The subject, his survival of the Holocaust, was painful for Tibor Vayda to talk about, but as the conversation turned to Raoul Wallenberg, that pain did not prevent him from speaking of "the only one real hero, the one who risked his life for us every day."
For Vayda and his fellow Jews of Budapest, their roundup, from the spring of 1944 to January, 1945, was the last Nazi atrocity during World War II, the end of Hitler's "Final Solution."
In May and June, before they turned their attentions to Jewish families in Budapest, the Nazis shipped 435,000 Jews who lived elsewhere in Hungary to Auschwitz and other death camps.
Those 225,000 still living in Budapest represented the last major settlement of European Jewry.
A Swedish Diplomat
And were it not for Raoul Wallenberg, a diplomat from neutral Sweden sent to their ancient city in the closing years of World War II to help them, at least 30,000 Budapest Jews, among them Tibor Vayda, would not be alive today. Wallenberg is credited personally with saving those 30,000, and was instrumental in assisting the rescue of about 90,000 through efforts of the Swiss, Red Cross and the underground.
On a recent afternoon, Vayda, 72, sat in a room at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in West Los Angeles, videotaping his remembrances of the Nazi occupation of Budapest. The interview would be a part of the center's ongoing program, "Testimony to the Truth," a series of interviews with European Jews who survived the Holocaust.
Vayda and many other Holocaust survivors living in Southern California contacted officials at the center after reading about the "Testimony to the Truth" series in the Jewish press. According to Richard Trank, coordinator of the project, about 100 hours of interviews already have been videotaped.
The two-hour interview would leave Vayda, a retired Los Angeles art dealer, "tired and sad," as would seeing a preview that evening of the Monday and Tuesday television miniseries, "Wallenberg: A Hero's Story," starring Richard Chamberlain. (The programs, to begin at 9 p.m. both days, will be broadcast by Channel 4, KNBC.)
The tale Vayda has to tell is more unusual than most because all of his family survived--all six of his brothers and sisters and their families, his mother and mother-in-law; his wife, Klari (Claire) Reiss Vayda, and daughter; and his wife's brother, Stephen Reiss and his family.
The Vaydas survived through diversified efforts, those of Wallenberg, of a Hungarian army officer paid by Vayda's brother-in-law, and of a Catholic sister-in-law.
Helped Rescue Others
But it is Wallenberg who yet commands much of Vayda's recollections. He was saved by the Swedish diplomat, and later ended up working for him, assisting in the rescue of other Jewish citizens of Budapest from deportation by Adolf Eichmann, Adolph Hitler's chief exterminator of the Jews.
"It is very sad," Vayda said several times, "a true hero as Raoul Wallenberg ended up in a Soviet prison and has never been heard from again. We admired Wallenberg greatly. We knew he was a Gentile, not Jewish, but he saved Jews. We wish we would have a chance to kiss his hand."
Arrested by Russians
Wallenberg's efforts on behalf of the Jews of Budapest were sanctioned by his own government. He was an official diplomat assigned to the Swedish Legation in Budapest, where he arrived July 9, 1944. But his operation actually was financed by the War Refugee Board of the United States. He was arrested by the Russians on Jan. 17, 1945, shortly after they liberated Budapest from the Nazis.
There are many accounts from men once incarcerated in Russian prisons who claimed over the years to have seen Wallenberg, one as late as 1965. But in an official communique in 1957, Soviet officials declared that Wallenberg had died in 1947. Previously they said he had never been in the Soviet Union.
Vayda's remembrances of Wallenberg often mirror scenes from the television production, although Vayda maintained that the TV show does not depict the true brutality of the Arrow Cross, Hungary's fascist soldiers.
"They were worse than the Nazis, far more horrible and violent than the movie shows," Vayda said afterward. "They were shooting Jewish people like dogs in the street."
Vayda said that although Richard Chamberlain "didn't look like Wallenberg, he had the same kind of presence and sympathy.
"Wallenberg," he added, "was a real human being."
Tibor Vayda first learned of Raoul Wallenberg's efforts to rescue the Jews in late October, 1944, when Vayda had been sent back to Budapest from a Jewish work battalion in Czechoslovakia, where he had been injured in the shoulder by flying shrapnel.
Vayda, along with 55,000 other young Jewish men of Budapest, had been sent by the Hungarian government in 1940 to the Jewish work forces, which built airports and roads, laid train tracks and repaired war-damaged factories. Sometimes the Jewish labor battalions worked in Hungary, other times in the Ukraine and parts of Romania and Czechoslovakia.