February 15, 2012
Liselotte Hanock — née Ortner — was sent by her grandmother to buy food on a cold, rainy November afternoon in 1944. She was wearing only a light raincoat when she left her yellow-star apartment in Budapest — a de facto ghetto, where she lived with her paternal grandparents and two other families. Suddenly, she was approached by a group of Arrow Cross soldiers — boys 16 to 18 years old carrying rifles. “Come with us,” they said. Liselotte, who was just 11, knew not to resist.
She and a group of captured Jews were marched to the Danube River and ferried across on barges. They then walked to a deserted brick factory, where Liselotte estimates more than a thousand people huddled. Everyone was instructed to walk past the camp’s commandant, who decided each person’s fate. “How old are you?” he asked Liselotte. She told him she was 11. “Old enough,” he said.
The next morning, the Jews were ordered to walk along the Vienna Highway, on a death march from Budapest to Vienna. They covered 20 to 25 kilometers a day, stopping every night to sleep in an empty barn. At each place, Liselotte approached the camp’s commandant, saying, “I don’t want to escape, but can you take me to my mother?” They laughed and dismissed her.
On the cold and snowy fifth or sixth night, the group reached Komarom. There was no building, only a barren plaza with frozen bodies strewn about. Liselotte went to the camp’s commandant, asking him to take her to her mother. He turned her sideways, examining the blond-haired girl. “Yes, I will,” he said. He pointed to a truck with a canvas cover. “Go inside. Do not say a word.”
Liselotte and the other Jews in the truck were driven to Budapest, where the commandant took Liselotte, who was ill, to the apartment of an elderly woman. He also telephoned Liselotte’s grandmother to let her know that Liselotte was safe. A few days later he escorted Liselotte to a children’s safe house, under Swiss or Swedish auspices.
Then, after the Germans rescinded diplomatic immunity, the commandant took her to live as the daughter of a Christian couple, who were working as apartment building caretakers. With bombs falling continually, they stayed in the basement.
On Jan. 18, 1945, Russian soldiers liberated them, bringing bread. “It was like gold,” Liselotte said.
Liselotte was born in Vienna, Austria, on Oct. 29, 1933; her mother, Augusta Einziger, was Viennese; her father, Pal Ortner, was Hungarian and an opera singer. Her parents separated when she was very young, and her father returned to Budapest.
Soon after Germany annexed Austria in 1938, Liselotte, then 5, fled with her mother to Ersekujvar, Hungary, where Liselotte attended the local Jewish school.
During vacations, she visited her paternal grandparents at their lavish estate in Budapest. Liselotte was very close to her grandmother, who took her to ice skating lessons and taught her to knit. She occasionally saw her
After Germany invaded Hungary on March 19, 1944, Liselotte’s father paid a Christian man to bring her by train to Budapest. Liselotte cried hysterically until her father agreed to also pay for her mother.
In Budapest, Liselotte lived with her grandparents while her mother worked as a maid. Soon her father and his younger brother were taken to a labor camp, and her mother, like all Jewish women ages 18 to 40, was ordered to report for work. Liselotte and her grandparents were then living in the yellow star apartment.
After the war, Liselotte and her grandmother (her grandfather had died of pneumonia) returned to the estate, which was in complete disarray. Her uncle also returned, becoming Liselotte’s guardian and her grandmother’s financial overseer, which created friction.
Liselotte began eagerly knitting a scarf and gloves for her mother, knowing she was always cold and anticipating her return. But, one day, her father’s girlfriend arrived, reporting that Liselotte’s mother had perished at 35 at Ravensbruck. The girlfriend also told her that Liselotte’s father, who had escaped a labor camp, had been living with Christian friends but one day inexplicably went outside and never returned. He was 40.
“When this happened, I stopped smiling,” Liselotte said.
She was sent to Catholic boarding school for three years and returned to Budapest, but instead of finishing high school, at her uncle’s directive, she found office work in a home for disabled children, where she learned bookkeeping. She hired a private tutor to finish her schooling.
As the animosity between Liselotte and her uncle increased, her grandmother urged her to marry, but Liselotte’s boyfriend at the time was in the military and not available. After her grandmother died, however, Liselotte married a man seven years older, in November 1953. Two years later, they separated.
When the Hungarian Revolution broke out in October 1956, Liselotte escaped, traveling to Sopron, a city in western Hungary, and walking with a group the entire night over hard, plowed fields to reach Austria, spraining both ankles along the way. Then, on Dec. 9, 1956, taking only a purse, she boarded a plane for the United States. As it flew over the Statue of Liberty, Liselotte recalled, “The whole plane was crying.”
In September 1957, she moved from New York to Los Angeles, where she worked again as a bookkeeper. Here, she met Franklin Hanock on Dec. 15, 1960, and they married a year later. Her daughter, Andrea, was born in 1962, and her, son Tracy, in 1966. Today, she has three grandchildren.
Liselotte has always regretted not knowing more about the people who rescued her. But sitting in her North Hollywood home, some 20 years after arriving in the United States, she watched a television biography of Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat credited with saving tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews, and realized she had been saved through his network.
“If you are good to people, somebody else will be good to you. That’s how I’ve lived my life,” she said.