The Museum’s Behind Every Name a Story project gives voice to the experiences of survivors during the Holocaust.
My name is Agnes Gertrude Wohl (maiden name Mendelovits), born in Budapest, Hungary, on March 3, 1933.
Until March 19, 1944, my life was a very typical life of a middle-class Jewish child in a modern, orthodox family. I lived with my extended family which included my father, mother, and brother Vilmos (two years older than me); my grandmother Helen, my uncle Albert, his wife Olga, and their daughter Marika (two years younger than me); my aunt Alice and my uncle Vili; all related on my mother's side.
We were a merchant family. My father and my uncles had a wholesale aniline dye business in the city. In 1940 we moved to a very lovely, big apartment that was not in a Jewish neighborhood. We children were not aware of anything happening or even about War World II. In the summer, Marika and I would go visit with Marika's grandparents in Nagyszollos, located in the Carpathian Mountains. (Let me explain some of the relationships in my family. First, Marika's parents were first cousins, so the grandma in Nagyszollos was my grandmother's sister. My parents met each other when they were young teenagers, as my father's father was a widower with three sons and my mother's mother was a widow with four children).
On March 19, 1944, we received a phone call from a friend that the German army was in Budapest. All the adults in our family became very agitated and I remember thinking to myself, why are they so upset? I was eleven years old.
Shortly, edicts were issued, forcing the Jews to move into the ghetto, turn in all jewelry, and close up businesses. We had to leave our beautiful apartment and move into my Aunt Alice's apartment in the ghetto. Aunt Alice had married by this time and she and her husband had a baby son. We moved, taking with us all our furniture and other household items. I very much remember my mother standing by the window of our living room apartment, crying as she looked outside and saw a light rain falling on her furniture, which was sitting in an open wagon.
In the ghetto apartment, all our furniture was stacked, one piece upon another, including my piano. However, before turning the piano upside down, my mother asked me to play for her “Fur Elise” which I did very reluctantly.
That summer in the ghetto, we were restricted to certain hours in which we were allowed to be on the street. Air raids conducted by English and American planes became daily events. This was very frightening to me.
Rumors of deportation were rampant and then finally became fact. I remember my family receiving a postcard from a family member, who had been deported from the countryside.
To get a better understanding of the size of my family: my grandmother Helen was one of twelve children, all alive at this time and all married with several children each. Seven of her brothers and sisters, along with their spouses and most of their children, were deported from the countryside to Auschwitz, where they were murdered. My father's two brothers were also taken and murdered.
On October 15, 1944, there was a change in the Hungarian government leadership and Horthy, the governor of Hungary was replaced by Szalasi, the head of the Hungarian Nyilas Kereszt Party. Almost immediately, cars with loudspeakers went down the streets of the ghetto, instructing the Jews to close all their windows and shutters. Realizing the roundup was about to happen, my mother made us put on as much clothing as possible. As we waited to be taken away, my grandmother baked some rolls for us to have with us. My mother was worried about my father, who was in a labor camp, and whether he could possibly escape to be with us.
Evening came and we were still waiting when, suddenly, my mother's cousin appeared at our apartment with some men who said they could get us out of the ghetto. First, they took my Aunt Alice and her baby to a Christian woman, who was a good friend of our family. Then they came back and walked us out of the house and into the street, pretending they were taking us to Nazi headquarters.
I will always remember what I saw when we went outside. In the middle of the street was a long, black line of Jews being herded down the street. There was a strange quietness filling the air as this occurred.
My young Uncle Vili, who was with us, had many Christian friends and we decided to see if any of them would hide us, even if only for a short period of time. We finally arrived at Matyas Frohlich's laundry store (a dry cleaner shop), which was right next to our business. He and his wife, without any hesitation, took us in and let us stay in a small room directly over his store. The date was October 15, 1944. All of this happened the day that the head of the government changed.
We were soon able to move to the basement of a furniture store, located next to the laundry. By December 1944, there were about 55 to 60 Jews hiding in that basement. The 60 people consisted of family members, friends, and total strangers who had been living in the ghetto. By that time, my father was also with us, as he had managed to escape from the labor camp. Living conditions were rough. Food was scarce, hygiene was non-existent, and constant bombardment and cannon fire could be heard. The Russian army was approaching the city and fighting was taking place, block by block.
One night we had a scare when the connecting door to the basement from the apartment house was opened. By that time the population of the city mostly lived in basements to avoid the bombardment. Someone looked in and saw us but then went away. With such a close call, my mother told me that were we to be discovered, I should say that I am not Jewish and that we were refugees from the outskirts of the city where the Russians were and my father was serving in the Hungarian army. I was also to give them a name that was not Jewish sounding.
Early on the morning of January 17, 1945, we were discovered. The door to our place was thrown open. A few shots were fired and the Nazis herded us out onto the street. The name of the street was Varmegye Utca. It was a very narrow street, and my mother and I were at the front of the line. My father was in the back, running after us with coats in his hand, but my brother stopped him and they hid under some stored furniture. There were other people who also hid in the basement or inside furniture, but, in the afternoon, some of the Nazis came back and strafed the place with shots and several of the people hiding were killed. A Nazi with a flashlight approached the table under which my father and brother were hiding. My father kissed my brother and turned his head in such a way that he would die from the first shot. However, the flashlight burned out just before the Nazi reached them and the Nazi then went away.
My mother and I, with about 25 other people, had been lined up against a wall on Varmegye Utca, and the Nazis began shooting, randomly. A young Nazi, attempting to shoot the Jews with a gun much too big for him, was screaming, “You Jews killed Jesus and now I am killing you in his name.” Several people were injured including my Aunt Olga (mother of Marika).
They, then, again herded us together and marched us to their local headquarters, which was at Varoshaz Utca 14. During the march, my Aunt Olga, along with Marika, slipped into an open doorway of an apartment house and managed to get away.
When we arrived at these headquarters, we were led into a small room and told to undress. Women were to strip to their slips and panties and take off all shoes. All pocketbooks were collected. Men and woman were separated and each group was lined up on opposite sides of the room facing the wall with their hands up. However, before all this took place for me, a strange thing happened. While I was in the process of undressing, a woman whose name was Haj Lujza, nicknamed “Csopi” which means tiny in Hungarian, noticed that I was wearing riding breeches, the same as her. She asked me my name and, remembering what my mother had told me, I responded with a “Christian” name and told her that we are not Jewish. She believed my story and told my mother and me to go into the corridor and wait. As we were waiting, a German officer took me between his knees and started questioning me as to where I went to school, etc. I answered with the name of a Christian school. However, he did not believe me and he slapped me very hard and sent us back to the room. In the room, “Csopi” came up to me and said how disappointed she was with me that I had lied to her.
My mother and I then undressed and lined up against the wall. Although our backs were to the room, we could certainly hear and even see, to a degree, what was happening. For example, one of the women, a Mrs. Teller, was wounded in her arm in the initial roundup and the Nazis bandaged her arm. A young girl named Danziger Eva, who was about 18 years old and a friend of our family, was taken out and, when she returned to the room, she appeared to be in a daze. On her forehead was written the word ”zsido” which looked like it had been written in blood. A man was made to eat his own excrement. My aunt Alice was savagely beaten, cursed, and made to dance naked, while we had to sing a popular song entitled “Nincs Kegyelem” (There is no mercy).
While this was going on, they were yelling that the war, the bombardment, etc., were all the fault of the Jews. My aunt Alice, even though she had been beaten extremely badly, screamed back at them that it was all their fault and their doing. For a reason unexpected by us, the woman in charge, Haj Lujza, let her go and Alice was escorted back to where she had been picked up.
Meanwhile, my grandma Helen, because of her age and health, had managed to obtain Christian papers and was living in the same building with the Christians who had been hiding us. In the morning roundup, Alice had handed her baby son to her mother, grandma Helen. Helen had the baby all day, pretending that she had no connection to him at all. In the evening, my aunt Alice returned to the basement, having been escorted back by the Nazi. When Alice saw her mother, Helen, she was unable to say anything to her, for fear that she would put her baby and her mother in danger. My grandma Helen must have had the worst time of any of us that day as her two daughters, her son, and three grandchildren were taken away, along with various sons-in-law, nieces and nephews, and her sister. She did not know if they were alive or dead and Alice could not let her know.
That afternoon at Nazi headquarters, they took 15 to 20 Jewish men outside and, when the Nazis came back to our room, they loudly and proudly announced that the Jews were now shaking hands with St. Peter!
During that entire day, my mother kept telling me that one has to die sometime and our time had now come. She had lost her spirit, as she did not know what happened to her son, husband, brothers, and other members of her family and had seen her younger sister beaten savagely.
When evening came, the rest of us were told to march out to the street and they were going to take us to the ghetto. However, instead of marching us to the ghetto, they lined us up very carefully against the wall of City Hall on Gerlocy Utca. The lineup was done in such a way that no one could cover up another person and then they began shooting. My mother was killed immediately and I was shot in the shoulder, I turned around and shouted that I was not Jewish and do not shoot, However, I was shot again at close range and was wounded in my hip area. I lay down on the ground, holding my stomach. Someone came and looked at me but continued on past me. The shooting continued. I heard them shouting to the victims, “Who wants a mercy shot?” A young girl about nine years old asked for one and got it.
While the shooting was going on and since I was at the end of the line of the approximately 25 people, I got up and ran away. I ran to the next street. Since there was heavy fighting from the war going on in this area, the street was covered with rubble. The only light available came from the moon and the people were all hiding in cellars to get away from the bombs. I saw a speck of light coming from a cellar I banged on the door and they let me in. I told them that I was Jewish and my mother had just been killed. I was only wearing a slip, a sweater and shoes. (This was more clothing than anybody else had on but that is another story). They gave me a drink of alcohol, cleaned me up, and debated what to do with me. They decided to keep me for the night, but they would turn me over to the Nazis in the morning. When morning came, January 18, 1945, the Russian army had arrived in our area of Budapest and the Germans were gone.
That very day, a man came to me in that cellar and told me that he was a Jew from Vienna and he would help me find any member of my family. He went to our hiding place and found my father and my brother. They in turn found my mother's body. I was two months short of my twelfth birthday.
It took me a long time to recuperate from my wounds but, in time, life seemed to go on.
We left Hungary in 1949 and lived in Paris for almost two years. In 1950, at the age of seventeen, I married my cousin, who lived in America, and was able to come to Miami and attended Miami Beach Senior High School. In 1951 the Miami Herald ran an essay contest for high school students in Dade County, Florida. I entered and wrote a two page essay about the events of January 17, 1945. I received a Certificate of Merit from the Miami Herald and was given a standing ovation in the school auditorium upon receiving the award. However, no one -- not the Miami Herald, any of my teachers, or any of the students -- asked me if my essay was really true or for more information as to what happened. To this day, I do not understand that lack of reaction.
For me, the tragedy of the Holocaust is summed up by my feelings after my mother's death: we were lucky in that we only lost my mother from my immediate family. Even so, I feel that one death/murder caused by the hatred or prejudice of any person is an example of what you can call a “holocaust.”