War cost my family everything

But when Hungary would only pay us £1,500, I dug in for a new battle


Éva Retkin

Éva Retkin

One Sunday in March 1944, Éva Retkin was strolling with her father in Budapest when a friend hurried up to them.

"'Have you heard what happened?' he said. 'The Germans are here.' I can still hear his voice," she recalled. "It was so awful."

Soon after, she witnessed her father being rounded up at the factory he owned, along with some of his Jewish workers. "I saw them being taken away by soldiers with bayonets. I was crying so much walking back home that people were looking at me."

Forced to wear yellow stars, she and her family had to leave their home and live in a single room with other relatives. Though her father, Lazar Fischer, was deported to a small concentration camp on the Austrian border, he, her mother and sister survived the war, although her mother's mother and other family members perished in Auschwitz.

Mrs Retkin’s father Lazar outside his Hungarian workshop

Mrs Retkin’s father Lazar outside his Hungarian workshop

Now a sprightly great-grandmother of 81, who lives in Wembley, Middlesex, Éva Retkin is one of many Jewish émigrés from East Europe still seeking compensation for the property their families left behind.

She first arrived in England in late 1947. "I came here for a year to learn English. But after the Communist coup in Hungary in spring 1948, my father told me to stay and not to come back," she said.

For a while she kept the books in Madame Prunier, a fashionable West End fish restaurant, before going on to a 30-year career as a teacher, even devising a scheme to teach children how to read in a week.

In 1956 she was joined in Britain by her parents and sister, who fled Hungary after the crushed uprising. Before the Second World War, Mr Fischer had founded a toolmaking factory that employed 120 people. But now he had had to abandon it as well as the family's large apartment and possessions, including a concert piano.

"The factory was my father's love," Mrs Retkin said. "When we were young, my sister and I used to go and play there. Later I was learning to be a book-keeper and I worked in the office there. My parents came here with nothing, and my father had to start a new life at the age of 60."

In his will, Mr Fischer, who died aged 90 in 1987, left the family's assets in Hungary to Mrs Retkin's teenage son. After the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, the Hungarian government took steps to enable some of the victims of appropriated property to claim compensation.

But the World Jewish Restitution Organisation, the agency founded to seek justice for heirs, says the Hungarians "made it difficult for potential claimants".

Engaging a solicitor in Budapest, in the 1990s Mrs Retkin accepted compensation of around £1,500.

"They said either I take it and sign, or I get nothing," she said. "It was blackmail. I remember the solicitor saying it was the most anybody got!"

But now she feels the family has been short-changed. "I am angry. My father worked hard, he suffered," she said.

Especially since Hungary joined the EU in 2004, she believes that the country ought to reconsider its restitution policy. "They should conform to the rules. If they steal something, they ought to give it back," she said.

Two years ago Hungary was one of 46 countries to sign an agreement in Prague on Holocaust restitution, recognising that the protection of property rights was an "essential component of democracy".

But the path to compensation has been snarled with red tape and political complexities. Only a few weeks ago Poland suspended moves to implement restitution laws, pleading the difficult economic situation.

The Jewish Agency recently launched an initiative, funded by the Israeli government, to try to advance restitution claims. Project Heart, as it is called, is collecting data from potential heirs as leverage for negotiations.

Last year Britain appointed a special envoy, Sir Andrew Burns, to tackle restitution and other post-Holocaust issues. The Association of Jewish Refugees in London offers some advice to claimants; its director Michael Newman said it has dealt with around 2,500 cases over the past decade, including reparation payments and pensions for Shoah victims, although he could not say how many involved heirs seeking compensation for confiscated property.

Mr Fischer's factory has since disappeared, Mrs Retkin said. "They pulled it down and now there is a different address."

But when she was last in Budapest, she was curious to see the family's old home. "My finger was on the bell," she said. "Then I withdrew my finger and I said to my husband, 'I don't think I can face it.'"

    Last updated: 11:01am, April 21 2011