High Holidays

Michael Bokor

Michael Bokor displays some of his sculptures. He is currently working on figures for a Holocaust memorial project. (Korene Charnofsky Cohen)

Despite his family’s poverty in New York City in 1947, Michael Bokor declares it was beautiful to be in America. At least compared to life in Hungary during the Holocaust — forced labor, concentration camps, hiding, beatings, starvation, disease, and death.  After living in the United States for 72 years, having everything he needs to survive, be healthy and happy is still of paramount importance. So is spreading the word about the dangers of racism and anti-Semitism — don’t be smug or deaf to your surroundings, he advises. We will always need to be aware and alert because the Holocaust can happen again.

Ihad a strong Jewish life as a child. I was born in Budapest, Hungary, on March 10, 1929. My family was Orthodox, and I went to an Orthodox school until I was 13 years old. We diligently observed Shabbat and celebrated holidays. I was very small for my age, and there were bullies — Jewish kids — at the school I attended. The bullies took away my lunch, and sometimes I had to run away from them. Every class has a few bullies.

There were restrictions on Jews long before I was born — well before 1943 when the Germans came. I was lucky because we lived in a big city. People living in small villages were persecuted more and taken to the camps earlier. Jews were allowed a certain level of education and were only able to work at certain jobs. My father was in the army, but in 1936, was forced into an all-Jewish labor brigade.

Our only income was from my father’s work, and my mother took care of three children. After finishing school, I went to work, making handbags. I also worked at a flour mill, sweeping, and carrying large boxes and sacks of flour. Other workers laughed at me because I was small and had to struggle with the boxes and sacks.

After the Germans occupied Hungary, Jews became enemy number one and were persecuted throughout the country. The Germans raided Jewish homes, taking people for the camps. From the end of 1943 through the beginning of 1944 we went into hiding, moving from one building to another. We were trying to save our lives. One day I and a friend made our way to a Swedish safe house because we knew Jews could get help there. I was 15 years old. My friend was 16. They told us they would help, but to go get the rest of our families.

On the way back to our neighborhood, we were stopped by an SS patrol. We were out after curfew and not wearing the yellow star required for Jews. They arrested us and took us to the local German headquarters. After a German officer told us what we were not supposed to do, we were sent to the Hungarian Nazi headquarters. A man came and beat me — my mouth and nose were bleeding, and my teeth hurt. I was crying. I was afraid I would never get out. Then a tall, blond-haired, freckled man came and spoke to me. He told me to go downstairs and tell the guards that my arrest was a mistake.

That day, I was allowed to leave, feeling that some sort of guardian was watching out for me, and I returned home. Many years later, when living in Los Angeles, I met someone who said he knew that blond and freckled man, and that he was a Jew who had infiltrated the Nazis. But the friend who got arrested at the same time as I did — I never saw him again.

About a week later, our building was raided. Anyone over 15 had to go. Over four to five weeks they took everyone — men, women, and children. I went into hiding with my friend Ernest. My mother, my 12- and 8-year-old sisters, my mother’s mother, and my father’s sisters were taken to a ghetto. Along with many others they stayed in a basement with a dirt floor, which was where they slept. My father was not confined in the ghetto because he was in the labor brigade.

I and Earnest knew the area outside the ghetto, and we hid in bombed-out buildings where we found food in abandoned apartments. After a month, we decided we had enough of hiding, so we entered the ghetto, and I joined my family. Eventually, my father and mother were taken to labor camps.

People in the ghetto were dying from disease and starvation. There were bodies piled in the streets. People buried relatives in shallow graves in the park. Sometimes you could see a hand sticking out of the ground.

I don’t know where food came from. There was a make-shift kitchen where Jews could cook. I was the one who went with a bucket to get food for our group. The kitchen was just up the street. There was no meat — just bread and soup, mostly tomato. To this day I won’t eat tomato soup. When anyone died, we went through their pockets, and sometimes found food.

We lived in the ghetto for about six months, until the Russians came in January 1945. We had stars on, so they knew we were Jews. They did not hurt us, but they didn’t help us. One Russian soldier gave me cabbage to eat, but another soldier knocked it out of my hand.

My mother and father survived the labor camps and returned to Budapest in May 1945. My grandparents died in concentration camps. My uncle and cousins from the villages died in Auschwitz.

We spent two years in a displaced person camp run by the United Nations in Germany. About 100 people lived in a converted stable, in 10-foot by 10-foot sections, separated by wax paper. You could hear everything in that place. There was only one bathroom. My father was a driver for the camp. I worked in the camp office, where I learned English. I kept track of such things as people coming into and out of the camp, and how many people they needed to cook for. Most of the people were Hungarian or Polish.

My mother, her mother, my two sisters, and I came to America in September 1947. My father came in November 1948. The United States only accepted a certain number of people from each country per year. Since my mother was born in what had been Slovakia, we came on Czechoslovakian visas. But my father had to wait longer because he was born in Hungary.

I had an uncle and two aunts in New York who came to America before the war. They met us at the pier where our ship docked. They were so poor that I had to pay for coffee for them — coffee was 10 cents. I had money because each Jew on the ship was given 10 dollars as we got off the boat.

We lived in downtown New York and struggled financially, but we survived. We did not have the kind of Jewish life we had when I was growing up in Hungary. Sometimes I went to synagogue so they could have a minyan.

I married my first wife, Hortense, in 1950. After that, I served in the army for two years and was stationed in Maryland during the Korean War. I was trained to work in intelligence because I spoke Hungarian, English, and German. I am proud to say that I attained the rank of sergeant. I and my wife had a daughter and a son.

I took classes to become an engineer and have worked in the aerospace industry. I was one of many engineers who worked on the Apollo spacecraft that went to the moon. I have lived in Israel, California, and New Mexico. In California, I had a furniture restoration business for 31 years. After retiring, I and my second wife, Sylvia, moved to Tucson in 1992. We are divorced now but remain friends.

These days I do sculpting. I make small sculptures, but not for sale. Right now, I am working on a group of sculptures for a local Holocaust memorial project. The grouping will include a mother, father, child, and empty spaces for missing relatives.

I consider myself Jewish in the sense that I was brought up in the faith and learned to pray, observe Shabbat and holidays, but I don’t consider myself to be religious. I attend Shabbat services at The Fountains at La Cholla where I live, for a sense of unity with other Jews.

I am a member of the Holocaust survivors group in Tucson, and through them, I have spoken to many groups about the Holocaust — schools, clubs, and groups such as employees of the Superior Court. Some students ask odd questions such as how to kill people and what do people look like when they are dead.

I tell students who do not take the topic seriously — don’t be so smart, it can happen to you.

— As told to Korene Charnofsky Cohen, AJP contributing writer. Read more about Bokor at https://jfcstucson.org/michael-bokor.