Accidental hero: Human kindness in the midst of Holocaust horror

Published: Saturday, April 6 2013 6:00 a.m. MDT

Jerry Meents pins on the original star that he received as a 12-year-old Jewish boy living in Amsterdam in 1942 at the Holocaust Memorial Commemoration at the Salt Lake City Library on April 13, 2007. Six million Jews died during the Holocaust between 1933 and 1945.

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Morton (Miksa) Fuchs never thought of himself as a Holocaust survivor.

At least, that is what he told his two children, Marta and Henry, both of whom were born during the post-World War II baby boom.

“I was only in labor camp,” Marta remembers hearing her father say. “It’s your mother who is the survivor.”

Marta’s mother, Ilona, endured the horrors of Auschwitz, where her parents as well as nine members of Morton’s family were among the 1.3 million people who died there during the mid-20th century genocide that resulted in the death of two-thirds of Nazi Germany’s 9 million-member Jewish population.

The victims of the Shoah, the Hebrew word for "holocaust," are remembered each year at this time during Yom HaShoah, a national memorial day in Israel that is also observed by devout Jews around the world. This year Yom HaShoah falls on Monday, April 8. Although there is no formal ritual for the observance there will be solemn ceremonies that may include the lighting of memorial candles and the reciting of the Kaddish, the prayer for the departed, to help all who participate remember the victims of the Nazi regime's institutional intolerance and Adolf Hitler's "final solution" — both those who died and those who survived.

“There is a sort of hierarchy among survivors,” Marta said during a telephone interview exactly one week before Yom HaShoah, which some people refer to as Holocaust Memorial Day. “Death camp survivors are on the top of the pyramid. That is clearly how my father saw it. I used to tell him, ‘Dad, you endured five years of forced labor. You were marched and threatened and denied food. You lost all your family in the concentration camps. You are a survivor.”

Still, it wasn’t until some 30 years after the family escaped to the United States in the wake of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 that she learned how clearly and powerfully the word “survivor” can be applied to her father — and how much her father’s survival of the Holocaust was due to the heroic intervention of a Seventh-day Adventist from Hungary.

Accidental Hero

“I was volunteering at the Holocaust Library and Research Center of San Francisco when a young man came in who was making a documentary about Holocaust survivors and their children,” Marta said. “I volunteered our family for the project. I thought this would be a great opportunity for us to talk about this together.”

As the family started talking and gathering information and memories, Morton kept mentioning a Hungarian man who became the commanding officer of the labor camp: how he was a Seventh-day Adventist who refused to carry a gun; how he made sure they were able to worship and observe Jewish holy days — even fasting with them on Yom Kippur; how he managed to procure extra food rations for them; how he defied Nazi orders to have the prisoners in the camp exterminated when it became clear that Germany was losing the war and there was no more need for the workers.

“I was like, ‘Dad! How come I never heard about this?” Marta said. “He was so embarrassed. He had never talked about this man because he could not remember the Hungarian commander's name. I told him that was understandable — so much time had passed, and there were so many things that you tried to forget.

“But my father just shook his head sadly,” she continued. “’No,’ he said, ‘it is unforgivable.’”

Drawing from her research skills acquired through years of academic training and experience as a librarian, and using a photograph that had been sent to her father by one of his fellow prisoners at the labor camp, Marta was able to learn that the commanding officer’s name was Zoltán Kubinyi, a man who came to her father’s labor camp quite literally by accident.

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