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Theresa Dulgov

Theresa Dulgov, at her Tucson home, clutches the small handbag she took when she fled Hungary in 1956. Her mother, Eva, stuffed the doll with jewelry. (Debe Campbell/AJP)

Theresa Dulgov, 75, is a child survivor of the Holocaust. From her Tucson home, surrounded by souvenirs from her travels and treasures recovered from her past, she recounts the memories her mother, Eva Siebert, instilled and her own as she grew up in the shadow of both the Holocaust and the Hungarian Revolution.

I was lucky I was born so late and don’t have the bad memories. What I do have is a wonderful imagination. When my mother talked about her memories, I could see it in my mind. I only know what she told me.

In 1943, [Adolf] Hitler’s Nazis forced Hungarian Jewish men into labor. Every man 16 to 60 worked for six or eight months and came home for three or four months, including my father. The men cleared roads in the forest for Hitler’s army tanks. Mother stayed on the farm. Hungary otherwise wasn’t touched by Hitler until March 1944.

During her final years in Hungary, Theresa Dulgov was required to be part of the Soviet youth movement. (Courtesy Theresa Dulgov)

My father was a landowner. He raised Lipizzaner horses for the Austro-Hungarian Empire and made Bull’s Blood wine. The Germans started taking Jewish properties. Father lost most of the vineyards, and the Germans rode the show horses to death. There were 20 horses, and they killed every one of them. My father cried.

My mother knew that was the end. She was a Montessori teacher with a degree from Vienna, fluent in German and Hungarian. She was connivingly smart and very lucky. In March, [Hermann] Goering announced that all Jews would be taken away. All the Hungarian Jews, 99%, went straight to Auschwitz. That’s how my great-grandparents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins died.

Mother went to Budapest, walking and hiding in hay wagons from town to town, and taking trains. I don’t know how long it took. She was pregnant with me and wearing a yellow star. Sometime around June 1, mother was on a train. A high-ranking SS officer sat next to her. She spoke German but got scared when the conductor came by, so she faked being in labor, for hours. At Budapest, the officer put her in a taxi to the hospital. When the train station was out of sight, she told the taxi driver to go to the house where her mother was staying.

At the hospital, I was crowning, and they pushed me back in, and my mother had to walk down to the basement because of an air raid. After that, they did a C-section. They cut and took me. All the medications were at the war front. I was a six-pound baby. Nine months later, I weighed two and a half or three pounds.

Mother spent a month in the hospital. She heard about [Raoul] Wallenberg [a Swedish diplomat and humanitarian who gave Swedish travel papers to Jews in Nazi-occupied Hungary]. On the way to get the papers, she got forced into a line going to the train station. There was a ruckus, and she got out of line and hid under a bridge. Not one Jewish person gave her away. No one followed. I was a month old, and she told me not to cry. Mother said, “You looked at me with those big eyes and stayed quiet.” Any survivor I’ve met says luck has so much to do with it.

It was after curfew. She goes to a convent, knocks on the door, and asks, “Can you hide us?” They said, “If you let us baptize her, and you raise her Catholic, we’ll let you in.” We stayed at the convent. It was difficult. We lived in the attic where the windows were broken.  They kept a pot of water boiling; they’d put scraps they had in it, potato peels, whatever. They dipped a clean diaper in it for me to suck on. That’s all I had to eat.

In March 1945, we were liberated. After the war, we had no idea who was alive. The Red Cross found my family all on the dead list. We had no idea where father was. He escaped the Russian Front. Father and mother both went back to the farm by the end of 1945 and reunited.

At the farm, everything was destroyed. There were papers dating back to 1492. That’s how I know I’m Sephardic. The whole history of our family was burned. What wasn’t ruined, the neighbors stole. My sister Ella was born in 1946.

The Russians jailed my father in 1948 for being a landowner. They told me he was in a sanatorium, but I knew he was in jail. We returned to Budapest where father’s mother was living in Buda. She had stayed alive in a ghetto.

Father got out of jail in 1951. There was no work but in a steel factory, carrying steel on his back. In 1955, he got sick with pemphigus [a rare autoimmune disease that causes painful blistering on the skin and mucous membranes].

There was no school because of the revolution [the Hungarian revolution started in 1956]. I helped neighbor boys make Molotov cocktails in the basement. I remember the fighting and the kids blowing up a diplomatic car. The hospital was blown up by a tank. It was November and really cold. They took the survivors in an open jeep to Buda, near where we lived. My father got pneumonia and died.

That November, we heard Radio Free Europe for the first time. Mother told me we were going to America. We had just lost our father. My grandmother just lost her only son and loved us more than life, but said, “Take them.” The next day we left.

We rode the train a few stops at a time; I’m sure because we had no tickets. One night we stayed in a lice-infested place. Town by town we finally got close to the border. We left with the clothes on our back and mother said we could each take one thing to bring. I brought a small red handbag.

At a farmhouse, there were too many people, so they made two groups. We were in the first group of 15, and we got through. The guards were drunk, and we crossed into Austria. It was Dec. 6. The Russians caught the group of 16 behind us. I know they were shot. We were lucky.

Mother registered us as Jews and Catholics. The Catholics said to women with children, “We’ll take you to Portugal.” It would get us closer to America. On New Year’s Eve, they took us by airplane. We were eight months in Portugal. Then we were sent back to Austria, where we were at the back of the line again. I didn’t know mother had been corresponding with relatives in America. They sent an affidavit to expedite us.

On Dec. 16, 1958, we were put on buses to Munich and boarded military planes. I was 14. Our relatives had a one-bedroom apartment set up for us in the Bronx with indoor plumbing and a private bathroom. I finished high school, became a citizen, and worked for Metropolitan Life Insurance from 1962 to 1968. It was the best company. They really took care of their employees. I married in May 1968 and lived in Panama City, Florida, for a year and a half. I had a job as a teacher for math and bookkeeping and started night school.

In 1970, we were stationed at Fort Huachuca and came to Tucson every week for shopping. In July 1970, we decided to live in Tucson. My first son was born in Tucson in May 1971.

When I divorced, the Catholic Church said I couldn’t receive sacraments. So, when I married Jerry [Dulgov, an American-born Russian Jew] in 1975, he said why not have a Jewish marriage. Rabbi Joseph Weizenbaum agreed to marry us. We had a son, Paul. We were a small family of four. My mother moved here and lived nearby. We had Friday dinner at her house and Sunday dinner at my house. I am blessed to have a wonderful son and great daughter-in-law, six grandchildren and five
great-grandchildren. My mother returned to Hungary frequently and retrieved mementos and photos. She died in 2012. Jerry died in 2016.

I went back to college and had to start over. My undergraduate was at Pima Community College, and then I got a teaching certificate in special education from the University of Arizona. I got a master’s in special education and a master’s in education administration from Northern Arizona University. I was a special education teacher in Sunnyside School District from 1980 to 2012.

Now I do a lot of volunteering, for Reading Seed, at Kellond Elementary School, Crops of Luv for Make a Wish Foundation, and with the Holocaust Survivors group. And I travel. In the past year, I visited Israel twice, London, Ireland, Poland, New York, and San Diego. My son took me on the March of the Living in May.

For me to walk on the land where [my family] got off the train was very hard. An uncle died a couple of days before the liberation. The actual march, from Auschwitz to Bergen-Belsen was really hard. I’m glad my son volunteered to go with me. He had been to Auschwitz before, but I wasn’t ready to go then. I said I’d never go. My son finally convinced me.

As told to Debe Campbell, AJP assistant editor. More details of Theresa Dulgov’s story are published online at https://jfcstucson.org/theresa-dulgov. To read her mother’s story, go to https://jfcstucson.org/eva-siebert.