FROM THE PUBLISHER >>My father: A witness to 20th Century
Our mother was with our father, who’d been transported to the hospital an hour earlier by ambulance, but she couldn’t convey the news to either one of her sons, so the doctor called Steve, who called me, and we called the rest of our families with the shocking news.
Ferenc Feldman had been in failing health for years, but he’d survived one crisis after another, all the way back to his youth in rural Hungary, where the Nazis had rounded up his family and killed them in Auschwitz. But they couldn’t kill my father, and later he took his young family out of communist Hungary as the Soviet army reoccupied the country.
He rebuilt his life in America, which is why it was shocking that his body finally gave out decades after fascist brutes couldn’t crush him.
We mourned for a week in our parents’ apartment and said Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, which is not about death, but a reaffirmation of life and religious faith that kept my father alive in Nazi death camps and communist jail cells.
The World War II generation is passing quickly, and those who survive are well into their 80s and 90s. My father’s cousin, Rudy, a veteran of the Battle of the Bulge, is 92, and his brother, Sidney, a veteran of the Pacific theater, died a couple of years ago at the age of 85.
They were born in America after their fathers (my grandfather’s brothers) left Hungary around the First World War, but for those who stayed behind in Europe, there was death and destruction.
My brother made these notes after our father passed away as we sat shiva:
“It is hard to imagine a more unlikely place for great world events to unfold than the Nyirseg (birch tree) region of eastern Hungary. It is a sleepy backwater even today, and it was even more removed from the wider world when our father was born there in the summer of 1922. You would have thought that this out-of-the-way corner of the globe would have shielded its inhabitants from the world’s miseries, yet our father suffered twice from the 20th century’s ugliest and most brutal political movements—Nazism and communism.
“In 1943, when he was just 21, our father and his cousin Imre, together with all able-bodied young Jewish men in Hungary, were impressed into labor battalions attached to the Hungarian army. Hungary was an ally of Nazi Germany. Conditions varied depending on the whims of battalion commanders, but as the Second World War progressed, and as the Russian army moved closer and closer to Hungary, the forced laborers’ situation deteriorated. Our father’s battalion was dispatched to a mountainous region of the Ukraine to dig ditches. The battalion had to spend a night on the freezing mountainside; the young men huddled together, not knowing which of them would awaken in the morning.
“As the Russians moved even closer from the east, the labor battalions were moved farther west. By the bitterly cold winter of 1945, our father’s group was put on forced march from western Hungary to central Austria. Those who fell by the icy roadside were shot by the Germans. By late April, our father’s group had reached the infamous Mauthausen concentration camp. He, his cousin and the other prisoners (including, as chance would have it, my future father-in-law) were liberated on May 5th at the nearby sub-camp of Gunskirchen. Our father and his cousin were the only members of their extended family in Europe to survive the Holocaust.
“Despite that bloody history, our father decided to return home. He soon met a young Jewish woman, also a survivor who had lost her entire family. They married in 1947; my brother was born the next summer and I was born in early 1954.
“In Hungary in the late 1940s and early 1950s, our parents had to live under a second delusional, totalitarian political system: communism. Faced with the anti-religious ideology of communism, our parents had to practice their Judaism quietly. Many others abandoned their faith entirely, with many not even telling their children they were Jewish.
“By October 1956 Hungarians could no longer stand the repressive communist regime and mounted a major uprising. Statues of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin were toppled, and Russian tanks withdrew from the country — only to return in a few days. Our parents became frightened and packed what they could and with a handful of other families hired a guide to lead them across the border to Austria. It was December 21, 1956, and the group had to trudge through heavy snow; my father carried me on his back.
“After more than four years in various refugee camps, we came to America. We settled in Chicago, where our father had two uncles and an aunt who had left Europe before the Second World War. Here, our parents were at last free from religious persecution. They raised their two sons and worked at various jobs until they were able to start their own business caring for elderly people—an ordinary immigrant story until you recall what our parents had to survive just to get here.
“On the day before he died, our father was in his favorite place, after his home, at Sabbath services in his synagogue. During his lifetime, he had seen many of the great events of the 20th century: the destruction of Europe’s Jews, communist repression and the Jewish national rebirth represented by the vibrant and flourishing State of Israel. Among the last words he heard in the synagogue were from the Book of Isaiah, perhaps the most magisterial book in the Hebrew Bible: “For God will comfort Zion, he will comfort all her ruins. He will make her wilderness like Eden and her desert like God’s garden. Joy and gladness will be found there, thanksgiving and the sound of music.” (Isaiah 51:3)
It is said that tears clean the souls of the dead as they pass to another life. That’s where Ferenc Feldman is resting now. May his memory be a blessing.