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Eyewitness to History: Peter Gorog

Peter Gorog was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1941. The Hungarian government enacted increasingly oppressive antisemitic laws and in 1942 Peter’s father was sent to occupied Ukraine as part of a forced labor battalion. He never returned. After the Germans occupied Hungary in 1944, Peter and his mother, Olga, briefly found refuge with a family friend until a neighbor denounced them. After being arrested and jailed, Olga escaped and returned to Peter. They stayed in an internationally protected apartment before being forced to move into the Budapest ghetto, which was liberated by the Soviet Army in January 1945. 


Bill Benson: Welcome. Thank you for joining us for First Person: Conversations with Holocaust Survivors. My name is Bill Benson.

I have hosted the Museum's First Person program since it began in 2000.

Through these monthly conversations, we bring you first-hand accounts of survival of the Holocaust.

Each of our First Person guests serves as a volunteer at the Museum. We are honored to have Holocaust survivor Peter Gorog share his personal first-hand account of the Holocaust with us.

Peter, thank you so much for agreeing to be our First Person today. Welcome.

Peter Gorog: Hello, Bill. And thanks for having me today.

And a warm welcome to everybody out there who logged in to hear my family's story.

Bill: We are honored to have you, Peter. You have so much to share with us that we'll start right away.

Before you tell us what happened to you and your family during World War II and the Holocaust, please tell us about your parents, Arpad and Olga Grünwald,

and their life in Hungary before the war. Peter: Both of my parents were born in 1907.

My mother was born in a small village or a little town, what is Ukraine today.

Its name is Uzhgorod. That time during the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, it was Ungvár.

Bill: And this is their wedding—is this their wedding day? This picture we're seeing? Peter: Yes. They met in 1930

and got married in June

1937. My mom came from an Orthodox family, a very observant family.

My great-grandfather was a rabbi. She, after finished elementary school,

she went to a vocational school. She was trained to be a secretary, but she didn't like it, so

she went to a vocational—another vocational school.

And she was an apprentice in a store

which made hats for ladies.

Bill: And then she had her own business doing that. Who were her clients?

Peter: Well, her first clients were from people

she knew. Actually, one of her teachers was the very first client, and after that, clients

came by word-of-mouth and she had a very good business.

Bill: Peter, your parents were very active. They did a lot of things outdoors.

Tell us what kinds of activities your parents enjoyed. Peter: Well, before the war, my parents had a very normal

middle-class lifestyle. They loved the outdoors, they went skiing in the winter

and camping and kayaking in the summer. My mom loved all of these activities except skiing

because she thought it was too cold. But this picture in the screen shows that they had a really

good time. Bill: You know, I think that is just such an endearing photograph. That is just absolutely fabulous.

And on top of outdoors activities, I think you've told me that they enjoyed dancing, they went to the movies. They just had a really great life together at that time.

Peter: Yeah, that's correct. They had a relatively normal life financially.

They were well-established. My father was an office manager at a publishing company until

he was called up for forced labor service. Bill: And we'll get to that in just a moment.

Antisemitic laws implemented in the late 1930s and the start of World War II in 1939 changed things considerably

for Jews in Hungary. Will you describe these changes and how new restrictions impacted

your parents? Peter: Between 1938 and 41, there

were three major antisemitic laws.

The number of Jews who could serve in any company was restricted first for 20%.

Later on, 6%. There was an earlier law which restricted the number of Jewish

students at colleges and universities. There were restrictions of

how many—actually, that was a ban for

Jews participating in media companies and leading theaters.

It affected my parents also.

When there was a decree that the Hungarian government

prohibited non-Jews to serve Jewish households. So the nanny my mom hired to take care of

me while she was in the shop, my mom had to let her go and it caused some difficulties to

run the business and taking care of me. Bill: Right. You mentioned the forced labor service

a moment ago. The Hungarian government established these forced labor services and, in August 1940, your father was conscripted into a forced

labor battalion. What did that mean for your parents?

Peter: Well, first of all, they were separated. Actually, my mom was already pregnant when

my father was called up to first duty for three months. And the first three months of my pregnancy was

very hard, as she told me later. And financially, they were not affected because

my mom was able to continue her business. And interestingly enough, the company which employed my father

paid his salary also. But being separated—freshly married, pregnant woman—you can imagine it was very hard. Bill: And I can only imagine. Peter, did your mother know where he was sent for his forced labor?

And do you know what kind of work he was forced to do? Peter: Well, she only knew the military barrack where my

father had to report to. And when my father came back after three months,

obviously, he told her what

he was doing and where he was stationed. And in the picture, in the screen, you see my father

with all of the Jewish people who were called up for the service between the ages of 18 and

55. These were very special units in Europe. They were not military units, but they

were attached to military units. The government didn't trust the Jewish people to handle weapons

and rifles, so they did all the hard and dirty work for the army.

Bill: Peter, you were born March 10th, 1941. Your father was back from the forced labor work from his, one of his

first times being sent. So he was there for your birthday—birth, but he would soon be sent away again for forced labor duty.

What do you know about his visits that he was able to have with your mother and with you? And about this—tell us about this wonderful photograph.

Peter: Well, unfortunately, I don't know very much because my mother didn't tell

me about those periods when my father was at home visiting us.

The only thing I know, I know from the pictures because I know just the way he was

looking at me that he loved me. I also know about his feelings also because while

he was away, he was able to send postcards every week. And he was sending these postcards

and telling my mom how much he was missing her and me, and he requested pictures.

And so all of these came together. The documents of my mom preserved the pictures, the postcards,

and finally the diary, which my mom started earlier. Bill: And we'll talk about that a little bit later, I know.

Peter, this particular picture is of great significance to you.

Peter: It is because this is the only picture which has

all three of us. Bill: Yeah. I'm so glad that you've been able to have that and be able to keep that all these years.

Peter, you just mentioned that your father was able to send postcards while he was in the forced labor battalions.

We have an image of one of those postcards. If you don't mind, Peter, tell us about this postcard.

And we would love to have you read an excerpt from it, if you would.

Peter: This is the last postcard my father sent from the labor battalion dated 1942,

December 10. And I will read a little bit of

excerpt from the card just to show

how much my father loved us, how much he hoped that one day we will be reunited.

"My dear little Squirrel"—which is a Hungarian term

people use for their loved ones—"and My Golden Little Peter, I got all of your cards.

They caused me a great pleasure, and I ask you to write more often because reading every line is a special holiday for me.

Your cards are full of longing for me and can you imagine how much I long for you and for our little warm home?

But for the time being, we have to be very patient. We have to wait steadfastly and trust in the Good Lord.

I cannot emphasize enough how much you have to take care of your health."

Bill: And if you don't mind, read the last line that he wrote in this particular card.

Peter: "I got very little news about my dear mom. How is she? Please also write about my dad and the family.

It would make me very happy if you would write down a whole week of events as a diary.

Million kisses to you, dear Peter from Arpad who loves you a lot."

Bill: Thank you for sharing from that, Peter. I know that that must be very, very, very difficult to

read from. But at the same time, I know that you treasure that immensely. Peter: I read from the last postcard in December 1942

and the next news about him

came from the Red Cross. It was a notification that my father

disappeared during war activities in January 1943.

Bill: Any other details? Peter: Excuse me? Bill: Any other details or just that?

Peter: No details. Only disappeared. And that was a word which could cover

all kinds of possibilities. It could mean that he escaped.

It could have meant that he was captured by the Soviets.

It could have meant that under the harsh circumstances,

and the winter of 1942-43 was really harsh, he was just too weak to march

and he was left behind. Actually, we do know that he was left behind because

there was only one person who came back from his battalion,

and he saw a diary written by another conscripted Jewish man.

And the diary had a reference to my father saying that Arpi was left behind and left

behind, again, could have meant anything. This man—surviving man's

guess was that probably he was frozen to death. Bill: And I guess, Peter, that in the intervening years, you've really never learned

any more details about your father's death. Peter: No, unfortunately. And neither did I,

nor all the people who lost loved ones during the Holocaust.

Bill: I might share this little bit of a statistic, just a tragic statistic with our audience.

Of the approximately 50,000 that were deployed in the forced labor battalions

in occupied Ukraine, where your father was, only 6 to 7,000 returned to Hungary.

So less than 20%, far less than 20%, of those like your father returned.

Peter, you mentioned a few moments ago your mother's diary. Tell us about your mother's diary.

Peter: Before I tell about the diary, I just want to inject a little bit of information.

Everything I am telling you and the audience today came from information from this diary, from the postcards,

from the pictures, from the documents my mom saved.

And later on, very much later on, I

had a taped interview with my mom. And I am putting together the pieces from

these sources and I am still in the process of finding out some minor details, which does not change my

narrative, but at the same time, it helps me to have a good timeline and facts together.

Considering the diary, this was started after my mom got the notification from the Red Cross that my father

disappeared and she started to write down her thoughts and everything what happened to us, hoping that

one day my father would return and she would be able to recall those times we spent separated from him.

And so she wrote down in notebooks—which she usually used for her customers,

writing down the names and the measurements of their head and phone numbers—and between two customer's

data, she wrote down her thoughts. And if I may read

just one paragraph from her diary.

Bill: Please do, Peter. I know our audience would just love to hear you do that.

Peter: She wrote, "One day you will show up at our door

without any advance notice. And then I would not switch with anyone in the world, and

I'll be the happiest person ever to live. This is the only thing that keeps me going.

It gives me strength to endure what lies ahead and

how wonderful it will be to be together again.

I cannot imagine any greater happiness. I would have gone crazy if I could not find consolation

in our little Peter. I hope and I believe that the Good Lord will hear us, hear our

prayers, and He will help us to see each other again

and soon." Bill: You know, Peter, the—between the excerpt you read

from your father's postcard and that excerpt, just knowing their excerpts from the diary, they are such profound staples of the love they had

for each other and for you. I can't imagine the feelings that you must go through each and every time you look at that.

Peter, as hard as conditions had been for Jews in Hungary, life became profoundly worse when the Nazis occupied Hungary in March

1944. How did things change so dramatically, and what did it mean for you and your mother and other Jews?

Peter: The Holocaust history in Hungary was different from practically all of the other European countries, namely that Hungary wasn't occupied

by the German Nazis until 1944. Nevertheless, the conditions for Jews were

as hard as it was for the people, the Jews, in the rest of Europe.

In 1943—44—March, the German troops marched into Budapest, and in a couple of days later they started arresting Hungarian

Jews. And in a matter of three months, mostly from the countryside, more than 400,000

Hungarian Jews were deported to the Nazi death camps set up in Poland.

Most of them went to Auschwitz and practically nobody returned.

Our life in Budapest was a little bit different, and because of the logistics, they just didn't have enough trains

to start a deportation from Budapest.

Bill: Shortly after the Nazi occupation as you said, the Nazis were focused primarily initially on emptying the countryside of Jews.

For those of you who were in Budapest, you were ordered to move into designated housing known as "yellow star houses" that were marked

with the Star of David. Tell us about your experience living in the "yellow star house" and this, I don't think this is your actual house, but it's a very good

example of what that meant. Peter: That's correct. It's not our actual house.

But in April 1944, the Hungarian government issued a decree that

all Jews have to move either to the Budapest ghetto

or so-called that is designated houses, the "yellow star houses." In Hungarian, they were called zsidó houses.

And we had to move out from our apartment.

We moved to a "yellow star house"

where there was an apartment occupied by a relative of ours, very far-removed relatives. I don't think

my mother had even met her before the war. And they were generous enough.

They took us in and that's where we spent the next few months.

Bill: Peter, as you mentioned a short while ago, after the German occupation between April and July 1944, most of the Jews

living in the Hungarian countryside, over 400,000, as you said, were deported primarily to Auschwitz.

In Budapest, and that's the period that you were living in the "yellow star house", life, of course, then became even more dangerous in Budapest for you, when

in October 1944, the fascist Arrow Cross Party gained control of the country and began a reign of terror against the Jews.

Your mother was arrested during this time. Tell us how that came about. How did that happen?

Peter: In October 1944, the far right

Hungarian Nazi Party, the Arrow Cross, took over the government and our life took a turn for even worse.

What happened was that the government

instructed Hungarian Jews to show up at a brick yard, which was located just outskirts

of Budapest, and this brick yard was connected by railway to the regular railway

lines. And this was the place from where most of the Budapest Jews were deported

to concentration camps and killing camps. My mom defied the order, and we didn't go to the brick yard.

Bill: She was arrested after she, as you said, defied the Nazi authorities and did not go to the brick yard.

Peter: Correct. My mom was arrested while we was still

staying at the "yellow star house." What happened after she didn't show up at the brick yard,

somebody reported her to the police and the Hungarian police came and arrested her.

And this is one of the few personal memories I have, because I remember the morning we were sitting at the breakfast

table, two Hungarian policemen, gendarmerie,

showed up at our apartment building. They had a very fancy uniform, this is why I remember.

And they arrested my mom. And I was crying. I was crying because earlier

my mom, when I didn't eat my meal, she threatened me that the police will come

and the police will take me away. This time they came not for me, but for her.

She was taken to an infamous Hungarian jail, the so-called Mosonyi Street Jail, where she was

kept for three weeks. Three weeks without being interrogated, without

knowing why she was there and what's going to happen her. And after three weeks, she was called up to the commandant

office and the colonel, I think that was his rank, asked her if she

has any documentation or reason why she should be released.

And my mom, fortunately, had the documents she got from the Hungarian Red Cross and the death certificate later on from the Budapest

Council, and she showed those documents to the commandant, and he looked at it.

And Mom, when she told me the story later, she didn't know what was the

commandant incentive. Nevertheless, he let her go.

She came to the apartment and that's when we moved to the internationally protected house.

Bill: If he didn't know, it sounds like your mother bluffed her way through that one.

Peter: Yes. She used her chutzpah a couple of times during those years.

Bill: Peter, you began to tell us a few moments ago then about where you went next, and that was the series of safe houses that were sponsored by

other countries. Will you tell us more about that and what it was like for you and your mom?

Peter: Yes, embassies of neutral countries like Sweden and Switzerland and Spain and Portugal,

and even the ambassador from the Vatican,

tried to help Jews by issuing documents, so-called Schutzpasses.

These documents were a certain kind of I.D. cards which prove that the person

whose name was in the document was protected

by a foreign government. And they saved many, many lives just by giving these

documents. Also by having these protected houses

where they put the sign of the embassy on the building, which claimed that this is the territory of Switzerland or

Spain, and by international laws, the Hungarian government

and the Hungarian police and the Hungarian Nazis couldn't go into those buildings and we were protected.

Bill: Peter, the house that you were protected in was under the jurisdiction or the authority of the Swiss.

Is that right? Peter: Yes, that's correct. The Consul of the Swiss Embassy,

Carl Lutz, knew it was very instrumental in saving

thousands, tens of thousands of Jews, mostly in Budapest,

by giving these I.D. cards and by having these houses set up there. They, and

we, were protected. He negotiated actually with the Hungarian government

for 7,000 I.D. cards. He used this agreement

to protect 7,000 families, which actually meant two, three, five people per family.

Altogether, if I remember correctly, more than 60,000 Hungarian Jews were saved by Carl Lutz.

Bill: Of course, your safety in these homes, even though they were protected, was not permanent.

It was really turned out to be temporary. Tell us what you remember about your experiences, your own experience in

that international safe house.

Peter: In this international safehouse, we had an apartment we shared with two other families, and that was very common that

many families were crammed into one apartment who were strangers to each other at the beginning.

Later on we got to know each other and we helped—actually my mother helped them, and we were helped by

others. We didn't stay in the apartment a lot because during this time it was the

last few months of the war. The Allied Forces relentlessly bombed Budapest, and

we spent most of our time in the basement of the building,

which was a temporary bomb shelter. And that's where we spent

most of our time during the day. And during the night we went back to our apartment.

Peter: Well, after staying at the internationally protected houses for just a few weeks,

we had to move. There were only about 20 people left in the building. All the others were led away

some to the brick yard, some to a railway station, some to the Budapest ghetto and some to

the banks of the Danube River, where they had to disrobe,

take all of their clothes off, and they were shot into the river.

So when the house was almost empty, remaining us about 20 people, we were taken

to the actual Budapest ghetto where we were let free. We got to a little park

within the ghetto and one of the Nazi guards told us that the Russians are coming.

"The Russians will be here in a matter of weeks.

Go find an apartment for yourself." And we went and we found—my mom found an apartment

where we stayed for a little time. The conditions in the ghetto was horrible.

I cannot describe it really. Again, Budapest was under constant

bombing raids by the Allied Forces. And we spent most of the time in the basement of the building,

which wasn't really an air raid shelter. It was a place where people who originally

occupied those apartments kept their wood and coal for heating during the winter. But there was no wood and there

was no coal available. So the apartments were cold.

The windows were all broken because of the bombing.

And we spent most of our time on the dirt floor. My mom put down a blanket and that's where we stayed.

Bill: Peter before you go on, just a word. This is an image

of a portion of Budapest that's been completely shelled and battered, right?

Peter: Correct. What you see in this picture is a picture taken from the Buda side.

You see one of the first permanent bridges

built in the 19th century bombed. All of our bridges were destroyed

by the Germans because they detonated it. They didn't want the

Soviet Red Army to pursue them. And again, we lived

in a building on the Pest side. The ghetto was on the other side of the

Danube River. While we were in the ghetto, our parents went out

during two bombing raids and tried to collect as much food as they could find.

There were no grocery stores. They went to the bombed out building

and rummaged through whatever was left and they came back with stale bread.

And one day my grandmother came back with a big slab of bacon,

which was not the kind of food we ate because my

parents and grandparents kept the kosher laws. Nevertheless we ate it

because every calorie we took might have meant that we had

one more day to live. Bill: Peter, you've, I think, just really hinted at how awful it was

at the end of the war in that ghetto. Going out and having to do whatever you could to find food.

Broken windows, no heat, very little running water when you could get it. Sanitation was horrible and constant shelling and bombardment

all the time. But it came to an end. Will you share with us your memory of being

liberated from the ghetto? And then what happened?

Peter: Yes. Finally, it came to an end in January 1945, when the Soviet Red Army liberated

the Budapest ghetto. Budapest was not liberated until the next month.

The remaining German and Hungarian Army

constantly shelled the Pest side from the Buda side. So there was no respite for

us. And—but the ghetto was freed and we were free to move back to our home.

The Russians—My memory is actually that

I vividly remember a Russian soldier who came to our apartment and gave us candy.

It turned out later on that it was some kind of special candy, which

was infused with vitamins. So we welcomed the Russians,

or the Soviets at that time, as liberators. It turned out later that they were not only liberators, but occupiers

also. But that's for another story. So we were able to go back to our apartment.

I have a memory of walking back from [Hungarian town name inaudible] that's where we stayed, [Hungarian town name inaudible],

which is a good 15 minutes walk for a grown up.

Not for a not even four-year-old young boy. It was cold.

It was very cold. I remember the streets were covered with snow. And I saw

dead bodies. I saw dead horses. I still feel the stench of those bodies.

And—but we were happy. We were happy to go back to our apartment.

Bill: And your apartment, it had not been bombed. It was intact. Peter: Yes.

We had many, quote unquote, lucky moments during the Holocaust. And that was one of them that our apartment building

was not bombed. The apartment was intact. The people who stayed there, they preserved

everything. They weren't too happy seeing us coming

back, but nevertheless, they took us in. We shared the apartment for a few more months.

Until—it's an irony. This was an ethnic German family and the

Hungarian government—because ethnic Germans supported the Nazis, some of them joined the SS—they punished

collectively the whole German population,

the ethnic German population of Hungary, and they had to leave what was—what remained from Nazi Germany.

Bill: Peter, as you said a moment ago the irony of the Soviets liberating you. And then, of course you were

under their occupation for a number of years and that's for another time, but tell us a little bit, we do have a few minutes left. Not many.

How were you and your mom able to rebuild your lives after the war? Peter: After the war in 1946,

my mom decided to leave Hungary and immigrate to the United States.

The picture you see in your screen is the picture taken from our passport.

And because of the strict quota system

here in the United States at that time, we weren't able to leave immediately. Actually, we were waiting for years until

we were eligible for the visa. But meantime, Soviet occupied

Hungary—in the Soviet-occupied Hungary, the Communist Party took over the government and they closed

the borders. Nobody in, nobody out. So I grew up in Communist Hungary.

I got a very good education. I became an electrical engineer.

Meantime, my mom was working hard, very hard. She couldn't continue her business.

Nobody wanted to have hats. They were happy they had anything to cover

their heads. So she became a seamstress. She worked in a co-op in two shifts, from 6:00

in the morning to 2:00 in the afternoon or 2:00 in the afternoon

until 10:00. But she earned enough to have food on our table.

And we weren't rich. We weren't even middle class.

But we were persecuted because we were Jews.

And by 1980, I

had a very good job. I worked in a research

institute for physics. I had the opportunity to visit or

to go to Western Europe, to international meetings and conferences. And I just realized

that the lies we heard on the radio and

by that time I don't even remember, we had television at that time, but all the media was

controlled by the government. So we heard only one voice, the voice of the Hungarian Communist Party.

And I defected to the United States in 1980. Bill: And again, that would be a—just make for an entirely new hour for

us to talk to you about that. I do want to be sure I ask you, though, Peter. Did other members of your extended family

survive? Peter: On my father's side, my grandparents survived,

but only a few months. They were weak. They were elderly. There was hardly any food available.

Even after the war, there was no

medical supply available, and

they died in a few months after the Holocaust was over.

My two uncles on my father's side, they

were taken to forced labor battalion and they never came back either. On my mother's side, an aunt and

an uncle of mine, they were lucky enough to get out from Hungary and came to the United States and they

were the ones who invited us to come and stay with them after the war, which never

realized, except when I defected and they were a great help for me.

Bill: My last question for you: please tell us what it means

to remember the victims of the Holocaust. And what does it mean to you personally to honor your father and your mother

through sharing your experiences?

Peter: Tomorrow is Yom HaShoah. We will remember

the six million who perished during the Holocaust. I will light a candle in their memory.

And in the memory of my father. And I light a candle in the memory of the more than one million children

who died during the Holocaust. Many of them murdered in concentration camps.

Many of them were my age, three, four years old, when they were shipped to Auschwitz.

I owe it to their memory to preserve their memory.

I am a volunteer at the Holocaust Museum here in Washington, D.C.

and do whatever I can do to tell my story, to educate

people. To talk to children, go to colleges and universities.

Our Museum motto is well-known: "Never Again." But unfortunately, we are not there yet.

As we speak, there is a war going on, on the very same ground where

my father died. Holocaust wasn't the last genocide of the 20th century.

After the war was over, we had genocide in Cambodia and Uganda and Bosnia.

So there are a lot of things to do to fulfill the second part

of our motto. "Never Again: What you can do

matter." "What you can do matters." You, Bill, and I, and everyone in the audience.

We cannot be silent anymore when we see injustice.

Hatred, bigotry, antisemitism. We cannot be silent.

We all, we all have to raise our voices. We all have to do our part.

What we do matters. Bill: Peter, you do it so eloquently. You do it so compassionately.

Thank you. Thank you for doing this, but also all the other times that you speak and share your message.

That is inspiring to me and to everybody who's listening to you today. There's so much more that we could have heard from you today, we didn't have the time.

You, as you said, you got a good education. But you built the first computer in Hungary, and then came the United States had a career in aerospace, including being very involved in the Hubble Telescope and the James Webb Telescope, which is, you know, just occurring right now. I wish we could share some of that. Peter, thank you. Thank you.

Thank you for giving us the glimpse into your mother and father's life. Your mother, she's my hero now, too.

And she was a remarkable, remarkable woman. So, Peter, thank you so much for spending this time with us today.

Peter: Thank you, Bill, for your kind words. And thank you, everybody, who logged in today and shared this time with us. Thank you

This conversation has been edited in length for educational and classroom use. View the full First Person: Conversations with Holocaust Survivors program here.