KENNESAW — Robert Ratonyi can still see the piles of watches and wedding rings at the entrance to the ‘Big Ghetto.’
He remembers the fear that gripped him as he watched armed Hungarian soldiers — Nazi Germany sympathizers — bark orders to hundreds of Jewish women and children around him on a cold October night.
It was 1944, in war-ravaged Hungary. German troops had invaded the country to continue with their mission to deport — and ultimately exterminate — millions of European Jews.
Ratonyi, now 80, is one of an ever-dwindling number of Holocaust survivors. He shared his tale of horror and survival with a standing-room-only crowd at Mt. Paran Christian School Tuesday night.
‘WE WERE ALL CRYING’
Ratonyi was six years old that year. His father had been shipped off to a labor camp two years before. He and his mother had been rousted from their Budapest flat in a “Yellow Star House” for Jewish families at 3 a.m. by local police. They were lined up with hundreds of other Jews and escorted to the entrance of a fenced resettlement community in the town’s old Jewish quarter, he said.
“One by one, each person was ordered to leave their money and valuables in a pile on the sidewalk as they passed through the narrow gate. I will never forget that,” Ratonyi said.
He shared how he held tight to his mother’s hand. Once he and his mother passed through the gate, armed Hungarian soldiers pulled them apart and shoved his mother into a line with hundreds of other women.
“She turned back to me, crying as they led her away. She couldn’t speak. She just cried. The children, we were all crying,” as our mothers were led away, he said.
His mother was forced to march with thousands of other Jewish women to a labor camp more than 120 miles away, across the border in Austria. Nearly four of every 10 women died along the way. Recalling that vivid scene in his mind brought him to the edge of tears.
“This is not a pleasant thing to talk about. Every time I do, I’m transported back to that time. It’s not an easy thing to do, but I do it because I have an obligation. When you hear a first-hand account, it gives a different perspective from what is often taught in the schools,” he told the Marietta Daily Journal.
Ratonyi was born in 1938, the year of Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass.
“It was two days of riots in Vienna and Berlin. More than a hundred Jews were killed, 30,000 Jews deported, 1,000 synagogues destroyed and 30,000 Jewish businesses destroyed,” he told the Mount Paran audience.
By 1944, most Hungarian Jews knew what was going on with Jews in other countries, he said. They learned of mass numbers of Jews in Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Austria who were stuffed into rail cars and delivered to concentration camps throughout German-occupied countries.
“They knew what was coming,” he said.
WEARING THE YELLOW STAR
Every Jew six years and older was required to wear a yellow star-shaped patch on their outer garments, he said. Though his mother dutifully sewed stars on his jacket and hers that marked them as Jews, he was too young to grasp the significance of the symbol.
“The only thing I knew about being Jewish was that we celebrated Jewish holidays at my grandparents’ place. Neighbors, kids I played with, they celebrated Christmas. That’s how naïve I was,” he said. “People in Budapest hoped the war would end before German troops invaded and occupied Hungary, but those dreams were crushed.”
As German troops took control of Budapest, Ratonyi said he “quickly lost his innocence. I learned being Jewish had consequences.”
Allied Forces bombed the town.
“There were American bombers by day and British bombers by night,” he recalled.
He took shelter in a cellar with his mother during the bombing raids.
“I learned the whistling of the bombs and the blasts that followed early on,” he said.
Ratonyi described how his mother pleaded with a local Protestant pastor to convert him to Christianity. She begged the pastor to provide documents that proved he was not a Jew.
“But the answer was no. There were strict laws against that,” he said.
He told of his heroes, including his mother’s friend who found him alone and frightened in the ghetto and managed to deliver him to his grandparents. It was a small flat that eventually became a refuge for aunts and cousins as the German occupation continued, he said.
One relative was able to secure papers that kept them safe for a while. His cousin scoured bombed-out buildings at night for items that could be bartered for food. Ratonyi told of surviving on one small can of soup per day, of bomb-ravaged buildings and blown out windows, of sleeping next to others for warmth in a bitterly cold winter, and how his extended family moved from one flat to another and then another just to stay alive as 1944 turned to 1945.
SAVED BY AN ARMBAND
He described how hundreds of Jews were rounded up by German soldiers, marched to a place near the Danube River and executed, their bodies falling into the water — and how his cousin saved his family from a similar fate.
“Miklos, my cousin, was very bold. His job was to find anything of value in the ruins that could be exchanged for food. One day he noticed a crumpled piece of cloth in a stairwell. It was an armband, just like the ones used by the Arrow Cross party, the fascist militia who were Nazi sympathizers. Miklos stuffed it in his pocket,” Ratonyi said.
Later that day as his cousin returned to the ghetto, he came across several dozen Jews held at gunpoint in the courtyard. Ratonyi was among them.
“There were three members of the Arrow Cross militia holding us, two young men and an older man with guns. It was a shakedown for anything of value the soldiers could use to barter for food. It was near the end of the war, and they were desperate,” he said. “It happened a lot. Those who had nothing to give were usually taken to the bank of the river and shot.
“Miklos realized what was happening. He pulled the armband from his pocket and put it on. He walked up to the older soldier and said, ‘These are my Jews.’ The old man looked at him and glanced at the armband. ‘Very well. You deal with them,’ the old man said as he walked away. My cousin saved our lives that day. He was 14 years old.”
Ratonyi told of unimaginable horror as German soldiers, “with great efficiency,” dragged 500,000 Jews from their homes in Budapest and surrounding areas, stuffed them into cattle cars and shipped them to work camps or death camps.
Many from his extended family “did not survive the Nazi’s final solution,” he said.
The day Budapest was liberated by the Red Army in 1945, he said he “was too weak to even watch from the window as the troops entered the area. After we were liberated, we didn’t know for several months if my mother survived the labor camp.
“When they brought her back she had typhus and diphtheria. She was skin and bones. I said, ‘That’s not my mother,’ she looked like a skeleton,” he recalled.
His mother eventually recovered.
“A bomb didn’t kill me. I didn’t get sick or die of hunger. But the greatest contributors to my survival were my heroes: my friends, grandparents, cousins and family members.”
Ratonyi hopes sharing his experiences will help avert history repeating itself.
“It’s important for me to tell my story. There are those who deny the Holocaust, but there’s no point in arguing with them. I don’t know how to deal with them,” he said.
He raised the question to the audience: “How could such Nazi atrocities happen in the middle of the 20th century — in an enlightened, educated and civilized Europe?”
“The answer teaches a valuable moral lesson,” he continued, when 500 million Christians in Europe stood by and said nothing as Nazi Germany’s plan to exterminate millions of Jews proceeded.
Ratonyi shared German anti-Nazi theologian Martin Niemöller famous condemnation of those silent bystanders, which describes how first they come from this group or that group, but no one speaks up because they are not a member of such groups.
“Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me,” Niemöller’s saying ends.
The lesson, Ratonyi said, is to never tolerate apathy or indifference to the suffering of others.
“We should always speak up when we see injustice or prejudice inflicted on other human beings,” he said, concluding with George Santayana’s quote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
‘NOW WE’RE WITNESSES TOO’
After Budapest was liberated by the Russian army in 1945, Ratonyi continued to live with his mother there.
“I went to the schools there, and I studied at the University of Budapest. That was about the time of the revolution, the uprising. I escaped to Austria when I was 18,” he said.
Ratonyi eventually made his way to Canada and then to the U.S., where he pursued degrees in engineering and business. He worked for several large corporations and also began his own business. He and his wife live in Atlanta and are the parents of two children. They have two grandchildren.
Remarking on the talk afterward, Cindy Suto of Marietta said Ratonyi spoke of the heroes who helped save him during the Holocaust in Budapest.
“I think Mr. Ratonyi is also a hero for retelling the painful chapter of his life to people so we can learn about the atrocities of the Holocaust in Hungary,” Suto said.
Hannah Ray, a junior at Mount Paran, said she was deeply moved by Ratonyi’s story.
“I knew these things happened from the history lessons, but hearing his story made it real. It was very humbling. People my age don’t usually get to hear firsthand stories like this,” she said. “I was speechless.”
Sham Palomaki, of Kennesaw, was also spellbound.
“Now we’re witnesses too, and we need to share it,” Palomaki said.