Five Memoirs: The Jewish Hungarian Holocaust Experience

As part of my work for the Moshe Kraus Project, I have come across these amazing first-person accounts of people’s experiences before, during, and after the Shoah/Holocaust in Hungary.

1. Budapest ’44: Rescue and Resistance, 1944-1945 by Moshe Holczler

“The young Slovakian businessman planned to join his wife in London, but the Nazis marched into Austria and life would never be the same. Mandated by his illustrious father to remain in Europe to help his people, R’ Shmuel Binyomin (Wolf) Frey embarked on a saga of rescue and relief that had reverberations beyond his wildest dreams. Who was the mysterious Raoul Wallenberg, and how did R’ Wolf come to work with him? Why did the Hungarian Minister of Defense have such a startling change of heart? Did the gypsies have any redeemable qualities? Would his fellow Jews really turn him over to the Germans? Where was the safest place for a street child to be at night? What were those Nazis doing in that building across the street? A house made entirely of glass? How long could they fool the communists? Were those nuns to be trusted…? Let us follow R’ Wolf to Hungary, and marvel at the incredible Hashgacha Pratis, the Divine Providence, that followed him through one menacing situation after another. With unshakeable faith, with remarkable foresight and bravery, against impossible odds, he resisted evil incarnate. He never thought of himself as a hero, but his courage and ingenuity will remain with you forever.”

Budapest 44 gives a wide panorama of all of the rescue efforts organized within Budapest during the Nazi invasion of Hungary in 1944, including the efforts of Wallenberg and many Jewish and non-Jewish undercover volunteers. It is a remarkable story that has not been told or shared enough. Much of the detail is astounding, and it is a first-person account by Moshe Holczler who is not only a chronicler but also a participant. I found it quite amazing and a must-read to understand what actually was happening in Budapest in 1944.

2. Miracle in the Ashes by Maurice Lowinger

Miracle in the Ashes is a first-person memoir by Maurice Lowinger, a Hungarian born Jew from Mezotur in central Hungary. It is about Lowinger’s valiant efforts to support his family and the Budapest Jewish community. Towards the end of the war, and all through the siege of Budapest, he took over his father-in-law’s position on the committee whose mission was to feed, daily, hundreds, the destitute remnants of Hungarian Jewry via the soup kitchen at the Dohany Synagogue, in Budapest. He and the committee managed to keep it up until the very end of the war – the arrival of the Russian army in 1945.

3. Surviving the hell of Auschwitz and Dachau by Leslie Schwartz

A memoir of Leslie Schwartz’s survival as an under-age, under-size, 12-year-old. The subtitle is A teenage Struggle Toward Freedom from Hatred, as he recounts his story of the individuals, who came out of the blue, to help him, sometimes with a single glass of milk, or a sandwich, and how he tracked them down one by one, after the war to acknowledge and thank them. He continues to speak about his experiences both in Germany and the rest of the world.

4. Hasidic Tales of the Holocaust edited by Yaffa Eliach

Eighty-nine original Hasidic tales of first-person accounts by Orthodox Jews, as they attempt to flee and are sometimes entrapped and sometimes miraculously saved, all over Europe.

5. Deadly Carousel: A Singer’s Story of the Second World War

A memoir about Vali Racz, the Hungarian Marlene Dietrich, who during WWII harbored a Jewish family and a Hungarian fascist escapee and Russian military brass, in her home, in Pest, as told to her daughter, Monica Porter. It’s also a terrific recounting of what actually was going on in Hungary for both Jews and gentiles, socially and politically, before, during, and after the war up to the Hungarian revolution in 1956.

 

Everything You Always Wanted to Know about the Shofar, but Were Afraid to Ask

Now you are probably wondering what is the meaning of the shofar? The shofar is a ram’s horn, which when blown like a musical instrument,  is reminiscent of human vocal expression, and is supposed to awaken us to do the work of self-evaluation and introspection regarding the world and our place in it, during the month prior to Rosh Hashanah, and also integral to the High Holidays – Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services – when in addition to our own introspection, G-d himself is judging our efforts and making decisions about the coming year: “Who will live and who will die: Who will be raised up and who will be brought down and so on….” words of the Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur prayer service…riffed on by Leonard Cohen, the famous Montreal born singer/songwriter. (1)

And by the way, getting a sound out of that shofar is harder than it looks. (Yes I tried and failed). But here are some examples of people who succeeded.

The longest shofar blast.

And a totally new initiative, the shofar flash mob, groups who got together at different places in the world to blow shofar together.

And last but not least, here is an adorable video of my nieces and nephew wishing you all a happy Rosh Hashanah. Shana Tova!

(1)  Leonard Cohen – Who By Fire (Live In London) (Official Video) Lyrics begin at 1:52 Min.

 

Lyrics: And who by fire? Who by water? Who in the sunshine? Who in the night time? Who by high ordeal? Who by common trial? Who in your merry merry month of May? Who by very slow decay? And who shall I say is calling?

And who in her lonely slip? Who by barbiturate? Who in these realms of love? Who by something blunt? Who by avalanche? Who by powder? Who for his greed? Who for his hunger? And who shall I say is calling?

And who by brave assent? Who by accident? Who in solitude? Who in this mirror? Who by his lady’s command? Who by his own hand? Who in mortal chains? Who in power? And who shall I say is calling? And who by fire? Who by water? Who in the sunshine? Who in the night time? Who by high ordeal? Who by common trial? Who in your merry merry month of May? Who by very slow decay? And who shall I say is calling?

 

 

Why does Israel Continue to Observe Tisha b’Av – the fast day commemorating the destruction of the ancient temples?

Tisha b’Av is a Jewish fast day which has been commemorated annually on the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av. by Jews wherever they lived, for over two thousand years.

It commemorates the destruction of the two Jewish temples built in Jerusalem: the destruction of the first temple, Solomon’s Temple, destroyed in 423 BC by the Babylonians, and the destruction of the rebuilt second temple by the Romans in 70 Ad. Both events symbolized the end of Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel in those times, and both entailed exile of the Jewish people from their native land.

Today happens to be Tisha B’Av, and while normally I commemorate this day outside of the modern State of Israel, this year I am fortunate to be spending it in Jerusalem.

In fact, I can tell you that this is no minor fast. In addition to a full day of fasting and prayer, many institutions sponsor talks and film screenings relevant to the theme of the destruction of the temple and the exile of the Jewish people.

Why do we continue to observe this National Day of Mourning?

One answer from the religious community – the community which regulates these religious rituals – is that although we now have political sovereignty, we have not yet achieved spiritual sovereignty in which all peoples respect each other and work together for the common good.

In Jerusalem, on Tish b’Av, I participated in a film festival called “The Earth Trembles”: Contemporary Israeli films on contemporary social and political subjects were screened in the presence of the producers and actors.

The strength of the Jewish people is in its capacity to remember, not to forget, and to learn from the past. Education for all, starting at birth, is a very large part of the Jewish endeavor.

I believe that this is why we continue to observe the fast of T’isha b’Av – because we have so much to learn from both the heroes and villains of the past.

Observations of Passover in Israel

I grew up from the age of five in Canada, and lived in Israel as a student at the Hebrew University, many years ago and then in the US. More recently over the last year, I have been living in Israel while studying at a Women’s Jewish studies program called Shviti in Jerusalem.

The Jewish calendar is an education in itself – And living in Israel one gets to experience it as a living thing. So our school is on recess for the month of Nissan, the month of Passover to allow both students and teachers to fulfill the obligations of Passover towards, self, family and community. And this goes on in the whole country. As preparation for Pesach, some people seek to examine their personal state of servitude, their personal slavery, and explore how to be released from it. But as much as Pesach can be a personal stocktaking, it is also very much a communal  endeavor.

From the beginning of the month of Nissan, the month of the Passover/Pesach, every Jewish person and Jewish community begins preparations for the holiday, by:

  1. cleaning and getting rid of leavened bread and leavened bread products from every personal habitation – home workplace community center
  2. by studying the story of the exodus from Egypt and preparing for the seder night by studying the Torah portions pertaining to the exodus story and also reviewing the mitzvot/obigations. i.e. What to do and what not to do during this period in order to be able to have a fulfilling and “kosher” Passover/Pesach with family and friends. During this month we greet each other with the Hebrew words, “hag kasher vesameach” – May you have a kosher and joyous hag.

My own family history is intimately connected to the Exodus story – a going out from slavery to freedom. In 1949, when I was three years old and my dear sister Anita, was only one year old, my mother and her brother Tibi, set out on the last night of Passover, after having set the holiday table – so that no suspicions would be aroused – at the family home in Tokay, Hungary.

They left the house to cross the border by foot during the night from Hungary into Czechoslovakia, and from there secretly to Vienna, Austria – gateway to the free world of the West at the time. They succeeded and that is why I am here today to tell the tale. This is my story, but it is also the story of all of the Jewish people as it says in the Haggada – the prescribed book which details all of the story and traditions practiced at  the seder table on the Eve of Peasach.

Everyone in the community, in Israel and anywhere in the world, needs to be provided for, both for the seder and for the holiday, with matzoh and all Passover foods. Leket is an organization in Israel dedicated to collecting food and distributing it to the needy, all year round, and especially on Passover. Leket relies year around on volunteers and donations. “Leket” is a Hebrew word from the Torah. It refers to a practice prescribed by our Torah of leaving the corners of the agricultural fields to be harvested by whoever wants to or needs to – so that there be no one who goes hungry in the land of Israel.

In addition to major organizations like Leket in Israel, every Rabbi and Jewish congregation anywhere in the world, will have its own private collections for providing for those in need in their particular community. Passover is expensive and it tests our relationship with material things.

After the recitation of the story in the Haggada on Seder night and after the festive meal comes the reciting of the traditional prayers of gratitude to the Creator and Sustainer, the Hallel service and then the traditional songs – Dayeinu, Ehad mi Yodaya and Had Gadya.

Wishing you all a hag kasher vesameach.

Yom Hashoah Vehagvura: Day of Remembrance

Today is Yom Hashoah ve Hagvura. The day in israel set aside to remember those who fell during the Shoah/Holocaust –  a day Jews both mourn and celebrate. They mourn the destruction of more than six million innocent men, women, and children. They celebrate the courage of all those who fought to survive. This day always comes shortly after celebration of the Passover holiday.

Last night, I attended the annual Shoa (Holocaust in Hebrew) commemoration project of the Montreal community. Every year, six families who survived the Holocaust are chosen to light a candle and to share their story via video. No matter how often one attends these programs, one is consistently awed by these stories of survival and redemption.

Here is a post which I discovered today illustrating the “gvura” heroism (source: With Eternity in their Hearts, Daniel Seaman)

The story of young women at the outset of their lives who, when challenged by history, responded with remarkable courage. The Jewish “Couriers” who were real life “Wonder Women”.

The three couriers (from the left) – Tema Sznajderman, Bella Chazan, Lonka Korzybrodska (Photo – Ghetto Fighters House Archives)

During the Holocaust, Jewish resistance groups employed women as messengers to communicate with the world outside the ghettos. Daniel Seaman tells the story of three daring young women — Tema Schneiderman, Lonka Kozybrodska, and Bella Chazan— who risked their lives to help their people.

In December 1941, Tema, Lonka, and Bella were…invited to the Christmas party at Gestapo headquarters in the then-Polish city of Grodno, disguised as Polish Catholics…

[Before the war, all three had been] members of their local chapters of the [Zionist-socialist] He-ḥaluts Dror Jewish youth movement. . . . Once the war broke out, the youth movements, with their elaborate network of connections, proved to be an unexpected asset for the Jewish communities in Eastern Europe that were deliberately isolated [from one another] by the Germans.

Tema, Lonka, and Bella, like several other female members of the youth movement, were the natural choice to serve as the link between the communities, known as the “couriers” (k’shariyot in Hebrew). Disguised as non-Jews, they risked their lives to move from ghetto to ghetto, traveling through treacherous territory, transporting documents, papers, money, ammunition, and weapons across borders and into ghettos…

Not long after that evening, the dangers of the tragic era would inevitably catch up with them and their luck would run out. First Lonka, who in June 1942 was caught at the border crossing at Malkinia. She was interrogated as a member of the Polish Underground, [her captors not realizing that she was a Jew], and held in the [notorious] Pawiak prison in Warsaw. When she failed to arrive at her expected destination, Bella set out to look for her. She too was captured at the same border crossing and also sent to Pawiak. Bella and Lonka never revealed their identities, never broke, never exposed secrets though tortured severely. They never broke character either, [maintaining the ruse that they were Polish Gentiles].

Of Tema’s fate, it is known that she was transferred to the Treblinka extermination camp after being captured in the Warsaw Ghetto on January 18, 1943, during one of her many daring excursions to the place. She most likely perished there.

While Lonka died in Auschwitz, Bella survived and lived to the age of eighty-two in Israel.