At the end of July, Hungary Today interviewed Dr. Alfréd Paszternák, Obstetrician and gynecologist, external member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, and founding member of the Friends of Hungary Foundation. He spoke with us about his experiences surviving the the Holocaust, the Stalinist regime of Mátyás Rákosi, and the Revolution of 1956, as well as his career as a doctor in the United States.
Paszternák immigrated to the US in 1956. He is a child survivor of Auschwitz, and author of the well-known book Inhuman Research: Medical Experiments in German Concentration Camps. He is also the recipient of numerous awards from, among others, the United States Congress, the State of California, the City of Los Angeles, and the State of Israel. Earlier this year, he received the civilian Officer’s Cross of the Hungarian Order of Merit.
This interview has been edited for clarity and concision. In addition, the interviewee made multiple edits to the original discussion prior to its publication.
You were born on September 28th, 1930, in Tállya…
Yes, in Zemplén county, which is home to Tokaji, the best wine on earth, according to experts.
This was in the middle of the so-called Horthy-era, which to this day a very controversial period, both among Hungarian historians as well as in public opinion. As someone who grew up in this era, and who endured the Second World War and the hells of concentration camps, how do you see this era from a Hungarian point of view: do we have a reason to be proud of Hungary’s ability to get back on its feet following the First World War, or should we be ashamed of the era due to World War II and the Holocaust?
To answer this question, I would refer to someone who isn’t a foreigner or someone opposed to Hungary, but rather to the country’s current Foreign Minister Péter Szijjártó, who in a magazine interview gave an opinion on the issue that I agree with completely. Over the course of a lengthy political career, it is possible to see multiple eras; the first period of Horthy’s rule [during World War II] was criminal, since he did nothing to save the Jews, despite the fact that the country was not yet under occupation. In fact, he had a strong friendship with Hitler’s regime. In the second period [of the war], however, as the pressure from the Allied powers grew dramatically, then he saved Budapest’s Jews from deportation. He ordered two Hungarian army corps to surround Budapest. They refused to allow Jews to be transported away from here. Our family belonged to the first period, 85% of my immediate family were murdered in Auschwitz. Horthy did nothing to stop this.
If we could return for a bit to the 30s: how do you remember your childhood? Was this a secure, growing country, or could you already feel that there would be great problems here?
In truth, at the beginning of that era I was a small child. In Tállya, there were several elementary schools (Catholic, Reformed, Lutheran), and most Jewish children went to the Lutheran school. There were two older elementary-aged Catholic boys who would bother and threaten me on my way home from school when I was in first grade. One year later, without my parents’ knowledge, I found two whips that were part of a children’s game; I braided these together, and I went home from school with this in my pocket, so that I could defend myself in case they tried to attack me physically.
I did not grow up in a particularly friendly environment, despite the fact that my father was a significant financial contributor to the Lutheran school I attended. When I was in fourth grade, the school held an event on March 15th, to which parents and families were invited. The day included a stage production, where the “Hungarian Ambassador” defended his homeland against the ambassadors of countries opposed to Hungary. The entire village was riled up by the fact that the principal chose me, a Jew, to play to Hungarian Ambassador who defends Hungarians against the rest of the ambassadors on stage, although I only learned about this later from my parents. The reason I got the part was that, all my life, I was a great student. This alone should have been enough reason for them to give me the biggest part, but there were still objections to me. That is what the atmosphere was like at the time.
Let’s jump forward in time a bit. 1956 was also a turning point in your life. You completed your doctorate in 1955. How did you, as a trained doctor, experience the Revolution, and when did you realize that you could not remain in this country under Communist dictatorship?
My older sister got married in Hungary in 1947, and her new husband had a large family in America, so they were also waiting for the opportunity to leave, which was not easy under Communism. My father had everything taken away from him, first by the Nazis, then by the Communists. His largest mill, which was at this point electrically driven, his vineyards, everything was taken away from him, first in 1940 within 5 minutes of the German occupation, then again under [Stalinist dictator] Rákosi.
In the years before I graduated from university, it became increasingly clear to me that I would like to live my life in another country. Under Hungary’s Communist regime, I saw no hope that my dreams might come true. At that point, there were already many friends and relatives of mine who had been living in America for years, and were happy with their lives. As far as I could tell, the most I could hope to achieve career-wise in Hungary would be, after many years of work, to gain a position as an assistant doctor at a regional hospital. My parents lost everything that they had gained through their skills and hard work twice over, first by the Nazis, then by the Communists. My father had the largest mill and the largest vineyards in the area, and twice I saw everything taken away from him. I had no desire to live my life under such a system.
What path did you take to get to the United States?
During the Revolution, I worked at the Péter Sándor street hospital, which was expressly the hospital for those wounded in the Revolution. 90% of those in the hospital were injured. I started my 4-year residency here, and had been there for 3 months already. It was here that I heard of someone who would smuggle people across the border in exchange for cash. I talked to my parents about it, since as a newly-married man I had the money to bribe him. First, he took five of us—me, my wife, one of my older sisters, and their 8-year-old daughter—to the border, where he handed us over to an acquaintance of his who lived on the border, who swore to take us wherever we wanted to go within Vienna. The acquaintance said that we had to wait until it was dark enough, then he would take us across the border. We had to believe in him, even when we had to cross a stream on foot. On the other side, he informed us that we were now in Austria, pointed out in a direction, that that was the way we should go, then turned around and left us there. There, for the first time in my life, I had to take over the leadership of the family. We went a few hundred meters in the direction he had given us, and we saw two armed, uniformed men coming toward us, and as we didn’t know if they were AVÓ [Rákosi-era secret police] or not, so we waited. They turned out to be Austrian border guards, who kindly greeted us and took us to a neighboring village, where they were receiving refugees in a large house.
When we arrived at night, we were given hot soup. In the morning, I said I would like to continue onward, to which I received the answer that someone would pick us up. I had friends in Vienna, however, and so I asked that if anyone had room in their car, to take us to Vienna, and I would repay them there. “I don’t have that much money now, but I will pay you in Vienna.” There was someone who did this sort of thing, and they really took us to Vienna.
There, I went to an old acquaintance from Hungary, borrowed money from him, and paid for our journey. There, we stayed in a little hotel of sorts. I started to look into how to get to America. The day after our arrival, I went to the American Embassy, and showed them that I had a travel visa from Austria to the United States (at that time, you couldn’t use these to leave Hungary). They took down my information, and said that they would let us know. Through me, they informed the five of us that we should arrive at the Embassy at 8am the next day.
There they told us that they would take us by train to Germany’s western border, and from there an airplane would take us to America, naturally for free, as we were freedom fighters. Essentially, that is what we were, since my wife, my brother-in-law, and I had all worked in hospitals during the Revolution. In December of 1956, we spent one night on a train transporting Hungarian refugees. We spent three days at the German border, where the Americans took care of us wonderfully, providing us with English dictionaries, programs, and food. For some reason, we couldn’t leave from here, and so we were taken all the way to western Spain, where we boarded a ship that took us across the ocean. The services here were excellent as well. There were film screenings, at which we finally got to see American films; in this way, we arrived. I informed my older sister, who was living in Los Angeles, of our arrival, and her and her family were already waiting for us. Following two stops, we arrived by plane to the suburbs of Los Angeles, where my brother-in-law came to meet us. He already had a car, and so he took us to my older sister; this is how I ended up in America.
In the United States, you became a very successful doctor. Why did you choose to specialize as an Obstetrician-Gynecologist, and how did so many famous Hollywood stars become your patients?
I already had a medical degree when I arrived in America, but in order to practice here as well, I had to take medical boards alongside those American doctors who were currently graduating. After I successfully completed this test, I began my internship. If I might boast a bit, at the time, according to American law, doctors with foreign diplomas had to undergo two years of internship, while those who attended American universities only needed one. This is where I achieved the first great honor of my life, as an intern at Cedar Sinai Medical Center, one of the most prominent medical institutions in the country in various specialties, both then and now.
Interns spent every month in a different specialty, and heads of those departments would give reports about them. In the second-last month of my first year, they called me and asked me to go into the director’s office. I don’t even need to tell you that I went there with great excitement and nervousness, since the director generally didn’t have personal interactions with first-year interns. It turned out that he simply wanted to tell me himself that every month he had received reports so positive that he had passed them on to the California State Medical Board, so that they might allow me to skip a second year of internship, and begin my four-year residency the very next month. This was a huge deal, I was very proud, but I was also afraid, wondering “what if it won’t be so easy, what if I still don’t get the permission.” In my last month at Cedar-Sinai, however, the head doctor of the surgical department sat down at my table in the cafeteria, and wanted to talk with me, saying that if I wanted to become a surgeon and submit an application, I would immediately be accepted. Thankfully, I had enough courage, and I respectfully told him that I had always wanted to become an OBGYN. “Well then become an OBGYN,” he responded, then said goodbye and wished me all the best.
3-4 days later I was once again called into the director’s office. The director had received a letter from the head of surgery, saying that whatever I desired to do for my four-year residency, he would support it. The director then told me that whoever has the endorsement of the head of surgery gets whatever he wants. This is how I became an OBGYN, and by the fourth year of my residency I was already chief resident. 2 or 3 months before the end of my 4-year residency, in 1963, the director of Obstetrics-Gynecology called me, saying that he hoped I would be able to make it to his private Beverly Hills office the next day, since he would like to have lunch with me and talk a bit. Naturally, I went. He greeted me by offering to make me an associate in his private practice in Beverly Hills. I would be able to care for patients independently, and my name would be on the door. I said yes at once, since this was by no means an everyday opportunity for a resident.
Following the completion of my residency, I went into practice with him. We signed a contract, and it was up to me if I could handle the responsibility of convincing patients to stay with me. I received a percentage of the profits from the patients I treated, since they were originally the director of Obstetrics-Gynecology’s patients. I remained at this private practice for seven years. Everyone talked about it at the hospital, that yesterday I was just a resident, while today I’m an associate in the director’s private practice. My patients maintained good relationships with me, and very few of them acted like “stars.” No one would book an appointment with my secretary, only to change it around as she felt like it. They were very proper. There were never any particular difficulties, they never asked me to do something that I was unwilling to do. I was never forced to do something that went against my judgement, but they never asked for anything impossible either.
My last question is about a very important book you wrote, Inhuman Research-Medical Experiments in German Concentration Camps. Considering that you are quite interested not only in gynecology, but in medical history as well, what led you to write this book?
As an adult, I truly felt the need to learn as much as I could about the history of the Holocaust. At the same time, I realized that it would be important, not only for the present but for future generations as well, that the events of the Holocaust receive an unbiased factual examination, one based on unimpeachable data. I also realized that, if I took up this task, I would need lots of time. This, in turn, caused me to begin thinking about retiring completely from my private practice.
I spent four years working on this book, and I traveled extensively. I went to Israel three times just due to the book, and received special permission from the Israeli government to access the archives that are not normally open to the public, and that have a great amount of information that ended up in my book. I traveled to Austria, Hungary, and Germany, just to gather data. I sent my draft to a prominent American university press, who said that it could appear in as soon as one year. Fortunately, soon after this I spoke with E. Sylvester Vizi, who was the President of the Academy of Sciences at the time. Vizi and his wife visited me in Los Angeles many times, and in fact we vacationed together once in Palm Springs. He was the one who suggested that I send it to the Academy, adding that if the reviewers thought it was worth publishing, then it would “be in my hands” within 3 months. This is exactly how it happened, for which I am honestly very grateful. As an aside, to my knowledge, my book became known and recognized by a large circle of people within a short period of time.
Reporting by Tamás Székely
Translated by Tom Szigeti