The day it all changed

Apr 22, 2017

It happened on 19 March 1944: Hitler’s army invaded Hungary, paving the way to eventually killing some 600,000 Hungarian Jews; 70% of Hungary’s Jewish population.

My mother, father and my paternal grandparents were among the surviving minority.

My maternal grandmother was not so lucky. She became one of the 600,000 who did not survive the Holocaust. My mother’s sister Margaret and her young daughter also managed to evade the trap Hitler set for the Jews.

On the 12th of April 1944, the wearing of the yellow Star of David became compulsory for all Hungarian Jews. My Aunt’s husband obliged and he perished in Auschwitz. But my Aunt smelled a rat. She and her daughter did not wear the yellow star. She instructed her six-year-old daughter not to tell anyone that she was Jewish. She studied the map of the world looking for a country as far away from Nazi Germany as possible. Australia seemed to fit the bill.

In 1944 she escaped through the Hungarian border with Austria and landed in Australia with her daughter in 1945.

Following my father’s death in 1964, my mother, sister and I came to join my Aunt in Sydney. Had my Aunt not come to Australia to escape from the Nazis, I probably would not have also ended up in Australia 20 years later.    

But my father and mother stayed in Hungary during the war.

They also decided not to wear the fatal yellow star.            

My father, a doctor with many patients, were generously hidden by some of them. Those patients also hid my paternal grandparents and my mother separately.

My sister who was born in January 1944 was placed in the care of kind Carmelite nuns, who managed to look after her in a convent for a year until the war was over.

On the 4th of April 1945, the Soviet troops drove the German Army out of Hungary.

Now my parents could come out of their perilous year-long hiding.

One of the first things they did then was to convert to Christianity in the hope of sparing their children from the horrors of any future holocaust.        

I was born in 1946, some two years after my maternal grandmother died in Auschwitz. I only saw a single photo of her. She looked like a warm, sweet, elegant, senior woman.

As the years passed, I sometimes felt sad and angry that she was killed just for having a religion that Hitler and his cohorts hated.

She lived in a small town, Miskolc, where my mother was brought up until she moved to Budapest where she met and married my father.

It was easier to evade the Nazis in the big, cosmopolitan Budapest than in the small Miskolc where people tended to know each other better. It turns out, the Jews of Miskolc had no chance of evading the ruthlessly methodological way the Nazis rounded them up as part of their zealous mission for the ‘Final Solution.’     

Recently, I saw an authentic Hungarian language documentary about the Jews of Miskolc and their demise in Auschwitz. It included several interviews with Holocaust survivors. As they all describe the same basic chain of events, they give clues as to what is likely to have happened to my grandmother.

Of the some 60,0000 people of Miskolc, 11,000 were Jewish in 1944.

Just about all Jews were transported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau death camps.

Only 2355 returned; surviving only because at last, the Nazis had to run for their own lives from the advancing Allied troops.

Between March and June of 1944, all Jews had to be registered in Miskolc.

Step by step, they were banned from employment.

Their businesses, wealth and homes were confiscated, and they were confined to ghettos with 20 people to 3 rooms.

Even this became a luxury by June 5 when more than 10,000 Jews of Miskolc were herded into a brick factory to sleep on the floor without food and water.

On the 11th of June, cattle waggons rolled into the brick factory, and they were all loaded into them,

Up to 90 people per waggon, without food and drink, with two buckets per waggon. My unknown

Grandma was deported to Auschwitz in one of such cattle waggons, in trains that departed daily till the 15th of June, until 8.900 Miskolc Jews were deported to the death camps. Of them, 2350 survived such camps, mainly because the German camp keepers ran away in January 1945 from the advancing Allied troops.

The trip to Auschwitz took two days. The survivors had to line up before Mr Death, Dr Mengele. With a casual waving of his hand to the left, he sent the children

And the old, like my grandmother, off to the gas chambers. Those fit to work were kept alive to slave until most eventually died of infections, exhaustion and malnutrition or were gassed once they were unable to keep up the hard work.

This documentary was like the summary of the most horrible footages which gradually emerged after the War showing some of the atrocities what the Nazis did to the Jews. Except for this time, I could not watch it as just a shocking

The manifestation of barbarism and the slaughter of the innocents. This was specifically about the Miskolc  Jews and one of them was my grandmother murdered before I was even born.

This was highly personal. I had little emotional defence against it. I could hardly hide from the intensity of my feelings- a mix of deep sadness and outrage about what was done to that beautiful potential grandmother of mine whose single photo I cherished.

I could now also feel my sadness for my parents, that in response to this holocaust which they themselves only managed to survive by the skin of their teeth, they cut off their Jewish roots and converted to Christianity. This was in the hope that their two children, my sister and me, no longer would identify with Jews who now were stigmatised as vermins to be exterminated. So in a way, my parents, themselves the traumatised victims of this persecution, rejected their own religious tradition and identity in public, out of anxiety for their children’s future.

Did you parents keep their religion? Did you keep yours?

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