Holocaust Rememberance Day
Beth Ezekiel Synagogue, Owen Sound
Sunday April 16, 2023
My name is Judith, and I was born in Hungary in the mid-fifties.
It's hard to talk about what happened to my family, not just because so many died in the Holocaust, but because the ones who survived didn't talk about what they lived through, or the horrors they witnessed.
The Holocaust in Hungary was the forceable displacement, deportation, and systematic murder of the Hungarian Jews. This was the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question in Hungary". Between mid-April and late-May of 1944, almost the entire Jewish population of the country were sent to the Ghettos or the labour camps for the German war effort.
The Ghettos were where the Jews were made to stay until their deportation or death. They created a central ghetto in Pest (now a part of Budapest), into whose cramped quarters the Germans forced nearly 100,000 Jews, into an approximate 0,26 square kilometre zone, 1% the size of OS.
The area was completely cut off from the outside world: no food was allowed in, rubbish and waste were not collected, the dead lay on the streets and were piled up in bombed-out store fronts. The buildings were overcrowded, and the spread of diseases such as typhoid was rampant.
My Mother and Grandmother were housed in the Pest Ghetto; somehow, they managed to survive. My Grandfather, with his Sister, his Brother and his brother's family, were sent to Aushwitz, the largest Nazi extermination camp. Only my Grandfather and his Brother came home. My Mother's Aunt, with her husband and daughter, managed to evade the Ghetto with forged papers that showed they had converted to Christianity.
My Father was 1 of 5 children. He was the only sibling to survive, working in the labour camp. My Grandmother, his mother, was shot in the head and left for dead; miraculously, she survived.
In the largest deportation operation in the history of the Holocaust, between May 15th and July 9th,1944, (54 days), roughly 450,000 people had been transported to Auschwitz, over 8000 each day. Almost all of them were murdered, 80% of the Jews in Hungary.
At midnight, on June 21st 1944, police forcibly expelled Budapest's Jews, (those not yet living in the ghettos), from their homes, and placed them in Yellow Star Houses, (so named for the stars marked on each front door identifying them as Jewish). Many were crammed into builldings already housing other Jewish families.
By late November 1944, many Jews had been moved among different ghettos, multiple times. Many were shot and killed during these moves, some sent to Auschwitz (and the ensuing death marches); many were forced to march towards Austria. Most did not survive any of these journeys.
My husband's Mother, Lili, with her family, were also housed in the Pest Ghetto, and from there were sent to Aushwitz. Her parents and sister died in Aushwitz, leaving her the sole survivor. In 1945, she was part of a Death March when Liberation arrived with the Allies, and the Germans abandoned their prisoners. She was one of 9 surviving women who stuck together for safety, and started making their way “home”; starved, sick, and sleep-deprived. En route, they met 7 Italian men doing the same thing, so they teamed up and continued walking, unsure where they were going.
They came upon an abandoned house, where they found food alongside shelter. Within a few hours of their arrival, a few Russian soldiers also arrived; they got drunk and demanded women. The 7 Italian men each chose one of the girls (including Lili), claiming they were married, so the Russians took the 2 women who were left without a partner; the women survived, but were both raped and badly beaten. Eventually, Lili made her way back to Hungary, then to Israel (where she met her husband, my father-in-law), and later, on to Canada.
My husband's Father was Polish, and was the only survivor of the family of 4 children. He spent 6 years held in 9 different camps. How did he survive? He was a tailor, and thus useful to the Germans. He was also very resourceful.
You may have heard of Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat and architect.
Using his staff to prepare Protective Passports under the authority of the Swedish Legation, he saved tens of thousands of Jews in Hungary between July and December of 1944. In March 1945, he disappeared under suspicious circumstances.
Budapest named Wallenberg as an honorary citizen in 2003. Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Centre in Jerusalem, recognized him as Righteous Among the Nations in November 1963.
By the end of the Holocaust, close to 900,000 Hungarian Jews had died.
One of the most well-known memorials in Budapest is the “Shoes on the Danube”, erected April 16, 2005. The sculpture consists of 60 pairs of iron shoes attached along 40 metres of the stone embankment. It stands as a heartbreaking reminder of the winter of 1944-45, when 20,000 Jews were taken from the Pest Ghetto, shot along the banks of the Danube, and thrown into the river.
When my parents married in Hungary in the early fifties, only a few years after the end of the War, there was already a resurgence of anti-semitism in the country. So, a few years later, we left Hungary for Canada, with only a blanket for me and some jewelry my Grandmother had buried (to hide from the Germans).
Holocaust education and remembrance gives us an opportunity to reflect on the lessons of history and our shared responsibility to counter Holocaust denial and seek justice for the survivors and their families.
Beth Ezekiel Synagogue
This blog is the product of the public observance of Yom Hoshoah held at Beth Ezekiel Synagoge on April 16, 2023. Please leave comments in order to continue the dialogue. We will add content in the coming days, along with links to the poetry, songs, and readings presented at the event.