We were 23-year-old medical students in Sweden, still trying to understand the consequences of some momentous decisions, made during the previous year.
We were 23-year-old medical students in Sweden, still trying to understand the consequences of some momentous decisions, made during the previous year.
In the middle of our medical studies earlier that year at the University of Budapest (located in our native city), George was unexpectedly invited to join a Jewish student group preparing to visit some universities in Sweden, which had been neutral during World War II.
Eight days before departure, George met Eva; we fell in love, but George had to leave. We promised each other we would reunite in Sweden. In Stockholm, he found a haven in the Cell Research Department of the Karolinska Institute, which was led by one of the pioneers of modern cell chemistry, Torbjörn Caspersson. Eva was still in Budapest, where the situation under the Communist regime was becoming worse day by day.
George returned to Budapest, we married in secret and emigrated to Stockholm at the last moment when this was still possible. We tried to forget the war, including the Holocaust, which killed many friends and relatives. We had miraculously survived, escaping the transports to the death camps in different ways, and making do with false papers. In Sweden we decided to devote ourselves to our new lives, to the new country, to science, and to the children we were going to have and to whom we were adamantly determined not to teach a single word of Hungarian. And so it went. We started speaking Swedish as soon as we could, and our three children were never taught Hungarian, a language that we loved and still love to this day.
However, we simply could not suppress the memory of our murdered relatives, nor of the Jewish classmates and friends who never came back from the slave labor camps. We were also unable to forget the indifference (and worse) of the non-Jewish Hungarian population—some wonderful exceptions notwithstanding.
George and Eva Klein are cancer researchers and professors of tumor biology at the Karolinska Institute, Stockholm. George Klein is also the author of several books, including The Atheist and the Holy City.
Approaching Christmas, 1948, our first year in Sweden, a Danish English couple, Nils and Cicily Andresen, cell biologists from the Carlsberg Laboratory in Copenhagen, who were working as guest researchers in Caspersson’s department, invited us to experience a real Danish Christmas with them and Nils’ parents. We had never been to Denmark and found the invitation overwhelmingly exciting: we were the youngest and most insignificant among Casperssion’s colorful international research staff, spoke a slow stuttering English, and knew next to nothing about Denmark.
Hardly had we arrived at Denmark’s idyllic coast village of Taarbaek, still exhilarated by the joy of having crossed an international boundary with an ease that seemed almost unbelievable, we immediately asked about the thing we most wanted to see: the Frihedsmuseum, commemorating the Danish Resistance. And that is where Dr. Nils Andresen, himself a former member of the Resistance movement, first took us. We could hardly believe our eyes.
How could this be? Could the Danes really have behaved so admirably toward the Jews in Denmark during the German occupation? How did they manage to act collectively to thwart the attempted German roundup of Jews? Why wasn’t their heroism tempered by fears of how the Germans might retaliate against themselves and their families? And first and foremost: why wasn’t Danish society pervaded with the anti-Semitism, malice and indifference that afflicted Hungarian society?
Nils gave us some books on the Danish Resistance, which we devoured. But his personal stories were even more powerful. He told us about the organization of the Resistance movement and his own cell, the decision-making process, the transmission of orders and the initiation of action.
Once, Nils’ cell suspected that a new member was an infiltrator, working for the Germans. They accidentally discovered that the man had a protective German certificate, only given to important Nazi agents. They reported their suspicions to the leadership of the Resistance movement, using the same cell-network organization as for the transmission of messages and orders. Only one immediate contact person was known to the leader of each cell within the network. This may seem cumbersome to our fax-world, but it worked with great speed and efficiency. The Resistance movement had its own court of justice.
They examined the evidence that had been submitted by Nils’ group, found it convincing, and condemned the man to death. The sentence had to be executed by the cell that reported the case. Nils and his friends decided by lottery who was to fire the shot. They knew the way the traitor walked to work every morning.
A few minutes before he was to pass a certain shop, two Resistance members entered the store, pulled out their pistols and told the owner and his assistant that they were part of the Resistance. “No need to pull your guns, we are on your side,” was the answer. When the infiltrator walked by, the appointed assassin shot him dead.
Seconds later the shop was closed, and everybody had disappeared from the scene, including the passersby who immediately understood that they had witnessed an act by the Resistance. When the German police arrived a few minutes later, they could find no one who had seen anything.
Listening to Nils, we began to think about some very different shootings. We remembered the mass killing of defenseless Jews by the militiamen of the Hungarian Arrow Cross,* many of whom were teenagers, on the shores of the Danube in Budapest in December 1944. With the pounding of the Russian artillery already clearly audible in the distance, they carried out their murderous orgies night after night. The large icy river served as the silent receptacle of their victims.
To the once pleasing shores of the Danube, the favorite promenade of young lovers, they brought all the Jews they caught during the day. They pulled them out from their “illegal” hiding places or from their “ legal ” ghetto dwellings. Whenever they could, the Arrow Cross militiamen also seized the protected inhabitants of the “international ghetto.” The “Swedish” houses of the diplomat Raoul Wallenberg and houses that carried the flags of the Vatican, the International Red Cross, and other neutral nations, were repeatedly raided as well.
A prisoner myself, I (George) tried to discuss matters on November 3, 1944, with one of the Arrow Cross guards of about my own age (I was 19).
At this point, I had been in a slave labor camp on the east side of the Danube with other youngsters and old men for three weeks. Most men between 18 and 60 had been taken to the murderous military slave labor camps on the Russian front long before. On the night of November 2, the guards suddenly escorted us across the river. We knew that it meant we were going to be taken to a death camp. I had read the secret Auschwitz report of Vrba and Wetzler several months before and had no illusions.
After a forced march all next day, they kept us on a heavily guarded football field for a while in the evening. I was continuously thinking of ways to escape. (I did escape the next day, but that is another story.) At one of the gates of the football field I saw a young Arrow Cross man, about my age. He did not look particularly fierce, despite his machine gun and hand grenades. He could have been one of my classmates. I started talking to him.
"For what crime am I kept here? How would I know? You must be guilty if you are here.
But we are not here because we committed a crime; I am here because I am a Jew. Your people have committed terrible crimes against the rest of the world.
Are you sure that this is true? And if other persons committed crimes, is that my responsibility?
Yes it is. Your people have committed terrible crimes. You are all responsible."
I heard some uneasiness in his voice. He clung to the slogans he was taught, he used them as a shield. He was not hostile, his tone was almost friendly. But he would not let me go. How could he, as long as he believed what he had said?
Nils Andresen, the former member of the Danish Resistance, showed us some photos taken at a certain event by members of the Resistance. The event was a ceremony marking the commencement of work by the Germans on a broad autobahn that was to run across Denmark. It was obviously important for the war traffic, but the official propaganda spoke of it as a major step toward increased Danish-German cooperation after the war.
The Danish puppet Government was represented at the ceremony by one of its ministers, who appeared with high-ranking German officers. The minister was going to shovel the first piece of sod in the presence of a large crowd. But members of the Resistance had made sure that the spade was sawed in the middle; it broke the first time it was thrust into the ground. The photos show the minister with pieces of the broken spade in each hand. He is looking at them in utter bewilderment, as if he cannot believe what he sees. Two German generals are standing next to him, one on each side, with stony faces. A large crowd of Danes surrounds them, children, men and women, young and old, laughing.
Could this have happened in Hungary? Never. Many jokes were circulated, but there were different jokes among the victims, among the perpetrators and among the passive and indifferent majority. The Hungarian ruling circles were infiltrated by spies, opportunists, and turncoats. But even they played their roles with the creeping servility that had become accepted practice in a nation that had lived under Turkish, Austrian, and other foreign rulers over the centuries.
Hungarians have maintained their unique language and their cultural identity, but they have left heroism to others— at least they did during the war when it came to the “Jewish question.”
A month after I (George) had my conversation with the young Arrow Cross guard, I was again in Budapest, wearing a fake paramilitary organization uniform, and carrying false papers. I often overheard the conversations of people on the tram or on the street. On one occasion my tram passed by a group of elderly Jews, wearing the yellow star and surrounded by the machine gun-carrying youngsters of the Arrow Cross. I heard a passenger exclaiming: “Will I be happy when the last of them is driven out of my country!”
But another day, when I was standing in front of the synagogue that was the entrance to the ghetto, wearing my “uniform” and anxiously surveying the large crowd of old Jews herded into the ghetto to see whether I could spot my mother and stepfather, a Budapest police- man who took me for an idle onlooker suddenly whispered to me, in an angry voice: “Can’t you get the hell out of here, lad! I would give anything if I were allowed to move away rather than look at this misery.” (The Budapest police were much less anti-Semitic than the gendarmerie, who were brought to the capital to carry out anti-Jewish operations in their own implacable way.
How far can people be driven by indoctrination, how completely can they lose touch with reality? I (George) remember the sturdy middle-aged man with a mustache, who looked like a country squire with his small hunter’s hat (complete with the appropriate feathers), trying to comfort an apparently anxious neighbor on the tram in late November.
1944, when the Russian army had already occupied eastern and central Hungary: “The great turning point has come at last. I have just heard that our armored train has reentered Miskolc. The Russians will start retreating in no time.” The famous Hungarian novelist Sándor Márai wrote in his diary in May 1944 (published under the title Napló 1943-44, Budapest, 1945) the following (my translation): “You cannot talk to the people. It is just like talking with somebody who is dead drunk or crazy. The Hungarian middle class has gone crazy and gotten drunk on the Jewish question. The Russians are in Körösmezö, the British and the Americans are above Budapest, while this society behaves like foaming morons and can speak of nothing else but the Jews.”
Anti-Semitic individuals could, occasionally, act decently. Eva, who was (says George) an astoundingly beautiful girl, was trying to visit her parents in the “yellow star house” the day before they were to be taken to the ghetto. She had false papers, did not wear a yellow star, and hoped to sneak in and out of the house unseen. But as she was about to enter, one of the most infamous anti- Semites on the block, a middle-aged, very vulgar lady who was in charge of enforcing all the Nazi orders on the block, walked out of the doorway.
Eva thought that the woman would immediately hand her over to the police or to the Arrow Cross for not wearing the yellow star and for traveling about illegally. Instead, the lady started shouting at Eva, ordering her to leave at once in the most abusive and obscene terms provided by the rich Hungarian language; the woman acted as if Eva were some kind of criminal intruder. Eva walked away dejectedly, only to learn the next day that Arrow Cross militiamen had been in the house at the moment she was about to enter, rounding up all the Jews. One step through the entrance and into the court- yard, and she would have encountered them.
Early in 1945, while Denmark was still occupied by the Germans, an air-raid alarm sounded in Copenhagen. Several planes flew over the city at a high altitude. Their identity could not be discerned from the ground. A large number of leaflets were dropped over the city. They claimed to carry a message from the Allies: Due to the shortage of military manpower, the troops chosen to liberate Copenhagen were nonwhite soldiers from the British and French colonies, and Soviet soldiers from Mongolia and other regions of the Far East. The Allies hoped that the Danish population would excuse the rapes, looting, and other acts of violence that were inevitable.
The Resistance movement swiftly identified who was really responsible for the leaflets. They had been printed in Denmark, either by the Germans or their Danish puppets. The day after the leaflets were dropped, a large number of trucks of the Danish postal service delivered an enormous amount of mail to the German Embassy. The citizens of Copenhagen had collected as many of the leaflets as possible, written “tak tor lånet” (“thank you for having lent us this”) on them, and mailed them to the German Embassy.
One must not expect others to behave as heroes. An individual has no right to assume that he would behave as a hero in a situation he has never experienced, no matter how high an opinion he entertains about his own moral standards. Therefore, we ought not to forget the nonconformist martyrs of conscience who maintained their principled stands, whether they were scientists, poets or just ordinary citizens. And we must keep asking what motivates certain individuals to act honorably.
Let us teach our children to use their own minds. And let us remind them of the Danes. The brave and laudable deeds of the Danish people during the Second World War provide inspiration that young people, and the rest of us, badly need.
Courtesy Eva and George Klein
Previously written and published 1993
Published with permission
Published by Scandinavian Jewish Forum