Haim Loran was a teenage Jewish boy living in Budapest, Hungary during the war. At first assuming the war the war would never reach him, he talks about about how life changes when it did. He talks about the German occupation of Hungary in 1944 and the devastating street fighting that consumed the city when the Soviets began the Siege of Budapest. He talks about how his family attempted to survive being caught in the middle of one of the deadliest offensives in World War II.
When The War Comes Home
The war in the beginning was distant, just like it is here. For example, the United States has been in war for a long time now, here there, between the two invasions of Iraq and Yugoslavia and Korea and Vietnam and Syria and some involvement in Libya. We still have involvement in Syria and in Afghanistan and in Iraq, but it’s kind of distant. We learn about it from TV. Do any of you have any immediate family member who serves in the armed forces? Well that’s the case [with Hungary, as well.] Wherever I meet people, they see it on TV and it’s sort of an academic subject. But when you are in a war zone, and they are bombing your house, it’s a totally different thing. I always give the example, if you live in Easton and say the enemy has already occupied Cambridge, and right now the Choptank [River] is sort of a barrier. But you are within artillery range, so you know that if they come in there, they stole your home and they do all the ugly things that occupying soldiers do – rape, pillage, whatever. It’s totally different from what we are experiencing by watching TV and reading in the paper about the war in Afghanistan and wherever we fight. We fight in quite a few places. But it’s very different.
When the Russians came near, it changed. So what happened was the Germans had some considerable armed forces in Budapest. The Russians went around the city and they were already in Vienna if you are familiar with a map of Europe. And the Germans told their army in Budapest to hold on because a relief column is on the way, which was a lie. They simply sacrificed their troops to hold the Russians. So they fought from house to house and then they were finally practically annihilated. So in Budapest – it’s a big city, about three million people – there is no food grown in the city, just like there is no food grown in Baltimore or New York. So whatever food there was, they ran out and there was no food. So the Army still used horses, and when a horse got wounded, they shot the horse to take him out. And people rushed out from the houses and cut off a piece of the horse, took it home to cook.
For us it was extra difficult, because we were Jewish. So what saved our life was — You heard about Raoul Wallenberg? He was a Swedish diplomat and he handed out Swedish passports. Since Sweden was a neutral country, they left us alone for a while and they put us in houses which were marked “Swedish citizens live here.” We were as Swedish as you are. So that sort of delayed them. And finally, our house was occupied by the Russians and that’s what liberated us. So my father and mother and my younger brother and me, we started to walk east from where the Russians came in the middle of street fighting, people being shot just like you see in the movies. And nobody shot at us. We were just slowly walking, and each street we passed was quieter and quieter and quieter. And we went all the way to my father’s office which was like two or three miles away. And we lived in his office for a few months.
So what a situation like this causes among other things is a complete breakdown of the rule of law. People are hungry for food. If you have food, they’ll grab it whether you like it or not. Occupying soldiers act like animals. The streets were littered with dead soldiers and weapons. When I was twelve, I had a Russian submachine gun and a German pistol. We just picked it up. A lot of children got hurt by playing with munitions and blowing off fingers or hands.
Last Time Seeing Brother
They put us into apartment buildings which were marked “Swedish citizens live here,” and you had to stay there. That gave you protection.
They came to our house and ordered everybody to the street. And you showed the Swedish passport you got that way. But they needed some young men for work and he was already nineteen. They took the Swedish passport, tore it up and threw it on the street, and they told him “well, you don’t have a passport. You go over there.” And that’s the last time we saw him.
Illegal Radio Listening
Well, we had a radio, which was illegal to have, and we listened to the BBC in secret. If they discovered we had a radio, we would have been shot. And so, we listened to the BBC every day on short waves. And that’s how we knew what was happening. They didn’t want people to have news from the outside; they only wanted to hear their propaganda. We were supposed to turn it in and we didn’t. So it was hidden.
They wanted to believe what the government told them, because the government always had good news. So people wanted to believe it. We knew, because we listened to BBC every day. BBC had short wave broadcasts in Hungarian and in many languages. And we quickly learned that they told the truth, because two weeks later, it finally appeared in the newspapers. But very few people knew. You didn’t share this knowledge with everybody, anybody because listening to enemy radio was a deadly sin.
You said that after the Soviets occupied they pillaged and raped people —
They initially did, yes. They were given two weeks where they could officially do that, and after two weeks it was forbidden. Then the Soviets said if a soldier misbehaves, throw ink on him. And if an officer found a soldier with ink on him, he shot him. That was their system of justice.
For those two weeks when they were allowed to do what they liked in Budapest, did you stay in your home? Did you go into hiding?
We stayed in our houses. We couldn’t go anywhere.
Did you know any women who were taken?
Who were taken by the Soviets? Yes, my aunt. She lives in Brazil now. And we knew that they took her and she came back and she never talked about it.
At that time, did you know what was going on?
Yes. When the commandant called up the women saying they need them in camp to peel potatoes, I mean you had to be stupid not to know what’s happening.
After those two weeks, did things get better?
Yes. They were not allowed to do that after that.