When World War II began, Erika Dattner was 2 years old in Budapest, Hungary. Her childhood was shaped and stolen by Hitler’s military campaigns and Nazi protocols. Her family was scattered and to stay safe, she had to hide. When the war ended in 1945, she had no home. From Hungary, to Austria, Germany, France, Israel, and eventually to the United States, she is happy to call Tucson her home.
I was a hidden child. My mother also had to hide to survive. We lived in Budapest. It was a nice city, but not at the time that I was born there. I didn’t have a childhood, there was no time.
Hungary was allied with Germany. They took the Hungarian-Jewish men to forced labor camps. My father was taken, I never saw him again. He was 37. There was no correspondence, it was “you go and dig the ditches and prepare the work for the army.”
I lived with my mother, aunt, and grandfather. My mother was an excellent dressmaker.
The rule came out that the Jewish people had to move out of their apartments. We moved into what came to be called the Jewish Star Homes. Jewish people had to wear the yellow star. I was about 8 years old. The Germans were bombing and to survive, we had to hide.
My mother somehow found some documents. In those days, the documents didn’t have a picture. She found some that suited her age and she applied for a housekeeper’s job. She lived in a basement. I could not be with her.
She found a home for children whose fathers were taken into forced labor. She put me there, we said goodbye, and that was it.
Budapest was split into two parts: Buda and Pest. She was hidden in the Buda part and I was hidden in Pest. There was no communication, no transportation, no buses, no nothing.
The water lines were severed, it was winter, there was very little food. If people found a dead horse on the street, they took and cut off part … well, that was the war. In the home, the conditions were so terrible — everybody had lice, some skin situation, and all kinds of bad things. It was just crazy times.
This was between 1944 and the end of the war, the beginning of ’45. The Germans occupied Budapest, but they already knew they were losing the war and began retreating.
When the news came that people could walk on the bridges between Buda and Pest, my mother was the first parent to pick up a child. Otherwise, I would have been in that orphanage forever.
She came, but there was a curfew. By the time my mother walked from her place to my place, it was dark and there was no place to go.
Bombing was coming from one side. Everybody was hiding in basements. My mother knocked at people’s homes. She said, “Please, let us in, I have a child.” No, no, no, they don’t take anybody, that’s it.
So we kept knocking. Eventually, somebody took us in; it was very kind of them.
We went to see what happened to the apartment where we lived. Nobody imagined that anybody would survive and they gave the apartment to some non-Jewish people.
We went over to where my aunt lived. Before the war, she supported my grandfather, but he was taken to the ghetto. He survived the ghetto but, from stomach illness, passed away. My aunt’s apartment was already taken by some other people. We had no place to live.
The Russian people took over the city. The communism started.
There was a Zionist organization working to save the leftover Diaspora people. Jewish people all wanted to get to Palestine. During that time, in the late ’40s, Britain ruled Palestine and they did not allow people to come legally.
The Zionist group took my mother in as the cook for a home for teens, but they wouldn’t take me. I was, again, left alone at a place for young children.
One day, the Zionist organization took people on a train from Budapest to Vienna. The United Nations created these displaced persons camps because Jewish people didn’t have any place to go after the war. All kinds of nationalities.
From Vienna, they took us into Bavaria, near Munich, in the American zone. We were there for two years.
One day, we went to visit a friend’s newborn baby in another DP camp in Germany. We returned to our DP camp and it turned out that the whole camp was empty. While we were gone, everybody left for Palestine!
We found another camp not too far from where we were, but it was only for children. I was 10 years old. I said to my mother, “Mother, we were split up during the war, I don’t want us to be separated.” So, we stayed together. We were sent to France to another Zionist group and finally, we were told we are going to make aliyah.
We walked in one row along the waterfront at night, in the dark. Everybody had to be very quiet. There was a boat but it could not come to the shore so they sent little rubber boats to get us. It was a Turkish fishing boat, probably accommodating about 200 people. Nobody could eat because everybody was sick. It was November in the Mediterranean. It was up and down and took about 11 or 12 days to get from Marseilles to the shores of Palestine.
Cyprus was where the British were keeping the people who came to Palestine illegally. When we were nearing that island, they asked everybody to get down to the hull, no talking, nothing. They covered the hull, put out the Turkish flag and the fishing gear. We arrived not too far from the northern part of Israel.
We arrived at dawn, so the British didn’t catch us. The Zionist group got everybody off the ship, quickly, quickly, don’t touch anything, don’t take anything, nothing. I had a little doll, but that was my only toy. We left everything. We were illegal people, immigrants.
They prepared a table with food and after we ate, they put us into a kibbutz for maybe a week.
My mother was lucky to get an apartment in a town called Rehovot, a city near Tel Aviv. Rehovot was very primitive; it was a poor country. Everything was rationed. My mother put me in school. She got acquainted with this guy. She married him and it was not a good thing. They divorced.
In the meantime, I got to be 17. We didn’t have a place to live. I didn’t finish high school.
My mother sent me to live with her brother in Paris. She figured, maybe by then, she could get a visa to America. But, the French did not extend my visitor’s visa and Israel wanted me back to go to the army. I had no choice; I had to go back to Israel.
In the meantime, my mother got her visa to go to the United States. So again, I am alone.
I had a good job in the army; I worked in the justice department for lawyers. The army gave you such little money. I didn’t have any civilian clothes. I hated my army uniform. I said never again would I wear khaki!
I was married in Israel.
Finally, I came to the U.S. I was almost 21. We arrived on the S.S. United States, from Europe to New York in three days. My aunt and my mother were waiting for me at the pier.
I was an only child. I said to my husband, I don’t want my child to be alone. So, I have two daughters, four grandkids.
We lived in the Bronx for a long time. We kept Jewish holidays, for the kids and all. We used to go back to Israel several times to show the children. My husband passed away in 1988.
For the longest time I wanted to get out of New York. I remarried but we are not together anymore. He had Alzheimer’s; it was a sad situation.
I was in contact with the Jewish Friendship group in Tucson, to find out if there was any kind of Jewish life in this community. I bought a house in ’98 and I moved to Tucson in the beginning of ’99. This was like unbelievable luxury, to have my own home. It was my very first house and I think it will be my last.
So, that is my story. I had to do what I had to do. I’m still here, that’s what counts.
— As told to Shayne Tarquinio, AJP intern.