Lugosi (Levi), Thomas
Thomas Lugosi was born in Budapest, Hungary in August 1935 to Zoltan Levi and Borbala Wiesner Levi. His father changed their name to Lugosi “a better sounding Hungarian name so I can get a job easier.” When he was still young, Zoltan was a kosher butcher but he never liked that. So he started a small business–a toy store—which grew from a retail toy store to a wholesale toy store. Unfortunately, in 1941, a law was passed forbidding Jews to own any businesses. From 1942 to 1944 he just had odd jobs so he can make a living.
Most of Zoltan’s family unfortunately had passed away before he married; but Borbala had three sisters and two brothers, and many of Thomas’s cousins lived in the same apartment building with him, his parents, and his younger sister Gabriella. In 1944, another law forced them to move from their home a special Jewish house—a “Yellow Star House”– “plus we had to wear a yellow star when we went out to the street.” The four of them and eight of their cousins lived in a three-bedroom apartment on the third floor; and ten cousins lived in an apartment downstairs.
A couple of months later, his father was taken away to a special Jewish Army, which was sent in front of the other troops “so they would shoot them first.” A few weeks later, the Green Cross came and took away his mother and her two sisters, as well as all the cousins who were over 18 years old.
About three weeks later, in mid-September, 1944, Thomas and Gabriella, three cousins (Barbara, Anna, and Joe, all of whom survived), and their grandmother (Etel Guttman Wiesner) were forced to move into the fenced and guarded Budapest ghetto to one room in an apartment house where about 40 people lived. “My grandmother, she was at that time in her 60’s, thank God she took care of us. She went out and hustled food for us; the biggest meal at dinnertime was tomato soup and a piece of dry bread every second or third day. Breakfast we used to have a drink of water, but nothing else. Poor grandmother she really had a hard time because most of the kids didn’t have too much clothes–what we had was what we had on our back when we came to the ghetto. My biggest problem was I did not have any shoes, because the shoes that I had, there was a big hole on the bottom and a big hole in the front. I couldn’t even walk and unfortunately all my toes froze.”
They were in the ghetto for five or six months and the bombs fell almost constantly. They had to run down to the basement at least once or twice a day. “The Americans were bombing; they didn’t know where they bombed so they bombed a lot of the ghetto too.” One night a bomb fell on the house across the street, killing everybody–at least 20-30 Jewish kids and older people. “We were afraid to go out in the street because the bombs were falling and there were a lot of dead people. We were afraid we would get some kind of sickness, plus like every young kid we were afraid from the dead people and they were rotting over there and smelling.”
Finally, they heard that the Hungarians “got tired of us because there were maybe a few thousand young children and real old people and wanted to blow up the whole ghetto at the end of January.” In the meantime, the Russians came in around January 20 and liberated the people in the ghetto.
Somehow Thomas’ father was freed before that and a couple of days later he showed up in the ghetto. They were able to move back to their old apartment. A doctor who lived in the building worked on Thomas’ toes for a year, injecting blood from another place in his body into his leg to improve circulation, and slowly his toes healed and did not have to be amputated.
In June 1945, his mother Borbala arrived from Germany. “They took her to Bergen-Belsen with her sister and sister-in-law and unfortunately she’s the only one who came back. Her sister and sister-in-law died next to her. I did not recognize my mother. She weighed about 60 to 65 pounds. She didn’t have any hair. Finally I came to terms the she was my mother.” Her brother Erno came back from Mauthausen and also survived.
Zoltan again opened up a small toy store because he knew the business and he started to make a little money. But, in 1948, the communists came in and said “that’s not your store anymore; that belongs to the people and you’re an enemy of the country. You have to walk out of the store and give me all the money you have in your pocket and give me the locks.” The situation got worse and worse for the Jewish people; under communism, there was no religion. “We were afraid to go to synagogue because they branded you if you go to synagogue.”
Then in February or March, 1951, they received a paper that the Hungarian government “needs our apartment, plus we are enemies to the country, and they are going to put us in this small village and we have to leave there.” They were sent away, even though “We were not rich; we were just like a regular middle-class people like everybody else; but the problem was my father had the store.”
So a couple of days later, at two o’clock in the morning, a big truck pulled up; and four men woke them up and told them, “we’re here to take you, just like they took the Jewish people. We have to take you to an unspecified town and you have to live there the rest of your life and you cannot move from there. It was 1951 who thought that after the ghetto, after we went through a lot, it happens again, but unfortunately it did.”
They were forced to leave without their furniture and only a few pieces of luggage, loaded on a cattle car, and taken to a Russian concentration camp, the small village of Tiszab?–about 150 kms from Budapest. There were about 150 people living there, and they were given one room for the four of them. The first night Thomas woke up in the middle of the night, shaking and hollering from the trauma. He was very weak and, ever since, he has suffered from an irregular heartbeat.
His mother stayed home to cook and clean; Thomas, his sister, and his father were forced into hard labor, growing and harvesting rice. “I never worked so hard in my life.” Wintertime there was no work and they had to forage for food and burned corn cobs for fuel. “It wasn’t easy and we felt we were going to die over there the way it was going.”
There were about 30 families in the village, mostly from the older regimes before 1944–Army generals and a lot of titled people—who had been rich and had it all taken away under communism. There were nine or ten Jewish families; some of them had previously owned factories and stores that were taken away from them. There was no synagogue; “the only thing we knew was when it was high holidays; we tried to keep some of what we can, but not too much.”
The police came every day and checked in the morning and sometimes again to see if everybody was home and didn’t escape. “Where could you escape? There was one little train which went about 20 miles to another small town.” One day his sister, who was 14, did escape and went to a small town about 15-20 km away to try to buy some food for the family at the train station. Unfortunately she was caught because she did not have any ID papers and was put in jail for almost a day.
Towards the end of 1953, Stalin died and the people in the camps were freed. However, the Lugosis were not allowed to go back to Budapest. They moved to one bedroom and a kitchen in Budakeszi, a small city about a half hour bus ride from Budapest.
Thomas had attended elementary school in Budapest before the ghetto and right after the ghetto he started back to school. “I didn’t miss too much; I just skipped a half year or so. I was a fairly good student and even a half year I can make up for what I lost in the ghetto.” He went to the Jewish high school in Budapest, but then there was no school in Tiszab?, even for the children who were living there before. When he came out from the Russian concentration camp, he went to a trade school and learned to be an auto electrician.
The whole family worked because otherwise they couldn’t make a living. Zoltan delivered sandwiches from a caterer to stores; Gabriella worked in a jewelry store as a clerk; and Thomas worked as an auto electrician, first on big trucks, and then fixing buses which usually went to Europe and other places. “Of course we couldn’t go; they wouldn’t let you go out of the country, you had to have passports and visas and everything and nobody could get it. We were struggling over there until 1956.”
In 1956, a new law allowed them to move back to Budapest; and in March, they moved to a nice little apartment; it was still one bedroom but it had an indoor toilet. In October-November, 1956, there was the revolution against communism. “So they were killing people; you couldn’t go out in the street again and there was a problem getting food. Hungary was a poor country, not because it was poor, but because the Russians took everything out.”
In mid-December, Thomas and Gabriella talked to their parents about escaping from Hungary, but their father said “no way can you escape from Hungary.” One morning they told their parents they were going to work. Instead they met a couple of truck drivers who were going down close to the border. “For me they didn’t charge because when I used to work for them, I did a lot of things for them.”
At the border, they were sent to the house of a person who could take them, and 40 others, across the border that night. “He couldn’t take us for free because his life was in danger too and if they caught us it was going to be a big problem for him.” They walked to a small river, where a little paddleboat came from the other side and ferried eight people at a time across to Austria.
“Right away they were so nice.” The first night was spent in a school gymnasium. “The Austrian people, just regular people, had beds already made and gave us food and coffee to warm up.” In the morning, they went by truck to a refugee camp in Ried, Austria, where they stayed for about a week. Then they went to Linz where they convinced the people at HIAS (Hebrew Immigration and Aid Society) to put them up in a hotel room with four other people and give them money for food.
While they were in Linz, they heard that their parents were also in Austria. They escaped the same way that Thomas and Gabriella did, paying the same truck driver to take them to the border. By then, the borders were halfway secured. When the Russian border guards approached the truck, “my father jumped off from the truck with my mother and hid in the bushes and all the luggage, pictures, heirlooms, things like that, were gone, left on the truck; that’s why we don’t have anything.” They crossed the river into Austria, but went to a different refugee camp on the other side of Vienna.
Thomas and Gabriella found their parents and brought them to Linz, where HIAS also found them a hotel room. A month and a half later, HIAS could no longer afford to pay for hotel rooms for the 400 Jewish refugees in Linz, so they sent them to a camp not too far away in the mountains. A month later they were transferred to Salzburg camp. The 200-300 Jewish refugees lived in one barracks, which they had to guard day and night, because the Catholic refugees were very jealous of the Jews, claiming they received better treatment.
The American consulate registered everybody and asked who they had in America. His father had a cousin and he signed that he would take care of them when they came. About three weeks later, they left for the States. Since his mother wasn’t in the best health, she and his father and his sister (who was underage) went by airplane. Thomas came by an old Army ship, the General Walker, and arrived in February 15 in the United States. After eight days at sea, “believe me I was never so sick in my life.”
Thomas met his family at Camp Kilmer, New Jersey. They received their green cards and were sent by train to Detroit. Again they were helped by HIAS. They paid one month’s rent, gave them vouchers for food and for clothing at Hudson’s Department Store, and found them jobs. Thomas worked at Midwest Paper Company and two years later moved to National Dry Goods Company; Gabriella got a job in a downtown jewelry store; and Zoltan took a job as a butcher in Eastern market. “We liked America.”
Two years later, Zoltan suggested opening their own business. They had saved $3000 and started Family Packing, a wholesale meat business in the Eastern Market. Thomas built the meat-cutting table, sold the merchandise, and later drove the delivery truck as the business grew.
A year later, Thomas received an induction notice to serve in the Army for three years. “So I went to the Board. I didn’t speak too much English at that time and I told them you know I just came from Hungary and I was in a concentration camp. Do you want me to go to another concentration camp, the Army?” Although the woman was mad, she was still nice, and told him to sign up for the National Guard. He was stationed at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri for six months, then attended weekly meetings and summer camp for two weeks. “And I came home and I went back to the business; especially for my parents, it was a real hard time to run the business without me, but my father, thank God, took care of it.”
When he was almost 26, he told his parents he would like to get married. He went out with a lot of American Jewish girls, but just didn’t click somehow. Finally he was introduced to a nice Hungarian girl from Boston, Agnes Biel, “and we really clicked.” They married and had two daughters—Susanne born in 1963 and Dianne born in 1966. Agnes’ mother, Katalin Biel, came to live with them and “Thank God, she helped us a lot really.”
Thomas retired at age 70 from his business, after being held up twice at gunpoint. He keeps busy with his wife Agnes, and his children and four grandchildren: Susanne and Matthew Burnstein, Samantha and Sydnie; and Dianne and Stewart Baroff, Brandon and Kaila.
Date of Interview: March 22, 2012
Length of Interview: 1 hour 50 minutes
Interview & Synopsis by: Zieva Konvisser
Videographer: Fred Safran