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me


(The following is a short description of my childhood in WWII Hungary and life in the postwar years. For those of you who read Hungarian, a much more detailed description is provided - in two Word 2000 documents. Viharos Gyerekkor and Újra Magyarországon . Just click on the files and download them to your hard disk.)

A slightly altered version of these and additional short stories was published on August 29, 2004 in a Hungarian language book. The name of the book is Itthon-Otthon and the publisher is Bába from Szeged. Several interviews with me were transmitted in the Hungarian media. A transcript of the one at the Magyar Radio can be read at Avri Shacham két hazája.
The cover of my book. For those of you who would like to order it, the phone number of the distributor is +36-62-476679/470.

My name is Avri Shacham, but I was born on November 14, 1931 in Kosice, the capital of Eastern Slovakia, as Róbert Schwarcz, the son of Gertrude (Gerti) and Zoltán Schwarcz, a textiles store owner in that town.
With my parents in Kosice.

Life was relaxed and peaceful in those childhood days. My parents worked at the shop, I stayed at home with my nanny, later went to school and there were no clouds on our horizon. Every summer we spent several weeks visiting with family. Some years we went to Nové Zámky, a small town in Slovakia - my father's birthplace and where one of his sisters, Bözsi (Elisabeth),her husband Feri Ungár and their daughters Lilly and Évi lived. At other times we went to my mother's village, Mosty u Jablunkova, now an official border crossing point between the Slovak and the Czech Republics and where my grandfather, Natan Altmann (grandmother was no longer alive) used to own a grocery shop, combined with an inn. My mother's sister Oly, with her husband Felek (Felix) Herbst and their son Georgie, lived in nearby Cieczyn, in Polish, or Tešin as is its Czech name, a small town divided by a river, which constitutes the Czech-Polish border. The inhabitants of the town never accepted this arbitrary division and conducted their business on both sides of the river - going to the bank, to the church - crossing freely the bridge through the middle of which the border ran.

If you are interested in the roots of my family, you may look up my Family Tree. Who knows, we may even be related!

At home we spoke German and it was only at the age of six, at school, that I started to learn Slovak, but soon (as so often during my chilhood) history interfered. In the middle of my third elementary class, the Munich Pact, which returned great parts of Slovakia inhabited by the Hungarian minority to Hungary, was signed between Hitler's Germany and the Western Powers. I learned of course of these facts only later. All we children knew, was that one day a school holiday was declared and we were to come to the Main Street. Both sides of the wide street were packed with festive crowds waving red-white-green flags. Suddenly a great cheering arose at the end of the street, coming closer and closer. Soon, the reason for this commotion became apparent. Riding a white horse, a dark blue uniformed man followed by massed columns of helmeted soldiers, approached. I thought that it was a policeman, but I was quickly corrected by my parents. "This is the Admiral Horthy " - they said.

Overnight, everything was changed. Košice has become Kassa. All teachers at our school were replaced by Hungarians, Slovak schoolbooks were thrown out and we had to relearn history. Those we were taught to admire as our role models, were now called a mutinous rabble, whereas the previous oppressors became our liberators. Another aspect of becoming a Magyar was, that under a law discriminating against Jews, my father's trading licence was revoked. All at once, we lost our livelihood and were obliged to move to the capital,Budapest, where it was still possible - even for a Jew - to make a decent living.

Suddenly, I was surrounded by relatives. There was my grandmother Teréz Schwarcz, (grandfather passed away when I was a small child) and my father's brother, Lipót Svéd, or Pável, who won this sobriquet due to the length of time he spent after World War I as a Russian POW. Another sister of my father's, Szerén, her husband Imre Boros and their son Pali, lived too in Budapest. During weekends the family congregated in grandma's spacious villa. Not only those living in Budapest came, but from time to time some, or all members of its various branches, from Nové Zámky and even Braila, Romania, where still another brother,Heini (Henrich), his wife Mariska and their two daughters Fini and Irma lived, came for a visit. Each of my two uncles had a special charm for me. Pável, who published once a slim volume of poetry, helped me in my fledgling efforts in rhyming, whereas Heini, who as the representative of the Hungarian River & Marine Shipping Co. (MFTR) had a rank of captain, promised to take me on a Black Sea cruise for my Bar Mitzvah (The Jewish ceremony held at the age of thirteen for a boy and the age of twelve for a girl, which marks the passage of a young person into adulthood).

At my Grannie's place there was always something going on. The grownups were playing Lórum (a Hungarian card game)inside the house, while we children had the big garden to romp around. In the world outside, World War II was raging, but life in Hungary was still relatively peaceful. Only from the rare letters we received from Oly, my mother's sister, did we learn something of the horrors of this conflict. Those afflicted with it, find of course excuses for becoming infected with that cancerous disease called Anti-semitism, but I will never understand, how a cultured nation like Germany, which gave the world so many eminent philosophers, writers, poets, composers, came to deify such a murderous bastard as Hitler. It was in occupied Poland, where mother's family lived, that the Germans started with their so-called Final Solution, the extermination of the Jewish population in Europe. The Herbst Family was taken in a tightly packed cattle wagon to Kolomea, Ukraine. Through a Hungarian soldier, whose Army unit participated in the occupation forces, they managed to get to us several letters in which they told us about their deprivations: In-human treatment, lack of food, heating, decent clothing. Then after one last letter, no more came. When we tried to find out something of their fate after the war, we were told that they were shot while trying to escape. All that remains of the Herbst family, are some faded photographs and when I'll be gone, nobody will even remember that they ever existed.

One Sunday, my father took us on a trip to the mountains of Buda (the hilly part of Budapest). I remember this particular trip, because it was the last we had for a long while. When we returned to the city, grey tanks with a black cross on their turrets were stationed at street corners. It was March 19, 1944 and at dawn the Germans occupied Hungary. Not a shot was shot, no outward changes could be seen, people went about their business as usual, only in the air there was a sort of dejection. The changes came slowly:

  • All Jewish men were conscripted into labor battalions and sent for manual work, the more dangerous, the better. To the copper mines; to repair the constantly bombed railroads; to the Russian front to collect mines and dig trenches. They did not get any equipment and clothing, were underfed, beaten and tortured, used as targets during shooting practice, the declared purpose was not so much to do useful work, but to decimate their ranks.
  • Our radio sets were confiscated. Jews were forbidden to listen to radio.
  • Jewish schools were closed. We had lots of time to play. Too much of it!
  • All Jews were obliged to wear a yellow David-star on a prominent place of their clothing.
  • Our apartment was converted to a German officers' billet. Not only were we ordered to vacate it within 24 hours, but we had to equip the premises with furniture - beds, tables and chairs - compatible with German Army standards. We were of course given a receipt. We had to move to a so-called David starred, or "secure" house, where we were crowded in 4-5 persons per room.
  • The Jewish population in small towns and villages was concentrated in ghettos and gradually transported to concentration camps in occupied Poland.

    Our Nové Zámky relatives were taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp. My aunt Bözsi succumbed to malnutrition and disease, but my younger cousin Évi, who loudly expressed her rage over her mother's ontimely demise, was literally beaten to death with a gunstock. Only Lilly, my elder cousin, came back after the war, emaciated, with shaved head, a nervous wreck never able to relate the horrors she experienced.

    As all Jews of her age-group, my Mother (she was 34 at the time), was also included several times in deportation transports, but each time her luck held out and she managed to escape and return to me. In autumn 1944 the turn of the Jewish population of Budapest for moving to the ghetto came too. A whole neighborhood was evacuated of non-Jews - they had first choice in occupying the deserted and fully equipped Jewish apartments - and about 70,000 Jews were crowded in. Fences were erected around the quarter and nobody could go out anymore. There were 16 of us in the 3-room apartment, all windows were broken as a result of the constant bombardment, there was no heating and no running water. Water had to be brought in pails from far away. There were no shops in the ghetto and our only food came from the Jewish community kitchen, which supplied once a day a warm bean, or pea soup. We children got also once every two weeks 50 grams of black bread. It was a miracle that these resourceful functionaries managed at all to get some foodstuff into the ghetto, because as far as the authorities were concerned, we could all drop dead. These days the gnawing hunger was my constant companion, but we the young, survived somehow. Elderly people succumbed very quickly to the hunger, the cold, the various epidemics - the only medicine available was that brought by people in their knapsacks. That is how my poor grandmother finished her life, alone and sick. At first, the dead were buried in mass graves dug in the Dohány Synagogue garden and the park on Klauzál tér opposite our house, but later, when the ground froze and people weakened, the bodies were just left lying on the streets where they keeled over. Fortunately, it was a cold winter and the dead did not smell.

    Actually, we the ghetto dwellers, were the lucky ones. The fascist street patrols stayed mostly out of the ghetto. Many of those Jews discovered hiding in the city were shot into the Danube river. This winter the fish were fat, but nobody felt like preparing a fish-stew. Others were force-marched on foot in the direction of Austria. My uncle Pável, unable to believe that, he, the decorated WWI officer will be deported too, was shot there on the road to Vienna, when his elegant shoes stuck in the mud and he has fallen behind. His brother, Heini, could only watch helplessly. Heini survived the march, but was murdered later in the Bergen Belsen extermination camp.

    It was Russian Red Army which saved us ghetto-dwellers from being taken to the camps. On the eve of Christmas 1944, a siege-ring was closed around Budapest and except for some German airplanes, which managed to spirit out high-rank officers, contact with the outside world was cut off. The fighting inside Budapest continued until May 1945, but the ghetto area was liberated on January 18, 1945.

    Dazed by our sudden liberty, free of the fear of death by the whim of a trigger-happy 16-year old (I was shot at twice, but luckily, they were no marksmen), the tens of thousands survivors streamed out to the streets and tried to take up their normal lives where they were so rudely interrupted 10 months ago, but not everybody succeeded. My father returned from the labor camp, less his teeth, emaciated, looking older than his years, but otherwise unharmed. He picked up his business, I resumed schooling, but our heart was no longer in it.

    Under ordinary circumstances, I would have gladly lived out my days as a Hungarian, but I could not just forget everything that happened. When I discovered the Zionist Movement, I eagerly embraced the idea, that the Jewish People should return to its ancestral land. I joined the zionist-socialist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair and in March 1949, with a group of about 70 young people, we waved goodbye to Europe. In the early morning hours of April 29, 1949, we sighted from our ship the spectacular view of Haifa, the main entrance port of the new state of Israel. My parents followed in my footsteps within six months.

    My first six years in Israel were spent in Kibbutz Maanit, studying Hebrew and learning about life in general. The period I spent in the kibbutz helped me to overcome my natural laziness, taught me to get up at any hour of the day, or night and that there is no shame in dirtying one's lily-white hands with some decent work. As customary in Israel, I hebraized my name to Avri Shacham. During the period I lived in the kibbutz, I also absolved two and half years of obligatory military service. As all Israeli males, I continued being on a reserve duty until the age of 45 and was called up yearly for an active duty of about 40 days. I was on the front during the 1956 Sinai War, the Six-Day War in 1967, the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and before being discharged, managed to do a tour of service even in Lebanon, but fortunately I was never obliged to shoot at a person and kill anybody.

    After six years in the kibbutz, I moved to Tel Aviv and that is where I live till this day. After trying my hand at various jobs, I happened about 30 years ago on the one that suited my talents best, at Israel's national airline El Al. In time I became the Manager of Engineering Administration & Publications Department, a job from which I retired in February 1997. I still continue working at the same office on a special contract.

    I dated many girls, but only at the relatively advanced age of 33 I lucked out and found my true love. Her name is Margalith. She was born in Amsterdam, Holland on April 19, 1943 as Margaretha, the first child of Dora and Isaac Witzenhausen.

    When she was born, Holland was under German occupation, Jews were carried off to concentration camps and Anna Frank wrote her famous diary. How then did my future wife survive? Thanks to a wonderful Christian woman, a midwife by profession, named Hermina van Asten, or Tante Mien as we called her. Margalith's parents obtained false identication papers and went into hiding, but this was no life for a baby. When Margalith's mother became pregnant, they arranged with Tante Mien, a single woman, to carry a pillow under her dress for months, so that people would think that she is pregnant. As soon as Grete (Margalith's Dutch nickname) was delivered, Tante Mien showed her proudly off to her neighbors as her newborn daughter. The war ended in 1945, but my wife stayed with her foster mother for another half year, until her parents recovered after the terrifying years of illegality and fear. Even after she returned to her parents, she visited her second mother every weekend, went to Sunday school, accompanied her to church. Tante Mien never married, Grete was her daughter and our children her grandchildren. She knitted sweaters for them and visited us once in Israel. In 1995, in a ceremony in which both our and her family participated, the State of Israel awarded Hermina van Asten the title of "Righteous Among the Nations". She died on April 20, 1997.

    Both of Margalith's parents are no longer alive, but I envy her very much for having two brothers, Loeky and Sally living in Amsterdam and a sister, Henny, living near Göteborg, Sweden. Her elder brother and her sister are married and have children of their own. Our relationship is very warm and not a year passes without at least one of us visiting them, or one of them paying us a visit.

    Margalith and me were married on March 2, 1964. We have three lovely children, two girls, Liora and Galia and one son, the youngest, Yoav. Liora is married to Lior and in 1995 they presented us with our first grandson, Tomer. In July 1998 their second son, Eyal was born and on the eve of the Jewish New Year, on September 26, 2003, their third son and our fifth grandchild, Gil. Galia (now divorced), who was married to Alon, gave birth in August 1998 to a baby girl named Tal and July 2000, their second daughter, Shay, was born. It is not for me - their grandfather - to praise their looks. You can look for yourself at our happy little family and formulate your own opinion.

    My father was 89 years old when he died in 1985, whereas my mother lived with us until 1996. Before passing away at the age of 86, she achieved her greatest wish and could take part in the wedding ceremony of her eldest grandaughter and embrace her first great-grandson Tomer.

    The picture would not be whole, without mentioning some of our relatives living in Israel. There was Erich, my mother's cousin, who passed away in February 2000 and Trude his wife. Their daughter, Chava and husband Yakov, lived not far from us, but regretfully, Yakov also passed away in 2008. Then there is Lilly, a cousin from my father's side, whose mother and sister were brutally murdered at Auschwitz (as mentioned above), who because of what she suffered at the hands of these bestial murderers could never have children of her own and who lost her loving husband Manó in January 2001. On my wife's side there are two aunts, Ida (now also no longer with us) and Israel her husband and Senta (who closed her eyes in 2010). We maintain with them and their children and even their children's children a close relationship and no festive occasion would be perfect, without sharing it with those of our relatives who made it to the land of Israel.

    Some of our relatives live on in Budapest, Hungary. There was my cousin Pali, who passed away in May 2009, his lovely daughter Julia and her two children Györgyi and David. Quite recently, Györgyi married an Israeli boy, they live now in Israel and have beautiful son named Ashley.

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