April 12, 2007
‘Rebel With a Cause’
Let me explain: In the course of reporting this column, before I had even had a chance to contact him, he called to ask me why I hadn't called him yet. Over the next week or so, he called me on my cellphone. He called me at home on the weekend. He invited me to his office.
He faxed me articles about him. He gave me copies of a speech he'd delivered. He invited me to lunch.
He wanted me to tell him "the angle" of this article. He asked if he could see the article before I turned it in to my editors. (I said no.) He also gave me a copy and asked me to mention a book of poems called, "Shoah Never Again" (Jim White Enterprises), written (and self-published) by his friend, James E. White Jr., an African American writer and television producer (OK, now I've mentioned it).
And the day the column was due, he called again to say he had "one more input" for me. And he asked again to see the column before I turned it in. (I said no again.)
So why write a column about Stevens? In spite of this barrage, the more time I spent with him, the more compelled I was by the charisma of Stevens and the more I wanted to tell his story.
The ostensible reason for this column is the recently published "Brothers for Resistance and Rescue: The Underground Zionist Youth Movement in Hungary During World War II," by David Gur (Gefen Publishing House), in which Stevens appears.
"Brothers for Resistance" is an important contribution to understanding the Holocaust in Hungary and the resistance work carried out by so many young men and women. As the foreword notes, Gur, who was himself active in the underground, spent two decades trying to track down as many comrades and fellow resistance members as possible for this work.
The book explains the various political, religious and social factions that operated as part of the resistance. Many are still active in various political groups in present-day Israel, such as Mapai (Labor), Dror Habonim (Zionist-Socialist), Mizrahi (Religious Zionism) and Beitar (Activist Zionist). Gur gives the history of these groups and more.
The book explores the many diverse activities of the underground that Zionist youth groups undertook to save as many lives as possible during the Holocaust. These included sending emissaries to towns and cities to warn and prepare them, smuggling people out of Hungary to safer havens (this mission was called the "tiyul"), the production of forged documents, as well as the building of armed bunkers for hiding people.
He also tells of how children were taken to houses under the protection of the Red Cross, and adults and children brought to buildings that were under the protection of foreign legations. In the course of underground activity, young men posing in uniform risked their lives to free others from labor camps and prisons.
However, the biographical entries are the heart and the soul of the book. As Gur said in the foreword, "The motivation behind the work was the wish to rescue underground activists from all streams from anonymity and to reveal their actions."
More than 400 men and women are listed, each one a chronicle of heroism.
Gur's entry on Stevens reveals that he was born Endre Steinberger and was just 16 when the Nazis occupied Budapest in 1944. Conscripted into forced labor, he escaped. After receiving forged documents from a friend, he became involved in the manufacture of documents.
Stevens worked out of several apartments in Budapest. However, early one morning, the Hungarian fascist police, the Arrow Cross, knocked on his door and apprehended him. As he was led down the street to prison and certain death, he ran away. They shot at him, and despite taking a bullet to his ankle, he escaped.
Stevens returned to the manufacture of forged documents. Stevens recalled to me that there was a deaf-mute man who worked beside him who, with a penknife, was able to cut rubber stamps to resemble official seals. Stevens' task was filing out forged documents, and he also often delivered and distributed them, saving many lives, including Laszlo Weinberger, one of his schoolmates.
Stevens recalled that on one occasion, Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who handed out Swedish papers to Jews, saving their lives, complained that he had run out of official forms to fill out. Otto Komoly, one of the Hungarian resistance leaders, offered to provide Wallenberg with a stack of forged forms. Wallenberg agreed, and Stevens delivered them to his office.
Stevens' false papers were also instrumental in saving his mother's life after she escaped from a death march and hid until war's end.
For his actions during the war, Stevens received the Golden Cross from Hungarian President Apad Gonz in 1997, following which Rep. Tom Lantos (D-San Mateo), who is also a Hungarian Holocaust survivor, paid tribute to Stevens in the Congressional Record.
Looking back, Stevens says, he feels those 10 months when he worked in the Hungarian resistance are his "proudest moments."
He is not just proud that he survived, he told me, but that in a time of crisis, he helped others. "I could have just kept my false papers and sat in a room. Today, I can't even understand how I could do that."
He was constantly in danger: "Every hour, you could be next."