The Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program

Rarely did whole immediate families survive the Holocaust, but Leslie Vertes’ did.


However, this too should not suggest that the Vertes/ Winkler family experienced a “happy ending” and that their lives resumed as “normal” once they found each other again. His mother, Ilona, and sister, Barbara, survived while not knowing about his father or Leslie’s fate. They therefore left Hungary, eventually settling in Israel, and it took more than ten years for Leslie to reunite with them after the war. The story of their search for each other and reunification is a painful reminder of the number of families torn apart by the Holocaust and of those who never found loved ones again; it is also a brief glimpse into the tremendous yet often woefully inadequate efforts by various agencies and organizations to try to deal with the crisis of “displaced people” and refugees in the aftermath of war.


In addition to recognizing the sheer losses Holocaust survivors experienced – of livelihoods, property, lives, homelands – Leslie’s story speaks of families ripped apart and never healed, of relationships broken beyond repair, and a persistent feeling of displacement.


After returning home from Soviet captivity, Leslie lived in a Hungary with less and less freedom. As of 1949, a Stalinist dictatorship closed in on the country, marking another low point of Hungarian history. Leslie was eventually able to leave during the anti-Soviet uprising that shook the country in 1956. The borders were open for a few weeks, launching a mass exodus: close to 200,000 Hungarians, among them many Jews, left the country.


Leslie’s story of survival, and his perseverance in regaining a sense of normalcy after the war, is devastating and, at the same time, full of hope. It raises important issues related to the experiences of refugees as they flee war-torn and politically oppressive regimes to seek assistance beyond their borders. Leslie points frequently to shreds of humanity that helped him survive during and after the war years and allowed him to eventually prosper, carry on a new life, start a family and successfully work and retire in Canada, where he and his wife, also a Hungarian Holocaust survivor, settled. His experience and identity as a refugee and immigrant meant that he was constantly readjusting to life in new situations. He endured homelessness and poverty, which were underwritten by an enduring sense of loss. These experiences did not end when he moved to Canada, but he was fortunate to have contact with family that helped him get established and stabilized there.


Here we meet Leslie as he arrives back to Budapest after years being confined in a Soviet-ran labour camps and begins the desperate search to find family and encounters the devastating aftermath of the Holocaust:

…I boarded the train to Budapest.After three years of suffering, I was free of German soldiers, free of discrimination; I could walk freely as a Jew! Or so I believed.

Leslie in Budapest, one year after liberation.

The train was full of farmers who were going to Budapest to exchange produce for clothing or other items. Bartering prevailed over the use of the new Hungarian currency, the forint. One of the farmers glanced at my jacket with the little holes and obviously recognized that the yellow Star of David had been removed. I overheard him tell his friend, “I think more Jews came back than we sent to the Germans, and the Jews are talking about death camps and killing.” His friend replied, “Not only that, but they have the guts to claim back their stores and even their houses.”

I was shocked to hear these antisemitic remarks.I had come home to be free, to be welcomed and to live without fear. But times hadn’t changed, and hatred still flourished. When I stood up, they were quiet. I said nothing, just looked into their eyes, ready to punch them. There was not a sound until we arrived at Nyugati, the western station of Budapest.

At least I knew that my mother and sister were alive, but I still didn’t have a home. It was late. The only other address that I knew was that of the Rosners, Ibolya’s family, on Baross Street. The superintendent there knew me and let me in. My heart was galloping as I rang their bell. I wondered who would open the door and whom I would find alive. Kati, Ibolya’s mother, opened the door. Right behind her was Klara, her sister, Tibor’s mother. For a long time we just hugged one another, tears running freely down our faces. I was thinking about how to tell Kati of Andrew’s death without breaking her heart. We sat down and millions of questions followed. Finally, I told them that Andrew had died of kidney failure at the camp. Kati started hitting me and yelling, “Why didn’t you take care of him? It was your responsibility and you let him down!” Gradually she calmed down, and it was my turn to ask what had happened to Ibolya. She was unable to answer me. Klara told me the tragic story: Ibolya had been sent on a forced march, along with other Jewish women, from one of the death camps near the end of the war. She was very ill and was admitted to a hospital in March 1945. In April, an armed unit entered the hospital, which was full of Jewish women, and killed them one by one on their sick beds. Only one girl survived to tell the Red Army officials what had happened, once the district was liberated. Ibolya had been murdered at twenty-one years old. I was silent for a long time.

Reunion of Leslie and his mother, Ilona, fifteen years after the war. Montreal, 1959.

Then Klara and Kati told me about Tibor. After our escape from the camp in Budapest in October 1944, Tibor had headed home. But soon after, the Arrow Cross had raided his house and found him. He was taken to a westbound marching unit but was too weak to keep up with the group. When a Hungarian soldier saw him sitting on the side of the road, he shot him dead.

Klara and Kati told me that they had hidden on a farm during the last months of the war. Four months after finally returning home, John Rosner had died of a liver infection. It seemed there was no end to the devastating news. The Nemes family – Ibolya’s uncle Ernő; his wife, Anna; and their twin girls – who had been living as gentiles, had nonetheless had to prove their origins when the Germans occupied Hungary in March 1944. Everybody had to do so, going back to their grandparents. Ernő subsequently lost his job, and his daughters were thrown out of their parochial school. When they learned that they were of Jewish origin, the girls even contemplated suicide. Ernő was sent to a forced labour camp, where he had to wear a white armband.

Later, he was sent to the front. Nobody knew what happened to him. Close to Ernő and Anna’s home, on Mátyásföld, there was a small airfield for local traffic, which was used by the military. The Allied forces destroyed the field and, with it, the Nemes family home. Anna and the girls died in the bomb shelter.

I later found out that my father’s sisters Margit and Frida were alive, but Frida’s husband, Miklós, who was my mother’s younger brother, had been sent to a forced labour camp and then to the Eastern front, where he died. My father’s brother Frank and his wife, Gizi, had survived. After the war, they made their way to a DP camp in Germany and eventually managed to immigrate to the United States, settling in Philadelphia. They had two daughters, Kathy and Rosalie; both later married, and each have two children. I found out from Kati and Klara that after liberation my mother and sister had resided at Klauzál Square 6, the building next door to our old apartment. My sister, Barbara, had married Geza Fleischacker, who was involved in a lot of black-market business. Since the police were after him, my mother, Barbara and Geza left Hungary in a hurry in the fall of 1945 and headed to Germany to try to emigrate out of Europe. I also learned that my father was alive, in spite of the government’s notification, but the Rosners didn’t know his address and had seen him only once.

The night passed quickly, full of talk and heartbreaking news.These two women, who had both lost their husbands and their children, asked me to stay and live with them. I told them I had to find my own peace and needed time to heal my wounds. I promised to stay in close contact with them.

Nowhere to go, nothing to do and nobody waiting for me. I was free and I was home, but I felt so alone. I wasn’t feeling hopeful about starting a new life. What had I survived for?

After a quiet breakfast, I went to Klauzál Square 6 and inquired after my mother. The superintendent directed me to apartment unit 9, where my mother, sister and brother-in-law had lived. A woman opened the door, and after I explained who I was, she invited me in. She didn’t have much to tell me, but she was able to give me my mother’s address in Germany. My mother had left a few things behind: an old pair of shoes, a woman’s coat and a pair of men’s pyjamas. I took only the pyjamas. These had been mine before the war and were my only remaining possession.

After leaving the apartment, I sat on a bench in the nearby park and watched people. They came from somewhere and they went somewhere. They came from somebody and went to somebody. Perhaps they were rushing home to their family. And me? Nowhere to go, nothing to do and nobody waiting for me. I was free and I was home, but I felt so alone. I wasn’t feeling hopeful about starting a new life. What had I survived for?

After leaving the apartment, I sat on a bench in the nearby park and watched people. They came from somewhere and they went somewhere. They came from somebody and went to somebody. Perhaps they were rushing home to their family. And me? Nowhere to go, nothing to do and nobody waiting for me. I was free and I was home, but I felt so alone. I wasn’t feeling hopeful about starting a new life. What had I survived for?

Leslie and his wife Vera with their grandchildren in Toronto.

[...]

The positive side to my life story was crossing the ocean to Canada, where I made a new home with my wife, Vera, and son, George. Vera and I worked hard to provide our son with a good life and the opportunity to pursue an education and various interests. If I had the chance to go back in time and pick any place to live, I would choose Canada all over again.

If I had a chance to start my life all over again, there are some things I would do differently. However, there are certain things I would never change: I would marry my Vera. Nobody else could be a better wife and friend to me. I would have a son exactly like George. No other child could have given me as much pleasure from the time he was born to seeing his progress day by day. I am blessed with three wonderful grandchildren. My son, George, and my daughter-in-law, Joanie, share my gratitude for our enlarged family tree. Our family circle is very small, as it is for many Holocaust survivors. The Holocaust took away so many members of our family; so many of us were alone in the storm. We treasure the precious few who are left.