Autobiography Index

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 Salversan, 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.

1 Progressive debating society, founded in 1908 by the economist 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 Katonai rangfokozatok, which also gives the German equivalent (as used in the Austro-Hungarian army) as Oberleutnant.

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.

Copyright Gabor Sandi 1998-2018

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