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Eyewitness to History: George Pick

George Pick was born in 1934 in Budapest, Hungary. After Nazi Germany occupied Hungary in 1944, George and his family were required to move into designated housing for Jews. Threats of deportation from Hungarian fascists, who were collaborating with the Nazis, forced the family into hiding. George was sent to an orphanage run by the Swiss Red Cross when their hiding spot was discovered, but he soon escaped and returned to his family. The family was then forced into the Budapest ghetto, where they were held under appalling conditions until their liberation. Read George’s full biography.



Claire McMahon: Welcome, and thank you for your interest in survivor testimony.

My name is Clare McMahon, and I work in the office of Survivor Affairs at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. 

The Museum defines Holocaust survivors as Jews who experienced the persecution and survived the mass murder that was carried out by the Nazis and their collaborators. 

This included those who were in concentration camps, killing centers, ghettos, and prisons, as well as refugees or those in hiding.

Holocaust survivors also include people who did not self-identify as Jewish, but were categorized as such by the perpetrators. 

We are honored to have Holocaust survivor George Pick share his firsthand account of the Holocaust with us. George, thank you so much for joining us. 

George Pick: You are very welcome, ladies and gentlemen.

Let's start with the first picture.

Clare McMahon: George...

George Pick: Yes?

Clare McMahon: George, you were born on March 28th, 1934 in Budapest, Hungary.

Before we talk about World War II and the Holocaust, please tell us about your family and the years that led up to these events.

George Pick: Well, in this picture I am three days old. I am with my mother and father. However, my family has documented evidence that we have lived in the Hungarian Kingdom and then the Austro-Hungarian Empire for over 250 years, therefore, my family is quite assimilated.

We were not a very religious Jewish group, but we were more ethnic and cultural Jews. 

My family was quite large, roughly 150, 160 people.

We had doctors, lawyers, engineers, et cetera. This picture is showing me with my little cousin Clara and three little girls who were my playmates on the same floor where I lived. And they were not Jewish but that was not an issue for us.

Here I am with my two cousins from my father's side. Ágnes is behind me, and the little baby is Zsuzsa.

This is my extended family. On the left side, the first man who stands up is my uncle Laszlo, my mother's brother, and his wife is in front.

The little old lady is his mother and my mother's mother, my grandmother. You can see me also.

The next man who is standing up is my father, István, and next to him my mother, Margit.

My aunt is the last one in this picture. She is married to my uncle Károly, who took the picture.

Shortly after this picture was taken, my aunt and my uncle had emigrated to the United States.

Clare McMahon: And George, things really took a turn for your family and as well as other Jews in Budapest in September 1939, as Germany invaded Poland marking the beginning of World War II.

You were nearly 5 and a half years old at this time.

While the full brunt of war would not come to Hungary until 1944, the lives of Jews in Hungary changed significantly due to discrimination and antisemitic policies instituted by the Hungarian regime. 

In particular, the Hungarian Parliament instituted an anti-Jewish law in 1938 that restricted Jewish professionals to a small representational quota, resulting in dismissal from employment for many Hungarian Jews. 

Could you tell us how this policy impacted your father?

George Pick: Yes. Besides the 1938 first anti-Jewish law, there were subsequent laws in 1939 and 1941. All three laws were designed to crush the economic well-being of the Jewish community in Hungary, and resulted to hundreds of thousands of unemployed people, among them my father and my uncles.

My father is here with me in 1943. 

The majority of the Jews, because of these three laws, were pushed into poverty, and besides that, there were other issues. One was that a Jew could not marry a non-Jew, a Gentile. Now my father, in this picture, came back from slave labor camp. 

In the 1939 law, Jews were forbidden to go to the army, but they were taken as laborers, as slave laborers.

In 1940 and '43, my father was conscripted and he was working on roads, road buildings. He came back, and this picture was taken shortly after he came back in '43.

Clare McMahon: George, I want to focus on an experience that you and your mother had next. But throughout the 1930s and early 1940s, the Arrow Cross Party, also known as the Nyilas, was an ultranationalist, antisemitic political party in Hungary that grew in power and influence, but they were not yet in power at this point in time.

And you experienced your first real sense of threat in 1943 while encountering the Arrow Cross on a vacation. 

Could you tell us more about this encounter?

George Pick: Yes. The Arrow Cross was basically identical -- the ideology of the Arrow Cross was basically identical to the Nazi ideology as far as the Jews were concerned, and as far as all the other issues.

Here you see a bunch of them. By 1943 they were tolerated by the government.

Before that they were illegal, and they were a rather rambunctious bunch. They were yelling and screaming "Death to the Jews" and "Hail the Nazis," et cetera.

Here you see a bunch of them in Budapest. 

Now in 1943 after my father came back from the labor camp, we went on a vacation in one of the mountains, Mátra, in Hungary, and my mother and I inadvertently ended up in the middle of a group of Nyilas who were in their black uniform and they were yelling and screaming "Death to the Jews" and "Hail to the Nazis" and they looked quite a violent bunch.

So we were trying to get as away as far as we could, and we were able to do it but we were both very, very afraid and panicked. And this was my first encounter with the Nyilas, unfortunately not the last one.

Clare McMahon: Thank you, George, for telling us about this experience.

Nazi Germany occupied Hungary on March 19th, 1944, and Hungarian officials cooperated with Nazi leadership in their efforts to deport the Hungarian Jews. From May to July 1944, nearly 440,000 Hungarian Jews were deported from the provinces and the countryside.

The majority of them were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau where they were killed in gas chambers. As a result of these deportations, the only Jewish community left in Hungary was that of Budapest. 

George, what restrictions did you and your family encounter in Budapest at this time?

George Pick: Well, the vast majority of my family lived in the provinces, roughly 130 people.

And we had no idea what happened to them because a few days after the Germans came in without a shot fired against them, the radios, the telephones, and all the transportation, means of transportation, were taken away from us. That was cars, bicycles. We were banned from taking the train. 

So we had complete isolation from Budapest to the rest of the country, and we did not know what had happened. And between May and July the 6th to be exact, as you mentioned, 440,000 Jews were deported.

That was not the first action actually which the new Nazi government took in Hungary. The first action was to put the yellow star on every Jew from age six on.

You see one here as an illustration.

The men from age 16 to age 60, of course that included my father and my uncles, were all conscripted to labor brigades and labor camps. My father was taken to the western part of Budapest, or Hungary rather, and worked digging ditches and building roads.

This was not the only thing which had happened. 

After this in April, beginning in April, there were people who were trying to escape. They were not able to do it.

The first thing which happened after they confiscated the radios, et cetera as I mentioned, was to take the Jews in Budapest at the end of June and concentrated them to a relatively few buildings. 

Imagine 20% of a million people who lived in Budapest were Jewish, roughly 200,000. So 20-25% of the living space was occupied by Jews, but after this, only 5% of the living space was allocated.

And our place where I lived and my mother and grandmother was not one of these buildings, so we were forced to move from our place to my aunt, my mother's aunt's place, which was a smaller apartment building.

Each of these 1900 apartment buildings where the Jews were pushed together had a star on top of it.

If there were minority Christians, they had to move out except for the supers of each of these buildings who were responsible for making sure that the Jews are logged in 22 hours a day.

The only time when we were allowed to go out was between 2:00 and 4:00 in the afternoon, but by then, most of the food was gone and also some of the merchants refused to provide food for the Jews. So we had a problem. And this, as I said, was at the end of June. Now in the first week, weekend of July, specifically July 2nd which was a Sunday, we got the first bombing raid.

And this bombing raid was a saturation bombing raid. 30% of Budapest was afterwards in ruins. The targets were the railroad stations and railroad junctions, but of course, these bombs went everywhere. 

We were very lucky. Our building was not bombed, but what had happened is very close by, many of the buildings were hit and of course when these large bombs hit, it made an awful lot of noise and I became hysterical.

And from then on in the bombing raids which then become a daily event, actually twice daily event, one at 11:00 in the morning where the Americans and the British came, and one at night at 9:00 when the Soviets came. And I was always hysterical and my mother was trying to keep me down as much as she could.

Clare McMahon: I couldn't imagine being surrounded and having to endure this so frequently at such a young age.

But George things took another turn for the worst as on October 15, 1944, the fascist Arrow Cross party seized power in Hungary through a German-backed coup and Ferenc Szálasi became the head of the Arrow Cross.

Days later, a new reign of terror against Jews in Budapest began, followed by the deportations of thousands of men, women, and children, including potentially your father. 

Tell us what happened to your father during this time, and how did he reunite with you and your mother?

George Pick: My father, in August of the same year, was taken from the western part of Hungary to Budapest along with several other Jewish slave laborers.

About 10 days after Szálasi took over, the first group, large group of people, who would be deported would be the slave laborers, among them my father.

And then 10,000 young women who were working capable would be collected and also deported. Two of my aunts were collected. One was able to escape. The second one did not, and she died in a camp.

My father's unit commander was a very decent man. His Jewish fiancée lived in our building, and he knew a couple of days earlier that my father's unit was going to be deported to Germany, and he told everybody and gave everybody a 24-hour furlough.

And my father was desperate. He didn't want to be deported, he wanted to hide. And he went to two of his friends, Christian friends, and he told him what his situation was, and his  Christian friends gave him a piece of paper with an address of a textile factory, and they told him to go in and he will be taken care of. 

And then we didn't hear from my father for roughly 10 days. The bombing raids of course were going on, and then 10 days later which was roughly about the middle of November, a Hungarian soldier showed up with a note from my father saying that my mother and I should follow the soldier to this hiding place.

My mother felt very bad because her mother and the aunts and other family members were left behind, and my father's note said not to say anything to anybody. 

So we did and we went to his place.

I think the next pictures shows the hiding place.

The hiding place looked different during the war than now. This was a relatively new picture taken.

When we were there, there were two stories. This was a factory which made uniforms for the Hungarian army, and this was of course a camouflage. 

This factory was owned by a Jewish man originally and was confiscated.

And there was a group of people, partly Zionists, partly Communists, who organized this place and others as hiding places for Jewish escapees from the deportation.

Most of the people, most of the men, brought their family, 170, including 22 children, and of course there was a logistic problem because these people have to be fed, and there was a network of people who did this.

And one in the network was a traitor and told the Gestapo, the Hungarian Gestapo, that there were Jews in this textile factory, and they raided us on the 2nd of December in the morning. Five of them came, in civilian clothes but with submachine guns, and they sorted us out, men and women in one place, and children as well, and we thought that they were going to just shoot us. 

But fortunately not all of them were stupid, and they knew that probably some of these people were well-to-do, and the Russians were only 30 miles away. So they sat down and there was a negotiation, and they ended up with dollars and a large amount of precious stones in their pocket. And they told us that now they are under their protection and if there is some problem, we should call them and they will help.

So they left, and then the little group who was running our 170 people decided that the children should be taken to the Swiss Red Cross orphanage which was in the middle of the city.

Clare McMahon: George, while you were at the Red Cross orphanage and first, if you could give us a little bit of an understanding of what living there was like, but you eventually decided to escape. Could you tell us about these experiences?

George Pick: Yes. Twenty-two of us got into this place which is shown here as a red dot.

And there were roughly 500 children from age 6 months to 15 years.

And I and my friend, we were 10 years old, and we decided that we were going to escape here. This was a terrible place.

Children were dirty and hungry, and there were a couple of Nazi women who were supervising them.

We got there in the evening so the building was completely closed. In the next morning, my friend and I went to the entrance which was open for the workers for the Swiss Red Cross, and we asked a young lady to take us out because we have money and we are very hungry.

And she did that and we ran away. And the two of us, it took us roughly two hours to get back to our parents in the hiding place. Of course our parents were very, very happy.

We found out after the war that a few days after we escaped, all these children were taken to the Danube and shot into the Danube. So out of all the people maybe a few of them were able to escape, but most of these people died, and out of the 22 only two of us survived.

And then we were with our parents for a few days, and later on two policemen showed up, and they told us that now there is a ghetto in Budapest and they stopped that deporting people because the Russians completely surrounded the city.

So the two policemen told us that they will take us to this ghetto and we left and only 65 of us arrived in the ghetto. The rest of them escaped, and 22 of the 65 of us were put in a building which I think is a next picture.

Yes, this building was facing a large square, the large square in the ghetto called Klauzal there.

And the building itself was full of old people.

They brought in the Jewish old age homes, men and women, and roughly 200 people were already there.

We had a couple of rooms and the 22 of us were there, however, the air raids have been going on continuously and I was always very afraid. And my mother and I and a young lady went down to the basement of this building.

This building was made probably early part of the 20th century. They had dust as a basement, they didn't have any kind of concrete.

And so we slept there and pretty soon after this, several days later, the siege of Budapest started and then of course everybody had to squeeze down to this little basement. The doors of these various apartments were taken down and that's where we slept.

They dug a ditch in the middle of this basement which was the toilet for every one of us.

My father volunteered for the ghetto police. Now the ghetto police, the mission of the ghetto police in Budapest, was very different from the ghetto police everywhere else in Europe.

Here in Budapest the ghetto police's mission was to try to save the Jews. For that they got a truncheon, a rubber truncheon, an armband which said that they were the ghetto police, and a beret.

And with that, they were going to save roughly 70,000 Jews who were under the constant threat of Nyilas coming into the ghetto and massacre them. And many of them were massacred.

Now the streets of the ghetto were watched from the tops of buildings by sharpshooters, and if somebody was going to walk there, they would shoot people. My father had three different partners and all three of them were shot. My father fortunately survived.

He found his mother and father there, which was of course a great deal of relief for us.

But the food supply which was somewhere else could not be reached, because of this sharpshooters, nobody was going to volunteer to go out and get food, and because of that, people started to starve to death.

The first were of course this old men and women.

On a daily basis I would say 10 or 15 of them died, mainly because of lack of food.

When there was a lull in the fighting, the bodies were taken out to Klauzal Square, the square in front of our building, and were thrown into the pile of dead bodies. I went up once just to see what happens, and I saw thousands and thousands of dead bodies frozen solid. The winter was very, very harsh in 1944, '45.

Clare McMahon: George, you endured these conditions for the rest of the war until you were liberated by Soviet forces in January of 1945, just months before your 11th birthday.

What do you remember about liberation, and what did your parents do after liberation?

George Pick: Well, my father came back on the 17th of January and stayed with us.

And on the 18th of January for some reason this huge noise which was going on 24 hours a day stopped, so we had a little slit window and looked up, and we found that people were walking around who were wearing different shoes, different footwear, than the Nazis did.

So we figured that the Russians liberated us, and indeed that's what happened.

Many people still died and were dead in the basement. And my mother and father decided that at this point, we are going to go back home where we came from in June of 1944.

Normally this distance was about 30 minutes walk, but my mother, father, and myself included, were so weak that it would take us two hours.

We had a little suitcase which was my mother's only thing she wanted, and that is the family pictures. She said that cannot be replaced, so I carried that little suitcase.

And we saw many hundreds of dead people, hundreds of dead horses. And of course the Nazis were bombarding from the Buda side, Pest, and we just went as fast as we could.

A little group of Soviet soldiers stopped us and said that they would like us to break up the ice and they gave us an ice pick. My father was so weak that he couldn't even lift it, and then the Russians smiled and one from one of his backpack pulled out a loaf of bread, a bread which we haven't seen for three weeks, and told us to just go.

We went back home. The people who were Nazi sympathizers were rather turning rather green. They hoped that we would never come back, and they thought that we were going to have a revenge on them. Revenge was the least thing of our mind.

We were very, very tired and very hungry. The super there, Mr. Dudek, was entrusted with a large amount of food before we left, and he of course gave this food back to us. So that kept us alive another month while the siege was going on against Buda.

And the final siege of Budapest ended in 13th of February of 1945.

Clare McMahon: George, could you tell us a little bit about what life was like immediately after the war, particularly with your family that survived? George Pick: Yes. Well, of course we didn't have anything. We didn't have water. There was snow so that's what we had.

Didn't have gas, didn't have electricity.

And after the bunker, we got into an unoccupied apartment, and we tried to put our life somehow back together. A few weeks after our liberation, the schools opened and my mother and I walked -- there were no transportation -- walked from where we lived to the school where I went.

Some people who survived came back during the summer. Not very many, unfortunately.

And one year after our liberation, those 20 of us, or 22 of us who survived, got together for a banquet.

You see this banquet here and you see only two children. One in the middle, that's me, and one in the end which was my friend who who escaped with us. The rest unfortunately wasn't there.

These people of course looked very different a year later. Many people left Hungary because they found out that all their families were murdered. And we tried to put our life together somehow. It wasn't very easy. 

Clare McMahon: Thank you, George, for talking about your experiences. But I have one more question for you, and that is as we face rising antisemitism, related conspiracy theories, and Holocaust denial, please tell us what we can learn from what you experienced during the Holocaust.

George Pick: Well, my 30 years as a volunteer for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum afforded me the honor, I would say, to speak in front of thousands of people, from high school students to university students to high government officials and others.

And I told them my story, and the end of my speech was always that one of the lessons we learn from the Holocaust is tolerance. That we need to tolerate other people's beliefs and other people's opinion. But no longer.

In the last few years, the hate speech and the antisemitism which is now spreading not only in the United States but all over Europe and resulting in murders -- if you look at, for example, the statistics in this country, the murder rate went up a great deal in the last few years because of this hate.

The hate speech is just the beginning.

After hate speeches comes violence, and after violence comes murder. So I now say to people who listen to me is no longer tolerance. You cannot tolerate hate, you have to fight against it as much as you can, as actively as you can.

There are many organizations, of course the Museum itself, but many organizations fighting. And one must be active.

That is my message to you. Must be active against hate and hate speech, and you have to fight actively. Thank you very much.