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They Dreamt, Too

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I got a photo in my email from my great-aunt Lina.

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My great-uncles Benjámin (Béni) and András (Bandi) and great-aunt Katalin (Lina) cca. 1942

The picture is of the three youngest children of my great-grandparents: 16-year-old Béni, 15-year-old Lina and 19-year-old Bandi. The youngest three of 8 children, the only ones still living at home. Lina and Béni were students at the Jewish high schools, Bandi, unable to attend university because of the laws limiting Jews’ rights at that time, was a labourer at a pharmaceutical factory.

They had their dreams: Béni wanted to return to the Piarist high school where he had been educated before the war, to become a mathematician. Lina dreamt of a career in music, and Bandi, oh, handsome and smart Bandi wanted to become a doctor like their father. He wanted to charm ladies, get married, raise a family. Béni wanted to go to the cinema, to the dance hall, and to enjoy the summers by the lake Balaton, maybe to make aliyah and help build a Jewish state in what then was the British Mandate of Palestine. Lina’s hopes were that their father would let her go skating with the handsome boy from Bandi’s graduating class.  She wanted to travel to Paris and Rome, to see Toscana and the Greek Islands. She also hoped that with all the older children living elsewhere, she’d finally get a room she didn’t have to share with her brothers.

Instead of getting her own room, Lina soon found herself living in an apartment in the Budapest ghetto, with 21 other people. Her brothers taken to forced labour, her family was torn apart. News of deportations from the countryside reached Budapest. And one day they came for them.

Three years after the photo above was taken Béni and Bandi were dead, killed simply because they were Jews. Their sister Böbe and their eldest brother were also killed. Béni’s grave has never been found, the others perished in concentration camps, their bodies cremated. There is nowhere to leave a stone for them. There is nowhere to visit them. The handsome boy from Bandi’s class is buried in a mass grave somewhere far from his home.

They are remembered today by those handful of people who knew them and who are still alive. For the rest of us their memory is a lot less vivid: we know their names, their faces, the stories we were told about them. We might be so lucky as to have read their own words, their own thoughts. But they are becoming history, numbers in a statistic about those killed in the Holocaust.

Béni and Bandi. The handsome boy Lina had a crush on. The Roma family who sold wooden products to my great-grandparents. The young Communist from Grandpa’s office. The middle aged gay lovers who frequented the Operetta Theatre. The young cousin of the pope emeritus, who had Down Syndrome. The Blessed Sára Salkaházy, who stood up to the Arrow Cross militia… and millions of others, viciously killed for being Jewish, Roma, Communist, gay, disabled, or helping any of those people. Let’s remember them tonight, and tomorrow as the sirens sound all across Israel.

From sunset today till nightfall tomorrow it’s Yom HaShoah, the Holocaust Remembrance Day.

Protected: A Little Addition to Yesterday's Post

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My Great-Uncle

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My brain often makes weird associations and jumps from one thing to another.

Yesterday I was just browsing photos online of Harel Skaat to cheer myself up a bit, when I found this photo:

After a few seconds my brain made me think of another photo. It was taken of my grandfather’s youngest brother Béni (Benjámin), in the autumn of 1943. He was 17, looking to graduate from high school the coming spring. He wanted to attend University, study mathematics, get married, settle down in Budapest, spend the summers by lake Balaton… He was looking forward to the end of the war, and things becoming normal again.

The photo was taken on Római-part, right by the Danube. Béni was wearing a white shirt, unbuttoned, the autumn wind blowing his hair. His dark, contemplative eyes were looking at something in the distance. The next photo, he is hugging a young woman, laughing, with a mischievous expression on his face. We don’t know who she was, not even her name. Béni must have known it. They had a bright future ahead of them.

Béni never got to graduate high school. While the 1943/44 school year was cut short by the war, ending on April 1, he was taken for forced labour even before the end of the school year. He escaped, and went into hiding. Shortly before Hungary was liberated from German rule, in February 1945, at age 18 he was shot to death together with the couple, childhood friends from their summer home, who were hiding him.

From his adulthood only two worn, faded photos remain. The last photo taken of him was his senior photo–now lost forever. But those two photos from the boathouse remain in the album of an old lady in Eilat, who still remembers him. My grandma cherishes those two photos of her youngest brother-in-law, whom she loved dearly. They named their second born, my father, after Béni. Béni, according to everyone who knew him, was a genius, with excellent mathematical ability, a talent for the piano, a love for rowing and running, a good dancer and a real ladies’ man. He spent the first several years of secondary school at one of the famous Catholic schools, till the antisemitic laws forced him to leave and enroll at the Jewish high school. He devoured books, and had an incredible passion for life.

For life that was taken from him just as it was about to really begin.

“I will give them, in My House, and within My walls, a monument and a name better than sons and daughters. I will give them an everlasting name which shall not perish.”

Isaiah 56:5 (JPS)

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