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1-Introductions & Growing Up in Czechoslovakia
Hello. My name is Whitney, I'm Jonny, and I'm Katie Rose. The date is May 16th, 2002. We are interviewing Gloria Lyon in San Francisco, California.
Can you tell us about some of your earliest memories?
My earliest memories were in my birthplace, Czechoslovakia. I remember just having fun in life, going to school and helping my parents with some duties since we had a farm. The men folk, my brothers and my dad, attended the animals. I would collect the eggs from the chicken baskets and walk into the house with a basket full of eggs. That was my favorite occupation outside of school. And getting together with my friends and relatives. We had a big family. Birthday celebrations, weddings, the normal activities under normal - if there is such a thing as normal - life.
Who were the people in your family?
My dad, and my mother, grandma lived with us until two years before we were taken away to the Holocaust. I had four older brothers: József, whom we called Józsi, Michael, whom we called Miksa, Sándor and Viktor. Viktor was three years older than I was. I was the fifth child and nearly two years later my sister was born, Annuska. That was the immediate family.
Can you tell us about your family dynamics, how did you get along with the other people in your family?
How did we get along? Well, we really - it's amazing how the positive things stand out mostly. We enjoyed singing a lot, all of us except for Viktor who didn't have a voice. And couldn't carry a tune. But my brothers, they worked in the city, they went to school in the city, only 8 kilometers away, the length of our bay bridge, approximately. They would come home with new songs, which, new songs that appeared and this happened often they would come and teach my sister and me these new songs. I remember one image that sort of stands out in my mind. My mother was kneading the dough so it must have been on a Thursday evening and my brothers would come home and they would compete. Each wanted to teach us a different song that came to their mind. I remember them putting their arms around us on either side, and as mother was kneading the dough they would teach us the songs, well one at a time of course. So we were pretty much up to date with these songs. In fact, this type of activity with my brothers was embedded in my mind so much that after the Holocaust I just had the need to write them down. And I wrote it down in a little blue book that we used in college you know to write our essays and what not. And I have them recorded; of course, not the music for it, but much of it sounds very much like the Béla Bartók type of music from the farm-the sounds of birds and animals, and their importance in our society. And they're very melodious types of songs.
In addition to this, I remember my mother would sit down with me. We didn't have electric light until I was seven years old, and we were the first ones in the city to have electricity in my house because my oldest brother Józsi, was an electrical engineer. He wired our entire house, so outside the city hall and the school in our town, we were the only ones who had electricity at that particular point. He even wired our barn, and the people from the town came and lined up to see this magic, this electricity. And it was totally different than what we have here; there was always-the wires would run along the edges of the rooms and in the center there was a cord that you pulled to turn it on or off-so this sort of thing was quite a thing. So after that mother would sit down with me and help me with my homework to help to understand. This was much in the elementary years yet.
Because it was a little troublesome for the younger children, my sister and me, because we became a part of Hungary when I was eight years old, and there was a lot of pressure on my parents to put us into Hungarian schools. Until then we were in Czech schools; even though I was seven, I started school at five, and so I needed help with the Czech language, but it came eventually-when you're young, you're like a sponge and you absorb the new language very easily. Before that, we had to use, in every room there were lights with, I don't know what that fluid is called in English that we used to light the wick, so it didn't yield much light.
Can you tell us about your friends?
My friends were mainly my cousins. And there were a couple of other friends from school. I've known them since elementary school. Several of them were non Jews and we lived among them. There was no ghetto in our area; there was no Jewish section or any other section that was specifically for a particular group. Jews and everyone lived, intermingled with all other residents in our town of Nagy Bereg. And so, my cousins would come over and help me celebrate-mother would say, "You may invite two or three of your friends." Mother would make my very special foods for that day, and it's usually not cakes either, but my very favorite foods. That was every child's prerogative to request a favorite food on his or her birthday.
We also were very close to our first cousins and some of them lived across the street from us. Particularly when my uncle by marriage was taken away into the military service. He never came back and so my dad was very concerned about her [his] sister—my cousin's mother, Sarolta neni was her name. He did everything to help them during this crucial period. Little did we know how much worse it will get in the future, a few years down the road.
How much education did you receive before the Holocaust?
Before the Holocaust, nine years. I started at the age of five and they advanced me. From the seventh grade on I could move into high school—we did not have junior high so those last two years were the equivalent of middle school here, or junior high here, but we called it high school. To go to high school I had to go to the nearest city Beregszász which was the provincial capital. Only a few people could go to Beregszász to high school because beyond elementary school it was expensive to go to high school. But my father felt very strongly that all of us should be educated. Later on this was no longer possible because when I was in high school we had to sit in the back seat and wear the yellow star.
My family had been excused from wearing the yellow star because my father was a hero in WWII [WWI]. He was highly decorated. He had six medals. Remember WWII [WWI] our area was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. I am sorry, correction, World War One and my father fought in the Austro-Hungarian army in WWI where he was decorated. At that time they fought on the side of the Germans. They lost the war! The Austro-Hungarian Empire crumbled and it affected us tremendously because we became a part of Hungary at that time. I stand corrected again, I'm sorry. We became a part of Hungary in 1938 when I was 8 years old. That is when we had to make decisions about which school to attend. As I mentioned the pressure was very great on my parents. None of us wanted to change to Hungarian schools but that's what my parents felt they should do in order to make our lives easier, this was the step we had to take.
In what other ways did that government change effect your life?
Greatly. The government, until I was 8 years old, was Czechoslovakia. Life in a free country for the Jews - for us as well as other Jews - was really good because we could strive and we could get ahead. We could do things with our lives. Education was encouraged and the government helped with the education of its citizens. But once we became Hungary not only was education very expensive, we had to qualify – we had to be among the top students to enter high school. We were sought out. We were no longer equal to the non-Jewish residents. We began to feel that in the schools and in our encounter with the non-Jewish population in our town.
We would play games in the schoolyard and we would not be included anymore. By separating us from the other students the others had the feeling that something was wrong with us. We were isolated and that we were not to be tolerated. The Jewish kids were bewildered by this. We didn't do anything wrong. As time went on this became worse and worse.
I learned in retrospect why, that is that the Nuremberg laws filtered down into Hungary and were used against us. There were all these new rules and new changes that took place that affected us. We thought at the time that the Hungarians had dreamt up all of these new rules. That's because we had blackouts. Radios were confiscated. We no longer had the news available to us that we had under Czechoslovakia.
One of the major ways my parents were affected by it was that we had to close our little store which is what created liquid cash for us. Once the store was closed we no longer had any income from the store. We children were still growing and we needed shoes, clothes and everything. In terms of foods we had no problems because we had animals on our farm. We had horses. We had cows. We had plenty of milk, cottage cheese and butter, any of this. Even little calves provided us with veal in the springtime. In fact we left one behind, a new little calf, and the horse had a little colt. It was so adorable! Somehow they enriched our lives, seeing them suck their mother's udders. It is just as touching as a human child.
We lived off of the land. We had two vineyards. We had nuts growing. We had a fruit orchard so various kinds of fruits were growing in our yard and in front of the grape fields, the vineyards. In fact we had so much milk that we shared it with those who did not have land and who were not able to provide their families with milk. Particularly after the little calf was born. One cow would give us as much as 13-14 liters of milk. There was plenty to go around for relatives and close friends who didn't have a farm.
We also had a threshing machine, the only one in the town. In the summer and the fall it would go from farm to farm. It also created cash for the family. Three people owned this, my father and two other partners. These two partners were non-Jews, they were very good friends of my dad. One of these gentlemen pulled out when the Jews were beginning to be threatened. He did not want to risk his own status quo. The other one, however, remained being a partner. They paid off the other gentleman. So it was 50:50 between dad and Károly Bácsi. He became a judge of the town later. In fact I learned later, that not only did he stay with dad at a time when it was dangerous for him, but he even saved my father's share. When he came back – he made it – this gave my father some cash to get started.
What were your favorite foods?
Where we lived, we ate pasta totally differently than we eat it in the US. My favorite food was called in Hungarian dereje, it's pasta rolled out thinly and in the center it had prune jam and she [mother] would seal the corners and put it into boiling water. Then she prepared something for the top of it and it's not a tomato sauce, that's something I have learned here. We had various things, white bread crumbs sauteed in a little butter and with a little cinnamon sugar and it was sprinkled on top of the dereje. That was my favorite food and we had plenty of flour because we had wheat fields as well.
Could you sing some songs from your childhood?
Ah, I remember quite a few. But, could you give me a little time to think about which one? Why don't you ask me another question and I will get back to it.
What did you want to be when you grew up?
Oh yes, I thought I am going to become a schoolteacher. I enjoyed teaching and learning always. We had just a very small library in our town and I finished all the books in it and some of the others were much too complicated for me. So I had to go into Beregszász where I eventually went to school and they had a much bigger library. I loved to sit there and just read.
I was definitely going to be a schoolteacher. I could see after a while that this was not going to materialize, especially when we had to sit in the back rows and when Jews were not accepted into colleges or universities. My brothers were affected much more than I was because they were already ready to go into the university or college. They couldn't be accepted because there was a quota system as to how many Jews would be accepted into college. Maybe there was one or two token Jews. Jewish men, boys, men had to pick an occupation that was from a selected field. My brother [Michael] went to work while he took classes in school but he no longer could be a full time student. He went to work in a leather firm by the name of Hamburg in Beregszász where he worked with leather items. They had a beautiful store where they made all sorts of luggage, handbags and saddles. It was the largest [leather] store in Beregszász. He hoped that he wouldn't be too old when this crazy world would come to its senses and he could enroll in a university. He was quite bright and wanted to learn.
Sándor, my brother, was a natural born farmer. After he finished his elementary school he just wanted to be with dad and work with the animals and with the workers out in the fields. Eventually, he became a painter, an artist. He would paint his own designs, close to the ceiling as border. There was a big demand for his expertise and they would fly him to different parts of Europe to do these designs, which he did free handed, not with stencils.
Viktor was my youngest brother, but three years older than I was. He too wanted to go to the university very much but he couldn't get in because he was Jewish. And so a firm who knew my family offered him a job and he had to be an apprentice for three years before he could graduate. They made wrought iron gates, fences - beautiful ones. In Europe, in our part of the world, wrought iron was very much in at the time. They also did plumbing in hotels and big buildings but that was not to be for him.
Józsi, my first brother, died in an industrial accident about three years before the Holocaust. He was spared. Because he was older he was still permitted to go to college and he graduated. He was a very good student too.
By the time my turn came there wasn't a chance for me to even finish high school, let alone go to a university. My schooling I did in Sweden and here in the United States.
How did it feel to live under the Nuremberg laws?
The Nuremberg laws were devastating. It took away our rights to just walk around the streets. We had a curfew. We had to be in by - I don't remember 5 or 6 o'clock. I don't remember, in the winter it was earlier and in the summer it was longer. Jews had to wear the yellow star. All Jews lost their licenses to operate businesses. We lost closed our business. We still had some inventory so it helped us to live off of that. But once in a while some people came through the back to our house area to purchase something from the store undercover. They were small items because we could no longer purchase anything new. But we had petroleum, which is what we used in these lamps. A lot of people in the farm, almost everybody, had lamps to light. We no longer received breads and things like butter. Perishable items were totally out. The store we had to close completely.