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A Portrait of Profound Evil and Its Opposite

September 23, 2010 By:
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The fate of Hungary's Jews during the Holocaust stands out as particularly tragic. I characterize it as such, knowing that there were millions of Jewish tragedies throughout Hitler's Europe, simply because, for so much of the war, Hungary's Jews had an odd, protected status, albeit through a confluence of quirks, both historic and haphazard.

But following the German defeat at the hands of the Soviets, the Nazi fervor for disposing of Jews seemed to speed up in direct response to this major setback; and since Hungarian Jewry accounted for one of the last mass groups left in Europe -- more than three-quarters of a million people -- these poor souls became the major focus of the murder campaign. Administered by Adolf Eichmann -- a loathsome bureaucrat obsessed with his deadly work -- this renewed and nearly unstoppable rampage proved to be especially successful.

These elements alone would be disturbing enough, but one must add to them the fact that certain rescue efforts -- spurred on at last by the U.S. government -- were getting under way just then (mostly during the last 12 months or so of the war). These attempts at saving lives were, despite certain positive results, far too little and far too late; such foot-dragging only makes it more obvious that, if the world had cared and if more resources had been amassed, almost all of these Jews -- at the very least -- could have been saved. But that was not the world's, or America's, real interest at the time. (Raoul Wallenberg's life-saving work cannot be factored in here since his courage can never be praised highly enough; it should put us all to shame.)

That anyone survived this massive killing force is a miracle. Yet there were those who did manage, whether with assistance or through their own initiative and much luck. One of them was Zsuzsanna Ozsváth, whose memoir of the period, When the Danube Ran Red, has just been published by Syracuse University Press.

Ozsváth is the Leah and Paul Lewis Chair of Holocaust Studies, and professor of literature and ideas, at the University of Texas, Dallas. Her work has mainly been academic studies of Hungarian poetry, but this book is of another sort, immensely personal in style and effect.

The author was only a child, a third-grader, when the madness began for her and her family in the summer of 1944. Appropriately, Ozsváth begins her memoir with an unsettling scene. She was at her best friend Márta's birthday party, waiting in line for a piece of cake, when a young companion named Hanna began speaking about the Germans. What Hanna described, the author says, "tore into me more deeply than any of the stories I had heard before."

Ozsváth knew little about the young girl, except that she and her mother had escaped from Poland, and had settled recently in Budapest -- but not before her family had fallen victim to the Nazis. Early one morning, soldiers had broken down the door to Hanna's house -- along with many others in the neighborhood -- and had driven all the Jews into the marketplace. Then the Nazis separated the children from their parents, the young from the old.

This was Ozsváth's greatest fear.

"At this moment," she writes, "my heart tightened. I knew what would come. I had heard about such scenes before, and I feared them so much that at night, when I closed my eyes, I saw myself alone amid masses of people, some of them shot, some of them fleeing, with my parents lost in the helter-skelter. I was right: Hanna had described to me such a scene. After a while, the German soldiers marched her father and grandfather, together with a large group of men, into the nearby synagogue. Forcing them to stand for hours, the Germans tore up the place, throwing the Torah, the prayer books, and prayer shawls out of the windows onto the mud and dirt of the street, ordering the prisoners to pick up 'the garbage.' Then they drove the group back to the marketplace, where all the books and shawls were set ablaze. And while all of this was going on, the rest of the Jews in the marketplace, among them Hanna and her mother, had to stand and wait for hours without food and water. In the meantime, the Germans cut off the men's beards and earlocks, ordering some of them to dance, others to crawl on the ground, soon covered by mud and blood and ashes, before they shot them. The shooting went on all night. Among those killed were Hanna's father and grandfather, both of whom, Hanna swore, she recognized in the moonlight among the corpses, when she was moved after a while some rows down. They were lying in pools of blood After executing all the men on the square, the Germans marched the women and children behind a wall, where the streets of the ghetto curved across."

Ozsváth didn't know what the word "ghetto" meant, and Hanna explained it to her in the starkest terms.

But what happens if you don't want to live there? asked the naive Ozsváth.

You will be shot, Hanna told her.

The Lucky Ones?

These images haunted Ozsváth's days and nights, and reappear in the manuscript whenever the noose begins to tighten around the Jews of Budapest. Ozsváth and her family -- and thousands of other Jews -- were eventually rounded up and made to live in houses scattered throughout the ghetto, but still these Jews were the lucky ones. They were not immediately transported in cattle cars to Auschwitz, as were those in the countryside.

In addition, Ozsváth and her family had a guardian angel, Zsuzsanna's former nanny, a non-Jewish woman named Erzsi, who swore eternal devotion to her one-time employers, no matter how dreadful things might become in the capital city. It was Erzsi's constant care -- especially her procuring of food for them -- that kept their bodies and spirits alive.

But then, in the autumn of 1944, matters grew worse for the Jews. The Arrow Cross -- the homegrown Fascist group in Hungary -- decided to seize power, and so began a period of wholesale slaughter of the Jewish community. Still, as the battle for Budapest raged, with constant bombardments as a backdrop, Erzsi watched over her charges, on certain days running with family members from house to house to avoid both the bombs and the fascists, hoping all the while that the Soviet army would finally appear.

Luckily for the young Ozsváth, she was only separated from her parents a few times and only for comparatively short periods, thanks to Erzsi's extraordinary ministrations. (I'm not trying to make light of these separations and Ozsváth's fears, but considering what was transpiring in Budapest, matters could have been much worse.)

The family had additional luck in that no matter how many times Ozsváth's father was taken by the Nazis -- for questioning, to work camps, on possible death marches -- he managed somehow, even when injured and weakened by his experiences, to return to his wife and children.

The author never flinches when depicting either Erzsi's superhuman devotion or its behavioral opposite -- the Arrow Cross blood bath. Through a window in a badly bombed-out house where she waited until Erzsi could reunite her with her parents, Ozsváth saw a sight she says she will never forget:

"[A] bunch of children, men, and women were standing on the bank of the Danube, on their chests the palm-sized yellow star. They were bound together by ropes. At least four or five Nyilas [members of the Arrow Cross] aimed their guns at them, shooting them into the river, which flowed red like blood. Nobody screamed; nobody cried. You could hear nothing but the shots and splash of the bodies falling into the red foam."

Some readers might complain that When the Danube Ran Red is marked by repetition and stilted language, but such criticism would pale next to Ozsváth's intense dramatization of what she and her family managed to surmount. Her book is an indelible account of evil and the various forms it can take, as well as a portrait of profound goodness that few other Jews witnessed -- even in brief encounters -- during that terrible time.

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