Charles was born in Budapest, Hungary, and lived there through the war, and until the revolution, er … uprising, of 1956.
He and his wife Vicky are fixtures around Mount Zion and the local Jewish community. Charles himself has just rejoined the Board of the St. Paul Federation. Vicky currently volunteers with Traveler’s Assistance at the MSP airport. We were among the many who helped celebrate their 20th anniversary in 2013, with a renewal of their vows in the synagogue’s chapel. Charles is our resident expert in Hungarian food, including both restaurants and recipes, with his favorites being paprikash (veal or chicken), and dobosh torte. They sound better when he says it.
Charles and his then wife joined Mount Zion in the early 80’s, needing a place to say daily Kaddish for his father who had recently passed away. Among his many other roles, Charles is now a frequent greeter at those same evening services. Their son David will soon be moving back, to within blocks of Mount Zion.
We met there recently.
My name is Charles Sandor Fodor. Sandor means Alexander.
My father was Jozsef Fodor. He was an electrician and also learned how to be a furrier, so when the electric business didn’t work, he had one or the other. My mother was Matilde, with an ‘e’ at the end. She was born in Frankfurt, Germany. There was an exchange between businesses, and she came to Hungary, where she met my father. They both spoke German.
So I am a war child.
I was born in 1936, and I lived with my mother, and sometimes also with my father, when he was home. Things were fine until 1941 when the war started, and Jews got conscripted for the forced labor battalion, and treated like prisoners.
His battalion was working in Romania, on the Russian front. The Hungarians and Germans used the Jews as living mine detectors. They sent them into a field, and if they blew up, there were mines over there. So that’s what he did, among other things, building roads, bridges. They were guarded by brutal Hungarian soldiers with bayonetted rifles. He came home sometimes. And my mother and I went to Romania to visit him one summer. When the Nazis finally invaded Hungary in 1944 he was still a prisoner in the military, but in November 1944 he escaped from there. Then the Russians caught him, and he escaped from the Russians.
Where were you during that time?
At first I lived with my mother in our apartment.
In March of 1944, the Nazis no longer trusted the Hungarians, who wanted a separate peace, and they took over the country. They forced the Hungarian government to abide by their ruling. Then came the Jewish laws, and all Jews had to live in certain houses. All the names of the Jews were listed on the gates of the houses, along with a yellow star. So we moved in with my paternal grandmother, and had our names on the gate.
Were you wearing a yellow star at that time?
We were only allowed out of the building between two and four in the afternoon to get any food at the grocery store, but they were usually empty by then.
In November 1944, on November 11th, my mother was taken away to the labor camp.
Were you there when she was taken?
I was. There was a Hungarian fascist Arrow Cross party member in uniform. And when they took her the policeman said, “We don’t take children … today.”
I still remember that.
They took my mother, and she didn’t return.
My mother was taken to a concentration camp on November 11, 1944. It was called Lichtenburg, outside Vienna. What we heard from others, is that she survived the war, but she died of typhus. After being liberated.
What happened to you then?
So I was living with my paternal grandparents, by the time I was eight years old. Then my grandmother and I were going to one of these protected houses, they were protected by embassies. We took the streetcar over the Danube, and we came to one of the boulevards, and got off the streetcar and there was three Hungarian fascist women, with pistol, and uniform, and said “You! Into that building!” and so we walked in there. And a gentleman was coming out and grabbed my grandmother and me and said “You don’t belong in here”, and he took us away, from the women who were standing there, and he said “Get lost”.
And it was because of him I am here today.
The people who ended up in the web of the fascists in that building were shot into the Danube that night.
That’s the shoes.
The Shoes on the Danube Bank is a memorial in Budapest, Hungary to honor Jews who were killed by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen in Budapest over the period of 1944-45. They were ordered to take off their shoes, and were shot at the edge of the water so that their bodies fell into the river and were carried away. Scores of cast iron shoes now represent their shoes, left behind on the bank. I took this picture during a Federation mission to Budapest in 2010, as our group recited Kaddish at the memorial.
Do you know who that man was, who took you out of the building?
No. He was in civilian clothes. He could have been from one of the neutral embassies. He spoke perfect Hungarian. He could have been just a human being, who wanted to save somebody. Or he could have been God walking. Saving us.
Where did you live then?
We went to the protected houses. My grandmother and grandfather and two aunts and two cousins, and me, we lived in a small maid’s room, and I slept under the sink. We lived there about four to five weeks. And then all of a sudden the Hungarian fascists no longer recognized the protected houses, and the bayoneted soldiers escorted us into the central ghetto, in Pest.
And I was there until the 18th of January 1945, when the Russians liberated us. A couple days later my father showed up, on January 22nd, and we moved back to my grandmother’s apartment, waiting for my mother to return.
Do you remember the day that the Russians arrived?
Oh yes, people were cheering for the Russians because the Germans wanted to kill us. The Russians arrived and we were free. But there is an old joke in Hungary – the Russians had liberated us. They had saved our lives. But they stayed too long.
So it was over, and we left the ghetto. I went back to school and everything returned to normal, and the people started coming back and the stories started surfacing, what happened.
What’s interesting is my maternal grandparents. We knew they went to Theresienstadt, but the Germans were sending us letters asking for packages for them, long after they were killed. They were still playing games. And my mother was sending them packages in Theresienstadt, and they were killed in Treblinka by then.
Note: Theresienstadt was originally described as a model community for middle-class, well educated Jews from Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Austria. In a propaganda effort designed to fool the Western allies, the Nazis publicized the camp for its rich cultural life. Still, tens of thousands died there, while many more were transferred to Treblinka and Auschwitz.
What happened after the liberation?
My mother was declared dead. At a place unknown. The Red Cross sent me a notice that my mother had died.
I lived in Budapest until the uprising in 1956. I stayed with my grandmother and went to trade school to become a pipefitter for the Hungarian gas company. But I decided the work was too hard and I needed an education. So I went back and finished high school. And passed my examination.
So fast forward to 1956, when you were 20, there was a revolution?
An uprising. There is a difference. A revolution wins. We lost.
When the uprising failed, I escaped. I crossed the country on November 24th, of 1956. Everybody was leaving. The iron curtain was down briefly, so this was a chance. I asked my father, “should I leave?” and he said “as your father, I forbid it, but if I were 20 years old like you are, I wouldn’t ask my father. I just would go”, so I went.
But he stayed. He was a furrier and electrician. He was all right. He came out a couple years later, legally.
So many of us got on a train, and headed toward Austria. But the train stopped in the middle of a field before the border. We were told that at the border the Russians were waiting for us. At a city called Szombathely (Zom’ botee’).
And so we got off, and we got somebody to guide us to the border, crawling on our stomachs. The border was just a place where the field was plowed in this direction, and then that way, and then all of a sudden there was ‘no man’s land’, and on the other side there were Austrian flags every 20 feet. So with three friends, we hugged each other and ran for our lives, and crossed the border.
When we got to the other side we saw a man coming toward us, with a gun. But he lowered his gun, and motioned to come over, and we went over to him and he said “Guten tag”. And we were no longer in Hungary.
Have you been back to Hungary? Have you found your old apartments?
I’ve been back three times, and I found the apartments.
Not only that, but the next morning, after the uprising, there was a lot of fog and I was going to work and waiting for the bus, but the bus wasn’t coming. And we couldn’t see anything because the fog was that thick. I shouted out loud, “Where are the busses?” And someone shouted “There is a strike!”
At that moment we heard that noise. Rat tat tat!
I looked up and there was a line of bullet holes above me in the wall, from a tank down the road which we couldn’t see. They were shooting. And I went home.
And the first time I was back to Hungary, the holes were still there. But the second time I went back they were gone. It was patched up.
How long did you stay in Austria?
In Austria I was in a camp, and from the camp I wanted to go to Israel, but my friend said this is your chance to go to America, you can go to Israel anytime. And I listened, and I ended up in the US.
The US felt very guilty about the refugees, and they gave the first 5000 applicants green cards. And I got one, and I came to the US through Trenton, New Jersey, because New York was fogged in, and it couldn’t land. I stayed in a place called Camp Kilmer, an army base.
I had an uncle in Baltimore and I lived with him and got a job as a plumber’s helper. I was there until 1958 when I joined the US Air Force as enlisted personnel, and in four years of service I got my citizenship, and I finished two and a half years of college. I worked in the commissary. No top secret clearance. Not after coming from an Communist country.
I went to college in Texas, at a Southern Baptist college, in political science. Then I was selling books for a while, then insurance for about three years for Prudential.
Then I got a job with American Red Cross. I started as an internal management consultant, doing audits, board orientation, leadership training. Eventually I did fundraising, disaster relief. I was there for 28 years as staff then another 12 years as a volunteer. So 40 years, and I had it.
But I met Vicky there. She worked for the Red Cross, but she didn’t work for me.
One final question. Do you have any pictures of your parents, of your mother in particular?
Yes, but I’m not in them.
She was a young woman. And actually I have one of her as a little girl, in my kitchen.