April 26, 2011
Jews saving Jews
As I was finishing reading Andrew E. Stevens’ memoir, “Rebel With a Cause: The Amazing True Story of Urban Partisans in World War II,” in collaboration with Meir Doron (Allied Artists, $9.99), I received an e-mail from a former colleague reminding me of a promise I had made to write about Jews saving Jews during the Holocaust. She had long been contending that among the major untold stories of the Holocaust, and some of its most important unsung heroes, were those Jews who put their lives at even more acute risk to rescue other Jews.
Yad Vashem had set the standard, a high standard indeed, for Holocaust heroes. The government of Israel recognizes and honors those non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews. The requirements are stringent. A committee, chaired by a former Supreme Court Justice, examines the evidence; the nominee must be a non-Jew, must have saved a Jew at the risk of his own life without receiving any form of compensation or any expectation of compensation. Diplomats are routinely not eligible because they enjoyed diplomatic immunity, so their lives were seldom at risk. Raoul Wallenberg was a rare exception.
Because Yad Vashem’s designation is so significant and the title so exalted — “Righteous Among the Nations” — many people, scholars and layman alike, overlook the important role that Jews played in saving their own.
Zionist histories exalt other Jews, those who resorted to arms — as if that was the only honorable option. They praise those who, despite impossible odds, fought for Jewish honor in the ghettos of Warsaw and Bialystok, and even in the death camps of Auschwitz, Treblinka and Sobibor. These Jews never expected their battle to result in victory, but their efforts represent a moral triumph, even if they resulted in the mass murder of other Jews. Yom HaShoah is formally designated in Israel as “Yom HaShoah V’hagevurah,” Holocaust and Heroism — or Resistance — Day, as if the two are comparable.
Historians of other nations recognize self-defense and people assisting one another as a form of resistance. Werner Rings, the Swiss historian, said that in every nation under German occupation, there were four stages to resistance. Symbolic and personal resistance: maintaining dignity, identity and continuity; polemical resistance: disseminating information regarding the German crimes; defensive resistance: protecting and aiding one’s own; and only later, much later, armed resistance.
For Jews acting out of the long experience of Jewish history, there were ways to deal with oppression and oppressors. Jews were more practiced in the art of symbolic and spiritual resistance. They initially attempted to thwart Nazi intentions by nonviolent means, stopping short of direct confrontation, in which Jews would inevitably be overpowered.
Jews were masters at polemical resistance — newspapers and diaries, pamphlets and even major historical enterprises of documentation were present in almost all of the ghettos. Artists documented the crimes through the tools of their profession, historians by writing history, poets by their poetry, artists through their artistry, rabbis through teaching Torah and writing responsa of Jewish law.
Not only professionals were committed to documentation. Children kept diaries. People with no professional training photographed what was happening and kept meticulous records. Leaders did their part. In Kovno, Lithuania, Avraham Tory kept a detailed diary of the daily events of the Jewish Council. Adam Czerniakow, the leader of the Warsaw Judenrat, kept a detailed diary and wrote in it until his final hour. Hirsch Kidushin took photographs in Kovno using a clandestine camera, as did other Jewish photographers in the ghettos.
Jews were well-schooled in the ways to assist one another. Ghettos had house committees, welfare drives, soup kitchens, all kinds of innovative efforts to help one another, even under the most desperate of conditions against the most determined of enemies.
Now, Andrew Stevens and Meir Doron have collaborated on an important book that retells the final months of World War II German-occupied Budapest Hungary through the eyes of a young Jew who worked as a forger producing the documents so essential to saving Jewish lives, and who then distributed these documents, despite the dangers that were his daily lot.
Anyone familiar with the Holocaust knows the basic outlines of Raoul Wallenberg’s story; still, permit me a brief reiteration. Hungary was an ally of Germany during World War II. Anti-Jewish legislation was promulgated, and anti-Semitism rose dramatically. Yet while the Jews of Poland and of other German-occupied territory were being annihilated, the Jews of Hungary were persecuted, but not killed.
All that changed on March 19, 1944, when Germany invaded Hungary. In April, the Hungarian Jews were ghettoized. Beginning on May 15, 437,402 Jews were sent to Nazi concentration camps, primarily to Auschwitz — 147 trains, 54 days. Four out of five were killed on arrival. The deportations were halted on July 8, the very day that Wallenberg arrived in Budapest, the last remaining Jewish community in the blood-soaked continent of German-occupied Europe.
And for the next six months, a daily struggle was fought to preserve these Jews. Wallenberg arrived with a mandate to save Jews. It does not diminish his exalted stature to recall that he arrived in Budapest seemingly as a Swedish diplomat, but actually as a representative of the War Refugee Board, the American governmental body established when the United States finally got serious about rescuing Jews. Sweden consented to his participation because it wanted to cleanse its wartime record of close trade relationships with Nazi Germany. Wallenberg volunteered for this mission. He did not initiate the process of using official-looking documents to save Jews, or even the idea of using safe houses flying the flags of neutral countries. But he did devote his entire being to saving Jews, putting his life at risk — Adolf Eichmann threatened him, “Even diplomats can meet with accidents.”
Still, he did not operate alone. Official documents were printed, but many more were unofficially forged. Official documents were given to those who made it to the Swedish embassy. Many more were distributed by the Zionist underground, which exploited the chaos of the Hungarian capital under siege to enlarge the scope of Wallenberg’s activities.
Posing as Endre Solyom, a non-Jew of pre-draft age, Stevens was one of those forgers, and one of ever-increasing skill. He was also a courier of ever increasing daring delivering these documents. Each document offered a chance for life. Without them, death was imminent.
Stevens was born Endre Steinberger in Budapest in 1923. His father was a tailor, his mother a housewife, secular Jews belonging to the Neolog movement, the Hungarian equivalent of Conservative Judaism. Survivor accounts are usually divided into three major chapters — Before, During and After — and, in this, Stevens’ memoir is not the exception. Yet the memoir pays scant attention to his life after. The charm of his depiction of the world before, the recollections of his grandparents’ villages and his large extended family is triggered in flashbacks when, after 87 years, he returns to the scenes of his prewar life, sees what is present and experiences what is absent.
Stevens’ postwar experience is mentioned but briefly in the book, his escape from Hungary to the West; his move to the United States and to Los Angeles; marriage, divorce, remarriage, success in business and the opportunity to contribute to the efforts led by Tony Curtis — born Bernard Schwartz — the attempt to restore elements of Hungarian Jewish life.
The heart and soul of the story here, however, is his Holocaust experience. At first he retains the perspective of a rebellious youth. Stevens is still angry at the failure of Hungarian Jewry to grasp the dangers that awaited them, and at their passivity in the face of increasing peril. This serves as a marked contrast with his own activities late in the war, after he escaped from a slave labor battalion and returned to Budapest. Like many survivors’ memoirs, Stevens’ narrates the history of the time in which he lived, not quite distinguishing between what he knew at the time and what he learned afterward.
For example, he writes: “The leaders of Hungarian Jewry knew all about the Final Solution. Still they cooperated with the Germans and their Hungarian helpers justifying their actions as if they were good for the community.” I teach my students to distinguish between knowledge and information and also to note when the rumors of impending death were confirmed and internalized and formed the basis on which to act. Yet Stevens’ passion is clear, and the history he presents essential to understand his deeds in context.
Escaping from a slave labor camp in the fall of 1944, he was recruited by an old acquaintance who was also posing as a non-Jew and introduced into the world of the Zionist underground. At first, he witnesses its primitive yet essential operations of copying and forging documents, which are then delivered to ever-more desperate Jews. Solyom gradually acquires the skills to forge his own documents, to scavenge for the ink and paper and then to distribute these documents. In the process, he encounters Wallenberg directly and gives ample testimony of Wallenberg’s personal courage, charisma and effectiveness. Solyom witnessed the drowning of Hungarian Jews in the Danube River in the center of Budapest. To save ammunition, Jews were chained together, and only one was shot — or only every other one — and the rest were dragged into the frozen river by the weight of the dead Jew.
Raoul Wallenberg died alone in the Soviet Gulag, but he did not work alone. His effectiveness depended on an underground army of men and women who prepared the forged official-looking documents and then distributed them to needy Jews at a time when the difference between life and death was a stamp on a document.
Stevens was certainly not the least of these young people. His story is their story and enables us to understand that Jews rescuing Jews is an essential and still under-told part of Holocaust history.
Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University.