Smuggling Out Of Hell'
Through ingenuity and chutzpah, one man saved lives in the Holocaust. His daughter tells how.
by Tova Lebovits
I am the child of Holocaust survivors. I belong to the generation that will always be overshadowed by the calamity of our parents. I belong to a generation of kinless childhoods, where we grew up without grandparents, numerous uncles, aunts, cousins and relatives who had perished, yet whose silent presence loomed in the background. I belong to a generation that has to face the horrors of the past, and bridge that past to an uncertain future.
I cannot explain Hitler nor can I make what happened go away. But I can remember and I must pass that memory on. I must remember the Nazis, their great evil, and their threat to my existence, my people, and humankind.
Only through our collective memory can we combat such demonic evil. I am a messenger, and I bear witness in the name of my parents' families and friends.
My father, Shammai Davidovics, taught me to fight for life. He could not speak about what happened to him during the war, nor of his family who perished. He kept a life-long self-imposed silence, which I painfully learned to accept despite my need to know.
Over the years, survivors and people he had saved would find us, and then I would hear their tales. It is only before his death that my father broke his silence and substantiated the stories my brothers and I had collected. And it was only then that he answered, painfully, some of our most heartrending questions.
UNDERGROUND FORGERY RING
My father was born in 1912 to a chassidic family in Danilev (near Hust), a small Czechoslovakian town in the Carpathian Mountains. My grandma Gitle, after whom I am named (git=good=Tova), was said to be a cheerfully energetic thin wisp of a woman. She managed to bring into this world 14 babies, of whom 12 reached adulthood - eight sons and four daughters, with my father somewhere in the middle.
Like those around him, my father went to cheder (Torah school), spoke Yiddish, and led a religious life. Yet his curiosity and adventurous nature led him to seek knowledge in the big world outside the shtetl (village). He studied Hebrew and other secular subjects. At age 16, he was accepted to a German gymnasium (high school) in Berne, while he continued his Torah studies on the side as well. From there he joined the Czechoslovakian army, and then was one of the few Jews accepted to the University of Budapest.
He was fluent in 12 languages, had a PhD in sociology, and received rabbinic ordination.By the end of 1943, when the German army invaded Hungary, he was fluent in 12 languages, had completed his PhD. in sociology, and had received rabbinic ordination from Beit Hamidrash Lerabanim in Budapest.
At the start, the Germans deported only those Jews who did not have Hungarian or Czech citizenship papers. Unfortunately, most Jews, especially those living in small villages, though having lived there for centuries, did not have such papers. My father and several of his friends organized an underground forgery ring, where they began producing forged citizenship papers and other necessary documents for Jews. They were financially backed by wealthy Jews, and worked with Raul Wallenberg, providing him with the needed documentation.
MASTER OF DISGUISES
At this time my father also became a master of disguises, taking on various identities when necessary for his mission. Fortunately he looked Aryan, spoke a fluent German, and unlike some who could not see the writing on the wall, he believed that these times required desperate measures.
His exploits were described to us by several survivors of my father's hometown of Danilev, and were later corroborated by my father.
In those critical days of the German invasion, my father collected all the names of the Jews of Danilev without citizenship papers (half the town was related) and worked as fast as possible to forge those papers, several hundred in all. He knew that time was of the essence. It took almost five days to reach Danilev, and he knew the German army was now deporting Jews of nearby regions and would get to his hometown and family within weeks.
The entire town, including his family, had been herded onto cattle cars.With papers in hand, he set out to Danilev in great haste. As he neared his region, he heard that the Germans had worked much faster than anticipated and had most probably reached Danilev. He arrived at his hometown too late. The entire population, including his family, had been herded onto cattle cars and the trains were about to depart. When my father saw the German soldiers guarding the trains and taunting his people, he realized there was only one thing to do...
On the scene arrives an impeccably dressed high-ranking German official. He walks with a quick sure gait and the self-confidence of a haughty personage. And he is furious. He approaches one of the guards, who immediately salutes him, and in harsh tones demands to see the highest-ranking officer in charge. He sends the guards scuffling off to obey his orders.
A perplexed and harried officer quickly appears, and thus ensues a humiliating scolding and berating of the mortified officer in charge. This inevitably draws the attention of those around. "Do you realize you have blatantly disobeyed and violated military orders?" yells the arrogant stranger as he slams a stack of papers in front of the officer.
This stranger was my father. The Jews who recognized him could not believe their eyes. On that day, through sheer chutzpah, he succeeded in reversing the decree. The Jews of Danilev were released from the cattle cars and returned to their homes (what was left after the looting, that is). They were now all legal citizens.
WHERE CAN WE RUN?
Theirs was not a happy ending, however. The Jews were safe in Danilev for just one more year. During that time, on his occasional visits, my father tried desperately but in vain to convince his family and townsfolk to flee. He succeeded with but a handful of people, mostly teenagers. The others simply did not believe him. The things he said "will" happen, they argued "could not" happen. And besides, "Where can we run to?!"
He offered to get them forged gentile papers, and to help them escape to the forests, providing them with peasants' clothes. But to no avail. To them, such acts seemed too desperate. They felt they stood a better chance of surviving at home than in the forest.
He felt responsible and guilty for his family's death, feeling he should have somehow saved them.My father remembers begging his favorite brother Hillel to come with him. But when Hillel heard it would entail hiding his Jewish identity, he could not.
Almost a year later, the Jews of Danilev were again herded, and this time deported and murdered. This time my father arrived several days too late. There was nothing he could do by then. He was only able to reach one sister in time. Until his dying day, my father felt responsible and guilty for his family's death. He believed he should have been able to get through to them and somehow save them.
When the Nazis occupied Budapest, they made an agreement with the Hungarian authorities, whereby the Hungarians would recruit a special police Hungarian force - called the Kishket - that would be in charge of taking care of buildings which the Germans gave political immunity to, such as the Austrian Embassy.
My father and several of his Jewish friends joined this force (as gentiles, of course, since Jews were not allowed). This way, they created an underground that could gather information about enemy activities. (Years ago, Yad Vashem had a life-size portrait of my father in his Hungarian Kishket uniform, as an example of Jewish underground activity.)
By then, Jewish citizenship papers were no longer good enough. My father obtained for my mother and her entire family gentile papers, and later when that became too dangerous, he hid them in an attic. He brought them food and provisions until the remainder of the war.
One day my mother came running tearfully to my father. Her mother (my grandma Cidi) and her uncle (Cidi's brother) had become careless and gone out of hiding for a bit. They were caught by German soldiers and taken to a concentration camp. My father must help.
He assumed the identity of the Austrian counsel for 24 hours, and entered the concentration camp.My father found out exactly where they were detained, and with the help of his friends, organized an escape. He found out that the Austrian counsel (the Austrian representative in Hungary at the time) was leaving the capitol for a few days. My father assumed the identity of the Austrian counsel for 24 hours. He had friends in a Kishket police car wait outside the camp for him.
The "Austrian counsel" entered the concentration camp. He approached the officer in charge and with perfect Austrian German introduced himself. He was also in charge of the Swiss in Budapest, and said it had come to his attention that through some terrible error, two Swiss citizens had been wrongfully deported and now detained in this very camp. He held their papers in his hand.
The officer in charge said that was impossible, but my father insisted on checking it out, for he had personally promised their relatives he would attend to the matter.
So together they went from floor to floor searching for these citizens. On each floor, they announced the names of these citizens. And so they found my grandmother and her brother. They took them out, into the waiting police car, sped away, back into hiding.
My father sadly recalled as he walked through the camp, how many Jews begged and pleaded with him: "We too are Swiss citizens. We too are Austrian citizens. Help us." But he could do nothing for those unfortunate people, and he said he would never forget them.
One time in Israel, my brother Shmuel got on a public bus with my father. The driver took a look at my father, became very emotional, got up, hugged him hard, and began weeping and crying my father's name, "Shammai, Shammai." He refused to take payment, sat my father in the front seat, and as he drove began telling his tale to the astonished riders.
This bus driver told how my father - disguised as a priest - came and rescued a young chassidic boy, himself.
Apparently, my father's priestly disguise had become almost his second identity. It enabled him to travel from village to village for weeks at a time on, even entering concentration camps and thus saving lives.
How did this disguise come about? While attending university, he was required to remain in class during Christian prayers and theology classes. He learned his lessons well and was also fluent in Latin. This oddity later saved his life many times, and helped save others. God works in mysterious ways.
My father used his black graduation robe from rabbinical seminary as his priestly garb. He became a travelling priest, the kind that kept a special pouch with various relics and talisman, holy to the Christians and especially the peasants, and he knew how to perform the various rituals. He always had two "altar boys" to assist him, and he would pick them up here and there where he would find lost Jewish children. He would dress them in gentile clothes and teach them their prayers and duties, and they would travel together until he found a way out for them.
This particular bus driver was one of those he'd smuggled out of hell to Israel.
LEFT FOR DEAD
One day, while my father was living with me in Jerusalem, someone called and asked if Dr. Davidovics was there. When I replied, "Yes," he insisted on coming over with his wife and son. They had just flown in from Hungary and when he entered our home, he ran excitedly to my ailing father, got on his knees and kissed his hands.
My father's eyes became red, as they do when he cries tearlessly - the closest he ever got to crying. Years earlier, my father had found this orphaned boy, neglected and frightened on the street. He took him in, washed him, fed him, dressed him, and got him new gentile identity papers. Then he took him to a Christian orphanage where he was cared for by nuns. My father told him: "Do as you are told, but never forget who you are. One day you will again live as a Jew."
And so it was. They regularly keep in touch and send us cards several times a year.
He was thrown onto a pile of other bodies, but through some miracle he crawled away and lived.Ironically, it was this priestly disguise that had almost left my father for dead. On one of his many trips to the concentration camps, as he forced himself to walk quickly past the human skeletons that were his people, he was seen by a neighbor from Danilev. The man was so overcome with joy that he yelled out, "Shammai! Shammai!"
My father tried desperately to signal to him to stop, but it was too late.
My father was taken, and now he too became an inmate. He was tortured and beaten and finally left for dead. His body was thrown onto a pile of other bodies, but through some miracle he crawled away from that hell and lived. He had marks all over his legs for the rest of his life, and sometimes he would get headaches where they had beaten him. But he never complained about anything.
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The Holocaust was a tortuous time for the Jewish people. My father lived with these horrors for the rest of his life. He couldn't cry, because the smell of burning human flesh still came back to haunt him.
My father had done all he could to reverse the evil. For his family, his townsfolk, and the 6 million Jews, it was not enough.
We shall never forget.