Authors: Agnes Grunwald-Spier
. Naomi Szinai (born 1924,
Mayer) grew up in Hajdudorog, Hungary, which was a village of 12,000 people with a few hundred Jews. Her father was one of five doctors in the village:
He must have built up a busy practice fairly quickly which provided them with a reasonable, rather than big income as the largely peasant population could not afford to pay too much for their health care. Furthermore, Father treated lots of his patients who could not afford to pay free of charge or for a nominal fee.
Naomi was the eldest of three children and had a happy childhood. Their father’s surgery was in their home so the family were involved in opening the door to patients and answering the telephone. They also sometimes accompanied him on house calls when they could have private chats. In the winter they went on a toboggan in the snow which was great fun. They were educated up until the age of 14 in the town and lived in a Jewish circle. Many of this circle were
by the Nazis. Life was relatively primitive with limited running water in the houses and drinking water brought up from the well by the maids. They took holidays at a Jewish hotel in Ujhuta in the Bukk mountains: ‘In the summer we used to go on holiday with Mother; Father would only come for a day or two as he wouldn’t leave his patients for longer.’
Anti-Semitism was a fact of life from an early age. The Hungarians broke windows in Jewish houses when drunk and shouted nasty things. In school there were many comments – some more unpleasant than others. Once the war started, although Hungary was not occupied by the Nazis until March 1944, Jewish men were called up for forced labour and Dr Mayer was often called for medical service. Her parents listened to Hungarian broadcasts from London to hear the real news rather than Hungarian propaganda, but because it was forbidden Naomi used to stand outside the house and run in to warn them if anyone approached.
Naomi had decided to flee her hometown even before the Jews were sent to the Ghetto. She decided to get work as a servant, but to do this she needed false papers. She wrote of her father’s influence on her success:
My father was the local doctor. He had always looked after his patients devotedly and one, in our hour of need, was willing to repay my father’s kindness, although this put his job, his liberty and even his life at risk. He was a clerk in the registrar’s office and so was in a position to provide false documents for me, with which I could pass as an Aryan.
Naomi recalls the clerk’s name as János Tóth and told me her sister Elizabeth had written to commend him to Yad Vashem.
As a result of her false papers, she was able to obtain work as a servant in a nearby town. She presented herself at a hiring market where the servants waited for prospective employees, who inspected them and negotiated wages – similar to the traditional ‘hiring fairs’ in rural England. Naomi has described what happened there:
A large heavily-scented woman stopped in front of me and asked for my service book, a document which every domestic servant had to have. ‘What’s your name, girl?’ she asked. ‘Maria Falus’, I answered, controlling the tremor in my voice as I pronounced my new name for the first time. She looked at my service book. ‘Why, you have not worked before and you are 18 now.’ Most peasant girls went into service at 14. I had my answer ready. ‘My mother was ill, I had to stay at home and help with the household and the younger children.’ This satisfied her and she started to bargain about wages.
Naomi was taken on because she was prepared to take low wages. She worked in the dingy commercial hotel owned by her mistress and husband and looked after their spoilt 6-year-old son. It was very hard work from early in the morning until 11 p.m. and she slept on a camp bed in the kitchen. She was terrified to hear one day that the Jews had been sent into a Ghetto and feared for her family. One day, she was taking the little boy for his afternoon walk when she came across a new fence 20ft high – the Ghetto was behind it. The boy threw some stones at the fence and she was just about to stop him when the guard came up and joked with the boy about the locked-up Jews.
One afternoon, when she took him to the playground, the children lost
in the sandpit and said: ‘let’s play Magyars and Jews’. She was made to play the Jew and the boys pointed their toy guns at her. She was gripped by terror and passed out. As she came round she heard people claiming she was a Jewess and others agreed. Whilst they were considering getting the police, an old lady asked her twice if she was ‘expecting’. Naomi took a minute to understand and then admitted she was three months gone and began to cry.
The old lady saved her by her compassion and presence of mind.
Naomi was so troubled and looked so pale that the master was concerned that she was ill and his son might catch something. They therefore sent her to the clinic:
The waiting room was full and I was rigid with fear that someone would recognise the doctor’s eldest daughter. I hid behind a newspaper. This brought its own terror, with the news of the hunt for Jews. It described the heavy penalties for people who hid Jews or tried to help them in any way. It had news of the capture and execution of fugitive Jews …
Just then the surgery door opened and I was the next patient. I looked at the doctor and we recognised each other instantly. He was one of my father’s colleagues. ‘My name is Maria Falus’, I said quickly.
He shut the door and both the nurse and he were silent. I knew what went through his mind. Could he risk not reporting me to the police? Would the nurse
give him away, or blackmail him later? I saw them exchange a long glance, while I held my breath in terror.
Then a nod signalled agreement between them. My luck had held. They were not going to give me away. He took my hand ostensibly to feel my pulse, but I knew he wanted to reassure me and to wish me well. I relaxed and smiled gratefully as I took my prescription from him. He too was to give me strength in the dark days to come, when I recalled his kindness and courage.
But Naomi became scared and abandoned her job to return home. Now Hungary was occupied life became difficult for all Jews. Her sister noted that she was the one who made the yellow stars all Jews were forced to wear and stitched them onto their clothes. ‘It had to be a certain kind of yellow, described as canary yellow. Ex-school friends made remarks on the street on meeting us with our yellow star. Life was becoming more and more unpleasant.’
Their father was taken away to provide medical service and the women were sent to the Ghetto in Hajdudorog. Their father and the only boy Imre ended up in Mauthausen camp, but, miraculously, the family of five all
the Holocaust and in 1951 were all together again safely in Israel, although Naomi had married in 1948. She now lives in North London. None of this would have happened if the registrar’s clerk, János Tóth, and the doctor had not protected Naomi in war-torn Hungary out of loyalty to her father. As Mr and Mrs Bela Grunfeld declared, János Tóth continued to be a true friend of the Jews:
We have known János Tóth since his youth; he was well known in our township for his liberal attitude. In the 1940s he was a civil servant working for the district council. During that time, which corresponded with the years of persecution of Jews, all his actions were directed at supporting and assisting the victims of fascism. During those difficult times, he was the only source of news for us, especially
He later proved to be a real hero by personally saving a Jew from being thrown off a train by a group of Hungarian soldiers:
In this regard we can attest to the following: On a particular day in the summer of 1944, my brother-in-law/brother Arnold Weinstock was returning by train from Debrecen to Hajdudorog. A number of soldiers in the carriage started screaming at him, ‘Don’t you know, you stinking Jew, that you are not allowed to travel’, they then grabbed him and wanted to throw him off the speeding train. Mr Tóth, having
these events, stood across the door and managed to calm the raving soldiers
somewhat – it was due to his decisive intervention that my brother(-in-law) was not thrown from the train. This incident was related to us by my brother/brother-in-law. He subsequently perished in a concentration camp.
János Tóth himself added to the tale by describing the situation after this
and, incidentally, showing how spontaneous his actions had been:
Following the events described, a man, a civilian, screamed at me in outrage from the far corner of the carriage: ‘Your Lordship will pay for this!’ I recognised the man as György Molnár, innkeeper, and one of the leaders of the local Arrow Cross [Hungarian Nazi Party]. It was only then that I realised that my action was likely to have dangerous consequences.
János Tóth managed to get protection by asking the local medical officer, Dr Imre Olah, who was responsible for the health control of local inns, to help:
When the innkeeper returned home, he found the doctor at his premises, for the purpose of an official health inspection. The doctor informed Molnár, that if he discussed the events on the train with anyone, or if any harm were to befall my person, the inn will be closed down on health grounds. I was very much afraid, that Molnár would talk of my act to the Nazis and soldiers who regularly drank at his inn, which would undoubtedly have resulted in me and my family being deported.
Tóth was really frightened and he was right to be scared. He was attacked twice. Once, in late October 1944, when he was passing another inn owned by József Révész, someone shouted: ‘There goes János Tóth, the hireling of the Jews!’ and six Arrow Cross thugs, including Molnár, came out and chased him. He ran but fired four shots with his pistol and wounded Molnár, so he got away. After the war, the Arrow Cross members formed a number of right-wing political parties and infiltrated the Independent Smallholders Party. At 10 p.m. on 6 March 1946, eighteen months after the liberation of his hometown, ‘a band of 20 members of the Youth Movement of the Independent Smallholders Party attacked me with clubs in the presence of my wife. With the last of my strength, collapsed on the floor, I was able to shoot off my last two bullets. The sound of the shots caused my attackers to flee.’
At the end of his declaration, Tóth wrote: ‘After liberation, in my function as district notary, I was able to help returning Jews to trace and restore their property.’ He was recognised as a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in 1999.
Karl (Charles) Petras (1896–1952)
. I have included the rescue of Hilde Holger (1905–2001) here because it was very difficult to establish exactly what the motive was for her rescue. Loyalty and friendship seem the most plausible. She was a famous dancer who lived in Camden Town for many decades, still teaching pupils into her late nineties. She was one of the first people to contact me when I advertised in the
magazine for people to come forward with their stories. She wrote to me originally in August 2000, when she was 95, to tell me about Karl Petras, an Austrian journalist who saved her life by providing her with a visa for India in 1939. She wrote: ‘Karl Petrascu sent me a visa from India to escape Hitler’s Concentration Camps. He was a Journalist. Unfortunately my whole family was gassed – the war broke out, the frontiers were closed. I can’t be enough grateful [for] what he did for me.’
Unfortunately Hilde died before I could get to meet her in London. However, I have recently made contact with her daughter, who is wrestling with her
enormous archive in the house where Hilde lived and taught since the 1950s.
Hilde was born in 1905 as Hilde Sofer into an Austrian Jewish family in Vienna. Her great-grandparents had shared a house with Johann Strauss:
Holger’s youth coincided with a cultural flowering in the Austrian capital – the era of the composers Alban Berg and Arnold Schoenberg, the painters Oskar Kokoschka, Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, the writer Stephan Zweig and the poet Hugo von Hofmannsthal. In her work she was to pay tribute to the spirit of those times.
She started to dance as a child of 6 and aged 14 she became a student of the
and pioneering dance teacher and choreographer Gertrud Bodenwieser, with whose dance group she toured Europe in the 1920s. In 1926 she started her own group, the Hilde Holger Tanzgruppe (
see plate 35
). She also worked as a model for many photographers such as Martin Imboden and Anton Josef Trcka (known as Antios), the painters Felix Albrecht Harta and Benedikt F. Doblin, and was the model for Joseph Heu’s famous 1926 sculpture.
The Nazis were schizophrenic about her type of expressionist free dancing which they appropriated for use in the 1936 Berlin Olympics whilst at the same time condemning it as ‘degenerate’. She realised difficulties lay ahead when her school was closed by the Nazis, but she and her pupils were desperate to continue expressing themselves through dancing. She wrote how her great friend Felix Harta, who lived and worked in a large warehouse, allowed them to use his studio for dance classes and secret performances. This was a risk because the Gestapo were watching and they had to leave in very small groups to avoid arousing
. ‘These classes, in spite of the dreadful pressure and fears, were of great comfort to us all as we danced and freed ourselves for some hours, from all the
horror inflicted on us.’ She subsequently heard from some of these students who survived the Holocaust how important these lessons had been to them at that difficult time.