From the six yarhzeit candles in our entryway to the annual presentation from a local survivor, Yom HaShoah is always powerful at the Academy.
Today, we were privileged to hear from Mrs. Agnes Schwartz, 81-year-old Chicago resident, who survived the war living as a Catholic in Budapest, Hungary.
For 50 years, Mrs. Schwartz was silent about her story. It was when her grandson asked that she speak to his school that she finally decided that it was incumbent upon her to share her survival story. Following is her story, as she shared it with ICJA students
Agnes was born in 1933 in Hungary as the first and only child to her parents after eight years of marriage. “My father was so happy he had a baby girl that he gave the doctor an extra $100. I don’t know if the story is true, but it is one that I liked.”
Her childhood very pleasant, her parents affluent and she was well loved by her parents, grandparents and a gentile nanny, Julia.
When she went to school, she attended a local Catholic school, where she learned parts of the Christian Bible, something that eventually helped save her life. She never felt anti-Semitism there, was friendly with all the students but mostly spent time with her fellow Jewish classmates.
By time Agnes graduated grammar school, bombs were falling over Budapest at night. Her family had an illegal short wave radio, and when the German code went off that the bombs would fall, they would go in basement. “As 10-year-old, I couldn’t imagine that our building would be hit. And it wasn’t.”
The next morning she and her parents would get dressed and go to school and work. It went on this way until March 1944 when the Germans walked across the border. “The Hungarians welcomed them with open arms.”
From then on, Jews had to wear the yellow star, and it wasn’t long before many of them, like Agnes’s father, lost their businesses and children could no longer go to school. Within six weeks, all the Jews of the countryside of Hungary were deported, but those in Budapest remained safe. “It was the biggest lie of the war. They said that families would stay together and they were just going to work somewhere.”
Agnes can’t be sure that her family fully knew what was happening at the time to the Jews of Hungary. She says, though, “My father believed that President Roosevelt would save the Jews of Budapest. And as you know, this never happened.”
Agnes and her parents and grandparents soon all had to move to one of the “ yellow star building” to an apartment that they shared with two single women. Her family of five shared one bedroom. “But we were still together.”
Money becoming scarce because nobody could work, and even if they did make it to the grocery, no one was allowed out until the afternoon when food was scarce. The worst part of the apartment, says Agnes, was the bed bugs.
One day two Nazies walked in and gunshot rang out. They told all the men, ages 18-45, to somewhere to work. “My dad kissed us goodbye and left.”
Her grandfather was the next to leave home, as he became too sick to remain there. “The last time I remember, he was lying on a cot at a so-called ‘hospital’ where he died.
A few days later two Nazis came, gunshots again rang out and they called the women. “My mother tried very hard to put on a smile for me and said to be a good girl. That was the last time that I saw my mother. I was 11 years old.”
But, says Agnes, “I still had my grandmother, and I was very lucky. Most children by then had been torn from their parents’ arms, and I can only imagine the fear that they felt as they headed to gas chambers.”
Shortly after her mother was deported, Agnes’s father suddenly reappeared. He had been on a transport when some Nazis needed assistance getting to Budapest. He was able to guide them there, since he spoke German.
A few days later, Julia, the nanny knocked at door. “It is because of Julia that I am standing here, talking to you today.”
Julia took Agnes to her home that day, teaching her the rosary on the train there. Agnes was to be her niece from eastern Hungary, where the Russians were occupying. With her blond hair and blue eyes, she took on Julia’s last name and a new gentile identity. “Imagine you are 11 years old, and you can’t cry out that you want to go home to your parents. But, again I was lucky. I was with someone I loved, and I knew she would take care of me.”
At Julia’s the bombing was constant. They lived in the basement of the apartment building for two to three months where it was cold, dark, dirty and damp. There were no toilets, no light besides a candle and little food.
By January the bombing slowed and there were rumors that the Russians were freeing the Jews. “Imagine first going out from the dark. It was so bright from the light reflecting on the snow that I couldn’t see. But I could smell. It was smell of death.”
With no way to find out who had survived, Agnes just waited. She was playing outside one day when her father walked up. He was “skin and bones” after managing to survive in a Swedish diplomat’s home, Raoul Wallenberg.
Agnes and her father returned to their home, where they found another family living there. They shared the space for a short time, while the family looked for a new home. Her father got his business back, and she started back at gymnasium, all while searching for what had happened to the rest of their family.
The deportee trains coming back, and Agnes and her father kept looking for her mother, hearing horror stories from emaciated, broken down Jews.
They eventually found out that Agnes’s grandmother ended up in ghetto, together with her aunt, where people were dying of starvation and illness. “But that wasn’t fast enough for Nazis because they knew war was ending.”
At night took them all to the Danube river and wired them together so that with one bullet, they could kill several people. “It’s no longer a beautiful blue river; it is still red with all the blood that was shot into it.”
Agnes’s father later heard from a woman who came to his store that she was In Bergen Belson with his wife, who had died in her arms.
“The pivotal point of my life was having lost my mother.”
Agnes and her father got in touch with American relatives and came to Chicago in 1947. Julia saw them off at railroad station and gave Agnes a little ring as a memento that she continues to cherish.”
Life in America didn’t live up to either one of their expectations. Agnes struggled to find her place in her American relatives’ home, and her father never adjusted. He spent time in isolation after contracting tuberculosis, and once he was well, he did not have the strength to assimilate into the American culture. He returned to Europe, leaving Agnes to live in America with her aunt and uncle.
Agnes eventually finished high school, married at 18 and has three children, four grand children and four great grandchildren. Julia was recognized as a Righteous Gentile at Yad V’Shem. She says, “How lucky I am to be here at 81 to tell you my story.”