RANDOLPH — In Hungary in 1944 a seven-year-old Jewish girl watched men with guns line up Jews along the banks of the Danube River before shooting every third person in line, their bloody bodies splashing into the river.
On May 30 of this year, the woman who witnessed such horrors of World War II shared her story of survival and loss with students of the Randolph School District.
Susie Fono was born in 1937 and lived with her parents and older sister Judith in Budapest on the eastern bank of the Danube River.
Seventh and eighth grade students from the middle school, and juniors and seniors from the high school listened to Fono’s presentation, which was held at First Reformed Church. She shared memories of her grandparents and extended family and illustrated her story with a slideshow featuring photographs of them.
“They tried to protect us, my parents,” Fono said.
Fono talked about the clothing store owned by her paternal grandparents, observing the Sabbath with her family and learning how to sew, crochet and cook from her maternal grandmother Rose. Fono said she learned how to speak German from her nursery school teacher, who had escaped from Austria. Her father worked at the Hungarian Grain Exchange until he lost his job because of anti-Jewish restrictions. Her family had to leave their home, and her father was eventually sent to a labor camp.
Although she was only seven, Fono remembers the Nazis coming to take people away. Her memories of walking with her father on the promenade along the Danube River, which separates the Buda and Pest sides of the city, carry a dark shadow. It was members of the Arrow Cross, a fascist group that supported the Nazis, who lined up Jews along the banks of the Danube and shot them.
Fono said there are two kinds of people, good and bad. She spoke about Raoul Wallenberg. The Swedish diplomat worked to help save Jews from being sent to concentration camps by issuing Swedish visas and renting buildings for Jews to live in under Swedish protection. Fono and her family lived in one of the buildings, with 16 people living in a two-bedroom apartment. She also spoke of another man, and how he treated them.
“He gave back, he did not take us away,” Fono said.
A neighbor helped her mother visit her husband who was waiting to be transported to a camp. He later took Fono and her sister to visit their father.
“He (the neighbor) was a good man,” Fono said.
The week after, Fono said there was knock on the door – it was her father. They came to transport him and were taking everyone except those who had Swedish papers. Her father pretended to be their neighbor, and claimed not to have his papers and shared details of the man’s life to convince them. Fono said he knew everything but the maiden name of the neighbor’s mother.
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“Someone up there was looking over us,” Fono said.
Her mother was called up to be transported and was told to report the next day.
“My mom had a lot of courage - she just did not show up. Nobody came for her. Mom had a lot of chutzpah.”
Fono said her mother lost everyone on her side of the family.
Fono’s family was living in a ghetto when the Germans fled as the Russian Army approached the city. An uncle helped them leave the ghetto, which had been mined.
“They forgot to blow us up,” Fono said.
Middle school language arts teacher Christina Schoenwetter said seventh grade students learned about oppression and discrimination. Eighth grade students read the play version of Anne Frank, explored the annex where Frank and her family lived through a virtual tour and researched other survivor stories through the National Holocaust website.
The RMS Student Council sponsored Fono’s presentation.
Fono and her husband of 54 years, Bob, live in Milwaukee. She also shared photos of her children and grandchildren, and left Randolph students with a final message.
“Please accept each other, because hate is not good,” Fono said. “You don’t have to love everybody, but please try to accept each other. Maybe someday in this world, we can get along.”