(6/25/1903 – 7/23/2000)
Charles Bálintitt Jr.
Since July marks the 20th anniversary of the passing of Teszler Sándor, we at Magyar News thought that this would be a good time to reflect on the life of this truly unique man. Even though Sándor suffered many tragedies in his life, he could still manage to go through each day with a smile on his face and words of wisdom for those around him.
He was born in Budapest on June 25, 1903. During the early years of his life he spent most of his time in a hospital for the treatment of his club feet. At that time it took many surgeries, removing and replacing the crooked bones in his feet and ankles, to remedy this condition. Today, with much better techniques, in most cases clubfeet can be corrected in about 8 weeks. Back then it took a number of years. In fact, young Sándor spent so much time in the hospital with Catholic nuns, often praying with them, that he did not realize that he was Jewish, until he was about 7 or 8 years old. This was also about the time when he was first able to walk. All of his parents’ money went toward his medical bills. It was due to the generosity of his doctor that he received very expensive orthopedic shoes that allowed him to walk. He was then finally able to go to school and finished high school in Budapest.
His school years were not uneventful, since World War I began when he was 11. For a good part of the war he lived with just his mother and his sister, because during the war his father and two older brothers were called into military service. He continued his schooling, but could not participate in sports, since he was still somewhat crippled. His family also had very little money at this time for food or for heat in the winter. From 1916, in the summer he worked 6 days a week in an ammunition factory along with many other school children. After the war he lived through the communist “red terror” for a few months, followed by the fascist “white terror”. At first people were afraid to speak out against communists, then they were afraid to speak out for communists. Many of his professors were anti-Semitic in his final 2 years of high school. But he did OK because he was a very good student and didn’t talk about politics.
After high school he went to Chemnitz, Germany to study textile engineering. At that time there was a quota for the number of Jews who could attend college each year in Hungary. (Since the 5% quota had been exceeded, Teszler had to find a school in another country.) Here too, he often went hungry, but generally enjoyed his studies.
In 1925, after graduating from college, he moved to Zagreb, Croatia to begin working at his brother’s small textile company. This is where he met his future wife. He did not date before this because of his embarrassment about his feet. But this pretty girl, whose relatives lived near the factory, waited 3 years for him, until he could make enough money to be able to support her. They were married in June of 1928. The following year the business moved to Cakovec, Croatia and became quite prosperous, as it was the only textile factory in this region of what earlier had been the Austro-Hungarian Empire. All other similar businesses had been set up in the north, in the Czech area of the Kingdom.
Sándor and his wife and two sons (Otto, born in 1929, and Andrew, born in 1931) continued to live well in Croatia even after World War II began in Europe. He had become the head of production in the company, which began with 100 workers and reached 1,800 by 1944. After Hungary took over the area in 1941, they still forged ahead. It wasn’t until the Germans occupied Hungary in 1944 that things began to get bad quite rapidly. His workers protected him as long as they could, but this also meant that he couldn’t leave the factory for 6 months. He was then taken to Budapest, where he was able to hide with his family for a short time, but they were eventually turned in by someone and taken to a death house. He had actually already come close to being killed a few times, but this time he was sent to a place where no one was supposed to leave alive. All four of them had cyanide capsules hanging from their necks. This was something they did when things started getting very bad for the Jews. After having been severely beaten along with his wife and sons, they were close to the point of committing suicide, when they were saved by the Swiss Consul, who was in charge of protecting American and Yugoslavian interests in Hungary and they were all Yugoslavian citizens. Meanwhile, his father, his wife’s parents and one of his brothers were all killed by the Nazis.
As the Soviets pushed the Germans out of Hungary, Teszler thought that he could go back and re-establish his factory; however, in a quite ironic twist, the new Yugoslav government actually accused him of aiding the Germans and then seized his factory. Realizing that they would have to start over and seeing that Hungary was about to become a communist state, Sándor and his wife fled to England in December of 1947, where their sons were going to school, having been sent there a few months earlier.
Teszler arrived in New York City in January of 1948 and became a partner and then took over the small textile plant in Long Island that was owned by his older brother, Ákos. Shortly thereafter his sons came to the US as well, to attend North Carolina State University. In 1960, his son Andrew founded the Butte Knitting Mill in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Then Sándor sold his business in Long Island and moved to Spartanburg, to be near his sons, and he opened a plant in Kings Mountain, North Carolina. Due to his own suffering because of discrimination in Europe, he purposely integrated his new factory from the outset. Just consider that at that time all other work places in the state had separate bathrooms and water fountains for black people and white people. His factory only had one for men and one for women, and due to Sándor’s kindness to all of his workers, they all got along and there were no problems.
His son, Andrew, was a member of the Wofford College (Spartanburg, SC) Board of Trustees. After making a sizeable donation to the college in honor of his father, the new Library, which opened in 1969, was named the “Sandor Teszler Library”.
Sándor had sold his company in North Carolina in 1965 and went to work with his son to help the Butte Knitting Mill with quality control. In 1970, Andrew left the company and started a small new company, the Olympia Mill, with Sándor running the plant alone with 6 workers. In early 1971, Otto joined him there, but this family reunion was short lived, since Andrew died suddenly in May of 1971. Just about to turn 68, Sándor continued to run the company for another 8 years, until his retirement in 1979. He had been quite rich for a few years in Yugoslavia, lost everything, and then went on to do very well in the US, allowing him to travel the world with his wife on many vacations during a good part of their 53 year marriage.
After retirement he audited many classes at Wofford College. He remained a permanent fixture at the college even after the death of his wife in 1981 and his son, Otto, in 1990. The students called him “Opi” (for “Grandpa”). In 1987, he was awarded an honorary Doctor of Humanities degree by the college and in 1996, at the age of 93, the faculty of the college voted to make him a Professor of Humanities - realizing that while attending classes there, he was actually sharing his wisdom and life experience and thereby teaching so much to the students and even to the professors.
He truly lived a long, interesting and inspiring life. And through all of his hardships he continued to look ahead. His determination and kindness to others throughout his life resulted in yet another honor. After his death at the age of 97 on July 23, 2000, Wofford College created the “Sandor Teszler Award for Moral Courage and Service to Humankind” in his honor.
Teszler Sándor ends his 4 chapter memoir with the following words:
“And here it becomes especially difficult to explain my life. How could a cripple(d) man be successful in his life and could save his family during the terrible holocaust? We were the only four people in our town who were not deported. How is it that I feel that I was not embittered or scarred by the experiences of my condition in my childhood and of the horrors of my adult life in Yugoslavia and Hungary? I think something must be in my soul that I never envied or hated a healthy man. The people who worked for me in the big plant which I and my brother built felt toward me as (a) father, and that feeling and loyalty I have been able to create all of my life. I do not know why this is so, but in spite of all the tragedy of my life, I do know that whatever kindness I have shown others has been returned to me."
Another passage from his memoir, about an event that took place during the German occupation of Yugoslavia, shows how beneficial it can be to just be kind and forgiving:
“Earlier I had received a phone call in the middle of the night from the porter at the factory telling me that he had caught a man stealing hosiery from the plant. I went down to the plant and I asked the man why he stole from me. I told him that if he needed hosiery for his family I would let him have some but not to steal from me. I said to him that he would not be fired if he promised not to steal. I told the porter not to tell anyone in the factory what had happened and the next day the worker came to his job as if nothing had happened. It turned out that the thief was the leader of the German sympathizers in the town and when they went on a rampage against the Jews he stood guard in front of our house all night long to be sure that we were not harmed.”
This man is a true example of why we can gain so much in life, if we just treat our fellow human beings with dignity and respect.
Charles Bálintitt Jr. is a working Customs Broker in Lawrence, NY and a member of the Magyar News Online Editorial Board. His late father-in-law, Milutin Petkovich, was a prominent textile designer in New York City.