Magazine article The Christian Century

Sharing a Legacy of Rescue

Magazine article The Christian Century

Sharing a Legacy of Rescue

Article excerpt

MY FATHER MET Zoltan Kubinyi, the man who saved his life and then lost his own, in the spring of 1944. Like other Hungarian Jewish men of military age during the Holocaust, my father was taken in 1940 to a forced-labor battalion, part of the Naziallied Hungarian army. It would be five years before he returned home to Tokaj--the sole survivor in his family. In that same spring of '44, his brother, two sisters and all their children, along with the majority of Hungarian Jews, were deported to Auschwitz, where, in the euphemism of survivors, "they remained."

Zoltan Kubinyi was in his early 40s when he was my father's commanding officer. He was a Seventh-day Adventist. He had fought against the fascists in the Spanish Civil War, and now was a conscientious objector. My father remembers that he never wore a gun in his holster.

The labor battalion was composed of Jewish men from northeast Hungary. That spring they were situated in Russia's Bryanszk Forest, which was occupied by the German forces for whom they worked. My father told me what happened there:

"By the time Zoltan Kubinyi came to us, many men, especially the older ones, had died from malnutrition and the harsh conditions. In the forest, some of the men had made contact with the partisans, who said, `Listen, why don't you just overpower your guards, steal their rifles and join us?' A heated discussion ensued among the men in the labor camp and people took various sides. I was opposed to the idea. I and a few others pleaded with the rest to stay and not endanger us. I said, 'Here are these men, these guards. They haven't done anything bad; they're just here on duty. The other thing is, look, there are a number of people here who are in poor health. Some are malnourished or sickly or not walking very well. They wouldn't be able to keep up with us healthy ones. Aren't we endangering their lives inordinately by taking them out of this difficult but orderly place and running into the forest?

"So, there was no general uprising. But a few days later, a couple of men who were driving the wagons went to town to get supplies and never returned. The commanding officer said, 'The results of this are not going to be pretty. I'm going to headquarters and asking for authorization for decimation.' That meant they would line us up and shoot every tenth man. After the commanding officer left, we were kept inside the compound, not allowed to work out in the forest. All day we waited anxiously, not knowing who among us would be killed when the commander returned.

"Well, on the officer's way to Gomel, where the headquarters of the German command was located, his horse bolted in fright when a truck approached, running the wagon into the ditch. The officer was thrown out and broke his leg. Another commanding officer was sent out to replace him and came later that day in the same wagon. The driver, one of the Jewish men, explained the situation to him. As soon as the officer arrived, he called us together and said, 'I have heard what has happened here. I can certainly understand people's motivation for trying to escape. But you have to understand that I cannot shield you from the consequences of attempting to do so. If you will all stop trying to escape, I will try to protect you.' Everyone agreed to that, and from that first day, things were better.

"Kubinyi was very different from all the commanding officers we had before him. The rest had been cruel and treated us horribly. Under Kubinyi we still worked long, hard days with little food. But he was kind and respectful to us. He protected us against the German orders for abusive physical labor by negotiating on our be half. He always saw to it that we had humane lodging and enough food.

"He also took an interest in our religious practices. On Yom Kippur we worked like every other day, and of course we all fasted. He came out to the fields and fasted with us and allowed us to pray during breaks. …

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