Bill Basch in Ann Arbor, 2003
Bill Basch was born in 1927 in the small agricultural village of Szaszovo, in the Carpathian Mountains. It seemed that he was born into the good life. He was the middle child, with two older brothers and two younger sisters. His father owned the largest store in the village—a combined grocery, liquor store and lumber yard—and land enough for ten families to farm. In addition, his father acted as interpreter and signatory for the community’s official documents. Theirs was a traditional Jewish household and the sons attended Hebrew school at the small synagogue supported by the thirty-some Jewish families in the village.
And yet, despite his father’s prominence, Bill remembers anti-Semitism everywhere outside the sheltered world of home and synagogue. But it was only in 1940 that they began to feel the terrible social and legal pressures they knew German and Polish Jews had been suffering. His father announced during the Passover meal of 1942, after failing to obtain American visas, that in order to increase the chance of survival the three sons would be sent to different cities. His father was required to sell the store to a gentile and report for forced labor.
In the autumn Basch was taken by his mother to Budapest; he was only 15 years old. There he worked as an apprentice without pay, relying on relatives and acquaintances for food. Soon he joined the underground movement in the city comprising Jewish youth from all over Europe who sought refuge in Hungary. But in 1944, Hungary was finally forced to relinquish power and the Nazis arrived in Budapest. In that same year Raoul Wallenberg arrived and Basch began working for him.
Basch was fluent in Hungarian, knew his way around Budapest and had figured out how to use the sewer system to travel through the city. He and others in the resistance had already been printing and delivering false identity papers before Wallenberg arrived. The papers produced by Wallenberg looked more authentic and Basch then worked to reproduce those and deliver them, via the sewer system, to Jews staying in Wallenberg’s safe houses.
Basch as a young man
Basch's work with the underground came to an abrupt end in November of 1944 when he mistakenly exited a sewer not in the courtyard of a safe house but in the street in front of Nazis. The soldiers chased him and in order to escape he joined a line of Jews being marched away. He discovered, too late, that they were being sent to a concentration camp. Basch was loaded onto a cattle car with the others and spent five hellish days in the car before reaching Buchenwald. He has described that journey as the most horrible of all his wartime experiences. He and others made two attempts to escape through a small window in the car, with each attempt leading to the immediate death of the prisoners who made it outside. Basch recalls that he decided to concentrate on living first, and then escaping whenever he could.
At Buchenwald, Basch's survival instincts endured. He volunteered to be on a crew that was repairing bombed railroad tracks, knowing that those who didn’t work were killed by the Nazis. Basch did this work from December 1944 to March 1945. Working on the railroads did not guarantee safety, however, and after three months, the 500 men who started on the crew had been decimated to only a few dozen either by their German captors or the Americans bombing the rail lines. In the spring of 1945 as the Allies approached the Germans sent thousands of prisoners on a death march. Thus Basch arrived in Dachau—and still endured. He survived the horrors of that place and was there when the Americans arrived.
Basch was one of the fortunate ones: suffering from typhus, he was placed in an American field hospital. In a coma for a month, he awoke just in time for his 17th birthday. Upon recovery he returned first to Budapest and then to his home village in order to search for his family. There he found one sister; they decided to leave Hungary. Later he discovered that another brother had made it to the new State of Israel. Basch realized that his mother and other sister were killed in Auschwitz. To this day he is tortured by the fact that he knows nothing of his father’s fate.
An example of identity papers that Basch delivered
In 1947 Basch came to America with no money and no family. He settled in Los Angeles, started work the next day, and learned English at night school. Later he was joined by his sister and brother. Basch married another Holocaust survivor and they had three children. Eventually he built a successful business in the garment industry and was able to retire early.
Since then, Basch has made it his mission to talk to children about the Holocaust in an effort to instill in them the importance of tolerance. “In order to survive we must accept the responsibility of being our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers,” Basch said. “Each one of us must do our share of improving our society one day at a time. We all have the ability to defeat evil in our own way.”
Basch also tells his story in the Academy Award-winning documentary The Last Days, produced by Steven Spielberg. It features five Hungarian survivors whose stories intertwine through their connections with Raoul Wallenberg.
Bill Basch died in Los Angeles in October, 2009.