Monday, February 11, 2008

"The Last Days" -- by Tom Lantos

Budapest was a magnificent, world-class European city. Beginning in the middle of the nineteenth century - when Jews got the full civil, political and religious rights - there was an incredible symbiotic relationship between Hungarians and Jews. The population of Hungary in its boundaries at the time was only about 45 percent Hungarian. The rest of the people were Slovaks, Romanians, Croats, Serbs, Germans, and others. In order to have a Hungarian majority within the boundaries of Hungary, the government declared that Jews were Hungarians of the Israelite faith. And when Jews were counted with Catholic and Protestant Hungarians, there was a Hungarian majority.

This was an extremely important thing until the First World War. At the end of the war, almost two-thirds of the territory of Hungary was taken away. What was left was overwhelmingly Hungarian with virtually no ethnic minorities. It was no longer important for Jews to be considered Hungarian; Jews were again considered Jews. The first anti-Semitic laws in twentieth-century Europe were not in Germany, Austria or Poland, but in Hungary. In 1923 the Hungarian parliament passed a law which restricted the number of Jews who could enter university to the proportion of Jews in the Hungarian population.

When you speak of Jews in Hungary, you are really talking about two entirely different groups. There were the assimilated Jews of Budapest and the other larger cities, and there were the very religious Jews in the north-eastern and eastern Hungary. The bulk of the Jews in Budapest were utterly assimilated. Many of them, like my family, were deeply patriotic, and included military officers, university professors, and they were enormously proud of their Hungarian cultural heritage.

I was born in Budapest in 1928. Hitler came to power five years later, in 1933. As a child, I remember that family conversation focused overwhelmingly on what would happen to us. In 1938, when I was ten years old, I bought my first newspaper. I was walking home from school, and I saw the headlines, 'Hitler marches into Austria'. I sensed that this moment, this event would have a tremendous impact on the lives of Hungarian Jews, my family and myself.

I was very much aware of anti-Semitism. Jewish boys walking to and from school were often attacked. There was a Hungarian Nazi movement with its own emblem, which was the arrow cross. This became the most hated and feared symbol throughout the war. It was worse for Hungarian Jews than the swastika, because the Hungarian Nazis - to prove that they were more Nazi, more loyal to Hitler, than Germans - outdid them in cruelty and viciousness.

When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, he needed additional troops. He demanded that both Hungary and Romania provide large numbers of army divisions to fight alongside the Germans on the Soviet front. Both countries were vying for Hitler's favor, because Hitler had divided Transylvania between Hungary and Romania in 1940. (The area had been Hungarian before 1918 and Romania had taken all of it after the First World War.) When Hitler demanded troops, both countries eagerly responded in the hopes of getting additional territory in the Carpathian basin. When Hungarian troops went to the eastern front, this was the first time that Hungarian Jews were forbidden to serve in the army and were instead taken to the Soviet front to do the dirty work: they dug the trenches, they carried the ammunition, they walked through minefields to clear the way for the troops. Most of the young Jewish men who left for the Soviet front never returned. Every single young man in my extended family, my cousins and a young uncle, all went to the Soviet front and all perished. We do not know whether they froze to death, whether they contracted some disease, whether they starved to death or whether they were killed.

My Christian classmates reacted to Hitler's invasion in different ways. Some remained good friends. Some made me feel that they continued to be my friends, but they didn't want to be seen in public with me, particularly not after we had to wear the yellow Star of David, which was one of the Hungarian government's edicts after Hitler came into the country. Some turned against Jews in general and me in particular.

On the one hand I was still in love with Hungarian literature and music and history, and I continued studying it through early 1944. At the same time the seamy side, the dark side of the Hungarian national character was becoming more and more obvious. Jews were losing their jobs, their businesses, they didn't have the right to practice their professions and they were physically persecuted.

While a handful of Hungarian Christians were helpful, a vast number were bystanders - some with regret and sorrow, some with very different feelings. There was a very sizeable group that loved the persecution of the Jews. Persecuting Jews not only satisfied their deeply ingrained anti-Semitism, it also gave them an opportunity to take the homes and jobs and property of the Jews. Most people did not participate actively, but they allowed it to happen. There was no feeling that the non-Jewish population was with you. You had the feeling that they were against you, or they were looking away. There was a tremendous amount of confusion I my mind as a fourteen-, fifteen-, sixteen-year-old.

Of course there was the on-going debate within my family and within all families as to whether we should try to leave, or whether we should hope that although things were bad, we would survive. The discussions were interminable: did we have a chance in Hungary, or should we make an attempt to leave? But this was our home - people had their professions, had elderly parents; their whole world was Budapest. While in 1938 the intelligent ones could have left, by 1944 - when Nazi Germany occupied Hungary - no one could leave.

The range of knowledge about what was happening ran the gamut from those who knew practically nothing to those who followed the unfolding of the war in considerable detail. The difference between the least well informed and the best informed was the ability to listen to the BBC. The BBC was our lifeline to the outside world. Every evening we would close the shutters, lower the curtains and huddle around the radio set. When the reception was good, an electronic eye in the set would come together; when the reception was not quite as good, the eye was incomplete. So we would tune the radio by watching the eye. We hung on to the BBC every night. We had maps and we charted the course of all the campaigns, literally kilometer by kilometer. We knew what was happening. We knew about the battle of Stalingrad, that it represented a turning point when the Nazis were pushed back. We were convinced that the Germans were losing the war, and that it was just a question of time before they would have to capitulate.

When Hitler occupied Hungary on 19 March 1944, I was sixteen years old. I joined the Hungarian Underground. It was basically a number of not very well organized groups, small clusters of individuals. A handful of these people were engaged in military activities. But increasingly these people organized under Raoul Wallenberg's leadership, to provide food, medical supplies and a feeling of being a protected community which hopefully would survive the war under Swedish, Swiss, Spanish or Vatican protection. As 1944 wore on, I really didn't think I had much of a chance of surviving the Second World War. I felt that I was trapped in Hungary, surrounded by the Nazis. Although the Soviets were coming, I thought we would be done for before they arrived. Of course that was Eichmann's plan, that was Hitler's plan. It was Raoul Wallenberg who interposed his frail body between the Nazi war machine and thousands and thousands of Jewish men, women and children. Had it not been for him, neither I nor the other tens of thousands of others would have survived to January 1945.

Raoul Wallenberg is the central figure in my life. He was the son of Sweden's most distinguished family. In the summer of 1944, at the behest of the American government, he accepted an assignment to come to Budapest, to join the Swedish embassy there, for the sole purpose of trying to save Jewish lives. At the risk of his own life he saved them. He saved lives by issuing so-called Swedish protected passports, which were pieces of paper with an embassy seal. These documents declared that the individual who possessed this document planned to go to Sweden as an immigrant at the end of the war, and therefore, effective immediately, he or she was under the protection of the Royal Swedish Government. Well, this was like me declaring you to be a prima ballerina of the St Petersburg Ballet - it had no validity. But in the chaos and confusion of the war, and with Wallenberg threatening the Nazis that unless they honored these worthless pieces of paper they would be punished as war criminals, these miraculous, worthless pieces of paper worked.

They worked not only for people who got them from Wallenberg, but they also inspired the Swiss government, the Portuguese government, the Spanish government and the Vatican to do the same thing. For instance, my wife Annette was saved by Portuguese papers that were an outgrowth of Wallenberg's work.

The phrase 'no good deed goes unpunished' has never been truer than in the case of Wallenberg. He left behind the comfort, safety, the security of neutral Sweden and went down into the hell that was Budapest in 1944. In the countryside the Jews had already been put into cattle cars and shipped to Auschwitz. What was left was the extermination of the Jewish population of Budapest. Not quite single-handedly, but under his leadership, a handful of people saved tens of thousands of individuals who survived the determination of the Nazis to kill them, as they did the Jews of the countryside. And they did not. They could not, because of Wallenberg's courage. There is no doubt in my mind that Wallenberg was the ultimate humanitarian hero of the Second World War. Had there been just a few hundred Raoul Wallenbergs, with the courage of convictions, with the recognition that we are all our brothers' and sisters' keepers, then this brutal nightmare might have been averted. Here was a man who did not share with us his nationality, his language or his religion - he was a Lutheran. What we shared was our common humanity. He felt that we were his brothers and sisters. And he decided to risk his life - and ultimately he gave his life, he spent the remainder of his life in Soviet prisons - to save his fellow human beings. There is nothing that any university could teach our children that is as important as Raoul Wallenberg's lesson, that we are all our brothers' keepers.

My greatest asset was that I looked very Aryan - tall, blue-eyed and blond. The only danger I faced was that if German or Hungarian soldiers became suspicious of me or others, they would do their best to make us take down our pants, because only Jews were circumcised. I had friends who had to drop their pants and were shot on the spot. You never knew whom you could trust. You were in a jungle surrounded by jungle animals. Some would merely wish you ill, while some would actively go after you. The first step of resistance was not to wear the yellow Star of David. The penalty if you were caught could be anything. If the soldier you encountered was a monster, he could whip out his revolver and shoot you dead on the spot. Many people were killed that way. If a soldier was less vicious, he could throw you in prison, or beat you up.

I was caught and put into a forced labor camp. I was taken with a group of men to an important railroad bridge north of Budapest. Our job was to repair the bridge, which the British and American bombers were continually damaging. It was an important communication link for the German military. The Allies knew it was important and they did a very good job of bombing it. On the one hand, we hated to see the bridge bombed, because that meant we had to repair it. On the other hand, we hoped they would be successful because they were our only hope of liberation.

I escaped from that labor camp, but I was captured and beaten to a pulp. After a second escape I gradually made my way to Budapest and Wallenberg. I became one of the hundreds of unimportant little people, a small cog in the Wallenberg machine, which saved many thousands of Hungarian Jewish lives.

When I was sent to forced labor, initially my parents were in Budapest. Then my mother was deported, and later on my father as well. I have no idea what happened to my mother. My father survived the war. It was obvious to me as it was to all of us that families as units would not survive. It was clear that if we were to survive, we would survive each of us on our own. The Germans would not allow family units to function as family units. The thought of a sixteen-year-old boy leaving his parents was not part of my thinking. There was nothing I could do for my parents and there was nothing they could do for me. I was not young any more. I was very old. I was sixteen, but I was very old. The bloodbath, the cruelty, the death that I saw, so many times around me during those few months between March of 1944 and January of 1945 made me a very old young man.

Wallenberg leased large apartment houses, most of them along the banks of the Danube, where he put up signs indicating that al the residents in these houses were under the protection of the Royal Swedish government. I stayed in a Wallenberg-protected house at St Stephen Park, number 25, on the second floor. The street was named after St Stephen, Hungary's first king, and the park and the houses still stand today. Most of these were upper middle class apartment houses. The ones that surrounded St Stephen Park were very pleasant. These were three-bedroom apartments, which may have had four, five or six people living there before the war. Suddenly they became hovels with fifty, sixty or seventy people jammed into each apartment.

In the apartment where I lived was a man suffering from asthma. One of my jobs in the underground was to go out into the city without my yellow star and find pharmacies to get medicine for this man. Passing as a Hungarian Christian, I delivered messages, picked up food and found medical supplies. I roamed through Budapest and could do so because of my Aryan looks. There were very few of us who could pass as Christians, but I was one of them.

The word 'protected' was a misnomer, because many of the people living in these 'protected' houses could be taken any day. There was one occasion when the people in the protected house next to the one I was living in were ordered by a group of Nazi military or police - Hungarian or German - down to the Danube. They were machine-gunned or shot one by one and their bodies pushed into the river. It was as simple as that. The 'protected' house only provided protection when the good Lord and good fortune were with you.

Budapest was a large city - two million people. And while there were Jewish districts, Jews lived throughout the city. In Budapest the Germans could not begin the kind of mass deportation that they could do in a town of 15,000 people, where everybody knew who was Jewish. There had to be a mechanism to push all the Jews into defined areas. They did it by creating two ghettos - one in the heart of the city around the main synagogue, and an international ghetto along the Danube, which basically consisted of Wallenberg's protected houses and protected houses of other embassies. As the war unfolded and as these preparations were taking place, the opportunity for mass deportations by train became more and more difficult. The Germans were in an increasingly desperate military situation. The availability of cattle cars was diminishing. Towards the end, there was a mass march towards the Austrian border, with largely Hungarian Nazis and their dogs driving mobs of people, mainly old and very young, mainly women. Many perished along the way. Many more perished once they reached their destination. Wallenberg played a heroic role by pulling people out of the forced march by going to the Austro-Hungarian border and picking out large numbers of people and claiming they were Swedish citizens. These were the last chaotic weeks and days of the Second World War in Hungary. The sadism, the cruelty, the irrationality of the German and Hungarian Nazis was unbelievable.

We knew of the approach of the Red Army through the BBC and the sound of the artillery. We could hear the artillery moving closer and closer. Then one night, at about one o'clock in the morning there was a great commotion in our building and a group of Soviet soldiers broke in. There were two or three people in the building who spoke some Russian. They told the soldiers who we were and, fortunately, the commanding officer, a very intelligent and educated fellow, understood the situation. He posted some of his people around the building for protection. When we went to bed, we were under Nazi control but when dawn came we had been liberated by the Soviet army. It was an almost indescribable feeling to be under the protective umbrella of the anti-Nazi allies. And while we knew there were still many hardships ahead, we knew that our lives were safe. It was total euphoria. It was like having to undergo an operation where the chances of losing your life are 99.9 percent - and you survive. The closer we came to liberation, the more I was convinced that I would not survive. This was realism. But despite the odds, I made it.

Of course, at that moment we could focus on who else had survived: did your mother survive? Did your best friend? Did your girlfriend? One of the most painful things was that I did not know for months whether my mother or other members of my family would ever return. It was only in the summer of 1945 that the awful realization set in that my mother would never return. There were, however, more horrendous stories than mine. I know of a young woman, whose husband survived Auschwitz and returned to Budapest. On his way to rejoin his wife, he was picked up by Soviet troops and sent to Siberia. He returned several years later only to find his wife had married and had a child. These are the routine stories of Jews in Hungary in the Second World War.

After Soviet troops occupied Budapest, those of us who lived there were subjected to the Russian Liberation Forces. Their antics ranged all the way from large Russian women trying to rape young Hungarian boys, to people being rounded up and shipped off to Siberia, not to reappear for years. But the standard looting was, compared to the Holocaust, mere irritations. I mean, in the midst of all the misbehavior of the Soviet troops, and there was a great deal of that, including very ugly incidents, it was still a liberation.

I was on the university campus one day soon after the war, and I saw an announcement that a US scholarship might be available for people who spoke English. I applied, although I never dreamed I would be selected. I was on cloud nine when I was. I left Budapest on a crowded train 8 August 1847, via Vienna and Paris. I had a ticket on a converted troopship, the SS Marine Falcon. I went down to the harbor and found my ship. I went to my bunk and they called for chow. I had no idea what chow was, it was not part of my English vocabulary. But I got into the chow line - and this was a period when of course I was still totally preoccupied with food, I had spent protracted periods, years, with very little food. I was dreaming about food, it was the beginning and end of my goals and objectives. And these wonderful people slopped all these wonderful things on this big metal tray. At the end of the line there was a huge wicker basket of bananas. My mother had always taught me to do the right thing, and I did not know what the right thing was, so I asked the enormous sailor, 'Sir do I take a banana, or do I take an orange?' And he said, 'Man, you can eat all the damn bananas and oranges you want.' And then I knew I was in heaven. And I loaded up on bananas and oranges, and I got very sick, but I loved every minute of it.

Both my parents were deeply pro-America, and they knew a great deal about the United States from reading, although neither had ever been there. I had also read a lot. So in an academic sense I had and understanding of the place. But when the SS Marine Falcon pulled into New York harbor, and I saw this incredible skyline, and the vast wealth of this gigantic city, I felt like a very naïve child from a village. I got a second-class train ticket from New York to Seattle. To the University of Washington. I threw myself into academic life, but there were all kinds of old people dependent on me financially, so within weeks I had a bunch of part-time jobs, ranging from stacking grocery shelves at night to ushering at the Seattle Symphony in a borrowed tuxedo.

My life today, given my background, is something I cannot believe possible. I am privileged to serve the Congress of the United States. I think back to my life fifty years ago, when I was a hunted animal in the jungle, and how I am dealing with issues of state of a country I love so deeply. It all seems like a dream and it all places an incredible sense of responsibility on me. I didn't achieve this because of what I am, it happened because of what this country is. My wife Annette and I have known each other all of our lives. We grew up together as children in Budapest, and we have been married now for forty-nine years. And if the next forty-nine years are half as good as the first forty-nine, I'll be a very lucky man.

We have two daughters who very early on came to us and said they planned a special gift for us. As our families had been wiped out in the Holocaust, they would give us a large family. And we have been blessed with seventeen wonderful grandchildren.

There were three reasons why people like me survived. The first and overwhelming reason was the presence and heroism of Raoul Wallenberg. Without him, none of us would have survived. Secondly, it was perhaps our skill, our physical stamina. And finally it was pure luck. Had I run into a Nazi patrol, had they ordered me to drop my pants, I would have been killed on the spot. I suspect that of these three elements, Wallenberg and luck were the overriding factors.

"The Last Days", By Steven Spielberg and Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation
Pages 170-185
St Martin Press, NY

Rep. Tom Lantos passes away

Rep. Tom Lantos (D-CA-12), Congress' only Holocaust survivor, passed away earlier today.

A long-time advocate for the LGBT community, his most recent HRC congressional scores in 2006, 2004, and 2002 had been 100. The scorecard is put out by the Human Rights Campaign to measure support for LGBT equality among members of Congress.

He founded the bipartisan Congressional Human Rights Caucus and enraged despots from China to Sudan for their human rights abuses.

Editorial says Baldwin is right to oppose Bush's budget

Wisconsin's Capital Times says that Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-WI-02) is right to oppose Bush's budget, and that any Wisconsin congressional member who votes for it should be booted in November.

Now if only we could get the Hartford Courant to put the same bug in Lieberman's ear.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Could San Francisco wind up with no gay state senator?

As noted yesterday, Joe Nation's jump into the California SD-03 fray adds texture to the race. If Nation outperforms in his home territory north of the Golden Gate, he could swipe the nomination from out candidates Carole Migden (incumbent) and Mark Leno. Police Commissioner Joe Alioto Veronese, grandson of San Francisco's former mayor, is also running.

Babylon-by-the-Sea's other Senator, Leland Yee of District 08, is still heterosexual. Senate District 03 has been represented by an out senator since Migden won in 2004, but not if the San Franciscans split the city and allow Nation to walk through the breach.

Columnist Dick Spotswood provides numbers in this morning's Marin Independent Journal. A majority of Democratic primary voters lately have been from north of the Bridge. Before Nation jumped in, Migden was the only one of the candidates to have been on the ballot in Marin and Sonoma; she now has to share that advantage.

Just 114 days to go.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Migden/Leno race gets merrier

California state Senator Carole Migden (D-03) is getting more competition for her seat in June's primary. As was widely expected, former Assemblymember Joe Nation of Marin has formally thrown his bonnet into the ring, cutting into Migden's appeal north of the Golden Gate. Nation is the latest in a flurry of candidates to announce since term-limited Assemblymember Mark Leno declared that he would rather take on his long-sitting senator than retire or sit out a term.

See the district map here. The tiny green area at the very bottom is where most of Migden's and Leno's fellow lesbians cluster.

eXTReMe Tracker