Death Was In The Stars

Holocaust Survivors On Being Forced To Wear The Jewish Badge

A photo by Evgenii Khaldeai showing a Jewish couple wearing stars as they were required to do in Nazi-occupied areas. Photo courtesy of Evgenii Khaldeii and the Fotosoyuz Agency

It was early in April, 1944 that Nazi-occupied Hungary implemented the 1944 decree requiring all Jews in Hungary to wear the yellow Star of David. Yad Vashem has noted that “the Nazis’ inspiration for the Jewish badge came from medieval times, when both Muslims and Christians decreed that Jews must wear articles of clothing that would set them apart and shame them for being different.” The effect was humiliation and isolation for anyone forced to wear this marker of difference; in Hungary, this isolation proved peculiarly deadly. As Kalman Weiser’s introduction to the memoir of Hungarian Holocaust survivor Tommy Dick argues, Hungary proved uniquely fertile grounds for the fatal discrimination first institutionally instantiated by the Jewish Badge decree:

The fortunes of Hungarian Jews took a decided turn for the worse in March 1944, when Germany occupied the country… Beginning in the spring of 1944, more than 437,000 Jews were transported to Auschwitz to be forced to labour or to be promptly murdered. Others were shot on the spot or died in forced marches…
In the few months until the Soviets took control of Hungary in mid-January 1945, almost 100,000 Budapest Jews lost their lives in pogroms, train deportations, death marches or otherwise… By the end of the German occupation, about 70 per cent of Hungarian Jewry had perished. In all, more than 600,000 died.

The following excerpts from works published in the Azrieli Series of Holocaust Survivor Memoirs highlight the experiences of those survivors forced to wear the yellow Star of David badge in the particular geopolitical context of Hungary.

From Judy Abrams’ Tenuous Threads:

Judy at eleven years old. Budapest, 1948.

My mother held my hand tighter than necessary, although I was not likely to rush heedlessly into the road. To the few pedestrians who passed us, we must have seemed inconspicuous: a dark-haired woman in a tailored, grey tweed suit and a little girl in a pale-blue knitted dress. Two large matching bows attached my thick braids to each other like twin butterflies’ wings propelling me onward. My mother and I both carried light coats draped over our arms. It was quite warm for April, not unusual to want to walk coatless in the sun. Those who saw us would not guess that this was a dangerous thing to do. The coats, so casually turned inside out, bore the compulsory yellow cloth Star of David sewn onto all our outer clothing, branding us Jews.

“Why should I hide the star? I’m proud to be Jewish,” I had announced, ignorant of the ominous implications of being seen in the street with the telltale star.

From George Stern’s Vanished Boyhood:

George Stern (second from the left) with his father, Ernő (left), his sister, Ágnes (second from the right) and his mother, Leona (right).

Suddenly, during the next few weeks, the Nazis established many ominous edicts, including the order that every Jewish person had to put a yellow Magen David on every coat, dress or garment that was worn outside. I wasn’t ashamed of my Jewishness, but I never wore the yellow star. I was a rebel and I couldn’t bear the discrimination. Soon, Jews were not allowed to travel to any place outside Újpest city limits and the synagogues were closed. My bar mitzvah, which had been booked for Shabbat, April 22, at our small but intimate shtiebl on Árpád Street, never happened. I had gone there every evening with my grandfather to pray until the Nazis closed it. On my birthday, we celebrated what should have been just before my bar mitzvah day in our living room and we barely had a minyan. I didn’t get any gifts, but I believed that God was watching out for us and that one day things would be better.

From Tommy Dick’s Getting Out Alive:

Tom in Austria (c. 1947).

Days after the occupation, billboards appeared on the streets declaring that Jews (defined as anyone with two Jewish-born grandparents) must wear a yellow Star of David sewn onto outer clothing while out in public. A curfew was ordered along with many other restrictions, all under the threat of arrest. New orders were posted daily. One listed the locations of empty stores where Jews had to deliver their radios at designated times. The dilemma we faced is vivid in my memory. On the one hand, there was the humiliation of seeing an endless queue of compliant Jews lining up around the block to hand in their radios; on the other, the question had to be asked: Was it worth risking arrest or having my father taken away for hanging on to a radio? To understand the fear one must also consider the hostility of the vast majority of Hungarians toward Jews. No one could be trusted as most Hungarians were collaborating with the Germans. It must have been easy to be defiant in Denmark where the king had demonstrated his support for Jews. This seemed to encourage the population to follow his example and resist. But nothing like that happened in Hungary. In fact, a large segment of the population actively supported the repressive measures against Jews, while others remained passive. Many couldn’t care less. In many cases, I suspect there was a selfish element in this support as it was known that when Jewish families were deported from other German-occupied countries, their homes were taken over and the contents, furnishings and other assets were easily looted by collaborators. So why would they not support the system? Why would they not behave like vultures?

I shall not forget the sad sight of my parents’ friends who came to our apartment every day wearing the humiliating yellow star on their coats to bring us news of the arrests of friends and relatives.

Soldiers would stop one on the street and demand documents. They were looking for escapees from auxiliary military units or for “parasites” — people who were not working.

From Helena Jockel’s We Sang in Hushed Voices:

Helena Jockel, 1948.

When the Nazis occupied Hungary on March 19, 1944, the Jewish School ceased to exist. The Gestapo and SS arrived in Užhorod swiftly and before we knew it, they began to implement anti-Jewish laws. Jewish children were not allowed to go to school anymore. Since there were no classes, my pupils stayed home with their parents. Imagine the contrast — this was a town where Jewish schools of all types had thrived for decades. All of these institutions — elementary schools, high schools, yeshivas, even the Jewish hospital and home for the elderly — were shut down.

Within a few days, posters appeared around town warning the Jews not to leave their homes in the evenings. On March 31 came the order for all of us to wear yellow Stars of David; these distinctive cloth patches, with a star and “Jew” imprinted on them, had to be sewn onto our clothing by April 5. Without any warning, Jews were also ordered to do so-called community work, which was, in reality, forced labour. We learned very quickly what we had to do — we did what we were told. Otherwise, we all feared that we would be hunted down in our homes and maybe killed.

From Anna Molnár Hegedűs’s As the Lilacs Bloomed:

Anna and her son, János, at six months. January 21, 1928.

One morning, we turned on the radio. This didn’t happen often, since listening to the radio did not give us much pleasure anymore. All we heard was castigation of the Jewish people, to prepare public opinion for future actions. Now, ashen and silent, we listened to the government decree that obliged every Jew, or anyone deemed to be Jewish, to wear a yellow star.

This news had an especially devastating effect on my husband. I kept consoling him that everybody knew we were Jewish long before this and that it really didn’t mean anything that from then on we’d be wearing a sign to that effect. But he could see beyond that. “This is the beginning of atrocities to come,” he said. “This will be followed by decrees that will stipulate what those wearing yellow stars are ‘not allowed’ to do. A visible sign will unleash people’s most despicable emotions and will subject those who wear it to the most brutal insults. This act has moved the Jews outside the protection of the law, and we will become free prey to our persecutors.”

Unfortunately, every one of his words and dire predictions soon became reality.
A deserted street in the area of the Sighet Marmatiei ghetto. This photograph was taken after the deportation of the ghetto population. Sighet Marmatiei, Hungary, May 1944. Deportations out of ghettos such as this happened at a dizzying pace in Hungary. Source: USHMM, courtesy of Albert Rosenthal.

April 5, the day we had to put on the yellow star, arrived. In Bikszád, where Jewish citizens lived together in harmony with the Romanian and Hungarian population, we put on the star that we had only read about with disgust as an ancient, barbaric symbol that facilitated discrimination based on religion. However, we did not feel chastised. If we were treated with pity, we retorted that the only shame belonged to the ones who had come up with the regulation. We had no reason to feel ashamed. There were, of course, those who showed sympathy outwardly but rejoiced deep down; evil and simple-minded people always delighted in the fall of those they considered superior to them.

We kept hearing about people being attacked, beaten up, bullied and mobbed while wearing the yellow star. A few days later, my husband had to take the train back to Szatmár. Other travellers insulted Jews with yellow stars on the trains, so I was worried about him all day until his return… That morning, he had left as a gentleman, composed, but he returned as a broken, wan and dejected man… I could tell that he had some bad news to deliver. I started quizzing him, wanting him to tell me what had happened, to share his troubles with me. I told him it would ease his heart, but he wouldn’t say a word. We went to bed, but I could hear him tossing, turning, sighing. I implored him to tell me what had upset him so much. At last, he related to me that he had heard rumours that the Jewish population would be confined to a ghetto.

From Leslie Meisels’ Suddenly the Shadow Fell:

The German army occupied Hungary on March 19, 1944. Within weeks, they decreed that Jewish people put a cloth yellow Star of David on their garments, which had to be visible so that everybody could see that we were Jews.

My paternal grandfather, sadly, experienced this degradation. This same Hungarian-looking gentleman whose forefathers were born in the town and who had lived respectful lives there, said that he wouldn’t be humiliated, he wouldn’t wear the yellow star. He brooded about it for two days, not leaving the house. Then, he had a heart attack and passed away a couple of days later. He died without ever putting that symbol on his clothing. We were permitted to have a funeral; in April 1944 he was the last person buried in the Jewish cemetery of Nádudvar. After the war, my father erected a concrete cover on his grave that couldn’t be removed or destroyed. It was a good thing that he did because even today, with no Jews living in town, the grave is untouched.

My grandfather’s death was our immediate family’s first real tragedy from the Nazi occupation.

From Eva Meisels’ memoir:

Leslie and Eva’s engagement photo. November 26, 1960.

Mom and I ended up in the Budapest ghetto, which included our house in Klauzál tér. I can remember certain things from that time, and others I heard from my mother as I was growing up. When more and more people started moving into our building, I had no idea it was the ghetto — I only noticed that things were changing. What does a four- or five-year-old know about politics or hate?

By this time, we were wearing the yellow star on our clothing, according to a law that had been enforced a few weeks after the Nazi occupation on March 19, 1944. My mother took it off me once and explained how to leave our building and get to the nearby small market. There, I had to look amongst the stalls for our former neighbour. I saw her at a counter and when she noticed me, she reached down behind the counter and gave me some bread to take home to my mother. She must have liked us and cared about us, to risk being caught and punished for giving bread to a Jewish girl. She certainly didn’t want anyone to know I was Jewish. I had no right being out without the yellow star and if anyone had recognized me and turned me in, that would have been the end of both of us.

I don’t think I knew then what it meant for my mother to have the courage to let her little girl go outside, not knowing if she was going to make it back safely.

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