Jewish rescuers, who are now in their 90s, fight to have their story told this International Holocaust Remembrance Day

KIBBUTZ HAZOREA, Israel — Just before Nazi Germany invaded Hungary in March 1944, Jewish youth leaders in the Eastern European country jumped into action, forming an underground network that would save tens of thousands of fellow Jews from the gas chambers over the coming months.

This chapter of Holocaust heroism is hardly remembered in Israel. Nor is it part of the official curriculum in schools. But the few remaining members of Hungary’s Jewish underground want their story told. Distraught at the prospect of being forgotten, they are determined to keep the memories of their mission alive.

“The history of the struggle to save tens of thousands must become part of the history of the people of Israel,” said David Gur, 97, one of a handful of surviving members. “It is a beacon in the time of the Holocaust, a lesson and a role model for generations.”

As the world marks International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Friday, historians, activists, survivors and their families are all preparing for the time when there will be no living witnesses to offer personal accounts of the horrors of Nazi genocide during the Holocaust to share World War II. In the Holocaust, 6 million Jews were wiped out by the Nazis and their allies.

Israel, founded after the Holocaust as a haven for Jews, has gone to great lengths over the years to recognize thousands of “Righteous Among the Nations” — non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

Accounts of Jewish resistance to the Nazis, like the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, are mainstays of the national narrative, but rescue missions by fellow Jews – like the Hungarian Resistance – are less well known.

Around 900,000 Jews lived in Hungary before the Nazis invaded. His government was allied with Nazi Germany, but as the Soviet Red Army advanced towards Hungary, the Nazis invaded in March 1944 to prevent their Axis ally from signing a separate peace treaty with the Allies.

In the following ten months, up to 568,000 Jews were killed by the Nazis and their allies in Hungary, according to Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial.

Gur said he and his colleagues knew catastrophe was imminent when three Jewish women arrived at Budapest’s main synagogue in the fall of 1943. They fled Nazi-occupied Poland and brought disturbing news about people being taken to concentration camps.

“They had pretty clear information about what was going on and they saw the many moves and they were aware of what was going on,” Gur said.

Gur oversaw a massive forgery operation that provided false documents for Jews and non-Jewish members of the Hungarian resistance. “I was an 18-year-old kid when the heavy responsibility fell on me,” he said.

There was a great personal risk. In December 1944 he was arrested in the counterfeiting workshop, brutally interrogated and imprisoned, according to his memoirs, Brothers for Resistance and Rescue. The Jewish underground freed him in a rescue operation from the central military prison later that month.

The forged papers were used by Jewish youth movements to run a smuggling network and run Red Cross houses that saved thousands from the Nazis and their allies.

According to Gur’s book, at least 7,000 Jews were smuggled from Hungary through Romania onto ships on the Black Sea bound for British-controlled Palestine. At least 10,000 fake protective passports, known as protective passes, were distributed to Budapest’s Jews and around 6,000 Jewish children and accompanying adults were rescued in homes allegedly under International Red Cross protection.

Robert Rozett, a senior historian at Yad Vashem, said that although this episode was “the greatest rescue operation” for European Jews during the Holocaust, it “stays off the main narrative route.”

“This is very significant because these activities helped tens of thousands of Jews stay alive in Budapest,” he said.

In 1984, Gur founded the Society for Research into the History of Zionist Youth Movements in Hungary, a group that has promoted awareness of these efforts.

Last month, Sara Epstein, 97, Dezi Heffner-Reiner, 95, and Betzalel Grosz, 98, three of the remaining survivors who helped rescue Jews in Nazi-held Hungary, received the award at a kibbutz in northern Israel “Jewish Rescuers Citation” for her role in the Holocaust. The award is presented by two Jewish groups – the B’nai B’rith World Center-Jerusalem and the Committee to Recognize the Heroism of Jewish Rescuers During the Holocaust.

“We’re not many anymore, but that’s important,” said Heffner-Reiner.

More than 200 other members of the underground were presented with the award posthumously. Gur received the award in 2011, the year it was founded.

Yuval Alpan, a son of one of the rescuers and a society activist, said the quotes were intended to recognize those who saved lives during the Holocaust.

“This underground resistance youth movement rescued tens of thousands of Jews in 1944 and its history is unknown,” he said. “It’s the biggest rescue operation in the Holocaust and nobody knows about it.”

International Holocaust Day falls on the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp by the Red Army 78 years ago. According to the government, around 150,600 Holocaust survivors live in Israel, almost all of whom are over 80 years old. That’s 15,193 fewer than a year ago.

The United Nations will hold a commemoration ceremony in the General Assembly on Friday, and other commemorations are planned around the world.

Israel will mark its own Holocaust Remembrance Day this spring.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2023 by The Associated Press. All rights reserved. Jewish rescuers, who are now in their 90s, fight to have their story told this International Holocaust Remembrance Day

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