From One Life To Another – Randolph Braham: A Duty To Discover & Document (Part Two)

Like so many others, Adolf Abraham discovered that you can never go home again. That was because when he returned to his hometown of Dej in northwestern Transylvania he could not find most of the people or life that existed there only three years earlier. While Abraham was there in a physical sense, something deeply spiritual was missing. His hometown and the vibrant Jewish life that had been such a part of it was now gone forever. As for Abraham, it might be said that he had come back from the dead. Comparatively few in the town’s once strong Jewish community could say they were that lucky. Their destiny had been much darker. In 1941, Dej’s Jewish population was 3,719, at the end of the war only 239 were left. There had been almost as many Jewish traders in the town before the war, as survivors after it. The community had been ravaged by the Holocaust. For Abraham, returning was risky.

The Red Army and communists were beginning to tighten their grip on Romania. Hungarians in northern Transylvania were viewed with barely veiled hatred due to Hungary’s takeover of the region in 1940 and the ethnic atrocities that had followed. Hungarian Jews were viewed with skepticism and suspicion. The Romanians were not likely to trust anyone who spoke Hungarian as their mother tongue. Hungarian Jews were in the worst position possible. They had lost trust in other Hungarians after what had happened during the Holocaust. Friends, neighbors and fellow citizens had turned on them. If it happened once, it could certainly happen again. Their situation was perilous. As for Abraham, he returned home long enough to complete his primary school exam. After that there was no reason for him to stay in Transylvania, Romania or Eastern Europe. He counted thirteen relatives who had been murdered in the Holocaust. Jewish Dej in its pre-war form no longer existed. The roots of Abraham’s former life in the town had been almost entirely extinguished. It was time for him to leave.

The Horror - Romanian workmen examine an exhumed body of a Jew killed in the ghetto in Dej

The Horror – Romanian workmen examine an exhumed body of a Jew killed in the ghetto in Dej (Credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum courtesy of Randolph Braham)

A Massive Undertaking – Years In The Making
Abraham soon left Romania for good, joining a Transylvanian friend traveling to Budapest. From there he made his way to the American Zone in Berlin. It was in the bombed out postwar German capital where his language skills were in demand. He procured a job as a translator for a refugee program administered by the U.S. Army. It was not long after this that he entered higher education for the first time, attending university in Munich. It was here that the first phase of his life, the one which had been most deeply affected by the war, came to an end. Family, friends and the place he called home had been eradicated by the Holocaust. The only thing left were memories, many of them nightmarish. Later, they would provide fuel for his ambition to study the Hungarian Holocaust with a scrutiny that no one could or would ever match. To unearth the documents and delineate the details that reconstructed just what had happened to the Hungarian Jews during the latter part of the war was soon to become his life’s mission. That all lay in the future. First, he would emigrate to the United States, where several of his relatives had moved in the 1920’s. Such distant connections helped him choose it over Israel.

Abraham soon sailed into New York Harbor. A whole new life awaited him, one that would largely be based upon looking back at the Eastern Europe he had left behind. In the space of four years the erudite Abraham managed to obtain bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees. Almost immediately thereafter he became an American citizen and changed his name to Randolph Louis Braham. The middle name of Louis was a tribute to his father, Lajos (Hungarian for Louis), who had met with death on one of the early transports to Auschwitz carrying Hungarian Jews. He hoped the latter transformation would help him avoid the taint of antisemitism. Though much milder in America, antisemitism still had a nefarious influence on careers in academia. While the choice of name disguised his Jewishness, Braham’s scholarly intentions soon became clear. Officially, he was a political scientist with an abiding interest in comparative politics, but most of his research and academic output was heavily weighted towards the Hungarian Holocaust.  He brought a laser like focus to the topic, examining even the most minute details in order to reconstruct when, why, where and how the Holocaust in Hungary happened. This would lead to works unlike anything ever attempted before. It was a massive undertaking that involved years of tireless effort to complete.

Before The Holocaust - Postcard of Dej Synagogue

Before The Holocaust – Postcard of Dej Synagogue

Collective Horror – A Duty To Discover & Document
Randolph Braham’s life was nearly taken away by the Holocaust. He responded by spending the rest of his life researching and writing about the same event which had nearly destroyed him. His work focused on every aspect of the Holocaust in Hungary, from the years of creeping authoritarianism and anti-Jewish laws to its insidious inception that ended in gas chambers, incinerators and mass graves. A unique aspect of Braham’s pioneering work was that he not only detailed the history, but had also been a part of it. Not that anyone would have known, because only very late in life would he explicitly state that he was a survivor. Such intimate knowledge gained from first-hand experience helped him understand all aspects of the collective horror inflicted upon the Jews of Hungary. This led to a colossal scholarly output of over 60 books and ten times that many articles during a career that stretched over fifty years.

Several of his books dealt with Braham’s other passion, comparative politics. He was nearly as interested in this subject as he was the Holocaust. In certain works, he was able to integrate the two. He also proved to be a formidable opponent of the communist whitewashes in Hungary and Romania concerning the genocide of their Jewish populations during World War II. To not speak of such an evil, was a crime against posterity as well as humanity. Braham’s works made deniability that much more difficult. He cast light into the darkest recesses of Holocaust historiography in Hungary. These were the decisions, events, and places no one wanted to acknowledge. The shame was unbearable and for many it still is. Collective guilt has been something many have found it impossible accept. Whether they did or not, Randolph Braham was going to tell the world anyway. The truth was out there. He planned on discovering and documenting it. That is just what he did.

A Stranger On The Inside – Randolph Braham/Adolf Abraham: The Making of Hungary’s Holocaust Historian (Part One)

A chosen few were shaped by fate, destiny and chance to survive the Holocaust. They would live to tell what they and millions of others experienced. These men and women managed to somehow avoid death long enough to outlive the war. It then became their responsibility to bear witness, catalog crimes and ensure that the world would never forget the nightmare that descended upon Europe from 1939 – 1945. This war within a war had sought to exterminate an entire people from the face of the earth. Only part of this extermination had to do with murder, another part of it sought to wipe them from the history books, to ensure that there would be nothing left to remember them by. The atrocity of historical amnesia to go alongside that of mass murder. Holocaust survivors made sure that this has not happened, foremost among them was a Hungarian Jew by the name Randolph Braham or as he was known during his early years in Romania and Hungary, Adolf Abraham.

A Way of Life - Dej Synagogue

A Way of Life – Dej Synagogue (Credit: Clara Spitzer)

Discriminating Minds – The Struggle To Belong
Adolf Abraham’s upbringing and early life gave him a unique perspective on what it meant to be an outsider. He was a Hungarian Jew born in Bucharest rather than Budapest. Soon thereafter his family returned to their home in Transylvania. He grew up during the interwar period in a Romania riven by political, economic and ethnic tensions. Fascism was on the rise. The far-right Romanian Iron Guard was on the march. It was a good thing that his family did not live in the Romanian capital, it put them further from the main forces of virulent antisemitism, but only for a little while. They were under much less threat in the Transylvanian town of Dej (Des in Hungarian). Being Hungarian Jews in Transylvania, placed the Abrahams family in a distinct minority, one that was smarting from Transylvania becoming part of Romania due to the post-World War I peace process. Hungarians had lost their central role in running Transylvania and Hungarian Jews had become something of an afterthought. Being a Jew further alienated the young Adolf from both ruler and ruled.

There was also the Abraham family’s economic situation. The family lived in dire poverty. Their house had no electricity at a time when Transylvanian winters were much more ferocious than they are today. His father was a laborer, finding work whenever and wherever he could. Life was a struggle, with education and religion the only reliable outlets. The family practiced a milder form of Orthodox Judaism. Adolf was well educated in both the faith and in academics at a Jewish school in Dej. It was a simple life with a few pleasures despite the poverty.  Then in 1940, it all began to change for the worse. That was when Northern Transylvania was stripped from Romania and handed over to Hungary due to German intervention. Though Adolf and his family spoke Hungarian as their mother tongue, that did nothing to save them from the Hungarian state’s discriminatory measures towards Jews. The avenue of education was soon cut off for him as Jews were barred from attending public schools. For the next couple of years, he completed his coursework at home.

Virtual Slavery - Hungarian Jewish Labor Battalion World War II

Virtual Slavery – Hungarian Jewish Labor Battalion World War II

Destined For Survival – Holding Out For Dear Life
The situation for Jews in Dej grew increasingly threatening as World War II progressed. In 1943, Adolf was forcibly conscripted into a Jewish labor battalion which was sent to Ukraine in support of the Axis war effort. This accursed duty turned out to be a blessing in venal disguise. While he was fearing for his life at the front, the German occupation of Hungary took place. This directly led to the Hungarian gendarmerie being utilized for rounding up all the Jews of Dej, including Adolf’s family. Both of his parents and all his siblings, except for his sister, would perish in Auschwitz. He would have likely met the same fate except for the labor battalion. What had seemed like a death sentence would end up allowing him to escape such a fate by the narrowest of margins. The situation on the Eastern Front was dire. The Soviet Red Army was soon entering Hungarian territory. Usually the labor battalion members would be liquidated when they outlived their usefulness. In Abraham’s case, fate intervened.

The collapse of Hungarian forces and attendant chaos was so swift that Adolf soon found himself in a Soviet Prisoner of War camp. While his life had been saved for the time being, the future was bleak. These camps were little more than holding areas for prisoners who were to be transported to the Gulag deep inside the Soviet Union.  Adolf did not wait for the inevitable transport to happen. Instead, he escaped with four other men. Their prospects for survival were bleak. They would now have to wait out the war until it ended. Just staying alive was a daily trial. Getting caught in Hungary would mean either a swift execution or sure death in a German concentration camp. Abraham and his fellow escapees made their way into what is today northeastern Hungary. In such a predominantly rural part of the country, the Hungarian gendarmerie did the Nazis dirty work for them. Avoiding arrest was going to be extremely difficult. The gendarmerie officers had local knowledge and contacts on their side.

Randolph Braham/Adolf Abraham - Preeminent historian of the Holocuast in Hungary

Randolph Braham/Adolf Abraham – Preeminent historian of the Holocuast in Hungary

The Gift Of Humanity – Historian In A Haystack
Around the small village of Nyeri in northeastern Hungary, the men found themselves forced to hide in bales of hay. A local farmer, Istvan Novak, discovered them. This turned out to be the greatest of several strokes of luck for Adolf. Novak risked his own life to save the men. If they were discovered, he too would have been executed. It was extremely dangerous duty, literally a matter of life and death. Istvan Novak did not fail these men. He would later be given the honor of Righteous Among the Nations by the Israeli nation for his efforts. Without one man’s humanity and courage the Hungarian Holocaust would never have been given its greatest historian. Adolf Abraham would do more than just survive. He would never let the world forget what he, his family and hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews had suffered. For that to happen though, he would have to confront the challenge of an old world destroyed one excruciating fact at a time.

Click here for: From One Life To Another – Randolph Braham: A Duty To Discover & Document (Part Two)

Final Departures – Koszeg Railway Station: Traces Of Evil

The last thing I did before leaving Koszeg was snap a photo of the train station, a two story building with a lime exterior and dirty red roof that was a cross between elegant and decrepit. The station looked like it was either one coat of paint away from renovation or one moment away from dilapidation. This made it especially photogenic. The picture was one that I came to treasure, as a throwback to a bygone era of travel that had somehow survived into the modern age. This was a photo that I enjoyed staring at, imagining that I was on one of the empty benches, backpack at my side, guidebook in hand, waiting for the next train to Szombathely. For me, this photo was essentially romantic, filled with the unspoken possibilities of travel, a journey beginning or ending in some far-off place. In sum, it stirred my imaginative longings for a place I longed to be. A life spent in perpetual motion, always in transit, a citizen of nowhere and everywhere.

Quite shockingly, my view of this photo was irreparably altered months later while reading Paul Lendvai’s remarkable work of history, The Hungarians: Victory In Defeat. In the middle of the book were the usual assortment of glossy historical photos of personages or events that were important to Hungarian history. One of these caught my attention. It showed a large group of people crowded together holding some of their belongings. They were huddled together, most of them with their backs to the camera waiting on some form of transport. The caption stated: “Jewish deportees from the Western Hungarian township Koszeg, summer 1944. Between 15 May and 7 July 402 Jews were deported to Auschwitz, of whom only a minority survived.” I immediately made a connection. The Jews in this photo were likely standing at Koszeg’s train station. Sure enough, when I started searching on the internet I discovered that the photo was snapped at the station. This raised questions, was the photo taken surreptitiously or purposely? Likely the latter. Perhaps for official purposes, as proof that deportation was taking place.

Dreams & Nightmares - Koszeg Railway Station

Dreams & Nightmares – Koszeg Railway Station

Sinister Stirrings – Taking It Personally
I later discovered a larger sized version of the same photo that personalized the horror. Studying it, I was able to discern multiple details. There was a woman in white headscarf in the front left of the group. In her arms she held a large, thick black coat. Judging by her looks, she was older than average and thus would have been sent immediately to the gas chambers upon arrival at Auschwitz. All the adults standing in the group are wearing coats. Some are better dressed than others, such as the man in the far left of the image who looks to be wearing a rather nice suit. Quite a contrast from a man in the front right of the photo, who is only seen from a side angle. His slump shouldered posture expressive of defeat. He props himself up with a cane, while a hat and coat cover his beaten figure. In the background stands a vehicle piled high with suitcases and trunks filled with personal belongings. These possessions were destined to be taken from their owners in the coming days. The same could be said for so many of their lives.

The most disturbing part of the image for me was to be found in the lower right corner. Here a woman can be seen dressed in a very nice outfit, perhaps an employee of the state railways. She is talking with another person who cannot be seen. The woman looks stylish and quite casual. There is no hint on her face that anything sinister is taking place. It is just another day at work for her or at least that is what the image portrays. There could be no greater contrast than that of this woman protected by her status and ethnicity, standing within a stone’s throw of those Jews on the verge of being transported to a death camp. This all happened close to where I took my picture. There was no plaque at the station commemorating this tragedy. It was lacking out of shame or ignorance, neglect or indifference.

Traces of evil - Hungarian Jews in Kozseg await a train that will deport them to Auschwitz

Traces of evil – Hungarian Jews in Kozseg await a train that will deport them to Auschwitz

Abandoned Dreams – A Nightmare Scenario
It has since dawned on me that the most consistent physical reminder left of the Holocaust in Hungary are its railway stations. These portals of public transport were supposed to be harbingers of technological progress. They were built to facilitate commerce and the movement of people. The stations and trains certainly did that, but also ended up being used for genocidal purposes in 1944. Koszeg’s train station is the rule rather than the exception when it comes to the deportation of the Jews. The same thing happened at innumerable railway stations and sidings across Hungary. Without the extensive railway system in Hungary it would have been much more difficult, if not impossible, to administer the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews. Never in the history of Europe had such a normal aspect of everyday life, whether for work or pleasure, been put to such horrific use.

The fact that Koszeg’s little railway station was the place where more than 400 Jews were shuttled off to one of the most infamous death camps in history is almost as difficult to fathom as the Holocaust itself. A place that I saw as a starting point for dreams of wider travel excursions had been the beginning of someone else’s nightmare. This ambiguity can be found in many such places where a conflicted history meets a present reality in Hungary. On the day I arrived and departed from the station it was almost vacant. There were few passengers on the platform. What I could not see, understand or comprehend were the ghosts of all those Jews who had been deported not so long ago. They were somewhere out there in the past, waiting on a train that they hoped would not arrive and wondering if it did, what that meant for their future. Whatever dreams of life in Koszeg they still had were left abandoned at the siding. Whatever illusions I had about travel from the Koszeg railway station were also abandoned. Left behind at the very moment I saw that photo in Lendvai’s book.

Click here for: Unable To Escape Destiny – The Road To Nagycenk & Szechenyi: Adventurous Spirits

Life & Death In Anonymity –  Distant To History: The Jews of Szombathely (Part Two)

The name of Auschwitz lives in eternal infamy, the name of Szombathely in anonymity. To Auschwitz we look with horror, to Szombathely we look away, if we look at all. Auschwitz is extraordinary in its horror, Szombathely is nothing more than ordinary, which makes what happened there in 1944 that much more disturbing. The Holocaust may be viewed as a singular event, it may also be understood as hundreds of smaller actions that combined into a feeding frenzy of genocidal mania. Few have heard what happened in Szombathely, Bekescsaba and Keckesmet. In Nagykanisza, Kiskoros or Kalocsa. These are just a few of the smaller Hungarian cities where Jews made up a sizable proportion of the population. Where they were neighbors and friends, playmates and classmates, upstanding citizens and esteemed colleagues. The Holocaust did not just happen behind barbed wire or in the death dealing rooms of gas chambers, it happened in provincial cities that will never make the history books, along streets that other people now occupy and in places that hardly anyone knows exist. It happened in broad daylight, on sunny spring days and vibrantly warm summer evenings. It happened across all of Hungary. It happened in Szombathely.

Neolog Synagogue in Szombathely - As seen from Bathyany Square

Neolog Synagogue in Szombathely – As seen from Bathyany Square (Credit: Johannes Scholem Graf & Alexandra Vogt)

Insidious Actions – How Could It Have Ever Happened
There is always the question of how it could have ever happened? The “it” referring to the Holocaust, usually in a specific nation such as Hungary and a community like Szombathely. In a provincial Hungarian city, the answer is relatively simple. The destruction of the Jewish population happened because of a German occupation, the complicity of Hungarian officialdom and the gendarmerie, a highly organized and insidious administrative apparatus that enumerated, ghettoized and deported the city’s Jewish population. All the while an overwhelming majority of Szombathely’s citizens were either too scared to defend their fellow citizens or silently approved of the measures being taken.

A combination of these factors led to thousands of Jews from Szombathely being delivered to concentration camps. Very few survived and most of those would leave Hungary in the postwar era. This was how a thriving Jewish culture was destroyed in a few months. The actions carried out during this time in Szombathely are worth recounting if for no other reason than to show how quickly a culture and people can vanish. This is the story of how Jews in Szombathely became as distance to history in that city, as the ancient Romans who had disappeared from the same area 1,500 years earlier.

Memorial at entrance to Szombathely Ghetto

Memorial at entrance to Szombathely Ghetto (Credit: Balazs Kis)

With Extreme Prejudice – A Duty To Discriminate
In the years before World War II, thousands of people spent nights at the former Palace Hotel in Szombathely, but none of those visitors were anything like the ones who arrived to stay there on March 19, 1944. This was the same day that the German occupation of Hungary began. A group of six Germans, led by a Gestapo officer, Scharfurhrer Heinz von Arndt, came for an extended stay. Arndt and his henchmen almost immediately set about enacting measures against Szombathely’s Jewish community with breathtaking speed and ferocity. Shortly after arrival Arndt demanded a large ransom from the city’s Jewish committees. Though payment was made, it did not afford the Jews of Szombathely any protection.

Jewish leaders soon got a taste of what was in store for them. When Arndt met with the local Jewish leadership, a decorated veteran of the First World War, Mano Valyi, advocated for them. Arndt was not impressed with Valyi’s wartime service nor his stature in the community, he immediately dismissed him.  The Germans then handpicked a leader for the Jewish Council. When this one escaped a few weeks later, they picked another who would be forced to do their bidding. A ghetto was established on May 6th following a decree from the occupation authorities, setup in a pre-existing Jewish area of the city.

This ghetto not only held the Jews from Szombathely, but also those collected from surrounding areas. The official count showed that 3,609 Jews were held in the Szombathely ghetto, one-sixth of these came from outside the city. There was not near enough housing for everyone. This led to overcrowding and chronic shortages. Requests for assistance from the head of the Jewish Council to Szombathely’s mayor were ignored. Then on the first of June, a decree was carried out that totally sealed off the ghetto from the rest of Szombathely. Provisioning groups were now banned from leaving the ghetto’s confines. The situation for the thousands of Jews trapped there grew increasingly dire by the day.

Holocaust Memorial in Szombathely

Holocaust Memorial in Szombathely (Credit: Johannes Scholem Graf & Alexandra Vogt)

A Thing Of The Past – The Vanished Civilization
In late June, the ghetto’s inhabitants were moved to the Hungarian Motor and Machine Works. This was the final action prior to deportation by railway to concentration camps. That is exactly what happened as trains were packed with Szombathely’s Jews beginning on July 4th and continuing for the next three days. These deportations were organized with deadly efficiency. The ghetto had been cleared, outliving its dreadful usefulness in a mere month and a half. The Motor and Machine Works, a holding cell for human cargo was now empty. The homes and possessions of Szombathely’s Jews had been confiscated, looted and either taken away or given to others in the city. Meanwhile, life during wartime for Szombathely’s Hungarian population went on just as before, less nearly 4,000 of their fellow citizens. The beautiful synagogue on Bathhyany Square was now vacant, no need for services since there were no Jews left in the city to attend them. Thus, in the short period beginning on March 19, 1944 and lasting through July 7, 1944, Jewish life and culture in Szombathely had been almost entirely extinguished.

After the war some of the four hundred survivors from Szombathely filtered back to the city. The majority had little interest staying in a place where their livelihood, if not their lives, had been taken from them. In the ensuing years most of them moved away. The beautiful Neolog Synagogue was transformed into a concert hall. It was not until 2013 that a small museum pertaining to the history of the Jews in Szombathely and visitor center was opened there. The synagogue was once again being utilized, but not for its original purpose. It was now and would forever be a thing of the past, much like the Roman ruins of the Temple of Isis which could be found nearby. Both symbolic of vanished civilizations, one ancient and the other recent. So recent in fact that there are still a handful of people left in Szombathely who can remember the Jews who once lived there. They too will soon vanish, along with their memories.

Last Rites – The Vizsoly Jewish Cemetery: Zsidok In The Zemplen (Part One)

I was speeding through the undulating foothills of the Zemplen range in northeastern Hungary on my way to Vizsoly, a small village on the fringes of more mountainous terrain. The sky was colored a slate grey, the trees were leafless and the dark fields of turned up earth were lightly covered with a dirty snow. It was December, less than a week before Christmas and the landscape was just as dead as the towns. The road was filled with holes large and small, that could be dodged by driving in the middle of the road. Traffic was light and scattered. The small, covered rural bus stops were deserted. At times when the sun threatened to peek through, the mist, fog and cloud cover blended together into a blinding light that made the eyes ache. Despite a good night’s sleep, I almost dozed off a few kilometers out of Boldogkovaralja. No amount of coffee could make a person truly alert in this pervasive and permanent gloom. It was easy to see why there was no traffic, except for a few locals this time of year. The entire region looked as though it was asleep. The people and landscape were in winter hibernation.

All that remains - Headstone in the Vizsoly Jewish Cemetery

All that remains – Headstone in the Vizsoly Jewish Cemetery

Getting Religion – A Visit To Vizsoly
I was traveling to Vizsoly for one reason only, to see where the first Hungarian language translation of the Bible had taken place in the late 16th century. This seemingly out of the way village had once been a hot bed of Protestantism, bequeathing it an outsized role in Hungarian literary and religious history that was well beyond the scale of contemporary Vizoly, which was little more than a small village. Yet Vizoly’s history in the service of Protestantism, the Hungarian language and book printing was magnetic. It drew me to the village out of curiosity. This out of the way town had once been the hub for a printing operation that helped change Hungary I soon caught sight of the town’s outskirts, beginning to search the roadside for any sign of the museum and adjacent Calvinist church that contained remnants of medieval frescoes. Just as I was beginning to enter the village, my attention turned to something else.

Just off the roadside I caught a glimpse of several stone markers and a few larger stone monuments in a small field surrounded by a thin wire fence with a gated entrance. The gate was half open. The stone markers looked like ones I had seen in a photo the night before. The photo was in a Hungarian language tourist atlas of the Zemplen Hills provided by my accommodation. That photo had shown a Jewish cemetery in Mad, which was a large town further down the valley. I made a mental note to stop and look at these markers on my way out of Vizsoly after I had visited the Bible Museum. It was hard to believe that a small place would have a Jewish cemetery, let alone an intact one. Then again, the place was remote enough that there was a chance that it had survived the Holocaust, unlike the Jewish population who once inhabited the town.

Reverence, Neglect, Indifference – Preservation Of An Existence
The scope and scale of the evil perpetrated by the Nazis and their allies during the Holocaust in Hungary can be understood in two numbers, both horrifying in the extreme. 596,000 – the number of Hungarian Jews murdered. 90% – the chance that a Jew in rural Hungary would be murdered. The first figure is built upon the second one which is often overlooked. The sheer thoroughness of the Holocaust in rural and provincial Hungary is just as witheringly catastrophic as the total number killed. I began to understand the scope of this murderous rampage when I stopped on my way back out of Vizsoly.  What I had assumed earlier, that the stones I spotted from the road were part of a small Jewish cemetery, turned out to be true. The headstones were in various states of disarray, while there were a couple of larger monuments that had been erected for individuals who were buried there. The cemetery was not exactly well kept, though it did have green grass. The fence surrounding it was constructed out of thin wire and was intact. The gate was open for anyone who cared to visit. That made me wonder just who visited this place.

The cemetery was remote, even by Hungarian standards. It stood on the margins of the town, much like the town’s Jewish community. It was a part of Vizsoly, but apart from it, separate and distinct. I doubted those who lived in Vizsoly gave it much thought, other than the fact that by allowing it to remain they were honoring history and memory. That was more than could be said for many old sites of Jewish presence in Eastern Europe. As for Jews who might come to visit, one thing was for certain, they would not be from Vizsoly. Its small Jewish community was now but a memory and this cemetery was all that was left. The last Jews to inhabit Vizsoly were not buried here, they had lost their lives far away from their hometown. No one knows of Vizsoly, everyone knows about Auschwitz. A little less than a century of Jewish life in Vizsoly died during the Holocaust.

A Poignant Sadness – A Legacy Written In Stone
The only remnants left of the town’s Jewish inhabitants were to be found in the cemetery. Not its most recent ones, who had perished in a concentration camp, but their ancestors. Sadly, they had been lucky in death. To die before the war meant a legacy preserved with a stone marker in this cemetery. These traces of Hungarian Jewish history were poignantly sad, if not to say tragic. Despite the continued existence of the cemetery, it was a place more about absence than presence. A reminder of a lost world and a place that raised more questions than answers. Why was it left untouched? Out of reverence, neglect or indifference. The insidious passions of World War II had long since subsided, but the Jewish legacy of Vizsoly lived on or at least that is what I wanted to believe.

Click here for: A Mysterious Paradox – The Jews of Vizsoly: From Indifference To Reverence (Part Two)

The Book Of Names – Erno Berger: A Resurrection At Auschwitz

It was in Block 27 at Auschwitz that I came upon one of the most arresting physical representations of the Holocaust ever conceived. In one room of the block can be found The Book of Names. The title of the exhibit is perfectly descriptive, but trying to explain the effect of this voluminous compendium of death is not easy. Try to imagine the number and size of the pages it would take to print the names of 4.2 million people. Now imagine that after each name, the year and place where that person was born is given. Finally, try to visualize that at the end of each entry, the place where the person was murdered during the Holocaust is listed, if it is known. If you can imagine all this, then you can imagine The Book of Names. The entire exhibit stretches out over several meters with the large pages bound together in a multi rowed, thick compendium of tragedy. It is the thickest book I have ever seen before and I hope to never see another one like it again.

What makes this huge tome particularly unfathomable is its subject matter and what that endless list of names says about humanity. Everyone listed in the book was murdered due to a choice by one group of human beings to single out and destroy another group. This litany of depressing data gives the sparse details of the individual lives and deaths of millions. Open The Book of Names to any page and one is confronted with hundreds of lines that cause the senses to reel. Soon the eyes glaze over as one name looks like another name. After a couple of pages all those lines run together. The sheer immensity of this catalog documenting the humanity lost in the Holocaust can scarcely be conceptualized by the mind. The only way for me to make any sense of it was to seek out an individual name. I had one to focus on, a personal connection, that suddenly made my eyes stop and closely search all those lines for traces of an existence.

The Book of Names in Block 27 at Auschwitz

The Book of Names in Block 27 at Auschwitz


The Outlines Of A Life – The Power Of Presence

The name I searched for was that of Erno Berger. It took me several minutes just to find the specific page. There was not one Erno Berger, but many lines listing men with that same name from a multitude of places in Eastern Europe. There were thirty-one Erno Bergers in all. Just the fact that the name was repeated so many times was a chilling reminder to me the depth and penetration of the Nazi’s genocidal thoroughness. I began to study each Erno Berger entry more closely until I found the specific one I was searching for. Finally, I came upon the following entry: Berger, Erno, 2/3/1982 Belgrad, Yugoslavia, Place of death unknown.

It was a surreal feeling to find this Erno Berger. Suddenly, I felt a pulse of energy and interest. A tangible connection had been made. For a moment, at least for me, Erno Berger rose from beyond all those pages, he came back to life, if just for a moment. He was no longer anonymous or just another name among millions, but a person whose existence had been documented. He lived on in this handful of details, straddling a couple of lines his life and death came down to these inches. It is an extraordinarily powerful feeling to never have met someone, to have been born a quarter century after they died and yet feel like they are very close to you. I could not touch this man’s presence, but he was touching mine. I, a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant with no Jewish blood suddenly had a connection, a thread that I could unspool and use to trace the outlines of a life lost among millions of others lost.

There are 31 entries for Erno Berger in The Book Of Names

There are 31 entries for Erno Berger in The Book Of Names

From Father To Son  – Making A Name For Themselves
Who was Erno Berger and why was I searching for him in The Book Of Names?  He was born in Belgrad during the late winter of 1892. His father was J Kohn. Eventually he migrated to Debrecen in eastern Hungary where he worked as an electrician. In June 1944, he along with nearly the entire community of Jews in Debrecen – 7,411 to be precise – was rounded up and deported. The deportees were sent either to Auschwitz or Austria where many more would die in forced labor battalions. Which one Erno Berger went to is still a mystery. Somehow he ended up in Bergen-Belsen where he died. One thing is for certain, he never came back to Debrecen. The only existing remnant of his existence is his name on a memorial wall. It can be found in the courtyard of one of only two active synagogues left in Debrecen. He never saw his ethnic Hungarian wife again or the lone child that was born to the couple not long after Erno’s deportation.

This son would be given the name of the father he never knew. His surname eventually changed, as so many Hungarians Jews did during the communist period to avoid persecution and any lingering anti-Semitism. Assimilation was no longer necessary to survive, but it was to thrive. The son would grow up to become a noted physician in the city that had rejected his father. He would eventually marry a Hungarian as well, just as his father did. This was in the late 1960’s rather than the mid-1940’s. Hungary was a very different place by then. The kind of place where a man with brilliant intellect and smarts could achieve great things, despite or perhaps because of communism. And this son did just that. He healed, he taught, he loved and he lived. If not for him, I would never have been standing at Auschwitz searching for the name of Erno Berger.

A Lot To Learn – Ancestral Feelings
The son and by extension his father really must have been something, to have such power and influence continue beyond life. I never met either of them and never will. The day the son died I was still in high school. I did not know anything about Hungary and the Holocaust meant little to me other than what we learned of it in history class. I had a lot to learn then, I still do now. Erno Berger and his son meant a whole new world to me because they were my wife’s grandfather and father respectively. It has been through her that I came to know them. And it has been through her that I can see them.

An Incredible Intensity – Lviv, Budapest, Krakow, Berlin & Vienna: Explaining Eastern Europe

Eastern Europe, how best to understand such a complex, and conflicted region? Perhaps one should start with the cities, many different cities, in many different countries. Catalog the impressions and then ponder what it means, if anything, if nothing.

Lviv – A Man With No Legs
Travel to Lviv in western Ukraine, that beautiful city frozen in a state of rapturously Austro-Hungarian glory. Stroll through the heart of the historic old town. Listen to the sound of stilettos on cobblestone, voices of desire. Gaze at the bucolically bright mansions surrounding Ploshcha Rynok. Spend at least one single morning watching a man with no legs in a wheelchair. He patiently waits to see if any passers-by scatter a bit of change in the bowl that sits in his lap. The man does not beg, he just sits there patiently. He is not dirty or ill-kempt, but actually rather well dressed, if modestly so, from the waist up everything seems normal. The complete picture is quite different, like the many sides of this city. This drama takes place in the shadow of the Neo-Renaissance Opera House. Operas are fiction, while the dramas played out on the street are real.

The Opera House in Lviv

The Opera House in Lviv – fiction inside & reality outside

Budapest – Beauty, Horror & Grandeur
Go to Budapest. Float down the Danube, on one side the hills of Buda blossom, staked out by the spires of churches and castles. Opposite lies Pest, home to the Hungarian Parliament, that delicious architectural confection of neo-Gothicism, a scene and style that devours the skyline. Disembark on the embankment just before the Chain Bridge, walk a bit upriver on the Pest side, to find a series of sculpted shoes at water’s edge. It was here, that hundreds of Jews were forced during the winter of 1944-45 to take off their footwear just before being shot on the banks of the frozen Danube.  Buda and Pest, here is a city that combines beauty, horror and grandeur in uncertain order.

Shoes on the Danube Bank Memorial in Budapest

Shoes on the Danube Bank Memorial in Budapest – hundreds of Jews were forced during the winter of 1944-45, to take off their footwear just before being shot on the banks of the frozen Danube

Krakow – Defying Disbelief
Onward to Krakow, in that main magnificent square, Rynek Glowny, reputedly the largest medieval square in all of Europe, whatever that is supposed to mean. Here, the glory and pageantry of Poland is spread over 40,000 stunning square meters. All that once was, still remains, the Cloth Hall and the Clock Tower, St Mary’s and the Mickiewicz Monument. Could this square, this astonishing slice of Poland’s rich history, really have once been subject to the diktats of totalitarianism? It all seems too bad to be true. Amid such magnificence one tends to forget the more recent and troubled past. A cure for any case of 20th century Polish historical amnesia is just a tram ride away.

Cloth Hall with the Clock Tower in the background at Rynek Glowny in Krakow (Credit: Jan Mehlich)

Cloth Hall with the Clock Tower in the background at Rynek Glowny in Krakow (Credit: Jan Mehlich)

Stand outside the gates of Nowa Huta and ponder the terrible, fierce rust bucket beauty that was still born here. This suburb was what Krakow, Poland and all of Eastern Europe was supposed to become. A whole city, an entire nation and a wide swath of Europe forged out of iron and steel. Factories lauded as the new cathedrals, heavy industry as the master mold of mid-20th century civilization. Nothing lasts forever, but this hardly lasted a lifetime. Nowa Huta still exists, but its glory days are gone, its labor days are not. This place has become a piece of modern art that rusts right before the eyes.

Model of Nowa Huta

Model of Nowa Huta – It seemed like a good idea at the time

Berlin – French Kissing Fear
To understand Eastern Europe, surely one must understand Berlin. Why it is so hip, so youthful, so vibrant, so alive. This used to be the world capital of disunity, but now it is united in revelry. 21st century Berlin is a city that seems to be giving fear a French kiss. It is so interesting, all those places where terrible things happened and now most of them can be seen for free. There is enough history here to last several lifetimes, but the past need not detain anyone, when there is another club to hop. Stand beneath the Brandenburg Gate and ponder Frederick the Great, the Kaiser, the Nazis, West vs. East. This is where both ends met the middle and a nation, became arbiter of a world divided against itself.

Now the traveler can dance until dawn in no man’s land, admire galleries worth of graffiti at any random underpass and glide by, rather than through Checkpoint Charlie. That once formidable barrier, looks so small and stupid in retrospect. What is more illuminating, the helpfulness of Berliner’s who rush to provide directions or the fact that nothing really happens here anymore, unless fun and efficiency is now of world historical importance.

An apartment block in East Berlin - putting a coat of color on the past

An apartment block in East Berlin – putting a coat of color on the past

Vienna – The Madness of Fairy Tales
Final stop, the fairy tale city of Vienna. Like all fairy tales, this one has more than its fair share of madness. The Hofburg, at the heart of the city, imposes splendor and arrogance, refinement and oppression upon the visitor in unequal measure. Here is where the Habsburg’s decided what was beautiful and everyone else had to live with it or suffocate from it. This was a world that made its own rules which the rest of the world was supposed to live and die by. And the Hofburg is just the start.

Vienna is a grand illusion, a magic act made out of marble and sculpted stone. There is more than enough of this to go around and around the Ringstrasse. It is enough to drive someone mad. No wonder this city gave the world Freud, Klimt and Wittgenstein. It was not just Metternich and Franz Josef who strolled through the gardens at Schonnbrunn, it was also Hitler and Stalin, at the same time, long before they became deities of death, these men were plotting and plodding amid the perfectly kept pathways. Modern Vienna is filled with an world of underlying tension, irksome and uptight. This can best be seen in the strained countenances of the Viennese. Those faces that stare away from the traveler. They are forever peering out tram windows, looking at nothing in particular, with an incredible intensity.

A tram in Vienna - An incredible (and troubling) intensity

A tram in Vienna – An incredible (and troubling) intensity

A World Turning Inward On Itself
The man with no legs, candy colored baroque buildings, shoes sculpted from stone, forty thousand square meters of magnificence, the heavy heart of heavy industry, a world that bordered on the apocalypse and now on frivolity, the weight of history at the Hofburg and so many other things. These are the impressions that help the traveler understand Eastern Europe, its peoples and it cities. What does all this amount to? There is no clear answer, there never will be. Eastern Europe is complex and conflicted. It is filled with the joys and horrors of life. As in the present, as in the past, it is forever turning inward on itself.

Terror on the Banks of the Danube – The Siege of Budapest Tour (Part Four)

Listen to the audio cast: Terror on the Banks of the Danube – The Siege of Budapest Tour (Part Four)

In the last post we discussed the basic necessities that the citizens of Budapest needed to survive the siege. Another item of survival (and tragedy) during the siege was shoes. Today there is a unique monument consisting of shoes along the Danube Embankment in Pest. These are in memory of the estimated 15,000 Jews who lost their lives during the siege. Hundreds, if not thousands of Jews were brought to the banks of the Danube. Many of them had already been stripped of their clothing. Those wearing shoes were forced to leave them on the embankment. This was one of their last acts before being murdered.

Shoes on the Danube Promenade Monument

Shoes on the Danube Promenade Monument

The fate of the Jews in Budapest during the siege was part of a longer historical continuum that had seen Jews in Hungary meet with both tragedy and triumph. Their history in the Carpathian Basin goes back many centuries, though the origins of their first immigration to the area are clouded by uncertainty.

During the first thousand years of Hungarian rule the Jewish population experienced everything from liberation to persecution and expulsion. By the beginning of the twentieth century, Jews made up approximately 5% of the Hungarian population and a quarter of those living in Budapest. In the city they became relatively prosperous. Several made fortunes and some were even able to scale the heights of the political pecking order during the Austro-Hungarian Dual Monarchy. Following the First World War though, Anti-Semitism grew exponentially. It was inflamed by the communist takeover of the government in 1919.

A Failed Revolution and Its Consequences
During the 133 chaotic days of the Hungarian Soviet Republic, communists led by a Hungarian of Jewish descent, Bela Kun, attempted to build a people’s republic. Workers were given unprecedented rights while landowners, aristocrats and the church came under extreme pressure. The oppression quickly turned into a Red Terror. Many were run off their land, out of the country or went into hiding. These same people would later become fixated on the fact that close to three out of every four commissars in the Communist government were of Jewish origin. The Bolshevik revolution failed, but became identified with Jews.

When Admiral Miklos Horthy and a legion of conservatives took power in the counter revolution, they quickly rid the country of communists in a White Terror. The upshot was a mistrust of the Jews which only worsened as fascism took hold across Central Europe in the years prior to the war. From 1938 through 1941, the Hungarian Parliament passed a series of anti-Jewish Laws that restricted their numerical participation in commercial enterprises to 20%, defined anyone with at least two Jewish grandparents as racially Jewish, forbid their employment in government and prohibited intermarriage.

Despite these laws and the fact that Horthy expressed a general distaste for the Jews, they were allowed to live in the country, if no longer freely, at least in the shadows up until 1944. Because of this situation, Hungary had by far the largest population of relatively free Jews in Hitler ruled Europe during the war. This all changed when German troops occupied Hungary on March 9, 1944 in order to ensure Hungary would do the Third Reich’s bidding.

Hitler’s henchman, Adolf Eichmann, was sent in to carry out the prosecution of the Final Solution. He was aided by the well-organized Hungarian gendarmerie as well as the radical right. Hungarian Jews in all areas outside of Budapest were rounded up for deportation to concentration camps.  Consider that a Jew living in the Hungarian countryside in March 1944 had a less than 10% chance of surviving the following 12 months. In Budapest, a Jew’s chance of survival in those same 12 months was about 50%. By the middle of 1944, there were an estimated 200,000 Jews living in Budapest.

Jewish women being arrested in Budapest 1944

Jewish women being arrested in Budapest 1944
(German Federal Archive – Propagandakompanien der Wehrmacht – Heer und Luftwaffe (Bild 101 I)

Marked From The Beginning
When the siege began, Jewish citizens were immediately under threat. They were literally marked, with a Star of David on their clothing or that same star painted on their dwelling.  They could even be easily identified by the “safe houses” in which many of them were now hiding. On October 15, 1944 Horthy was forced out as the leader of Hungary by the Germans. The Hungarian fascist Arrow Cross party immediately took charge. On that same day, the shootings of Jews began along the Danube embankment.

Who were the Arrow Cross? The short version is that they were the Hungarian version of the Nazi party. Like the Nazi’s they attracted virulent anti-semites, uber-nationalists and hangers on from the very fringes of society. One telling statistic: 25% of Arrow Cross party members were convicted criminals. How popular was the Arrow Cross? One rough estimate by historian John Lukacs – who actually lived through the siege – is that they enjoyed the support of only about 15% of the Budapest citizenry. While that is probably true, the Arrow Cross had control of the levers of government while much of the population stood by passive and idle. Throughout the latter half of 1944, Jews began to be either executed or shunted off into labor battalions at the front. From mid-October until the start of the siege at Christmas, just over half of the 200,000 Jews in Budapest had disappeared from the city. Yet at the same time efforts were underway to save Jewish lives.

Place to Visit: The Danube Promenade – 300 meters south of the Hungarian Parliament, near the Hungarian Academy of Sciences

Sources: The Siege of Budapest: One Hundred Days in World War II, Kristian Ungvary, Yale University Press, 2006
The Hungarians: A Thousand Years of Victory in Defeat, Paul Lendvai, Princeton University Press, 2003
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