Richard is a spritely 91 year old with gentle blue-green eyes and a soft manner. I had a preconceived idea of what to expect before I met him. For instance, I assumed that he would have been in a concentration camp.
As he relates his story I can see and feel that he relives the experience with each retelling. He closes his eyes often when describing things to me, not to shut me out, rather I think, to voluntarily return there. He held my hand. My interpretation I know, is subjective, but I believe he relives this horror in order to honour those who died, including his father, whose head was smashed in with a rifle butt when he could not walk, having stood packed into a cattle truck on a train for 48 hours in the middle of winter. Richard tells his story in schools still, to try and ensure that we never forget. He takes his original yellow star and armband with him. My retelling I hope, honours his bravery and continues the act of remembrance.
Here is his story.
Richard is of Hungarian descent, born and raised in Budapest. His mother was Viennese and never learned to speak Hungarian so he grew up bilingual. This saved his life. At the start of the war he was drafted into the army as part of the “labor service conscripts”. As such, he was employed in an auxiliary group utilised in construction and defence including mine clearing. All Jews recruited were forced to wear their yellow star and armband. When the German army withdrew to Budapest 180,000 Jews were rounded up and marched towards Germany to be used as slave labour. Luckily Richard was not among them. Understanding German, he heard a discussion amongst officers about men being needed to load stores onto barges down on the Danube and spoke up. He volunteered and was hauled from the press of men women and children onto the back of a truck from where he watched thousands of people led away. Of those who went 150,000 died en route as they were denied any water or food.
Richard spent weeks lifting sacks of flour onto barges on the banks for the river. Each day, groups of 30 or so Jewish stragglers were brought to the river tied together in threes. This was done by fascist Arrow Cross Militiamen. The prisoners were made to step out of their shoes and then the middle person was shot in the back of the head. The momentum of their body falling was enough to pull the two tied either side into the water where they were either shot or drowned. Of course those standing behind knew what was coming. This went on day after day and all he could do was watch.
His comprehension of German saved him a second time as he was aware of the increasing desperation amongst the German troops. As defeat loomed, knowing that the army left no Jews alive behind them, he realised he needed to escape. Complicating matters further, his Hungarian army uniform meant that the approaching allied troops would perceive him as an enemy and he could be shot on sight. One terror filled night, he took off his yellow star and armband, risking immediate death for doing so if caught by germans. He crept through the darkness to the Swiss Embassy where he gained refuge. Hundreds were already there sheltering in the basement. By the end of hostilities there were three thousand.
After the war he came to Australia with his Mother and sister who had also survived. He was found work in Midland at a machine fabrication yard and that is where he learned his English. He said the men were uniformly kind. I asked if he had had a happy life and he said he had. He had married and had three daughters and six grandsons. He said to me, “Never hate anyone because of their religion.”