Excerpt from ”Chapter VI: The Red Danube” from the book Echoes of My Footsteps. An autobiography by Ivan Z. Gabor as told to Jeffrey Beal. To read the complete chapter, click here.
In the early winter of 1944 a mass arrest occurred, and all the inhabitants of our building were taken out and marched toward the ghetto, the next step in our destined deportation to a concentration camp. The significance of this was unmistakable. Our turn had finally come. We were doomed, along with the countless other Hungarian Jews who had gone this route before. Our entire building was cleared of Jews. We slogged along like zombies, abandoned and alone. There were no Yankee GIs coming to the rescue, and the Russians were just a mirage. All our options were closed. We were dead. But as we marched toward our black fate a most bizarre and unmistakably surreal event was coming toward us from a plateau so secret we had no idea it even existed. It came roaring up to us in the form of a shiny black limo. It caught everyone’s attention equally, brutal tormentors and frightened victims alike. Its brakes squealed as it careened to a stop, and out jumped a man who then leapt up onto the magical car’s running boards. As soon as he did he broke out in loud glorious speech.
”We are with the Swedish Embassy and have shuspass -visa- for many of you here!”
Next he started to call out Jewish sounding names. He spoke with great authority and without fear. He looked absolutely heroic. Then my mother and grandmother blurted out at the same time, ”My God, it’s Nandorbaci!”
It was true! My ardently religious uncle Nandor, now free of facial hair and dressed like a typical Hungarian peasant, was standing a few meters away from us, waving these papers, these shuspasses, and calling out names. If anyone would have told me that I had an uncle that was still alive in Budapest I would have cackled at the irony of such a ridiculous statement. And if you would have added that he was about to jump out of an ambassador’s limousine right in front of me I wouldn’t have even taken it seriously enough to be offended by the cavalier indifference of such callous whimsy. No such reality was possible. It was unimaginable and inconceivable, yet here he was. He had hidden underground, and survived long enough to be rescued by the very same man who was now about to rescue us. Nandor stood on the running boards, making him taller than anyone else around, imbued with authority, calling out names and saving lives. When he called out a name happy people ran forward and claimed their sanctified Swedish visas. Uncle Nandor issued shuspasses and bold announcements.
”We are with the Swedish Embassy and we have visas for many people here!”
I didn’t really comprehend what all of this specifically meant, and it contributed to my usual state of confusion. Apparently, even death was incomprehensible to me. But our marching had stopped, and excitement replaced mother’s and grandmother’s usual terror. It must have been good. And as I grasped for these threads of understanding I heard our own names called out by Uncle Nandor.
”Shuspass. Shuspass for the Gabor family. Ilus, Freddy, Zelma.”
My mother and grandma looked at each other with dismay, and Nandor continued.
”Please come forward for your Shuspass.”
Gabriel has sounded his trumpet and Saint Peter opened the gateway to Heaven. We rushed to the car and grabbed our papers, affording one incredulous look deep into the eyes of my uncle who returned the glance with a brief but equally intense stare. During this exchange we stood next to the shiny limo, which looked like a vision from a dream to me. I peered within it and beheld the man who was our true savior. I didn’t know it at the time, but the dignified, aristocratic looking and well dressed young man sitting in the back seat was one of the most famous saviors of the Jews of World War Two. Raoul Wallenberg was the ultimate Righteous Gentile, but he looked as if he could have been one of the Aryan occupiers. His saintly actions did indeed contradict his physical countenance, for he was determined to save as many Jews from the Nazis as possible. I stood there transfixed by the beatific image of this true Aryan as my uncle continued.
”You have all been issued Swedish visas and are now under the protection of the neutral Swedish government. Take your papers to one of our Swedish Protective Houses at once. You will be safe there. Hurry!”
Not if God Himself had descended from the clouds would we have been more awestruck. Here was a Germanic looking man interfering with others of his type on our behalf. Blessed surrealism.
At once, several angry and uniformed SS officers approached the car. They ordered him to get out, but he blithely rolled down his window and produced some papers and made his own demands which included respecting his authority. The famed Swedish diplomat did not falter, and he persuaded the bewildered Nazis to stay their bloody hands. As bloodthirsty as the Third Reich was it always sought to exude the aura of propriety. They claimed the mantle of civilization, and as such always gave the impression it obeyed the established laws of civilized men. They didn’t even persecute the Jews until they changed the laws to make it legal to do so. Thus, they were duty bound to honor the official state of neutrality that existed between their two countries. There were a handful of European nations that enjoyed such political indifference, and Germany begrudgingly honored those treaties, keeping a simulated smile of toleration on their frustrated faces through all their dealings. For example, a bearded Rabbi bearing a passport from a country such as Spain or Sweden could theoretically approach Adolph Eichmann and wish him a good shabbos, and escape retribution. And Wallenberg exploited that loophole to the max. He even bent those rules. In this case the Swedish Embassy had issued three thousand visas to Jews, and he printed up ten times that many. As a matter of fact, Nandor’s wife was part of the crew that produced the counterfeit papers. The Shuspass was an impressive looking document, and all its recipients felt secure and protected. And, as the Nazi officials had no proof to the contrary, they had to honor them all, even if ninety percent of them were forgeries. They would do so, at least for the time being. As my uncle was handing them out he repeated his instructions of salvation to the chosen few of the chosen people who were to make their way to a Swedish Protective House. These were buildings that housed members of the Swedish Diplomatic mission to Hungary, and all such places granted diplomatic immunity to anyone seeking asylum within its walls. Without hearing another syllable we ran off in search of one.
This incident, a mere footnote in the history of the war, saved our lives, at least for them time being. As luck had it we were marching along the very spot where the limo pulled up. Not everyone heard him, and most of the sad parade marched on as Nandor made his speech. But we heard him, as did those around us, and received the blessed fake documents. However, had that car stopped fifty yards behind us we’d have been goners. That day he only managed to save the last two hundred people on that line, and we were part of that group. Ultimately he saved a hundred and fifty times that many.