About Ted

I was born in 1924 in the small town of Sarospatak in Hungary. The population was 13,000 at the time, amongst them 1100 Jews, of which only 154 survived the Holocaust. My father fought in the First World War for the Austro-Hungarian Empire; he was wounded and decorated. He later became one of the executives of the local veterans’ organization. He had a small textile store and my mother helped him there. Her name was Edel. I had a younger sister too, whose name was Vero.

I had an ordinary childhood. We had no indoor water or bathroom. But we did have electricity and one radio. There were only two stations, both run by the government. In those days, being Jewish was mainly a label and since my father wasn’t too religious, I attended a Catholic nursery school run by nuns. So my first prayers were actually Catholic prayers.

Then I went to the Jewish elementary school for four years. And after that, Catholic high school; being the only high school in town, everyone went there. Religion was a compulsory subject in those days, so the simplest solution for the school was that twice a week a priest, a reverend, and a rabbi came. We went into separate classrooms for our lessons and later we were together again.

As a teenager, I had plans: I wanted to become a professor of Hungarian literature, marry my high school sweetheart, and retire in a home I would inherit from my grandfather. But Hitler came and my life changed completely. Hungary aligned itself with the Germans because Hitler promised to recover the territories they lost in World War I.

During this time in the small town where I lived, anti-Semitism was not so rabid, or at least we didn’t feel it. We lived among the non-Jewish population; there were no ghettos or anything like that. Actually 90% of the stores were Jewish and since this was a religious and conservative town, everyone closed their shops on Saturday in solidarity with the Jews. They would open on Sunday mornings, from 8-10am, so people had a chance to shop before going to church.

When the Germans came to Hungary, we had to start wearing the yellow star. I remember we couldn’t go to skating rinks. Slowly Jews were pushed out of things.

I was one of the few Jewish boys who started high school. I did so at the insistence of my father, even though by then, Jewish youth couldn’t get into university after graduating from high school. So instead of going to a classical gymnasium (where I would have gotten a Humanist education), I went to a commercial high school where I learned bookkeeping, commercial correspondence in different languages, and other trade-related skills. When I got to the school there were only four other Jewish students in the class. Most of my friends didn’t even bother attending. By the time I was finished, all I could do was to look for a trade, and I became an electrician.

The first law came in 1938, others in 1939, 1940—every year they came with something new. Hitler was pushing: by 1941 Jews couldn’t have non-Jewish servants, Jewish merchants did not get to sell merchandise controlled by the government (such as sugar, salt, tobacco, alcohol, or kerosene), Jews in executive positions were fired everywhere, and large Jewish establishments were [obliged] to have a non-Jewish partner. My father’s was a small business and he had no employees so somehow he managed.

When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in June of 1941, the Hungarians felt obligated to join, so they called all able bodies to join the war effort. Jewish men were also brought in, except they weren’t provided with uniforms or rifles. All they had was a yellow armband. They were used as forced labor on the Russian front, where they cleared forests, repaired roads, and swept mine fields. More than 75% of them died, most of my friends died there… I was supposed to report in September 1942 but the Germans came into my town in March and took us all away [to a ghetto] before I could go. All my friends who had been born before I was were taken to the front. Which destiny was better? Which offered more of a chance for survival? I don’t know… I think surviving was just pure luck.

When we were taken to Auschwitz, there were some older inmates helping to empty the trains and they went by us telling the young women: “give your baby to an older woman, give your baby to an older woman.” But who would give their baby up like that? We had no idea what they were talking about.

Surviving the Holocaust was 95% luck. And I still don’t know what the other 5% was.

Months after liberation, I learned that my father had survived and went back to my hometown to be with him, but I soon realized I didn’t want to stay there. I hated it. I finally got out of Hungary in 1946. I went to the US-occupied part of Germany and tried to get out Europe. I wasn’t looking for Palestine and didn’t want to get caught in another camp [i.e. a Displaced Persons camp]. Wherever I went, I was asked: “What are you?”

“A Jew.”

“We have no quotas for Jews. Go back to Hungary.”

“Hungarians kicked me out once,” I would say, “and then I escaped a second time, I’m not going back.”

So I stayed in a DP [Displaced Persons] camp and after two years, in 1948, the Canadian government allowed 1000 orphans under 18 into Canada. I had to lie about my age and condition [Ted's father was still Living]—that’s how I was allowed in.

My first impression of Montreal was not very good. I still remember a sign in Sainte-Agathe that said “No Jews or dogs allowed.” But Canada has changed. As far as I’m concerned it is one of best countries to live in.

I married Marianne in 1954. In 1956 our first daughter was born, and in 1959, our son. I was still an office manager. Then I became a controller, then a general manager… I had quite a few titles. In 1961 we moved to the Marché Central that used to be a produce terminal with thirteen companies bringing produce from all over the world. I worked for three of these companies without moving from my desk. Every time one was sold, I remained employed. I ended up being the president of the whole Montreal produce companies’ association.

I might be a university dropout but I did finance the eleven degrees that my family members achieved. My wife became a special education teacher, and then worked in family therapy. My son is a psychiatrist. My daughter, after a few changes, is now a librarian.

I use to work seven minutes away from home. I tried to go home for lunch so my children were never alone. My wife was working in the mental hospital in Verdun. At age 65 I made a deal to work half time and was able to spend more time with the family as well as to start talking publicly about the Holocaust. I kept working until 2001. By then my wife had passed away.

My present life can be summed up as follows: I became a professional survivor. I go to schools or churches at least two or three times a month. Then I go on the March of the Living trip. The next will be my eleventh year taking these youngsters. I’m also involved with the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Center. I had a four-year term as a member of the executive committee that just ended.

Luckily all my grandchildren love my country place so we all meet there every now and then. There were only three beds when I first built it, now we sleep eleven!

I swim everyday. I like to eat. I eat a lot and don’t gain weight; I always say that I still have some catching up to do!


(These biographical notes were typed by Florencia Marchetti in conversation with Ted Bolgar)