Jewish rescuers, now in their 90s, fight to have their stories told on International Holocaust Remembrance Day

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KIBBUTZ HAZOREA, Israel — Just before Nazi Germany invaded Hungary in March 1944, Jewish youth leaders in the Eastern European country sprang into action, forming an underground network that would rescue tens of thousands of fellow Jews from the gas chambers within months.

This chapter of Holocaust heroism is scarcely remembered in Israel. It is also not part of the official school curriculum. But the few remaining members of the Hungarian Jewish underground want their story told. Horrified at the thought of being forgotten, they are determined to keep the memories of their mission alive.

“The story of the struggle to save tens of thousands of people must be part of the chronicles of the people of Israel,” said David Gur, 97, one of the few surviving members. “It is a beacon during the Holocaust period, a lesson and an example for generations.”

As the world celebrates International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Friday, historians, activists, survivors and their families are all bracing for the time when there will be no more living witnesses to share personal accounts. horrors of the Nazi genocide during World War II. . During the Holocaust, 6 million Jews were wiped out by the Nazis and their allies.

Founded as a refuge for Jews in the aftermath of the Holocaust, Israel has gone to great lengths over the years to recognize thousands of “Righteous Among the Nations” – non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.

Stories of Jewish resistance to the Nazis, such as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, form the mainstays of the national narrative, but the rescue missions of other Jews—such as the Hungarian Resistance—are less well known.

Hungary was home to about 900,000 Jews before the Nazi invasion. The government was an ally of Nazi Germany, but as the Soviet Union’s Red Army advanced on Hungary, the Nazis invaded in March 1944 to prevent the Axis ally from reaching a separate peace agreement with the Allies.

In the following 10 months, up to 568,000 Jews were murdered by the Nazis and their allies in Hungary, according to figures from Yad Vashem, Israel’s official Holocaust memorial.

Gur said he and his colleagues knew disaster was imminent when three Jewish women arrived at Budapest’s main synagogue in the fall of 1943. They had fled Nazi-occupied Poland and brought disturbing news about people. sent to concentration camps.

“They had pretty clear information about what was going on and saw the many trains, and it was clear to them what was going on,” Gur said.

Gur oversaw a massive forgery operation in which forged documents were provided to Jewish and non-Jewish members of the Hungarian resistance. “I was an 18-year-old when the heavy responsibility fell on me,” he said.

There was great personal risk. In December 1944, he was arrested in the counterfeit workshop and brutally interrogated and imprisoned, according to his memoir, “Brothers for Resistance and Salvation”. The Jewish resistance took him from the central military prison later that month in a rescue operation.

The forged papers were used by Jewish youth movements to operate a smuggling ring and run Red Cross homes that saved thousands of people from the Nazis and their allies.

According to Gur’s book, at least 7,000 Jews were smuggled out of Hungary via Romania to ships on the Black Sea that would take them to British-occupied Palestine. At least 10,000 false protection passes known as Shutzpasses were distributed to Jews in Budapest, and about 6,000 Jewish children and accompanying adults were rescued from homes ostensibly under the protection of the Cross. International red.

Robert Rozett, senior historian at Yad Vashem, said that while it was “the greatest rescue” of European Jews during the Holocaust, this episode remains outside “the main narrative track.”

“It is very important because these activities have helped tens of thousands of Jews to stay alive in Budapest,” he said.

In 1984 Gur founded “The Research Society for the History of Zionist Youth Movements in Hungary”, a group that publicized this effort.

Last month, Sara Epstein, 97, Dezi Heffner-Reiner, 95, and Betzalel Grosz, 98, three of the remaining survivors who helped save Jews in Nazi-occupied Hungary from the Nazis, were received last month at a kibbutz in northern Hungary. Israel the Jewish Rescuers Citation for Their Role. at the holocaust. The award is presented by two Jewish groups: the B’nai B’rith World Center in Jerusalem and the Committee to Recognize the Heroism of Jewish Rescuers during the Holocaust.

“There aren’t many of us left, but it’s important,” Heffner-Reiner said.

More than 200 other members of the underground have received the award posthumously. Gur received the award in 2011, the year it was established.

Yuval Alpan, son of one of the rescuers and a community activist, said the quotes were to recognize those who saved lives during the Holocaust.

“This underground youth resistance movement saved tens of thousands of Jews in 1944 and their story is not known,” he said. “It’s the biggest Holocaust rescue operation and nobody knows it.”

International Holocaust Day falls on the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz extermination camp by the Red Army 78 years ago. Israel is home to some 150,600 Holocaust survivors, almost all over the age of 80, according to government figures. This is 15,193 fewer than a year ago.

The United Nations will hold a commemoration ceremony at the General Assembly on Friday, and more commemorative events are planned around the world.

Israel celebrates its own Holocaust Remembrance Day in the spring.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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