On 19 March 1944 Hungary was occupied by the Germans. Within weeks half a million Jews were concentrated in ghettos and within two months 440,000 were deported and mostly gassed at Auschwitz. My father was a child from a small town near Debrecen and on the holiday of Shavuot, May 1944, the Debrecen ghetto was liquidated. With his parents, two older sisters and a little brother he was forced into a cattle car presumably to Auschwitz.
The transport sat for several days in great heat without provisions and when it started moving again, changed direction. The people in the cattle car went into slave labor, and the conditions were brutal but the transport survived, even the children. My grandfather laid tefilin every weekday of the deportation at risk of death. When the family was liberated they listened to the stories of survivors with tattooed numbers on their arms and thought they had gone mad. They may have, but the stories were true.
Two of my father’s brothers were murdered: one was living with an aunt and taken to Auschwitz and the other was posing as a French diplomat in Budapest but was discovered. Another brother was protected in Moshe Kraus and Carl Lutz's Glass House in Budapest. After the War, the surviving family returned to Hungary and lived under Stalinist communism for a decade until the 1956 Hungarian revolution when they escaped to Vienna and obtained visas to Australia. There they prospered
I always believed that my father had chosen not to apply for reparations when they were offered to Holocaust survivors after the War. Dirty money, I assumed, although I never asked him about it directly. Everything the Germans produced was tainted by the same pollution that allowed them to perpetrate what they did. So, I thought, my father didn’t want the fruits of their labor, even if it would make his present life easier.
There were other possible explanations as well. Perhaps my father didn’t want to derive any benefit whatsoever from his suffering. The payment of reparations somehow implies that money can assuage the awfulness of the experience, and this would be a desecration of that experience.
Perhaps my father also wanted to put a clear boundary around the war experience, to make it end in 1945, not linger throughout his life. A monthly check from Germany and yearly visits to the German consulate would disturb the burial ground of memory.
The author with her father.
Over the years, my mind wove these understandings deep into my consciousness and they became part of the way I absorbed my father’s attitude towards the War.
It was a shock, then, when my father told me recently that he was applying for reparations under a new program. All the recent lawsuits against companies and governments have generated new funds and survivors have been invited to apply for reparations again.
“Why should they have the money?!” my father demanded, and my mind whirled in a complete turnabout. Far from being of the school which considered any contact with the Germans anathema, I now understood my father to be saying “Let them pay!”
“Then why didn’t you claim reparations the first time?” I asked.
“Not enough documentation,” he replied.
I reeled. What were you meant to document? Did they stamp your passport when you entered each concentration camp, or when you survived a death march? Different levels of compensation were being offered, apparently, and each required a different type of evidence. Wealthy people, who could show they owned mansions and businesses, were paid the most. If you were impoverished because you lived in a primitive town in Hungary and had been suffering an economic pogrom for fifteen years, maybe you could claim the value of your jewelry. My uncle remembers a huge mat spread out in the Debrecen ghetto into which everyone had to throw their valuables. My family could try to claim whatever they threw into that pile, but it’s hardly verifiable. Under this compensation system, it doesn’t count that the child survivors lost more than the adults in that they lost the possibility to look at the world without seeing its evil. Since they owned no property beforehand, they get nothing back.
The monetization of trauma makes money the gauge of evil.
Of course, in the end, the German industrialist and Polish schnorror lost their souls equally in Auschwitz. Child survivors like my father, and others who had no monetary loss, could claim reparations under the category of physical and emotional injury, if they visited the right psychiatrist and made their annual visit to the Consulate.
But the monetization of trauma, making this kind of madness worth thus much, and that kind of property thus much, makes money the gauge of evil. The Germans and their accomplices should pay for their successive degradation of our humanity, for the yellow star and curfews, for rounding us up like cattle. For stripping us naked in front of our neighbors and for forcing us to eat our own proteins. For destroying the illusion that no one can take from you those things you feel and think and believe. They taught us that there is no such thing as core humanity, neither in the perpetrator nor in the victim, and that both your body and mind belong to your torturer.
But the problem is that none of these losses can be represented in any way by money, hence the tension in accepting reparations. In some way, my father’s explanation of: “Why should they keep the money?” is a kind of revenge. Not that the Germans repair in any way what they did by making payments, but that they should hurt a little, too, on account of their barbarity. And in the end reparations are a mean and cruel salve, valuable perhaps because we are forced to write up our stories and sift the memories out of the morass.
As I write about these things, I think of the life I live now, of freedom and choice and frustrations, petty office strife and being able to order in kosher meals at work. This is the life that they survived for, and the burden is heavy sometimes, because it is not so glorious that they should have suffered such indecencies so that we should live.
But I am vain: they survived not for us, because they lived and were not killed.