Royal Society Publishing

Andrew Keller. 22 August 1925 – 7 February 1999

Alan Windle

Elected F.R.S. 1972


Born in Budapest in 1925, Andrs Keller was the only child of Jewish parents. He entered the University of Budapest in 1943 on a Jewish quota to study natural philosophy. Studies became increasingly difficult because of the activity of fascists in the university as Hungary was an ally of Nazi Germany and was expected to be seen to pursue an anti–Semitic policy. Perhaps inevitably, he had to join a Jewish labour battalion, which is where Jewish men of military service age were sent instead of into the armed forces. After several days at a drafting centre in a Budapest brickworks, he was taken east to Ruthenia, which was in Slovakia and is now in the Ukraine, and was put to work building airfields. His battalion was moved around and it is difficult to know exactly where he was sent and when. However, one possible fixed point is that he remembers his train alongside a train of German troops who were celebrating the assassination of Hitler (as they thought), which would indicate a date very soon after the 6 July 1944 plot; false rumours of its success had been circulated initially to aid in the hunt for those involved. The food was poor and they were overworked, so they supplemented their diet by cooking mushrooms on shovels. The Russians were advancing and almost completely encircled Ruthenia, leaving just one narrowing corridor towards the west. As the work battalion was being marched towards it, Keller and a friend jumped the column into nearby undergrowth and hid. For several days they lived off the land and then separated as Keller wanted to wait until the Russian front had passed by. He hid behind hay in the roof space of an abandoned barn and was nearly found when the barn was searched; however, the soldiers did not look behind the hay, they just prodded it and departed. Keller watched the Russian troops occupy the village led by a mounted cavalry officer followed by an ox cart. He heard later that only one of his group survived the winter of 1944/45. He tried to work his way westwards behind the front, but was soon picked up by the Russians near to Szatmr (now known by its Rumanian name of Satu–Mare), who sent him to a displaced persons' camp in Bessarabia in Rumania. Although the Russians were tolerant, they left the day–to–day running of the camp to the senior German prisoners, who made life particularly hard for a young Jew. Keller noted batches of prisoners being taken away in trains, and he suspected, correctly, that they were being taken deep into Soviet territory. He decided to escape, and on the next moonless night he managed to crawl under three rolls of barbed wire where they had been stretched across a depression in the ground, and then over a wooden palisade that collapsed under him and alerted the guards. However, the guards did nothing, Keller surmising that they had orders to stop escapers they could see, but no orders that told them what to do if the fence fell over. He ran into the night, unhurt, and started once again to trek back to Budapest. Initially he reached Bucharest, where he was helped by a Jewish resident called Goldfarb, and finally back to Budapest, which he reached in February 1945, shortly after the city's liberation by the Red Army. Most of the surviving remnant of Hungarian Jews was in Budapest, the majority of the prewar Jewish population of 600 000 having been deported to death camps during the spring of 1944. These included Keller's father, uncle and aunt, who were all sent to Buchenwald and never seen again. At that time his young cousin had been sent across Budapest to his mother, with the family gold hidden in the head of her doll, and together they survived the holocaust, as did his paternal grandparents.

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