The life of a lawyer-physician, Sándor Alexander Ullmann – Part One
Here-below is a document written by Sándor “Alexander” Ullmann’s grand-daughter, Savannah Weil, when she was 21 years of age about her grandfather’s life in Hungary.
According to information received from her mother, i.e. Sándor’s daughter, Savannah has always had a great passion for continuing the research on the Ullmann-Gescheit family tree that her grandfather began to work on in the early 1990s. Much of the information in this biography came from taped interviews of her grandfather.
Savannah’s story on her grandfather starts from the age he took up his studies at the University of Pécs. Let us add an important detail which is that Sándor attended the Győr High School Miklós Révai and passed his maturity exams at this institution.
We received the continuation of Sándor’s life story from his daughter, Margie Ullmann-Weil, from the moment when Sándor had arrived in Canada. We shall publish this document as the 2nd part of Sándor Ullmann’ life story.
But now, let us see the biography of Sándor Alexander Ullmann as noted by her grand-daughter. I have received Sándor’s photos from his family. The rest of the pictures stem from other sources and they are included only for illustrative purposes.
The Nazi regime of Germany occupied Hungary on March 19th, 1944. Sándor was 19 years old, in his first year at the University of Pécs, studying law and medicine. When he heard the announcement on the radio, he knew immediately that as a young Jewish man, he must return home to Győr, although he had no idea for how long. The next day, Sándor went to his university to bid farewell to his classmates and teachers, and then boarded a train for Győr. Sándor notes that one classmate had the foresight to provide him with a Nazi hat and Arrow Cross shirt so as to be able to travel freely. As a young Hungarian Jewish boy, Sándor had always experienced anti-Semitism, but never to the extent that occurred during World War II.
Sándor “Alexander” Ullmann was born to Frigyes Ullmann and Margit Gescheit on January 28, 1925 in Salgotarján, Hungary. Frigyes was a teacher although he had been unable to find work since he returned from Siberia as a prisoner of war in 1923. Under Miklós Horthy, Regent of Hungary, it was becoming progressively more difficult for Jews to find work in the government and civil service. At age 6, Sándor moved to Győr with his parents and younger brother, Dezső. Sándor excelled in school and soon became a tutor by age 15, assisting classmates in Latin, German, and French.
Horthy established the first anti-Jewish laws in 1938, marking a significant turning point in Sándor’s life. While Sándor did not observe any overt discrimination against Jews following the introduction of these laws, he did experience first-hand the reluctance of universities to accept Jewish students. In 1942, Sándor won a statewide contest for Hungarian students for his mastery of the Latin language, earning him full tuition at any university of his choice. Unfortunately, the only university to accept him was the Faculty of Law at the University of Pécs. Sándor was adamant that he would attend the University because the government owed him a free education.
Upon arriving, Sándor experienced great anti-Semitism from his classmates and was often physically attacked by them. To make the best of the situation and prove the anti-Semites wrong, Sándor surprised classmates and teachers alike by maintaining a course load in medical and law courses in parallel.
When Sándor returned home to Győr on March 20, 1944, he had no idea how long he would stay there but understood that his life in Hungary would be changing. At 19 years old, Sándor was drafted into the munkaszolgálat, the Hungarian Labor Service, around April of 1944. This was a system of forced labor for Hungarian Jews between the ages of twenty and forty-eight. Units were assigned to mining, construction, clearing minefields, building military fortifications, and digging trenches. Sándor recalls the day that he boarded the train for Pécs to take up the forced service, looking back to see his father and mother for the last time.
Once he arrived in Pécs, Sándor was sent to do hard physical labor in a nearby camp. Later on, Sándor was relocated to various camps and expected to carry out numerous jobs during his period in the Labor Service, one task being to clean up a local ghetto after it had been liquidated. Sándor had never seen a ghetto before and his only knowledge of Nazi persecution came from the short period of time when his father was sent to a labor camp. This was a surreal experience for Sándor as he walked through an empty ghetto and sifted through the objects that characterize one’s life. It was his responsibility to sort various belongings of the faceless Jews that once lived there so that the Nazis could pillage the valuable items. As a boy who was largely sheltered from the poor conditions that many Jews experienced during the Holocaust, Sándor was disoriented by his experiences.
Another of Sándor’s duties in the labor service was to mine manganese in the town of Úrkút (north of Lake Balaton). This task lasted longer than many other jobs but also left a significant impression on him. A typical day at the mine involved working for eight hours, five to six days a week. While the wakeup call was at 5:00am, Sándor habitually arose fifteen minutes early in order to pray, wash at the faucets outside the barracks and get dressed. Breakfast consisted of ersatz (a coffee alternative) and bread. While there were no fences around this particular camp, there was nowhere to escape to as the barracks were at the top of a mountain.
Sándor recalls celebrating his 20th birthday in the mines, reflecting on his life and his future. Because he wanted to have a celebration by himself, Sándor stayed in the mine at the end of the day and celebrated alone for sixteen hours, until the next shift started. Because the guards were unreliable in the camp, no one noticed that he was missing at the end of the workday. Sándor spent the time reciting poetry in different languages and singing Hungarian songs. He spent time planning out the rest of his life and came to the conclusion that he wanted to complete his free education in Hungary specializing in medicine, then would start a new life somewhere else. Sándor had no doubt that he would survive the war and knew that because of the war, he would never live in Hungary again. Sándor recalls his 20th birthday celebration as a joyous time when he was able to introspect and engage in meaningful activities.
Sándor’s time at the mine ended when the guards attempted to drown all of the Jews by shutting off the electricity for the elevators and flooding the mines. The mine was 2,000-3,000 feet underground but the guards did not realize that there were ladders available in case of emergency. Every single Jew escaped from the mine because the guards did not wait behind to ensure that everyone had died. Due to the isolated location, the Jews were soon recaptured and moved to a new camp.
Sándor was one of the privileged Hungarian Jews to receive a false Swedish passport but unfortunately was unable to make use of it. Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish citizen who had studied in America, was recruited by the U.S. War Refugee Board to travel to Hungary in July 1944 as a Swedish diplomat with the goal of assisting Jews in any way possible. A friend who worked with Raoul Wallenberg mailed the passport to Sándor’s home without knowing whether he was alive and the package was successfully delivered to Sándor at the labor camp. A friendly commanding officer at the labor camp offered to bring Sándor to the border when he learned of the Swedish passport but an opportunity never arose for this plan to be carried out.
Sándor transited the labor camp in Mosonmagyarovár when the Jews received orders of a forced march to the Austrian border at the end of March in 1945. The Jews had been marching for four days when the Russians found them. It was important for Sándor to wear his tallit when he was liberated, a sign of perseverance and commitment to Judaism. Although the Jews were pleased that the Russians had arrived, they were also frustrated that the Russians treated the Jews almost as badly as the Germans or Hungarians. Sándor recalls that a Russian soldier stole his watch and threatened to shoot the Jews if they did not have any more possessions.
After Sándor was liberated from the labor service, he returned to Pécs since Győr had not yet been liberated. Once there, he immediately registered for his second semester at the medical school. Four or five weeks later, Sándor woke up in the hospital due to typhus, without having any memory of how he arrived there. He learned that someone found him lying in the street and took all of his belongings, including his clothes. Once Sándor regained his health, he travelled back to Győr to look for his family but only stayed for twenty-four hours because it was too difficult for him to be there. By 1945, Sándor was finishing his second year of medical school at the age of twenty. After graduation, Sándor moved to Budapest, where he slept on a park bench and worked at a Jewish hospital opened by medical students. Sometime later, doctors took over the duty but Sándor continued to work there along with seven other medical students.
Around September of 1945, Sandor discovered the fate of his family. His mother, father, uncle, and brother were all deported to the Auschwitz concentration camp. His mother, Margit Ullmann, was sent to the gas chamber immediately upon arrival. His brother, Dezső Ullmann, worked in “Canada” (the prisoner term referring to sending inmates to the gas chamber and organizing their belongings) and committed suicide by walking into the electric fence because he could not handle the stress.
Sándor’s father, Frigyes Ullmann, and uncle, József Ullmann, were transported to Dachau in July of 1944. József had died three weeks before Dachau was liberated whereas Frigyes died one day after the camp’s liberation.
Sándor escaped to Austria in 1949, later he moved to Munich, West-Germany, where he completed his medical residency in 1950. He immigrated to Canada on March 27, 1951.
Epilogue of Savannah
I was surprised to learn that when asked why it is important for Sándor to share his story, he could not see the benefit in documenting his experiences. From a personal point of view, this has been an emotional and meaningful opportunity for me as many of my relatives have passed away and my family is quickly losing any ability to learn about our heritage. It is very important for me to learn about my ancestors and this project has reinvigorated my efforts to build a family tree. As a senior project in high school, I was able to build a family tree that goes back ten generations, but as the internet becomes more comprehensive and more records are digitized, I have been able to fill in many holes and elaborate on many details. I wish I could speak with him now to tell him that this opportunity has been powerful and moving and that I will remember what I have learned about his life and his perseverance and optimistic attitude during the war.
This has been a meaningful undertaking for me as Sándor, my grandfather, died in 1994 when I was 6 years old. I never had an opportunity to ask my grandfather about his experiences during the war and later his experiences traveling to Michigan via Canada. While it has been difficult to hear a tape recording of his experiences and know that I am unable to ask him questions or initiate a dialogue, I have nonetheless enjoyed the opportunity. Sándor’s story is unlike anything I have come across in my twenty-one years of existence and yet it is amazing to me that we still have many common characteristics as emerging adults.
Sándor mentions on numerous occasions that he often reflected on his life and considered plans for his future. While this is a large part of my life, as I prepare for graduation in a mere few days, it is astonishing to me that while he was in the middle of a war, working in a labor camp under inadequate conditions, he would still take time to plan his future. I think this speaks to the maturity level and state-of-mind of most eighteen-to-twenty-two-year-olds as they reach a point in their life when they are ready to become more independent and create long-term goals. As I struggle to transform my passions into career choices, I admire my grandfather for his determination to get an education regardless of the many obstacles and to use his intellect to help other people.
Savannah wrote this when she was 21 years old. She is now 34. She has her graduate degree in Social Work and lives in Philadelphia.
As mentioned in the introduction, we had received the continuation of Sándor’s life story from his daughter, Margie Ullmann-Weil, from the moment when Sándor had arrived in Canada. We shall publish this document as the 2nd part of Sándor Ullmann’ life story.