BY the time he was seven years old, John Hajdu MBE had narrowly escaped death twice and had both of his parents taken away by the Nazis.
Living in squalor, in a Jewish ghetto in Hungary with “dead bodies all over the place”, the Holocaust survivor, 85, had just his aunt and a teddy- which he still owns now – as company.
To mark Holocaust Memorial Day, John recalls the horrors of World War II, how his entire family managed to survive – and the miraculous moment his mother, Livia, who’d been in a concentration camp, “returned from the dead”.
And, after all that he went through, John – who became a British citizen in 1962 – explains how much it meant to him to get an MBE from Queen Elizabeth II in 2020.
'Terrified to go outside'
John was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1937 "to a well-to-do middle class Jewish family" but doesn't remember a time before the Holocaust.
Having been slowly segregated by the Hungarian government a few years prior, by 1943, Jewish people were being forced to wear yellow stars on their clothing to make them stand out to everyone else.
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“It was quite dangerous to go outside because a lot of young people who joined the Nazi Party had a big sport of looking at Jews and beating them up or shouting at them,” he recalls.
That same year, John’s father became one of many Jewish men around the country taken away to a forced labour camp – leaving his mother to look after him on her own.
John explains: “They had to undertake very hard, physical labour, and were given very little food.
“They were treated badly, many got ill and quite a few died.
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“I remember that my mother and I went by train with food parcels to the camp, and were able to see father for a little while, but then we had to come back and leave him there.”
Banned from going outside
Then, in June 1944, John, Livia and his aunt were told they’d have to leave their homes and go to a yellow star block of flats, where the Jewish people were told they’d be “allowed to live a reasonable life”.
However, that promise was a lie – as John recalls how families were only allowed out of their flats to queue up for food for a couple of hours.
“And even then we were not allowed to buy items like butter, eggs or rice,” he adds.
“And, of course, there was no medical care available – you couldn't just go to your GP.
“You were stuck in this block of flats and you were not allowed to visit parks or the cinema. You couldn't even go out for a walk.
“Even the radios were confiscated, because they were afraid that we would listen to what was going on around the world. And, in fact, by that time, Jewish bank accounts had also been frozen, so we were totally isolated in this block of flats."
Life saved by a stranger
Four months later, in October 1944 – when John was seven years old – far-right Hungarian party Arrow Cross, together with the Germans, started hunting down the Jewish women and children, having already taken the men.
They went from block to block in Budapest, searching every flat, and “gave just a few minutes to the women to say goodbye to anybody who was left behind”.
And when the time came for the Nazis to come to John’s flat, they took his mother, but his aunt saved his life by thinking quickly.
He recalls: “She grabbed me and rushed me across the corridor to a non-Jewish neighbour – not a friend – and she had the guts to go to him and beg him to hide us.
“And this guy miraculously agreed. He shoved us into this cupboard in his flat, closed the door and there was my aunt and I in complete darkness.”
He continues: “I was frightened, no, I was terrified. We stayed there for probably between half an hour to an hour but it seemed like a lifetime for a little boy. And I really believe that this saved my life.”
Dead bodies lined the streets
That was by no means where the nightmare ended for John.
While Livia was ordered to work in a brick factory, before marching 30 kilometres a day to Mauthausen, one of the largest concentration camps in Austria, he and his aunt were moved into a ghetto.
These ghettos were tiny areas, housing around 50,000 Jewish people – with around 20 people to one flat – and were guarded by the army and Arrow Cross to ensure nobody went in to help, or came out.
Dead bodies were everywhere – and no one came to clean up.
John explains: “We were crammed together with hardly any food, apart from horse meat, bread, drippings and water – which was brought up in packets because the taps were not working.
“There was no electricity. There was no medicine and there was no cleaning. No rubbish was collected at all, so the place looked like a tip, and it smelled.
“On the street, there were dead bodies all over the place, because people died of starvation or typhoid or tuberculosis and we lived in this condition for quite some time.”
John had another near-death experience when the Soviet army bombed his building.
“We were in the cellar, hiding, and part of the building actually collapsed,” he says. “But we were very lucky that, again, we survived.”
Mum 'returned from the dead'
In 1945, as the war was ending, John and his aunt managed to reunite with his father – and they found a friend who was going off to Romania, so they went with her.
Heartbreakingly, the entire family had assumed Livia had died – and John’s dad moved on with another woman.
But, in July 1945, John's mum – as he puts it – “returned from the dead”.
He recalls: “My mother was standing there at the door, and we all just thought it wasn’t possible.”
She’d been freed from the concentration camp by the Americans, but she’d “suffered amazing injuries” due to regular beatings.
John says: “She had dehydration, complete exhaustion, her ribs were broken, her teeth were smashed, her hair fell out.
“But she was one of the lucky 5,000 survivors. 110,000 people died in the camp.”
Although it was “wonderful happiness” to be reunited as a family at first, John confesses this moment was also “when the problems started”.
“We didn't think she'd come back, so my father started a relationship with a local woman and he was intending to marry her,” he says.
So his mother quickly took him back to Budapest – which meant they lived through the Communist regime.
Left with 'nothing but food and teddy'
For this reason, in November 1956, they left home again with "nothing but a bag of food and my teddy, which I've had since I was three years old and has been with me through everything", travelling by train towards the Austrian border.
Whilst John was relieved to have escaped from Hungary, it was clear to him that they needed to move on once again in order to rebuild their lives.
He decided that England was the place to go and thanks to six days of determined queuing at the British Embassy in Vienna, permission was given to John and Livia to travel onwards as refugees on a Red Cross train.
On February 6 1957, John and Livia arrived in the UK where, after staying in two different refugee camps, they settled in London.
Thanks to support from the Hungarian Jewish Refugees Committee and the World University Service, John learned his trade in hotels and catering.
Receiving an MBE
And in 1962, John was accepted as a British subject, and renounced his Hungarian citizenship.
He says: “It was a huge day in my life. I was no longer homeless.”
Then in 1970, John met his wife Maureen and they got married in 1972, and they now have a son, daughter and three grandchildren.
For John, coming to the UK represented a chance of a new start and he is proud of his contributions to society.
He went on to work as a local magistrate, advisor to Haringey Borough Police Commander and the Metropolitan Police.
He has also been chairman for the last 16 years of his local 750-strong residents’ association and Vice Chairman of the North London branch of the University of the Third Age.
“And to top it all,” he adds, “I'm very proud that I was recognised by Her Majesty the Queen with the MBE in 2020, for services to Holocaust education.
“Who would have thought that I would be here after 85 years, after escaping Hungary, to tell the kids that with hard work, drive, determination and optimism, it is possible to do this, that I did it – and succeeded."
But John also thanks his aunt and the stranger who hid them in his cupboard for where he is today.
He says: “I wouldn't be here now if my aunt never took me into that neighbour’s place.
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“Unfortunately, I never even knew his name. I'm very sad. It would have been great to go back and thank him for saving my life.”
Find out more about the work of the Holocaust Educational Trust at www.het.org.uk
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