Olivér Rácz, Righteous Among the Nations

A translated article about his grandfather, a Hungarian-Slovak storyteller, who wrote 25 years ago under the original title “The Death Camps Were Liberated Fifty Years Ago.”

OLIVÉR RÁCZ, the writer’s grandfather, as a young man in the late 1930s: a student and already an accomplished poet.  (photo credit: Courtesy)
OLIVÉR RÁCZ, the writer’s grandfather, as a young man in the late 1930s: a student and already an accomplished poet.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
 We are often so busy living that we forget to think about where we come from and where we are heading. We allow phantoms of the past to resurrect, ignoring the warning that “Those who do not remember history are bound to live through it again.” 
While only few people knew how much good my grandfather did even in the darkest times of the 20th century – he never regarded his activities to save lives as anything else than moral obligations that did not require distinction – I see it as my obligation to keep his stories alive. They must serve as a guiding star to today’s generation. I want them to serve as a guiding star to my children so they carry on my grandfather’s generosity, sense of justice and humanity.
I therefore translated this article my grandfather wrote 25 years ago under the original title “The Death Camps Were Liberated Fifty Years Ago.” He was an unforgettable Hungarian-Slovak storyteller, poet and writer. In 2019, Yad Vashem decided to award to him the title of Righteous Among the Nations for help rendered to Jews during the Holocaust. 
I could by no means translate the linguistic virtuosity that was so unique to his Hungarian writing. But as 2020 marks the passage of 75 years since the liberation of the death camps and sees the last heroes – and hangmen – disappearing, I hope you will agree that the message itself is more important than literary perfection.
SHE WAS a beautiful woman, my mother-in-law.
Young, of course. Her daughter was 15 when I fell eternally in love with her. I was 17.

She was a beautiful woman, my mother-in-law; young, slender, smiling, sunkissed-blonde, blue-eyed.
And Jewish.
This did not bother us at the time. It mattered barely more than if somebody were to prefer lyrics to prose. Shortly after, Jews were forced into the leading role of dramas, but as what, we did not know. Or perhaps we did not want to know.
Who cared?
In my class, for instance, Géza Balázs was blond, freckled and attended Lutheran Bible class. Feri Pocsatkó was tall with broad shoulders, curly hair and a Calvinist. Jenci Grósz wore glasses, stuttered a little and cracked the most complicated equations, logarithm riddles, geometry curves, hyperboles or paraboles in an instant, so we all shared his books to copy math homework. And, as a matter of fact, he was Jewish. But we usually only really noticed this during Passover when he presented four or five of his best friends, me included, with crispy matzah.
“Don’t eat it with bacon or sausage,” he used to remind us with a solemn face. “It’s kosher.”

This we acknowledged and respected. The rest did not matter. As I mentioned, we probably did not even want to know about the rest.
My mother-in-law did not wish to be bothered with the daily burden of Jewishness. She was left a widow at a young age. Her husband, a distinguished Royal Hungarian Army captain, had died early. She enjoyed comfortable material prosperity, was a member of all the local Jewish and non-Jewish charity organizations and cultural associations, and proudly stood above any nonsense such as antisemitism, fascism or National Socialism.
Frankly, she was not to be judged for this. By that time my fiancée had turned 18, and I was 20. Numerous distinguished, highly educated politicians, much more competent than my beautiful and proud mother-in-law, parroted disdainfully, “None of our business. Does not concern us.”
Naturally, we were not concerned. “Only” Jews were concerned, and not even in our country. However, eventually Austria did get concerned. Then Poland. Then France.
Allow me to pause here for a moment. The Nazis entered Austria in a triumphal march. In Poland, they liberated their German brethren. And in France, they raped the beautiful Marianne. They raped her with brutal, virile, Teutonic cruelty. But then, why did the beautiful Marianne wiggle her lovely hips – discreetly but quite obviously – while she got raped?
“None of our business. Does not concern us.”
Then, all of a sudden, it did concern us. And how! But the rest is history, together with the gas chambers (regularly denounced as Jewish propaganda by ardent, zealous “scientists”) and the death camps. 

Let’s not dwell on this. Let’s not talk about neo-fascism and its current rioting oscillations either. 

Does anybody really care?
What we did care about was helping my fiancée escape the night before my blue-eyed, slender, beautiful mother-in-law was ordered into the town’s ghetto.
MY SMILING mother-in-law, of Aryan beauty, could also have escaped. She had family in Budapest, Transylvania, even in Czechoslovakia. But my beautiful and peaceful mother-in-law did not want to escape. 
She did not want to leave her mother, sister and her sister’s family. She continued to firmly believe that somehow, somewhere in the ghetto or elsewhere in the Reich, she would find her son, her youngest cherished child who, by that time, was already busy protecting the homeland in forced labor. 
So my mother-in-law moved into the ghetto with her third child, my fiancée’s sister, and the rest of her large family. After ensuring that my fiancée was safe, I managed to smuggle some food, clothes and letters to them. But a few days later, the ghetto was hermetically sealed and after another few days later, trains meant for six horses or 40 passengers were jammed with hundreds of people (people? Jews!) and left the town.
I never knew to which death camp my mother-in-law was taken. She got separated from her family even before Dachau. My wife’s sister survived Auschwitz, and immediately after the camp’s liberation – and after having been nursed and fed by the Americans – fled to Chile to join some distant relatives, accompanied by a young German Jew, another survivor of another camp who married her while still in Chile. 
Together, they then moved to the United States, to New York, and opened a fancy goods store. My wife’s sister was a university-educated artist, her husband a designer. She never returned home. She knew exactly what had happened to her mother and family. She had no illusions. 
She did not wish to see the house she had been born in, the town which she got deported from. We received monthly letters, and on several occasions, she offered to send us boat tickets so we would visit, but it never came to that. I think my wife’s fear of that inevitable human pain their encounter would have provoked was stronger than any longing for an orphaned sisterly embrace.
My wife’s little brother escaped from an American hospital shortly after his camp’s liberation, suffering from severe, incurable, deadly typhoid fever. “Mother will take care of me,” he whispered to his friend and neighbor before escaping from the hospital. His friend was barely conscious and unable to stop him.
They found him the day after, only a couple hundreds of meters away from the hospital, in a ditch, dead. 
He was 20.
I did not discover this until two years after the war had ended, stumbling into that certain hospital friend who did get cured of typhoid fever, and the concentration camp’s diverse sufferings. During all that time, my wife was still hoping to welcome her little brother home.
THE FRIEND who turned up two years after his liberation was indeed Jenci Grósz, the very friend who used to present us with matzah years before.
I ran into him in my hometown’s old park. I was strolling around the old music pavilion on my own. My wife and my mother had ventured for food supplies at the town’s periphery. (If you were lucky, you could still find decent supplies from acquaintances. I was clearly useless during these adventures.)
Jenci was slightly clumsy. He awkwardly approached me on the abandoned promenade, and when he was barely a couple of steps away, he wearily smiled at me.
“You did not recognize me, did you?” he quite naturally asked after we got over the first silent embrace. 
“I lost something like 25 kilos in the camp but I already managed to regain eight to 10,” he proudly added. “The community is feeding me. What is with you?”
I, however, did not reply because I suddenly remembered that Jenci Grósz had been conscripted to labor camp together with my wife’s little brother. Until then, he had been spared thanks to his eight-diopter glasses and other medical machinations.
“Do you know about Gabi? My wife’s brother?” I eagerly asked. “You were conscripted at the same time.”
Even through his thick glasses, I could distinguish his surprised, gloomy stare. “You do not know?”
“No. What?” My heart sank.
He told me. Then, sensing that no comforting words could be of help, he silently embraced me again. “Do not tell your wife,” he softly added, and left carrying a heavy weight on his shoulders. “I will pass by.”
I staggered to the first hidden bench of the promenade, collapsed and with my palms open, said the only Hebrew prayer, the prayer for the dead, that I had heard on so many occasions during my service from the other side of the filthy, smelly labour camp: Yit’gadal v’yit’kadash....
“Do not tell your wife.”
But that very evening my wife read in my eyes that after her mother, she would never be able to embrace her brother either.
Yit’gadal v’yit’kadash shmay rabah...
MANY YEARS later, destiny allowed me to travel to diverse countries as part of my professional responsibility to establish foreign cultural connections and sign agreements. Those places included Germany and Poland.
Naturally, there were no secrets in Foreign Service missions. Everybody was checked through to the last detail. They would also track down details of my three years of inglorious and lamentable military service, during which I spent seemingly endless months in the Jewish labor camp’s office. (I got transferred there from the anti-aircraft artillery – a protected corps! – then from the communications services – confidential! – and, finally, as punishment from the gunneries, but all that is part of another story.) 
They would find out that I had managed to save the lives of several dozens of my Jewish friends and acquaintances – and sometimes mere strangers – with fake documents, false certificates or forged draft papers.
Years after the war had ended, I was contemplating the display of a bookshop (particularly because two of my first books were in the window, I will admit that much) when somebody unexpectedly, quite resolutely pushed my shoulder.
I looked up in surprise at a tall stranger in a dark suit.
“You do not recognize me, officer?” he whispered. “You do not remember me?”
I did not. I could have sworn that I had never seen him before.
“Jewish labour camp,” he insisted, though still whispering.
I forced myself to think carefully. What was the matter with him? With all my heart and conscience, I knew that I had never harmed a Jewish person, in or out the Jewish labor camp, with neither acts nor words. 
Did he mistake me for someone else? I had never made it to officer either, only to sergeant, even if the majority of prisoners and soldiers addressed me as officer. But still. He clearly had me mixed up with somebody else. Not good. Actually, he did not.
“You saved my life, officer,” he said, finally grasping my hands. “You do not remember? They took my medication, accused me of pretending, and dumped me into the mine-sweeping unit. You smuggled me into the stone-pit service during roll call, and even recovered my medication, the “incriminating evidence.”
THE FOG finally started to lift, mainly because of the “incriminating evidence.” Of course, I had had no clue about the kind of medication he had needed. But I did remember that I had exchanged the whole lot for innocent, ordinary baking soda, aspirin and ointments with the help of the on-duty pharmacist in the camp.
“I am glad you got away,” I smiled.
“I am glad I met you, officer,” he replied and reached for his pocket to slip something into my hands. I opened my palms. It was a small, golden five-pointed star.
“Will you accept it?” he asked timidly and quickly added, “I am leaving for Israel tomorrow. I received my exit visa yesterday. I would be pleased if you would accept it, as a souvenir, for my life. And I would like to invite you for a coffee across the street there. I would like to spend a few minutes with you. We always admired you, officer.”
“Let go of the officer,” I waved at him. “I never was an official of those offices.”
We spent a long time talking in the café. When we bid farewell, he asked, “Would you want to send a message to Israel, in case I come across any mutual acquaintances?”
“Look after my mother-in-law’s two trees,” I burst out spontaneously.
For, my beautiful mother-in-law, back in the peaceful years, had contributed with a voucher for two trees as part of Israel’s national forestation fund. I wondered if they were still alive somewhere.
But let’s get back to my foreign affairs missions. More pertinent to the fact that after having checked out my above-mentioned past, several hosts regularly offered visiting death camps – by that time transformed into memorials – as part of the cultural program.
At every occasion I politely but resolutely refused this honor, referring to my busy schedule or pressing obligations.
I did not wish to visit either Dachau or Bergen-Belsen or Auschwitz. I did not wish to see those places that had sent my beautiful mother-in-law to death. I did not wish to discover her distorted lines in one of the photographs with piles of corpses and emaciated bodies. I did not wish to discover her name on the long list of martyrs on one of the commemoration plaques.
No.
I was terrified that if I recognized her name or her features somewhere, irremediably and irrevocably that one feeling would erupt which had always been foreign to me, even at times of the most personal, most insulting, most painful grief.
Relentless, insurmountable, fierce, insatiable thirst for revenge.
She was a very modest, kind, gentle and tender-hearted woman, my beautiful mother-in-law.
Yit’gadal v’yit’kadash