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Forced to Wear the Yellow Star: A Holocaust Survivor Remembers the Horror

February 26, 2018
Robert Ratonyi, Holocaust Survivor

ROBERT RATONYI, 80, was a 6-year-old boy in Budapest, Hungary in 1944 during World War 2


Story and Photographs ©Robin Rayne Nelson/ZUMA Press All Rights Reserved

Kennesaw, Georgia — 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 — sympathizers of Nazi Germany — 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. 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 continued. 

Robert Ratonyi, Holocaust Survivor

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 4 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,” he said. “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.” 

Ratonyi was born in 1938, “the year of Kristallnacht, the German name for ‘Night of the Broken Glass,’” he said. “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. 

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,” he said. As German troops took control of Budapest, Ratonyi said he “quickly lost his innocence. I learned being Jewish had consequences,” he told the crowd. 

He shared his tale of survival as 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. 

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 facist militia who were Nazi sympathizers. Miklos stuffed it in his pocket,” Ratonyi said.

Later that day as his cousin return 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,” he explained.

“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.”

Robert Ratonyi, Holocaust Survivor

 He 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 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 “I 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,” he said. “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 that sharing stories of the Holocaust can avert the danger of 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 Martin Niemöller famous condemnation of those silent bystanders:

‘First they came for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Socialists and Trade Unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I was neither.

“Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.

“Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up for me.” 

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 Santayana’s quote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

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