“I thought there would be maybe just a few people, but before we knew, suddenly we had ninety-eight people in the apartment. I remember that it was so crowded that we had to stay in the maid’s room, just behind the kitchen, and it was so crowded that people had to take turns to go to sleep, because there wasn’t enough space for people to lay down.”
Food was so scarce that his grandparents had to send Paul and his brother to a children’s shelter that promised to feed them. Paul and his brother were among approximately 250 children in what Paul described as a kind of “camp.” But after a day, Paul was unhappy there and made the brash decision to escape with his brother through a gap in the fence that enclosed the camp. He and his brother walked through the city and returned to the overcrowded apartment.
Only after the war ended, when he chanced across another boy who had been in the same camp, did Paul learn the fate of the children who remained. The boy told him that after Paul and his brother escaped the other children were marched to the Danube, where Nazi soldiers had set up two machine guns. “They told us to stand on the edge,” the boy told Paul. “They started shooting and I felt a kind of a ‘zing’ in my arm. I fell down. When it was all quiet, I looked at myself and noticed a little blood on me. It was very quiet. I think everyone died. And I ran away from there and someone took me in.” Paul then realized that his decision to escape the camp saved his and his brother’s lives.
Another brash action proved decisive for Paul’s survival when, later in 1944, the Budapest ghetto was established. Paul and his family were evacuated from their crowded apartment and marched to the ghetto. “I can remember how cold it was,” he said. “We stepped out of the house and there was a line that was approximately twenty people across. We started marching and I asked, ‘Where are we going?’ No answer.” When a policeman ordered him and his family to go to one side, Paul, a stubborn child by his own account, refused. “I looked up at my grandfather and said, ‘No, I want to go over there!’” Because of Paul’s insistence, they ended up in the Budapest ghetto.
He would later learn that this decided their fate. “We found out after the war that the people who turned in the opposite direction were . . . marched to the Danube river and were shot with machine guns and mowed into the water. This is one of the instances where my intuition saved my life and my grandparents.”
Paul, his brother, and his grandparents managed to survive in the ghetto until it was liberated by the Soviet Army in January 1944. “Finally, on January 15 or 16,” he recalled, “it was a bit quiet. Somebody looked out on the street and found that there were no soldiers, there was nobody else anywhere around, and then noticed that there was a man in a coat, no uniform, with a rifle on him. He announced that the Hungarian soldiers had left, the guards had left, and the Russians came in, so we were liberated. I didn’t know what it meant, you know?”
Although Paul was only eight years old at the end of the war, he had to learn to fend for himself from an early age. “You grew up very quickly,” he told us. “To a young boy, growing up during the war, it was not unusual, it was the norm.”
Sharing his story and experiences, particularly with young children, has been an important part of Paul’s life since the end of the war. Whether in his former position as the headmaster of a Montessori school in New York City or as a frequent speaker for The Florida Holocaust Museum, Paul hopes his message reaches his listeners. “We have to tell you so you do something yourself, so that when you see injustice or prejudice you stand up and do something and say something, so that you don’t let it slip by,” he said. Each time he speaks to a group, he said, “a piece of me is left behind. I feel it is very important to tell young people about what happened to try to explain and get some image of the impact of what these terrible times did to us.”
For Paul, The Florida Holocaust Museum plays an important educational role. Reflecting on the Museum’s 25th Anniversary, he remarked, “It is a storehouse, and a very nicely put together historical place, where you can make the right decision about your life and how you want to live your life, and how you are going to influence society and your part of society with this understanding of what happened before.”
Story by: Andrew Haan and Sarah Hagerty
Edited by: Jared Stark and Kristen Wright