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“The Jewish Question”

My birthday and my mother’s are only 2 days apart: mine is June 25th and hers, the 27th. But in 1941, the year I turned nine, we didn’t celebrate either of them. Our birthdays were overshadowed by news that had reached us a few days earlier.

On the morning of June 22nd, the four of us gathered around the radio and heard that Germany had broken the pact with the Soviets and invaded Russia. We listened to the maddened screams of Hitler as he denounced the Judeo-Bolsheviks and promised their rapid annihilation. That speech warned us of things to come. We were shivering on that warm June day. A giant shadow had descended over our lives.

We had all read Hitler’s book Mein Kampf but none of us had taken the anti-Jewish rantings and threats expressed in it seriously. Now we were finding out just how badly we had misjudged the book and its author.

We had heard about what went on in the German-occupied territories, but we didn’t know the full story. We knew of the ghettos that Jews were being herded into by the tens of thousands. We heard of the atrocities committed in Austria and Poland. But extermination camps and mass executions were not yet public knowledge. As refugees arrived from Polish ghettos, we heard of how Jewish communities were being evacuated and of how those deported disappeared to some unknown destination. But generally, the refugees spoke very little of their experiences due to the fierce threats issued by the Hungarian Jewish Council: talk too much and we will hand you over to the Hungarian authorities for deportation. We were no longer naïve but we couldn’t fathom what the antisemitic press described as the “final solution” to the “Jewish question”. We imagined a forced, mass exodus of all of us to some inhospitable land–Uganda perhaps, or Mauritius.

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