Witness to the twentieth century

Posted: 3rd December 2021

A survivor’s testimony.

Seniors were privileged on Thursday 18th November to hear the testimony of Mr Paul Sved B.E.M., holocaust survivor, organised by the Holocaust Educational Trust.  This was an extraordinary afternoon as Mr Sved told us, via Zoom, about his life and experience before, during and after the Second World War.  Mr Sved not only talked of his own experience, but put it into a historical context, setting the story of an innocent child and his family into the time of horror which they endured.  This was also an opportunity for young people in 2021 to hear from and speak to a witness about events from 70 – 80 years ago, an opportunity which will not be open to future generations.  Thank you to Mr Sved, the Holocaust Educational Trust and the History Department for this unique event, one which we all found so valuable, moving and inspiring.

The Holocaust Educational Trust has this to say, ‘Mr Sved was born in 1938, in Budapest, Hungary. He was an only child and lived with his parents in an apartment, opposite the city’s largest synagogue. They had a comfortable middleclass home. In 1942, Paul father died of a heart attack and from this point he was brought up by his mother. Paul didn’t realise that he was Jewish until he was affected by the increasing restrictions enforced on Jews by the Hungarian government. He was unable to travel on trams on certain days and only ever in the open part of the carriage. He didn’t understand why he and his family were affected by these rules as they were not actively part of the Jewish community. During 1944 life became more difficult for Paul and his family. They were forced to wear a yellow star on their clothing, which his mother made for him at home. He and his mother had to leave their apartment and move to a village outside Budapest to escape the rising persecution. They obtained false identity papers giving them a new name and date of birth to hide their identities. They returned to Budapest in early Autumn 1944 and used their false papers to move from a Yellow Star House (a place where Jews were gathered before deportation) to another apartment outside the Jewish district. Paul had noticed the missing yellow star from his coat and began to ask his mother where it was before realising his mistake. They were overheard and reported by another child to his parents and knew at that point that they were no longer safe at the apartment. With the help of Paul’s uncle, he and his mother spent the next few days hidden in a cellar. The conditions were so bad that they left after a few days, despite the danger. Paul’s uncle managed to secure a space for them in a Swiss protected house where they were safe for a few weeks before having to move on. During this time, Paul’s uncle was killed in a bombing raid, devastating his mother and leaving them to fend for themselves. They spent the winter of 1944 in a cottage in the hills outside Buda where they were protected by a non-Jewish family. During this time the bombing of Budapest began; Russian forces occupied the area where Paul was living, and they were afforded some protection by the soldiers’ presence. As soon as they were able to, Paul and his mother moved back to the city. They were reunited with his grandparents, who had both survived, in late 1945. Unfortunately, after the war, life continued to be difficult for Paul and his family. After 1947, they were considered class enemies by Hungary’s Communist government. His mother wanted him to have a better life and in 1956, Paul was able to leave the country. He left for England and continued his education here, studying at Leeds University. Paul built a life for himself in the UK; he married, had a family and visited his mother frequently until her death in 1990. He shares his testimony regularly.’

After the session the pupils were able to ask questions of Mr Sved, which he gladly responded to.  One of these was a question about why Mr Sved left Hungary when he did, during the Hungarian Uprising in 1956.  He was kind enough to respond fully in writing,

‘The question is remarkably searching, and deserves a detailed response.  I was an 18 year old university student, starting college in September 1956. The uprising that you know about, started on the 23rd October, against the oppressive socialist/Stalinist pro-Russian government. Students, including myself marched towards the Parliament  building, and were greeted by gunfire from the building. I am not a hero, and ran home as fast as I could. During the fighting that followed, we were locked into our flat.

My family were branded as ‘middle class’ during that regime, and suffered discrimination in not being allowed to join the Communist Party, and other disadvantages.  During the brief period after 23rd October, when the uprising seemed successful, the ‘iron curtain’ towards the West was lifted, and some 200,000 Hungarians escaped to Austria, and went forward to other countries. 21,000 came to England. As you may know, Khrushchev’s Red Army crushed the uprising within weeks.

Most of my friends of my age left, or planned to leave, and my parent actively encouraged me to do the same. My mother sewed 9 £1 pound notes (all she had) into the quilts of my jacket,  organized some false documents to show that I had ‘relatives’ in the border area, and I left by train.

To cut a long story short, I was caught at the border, spent one night in prison, and carted back to Budapest, to the alarm and astonishment of my family.

I tried again, this time successfully, and crossed to border at midnight on the 15th December to Austria.  I spent 3 weeks in a refugee camp outside Vienna and finally got transport to England, where I had an uncle who would vouch for me.  I had many vicissitudes and problems before getting to England, which was, of course, not a part of my Holocaust talk.

I was helped both in Vienna and England, by the British Council, a wonderful organization promoting British interests and values abroad. If you have time, it is worth researching them on line. Nowadays there is far less money available to fund them.

As I mentioned during my talk, I found fulfilment, help, good education, and peaceful family life in the UK.’


Categories: Faith Life Priory Post Senior Whole School