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WORLD FOCUS: Opening Pandora’s box

Many readers of my recent two-part column were curious about my father’s sentence to12 years of hard labor by the Czechoslovak High Court for being a master spy for the Hungarian Army 80 years ago.

Their questions opened a Pandora’s box.

My readers were curious to learn how my father was rewarded for his services by the Hungarian government, after the incorporation of Southern Slovakia into Hungary, in 1938, as a result of the Munich Agreement.

Their inquiries had merit. Hungary, at that time, was already a close ally of Nazi Germany and had several laws on the books that discriminated against Jewish citizens. Ironically, many of those laws were introduced by Prime Minister Bela Imredi, who later was found to have a Jewish grandfather and was forced to resign.

Among the laws was one that prohibited Hungarian universities to have more than 6% of Jewish students enrolled, no matter how good their academic record was. Another law prohibited Jews from owning businesses that required state licenses, such as manufacturing brandy, a facility my father owned.

But there was an exception. A very limited number of Jews who served during World War I in the Austro-Hungarian Army and had been decorated for exceptional heroism, were “mentesitett” (Hungarian for being absolved) of the anti-Jewish laws.

Although my father served in the Austro-Hungarian Army during the World War I and was decorated, he wouldn’t have been “mentesitett.” Because after the incorporation of Southern Slovakia, where my family lived for generations, into Hungary, all the anti-Jewish laws would have applied to us.

Fate intervened.

While a political prisoner in Bratislava, accused to be a master spy for the Hungarian Army, my father became a librarian assistant at the prison. He had close contact with other political prisoners. One of them was a former mining engineer of Hungarian background, sentenced to a long prison term for spying for the Hungarians.

The engineer suffered from an illness that required the consumption of large amount of honey. As a sentenced political prisoner, he had no access to it. My father asked my mother that, each time we came to visit him, we bring several jars of honey. He passed it to the engineer.

After the incorporation of Southern Slovakia into Hungary, the mining engineer became the head of a powerful national organization that represented Hungarian political prisoners held in Czechoslovakia, Romania ad Yugoslavia. In his position, he learned about my father’s plight.

Although my father denied ever being a spy for Hungary, the engineer, whose name escapes me, insisted my father’s sentence of 12 years of hard labor was sufficient reason to become “mentesitett.” He arranged it all. My father retained his license to manufacture brandy, I was able to attend a Catholic gymnasium, (high school) in Esztergom, Hungary, and our family life remained quite normal.

That is until March 1944, when the German Army invaded Hungary and SS Colonel Adolf Eichmann arrived in Budapest. The mass deportation of Hungarian Jews to Nazi extermination camps began — first from the countryside, then from Budapest.

During the first months of Nazi ,occupation our family’s “mentesitett” papers were still valid, but soon my brother and I were taken away into a slave labor camp. My sister and her baby were shipped in a cattle car to Auschwitz and gassed on arrival. A trusted employee of my father offered to provide him and my mother a hiding place in a cellar of his small vineyard.

My father accepted; my mother refused to spend her days in a cellar. She wanted to reach Budapest, where her best friend from childhood, now a prioress of a Carmelite Monastery, offered to hide her. During the night, prior to her departure to Budapest, she was seized by Hungarian gendarmes and was sent to the Flossenburg concentration camp, where she died of starvation.

My father stayed at the wine cellar and took a dramatic turn. A German anti-aircraft emplacement was set up close to his hiding place. His employee was unable to bring him food or water. He was starving. He grew a long beard, was disheveled, and plying the role of a crazed hermit, approached the German soldiers, begging for food.

The German soldiers saved him.

My father passed away peacefully in Israel in 1957, to where he immigrated after World War II.

(Shatz is a former resident of Lake Placid and a current resident of Williamsburg, Virginia. He is the author of “Reports from a Distant Place,” a compilation of his columns.)