Recollections of a remarkable childhood

SUZANNE L. ULLMANN

Zoologist Dr Suzanne L. Ullmann, who was born of Jewish parents in Budapest in 1935, lectured for many years at the University of Glasgow. She died in April last year and left behind this remarkable account of surviving Nazi occupation. Her father, a jeweller, had gone to London in the hope of establishing a business and her mother, who went to visit him, was unable to get back to Hungary when war broke out. Suzanne and her twin brothers were in Budapest with their grandmothers.

I watched the Nazi occupation of Budapest from our nursery window: it was 19th March 1944. Thereafter restrictions for the Jews came thick and fast. We burned all incriminating letters from England, the enemy country. Whenever a gong was sounded, we would go out on to the balcony encircling the inner courtyard, to hear the proclamations: Jews to dismiss Christian employees; Jews to hand in all valuables; Jews to be put under curfew; Jews to be identified by a yellow star; Jews to live in starred houses only.

Our house was starred, so we did not have to shift. In the end 15 or so people were crammed into four rooms and the tiny maid’s room off the kitchen.

No sooner were we settled in than the Germans removed the star from our house and we were dispersed. We had two rooms on the second floor of a flat, shared with others, opening on to the courtyard. The sun never penetrated our premises and we had to use electricity all the time. It must have been summer 1944. Old Grandma had one room; the rest of us were in the other. In that one cramped room Little Grandma taught us many things: how to wash in a small bowl of water, dry ourselves on a flannel, how to catch the bed bugs which tormented us at night and drown them in a bucket, how to appreciate great literature, poetry, music (we had a wind-up gramophone), how to remain cheerful – and much else besides.

The Hungarian law-keepers were of two kinds: police and ‘Nyilas Keresztes’ or ‘Arrow Cross’. They were notorious Nazi sympathisers, trying to surpass the Nazis in their enthusiasm for Jewish persecution. Whenever they came to round up Jews, our grandmothers would retire to bed and pretend to be ill. Once, however, they were got out of bed to be hauled away at 15 minutes notice. We children were howling our heads off! The situation seemed hopeless and Little Grandma temporarily lost her wits and became suicidal in her despair: she wanted to throw herself over the railings into the courtyard but I managed to stop her. So a small suitcase was hastily packed, Little Grandma showed me where some jewellery was hidden in a hole in the larder wall and our grandmothers were taken away by the ‘Nyilas’. We children were left alone and I was in charge. I shall never forget the feeling of total desolation that overwhelmed me as I saw them disappear. I was eight years old.

Then a veritable miracle occurred, for some while later our grandmothers reappeared. Thereafter, however, it was obvious that we would have to go into hiding if we were to escape the increasingly ominous situation. In November 1944, the five of us moved into a ‘hospital’ situated on one of the boulevards. I do not know whether it was ever a real hospital. This must have been just a façade for a sheltered building hiding Jews under the guardianship of paid-off Hungarian Nazis.

Inside the ‘hospital’ life was bedlam. Children and teenagers of both sexes were accommodated on the 4th floor. The crowding, din, confusion was horrible. Some children, separated from parents, went berserk; one tried to commit suicide. Our grandmothers were on the second floor and we did not see much of them. Some of our relatives were lying in corridors. There was an armed guard outside the gate. Once I ventured downstairs and tried to look outside, but he scared me off by pointing his gun at me. I celebrated my ninth birthday in this place.

Little Grandma’s youngest sister, Terka, had obtained Christian documentation and was still able to travel freely. She arranged for a Christian woman to ‘rescue’ us. Little Grandma told us one day that a woman would come for us in the evening and take us away. We were to call her ‘mother’ and do exactly as she told us. On 19th December 1944 this woman appeared at nine in the evening, and we said goodbye to our grandmothers. Dressed in our warmest clothes and with ‘mother’ carrying our small suitcase, we slipped out of the ‘hospital’ into the darkness outside.

This was the first time we had been in the street for weeks and it was a strange experience: crowded with pre-Christmas shoppers. Our ‘mother’ got us on to a tram and we clung to each other, keeping our mouths shut. Eventually we alighted, somewhere near the Danube. She rang the bell at a gate with a plaque attached to it depicting a cross and something about Sweden. Then she handed us over and disappeared. It was not until the 1980s, when a friend showed me a Guardian newspaper article about the Swedish diplomat Raul Wallenberg and his activities in Budapest during World War II that I realised we had been hidden in one of the houses purchased by this truly ‘Righteous Gentile’ to hide Jews. Wallenberg is surely one of the really great men of the 20th century and abundantly deserves a place in Yad Vashem – where the Holocaust victims and heroes are commemorated in Jerusalem.

The house was like a nursery, mostly occupied by mothers and their small children. We were among the eldest and there were two others, a boy and a girl, aged about 12 years. The five of us had no relatives there and clung together for company. I took charge of my little brothers, Joseph and Louis, aged seven years. I was worldly-wise beyond my years, for I remember storing any food surplus to requirements in the storage space allocated to us for ‘rainy days’.

Meantime the bombs were flying and the little kids were terrified. We had to keep going down into the cellars. I became feverish and had to be carried down. Our house was destroyed and we remained underground for 6-7 weeks.

The siege of Budapest took place over the Christmas-New Year period and rumour had it the Russians had poisoned the water supply. Joseph and I crept outside to look for wood for the stove and collected snow to boil for drinking. Louis just lay on his mattress on the stone floor, lacking our vigour, depleted of energy. I climbed the broken stairs, looking for the food I had stored, but the women had taken it all…

I looked out of the broken window and saw a canon in the street below. There was street-to-street fighting and they brought down into the cellar the occasional wounded. Then the Russians arrived looking for watches, women and drink; and I remember witnessing a knife-fight between two soldiers. Twice the Russians came down into the cellar with torches and set paper bales alight accidentally. We huddled round the small stove to keep warm. Someone shoved a dish too many onto the stove and knocked a pot of boiling water onto Joseph’s arm, which got badly burned. We heard that Germans were retreating to Buda, blowing up the bridges over the Danube as they went. But all we children could talk and dream about was food, food, food.

Once the siege was over, the mothers and children gradually disappeared, older children were claimed by relatives, but no-one came for us. At the beginning of February I was separated from my brothers. Stefi, the former cook, took charge of me. We emerged from the cellar and walked the bombed and icy streets for two days before she found the State Orphanage. It was a boys’ only establishment and they were reluctant to take a little Jewish girl. But I was admitted, taken upstairs into a freezing corridor with broken windows and stripped by the matron. I was covered in lice, had an itchy, scurvy-like skin condition and suffered from threadworms. I was scrubbed down with disinfectant but my hair was not cropped, only treated for lice. All my clothes were burned and I was given a boys’ uniform. So it came to pass that I spent the next six months in that establishment as the only girl among 45 boys of all ages. Each time we went walking, two by two in a crocodile line, and met similar groups of children in the streets, I made enquiries about my brothers: had anyone come across little twin boys? Nobody had.

Meanwhile Joseph and Louis were dumped in a monastery, bur the religious did not want two starving, lice-ridden, dirty little Jewish boys. Joseph remembers them eating well in a large dining room; the twins got something to eat in the kitchen and chairs to sleep on. The next day they were walked to a nearby orphanage.

Fortunately the boys remembered the address of relatives and someone went to notify them. Sometime in March a distant male relative tracked me down. Eventually, Little Grandma also turned up – with food and a toothbrush! She was also saved by the woman who had taken us to the Wallenberg house. Old Grandma survived in the ‘hospital’. After the siege, she found her way back to the last starred house we stayed at, and that is where Little Grandma eventually found her.

My brothers were transferred to my orphanage and we were reunited. In August we got transferred to a Children’s Rehabilitation Camp. We stayed there till Christmas when we joined our grandmothers in Budapest.

Correspondence was re-established with our parents in London. Little Grandma worked day and night to get us released by the occupying Russians. In October 1946 we left Budapest by train for Vienna. After two days we boarded an aeroplane for Blackbush Military Airport in England and from there travelled by coach to London, where Father met us. Mother welcomed us in our new house, in Golders Green.

I had to wait until December to meet my four-year-old English siblings John and Eva (also twins), with whom I lacked a common language. They were born during the blitz and were evacuated to a Jewish nursery school in Knutsford.

So that was how, by the grace of God, we survived the war and were reunited in England as a family.

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