Antisemitism had been an integral part of the fabric of Hungarian society long before I was born. In her youth my mother had been an aspiring concert pianist but was refused admission to the State Academy of Music. The rejection was delivered with an off-hand comment that “this is not a place for Jewish girls.”
What happened to 500,000 Hungarian Jews is well known. Their fate constituted some of the bloodier chapters of Adolph Eichmann’s Final Solution. Less well known is how common and hurtful anti-semitism was among ordinary Hungarians. During the Nazi occupation, some of our neighbors reported one of their own for bringing us food after we were evicted from our apartment house. They exposed him, knowing that his act of kindness was potentially punishable by death, both his and ours. The neighbors in question were people with whom we had lived in peace in the same apartment house for decades, who had always said friendly hellos when we passed on the staircase.
How could they act this way? What made them do it? Economic benefit may have been what caused them to pick our apartment clean of our belongings while we were gone. I could understand that, even though I could not forgive it. But hostile—even lethal—action taken toward people with whom they had never had an unpleasant encounter, for no evident gain, was hard for me to understand. Decades after Eichmann was executed, my resentment about being the object of such antisemitism remains unabated.
We lived in the same house, we shopped at the same stores, and we hid together in the cellar when English and American airplanes dropped bombs on us, yet there was a lethal divide. What separated us? It was religion. They were Christians, Catholics, Lutherans. We were Jews. Not religious Jews, but that made no difference.
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