At Fairfield commemoration, Holocaust survivor describes life in Nazi-occupied Hungary
FAIRFIELD — He was just a boy, just 7 years old, said Endre Sarkany, when his life in Budapest changed. Just a boy, who heard the taunts on his way to school — “You dirty Jew, you should be dead.”
Sarkany lived with his parents in a fashionable section of Budapest and he had, he said, “no concept of what they were talking about.”
It was March 1944, and Adolf Hitler had sent his troops to occupy Hungary. His grandfather took him to watch the soldiers in their black uniforms and black boots and swastika armbands.
“We go back home, and he says, ‘Andy, our life as Jews will forever change,’ ” Sarkany told the audience gathered at First Church Congregational Wednesday night for the 35th annual Holocaust Commemoration. “You know what? I didn’t know what he was talking about. I was 7 years old.”
He may have been a little boy, but Sarkany has made it his mission to tell his story and the story of the 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust.
It was about two years ago, Sarkany said, that he was scheduled to speak to a high school in New Haven. About two weeks before, he said the teacher called. She had a student who wanted to know if she had to attend — after all, she didn’t believe what he was going to say, and the Holocaust was just a hoax.
And it was just last year, that Sarkany saw Nazis marching in Charlottesville, Va.
“That’s another reason I’m going from school to school,” Sarkany said.
Confined to the Jewish Ghetto during his childhood and rarely allowed to leave the building where he lived, Sarkany recalled when his father was taken away again to a labor camp. His mother, he said, told him his father had gone to fight in the war and would be coming back. “In my gut I knew she was lying to me,” he said.
They were required to wear the yellow stars, distinguishing them from the others. “I wasn’t allowed to leave the building, but the building I lived in was a blessing. There was a preschool and kindergarten on the bottom floor, and about 150 people living there. “The owners of the building took care of us,” Sarkany said.
One nice day, when they were allowed to go play in the courtyard, Sarkany said he was running around and fell, hitting his head, which bled profusely. One of his teachers, a devout Catholic, took the yellow star off his jacket, told him to hold tight to her hand and risked her life to get him to the hospital. “Here was a single woman, never married, a devoted Catholic, willing to risk her life to save a Jewish boy,” Sarkany said.
There was the Swedish diplomat, who came to Hungary and saved as many Jews as he could, Sarkany said. “He did his job exceedingly well,” he said, creating safe houses that he declared as Swedish property, where the Nazis could not go, and falsified documents.
Following the liberation, and the unbelievable return of his father, gaunt and weighing about 70 pounds, came the Communists. Although he had graduated from high school, Sarkany was not allowed to attend college.
“The Soviets were brutal,” he said.
“I remember when I was 18, and I was required to go and vote,” he said. “I went into the voting booth and someone was behind me to make sure I put the ‘x’ on the Communist Party.”
At the age of 20, Sarkany witnessed the start of the Hungarian Revolution.
“I told my parents, ‘I have no future in this country, I must leave,’ ” Sarkany said. “I gave them a kiss, told them God willing, one day we will see each other again and I left.” He journeyed from Budapest to Vietnam and the American Embassy. From there, he was taken to Germany and boarded a ship for a 17-day voyage to the United States.
“I was on the deck with some people I had made acquaintance with, when I noticed something very special,” Sarkany said. “It was a foggy day, and snowing, and I started crying.” It was the Statue of Liberty that Sarkany had spied from the ship’s deck. That statue, he said, represented freedom, a freedom too many in the country take for granted.
The interfaith memorial service, which featured musical selections and a candle-lighting ceremony, also included the reading of a poem by Fairfield Warde High School junior Michelle Awad. Titled “The Unforgettable Act,” the poem was written specially for the Holocaust Commemoration.