78 years later, Jewish Holocaust rescuers want their story told

KIBBUTZ HAZOREA, Israel (AP) — Just before Nazi Germany invaded Hungary in March 1944, Jewish youth leaders in the Eastern European country sprang into action, training a clandestine network which, in the months to come, would save tens of thousands of fellow Jews from the Gas Chambers.

This chapter of Holocaust heroism is barely remembered in Israel. It is also not part of the official school curriculum. But the few remaining members of the Hungarian Jewish underground want their story told. Appalled at the thought of being forgotten, they are determined to keep the memories of their mission alive.

“The story of the struggle to save tens of thousands of people must be part of the chronicles of the people of Israel,” said David Gur, 97, one of the few surviving members. “It is a beacon during the Holocaust period, a lesson and an example for generations.”

As the world marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Friday, historians, activists, survivors and their families are all bracing for the time when there will be no living witnesses left to share first-person accounts. horrors of the Nazi genocide during World War II. . During the Holocaust, 6 million Jews were wiped out by the Nazis and their allies.

Israel, which was established as a haven for Jews in the aftermath of the Holocaust, has gone to great lengths over the years to recognize thousands of “Righteous Among the Nations” – non-Jews who risked their life to save Jews during the Holocaust.

Tales of Jewish resistance to the Nazis, such as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, are mainstays of the national narrative, but the rescue missions of fellow Jews – such as the Hungarian resistance – are less well known.

Hungary was home to around 900,000 Jews before the Nazi invasion. Its government was allied with Nazi Germany, but as the Soviet Red Army advanced towards Hungary, the Nazis invaded in March 1944, to prevent its Axis ally from reaching a separate peace agreement with the Allies.

Over the next 10 months, up to 568,000 Jews were killed by the Nazis and their allies in Hungary, according to figures from Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial.

Gur said he and his colleagues knew disaster was imminent when three Jewish women arrived at Budapest‘s main synagogue in the fall of 1943. They had fled Nazi-occupied Poland and brought disturbing news about people. sent to concentration camps.

“They had pretty clear information about what was going on, and saw the many trains, and it was obvious to them what was going on,” Gur said.

Gur oversaw a massive forgery operation that provided forged documents to Jewish and non-Jewish members of the Hungarian resistance. “I was an 18-year-old when the heavy responsibility fell on me,” he said.

There was great personal risk. In December 1944, he was arrested at the counterfeit workshop and brutally interrogated and imprisoned, according to his memoir, “Brothers for Resistance and Rescue”. The Jewish resistance brought him out of the central military prison in a rescue operation later that month.

The forged papers were used by Jewish youth movements to operate a smuggling ring and run Red Cross houses that saved thousands of people from the Nazis and their allies.

According to Gur’s book, at least 7,000 Jews were smuggled out of Hungary, via Romania, to ships on the Black Sea that would bring them to British-held Palestine. At least 10,000 fake passes offering protection, known as Shutzpasses, were distributed to Jews in Budapest, and about 6,000 Jewish children and accompanying adults were rescued from homes ostensibly under the protection of the Cross. International Red.

Robert Rozett, senior historian at Yad Vashem, said that although it was “the greatest rescue operation” of European Jews during the Holocaust, this episode remains “out of the main narrative track”.

“It is very important because these activities have helped tens of thousands of Jews to stay alive in Budapest,” he said.

In 1984, Gur founded “The Research Society for the History of Zionist Youth Movements in Hungary”, a group that publicized this effort.

At a kibbutz in northern Israel last month, Sara Epstein, 97, Dezi Heffner-Reiner, 95, and Betzalel Grosz, 98, three of the remaining survivors who helped save Jews in occupied Hungary the Nazis, received the Jewish Rescuers Citation for their role. in the Holocaust. The award is presented by two Jewish groups – the B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem and the Committee for Recognizing the Heroism of Jewish Rescuers during the Holocaust.

“There are not many of us left, but it is important,” Heffner-Reiner said.

Over 200 other members of the underground have received the award posthumously. Gur received the award in 2011, the year of its creation.

Yuval Alpan, son of one of the rescuers and an activist for the society, said the citations were meant to recognize those who saved lives during the Holocaust.

“This underground youth resistance movement saved tens of thousands of Jews in 1944, and their story is not known,” he said. “It’s the biggest rescue operation of the Holocaust and nobody knows it.”

International Holocaust Day falls on the anniversary of the Red Army’s liberation of the Auschwitz death camp 78 years ago. Israel is home to some 150,600 Holocaust survivors, almost all over the age of 80, according to government figures. This is 15,193 less than a year ago.

The United Nations will hold a commemorative ceremony at the General Assembly on Friday, and more commemorative events are planned around the world.

Israel celebrates its own Holocaust Remembrance Day in the spring.


Associated Press writers Eleanor Reich and Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem contributed to this report.


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