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AUTOBIOGRAPHY OF EMIL SANDI

BUDAFOK, BOLOGNA




Magyarul

Autobiography Index


Before getting into details, I would like to quote Maxine Singer, the President of the Carnegie Institute in New York:

"I myself have not learned big things in my research. I’m not a Watson or a Crick or a Weinberg, for that matter. But I’ve learned small things. But to learn something one day that nobody ever knew before is something that, I think, everyone should have a chance to do.”  (Science 243, p.89, 2 Nov. 1988)

Of course, I have discovered much less than Mrs Singer, but I did discover a few things, and this gives me great pleasure.

To start with: I was born in 1919 in Drohobycz. I grew up in Budafok, which was a separate municipality in those days, but is part of the 22nd District of Budapest today. I went to primary school there, on Anna Street (today this is the Budafok high school called Budai Nagy Antal Gimnázium). For my secondary school, I attended the István Verbőczy "Realgymnasium" (scientific high school) on Attila Street on the Buda side of the Danube, just below the Royal Castle (today this is the Petőfi Sándor Gimnázium). There is not much I can say about my school years. I liked the natural sciences and mathematics, but not the humanities, because according to the educational practices of the time I had to memorize poems, as well as years and names associated with historical events, which I could not do easily. As a result I was not an straight-A student, and was not admitted to university in Hungary, which probably saved my life. Hungary had the "numerus clausus" in those years, which severely limited the number of Jews in higher education. Only the very best of Jewish students were admitted, and they were later drafted into the labour batallions, or were taken to death camps. Very few survived the experience.

I did not have a large circle of friends. My best friend in Budafok was Imre Káldor, son of the other Budafok doctor Adolf Káldor (Imre eventually became Professor of Medicine in Perth, Australia). In school, my best friend was István Láng. Of the girls, the ones I liked during my childhood and teenage years included Márta Kaiser ("Tuci", pronounced "Tootsie"), a friend of my cousin Ági and daughter of the owner of the famous Hadik Café, and who turned out to be a classmate of my wife Elizabeth, as I found out much later on. There was also Joli Steiner in Budafok, Magda Vámos, and the very beautiful Erzsi Balogh, whom I attended high-school dancing classes with, and who became a successful actress later. Of course I could not "court" her, because her mother was always present - they lived in Albertfalva (a district of Budapest on the way between Budafok and the school), and we often walked together to the terminus of the HÉV train.

As I said earlier, I was not admitted to the University of Budapest. Originally, I would have liked to become a medical doctor, but when it was discovered that I suffered from colour blindness I decided that I could not become a doctor, because I would not be able to decide on sight whether a child was suffering from scarlet fever or chickenpox. Thus I chose to aim at chemistry, preferably biochemistry, instead. Since I was not able to continue my studies in Hungary, I applied to Uppsala University in Sweden, and the University of Bologna in Italy. Both were encouraging in their replies, because  Hungarian high school certificates ("Érettségi", similar to a German "Matura" or French "baccalauréat") had a very good reputation. In the end I could not go to Uppsala, because Hungarian banks were not allowed to sell Swedish crowns except in very small quantities, while Italian lire were available without limit. This was because Hungary did not participate in the trade sanctions imposed on Italy by the League of Nations subsequent to the invasion of Abyssinia (today: Ethiopia). Hungary thus had a large surplus in its trade with Italy, which was only too happy to reduce its indebtedness by any means possible.

This is how I ended up in Italy in 1937. When I arrived in Bologna, I did not speak a word of Italian. However, I had studied Latin and French in high school, so that I understood the basic vocabulary. I went frequently to the cinema and attended church services in order to be exposed to as much spoken Italian as possible. Within a few months I knew enough of the language to enable me to follow lectures at the university and take notes. I was enrolled in the Faculty of Industrial Chemistry (Facoltà di Chimica Industriale), which still exists by that name today. It took five years to obtain a degree there. Everything went fine. During the first two years I had an advantage in the most difficult subjects, because Hungarian high schools provided much better preparation in mathematics and physics than did Italian schools. Thus I was very well prepared in calculus, algebra (series) and the theory of probability. As a result, I had more time for subjects I particularly enjoyed: analytical chemistry and laboratory work in organic and inorganic chemistry. My studies were not too difficult, and I had plenty of time for other things. By the third and fourth years, however, I started having financial problems, because my father was not able to send me as much money as before. Even at the beginning of my studies I did not receive much: I had 400, later 500 lire, which corresponded at that time to 20 dollars! Better-off students received 1000 lire a month, and American students at the university, who were quite numerous and were usually of Italian origin, lived on US$100-200, which was more than what Italian professors earned.

Thus I was getting less money from home, and later - when the war was already on - I was getting nothing. I had to earn some money therefore even as a student. This was not difficult, because Italians on the whole did not know foreign languages (with the exception of French which was widely understood), and I spoke both German and English. There were many opportunities to do translation work, and even language tutoring in some cases. This was not real language teaching or translation, I was not trained for that, but specialized work requiring the understanding of the language used in my own subject. I translated chemical and biochemical texts, or help in their interpretation, particularly in my very own professional area, namely analytical chemistry. This work was quite easy for me, and in addition gave me contacts that sometimes served me well for decades afterwards.

Walter Ciusa (1906-1990)1 was one of these important contacts. He taught industrial chemistry in the Facoltà di Economia. He paid well for my work, and we also became friends. Later on in 1943-44 when I needed false Italian identity papers, he obtained them for me. It turned out that I did not really need these papers, as no-one ever asked for them. They did, however, give me a feeling of security, which possibly contributed to my getting through these difficult years without any real trouble. We continued to exchange letters after the war, and I managed to make professional visits to Italy with his help in 1962 and 1963. We also visited him in 1966, when we went on home leave from Ghana. We were on our way from Rome to Budapest, and of course we stopped over in Bologna, where I bought a used Fiat car. Ciusa was very pleased to see me. I even co-published a paper with his assistant Luigi Lipparini. While I was preparing the article in Hungary, I actually carried out the required experiment. Then I told Lipparini how I envisaged the experiment, which he then repeated successfully in Bologna. Of course it was successful, I knew it would be because I had done it already. Then Ciusa asked me to allow Lipparini's name go first among the authors - this may have been his only publication.

Another Hungarian student started his studies in Bologna at the same time as myself: Gyula (also: Gyuszi or Giulio) Kemény. He was from  the western Hungarian city of Szombathely, close to the Austrian border. He was a much better student than myself. We fled to Switzerland together during the war, at the beginning of 1944. After the war was over, he learned that his whole family in Hungary had been murdered by the Arrow Cross (Hungarian Nazis), or by the Germans themselves. He went back to Italy and married Renata Castagnoli, daughter of a common friend, of whom I shall speak more later.

My task in my last year in Bologna, my fifth, was to prepare my doctoral dissertation. With Gyuszi Kemény we  discussed which professor we should choose to be our advisor. Finally we decided that he would select Prof. Mangini, Head of the Department of Industrial Organic Chemistry (after whom the present-day Dipartimento di Chimica Organica is named today), while I would go to Prof. Luigi Mezzadroli, head of the Institute of Agricultural Chemistry (Istituto di Chimica Agraria), which was in the same building. It was the professor's role to assign the aim of doctoral research projects. For me this was to find out the circumstances under which fat-rich yeast can be produced. The specific area that I had to study was how the pH of the nutrient influenced the fat content of yeast. Mezzadroli's final goal was to produce yeast rich in fat-soluble compounds, so that substances acting like vitamin D could be isolated from it. The final title of my dissertation was "Arricchimento del lievito in grassi", which I defended in November 1942. Unfortunately I have no copy of it.

Another person starting his studies at the same time as we did was Vladimir Pizent, an Italian citizen of Slovenian nationality from Trieste. He was an excellent student getting top marks in every examination he took. He received 110 points for his diploma, where I obtained 90 and the minimum acceptable result in the Faculty was 66. Vlado, as we called him, got mixed up in Trieste with a group that participated in an anti-fascist conspiracy. The group was busted, two or three of its members were sentenced to death, others were sent to jail, while Pizent - who was "just" an outside member - was sent to an island near Naples called Ventotene, where he could move around freely, but from where he was not allowed to leave. His status was confinato (exiled). It was typical of the fascist régime in Italy, however, that, as a student, he was allowed to come to Bologna during the exam period, which lasted 2-3 weeks both in the fall and in springtime. At these times he was constantly guarded by two policemen in civilian clothes. Thus, in the middle of the war, the Italian state employed six policemen working full time to guard 3x8 hours a day a political detainee taking his university examinations. When Pizent came to study in my rooms, the two guards would wait outside the gates of the building. Vlado would sometimes call out to them, saying that he may stay with me for 2-3 hours, they may as well go to see a movie. It was also typical of the situation in fascist Italy that every one of Pizent's professors signed his "index-book" certifying his presence in their lectures, without which he would not have been allowed to take his examinations. At the end of our studies, after we received our doctoral degrees, the three of us - Kemény, Pizent and myself, organized a banquet in an inexpensive restaurant, inviting our friends and the two "secret" policemen on duty.

While Pizent was interned on Ventotene, he made the acquaintance of Renato Castagnoli. Renato was originally the station master of the Italian State Railways in a small town somewhere between Rome and Milan. Sometime during the 1920s there was a large rally in Milan of the Italian Fascist Party, and he delayed the train on purpose at his station, so that the fascists from Rome were not able to arrive in Milan on time for the rally. Of course, he had to flee afterwards, and he went to France. Later on he took part in the Spanish Civil War on the side of the loyalists (republicans), not as a soldier but as a radio announcer. I should add that Renato2 was not a communist, but an anarchist. After the German occupation of France in 1940 he was captured by the Germans and handed over to the Italian authorities, who interned him on Ventotene, and this is how he met Vlado Pizent. When Vlado came to Bologna for his examinations, he looked up Renato's family, his wife Maria and his daughter Renata, who lived there. Through him we all met the Castagnoli family, and became good friends. My friend Gyuszi Kemény married Renata after the war.

Let me tell a story that illustrates the extent of our friendship. When I decided to escape to Switzerland (of which more later), I travelled from Budrio towards the Swiss border through Bologna. I stayed the night there, at the Castagnolis' place. They had a small apartment, and I slept on a mattress in the kitchen, while Renata slept with her mother Maria in the bedroom. Later on, when we met again after the war, Maria recounted that on that occasion they had decided that should the police come during the night looking for deserters, she would send Renata to join me in the kitchen, and would ask the police not to go there, because her daughter was spending the night there with her boyfriend. This not only shows how good friends they were, who endangered themselves by taking me in, but also shows that they presumed (probably correctly) that the police would accept such an excuse.

Let's get back to my student days in Bologna. Even before I finished with my doctoral dissertation (or laurea, in Italian), I made the acquaintance of a dentist called Giorgio Maj. We met in the Borsa café, where I went to play chess. I once asked his opinion on the following problem: we may eat an acidy orange every day, or bite into a lemon, after which the enamel in our teeth gets eroded, but by next day it regenerates, all erosion disappears. How can this be? I asked whether blood circulation had any role in this. He answered that there is no physical connection between blood vessels and tooth enamel. Then, I said, regeneration must be based on something in saliva, otherwise our teeth would just wear out, since clearly we cannot avoid acid foodstuffs or other foods or drinks that erode tooth enamel. I suggested that we conduct an experiment. He was to prepare some human or animal tooth enamel, which we would then break in half. One piece we would immerse into acetic acid, and part of this piece we would then immerse into saliva, or a solution similar to it, after which I would determine the amount of calcium or phosphate in the two pieces, thus establishing whether there was regeneration or not.

Then we carried out the experiment. I found a suitable photometer for the determination of phosphates in Walter Ciusa's laboratory, and we were able to prove that eroded tooth enamel really is regenerated from saliva. The experiment was written up and published in an Italian scientific journal: Boll. Soc. ital. biol. sper.(1942) 18:11. Having lost all copies of this article, I have now managed to obtain a photocopy, which can be viewed here.

So this was my first scientific publication. One day after my Ph.D. examination, and publication in hand, I went to an see Giovanni Moruzzi at the university's Institute of Biochemistry, which was part of the Faculty of Medicine. I applied to be a laboratory assistant. Moruzzi and his boss Pupilli welcomed me, but said that they were not able to offer me a paid assistantship. I could, however, work as a volunteer, and should there be some contract work for the outside, I could keep half the income from it. This turned out to be a very good deal. As a volunteer assistant, I did not have to participate in lectures, but I was able to supervise lab exercises on many occasions, and there were opportunities for outside work. A Hungarian "inventor" called Pór made contact from Rome. He was the younger brother or nephew of the painter Bertalan Pór. He suggested that we develop a highly concentrated pemmican-like foodstuff for Italian submarine crews. We did it. Using authorization documents from the university we were able to obtain some excellent lean beef at the local slaughterhouse, which was already quite an achievement in those food-coupon days. We dried and ground the beef, added spices and mixed it with suet, turning it into a highly concentrated, nutritious, chocolate-like (but salty) product that was both tasty and non-perishable. I do not think that it was ever actually used, as there was no time during the war to play with such things, but we did receive a monetary reward, and Pór and Moruzzi got some extra money for the invention. In addition, we all managed to keep some of the meat, of which I was even able to give some to the Castagnolis.

Life in Bologna during the war was getting steadily more difficult. The food coupons we were able to get under rationing were certainly not sufficient. As I was not a physical worker, I could only have 300 grammes of bread and 70 grammes of dry pasta (macaroni or spaghetti) or rice a day. In addition, every week I was entitled to about 100 grammes of fat or oil and 1 litre of milk. Occasionally, I could also have 100-200 grammes of meat. One had to hand over food coupons even for a restaurant meal. The reason I was not constantly hungry was that one of my father's patients, a man called József Birta, was a sleeping-car attendant, and once a week he was posted on the Budapest-Rome train, which stopped in Bologna. Therefore my parents were able to send me through him valuable food packages. There was a war on, and Italy was hungry, but in agricultural Hungary almost everything was still available. There was salami, bacon and sausages in the packages I received this way. This kept me well fed, and I was able to help out my friends as well, especially the Castagnolis. And I was able to send something to Hungary in exchange: espresso machines. Once in the war, all coffee in Italy was reserved to the Army, which was a big blow to that coffee-loving country, but this meant that I was able to buy two or three small home espresso machines, and send  them to my parents through Birta.

On 24-25 July 1943 the Fascist Grand Council in Rome took Mussolini to task for having involved Italy in the war, and in particular for having sent Italian troops to the Russian front, where they had suffered enormous losses and had been forced to retreat. Next day King Victor Emmanuel III summoned Mussolini, dismissed him from his post and had him arrested and exiled to the top of Gran Sasso, one of the highest mountains in the Appenines. Eventually, a squad of German parachutists, led by Otto Skorzeny, rescued Mussolini from there and took him to Germany. In Italy, Marshal Badoglio took power, who continued the war, but meanwhile started secret negotiations with the Allies. Finally, on 8 September, the armistice was announced. The Italian army disintegrated immediately, practically within a day. Italian soldiers on the Russian front, on Greek islands, and elsewhere, were disarmed and imprisoned by the Germans, who proceeded to execute many of them. Northern and central Italy were occupied by Germany. Mussolini established the Italian Social Republic, with his headquarters in Salò in the north, next to Lake Garda. In theory he remained Duce of this makeshift state, in reality it was run by the German Army.

I was allowed to stay in Bologna until I finished my studies. By that time Jews were not accepted at the University, but those who were already registered could stay, as could other foreigners until the termination of their studies. Thus, a few weeks after I passed my laurea, my doctoral exam, I was summoned to the Control of Foreigners Section of the local police station, where I was told to return to my country. I explained that I wished still to take my State Examination, which I had to take at another University than the one I had studied in. Indeed, I had submitted my application to take this examination at the University of Naples, I was even accepted for it. But I did not go to take the exam - it was only really necessary for students who intended to settle in Italy. So I did not go to Naples, and after a few weeks I was again summoned by the police who asked me to leave the country. I told them that I did not wish to return to Hungary, and wanted to go to Switzerland instead, but my passport had expired - I would send it to Hungary for renewal. I did so, but I sent a message through Mr Birta the sleeping-car attendant asking my parents to put the passport away in a drawer and not return it to me. Thus things were being prolonged, until Mussolini was overthrown. Then I asked my parents to finally return my passport to me. Later on, when I was on my way to my hiding place in Budrio, on the small country train taking me there I met the policeman who had summoned me so many times. He was in civilian clothes. He said: "Didn't I tell you to return home?". I answered: "I am still better off here". "Where are you going?" he asked. I said: "I am afraid I can't tell you". "I understand," he replied, then he continued: "Don't worry too much, we have burned all our documents".

Thus I went to Budrio, together with my friend Mátyás (Matyi) Benedek, a doctor. Supposedly, we were escaping the air raids in Bologna, and we stayed with a tailor by the name of Giovannini, a friend of a friend. There we were the first evening, Matyi and myself, plus a Jew from Ancona, or Pesaro, with his wife or girlfriend, two days after the Germans took over in northern Italy. All of us were having dinner with the Giovannini family,  when suddenly there was a knock at the door, and two German junior officers entered. Giovannini was quite frightened, Matyi and I however knew German and we greeted them politely and asked them if they cared to join us for dinner. They readily accepted the invitation. Naturally, we did not tell the Germans that we were not Italian, but our host did not know this. The Germans ate with us, we had a good conversation, for example we asked them about their families back in Germany, and they were happy to show us some photos. Before they left, our host brought up two bottles of wine from the basement for them, and we asked them to be sure to return the empty bottles. The two soldiers left, and indeed they returned the bottles next morning. Later on we discovered that German soldiers had entered several other houses in the neighbourhood, and had taken objects of value from some of them. Our host was sure that we saved him from looting, while we knew that it was he who saved us from being arrested, or worse. Matyi left the next day, as he had made arrangements in another close-by village, while I stayed on in Budrio.

I stayed on in Budrio, but occasionally I rode my bicycle to Bologna, 20 km. away, to check for mail in my old lodgings. My connection with my parents through Mr.Birta had long been broken, because the trains from Hungary had stopped running. Once, however, I did find a letter that had been forwarded by a patient of my father who worked, or had a relative who worked, at the Hungarian consulate in Milan. This is how I came to know that the Hungarian consulate in Milan had moved to Bellagio on Lake Como, very close to the Swiss border. I decided that these Hungarians were not crazy if they had moved there, and as such would probably not cause me problems if I came to them for help. Therefore I got on a train, and went to Como by way of Milan. From Como I took a boat to Bellagio, located the Hungarian consulate and gave them my return letter addressed to my parents. Then I said that I wished to take refuge in Switzerland, and asked if the consulate staff would be able to help me in this. The consular officer I spoke to said that he was not able to help me financially, but that if I could lay my hands on 2000 lire (about $100), he would get me an address of someone who could smuggle me across the border. I returned to Bologna, sold my typewriter, took my gold Omega watch - the two together were worth at least 2000 lire, and immediately went back to Bellagio. This all sounds simple today, but it was wartime, there were bombardments, Bologna Station lay in ruins (there was a makeshift station outside town), and so on. In short, it was not a holiday trip.


1 You can find information (in Italian) here on Walter Ciusa's important contributions to the study of merceology (commodity science).

2 There is more detail (in Italian) about Renato Castagnoli's political activities in a footnote of a page of the Italian web journal La Risveglia.

Copyright Gabor Sandi 1998-2018

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