A short, kindly old man stood at the front of the room. His tie was straight, its stripes vibrant against his crisp white button-down, and his black yamaka had a smiley face embroidered on it. Though his appearance was relatively unremarkable, his words had the authority and power of a thunderstorm. As he paced before the tables full of students in the high school media center, every eye was glued his thin frame, every ear fixated on his compelling story. His name: Andy Sarkany, Holocaust survivor.
Sarkany arrived at Woodland on April 1st, 2019, to speak to students about his experiences. He is part of a non-profit organization called the Holocaust Child Survivors of Connecticut (HCSC). About a dozen years ago, someone from the Jewish Federation of Greater Bridgeport asked him if he would like to participate in a program called “Adopt a Survivor”, in which a high school student is paired with a Holocaust survivor and documents their story through an interview and project. Sarkany wanted to bring the program to his own community at the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven. The program was successful and eventually documented over 40 stories in ten years.
Through Holocaust Child Survivors of Connecticut, Sarkany found its speakers’ bureau and was offered the opportunity to give presentations, to tell his story.
[pullquote]“It’s important that young generation would have some first hand knowledge, what really happened during those very difficult times…Today’s generation is really not equipped of knowing what really happened. So it’s important for me, and hopefully other Holocaust survivors, who [are] able to share the personal experiences [to do so]. … That kind of a first hand, primary source cannot be replaced by other people writing and books, and doing research and investigating archives.[/pullquote]
“I am one of the younger survivors… I was only seven years old. Most of them are over nine years, and not necessarily good enough to go and talk in a public forum. So it is significant for me to make every effort to accept all invitations from all around to tell my story.
“The first year was a little bit more difficult,” Sarkany said. “I had to put my thoughts together, try to recollect the stories that my mother told me, my grandmother told me….But I got encouraged.”
Endre “Andy” Sarkany was born in Budapest, Hungary, on October 31, 1936. Adolf Hitler rose to power as Chancellor of Germany in 1933, so when Sarkany was born, the Nazi movement was well underway. Hungary’s government openly endorsed Hitler’s reign, therefore endorsing discrimination, and later elimination, Jewish population of Hungary.
“Since I am from Hungary, I lived through the Budapest ghetto,” Sarkany narrated. “About 90% of the Jewish population of Hungary was deported into concentration camps. About 85% of those did not return.”
By the early 1940s, the conditions for the Hungarian Jewish population had rapidly decreased. His father and grandfather owned a construction company, and his mother worked as a secretary, a treasurer, or doing any work she could to help the business. His maternal grandmother ran the general store in a village eight miles south of Budapest, and was a popular figure in town.
In 1940, Sarkany and his family moved to the seventh district of Budapest and rented an apartment. According to Sarkany, the seventh district was where most of the Jews in Budapest lived, and it later became the Budapest ghetto. On the ground floor was a fully equipped kindergarten and nursery school; on the top floor was a dance, ballet, and acrobat facility. By the end of 1943, the building had become an orphanage that housed over 150 Jewish children, whose ages ranged from babies to fourteen years of age. Sarkany was one these children.
He started first grade in 1943. The school, operated by the Jewish agency of Budapest, was located about a block and a half from his apartment. At first, his mother walked him to school, but after a while she let him walk alone because the school was so close by. It was obvious that Sarkany was Jewish, and he was relentlessly tormented for it.
“The kind of verbal and physical abuse, which a seven year old received, is very hard to describe,” Sarkany explains. “People called me a dirty Jew. They pushed me, sometimes I fell and I hurt myself. Some people even spit on me. And the kind of verbal abuse, which [at the time] I didn’t know it what it was, but it was very, very painful. So I told my mother, ‘You must take me to school because [of] all these conditions.”
Life for the Jewish population became increasingly difficult in 1944. Many were unemployed or had trouble keeping jobs; Jewish businesses were often destroyed and vandalized. It was hard for them to earn money and put food on the table, but Sarkany was grateful because he was able to eat one meal a day. His father was rarely at home because he was taken to forced labor camp, so his mother was “almost like a single parent.” Sarkany was not allowed to leave the home.
[pullquote]“We just tried to survive hour by hour, day by day,”[/pullquote] Sarkany explains. “[In early 1944], my father was able to come home from the forced labor camp, he and my mother said we needed to find our family members who were still around and ask them to move into our two room apartment… Eventually there are about a dozen or so members of our family [that] moved into our apartment. [It] was one of the smartest things my parents could do, because all of us survived.”
By this time, most of the Jews outside of the seventh district of Budapest had been deported to concentration camps. The Hungarian government was actively helping to carry out Hitler’s plan: to round up and eventually eliminate the Jewish population from Hungary and Europe in order to purify the German race. According to Sarkany, most of the Hungarian-Jewish population wound up in Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp in Poland.
One of the most vivid things Sarkany remembers took place when the SS soldiers marched into Budapest. His grandfather took him to Ring Road, a boulevard in the Pest side of the city. There, he saw the SS marching, clad in black uniforms, red armbands with swastikas on them, and black boots. Their steps were in unison. His grandfather took him home after a short while, and said something to the effect of “the lives of Jews will permanently change.”
“And as a little seven year old, I didn’t understand what that meant,” Sarkany said. “But what I did see was really stunning and scary. And you know, conditions were really going to be that.”
In April 1944, Hungary passed the law that forced all Jews to wear the yellow star on their clothes. By early summer of 1944, Sarkany’s father had been taken to a concentration camp (he lived, but when Sarkany was reunited with him in the summer of 1945, he said he barely recognized the man that was once his father).
Hitler became impatient with the Hungarian government because they had not yet followed his orders to eliminate all the Jews in Hungary. On March 19, 1944, German troops occupied Hungary (Budapest Ghetto). Prime minister Miklós Kállay, who took office on March 9, 1942, worked to untangle Hungary from the Nazi web that previous prime minister László Bárdossy had involved the country in (Britannica). Unfortunately, he was deposed on March 19, 1944 and went into hiding, later to be sent to camps Dachau, then Mauthausen (he lived and emigrated to the US in 1951) (Britannica). With that, the Jews’ last protection from the Nazis dissolved. That May, Adolf Eichmann, the head “deportation expert” that collaborated with the Hungarian government, began deporting Jews (Hungary After the German Occupation). “From May 15 to July 9, 1944, Hungarian gendarmerie officials, under the guidance of German SS officials, deported around 440,000 Jews from Hungary. Most were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where, upon arrival and after selection, SS functionaries killed the majority of them in gas chambers” (Timeline of Events: Deportation of Hungarian Jews). Over 550,000 Jews were deported to death camps in occupied Poland, mainly to Auschwitz (Hungary After the German Occupation).
The Budapest ghetto was “created on November 29, 1944 by a decree of the Royal Hungarian Government. It lasted for less than three months, until the liberation of Budapest on January 17, 1945 by the Soviet Army during the Battle of Budapest” (Budapest Ghetto). All the Jews in Budapest were forced to move into the enclosed area. According to Sarkany, the ghetto was about 74 acres in size. “Almost 300 houses with around 4,500 apartments became part of the Budapest ghetto with 55,000 people crowded into them. By January 1945, this number grew to 70,000. Due to the extreme weather conditions, lack of supplies of food and medicine and the perpetrators’ terror many people lost their lives on the territory of the ghetto” (Heroes’ Garden Cemetery: Common graves on the territory of the former Budapest Ghetto). About 20,000 Jews were housed in specially marked houses outside of the ghetto because they had been granted protection from neutral politicians; for example, Raoul Wallenberg, who “issued Protective Passports on behalf of the Swedish Legation” (Budapest Ghetto) and helped Jewish people find safe houses (Budapest).
Sarkany and his family were not so fortunate- thought all of them were fortunate enough to escape with their lives. They already lived in a building that was part of the designated area for the Budapest ghetto, an isolated area surrounded by unclimbable walls that allowed little to no contact from outside the area.
In the ghetto, the Jews were subjected to physical and mental abuse. According to Sarkany, one morning in the early winter of 1945, Hungarian Nazis came into the building and rounded up all the adults they could find, including Sarkany’s family. They were taken to a “collection” area the size of a football field to be processed and deported to their deaths at concentration camps. Sarkany’s grandmother had moved into his apartment from the village where she lived because it was no longer safe for her there. While she lived there, she spoke a rare German dialect called Swabian. It was a unique, strange version of German that many German natives had difficulty understanding. As the Jews were standing in line to be processed, she noticed an SS guard close by.
“She went up to him and started to speak [Swabian]” Sarkany narrated. “This guard couldn’t believe what he was hearing, and he sort of looked at her and said, ‘but you cannot be a Jew. What are you doing here? You are speaking some very strange dialect and the common Germans don’t even understand.’ His grandmother told the soldier that she had moved from the village for security reasons, and the soldier told her to go home. She didn’t stop there, and proceeded to tell him that her family was there with her as well. The soldier told her to take her family and leave. More than half of the Jews in the Budapest ghetto were sent to concentration camps (Budapest Ghetto). Sarkany’s grandmother’s bravery saved her family from being one of them. From this, Sarkany learned to always take opportunities when they arise.
Skip forward 73 years to August 2017. Sarkany turns on the television after a long day at work and sees the same kind of prejudice in Charlottesville, Virginia as he did in the streets of Budapest on March 19, 1944. A group of white supremacists and Neo-Nazis mobbed the streets of Charlottesville and injured counter-protestors to their cause, including the death of Heather Heyer.
“[They were] screaming the same type of slogans that I heard as a seven year old, [when] I went to schools the first grade,” Sarkany exclaimed. “It never should have happened. Not only [in] the United States, is which the greatest country in the world to live in, but nowhere.”
Hate cannot be fought with more hate; that is one of the reasons Sarkany talks to students around the state about his experiences.
“Don’t ever use the word hate,” Sarkany explains in his presentation. “Just wipe it out of your vocabulary. Replace it with the other four letter word called ‘love’.[pullquote] Because [with] love, the all the problems hate [created] or the evil in the world caused by hate [were solved].”[/pullquote]
“Budapest.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/budapest. Accessed 7 June 2019.
“Budapest Ghetto.” Holocaust Online, holocaustonline.org/ghettos-budapest-ghetto/. Accessed 7 June 2019.
“Common Graves on the Territory of the Former Budapest Ghetto.” Heroes’ Garden Cemetery, www.greatsynagogue.hu/gallery_cemetery.html. Accessed 7 June 2019.
“Deportation of Hungarian Jews.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, www.ushmm.org/learn/timeline-of-events/1942-1945/deportation-of-hungarian-jews. Accessed 7 June 2019.
“Historical Background: The Jews of Hungary during the Holocaust.” The World Holocaust Remembrance Center, www.yadvashem.org/articles/general/jews-of-hungary-during-the-holocaust.html. Accessed 7 June 2019.
“Miklós Kállay.” Encyclopædia Britannica, 19 Jan. 2019, www.britannica.com/biography/Miklos-Kallay. Accessed 7 June 2019.
“The gate of a house at Kossuth Lajos Square no. 18 is marked by a yellow star.”