So I returned to Bellagio, but first I made arrangements with my friend Matyi
Benedek that he would follow me and we would meet up on the way. In Bellagio I
was given the address of the people smuggler, who lived in Menaggio, on the
western shore of Lake Como. I crossed over by ferry, and with some trouble I
managed to find my smuggler, who invited me to dinner and gave me a place to
sleep overnight. Next day we started off southward by bicycle, along the western
shore of the lake. On the way we encountered a bus, on which Matyi was a
passenger. He got off, straddled on my bike and we continued going south. After
we passed Tremezzo, we left the bike by the roadside and started to walk uphill
on a path going west. We were lucky - this was 25 February 1944, and there could
have been a snowstorm. But there wasn't - it was a beautiful sunny day, with the
lake shimmering under us. The Swiss border was just a few kilometres away, but
quite high up - around 1500 metres above sea level (about a mile). We were
already close to the border when an Italian soldier joined us from a nearby
valley, fully armed. His martial image was reduced somewhat by the bottle of
milk hanging from his back on a string. He stopped us, he thought we were
smugglers. We told him the truth: we were Jews trying to cross into Switzerland.
He suggested that we do not continue in the same direction for now, because
there were German patrols nearby. It would be better to continue after
nightfall. Then he wished us good luck. We gave him a tip.
The area around the Italian-Swiss border where some of
the action described on this page took place.
We looked for a place to hide and we did find a small stone hut used by
shepherds in the summer. There were already others in it: an elderly Jewish
couple from Cremona (Italy), a Swiss girl, and another people smuggler. They
were also waiting for a chance to cross the border. We all stayed in the hut
until nightfall, and by midnight we made it to the border, which was just a
stone fence about 50cm (20 inches) high. The Italian smugglers took the
money and immediately returned to Italy, for they would have been fined by the
Swiss had they been caught. But we others stayed up all night until daybreak,
when we began to try to find a borderguard who would take care of us. We met
several people, who informed us that the border patrol had already passed that
way, and suggested that we keep on walking - we were sure to find someone in
uniform eventually. Which we did. We were taken to a border post, the
Swiss woman was checked out and released, while the rest of us were made to wait
for about an hour, after which we were put on a truck which took us to Lugano.
On the way we happened to see our erstwhile Swiss companion on the roadside,
between two policemen. They were clearly in the middle of arresting her.
We were checked out in Lugano, and finally we were allowed to stay in
Switzerland as refugees. We were taken to a refugee camp, where - after about
two weeks - we were asked to make a choice. We could either go to a non-working
camp, mainly intended for families, old people and the infirm. Alternatively, we
could opt for a work camp, where we would work and be paid for it. People in the
non-work camp were given pocket money of SFr 1.50 per day (worth about 40
cents), while in the work camp they received SFr 5.00 (= $1.25). I naturally
chose the work camp. It was in the town of Hedingen,
in Zurich canton. We were housed in well-heated baracks, about 60 persons in
each. The food was fairly good, although the cook was unfortunately German. Our
work was planting a potato field, after clearing a forest, digging up the tree
roots and clearing the soil. It was good work, not particularly hard, and I also
became the camp librarian. Books were exchanged once every two weeks - there
were about 3-4000 books, in German, French, English, Italian and Yiddish.
Saturday and Sunday were free, after work we were allowed to go for walks
outside the camp, maybe go down to the village for a cup of coffee or a glass of
wine, if we had the money. I did not have much money myself, as I still smoked,
which cost a lot.
As summer approached, a recruiting agent came to the camp from the nearby
fruit-processing plant called Affoltern a/A (am Albis: name of a river) OVA
(Obstverwertungsgenossenschaft Affoltern am Albis). The company was
looking for workers, as there was a general shortage of labour in Switzerland at
the time, since many men had been called up into the army. Of course I signed
up. As soon as I reported to the factory, I went to see the director. I told him
that I was ready for any job that he could give me, but I wished to let him know
that I had a degree in industrial chemistry, and maybe they needed people with
such qualifications. He immediately assigned me to work in the laboratory, to
help the Swiss chemist working there. He also told me that I would be paid
workers' wages only. This was not a bad deal, however, since Swiss union rules
required everyone, including refugees, to be paid Swiss wages. I was thus paid
SFr 400 per month (about $100), which was a lot of money at the time. Soon
afterwards, the Swiss chemist I was assistant to, and whose qualifications were
far below mine, was called up into the army, and I became the plant's only
chemist. Not for long, as I was able to have another refugee assigned to work
with me, the Italian Bruno Levi, who had studied chemistry in Padua.
This is how I came to work, I earned a farily good income, and I could move
around freely. On weekends I often travelled to Zurich, where I met other
Hungarians: György Demeter, who had introduced me to Bologna in 1937, and who
was a friend of my cousin Magda Boros. At his place I met Márta Friedlander, who
was a recent refugee from Hungary. She was from Debrecen (a provincial city
about 200 km east of Budapest). When the Jews of Debrecen were assembled together
in 1944, a list of names was called out before they were herded into railway
freight carriages and those who were on the list were told to get out of
the line-up. Márta realized that all the people on the list were well-off
people, therefore she decided to join them even though her name was not called
out. Without any further ado these people were crowded into different freight
cars from the others, they spent three days inside travelling into the unknown
until their carriages were shoved across the border into Switzerland. Without
having to pay for her freedom, Márta thus survived, while all her relatives
ended up in Auschwitz or something similar.
The Hungarians in Zurich, or rather a certain group of them, used to
have dinner together on Saturday evenings in a local restaurant . The Demeters
would be there, so would György Hódos, who later married Márta Friedlander. So
Tibor Szőnyi, a prominent psychiatrist, András Kálmán and many others.
All of them were members of the Communist Party or were fellow-travellers. Hódos
and Szőnyi later on were victims of the Stalinist show trials in Hungary - Hódos
survived the experience to write a book about the trials1, Szőnyi was executed.
I visited Zurich frequently, because a list was made available to refugees of
people ready to play host to them, and I wrote to a childless couple on this
list, Hermann and Pauli Fischer in Zurich, who invited me and whom
I then visited quite often. This friendship became permanent, and Pauli, after
she became a widow, visited us in Hungary and became good friends with my
mother. Later on she also came to visit us in Ghana for 3-4 weeks, and she even
visited us in Canada.
At the beginning of 1945 the Swiss authorities realized that the
Germans would probably lose the war, and meanwhile Switzerland was full of
refugees, who were housed in camps. There were engineers, doctors and
researchers among them, and it was thought to be a good idea to leave these
people with some more memories than just those obtained in refugee camps.
Therefore visits were organized to take such people to Swiss factories,
industrial plants and so on. This is how I was taken to Schaffhausen
(steelworks) and Basel. In the latter city I saw plants belonging to CIBA (now
part of Novartis) and Hoffman-Laroche
(now known as Roche). We were shown many
interesting things, but when at an appropriate location in a CIBA plant I asked
a question about yeast extracts, we were quickly led away to another section,
and my question was left unanswered.
I continued to work in the OVA factory, and came to know it very well. It
would buy specially grown apples and pears from farmers in the area, and make
its products from these. The best quality fruit would be made into sweet
apple-pear juice (Süssmost), which was preserved through filtering and sold in
one- and four-liter bottles. This juice did not keep long - it had to be
consumed within a week. The liquid that had been filtered out was vacuum
concentrated, stored and then used out of season to make Süssmost , whose
quality however was not as good. Fruit that was less fresh was made into brandy
or vinegar. It is not economical to make vinegar from wine with an alcohol
content of 6%, so that wine foreseen for this purpose was concentrated through a
freezing process: it was frozen, and the wine was centrifuged out. The liquid
left over was thrown out as ice. This is the method I use today in Canada to
make excellent raspberry wine, with an alcohol content of 16%. I do not,
however, use centrifuging - I simply filter the wine off the ice.
I stayed in Switzerland until May 1945, when the German surrender took place
(announced on May 8th). I started my journey home already on May 9th,
accompanied by Ri (Rosa) Demeter. Her husband György and some other
Hungarians had already gone back to Hungary through Paris. Without any permits,
we left Switzerland illegally, crossing back into Italy near Chiasso. From there
we travelled by train, truck (lorry), and once even by British military jeep, in
the company of Jewish soldiers from Palestine, some of whom spoke Hungarian. In
Padua I dropped in on Bruno Levi. From Trieste we continued on by train,
stopping in Ljubljana (then in Yugoslavia, now capital of Slovenia) for a week.
Eventually we made it to Eszék (Osijek, now in Croatia), from where we had to
walk most of the way to Pécs, in southern Hungary.
1 This book is available in English:
Show Trials: Stalinist Purges in Eastern Europe, 1948-1954, by George Herman Hodos.
New York: Praeger, 1987.