Carved in marble
I had wanted to visit Israel for many years. But somehow I could never find the opportunity. As I grew older, my health deteriorated, and it seemed less and less likely with each passing year that I would ever go. But then my daughter wrote a book about my activities during the war in Budapest. I hadn’t really wanted her to do it, mainly because I considered it all behind me and didn’t relish the idea of raking up painful memories. But she can be tough, and she questioned me relentlessly to get the details.
She saw me as a heroine, but I’ve always maintained that I did only what any compassionate person would do under the circumstances. When the Nazis occupied Hungary and began to deport our Jewish population, I sheltered five Jewish friends in my home, where they lived, clandestinely for several months, until the Gestapo raided the house and arrested me.
I was very lucky in the end: due to lack of evidence and the intervention of an influential friend, they released me. My five fugitives all survived the war. Some of them emigrated to Israel. Throughout the decades, we kept in touch.
My daughter’s book, published in June, 1990, brought the story to light, and to the attention of the authorities at Yad Vashem. They began a lengthy process of verificalion, taking depositions from the survivors.
At last, in the winter of 1991, a letter arrived from Jerusalem: “I have the pleasure to inform you that the Special Commission of the Designation of the Righteous, at its session of 4.9.91, decided to confer upon… Vali Racz its highest expression of gratitude: the title of Righteous Among the Nations.”
It went on to explain that this entitled me to a medal, a certificate of honour and the privilege of having my name inscribed on the Righteous Honour Wall at Yad Vashem. Now I knew I had to go. The pains and ailments of old age would not keep me away.
It was in late May, 1992, that I finally found myself standing on that hillside overlooking Jerusalem. It was very hot. They had brought a chair from somewhere so that I could sit during the ceremony; I can’t take the heat very well.
Margit Herzog was there. Together with her daughter, Marietta, she had hidden in my house during the terror in 1944. She is even older than me (but rather fitter), and had journeyed from her home in Cologne to be present. She was tearful, and I took her hand. Her Israeli son-in-law, Shlomo, was there, too. But his wife, Marietta — who at 14 had stood motionless, barely breathing, behind a cabinet in my Budapest dining room while unwitting Gestapo men a few feet away spoke of the capture of her mother — had died some years earlier.
Margit goes to Israel each year to visit Shlomo and her two grandsons, one of whom recently married Menachem Begin’s granddaughter. The Mandels, an Orthodox couple who had celebrated Sabbath each Friday evening in my basement while the pro-Nazi Arrow Cross was on its murderous rampage, had passed away in the late 1970s. For years my impressions of Israel were created by the letters and postcards They sent from Tel Aviv, where they had made their home.
Now their son, Bandi, is my closest friend in Israel. A retired Israeli diplomat, it was while posted at the Paris embassy that he was the target of a terrorist car bomb which nearly cost him both legs.
Bandi’s son Danny came to the ceremony, too, with his wife and two small daughters — the fourth generation of Mandels I have known. And there were others, friends and more distant relatives of the survivors, people I’d never met. I felt close to them all. We were united by something greater than ourselves.
Dr Mordecai Paldiel, director of Yad Vashem’s Department of the Righteous, gave a touching speech, then asked me to speak. What could I say? It all happened so long ago. Why did I do what I did? Simple. Because I could think of no reason not to.
We mustn’t forget the past, but we must transcend it. The present is all-important, and the present means our friendship, the bond between Jew and gentile, which I sensed in everything around we that day — the Israeli sunshine, the scent of the pines, the warm and friendly faces on that hillside.
Dr Paldiel took my arm and led me to the wall for the unveiling. The covering was pulled away and there was my name, carved into the marble. The cameras clicked. I looked across at my daughter. She was wiping her eyes.
In the plane home, we chatted enthusiastically about returning to Israel. The way I look at it, that little business at Yad Vashem was only the beginning.
Monica Porter’s book about her mother Vali Racz, ‘Deadly Carousel” has just been published in paperback by Quartet at 18.95