I was making a quick run to the supermarket when a shopping cart moved in my way.
It was pushed by an elderly woman from our local synagogue, whom I will call Rose. She and her non-Jewish husband had emigrated from Hungary after the revolution in 1956.
“Susan,” she hesitatingly began.
“I haven’t spoken of this in years. My children do not know,” Rose said in a quiet voice and moved closer. “I know I can tell you.” I knew then that she would speak of the Holocaust. We lived in a small college town and most people, including Rose, knew I taught a Holocaust class.
“You know I was born in Budapest,” she said, pronouncing the city with the “sh” sound, as natives do. “We were not religious, but we went to the beautiful Dahani Synagogue on the High Holidays, for weddings or bar mitzvahs. Although I married a non-Jewish man, we stayed close with both sides of the family.”
Here Rose paused. “We heard about the Nazis. But they were far from us. My father told me, ‘It could never happen here. We have a democracy. We are citizens.’” She paused a long time. “But it did happen.”
Standing in the supermarket aisle for the next two hours, Rose told me a story of pain and loss, heroism and courage. She lived as a non-Jew outside the ghetto and brought food and supplies to her family, putting on a Jewish star as she entered the ghetto and removing it when she left. Each visit was fraught with danger.
She brought out a crying baby found in an emptied apartment in the ghetto. She held the baby in her arms on the train’s way out of the ghetto, hoping no one would betray her. (No one did.)
Less than 5 feet tall, Rose stood in line for Raul Wallenberg’s safe passes, despite beatings from Hungarian Nazis passing by.
She took these passes to family members, at times walking miles, alone, to get passes to those already deported to transit camps.
She saved 40 people. Her only comment, “I should have done more. So many more to save.”
“Weren’t you afraid?” I asked, my heart pounding as her story unfolded.
“Of course,” she said, surprised that I would ask.
Shortly after the war ended, her husband was arrested by the Soviets as a traitor. He had been conscripted into the Hungarian army, and went, having been told his wife would not be forced to live in the ghetto if he did. This probably saved her life. Rose went to the Joint Distribution Committee and received documentation from them, which exonerated him, and she walked to the Soviet Prisoner of War camp and freed her husband.
Few knew of her heroism. That was about to change. The next semester, Rose and her husband frequently spoke to my Holocaust Literature class. The students learned interviewing techniques and a bond grew between the class and this couple.
Some videoed Rose speaking, while some photographed family artifacts, including a picture of her father, wearing his mandatory Jewish star. Some wrote the text accompanying the documentary, which aired on the local PBS. It was an intense experience for all.
One day while driving Rose to class, she suddenly cried out, “We must go back!”
“Why?” I asked, thinking we just had the right amount of time to park and get to class.
“My papers, I don’t have my papers,” she said. She had forgotten her citizenship papers and passport.
“Rose, you’re fine,” I said reassuringly. She remained silent. I continued, “It’s not going to happen here.”
She was quiet for a moment and then spoke softly, “That’s what my father said.”
I turned the car around. (Rose kept a packed suitcase under her bed, just in case.)
After the documentary aired, Rose asked if I would show it to her two grown sons and their wives, who were unaware of her story. “Of course,” I agreed. Her children would finally learn of their mother’s heroism.
A son came down from Canada; the other lived nearby. They were intent as they watched the documentary at their mother’s home. The Canadian son had many questions about his parents and grandparents’ lives. “I’m just so proud of my mother,” he told me, tears in his eyes. His wife agreed. They planned to tell their children of their Jewish heritage and learn more about it.
The other daughter-in-law came up to me. “I want all the videos,” she demanded.
“I’ll be using some for class in the future,” I explained.
“You don’t understand.” Her voice was rising. “I want to destroy all of them. How dare you say that my children have Jewish blood! These are all lies!” Her husband tried to quiet her as she started screaming.
Rose and her husband were quiet, but not surprised. Now, I began to understand why they had taken so long to tell anyone. In Hungary, they feared that being openly Jewish would harm their young sons. They then moved to Chile, along with many Nazis in hiding. That didn’t seem the right time. Anti-Semitism was not dead. This hatred persisted right here in the United States and in their own family.
Perhaps the daughter-in-law would get used to the idea, I thought. A few months later, we were both invited to a mutual friend’s party. When she saw me, she again protested loudly that her children couldn’t be related to Jews. The daughter-in-law’s loud voice carried to the guests. After trying to explain the documentary was from her in-laws’ own words and the photographs they had supplied, I walked away. This was a story that she clearly did not want to hear.
In his book “Murderers Among Us,” the famous Shoah survivor, Simon Wiesenthal, takes his daughter to the trial of a Nazi accused of heinous crimes. His daughter scrutinizes the Nazi, then comments that he looks like everyone else. How did her father find these people to bring them to justice? Her father nods thoughtfully and says that that is the problem. They look like everyone else and live among us.
On many levels, the Holocaust continues its influence. It dwells in the memories of the survivors and those who endured those times, changing them in ways we cannot fathom. It affects the perspectives of the second and third generations.
It survives in the anti-Semitism still present in Europe, the Middle East and at times, in our own neighborhoods. Sometimes, unexpectedly, hatred of Jews exists in our own family members. To paraphrase Simon Wiesenthal, heroes and haters look like everyone else and live among us.
Susan Weintrob is a retired educator who writes full time in Charleston, S.C.