My father Dr. Nándor Sándi (originally,
Sauer), was born in Budapest in 1892. He graduated from the Main High
School of District I in Budapest, which is also the High School I attended, but
by that time its name had been changed to István Verbőczy
Scientific High School ("Realgymnasium" in the German tradition). The school
still exists, and is called
Sándor Petőfi Gimnázium after one of Hungary's greatest poets (1823-1849).
After graduation the question of his
choice of profession came up. His half-brother Arnold, who was considered
the "brain" of the family, suggested that Nándor was not sharp
enough to become a merchant, and should therefore become a doctor - which he did. In the summer of
1914, when he was still a 4th year medical student, he was undergoing military
training during the summer holidays right in Bosnia Herzegovina (which was then
a province of the Austro-Hungarian Empire). World War I broke out after the
assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, and my father was retained in
the Army as a field medic. After a few months the people in charge realized that
even in wartime there was a need for doctors, and my father was sent home
to obtain an accelerated MD degree.
He took a train to Budapest as soon as
he could. He travelled second class, which was considered quite luxurious at the
time, as there were 3rd and even 4th class carriages on trains. There was just one other
man in his compartment, about 20 years older than he was. The older man started
to talk with the young soldier. Naturally, the conversation got around to
politics, and it came out that my father was a member of the liberal (left-wing)
Galilei Circle1 at the university. Thereupon the
other man asked my father about his opinion regarding the war. Of course, my
father asked for his travelling companion's ideas as well. The man answered by
saying "My young friend, just look at the map. Here is the British Empire,
the French Empire and the Russian Empire. Next, there is the United States, whose
sympathies are with those powers. This can only end in defeat for us, and that
will be the end of the Dual Monarchy. They talked a lot more during the trip, I
don't know any more details. The man turned out to be Oszkár (Oscar) Jászi, a well-known
liberal sociologist and writer.
After receiving his medical diploma, my father was sent to
the Russian front to work in the Drohobycz military hospital. This is where he
met my mother, and they were married soon after. After the Russian revolution the
front collapsed, and the Russians asked for an armistice. My father was then
transferred in 1918 to the Italian front, while my mother, already pregnant with
me, remained with her parents in Drohobycz. My father was quickly taken prisoner
by the Italians, but immediately after the end of hostilities he was allowed to
go home, because medical prisoners of war were among the first to be exchanged.
On returning home, he received his accumulated salary as a lieutenant2
in the Army, which came to a fairly large amount at the time. He quickly paid a
short visit to Drohobycz, in time to be present at my birth on 2 January 1919.
He then returned to Budapest in order to look for a position in a hospital, but
he was too late - all available posts had already been snapped up by doctors
back from the front. He therefore quickly bought himself medical equipment and
furniture, as he was (quite justifiably) afraid of inflation. Then he again
travelled back to Drohobycz in order to fetch my mother and myself. By the time
he got there, the Hungarian government had been taken over by Béla Kun and
his associates, who established a short-lived communist régime in March 1919. My
father was actually under suspicion in Drohobycz, as he was thought to be a
communist agent. The Gerstenfeld family and their friends vouched for him,
however, and he was spared arrest by the Polish (or, at that time, still the
Ukrainian?) authorities. Finally, after a detour involving Cracow and Vienna, we
were able to return to Hungary. By that time, my mother's dowry was worth no
more than a sack of potatoes.
My father was not able to find a post in Budapest itself, so he moved with
his family to Budafok, a suburb of the capital. Soon after he was hired to be
the local physician for several sickness funds, such as the ones run by the SzTK
(workers' unions), the MABI (private employees), the MÁV (state railways) and
the BHÉV (suburban electric railways). These funds assured medical care,
medications and hospital care for employees working within the areas covered by a
doctor. In addition, my father also cared for private patients. He told me that
he always told his private patients how much they owed him for an examination or
visit, but he never noted the actual amount in his register, and he never sent
out reminder notices. In those days doctors did not send their patients to the
hospital as frequently as they do today - they generally took care of them
themselves. Minor operations took place in the doctor's surgery, or in the
patient's home. Newborns were also delivered at home in general, assisted by the
doctor and the midwife.
I remember that once we were visiting the sculptors Erzsébet Schaar and Tibor
Vilt (of whom more later), when my father was called away around midnight. He
returned at 2 am, his hands and arms all covered with iodine. He explained that
he had had to assist at a delivery, and he had not had rubber gloves with him -
this was the only way to sterilize himself.
At that time there were only three doctors in Budafok, with a population of
roughly 15,000. Old Dr. Taub was still alive, but he worked very rarely. The
third doctor was Adolf Káldor, ten years my father's senior. He was the
official physician for the town, as well as the house doctor for the Törley
family, who owned the local champagne factory. It was therefore not surprising
that my father was very busy. Every evening he had emergency phone calls,
sometimes several, or patients came to the house. Saturday nights it was quite
common to see young men coming for urgent attention - they had got into knife
fights in the local bars. My father took care of them, but did not sign any
documents, as this would have involved the purchase of an official stamp, and
may have obliged him to go to court to give evidence.
In truth my father would have liked to specialize and become a surgeon. As he
had a family, however, he needed to earn a living and he could not have spent
years working for little or no salary in a clinic with a professor, in order to
qualify as a surgeon. Still, whenever he had the time he returned to some of his
professors to assist with an operation and thus increase his knowledge and
skills. Later on he had no time for this kind of thing and he remained a family
doctor all his life.
It was typical of the times that it was my father who taught Adolf Káldor how
to administer intravenous injections, because when Káldor studied medicine this
was not yet taught. Such injections became widespread because they were
needed for the administration of
the (then) new drug used against syphilis.
At first the family lived in rented apartments in Budafok. I remember the one
at 22 Tóth József Street, where there was running water but no bathroom. There
was an outhouse in the yard, just like those in Hungarian villages. Finally, my parents were able to buy
in 1930 a half-finished house at No.3, Tóth József Street,
which they then proceeded to finish building. This house stood on a small
hilltop, with a beautiful view of the Danube and of the island of Csepel
(pronounce Cheppel) in the river. There was a bathroom, hot running water and
central heating. Payments on the loan were made once every three months. My
father paid the last instalment in 1944, by which time he was obliged to wear
the Jewish yellow star. Soon afterwards the house was confiscated.
Toward the end of the 1930s my father lost his best-paid position, that with
the SzTK (workers' unions), because he was Jewish. He resented this, and so did
his patients. I was able to appreciate the situation, because I often
accompanied him on his long excursions visiting his patients. We walked as much as
10-12 km a day, paying visits to 8-10 patients. While walking
we constantly talked - we discussed biology, literature, politics. These
conversations became the basis of my knowledge and culture. We were of course
interrupted all the time - practically everyone we encountered said hello, and
we would say a few words about common acquaintences and other patients.
During World War II my family's house was converted into a "Jewish House",
and seven or eight Jewish families were moved into it. My mother, who was more
clear-headed in such matters, packed a small suitcase with essentials and
convinced my father that they should flee the house while they could. My father
was able to obtain false papers for himself and my mother (his assumed name was
András Máté), and they hid in the house of some friends in the
small town of Martonvásár, southwest of Budapest. They lived there for a few
months, until the Red Army's arrival. When the German Army seemed to be
approaching again3, my parents moved to Szeged
in southeastern Hungary, which had been liberated already. There my father
worked in a hospital until May 1945, when he was able to return to his house in
Budafok (which had been completely looted). They had made the house more or less
liveable by the time I arrived home, followed in a few weeks by my younger
brother Ottó. Out of about 50 Jewish families in Budafok, ours was the only one
to survive the war intact.
My father continued to work. Both myself and Ottó frequently visited them,
together with our families. Occasionally the children stayed with them for a few
days, or even a week or two. Later on, in 1972, when they were all past 80, my
parents and Elizabeth's mother came to visit us in Ottawa (Elizabeth's father
had already died by that time).
My mother died in 1977, after a brief illness. Sometime afterwards, my father
moved in with Ottó's family in Érd (southwest of Budapest). We visited him in
1987, when he was 95, and still in relatively good physical and mental shape.
While I was there, Ottó's dog bit me, and my father wanted to take care of the
wound - unfortunately, he did not have any medical equipment any more. When we
came back from the emergency clinic, there I was with a bandaged arm, drinking a
glass of cognac with my father - there is a photo recording this. He died that
fall, after a very short illness.
Progressive debating society, founded in 1908 by the
Károly (Karl) Polányi (1886-1964), uncle of Nobel-Prize winning Canadian chemist John Polányi.
2 According to the Országh dictionary, the army grade "főhadnagy"
corresponds to "lieutenant" in Britain and "first lieutenant" in the US. This is
confirmed by the web page
which also gives the German equivalent (as used in the Austro-Hungarian army) as
3 In early 1945 there was an attempted
counterattack by the German Army ("Operation Konrad"), aimed at relieving the
siege of Budapest by the Red Army. Some localities immediately to the west of
Budapest changed occupying armies several times.