‘In the very air we breathed’
Holocaust survivor Maritza Shelley with author and writing teacher Randi Dickson have penned a powerful book, In the Very Air We Breathed.
Maritza lives in Brooklyn and Sag Harbor on Long Island, NY. Randi lives in the town next to Sag Harbor, East Hampton.
Maritza, who just turned 94, was born in Budapest, Hungary.
She writes that the “Budapest of my childhood evokes safety and comfort. Although antisemitism had been in the fabric of Hungary for centuries, until that day in March of ’44, I had lived an idyllic, upper middle class life…But being Jewish, a feeling of being ‘separate’ and ‘different,’ was always in the very air I breathed.”
“Our ‘separateness,’ however, did not make us feel inferior,” says Maritza. “After all, in the ‘Golden Age’ before the wars, the generation of Jews born in Budapest in the late 1880s and early 1900’s won Nobel Prizes in the sciences, medicine, and economics. Others became famous musicians, filmmakers, photographers, writers, and philanthropists. At the beginning of the Second World War, about 200,000 Jews lived in Budapest and many still flourished in the arts, entertainment, commerce, journalism, medicine and law. Even though we had begun to feel the tightening grip of antisemitic laws as early as the 1920s, restricting our percentages in higher education and certain professions, we still went largely about our lives thinking, I believe, that it ‘wasn’t so bad,’ and that we could and would adapt as necessary.”
But then, on March 19, 1944, a day on which she and her older sister emerged from a Bach concert, moving upon Budapest were “gray steel tanks, their menacing long snouts leading the way…Trucks overflowing with German soldiers rolled beside the tanks as well as smaller open motorcars, carrying two or three German military personnel. The expansive boulevard we so loved had become cramped and tense, filled to the margins with guns and soldiers. Adolph Eichmann and other SS officers were among them, sent by Hitler to accelerate the ’final solution’ for Hungary’s 750,000 Jews. Nazi Germany had invaded Hungary.”
“Within the first month after the Germans arrived, Jews in the countryside were quickly rounded up and consolidated for deportation. By May, they were being forced into trains and sent to concentration camps, most to Auschwitz or Bergen-Belsen….In record time, about 440,000 Jews disappeared from the areas outside of the Capital. Almost any remaining Hungarian Jews lived in Budapest, soon crammed into designated houses, marked with the Star of David, at that time the star of a death sentence.”
Then, Maritza, “just turned 16,” was sent to a forced labor camp.
“Every moment of our time, our keepers wanted us to know that our lives were hanging by a thread,” she relates. “Those who were sick or unable to work were told to dig their own graves and take off their clothes. When we would return from the day’s labor, we would see the stakes with their clothes hanging on them. It was a warning not to stay back. I was very sick at one point with strep throat, which I had always been susceptible to—but I went to dig the ditches anyway.”
“In the middle of the night, at one or two in the morning,” she continues, “the loudspeakers would blare and we were made to turn out and stand in rows to be counted and screamed at that we were all going to be ‘decimated.’ We would be forced to stand in the dark and cold and rain sometimes for hours. Sometimes our guards would tell every 10th person to step out of line. ‘You will all be shot!’ they’d scream and then take them away at gunpoint.”
Later, on a march to a “death camp”—Mauthausen—Maritza, her sister and mother together managed to escape and get back to Budapest. In the Very Air We Breathed goes on relating their tenuous struggle to survive. One chapter is titled, “Life in a Coal Cellar.”
Maritza writes of fellow Hungarians: “Could we have known that our fellow Hungarians, our neighbors and our countrymen, our police and our government would cooperate with the Nazis and betray us with such enthusiasm? We thought, naively, we might be spared the fate of so many other European Jews. After all, Hungarian Jews had always been proud patriots, enjoying a symbiotic relationship with our fellow Hungarians, and making major contributions to the prosperity of our country. We trusted that Regent Horthy, an aristocrat and not—we thought—a Nazi, would protect us. There will always be debates about what Jews everywhere could have known or might have done had they known Hitler’s plans. But even as present day Hungarians attempt to whitewash their complicity—erecting in 2014 (under the cover of night and with police guards) a controversial monument portraying themselves as ‘victims’ of Nazi Germany, the truth is that most Hungarians turned their backs on us and cooperated fully with the German genocide.”
Maritza left Hungary in 1947 for the United States. She held a variety of positions among them paralegal and mediator. She has given presentations including in Manhattan at the Museum of Jewish Heritage—A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, and been interviewed by the Shoah Foundation.
In the U.S. she met and married Heywood Shelley, the late attorney. The book notes that for 58 years he was an an attorney with Carter Ledyard & Milburn, a New York City law firm, who “became the first Jewish partner.”
Their daughter is Alexandra Shelley, who has taught writing at Yale, Columbia, New School and at Hungary’s graduate journalism program at Eotvos Loral University. A former Fulbright Scholar, she has edited major books.
Randi Dickson writes that Maritza’s “story has taken me deep into the history of Hungary, learning about the rich heritage that Hungarian Jews share not only in their own country, but in remarkable accomplishments that have enriched our world. I am deeply grateful for this opportunity and greatly humbled to be entrusted with her memories.”
The book, a highly moving account of the most dreadful horror, is available from Amazon.