KH: I grew up in Budapest with my granny and my aunt. At the age of sixteen my granny, my aunt and I were allowed to leave the country and go to Israel where I lived until I came to Scotland when I was…I think thirty-five when I arrived in Scotland.
INT: So tell me a bit about growing up in Budapest then?
KH: I don’t think there is an awful lot to tell. My granny was a very religious lady so I always knew I was Jewish, never had any doubts about that. However, I didn’t know that I didn’t have parents; I didn’t realise that I was supposed to have a father… until when I was six or seven years old in school the teacher was asking the children about their parents professions and when it was my turn she asked me what did my father do so I said I didn’t have a father. So she, she was very considerate about it… and she asked me whether my father was ill, I said no, so she asked me if my parents were divorced, which was not a run of the mill thing in those days, and I said no, so she said where is your father and I said I never had a father, not knowing that every child is supposed to have a father. So she called in, she gave me a note to take home and apparently in that note she called my mother in…who I thought was my mother (who wasn’t) into the school and she…I don’t know what they discussed but obviously she told my…who turned out to be my aunt… to tell me my background. So my aunt told me that she was my aunt, not my mother, that my granny was my granny, that my parents were dead and that was the end of the story. It was not made a big deal out of. I took her clue I suppose; I didn’t make a big deal out of it either. I always called her mum; until she died I called her mum.
KH: I didn’t know any men. Obviously I saw them in the street but at home I didn’t see any men, in our immediate family and friends there was one man with whom I never really had any contact. But I was quite happy as a child: I loved school, I always liked going to school, I was a curious child, wanted to learn things so I was just happy going to school and happy to sit at home and read books. Never had my nose out of a book.
INT: What languages did you do at school? Was there Russian as well as Hungarian?
KH: Yes. At the age of ten we started to do Russian then… my granny’s mother tongue was German, you remember the Austro-Hungarian Empire?
KH: All those areas that…
INT: So she hadn’t moved?
KH: Well she did move. Budapest was always the centre of Hungary but she didn’t always live there, so her mother tongue was German.
KH: And my aunt’s semi-mother tongue was also German.
KH: So any time they wanted to keep a secret from me, which was very often…you don’t tell the child anything.
KH: They spoke German. So I got fed up with that so when I was about twelve I had two little jobs and I didn’t spend the money on sweets or the cinema; I spent the money on learning German in secret.
KH: It didn’t take me more than six months to be able to understand them. I suppose I was very motivated to learn German. So yeah, Russian when I was ten, then German when I was twelve, then I started to learn English when I was fourteen and then of course Hebrew when I went to Israel and my mother tongue is Hungarian. I no longer…I still speak German, not very well, but I still do, if I have to I can. Obviously I speak Hebrew well and Hungarian, which is my mother tongue, but not so well. I was sixteen when I left so if I have to ask what’s for breakfast my Hungarian is excellent; if I have to discuss the political situation my Hungarian is useless.
KH: But Russian I know I don’t speak anymore. I remember little bits and pieces but I can’t say I speak Russian. You don’t use it you lose it. So I left Hungary when I was sixteen and I never had to speak Russian after that. It was a long, long time ago.
What I was taught…I was taught to read Hebrew.
INT: By your granny?
KH: By my granny yes. Not the language, she did not know the language, but she prayed every single day, three times a day, all the holidays. All the prayers were in Hebrew, written in Hebrew, so I was taught to read Hebrew. Not the meaning of the word, not the meaning of a single word, but I was taught to read.
INT: So was there any visible Jewish life in Budapest in the war or after it? Could you go out and have a community?
KH: Not that I knew. There were Synagogues, quite a few, quite a few that I was aware of. My granny went on every Saturday morning. I think sometimes she went a Friday evening as well. She took me with her on all high holidays so I was aware of the Synagogues. She knew a lot of people in those Synagogues, they said hello to her, she said hello to them. I was not introduced and they were not introduced to me so I didn’t know the people.
But the education system in Hungary is different; there is elementary school you started at the age of six and you go there for eight years so you are fourteen when you finish and then you are streamed. But I was not allowed to be streamed, I was sent to the only Jewish High School in existence in all of Hungary so there obviously I became aware that there was a Jewish community.
The other children in my class were Jewish, the teachers were Jewish but the teachings were not. It was just a totally normal high school – very, very high level, the highest possible stream as it happens. The only difference was…is that we only went to school five days a week, not six like all the other kids, and on Saturday morning we went to the school’s own little Synagogue, and you had to go.
But the only great advantage I remember of that is that it was where we met the boys, because in the school itself we were totally segregated, there was a boys’ school and a girls’ school in the same building – totally segregated. The boys were on the first floor and the girls were on the second floor and never the twain shall meet. In the breaks…one break the boys were allowed out into the yard, the other break the girls were allowed out into the yard. So the only place where we met each other was the Synagogue, where we were also segregated. The boys were sitting on the left and the girls were sitting on the right, but we saw each other.