For the dead and the living, we must bear witness. Elie Wiesel
Note: Dear reader,
I’ve written this article in two parts. Why? I felt it would be disrespectful to leave any part out of this courageous Holocaust survivor’s story that he took the time to share and it’s an account that deserves to be heard. Part II will be out tomorrow.
Sickeningly coincidental, April 20, 2020 this year’s Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Day), or Yom HaZikaron laShoah ve-laGvura (Holocaust and Heroism Remembrance Day), celebrated in Israel and many Jewish communities in the United States, was Hitler’s birthday (4/20/1889). The exact date for the commemoration changes because it is on the 27th of Nisan which follows the Jewish or Hebrew calendar, not the Gregorian calendar used in the United States.
The date of Hitler’s birthday is very familiar to me. My mother used to tell me that having just given birth to my stepbrother, who is thirteen years older than me, that some crazy guy was screaming through the halls of the New York hospital where she delivered. He was yelling that it was Hitler’s birthday. Not the most uplifting moment for a new Jewish mother. Until writing this article I hadn’t realized that my stepbrother was born in 1943 in the United States during the war and precisely as these atrocities were taking place— including to a young, Jewish boy and his family.
Recently it was my honor to virtually attend a powerful discussion with an 84-year old Holocaust survivor, Les Hajnal, who was being interviewed by his daughter, son and grandchild. The fact that there are so many new branches to his family tree especially put a smile on my face. Hitler didn’t win this round, but the Hajnals and the Jews of the world did. It was a privilege to hear the courageous recounting of his experience as a Jew during the Holocaust.
His mother was only twenty-four and his father was thirty-three when the Holocaust took place. His father was a chief electrician in a factory that was originally owned by a Jew. His mother was a stay-at-home mom raising Les and his sister Judy. For the time, his family would have been considered financially comfortable.
When he first began to realize the danger imposed by being born a Jew it was 1943, he was eight years old and he lived in his hometown of Budapest, Hungary.
He was required to wear a Jewish star on his clothes when leaving his house. “It was a scary time when you had to wear things like the Jewish Star that distinguished you—not like the gentiles.”
Jews weren’t allowed to own property—not even his tricycle, pedal push car, nor bicycle that his father had bought him. Trying to protect him from the horrors, his parents had tried to keep as much as possible from him about their situation. He qualified his circumstance by saying that his experience wasn’t as dark as others, until later.
At first his parents didn’t know the shocking facts themselves. This was not the time of cellphones and the internet. He explained that word just didn’t get out—there was no tv and Jews weren’t allowed to own radios, although his family did have one. They were unaware that in the countryside the German SS and Hungarian country police had been massacring Jews in Transylvania.
One day the Gestapo came into Les’ father’s work because it was discovered that he was listening to a radio. When they came into his shop they found the radio tuned to the BBC and also found a handgun. They took him away. They thought he was a British spy so the Gestapo “beat him to a pulp.”
Later the police went to their house and interrogated their mother. Les and Judy were also at home. But his mom couldn’t provide any information because she didn’t have any to give them. They asked her if Les’ father kept a gun at the house and his mother replied honestly, “Yes,” and she showed them the credenza where it was kept. They told her to stick around because they would be back.
His smart, resourceful mother knew it was not safe to stay, and then began her journey to save their family. They had no idea what happened to Les’ father and where he was taken at the time. Later, they would learn that he was taken from working in forced labor camps to multiple concentration camps.
The three of them went from building to building, hiding where she thought people wouldn’t know them, and where they might be somewhat safe.
One day the children were arrested by the Hungarian Nazis.
The two children were on one side of the street and their mother was on the other. Les was praying that Judy wouldn’t shout out to her mother. The nineteen-year-old Hungarian Nazis proudly dressed in their Nazi uniforms were carrying rifles with bayonets. The children were marched to the Jewish Ghetto by the Dohány temple.
What he later found out was that every day they took a number of Jewish women and children and marched them to the Danube and shot them dead into the water. The picture above is of a memorial in Hungary called, “Shoes on the Danube.” The reason the memorial was of shoes was because before the Jews were shot, they were ordered to take off their shoes.
However, the children avoided this unimaginable fate when his aunt, whose husband used to work at the Swedish embassy before the war, showed up with his mother to save them. On a sad side note, he told us that neither his aunt nor his uncle survived the Holocaust and were murdered along with the six million other Jews.
His aunt had contacted the group headed by Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish architect, businessman, diplomat, and humanitarian. He is celebrated for having saved tens of thousands of Jews in Nazi-occupied Hungary while serving as Sweden’s special envoy in Budapest.1 She was able to obtain a letter of protection and got Les and his sister Judy out as Les said, “Maybe a day before they were going to be marched to the Danube and shot to death.”
Ultimately, they ended up staying in the cellar of a six-story building where the wood was stored. The Nazis had invaded Hungary, WWII was raging and the Americans and British would bomb nightly using incendiary bombs that would destroy the buildings and set them on fire. Even so, they regarded night as the “safe” time. Why? Because during the day Hungarian Nazis on the street looked for Jews. This was confusing to Les, a child who was being told that the bombs falling, buildings shaking and being torched was their “safe time.”
Budapest was under siege for a very long time. There were bombings daily and fighting in the streets. It was one of the last Nazi strongholds. As the Russians chased the Nazis toward Germany, the Nazis would blow up the Danube bridges. The city lay in ruins.
Finally, in April 1945 it was announced that the war had ended. The word was spreading but there was still street fighting.
The day after the war “ended,” he went downstairs and saw three Russian soldiers who were firing mortars and it felt like the sidewalk was moving under Les’ feet. The missiles landed two-three streets away. Periodically the Russian soldiers would stop firing.
Up until now, all of Les’ descriptions were matter of fact, but at this point his and everyone else’s demeanor listening to the Zoom discussion changed watching him with his loving wife seated beside him. As tears filled his and her eyes, ours followed. He said, “I suppose I looked a little nebbish (weak).”
We could imagine what the soldier was thinking, looking at this eight-year-old boy wearing the suffering of the war years on his body. This was the first Soviet frontline troop he had ever seen. The soldier reached in his satchel and pulled out a piece of black bread, broke off a piece and gave it to Les.
It took a few minutes for us all to be ready to continue and the emotional level of his life’s story didn’t wane. As a mom, his next revelation filled me with the pain and compassion for both him and his mother.
His mother was struggling to feed all of them. Les was eight and Judy was four. She heard that Zionist camps were being established in Hungary. She left Judy with her cousin and her two children and took Les on a train to a Zionist camp outside the town of Szeged. The Zionist camps were established by the Haganah, the paramilitary organization during this time period in Mandatory Palestine. The Haganah later became the core of the Israeli Defense Forces.2 By staying at the camp, she knew he would be fed, and she left him there. I can’t imagine the pain they both felt as she left him and went back to her home alone. It must have been excruciating.
Everyday more and more children came to the Zionist camp either as orphans or like himself, being dropped off at the camp to ensure that they would be fed. But Les didn’t want to be there and so one day, dressed in shorts and barefoot, he left the camp and headed back on the train to Budapest. Can you imagine? He was only eight and a half by now! The conductor found him and when they reached Budapest, somehow they found out who his mother was, and called her to the train station. Although his mother was glad to see him, her circumstances hadn’t improved, and she took him back to the camp.
Trucks filled with children began to leave the Zionist camp daily to go to Palestine, as it was called at that time (Israel wasn’t formed until later). They called them the Aliyah Bet (migration of a Jew to Palestine B) going to Israel illegally instead of Aliyah Aleph (migration of a Jew to Palestine A), which was entering legally.
The children were initially taken to Czechoslovakia and then to Cypress. Les explained, “The British interned all of the refugees that arrived from the death camps in the Aliyah Bet groups and put them (effectively) into another concentration camp.”
One day he decided that he was going to go to Israel. He explained that they called it Israel, even though there was no Israel at that time.
He climbed onto a truck with 50 other kids. When he looked up he was surprised to see his mother who had synchronistically come to visit him.
When she saw him on the truck, she asked him, “Where are you going on that truck?” He said, “I’m going to Israel.”
“To Israel? The hell you are!” she said. She reached up and pulled him off the truck by his lapel.
If she had arrived ten minutes later he would have been gone. When she left the camp, she made him promise that he wouldn’t do that again.
One day toward the end of 1945, Les was standing by the Israeli flag and singing Hatikvah with a group of other children. Once again, as Les was telling us his story his tears began to flow, and ours were not far behind. There off to the side of the children singing what would later become Israel’s national anthem, was his Dad. He had come back from the concentration camps after the Americans had nourished him “after being half dead. He was still very skinny, almost unrecognizable, and he wore his suffering on his face. You remember those skeleton figures? God Bless, he survived! He came to visit me and took me home to my mom and Judy.”
Part II will continue tomorrow.
May you be blessed with Peace, שלום, سلام
As always I invite you to Join Me on My Journey…
1 Raoul Wallenberg, Wikipedia,
2 byThe Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica, Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Haganah, Zionist Military Organization, https://www.britannica.com/topic/Haganah
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