Schey, Leslie (Lazlo)
Budapest (Hungary), Kiev, Brody
Leslie was born in Budapest, Hungary on in 1918. His name was Lazlo Schey. His parents left for the US in 1940, but he couldn’t leave because he was eighteen and two days which was past the quota for adults (he was no longer considered a child).
His grandparents, who were from Austria, came to Detroit in 1939, where there were many relatives as well as aunts, uncles and cousins.
Leslie’s father had been a bank manager and they lived in a lovely apartment. He spent his vacations in Austria with his grandparents for sixteen to eighteen years.
He is fluent in German, French, Hungarian, English and Hebrew. In 1941, there were ten million people in Hungary, but only eight hundred thousand were Jews, many assimilated. His grandparents were religious and he had sixteen years of religious schooling. He never went to a Hungarian public school.
Their home was traditional and they belonged to a conservative synagogue. Before the war, there were about fifteen synagogues in Budapest. His was the second largest in all of Europe, only Paris had one that was bigger.
There was always anti-Semitism. He applied to four medical schools and was rejected because of his religion. Back in 1919, the Communists took over and the Jews were then on a quota: only three per cent were allowed to become lawyers, doctors and engineers.
Leslie said he was never beaten because of his size: he was six feet two inches tall. He went to work for a shoe factory and was in the export division. Eighty per cent of the Hungarian industries were Jewish.
In the 1930’s, Nazism was widespread, but his family remained optimistic, thinking that the Hungarian government wouldn’t let anything happen to the Jews.
His father had six brothers and two sisters in the U.S. In order to leave, one needed an affidavit and he couldn’t go on his parents’ visa because he had just turned eighteen. Regulations had begun: activities were restricted.
In 1933, he was a German/English Boy Scout guide and was asked to work in a tannery in England. He was barred from going because he could not answer one question about spending correctly. He met his wife, Barbara Kovacs, while teaching. He was drafted into the Panzer division and then sent to Officer School and spent seventeen months as a Hungarian soldier.
In two days, all the Jews were expelled from the army. The men became slave laborers and Leslie helped build railroads in Hungary, giving him good food and living quarters. There weren’t any German guards. His brother-in-law was with him. Barbara and her parents were still in a beautiful home.
Leslie heard that he was going to be taken to Russia and had heard about the atrocities there. He went by cattle car, first to Kiev where the weather was very hot. He and his unit stayed there for three weeks. They built fortresses and buried the dead. The Russians were burning down villages and the partisans were laying down mine fields. He became a living mine detector, which made him very depressed. He kept his U.S. Visa sewed into his pants.
What saved his life was his fluency in German. He then became a tank driver until he drove into a ditch accidentally. He had driven for eighteen hours straight and had fallen asleep at the wheel. In February of 1944, they were in Poland, being chased by the Russians. There was five feet of snow when the Cossacks attacked but he and his brother in law escaped to Brody, where the Germans gave them a six day leave. This was the last time he saw his wife.
On the 7th day, he reported to a new company and went back to Poland. He couldn’t contact his family in America, but his wife had received messages from Detroit through the Red Cross. He then built fortresses that were never used. He remembers that one entire company had typhoid fever and were put in a barn, the doors were locked and the barn set on fire.
Leslie said “Our life was hanging on a thread.”
The Jews were all gone and his next stop was a camp near Vienna, where there was no food, but only beans to eat. Now he built highways for the German army until January, 1945. Twelve hundred died of typhoid fever. There was no medicine but many doctors and seventy Jewish nurses.
On Easter Sunday, April 1, 1945, they were liberated by the Russians. He had typhoid fever and was not taken by the Germans along with the strong prisoners. He was in the hospital for six weeks and developed a heart infection. When he returned home with his brother in law, they found an empty house. His wife Barbara and her parents, Ferenef and Ella Feigelstock Kovacs, had been sent first to the ghetto and then to Auschwitz.
In Leslie’s travels, he said he saw one miracle. When he was marching in the minefields, there was a rabbi with them who stepped on a mine. His backpack exploded but there wasn’t a scratch on his entire body!
To get into the U.S., Leslie needed a Russian exit permit, so he bribed a Russian officer with a gold cigarette case. The Russians were willing to send him, but not his second wife, so he refused to go. At this point, Secretary of State Achenson, intervened and Leslie and his wife arrived in Kalamazoo in 1946 because his parents were living there.
Because of his first-hand knowledge of Russian politics and policies, he could not understand what Americans were so obsessed with the “Cold War.”
He has two children and three grandchildren and says that every day is a gift.
Interviewer: Donna R. Sklar
Length: 1 hour, 21 minutes
Format: Video recording