This is the story of one Holocaust survivor among millions. It centers on the life of a young man in 1944 and tells the tale of what happened to him and his family.
Andor Braun, commonly known as “Bandi,” was born to middle class parents, Erna and Sandor, in Miskolc, Hungary in 1928. During this time, life was fairly normal, with Jews holding any job, just like in the U.S. today. In Hungary, Jews were a large part of the population and they were treated like anybody else, which was unique in Europe at the time.
However, as told through Braun, who survived the Holocaust, with lightning speed, things changed. However, these changes were implemented one at a time, to prevent outrage among the Jews. They kept expecting that things would be temporarily bad – just one more change – and then revert back to normalcy. After all, Hungary was the last country to come under Nazi rule, in 1944. Jews were so integrated, they thought that nothing really serious would happen.
First, Jews were isolated – put into ghettoes. Then, they were required to wear the yellow star on their lapel. Then, limitations were placed on the types of positions they could hold and their rights were stripped, one by one. What was perhaps most surprising was how neighbors all of a sudden, and without warning, changed from friend to foe.
Miskolc, where Bandi was born, is located in the northeast part of Hungary, near the border of Slovakia. The central section of Miskolc, Belváros, is the most densely populated and was historically the hubbub of activity for the Miskolc Jewish population. It was modern and sophisticated. It is also the regional center of northern Hungary.
Growing up, Bandi’s entire family on both his father’s side and his mother’s, lived in Miskolc, which at the time, with a population of 100,000 was the second largest city in Hungary. The Jewish population was 20,000. Today Miskolc has a population of nearly 200,000 and there are no more than 30-50 Jews in Miskolc.
Until high school, Bandi’s life was pretty normal. What changed for the Jews of Miskolc was that from a normal life, Jews became scapegoats. The outward comments were that they were blamed for the Hungarians having lost World War II. The city’s sophisticated society methodically united powers against the Jews and began the process of institutionalized killing with mass transport to factories of death.
Bandi’s mother, Erna, was a teacher at the Jewish Elementary School, Erzsébet Izraelita Elemi Iskola. This is where Bandi attended elementary school (ages 5-10), from 1928 to 1938. Next to the school was a river, Szinva Folyam (Szinva River). When Bandi and his best friend, Tomi, witnessed unwanted kittens being thrown into the river to drown, near their elementary school, they felt compelled to rescue them. This became a metaphor for their lives.
Bandi and Tomi were similarly spared by a series of events, and this kernel developed into one of Bandi’s core values: to seek to create justice where there is none, and to take risks to stand up for what’s right, whether it be saving those less fortunate – humans and even animals – or speaking up, even when others will not.
Between the ages of 10 and 15 Bandi and Tomi attended parties with Jewish girls of the same age; these were held in the girls’ homes with parental supervision. At age 10 it was customary for middle class children to attend dancing school, and they both did. In response to discrimination, they would get together to confront the young bullying Nazi Hungarian thugs.
When they had free time, they took bicycle trips (after age 13, when they got their bicycles for their Bar Mitzvahs), went hiking, and on the weekends, they traveled southwest of the city with their families to the (still) beautiful resort area of Miskolctapolca, with parks, large swimming pools and a lake for boating, 4-5 miles outside the city limits, beyond Kis-Avas, the small mountains. (Kis means “small” in Hungarian. The Avas is a hill of volcanic origin.)
On Saturday mornings Jewish families would go to Kazinczy Utcai Zsinagóga (the Kazinczy Street Synagogue, which was Orthodox. This was in the neighborhood where Bandi’s maternal grandparents lived. The Jewish families went to the same synagogue and got together socially.
In 1938, when Bandi was 10, his father, Sandor, was unable to continue with his wholesale grain business because Jews were prohibited from owning businesses. This was when the first “Jewish Law” was passed, restricting the number of Jews in liberal professions, administration, and commerce to 20 percent. Bandi’s father then transitioned to an insurance company under the cover of a gentile’s business.
In March 1944, when Bandi was nearly 16, his father was taken by the Hungarian military for forced labor. Jews were either taken for labor or forced into ghettos within one neighborhood in Miskolc. Bandi and the rest of his family moved into his maternal grandparents’ house, near the synagogue.
While in the ghetto, because Bandi had a bike, he was fortunate to get one of very few jobs which took him outside the ghetto walls. The synagogue was converted into the Jewish hospital where Bandi worked as a messenger to hospital staff. One of the doctors, who was Jewish, came to Bandi’s grandparents’ house, where they were living, because he knew that Bandi was a messenger. He said, “I need your help” and retained him at nearly 16 years old, to deliver medication to his sister.
The doctor’s sister was pregnant and the doctor somehow knew that she was next in line for interrogation by the Nazi’s; he thought she might not survive the interrogation. The doctor had access to a pill that could make a person appear dead – Bandi at first was afraid the pill would kill the doctor’s sister – the heart would slow to the point of its beat being imperceptible to a lay person.
Bandi delivered this to the doctor’s sister to save her life, saying it was from her brother. The pill worked, and the doctor told Bandi that he “owed” him – that he would do all he could to save the lives of Bandi’s family, to help them survive if he could. In Miskolc in March of 1944, the Holocaust and what lay ahead of them was still unknown.
The example of drowning kittens being saved can serve as a metaphor for the miracles that saved Bandi’s life, from the time that the German Nazis entered Miskolc. The Nazis did not speak the native language of each country, so they hired kapos – bilingual guards – who would speak directly to the inhabitants.
Bandi’s first miracle of his life being saved was when a kapo literally told him repeatedly that he was two years older than he was – 18, not 16 – and, finally with clenched teeth, asked him, “Do I have to teach you how to lie?” To have told the truth would have meant certain death – being sent to the death camps, particularly Auschwitz, instead of the labor camps.
In tomorrow’s article, the story of what happened in the camps will be told. What remains to be seen is how a 16-year-old boy survived the Holocaust in 1944.
By Fern Remedi-Brown
Previous articles on the Holocaust, fascism, and Nazism:
Hungary Post-Election Woes and Rising Fascism
Passover Changes since pre-Nazi Time
Palestinian Empathy for Holocaust Victims Is Called Treason
Holocaust Repeated in Ukraine?
Ukraine Jews Flee?
Holocaust Remembered by Whom? Yom HaShoah is Sunday
Holocaust Denied Can Be Repeated
Personal conversations with Alan Brown, PhD
Map of Hungary
Ten-minute video of Alan Brown’s personal account