I was inches from death clutching a teddy bear in the Holocaust – we survived on horse meat while corpses lined the streets
By the time he was seven, John Hajdu MBE had twice narrowly escaped death and both of his parents were taken away by the Nazis.
The Holocaust survivor, 85, lived in squalor in a Jewish ghetto in Hungary with “corpses strewn everywhere,” with only his aunt and a teddy bear — which he still has today — for company.
On Holocaust Remembrance Day, John recalls the horrors of World War II, how his whole family was able to survive – and the miraculous moment when his mother Livia, who had been in a concentration camp, “came back from the dead”.
And after all he’s been through, John – who became a British citizen in 1962 – explains how much it meant to him to receive an MBE from Queen Elizabeth II in 2020.
“Afraid to Go Outside”
John was born in 1937 in Budapest, Hungary, “to a wealthy, middle-class Jewish family,” but has no recollection of any time before the Holocaust.
After being slowly separated by the Hungarian government a few years earlier, in 1943 Jewish people were forced to wear yellow stars on their clothing to distinguish them from everyone else.
“It was pretty dangerous to go outside because a lot of young people who joined the NSDAP had a lot of fun looking at Jews and hitting them or yelling at them,” he recalls.
That same year, John’s father became one of many Jewish men across the country sent to a forced labor camp – leaving his mother to look after him alone.
John explains: “They had to do very heavy physical labor and were given very little to eat.
“They were treated badly, many became ill and quite a few died.
“I remember my mother and I took the train to the camp with food parcels and got a glimpse of father, but then we had to come back and leave him there.”
Forbidden to go outside
Then, in June 1944, John, Livia, and his aunt were told that they had to leave their homes and go to a yellow star block of flats, where the Jews were told they were “allowed to live a sane life.” .
That promise, however, was a lie – as John recalls, families were only allowed to leave their homes to queue for a few hours for food.
“And even then we weren’t allowed to buy things like butter, eggs or rice,” he adds.
“And of course there was no medical care – you couldn’t just go to your GP.
“You were stuck in this block of flats and you weren’t allowed to go to parks or cinemas. You couldn’t even go for a walk.
“Even the radios were confiscated because they feared we would hear what was going on around the world. And indeed, at that point, Jewish bank accounts had also been frozen, so we were completely isolated in this block of flats.”
Life saved by a stranger
Four months later, in October 1944 – when John was seven – the far-right Hungarian party Arrow Cross, together with the Germans, began hunting down the Jewish women and children, having already taken the men.
They went from block to block in Budapest, searching every apartment and “giving the women just a few minutes to say goodbye to everyone who was left behind”.
And when the time came that the Nazis came to John’s apartment, they took his mother away, but his aunt, thinking quickly, saved his life.
He recalls: “She grabbed me and pushed me across the corridor to a non-Jewish neighbor – not a friend – and she had the courage to go up to him and ask him to hide us.
“And this guy miraculously agreed. He pushed us into this closet in his apartment, closed the door and there my aunt and I were in complete darkness.”
He continues: “I was scared, no, I was scared. We probably stayed there between half an hour and an hour, but for a little boy it seemed like a lifetime. And I truly believe that this saved my life.”
Corpses lined the streets
That was by no means the end of John’s nightmare.
While Livia was ordered to work in a brick factory before marching 30 kilometers a day to Mauthausen, one of Austria’s largest concentration camps, he and his aunt were moved to a ghetto.
These ghettos were tiny areas where about 50,000 Jews lived – with about 20 people to an apartment – and were guarded by the army and Arrow Cross men to make sure nobody came in to help or got out.
There were dead bodies everywhere – and no one came to clean up.
John explains: “We were crammed in with hardly anything to eat apart from horsemeat, bread, gravy and water – which was brought up in packets because the taps weren’t working.
“There was no electricity. There was no medication and there was no cleaning. No garbage was collected at all, hence the place looked like a dump and it smelled.
“There were dead bodies all over the street because people died of starvation or typhoid or tuberculosis and we lived in that condition for a long time.”
John had another near-death experience when the Soviet Army bombed his building.
“We were in the basement hiding, and part of the building actually collapsed,” he says. “But we were very lucky to survive again.”
Mom “returned from the dead”
When the war ended in 1945, John and his aunt managed to reunite with his father – and they found a girlfriend who went to Romania, so they went with her.
Heartbreakingly, the whole family had assumed Livia had died – and John’s father moved on with another woman.
But in July 1945, John’s mother “returned from the dead,” as he puts it.
He remembers: “My mother was standing there in front of the door and we all thought, that’s not possible.”
She was freed from the concentration camp by the Americans, but suffered “amazing injuries” from regular beatings.
John says: “She was dehydrated, exhausted, her ribs were broken, her teeth were chipped, her hair was falling out.
“But she was one of the lucky 5,000 survivors. 110,000 people died in the camp.”
Although at first it was “wonderful happiness” to be reunited as a family, John admits, that moment was also “when the troubles started.”
“We didn’t think she would come back, so my father started a relationship with a local woman and wanted to marry her,” he says.
So his mother quickly brought him back to Budapest – which meant they lived through the communist regime.
Left with “nothing but food and teddy”
So they left home in November 1956 with “nothing but a bag of food and my teddy bear, which I’ve had since I was three years old and which has been with me through everything” and took the train towards the Austrian border.
While John was relieved to have fled Hungary, he knew they had to move on to rebuild their lives.
He decided that England was the place to be, and thanks to six days of determined queuing outside the British Embassy in Vienna, John and Livia were allowed to travel on as refugees on a Red Cross train.
On February 6, 1957, John and Livia arrived in Britain, where they settled after staying in two different refugee camps in London.
Thanks to the support of the Hungarian Jewish Refugee Committee and the World University Service, John learned his trade in the hotel and catering industry.
Obtaining an MBE
And in 1962, John was accepted as a British citizen and renounced his Hungarian citizenship.
He says: “It was a big day in my life. I was no longer homeless.”
Then in 1970 John met his wife Maureen and they married in 1972 and they now have a son, a daughter and three grandchildren.
Coming to the UK was a chance for a fresh start for John and he is proud of his contribution to society.
He then worked as a local magistrate, advisor to the Haringey Borough Police Commander and the Metropolitan Police.
He has also been chairman of his local 750-strong residents’ association and vice-chairman of the North London branch of the University of the Third Age for the past 16 years.
“And to top it off,” he adds, “I am very proud to have been awarded the MBE by Her Majesty The Queen for services to Holocaust Education in 2020.
“Who would have thought that 85 years after fleeing Hungary, I would be here to tell the kids that with hard work, drive, determination and optimism, it’s possible that I could have made it – and it made it.”
But John also thanks his aunt and the stranger who hid her in his closet for where he is today.
He says: “I wouldn’t be here now if my aunt never took me to this neighbor’s house.
“Unfortunately, I didn’t even know his name. I am very sad. It would have been great to go back and thank him for saving my life.”
Find out more about the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust at www.het.org.uk
https://www.the-sun.com/news/7241249/holocaust-survivor-john-hajdu-mbe/ I was inches from death clutching a teddy bear in the Holocaust – we survived on horse meat while corpses lined the streets