Stealing Her Legacy Back From the Nazi Past
I am a Jew, but I didn’t know it growing up in Hungary.
I was born just before the fall of communism and the rise of democracy and capitalism in 1988.
I learned English in high school and had the opportunity to study in other European countries during university. That was a marked contrast to my parents’ childhoods. They grew up learning Russian and had few opportunities to travel before the Communist regime started to weaken. They also grew up in a society that was both officially atheist and had yet to deal with its role in the Holocaust.
During the Second World War, Hungary was allied with Germany’s Nazis. In 1944, even when it was clear they were losing the war, Hungary complied with German demands and deported approximately 440,000 Jews, most to German death camps, where the vast majority were murdered.
Perhaps, then, it’s not entirely surprising that my parents spent little time on our family history.
During my time at university outside Hungary, I never contemplated my origins despite the fact that everyone’s first question was “Where are you from?”
“I’m from Hungary,” I answered.
When I moved back to Hungary after graduation, I got my hands on Leon Uris’ novel “Exodus,” which tells the story of Israel’s founding.
I remember reading in the garden during the hottest days of July; the burning sun, the letters melting in front of me. And I remember feeling a strong and inexplicable attachment to the story, a sense of connection I didn’t understand.
After finishing the book I sat down to talk with my dad. I knew bits and pieces, enough to ask questions. What exactly happened to my grandmother, Katalin Schwarcz? How did her family survive the war? Why did they have to hide?
By the time I wanted to know my grandmother’s story, she was no longer with us. After speaking with my father, I went to see her sister — my great aunt Anna — to reconstruct our family tree. I discovered that during the Holocaust, the man who would become my grandfather had hidden my grandmother, together with twelve other Jews, from both the Nazis and Hungarian fascists (“Nyilasok”).
My grandfather, Istvan Mozer, came from an extremely poor family in Northern Hungary (today’s Slovakia) and worked from early on at the Neumann Bakery, which belonged to my grandmother’s family. As a baker there, he knew about a small room underneath the bakery that hadn’t been filled up after a previous renovation. Shortly after my grandmother’s younger sister was taken (and after my grandmother escaped being sent away on a transport train twice), he decided to open the basement and hide my family there. The space was 10 feet by 30 feet, but only 3 feet high, without any ventilation or light. On top of the entrance he placed an immense dough machine, which could normally only be moved by two people — but luckily my grandfather was a muscular type.
Each morning my grandfather moved the machine so the family could hide underneath, and each evening after nightfall he let them out. Once there was an unexpected inspection by the Nyilasok who looked everywhere — or at least they thought they did. They left without any answers as to the whereabouts of the Jewish family who had owned the bakery.
When the interrogation was over and my grandfather escorted the fascists out, he heard a voice: “Have they left already?” One of the Jews in hiding, Emil, hadn’t made it to the secret room and hid on top of the oven during the inspection. Had the authorities noticed him, they would have taken my grandfather too — meaning all the others in the basement would have no way out.
Yad Vashem (the Israeli Holocaust museum) named my grandfather Righteous Among the Nations for his acts of kindness and courage. I don’t remember much of it, but I attended the ceremony for him when I was a kid. Still, the dots did not connect with how we lived our lives in the present.
I also don’t remember any discussion about whether the fact my grandmother was Jewish made us Jewish, too. I am not even sure I knew what “Jewish” meant, let alone what it meant to be Jewish.
What I did know was that I wanted to learn more about being Jewish, Judaism itself, Jewish values, literature, and Israel; everything that I felt I had missed. An ever-growing thirst for more made me dive into books and other reading material. I went on a Birthright tour of Israel the next summer and experienced, for the first time, a feeling of community and belonging.
The program was designed to bring young Jews to the country to learn about it and create a favorable impression. Around half of our Birthright group had similar stories to mine: finding out about their Jewish origins as adults or simply by accident. My boyfriend, also from Hungary, whom I met during the trip, had learned about his family’s history only a few months before, when he completed a university assignment about his family tree. His research resulted in a 30-page-long document, including the story of his grandmother’s survival.
This process of discovery is very common for Eastern Europeans. My dad doesn’t have a Jewish identity because he was never given one — being Jewish was never discussed, let alone honored at home when he grew up. My rediscovery of my grandmother’s story, and the personal journey that followed, brought Judaism back into our family’s life. We celebrate Christmas and Easter as we have always done, but for the past several years I’ve been preparing games for my family to learn more about Jewish holidays.
This April, during our traditional Easter dinner, we discussed the biblical story of the Exodus, when the Jews fled slavery in ancient Egypt and were given the Commandments that Jews still live by today. We talked about the significance of the Seder, the Jewish Passover meal that was also Jesus’ Last Supper. We have hybrid holidays now, and wherever my dad goes, he sends me pictures of local synagogues. Inspired by my exploration, he has now applied for a program called InterGeneration that helps second-generation Jews discover their Jewish identity.
It took me years to say out loud, with confidence: I am Jewish. I’ve only had a few years to grow accustomed to the word, and more importantly, what it means to me. Some of my friends with similar backgrounds prefer to say ‘I have Jewish origins’ instead of “I am Jewish,” or “We are Jewish.” I now embrace it completely and wholeheartedly, and yet I understand why they say it differently. It’s not a very comfortable thing to be in Europe.
My story is not unique. If you get together a bunch of Eastern-European Jews, the chances are very high that a significant number of them discovered their origins as grown-ups. Once aware of it, many of them become active in their community and seem to find a meaning they had previously missed. I certainly have, for which I am grateful, because I will have the chance to pass this onto my children.
Julia Mozer is a communication officer with CEJI — A Jewish Contribution to an Inclusive Europe.