Family Story

My parents met over cigarette rations

The life of a physician-lawyer, Sándor Ullmann – Part Two

This is the continuation of Sándor’s life story, this time written by his daughter, Margie Ullmann-Weil, from the moment when Sándor arrived in Canada. Let us recall the first part of Sándor’s story while he lived still in Hungary in the darkest times of the 20th century published on our website under the title “A classmate had the foresight to provide him with a Nazi hat and Arrow Cross shirt”.

Read this exiting second part on how Sándor built up his personal and professional life overseas from zero.

P. Krausz

Margie’s recollections

My daughter, Savannah Weil, wrote a biography about my father based on her online research and from listening to taped interviews of him. Her biography covers his life in Hungary. I will attempt to provide information about his career and accomplishments, but more importantly, share information about the personal side of this most remarkable man.

He always wanted to be a physician. Instead, he started at the University of Pécs, Faculty of Law because it was the only university that would admit him during a time that Jews were banned from advanced study in Hungary. While there, he sat in on medical school classes. After the war he was finally able to go to medical school and moved from the University of Budapest to the University of Graz in Austria and finally to the University of Munich in Germany, where he completed his medical residency. He received his Diploma in Medicine at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München in September 1950.

Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München today, ©

My parents met over cigarette rations. After the war Sándor and my mother, Irene (Irén in Hungarian) Steinberger, were both working at the Jewish Hospital in Budapest, he as a doctor and she as a nurse. My mother smoked cigarettes, he did not. Her roommate mentioned that Sándor Ullmann was not using his cigarette rations and so she knocked on his door.

Irene and Sándor, 1948, © Margie Ullmann-Weil

They quickly fell in love and got married on October 5, 1948. As a side note, Sándor later became a cigarette smoker.

Invitation Irene’s and Sándor’s wedding, 1948, © Margie Ullmann-Weil

As you may recall from Savannah’s story, my father came from Győr. Irene was born in Fábiánháza (a village in NE Hungary close to the Hungaria-Romanian border), Hungary on February 19, 1927.

A lonely stone that remained from the Jewish cemetery in Fábiánháza, ©

She was sent to Auschwitz on June 14,1944 when she was 17. In August 1944, she was moved to the Gross-Rosen concentration camp / Parschnitz work camp.

Parschnitz, located NE of Prague, was part of a complex of forced-labor camps established in the Sudetenland to supply workers for textile plants in Trautenau (Trutnov) near the Czech-Polish border. The women prisoners worked at the Hasse and Welzel textile plants manufacturing uniforms and gas mask parts for the Wehrmacht.

Gross-Rosen concentration camp entrance today, © War Traveller

She was liberated from Gross-Rosen on May 8, 1945. In July 1945, she moved to Budapest and trained as a nurse. The only member of her immediate family to survive was her brother, Pinchas.

After the war Pinchas moved to Israel. There he changed his family name from Steinberger (which in German means someone from the stone mountain) to Avni (which means stone in Hebrew). Because of the change in name, it took my parents several years to find and reconnect with Irene’s brother.

In 1949 my parents were smuggled out of Hungary to escape the Communist Regime. They arrived in Austria and lived in Vienna for a month, and then relocated to Graz. In May 1950, they moved to Munich where my father completed his medical residency. My parents traveled from Ludwigsburg to Bremen Germany on March 15, 1951 then left Bremen by boat for Canada on March 27, 1951.

Irene’s Canadian passport, by mid-1950s, © Margie Ullmann-Weil

They crossed the Atlantic on the SS Stewart Bruce.  When my father filled out the immigration paperwork for Canada, he entered Sandor for his middle name (as he had no middle name), and listed Alexander as his first name. The English-speaking customs officials did not realize that Sandor and Alexander were, in fact, the same name.  From that point forward his legal name was Alexander Sandor Ullmann.

He arrived in Canada without speaking a word of English. He needed to pass the Canadian Medical Board exams, so he immediately began to memorize the English dictionary. It was quite helpful that he had a photographic memory. He set up his medical practice in Windsor Ontario.

Sándor with his son, Stewart Bruce, around 1953, © Margie Ullmann-Weil

My parents were living in my father’s medical office space when my brother was born in November 1951. They named him Stewart Bruce, after the ship that brought them to Canada. I was born in 1953. I was named after my paternal grandmother, Margit Gescheit Ullmann.  (The Gescheits were a large family from Salgótarján in the northern part of Hungary). Shortly after my birth, my parents bought their first home.

Judaism and supporting the State of Israel were of first and foremost importance in my parents’ lives. My mother was very active in selling Israeli Bonds. They traveled several times to Israel to spend time with Irene’ brother, Pinchas, who had settled in Karkur. They also spent time with Gescheit family members who had settled in Givat Ada. Throughout his life Sándor stayed committed to supporting Israel and ensuring survival of a Jewish homeland.

Life seemed quite promising. My parents developed close friendships. My father’s medical practice was successful. They did not have much money but they had fun and they traveled some. I have vivid memories of my parents sitting with friends and playing cards, often with Magyar Kártya (Hungarian cards). Sadly, my mother was diagnosed with granulocytic leukemia and died a few years later in 1959 at the age of 34 years.

Irene, my mother, 1958, © Margie Ullmann-Weil

After Irene’s death Sándor began to commute over the US-Canadian border to Detroit Michigan to pursue his dream of specializing in Pathology. During this time, he also maintained his medical practice in Windsor, Canada.

He met a woman through mutual friends in Montreal. Hanica Cohen was a Holocaust survivor from Romania. In 1962, they were married in the home of Sándor’s paternal aunt, Sari Ullmann Unger (Frigyes’ sister). Sándor adopted Hanica’s daughter, Sabrina, and raised her as his own. 

We spent many holidays together with Sari and her family. It is where I learned to speak a little bit of Hungarian and enjoy the smells and tastes of delicious Hungarian food. One of Sándor’s favorite foods was chicken paprikás with nokedli (paprika chicken with noodles). He shared with us that his mother always made him chicken paprikás on his birthday. He also loved Hungarian poppyseed rolls (mákos beigli) and we enjoyed them on a regular basis.

Sándor, my father, around 1970, © Margie Ullmann-Weil

When Sándor finished his medical residency in Pathology, he accepted a job at a hospital in New York City. After only a year in New York, he made the decision to return to Michigan because he felt that it was a better place to raise children and because he had a large extended community of friends (both Hungarian and Jewish friends) there.

Hanica died in 1978. In January 1980 he married Faye Schrage Kleiff and helped to raise her two children, Marcy and Steven.

Crittenton Hospital today, ©

He had a long and satisfying career working as the Chief of Pathology at Crittenton Hospital in Rochester Michigan. He continued to work there until his death from chronic lymphocytic leukemia in October 1994 at age of 69 years. 

Sándor at Crittenton Hospital, Michigan, photo with an appraisal note, 1985, © Margie Ullmann-Weil

Sándor was extraordinarily generous in so many ways. When he opened his medical practice in Windsor, he made special arrangements with the owner of a restaurant across the street from his office to provide food to anyone who said I am Dr Ullmann’s patient and he told me to come here to eat. Long after he stopped seeing patients in the office, he continued to make house calls to neighbors and friends when they were sick. He was ever present and supportive for his two paternal aunts – Ella who lived in Israel and Sari who lived in Toronto Canada. The same was true for him maternal aunt, “Pici” (Olga Gescheit) Sunshine, who lived in New York. He co-signed loans for his employees and helped some of them pay off their tuition. When people wanted to thank him, he would say “please pay it forward and help out someone else when you can”.

Throughout his life Sándor loved to study, to learn and to teach. While in medical school he supported himself by tutoring students in Latin. At Crittenton Hospital he taught a weekly class for the doctors to help them know how to better diagnose different types of cancers. The hospital named the medical library after my father. He developed a program for new immigrant physicians to teach them English and help prepare them to take the Medical Board Exams in English. At Wayne State University he taught pathology to medical students. At his synagogue he taught beginning reading classes for adults learning Hebrew. He enjoyed preparing to be the Torah reader on Shabbat when asked.

He spoke many languages and loved exploring the origin of words. He always kept a dictionary nearby and was delighted when he would learn a new word. He loved getting to know people and he had a talent for learning much about a person’s life story, even in brief meetings.

He was a master Bridge player and he loved symphonic music. He loved helping people. He believed strongly in God and talked about his special relationship with God. He saw the goodness in people, and he was a great optimist.

In the addition to all these extraordinary accomplishments and traits, and ways that my father impacted the world, perhaps his greatest accomplishment was as a father. He lived the Jewish Value of “Tikkum Olam”, repairing the world, through his actions and examples. He was devoted, generous, understanding, and compassionate with his kids. His legacy endures in the lives and work of his children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Sándor with his daughter, Margie, 1993, © Margie Ullmann-Weil

It doesn’t surprise me that Sándor set up a student scholarship at the Révai High School in Győr which once he had also attended. He talked about what it was like to be a student in the school where his father taught, and how it made him strive to be the best in hope of earning his father’s praise. Advice he shared with his children from when we were quite young is that a person could lose all possessions, but that no one could ever take away someone’s education.