Episode 2 – Resilience Personified, Part 1
Against all odds, a child Holocaust survivor finds his way to freedom and MIT. Part 1 is a World War II survival story.
Guest: Robert Ratonyi, MIT Class of ’63, SM ’64, Course 2, Sigma Alpha Mu, Graduate House, and Westgate.
Make sure to listen to Part 2 to allow light to emerge from darkness.
Learn more about Bob’s incredible journey in his moving book From Darkness into Light: My Journey Through Nazism, Fascism, and Communism to Freedom.
Copyright 2021 Institrve
Bob: My father was taken from me and I never saw him again. Later, when I was six years old, my mother was taken away from me before my very eyes.
Host: That’s Robert Ratonyi, MIT Class of 63, SM 64, Course 2, Sigma Alpha Mu, Graduate House, and Westgate. During this episode, we will hear his chilling firsthand account of the Holocaust and eventual journey to freedom.
Bob had countless opportunities to be crushed by the cruelty around him. Yet somehow, he persevered through courage, hard work, intelligence, and the goodness of good people. As you’re about to learn, luck played a crucial role too.
In order to produce this episode, I had to ask an eighty-three year old man to reopen wounds that, in his own words, will never heal.
A webcam interview felt inadequate so I traveled to Atlanta, Georgia, to meet him in person.
A word of caution: This episode plunges deep into dark subject matter. I broke down a few times myself. I used two pre-recorded clips for the most traumatic elements of his story.
If you are not in the right frame of mind, I’d recommend setting it aside until you’re ready. And when you do listen, please stay through the end of this two part series to allow light to emerge from darkness.
I’m Ravi Patil and this is Institrve. True stories about MIT. A trove of wonder discovery, and madness. This podcast explores the diversity of the human experience. The question of what it means to be human is a timeless one. By hearing the stories of others, we just may find a piece of ourselves and be inspired to transcend our own limitations.
World War II began in September, 1939, but anti-Semitic forces had already been in play. Bob’s story begins in Hungary. Also, his original last name was Reichmann, which he later changed to Ratonyi. You’ll hear both.
Bob: 1938 was an important year because that’s when I was born, but there were two important events that happened that year.
One of them was that in March, Germany took over Austria and it was a clear signal to the world that Hitler had ambitions to expand.
The second major event was in November, 1938. The Kristallnacht, the night of the broken glass. And this was an organized pogrom across Germany and Austria where during two days, the Nazis organized riots in every major city and every small city. And they attacked Jewish homes; they burned hundreds of synagogues; they destroyed thousands of businesses. And about 30,000 Jews were deported.
Budapest is 125 miles from Vienna. So the news of what happened in Vienna spread to Hungary almost immediately.
And I personally think that is the start of the Holocaust. Now that’s not an official thing. Yad Vashem, [the World Holocaust Remembrance Center], has its own day. Jewish organizations think that the Holocaust started when Hitler became the chancellor of Germany in 1933.
Host: Immediately after Hitler’s rise to power, anti-Semitic laws were introduced in Germany.
How did this affect you?
Bob: I didn’t discover this until decades later. I must have been sixty years old. My mother was still alive and I asked her, “How come I’m the only child?”
I come from, a very large family I just took it for granted that’s the way it is. But I asked her and she told me that my father forbade her actually to have another child. She had to have an abortion because he saw what was coming.
And my mother, in her voice, I could tell that after decades, she still regretted it. That she couldn’t have more children. But after I thought about it, I realized that my father was probably right because I, as a six year old, barely survived.
Host: Where did Hungary fit in the political landscape?
Bob: In September, 1939, Germany invaded Poland and World War II began. In November, 1940, Hungary became an ally of Germany. And then, I consider January 20th, 1942, an important date.
All the chief Nazis got together to discuss the implementation of the Final Solution to the Jewish question, which was to eliminate eleven million Jews of Europe.
This was a business conference. The minutes are kept and were discovered after the war and were used in the Nuremberg Trial to convict many of these Nazis. It lists every country that the Nazis attempted to eliminate the Jews from and it added up to eleven million. Hungary is listed with 742,800 Jews.
The Germans are very good at keeping statistics.
Host: Such horrifying numbers. I can find no suitable words to describe the abject evil of the so-called Final Solution.
Bob: Hungary was in a very different position than all the other European countries because Hungary was an ally of Germany. So the Jews who lived in Hungary thought that they will be protected.
Everywhere the Nazis went, they killed the Jews. So many millions of Jews were already killed by then, but the Hungarian Jews felt safe. They adopted certain anti-Semitic laws, obviously they had to. And one of those laws was that they started conscripting young Jewish men into labor battalions to help the German army.
And that’s when my father started missing from our home. All I knew was that he would be gone for months and come home once in a while, bring some food.
And then after 1942, when I was four years old, I think probably the last time that I saw him and I never saw him again.
But later on I discovered what happened. That he was conscripted and ended up in labor camps and concentration camps and he never returned home.
Host: Do you have any memories of your father?
Bob: I have very little basically because I was four years old in 1942. And I remember maybe the last time that he came home and brought some food and we were sitting around our little kitchen table.
And the only memory I have is that he was kind of a strict father and he made me eat spinach which I hated. But other than that, I have no memory of him. I have a family picture.
Host: Hitler eventually turned his evil gaze to Hungary.
Bob: The next important date that is critical in Hungarian Jewish history, and me personally is in 1944. The Germans were unhappy with the Hungarian support. So Hitler actually invaded Hungary in March and that’s when the Hungarian part of the Holocaust began, almost at the very end.
And by 1944, probably five million Jews were killed. The Arrow Cross party, was legalized when the Germans invaded Hungary. They were the most virulently anti-Semitic party. They immediately started passing anti-Semitic laws.
Typically the Germans would do everything legally, so that the world would see that there’s nothing going on there.
Host: Can you give an example?
Bob: In April 44, all Hungarian Jews six years and older had to wear a yellow star. I turned six in January. So my mother and I had to wear a yellow star every time we stepped out of our building. If I went to play with my friends, I had to wear a yellow star.
My mother didn’t explain things to me. All I knew is that I had to wear one.
But this neighbor of mine, Bandi Fleishmann, who wasn’t six years old yet desperately wanted to have one and he kept complaining. He said, “How come Robbie can have the yellow star and I can’t have one?”
Host: The innocence of a child can be so heartbreaking.
Bob: How naive we were. We had no clue what that meant.
Host: The horror of the Holocaust was about to enter Hungary.
Bob: During the late spring, early summer of 1944, the Germans decided how to deal with the Hungarian Jews.
They knew that they have to deal with the Hungarian Jews carefully because there were 700,000 of them and they didn’t want them to know what happened to the rest of the Jews that already were gassed and killed in the various death camps.
So the plan was to divide this into two phases.
Phase one, they decided to go into the smaller cities and the countrysides but not Budapest. By then, Budapest had about 230,000 Jews because some came in from outside the capital and moved in with their families, like couple of my aunts.
And during 90 days, they managed to round up close to 500,000 Jews and deport most of them to Auschwitz, the closest death camp to Budapest. It’s only 250 miles as the crow flies.
And it was done in such a hurry. Hungarian Jews were rounded up, told to bring some clothes with them, and they were told that they were going to settle someplace else. By the end of June, four to five thousand Jews were taken out of the country.
So what was left was the Jews of Budapest and that was phase two. And in order to prepare the 230,000 Jews who now lived in one city, the plan was to first move them into special Yellow Star houses.
So they selected in each district, a number of homes mostly where Jews lived and the gates of each of these houses had a big yellow star. Christians who lived there had to move out and then the Jews from other places moved in.
Mr. Lesko was an architect, a well-educated man. He became a big Nazi supporter. He joined the Arrow Cross and ended up in some kind of a leadership position. And he had an exception. They did not have to move out of our building.
They were the only Christian family that remained in our building and one day, my mother told me this many years later. She ran into Mr. Lesko as he was passing by and Mr. Lesko told my mother, “Mrs. Reichmann, pretty soon you will be happy to polish my boots.”
And my mother never forgot it. And of course there was the reference that soon they going to come for us and she’ll be taken away. And that certainly happened.
Host: As if deportations weren’t enough, Budapest was in the middle of a war zone.
Bob: In the summer of 1944, the bombing began. And that was a terrible thing. 60% of Budapest was destroyed. The American bombers came during the day. The British came during the night.
And my mother and I were left there wondering what happened to my father. And we were just trying to save our lives by going down into the cellar every time on the siren and went off.
And it was really life and death situation because one time the bomb actually hit our building right above the cellar and I never forget it. We came out and we looked up and we saw this bomb, the front of the apartment crumbled.
And you could look at the bomb that was lodged on the floor and the other half was hanging down on the apartment below. And it was probably bigger than I was at that time. It luckily didn’t detonate. But if it came through and detonated, I wouldn’t be here to speak to you because we would have been gone.
Host: Bob and his mother lived to see another day, allowing enough time for the Holocaust to arrive at their doorstep.
Bob: In October 1944, Hitler decided to put the Arrow Cross in charge of Hungary. And that’s when the real danger began for us. The Nazis immediately started rounding up women and teenager boys who were still in Budapest.
My childhood innocence was shattered on October 10th, 1944. Someone was banging on our door yelling, “Everybody get out!” Sometimes early dawn that morning.
I was scared. I knew that it was not an air raid because I didn’t hear any sirens. So my mother and I got dressed and we stepped out our door onto the courtyard and joined the other Jewish women and children standing.
Then I heard orders. Someone shouting, “Everybody in a single line!” And my mother stood next to me on my left, holding my hand.
The next thing I remember is one of the soldiers shouting again, “All grownups two steps forward and left!” And my mother stepped forward, my hand slipping out of her hand. I remember started to cry joining the other children.
The next thing I remember is the women started marching towards our gate. And there was a soldier standing next to me who put his hand on my head and said, “Don’t cry, little boy, your mother will return.”
And although his words were prophetic, they didn’t console me. I continued to cry and I tried to keep my eye on my mother as she disappeared through our gate. And this was the last time that I saw her until the summer of 1945.
Host: After your mother is taken away from you, you had no adults around you. What did you do immediately?
Bob: I honestly don’t quite remember because I was shocked. You know, we were already lined up in front of our little apartment and I’m sure I ran back to our apartment and I was probably crying and maybe even fell asleep.
Who knows? But obviously I was in some kind of shock. All I remember is that in the morning, a good friend of my mother, Julia, showed up and Julia lived in our building. She knew my mother’s parents, Spitzer family.
And she said she’s going to take me to my grandparents place and asked me to put my clothing in a bag. And when the curfew allowed us to go out, Julia took my hand and we walked from the outskirts of the city into the inner city where my grandparents lived and we walked hours and hours.
For the first time in my life, I saw the destruction of Budapest. These buildings destroyed and street cars thrown all over the place. And I was so fascinated by this that, frankly, I think I forgot that my mother was taken away.
I was just taken by the site because I knew the city. My mother used to take me to see my grandparents quite frequently and we used to take two street cars. It was like a forty-five minute ride. So it took us hours and hours to walk there. And I never forget that sight of what happened to the city.
And so that’s how I was saved by Julia. She was an older lady. They didn’t take her because of her age because they knew that all these women who were taken will be marched on foot to an Austrian labor camp.
And so luckily, if Julia wasn’t there, I have no idea. I don’t think I would have survived because there was nobody there to take care of me.
When I arrived at my grandparents’ place on October 10, they knew that their youngest daughter, my mother, was gone. And I didn’t know anything what was going on, but I thought I was safe and I felt secure.
Host: In the midst of the Holocaust and being bombed, how did your family gather food?
Bob: First, you had to be lucky that you didn’t get bombed because that was going on day and night. And second, as a Jew, you had to stay alive by finding food.
Host: While Bob was settling into life with his extended family, his mother was undergoing a grueling forced march to a labor camp. We’ll return to her later.
I knew my grandparents and they were two of my aunts there also with their kids. And food became the critical thing because many shops wouldn’t sell food to Jews and you had to wear a yellow star. So for Jewish people to find food was extremely challenging.
And that task fell on the shoulders of my oldest cousin Mike, who was my Aunt Piri’s older son. Mike was about fourteen and one of the gutsiest guys that I ever met. It was his job to go off either during the day or during the night without his yellow star.
And he would try to find the something valuable in the bombed out buildings and barter this for food. But also luckily, it just so happens that there was another older couple living at my grandparents’ place, my grandfather’s brother and his wife.
They were not in good health and one of the sons of this couple as a tough guy himself. Very tall, very big blonde blue eyes, didn’t have any of what you would call Jewish features and somehow or other, he managed to get an ID and he actually joined the Arrow Cross and had the uniform.
Host: So a Jew essentially posed as a Nazi in full uniform.
Bob: And so he had access to food and he was able to sneak some food to us where we live. But that time, all the Jews had to move into the ghetto. But the conditions were so terrible there that Laci, my mother’s cousin, made arrangements for us to get out of there.
And we moved into one of the Swedish protected houses and that was because Laci was able to secure some Schutz-Passes for us. A Schutz-Pass is a German name for safe pass and the Swiss embassy, Swedish embassy, the Portuguese, and the Vatican also issued some of these safe passes to Jews.
And if you had one of these passes, you did not have to move into the ghetto. The neutral governments forced the Hungarian government to set aside a number of houses where these people with the Schutz-Passes could move into.
And Laci arranged for us to get Schutz-Passes.
Host: Unfortunately, Uncle Laci had obtained these passes before Bob’s unexpected arrival. The family was now short two passes.
Bob: My grandfather made sure that I had one, but he and my grandmother didn’t, but we went into a safe house anyway, and Laci picked the house.
And that’s how we started our journey from one safe house to another for the next several months to come. The good news about the protected house was that you are not in a prison like the Big Ghetto. The Big Ghetto had a 10 foot tall wall and it was restricted only at four gates. And once you were in, you couldn’t get out.
But if you were in a protected house you could go out when the curfew was lifted. And again, the chore of finding food fell on the shoulders of Mike, my cousin, and Laci was able to help us from time to time, but it was very risky.
Host: During the next few months, Bob and his family moved a whopping seven times in order to stay alive. And Bob was given a strange chore.
Bob: I arrived at my grandparent’s place in October 10 and I thought I was safe, but a couple of weeks later, all of a sudden, I found out that we are going to move. Nobody told me anything. I saw all the heated debates as to what to pack, what to leave, what to take.
My grandmother gave me this big wicker basket, meat grinder in it with my clothes at the top and said, “You’ll carry that.” And I lifted it up and I said, “Oh my God, this is really heavy.”
And I complained to her. I said, “Grandma, this is very heavy. I don’t know if I can do it.” But she says, “No, you can do it.” So I carried it to seven different places and it kept getting heavier and heavier, of course, because I wasn’t getting enough food. Occasionally some bread and maybe something else.
So that became a big chore, carrying the meat grinder and one of my saddest moments is that I lost my first pair of long pants.
My mother bought me a pair of white long pants, and I never wore long pants because children, even teenagers in Europe, wore shorts and I was so proud of my pants. And I put it in a bag when Julia took me to my grandparents place. But in the moving from here to there, somehow the pants disappeared. I never forget it. I was just heartbroken.
The final move when we went back into the ghetto, probably late November, I was not able to carry the meat grinder anymore because I was just too weak.
What’s amazing is why would my grandmother wanted me to carry a meat grinder when there was absolutely no meat available? Even potatoes were hard to get and all the horses that were still alive at that time were already butchered so there was no meat to be had.
What happened to the meat grinder? Honestly, I have no idea.
Host: Luck played a crucial role in staying alive as the following incident illustrates.
Bob: Mike’s job was to find food. And one day in a bombed out building, he found in the stairway an Arrow Cross armband and didn’t know what to do with it. He just stuck it in his pocket.
When he came back to our building, it just so happened that the Arrow Cross already came into our building and asked everybody together in the courtyard. And everybody had to show a Schutz-Pass.
And they were really looking for bribes at this point. And if you had money or jewelry, they’ll let you go. But if you didn’t or if they didn’t like you, just simply didn’t look right, they took you to the Danube, shot them, and dump them in the river.
Mike was coming back to our building and he discovered that we were all in the courtyard. There was an old guy and a teenager with a gun on their shoulder. And they were finding out what to do with these Jews.
And Mike had the presence of mind and the guts. He put his armband on and said, “Hey these are my Jews!” And according to him, the old man kinda surprised, but looked at him, saw the Arrow Cross. And he said, “Okay, if your Jews, you take care of them.”
So that’s how Mike saved us. And after that, the decision was made to go back into the Big Ghetto because life and death was a matter of just pure luck.
Host: And so Bob and his family had escaped death yet again, but lived in a constant state of peril until January 18th, 1945 when Russian soldiers expelled the Arrow Cross from the ghetto.
The next day, they left the ghetto and moved back into his grandparents’ original home. The family tried to reassemble their lives with several choosing to relocate to Eger, a small town 130 kilometers northeast of Budapest.
And in March, 1945, it was decided that a severely malnourished Bob should go there as well.
Bob: Mike came back to get me but he took me to the train station and the train station was total chaos, thousands of people jammed together. And everybody was trying to get out of the city. The train that was going toward Eger was totally filled. People were sitting on top of the train cars.
Mike went from window to window asking total strangers, “Would you take this little boy?” and nobody would do it.
Finally, one window, somebody said, “Okay, we’ll take him.” Somebody grabbed me, put me in the luggage rack. And Mike’s last word to me, “I’ll come and get you when we get to Füzesabony,”a little town on the way to Eger.
I had no idea whether Mike is going to get me and so the train ride was interesting. I had to pee and there’s no way to. So I tell total strangers, “I’m a seven year old kid. I have to pee” so they took me to the window, held me there, “Okay, go ahead!” because it was a long 80 kilometers. It wasn’t going very fast and it may have stopped several times.
Host: Pissing in the wind, as it were.
Bob: And I said, “I hope Mike will come and get me!” And sure enough, he showed up. And then we followed the tracks of the other train that was supposed to go to Eger and we walked maybe 10 miles. That’s how I got to Eger and I had a wonderful time there.
Host: In the middle of the summer, Bob received miraculous news that his mother was alive. She had been liberated by the Allies from a labor camp in Austria, but was in grave health, emaciated from starvation and typhus.
With Mike’s help, Bob took the train back to Budapest to be with his mother, but this long awaited reunion went unexpectedly awry.
Bob: I remember being very excited to see my mother again. I was waiting at the door of my grandparents’ apartment when Uncle Bela, one of the two surviving brothers of my mother, arrived pulling a wheelbarrow and announced, “Look, Robbie, here’s your mother!”
I looked at what vaguely resembled a human form lying on top of the cart covered with a blanket. I saw a skeleton face covered with tight skin and two large eyes looking at me out of the skull with no hair on top. No words came from this strange creature staring at me.
And I said, “This is not my mother!” I turned around and ran inside crying.
I shall never forget this sight as long as I live. Even now, more than 70 years later, it is painful to recall this event. The image of my mother’s emaciated body and knowing the devastating effect of my inability to recognize her brings out the worst emotional reaction I have to my Holocaust experiences.
It is hard to describe the feeling that this reunion with my mother evokes in me, even now. It is a feeling of hurt, frustration, and anger at all those who caused her to be an unrecognizable human being, a skeleton near death. At the same time, I feel ashamed that at the time when she needed me most, I was not there for her.
Host: In the aftermath of the Holocaust. Bob lost 14 close family members, his father, three aunts, five uncles, and four cousins. One was just a six month old baby.
With no psychological assistance in those days, Bob’s family dealt with their trauma by maintaining total silence. Everyone was on their own. Bob’s mother never once spoke of her forced march or time in the labor camp. Bob, likewise, never discussed his time in the ghetto with his mother.
When asked why the Holocaust happened, Bob pointed to a famous quote by Martin Niemöller. Niemöller was a decorated World War I German Naval officer but became an ordained pastor after the war.
Bob: And when the Nazis took over, he didn’t object.
Host: As a nationalist, he initially supported Hitler’s call for a German revival.
Bob: But the Nazis determined to take over the churches because the church has control over the people.
It was at that time that Niemöller started speaking out. So they put him into Dachau concentration camp. He was liberated by the Allies and after liberation he spoke at universities.
When one of the students asked Niemöller how could this happen in Germany, this is what he said. This is a direct quote although there are minor variations:
“First they came for the socialists and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist. And then they came for the trade unionists and I didn’t speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a Jew. And finally they came for me. And by that time there was no one to speak out for me.”
The lessons are that apathy is one of the biggest dangers. Under the Nazi dictatorship, a lot of people knew what was going on. They didn’t speak up. If you see something wrong, speak up. Be active and then maybe at least there’s a chance that evil can be stopped, but unfortunately history has shown us that is not the case.
There were more than 20 genocides in the 20th century. The Holocaust is just one of many but the really sad part is that it continues in the 21st century. Already we had at least four genocides, one taking place right now in China with the Uyghurs and what happened in Yugoslavia, Bosnia, Serbia, Macedonia.
Spanish American philosopher George Santayana said that those who don’t remember the past are condemned to repeat it.
Host: What can we do to avoid future genocides?
Bob: I’ve done a lot of thinking about this. I studied all the genocides and I was looking for the common theme and the only thing I could find was that not a single genocide took place in a liberal democracy. I studied more than 20 of them.
The only way to stop genocides and prevent them is by laws, liberal laws that will not allow the emergence of a dictator like Stalin or Hitler.
I came to the conclusion that there’s evil and good in every human heart, including me and probably including you. We are humans and we’re not perfect.
The evil and good in our hearts is separated metaphorically speaking by a thin line. And it’s so easy to cross that thin line.
We Americans are lucky. I love America so much. America is an exceptional country, not because our people are different than the people anywhere else, but because of our laws. I’m in love with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. It’s unique and as long as we can hold onto that, I think we’re safe.
So I teach my kids to pay attention, learn the law, understand why it’s important to maintain these laws because only by laws we can control evil.
Host: Do you have hope for the future?
Bob: I do. I’m an optimist, but I tell you, recent changes in the world situation, it makes me wonder.
We have to be very smart and very careful to maintain our freedoms because it can so quickly disappear. Holding onto a free, democratic society is not an easy thing.
I have become less optimistic in the last few years having seen what’s going on in this country. When I realized how genocides continue around the world. But yet at the same time, I maintain an optimistic belief that we will solve all these issues.
Host: In part one of this episode, you’ve heard how Bob Ratonyi navigated unspeakable evil as a mere six year old.
But his story is far from over. In part two, you’ll observe unyielding determination as Bob journeys to freedom. Stay tuned for his childhood in communist Hungary, daring escape to Austria, and triumphant arrival at 77 Mass Ave.
You’ll discover a gracious, wise man who made the decision to choose happiness. See you next time.