Gardon, John

Gardon, John

False Papers
Budapest (Hungary), Rakosszentmihaly

Gardon was born in 1928 in Budapest, Hungary, the only child of Lajos and Clara Gardon. His father and maternal grandfather were partners in their wholesale wine business. The family was affluent, assimilated, and well connected to Hungarian society, both socially and politically. Yet they still maintained their connection to Judaism by belonging to a conservative temple. Gardon attended the prestigious Minta Gymnasium (combination of junior and senior high school) in Budapest and was one of the last Jewish students to graduate before quotas severely limited the number of Jews who could be admitted.

Anticipating anti-Semitic legislation enacted in 1942, which banned Jews from certain businesses, Gardon’s father nominally sold his wine business to a close friend and confidant. The understanding was that the sale was temporary, to be annulled after the war. Gardon’s father still retained control of the business and maintained contact with his employees until the German invasion of Hungary. This confidant, a member of the Hungarian gentry and now the new owner of Gardon’s wine business, also became the honorary consul for Finland during World War II. He located the Finnish consulate in the Budapest apartment of Gardon’s maternal grandparents. It was assumed that Gardon’s entire family would seek refuge in that apartment, protected by the extraterritorial diplomatic status of the consulate.

But when the German army occupied Hungary in March, 1944, the three generations of the Gardon family went into hiding. Rather than remain together, they decided that there was greater safety in splitting up. The grandparents located in a small village, approximately fifty miles from Budapest, to which many of the Hungarian nobility fled. They remained there, undisturbed, for the remainder of the war. Gardon’s parents, however, suffered greater instability during this time. They first sought refuge in the apartment of a Hungarian colonel. There they were discovered, apprehended, and taken to a brick factory. This factory was used as a transit camp from which thousands of Hungarian Jews were deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp. The Gardons’ ingenuity and a chance encounter with a Catholic priest, however, saved their lives. Claiming to have been given a “certificate of protection” from the Catholic Church (much like the Swedish affidavits issued by Raoul Wallenberg), Gardon’s parents were freed. Thereafter, they joined their son who was then hiding in a remote area outside Budapest.

Meanwhile, sixteen year-old Gardon was on his own, armed only with false papers that gave him a Hungarian-Christian identity and a list of reliable Gentiles he could depend on for help. These people had been entrusted with money that would pay for the family’s expenses and had also been generously compensated for their assistance and cooperation. So Gardon spent the next eight months hiding in five different locations. First he spent two months in a Budapest hospital, protected by a physician’s voucher that he was ill and needed hospital care. One night, the hospital air-aid shelter in which Gardon was sitting was struck by a bomb. Miraculously, the bomb failed to detonate, so he remained unharmed. But the event indicated how dangerous it was to remain in his present location.

Moving from one hiding place to another, Gardon then sought shelter from one aunt, a German woman living in Hungary, who nevertheless took the boy in and cared for him. Eventually Gardon moved to a remote area in the country outside Budapest, called Rakosszentmihaly. On this particular location there were only two houses, built in viewing distance from one another. One served as a hiding place for Gardon and his parents. The other much larger house was inhabited by a man who appeared to outsiders to be an influential Nazi. The size of this house, the constant availability of an automobile, and the occupant’s apparel, which included high-leather boots, seemed to indicate strong connections to the Nazi Party.

In January of 1945, Gardon and his family were liberated by the Russian Army. Able to finally emerge from hiding after eight months, the Gardons discovered, to their amazement, that the suspicious occupant of the neighboring house had actually been hiding more than twenty Jews in his basement. These were Czech Jews who had come to Hungary in 1938. They had financed for this Hungarian Gentile the construction of a large house, which included an underground tunnel for escape, and the purchase of an automobile. When the German army marched into Hungary, this man honored his initial obligation, which was to hide these Czech Jews in the basement and provide for their welfare during the German occupation.

After the war the Gardon family returned to Budapest. They resumed their activities in the wine business and lived reasonably well until the Communist takeover of Hungary in 1948. At that time their business was confiscated by the Communists and nationalized. Gardon’s parents left for Israel while his grandparents lived out their remaining years in Hungary.

Gardon himself had already left for Switzerland, where he attended the Swiss federal Institute of Technology to study chemistry. It is there that he met his future wife, Berta, a survivor from Austria. In 1951 Gardon left for Canada and received his Ph.D. from McGill University in Montreal. He then married and settled in the United States in 1958. He has worked as chemist and later as a research executive. He is also an internationally known polymer chemist with a distinguished record of publications.

Interview Information:

Date: August 7, 2001
Interviewer: Esther Littmann
Format: Video recording