Susie Fono is 7-years-old. She cowers in front of a wood stove in a small room crammed with people. Bullets slam against the outer walls of the building, and bombs rattle in the distance. The year is 1945, and the Soviet Red Army is battling back the German troops that had occupied her family’s home in Budapest a year earlier. She and her family have been forced into a ghetto with thousands of the city’s Jews.
That was almost 70 years ago, and, now, Fono lives in a quaint ranch-style house with her husband Bob. Pictures of her family adorn the walls, with one room in particular seemingly wallpapered with family pictures from past and present. She remembers them through the lens of the child’s eye with which she captured them. Fono’s favorite hobbies represent the last vestige of a life and a place that was ripped from her and her family.
Fono, a lifelong seamstress, is quick to tell you how much she loves to sew. It’s one of the few things that survived her childhood during the holocaust. Growing up Jewish in Budapest, Fono says she and her family enjoyed a simple life. Still, just as she remembers afternoons learning how to sew and bake with her grandma Rose, she also recalls the “Jewish laws” her family lived under as part of her earliest memories.
Her father worked as a broker at the Budapest grain exchange when she was very little. However, as the ruler of the Kingdom of Hungary, as it was during the 1930s, began to strengthen ties with Nazi Germany, Jews began to see their liberties stripped. Eventually, her father’s broker’s license was taken away from him. Also around that time, a clothing store that had been in her family for two generations was taken away from her Uncle Victor.
The store was called Edelmans Men’s Clothing store. Her grandpa Jacob started as a “gopher,” or delivery boy, in the store when he was 10-years-old. He eventually worked his way to ownership of the store, upon which time it became Edelman’s Men’s Clothing. Fono’s uncle Victor would assume ownership of the store after her grandfather’s retirement, only to see it taken away and later bombed to pieces during an air raid.
Under the oppressive regime’s laws, Jews were only allowed to leave their house to shop for food during midday for about two hours. Vendors would sometimes refuse service to the Jews easily identified by their stitched on Star of David. However, Fono’s Uncle Victor was never made to wear a Jewish star and was rarely accosted by fascist authorities. Victor had been an ardent anti-communist, which was appreciated by the fascist authorities.
Fono notes that her Uncle did not have stereotypical Jewish features; instead he had blonde hair and blue eyes. This helped him move un-molested through the city, something that would save her family in the future. It also allowed him to ensure that his various family members were able to secure food and other resources.
Even during the years of Jewish laws, Fono fondly recalls her childhood before the war. She remembers family trips to a small rented cottage outside of the city, where they would go swimming and hiking in the hills. She remembers the close proximity of her family’s home to her grandma Rose, where she would go when her mother was busy with her older sister Judy. The laws at that time prevented Jews from participating in activities such as ballet recitals at the opera house. Fono remembers this being a source of heartbreak for her older sister.
“Me, I was delighted. I hated ballet,” she says.
Instead, Fono enjoyed learning how to finish a seam from her grandmother or visiting Margaret Island on the Danube River. The Danube, Fono describes, cuts Budapest in half creating the Buda side and the Pest side, the latter being where Suzy and her family lived.
As the tide of war began to shift and the Axis powers began losing ground on a number of fronts, Hungary’s allegiance to Germany began to fade and the prospect of a German invasion became greater by the day.
“In 1943-44, we already had our backpacks ready,” Fono says.
The family was prepared for the worse. Along with their essentials, like a change of clothes, each member of the family carried in their backpack a piece of their humanity. Fono remembers her father adding a drawing pad and colored pencils to his pack and her sister Judy bringing a deck of playing cards. Fono packed a sewing needle, thread and pieces of fabric. Her mother had medications and bandages, and most importantly of all: soap. “To make sure where ever we were, there was no excuse not to wash up.”
“She was a mom,” she says matter-of-factly.
The Germans arrive
March 19, 1944, Fono is walking through a park along the Danube with her father and Judy. Her mother is making the mid-day meal for them. Then, the air raid sirens go off. They rush home and turn on the radio to here that the Germans had invaded Hungary, and would soon be in Budapest.
It wasn’t long before the German army occupied Budapest. Shortly after the occupation began, Fono’s father was forced into labor. Her Family’s kindness would reveal a friend in these dire times. The assistant superintendent of their building managed to discover for them that her father was slaving in a quarry outside of Budapest. Her mother was also eventually summoned to report of labor. However, she refused.
“She said that dad trusted her with the kids. She wasn’t going to leave Judy and me.”
Raoul Wallenburg, a Swedish diplomat in Budapest, began to issue Swedish passports and designate buildings as Swedish territory during the German occupation in an attempt to protect the people being killed and rounded up by Fascist militias and German soldiers. The building next door to them came under Swedish protection. Susie remembers her mother used to talk to their neighbor through the window across the alley. Her mother found out that the neighbors building had come under Swedish protection and asked if they could join them in their apartment. They were graciously accepted.
“There were 60 people in that apartment,” she says.
She remembers sleeping bodies covering the floor at night like gently breathing moss on a log. People would be found sleeping in the tub or the pantry, with others spilling out into the hallway. Fono and what was left of her family were lucky enough to move into the bedroom of the apartment.
The situation continued to become worse for the Jews of Budapest. Nazis and members of the Fascist Red Arrow militia began raiding Jewish buildings and rounding up people to be murdered. As a child living at the frayed edge of humanity, Fono cannot remember if she was told about what happened next or if she saw it herself.
“The Nazis were not stupid; they were evil,” she says.
They came and rounded up all the adults in the building and took them down to the Danube. Then proceeded to shoot every third person into the river. Her mother returned. It wasn’t long before they came again, this time shooting every second person into the river. Her mother, once again, escaped with her life.
“We say somebody up there was watching over us,” she says.
The Nazi’s came a third time. Fono remembers a massive hulking man in a black overcoat and derby hat. She remembers the man screaming at her mother. He told her mother to stay put, that he would be back for her. When the man left, her mother was smiling.
“The guy used to deliver food to my mom’s parents. That’s how good my family was to everybody, that this Nazi dare to leave mom and Judy and I here.”
They left the building at once. They returned to their old building across the alley. The assistant super who helped locate her father moved them into a different apartment, and hatched a plan to help them see him, as he had recently been moved out of the quarry. The super had a wife and daughter similar to Fono and her mother. So, he had them leave anything that could identify them as Jews, such as their star-stitched jackets, and provided them with his family’s papers. He brought them to what Fono recalls as the “Nazi house.” It was a sort of way station for Jews between the labor and death camps.
“I don’t know if they gave me tranquilizers or what but I didn’t fly into my dad’s arms,” she says puzzling with her memory. If she had, it may have cost them all their lives.
After Fono and her mother returned, events at the “Nazi house” began to unfold in stroke of fortune for their family. As more prisoners from the labor camps poured in, the Nazis began to load them onto cattle cars at the railroad. In the madness of the scene, people ripped the bars out of the train car window and Fono’s father was able to escape after. According to Fono, the guards at the railroad were so overwhelmed with the prisoners, and the Russian army closing in that they had greater worries than a few prisoners escaping in the middle of the night.
“The love of family urged my dad on, that he’d rather die trying to get to them than in a concentration camp,” she says. From that point on, her family would never be separated again.
Into the ghetto
Shortly after her father returned, the surviving Jews of Budapest were forced into a ghetto. Right before they left, the super slipped rolls of bread and goose fat into the family’s packs. Fono recognizes how that sounds, but when food is scarce and starvation is at the door that little bit of food would be the thread that kept them fastened to their sanity.
“To spread that on fresh Hungarian bread. Oh my god, there is nothing like it.”
In the ghetto, they found shelter in a single tiny room shared with 12 other people. She remembers sleeping on the wood floor in front of the wood stove. The only window in the room faced the wall surrounding the ghetto.
The fighting was intensifying as the Soviets pushed into the city. Bombings were a regularity and a consistent rhythm of bullets smacked against the wall of their shelter. Fono remembers bawling in fear through much of the fighting. Judy, however, sat stone-faced playing solitaire over and over. Even as the bombs rained down indiscriminately, they weren’t allowed to go into the basement. “God forbid we would survive,” she says, morbidly sarcastic.
Fono’s mother became a maternal figure for everyone in the room, even the adults who were older than her, Fono says. Everyone called her mom. She remembers her making sure everyone in the crowded chamber washed themselves regularly in order to stave off disease that claimed the lives of many in the ghetto.
As the Red Army began to grasp victory in Budapest, the Germans retreated across the Danube, detonating the bridges behind them. Her Uncle Victor came to their rescue and snuck them out of the ghetto after hearing that the Germans had rigged the structures to explode.
They returned to their family apartment once again. The family lived in her parents’ bedroom as other survivors moved into other parts of the apartment. Unfortunately, life under the Soviet occupation was not favorable, either. Once while her father was bringing Judy to visit one of their last surviving relatives, a Russian soldier followed them. The soldier was drunk and shouting at them. One woman in the neighborhood understood Russian, and managed to sneak into the house without alerting the stumbling soldier. She told them the Russian who had been leeringly calling after them was intending to rape Judy. They managed to sneak her sister out later after disguising her as a boy.
“There were rapes going on you would not believe,” she says.
Following the German surrender, life began to go back to normal. Judy and her sister went back to school. Her Uncle Victor rebuilt the store, and her father returned to the grain exchange. Then, in 1949, things began to turn again in an all too familiar direction. Victor once again had his store taken away from him, and her father lost his license to broker at the grain exchange.
Life continued, her sister met an actor and married in 1951. The day after her sister’s wedding, the Communist Party controlling the country forced Fono and her family out of Budapest. They had discovered her Uncle Victor’s record of anti-Communist behavior, and condemned the whole family to exile and forced labor in a village on the outskirts of the city. Her sister was only able to stay because of the protests of her new husband, who was a well-known actor starring in a pro-Communist production.
Fono and her family were relegated to a one-room shack that was a former tavern with a cement floor filled with holes. There was a single basin for washing up, and the toilet was outdoors, “If you could call it that,” she remarks. There was no electricity or running water.
Fono labored away in the fields surrounding the village, laying cement and building silos. Yet, her family survived and stayed together.
In 1953, Stalin died and her family was able to return to Budapest. Life would continue. They re-assimilated in the society that had twice rejected them within the space of a decade.
Fleeing the Stalinists
In 1956, the Hungarian Uprising, a revolt against the Hungarian Republic and it’s Stalinist policies, erupted. The family fled to Vienna, Austria where they sought papers to enter the United States. While in Vienna waiting to travel to the U.S., Fono met her husband Bob.
They would end up in different parts of the country at first. Fono found herself in Milwaukee, where she worked as a seamstress at Lou Fritzels on Milwaukee Ave., an he was in New York with family. They wrote to each other incessantly, and he eventually proposed to her that way.
The days of the bombings and the ghetto are long gone now. Fono and her husband live a quiet life in their Shorewood home of 47 years. They raised their children there, and built a life. “I have a nice life.”
Still, the frayed edges of a childhood ripped from her can never be sewn up. Some of her friends from Budapest refuse to talk about the Holocaust still to this day. Fono herself eventually reached a point where she thought that she had to. She remembered the bravery of her family and the people who helped them survive. She says she decided she needed to be brave and tell her story, so that a tragedy like this may never happen again.
“It’s just necessary, I have to do it. No matter how difficult or hard it is.”