The Kindness of Strangers: Today's Refugees in Hungary and My Family During WWII
Why the lines of donated shoes at a train station in Budapest carry the opposite meaning of the line of bronzed shoes that now sit along the Danube
By Dr. Zoltán Grossman / commondreams.org

A collection of shoes, donated by Hungarians for the Syrian and other war refugees, and sorted by Hungarian and foreign human rights workers at a train station in Budapest. (Photo: Zoltan Grossman/via Facebook)

Hungary is becoming the Arizona of Europe. It is the main country where war refugees and other immigrants first set foot in the North—in this case the contiguous states of the European Union. Just like in the American Southwest, immigrants are dying in sweltering trucks, officials are erecting border walls and detention camps, and far-right hate groups are targeting the immigrants as a threat to national identity.

Yet also like in the Southwest, many individual Hungarian citizens have stepped forward, providing water, food, medical aid, and encouragement to the Syrian, Iraqi, Afghan, and other refugees who are fleeing repression and war. Despite their right-wing government’s opposition to immigration (at least by brown, Muslim immigrants), some Hungarians understand that any refugees who are returned home face violence or even death. A few even compare the Syrians to the refugees who fled across the Austrian border after their own failed 1956 revolution.

Just ask László Sipos, who was a child refugee in 1956 and raised in New Jersey. He has spent the past month at the Keleti (Eastern) train station in Budapest, the scene of dramatic confrontations between Hungarian police and war refugees. He has been among the hundreds of volunteers who have set up a small refugee camp next to the station, and provided needed supplies for refugees’ westward journey to asylum. As the refugees at the station encounter police checking their IDs, and turning or pushing them and their kids away from the westbound trains, they have also encountered the kindness of strangers.

When visiting the station last week, I saw volunteers from local and international human rights groups sorting donated clothes, shoes, and food, providing phone charging and wi-fi, and escorting refugees to and from trains. Volunteers arrived in cars stuffed with schoolkids’ gift bags, some with Disney princesses on them. Homeless communities, taxi drivers, and Roma (Gypsies) have been active in the solidarity work. A sign at the station read, “All we have here is given out of love from the Hungarian people—not its government.”

On September 12, as part of the European Day of Action for Refugees, hundreds gathered at Keleti station to listen to speeches and music by Hungarian citizens, the city’s small existing immigrant communities, and recent refugees. They held signs saying “Refugees Welcome,” “No One is Illegal,” “Not in My Name,” “We Are All Human,” and “Jesus was a Migrant.” A Jewish youth organization afterwards hosted a fundraiser for the Muslim refugees at the nearby Auróra community center.

This pro-refugee solidarity has gone largely unreported in the western media, which focuses entirely on the intransigence of the Hungarian government. Now the government has implemented a state of emergency along the Serbian border, enforced with razor wire and tear gas, along with a new law criminalizing both border-crossers and Hungarian citizens who offer them aid. Veronika Kozma, a co-founder of the MigSzol Csoport (Migrant Solidarity Group of Hungary), reiterated that “many, many Hungarians do not agree with the government's actions and policies, which violate the rights of both refugees and citizens.”

The refugee influx struck a strong emotional chord with me, as a Hungarian-American visiting my parents’ homeland. I had arrived in Hungary on August 25 with my wife Debi, to visit my late Catholic mother’s relatives, and retrace the stories of my Jewish father who had survived the genocide of World War II. I found to my amazement that the building where my refugee father (as a six-year-old boy) and his parents were interned near the end of war, was only a block away from the Keleti train station where the current refugee drama is unfolding.

shoes.jpg

On the embankment of the Danube River a line of bronzed shoes memorializes the New Year’s Eve massacre that took place on January 1, 1945. (Photo: Zoltan Grossman/via Facebook)

I visited Poltár, a town across the border in Slovakia where my father was born on May 31, 1938. He was actually a U.S. citizen, because his father had been born in New York (his mother was a Hungarian citizen). When the Germans set up a fascist puppet state later in 1938, my grandfather was enslaved with other Jews in a local labor camp. He wrote the U.S. State Department asking for a new passport, but an official letter replied that he would have to travel to the U.S. Embassy to acquire it, at a time when Jews were no longer permitted to travel – a bureaucratic “Catch 22.” 

When my grandfather escaped the labor camp, my family fled across the border into Hungary, where they stayed with relatives in Mezőtúr. My family kept my father out of sight until he learned fluent Hungarian, because if he spoke with a Slovak accent they would be reported to police as refugees. Their situation became desperate in March 1944, when Hitler invaded Hungary to replace its pro-Mussolini regime with rule by the Nyilas (Arrow Cross) Nazis.

Most of my family members were deported to Auschwitz, but my grandparents and father were instead treated as enemy nationals. They were moved to a Budapest internment camp, which the Allied Air Force hit in its July 1944 carpet-bombing of the city. A man pulled my family out of the rubble; my father still has shrapnel marks on his back from that attack.

The survivors of the bombing were moved to a former school for the deaf and mute on Festetics Street, in what is today the Frigyes Schulek School. The building, located one block from Keleti station, today looks exactly like it did in prewar photographs.

It was from that school that my grandfather was taken by German-speaking troops in the early morning hours of January 1, 1945, as Soviet forces were closing in on Budapest. The troops had planned to kill all the Jews, but a German Wehrmacht (Army) officer passing by the school ordered them—with little authority—to spare the women and children.

My grandfather and many other Jews were marched to the Danube, and executed by the icy river. Many were ordered to remove their shoes before being shot. On the river embankment today, a line of bronzed shoes memorializes this New Year’s Eve massacre.

After the massacre, my father and grandmother were moved into the Jewish Ghetto, west of the train station, where Jews were living in crowded, squalid conditions awaiting starvation or deportation. After about a week, my grandmother escaped the Ghetto with her son, by pretending to be the widow of a corpse being taken to a mass grave. They ducked into a hospital, and were hidden in the basement by a sympathetic doctor. A woman from the underground resistance later brought them false identity papers that enabled them to rejoin their relatives.

My father and grandmother had survived only because strangers had helped them at critical moments: the man who pulled them from the rubble, the doctor who hid them, the woman from the underground who gave them papers, and even the German officer who intervened to save them. None of them knew my family, but I never would have been born without them.

My father’s stories of these events have echoed loudly these past few weeks, even though Europe’s treatment of Jews in 1944 and Muslim refugees in 2015 are hardly comparable in their scale of brutality. I remember his stories because they resemble the stories of the Muslim refugees who are now seeking shelter from extreme violence in their countries, with little support from western bureaucracies.

I hope that when the refugees who have fled the horrors of Syria, Iraq, or Afghanistan share their stories with their kids and grandkids, that they mention the Hungarians who defied their own government to offer a helping hand in a time of need. The lines of donated shoes at Keleti station carry the opposite meaning of the line of bronzed shoes by the Danube. Whether in the 20th or 21st centuries, surviving war and repression is only made possible through the kindness of strangers.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License

Dr. Zoltán Grossman is a Professor of Geography and Native Studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. He is a longtime community organizer, and was a co-founder of the Midwest Treaty Network in Wisconsin. He is currently working on a book about rural Native/white alliances for the University of Washington Press. He was co-editor of Asserting Native Resilience: Pacific Rim Indigenous Nations Face the Climate Crisis (Oregon State University Press, 2012). See more of his work on his website here.

0.0 ·
0
What's Next
Trending Today
How a Trump Presidency Would Unleash a Torrent of Racist Violence-And Devastate the Left
Arun Gupta · 12,661 views today · The Left should take the Trump threat very seriously.
Who Are You? Watching This Breathtaking Video Could Be the Moment You Change Your Life
2 min · 10,584 views today · "Normal is getting dressed in clothes that you buy for work, driving through traffic in a car that you are still paying for, in order to get to a job that you need so you can...
Welcome to Marinaleda: The Spanish Anti-Capitalist Town With Equal Wage Full Employment and $19 Housing
Jade Small · 10,537 views today · With virtually no police, crime or unemployment, meet the Spanish town described as a democratic, socialist utopia. Unemployment is non-existent in Marinaleda, an Andalusian...
When You Kill Ten Million Africans You Aren't Called 'Hitler'
Liam O'Ceallaigh · 9,366 views today · Take a look at this picture. Do you know who it is? Most people haven’t heard of him. But you should have. When you see his face or hear his name you should get as sick in...
Maya Angelou's 3-Word Secret to Living Your Best Life
3 min · 5,961 views today · Dr. Maya Angelou says that in order to be the best human being you can be, you must follow one simple directive: "Just do right." Watch as Dr. Angelou reveals how you can never...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 5,895 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
Forest Man
16 min · 5,742 views today · Since the 1970's Majuli islander Jadav Payeng has been planting trees in order to save his island. To date he has single handedly planted a forest larger than Central Park NYC...
11 Traits of People With High Emotional Intelligence
Raven Fon · 5,370 views today · Lately, new ways to describe human interactions, social behaviours, and many facets of psychology have emerged on the social network scene. One of those descriptions is “high...
How to Criticize with Kindness: Philosopher Daniel Dennett on the Four Steps to Arguing Intelligently
Maria Popova · 4,467 views today · “Just how charitable are you supposed to be when criticizing the views of an opponent?”
What Makes Call-Out Culture So Toxic
Asam Ahmad · 4,449 views today · Call-out culture refers to the tendency among progressives, radicals, activists, and community organizers to publicly name instances or patterns of oppressive behaviour and...
Doctors Response to Daily Mail Bigotry is Beautiful
Neil Tiwari · 3,537 views today · A poetic open letter to the Daily Mail newspaper from Dr. Neil Tiwari, in response to a bigoted attack on his colleagues, is going viral and it's beautiful.
Alan Watts: What If Money Was No Object?
3 min · 3,428 views today · How do you like to spend your life? What do you desire? What if money didn't matter? What if money was no object? What would you like to do if money were no object? Spoken...
Real Change in Democracy Comes Not in the Voting Booth but Activism at the Grass-Roots
Ilze Peterson · 2,826 views today · Many years ago, the late Judy Guay, a low-income woman from Bangor, founded the Maine Association of Interdependent Neighborhoods in order to advocate for the neediest in our...
Fighting Trump - Residents Opposing Donald Trump's Scottish Golf Resort
14 min · 2,759 views today · Documentary on the residents protesting against Donald Trump's golf development on the Menie Estate in Aberdeenshire, Scotland. Directed and Presented by James Trosh.
10 Shocking Facts About Society That We Absurdly Accept As Normal
Joe Martino · 2,745 views today · When you take a moment and look around at the world, things can appear pretty messed up. Take 5 or 10 minutes and watch the 6 o’clock news. Chances are, the entire time, all...
What It Really Means to Hold Space for Someone
Heather Plett · 2,448 views today · How to be there for the people who need you most
Superblocks: How Barcelona Is Taking City Streets Back From Cars
5 min · 2,351 views today · Modern cities are designed for cars. But the city of Barcelona is testing out an urban design trick that can give cities back to pedestrians.
Capitalism Is Just a Story - Rise Up and Create a New One
6 min · 1,952 views today · How many of us have a sneaking suspicion that something pretty fundamental is going wrong in the world? We keep hearing about the potentially devastating consequences of...
Do You Have Time to Love?
Thich Nhat Hanh · 1,866 views today · The greatest gift you can offer loved ones is your true presence.
Ten Ways We Misunderstand Children
Jan Hunt · 1,659 views today · 1. We expect children to be able to do things before they are ready. We ask an infant to keep quiet. We ask a 2-year-old to sit still. We ask a 3-year-old to clean his room...
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
The Kindness of Strangers: Today's Refugees in Hungary and My Family During WWII