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< Echoes of Memory

People Have Choices

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by George Salamon

The Museum has the motto “What You Do Matters,” and it is so true. 

Everybody makes decisions and acts all the time. Decisions are important, naturally some more so than others.

The actions of people with great power and political position affect more people, but everybody’s actions count.

But the decisions and actions of people become much more important in troubling times.

As is well known, Hungary was an ally of Germany in World War II. When the Hungarian leader Miklós Horthy realized that Germany was losing the war, he started negotiations with Britain and the Soviet Union. This decision and action was fatal for Hungarian Jewry. The Germans occupied Hungary, and the deportations to killing camps, mostly to Auschwitz, began quickly. The Germans also helped the Hungarian Nazi Party, the Arrow Cross, to attain power. They had a significant role in the killings. In all, more than 560,000 Hungarian Jews died in the Holocaust.

At that time, Carl Lutz, the Swiss vice consul, and Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat working on behalf of the United States War Refugee Board, made the decision to help the Hungarian Jews. They both saved tens of thousands of people. They gave out protective passports and established safe houses, declaring them under their country’s protection. They both issued more passports than had been permitted by the Germans. They also gave out false ones. My father-in-law could draw very well. He forged German signatures for Lutz.

Neither the Swedish nor the Swiss governments were involved in the rescue missions. Wallenberg and Lutz executed their own decisions because of their humanity.

The actions of Lutz saved my mother, grandmother, two uncles, an aunt, and me. 

Though many Hungarians were German collaborators and most of them bystanders, there were some people who helped. My mother waited in a long line to get the papers for our immediate family from the Swiss embassy. But the two hours when Jews were allowed to be on the street was not enough.

So she stayed after the curfew. The police got her. But one of the policemen told her: “Just go.”

With these two words, he saved her and our family, because she had gotten the papers and we could move to a safe house. Later, she paid a policeman to get my grandmother out of the ghetto.

My wife’s father was hidden by a man in a mine. I only know his name as Janos. That happened in a Hungarian town called Eger.

My wife’s mother and grandmother were hidden by someone in a restaurant. He was hiding Jews and soldiers who deserted. I only know his name as Lajos.

From time to time the Hungarian Nazis came to safe houses and rounded up people. They took them to the river Danube, where they shot them and they fell into the river. One of the Nazis came to my mother and told her to go back to the house with the child (me). He did not have to do that, but he did, and saved our lives.

On the other hand, another time the Hungarian Nazis came to the house and gathered the Hungarian Jewish men to march to Austria to perform forced labor. My grandfather was home but had ignored the knock at the door. In Budapest, every house had the so-called housemaster, someone who took care of the house. The housemaster saw that my grandfather was absent from the roundup and sent one of my aunts to get him. He did not have to do it, but he did. This action caused my grandfather’s death, because he was murdered during that forced march. My aunt blamed herself, thinking that if she had not called him, he would have survived. Most likely it would have not made any difference, and her refusal would have gotten her in trouble.

I have to talk about my uncles Herman and Sanyi. Both of them had escaped from forced labor. Uncle Herman became the safe house’s representative and was in touch with the Swiss embassy. One day, the Swiss embassy notified Uncle Herman that he was in danger, so he and his wife moved to the “glass house,” protected by the Swiss embassy. He was the one who arranged for my mother and me to move to the “glass house” as well. My Uncle Sanyi was the one who came to the safe house one night, risking his own life, to bring my mother and me to the “glass house.” The guard let me in, but he did not let my mother in, saying that the house was too crowded. Uncle Sanyi pushed her in, moving the guard to the side. Since my mother was inside the building, which was Swiss territory, she could stay. With this action my uncle saved my mother and made an enormous impact on my life.

After Germany occupied Denmark, the Danish prime minister, Erik Scavenius, threatened to resign if the Germans persecuted Danish Jews. His attitude reflected the actions of most of the Danish people. When they learned that the Germans would go ahead with the deportations anyway, they sent the Jews by boat to safety in Sweden.

Sweden accepted them.

Even those Jews who didn’t have money could get a loan for the trip. The Danes made a list of everybody’s possessions, so they could give them back when the Jews returned.

How different that was from what happened in Poland and Hungary. The Polish people had pogroms (anti-Jewish riots)—when Jews returned, they killed them. A relative of mine entrusted her valuables to a family friend. When she returned and asked for her belongings, they killed her and her child, who was still in a baby carriage. There is a Hungarian movie that came out in 2017 called 1945. It shows two Hungarian Jews coming to a village after the war. The whole village becomes anxious, worrying about what these people want. Do they want to reclaim their property? Do they want vengeance?

Those who helped were extraordinary people. Many times they risked their lives and often those of their family.

There is an important question. How did it happen that the most technically advanced, most cultured people, became mass murderers?

Unfortunately it is easy to brainwash people. When people lose their individuality and become a part of a machine driven by ideology, there is trouble.

© 2019, George Salamon. The text, images, and audio and video clips on this website are available for limited non-commercial, educational, and personal use only, or for fair use as defined in the United States copyright laws.

Tags:   echoes of memory, volume 12george salamon

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