Author shares family story of survival

By: 
Mark Davis with the Powell Tribune, via the Wyoming News Exchange

Andrew Laszlo Jr. speaks with members of the audience after a speech Thursday at NWC. Laszlo’s book, ‘Footnote to History,’ details his father’s life. Photo by Mark Davis, Powell Tribune.

Andrew Laszlo Sr. was one of America’s top cinematographers, working on popular television series and movies starring actors like Barbra Streisand and Sylvester Stallone. However, few knew the horror he endured in his youth. His son, Andrew Laszlo Jr. brought his father’s story to Powell last week as a guest speaker at Northwest College. Photo courtesy Andrew Laszlo Jr.

Laszlo’s secrets revealed

 

POWELL — Andrew Laszlo Sr. didn’t want to think about his past, let alone share it. He literally walked away from memories of his youth, determined to keep moving forward and refusing to look back. 

 

While still serving in the U.S. Army in 1952, he married Ann Granger, whose family owned a large ranch in Montana. They had three children.

Laszlo kept his horrendous secrets from them. 

 

He worked his way from a freelance still photographer taking family portraits to being one of the top cinematographers of his time, with credits for television shows like “Naked City,” “Sergeant Bilko,” “The Beatles at Shea Stadium” and “Shogun.” 

 

He was also there, saving the day with his ingenuity, when Ed Sullivan first interviewed Fidel Castro in Havana, Cuba. 

 

Laszlo’s numerous movie credits include Barbra Streisand’s “The Owl and the Pussycat,” Sylvester Stallone’s “Rambo: First Blood” and “Star Trek V: The Final Frontier.” 

 

He received Emmy nominations for “The Man without a Country” in 1973 and “Shogun” in 1980. 

 

He also served two terms as governor of The National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences, just one of many positions he held while serving in professional organizations, as well as becoming an adjunct professor at Montana State University in Bozeman. 

 

Yet through a long career working with storytellers, Laszlo refused to tell his. The secret was easy to keep because nobody was left to betray him. They were all dead. 

 

Then, after decades of success in his career and marriage — his children now in their 40s — Laszlo sent his family a handmade book, printed and bound in his basement shop, detailing his secrets. He even did gold inlay on the cover, demonstrating the care he took in the presentation. 

 

Ann was angry, his children shocked to their core. A note in the book read, “As I warned you, lots of my life’s aspects are difficult to talk about — very probably hard for you to understand and reading it might cause discomfort. Yes, from here on, this account is going to get rough.” 

 

Yet as they read his account titled “Footnote to History,” they began to understand. 

 

Laszlo Sr. had survived the Holocaust, and he hid it from his family, not wanting his traumatic experiences to stop his growth or his children to grow up feeling like victims, his son Andrew Laszlo Jr. said. 

 

“Anxiety, guilt and depression followed them [survivors] for the rest of their lives,” Laszlo Jr. said, after finally understanding what his father had attempted to do in keeping silent about his youth. 

 

The patriarch’s secrets now revealed, his family soon began to understand him and some of his odd habits, like sewing $100 bills into his clothes and preparing for the worst with meticulous planning prior to traveling. He was prepared for anything that might come and carried enough medical instruments in his travel bag of toiletries to “do minor surgery,” he said. 

 

He was determined to be a survivor. 

 

Laszlo’s life

 

Laszlo Sr. was raised in Papa, Hungary, the son of a family with Jewish heritage. His mother was Jewish and his father, a World War I hero, a Catholic. 

 

Despite his father’s service to the country, the family was removed from their home when World War II started and relocated to a fenced “ghetto” prior to being separated and sent to concentration camps. 

 

His mother was sent to Auschwitz, never to be seen again. Laszlo Sr., along with his father and brother, were put on a train and sent to labor camps at Bergen-Belsen, where they were forced to help build railroads for the Nazis. Those who became too weak to work were killed. Toward the end of the war, the father and son found each other in the camp. 

 

“When they saw each other, they didn't recognize each other initially because they were in such terrible condition. But when they did, my grandfather cried. It was the first and only time in his life that my father saw his father, who was a big, strong man, cry,” Laszlo Jr. said. 

 

Later, Laszlo Sr. watched helplessly while his father was beaten nearly to death. Shortly after his father became ill and his captors took him away, never to be seen again.

 

“He had been beaten daily,” Laszlo Jr. said of his grandfather during a lecture; a special guest speaker to a packed house Feb. 1 in the Yellowstone Building of Northwest College. “He would never bow his head or surrender.” 

 

Laszlo Sr. suffered tremendously, fighting through abuse, starvation and rampant illness, yet was determined to live. 

 

 

 

The 6-foot-3-inch, 220-pound man who entered the infamous camp weighed in at about 90 pounds by the time he was liberated. 

 

There was a lot of luck involved in his survival. He could have been caught vandalizing the gear boxes of trains in which he had access while slaving on the railroads. He easily could have succumbed to disease or starved to death like so many others. He was lucky to simply make it to the camp; many died on the days-long train ride without food or water to Bergen-Belsen. 

 

But it was Laszlo Sr.’s survival instincts that carried him through the unthinkably harsh situation. 

 

On the train he secured a corner of the windowless car, cutting a small hole in the wooden sidewall for ventilation and to catch rain for small life-sustaining sips. He sewed a second sole in his shoes to help keep his feet warm while he labored through the harsh winters. He hoarded small stashes of food when he could, but he also shared food with others in need. 

 

In May of 1945, Germany surrendered, yet things got worse for the prisoners. 

 

“There was no longer anyone to bring any food or any water,” Laszlo Jr. said. 

 

His father joined forces with other inmates and they would forage in nearby woods for sustenance. On one trip they surprised a German officer still in uniform and were able to take him by surprise and get his gun. 

 

“My father's first thought was to shoot him, because he had just watched his father die a few days ago. But he couldn't do it. He wrote in his memoir that it would have been murder and it would have stayed with (him) for the rest of his life,” Laszlo Jr. told the crowd. 

 

Shortly thereafter, the Red Cross took over in the camp and things started to get better. 

 

The Red Cross nursed many of the prisoners back to health, though some were too far gone and still died. 

 

Laszlo Sr. gained weight, and by the fall he was ready to go home. But when he arrived in Papa, the Russians had taken over. In many ways they were as brutal as the Nazis. 

 

Escaping to America 

 

With his entire family now dead, Laszlo Sr. decided to escape the Russians, this time with a plan to make it to America. 

 

After making it past the Russians, he began walking, hitchhiking and riding a stolen motorcycle down perilous roads with next to nothing to his name. He made it to what was then Yugoslavia, where he applied and was granted the opportunity to emigrate to the United States. 

 

When Laszlo Sr. finally arrived in America, he only had enough money for a loaf of bread in his pocket. He didn't speak English and had no trade or advanced education. 

 

“What he did have was an incredibly strong will to move on and put his past behind him,” Laszlo Jr. said. 

 

Laszlo Sr. learned English by spending days at movie theaters and eventually joined the Army, where he received training in motion pictures. 

 

Still, he refused to divulge his secret. He abandoned the Jewish faith to guard his secret, raising his family in the Episcopal Church. 

 

Laszlo Jr. only started to learn about his heritage and the Jewish religion as an adult while doing research about his history. 

 

Andrew Laszlo Sr. died in 2011 after fighting cancer for seven years, but his amazing story lives on through his son.

 

“He died as he lived; with a smile on his face. His life was the story of a strong will triumphing over evil. And I will never forget that his strong will and suffering is what gave me and my children the gift of life,” Laszlo Jr. said. 

 

Growing up in New York, Laszlo Jr. attended public school, played hockey and Little League baseball. He graduated from Dartmouth College, going on to work 42 years for Morgan Stanley in Billings. He retired as an executive director in the Wealth Management Division and then began sharing his father's story through speeches and the book detailing his father’s life, also called “Footnote to History.” 

 

He said it’s important to share the story about his father, his struggle to survive and how he lived his life with a burdensome secret. 

 

After his story was revealed, the family organized a trip back to Hungary to retrace the former prisoner’s early years. They visited a monument to the lost family members, at which time Laszlo Jr. told his father, “I’m so glad Hungary is trying to do the right thing.” 

 

“He took me by the arm not so softly around the corner and showed me something that I hadn't noticed. There on a wall covered by ivy was a fresh swastika. It couldn't have been more than a week or two weeks old. And he told me that was a sign anger will never go away. And you must never take anything for granted and you must always be vigilant,” Laszlo Jr. said. 

 

Anne Frank died at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in February or March 1945 — at the same time as Andrew Laszlo Sr. was there.

 

Frank’s specific cause of death is unknown; however, there is evidence that suggests she died from a typhus epidemic that spread through the camp, killing more than 17,000 prisoners. 

 

When the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp was liberated on April 15, 1945, British soldiers found thousands of unburied bodies and tens of thousands of severely ill prisoners.

 

At least 52,000 of the total of around 120,000 prisoners in BergenBelsen died of starvation or disease, of the abuse they received from the Schutzstaffel (a.k.a. the SS, the elite Nazi guard) or of the effects of their imprisonment immediately following their liberation.

 

“We have to keep that memory alive so it never happens again,” Laszlo Jr. said. 

 

For more information, see facebook.com/profile. php?id=100094652528222.

 

This story was published on February 8, 2024. 

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