Judith Fazekas

J Fazekas thumbnailjpg

Born: Debrecen, Hungary, 1928

Wartime experience: ghetto and forced labour

Writing Partner: Linda Sandler

Judith (Judy) Fazekas was born in Debrecen, Hungary, in 1928. Soon after the Nazi occupation of Hungary in March 1944, she and her family were sent to the Debrecen ghetto, as was her boyfriend, Leslie, and his family.

In June, they were all part of a transport to Strasshof, Austria, luckily avoiding the fate of most Hungarian Jews who were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau. In Strasshof, Judy was separated from Leslie and sent to the district of Aspern as a farm labourer. She was later transferred to Vienna to clear bomb rubble from the streets. Leslie and Judy were able to correspond and even meet a few times during their captivity. In April 1945, Judy and her family were liberated by the Soviet army. They returned to Debrecen, where she reunited with Leslie. In 1949, they married in Budapest and started a family. In 1957, after the Hungarian Revolution, Judy and her family immigrated to Canada, where she worked in a photography studio. Judy and Leslie celebrated their seventieth wedding anniversary in 2019. Some of Judy’s wartime letters to Leslie were published in his memoir, In Dreams Together: The Diary of Leslie Fazekas (2021).

Forced Labour

There were different transports from Debrecen, Hungary, in June 1944. Some went to Auschwitz and two went to Strasshof, Austria. We just happened to be on one that went to Austria. We could just as easily have been transported to Auschwitz. Instead, by a miracle, we are here today. As we waited at the station to be put into the cattle car, we suddenly saw my uncle Jenö, my mother’s brother. He had been taken out of Debrecen much earlier, as one of the elite (he wasn’t anything special, but he was well off) and had been taken to a concentration camp. But here he was in a group coming toward us. His wife and two small children were with us. Can you imagine this? Not everybody in his group had relatives at the station in Debrecen, but as he said, “I knew that my wife and children must be here, because this is where all the Jews are.” He had been searching the crowds for his wife and children, and then, as we were waiting, we saw him coming toward us. He joined our family group. It was another miracle. (As my husband would later say, you didn’t need any permission to get into the inhumane transport of a cattle car!) My uncle was with me throughout the war, as were my grandmother, my mother and her sister, Anna, as well as Uncle Jenö’s wife, Eva, and their children. Before the war, my father’s sister, Gizi, left the town in the north where their family lived and came to live with us, which meant she was also deported with us from Debrecen. This saved her life. No one else from my father’s family survived the war.

The train took us to Austria, first to Vienna and then to Strasshof, a town about thirty kilometres from Vienna. We arrived at a Lager, a camp, where more than fifteen thousand Jews had been sent from different ghettos in Hungary; they were then transported elsewhere as forced agricultural or industrial labourers. When we arrived at the Lager in Strasshof, there were multitudes of people all around. We were outside, and I just stretched out on the street and fell asleep. I was young and foolish and I didn’t know or care what was happening. I was just exhausted and wanted to sleep. We were there for a very short time and we were questioned regarding our profession or the work we had done before being deported from Debrecen.

Leslie Fazekas, the man I would later marry, and his family had also been with us in the wagons. Now in Strasshof, we were separated. Although he was only eighteen years old and had never worked in his life, he was sent to a factory that manufactured tanks, in a place called Simmering. Luckily, my whole family stayed together, and my aunt Gizi had a brilliant idea. She said that we should tell them that we were farmers. Her reasoning was that “on a farm, we will always find something to eat, even if it’s just raw vegetables. We won’t starve.” So that’s what we told them, and that’s how we were sent to Aspern, Austria, a small district of Vienna on its eastern edge. There were forty of us sent there, including my family, ranging from grandparents and adults to small children and babies, and the farmers placed us in a stall or barn. We had straw mattresses and received food brought from Vienna — lousy garbage, but we ate it for a week or two. We soon gave a petition to the farmers, asking them if we could please have ingredients for somebody in our Lager to cook. They agreed. We worked for three farmers who switched us around to wherever we were needed. It was not a bad place, considering what many others went through. We had to get up very early in the morning and go out to the fields. We had absolutely no idea what to do, as we had never been on a field in our lives. However, there was a seventeen-year-old supervisor named Ernst. He was the grandson of one of the farmers and he explained everything to us, as did the other farmers. We worked in the fields every day and stayed there until the end of November.

There were also non-Jewish prisoners of war in Aspern, who were working in higher positions. They drove the trucks to take the goods from the farms, and every time they went past our Lager (as I call it, even if it wasn’t a true camp, with only forty people there), they dropped a sack of potatoes, onions or other produce, so we had extra food. My mother also did favours in exchange for food. She would knit during the night (I can remember her counting the stitches), and she made gloves for Ernst. In exchange for this, we got his lunch every day. For more food, she made rag dolls for the grandchildren of one of the farmers. She was very good with her hands, using whatever rags she could find. Everybody did what they could.

My grandmother did not always come out to the fields, but one day our supervisor warned us that “they” (the Germans) were coming to see what was going on here, and if “they” saw people who could not do any work, those people would be taken away. So we took my grandmother out to the fields that day and had her sit there. She didn’t do any work, but by staying with us in the fields, she was safe. The children did what they could too. The little ones stayed back at the Lager with the women whose turn it was to make the meal, and the older children came to the fields. I don’t really remember the details of the cooking or the area where the food was prepared. I didn’t pay much attention. I was fifteen years old and I just cared to stay alive and go to the fields and work. My mother was not strong, so my aunt Gizi often gave her assistance, relieving her from heavy work. We were given regular food, but my mother’s health was not good. Her stomach bothered her all the time, so she couldn’t eat properly. Close to our Lager, there were a few houses, in one of which lived an old couple. They invited my mother into their home and helped her, offering her food she could digest and giving her rice to cook for herself, to soothe her stomach.

While we were on the farms, we knew very little, if anything, about what was happening in Vienna or elsewhere. I was convinced that everything was just temporary. I thought to myself that I am here now, but this will end, and I will be going home soon. I think other people felt the same. No one seemed to be depressed. We were working because that was what we were ordered to do; we had no choice or will of our own. But we assumed that things would end and we would go back to our former lives. Aspern was quiet and peaceful; there was no bombing where we were. When winter came and there was no more fieldwork to be done, we were separated from some of the other people in the Lager and taken back to Vienna. I didn’t know then what happened to all of the others. Later on, we heard that many people had been killed by the Germans who did not want to “leave souvenirs” of what they had done.

In Vienna, we were placed in an old school building, which became the living space for hundreds of Jewish people crowded together. Every day we were told what to do and where to go. Some people cleared the rubble caused by bombings; other people cleared snow. When sirens rang out to warn of an incoming bombing, there were numerous shelters that we could enter. When we were taking refuge, a radio was always on, and we heard reports of the places that were being bombed. Simmering was constantly mentioned, and we had to listen and imagine Leslie being bombed. Simmering was a strategic industrial area that was full of factories, like the tank factory where Leslie and his family had been sent. It was not a good place compared to Aspern and the fields where there was nothing but grass and grain. But he and his family survived somehow. The Red Cross visited to check on the conditions there, and Leslie asked them whether they could locate us. They did. So we knew about each other from then on and could even correspond. There was a Jewish hospital in Vienna where Jewish doctors were working. Whoever had health problems could go there with a guard every couple of weeks. There was a kind elderly man who came from Leslie’s Lager in Simmering and collected the mail, so either I or someone else from our Lager approached him and asked him if he had a letter for me, and vice versa. I still have the packet of letters.

There were different transports from Debrecen, Hungary, in June 1944. Some went to Auschwitz and two went to Strasshof, Austria. We just happened to be on one that went to Austria.

The Photos

The Austrians made us work and took advantage of us, but they did not threaten, harm, torture or kill us. They had a hospital that we could go to, which was unheard of in other places. When the Austrians in the city saw us with our yellow stars walking in the streets, they knew who we were. Sometimes, as they passed by, they even dropped meal tickets and rations for bread that we could pick up. I remember that once a woman passing by whispered in my ear, “If you need any clothes or other help, just follow me.” We went up to her apartment, where she offered clothes to us.

My mother and I were sent to work with a roofer. Every day the bombing was causing destruction and blowing off the roofs; every second day we would repair them. The roofer was a nice man, and we were the only two who worked for him. When he told me to go out onto the roof and that he would hand me tiles, I said, “No, that’s not going to work. I am not going out on the roof. You go out on the roof and I will hand you the tiles.” He agreed. He was just a young man, and we became quite good friends. By then I was speaking German quite fluently, and we got along well.

One day, we told him that we would like to have a day off. We explained to him that we wanted to go somewhere, but that we would be back the following day. He was agreeable. Our plan was to visit Leslie in Simmering, but we did not tell the roofer the details. He directed us, telling us which streetcars to take and where to make the necessary changes. So we went. When we arrived at the camp, we did not know where to go, but we saw an SS guard, whom we asked to direct us to where the Jews were. He pointed. We went in that direction and we came to where Leslie and others were. When they saw us, they almost fell over with shock. I had known from our letters that Leslie worked during the night, so that if we went during the day we would find him. They could not leave their Lager in the way that we could. It was a large place with about 115 people, with the younger ones working in the factory. Bombing continued almost every day, and Leslie said that they were more afraid of the English and the Americans than the Austrians, as they had no place to go other than a very flimsy shed. If a bomb had fallen on it, that would have been the end of them.

At this time, my mother was a youngish woman in her forties, but even though she had health problems and was not strong, she still managed to come to work with me; we went daily on the streetcar, just the two of us. We were wearing the yellow star, but nobody said anything to us. There was also no problem going down into the shelters. People from the whole area used the same ones, and we never heard “dirty Jews, get out of here” or anything like that. On one occasion, there was a sudden alarm, and everybody hurried down underground. I was halfway down with my mother when I suddenly stopped and said, “My God! I forgot the pictures!” My mother begged me, crying, “Please don’t go back, it’s too dangerous!” I did not listen. I said, “I have to get the pictures. I’ll be back in a second.” I ran back to the school, grabbed them and returned safely to the shelter. By the time the alarm was over and we came out onto the street, we saw that the school had been completely demolished. But I had our photos. I always kept them in a purple velvet tefillin bag under my bed. I always carried them with me, but that day there was such a panic and rush that I forgot to take them. And that was the day the school was flattened to the ground.

We were all gathered together and taken to another school building, where we remained until April 15, when we returned to the Lager in Strasshof. There was very little food for us. However, there were trains passing on the tracks nearby, and one train carrying food was bombed and left standing there. Everybody ran wildly and grabbed the food. Many people became very ill due to not having eaten for such a long time and then having far too much. Conditions were bad. Soon, there was talk about the approach of the Soviets. We were liberated there in April 1945.

Leaving Hungary

In December 1956, Leslie and I took our first steps to leave Hungary, which meant leaving our children behind for the time being. My parents left everything in Debrecen and came to Budapest, moving into our apartment to look after our children until we could send for them to join us. Uncle Jenö and Aunt Eva had planned to leave with their children and made arrangements to walk with a guide to the Hungarian-Austrian border. Leslie and I left Budapest with them, and we all walked together to a little peasant house, where we had made arrangements for somebody to meet us there during the night to lead us toward the border. We had paid a lot of money for a guide, and there were two or three other families who had made the same plans to be guided out of Hungary. It was winter and it was difficult. Our guide had a bicycle, which he let my aunt sit on so she didn’t have to walk. My uncle twisted his ankle but continued to keep up. We had to be very quiet. Nobody could show a light, not even of a cigarette, because there were Soviet and Hungarian soldiers or police watching everywhere. It was illegal to be out walking in this area; we could have been arrested, taken back and thrown into jail, as many others had been. The guide accompanied us farther, until he pointed at the lights in the distance and said, “That’s Austria. I’m leaving you now. I have to go back.” We had to cross a small brook. It was very narrow, and as there was no bridge, a dredging machine had been placed so that it reached from one side to the other, allowing us to cross over. Rather than arrest us, some Hungarian soldiers there actually helped us get to the other side, so there were good people everywhere.

A tractor picked us up on the road. The drivers were looking out for people who were trying to escape Hungary. We were taken to a school in a nearby little town, where straw was spread on the floor. We were given hot tea and spent the night there. The next morning, we went out and stood at the highway and signalled the first car we saw. It was a black Mercedes. I will never forget it. It stopped for us right away, and speaking in German, we gave the driver the address of where we wanted to go, to the home of a friend of my great-uncle. The driver took us all the way to Vienna, right to the gate of the house. We had left Budapest on December 6, and just a few days later, we were in Vienna. The friend was a wealthy man and he helped us out, lending us money, which we later repaid. He found a place where we could stay, small rooms on the upper level of a building.

The very first thing we did was go to the Canadian Embassy, where there was a huge crowd waiting in a very long line. There were so many people that it was impossible for us to get in that day, and we found out people even lined up during the night. An official came out of the embassy and told us to come back the following morning. He gave out numbers for people to bring back with them the next day to be admitted into the embassy.

The following morning, the numbers did not help. Everyone just pushed their way in, but we finally made our way inside. We applied as refugees and received our visas right away.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a Jewish humanitarian organization, helped us from the start, giving us money for the flat and food. This aid was to end on February 1. My mother had bought valuable stamps, which she hid in letters and mailed from Budapest to us in Vienna. We found a little old Jewish bookstore where we were able to sell the stamps and then we could live on the money. We lived as carefully as we could, buying the cheapest cuts of meat — calf’s liver. After a while, the butcher asked us, “Don’t Hungarians eat anything else except that?” We also lived on chocolate milk. We had to wait for my parents to come from Budapest with our children. It took four months, until April, for them to get to Vienna, which was a very long time for us to be without them.