My great-grandparents, Janos and Rozi, were Ashkenazi (European) Jews born in the Bohemian region of the Austria-Hungarian Empire. We don’t know their fate except that one million Jews exterminated by the Nazis have never been identified. For my family there is no closure, and the emotional scars of WWII forever remain. We do know that one of our relatives died at Auschwitz.
On the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day (January 27), the Polish government announced that it was considering a bill that would criminalize the mention of Polish death camps. Any public discourse, with the exception of art or research, that suggested Poland was complicit in the Holocaust would be prohibited by law. Violators could be fined, or sentenced up to three years in prison.
Text of proposed law:
Whoever claims, publicly and contrary to the facts, that the Polish Nation or the Republic of Poland is responsible or co-responsible for Nazi crimes committed by the Third Reich … or for other felonies that constitute crimes against peace, crimes against humanity, or war crimes, or whoever otherwise grossly diminishes the responsibility of the true perpetrators of said crimes — shall be liable to a fine or imprisonment for up to three years.
On my birthday (February 7) Poland’s President Andrzej Duda signed the legislation into law saying that it would preserve Poland’s dignity and ensure historical truth. There was an immediate response from Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “history cannot be rewritten.” Education Minister Bayit Yehudi said, “The blood of Polish Jews cries from the ground, and no law will silence it.”
The United States said that the law, if enacted, will harm Poland’s relationship with the West; and the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. released the following statement:
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is deeply concerned over legislation which would make it illegal to reference the complicity of some Poles for crimes against the Jews committed during the Nazi occupation of the country during the Second World War.
Thousands of Poles risked their lives to save their Jewish neighbors. Over 6,600 individuals are recognized as “Righteous Among the Nations” by Yad Vashem, more than from any other country. However, many Poles were complicit in the German atrocities.
With the aid of Polish agencies and private citizens, 90% of Poland’s Jewish population was exterminated. Over three million Polish Jews were murdered in Poland’s death camps — Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, and Sobibor. (There were many other concentration camps and sub-camps, but these listed were the execution camps.)
Granted, the Polish resistance and government-in-exile worked heroically to save Jews and non-Jewish Polish citizens (1.9 million of whom were killed by the Nazis), but to what extent was Poland responsible?
International Jewish agencies — even Israel — agree that the term Polish death camps might be misconstrued. As President Duda noted, “Auschwitz-Birkenau is not even a Polish name.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel said, “Without directly interfering in the legislation in Poland, I would like to say the following very clearly as German chancellor: We as Germans are responsible for what happened during the Holocaust, the Shoah, under National Socialism.”
These are reasonable things to consider, however, what concerns Israel and the United States is that such legislation might absolve Poland of any complicit guilt, and fuel the rise of anti-Semitism which is endemic across the continent.
Of the 650,000 Hungarian Jews, 450,000 (70%) were victims of the Holocaust. Adolf Hitler ordered Otto Adolf Eichmann, Nazi SS-Obersturmbannführer, to Budapest to personally oversee the implementation of the Final Solution in Hungary. By the end of the war there were no Jews living in the provinces — they had all been shot and killed, or deported to Auschwitz where they died in the gas chambers. The 30% who survived resided in Budapest. Tragically, the mass extermination occurred from May to July, 1944 when Germany realized the war was already lost.
Because there are no records, I suspect that my great-grandparents were probably shot and killed in their home of Veszprem, Hungary, buried in a mass grave and never identified. My grandparents, Mihaly and Ana, were able to safely make their way to the United States.
Hungary, like Poland, is trying to sanitize its history. Miklós Horthy served as the Regent of the Kingdom of Hungary from 1920 to 1944. The Hungarian Parliament wants to honor Horthy as a venerable statesman who led his nation through the tumultuous years after WWI. The truth is that Horthy’s anti-Semitic record dates back to the Great War when Jews were blamed for the outcome of the conflict. Jewish homes and businesses were confiscated, and the owners deported. They were stripped of all legal and civil rights; and lynching was not uncommon.
Horthy was praised by Hitler for his effectiveness in implementing the Final Solution. Hitler told the Regent that the Jews were like “tubercle bacillus,” and had to be eradicated like common bacteria.
Hungarian revisionists credit Horthy for the 200,000 Jews who survived in Budapest. However, it was difficult to make 450,000 Jews disappear from the provinces in just a matter of eight weeks, and as efficient were the Nazis at mass murder, they couldn’t move that many Jews from the capital city without drawing international suspicion. Hitler was satisfied keeping them confined to the ghettos.
Public praise for Horthy made Netanyahu’s 2017 trip to Hungary a bit awkward so it was unexpected when Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán, at a joint press conference, denounced his country’s collaboration with Nazi Germany during World War II. Still, revisionist historians continue to press for Hungary’s innocence.
My grandfather was baptized Catholic at birth. It is not clear if the family had a sincere confession of faith, or if it was done to conceal their Jewish identity. It was common practice for war-time families to “convert” to Catholicism as a matter of self-preservation. The safest place for a Jew during the war was Italy due to the presence of the Church. In fact, 80% of Italy’s Jewish population survived the war as opposed to the 20-30% across the continent.
“Catholic” Jews even observed Christian burials, but after the war they replaced the tombstone cross with a Star of David. My family was not practicing Catholic, but we were sympathetic to the faith — and for obvious reasons. Pope Pius XII personally supervised an underground network that saved 800,000 Jews. In contrast, Martin Luther — the revered Protestant reformer — was the religious face of Nazi Germany. I believe my grandfather’s Catholic identity allowed him to escape to America.
While my father’s mother was Jewish, I am not considered Jewish by the Orthodox rabbin who only recognize maternal lineage. My father married a Native American so I am only Jewish by Reformed standards which recognize the Mosaic tradition of paternal lineage. The Orthodox practice is a rabbinic teaching dating only to the first century AD. The Talmud suggests that we can only know for certain the mother’s identity, but this was centuries before DNA blood tests. Orthodox teaching is outdated and does not supersede biblical tradition.
One thing is for certain — I am of Abraham’s seed. Haman, Hitler and the Islamists have sought to destroy us, but if G-d be for us, who can be against us? [Romans 8:31]
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