Making Amends: A mysterious request leads the Canadian-raised son of a Holocaust survivor back to the old country.

by Robert Eli Rubenstein, author of An Italian Renaissance An Italian Renaissance

“There’s someone here to see you.”

“Who is it?”

“Her name is Magda Zelenka,” replied my receptionist. “She says she has something important to discuss with you, but she doesn’t have an appointment.”

It took me a moment to recall Magda. Decades earlier, my late father Bill had hired her and her husband Ferenc as superintendents of an apartment building in the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke. Despite his own shattered life back in Hungary, my father was remarkably free of vindictiveness, hiring Germans, Austrians, Ukrainians, Croats—even Hungarians—as long as they were the best qualified candidates for a job.

The Zelenkas proved excellent employees: hard-working, courteous, beloved by tenants. After long years of service, Ferenc suffered a series of heart attacks followed by a fatal stroke. Although Magda hoped to continue managing the building on her own, the challenge had proved overwhelming. She was no youngster, and hardly in the best of health herself. Nor, in spite of her lengthy residence in Canada, had she ever really mastered the English language, which made it difficult for her to communicate. With deep regret, she submitted her resignation, asking only that she be allowed to rent an apartment in one of our buildings.

By then, my father had retired and I had come into the business. I agreed to her request without hesitation, assuming she would wish to remain in her old neighborhood among other expatriate Hungarians. To my surprise, she specifically asked for a building with a large number of Jewish residents, in a predominantly Jewish area.

And now, years later, here she was. Intrigued, I ushered her into my office and in the seldom-used language of my childhood asked after her health: “Hogy tetszik lenni?” Her eyes lit up as, in her habitually formal style of address, she prepared to answer.

“I am not doing very well, sorry to say. I just came home from a long stay at the Jewish hospital”—she meant Mount Sinai, in downtown Toronto—“where I had difficult surgery. I am only here today because the excellent Jewish doctors saved my life. I have always known that your people are not only talented and successful, but also kind-hearted. That is why I am here to see you.”

Your people—the compliment made me uncomfortable in a way she surely didn’t intend. I wondered whether I was overreacting.

“I don’t really know you, Mr. Rubinstein, but I was privileged to know your late father, and I am sure you take after him. Your dad was a wonderful person, an old-fashioned gentleman. We never had the feeling he was the big boss and we were just his lowly workers. And we also felt a special connection to him because he was a fellow Magyar.” 

That was jarring. My father had seen himself as a Jew, born in Hungary, who lived the first part of his life as a loyal and productive citizen only to have his Magyar countrymen reject him as an enemy alien, treat him execrably, and render it impossible for him to remain in his homeland.

“Magda, I appreciate your saying such lovely things about my father, but what can I do for you?”

“Oh, please forgive me, Mr. Rubinstein! You’re a busy man, so let me get to the point. Even though I moved here from Hungary long ago, I still own two houses in my hometown of Mezőkövesd, in the Matyó region in the northeastern part of the country. . . .”

“Mezőkövesd!” I exclaimed. “I know that place. My maternal grandmother’s family, the Hofstedters, lived there, and so did the Kleins, my aunt Vera’s family. My father’s family lived just down the road in Szentistván, and my mother grew up nearby in the small town of Mezőcsát.

“That’s interesting,” Magda replied. “I had no idea where your family was from. Your father never talked about the past. Well, it seems we have even more in common than I imagined.”

More in common? Dark thoughts again raced through my mind. By early 1944, the able-bodied Jewish men of the district, including my father, had been shipped off to forced-labor camps by the anti-Semitic regime of Miklós Horthy. In April a mere handful of Germans, abetted by a great many ardent Hungarian accomplices, rounded up the remaining Jews and forced them into a vile, cramped ghetto in Mezőkövesd. Soon the elderly, the women, and the children, among them my father’s wife and two small sons, would be jammed into freight trains bound for Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland. Scarcely any would survive the gas chambers.

My personal familiarity with Mezőkövesd was of more recent vintage. In 1972, I had traveled there to visit the grave of my paternal grandfather Mordekhai, who had had the good fortune to die of old age before the Germans arrived and as a consequence was the only member of the family to receive a proper Jewish burial. On my visit I was guided to the cemetery by Miska Eisler, the owner of a tiny watch-repair shop in town. As the last remaining Jew in Mezőkövesd, Miska had become by default the custodian of the community’s pitiful vestiges.

It occurred to me that I was ignoring my visitor.

“Sorry, Magda. You were saying that you still own two houses in Mezőkövesd.”

“Yes. My parents’ home where I grew up and the house next door that I inherited from my aunt Erzsi Néni. Well, then, how shall I put it? I want to give them to you.”

“Wait: you want to give them to me? Why? And why me rather than your relatives or friends?”

Magda sighed. “As you know, my dear husband is gone. A few years ago, our only son, Frank, died of heart failure. Even when he was alive, his wife never wanted anything to do with me. She’s a Canadian, and we couldn’t really communicate. Also, I think she was ashamed of her in-laws. After Frank’s death, she moved with the children to Barrie, an hour away. It hurts to say this, but they have completely closed me out of their lives. They don’t even call to wish me a Merry Christmas. I’m sorry to be bothering you, but I don’t know where else to turn. I am an old, sick woman, and I have no idea about business. But if nothing is done, the houses will end up going to the government after I die, and that would be a pity.”

“Magda, I’m touched, but to be honest I really don’t know about this. Does it make sense for me, living here in Canada, to own houses in Mezőkövesd? Besides, I must tell you I’d feel extremely uncomfortable receiving something to which I’m not entitled.”

“Oh, Mr. Rubinstein, forgive me! I’m not good at explaining things. I didn’t mean for you to keep the houses for yourself. What I’d like you to do is sell the houses and then give the money to your people in Hungary.”

Now I was really nonplussed. “But why the Jews, and why in Hungary? If you want to give away your money, shouldn’t you donate it to some charity dear to your heart, perhaps through your church?”

Magda shrugged. “I have no church, and I know nothing about giving away money. What I know is that you Jews are very charitable, especially when it comes to looking after your own. Please, I beg you to take care of this for me. I’m planning to travel to Hungary in two weeks, probably for the last time. When I’m home, I’ll go to the town hall and arrange the papers you’ll need.”

I still didn’t understand. But how could I refuse her? Guiding her out of the office, I wished her a safe trip.

My own journey to Hungary in the summer of 1972 was unforgettable. I had long felt an urge to travel to my parents’ birthplace, but whenever I raised the subject with them, they reacted with dismay. On leaving Hungary after the war, they had vowed never to return to that accursed land. Why would I want to go there? But this was precisely what drove me: I had to understand the place they came from, the place that had nurtured and formed them only to spew them out in the end. Finally they yielded to my resolve.

My primary destination was the one-time home of the Rubinstein family in the village of Szentistván, a short distance from Mezőkövesd. I arrived unannounced and certainly unexpected. Knowing that my father’s childhood chum, son of the family housekeeper, was still living in Szentistván, I asked the first villager I encountered where I might find Pista Varga.

“And who might be seeking him?”

“I am Béla Rubinstein’s son from Canada.”

In short order, Pista was hugging and kissing me. Surrounded by what felt like the entire village population, I was embraced by stout peasant women with brightly colored headscarves and gleaming gold teeth. Clearly, they did not get many visitors here, and certainly not the offspring of expatriates. While the attention was flattering, I was unnerved by the way the villagers chattered about their former neighbors:

“You know, it’s a shame the Jews are gone. They were good people, after all.” “Things just haven’t been the same without them. Everything’s old and broken.”

“Someone said they heard that the Germans treated the Jews very badly when they took them away, and that they even killed many of them.”

“Oh, that’s impossible! The Germans are civilized people.”

“You really don’t have to worry about the Jews. They always land on their feet.”

“Yes, I heard once that all the Jews emigrated to America and became millionaires.”

One of the women strained her weather-beaten face toward me. “Tell us, Béla’s son: is it true that all the Jews went to America?”

I was too choked up to answer.

Pista took me to see my father’s once-handsome home in the center of the village. Now totally dilapidated, it had been subdivided by the postwar Communist authorities into tiny cubicles to house the indigent elderly. The entrance hall served as the village post office. My father’s flourmill, once a mainstay of the local economy, had long since been nationalized in the name of the Hungarian proletariat. It was a gutted, abandoned shambles. The entire village looked frozen in time. Like countless other Szentistváns, I thought bitterly, it would have been in far better shape had its hard-working, resourceful, tirelessly patriotic Jewish residents been left in peace.

Only on returning from forced labor at the end of the war did my father learn that his wife and two sons had been shipped to their deaths in Poland. He never got over his feelings of guilt at not being there to help them when they so desperately needed him. But he had refused to allow his grief to incapacitate him. Turning his back on Hungary, he determined to build a new life in any country on the face of the earth that was prepared to take him in.

Canada, the first country to open the door, proved an excellent environment for the rehabilitation of traumatized survivors. Focusing on his new reality, my father acquired real-estate holdings far in excess of what he had left behind in Szentistván. He certainly never thought of reclaiming his former home and flourmill—not even when, upon the collapse of the Communist regime in the 1990s, the new Hungarian government announced its intention to offer at least symbolic restitution to former property owners. Bill Rubinstein adamantly spurned the offer: the physical traces of his dreadful past were gone forever, and the only buildings he cared about were in the unburdened-by-history haven of Canada.

Three months after Magda’s visit, a manila envelope landed on my desk. In it were two official title certificates from the Mezőkövesd land office. They described in detail two plots of land, each with a house on it; both properties were owned by Magdolna Mária Zelenka, née Lázár, born in 1937. A receipt for the issuance fee, in the amount of 12,500 Hungarian forint, was included in the envelope.

Now that there was no doubting Magda’s determination, I felt obligated to honor her wish. But how to go about it? We had no one left in Hungary to whom I could turn for assistance. On the Internet, I found contact information for the Budapest Jewish community and sent several emails explaining the situation and requesting guidance. When no one responded, I rationalized to myself that at least I’d tried. As time passed, and other items accumulated on top of the manila envelope, Magda Zelenka’s houses in Mezőkövesd receded from my thoughts.

Two-and-a-half years later, in June 2013, I received a letter laboriously hand-written in Hungarian. A Hungarian speaker on my staff translated it for me:

Dear Mr. Rubinstein,

I would like to request an appointment to meet with you in order to finalize our gifting agreement. Unfortunately, my health circumstances have changed for the worse, and I must move to a hospice where I can receive full life support. I am planning to vacate my apartment at the end of this month.

Please let me know when we can meet to close any remaining issues. After that, I can be at peace in my heart knowing that everything will be in the right position to follow my inheritance wishes.

Kindly contact my friend Katalin Takacs regarding the date and time of the meeting, as she will be helping me to attend.

 I wish all the best to you and your family. Respectfully and with love,

 Magda Zelenka

Overcome with remorse, I immediately phoned Katalin Takacs, who informed me that Magda had been diagnosed with lung cancer and, refusing all treatment, insisted that nothing in her life was of sufficient value to justify prolonging it. All that remained was to alleviate her suffering and await the inevitable. Although she did not understand Magda’s obsession with the Mezőkövesd houses, Kathy confirmed that she spoke of little else. This only deepened my feelings of culpability. When Kathy told me she was planning to be at Magda’s apartment on June 30 to help her move to the hospice in Richmond Hill, I suggested that the three of us meet there.

I found Magda seated in the kitchen, pale, stooped, and frail-looking. In a rasping voice she welcomed me and excused herself for not getting up. It was a swelteringly hot day, and to her embarrassment she couldn’t even offer tap water as her drinking glasses had been wrapped up somewhere. We sat perspiring in the tiny kitchen.

I asked her to forgive me for failing to carry out her request immediately. “I’ll try to make amends now. But can you clarify something that has mystified me since we met? I understand wanting to save your inheritance from going to the government, and needing help with selling the houses. But why would you want the proceeds to be donated to Jews in Hungary?”

Magda smiled weakly, and started to respond in Hungarian, with Kathy offering to interpret as needed.

“Allow me to explain. In 1943, during the war, I was living with my parents and brother in our family home in Mezőkövesd. My father had these two good friends whom he had known since childhood. They were both Jewish, and as it happens, they were both watch repairmen. . . .”

“I bet I know the name of one of your father’s friends,” I interrupted.

The two women looked at each other in puzzlement. Born after my parents left Hungary, and raised in Canada, how could I possibly be familiar with a wartime friend of Magda’s father?

“Miska Eisler, right?”

Magda was astounded. I explained how I met Eisler more than 40 years ago when I’d traveled to Mezőkövesd in search of my grandfather’s grave. How many Jewish watch repairmen could there be in a small place like Mezőkövesd?

“That is an interesting coincidence. My father’s other friend was also a Miska, Miska Szép. Well, the problem was that the government considered the Jews to be enemies of the Hungarian people, and passed all kinds of laws restricting them. Jews couldn’t marry Magyars, Jews couldn’t have Magyars working in their homes, and Jews couldn’t own businesses. Also, Jews and Magyars were forbidden to have social relations. My father thought this last law was particularly ridiculous, and so he just ignored it. He didn’t try to hide his friendship with the two Miskas, even though he knew it could get him into serious trouble.

“Sure enough, there were consequences. My father developed a reputation as a Jew-lover, and therefore a disloyal Magyar. It got to the point where no one was willing to employ him, and he was finally forced to seek work in another town. The neighbors started to shun our entire family; the children at school refused to play with my brother and me. For us at home, the stress was almost unbearable. My mother was furious with my father for being so reckless, and so insensitive to the impact of his behavior on his family.”

Magda related how it all came to a head one Sunday morning. Everyone in the Lázár family had gone to church—except Marton Lázár, who thought the priest was a hypocrite for preaching brotherly love while ignoring the disgraceful treatment of the Jews. On this Sunday, he proclaimed, he would demonstrate proper Christian virtue by keeping his Jewish buddies company.

After church, the family waited at home for the head of the household to appear for Sunday dinner. When he finally walked through the door, all hell broke loose. Mária Lázár, red-faced and quivering, ripped into her husband.

“You evil man! Shame on you! What kind of person brings such humiliation and hardship upon his family? What future can there possibly be for our children? You have ruined everything. And all because of those stinking zsidók. Everyone knows the Jews cause trouble wherever they go. That’s why everyone hates them and why the government has to control them. Otherwise, they’d take over our country.”

At this point, six-year-old Magda could no longer contain herself. “Please, Anyu, stop! Apu is right. It is the government that’s evil, not him. There is nothing wrong with his Jewish friends: they are people just like us, and Mezőkövesd is their home as much as it is ours. Shame on everyone for allowing the Jews to be treated so terribly!”

Glaring at her mother, she then blurted out impulsively: “Just wait, Anyu! When I grow up—and when you get old and die—and when I inherit this house—I’m going to give it to the Jews!”

Kathy and I sat, stunned, but Magda wore a look of profound serenity: her secret was finally out. And then it was Kathy’s turn. Liberated by the release of Magda’s demon, she volunteered that before she was born, her mother had worked as a housekeeper for a Jewish family in Hungary who had treated her with great kindness until, with the passage of the anti-Jewish laws, they were forced to sever relations. To Kathy, those laws were a shameful stain on the honor of the Hungarian people, and she was now determined to do everything in her power to help fulfill Magda’s wish.

But it would not be easy. Things had taken another turn in present-day Hungary. Riding a wave of political and economic malaise, the far-Right Jobbik party had shot to third place in the most recent elections. High on its long list of grievances was the claim that foreign Jews were buying up properties throughout the country with the intention of importing “Israelis” to colonize Hungary and eventually take it over. Kathy had heard that Jobbik was keeping a sharp eye on all real-estate transactions. A Rubinstein from Canada acquiring houses in Mezőkövesd would surely trigger an alarm.

I assured Kathy that knowing this, I was all the more bent on forging ahead. Over the following months, demonstrating extraordinary dedication and persistence, Kathy undertook to travel repeatedly to Mezőkövesd, conducting meetings and exchanging numerous phone calls and e-mails until she successfully concluded the sale of both houses. On the advice of a local lawyer, she had the proceeds deposited directly into a trust account, thereby avoiding any involvement by me. Magda then signed a separate document granting me exclusive control over the disposition of the funds.

By now, I knew what to do. A year earlier, I had read a front-page news story about CsanádSzegedy, a rising young Hungarian rabble-rouser who had served as Jobbik’s vice-president and its representative to the European Parliament. He was especially notorious for his inflammatory comments about Jews, whom he accused of trying to seize economic control of Hungary. He complained loudly about the supposed Jewishness of Hungary’s political elites, who he claimed were “desecrating national symbols.”

But his abrasive manner earned him enemies within his own party. One day, to his horror, an opponent confronted Szegedy with the dramatic revelation that his own maternal grandparents were Jews. In an instant, his world came crashing down. Although retaining his seat in the European Parliament, he was abruptly forced out of Jobbik. In a state of deep personal turmoil, he went to visit his grandmother, who confirmed not only that she was Jewish but that she was a survivor of Auschwitz, where all the other members of her immediate family had been murdered. After the war, she met and married Szegedy’s grandfather, a Jewish survivor of a forced-labor camp.

I was immediately struck by the details of this story, which reminded me powerfully of the story of my own parents. Indeed, the wartime facts of the two families were virtually interchangeable. All were small-town Orthodox Jews. In each case, the woman survived Auschwitz and the man survived forced-labor camp. Particularly eerie was the fact that both men had lost their first wives and two children to the gas chambers.

It was only post-liberation that the lives of the two couples diverged radically. Concluding that there was no future for them as Jews in Hungary, my parents had left to build a new and better life elsewhere. Szegedy’s grandparents, having reached the same despairing conclusion, remained in Hungary but set about obliterating their Jewish identity. If my mother, as a mark of honor, routinely displayed the blue Auschwitz number tattooed on her forearm, Szegedy’s grandmother just as routinely concealed her tattoo under long sleeves. And whereas my Canadian-born-and-raised children have always been perfectly comfortable in their Jewish skins, Csanád Szegedy, their Hungarian-born-and-raised contemporary, became a scourge of his own people.

And yet: having fortuitously discovered the Jew buried deep within him, Szegedy next sought out the help of Slomó Köves, a young Chabad rabbi in Budapest whose family had long denied its own Jewish identity. I was struck by the generosity of the rabbi’s response to this former vilifier, and by his courage in standing up to his scandalized congregants when Szegedy started attending synagogue. Gradually, under Rabbi Köves’ tutelage, Csanád Szegedy had been making amends for his deplorable conduct by learning to be a self-respecting Jew.

Stirred by this turn of events, I contacted Rabbi Köves and told him about the simple Hungarian working woman in Toronto who was determined to make amends in her own way for the moral lapses of her compatriots. We agreed that I would have the funds from the sale of Magda’s houses wired to his organization, the EMIH Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation. A letter from him in Hungarian would follow, acknowledging and thanking her for the gift and allowing her at last to enjoy inner peace, content in the knowledge that her lifelong mission had finally been accomplished.

Rabbi Köves and I also agreed that it would be fitting to memorialize Magda’s gift with a plaque on the wall of his congregation’s building in Budapest. When I mentioned this to Magda over the phone, she protested, characteristically, that it was unnecessary. To persuade her otherwise, I stressed the importance of people knowing that there were Righteous Gentiles even in Hungary—and that her dear father had been one of them. Relenting, she approved the following text:

Plaque

This article first appeared in Mosaic Magazine 

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