On November 11th, 2018, my mother Irene Glausiusz and I drove to the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in the Israeli city of Ramla for a “Service of Remembrance and Dedication,” to mark the centenary of the armistice signed at “the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month” that brought an end to the slaughter of the “Great War” on November 11th, 1918. The well-tended British cemetery is surrounded on four sides by, incongruously, a mall, a cement-works, a small grove of trees and a mosque. At the crowded ceremony, we listened to speeches and psalms and the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, and we stood for two minutes of silence. A short ceremony followed to honor the Jewish soldiers buried in the cemetery, which included the chanting of “El Malei Rachamim,” (“God, Full of Mercy”) and Kaddish, a hymn of praises said by Jewish mourners.
Afterwards, my mother and I meandered around the cemetery, listening to the sound of the muezzin from the neighboring mosque, and reading the inscriptions on gravestones of British soldiers from both the First and Second World Wars, and some from 1947, the year preceding Israel’s independence. Most of the soldiers were very young when they were killed, according to the inscriptions on their graves. They included Private G.W. Finklestein (Royal Army Ordnance Corps, 22nd November 1918) and Private E. Mizrachi (Royal Fusiliers, 29th December 1918), whose graves were marked with a star of David; Private A.G. Allcock, who was killed on 26th December 1917, aged 21 (“Too far away thy grave to see / But not too far to think of thee,”) and Private J.T. Lynch, killed on August 8, 1945, aged 31 (“A bitter grief / A shock severe / To part with one / We loved so dear.”) A number of graves were engraved, simply, with the words, “A soldier of the Great War. Known unto God.”
Private Finklestein and Private Mizrachi were among the 40,000 Jewish soldiers who fought throughout the British Empire for Britain, but Jews fought on every side of the war. Some 100,000 Jewish soldiers served in the German army, and about 275,000 Jews fought in the Austro-Hungarian army on the side of the Central Powers (the German Empire, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire and the Kingdom of Bulgaria). Among these Jewish soldiers were my two paternal great-grandfathers, who were conscripted by the Austro-Hungarian Empire to fight in the First World War. My great-grandfather Moshe Schlesinger, (my father’s maternal grandfather) and my great-grandfather Yaakov (Jakab) Glausiusz (my father’s paternal grandfather) were both non-commissioned officers in the Austro-Hungarian Army.
Moshe Schlesinger, who was born in Szarvas (my father’s hometown), was a quartermaster, my father Gershon Glausiusz told me. He was responsible for distributing supplies such as food and uniforms, assigning billets, and also issuing train tickets for soldiers going on leave. Yaakov Glausiusz, who was born in Tisza Szollos in Hungary, had served as a recruit in the Austro-Hungarian army prior to World War I. When the war broke out, he was recalled and served as a gunnery officer, fighting in the Austrian Alps on the Italian Front with his sons Bela and Miklas. But their distinguished service didn’t save their lives when German forces occupied Hungary in March 1944.
Moshe Schlesinger died in Bergen-Belsen of starvation and dysentery.
Yaakov Glausiusz was murdered in Auschwitz, as were Bela and Miklas and his three daughters, Regina, Margit and Helen, and all of their children.
My great-grandfather Moshe Schlesinger’s familiarity with train routes did offer some guidance when my father and his mother and four brothers were deported to Bergen-Belsen in 1944. “He knew where we were being directed, from the sequence of the stations, because he used to issue train tickets for the German soldiers [during the First World War] as well,” my father says. “He had a very good grasp of the geography of Austria-Hungary and Germany. When we were being taken from Austria to Belsen, there was speculation as to where we were being taken, and he could tell, from the route, that we were not being taken to Poland; we were being taken to Germany.”
In Auschwitz, my father told me, my great-grandfather Yaakov Glausiusz was selected for labor, “even though he was seventy-odd years old, because he was a strong man with a straight back. So he got away with not being gassed, at first. But then his grandsons and sons and daughters-in-law, gradually all of them were disappearing. When it came to the last stages, he kept on finding his family missing, from wherever they could have seen each other. And he broke the rules and went searching for them in the night. By the morning, he was not among the living.”
The night of his death, according to enquiries my grandfather Israel Glausiusz made after the war, was the 18th of Kislev 5705–exactly 74 years ago today, according to the Hebrew calendar–or December 4th, 1944. Prisoners from his hometown had kept some sort of communal record, my father said. They told my grandfather that his father had gone from barrack to barrack at night, searching for family members. “Of course it was breaking the curfew to leave the barracks at night,” my father said. “He thought he would probably use his rank, and ask around to see where his sons and grandsons were.” By the morning, he was gone. “Obviously the people who knew him didn’t find him, but others may have found his body and put it on the pile,” my father said. “So he had the sad fate of knowing that his family was wiped out.”
There was one exception: his son Israel Glausiusz, my father’s father, who survived the war after being conscripted into a forced labor battalion in Hungary, and reunited with my grandmother and four surviving sons, including my father, after the war.
Because of my family’s history, I follow the news from Hungary – the rise of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán (“He has harnessed fascism into his party,” my father says) and of Orbán’s popularity, which is based in large part on the demonization of asylum seekers and of billionaire philanthropist George Soros, who is also a Hungarian Holocaust survivor. It was Orbán’s governing party, Fidesz, that mounted a billboard campaign across Hungary in 2017 showing a smiling Soros and the caption, “Don’t let Soros have the last laugh.” Some posters were pasted to the floors of Budapest trams so that passengers would have to tread on Soros’s face.
That demonization of Soros has spread worldwide, an antisemitic stereotype seized gleefully by disparate forces ranging from Donald Trump to Facebook. When I read of the rise of antisemitism in the United States–a 57 percent rise in antisemitic incidents in 2017, according to the Anti-Defamation League — the march of white supremacists in Charlottesville (“some very fine people on both sides,” said Trump) and the massacre of eleven Jews praying peacefully on a Shabbat morning at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, I ask myself whether telling the story of my great-grandfathers would make a difference. Would it change the minds of bigots to know that my great-grandfathers, who served as officers of the Austro-Hungarian army in the First World War, ended their days in starvation or by being “put on the pile”? I do not know. But in telling their stories, I hope to keep their memories alive.