Chapter 2 Productive Years Europe
[What my main story will include after 1925 are those years after I left Hungary and lived in Yugoslavia from 1925 to 1944.]
From 1925 to 1928, I was in Zagreb, where I met my wife. I was well aware of my feet, my handicap, so I never had any dates. I was scared to even meet a girl. My wife's relatives lived on the same street where we had a business. I met her there, while she was visiting her aunt. She was born in Budapest and continued to live with her parents there. She was a beautiful girl and when she agreed to marry me, I wondered how she could marry a crippled man. I could not believe it. This was when my complex mostly disappeared. She stayed each year about 7 or 8 months in Zagreb. When she went back to Budapest, I went to see her, and we had steady correspondence. She waited for me for three years because, when I met her in 1925, my income was very small.
In Europe at this time a woman did not work for a living, so I promised her that when I made enough money, we would marry. We had to wait for three years. In this time it was not the system of boyfriends and girlfriends. When we went out, we went to the theater, or movie or opera. Someone always came with us as a chaperon whenever we went to dinner or out somewhere. This was a different world. It was still a little Victorian type of world. We were married in Budapest in 1928 in May. It was a civil marriage. The religious marriage was on June 17 of 1928. It was a simple marriage. It was simple because her parents were not so rich either. We went on our honeymoon to Bled, Yugoslavia.
After World War I, the French occupied the Rhineland as well as the center of heavy industry. All heavy industry was now under French rule. The Saxon Youth, which was one of Hitler's organizations, had already begun to demonstrate in Saxony. Hitler came to rule because he told the German people, "See what happened to you. You are having to pay big allies billions of gold marks for reparations." Hitler had prepared the people and leaders to follow him. He promised them a better life, with no inflation. He soon started to build up the army, and 1924, Hitler started the Putsch in Munich--Beer Hall. He went to prison, where he wrote his book Mein Kampf. Meanwhile, the Democratic Weimar Republic, was plagued by many factions. During the time Hitler was organizing his Youth and SA, many communists were killed in Germany -- Rosa Luxembourg, Karl Liebknecht, and other leaders of the communist party. Walter Rathenau, who was the Minister of State was also killed. He was a recognized genius as an internationalist and he was a Jew. Germany was taken into the League of Nations and a very difficult period in German history began when it somehow started to build up the army. It was interesting that when Wilson came home from the Paris Peace Conference, the Republicans were against America's joining the League of Nations. In the meantime, Wilson got sick but at this time America started to help Germany pay reparations. French [prime] minister [Georges] Clemenceau and English [prime] minister [David] Lloyd George were very narrow-minded and asked for tremendous amounts of money from Germany. She could not pay it. This was the basic reason Hitler was able to come to power. He told the German people, "We don't pay. Instead we start to rearm." The English ambassador, Lord Henderson, reported to London what was going on, but they didn't pay enough attention. Hitler then had a very good chance to come into power. The Weimar Republic basically failed because too many factions existed within its structure, and the president was General Hindenburg, who was 85 years old. In January of 1933, Hitler was named as Chancellor, and the Nazi party took over the government.
The 1930s were the happiest years in my life. In Yugoslavia we were building up the biggest and most modern knitting plant in Middle Europe. My brother was the financial and marketing genius in our operation; one of our partners was head of the management of the business; and I was head of production in the whole plant and was given by the others complete control of the purchasing of machinery and the organization of production. Because of my education and training, my partners trusted me to provide the most modern and efficient production system. Their trust made it possible for me to buy the very best of machinery and to place great emphasis on producing the highest quality goods possible. Together the three of us worked well as a team because we trusted each other to do our jobs well. Also, in the 1930s my sons were born. My son, Otto, was born in 1929, while Andrew was born in 1931. It was the happiest time because I had a beautiful wife, beautiful children, and a plant that was growing like a tree. We had started with one hundred workers, and by 1944 we had 1800 working.
In 1938, the Austrian Anschluss started. Some very dear and rich friends of ours, who were yarn manufacturers in Vienna, came to us for shelter because we were about 100 kilometers from the Austrian border. They were escaping to Yugoslavia, which was an open country, and from there you could go to Switzerland or anywhere else in the world. They were very, very wealthy people who left everything in Vienna--land, houses, factories--getting out with only one suit. We could not believe that this could happen to us too.
In 1938, the "final solution" [the German program to murder European Jews] had not come into existence, yet the Germans and Austrians were persecuting Jews and other groups, such as opposition politicians and leaders, but if someone had something--money, or a factory, or a business--and gave it over to the Germans, they could leave the country. Our friend, this big industrialist, left his industry, his houses, everything. He could keep his car, so they came to our town. Naturally, the very poor Jews could not give anything to the Germans, so they were sent to concentration camps. It was still not called the "final solution." Our dear Austrian friends told us that Hitler had started persecuting the Jews and that the entire Austrian population supported him. The moment Hitler took over and moved into Vienna, the people adored him like a god. Our friends told us that the Austrian people were very anti-Semitic and that the Austrians were the ones who had actually started the persecution of the Jewish people. They also told us that, in 1938, the Anschluss was very much welcomed by the Austrian people. The Austrian government served the German interests, so everything had changed into the German way. That is what they told us, yet we were "on top of the world" and never believed that anything like that would happen to us. This was our first experience with what the Germans were doing to the Jewish population, but we were not convinced that the same thing could happen to us.
In May of 1939, I was in Paris with my brother. We were selling merchandise there. I shall never forget the time that we were sitting in the Champs d'Elysees. It was St. Joan's Day (May 30) and some French airplanes were flying overhead. My brother looked to me and said, "You know, I would not be surprised if that was the whole French Air Force, because there are only twenty planes or so in it." My other brother, who lived in America, sent me a sketch from the New York Times that said Hitler was going to occupy Hungary too. Yet, it was not until 1939, when Poland was attacked by Germany, that we started to think over what we should do. When the Polish war broke out, Hungary was neutral but in 1942 joined with Germany against Russia. Even Mussolini was not sympathetic to Hitler in the beginning. Mussolini only joined him in the war after he had occupied France in 1940. Somehow, we continued to believe that what had happened to Poland could not happen to us.
I was building up the plant, raising my children, and had even brought my brother in 1934 home from America during the Depression. We were never so much as even hurt by the worldwide Depression because our product was in such demand that we could not produce enough of it. Production was high quality in both hosiery and underwear. As we found out later, in April 1941 Hitler and the German military had asked Horthy to let them go through Hungary to attack Yugoslavia. Horthy was strong enough to make conditions. He would let the German army through, but demanded the return of the old Hungarian territory, Croatia was a part of Yugoslavia. Our town was called Murakoz and belonged to Croatia.
My brother had been living in New York since 1927. In 1934, when the Depression was so serious there and unemployment was high, he was in very bad financial shape. We asked him to come to Cakovec, and I opened up a special plant for him. However, he was a nationalized United States citizen. There was a rule that no nationalized U.S. citizen could be out of the States for any longer than six years, so in 1938 my brother went back to America to renew his citizenship. In the same year he returned to Yugoslavia at exactly the same time Chamberlain conferred with Hitler. He decided to go back to America and, in 1940, he went back on the last boat. The American consul in Zagreb was a dear friend of ours and supplied us with American visas, but we still could not decide whether we should leave or stay.
We were convinced that Yugoslavia could never be occupied. In fact, we even opened up a plant in January 1941 in Belgrade, the capital of Yugoslavia. This plant was under the management of Frank Goran, my niece Nada's husband (Nada was the daughter of my brother Joseph). In 1940, we were seriously considering the idea of leaving. However, my niece was married and her husband was inthe Yugoslav regular army. She said, "Father, I cannot go with you because my husband is in the army." My brother told her: "If you cannot go with us, Nada, then I won't go." I then told my brother that if he did not go, then I wouldn't go either, so we stayed at home. We made this decision very easily. Somehow we did not understand the danger that we were facing.
On Sunday, April 6, 1941 both the military camp and the railroad station in our town were bombed by the German Air Force. On Monday, April 7, the Germans occupied our town. The first time that we knew we were in danger was on the morning of April 6, 1941, when the military base in our town was bombed and a few people died. That was when Hitler invaded Yugoslavia. Naturally, the lower element of the town, who were in sympathy with Hitler, started to behave very strangely against the Jews. They did not behave this way towards me and my family. We were protected by one of my workers. Earlier I had received a phone call in the middle of the night from the porter at the factory telling me that he had caught a man stealing hosiery from the plant. I went down to the plant and I asked the man why he stole from me. I told him that if he needed hosiery for his family I would let him have some but not to steal from me. I said to him that he would not be fired if he promised not to steal. I told the porter not to tell anyone in the factory what had happened and the next day the worker came to his job as if nothing had happened. It turned out that the thief was the leader of the German sympathizers in the town and when they went on a rampage against the Jews he stood guard in front of ou house all night long to be sure that we were not harmed.
The commander of the Hungarian troops which occupied our town became a dear friend of mine. He was a Hungarian aristocrat, a very well-educated man. This man told us: "If any German ever tries to come to the plant for merchandise, just call me." It happened that one day a truck did come with Croatian Fascist soldiers and wanted to take merchandise to Zagreb. I called up the Hungarian commander, and about one half hour later Hungarian troops came and forced the Croatian soldiers to go back to Zagreb without the merchandise.
There was disagreement between Horthy and Hitler about whether or not Murakoz belonged to Hungary or not. On June 21, it was formally declared that this island on which our town stood was Hungarian. The factory started to produce for the whole Hungarian state, and we lived relatively free. As part of their campaign of anti-Semitism the Hungarians created "forced labor" camps for Jews. Very few people in our town were forced into labor camps, but my niece's husband was. All young Jewish men at age 21, or after they had finished high school in Hungary, were taken to the work camp. Once there, they built ditches in the fields and forests. These camps were in occupied, foreign territories. It was hard work. Naturally, life in the camps was not easy because the commanders were very anti-Semitic and followed the German methods. Few of them were killed, but many died from exhaustion and poor nutrition. However, many of these people escaped the gas chamber because they were reached and captured by the advancing Russian army before the Nazis could kill them.
A few German people lived in our town and were the so-called "fifth column" [a group of secret sympathizers of an enemy that engage in sabotage, espionage, and treasonous activities]. By the next Sunday after the Germans occupied our town, Easter Sunday, the local German sympathizers had started to wear their German uniforms, the Nazi uniform and a few houses had the Nazi flag out. The so-called Hungarian intelligensia of seven people went to the next Hungarian town and told the Hungarian army there that the Hungarian people were suffering from the Germans. I got a message on Easter Sunday that on the 16th, Hungarian troops would be coming to occupy our town. That was the agreement between Hitler and Horthy--old Hungarian territory would be put under Hungarian occupation. On April 16, the troops came and occupied the town.
The Germans then left our town and went over the river Drava to the town of Varazsdin, which was under Croatian occupation. There, the Croatians had already started very strict rules against the Jewish population, the system called Ustasa. Even in 1941, the Jewish people were being deported from this town, but we were free. The Hungarian army didn't touch anybody. We were under Hungarian occupation from April 16, 1941, to March 19, 1944, when the German occupation in Hungary began. Because we were born in Hungary and Hungarian was our mother language, we had a good relationship with the Hungarian army. As a matter of fact, two officers lived in my house. One was a Colonel, and the other was a Lieutenant. Most of the Hungarian officers hated the Germans. Except for certain Hungarians, the Hungarian people as a whole were simple opportunists. There was only a small minority against the Germans.
We bought two big plants in Hungary because we had the idea to start a big spinning plant there. During the war we hid the spinning machines in an old flour mill near Budapest in 42 boxes. We believed that after the war we would start a very big and modern yarn spinning plant. Our product was very popular because the Hungarian middle class was demanding more in quality. The department stores in Budapest came to our town and bought everything that they could--we had very elegant showrooms in Budapest. We held a very special position with the government in Hungary. Between 1941 and 1944, we even got machines from Germany. Hungary delivered food to Germany. This big food delivery was much more than the Germans could pay for, so we got machines and other technical instruments for the difference. I went to Germany with the trade delegation and saw some of my old friends from my textile college; by this time these men were in high positions. I bought some machines primarily for our factory in Cakovec, but because we were so naive as to what was going on around us, we put some knitting machines in Hungarian plants too. These plants were later taken away from us by the Hungarian communists in 1948. But between 1941 and 1944 there were no major problems.
Our plant was already working at full capacity. We supplied the entire Hungarian mainland because people were restricted, even before 1941, from buying foreign goods. We had to get everything we wanted from England, Italy, and Switzerland because Germany didn't let any foreign material through. We lived in a dream world, not believing that deportation [to concentration camps] could happen to us. Our plant was already known throughout Hungary as a first class plant, producing a quality product.
My children went to Hungarian schools and their Hungarian friends came to our house. The Hungarian occupation officers came to our plant. Even during the three years that we were under complete Hungarian occupation, nobody was ever hurt. We had freedom. We could go to Budapest, or anywhere else because we were Hungarian citizens in these times. We were all Yugoslav citizens before, but we now had Hungarian passports. We had a wonderful time during these three years. Our product was popular. My brother, Joseph, was working in the beautiful new office that we had in Budapest, and he and his family lived in a wonderful hotel. We had a steady apartment in Budapest, and my son Otto went to the textile high school there.
One very nice thing that happened during this time: I took a class of school boys to Budapest for a three day visit. I was the guide, and my two sons came with us. We stayed in an elegant hotel, but I forced my sons to stay with the other children in a school dormitory. That was my principle. My sons should not feel that they are different from the other children because their father was a rich man. They did not even know that we were rich. I made my sons walk to school (about 1 1/2 miles) four times every day; whenever they went out they walked like all the other children, even though we had many cars in the factory. Naturally, I was the guide and invited all of the children as well as the two professors out for a fine lunch in a fine restaurant. It was a beautiful excursion, because even my sons did not know Budapest. We would take a drive every Sunday. I did not want to take the chauffeur away from his family on Sunday, so I told him to bring his family along as well. We all ate at the same table and shared the same experiences.
In other parts of the Hungarian territory there were big atrocities. Jews and Serbs were murdered by right wing Hungarian officers, and many young Jewish men had to go to labor camps. However, during this time it was a very pleasant life for us and we believed that it would stay this way. In 1938 the rightists of the Hungarian Nazi party got about 10 percent of the seats in the Hungarian parliament. In 1938, Hungary, under pressure from the Germans, issued anti-Jewish regulations. A Jew could not sell food or alcohol, and could not make up more than twenty percent of your work force. Such rules were the so-called "Hungarian Restrictions" against the Jewish population. Although, basically, Hungarian leadership was against the Germans, the government had to enforce these laws because of pressure from the Germans.
During the Hungarian occupation, our children had certain disadvantages in the classroom, but not very strict ones. They could not take part in all of the sport activities, but that did not hurt too much. The Hungarians also had a youth movement, like the Hitler youth called "Levente," an old Hungarian expression for a hero's protege. The Jewish students could not be a part of this youth organization either because this was a political organization. In our town, Hungarian rules stated that Jews too could not serve food. Generally, there was other discrimination. It only occurred in particular ways. There was no mistreatment in our town, and we had good relations with the Hungarians, especially me, because I was running the plant and was Hungarian by birth. Even the workers who were Croation were on our side.
From the Jewish point of view, the German occupation of Hungary in 1944 was a catastrophe. Before 1941, Hungary only had 400,000 Jewish people. In the new territory that Germany had promised to give back to Hungary in 1942 and gave back as Transylvania, there were about 400,000 Jewish people. The total Jewish population after March 19, 1941 was 800,000. Hungary was already looking toward the West because Horthy was more Anglophile than German and the Hungarian people did not like the Germans. Hitler saw that Hungary was willing to join the Western Alliance, so on Saturday, March 19, 1944, the German invasion came and our tragedy started--Germany occupied Hungary. That Saturday was my name day--Alexander. In Hungary they don't celebrate birthdays, they celebrate namedays, so my office was filled with flowers.
When the Germans arrived, I took my family to a friend in Budapest, because I expected more security there. In the beginning of the occupation of Hungary there was not much harassment of Jews in Budapest. I called up the head of the railroad station who told me: "Look Sandor, I can arrange it so that you can go to Budapest because the railroad is still under my command." To make our way to the railroad station, which was already under German command, Otto and our governess went one way, while Andrew, my wife and I, went another. I had hoped that no one who could see us separated would think we were trying to escape. We met at the railroad station where the head of the station had reserved a railroad compartment for us; he was one of our good friends and told the Germans whatever they needed to hear to let us go. In the evening, when we arrived at the railroad station in Budapest where everybody had to show their identification, a German Nazi came up to me and asked, "Now, who are you?" I did not have any identification, so he took me aside and started talking to me. I told him that I had my wife and two children with me, and that we had been traveling a long way and that we were so tired. I was afraid that he would ask for my papers. Instead, he said, "Okay, go." Why he let us go I do not know, for there were other people in the railroad station who had been arrested because they were Jewish. When we arrived in Budapest, one of my employees met us and took us to the hotel--"The Hungarian"--where we had a permanent suite. The head porter was a very good friend of mine and said, "Sandor, why did you come? You see the Nazis are having a party in the hotel. The whole hotel is occupied. Mr. Joseph," my brother, "is not here, but if you want to stay here, your room is yours." We were so scared. My brother arrived in the middle of the night and told me that we were in danger. However, he still had the privilege not to be considered a Jew.
There was a group of Jewish leaders who were being exempt from Jewish regulation, such as people who were leaders in industry there. My brother had been an officer in the first war and had also gotten a gold medal from Horthy too for special performances, so he was exempted. The head of the police department was a friend of ours, and on Monday I went to him for help. He said, "I am very sorry Sandor, I cannot help you. The Germans took over this office too." I was very desperate. My sister was married to a Catholic man, a dear man, so we went to them to hide. We believed that if we were in a Christian home, we would be more secure. Our family doctor came to see me there and gave each of us some poison--cyanide--so that everybody in the family would have a small bag of poison on a string around the neck. On March 25, we decided that somehow we had to go back to our town. We went back home on March 25, 1944, by traveling with a very prominent professor of Otto's. He was attending a very prestigious textile school in Budapest. When we arrived we learned that there were already anti-Jewish regulations: in our town Jews could not leave the house after 6 o'clock, and Jews could not own property (everything had been taken away from them--autos, radios, everything). On April 25-26, all the Jewish stores were closed.
The same day we had arrived home, the restrictions started but still we felt safe because we were at home. I cannot explain it. I cannot explain why we even went back. Then came the order requiring each of us to wear the yellow star signifying that we were Jews. My wife had to make a yellow star for each of us. It was terrible. This was the greatest tragedy in our lives--being distinguished as different from other Hungarians. Even my children had to wear the star.
I went back to work on Monday with the yellow star. Nothing happened at the plant, but there was already a German officer watching it. We were still living in our house, but could not have any Christian employees in the house anymore. We had a cook, a chambermaid, and a butler, but they could not live with us nor work for us anymore. My wife and our governess, who was a Jewish girl, started to cook and do all the housework. Eventually our governess was deported but survived the concentration camp. I had freedom to run the plant like I had before. On April 19, 1944, the new management asked me to go to Budapest to buy materials. I had an all week leave. I went on the train wearing the yellow star and had to sit in a compartment alone, but no one insulted me. When I arrived in Budapest, my brother was already in hiding, and I stayed with him.
I found out where my brother and his younger daughter, Mira, were hiding through an employee who was waiting in the railroad station. This employee was waiting for me with an auto, and he took me to my brother who was in a private home owned by one of Otto's professors who was Catholic. Everybody was so convinced that deportation could not happen to my brother because he was not considered Jewish. He did not even wear the yellow star. But the rules made by the Hungarians did not apply under the Germans.
When I came home on April 26, 1944 troopers arrested me at the railroad station. I knew the Sergeant very well and he told me that they had orders to take me back to the factory despite the fact that my family was already in the synagogue being prepared for deportation. When the Germans came to get my family one of the officers that lived in my house was not home. Only the lieutenant was at home. At six o'clock in the morning, the Hungarian police and Germans came to our house and told my wife to pack one nightgown, one pair of underwear, one pair of shoes, one dress, and one of each for the children. They took my wife and children to the Jewish synagogue. It is typical that the Jewish people there were not desperate because they all believed what the Germans had told them--that they were going to go work. The Germans took all of the people in all of the surrounding towns. It was a very sad, heartbreaking scene to see my good friends here waiting for deportation. The Jewish synagogue had been specified as the ghetto where about 800 people were to wait for deportation. They took me back to the factory. The man who got orders from the Germans to run the factory was head of the bookkeeping division of the business with about forty people working for him.
This head of bookkeeping whom the Nazis put in charge of the factory had gone to the Gauleiter, the head of the SS unit, and told him that he would gladly run the plant but not without me. He had told them that he was only a bookkeeper, but I was the man who had built up the plant. Naturally, the Nazis--the SS people--laughed at him and asked "What kind of idiotic idea is this? We are running all of Europe now without the Jews." Then he had explained to the Gauleiter that he could not guarantee that the plant could be run without me. The Gauleiter then told him, "If you bring me the signatures of at least 1,000 workers that agree with you, then I will think it over." That day, this man had sent bicycles, autos, and carriages around the town because some of our workers lived 5-6 miles away. They collected 1400 signatures and he got the OK to take my family and me out of the synagogue. I could help run the plant for six months, but only if I wore the yellow star. I just technically worked in the plant, but in actuality I had complete authority over the production.
The head of bookkeeping placed himself in danger by asking that I, a Jew, be allowed to stay. Although he and I were not friends, for I was in production and hardly ever went into the office, he knew nothing about running the whole plant. The bookkeeper was head of the Hungarian minority in the town (the Germans wanted good relations with these people), was from an old Christian family, and was the chief business manager, so it was logical that the Nazis should choose him to run the plant. But he was not able to do it and of course he was frightened of failing. There were three foremen who worked for me who together could run the plant. One of these foremen was the type who changed his political convictions according to who happened to be in power at any specific time. The bookkeeper and this man did not get along well and the bookkeeper may have been afraid that if I was not around to run things then this other manager would get him in trouble with the Nazis. The third manager knew only about certain aspects of the business and could not run the whole plant by himself. Since the bookkeeper also was not capable of running the operation, it made sense for him to try to save me so I could run the plant and save him from the other antagonistic and opportunistic manager.
During the six months in which I ran the plant both the bookkeeper and the opportunistic manager were very nice to me. The opportunistic manager had very good connections with the Germans, and during the six months he tried to locate my brother in order to save him. He knew that the success which he enjoyed had come from the work and ingenuity of the Teszler brothers and he genuinely liked and admired us. He was not able to locate my brother. My brother had lost the special status he enjoyed under Horthy when the Germans arrived and he had gone into hiding in Budapest. He had turned our fortune into diamonds and other precious gems which he had in a bag. One of his "friends" told him that a Nazi officer would place him on a train for Switzerland in exchange for the diamonds and money. My brother was desperate and took the gamble. The Nazi took the diamonds and put my brother, his wife and daughter Nada, the wife of Frank Goran, on a first class car on a train that took them to Auschwitz. His daughter, Mira, was not taken because she was hiding in a Christian home. I learned after the war from a man who answered an ad I placed in the papers asking if anyone knew anything about a Joseph Teszler that when he arrived at Auschwitz he was placed in a work detail. Three days before the Allies liberated the camp, my brother fell ill and placed himself in the hospital although people warned him not to. The Germans killed all the people in the hospital.
During the six months of my stay of execution the workers in our factory were very nice to me and showed me love because we were so good to them. We found food and toys under the fence in the mornings left there for my children by their friends, the children of the workers. The children of the workers did not forget that I had built the first large swimming pool on the factory grounds, not only for the white collar workers who could use it during lunchtime and evenings, but also for all the workers' children who used it with my children in the afternoons. Most of my children’s friends were the children of my workers with whom they went to school. On those afternoons when they went swimming my wife would prepare a snack for all the children which she would serve them by the pool. The people in the factory were happy to see us stay; on April 28 of 1944, all of the Jews from the ghetto were transported by trucks to the railroad station, which we could see from our window. We saw our friends, our best friends, everybody that we loved and were close to, even many of my workers--there were all the Jewish people who worked in my plant--loaded on the trucks. It was a terrible sight for us. On this same day, we had to leave our home, which was opposite the factory. We had to move into a small house in the factory which had been the house of the chauffeur who was in charge of factory automobiles; this small house became our shelter for six months. Gates and fences were built around the house, so that my family could not leave this area--so that my wife and my children could not get out. We got a man to go into the city everyday and buy us food.
It was in June of 1942, that we first heard of the "death camps." A high ranking Hungarian officer lived in our house and he and I had been listening to the BBC in secret and had heard about concentration camps as being death camps. At this time, the BBC radio broadcasts did not say anything about the crematoriums, but they did report on many Nazi atrocities at the camps. The Nazis had gone to great lengths to make the Jews believe that the camps were for relocation and work. One of my Jewish foremen who was among the 800 people from Cakovec who were deported had sent me a postcard from Auschwitz on which was a picture of a rose garden and the words "Arbeit Macht Frei" ("Work Gives Freedom") which were over the entrance to the camp. The postcard said how beautiful it was there and how happy he was with the work that he was doing. I know that he was forced to write the card because I recognized his handwriting. But we knew better not only from the BBC broadcasts but also from rumors that were confirmed by leaflets dropped from American planes over our town as they flew to bomb the Ploesti oil fields.
Meantime, Otto was fifteen and Andrew was thirteen. Naturally, it was very difficult for the young boys because, what else was there for them to do but read all day and help their mother cook and clean? In the morning Otto and Andrew would find newspapers, books, food, and bread left inside our fence during the night by their friends--my children's best friends were my worker's children. My wife got sick, but she could not even go to the doctor. The doctor had to come to us. In the evenings after six o'clock--the plant ran in only two shifts--when all of the workers had left and there were only a few soldiers in the plant, I would take my sweet children out after dinner, and we would walk around the plant. The plant was about twenty acres and we would walk for hours and hours. This was the most important stage in their lives so we started talking about everything: books, life, and the situation that we were in. We also talked about the faith of the Jewish people. One day Andrew asked me, "Why are we the chosen people father?" I had to tell him that we were chosen for death. It was a very sad and interesting episode.
Meanwhile, the gentleman who was in charge came to me and said he had heard that, if we converted from Judaism to Christianity, we could stay longer than six months. A Lutheran minister, who was a good friend of mine, came over and converted us in our small kitchen. We stood in a line in the kitchen as two of my dearest co-workers acted as witnesses. The conversion took place so we might be saved. In the middle of June, 1944, a detective came and hauled me into the office. He asked me, "Did you convert?" I told him, "Yes." "When did you convert?" I told him, "A week ago." He got up and shook my hand and said, "You are an honest man to tell me what happened. Fine for you, but the minister forgot to change the date in his book." You see, in his book, our conversion was written down as 1940 instead of 1944. What the detective wanted to know was whether I would lie about the date of the conversion. Back in 1940 the Teszlers had decided to convert to Christianity in the firm belief that if they ever wished to emigrate they would only be able to do so as Christians and not as Jews. We had always been secular Jews, anyway. At that time you could convert only if the local rabbi wrote a letter in which he stated that he did not object to your conversion. The family gathered at a spa with a rabbi for the conversion ceremony; the minister entered all the information in his records before the ceremony actually took place. On my way to the ceremony I had an automobile accident and did not get to the ceremony. So my conversion never took place but the minister had not changed his records. According to the records the detective had, I had converted back in 1940 and was converting again only to escape deportation after September 26 when my six months would expire. The detective was testing me. If I had lied and said that I had converted in 1940 the detective would have believed the records had been falsified and would have sent me and my family off. But since I told the truth that I converted only recently, he decided to let me go. In 1964 I met this Lutheran minister (who had tried to save us by converting us in 1944) in Stuttgart in a little parish, and he told me that he spent six months in jail because of what had happened. He was in bad shape so I gave him money and every month since then he gets money from us.
On September 26, 1944, my six months expired, and the police took us to Budapest. We were taken straight to jail--it was just a transitory jail--for a few days, but we were freed the next day. My wife's parents were living in a special "Jewish house." Before the ghetto was established in Budapest, there were certain houses called "Jewish houses." Only the Jews could live there, and all of the Christians had moved out. These were certain houses and big apartment houses; the Jews could not live anywhere else but in them. It was September 26, 1944, and the Hungarian Nazis had been deporting since May. From May to June, 600,000 Jewish people were deported, and only about 90,000 came back.
It was the Hungarian Nazis who had done everything. However, Horthy had not allowed the deportation of Jewish people from Budapest. He was still so strong that he could prevent deportation from the city. Jewish people could be deported from the provinces and from the land, but not from Budapest. Deportations had started in April, but all had been from the countryside. Meanwhile, Horthy was talking about a separate peace with the Allies and on October 15, 1944, Horthy went to the radio station and proclaimed that Hungary was no longer in the war. He asked the soldiers to put down their ammunition, their rifles, everything, because we were no longer in the war.
Well, next day on Monday the Hungarian Nazis, under German command, took over the government, and Horthy along with his son were taken prisoner. Then the terror came. The Nazis began to round up Jews. After September 26 when we were released from the temporary prison in Budapest we had gone to live with my wife's parents in a Jewish house. On October 20th early in the morning Hungarian police and Nazis came into this house and ordered that all Jews from 16 to 60 years of age should come down with very few belongings. In this house were about 25 to 30 people including me and my brother-in-law. For me, taking my belongings meant that I should take at least two pair of shoes. In the six months after I had been saved from deportation and had been allowed to run the plant in Cakovec my nightmares were that I was in a concentration camp and didn't have any shoes and could not walk, and because I could not perform any work the Nazis would kill me. So in my knapsack I placed 2 pair of shoes, very heavy shoes. After we were all ready to go they took us to a soccer stadium where we stood for 6 to 7 hours waiting for instructions. After standing all day without knowing what was going to happen to us, we were very frightened. The Nazis told us we were about to leave. Before we started to go, the Nazis told us in a very friendly voice, "Whoever can not walk we will help them and will take them in a truck." My brother-in-law, Stephen, said, "Please my dear Sandor go with them by truck," but I refused. As so often in my life, I was very proud that I could walk and I didn't want to be among the handicapped so I did not travel by truck. Later we heard the guns firing; these poor people who were handicapped and crippled and had decided to travel by truck were shot on the spot. So we started to walk. After 6 to 8 hours, it was about 16 miles from Budapest, we arrived in a little town, Pecel, where we were placed in a forced labor camp. (In this town in my school years I lived with my very best friend's family every summer. It was this friend and schoolmate whose father had a very high position in a beer brewery. My friend was a little bit intellectually lazy and every summer I helped him to prepare to take the September tests so he could advance with me into the higher class.) The next morning we were standing in line and everyone, the young and the old people many of whom were sick, were directed to go and dig tank trenches (the Russian troops were only about 20 miles away), but I was unable to go because I was very weak and my feet were swollen and in terrible condition and I just could not walk so I stayed in the building. On the next morning everyone had to go again and I was very frightened at what would happen to me because I still could not walk, but suddenly a young officer came up on horseback. The corporal of the guard reported to this officer: "This dirty Jew doesn't want to work!" This young officer noticed my feet and putting his fingers on them yelled at the corporal "Are you a human? Are you not ashamed of ordering this poor man to work? Don't you see that this man has bad feet and cannot even walk?"
To my great surprise around 12 o'clock a young Hungarian Nazi--in uniform--came and yelled at the guards: "I want to see this Jewish Teszler." Naturally, I was terribly shocked and scared. "Let me take this Jew," pointing at me, "I have to take him to jail." I was in shock but when I went with him out of our building in the forced labor camp, I saw our company car with our old chauffeur who was our employee. To make this story shorter the young Hungarian Nazi took me to the private apartment where my dearest friend Zoltan Roman was hiding. Roman, who had good connections with the Hungarian Nazis, was the person who had sent the Hungarian NAZI to get me. [Roman was also one of the men who saved me later from the death house on November 25 which I talk about later.] He learned where I was because a man who was also a prisoner with me in the forced labor camp in Pecel bribed a guard to go to Budapest to the Jewish House, from which we had been taken, to get food. When the guard got the food he told the housekeeper where we were and she told Mr. Roman.
Naturally, after I had been freed from the camp my family and I went to hide. We went to a private apartment house owned by a Jewish lady whose husband had been a high ranking Hungarian army officer before the war. We lived along with about ten other Jewish people. They called it a pensione--BB, breakfast and bed. The owner's husband tried to protect the Jews who were in his house; when some Nazis took rooms there he slept with the Jews to protect them. However, somebody, one of the servants or cook, told some very bad Hungarian Nazis that there were Jewish people living there. Once we were discovered, we were then taken to a very, very dangerous house. All Jewish people who were taken there had been killed. It was a death house from which nobody had escaped alive.
On the afternoon of November 25, they beat us terribly. When the Hungarian Nazi asked me, "What did you do?", I told him that I had had a big plant and, after the Hungarian occupation, I had the help of the Hungarian industry too. "You lie you dirty Jew." It was as if he thought I had made it up, like I had made charges against the Hungarians. They continued to beat us very much. The next afternoon at 4 o'clock, we had to stand in line because that was the routine--at 4 o'clock they took the Jewish people to the River Danube and shot them and all died in the Danube. Well, we each had a little bag on our chain with cyanide in it and had agreed that before they would take us, before we would die like the other Jews, we would take the cyanide. We would not go alive. Thank God that when they were beating us the day before, they did not notice our little bags, because they had taken everything that we had: coats, jackets, all our belongings. When we were standing in line Andrew, who was thirteen years old then, asked me, "Father should we take the cyanide now?" We knew this was the end. However, the same man that had been beating us bitterly the day before heard what Andrew had asked me. He came to me and told me, "Don't do it. The Swiss consul will pick you up." In this time the Swiss consul was the protector of Yugoslavian interests in Budapest. A friend of ours [Zoltan Roman] who was one of our partners in a knitting mill and who was a Jew but who had a safe conduct pass from the Germans because his plants supplied essential goods for the German army, had gone to the Swiss consul, Mr. Lutz, and said to him, "Look, there are four Yugoslav citizens in a death house out of which nobody has come out alive. Since you are protecting the Yugoslav interests, you must save their lives or after the war I will tell the whole world what you have done." The Swiss consul was afraid because he had been giving protective so-called Schutzpass for Yugoslav citizens like us. The Swiss consul protected the Yugoslav and American interests during the German occupation. Naturally, these protective passes did not authorize their holders to enter Switzerland, but they did save many thousands of Yugoslav and American citizens. Mr. Lutz went to the Hungarian Minister of Interior [in Europe this position means the head of the police], Baron Kemely, who was a very young and naive man, who believed in the Hungarian Nazis, and demanded permission for us to be set free so that we could be picked up from this death house.
The Swiss consul could only save the four of us; he could only demand our release because we were the only Yugoslav citizens in this place where about 20 or 30 other people were. So really this man, this Hungarian Nazi, this devil who had been beating us the night before, was right because a few minutes later the Swiss consul came with the Yugoslav citizenship papers, and we were taken to the Swiss embassy at which there were about 2,000 people. The four of us slept under a table that night, but we were saved. The next day we were taken back to the same house where we had been living and where we had been arrested, and we lived there until December 14. We were not wearing the yellow star anymore because we were Yugoslav citizens. I do not know why the Hungarian Nazi told us about the Swiss consul and told us not to use the poison. It may be that his superiors had already heard that the Swiss consul was on his way and he did not want to get into trouble for letting us kill ourselves. Whatever reason, it is strange. At the beginning of December, the war started around us. The Russians were already very near to Budapest. As a matter of fact, the outskirts of Budapest were already occupied. Fighting between the Germans and Russians in Budapest began on December 14. The fighting was from house to house and room to room, but the Russians went slow so that the Hungarian Nazis had enough time to kill the Jewish people. The house we were living in was bombed, but we were in the basement. It burned to the ground, so we had to move out, but we found shelter in a Lutheran church basement. Not far from our shelter was our office, where some of our friends were hiding, so we went there for shelter. In the meantime, the Nazis came to this Lutheran Church on February 14, took the Jewish people there, and killed them.
My father was in a Swedish house. At this time the famous Swede named [Raoul] Wallenberg who was a diplomat and a member of one of Sweden's richest families, was saving close to 50,000 Jews in Budapest by giving them Swedish passports and renting houses, which were known as Swedish houses. The Nazis could not go into them because they were Swedish territory. My wife's parents were also in a protected shelter, but the Nazis did not honor its boundaries and killed them.
I am still very much hurt by the way the people of my country, Hungary, treated us during the Nazi period. My family had been living in Hungary for five hundred years; our whole culture was Hungarian and of course we considered ourselves Hungarians. In fact, even though we supported the synagogue, my family was secular. My father had always taught us that we should be good people, and we should decide for ourselves how to live good lives. My father did not want us to be influenced by the rabbis and the orthodox Jews. So in my family it was important to be good people and to be good citizens. Nevertheless, when there was an opportunity for the Hungarian Nazis and other Hungarians to turn on their fellow Jewish citizens, they denounced us saying that "You are not Hungarians, you are Jews!" When we were marched as prisoners from place to place the Hungarian peasants and many people in the cities spit on us and called us names.
On February 15, 1945, the Russians liberated us, and we were so happy to be free. Yet, the next day Russian soldiers came and took Otto and me as prisoners of war. Everybody was taken, whether they were 16 or 60, Jewish or Christian, because the soldiers had to produce 30,000 prisoners. They took us to a big movie house and that same night we started the 10 kilometer march to the outskirts of Budapest, where the prison camp was. We escaped this march too.
We were able to escape because my son Otto spoke very good Russian and the two Russian officers that were with us told Otto to tell the group to move on ahead, and they would come back for us. You see, there was looting in Budapest and these officers wanted to be a part of it, so they went back. The moment that they left us, we decided not to go on and moved back. I was not able to go very far, but Otto and my friend helped me over the walk. Finally at 4 o'clock AM we arrived back at our shelter. After the war we moved in with my wife's aunt. My family had been destroyed by the Nazis. Nobody was alive anymore. My father was killed as well as my brother and his family. Only my sister, who was married to a Catholic, was saved.
In 1945, the Hungarian government wanted to rebuild the Hungarian industry. The government was not communist during this time. Russian soldiers were there--about 200,000 stayed in the background--but they did not interfere with politics. Conditions in Hungary were better immediately after the war than later because the communists did not take over until March of 1948. Until then, the communists were only in the background. No communists were ministers or held any high positions. We also did not see the communist movement.
In Yugoslavia the government was under Tito. In 1946 his government produced a document that I had signed in 1944 when the Germans had let me live that extra six months. The Hungarian prefect, with German approval, had made me sign a document in which I promised to devote all my energy and talent in running the plant "in the interest of the state." In 1946 the Yugoslavian government interpreted that statement to mean that I was a collaborator. Of course in 1944, in order to save myself and my family, I would have signed anything. On the basis of this paper, the Yugoslavian government accused me of collaboration with the enemy, placed me on trial in absentia (I was in Hungary in 1946), found me guilty and confiscated all my property including my factory.
Although in Yugoslavia, Tito was a communist and in charge, in Hungary the communists were not powerful. Immediately after the war in the first secret election, the communists only got 18 percent of the secret votes. It was a democratic oriented party, made up of small landowners that took over the government of Hungary. I joined a group. There were three people selected to reorganize the textile industry. One was a yarn expert and cotton weaver. The other was a wool weaver, and I was the third--a knitting expert. They gave me twenty-six factories to get back into shape. The first thing that we wanted to do was to establish what kind of condition the plants were in. We got an auto, and I went through the old plants to find out what needed to be fixed. Everything was in terrible condition--windows were broken and needles from the machines were missing. All of the factories had been emptied. What the Germans did not steal, the Russians took. The production situation was unbelievable, so unbelievable that we had to start from scratch.
Inflation was so bad that everybody suffered. A dollar was probably five billion units. It was so bad that everyday a jeweler would take one gram off my wife's chain, a very heavy chain, in exchange for money. With the money that he gave her, she would go to the market and buy food. If she went at 8 o'clock, she could buy food for the day, but if she went at 8:30, she was only able to buy a piece of bread. The inflation was unbelievable.
In early 1946 I had permission to go to England (in a Russian plane) and buy machine parts. I went to Leister, England--the center of the knitting industry--and bought everything that we needed for future production. In 1945-46 we started to build up the plants. We did not have any cotton, so the Russians gave it to us in exchange for 20 percent of our production. One Hungarian economist, who was Stalin's financial expert and one of my high school Economics professors, came to Budapest and told us not to sell any goods, but just to keep them in stock. On June 30, 1946, new money was issued. On this day, we brought 20 or 30 trucks and filled them with merchandise. The peasants would not sell goods for money. You had to give them your jacket, or any other belongings, in exchange for goods. Therefore, we took these trucks, full of merchandise needed by the peasants, to small towns and said, "Here are the materials. You can buy anything that you want, but only with new money." The inflation stopped.
Leister, England, had the most famous knitting college in the world. I knew the president from the olden times, so in 1946, I went to him and asked if he would take my two sons as students. He answered: "Naturally, but how can you get out of Hungary?" I had some good connections, and I finally got permission to send my two sons, Otto and Andrew, to England in September of 1947. My brother Akos's son from New York joined them from America, and my brother sent them food because England rationed it. In December of 1947, Tito came to Budapest, and all of the prominent Yugoslavs, like me, were taken to the Hungarian political police stations as a protective measure against anyone trying to harm Tito. One day a mayor, who turned out to be a school friend of mine, came to my office. He said to me, "Sandor you are on my list. I have to take you to the police station." He wanted to know when I could leave Budapest. I had the English visa in my hand and told him that I would go on the 24th, the day before Christmas. He said, "No, you go tomorrow." On December 17, I went to England, where my sons were already in Leister. Yet in March of 1948, just three months after we had left, the communist party under Rakosy nationalized everything. Private ownership did not exist anymore. The lands, the factories, the private houses, even the small workshops were nationalized.
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