April 12, 2007
‘Rebel With a Cause’
(Page 2 - Previous Page)The false papers only provided minor protection.
"If I was caught, all they needed to do [to find out if I was a Jew] was to ask me pull down my pants," he said.
Yet he traveled all over Budapest without fear.
Stevens still can't understand how so many of his fellow Hungarian Jews remained blind to the fact of what was happening. "In the beginning, we didn't believe.... But at a certain point.... By then it was too late."
Stevens recalled how he personally witnessed the murder of many Hungarian Jews by the banks of the Danube.
"With my own eyes, I saw little kids laughing and then [the soldiers] tossing them into the air and shooting at them," he said.
Today at the base of the Margit Bridge in Budapest there is a memorial -- little bronze shoes stuck in the mud. (Documentary filmmaker Bela Mayer just sent me a short film by Andras Salamon on this subject called, "Tell Your Children" at films.thelot.com/films/17451.)
In 1949, Stevens immigrated to the United States, eventually traveling to California. His first job here was as a busboy at Mama Weiss, a Hungarian restaurant that used to exist in Beverly Hills. He worked as a waiter's assistant at the Cock 'n' Bull on Sunset, pumped gas and worked in a lighting factory. Eventually he became a real estate sales agent, selling graded land for residential development in the east San Gabriel Valley.
Over time, he fielded a team of sales agents who handled large home sites in Big Bear, Montebello, the Salton Riviera and Thousand Palms. Stevens was also instrumental in the development of Lake Havasu, Ariz. His company grew to develop, market and manage properties not only in the United States but also abroad, including Brussels, Hong Kong, Guam and even Budapest.
Stevens has two grown sons, a doctor and a lawyer, from his first marriage, and a 7-year-old son from his second marriage.
His charitable activities are legion (Stevens suggested I refer to him as "Rebel With a Cause," which he informed me was his trademark), and include ORT, Vista Del Mar, the Beverly Hills Rotary Club, DARE, The Medallions (Cedar-Sinai Medical Center's fundraising division), Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and the Emanuel Foundation, a charitable organization devoted to restoring and preserving sites of Jewish interest in Hungary, named in honor of Emanuel Schwartz, Tony Curtis' father (Curtis provided the original seed money).
My mother was active in the Emmanuel Foundation, and many years ago, after I first moved to Los Angeles, she asked me to serve as the L.A. driver/assistant/factotum for the foundation's executive director, Andor Weiss, a Brooklyn-based Orthodox rabbi and Hungarian survivor.
"You're my Hollywood connection," he used to say to me, to which I would reply: "If I'm your Hollywood connection, then you are in trouble."
The rabbi was about 4-feet tall, bald, smart as a fox and tenacious as a terrier. Whenever he was in town, I had no idea where our adventures would take us, but thanks to him, I found myself in a limo with Guy McElwayne, hearing stories about Frank Sinatra and his daughter, Tina; and schmoozing at the home of Joe Esterzhas in Malibu. And on one memorable occasion, I was greeted at the door of a condo in Bel Air by a bare-chested Tony Curtis, who proceeded to hug me.
The West Coast director of the Emanuel Foundation? Stevens. So, in fact, I knew Stevens, having met him several times a decade ago. But I did not know his story -- and I did not really know him.
This Sunday, April 15, Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) will be observed in Pan Pacific Park at the Holocaust Memorial. Stevens will be there in a place of honor. As a survivor, as a member of the resistance, as one of the supporters of the memorial, he deserves it.
To return to my original question: Why write a column about Stevens?
That same spirit that made him run away when arrested by the Arrow Cross and kept him running even when shot; that made him save others, even when his own life was at risk is the same headstrong independent personality that forged a business and a life in this country, and that continues to be charitable. He doesn't stop. He doesn't say no; so who can say no to him?
At the outset of this column, I said Stevens was annoying. Perhaps I should have said insistent. But I can tell you this: My parents, Eastern European Holocaust survivors, were also each, in their own way, very charming but on occasion extremely annoying people. It was hard to say no to them. So you could say the reason I wrote this column is simple: I miss them.
Tom Teicholz is a film producer in Los Angeles. Everywhere else, he's an author and journalist who has written for The New York Times Sunday Magazine, Interview and The Forward. His column appears every other week.
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