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Erika Botkai

Arrived in Britain:
Place of Birth:
10 December 1956
Interview number:


Dr Bea Lewkowicz

Date of Interview:

Interview Summary:

Erika was born in 1938 in Budapest. Her father had bought a fruit orchard in 1942 outside Budapest. Her parents were Hungarian middle class Jews. Her father had a large retail shop with textiles.


In 1942 when anti-Jewish laws came into place, her father was taken away for forced labour in Russia. Erkia’s mother had managed to get a Swiss Schutzbrief, in the hope that they would be protected. Erika and her mother had to leave their flat, as it was not designated a ‘Jewish house’. Erika’s mother gave a lot of food to the concierge. When they moved back to the flat, as the house became a ‘Jewish house’ the concierge refused to give any food back.  At that point 28 people lived in their two room flat. At one point her mother and aunt were taken away by the Hungarian Nazis  to work in a brick factory. They were placed in two queues and in her mother’s queue they had to hand over their documents. At the last minute the aunt dragged her mother into the other line and saved her mother from being deported.  


On the 4th of April 1945 Erika was liberated by the Russians. She recalls asking the Russian soldiers for ‘Chleba’- bread, as they were so hungry. They found out that her father had died on the way back from Russia, at a place called Kophaza, where he was buried in a mass grave. 

After the war Erika’s mother tried to carry on the business and when the Communists came to power she started working for the ‘Leather Collective’, barely making the minimum wage. As they flat was deemed to big, a women from the country was assigned to share their flat. Erika caught up with the school year she lost in three months and then continued her schooling. At the age of 14, Erika was put in a polytechnic, specializing on bricks and building materials. In the summer they had to work in cement and brick factories. At the age of 18 Erika was a Building Material Technician and given a job at a brick factory. 

In 1956 the Hungarian Revolution happened and Erika decided to try and escape from Hungary. Although her mother had only her sisters in Budapest, she supported her daughter’s decision to leave Hungary. On the second attempt, Erika and her friend Kati and her then boyfriend were driven to the family at the Austrian Border who received payment to helping them walk towards the border. They crossed the border in deep snow and in the dark. They were accommodated in Austria with other refugees and taken to a camp in Eisenstadt. When asked where they wanted to go to, Erika replied USA, as she had relatives there. This did not materialize and Erika was flown on the 9th of December 1956 to London. 

She was first taken to the Jewish Refugee Shelter in London and received help from the Jewish agency. With a grant from the World University Service, Erika went to Leeds University to study Chemistry. She found this difficult and moved to the Textile Department, where she qualified with a Diploma in Textile Industries. At the beginning of her first year she met fellow Hungarian refugee Gustav, who she had vaguely known in Budapest. They married in 1962 and moved to Manchester. Erika started working for the ICI. They had three children and Erika felt it was important to give them also a Jewish upbringing and they joined Menorah Synagogue. Once the children were older, she opened a gift shop with a friend in Didsbury. Her mother passed away in 1993 in Budapest.  Erika and her husband now live in London.


Full Interview


You would think that my uncle would have spoken & told me about it [being in a Russian forced labour camp with Erika's father, who died]. And he didn’t. And I didn’t think of asking. That’s again fairly common. When you are young you don’t ask. When you are ready to ask it’s too late.

It must have been- well, it must have been in ’45, ’46. So my father is in a mass grave in Budapest. The only thing I remember about that funeral that my uncle, my father’s brother, was crying. And as a child I thought “Oh!” – I didn’t know that grown-ups can cry. And, but you know, no- in today’s day of psychology and psychiatry and caring, and… you know, counselling, [laughs] it was completely unheard of. At least in my case.

I remember coming out of the, the cellar when the Russians came and I remember somebody must have told me what is the Russian word for ‘bread’. Because I still remember I was asking for chleba, which is - bread. And as far as the food was concerned, as far as I know, during the war, we survived on beans and hazelnuts. Where my mother got them from, I, I- I don’t know.

It makes you a little bit less able to be- relate to the real frivolities and stupidity of life [laughs] that occupies some people now.

By all means, assimilate and contribute as much as to the society and the country where you live. And do it. But just be aware that if you look at history, Jewish communities have settled for hundreds of years in countries only to find that from one day to the next they are not wanted. Just, therefore, concentrate on education that you can take with yourself. You know what I mean?

One of the first times we went back to Hungary, my daughter must have been about eight years old and we went with the three children to visit. And we went to my aunts. And my daughter had a little Star of David, little necklace. And we went into the room and my aunt, without saying ‘Hello’ or anything, noticed this little Star of David on my daughter’s neck - and put it behind her sweater. Without- it, it was so subconscious. It was- she just - just like that! Done it so quickly. And that was quite a few years after the war. So that’s what I mean that… That’s how the Hungarian Jews were left. She didn’t say why, or how, or said ‘Hello’ to us..

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