In the wake of the recent Gazette report by Wesley Wright on my talk to College of William and Mary students about how I survived the Holocaust, several readers asked what happened to me after the Red Army liberated Budapest.
My first encounter with Soviet soldiers wasn’t too auspicious. As I have described it in a chapter of my book, “Reports from a Distant Place,” during the last weeks of the siege of Budapest, all the tenants of the apartment building where I was hiding (using a fake ID), sought shelter in the basement. House-to-house combat ensued between the defending German SS troops and the attacking Red Army units.
The Soviet troops were able to advance slowly and at the price of heavy casualties. The Soviet troops got wise. They learned, as a result of air raid shelter regulations, a wall in the basement separating two adjacent buildings had to be made easily breakable to enable occupants to escape in case of emergency.
When a squad of Soviet soldiers burst into the basement of our apartment building, they immediately made an attempt to break through the wall. But for some reason, the masonry remained solid.
The Soviet soldiers became furious and threatening. Using my fragmented Russian, I tried to calm them down. Then the squad leader, a battle-wise sergeant, grinned: “You,” he pointed at me, “go up to street level, run over to the next building and break through the wall from the other side.”
It was an order, not a suggestion.
I did as I was told. It was pitch dark, in the middle of a freezing January night, and the only illumination came from whizzing tracer bullets. I managed to get into the entrance hall of the next building.
Suddenly, I heard a whispering sound, “spion, spion,” which means “spy, spy.” Before I had a chance to utter a word, I felt the barrels of several Kalashnikov assault rifles pushing against my ribs. I started shouting, “I am no spion. I am a Jew.”
From out of nowhere a voice called out, “Yakov, idy suda,” (Jacob, come here.) Yakov said, “Say something in Hebrew.”
I, a lapsed Jew, had to think hard. Then out the recesses of my memory, I started to recite, “Shema Yisrael, Adonai elohenu ...” the Jewish equivalent of the Lord’s Prayer. Yakov stepped forward, embraced me and said to his fellow soldiers, “He is OK. He is not a spion.”
Another episode I never wrote about and shared only reluctantly with close friends, occurred shortly after I was recruited as a translator for a Soviet general, the commander of a front-line division.
He set up temporary headquarters on the second floor of an imposing apartment building. Each floor above was occupied by a rich Hungarian family. They were terrified of Soviet soldiers who were known to rape Hungarian women with impunity.
The presence of a Soviet general in the building provided them with some assurance that this wouldn’t happen to their women.
Early one evening, the general’s military aid ordered me to recruit three young women, living with their families in the apartments above, to serve as “dinner companions” to the general and two of his deputies. I immediately knew what it meant and I was mortified by the thought that I should play part in this scheme.
I knew also that disobeying the order would have grave consequences for me.
In total panic, I remembered that Budapest always had a district where houses of prostitution where permitted to operate legally. Accompanied by two Soviet military policemen, I rushed to Conti Utca, about a mile away. At one of the houses, I explained my task to the Madame. I promised that the women would return richly rewarded with food. In the starving city, food was more valuable than gold.
A few minutes later, Madame returned with three shapely, young women who volunteered to be “dinner companions” of the general.
Later that night, I was summoned to his quarters. The three women, weighed down with food packages, were waiting for me. Smiling, they embraced me. Accompanied by the two Soviet military policemen, I escorted the women back to Conti Utca.
A few days later, the general’s headquarters moved further west, toward Vienna. I remained in Budapest until my hometown, Parkan, on the Danube River, was liberated.
From among the members of my family, only my father and my brother survived. My mother, sister and her 3-month-old baby, aunts, uncles, cousins — more than two dozen of them — all perished in the Holocaust.
Shatz is a Williamsburg resident. He is the author of “Reports from a Distant Place,” the compilation of his selected columns. The book is available at the Briton Parish Shop and Amazon.com.