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Jewish Heritage: The Oral Histories - Cuba Family Archives

MEMOIRIST:                      ROBERT RATONYI

INTERVIEWER:                 ADINA LANGER and SANDRA GHIZONI

DATE:                                 NOVEMBER 20, 2015

LOCATION:                        FEDERAL RESERVE

Transcript (PDF)

Biography

Robert Ratonyi was born January 11, 1938 in Budapest, Hungary. One of his first memories was of having to wear the yellow star, which was legally required to be worn by people over the age of six, which was exactly how old Ratonyi was in 1944.

He grew up in Budapest, celebrating High Holidays at his grandparent’s house. With his father a laborer and mother not working, he lived with his parents outside the city’s center and the traditional Jewish quarter. Ratonyi was removed from the understanding of Judaism and how it could impact his life. As the Holocaust went on, ---

In 1941, his father disappeared. It wasn’t until later that Ratonyi understood that his father had been conscripted into a labor battalion and was one of the many thousands who perished in the harsh conditions. Ratonyi and his mother were moved into a Yellow Star House, specially designated houses around the city of Budapest where the Jewish people were required to move. Only a short while later, the women were deported from Budapest, including Ratonyi’s mother.

Ratonyi was taken by a neighbor to his grandparent’s house, whom he stayed with throughout the rest of the war. Along with various other aunts, uncles, and cousins, the family moved into the International Ghetto, a set of houses protected by international governments requiring a Shutzpass (or protective pass) to move into. The family spent time in a handful of houses there before moving to the General Ghetto. Ratonyi survived the war in the ghetto with his family.

When the war ended, Ratonyi was severely malnourished. His mother survived the concentration camps and returned to Budapest, but was also malnourished and had to spend a long time recovering her health. The two of them rebuilt their life in now Communist Budapest. Ratonyi went through school, graduating at 18 and enrolling in college, but never attended as the 1956 Hungarian Revolution broke out. He made the decision to escape Hungary and go to the West during the uprising and reached Austria in December of the same year.

Ratonyi moved to Canada with the intent to attend McGill University, but ended up attending MIT. Ratonyi spent the rest of his life in the United States, visiting Budapest after the wall of communism. Today, he is a speaker at the Breman Museum, sharing his experiences during the Holocaust at speaking engagements.

Scope of Interview

The interview has a focus on economics and barter during the Holocaust. Ratonyi recalls his early memories of having to wear the yellow star, the absence of his father, and his mother’s deportment. He shares remembrances of barter and trade systems during the terror and the kinds of objects, such as jewelry and household objects coated with precious metals, that the family took with them in order to bribe and purchase items. His descriptions of barter systems and money go beyond the Holocaust to also look at the ways Hungarian border guards used the swell of people leaving Hungary during the revolution to make money and the how Ratonyi and his friend packed vodka and cigarettes to be able to bribe Soviet soldiers for their freedom.

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