Escape from Munkacs: Part III

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Escape from Munkacs: Part III

The author's mother c.1938 upon graduation from business school

My Mother’s dilemma

1  Background to Friday evening, 19 May 1944

This article commemorates the 80th anniversary of my Mother’s risky walk out of the ghetto during the final days before its inmates were driven, first to an even more squalid place of detention in the Sajovitz brickyard on the outskirts of the town and, shortly thereafter, on their journey by cattle train via Kassa [Kosice] to Auschwitz. For most of them, this led to their almost immediate gassing.

Each of these six self-contained pieces coincides as closely as possible with the date in 1944 of a particular event in the rapidly unfolding tragedy, which left hundreds of thousands of Jews dead within the first four months after the Nazi entry into Budapest on 19 March 1944.

Each marks a milestone in my life.

Though I was far too young to remember them, I am very belatedly coming to realise how permanently and deeply they have affected me. For the 73 remaining years in my Mother’s life, she bore the scars with a remarkable sense of resignation and acceptance.

I hope that these essays will be more than an exercise in self-indulgence, though I have already learned much in the process of preparing them.

The Holocaust in Hungary happened more suddenly and proceeded far more rapidly than in other countries such as Poland, Slovakia, the Soviet Union, France, Belgium and Holland. Ghettos in Hungary were more makeshift than in major Polish cities like Warsaw and Lodz. Outside of Budapest, they existed only for days or at most a few weeks. In Hungary’s ghettos, Jews characteristically were confined not by brick walls but by wooden planks. If few attempted to escape, this was because of displays of brutality combined with drastic penalties for disobedience or for efforts to abscond.

When Eichmann came to Hungary in March 1944, few young Jewish men remained in Hungarian towns and villages. Most had been conscripted into labour battalions, where they were regularly forced to do the dirty and dangerous work for Hungarian army units, which were helping German forces against the Soviet Union. While Jewish casualties in many of these work details were heavy, the absence of Jewish men from their normal places of residence served to save them from deportation to Auschwitz during the fatal weeks between mid-May and early July of 1944. At the same time, it tended to limit opportunities for their home communities to plan escapes, let alone armed resistance.

The extraordinary resolve of my maternal grandmother, Gizi Seidman, and her younger sister Roszi was all too rare.


2 My Mother is rescued

On 5 May 1944, Hazi Maria, the young Christian woman recruited in Budapest by Roszi, carried out her first job. This was to take the train to Munkacs carrying false identity papers to smuggle me, a ten month old baby, and to risk taking me out of the Munkacs ghetto.

After they discreetly observed her exit through the gates with me on her shoulder, my Mother, grandfather and the rest of the family and her elder relatives could not know whether Maria had been able to deliver me safely to Budapest and, if so, to which of three addresses she had been given.

Maria’s next job would be to make a further round trip with false papers and a train ticket to Budapest for my Mother.

All that my Mother knew was that Friday was Maria’s day off work. Consequently, Friday afternoon was the time she was most likely, if at all, to reappear in the ghetto to fetch her.

According to the last of several accounts she wrote many years later, it was about five in the afternoon of Friday May 19th when Maria came back. In an earlier version she included the parenthesis “May 12?”

It never occurred to me to nit-pick about the dates and to examine the historical evidence more closely. In reality, the date poses a problem. The plan adopted by the Nazis, with active support of the Hungarian gendarmerie for Sub-Carpathian Hungary, had been to move Jews from villages around Munkacs into two brickyards on the town’s outskirts and to move Jews living in Munkacs into a central ghetto.

Brickyards outside towns and cities were ideal as staging posts because they often were attached to spurs of rail lines from which bricks most efficiently could be transported. What was suitable for bricks could also prove handy for transporting Jews. The technique was to hold Jews in a brickyard for a number of days under dust-filled, insanitary conditions, to torture those who seemed to be rich to force them to surrender wedding rings and other valuables, and to half starve them. By the time cattle trains arrived, they were likely to offer little resistance to being piled into them and some even hoped that the journey would take them to a more salubrious place where they would be put to work.

When trains had transported the inmates of the brickyards in the first trains, Jews living in the central ghetto could be forced to walk several miles to the Sajovitz brickyard to take their place. Different sources give slightly inconsistent dates. The first of the nine trains reported to have transported a total of nearly 29,000 Jews from Munkacs via Kassa [Kosice] to Auschwitz left either on 11 or 14 May; the last left either on 23 or 24 May. By 19 May, the ghetto in central Munkacs had already, at least in considerable part, been emptied and it’s inhabitants sent on the miserable, long walk to the brickyard.

Yet my Mother never mentioned this to me and did not write about it either in her account of the evening she escaped from the ghetto. That this occurred on the eve of Shabbat is clear from several parts of her memoir. Could it have been 12 May? If so, why did she remember that Hazi Maria returned for her to Munkacs two weeks after fetching me?

I am not sure how much this affects the four main features of that terrible evening. First, neither my Mother nor her parents — most actively her mother — had any doubts about my Mother’s leaving the ghetto after learning that Hazi Maria had delivered me safely. Second, she felt it likely that she would never see her parents, her grandfather, or her uncle Moshe again. Third, it is now clear how very narrowly my Mother avoided being deported herself. Did she and her mother realise that the ghetto was on the point of being emptied? Since I did not examine the relevant dates in sufficient detail during her 97 years of life, it never occurred to me to ask. Fourth, what struck her on that night as most bizarre — not her word — was that it was the first time in her life when she would not be lighting the Shabbat candles [which the family clearly seems to have brought with them into the ghetto]. Even stranger was the idea of her walking into the streets on the eve of Shabbat in gentile garb,

Before leaving, she had some quick preparations to make. She had to use a condom, I imagine pre-purchased by my ever active and resourceful grandmother, to protect a wad of money to be secreted on her person. My Mother mentioned this in a matter of fact, graphic way. She then had to attend to the issue of her sheitel; this was the name of the wig which she, as an Orthodox married woman in Hungary and many other places wore, having cut her hair after the wedding ceremony so that only her spouse and close family could ever see her crowning glory — her tresses. Since she could be exposed as Jewish if she walked through town wigless and thus with short hair, she put a band around her head. The two other precautions were to receive her false identity papers in the name of Hazi Maria and to exchange clothes with Maria so that she would look less Jewish.

She was justified in predicting that she would never again see any of those she was leaving.

The shock of her departure gave rise to such mixed feelings that she gave very different accounts of them in contrasting versions of her feelings that night, written over a course of many years. In one set of notes, she recounted her sense of freedom as soon as she had left the ghetto, “that horrible, congested place”. In another, she gave an impression of her near terror. She realised, of course, that her life might well depend on her concealing it when asked to show her papers.

Safely exiting the ghetto gates was the first test. The next protective measure was walking to the rail station at a distance from Maria. On the way, she saw a non-Jewish former classmate looking quizzically at her as if to say “You’re not supposed to be out of the ghetto!” So she spoke to her explaining that her “father did some service in the Hungarian army and that is why I and my family are exempt.”

At the crowded  station, Maria went into a different part of the train. Then, in the words of her memoir,

“I was approached by an important looking officer who looked at me and asked for my ID card. He looked again at my picture. I thought this is the end of my freedom, but he let me go and a sigh of relief came over me … After a while, I found a place to sit down, closed my eyes, and hoped that no more identification will be needed during the night.”

A further reason to pretend to sleep was to avoid having to speak to the other passengers in the carriage since “people were talking about the horrible treatment of the Jews”. She was to tell me she felt she could give herself away if she took part in any conversation.

The next morning, she got out of her carriage and found Hazi Maria on the platform. She writes in her memoir:

“The trip from Munkacs to Budapest was exhausting, mainly because of the fear of being discovered, the guilt feeling leaving your family, yet there was a great desire to see my son, to save my life.”


3. Arrival in Budapest

What happened after my Mother arrived in Budapest probably is the hardest thing in any of these six articles for me to face. There remains much I do not and will never know, almost as much about which I’d rather not speculate, and matters unfit for discussion.

What I can confidently state is my strong impression that what happened in the darkest days of the Holocaust had traumatic, long term consequences and led to secrets which survivors carried with them to the grave, as well as wounds they could not help transmitting to the next generation.

It is partly for this reason that I have come to the conclusion that the vogue for recording  multiple Holocaust testimonies takes us only so far. Such testimonies can and do provide information which can be checked against documentary evidence; they can provide information on matters of detail otherwise unavailable; they can be inspiring for educational purposes. For these and other reasons, I do not share the contempt for survivor testimony [or for survivors themselves] sadly shown by too many historians. At the same time, videoed replies to questions posed by interviewers with insufficient background knowledge have tended to encourage overly-standardised responses. Few historians have the patience or the time to speak with survivors in sufficient detail and in sufficient privacy.

It is now over twenty years since I worked with a group of Auschwitz survivors in negotiations with German ambassadors and ministers for long enough in a campaign named Claims for Jewish Slave Labour Compensation, so that naturally and only after years they occasionally told me unexpected things. These were usually about what others had done or had threatened to do to them rather than what they had done.

In the case of my own family and different relatives who are no longer living, it is not for me to stand in judgement. I felt for years that it was outrageous and tragic for relatives to blame each other for crisis-laden responses to what had been Hitler’s crimes. But I deeply regret that I could not or did not put to rest the concerns of different relatives who had been obliged at early ages to encounter situations about which I could barely even dream, which I did not give them proper opportunities to explain and for which I could not bring myself to remove their sense of guilt. In particular, there was so much left for my Father to have said when he died suddenly around his seventieth birthday and which I was privileged to start learning from a loving, admiring but not uncritical “disciple” of his on a visit two years ago to Jerusalem.

When my Mother arrived in Budapest on Shabbat morning, 20 May 1944, Hazi Maria left her to go to the basement hiding place of Roszi and her husband “to report that I arrived and to collect her reward”. I wonder if this could have been literally true, since I can’t easily imagine the ultra-Orthodox Roszi breaking a Shabbat law by paying money on such a holy day. I wonder if Roszi nevertheless felt she should abide by the principle of Pikuach Nefesh — that matters of life and death took absolute religious priority and that she therefore felt justified in disregarding normal Shabbat rules..

My Mother writes that she went separately from the station to the home of a relative living in Budapest, the medical doctor Mozes Zoltan [in the Hungarian manner of surname first].

When in 1994 I was writing an article for The Sunday Telegraph on “Kasztner’s Train” [the subject of my fifth part], my Mother told me how Dr Mozes upbraided her for not appearing at his apartment wearing a yellow star. This struck her as showing how Jews in Budapest remained removed from the reality of the situation in a place such as Munkacs and thus of the dangers they too would soon face.

Preparing for the worst was to become the matter of my Mother’s fundamental disagreement with my Father’s relatives. They lived in the Budapest suburb of Rakospalota [at the time crucially not incorporated yet into the capital]. The status of Budapest suburbs versus districts designated as part of the capital proper was within weeks to become another matter of life or death.

My Mother clearly saw Dr Mozes [whose precise relationship to the Seidman family I have not yet been able to determine] as an important person, his home as a place of refuge both for me and for her. She once mentioned that he possessed a painting by Delacroix. Initially, my Mother was to live with him and his family while she looked for a place to live under Christian papers. I have the impression but, again, this is something it never occurred to me to ask, that she had hoped that Hazi Maria would deliver me to Dr Mozes rather than to my Father’s home in Rakospalota, where he was [though now taken for compulsory military labour duties] the Orthodox rabbi. But it was a responsibility the Mozes family had not been prepared to undertake.

Aunt Roszi and her husband had been too frightened or genuinely unable to accommodate their own two daughters [who had arrived from Munkacs on 29 April as per Part 2]. They had found a Christian hiding place for them. They certainly could not accommodate my Mother and me, by now all of eleven months old.

The following day, Sunday 21 May, my Mother, Aunt Roszi and her husband, all with false papers, made the bus journey to Rakospalota. My Mother writes in her memoir of their arrival in Rakospalota. It had only been when Hazi Maria arrived back in Munkacs to fetch my Mother from the ghetto, that my Mother had learned to her disappointment that her Aunt Roszi “did not have a place [for me] in Budapest but I was very happy that he [had] arrived safely”.

“Next time I saw Michael,” she wrote, “he was with his [paternal] grandmother, played happily with [my Father’s sister] Rachel’s children in the kitchen in the house we lived in before in Rakospalota. Roszi, the young housekeeper [whom] I brought from Munkacs when I got married, was with them … It was wonderful to see Michael again, hold him & kiss him.”

However, for my Mother, the atmosphere was “different than in Munkacs”. She felt a lack of privacy with me. She tried to warn her mother in law, my Father’s mother, “what had happened to us [in Munkacs] and that the same thing will happen in Rakospalota”.

This was to no avail. My Mother does not expand on what must have been an extremely hard conversation. She always told me that she liked her mother in law, but I can only imagine the same did not apply to her sister in law, my Aunt Rachel, who had now moved into the house with her three daughters, while her husband was away as a conscripted army labourer.

For decades, Rachel would express in writing her view that my Mother abandoned me in Rakospalota for her own safety, thereby leaving herself to save my life.

Evidently reluctant or unable to remove me by force, and despite the presence of her Aunt Roszi and her husband for support, she left me in Rakospalota, returning to see me every week or ten days even as it was becoming riskier to make the trip from Budapest.

My Mother stayed with her cousins, Dr Mozes and his family while her former maid from Munkacs, Roszi, now living with the Duschinsky family in Rakospalota, looked for a place where she could live under Christian papers. It was only on 9 June 1944 that Roszi succeeded and my Mother moved into a ground floor shared room with a lady responsible for managing a house in the red light district of Buda, Tomo Utca 60.

She later wrote a considerable amount about her stay there over the following six months. I intend to write more about part of this time in my sixth and final essay. A recurring concern of hers was that she might give away her true identity by failing correctly to follow Catholic practice in situations when she was with others. During bombing raids, she would need to enter the cellar alongside others for their protection: “I equipped myself with a Rosary and a cross necklace and mumbled something during the time we were in the shelter.”

Sharing a room with the janitor, she explained her avoidance of the non-kosher foods eaten by her landlady by the pretense that she had a food allergy that allowed her only to eat tomatoes. When the janitor’s son visited, shared her room and said “kiss, kiss”, she replied that she had a fiancé in the army to whom she was loyal.

There was a coffee shop nearby:

“When I went in for a cup of coffee around 6 pm, the waiter said somewhat discreetly “in about two hours, you will find a number of nice gentlemen”.

She told me that how she would always take care while using public transport that others she identified as Jewesses in hiding should not attract notice and thereby draw attention to her. She would get off at the next stop. But sometimes she would have chance encounters with girlfriends from back home who also were in hiding. They’d joke with each other by using their pseudonyms. For my Mother, it was: “I’m not Magda [her real name], I’m Maria.” She retained the false papers identifying her as her earlier rescuer Hazi Maria.


4. Where was my Father?

In order to avoid putting the hospitality of the editor of TheArticle to too great a test and to make clear to readers that I am aware of the limits on their time, this is to indicate that this section is a diversion from the memorial here of my Mother’s escape from the Munkacs ghetto which she ended by recording as having taken place on 19 May 1944.

When she returned to her married home in Rakospalota, my Father had recently been conscripted into a unit of Hungary’s forced labour section for Jews and other unreliables, such as members of some small and reputedly extreme Christian communities.

As a rabbi of a congregation, my Father had been excused from this military labour service until after the Nazis entered Hungary. By the time of my Mother’s return from Munkacs, my Father had been conscripted into the Todt Organisation to serve in the notorious copper mine complex at Bor in Serbia, copper being essential for Germany’s war production.

In July 1939, weeks before the outbreak of the Second World War, my Father had been living in London. At the time unmarried, he was continuing his rabbinical studies, which he had started at the renowned Yeshiva founded by the near-legendary Chatam Sofer in Pressburg — the German name for the city otherwise known as the Slovakian capital of Bratislava.

Surprisingly, he became good friends with his first cousin Edgar Duchin, who had been one of the three top scholars at St Paul’s School in London, alongside Isaiah Berlin and the future founding director of the Israeli foreign service Walter Ettinghausen [later Eytan]. Edgar ceased to be an observant Jew while an undergraduate at Brasenose College, Oxford, and was to marry out of the faith. That my Father found in him a best soulmate was an indication of what he must have found as a welcome air of freedom.

It was only two years ago that a great friend of his revealed to me that my Father had hoped to become a vet. I’d never guessed that, though my Father, of whom I was subsequently to see very little, did once reveal to my great surprise that he had not set out to be a rabbi. I can only suppose that he had fallen prey to excessive family pride in the distinguished multi-generational traditions in the families of both his parents to enter the rabbinate in the non-Hasidic, “Modern Orthodox” tendency.

He was the youngest of six siblings. An elder brother was also a rabbi, of a nearby town outside Budapest. Therefore, when my grandfather, Rabbi Michael, died in July 1939, there was another ready successor as rabbi of Rakospalota. To return to Central Europe at a time when most Jews were queuing to leave was remarkable and I can only presume that the moral pressure must have been great. My father’s reputation for brilliance in rabbinics served him ill. There likely was additional pressure on him to find a marriage partner suitable to be a “rebbetzin”, a rabbi’s wife.

If reports are accurate, he was to show exceptional leadership and a strong sense of religious duty, both while a slave labourer, immediately after the end of the War, and in public activities in the three postwar years. He continued to act as rabbi to the family synagogue despite the deaths of a very high proportion of its members. A member of the US legation in Budapest in the late 1940s sent him a letter shortly before his death, comparing his humanitarian achievements to those of Mother Theresa.

I can only presume that all this took a huge toll, which had already started by the time of his marriage, according to my Mother, on the rare occasions she spoke about their early life together.


5.Matters of life or death: June 1944

At the very time when my Mother moved into her refuge in Budapest’s red light district, the Second World War was reaching its climax: a time of Jewish hope, but in Hungary weeks when the procession of Jew-crammed cattle trucks was in full flow from Hungary to Auschwitz. On the one hand, the D-Day landing of US, British and other Allied forces on the beaches of Normandy. On the other hand, the Nazi rush to complete the annihilation of European Jewry, with special attention to Hungary.

On the one hand, rules restricting Jews in Budapest and its suburbs were becoming steadily more severe. Plans for killing the Jews of Budapest and neighbouring districts were advancing. On the other hand, renewed news about the meaning of “Auschwitz” had started to filter out, albeit needlessly slowly. Allied discussions about the bombing, not so much of Auschwitz or the rail routes to Auschwitz, but rather about the bombing of Budapest increased, and — reportedly — Hungary’s skills in decoding Allied radio traffic led the country’s Regent, Admiral Horthy, to take that risk very seriously.

All these things could not properly be known to Budapest Jews, so far spared deportation but likely next in line. The latter part of June saw them scramble for safety. My Mother kept pleading with her mother-in-law to release me to a place of relative safety in hiding with a Christian family. She was in touch with a close girlfriend, also in hiding in Budapest. Vali Mermelstein [later Vali Kaye] was one of a family of eight daughters who had been raised near Munkacs. Vali had been a frequent guest at the Seidman home since she travelled there to school from a place some distance away, where her parents operated a bottled water business.

My Mother informed my [paternal] grandmother that Vali had found a Christian family willing to take me and her into their home. She received no response:

“I felt then that the family did not want to release Michael. They did not trust me … It made me miserable and afraid. I continued my visits. Prayed to God that if anything happened to Michael, God should take me also.”

Amid the ever tighter regulations, my Mother’s visits to Rakospalota must have ended at some point in June. A later entry in her papers suggests that she did not know what was happening or that I had been deported. Her predictions had come to pass.

Since this series reports events as near as possible exactly 80 years after they occurred, it will be in the sixth and last part that my Mother will discover my fate. This will appear on or around 8 July.

The fourth part, due in a week’s time, will concern the deportations from Munkacs to Auschwitz of the loved ones she left in the ghetto on 19 May, 1944, and in particular that of the only one who survived, my grandmother, though even she died shortly after her release at the end of the War.


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