Vera Feuerstein

V Feuerstein thumb

Born: Budapest, Hungary, 1935

Wartime experience: Ghetto

Writing Partner: Helena Adler

Vera Feuerstein (née Polgar) was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1935. When Germany invaded Hungary in March 1944, Vera experienced the rising anti-Jewish persecution and was forced to wear a yellow star by the beginning of April.

After her parents were taken away by the Nazis, Vera and her siblings were forced to live in the Budapest ghetto, in early December 1944. In the ghetto without her parents, she stayed in a Red Cross building until liberation in January 1945. After the war, she met and married Tibor Feuerstein, who had moved to Budapest with his family after surviving Nazi camps. Together, they immigrated to Canada in 1957. Vera Feuerstein passed away in 2016.

The Budapest Ghetto

After my mother was taken, the Germans came for the rest of us. They took us to the Budapest ghetto. I was just a child and knew only two things about what was happening: it was war and the German people were taking away the Jewish people.

It was a long walk to the ghetto. Our group was mostly old people and children, because we were the only ones left. If the Germans saw a young person, they would shoot them, because the young men and boys were supposed to have gone with the first group.

SS officers lined each block, on both sides of the street. I remember seeing large, high baskets along every block on the way to the ghetto; the Jewish people had to throw their valuables into them — gold, gold watches, rings, earrings, money. Everyone had to open their pockets, even children. They looked at our hands, neck and all over for valuables. We didn’t have anything, so there was nothing to take away from us. Even before the war, we were just szegény gyermekek (poor children); we had nothing. People even had their gold teeth taken.

Along the way, there were non-Jewish people in the apartment building windows screaming, “Büdös zsidók, menjetek a pokolba!”(Dirty Jews, go to hell!) The screaming was horrible. Not everybody did that, and there were also non-Jewish people who were good to us.

My brother, András, and my younger sister, Györgyi, and I cried together because we missed our parents and our sisters. I was nine years old, my brother was eleven and my sister was seven. The old woman my mother had asked to look after us walked beside us. I remember that an old man was beside me and he couldn’t walk and so they shot him. I was so scared. They shot a whole bunch of people. I heard the gunfire. These were terrible things to see.

Finally, we arrived in the ghetto. I don’t know who the old woman spoke to, but I know it wasn’t the SS. I heard her say, “I am a very old woman and I can’t look after three young children.” The Red Cross took us and put us in a building where there were other kids and old people too. I think this old woman didn’t want any responsibility. I remember her voice and her face. If I see people once, I remember their face.

I don’t know how many streets there were in the ghetto; I just know that it was closed off from the rest of the city, but I never went near the border. It was very dangerous to go outside, and we weren’t allowed to leave the Red Cross building. I was never separated from either my brother or sister, except when we slept. Each child had a different bed. It was very boring; we were often scared, and we missed our parents and our sisters. I don’t remember eating much food when we were there. We cried a lot, but no one hurt us. I remember I had a coat with a collar and could see hundreds of lice around the collar. I had lice in my hair too, which was really itchy. I was always scratching. I was so scared when I lifted up my brother’s collar and saw how big some of the lice were. We never changed clothes because we didn’t have anything else to wear. It was terrible.

The Soviet army was laying siege to the city of Budapest. Whenever we heard bombs, a loudspeaker would announce that everybody had to go down to the basement. When the planes were gone, the voice told us to come out. It was not cold in the building, but I don’t think we ever took off our coats so we were always ready to run to the basement right away.

On January 17, 1945, the Red Army liberated the Budapest ghetto (they would liberate the entire city almost a month later). When the Soviet soldiers came into the Red Cross building, they told us we had to put both hands up in the air. I was so scared because I thought they would shoot people. One of these men told everybody, “You are free! The Russian people are here and you are free.” I was still really scared; I was just a kid and I saw and heard everything. There were so many army men and they were always calling for devushka and looking in the beds and looking under the beds with flashlights. I kept hearing the word devushka. Devushka is Russian for young woman. When they found one, they took her away.

One day, my father walked into the Red Cross Building, carrying almost a kilo of nuts. I don’t know how my father knew where to find us. He said, “I’m alive, here I am!”

I was just a child and knew only two things about what was happening: it was war and the German people were taking away the Jewish people.

Leaving Hungary

Tibi (Tibor) and I got married in May 1956 and then lived with his mother and family in her apartment in Budapest. On October 23, 1956, students in Budapest started the Hungarian Revolution, protesting everywhere. This had never happened before. The Soviets sent in the army and tanks; there were tanks and shooting on all the streets, so we did not go outside.

One day in 1956, I think it was the end of November, we got a card from Tibi’s brother and sister, who wrote that they were in Austria and that we should follow them. Seven people from his family, including children, had disappeared, and we didn’t know what had happened to them. We also wanted to leave Hungary, because life there was terrible, with all the antisemitism.

Tibi’s sister Magda had gone to the United States in 1948 with her family. After the war, she had fled with her husband and child and went to Italy. Tibi had a large family in the States, on his mother’s side, from before the war. We wanted to go to the United States so the family would be together.

It was dangerous to get to Austria from Hungary. Everybody knew we wanted to leave. We heard of a man who was helping people and found out we had to get to Győr and then to a village on the border of Hungary and Austria, from where we were told we could cross into Austria. Tibi was very close to his family, so when we left Budapest for Győr, many of them decided to join us, which meant we were a group of eight people. There was Tibi and me; his mother and sisters Ava and Erna; my brother-in-law, Erni, his wife, Vera, and their three-year-old daughter, Judy. It was daytime when we left Budapest by train, and we arrived at night in the village. We wanted to get to the village in the evening because we were told to go through the border only at night. As soon as the train stopped, a man who lived in the village, whom we had never met before, told us he knew the way to get to Austria. He said we needed to walk until we came to a lake with a small boat. He told us that the other side was Austria. It wasn’t a long distance, but the route was dangerous because there were land mines at the border; this gentleman knew where it was safe to walk because he lived there.

My sisters, brother and father stayed in Hungary – I think they were too scared to leave. Not only were there often mines at the border, but there were also Soviet soldiers armed with guns. The people in the village knew all these things and how to guide us safely.

I don’t know how many kilometres we walked, but when we got to the lake, the boat was on the Austrian side, and Tibi’s sister Ava was missing. She had gotten tired, but she didn’t tell us that she needed to sit down to rest. Tibi and his brother went back the way we came, and they found her. She was very happy, as was everyone else. After that, Tibi kept his eyes on her so she wouldn’t get lost.

We weren’t the only ones walking to the lake to get to Austria. With the boat on the other side, someone had to go get it to bring it to the Hungarian side. Right away, Tibi, wearing his shoes and winter coat, went in the water and brought the boat back over, while everyone else waited. The water wasn’t deep, just up to Tibi’s waist, but this was November so it was very cold. We were the first to get on the boat since it was Tibi who had brought it across; the others agreed we should go first. The boat wasn’t so big, maybe five people could go at a time, so the rest of the family needed to wait for the boat to come back. Tibi, my mother-in-law and I went first. Tibi went back and forth in the boat, bringing people to the Austrian side. The man from the village had told us to walk a little bit on the Austrian side until we came to a long, big house, where all the refugees gathered. Before leaving, the man had asked how much money we all had, and even though we didn’t have very much, we gave it all to him.

As soon as we arrived at the refugee centre, we saw a blackboard that listed countries that we could go to. I remember seeing Switzerland, Italy, England, Spain and France. There may have been more, but the United States wasn’t listed. Tibi’s family who had left Hungary one week before us had been able to go to the States, but by the time we got to the refugee centre the States wasn’t accepting any more refugees from Hungary. They had filled their quota. Most people wanted to go to the US, because they knew of it. In Hungary, people believed that they could find dollars on the floor in the US.

We connected by phone to our family already in the US and spoke to Tibi’s oldest sister, Magda, who was the family organizer. We told her we couldn’t get into the States, and she told us that we could apply from England to go to Canada. She told us that Canada and the States were close and that way we would be close together. We asked at the refugee centre if we could go to England, and they said we could. A couple of days later, we left for England.

We went to England, travelling first by train and then by boat. We arrived in England at the end of December 1956. All the refugees were taken to a convent where there were nuns. My mother-in-law was very religious and wore a sheitel (wig); she was very upset to be in the convent, even though they were very nice there. We didn’t stay there long. Eventually, in the new year, all the Jewish refugees were taken to a hotel in Brighton that was owned by Jewish people. It was very nice there.

I don’t remember exactly when I found out that I was pregnant. I just started to not feel well, so I went to a doctor to find out what was wrong with me. I threw up all the time, I couldn’t stand strong smells and I couldn’t stand what I ate; there were so many possible things it could have been. I found out I was pregnant and ended up feeling unwell for the whole nine months.

As soon as we arrived in England, we applied to come to Canada. We stayed in England until early May 1957 and then flew to Toronto.