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Sitting at the Survivors’ Desk

By George Salamon

On Wednesday mornings at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, I sit at a desk where other Holocaust survivors and I meet Museum visitors. I tell my story, and the story of my family’s survival.

Most people are very attentive and some people are visibly moved. Sometimes I see tears in a lady’s eyes. I often hear, “I am happy you are here.” People shake my hand. Some do not come to the desk to hear my story but only to shake my hand and say a few kind words. I have met so many nice people.

A few people ask questions and some tell me a little about their family and their connection to World War II and the Holocaust. Many times they have great questions that make me think. Their stories are interesting and meaningful. I heard about a father who lived in Poland, who was a Christian, but was taken to a concentration camp because of his views. He survived. I heard from a German visitor that her father was a Socialist, and was taken to a camp. He also survived. I heard from a woman, who is a nurse, that her daughter’s in-laws are survivors. They lived in Poland, and when the German troops arrived, they went to the forest. They became partisans. They had contact with the Russians and went to Russia. They were given two choices. They could either get Russian citizenship and the man would be enlisted in the army and sent to the front, or they go to Siberia to a camp. They chose Siberia. Later they ended up in a displaced person’s camp. Their son was born there. I asked her how they ended up there from Russia, but she did not know the answer.

Once I got two interesting questions. A lady asked me, “Is it hard for you to talk about these things or not?” I told her that it is not easy. Though I heard some stories about the Holocaust growing up, my mother did not talk about it. She looked only to the future, not to the past. She effectively sheltered me from it. Later, I was always too busy to even think about it. 

Since I began volunteering at the Museum, I think about it more. I remember that we were waiting for my father to come home for many years after the war was over, but unfortunately that did not happen. My mother got a notification from the Red Cross that my father was deceased. Later she learned that the Hungarian Nazis killed him. The second part of my answer was I know how important it is to talk about the Holocaust in the age of Holocaust denial and it makes it easier for me to do so.

The second question that made me think was from another woman. “Do you worry about the increasing antisemitism?” I told her that I am worried, particularly since people on the internet can spread antisemitic lies within minutes, all over the world.

I have mixed feelings about my “celebrity status” as a survivor. It is true that I am a survivor. I could have been killed any minute of that horrible 11 months when the Germans occupied Hungary and with their help, the Hungarian Nazis (their movement was called the Arrow Cross) ruled the country. But I was very young, just two to two and a half years old, so I had nothing to do with my own survival. Once, I even endangered my family. According to my mother, I started to speak very early. My mother, grandmother, aunt, and I went to a grocery store. Someone sneezed in the store and I told her, “Bless you.” The only problem was that I said it in Yiddish. People asked, “What did the child say?” and my mother answered “Nothing.” After that we did not spend too much time in that store.

The heroes of my survival were my mother and my two uncles. I learned from my mother’s notes that she stood in a long line to get protective papers issued by the Swiss embassy and a permit to move to a so-called safe house, protected by the Swiss (arranged by Carl Lutz, Swiss diplomat). She was harassed by Hungarian Nazis and caught by the police for staying on the street longer than the two hours allowed for Jews, but she got papers for the whole family. I am sure she was wearing the yellow star then, but she usually did not. Once she was on the tramway and met an acquaintance. He asked her how come she does not wear the yellow star. She did not answer and got off at the next station.

One of my uncles, Herman, escaped from forced labor and came to the safe house where we were living. He became the representative of the house and worked with the Swiss Embassy. When the embassy notified him that he was in danger, he and his wife moved to the so-called “glass house,” which belonged to the embassy. It was more protected than the safe house because it had guards. When he learned that we were still in the safe house, he made arrangements for us to move to the glass house too.

My other uncle Sanyi, who also escaped from forced labor and stayed in the glass house, came for us one night and took us to the glass house. Naturally, he also risked his life by doing this. When we arrived at the glass house, the guard let me in but he kept my mother out, saying that the place was too crowded already. Then my uncle pushed my mother through, moving the guard to the side. Since she was already in Swiss territory, she could not be removed.

© 2020, George Salamon. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.