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George Donath enjoyed a comfortable, privileged childhood in 1930s Ujpest, Hungary, and tannery and tanneries featured significantly in his family circle. Respected members of the community, his mother Livia (nee Vigodny) came from an old Hungarian family; his father, Gyula, was a machinery manufacturer and member of the Jewish Board of Deputies. As Neologists (reformists open to change) they were ‘Hungarians of the Mosaic Faith’ – ‘assimilated Hungarian patriots who also happened to be Jewish’. Nevertheless, Jews were singled out. Uncle Andrew Vigodny established a tannery and salami factory in Cumberland, UK, due to discrimination and the Numerus Clausus ensured a 6% limit of Jewish children attending a school. Of forty pupils in George Donath’s class at Venetianer Lajos Elemi Nepiskola (elementary school) in 1940, only five survived, including him. A sense of guilt regarding his survival haunts him still. The Donaths sided with the Allies during WWII but Hungary joined the Axis powers in 1940, and when conscription was introduced ‘Jews were not trusted’ to join the army; they had to join a labour force e.g. digging ditches. A relative was denounced, accused of industrial sabotage and sentenced to three years’ imprisonment.
18–19 March 1944 was a turning point: Germany occupied Hungary. Until then, Livia had gone to the border to help Polish refugees, hence was aware of the wider situation and became the ‘moving force’ to leave for Britain. An active Zionist, she founded WIZO in Ujpest. George, aged fourteen, was attending Konyves Kalman Gimnazium (secondary school). When his father was temporarily taken away for labour, George’s mother, sister Anna and aunt Ester Donath (Kertesz) moved to an area in Budapest with many other Jews, and wore the yellow Star of David. Deportations followed June–September. The Donaths were taken amidst jeering crowds; there was ‘one S.S. soldier, all the other guards were Hungarian’, George recalled. He ‘had strong faith in his mother’, therefore was not afraid; however, the rise of the Fascist Arrow Cross Party resulted in ‘killing everywhere’. After several narrow escapes, the family, including Gyula, hid in the Swiss Consulate and a protected location until Russian soldiers liberated Budapest then all of Hungary, January–April 1945.
Post-war, ‘life re-started’, but ‘friends were missing’. The family planned its move to Britain. George studied English intensively at Sarospataki Remormatus Kollegium Gimnaziuma (secondary school) and in 1947 won a British Council scholarship to St Bees School, St Bees, Cumberland. His parents and sister reached Britain in 1948. After gaining a BSc in leather chemistry at Leeds University, George worked at his uncle’s tannery, later joined a company selling chemicals, became manager of a tannery in Porto Rico and was involved in public relations. He met his wife Lidia (nee Csillag) of Hungarian origin, in Turin, and married in a UK Registry Office in 1957.
Significantly, George stated that he had more in common socially and in business with English (non-Jews) than with English Jews, because Hungarian Jews and the English can laugh at themselves, unlike English Jews. ‘Suffering doesn’t make you a Jew’. ‘I don’t like being on the outside – but I don’t worry about it’. His two daughters ‘are interested in Israel but they are very English and have no affinity with Hungary or its cultural background’. George, though, returned to Hungary in 1966, mainly on business.
Family members including children had perished in WWII; ‘I always feel guilty every day of the week that I survived – why Me?’ George Donath was sad that he had no grandchildren (at the time of the interview), for without them there ‘was no continuity’. He was not religious, but believed in God, and has tried to be helpful and charitable, thinking of ‘the number of people whose life I’ve made better’.
Concluding, Donath quoted from the Bible: ‘“If I am only for myself who am I?” My children should remember that’.
DONATH: Anna, Ester Donath (Kertesz), George, Gyula, Lidia (nee Csillag), Livia (nee Vigodny). Andrew Vigodny. Arrow Cross Party; Budapest; Cumberland; England; Hungary; Konyves Kalman Gimnazium; Neologists; Numerus Clausus; Sarospataki Remormatus Kollegium Gimnaziuma; St Bees School; Ujpest; Venetianer Lajos Elemi Nepiskola, WIZO.
My father had a schoolmate in secondary school, who had some kind of illness and was allowed to complete his university course during the war. And he was a mechanical engineer. And my father employed him and kept him in, you know, he stayed there. And I mean, they were schoolmates; they were friends. So in March, April, May ’44, the hiding things, my parent were hiding things, were giving things out. Clothes, valuables. And my father said to this chap, “Look here is my Leica camera. Please keep it for me. If I don’t come back, it’s yours.” We came back, my father said to him, “You still have the camera?” “Yes, I’ll bring it to you.” Brings it the next day. A week later, his wife comes to my father and [s]he says, “You know, my husband really fell in love with that camera. He really- he likes it so much. He gave it back to you because he’s an honest man. Could you not give it to him?” So my father said, “You know, he’s my friend, he’s worked for me and he’s still working for me and he’ll continue working for me. Here is the camera.” Another week passes. The friend comes to him, and he says, “Gyula you know, I have this camera. I don’t use it. I know you use it. Would you not like to buy it off me?” And my father did. [laughs] This is- is the sort of- the sort of incident. And my, my mother saw people in the street wearing her clothes. And this happened to- to a lot of people
You know, it’s an interesting thing, and I’ve thought about it a lot. I was never frightened. I was never actually frightened. My mother wasn’t frightened either. She had fear. I was very nervous apparently at one point. I had a strange faith – [with emotion] in my mother. That she will look after us. Which she did.
We were dressed up as Hungarians. I with my school cap & a pheasant’s feather. We walked out of the ghetto without Yellow Stars, walked maybe 500 yards. And were arrested by the Arrow Cross. He says “Salvador, Schmalvador. Jews.” Called in 2 youths & said to them 'Take these 4. Do whatever you like with them, but come to the usual place tonight.' Well, we knew exactly what ‘the usual place’ was. It was on the Danube. These 2 youths were sent to enrich themselves. So we took them to various apartments of various family members, all ransacked, but they still found bits & pieces so they were relatively happy. We were just walking. I hear my father - he says to this young man:
'My dear young chap, which university to do you go to?”
'Me at university? I can’t even dream about….'
'An intelligent young man like you? What a waste! I will not permit this to happen. You know, these things are going to come to an end. I promise you that I will look after you if you take us to the Swiss Consulate & avoid an international incident.”
Anyway, he went on like this for hours. We’re getting nearer the Danube and I knew there is Freedom Square, where the American Embassy is & that was under Swiss control. We’re going past it. My father as a last attempt says 'Just let us go in. Otherwise people will find out, we are under their protection. If you do that, I’ll look after you.' They rang the bell. The door didn’t open. So they shot in the air. Somebody came out & let us in. They said 'Here are 4 Jews for you.'
'Go. Get in.' Then he said 'Oh, wait. I want a receipt.'
So he says,“What’s their name?'
'Names? They don’t have names. They’re 4 Jews. Sign.' And we were in there.