Elizabeth Pathy Salett
Elizabeth “Liz” Pathy Salett was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1937. Her family lived in Alexandria, Egypt, where her father served as Consul General representing Hungary in Egypt. She attended the all-girl’s English Girls’ College, a K-12 British day school during World War II.
In this interview, Liz discusses the various protocols her family followed during bombing campaigns and her time spent collecting shrapnel the morning after bombs fell near their neighborhood. She speaks about the normalization of war and her family members that were in Hungary during World War II. She also shares information about László Almásy, whom her father knew and who is portrayed as the protagonist in the film, The English Patient. Liz describes her immediate reactions to the film and the essay she wrote about it, which was published in the Washington Post and ultimately impacted the discussion about the historical accuracy of the film.
Procedures During the War
Well, I was four or five years old [when the war began]. 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 that we put up like black sort of sheets in the windows, so that any flights overhead wouldn’t see us. Initially, we had a corridor, and my brother and I had a crib in the corridor. So, when there were air raids, we would just be in the apartment, in a crib. And then, things apparently got worse and we went downstairs to the shelter.
And so, one of my memories is being over my father’s shoulders, walking down the steps to the shelter. We could be there for, you know, half an hour or an hour. I remember hearing the bombs. I learned the sound of bombs—it’s sort of a roaring sound. And then, fortunately, I didn’t hear when it fell because then it would have fallen someplace [nearby]. But there is certainly a sense of—you know, I can’t imitate it. But [it’s] this really strong whirring sound.
There was shrapnel around. So, in the mornings, my brother I—who’s two years older than me—would go out into [the square outside our building]. And we’d developed a shrapnel collection.
IR: Can you explain shrapnel to us?
Shrapnel are little pieces of the bomb, right. It comes in different shapes. But they’re fragments of a bomb that might have fallen some place farther away—but they were pieces. So we actually had, you know, contests about which is a nicer piece, who has a bigger piece. There 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 that if there had been an air raid the night before, we’d go to school late. But somehow, life continued, you know? It moved [along]. 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, [my father was approached] by [László] Almásy—he goes by Count Almásy. Hungarian. And he comes to Egypt and asks my father help in getting an interview with the King of Egypt, King Fuad, because he wants to build a desert museum in the Libyan desert. And so, my father arranges an appointment for him with the King.
And he’s there—my father and Almásy are there—and the 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 let’s my father know that the answer is no. He is not going to give permission for this Count Almasy to build a desert museum. So, it turns out that—.
SS: And Almásy is furious.
And he’s furious. Turns out he’s now stationed with Rommel in the Libyan desert. 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. He goes for a walk and the British are following him. They find in his briefcase at the hotel a list of people, who would basically be done away with if Rommel wins the battle of El Alamein.
So, one of my early memories that I describe in this article is that my father was informed by the British that he was on this list and that we needed to leave Alexandria. So, what we had to do was we all got in a car. We drove along the desert road along the Nile at night, with no lights—so as not to be seen, obviously—to Cairo, where Egyptian friends put us up. And so, we were lucky that the Germans didn’t win at El Alamein. Count Almásy survived the war.
Writing to the ‘Washington Post’ after Watching ‘The English Patient’
SS: We finally sit down. The movie [The English Patient] 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 a desert, and the shadow of the plane going over the sand dunes of the desert. So, there’s this undulating image; wonderful music. We sit back; we relax. We go into the film.
And about fifteen minutes into the film, Liz grabs my arm and says, “This isn’t the real story. My father knew this man. This wasn’t the real person and I don’t know what going on.” We see the entire film and Liz gets increasingly upset. We go home.
Well, because he’s the hero.
He’s the hero. And what he does—it’s described in the article. And now, I’m trying to fall asleep at night and Liz is up 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, who was attempting to get the permission for an archeological museum. And she says, “I have to write a letter to the Washington Post.”
Eventually, with difficulty, I did. [But what I was] concerned [about was] 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. And so, I really sort of object to that.
So, I’m told, “Oh, you know, it—.” What was it?
SS: “The Second World War was fifty years ago. What’s the difference now? Who cares?”
“Who cares? What’s the difference?” It was really poo-pooed. “It’s not interesting anymore more,” as so forth.
So, it took some doing. Stan had to call someone [at the Washington Post to encourage that my essay be published].
Communication in Egypt during World War II
MB: How did you get the news?
SS: The BBC.
MB: And how long would it have taken an event to happen for you to have gotten that news?
We had radio news. My parents listened to the BBC. So, I guess [we heard the] 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 U.S. That would have been far away at the time.
Certainly, we saw movies and there were news reels. If you’d go to the movies, you would get ten-plus minutes of news reel. And that’s when you knew about the war or stuff like that. But I didn’t go to the movies much when I was young.