma. Irma lived in Megyesegyhaza with her husband, whose namewas Guttman. They owned a store too. Later they had a tavern next to Great-grandmother Celi and Great-grandfather Beno's. Their daughter Terez was anextremely beautiful young lady. I was completely infatuated with her.
Then there was Mariska. Both of her sons suffered from hemophilia, and bothof them died later, I think during displacement.
Juliska, the youngest one, was so much younger than my grandmother thatGrandmother used to nurse her and change her diapers when she was a baby.
Ferenc Rosenthal, my grandfather, was a brother of Cecilia, my greatgrandmother, and this rather unfortunate thing happened: he married his ownniece, my great grandmother's daughter, a very beautiful young girl. Butthen my granddad was a full-fledged schoolteacher, and when he took fancyto Janka, the 17-year-old niece of his, the poor creature was duly marriedto the schoolteacher.
I never knew my grandfather because he was born in 1849 and he was sensibleenough to die in due course in 1913.
My grandparents married in 1893 in Sopron, and that's where they lived.Only one child was born to them, my mother. It was a pretty unlucky kind ofbusiness. The bridegroom was 25 years older than the bride. AndGrandmother wanted to kill herself, by jumping out of the window, on thefirst night of her marriage.
It was typical of my grandfather, Ferenc Rosenthal, that in the Neologschool where he worked, the word cheder (a Jewish religious primary schoolattended only by the children of the Orthodox) was considered a dirty word.In Sopron there was both a Neolog school and an Orthodox one. Well, somesupervisor remarked: "This is not a school, this is a cheder." A word ofabuse, it was. And so my Grandfather retorted: "Yes, schools will becomecheders if they have directorates like ours."
Grandfather was an orphan. He took an unusual career path to become aschoolteacher. One year he would work regularly as a private tutor in theservice of a particular family. Then the following year he would study atcollege.
They must have lived in extreme poverty when he was a child. He was raisedby his elder brother. As a young boy he was supposed to eat a variety offoods, but they usually had nothing but bread. He would ask his brother,"Please, give me something to eat!"
"You want bread and jam?"
"No, I don't want bread, give me something to eat." He was craving forsomething, it could have been meat or fruit, I cannot tell, but he said:"Give me something!"
"Bread and lard? You want bread and lard."
"Not bread, I want something to eat." He got nothing else.
He was twenty-four when he got his degree. The general nickname forteachers in those days was "light," or "lamp." People called my grandfatherwas that. He told my grandmother that he once met an upper class Jew whoremarked: "I wear velvet and you wear rags, yet you are the one called 'thelamp!'"
Grandfather lived completely in the spirit of the Austro-Hungarianmonarchy. When Grandfather was about three or four years old, the EmperorFranz Joseph stopped in Sopron on his way somewhere. They lifted him abovethe crowd, and he yelled, "Uncle Emperor, Uncle Emperor!" The story goesthat Franz Josef even waved back to him, but, of course, one cannot be sureof that.
My grandfather wrote reviews of performances staged at the theatre inSopron. I had the chance to read a few of them. And if the primadonnahappened to show her ankles in some performance, he went to see that playthirty times in a row. He most have been a man of brains for sure.
They lived in comfort, had a fine house and were able to provide well fortheir daughter, their only child.
My mother attended the upper middle school for girls in Sopron. Then herparents registered her for a one-year course in a business school.
She found work as a clerk at the local administration center. Most of thetime I was looked after by my aunt, who moved in with us after my fatherdid not come back from the war. I was practically raised by her.
My father was called Vilmos Sandor. He magyarized his name from Spielmanbefore he married. That had to be done on account of his job, as he workedfor the Veszto office of the Bekes County Savings Bank. He had a highschool education. He met the young lady who became my mother on a traintrip. My mother was sitting in the train with my grandmother and he satbeside them. That must have been in 1910 or 1911. Right there on the trainthey decided to get married. The actual wedding ceremony in the templefollowed in 1912 in Sopron. After the wedding he immediately took my motherto Veszto, where they lived in a family house, an official residence,secured by the Savings Bank. He had previously run into debts, which werethen paid off from the dowry. As an unmarried man he had been accustomed toleading an easy life. Most likely, he did not abstain from alcohol either.
There was a large Jewish community in Veszto. In my father's family alonethere were five brothers: Bari, Miksa, Jozsi, one whose name I forgot, andVilmos, my father. They all lived in Veszto. Most of them owned some kindof store or other. Uncle Miksa had a grocery. After we moved to Budapest, Ispent my summer holidays at Uncle Miksa's. They were very religious andkept kosher. My aunt Giza would definitely have had a stroke if she hadknown I was offered bread and lard at Balint Torok's and ate it.
In World War One, my father was called up from Veszto to the Russian front.Then he returned and spent some time at home, and had the chance to see meas a baby of a few weeks old. I have no memories of him whatsoever. Thereis only one thing I know. When he came home from the front he said that onewas not allowed to laugh any more. I have seen the postcard he sent home tomy mother. On it was written: "Don't cry, darling. The country must besaved from the enemy." The poor fellow, he could not have suspected thatduring a 1944 death march, my war-widow mother would helplessly fall victimto this same country he was trying to save from the enemy.
I had an elder sister, Sari. She was born in 1913. There were eleven monthsbetween us. Sari went to school downtown in the Vaci street gymnasium,where she took her finals. Later she took a course where they learned howto make corsets. Before that she worked as a typist, and as she earned somemoney, we were able to move to Legrady Karoly Street, where we had a verypretty little flat that consisted of one room, a foyer, and small room forthe house-maid.
Sari later married. My first brother-in-law, Laci Reisenfeld, died duringhis forced labor service in 1944. He was born in 1902 and worked as a clerkfor the Goldberger Works. When Sari learned that he had died, she wanted tokill herself. Then in 1944 she married a gentile, Laci Foldessy. She wouldnot have been able to cope with the prospect of having another husband getkilled. A daughter, Marika, was born to them, and the three of them fled toHolland in 1957, shortly after the 1956 revolution when the borders wereopen for some time. The borders had already been closed, but they managedto smuggle themselves out. They passed their flat on to someone at theMinistry of the Interior, so an eye was shut for them.
In 1916 the whole family-my mother, my grandmother, my sister and I-allmoved from Veszto to Budapest. We had a flat on Maria Valeria street. Areally decent fellow helped Mother get a very good job at the CentralInstitute of Finances. Up to the last moment, as long as the anti-Jewishlaws permitted, she kept that job. She got a good salary, as the CentralInstitute of Finances was the second biggest bank in the country. "That'swhy I did not have to raise my two orphans in poverty," she often said.
My grandmother Janka drew a fairly good pension after my grandfather'sdeath. We had a huge family scattered throughout the country from Sopron toBekescsaba. We were the only ones who lived in Budapest, so we put upeveryone who came to Budapest from the countryside on any business.
In the apartment house where we lived, there was a front staircase, and aback one, which was normally called the "servant staircase." We had to usethe back staircase, but all the same, we lived in a sunlit, airy apartmenton the third floor. The toilet was at the end of the corridor. For a timewe had a proper housemaid who lived with us. Later on, a cleaning lady cameregularly. The first housemaid, Roza, accompanied us when we moved to thecapital from Veszto. Later, when I spent my vacation with my uncle inVeszto, I went to see her. She lived at the edge of the village in direpoverty. In my mind's eye, I can still see her child, who suffered fromconsumption, and whom she unwrapped as if it were some small bundle. Thehousemaid was always a family member to us.
My mother had a colleague, Mr. Sziklai. This was a magyarized name, andoriginally he was called Spisak. It was a great thing for me because he wasthe only male role model for me to follow. He liked me too. Then whenMother died I did not know how to relate to him any more.
I started high school at an orphanage for war orphans in Cegled. I wascompletely crushed in that place in the second year. Broke my spine, so tospeak. There were a hundred of us there and only one other Jew, who was inthe seventh grade. I came second, a second grader. And ninety-eightchildren teased me for a whole year because I was Jewish. When I managed toget into the infirmary, that was a relief. I remember once it was reallycold outside and I was outdoors and did not feel like going in. A bunch ofthese pests kept following me, and when the teacher noticed that it hadsomething to do with me, he told me off because I did not tell on them, Idid not inform him that they were pestering me. He put the responsibilityfor that scene on me.
I was very bad at languages at school. Math was easier. In my free time Iwent on rowing trips with my friends, or we went to a dance. I actuallylearned dancing in the Czech lands. We were sent there to spend our summerholidays as students on an exchange visit. We lived with Czech families,and then Czech students visited us in return.
Hungarian poetry is very dear to me. I live in those poems, I practicallylive for them, even if I only tell them to myself. I have performed a lotof poetry recitals in my life; how well, I cannot say.
I used to be a boy scout too. We sang songs around the campfire late atnight and until daybreak. We never sang the same song twice.
My family never made a special issue out of the fact that we were Jewish.I heard that my father was considering converting, but in 1915 he lost hislife at the Russian front.
At elementary school I received a Roman Catholic religious education. Iwent to school on Cukor Street in downtown Budapest. Novitiates wouldfrequently come to us and visit, or do their teaching practice there. Theywere very nice young men and I, for my part, was a hundred percent RomanCatholic, duly making the sign of the cross. I had had my First Communionand was on very good terms with God, asking Him for things now and then, aswas common in those days.
Then a really strange thing happened to me. A Hungarian law ruled thatchildren between six and eighteen were not allowed to change religion. Andnow this very law became the reason for the fact that that I had to changereligion. I had received my registration card from the Roman CatholicChurch. The Church was not interested in how the state classified people interms of religion: it had its own rules and regulations. However, a statelaw ruled the way I described before. It was discovered that theauthorities had failed to correct my birth certificate. According to mydocuments, I was still a Jew, even though I was a Christian. At the home ofthe war orphans in Cegled, this document business was taken ratherseriously, so they wouldn't acknowledge that I was a Catholic. I wascompelled to resume Judaism and attend Jewish religious education classes.For me it was the most terrible split. In this little provincial town, theway those Jewish people lived seemed utterly unkempt and messy. Not so verycivilized, so to speak. Otherwise they were very kind to me, inviting me tojoin them for holidays and feasts such as Pesach.
I was twelve then, and I revolted. I insisted that I should be taken hometo my grandmother immediately. And so I was sent then to the school onBarcsay Street, where the atmosphere was somewhat Jewish. As when we livedon the Maria Valeria Street before, from our window if I leaned out alittle I could see the tower of the church were I was baptized. I also hadto go past the synagogue twice a day. Now, when I walked past the church,if I did not remember to take my cap off, I was committing a sin, and a fewhundred meters further away, if I did the same-or the other way round-Igot completely confused. I looked up in the sky and wondered whether therewas someone up there watching what I was doing with my uniform cap. Ifinally got over it somehow.
In that school I was accepted, because the headmaster, a young man ofSwabian origin, was a wonderful, kind person and loved me dearly. I wasalmost like an adopted son to him. (Translator's note: Swabians were ethnic-German farmers who had lived in Hungary since the 18th century.)
In our house we celebrated Christmas and Easter and we never observed anyJewish holiday, at least I cannot recall any. In Veszto with Uncle Miksa,everything was observed, but that's all I remember. Today I am deeplyirreligious.
I took my finals at secondary school in 1933. Not long before my exam I waswalking home - walking, because we did not normally take the tram: ticketswere expensive. I went past a newspaper stand and there I saw the news onHitler's takeover.
After my finals I wanted to go to university but I ended up at a printinghouse. That's how I became a printer. I did lithography: paintings,posters, color prints. That lasted until 1978, when I retired.
During the war, first I was sent to Gyongyos for forced labor service, thento Vac, and following that I spent one and a half years in Sastov, Ukraine,near Kiev. It was in August, 1942 when we went there. When full Jews wereordered to be sent further away, I, as a war-orphan, was offered the chanceto stay in Vac. People who had Christian spouses were allowed to stay. Theywere given white armbands. I was contemplating whether I should go or stay,and in the end I decided to leave. But right then a guard kicked me back tothe line. He wouldn't let me leave. Thank God. Because less than fiftypercent of the company I was supposed to join ever returned. Later on, itwas our turn to be sent to Ukraine. My company was a wonderful unit, anextraordinary group of people. Lots of medical doctors and lawyers amongthem. At the beginning of 1944 we were disarmed. Then on May 20, 1944 I wastaken to Pecs, and from there to Szombathely. There I pulled the gold ringoff my finger because I knew it would be taken from me anyway. I gave itaway to someone in the street, so at least I gave it to someone I wantedto. We worked at an airport in Szombathely.
A friend of mine had some work at the Bruck Textile Works, and he wentthere time to time. That's where Zsuzsa, who later became my wife, worked.Before Christmas, my friend told them we were throwing a party on NewYear's Eve, and he was in charge of inviting some nice girls. Zsuzsa wouldhave loved to come but her parents wouldn't let her. So the two of themagreed that she would bring a girlfriend along who would look after her allnight. On that condition, the parents finally gave in. One afternoon a fewdays before New Year's Eve, Zsuzsa and her friend came over to my flat tocheck the place they were coming to. They found only my grandmother athome, and they sorted everything out with her, as far as what to bring andall. When I came home, my grandmother informed me about their visit andsaid that a very pretty girl had visited us who was going to come to my NewYear's Eve party. Our wedding ceremony took place at the City Hall.