[Andy Miles] Hello, and welcome to “Resistance, Resilience and Hope: Holocaust Survivor Stories,” a podcast co-production of Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center and Studio C Chicago.
The mission of Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center is expressed in its founding principle: Remember the Past, Transform the Future. The Museum is dedicated to preserving the legacy of the Holocaust by honoring the memories of those who were lost and by teaching universal lessons that combat hatred, prejudice, and indifference. The Museum fulfills its mission through the exhibition, preservation, and interpretation of its collections and through education programs and initiatives, like this podcast, that foster the promotion of human rights and the elimination of genocide.
On this episode, we hear from Vera Burstyn.
Vera was born in 1939 in Budapest, Hungary. In 1942, her father was taken to a forced labor camp, sent to the Russian front, and never heard from again. When Germany occupied Hungary in 1944, Vera’s apartment building became a so-called yellow star house, and she and her mother struggled to survive, with the city under constant assault of Nazi bombs and day-to-day living conditions extremely difficult. That fall, her mother was sent on a forced march to Austria and eventually to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Left on her own, Vera lived in a Red Cross orphanage in Budapest until an aunt with Swedish papers found her and took her in.
[Vera Burstyn] “When I got to the Red Cross shelter, just by chance of fate, my cousin Judy was also in the Red Cross shelter. Now, her parents were still in Budapest. Her mother had some Swedish papers and her father was hiding, but I think they thought that Judy was safer, you know, in the shelter than to be with them. And so we recognized each other at the shelter and we shared our, you know, blanket and we hugged and we kissed and we were together in the shelter.”
[Andy Miles] Vera Burstyn arrived in Chicago on December 26th, 1956 with her mother, dad, and younger brother, having escaped from the Hungarian Revolution. She had many jobs over the years, from working on an assembly line to owning a store and later selling real estate. In 1958 Vera married and she and her husband, Hyman, have four children, six granddaughters, and six grandsons. She says, “If the Great American dream is to educate the children, have a house and a car in the garage, I have done that.” Vera and Hyman have lived in Skokie since 1967.
We spoke over Zoom.
AM: You were born in 1939. So when the Germans invaded Hungary in 1944, you were barely five years old. What do you remember about those early years of your life in Budapest? If you remember anything; I mean, I know you were quite young.
VB: Yes, I was quite young and I have more, like, emotional memories. For example, I don’t like the color yellow because we were made to wear a yellow star. I don’t necessarily love the Star of David, because to me that doesn’t represent pride. It represents more of a horrible period, you know, in our lives.
AM: And what recollections do you have of your parents in those years? Do you have any memory of your biological father?
VB: No. No memory whatsoever. He was called to a forced labor camp in 1942, the summer of 1942, so I don’t — I have photos of him, but no memory.
AM: And what about your mother? I believe she worked at a department store.
VB: My mother was working at the department store till 1939. In 1939, I have a letter attesting to the fact that she was a very good worker and there was no problem with my mother, but they are letting her go. So in 1939, she lost her job.
AM: So then, during your early years, she was doing the best she could to get by, making buttons, for example.
VB: Yes. You know, in today’s society, the idea that you make custom buttons is so far-fetched, but we’re talking about the 1940s when people made their clothes by a seamstress. So, you know, if you wanted to have a button that matched your outfit or your coat or whatever, that’s what you did. You went to one of these ladies like my mother and she made a button for you. There was a little machine that she used at that time.
AM: So you were born the same year as the anti-Jewish laws in Hungary were put in place. How did antisemitism affect your upbringing and the way you saw yourself in the world and in your country?
VB: Well, you know, antisemitism was so baked in in Hungary. It was very much present before the war and it was present after the war also. And, you know, a lot of Jewish people changed their names. They made it sound more Hungarian-sounding names. My cousin Judy’s last name was a Hungarian-sounding name. They changed the name. And there was definitely anti-Jewish feelings in Hungary.
AM: So you mentioned your father, and you’ve told the story that you received a card from your father saying he had lost weight and missed the family terribly and that he needed winter clothes. And that was the last card you got from him. Was that the only correspondence you received from him?
VB: This is the only thing that survived. You know what? I think, you know, he was part of the Hungarian Army. Of course, they were not allowed to have weapons or anything. They just did the heavy work. It’s forced labor camp. I could show you a book if you want me to show it to you with all the names of the Hungarian Jewish men that were forced into this labor camp. And many of them just stayed in Hungary. Many of them, unfortunately like my father, accompanied the Hungarian Army into Russia. You know? Actually, he disappeared in the Soviet Union. And the attrition was really incredible. One of my cousins in Hungary, her husband was in one of these forced labor camps. And out of 10 people, one came back. It was the cold in Russia; it was the treatment; it was the shortage of food and, you know, all those things.
At that time it was like open season on Jewish people. You know, in America, we have a season for killing a bear or killing, you know, some animals. Unfortunately, at that time, there was open season on killing Jewish people. If you felt that you wanted to kill the person, you just took out your revolver and there was no, you know, no consequences. As a matter of fact, you did something “good.”
AM: And in that respect, there seems to have been very little difference between the Hungarian Army and the German Army.
VB: No, there was no difference. As a matter of fact, there were Hungarians — you know, they were called the Arrow Party, that very much, you know, were the right hand of the Germans.
AM: So in 1943, you got notice from the Red Cross that your father had disappeared.
VB: Yes, in January 1943.
AM: There was an air raid that he apparently didn’t survive. Was that all you knew, and have you ever been able to gather any further details?
VB: You know what? I have tried very much to, you know, get in touch with the Red Cross and get further details about my life too, you know, during the war when I was in this orphanage, and I have never been able — the only thing we know is that one person that was in the group with my father, he came back and that’s what he told us, that my father just ran the wrong way. You know, there was an air raid.
But the other thing I want to tell you; I always think about that, but, you know, when you’re a soldier, at least you have something to defend yourself with. You have a weapon and the other person has a weapon. During the war, the Jewish people had nothing, you know, to defend themselves.
AM: So by this time, your mother had lost her job in 1939 —
AM: — and then her husband. Could you talk a little more about how she got by during this time? And I don’t mean just financially, but do you have any memory or did she tell you in later years about the turbulence and challenges of those times?
VB: You know, again, I remember the emotional memory about, you know, the horrible pressure we lived under. And later on, I remember when they started bombing Budapest, going down with my mother, running down the stairs, you know, to the basement. And that was the safe place to be. And my mother was under tremendous pressure because not only she needed to take care of me, but her parents were elderly — you know, my grandfather and my grandmother. And the other thing that she did was at that time ladies used to wear silk stockings. You know? And during the war, you know, silk stockings were in high demand and you just didn’t throw away your silk stockings like you do now. You know? So anyway, my mother had a little instrument that she knew how to fix, you know, silk stockings. So that was another way she made some money. Another way, I think she started selling my father’s suits. I mean, those things were also valuable at that time.
AM: When the Nazis invaded Hungary in March of 1944, their killing machine was well-developed and they wasted no time in their effort to decimate the largest remaining Jewish population in Europe at that time. At five years old, how aware were you of their murderous intentions and the means by which the Nazis were killing Jews? I mean, for example, did you know the word Auschwitz?
VB: You know what? I don’t think in March of 1944 a lot of people knew the word Auschwitz. And I think that by the time the Germans came in, as you are saying yourself, they so industrialized — that’s how I like to think of it. They went to a smaller community, like little villages where Jewish people were merchants, you know, and they took them to a larger community and then a larger community, and then, you know, where the railroads were. So that was collecting of the “merchandise” and then transporting the merchandise, you know, to these death camps, and then disposing them once they got there.
One of my mother’s sisters lived in a smaller community and she was made to move to a larger community with her son. And when she arrived in Auschwitz, she was killed the day she got there with her son together. You know? So they had the whole machinery so set up.
You know, when I talk to people in the museum, I always read this. The quote is from The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin. He says here: “The glorification of one race and the consequent debasement of another, or others, always has been and always will be a recipe for murder. There is no way around this. If one is permitted to treat any group of people with special disfavor because of their race or the color of their skin, there is no limit to what we’ll force them to endure, and since the entire race has been mysteriously indicted, no reason not to attempt to destroy it root and branch. This is precisely what the Nazis invented. Their only originality lay in the means they used.”
AM: So, as you mentioned, the Nazis started in outlying areas of Hungary, and by the time they had reached Budapest, in the later part of 1944, you had already lost one family member and others had been shipped off to Auschwitz. What was life like when the Nazis had occupied Budapest?
VB: You know, I remember — there is one memory that I have. My mother and I — and, of course, a lot of other Jewish people — we were forced to march to a brick factory. And I remember that there were a lot of Hungarians that, you know, were watching from the sidewalk, you know, what the Jewish people were doing. And my mother was carrying a blanket. You know, she had the thing about the blanket. And somebody snatched it out of her hand and said, “Where you’re going, you won’t need this.” You know? So there was a large cooperation between, you know, Hungarian population and the Nazis and — what can I tell you? It was a horrible, horrible time full of incredible pressures and full of incredible losses. And it was a very, very scary time, definitely.
You know, when your parents in your household are under pressure, even if you’re a young child, you don’t necessarily know exactly what’s happening, but you know that your parents, your mom, your dad, are under tremendous pressure. And it affects you too, because you’re so vulnerable. It wasn’t like you could call the police and say, you know, “Somebody is bothering me,” because, you know, there was no police for the Jewish people.
AM: And how long was it before you were separated from your mother? Because she was taken away.
VB: Yes, she was — she and my mother’s sister, Margaret, they were taken away to Bergen-Belsen. And it was already toward, you know, the end of November, and my mother and her sister actually marched to the Austrian border.
AM: Do you remember that day or that night when she was —
VB: Taken? You know what? Again, I have an emotional memory of feeling that she was abandoning me. You know? Of course, she wasn’t abandoning me because she was forced to do that, and she saved my life by leaving me, you know, behind. But I always felt that, you know, that emotional memory, abandonment, because I was five years old and here, no mother, no father, and just trying to make my way in the world. You know?
AM: And how long would you say that feeling of abandonment persisted?
VB: All my life.
AM: So even though you can rationally recognize that she didn’t abandon you —
VB: Of course not —
AM: — you felt that emotion.
VB: Yeah. I felt that emotion that — you know, here I was, you know — we already lost my father and my mother was leaving. And of course, it wasn’t her choice. Definitely wasn’t her choice.
And it’s very funny, Andy, we never discussed these things with my mother after the war. Somehow she never brought that out. And now, you know, when I’m old — (laughs) — I think about it and I say, “Why didn’t I talk to my mother about this?” But I didn’t. That’s something that cannot be rectified.
AM: Yeah. You had a brief stay with your grandparents but eventually found yourself in a Red Cross shelter.
VB: When I got to the Red Cross shelter, just by chance of fate, my cousin Judy was also in the Red Cross shelter. Now, her parents were still in Budapest. Her mother had some Swedish papers and her father was hiding, but I think they thought that Judy was safer, you know, in the shelter than to be with them. And so we recognized each other at the shelter and we shared our, you know, blanket and we hugged and we kissed and we were together in the shelter. And then eventually, my Aunt Margaret heard about some Jewish kids being taken from this — what I remember it was like a big marketplace — and taken out. And somehow she came to get us and she came to get her daughter and she found me too and took me with.
And, you know, at that time it was a tremendous sacrifice on her part because she didn’t have enough to eat. And here she was, she was going to take me to and share whatever, you know, she had. And, you know, Judy and I were both full of lice because, you know, we didn’t have showers every day, as you can imagine. And we were sick and she wanted to take us to the hospital, and the doctors at the hospital said, you know, if you want them to die, then just leave them here. But eventually, you know, we recovered and she used to wash our hair with something very smelly, what I remember. And, you know, eventually in January, the Russians came in and they liberated. I remember — that I remember very well, that we were in the basement and the Russian soldiers came in, and, you know, we were liberated. But that doesn’t mean that things turned hunky-dory or that things turned wonderful all of a sudden. You know?
AM: Yeah. Because the city was devastated.
VB: Absolutely devastated. You know, there was no food.
You know, Andy, I’m sure you know that in a war everything goes to the army. Even in the United States, there were certain shortages for the population because everything goes to the army; the army needs this, the army needs that. So there was, you know, a lot of hunger at that time in Hungary and Budapest, particularly. And, you know, it was very, very, very hard times, but, you know, like I said, I was very fortunate that my cousin Judy and I got together and were together just by chance, and my aunt, you know, took me under her wing.
AM: And after liberation, you continued to live with Judy but also now her mother and father.
VB: Yes, yes.
AM: But things changed in June when your mother returned from Bergen-Belsen.
AM: What did she tell you about her captivity and liberation, either then or in the years that followed? I know you said she didn’t say much about those times —
AM: — but what do you know?
VB: She told me — one thing she told me that, you know, when they were sleeping, they were, like, stacked up. You know what I mean? It was like trundle beds, but, like, three stories high, I think. And I never talked about this before, but I can tell you. She was telling me that sometimes, you know, a woman above didn’t get to go to the bathroom. So, you know, whatever she was doing went down to the person underneath her. You know? And there was a lot of lice. My mother got typhus in the camp, and she always told me that if it wasn’t for her sister — she had an older sister; my mother was the youngest in the family — she wouldn’t have survived. Her sister was such a, you know, support for her. And she used to tell me that, you know, in Hungary for the winter we used, you know, wood for a fire, and, you know, there were these wooden logs that, you know, people had, you know, some logs went this way and other logs went that way. And so she said, you know, sometimes in the morning they collected dead people and they went this way and that they went that way. You know? So they lived very much, you know, with death all around them.
So after the liberation, you know, people didn’t know who was alive, who was dead. I mean, I’m sure you have heard other survivors say that they went back to their community to try to find out, you know, who was alive, who was dead. And my mother told me that after liberation, a lot of Hungarian ladies were allowed to go to Sweden, but she said she had to come home and see if I was alive and her mother was alive, her father was alive.
Another thing I always wondered about now that I’m older is how in the world they had money to get on the train or get clothes or something — you know? — and come back to Budapest. There was nobody that, you know, called and said, “You know, I’m back now; you know, come and get me.” It wasn’t like that at all.
AM: So you pretty much thought of yourself as an orphan.
VB: I think I did. And, you know, I lived with my cousin and we shared a bed. I mean, we’re talking about, you know, not luxurious surroundings, even though it was a decent apartment; it had two large rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom that has running water. You know? And food was very, very scarce, very, very scarce. People were eating, you know, horses and whatever.
AM: And I asked these questions knowing that you were quite young at the time, but do you remember having the sense when your mother returned that she was a changed woman? Was she different?
VB: I have no recollection of my mother from before that time. And when my mother returned, my cousin Judy tells me that I ran to my mother and we hugged each other and we kissed each other, and I remember that I didn’t recognize her. You know? That’s my memory. Judy says that, you know, she was there and that, you know, we hugged each other and kissed each other. Whether my mother came to me and hugged me and kissed me, I don’t know. I just don’t remember. We’re talking about 1945 and I was six years old, and we had come through so much trauma, you know, so much trauma. And, you know, my husband and I were both children and our childhood was robbed. We didn’t have a childhood because we, you know, we lived in fear, fear of, you know, fear of the Germans, fear of, you know, having food to eat and shelter.
AM: Yeah. And as you point out, when liberation came, that fear didn’t go away; there were still many things to —
VB: Oh, my gosh. I mean, Budapest was devastated. You know, all the bridges were blown out. And even after — you know, I remember in the 1950s, a lot of buildings still had bullet holes in it. You know, after the communists came, there wasn’t much, you know, rebuilding. And my mother couldn’t get back our old apartment because people were just bombed out and they just occupied an apartment that was, you know, empty.
AM: So by 1949, your mother had remarried and you got a baby brother. Can you tell us how that came to be?
VB: You know, my — like I said, my father was killed in the war and my mother was left in 1943. She was 31 years old. She was left a widow. And the war created an awful lot of widows like my mother. And then, after we couldn’t get our apartment back, we went to the smaller community and lived in the smaller community. And then in 1948, my mother actually married her brother-in-law, her oldest sister’s, you know, husband.
AM: So in 1956, you were a senior in high school, your brother was seven, and the revolution started in Budapest in October of that year. You’ve said that all order broke down when the revolution started. What are some of your recollections of that historic turn of events?
VB: You know what? I had this friend from school and he came and really told me about — first it was on the radio also, and what I remember is that my aunt and uncle had a house that was on, you know, ground level. And they were afraid of looting, that somebody, you know, people are going to come and loot, and, you know, law and order just broke down because the revolution was raging in Budapest. And all of a sudden, you know, we were just — start to think about, well, maybe we have an opportunity to leave. You know? And you know, very shortly after that, we packed up. We carried something with us, you know, and left.
AM: A dark evening, you recall.
VB: Oh, my God. So what happened was that, you know, there were a few Jewish families, but there was this Jewish man who was like — they call him in Jewish a macher, you know, a person that makes things happen. You know, in every community, there is a macher like that, you know, who knows how to organize things. And he organized for us to have a truck. So when the truck came in the middle of the night, it was very dark. So this family, they got on the truck. And then there was my aunt and uncle, my mother’s sister and her husband, and my cousin Thomas was born in ’47, February ’47. And then my mother, my dad, my brother and me, and we got into the truck with some, you know, stuff that we could carry and closed the apartment and left.
AM: And you’ve said that as a result of that decision to leave Hungary and look for a better life elsewhere, your aunt and uncle and mother and dad became your heroes.
VB: Oh my God, are they ever my heroes, are they ever my heroes. I mean, you know, let’s take, for example, my dad. So in 1956, when we left, he was 54 years old, 54. And my mother was 44. Now, my uncle, he was born in 1896, so in 1956, he was 60 years old, you know, with a nine-year-old child. And my aunt was, I think, 49 at that time, 48, 49. And my uncle, for example, was in the First World War; he was a soldier in the Kaiser’s army. And then he had a first marriage. And, you know, you have to have a home and everything when you’re married, and that was, you know, destroyed. And then after the war, they established a home again, you know, with furniture and kids and this and that. And then in 1956, when the opportunity came, they had the courage and the fortitude. And I just don’t know what it was that made them, you know, pack up and leave everything — I mean, the way of life. We didn’t speak English. We didn’t know where we were going, you know, and we didn’t plan on this trip. We just — the revolution was on October 23rd. And we got — (inaudible) — on November 11th.
AM: And between all of you, there was no English spoken.
VB: No! You know what we learned in the school at that time? Russian. Russian was the language we were learning at that time in school. And, you know, when my cousin and I still, you know, talk to each other and we are, you know, older now, and we just can’t imagine, you know, just packing up and leaving everything. And, you know, you leave your place in the community also — you know what I mean? — your way of life, the food that you know, the people that you know. You know, a lot of those people that we knew we never saw again.
AM: So you arrived in America and ended up, like tens of thousands of Hungarian refugees at the time, at Camp Kilmer, New Jersey. What do you remember from that passage into the United States and the camp itself?
VB: You know, I belong to a group of ladies like my age, a little younger, and we get together once a month and write our journal, write our stories. And this past Monday, that’s what I did. I wrote my story about how it was when I got to Camp Kilmer. And what I remember is — you know, I think at that time, Eisenhower was our president and he set the tone. He didn’t say that, you know, these people are coming and they bring in disease and they are rapists and they’re criminals — nothing of that sort. We were welcomed in. We went to the American embassy in Vienna and they put us up in hotels. And we — you know, we flew on an airplane to America. We didn’t have the money for airplane. It was, as far as I remember, an army plane. You know?
We got to America on December 14th. And I remember December 14th, when we touched down in I think it was in Philadelphia — there was a helicopter with Santa Claus coming out of the helicopter. And somebody told them, you know, Hungarian refugees are on this flight. And he came over — you know, I mean, people were very welcoming.
We were a few days in Camp Kilmer. I don’t remember how many days. And then we were in New York. And my mother and I went to visit relatives. My father’s sister and her son lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts. And, you know, he arranged for a reporter to meet us on the train. And there was an article about us in the newspaper about, you know, Hungarian refugees arriving. And my cousin took me to MIT. He was a student at MIT. And I saw my first computer, which was like, you know, two room sizes. This was really huge. And it was before Christmastime. And my cousin George took me in his car. He had a car! And he took me and my mother in his car and he showed us all the decorated houses, you know. And I said to myself, these people must be rich because, you know, electric bills. (Laughs.) And, you know, people were just very welcoming.
And in Camp Kilmer, they had, like, long, long, long tables with clothes and suits and underwear, and, you know, anything and everything. And, you know, the government sponsored those. We got a green card. And then when we got to Chicago on December 26th, on a Thursday, eight o’clock in the morning, the Jewish organizations welcomed us. We got shelter. You know, we didn’t have the money. As a matter of fact, they gave us $25 a week for my dad to buy groceries. You know?
AM: And what impressions did you have of America prior to arriving here? I mean, what did you expect and how did you imagine America, or Chicago?
VB: You know what? In Hungary there was a lot of propaganda films. And I remember a propaganda film; the title of it was “In the Shadow of Skyscrapers.” And in the film, they were showing that in the shadow of the skyscrapers, there were a lot of poor people, and I said to myself, well, you know, that’s communist propaganda. But eventually, of course, I found out it wasn’t communist propaganda. Unfortunately, that’s how we live now.
AM: Your story is a little bit different from other Holocaust survivors who came to America and settled in this area, because you and your family were not refugees from the war, you were refugees from the communist regime and the revolution.
AM: It’s a bit of a different experience that you had.
VB: Definitely because, you know, we stayed in Hungary till the revolution started, and I know quite a few families that, like you said, they were in DP camps after the war. And as a matter of fact, my husband and his family were in a DP camp till 1951, so their experience was different than mine, definitely. But, you know, when you are a newcomer to this country — I don’t know how many generations you are in this country — but the first generation always has it pretty, pretty tough because you have to get a foothold. You know?
AM: Vera, why do you tell this story, not only for this podcast but audiences at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and wherever else you might speak?
VB: You know, I tell the story because the first time that Hitler had a meeting, an organized meeting, was in 1920, February 20th. And at that time, the German people were in terrible times — you know, inflation after the war and everything. And they had a choice to make. You know, they were screaming, you know, “The communists are coming, the communists are coming,” and Hitler came along and he said, “I know how to make Germany great again.” You know? And the people listened to him, and it took him very little time to change German society. He said he’s going to bring law and order.
Well, whose law and order did he bring? Who was the ones, the people that he persecuted, you know, to bring “law and order”? You know, people always talk about law and order. In the Soviet Union, Stalin talked about law and order. You know? And whose law and order was that? It wasn’t for the kulaks. It wasn’t for the artists who did not paint according to him. It wasn’t for the writers that didn’t produce, you know, artwork that he liked. The newspaper in the Soviet Union even today is called Pravda. Pravda. Pravda means the truth. And whose truth was it?
In the United States today, we are under incredible pressures, incredible pressures. Our society is under a lot of pressure, and I’m scared. I’m really scared. The first time since I’m in the United States I am scared. And I’m scared for my children, you know, what kind of a future they will live under. But you know what? Then I tell myself another story. Tell myself a story, Vera. These are things you cannot control. But you cannot possibly — I cannot possibly divorce myself from my surroundings. And when a civilization is under pressure, like we are today, you know, bad things can happen.
Now, the other thing I want to tell you: People, don’t discriminate. Don’t discriminate. Don’t think that you are better than the next person. Don’t. Don’t discriminate. Every family that I know of wants the same thing: make a decent living, have health insurance, send your children to a decent school. They should have a better life, you know, get educated.
So that’s the reason I’m talking to people. The Holocaust survivors, the people that lived through the Second World War and lived through the Holocaust are dying out. We need to have a documentation as to what happens when ideas come to a country that are so against humanity that it allowed 6 million people, young and old and religious and not religious, to be slaughtered. You know? And Germany was an incredibly cultured country. And forever and a day, that’s going to be a stain on German society.
You’ve been listening to “Resistance, Resilience and Hope: Holocaust Survivor Stories,” a podcast co-production of Illinois Holocaust Museum and Chicago’s Studio C. If you’d like to learn more about this episode and the series in general, please visit studiocchicago.com/holocaust, or ilholocaustmuseum.org. And please share this podcast, rate it, and subscribe.
I’m Andy Miles and I’d like to thank executive producers Marcy Larson and Amanda Friedeman for their assistance and guidance in bringing this podcast to fruition, Vera Burstyn for her time and candor, and I’d like to thank you for listening.
Also available: a “Podcast Extra” in which Vera talks about jobs she had in Chicago and her involvement with the Holocaust Museum.RETURN TO PODCAST HOME
Photo credits: David Seide