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Accidental hero: Human kindness in the midst of Holocaust horror

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.

“The men had been locked up by their previous commanding officer, who headed off to headquarters to get the final authorization for decimation,” she said. “He was traveling in a horse-drawn carriage, and a car came along and spooked the horse and the commanding officer ended up in a ditch with a broken leg. They sent a new officer to take the place of the injured officer, and the request for authorization was never submitted.”

Divine intervention? Marta doesn't doubt it.

'He saved our lives'

The new officer was Kubinyi, who not only was not interested in pursuing the decimation authorization, but who refused to march the men to a Nazi concentration camp when the order came. Instead, he marched them into Hungary, where he hid the men for months in various farmhouses, doing work on the farms in exchange for food.

“At one point someone reported this large group of men working in the fields,” Marta said. “The military police suddenly appeared. So that night he hosted the police officers and got them nice and drunk, and when they were soundly sleeping he woke up the men in the middle of the night and they escaped.”

When the Russian Army finally arrived to liberate the work-camp prisoners, Marta said the Hungarian guards removed their uniforms so they would not be taken as prisoners of war.

“My father pleaded with Kubinyi to do so but he refused,” she said. “He said, ‘I have done nothing wrong.’ The prisoners pleaded with the Russians not to take him. ‘This is a good man,’ they told them. ‘He saved our lives.’”

Unmoved, the Russian soldiers took Kubinyi into custody as a prisoner of war. He was shipped to a Siberian labor camp, where just a year later he died of typhus and was buried in an unmarked grave.

Neither Marta nor Morton could let Kubinyi’s story end there. Through their efforts he was posthumously given the designation of Righteous Among the Nations, and a wall bears his name in the Garden of the Righteous at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Israel’s official memorial to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

In 2011 Marta and Henry took their children to meet Kubinyi’s son and his family in Hungary.

“I really wanted my children to meet him, and to be able to thank him personally for his father’s goodness and courage,” Marta said. “I believe that knowing your history is knowing who you are. It gives you a sense of direction and continuity. We are all shaped by that.

“Beyond that,” she continued, “this story of courage inspires me and my children to remember that one person can make a huge difference in life. We can see people like Kubinyi as models for how to be.”

A Focal Point for Remembrance

And evidently that example is not lost on the next generation of Morton’s descendents.

“I can’t help but think a lot about Zoltán Kubinyi,” said Marta’s daughter Sophie. “I’ve only known this man through stories and already he feels like part of the family. I can’t help but think if this man hadn’t had an ounce of compassion in his heart, my Grandpa would never have been in my life. My mom wouldn’t be here; she wouldn’t have had my brother and me. I wouldn’t be in this world.

“It is amazing to think about one single person making a different in so many lives.”

Marta has also written about the story in “Legacy of Rescue: A Daughter’s Tribute,” a book that can be ordered through her website.

“A lot of times people ask me how I could write such an uplifting Holocaust book,” she said. “I answer, ‘How could I not?’ I’m filled with gratitude for my parents’ love and protection; for giving me a sense of family connection and continuity by telling me about life and people before; for recounting the sorrowful details of their Holocaust past while also honoring the individuals who showed them human kindness in those abandoned days.”

And remembering that “Holocaust past,” both the horrific and the good, is precisely the point of Yom Hashoah, established in Israel in 1953 by Prime Minister of Israel David Ben-Gurion and the president of Israel, Yitzhak Ben-Zvi. One of the most noteworthy features of Yom HaShoah in Israel is the sounding of sirens at 10 a.m. All over the country, people stop whatever they are doing — even if they are driving on the highway — and stand at attention as a way of paying silent tribute to the dead.

“Yom HaShoah is a vital day in the Jewish calendar, providing us with a focal point for our remembrance,” said Jonathan Sacks, chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations in Great Britain. “We cannot bring the dead back to life, but we can bring their memory back to life and ensure they are not forgotten. We can undertake in our lives to do what they were so cruelly prevented from doing in theirs.”