I have volunteered with the Refugee Council for 20 years - here's why - Refugee Council
July 28, 2016

I have volunteered with the Refugee Council for 20 years – here’s why

Bob Vertes left Hungary in 1957. Both of his parents were Holocaust survivors and after the Hungarian revolution, greatly feared the rise in anti-Semitism. After a long and successful teaching career, Bob was a teacher trainer for over 25 years. He has volunteered for the Refugee Council for two decades.

I was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1948. I left the country and arrived here with my parents in January 1957 as an 8 year old.

 My parents had known each other in their home town as teenagers. On hearing that my mother was getting married my father said he would never marry anyone else.

 My mother survived the Holocaust by hiding in the Budapest Ghetto, sometimes under false passports. Her husband escaped from a train taking him to Auschwitz, and returned to hide in his home town, where he was betrayed, and then executed by the German occupiers.

 In the war my father was first in forced labour in Hungary and then for the German army and finally for the Ukrainians. My parents met up unexpectedly in a cinema queue after the war and married soon after, and I was an unexpected arrival 15 months later. Both had thought they were unlikely to have children, and moved from a village into Budapest, the capital, to make a better life for the 3 of us.

With both parents working long hours I was nurtured by a distant elderly relative who came to live with us, almost all the close family on both sides having perished in the Holocaust.

I was a bright child and had learnt to read, write and count prior to starting school at age 6. On my first day home from primary school I announced that I wished to become a teacher. My mother did not then believe this was a serious choice, but it was a career to which I must have felt drawn instinctively. 

My father’s older brother had come to England in the 1930s and served in the British army during World War II. He phoned and encouraged my parents to leave, especially once there was a lull in the fighting in the Hungarian revolution, which had started in Oct 1956.

When it finished mid-November there was a noticeable rise in antisemitism and my mother, fearing the effects on her child, wished to leave taking me with her, but my father was unwell, so they could not risk trying the usual escape routes across the border.

I suffered anti-Semitic behaviour with name calling and nearly ending up under a lorry’s wheels having been pushed off the pavement. It was just as well we left when we did.

Our suitcases were thrown out of our window to the main street by people supposedly coming to repair tank shot holes in our walls.

My uncle, who by then had a wife and twin sons, offered to host us and find jobs for my parents if we go could get to England, which meant the UK would allow us in if we managed to get here.

In the light of my father’s inability to risk a long foot journey, my mother offered the Hungarian government our 3 bedroom flat, overlooking a main Budapest boulevard, in return for official passports. This offer was accepted, and our family savings mostly went on train fares.

We arrived here on the 4th day of a journey across Europe with one suitcase each.

In January 2017 it will be 60 years since I arrived in the UK, initially living in Hackney. None of us spoke more than a few words of English on arrival.

 My mother used her significant skills as a sewing machinist to support us from the week after we arrived in England. I was at school from then too, even though I knew very little English, and had to pick it up without much additional tuition. I was, however, always encouraged to study and passed my 11plus exam just 2 years after arriving here, getting into Hackney Downs grammar school. My father had found work with John Lewis in Oxford Street and worked for them for over 30 years.

 In England we were for many years supported by Refugee organisations, especially the Jewish Refugee Council, and the Association of Jewish Refugees.

It’s part of what drove me to become a volunteer with the Refugee Council, and run courses for refugees now for some 20 years.

 I gained a Mathematics degree and a PGCE and started my teaching career in a boys’ secondary school in Bow.

I have now worked for over 25 years in teacher training at St Mary’s University. It was through working there that I first became involved in assisting Refugees into Teaching, work with which I continue to this day.

I have also been an Open University tutor for more than 45 years on Mathematics and Education courses. After retirement I started a small educational consulting company, work for which keeps my body and brain active.

 I was fortunate to meet a Bristol-born Jewish girl, who has now been my wife for nearly 43 years, and with whom I have been blessed to have a daughter and son.

Each is now married but living not too far away, and have given us 5 grandchildren, with whom I am fortunate to be able to spend time regularly.

 I have now lost my parents though both (amazingly, for Holocaust survivors) lived till age 95. They were delighted to get a Diamond wedding greeting from the Queen.

They were very grateful to the UK for allowing us in and were proud of their decision to leave their homeland to enable me to live in safety and have the opportunity to practise my faith freely in a warm and supportive community.