'That was when we knew we had survived' says Holocaust survivor from Congresbury
PUBLISHED: 08:00 02 November 2017 | UPDATED: 08:45 02 November 2017
It's now more than 80 years since the mass persecution of Jews began in Germany and beyond, wiping out almost two-thirds of the Jewish population in Eastern Europe.
Mass murder of the Jews continued throughout World War Two and it is estimated around six million people were killed in the death camps.
A North Somerset councillor and former headteacher from Congresbury survived the atrocities of the Holocaust, but lost 16 members of his family who were sent to the gas chambers or shot by Hungarian Arrow Cross gangs.
Tom Leimdorfer spoke to the Mercury about his experiences as a young child in Budapest.
Tom said: “The Hungarian Jews never imagined the gradual growing nationalism, racism and anti-Semitism of the 1930s could actually end up with mass murder.
“The majority of the Hungarian Jews were totally integrated in society. My grandfather was a timber merchant and my maternal grandfather had retired from a senior job in the post office.
“The first law brought in was that no university could have more than six per cent Jews. Then, bit by bit, laws came in about how much property Jews could own and what level of jobs they could have.
“Each of the laws against Jews was more and more repressive until a lot of them lost their jobs and properties.”
In 1942, Tom’s father, Dr András Leimdorfer, was called up to serve in the army’s unarmed forced labour unit.
His wife Edit was five months pregnant with Tom at the time and they never saw him again. Edit found out many years later that András had died of typhoid while in a prisoner of war camp
In 1944 Hitler turned his focus to the Hungarian Jews as virtually all the Jews from Eastern Europe had already been put to death.
The Nazis built an extension to Auschwitz to exterminate the Hungarian Jews.
Tom said: “From May 1944 to July about 400,000 Jews were taken from every town outside the capital.
“In June 1944 my grandparents were taken from a town the size of Yatton with 300 other Jews without a single German soldier in the town.
“It was done by the Hungarian special constabulary with the town’s population looking on.
“They were handed over to the German SS guards at the border town to be crammed into cattle truck railway carriages bound for Auschwitz.
“My grandparents were sent straight to the gas chambers and three other members of my wider family perished in Auschwitz.”
On October 15, 1944, Hungarian regent Miklós Horthy began negotiating with the Allies.
By the afternoon, he had been ousted and Arrow Cross formed the new government.
Tom said: “Under the Arrow Cross, no Jews could work anywhere.
“Jews had to be in houses marked with yellow stars. Anybody who couldn’t move into a yellow-starred house had to go to the ghetto.
“Almost immediately they started random shootings. One member of my wider family lost both her parents, her sister and her firstborn child on one day. The Arrow Cross came and shot them into the Danube.”
When the Arrow Cross began raiding houses with yellow stars, a Hungarian doctor allowed Tom, his mum and his aunt to shelter in part of his house which was sealed off. They were also sheltered by a priest for a while.
Tom said: “My mother got false papers. She didn’t look particularly Jewish, so she would quite brazenly cross German lines with me to get from one place to another.
“For the last couple of weeks we sheltered with my aunt in a cellar until the Red Army came. That was when we knew we had survived.
“Very few people from the provinces survived. Of the 200,000 in Budapest, only 120,000 survived.”
This included Tom his mum, an uncle and aunt and his paternal grandparents.
They survived the Holocaust in hiding, with help from many Hungarians who risked their lives to shelter them.
Tom said: “It took me a while to piece it all together and it was interwoven with survival under the communist regime.
“I suppose we were incredibly resilient. We had the will to survive and oddly enough, we enjoyed whatever was enjoyable.
“After the Hungarian revolution was squashed, I came across the border from Hungary to Austria in December 1956 and went to a school in north London.
“I suppose the miracle of surviving the Holocaust, the trauma of living through turbulent times and then the opportunities I’ve been given in Britain and the ability to integrate into the community – all these have formed part of me. It’s one of the reasons why I’ve become a Quaker and a politician.
“The reason I’m a local politician is partly out of gratitude of how I was welcomed into Britain and the way I was able to have a home, first in London and then in the West Country. I felt part of the local community and wanted to contribute to it.
“I’m passionate about the value of people and fairness and against discrimination. All these things have grown in me.”
Tom has spent his life promoting the values he believes in through education and politics. In the early 1990s he co-founded the European Network for Conflict Resolution In Education (ENCORE).
He said: “The Holocaust, the anti-Semitism, the racism, it started with a notion of Germany for Germans, Hungary for Hungarians, and the alienation of ‘other’ people who saw themselves as part of the community.
“There were a lot of articles in the press blaming Jews for economic and housing problems and using them as scapegoats.
“Then, the final solution would not have been carried out without the collaboration of people on the ground.
“The Holocaust was only possible because of collaboration of a lot of Hungarians, but the survival of so many would not have been possible without the bravery of others.”