Mary Leleszi was born Mary Csdórdas in Szakoly, Hungary, located in Szablocs-Szatmár in the north-western region of the country in May 1917. Mary’s father, Sandor, was the son of a wealthy Jewish landowner named Ignác Szakály, who owned an expansive villa in Szakolya. As Mary points out, the villa was so large that that almost the entire village at some point ended up working for her father’s family. Mary’s mother, on the other hand, was a poor Hungarian gentile, who came to work at Sandor’s household in Szakolya. She and Sandor had two daughters, Mary and Julia. In 1921, Mary’s mother had to go to United States, and, Mary and Julia remained behind in Szakolya to live with their grandmother, while their father supported them. A year later Mary’s grandmother passed and away, and she and her sister went to live with an uncle. While living with their uncle, Mary and her sister made frequent visits to their father’s villa. Mary recalls seeing hundreds of horses and cows on her father’s property and often visiting the villa’s beautiful gardens. Sandor, who had eventually converted from Judaism to Presbyterianism, frequently took his daughters to church on Sundays.
By 1930, Mary’s father had achieved the rank of Százados (equivalent to a captain) in the Hungarian army, but, despite the relative peace and prosperity Sandor had thus far experienced in Hungary, he began to feel an ominous tension in European society beginning to brew. For this reason, Sandor paid Mary and Julia’s way to the United States to once again live with their mother. When Mary and Julia finally met up again with their mother, who they had been estranged from for almost a decade, in New York Harbor, they hardly recognized each other. Sandor, who remained in Szakolya, was in constant contact with his children, who would spend a lot of time writing back and forth to him. In the late 1930s, when Mary began to realize that war was imminent in Europe, she wrote her father a letter, begging him to come to the United States. Her father responded by saying that he had already spilled blood for his beloved country (he fought in World War I) and he would never forsake the country he loved so much.
Ironically, however, the country, which he held so dearly in his heart, would forsake him. In 1941, Mary received a final letter from her father. Afterwards, Mary tried again and again to write back to him in Szakolya, but her father stopped responding to her letters. By the end of the war in 1945, Mary, wondering whatever had happened to her father, wrote to a Hungarian newspaper in Budapest, placing an add requesting that if anyone knew anything about the whereabouts of her father to please contact her. Mary eventually received a response from the Red Cross International Tracing Service, informing her that her father had died on October 25, 1944 in Auschwitz. Despite Sandor’s position in society, his military service to his country, and his conversion to Christianity, as soon as Germany came into power in Hungary, Sandor’s fellow countrymen betrayed him. Because of his affiliation with the Jewish community, Sandor was sent to Mauthausen and then to Auschwitz, where he died of an abscess on his right arm. Mary was mortified by the news of her father’s passing and the betrayal of his countrymen. Mary eventually settled down in the U.S. to live out a happy and peaceful life. She got married and had three children. Mary, proud of her father, often recounted the story of her family to her children. She says that the most important things in life are to love one another, to forgive, and to never forget.
Date: July 15, 1993
Interviewer: Esther Weine
Length: 27 minutes
Format: Video Recording