70 Hungarian postcards to the 70-year-old Israel

A life in a nutshell

József Zsámboki

Interview by István Sáfrán- 2018-02-17

Translated from the Hungarian original: Bea Sara Goll

We are sitting around the table in the living room of a simple, unpretentious apartment. An energetic man whose age is hard to tell - perhaps somewhere between eighty and ninety - is laying out some papers and pictures.  If there is a cliché, then this one is most appropriate: he has witnessed great times. This man came from Belgrade just a couple of weeks ago. He attended the commemorative ceremony at the monument erected in the first Jewish camp in Serbia. This year, the President gave a speech and, as one of the last survivors, József Zsámboki was invited to the ceremony.

It was an honor filled with great pain. ​ ​

I was born in 1932 in Belgrade. My parents were wealthy merchants. It was music that bound the members of our large family together; my mother, my dad, my brothers, everybody had a favorite instrument at home, and for me it was the violin and the harmonica. It turned out later that it was the instrument that saved my life. As long as the family was together, everything was fine with us and around us.

Then the war broke out.


In April 1941, Belgrade was bombed the first time and a week later the Germans had already invaded the city, on April 13. In early May, as they were just settling in when they assembled the men, Serbs, Jews, everybody they could find and made them clean up the debris. When the job was finished, they shot everybody without exception. This is when I lost my dad and all the other men in our family. By December 8, it was the women’s and children’s turn. I remember it was so cold that the trucks drove on the Sava and the Danube delivering supplies. At that time, there were relatively many of us Jews there, because a good number had escaped from the northern countries hoping that we would have peace in Serbia. In Serbia, anti-Semitism was never significant. Elsewhere, around us: very much so. It was typical that Jerusalem's chief mufti organized, for example, free troops on the side of the Germans. It was announced with great pride that Yugoslavia was, as of that time judenfrei. Free of Jews. However, Tito's partisans kept attacking the invaders. They did not have one quiet night. In vain, the Germans proclaimed that for each of their losses hundred civilians will be killed; even this threat did not change anything. The Germans' cruelty had no bounds. In retaliation for a partisan action in Kragujevac two thousand and seven hundred students and their teachers were murdered. Think about it: by the end of the war, Yugoslavia had lost over one million and seven hundred thousand persons! There were a total of about 30 to 32 million casualties in this war. If you consider that the population of Yugoslavia barely reached 14 to 15 million, compared with the one million to seven hundred thousand victims ... Perhaps this was the highest loss in terms of its proportions. 80-85 percent of Jews living in Yugoslavia were lost. While elsewhere there were still only deportations and internments on the agenda, in Yugoslavia we Jews were already being murdered.


In Serbia, whoever could only do so, he immediately joined Tito. This was not the case for the Croatians, many of who received the invaders with bouquets of flowers. And then we have not discussed the Ustaša yet, who were even worse than the Germans. We should never forget their cruelty. By the way, I'm still active in politics today. I have just recently signed a petition against the Croatian Foreign Minister when we found out that he was a member of the Ustaša during the war. Well, how is it possible for him to bear such high office in peacetime?


In Austro-Hungaria, the peoples actually got along quite well.


Do you mean the Monarchy, the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, when you talk about Austro-Hungaria? Your accent is also interesting. I did not want to talk about it yet, but since it came up, you pronounce the words like you had studied Hungarian.


Serbian is my mother tongue, not Hungarian. I learned Hungarian. It was like this: when all Jews were deported from Belgrade, there was a shoemaker named Zsámboki who had long known our family and one day he rescued me and my sister from the relocation camp, the ghetto. He was Viennese, his mother tongue was German, but he spoke Hungarian and Serbian as well. I’m telling you, the many peoples ​​and languages ​​of Austro-Hungaria got along well in Serbia. The craftsman and the merchant had to learn the language of the peoples and nations living alongside them if he wanted to make a living. I learned Hungarian from him. He took a girl who had taken care of me, and since he was not well known, no one seemed to notice that he had two children with him: my sister and me. My sister was then taken away to Törökkanizsa by relatives, and I stayed with Zsámboki. He treated me like his own son, and I could not have had it better, not even with my real parents. Because he spoke the invaders' language well, he was used as an interpreter, and nobody even suspected that the little boy living with him was a little fugitive Jewish boy. I was free to go anywhere. One night I ended up at the entrance to the most elegant restaurant in the city, where the German soldiers would usually dine, and since there was always some instrument with me, that day it happened to be my harmonica, I started playing Lili Marleen, standing in the door. Would you believe: someone came out for me and said: “Well, son, play it again, but this time inside, for the guests!” Then the rest, until the closing time. For payment, I was allowed to take the leftover food and bread. This was huge back then, with the daily bread ratio being maybe 100 grams?! And that's how it went from that day onwards, almost every night. It even occurred that the soldiers helped me bringing home the many leftovers. If they had known that they were assisting a Jewish kid...! At night, Zsámboki helped distributing the food to the locals, so that we managed to save, if only a few of them, from starvation.

You had to flee in September.


There was an old friend of this Zsámboki who, somehow, could not prosper and always mooched off my benefactor. Until one day he had nothing more to give, and then the former friend went to the Gestapo and told them that he was hiding Jews. In the last minute, we were able to escape via the back staircase while they were tramping up the stairs in the front through the main entrance. With the one shirt on our back, pockets empty, in the middle of the war, in the fall of 1942. Can you imagine? We landed in Kanizsa, where my benefactor told to the official that all our documents were lost during the bombing and that he was requesting new papers for both of us. For himself and his son. This is how I became József Zsámboki.


What was your original name on the birth certificate?


Joszef Ben Avraham. This had to be kept a secret for a long time. My foster father found a priest, who he talked into teaching me to read and write and the Bible and everything else since there was a war, and I could not attend school, for several reasons. They would have recognized me, and if my secret had been found out, that would have been the end of both of us. At the least we would have been deported.  And that only if we are lucky and they do not execute us right away. As long as he was alive, my identity remained secret. Peace had come, but I still stayed with the name Zsámboki.  My benefactor died in February 1969. I bequeathed his house that I inherited to a lawyer with the stipulation that his grave, as long as I live, must be looked after. To this day, there are fresh flowers there every week. And that's how it has been for almost fifty years. This was the least I could do to honor him, even in his death. We are talking about winter 1969, and then when he had passed away, a half a year later, I left for Israel in November.


That is a big jump from 1945 to 1969.


What can I say; I lived like everyone else could live in Yugoslavia at that time. I got a scholarship from the city, completed a study of furniture design at the university, which I was able to use very well, both in the old country and here, in the ancient-new one, because back then there was no such training in Israel.


Just a minute, if I may ask. How did you reach the decision to make aliyah? It would be really a pity to leave that out!


May '69 we were in Belgrade; I had a good name in the profession, I travelled around the world, and just then I had been commissioned to do an American exhibition pavilion, as it happens, in Tehran. Such missions took several weeks at that time, and one night I remembered my friends who made aliyah in 1948. I called them to tell that I was just next door. I got my visa in a second, and as soon as we peeled out of our long embraces at Ben Gurion, they started to hassle me why I was not already living in Israel for a long time. At that time, in Yugoslavia we knew almost nothing about Israel, because then almost all socialist countries ceased to have a diplomatic relationship with Jerusalem. My friends have been dragging me all over the country like a victory flag, and I have to admit by each day I liked everything a bit more. In addition, I also received very favorable job and housing offers. When I was asked if I would come, I said okay but not alone. Of course, your wife too ... But I not only want to bring my wife, but also my sister and her family are coming with me. Or else, I won’t come either! They agreed to all this right away. They took me to a big company, Chevrat Rim, for me to see where I was going to work. You’ll never guess who the commercial director, the commercial boss was. His name was Bibi Netanyahu. I have to admit, he was a nice guy with good leadership skills. After that I went back to Iraq, finished my job and returned to Yugoslavia. I told my then boss that I’d like to take a few days off and go to Israel with my wife on vacation. Well, those few days have become nearly fifty years since then. We were welcomed with open arms. I became the lead constructor; we got an apartment, a car, and most importantly, suitable work. These were beautiful years.

We have skipped a few beats again, it seems… Ruth, your wife was left out, wasn’t she….At least tell us how you’ve met!

She, too, was a big music lover at a young age, regularly performing in Újvidék, Szabadka [Novi Sad, Subotica]. She was a well-known person, later we figured out that we used to work for the same company. At first we went dancing, then we slowly became an item, and from then on everything went smoothly. That is ... At the wedding, I was supposed to show my birth certificate, but I only had my kosher papers with my Jewish name, and nobody knew my origin except my bride. I spoke a mile a minute until they finally accepted the information I told them. When we were done with the civil ceremony, we invited a rabbi from Jerusalem to Belgrade, who joined us in the Beit Knesset under the chupa with my real name, and also with name from my benefactor in a proper ceremony.


Nu, we are now in Israel.


It was wonderful for the first time to set foot on the soil of Eretz. There was a small problem at the customs inspection. In my wife's pack, they found a bottle of honey. The clerk asked Ruth: “Ma'am, bringing honey to the country of Canaan with milk-honey ...?”  We had a good laugh. Anyway, we were lucky with everything. We started to work, and of course we did not stop playing music either. We founded a small Hungarian theater and we toured the country with it. Every week we went somewhere to perform. At that time, the Új Kelet regularly wrote about us; about where we were going and how successful we were. Meanwhile, the time has passed, the years have passed, and in the end we settled here in Netanya. I like this city. I organized a celebration for the 80th anniversary of its founding. My wife wrote a song for the occasion, which has since been regarded as the anthem of the city. They still recall that day. Later on, I organized a commemorative occasion for Tel-Aviv's 101st anniversary. They say that in life only the first hundred years are difficult, so that was then completed. We properly feted the 101th! I don’t regret either the money or the tremendous time spent on organizing it. But what I am particularly proud of is that, in the meantime I have achieved that my rescuer who gave me my name, Zsámboki, would be recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem.

You are not only the organizer of these events, but also you cover most of the costs from your own pocket. Moreover, since 2015 an international song contest, the International Masterclasses Vocal Arts Jerusalem, IMVAJ, is hosted by you, whose first prize winner has been presented with 50,000 Euros from you.

What else could we do? What else should I spend my money on? Pretentious frivolities? You see, we live on the first floor of a concrete house, we have no fancy car; we are no show-offs. We love music, we serve the culture. Somehow music was forgotten by the world. There's an Oscar Prize for Filmmakers, Nobel for Scientists and Literature ... I was thinking of doing something worthwhile for music! This year will be the third year that we announce this international singing contest in Jerusalem. The entries for this year have already started. Just the other day came a request from South America. The qualifying auditions will take place in the Tel-Aviv opera shortly.


You give your name and money for this.  More than praiseworthy.


Yes, well, of course the Knesset supports it as well and many other official bodies and organizations. I too, get plenty of acknowledgements, but I am most happy with the gala performances, when the current singing contest is over and we can organize a big concert honored by the presence of the best of musical performers.

And the profession? The lumber industry, the furniture design, interior design?


I'm proud of having achieved that furniture design is now considered a science and they are teaching it at the University of Tel-Aviv today, from my textbook.


I’ve taken a peek at your papers: you are eighty five ...


I'm turning 85 next week, but I work just like I used to, a half a century ago. I have plenty of everything, only my time is running out. It is customary to wish ad me'ah v'esrim, that is, may you live up to 120, on your birthdays. In that case I always ask: Couldn’t it be up to 122?


May you live that long! Let's celebrate together if I too am permitted to ask for something. At this beautiful age, it is customary to expect that you’d offer the younger generations some wisdom to take away. What are you offering?


I recently convened a conference for the Members of the European Parliament. I told them that a terrible war had taken place just over seventy years ago. We were killing each other and dropping like flies. It should not be forgotten. I told them to look into each other's eyes. What did we get out of it? What was the point, what was the benefit of it for this world? I’ve received the real answer at the end of the ceremony when the Germans sang the Hevenu Shalom Alechem.  Can you imagine this? Germans, here in Israel! A journalist came to me and asked what I, who had experienced the Holocaust, thought of the German people. The question was posed but I remained silent. One minute, two, perhaps three; and then I responded with a question: What would you think in my place? My whole family was lost, my mother, my siblings, everyone. I had no word for this. But! Recently I was invited for dinner by one of the vice-presidents of the Bundesrepublik. I go in and see that the flag of Israel is hanging on the wall in his hallway. I grabbed the cloth of the flag. It was dusty. My visitor understood my gesture and said, "We did not just put it up for your sake, it's been there for years, because we want to remember every hour of the day and remind everyone who comes to us. We must not forget what had happened lest it happen again.


That’s what I think as well – he is looking at me, waiting, but does not hurry with a response.

Why should he?  He has got time; he will be 85 only next week. ad me'ah v'esrim, vestaim ... - as he wishes: may he live to be a hundred and twenty-two ...

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