Passing on the Story

 

by Rachael Miller

“The most important part for those who also survived, is to try to teach what happened and teach people to remember. It’s the only way to avoid it.”

I had been thinking about this interview all week. The room I was in was quite small. All it consisted of was a desk, chair, and bookcase. I prepared my questions on my computer and waited to call while I examined the lamp on the table next to me. It was a small lamp with a translucent green shade.

My father had set me up with his business partner George to interview.  I had done my research on the man; I knew he was born in Hungary, lived through the Holocaust, had been part of the Hungarian revolution, and migrated from Hungary to America. He is now a very wealthy man and donates a lot of his money to various charities. In the pictures I had seen, he was an elderly man, probably in his eighties, with gray hair on the sides of his head. His appearance, however, seemed to have a youthful glow. My dad spoke very highly of him. I was very interested in learning about him, but I couldn’t get over the fact that I was about to ask extremely personal questions to a stranger.

This interview was very meaningful for me. I consider being educated on world events, especially the harrowing ones, to be essential to any education. Without education such as this, those of us fortunate enough to be distanced from tragedy will do nothing to stop it or prevent it in the future. Additionally, it is important for people to continuously try to understand the truths of these events, keeping in mind that they will never be able to completely comprehend what the witnesses had to go through. 

I watched my computer clock turn to 4:30 and my stomach fluttered. My dad came into the room on the phone with George and handed the phone to me. I sat there holding the phone to my ear for a second, not sure how to start. I heard him on the other end of the phone waiting for me to pick up.

“Hello,” I awkwardly greeted.

“Hi, how old are you Rachael?” he replied, not wasting any time.

“I’m sixteen.”

We spent a minute speaking of his grandchildren and my father until I finally mustered up the courage to begin the interview that we were here for. The first thing I noticed when he greeted me was his Hungarian accent. It was reminiscent of the Benedictine monks at my school who also migrated from Hungary. This along with his small talk eased my nerves.

I finally directed the conversation back to the interview. We briefly spoke of his childhood in anti-Semitic Hungary and how Judaism had played a role in his everyday life. So far the discussion was very casual, and I wondered how he would continue to speak in this way when we got to the more personal questions. I knew he had been interviewed a couple of times before; maybe he eventually got desensitized to his own story.

“How did the Holocaust affect you and your family?” I asked.

“Well, it was very terrible,” he said, “most of my family was killed.” Then there was a long pause. This was the point that I started to hear a hint or pain coming through the phone. From then on his voice slowed and he paused more frequently between sentences, seemingly contemplating and choosing his words more carefully than he had in our small talk. He finally continued, “They were taken to Auschwitz, and I was actually supposed to be on the same train, but a very brave Christian friend of our family rescued me. It was a very scary time. I remember most of the time being sacred. I wasn’t sure what I was scared of. And only a few of us survived the Holocaust, so after the war, it was a very different world and even then what I remember most is fear. It was only my mother, my sister, and I who survived, and I think it was 17 members of my family that were killed.”

George provided me with not just facts and data, but also a window into what his life was like seventy years ago, thus revealing a truth that I could never have experienced otherwise. The books and documentaries I had watched prior to the interview did not come close to providing the same amount of complexity.

“How do you want the Holocaust and World War II to be remembered in history books today?” I asked.

Again he took a long pause.

After about fifteen seconds he finally said, “Well, I think that the most important part is to remember. You know I am involved in teaching Holocaust in high schools. I know for example, eighty percent of American high school students have never even heard of the Holocaust.”

“Wow, really?”

“Yeah, it’s pretty shocking.”

I was very surprised by this and honestly, questioned its validity. However, credible or not, as long as I could remember, I had known about the Holocaust. Maybe it was because of my family’s relationship to it, but I still believed it to be common knowledge. It’s strange to think that there are students out there who haven’t even heard of it. Thinking of this made me more grateful for people like George dedicating his time to such an important cause. By teaching kids such as myself of his story, George is doing us a great service. This interview has value because others who read it are able to catch a small glimpse of truth from his story, and hopefully just enough of it to stick with them and drive them to take action to prevent it in the future.

He later told me, “I actually wrote an autobiography, and I might decide to publish it. I wrote it primarily for my children and grandchildren so that they can have the true story because that is one way to try to get them to remember the story. It’s a very important story.”

George helped me understand the importance of witness literature for the readers and society as a whole. It forces us to not only acknowledge the harrowing past and plan for the future, but it also helps us to recognize the people suffering in silence around us right now.

“Correct me if I’m wrong,” I said, “but you helped in an armed rebellion against the Soviets in Hungary?”

“Yes,” he replied, “I was a part of the Hungarian Revolution, the first time there was an armed uprising against the communist regime.”

“Why did you initially decide to risk your life to fight the Soviets in the revolution?” I followed up, trying to get him to elaborate more on the experience.

“Well, you know there was no such decision,” he explained. “I was at a university that had some unhappy people because we didn’t have our own student association; we all had to belong to the communists.” He explained that they had a march to the parliament building, demanded that they accepted their new association, were shot at by secret police, were given access to the armories by the Hungarian government, shot back at the Soviets to take back control of Hungary. “The decision was made for us. It was not that we made the decision,” George explained.

The way George told the story made the scene, that was so unlike anything I had ever experienced, make sense. Even from the dated redwood desk in my mother’s office, I understood how the abruptness of the events caused him and many others to do things they would not normally do because they had no time to think.

“Is that what caused you to leave Hungary?” I asked.

“I left because we lost. We took control of the country for about 12 days, but then the Russian tanks came in, and I remember the huge tanks coming across the Danube, and I looked at my machine gun and it was very clear that that wasn’t going to hurt the tanks and I had to run, and I did.” Later those who took part in the revolution were caught by the Soviets and punished. This was the point that George and his family decided to leave Hungary in hopes of a better life in America.

“There were minefields at the border so that nobody could escape. We found a local peasant who seemed to know where to go, and he helped us cross,” he said. I was astonished. I remember similar stories about the monks at Priory, but it was different hearing the experience straight from George.

I was surprised by the ease of the transition that George explained once they arrived in America. In most stories I had heard, migrants seemed to have a lot of troubles when they reached America whether it be lingual, economic, or stemmed from xenophobia; however, his story was one of welcoming and more or less a smooth transition. The way he spoke of his new life in America was so grateful and joyful it reminded me how I take my life in America for granted on a daily basis.

After coming back from my thought train, I asked, “Have you been back home to Hungary since then?”

“I’ve been back, in fact, I was back in August,” he replied and paused.“I wouldn’t call it home. When people ask me here ‘where were you born,’ my joke is, I was born in America only in the wrong place.”

We both laughed. I could tell he had thought about that a lot. It made me think about what made someone American or not. Of course, there are citizens and noncitizens, but when he came to America, he felt at home for the first time in his life, and that is what makes him American.

As if he had read my mind he added, “Hungary was never my home because they hated us. My family lived in the same village for 200 years, yet we were still considered strangers there was such strong anti-Semitism. And it still continues today.”

“Yeah, it is very important,” I said and then asked, “Over time do you think you have forgotten parts of your experiences?”

“I think so. I try to.” I hadn’t thought about this before. He has done so many interviews and dedicated so much of his time teaching children about his life yet still wishes he could forget it. His pain did not end the day he arrived in America; in fact, he still feels the pain of his childhood today, yet he doesn’t let that stop him from educating the next generations. “You know the whole conflict carries with it terrible cries, and most of us survivors have some mental and emotional problems, and I recognize that I had some of that and I unfortunately see it in my daughters too, and it’s sad, but unavoidable, and now most of our philanthropic work is to try to help people who have problems,” he said.

My interest in the subject caused me to stray from my original questions. “Oh yeah, speaking of that, my father told me you’ve invested a lot of money helping people who have had similar experiences. What are some of the things you have done to help them?” I asked.

“Well, we’ve done a lot,” he said. And he was right. He is part of the International Refugee Committee, and helps refugees from 31 countries find new homes, and invest in medical research to aid emotional trauma, and provide free cataract surgeries, and provide medical aid to people in Tibet and Nepal. It was very inspiring to see someone so affluent, ambitious, and acclaimed, using his fortune to help others.

This led me to my last question, “If you had the option to change your past, would you?”

“Well, it was terrible,” George explained, “but I have to tell you that some good came out of it. I think I became a more sensitive and caring person because of the Holocaust experience and probably more compassionate for the caring of others,” he replied. It is amazing that he looks at the positives in situations like this. He realizes that if he had gone through so much, he probably would not be as good of a person as he is today, would not be contributing so much philanthropic work, and would not be helping people all around the globe.

 

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