Diaries reveal Jewish suffering during Holocaust in Hungary

An interesting history and religion resource

In December 1941, when Hungary severed relations with the US following America’s entry into the second world war, Maria Madi, a doctor in Budapest, started keeping a diary for her daughter, who had just immigrated to Louisiana.

Madi did not know if her daughter would ever see her words. But she wrote anyhow. About the war. About the Nazis. About the suffering of Jews. And about the two people she hid in her apartment, at times behind a large mirror when visitors came to call.

By war’s end, Madi, who was not Jewish, had filled 16 notebooks in handwritten English that serve as a grim portrait of the Holocaust in Hungary and of a defiant woman sickened by its cruelty.

“I am going to see, to hear, to witness everything,” Madi wrote, adding later, “it may happen of course that neither myself nor my diary will ever reach you.”

Now, Washington’s US Holocaust Memorial Museum, which was given the diary last year, is preparing to post it online in the coming months and hopes eventually to have it fully transcribed.

Among the thousands of Holocaust diaries, Madi’s is a rare account written in English by a non-Jewish member of a local gentry, the museum said. It is blunt, harsh in parts, compassionate, wistful, sarcastic. It tells the story of an unusual woman, a British-educated, divorced Hungarian doctor who held some negative views about Jews but risked her life to hide a Jewish friend, Irene Lakos, and her friend’s seven-year-old nephew.

The nephew, Alfred Lakos, now 77, who lives in the US in Waleska, Georgia, said recently: “She was a hero, in my book.” His aunt survived, as well, and died in Italy in 1998, he said.

The Holocaust, the slaughter of Europe’s Jews by the Nazis and their allies, came relatively late to Hungary, which was allied with Germany. But by the end of the war, more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews had been murdered, many of them in the gas chambers at Auschwitz, historians have said.

In Budapest, Madi, then in her mid 40s, watched in dismay as Jews were humiliated, harassed and rounded up to be sent to labour or concentration camps. Alfred Lakos’s father, Laszlo, for example, was sent to a labour camp, from which he escaped, and survived. His mother, Rosza, was sent to Auschwitz, where she was killed.

With his parents gone, and alone in his apartment, “Fredi” Lakos found refuge with Madi, and a place in her narrative. Madi, who had lived alone and was unaccustomed to children, found “the poor little worm” exasperating during the almost four months he spent cooped up in her apartment.

“I am never alone,” she wrote on 7 January, 1945. “The child is all the time talking, irritating, making noises and trouble.”

Two weeks later, she wrote: “It is with the utmost self-control, I can tolerate the boy here in my flat.”

Yet she soothed him when gunfire frightened him, vowed to stay with him when he was in bed with chicken pox, she wrote, and he came to be affectionate with her.

The diary, which also contains snapshots of Madi’s dog, Joe; newspaper clippings; and comments about food prices, the weather and politics, was donated to the museum by Madi’s grandson, Stephen Walton, of Amarillo, Texas. He said in a telephone interview that the notebooks had been kept in plastic bags in a family safe for 30 years. “Hardly ever looked at them,” he said.

After the war, Madi came to the United States, bringing the diary, which she later amended slightly in pencil. She worked as a psychiatrist, Walton said. The family called her “Mami”. She died in Houston in 1970, at age 72, he said.

“I’m humbled by the fact that she never mentioned” what she had done, he said. “It was just something she felt she had to do.”

Walton said the family had always kept the notebooks private. “These are about my grandmother,” he said. But recently he wondered if the Holocaust Museum might be interested. It was.

“Hungary is such a specific story in … the Holocaust,” said Rebecca Erbelding, a museum archivist who has studied the diary. “It happens completely differently in Hungary than it happens anywhere else.”

“It’s so late in the war … 1944,” she said in a recent interview at the museum. For “the Jews of Germany it’s been coming since 1933. For the Jews of Hungary, they had been safe.” Some Jews had even fled to Hungary, she explained. “It’s the largest and last Jewish community left in Europe,” Erbelding said. “There’s 800,000 Jews still in Hungary in 1944.”

But that March, the Nazis, suspicious about Hungary’s wavering allegiance, occupied the country. By early July, 437,000 Hungarian Jews had been rounded up and were sent to ghettos and Auschwitz.

Madi’s journal, which chronicles much of this, was a risky enterprise. “This diary would be sufficient to hang me five times a week,” she wrote in 1944, adding in another entry: “I am rather astonished I am not … reported for my allied sympathies.”

Written mostly with a fountain pen, the diary begins on 23 December 1941, after Hungary’s declaration of war on the United States. “Since we are at war with the states, there’s no more any hope for me to join you, my only ones,” she wrote, addressing her daughter, Hilda, then 21; Hilda’s husband, George Walton, 29; and their four-month-old daughter, Barbara. She might not see them again for years, she wrote, according to a partial transcription compiled by Erbelding.  “And who knows whether we’re going to survive at all.”

Four months later, on 24 April 1942, Madi was worried about her Jewish friend, Irene Lakos, whom she called “Lacy”. “She is nice as always and tries not be bitter …. She says they … are grateful for every day they can still spend in their flat.”

Things got worse after the German occupation started on 19 March 1944: “Jews will have to wear the yellow star from April 5 on,” Madi wrote on 31 March. “They are sick with shame and fear, marked thus, they may be set out to any brutality.” A few weeks later she wrote: “Almost every day new atrocities and cruelties happen. It is difficult to register them all and too painful too.”

By the autumn, violence, arrests and deportations were increasing, and on 17 October Madi came home and found Irene Lakos and her nephew waiting for her. She took them in. As the days passed, and visitors came to call, she often hid her “friends”, as she called them, in the bathroom and in an adjacent apartment.

Outside it was the “darkest middle ages,” Madi wrote. There was shooting. Neighbours turned up missing. Yet she maintained some of her era’s prejudices. “The more I am attached to my Jewish friends, there is a certain Jewish type I hate,” she wrote on 28 October. “And the best joke is this seven year old child is just the worst type, whom I try hard to save. No bad quality, we used to know as Jewish qualities, is missing.”

Alfred Lakos, who has a copy of the diary on a CD, remembers little from those days. In old family photographs he appears as a handsome boy in shorts, high socks and sport coat. “Based on the diary, I was a very rambunctious child,” he said. “According to some of the statements Maria made I was a pain in the butt. She was not used any more to a seven year old.”

“I may have made her mad or something,” he said. “Let me put it this way, I was very spoiled.”

“Don’t hold this against her,” he said. “She risked her life to save two additional lives … She is a hero. Thank God that we had people like her.”

On 30 October 1944, with the Nazis in control of Budapest and the SS extermination chief, Adolf Eichmann, hard at work there, Madi worried that snooping neighbours or officials might discover her guests.

“Tonight the janitor was here to register the amount of hot water used this month,” she wrote. “I had to show him therefore into the bathroom, but put my friends – before opening the door – behind the book mirror. It was a splendid joke, like hide and seek.”

On 5 February 1945, she wrote that there were German soldiers in her building, replaced two days later by the Russians. On 17 February she wrote that Fredi’s father, who had also been in hiding, had arrived the day before. “Exhausted … he was still happy to find his sister and son safe,” she wrote. “He and Fredi are off this morning, early, they have to do a good day’s walk and the child is untrained.”

On 5 November 1945, with the long war in Europe over, she made a final entry for her daughter: “This is the end of scribbling,” she wrote. “Last night I addressed my first direct letter to you. From now on there’s no more sense in writing in this diary.”


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