Elizabeth Pathy Salett

Elizabeth Salett was born in Budapest, Hungary but spent most of her childhood in Egypt. She attended an all-girls English Catholic school during WWII. At the start of the war, Elizabeth was only four years old and was eight years old when the war ended in 1945. During this time period, she and her immediate family resided in Alexandria, Egypt where her father was the general consul for Hungary.

In this interview, Elizabeth Salett shares her experience during WWII and the tactics her parents used to protect her and brother from its narrative. She recalls the various procedures she and her family had to follow during the time of bombings. Though not close enough to potential harm, Elizabeth (Liz) and her brother still managed to collect shrapnel on their way to school, often arriving late due to their ventures. Liz also shares with us the story of László Almásy, a man who was portrayed as the protagonist in the cinema film, “The English Patient.” Her husband Stan Salett chimes in to explains how he and his wife came to view the film. She describes her immediate emotion as being “livid” after watching. Her next step was to write a letter which was eventually published by the Washington Post. Her letter ultimately impacted the narrative of the film altogether. She shares her father’s experience with Almásy who tried to assassinate him causing her and her family to escape to Cairo.

Procedures during the war

I was four or five years old so I have memories of going to the shelter with my parents. We lived in an apartment building, and there was a shelter that was very well prepared and everything. I had a crib there. Well, actually, before that, I remember before that we put up like black sort of sheets in the windows so that any light plane overhead wouldn’t see it. Initially, we had a corridor, and my brother and I each had a crib in the corner. So, when there were air raids, we would just go in the apartment in the crib. And then things apparently got worst, and we went downstairs to the shelter. So one of my memories is being over my father’s shoulder walking down the steps to the shelter. And we could be there for, I don’t know, you know, half an hour, an hour. I remember hearing the bombs. I learned the sound of bombs; its sort of the roaring sound. And then, fortunately, I didn’t hear when it fell because then it would have fallen someplace. But, there is certainly a sense of, you know, I can’t imitate it but this strong blaring sound.

Shrapnel collection

But there was shrapnel around. So in the mornings, my brother and I, who was two years older than me, would go out into those so called area, and we developed a shrapnel collect.  Can you explain shrapnel to us?  Shrapnel are little pieces of the bomb, right, comes in different shapes. But they’re fragments. The bomb that might have fallen some place farther away, but they were pieces. So we actually had, you know, which is the nicer piece, who has a bigger piece. It was a whole little thing about that. We kept that collection. I do not have that anymore. And then we knew we’d go to school—I don’t remember if it was one hour late or two hours late. So we always knew if there had been an air raid the night before, we’d go to school late. But somehow life continued, you know? It moved. We were very lucky because we weren’t hit, and so life sort of went back to normal quite quickly.

The story of László Almásy

So he’s asked by Almásy, he goes by Count Almásy, Hungarian. And he comes to Egypt and askes my father for an interview with the king of Egypt, King Fuad, because he wants to build a dessert museum in the Libyan dessert. So, my father arranges an appointment for him with the king. And he’s there, my father, and Almásy is there, and then British and Egyptian big wigs are there, and Almásy explains his project, and the king says, “I’ll get back to you.” A few days later, he lets my father know that the answer is “no.” He is not going to give permission for this Count Almásy to build a dessert museum. So, it turns out that—(Stan:) And Almásy is furious. (Liz:) And he’s furious. Turns out he is stationed with Rommel in the Libyan dessert. General Rommel is the German general who is about to conduct the effort at invading Egypt from El Alamein. And one day Almásy puts on a British uniform, and he comes into Cairo, goes to the nicest hotel there and he goes for a walk. And the British are following him, and they go find in his briefcase a list of people who would be basically done away with if Rommel wins the battle of El Alamein. [laughs] So one of my early memories that I described in this article is that—so my father was informed by the British that he was on this list, and we need to leave Alexandria. So, what we had to do was we all got into a car. We drove along a dessert road along the Nile at night with no lights so as not to be seen ,obviously, to Cairo where Egyptian friends put us up. So we were lucky that the Germans didn’t win at the El Alamein. Count Almásy survived the war.

Writing to the Washington Post

(Stan:) We finally sit down. The movie opens up, and I don’t know if any of you have ever seen it, but you should. It is a beautiful film, and it opens with a plane over the dessert and the shadow of the plane going over the sand dunes of the dessert. So, there’s this undulating image, wonderful music. We sit back, we relax, go into the film. And about 15 minutes into the film, Liz grabs my arm and says, “This isn’t the real story. My father knew this man. This isn’t the real person, and I don’t know what’s going on.” We see the entire film, and Liz gets increasingly upset. We go home.  (Liz:) Because he’s the hero.  (Stan:) He’s the hero and what he does, and it’s described in the article. So I’m trying to fall asleep at night, and Liz is up now. Now she’s reading some of her father’s memoirs. She’s going back to this exact time describing this meeting with King Fuad and Almásy and attempting to get this archeological museum. And she says, ” I have to write a letter to the Washington Post.”   (Liz:) Eventually, with difficulty, I did. Concerned that the bad guy is being portrayed as the good guy, and in the film as you will see, he gives away maps to the Germans at a certain point because he wants to save his lover. So, I really object to that. And so, I’m told, oh you know, what is it? (Stan:) The second world war was fifty years ago. What’s the difference now?” (Liz:) “Who cares. What’s the difference?” It was really poopooed. “It’s not interesting any more,” and so forth. So it took some doing. Stan had to call someone.

Communication in Egypt during WWII

How did you get the news?  Radio  BBC And how long would have it taken an event for you to have gotten that news? We had radio news. My parents listened to the BBC. So, I guess other news as it came in from, whether it was from Germany or Italy or other parts. I don’t know if they heard anything from the US. That would have been too far away at the time. Certainly, we saw movies and there were news reels. If you go to the movies you get ten plus minutes of news reel and that’s when you something about the war and stuff like that. But, I didn’t go to the movies as much as a kid.