The Holocaust Survivor Memoirs Program

Leslie Vertes

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Born
February 18, 1924 Ajak, Hungary

Map of Mukacevo, Czechoslovakia

Immigrated
1957 Montreal, Quebec

In 1944, twenty-year-old Leslie Vertes escapes from a forced labour detail in Budapest and miraculously survives by assuming a false identity. About to taste freedom as the end of the war nears, his liberation is short-lived when he is caught by the new Soviet regime and sent for two years of back-breaking labour and captivity. Rebuilding his life and finding love, Leslie's security is once again threatened during the 1956 Hungarian uprising. It is not until he flees to Canada that he finally finds true freedom.

About Leslie

Leslie Vertes was born in Ajak, Hungary, in 1924. After the Hungarian Uprising of 1956, Leslie fled Budapest with his wife, Vera, and their son, George, arriving in Canada in 1957. Leslie had a long, successful career in the shoe industry in Montreal. Since his retirement, Leslie has been actively involved in Holocaust education and has volunteered for various organizations. In 2015, he received Quebec's YMCA Peace Medal and the Governor General’s Caring Canadian Award in recognition of his volunteerism and contributions to the community.

Photos and Artifacts

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    Leslie Vertes, age 4 (right), with a friend. Kisvárda, 1928.

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    Leslie (far left), on a hike with friends. Budapest, 1939.

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    The Winkler family before the war. From left to right: Leslie’s mother, Ilona; his sister, Borka; Leslie; and Leslie’s father, Sándor. Budapest, 1940.

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    Leslie with his mother (right), and sister (left). Budapest, 1942.

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    Leslie in Budapest after his liberation.

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    Leslie’s fiancée, Vera Neiser. Budapest, 1951.

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    Vera’s mother, Elisabeth, 1926.

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    Vera’s father, Jozsef. Dombóvár, 1942.

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    The only photo of Vera (left) with her sisters before the war. Circa 1940.

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    Leslie and Vera. Budapest, 1954.

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    Leslie and Vera’s son, George. 1959.

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

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    Vera, Ilona, Leslie and George. Montreal, 1959.

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    Ilona and her brother Alex, who hadn’t seen one another for twenty-two years. Montreal, 1959.

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    Leslie’s father, Sándor, with his wife, Margit. Budapest, 1960.

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    Leslie with his sister, Borka (Barbara), twenty-four years after they said goodbye to one another in Budapest. Israel, 1968.

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    Leslie (right) with his uncle Erno and aunt Anna. Budapest, 1972.

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    Vera’s father, Jozsef, and his second wife, Elisabeth. New York, 1975.

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    Leslie’s mother, Ilona. Israel, 1977.

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    Leslie and Vera with their grandchildren, Gregory, Jaclyn and Alex. Toronto, 1990s.

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    Vera with her brother, Gabe. 1998.

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    Leslie’s sister, Barbara (front, centre) with her husband and her children in Israel, 1998. Back row, left to right: Ron; his wife, Ofra; Asher; Ejal; and Ejal’s wife, Nurit. In front, left to right: David; Hannah; Barbara; Hava; and Haim.

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    Gregory, Alex and Jaclyn. Toronto, 1999.

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    The Vertes’ generations: Leslie (third from left) with his son, George, and his grandsons, Gregory and Alex. Toronto, 2002.

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    Leslie and his son, George, at a friend’s wedding, 2005.

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    Gregory and Alex, 2011.

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    Jaclyn, 2011.

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    Leslie speaking to a group of students at Champlain College (cegep). Saint- Lambert, Quebec, 2011.

The Book

Cover of Alone in the Storm

Alone in the Storm

Writing opened the lid of my box of buried memories. Looking back at my long life’s journey, I am dizzy contemplating the rough road and the distance I have travelled.

Explore more of Leslie’s story in Re:Collection

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Alone in the Storm

Flowers and Forced Labour

Miklós Horthy, the Regent of Hungary, made his declaration of intent to make peace with the Allied forces, including the Soviet Union. That same day, the fascist Arrow Cross Party, with the support of the Nazi relgime, seized power in a coup. Instead of returning to his unit, George went into hiding.

Everything was in chaos. Lieutenant Ujvary called me into his office and said, “My boy, I am sorry to say that you have to pack your repair shop into boxes – everything. The unit is going far away. If you have some plans in your head, talk to Private Jozsi Denes, a gypsy soldier, and have some money ready. I wish you good luck, and if we survive this unfortunate and terrible war, we will celebrate together. What I have told you is confidential.” I shook his hand and replied, “Thank you very much, and I wish you good luck as well. You have been a real gentleman. Take care, and God bless you.”

I understood what Ujvary meant. I told Tibor and eight other close friends that I was planning an escape because, in view of the takeover of the government, the unit would almost certainly soon be forced to go to Germany to work for the war effort, and I asked them to join me. I told them we would have to pay somebody a bribe to look the other way while we escaped. We managed to put together some money that our families had given us.

The next evening, I asked Jozsi, the guard, to come to the repair shop so I could adjust the heels on his boots. I revealed our plan to him and asked for his cooperation. I gave him the money we had collected, an amount he was content with. According to our plan, he would be on duty during the morning at the side entrance, a fence of wood planks. He said he would intentionally “look the other way” for ten minutes. This would be sufficient time for the ten of us to escape by moving away a loose plank.

Everything was set. I put my repair equipment into boxes and left all my clothes hanging from the nails. At 5:00 the next morning, we left the room quietly. Jozsi was there, as he had said he would be. I was the last one to go through the fence. One of my legs was outside the fence when a German army unit, made up of about fifty soldiers, passed by. I pretended I was repairing the broken fence. The soldiers glanced at me but did not stop. In the last seconds of the ten-minute reprieve, I made it outside. What a close call!

I removed the yellow band from my arm and bid farewell to my friends. With money in hand, I boarded the first streetcar that came by. Luckily, it was almost empty and the elderly conductor did not seem to care who I was.

When I came back to Budapest after the war, I was saddened to learn that none of the friends with whom I had escaped survived the war.