Dr. Louis Bakay
Before the German invasion in March 1944, Hungary was neutral. About one-half of the population detested them. About six percent of the population was Jewish. He feels that antisemitism was inborn in all East European countries but was most virulent in the lower classes in the cities. There were restrictions on Jews mainly limiting the percentage of their representation in various occupations, but it was difficult to enforce.
After the German occupation, Eichmann and his troops arrived, and the Hungarian Nazis, who were the worst thugs, came out of the closet. The atrocities against the Jews started, and the Catholic Church tried to help, but by June 1944, thousands of Jews, many of them his friends, were deported, and many never returned. Admiral Horthy, the 76 year old regent of Hungary, tried to stop the deportations but had limited success. The main result was that deportations were mostly from the countryside rather than Budapest.
Deportations were relatively easy because nobody believed the stories of exterminations. People listened to BBC broadcasts in Hungarian, but these were so full of obvious misinformation that nobody believed the true stories. Otherwise many might have been saved. He tells the story of a respected Jewish lady in a university town where the whole faculty came to the deportation station to see her off as a sign of solidarity instead of trying to hide her.
During the last few months of the war, the Jews in Budapest were really hunted down and marched away or shot. In the Fall of 1944 he worked for the Red Cross and shows his credentials. Wallenberg, whom he met, and the Catholic Church saved a number of Jews. Many refugees, including about 1,000 Jews, were concentrated under the control of the Red Cross in a large monastery where he performed many operations under difficult conditions and had only unqualified assistants. He shows a photograph of one operation. The monks had enough food for the people there. After the war, he recalls his hospital work during the winter of 1945 and 1946. There were no unbroken windows, no heat and practically no food. Money had no value, and he and others often had to go to the country, sometimes on the top of crowded railroad cars, to obtain food by bartering. Once he saw a train with Jews still in their striped uniforms returning from camps. They were almost dead, and he wonders who put them on the train.
From 1944 to 1945, he did not know if his parents had survived, but he found them later. In 1947, he saw no future in Hungary because of the communist government. He got out of Hungary with great difficulty through a friend on whom he had previously operated. He went first to Prague and then to Stockholm. After one year there he was invited to Boston to work at the Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard where he stayed until 1961, when he came to Buffalo. In Boston he married a Canadian girl and has a daughter, who is now office manager in a Buffalo law firm, and a son who is an actor and writer in New York.
He told his story to his children, although there are far too many details. He feels that he is better off here than he would have been in Hungary even without the war. A few years ago, he revisited Hungary with his children. He shows a book memento published in Hungarian in the 1970’s which credits him with his surgical work in the monastery. It is mostly about the persecution of the Jews, but he does not know the author. He states that it is one thing if one or a few people die during a war, but it is horrible that people were killed just for being Jewish. It is most unbearable for him to think about people who just disappeared.
Dr. Louis Bakay’s video interview with HRC Founder Toby Ticktin-Back
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