Excerpt from Chapter 14: “The Inferno”
Erwin Koranyi now slept each night facing the door so he could respond more quickly if the Arrow Cross stormed the protected building where he and Alice were now living, 1 Jokai Street. It was in the early hours of Friday, January 7, when they were both suddenly woken by shouting and the sound of gunshots. An Arrow Cross gang was threatening to throw a hand grenade at the closed front door of No. 1 Jokai Street. A terrified man opened the door and the thugs ran into the building. Within minutes, they disarmed the police who had been ordered to defend the building in case of just such an attack. The Arrow Cross then ordered everyone into a courtyard ‘within three minutes.’ They shot a few people who could not move fast enough, including a man in a wheel chair. Then they began a systematic search of the building.
Erwin’s sister and mother were able to sneak away and hide in a cabinet in an office. There they prayed in the darkness. Erwin was still in a fourth-floor apartment with Alice, desperately looking for some hiding place, when the Arrow Cross began to clear the building floor by floor, shooting anybody they found. He and Alice crawled out of a bathroom window that led to an outside light shaft. A thin metal crossbar served as their only foothold above a hundred-foot drop.
Erwin would vividly recall, “We heard yelling and occasional revolver shot. Our hands were numb from the strain and the January cold as we clung to the edge of the windowsill with white knuckles. Our hands froze, but sweat was running down our backs and our mouths were parched. We could hear each other’s heartbeats in that undertow of anxiety. Who was the one just killed?....The palpitation became the marker of time.”
The hours crawled by as if time had slowed down just to taunt them. Still they clung to life. Erwin needed to wipe his nose but he could not. His muscles ached, sinews stretched taut. They tried not to think of the dark drop below them. ‘Good that I used to be a gymnast,’ Erwin told himself. But he only had so much strength, and he had to give more and more of it to support Alice. Small pieces of cement began to crumble from the edge of the metal foothold, plunging down. How much longer could it hold? Then Erwin realized that the Arrow Cross had departed – the building was silent.
Alice and Erwin began to crawl back inside the protected house. To their amazement and profound relief, they found Erwin’s father, who had been hiding in a folded bed. Then they discovered Erwin’s mother and his sister Marta as they came out of their hiding place. In all, twenty people had succeeded in hiding in the building. The rest, a total of 266, had been taken away. Most would be killed.
That night, Alice and Erwin found shelter in an empty apartment in the neighborhood. The next morning, they crossed the city to Wallenberg’s offices on Ulloi Street. It was a much larger building than 1 Jokai Street and had several air-raid shelters below it. Erwin’s parents and his sister hid in one of them. In another, Alice and Erwin huddled together on a straw mattress. They had not eaten but were so physically and emotionally drained that they quickly fell asleep.
At 7 that evening, loud shouting and screams again awakened them. Arrow Cross soldiers were flooding the building and were soon standing in the air-raid shelter where Alice and Erwin had taken refuge. The soldiers ordered the 150-odd people in the shelter to line up. Everyone was searched, and many were kicked and hit with guns. Then they were all ordered to march outside with their hands above their heads. “They told the Jews not to bother about taking any personal belongings with them,” recalled one of Wallenberg’s staff, Tibor Vayda, who managed to hide. “They wouldn’t need anything where they were going. The Arrow Cross claimed that the air-raid shelter was not part of the embassy, and that they could do with the Jews in the shelter as they pleased.”
…The winter night was bitterly cold. Soon, Alice and Erwin and the others found themselves at the entrance to the Maria Teresa barracks. They were herded down narrow wooden stairs to a basement. A teenaged, red-haired Arrow Cross soldier was sleeping on the floor, a submachine gun on his chest. The youth woke up.
“Take them to the Danube,” he murmured to other Arrow Cross youths, and then fell back to sleep.
Alice and Erwin and the others were soon out on the street, marching again with hands above their heads, toward the local Arrow Cross headquarters, at 41 Ferenz Ring. On its first floor, they were pushed against a wall and their coats taken away. “We stood in our shirtsleeves,” recalled Erwin. “We knew that eventually we would have to shed the rest of our clothing, all but the underwear. Soon, but not yet. Questions were being asked by one of the Arrow Cross soldiers, who was seated behind a small table. A search for more valuables, and more abuse.”
Erwin was now close to collapsing from exhaustion. He stared at Alice. She, too, looked like she was “a hundred years old.” Fatigue had left deep lines on her face; her thin, pointed nose was now prominent. “A narrow, barely blue blood vessel arched up under her pale skin on the side of her neck, and where her jawbone protruded, a fine but visibly rapid, fluttering pulse betrayed her frightful expectation at parting so abruptly from her young life.”
Alice turned to face Erwin.
He would never be able to forget what she said next.
Erwin held her close.
Then they were on the move again.
The Arrow Cross told them they were going to shoot them all and dump their bodies in the Danube.
Meanwhile, back on the fourth floor of Ulloi Street, Victor Aitay, who operated the telephone switchboard, called a secret number and managed to get a message to someone working on Wallenberg’s staff at Section C.
In the breast pocket of Erwin Koranyi’s jacket was half a cigarette. But the jacket had been taken away. It was all he could think about as he faced the Arrow Cross executioners.
Mortars landed in nearby streets.
Erwin wanted it all to end.
What if I jump into the Danube before the Arrow Cross opens fire? Would I stand a chance? Maybe it’s better to get it over with…
Erwin was “impatient” to die.
Alice then saw a large American car pull up nearby. A man in a dark blue suit, wearing a fedora, stepped out of the car. He was holding up a megaphone.
Alice stared at Wallenberg. He was unarmed, shouting that he wanted his Jews back. They did not belong to the Arrow Cross. They were his. “It was extraordinary because everybody could kill him,” Alice recalled. “Why not kill him? Killing was everywhere.”
It was around 2 a.m. as Alice and the others watched, barely able to believe what they were seeing.
“These are Swedish citizens! Release them immediately and return their belongings to them!”
To Alice, it seemed as if God had answered her prayers. “For an instant,” she recalled, “I thought: ‘God has come to save us.’ To our astonishment, the executioners obeyed Wallenberg. He seemed very tall indeed—and strong. He radiated power and dignity. There was truly a kind of divine aura about him on that night.”
Erwin saw several policemen, who were clearly working for Wallenberg. “The policemen were talking to the Arrow Cross commander. What was happening? One of the high-ranking police officers was Pal Szalai, with whom Wallenberg used to deal.” The police were armed. They began to take guns from the Arrow Cross youths. Among the policemen was a man in a leather coat, Karoly Szabo, whom Erwin recognized. Then some of the policemen told Alice and Erwin and the others to form a line and walk back to the Ulloi Street building….
Erwin Koranyi’s sister, Marta, spotted Erwin and Alice among the returning Jews. She cried as she kissed her brother and Alice.
All the returnees were given some bread.
Someone struck a match and the stump of a cigarette was lit. Erwin took it, filled his lungs with nicotine, and exhaled.
It was hard to believe, but he was still alive.
From "The Envoy: The Epic Rescue of the Last Jews of Europe in the Desperate Closing Months of World War II" by Alex Kershaw. Copyright © 2010 All rights reserved. Reprinted by arrangement.