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‘I did what any decent human being would do’

I knew my mother Dr. Clara Ambrus was a med student in Hungary during World War II, but I had no idea she'd been a hero
Dr. Clara Ambrus. (courtesy)
Dr. Clara Ambrus. (courtesy)

“In 1944, I hid some people,” my mother, Dr. Clara Ambrus, told me. It was 1990, and I had traveled with my parents to Budapest. I hoped that being in the city of their youth would jog the memories they rarely spoke of, particularly the terrifying German occupation of Hungary during World War II.

But hiding people? My mother said those words with some hesitation and considerable humility, as though describing an act of no consequence. Nothing could be further from the truth.

That year, 1944, was a year of treachery and terror. Nazis toppled the government of Hungary and handed power to Hungary’s fascist and virulently antisemitic Arrow Cross Party, which began to round up, deport and kill tens of thousands of Jews. As Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) approaches, Clara’s story exemplifies how one person’s story makes a difference in an environment of hate.

My mother was just 20, a medical student, and a devout Catholic. Her closest friend, Éva Fisher Klein, was Jewish. Eva came to my mother with an audacious plan. She explained that her friend, Ármin Grószmann, was forced to close a factory he owned in compliance with the anti-Jewish laws. Eva asked my mother to move into Ármin’s factory complex to hide Jews who were in danger.

My mother and her family did not hesitate. They moved into a house on the grounds of the closed factory. They hid Éva, her boyfriend Rabbi Béla Eisenberg, and both their families. Several others would come and go. When they ran out of space at the factory, my mother and another medical student arranged for hiding places in the histology lab at the university’s medical school in Budapest. They supplied fake ID cards.

The factory was surrounded by a large fence. Almost daily, Arrow Cross (Hungarian Nazis) soldiers knocked on the large iron gate to the entrance, demanding to search the house. My mother or her mother, Sári, would come to the gate, as slowly as possible, and ask if they could lock up their two guard dogs before opening the door for the soldiers. This allowed time for everyone to get to their hiding places.

One day, the knock at the gate came without warning after a bombing raid that confused the dogs. They didn’t bark. Everyone scrambled, barely reaching their hiding places when the Arrow Cross soldiers marched in. My mother barely had time to hide the rabbi’s siddur (a Jewish prayer book), which was on a kitchen countertop, before the soldiers saw it. Had it been discovered, they all would have been shot.

It was only as adults that my siblings and I learned that my father and his mother were among the Jews my mother hid. Clara and he had met in medical school and fallen in love. He was her fiancé by 1944 and even survived a Nazi labor camp. But to me, and my six siblings, my father was a good Catholic, attending Mass weekly with my mother. We never knew about his Jewish past. He didn’t discuss it.

The author’s mother and father. (courtesy)

There were many close calls during the war, a few of which I heard from my mother while strolling in Budapest that day. After the trip, both my father and mother resumed their reticent ways. The past retreated into mystery once more.

But in 2006, the true nature of my mother’s heroism became apparent. That was the year that she was honored as “Righteous Among the Nations,” bestowed upon Gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. Oskar Schindler and Sir Nicholas Winton are among approximately 21,000 others so honored. My mother would be in esteemed company as we traveled to the Israeli consulate in New York for the ceremony.

By that time, Alzheimer’s had taken her away from us. I don’t know how much she truly understood about the award. My father gave a speech on her behalf. But after the ceremony, reporters hovered around her. In response to one reporter’s question asking how she found such courage, she replied, “I did what any decent human being would do.”

And for that moment, she was back – the young woman who had risked her life to save others, who believed it was what decent people do. Even Alzheimer’s could not erase that.

My mother would say she was no different from anyone else. Like many mothers, she struggled to balance her career as a physician and family life. But she always put family first. She believed her faith would get her through difficult times. And that it was a miracle that she and my father had survived the war.

In the harsh reality of today’s world, where antisemitism surges once more, there is no more crucial time to honor such people, but even more important, to see that those who hid Jews and fought injustice were ordinary people thrust into extraordinary circumstances. And yet, they stood up.

It would be hard for them to believe that history might repeat itself. I can imagine my mother shaking her head and repeating what she believed in her heart: “All people must be treated with respect, dignity, and compassion.”

About the Author
Linda Broenniman is the author of The Politzer Saga, a chronicle of 8 generations of hidden Jewish paternal history from Budapest to Buffalo. The author lives in Great Falls, VA.
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