Mary Hirschfeld, 89, only recently began thinking about her title of Holocaust survivor.
Hirschfeld and her family arrived in the United States from Hungary in 1947. She was 15 and ready to start a new life. In order to do that, she tried to forget the Holocaust.
“I pretended like I was the American girl I should have been at age 10,” she said. Her family was originally scheduled to come to the U.S. five years earlier, before the war interfered with their plans.
But now, Hirschfeld is ready to share her story and recently began writing a memoir. Her children and grandchildren have asked her to share her experience, and “I really have a sense of responsibility to let them know what happened,” she said.
Her coping mechanism was to forget as much as she could, and she did. But every once in a while, a vivid memory flashes in her mind.
“All I can remember from being the little kid I was, was that we’re going to the United States, that it’s a wonderful country, a country of freedom,” she said. It was the 1930s and her family — her parents, her grandmother and her sister — had everything lined up. They got a spot in the U.S.’ quota immigration system, and they had their passports and their exit visas. “We were leaving at the end of December 1941.”
But due to the bombing at Pearl Harbor, their ship never came. Her father had already sold his business. “We got stuck. We had no place to go,” she said.
They reluctantly stayed in Budapest.
She remembers when German forces occupied Hungary in March 1944. She and her sister, five years older, woke up early in the morning to what she thought was an earthquake.
“The sound was horrible — all these tanks and all kinds of war equipment ran through the city. And we knew at that time that we’re going to be in big trouble,” she said. The Germans immediately swept the country of Jews, she said, including her own aunts and uncles who were sent to Auschwitz.
Hirschfeld and her family were somewhat protected because — due to the efforts of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish humanitarian credited with saving thousands of Jews — they had forged papers to show they were under the protection of the Swedish government. They were placed in an apartment in a building that was identified as “protected.”
“My mother was able to go out for one hour a week just to get us some material — food, if she could find somebody willing to sell to us,” Hirschfeld said. The restrictions were suffocating. Because they had to wear a Jewish star on their chests, she and other Jews could not use public transportation and could only walk through the city.
She doesn’t have many memories from this point on living under the Nazi occupation or the Soviet occupation that followed. “It was just horrible bombings. And I don’t know how often, but the Nazis would come to the building and call everybody down to the lobby and they would select people to go kill by the Danube (River) — they were using them for target practice.”
At some point, her father was selected to be part of a death march. “He had some pills in his pocket and he took them to commit suicide,” she recalled. The Nazis thought he was dead and didn’t shoot him. Some peasants found him and nursed him back to health, and he was reunited with his family.
The Nazi occupation of Hungary lasted a year. Near its end, the Nazis took her and other Jews living in her building to join the thousands of others living in Budapest’s ghetto. They were preparing to kill everybody. Hirschfeld doesn’t recall the details, but she and others ended up very deep in a basement, with no food, water or bathrooms while a Nazi guarded the entry. She isn’t sure how many days she was there, but at some point a young boy appeared and said, “We’re free.”
“What I remember is all these weapons all over the courtyard,” she said. “The Nazis just ran and left their guns behind.”
It was 1945 and her family again prepared to leave for the U.S. But their spot in the quota immigration system had expired. They had to wait for legislation that would recognize their visas and allow them to enter the country.
“And then, in May 1947, we were picked up by an American bomber in Budapest from the airport,” she said.
Eventually she, her parents, her sister and her grandmother made it to San Diego, where her aunt and cousins had been since the early 1940s. “I cannot tell you what a shock that was,” she said.
Her life had been in a Communist-era bombed-out city with horribly depressed people, and “all of the sudden I’m in San Diego a few days later, with the sunshine and the palm trees and the ocean.”
She was eager to fit in and leave the war and its horrid memories behind. She started eleventh grade and went on to graduate from University of California Los Angeles. She got married, had two kids and then went back to school to become a family lawyer.
“I think when you get older, I’m almost 90, your early years come back to visit you. And I think more about that now than I ever did,” she said.
Hirschfeld is one of 54 local survivors receiving the Phoenix Holocaust Association’s Shofar Zakhor award this year. The Shofar Zakhor award, given during the annual Yom HaShoah Commemoration, recognizes contributions to genocide awareness and Holocaust education. It is usually given to an educator.
Hirschfeld said once COVID-19 is no longer a threat, she plans to share her story in classrooms. JN