Holocaust Remembered


John H. Merey’65

Yellow star worn by Dr. Merey’s mother, Mrs. Ernestine Merey, in Budapest, April 1944.

By now, I may be the last Holocaust survivor among VP&S graduates still practicing. Like every other Holocaust survivor I, too, have a story.

I was born in Budapest, Hungary, June 14, 1940. My family was an upper middle class Jewish family whose roots had been in Hungary for generations. My grandfather had been a teacher in Budapest while my other grandfather had been the general distributor, for all of Hungary, for the Manner Confectionary Company of Vienna. My father graduated from the Technical University of Budapest as a civil engineer.

Hungary under its leader, Admiral Nicholas Horthy, had been allied to Germany since the late 1930s. While the rest of European Jewry had been decimated, we in Hungary were still alive. While there were anti-Semitic laws and Jewish men had to serve in labor battalions, daily life continued, more or less normally, especially compared to the rest of Europe.

All this dramatically changed overnight on March 19, 1944, when German troops occupied Hungary. The next day Eichmann arrived in Budapest and the Holocaust in Hungary would begin at a frantic pace. In six and a half weeks, 437,000 Jews were deported to Auschwitz; 90% would never return. The deportations were initiated by the Nazis but were carried out by the Hungarian gendarmerie.

We in Budapest knew that our turn would come next. The Zionist movement, a relatively unimportant group in Hungary, had some experience in negotiating with the Nazis. They felt that the deportations in Slovakia had been halted (though temporarily) on the basis of bribes. Eichmann made an unprecedented offer. The Germans would exchange 1 million Jews for 10,000 trucks to be used only on the Eastern front. This offer was, of course, rejected by the Allied powers. However, the offer did provide a small path of negotiation, into which stepped a Zionist, Dr. Rudolph Kasztner.

Through Dr. Kasztner’s negotiations with Eichmann, a group of 1,684 Jews from Hungary would be allowed to go to a neutral country. Should we join this group?

The Merey family: DeAnne Merey, Andrew Merey (now deceased), Daisy Merey, and John Merey.

My uncle, Dr. Nisan Kahan, a Zionist, explained to the family, “If we stay in Budapest, we will perish 100%; if we go on this train we will perish only 99%.” On the basis of the 1% difference, 14 members of our family, including me and my parents, boarded the train in Budapest on June 30, 1944.

There were immediately some surprises. The train was not a passenger train but a freight train made up of cattle cars. There was a shower procedure in Linz, Austria, where some of the passengers were not sure if water or gas would come out. Finally, after 10 days we arrived in a small German town by the name of Bergen Belsen, a name that meant nothing to us!

We soon discovered we were in a “lager,” a concentration camp. After six weeks, a group was allowed to leave for Switzerland. In this group was my entire family, except for me and my parents. At this point my mother, a normally shy person, went up to the commandant in Bergen Belsen and asked if we could leave also with the rest of our family. He screamed at her “Sind Sie wahnsinig”—Are you crazy to question the German authority?

The months went on: August, September, October, November, December 1944. Finally on Dec. 3, a rumor swept the camp that the following day we would be leaving for Switzerland. The next day was the day of departure. I was given to an elderly lady who would accompany me on a truck to the station. My parents walked the three miles from the camp to the station. When we arrived at the station it was nighttime, dark and rainy. I couldn’t find my parents, and they couldn’t find me. In the end, we found each other and the train began the three-day journey from northern Germany to the Swiss border. It was a miracle that the train was not hit by a bomb as heavy Allied bombing was going on all around us. On Dec. 7 we arrived at the Swiss border town of St. Margarethen.

John Merey with his parents, Switzerland, 1945.

Unbeknownst to us, Dr. Kasztner had been tirelessly negotiating with the Germans. Till the last minute the rescue was not secure. Dr. Kasztner skillfully negotiated for our release even though he had, realistically, nothing to negotiate with. Factors that helped were the declining military fortunes of the Germans, the indirect participation of the American Joint Rescue Committee, and the then newly established American War Refugee Board.

From hindsight, our rescue, the Kasztner Group, was the single most successful rescue of the Holocaust under Jewish leadership.

We stayed in Switzerland for a year and a half. My uncle was a physician in Woodside, Queens. He sent us the affidavit affirming that we would not be a burden on the United States. We crossed the Atlantic on a liberty ship that was carrying war material back from Europe and arrived in Baltimore on April 27, 1946. Our first home was the back office of my uncle’s medical office.

John Merey is the boy on the left on this Swiss magazine cover. December 1944.

Arriving in Queens, we had arrived in paradise. I enrolled in P.S. 89 in Elmhurst and, later, Forest Hills High School. I attended Union College and graduated from VP&S in 1965. Subsequently I did an ophthalmology residency at Bellevue/NYU Medical Center. I married Dr. Daisy Breuer Merey, who would later become a family physician. We had two children and three grandchildren.

I have been in solo private practice of ophthalmology in West Palm Beach for the past 49 years and still enjoy my practice in three languages: English, Spanish, and Haitian Kreol.

Soon, though, it will be time to retire and so too will the stories of Holocaust survival quietly slip into the pages of history.