Hungarian rhapsody

Hungarian rhapsody

Andre Friedman’s story goes through the Holocaust and Israel’s beginnings to return to the Hungarian Wild West

Photo by Jerry Szubin
Photo by Jerry Szubin

Andre Friedman of Woodcliff Lake has had a widely spiraling life, spanning most of the world’s continents, containing as many acts as a Victorian melodrama. But it’s been a spiral, not a straight road, because there are some things that always are true and draw him back — at base, he’s a Hungarian-born American Jew.

When he was born, in 1928, Andre was an upper-middle-class Hungarian Jew; his hometown, Salgotarjan, had mines and steel mills, a sort of much smaller Magyar Pittsburgh. His father, Jeno Friedmann, had started the shoe factory that supported the family; when he married Andre’s mother, Margi Baumann, in 1927, a wedding photograph shows them as fashionably dressed. The town had about 15,000 residents, and about 1,000 of them were Jews. “It was a significant minority, and commerce was about 95 percent in Jewish hands.” The Jewish community “was Orthodox with strong chasidic influences — but my parents looked modern Orthodox,” as anachronistic as that term is.

“I grew up like just about everyone else in Salgotarjan,” Mr. Friedman said. “We had a dual education — from 8 in the morning until 1 in the afternoon in the state school, and cheder in the afternoon. This situation created a tremendous dichotomy. Remember, this is the 1930s, when there already was legislation passed against the Jews in Hungary. The atmosphere was extremely heavy with official and social anti-Semitism. And here we are, little children — in the mornings we were supposed to be Hungarian patriots, and in the afternoon we were supposed to be very insular Jews, to whom that same state government obviously was not friendly.

“We were children. How were we to figure that out? It was very difficult. And there was virtually no contact outside school between Jews and non-Jews. I don’t remember one friend who wasn’t Jewish.”

Rita and Andre Friedman
Rita and Andre Friedman

Cheder — the traditional one-room Jewish schoolhouse for 6- through 13-year-old boys — was not run according to educational principles we would recognize today. “We would take the parashah of the week” — that week’s Torah portion — “which of course was written in Hebrew, and we had to translate it into Yiddish. But no one in our generation understood a word of either Hebrew or Yiddish.” Although many Jews among the children’s parents’ or grandparents’ generations had come from places where Yiddish was spoken, Andre and his friends spoke only Hungarian.

“We’d never get to the end of the parashah, and every Sunday we’d start the new one, with never an explanation or a translation,” he said. When they became bnai mitzvah, boys would read Torah and haftarah, and they also would deliver a d’var Torah in Yiddish, which of course had to be written for them. They also would deliver another talk, focused on ethical living. That talk was given in German, another language the boys did not speak, in another talk written by another teacher. He does not know why that tradition developed, Mr. Friedman said, but “it was accepted as part of a longstanding tradition.” The irony of that particular tradition is particularly clear in hindsight.

The community was close, tight-knit, and demanded conformity, Mr. Friedman said; flouting its norms by, say, a man taking off his hat in public, could lead to serious consequences. “My closest friend had an older brother who was a dandy, and this fellow sometimes took off his hat. His father almost lost his job because of it.” On the other hand, “when the doctor came to your house — and the doctor was Jewish — every man in that house took off his hat, out of respect. Life was full of contradictions.”

It also included joy. “We felt comfortable and safe in the embrace of the predictable, recurrent routines of our lives,” Mr. Friedman has written in an unpublished memoir. “We loved the rites of the synagogue service, the familiar chants of the cantor, to such an extent that we incorporated them into our children’s plays. And above all I loved the rituals of Friday nights; the early synagogue service and at home the smell of freshly baked challah, the meal with its never-changing courses and the traditional chanting before and after the meal.”

By 1943, it was time for Mr. Friedman to consider what to do next. By then, most Jewish boys were learning trades; anti-Jewish legislation made that the safest route. But Mr. Friedman wanted to continue to study. He could not do that in Salgotarjan, so he went to Budapest, where he could enroll in a gymnasium. On March 19, 1944, the Germans occupied Hungary and the Hungarian Nazi party took over and forced Budapest’s Jews into the ghetto. Mr. Friedman was able to get home, but “my father had been in a forced labor camp for two years,” he said. He was an only child, so his mother was alone. “She tried to run the factory, but it was almost impossible.” Not because she was a woman, he added, but “because Jews didn’t get allocations of raw materials.”

The Jews of Salgotarjan were shoved into a ghetto. “One day, a bunch of Hungarian military people came into the ghetto, and they herded men from 16 to 50 into the town square. I was exactly 16.

Why were the men taken to forced labor rather than death camps? “They wanted to remove all possible resistance before the deportation,” Mr. Friedman said.

In the labor camp, Mr. Friedman “assisted the German air force in building a big airport in the middle of Hungary,” he said, laughing at the word “assisted.” His job was carrying bags of cement.

The war in Hungary was nightmarishly brutal, even by Nazi standards, but it ended in less than a year. He and his companions survived because the commander who oversaw them was “one of the chasidei olam,” among the world’s righteous people, Mr. Friedman said. Before the war ended, he took a group of about 150 people, including Mr. Friedman and one of his uncles, to Budapest, “the day before the Russians encircled it fully.”

Mr. Friedman and his uncle survived the Russian siege, locked in the city with the Nazis, although many people and animals did not; because it was such a cold winter, corpses froze in the streets, sparing the living from the epidemics that would have erupted at any other time of year. It was a particularly dangerous place for Jewish men; often Nazi patrols captured Jewish men in the morning, when they found them hiding in cellars, trying to escape the bombing. They would have the men work all day; at night, rather than allow them to return to the ghetto, they’d line them up on the banks of the Danube, tell them to take off their shoes, which would be lined up by the riverside — and then they’d shoot them into the river. “We wanted to avoid that,” Mr. Friedman said.

He and his uncle found refuge in a public bathhouse where dead bodies were stored. They had very little food; starving, “we spent much of our time making up menus for imaginary feasts.”

On January 18, 1944, the siege of Budapest ended. “There was nothing to eat there, so we decided to go back to Salgotarjan,” Mr. Friedman said. “There were no trains, no nothing; as the Germans were forced out, they cut the railroad ties.” The snow did not stop falling. The two men walked the tracks back home.

Mr. Friedman’s father had survived and was back home; the two lived there as World War II ended and the Communist regime began. Mr. Friedman finished high school; he’d always wanted to be a lawyer but his father thought that unwise, so he entered the University of Budapest as an economics major. “I started in 1947, studying in the department of economics. The school was basically capitalist in its orientation. At the end of the school year, we were told that the department had been abolished, and that a new department would open.” That new department would be as Marxist as its successor had been capitalist. Mr. Friedman was sure that he, like most of the other students, would not be readmitted to the new department, but he was. “The department was creating the communist economic cadre that would help form the country’s new future,” he said.

He didn’t like it. “It was like being in military camp,” he said. What’s more, he was sure he didn’t belong. “I was convinced that they’d admitted me by mistake,” he said. “I was Jewish, and the Communist party had anti-Semitic tendencies. And my father was a capitalist, and my grades weren’t particularly high. I was sure that I’d be kicked out soon.”

Socially, he was happy. Mr. Friedman always had a good singing voice and he always loved to sing. He’d sung in the synagogue choir, in high school he’d taken serious voice lessons, and he volunteered to sing in college whenever he could. “Before I knew it, I was the head of the student union’s cultural division,” he said.

Andre Friedman as a student
Andre Friedman as a student

But that wasn’t enough. “The university was becoming more and more Stalinist, and I decided I didn’t want it,” he said. He had friends, a brother and sister, whose father was a prominent government official. The father fell out of favor and ended up the defendant “in a big Stalinist show trial,” Mr. Friedman said. “The moment their father was arrested, my friends disappeared from school. I never heard of them again. No one ever said anything about them again.”

Incidents like this one — this was not the only one — and increasing discomfort made it clear to Mr. Friedman that he wanted to leave. That, however, was far easier thought (not said. Never said) than done. Hungary’s borders were closed.

Mr. Friedman was resourceful and resilient. He also was 18, and determined to have a life. Through connections, he found a woman who smuggled people from Hungary to Slovakia. He came up with a story — that he had a girlfriend in Slovakia, and she was pregnant. “Everyone knew that it wasn’t true,” he said, but that was irrelevant. He got to Slovakia, and through some machinations, overseen by Israelis who were in Europe to find young, strong Jews to help build their brand-new nation, he ended up in Austria, then in Italy, and finally in Israel. The last leg of the journey was on a freighter, the Galili, an old Greek ship the Israeli government had bought, that sailed from Bari to Haifa.

At the time, these adventures appeared entirely unsurprising to Mr. Friedman. “You didn’t have time to think about how amazing it was,” he said. “You did what you had to do to survive, or to get the life that you wanted to get.”

Mr. Friedman did not speak Hebrew before he got to Israel, but “you could get away with Hungarian almost everywhere there in those days,” he said. “At first, I spoke Hungarian with a smattering of French, which I learned at the university in Budapest, and the little Yiddish I got from I-don’t-know-where.”

As soon as he landed in Haifa, Mr. Friedman, like all men his age, was drafted. “I was in military boot camp, and one day the military entertainment troupe came to the base.” Mr. Friedman ended up in the company. “Most of my boot camp I spent not on the firing range but going from place to place,” he said. “I sang mainly operatic arias and then some Israeli songs. I had a whole repertoire.”

Mr. Friedman already had longed for an operatic career and then dismissed the idea. “I don’t know where I got enough wisdom at that age, but I realized that I just didn’t have it,” he said. “I had enough experience of singers to know that if you’re not on the top, then you’re nowhere, and I knew that I wouldn’t be on the top. Still, I’m a lifelong opera buff.”

Andre Friedman in the Israeli Air Force
Andre Friedman in the Israeli Air Force

After boot camp, Mr. Friedman was sent to Jaffa, and then, for the second of his two years of IDF service, by then fluent in Hebrew, he was the chief clerk for the Air Force supply administration. “I always was clear that I wanted to continue my education, and I wanted to be a lawyer,” he said. “So when my military service was over, I was accepted to law school at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.” Five years later, he graduated with a law degree.

Israel was brand new, and there was no extra money for anyone. This was the early 1950s, and “the economic situation there was horrendous, almost to starvation. There was almost no food for civilians. There was an allocation system, with points, and that let you know how many tomatoes you could buy. The only thing you could buy without limits was bread and a horrible frozen fish filet.”

It was German reparations that alleviated the problem, he added.

The Hebrew University — which was not yet on Mount Scopus but in a onetime French monastery — charged no tuition, but students had no money. “To survive, you worked for the government,” Mr. Friedman said. “The government was very nice. Its official hours were 7 to 2, because it realized that students had to make a living. Classes were in the afternoon, until 8 or 9.

Mr. Friedman worked on the food allocation system, which was called Tzena. After he graduated, he rose rapidly, soon becoming the head of the foreign exchange department of the treasury department. “This is when I first got close to foreign trade and international business, because at that point every import, every export, any use of foreign currency was within the authority of this department.”

In the mid 1950s, Mr. Friedman took advantage of a program instituted by Pierre Mendès France, France’s president, who was Jewish, that offered scholarships to Israelis. He spent two years in Paris, studying international commercial law as a postgraduate student. “I went back to Israel during the summer, and I had a special assignment,” he said. “They were draining the Hula, and I spent the summer with them. They wouldn’t do that today.” In fact, at the start of this decade, the project was reversed; today, part of the onetime-swamp-turned-farmland is a wetlands nature preserve.

Mr. Friedman spent the summer of 1958 in London. He knew that he was going to the United States later that year, and had to figure out how to make some money. He had been connected to the progressive Jewish community in Europe and decided to combine that closeness with his love for singing. He’d become a high holiday chazan. He’d been familiar with the music of Louis Lewandowski, and used his connections to get an audition in London for a job at a large synagogue in Berlin.

“I was there for about an hour. I sang for about five minutes and he sang for 55 minutes, and then he proclaimed me suitable.” So Mr. Friedman got the job, “and suddenly it turns out that I don’t know the liturgy they’re using. It’s not Lewandowsky.” He had from Sunday to Wednesday to learn it. He did.

“And then at the end I got some feedback. They asked me if I’d consider going back either to Paris or to London for a year or two to study for the rabbinate, and then come back, not as a cantor but as a rabbi.”

He didn’t, and never has regretted that decision, Mr. Friedman said.

After the holidays that year, Mr. Friedman came to the United States, sailing into New York Harbor on the S.S. Liberte, berthed in what was basically a dormitory at the ship’s lowest level. 1958 was the year when commercial jet flights started; “it probably would have been about five times as expensive as the ship was,” he said. Once here, Mr. Friedman studied for a master’s degree in international business at the Bernard Baruch School of Business in Manhattan, and he began to work. His first job was as a file clerk in an international trade company that imported goods made of steel into the United States from Europe, and exported it to Latin America. The pay wasn’t great, so he supplemented his income by ushering at a movie theater. He was there for about a year — and so was “Gigi.” He got to see only that one movie, and only in snippets.

Rita and Andre Friedman signing their ketubah in 1964, and today.
Rita and Andre Friedman signing their ketubah in 1964, and today.

In 1960, Mr. Friedman met Rita Golding, “who came from the largest pool of Jewish marriage possibilities in the United States,” he said. “It’s called Brooklyn.” The two married in 1964, and his decision to stay in this country was sealed under the chuppah.

Mr. Friedman wasn’t proud about the level of the first jobs he took, but he always rose quickly and learned whatever he could along the way. When he was 30, working in the company that imported and exported steel, “I was an assistant trader and we got a telegraph placing an order for a quantity of barbed wire from us,” he said.

“It was signed by Fidel Castro.”

He learned a great deal from the company, but “the traders were the highest level I could have gone there, and when the traders went to the toilet, they took their chairs with him. So I decided to get out of there.” He took jobs strategically, for what he could learn; he chose to work in small companies because he could learn far more there than at larger, more hierarchical, more flow-charted places. And it was during that time that Mr. Friedman began to travel to the Far East. He has spent much time in southeast Asia, and has a carefully selected, jaw-droppingly vivid and beautiful art collection gathered during those long trips.

In Thailand in 1973
In Thailand in 1973

Together with two partners, in 1964 Rita and Andre Friedman started a business, Bart Overseas Corporation in Paramus; in 1968, the Friedmans bought their partners out. In 1970, the family, which now included a son, Peter, moved to New Jersey.

When he started the business, Mr. Friedman said, “I had certain considerations. For one thing, I had virtually no money. That was a problem. It was a start-up, and I’d never before been in business on my own.

“And of course I had to figure out what to do. I wanted an export business, but I had to find a niche.”

So — not much money, a lot of experience, a lot of drive, a lifetime spent exploring niches. Aha!

Items collected by Mr. Friedman on his travels.
Items collected by Mr. Friedman on his travels.

The United States used its own specs, he said, and most American manufacturers didn’t care that the rest of the world used different ones. America was booming, and its manufacturers didn’t have to worry about exporting anything. The market at home was huge. But often American designers, architects, and engineers designed projects around the world, using American specs. They needed the materials American manufacturers were too busy to bother exporting, so how would those builders around the world get the materials they needed? They couldn’t be manufactured locally. They’d have to come from the United States. And somebody would have to broker and administer that.

Enter Bart Overseas Corporation.

“This was a market that was very attractive to me,” Mr. Friedman said. “It was project-oriented, so we did not have to buy anything in advance. We got the bill from the contractors, we supplied prices, and then the contractors got the job, and hopefully after that we negotiated a final purchase order. When we got the purchase, all I required were letters of credit, confirmed by American banks, so it removed the credit risk almost entirely.

“I didn’t invent this, but I refined it. And slowly I started to build up credit with my suppliers. After a while, I became an expert in letters of credit. Slowly I built up a substantial credit history. Most of the time I was able to get cash discounts, because I got paid on the letter of credit before I had to pay the suppliers.”

Mr. Friedman supplied some building projects in Saudi Arabia, he said. It was complicated, because non-Muslims are not allowed in Mecca or Medina — forget about Jews! — but he was able to develop relationships with Turks, who as Muslims could go there.

The business flourished, taking Mr. Friedman all around the world, even to Australia, although for some reason he did not do much work in Latin America. At its peak, he had 14 offices in 14 countries. But then, in the 1980s, things changed. American exports declined, and Mr. Friedman’s services became less necessary and less lucrative.

What to do?

The resourceful Mr. Friedman sold the firm to a company that leased mainframe computers; because of the vagaries of the rules of depreciation, it was a good deal for both sides. But what next?

Mr. Friedman always had loved practicing law, but he could not do so easily in the United States when he first arrived in New York for two reasons. First, he was not then an American citizen, and then lawyers had to be. But that no longer was the case, and anyway he had obtained American citizenship decades earlier.

Second, lawyers once had to have degrees from American institutions in order to be admitted to the bar in any American state. That no longer was true. If your law degree came from a country that did not use English common law, you’d have to take a few additional courses before you could take the bar exam, but if your degree came from a country that did use English common law — like, say, Israel — you could just go and take the bar exam.

Mr. Friedman took the bar exam, and he passed it. He was admitted into the New York State bar in 1984.

So there Mr. Friedman was, 56 years old and in some senses a newly minted lawyer. He broke into law by working in friends’ firms, almost as an intern, working pro bono for an exporters association, and becoming a volunteer arbitrator. But he was aided immensely by “the emergence of Hungary as a potential market for Western legal services,” he said. Communism was about to end in Hungary, and Hungarians were hungry for a freer system. “They saw the writing on the wall,” he said.

“The Hungarian government had a trade office in New York, so I went to see them.” He went to Budapest and set up meetings. Most of the Hungarian businesspeople he met were eager to work with him, he said, but there was one striking exception.

“This man was the legal advisor to the company that exported Hungarian buses,” he said. Some backstory — during the communist era, “the Warsaw Pact countries each provided different goods for everyone else. Hungary had automotives and pharmaceuticals.

“This guy was exporting buses. I said he’d have new markets, and he said he didn’t want them. ‘Look,’ he said. ‘Today we make the buses, and we know where we’re going to sell them, and the moment we put those buses on the train we are finished with them. We just prepare the invoice and the government pays us. We don’t have to provide service, we have no warranties, we have no marketing. That’s it. We’re done.’

“That was the whole basis of why the Communist system didn’t work,” Mr. Friedman added.

At first, Mr. Friedman was on his own, but soon he joined a firm, Nagy and Trocsamyi, and soon after that he became a partner. The firm, as its name makes clear, has close ties to Hungary — one of the name partners, Laszlo Trocsamyi, has been Hungary’s minister of justice since 2014. “Hungary was the Wild West in the 1980s, but the big wave of U.S. investment waned after the regime change in the 1990s,” Mr. Friedman said. “You couldn’t believe the people who were showing up. The gold-diggers.” He became an expert in hotels, and “I very quickly became one of the prominent foreign lawyers,” he said.

He also managed to triangulate Israel into his work life. From 1992 to 2010, Mr. Friedman worked with Teva Pharmaceuticals, the Israeli company that is the world’s largest producer of generic drugs. Beginning as its outside legal representative in Hungary, Mr. Friedman spent 15 years as, among his many other responsibilities and titles, its regional general counsel for central and eastern Europe.

He’s semi-retired now. Peter Friedman is married, to Marzanna, and Rita and Andre are the grandparents of 6-year-old Jennifer. The younger Friedmans live in Baskin Ridge.

Rita and Andre, who now spend part of their week in Manhattan, where their apartment provides them with the sort of Central Park views that would make it very difficult for weaker people to do anything other than stare out for hours on end, have retained their close connection to Jewish life. They are long-term members of Temple Emanuel of the Pascack Valley in Woodcliff Lake and maintain their decades-long closeness to its retired rabbi, Andre Ungar, another Hungarian with early, painful memories of Budapest. They also maintain their close connection to Israel, flying there often.

Mr. Friedman is thinking about writing his memoirs. He has an extraordinary number of stories, vivid, surprising, sometimes counter-intuitive stories, stories that bring to life times and places most of us know only as myth. This story here, in your hands now, reader, is just a surface-level sampling. It might be a curse to live in interesting times, but if you survive them, there’s a blessing in telling the stories.

read more: