Yesterday and TodayRichard T. Foltin September/October 2023
Ruminations of a second-generation Holocaust survivor
For many years I served as a policy and advocacy official with the American Jewish Committee, and today I remain active in pursuing the issues and promoting the values to which I dedicated my career. I am a Religious Freedom Fellow at the Freedom Forum, a leader on civil rights and social justice issues at the American Bar Association, and a participant in interfaith dialogues aimed at advancing Jewish-Muslim relations and a better understanding of the connections between faith and race.
Of late, I have been reflecting more and more on how it is no accident that I have been involved in this work. As a child of Holocaust survivors, I understood very early in life that civil society is fragile (although I might not have phrased it that way) and that it is far too easy to take for granted the rights and liberties we enjoy as Americans.
My parents’ stories of lives turned upside down, and of unimaginable hardship and loss, are engrained in me. I cannot recall ever not knowing about the Holocaust, although in my early days it was referred to as simply “the war,” as in “so-and-so died in the war.” But, of course, two of my grandparents, as well as other relatives, did not die “in the war” by happenstance or as military personnel. Rather, they were killed for a simple reason—they were Jews.
Moreover, as is the case for all second-generation survivors, I would not be here today had not my parents survived, by the most unlikely of circumstances, the unspeakable campaign of terror, cruelty, and genocide that swallowed up two thirds of European Jewry in the preceding century. In truth, it was a “War Against the Jews,” as it has been so appropriately termed by scholar Lucy Dawidowicz.
I could write about the scale of the Shoah, the millions killed, the progeny never born, the communities that no longer exist or that exist today only as a bare remnant. I could write about the mix of demonization and delegitimization that made this horror possible. But it is perhaps better that I write about my parents’ stories—in the cause of both preserving historical truth and honoring the victims of the Holocaust, which includes the survivors as well as those who perished.
I must pause here to give full credit—much of the narrative that follows is drawn from notes prepared by my mother in the later part of her life. In the mid to late 1930s my mother, born Helen Kornitzer, was a young girl living in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, having been brought there by her widowed father from their home in Kraków, Poland. She had what she would later describe as a “typical, religious middle-class family.” As a teenager she attended a German-language gymnasium—a secular academic high school—with the full expectation, relatively unusual for women in those days, that she would ultimately go to college. It was a coed school that was open to all, with many non-Jewish and Jewish students who socialized across religious and ethnic lines.
And yet, beginning in 1937, as Slovakia fell under the influence of Hitler’s Germany, social relations between the non-Jewish and Jewish compatriots became colder and colder, and then nonexistent. Finally, all Jewish students were thrown out of the school.
In 1941 the Jews of Bratislava were forced out of their apartments into a ghetto, where families had to share facilities in cramped quarters. In 1942, as deportations of young people began to places and fates unknown, my mother’s father, my maternal grandfather, arranged for my mother and her sister to be smuggled into Hungary, which, at the time, was a safer location for Jews.
One can only imagine my grandfather’s fear and trepidation as he handed over his two precious daughters to a stranger so that they could be taken through the forests and over the mountains. My mother was never to see her father again; he was deported to the Auschwitz death camp, probably in October 1944.
My mother survived in Budapest on false papers; with her blondish hair and gymnasium-taught German, she avoided being identified as a Jew. After a while she began to work for the underground, traveling by train to smuggle arms to the Jewish resistance in the forests surrounding Budapest.
At the end of 1944, by which point the Germans had taken over Hungary and Jews were being forced into ghettos and then deported, my mother was recruited, along with a group of other young women, into Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg’s efforts to save Jews.
In one instance, Wallenberg heard that a group of Hungarian Jewish women were being transported by train, to be used in slave labor. He got a fleet of cars with elegant banners, and he and his cadre raced to catch the train. Wallenberg stopped the train to argue heatedly with the train guards, showing supposed documentation that many of the train cars were the property of Sweden. While the train was held for these negotiations, the young women, including my mother, ran through the train cars, handing out safe passage documents to any of the deportees who would take them.
The Wallenberg group saved 50 to 60 women from that transport. Indeed, by the end of the war, Wallenberg had saved tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews. As the world learned only much later, Wallenberg’s cruel reward was detention by Russian forces when they arrived in Budapest, and he ultimately died in Russian captivity.
There are other stories I could share of my mother’s work with the underground, including an incident during which she was imprisoned and tortured by Nazi troops. They unsuccessfully sought to make her confess that she was Jewish and a member of the resistance. The bottom line, however, is that my mother continued to survive “hiding in the open” until the Russians took the city on February 13, 1945, and the remaining Jews of Budapest were saved.
My father, Ernest Foltin, was also a resident of Bratislava, although he and my mother did not know each other before the war. He was a successful businessman, a dealer in furs, whose business was seized as part of what has been called the greatest theft in history—the confiscation of goods and property from Jewish populations across Europe. He would have been in that same ghetto to which my mother was moved in 1941, and likely he and his mother, my paternal grandmother, were on that same 1944 transport train to Auschwitz as my maternal grandfather. Unlike my grandparents, who would have been taken directly to the gas chambers, my father was placed in the line for work (read “slave labor”) assignment. The guards called out professions, and when they called out for a welder, which was known to be “inside work,” my father stepped forward—even though he knew nothing of this type of work.
He was taken to the machine shop, where he was given a piece of iron and told to make a sample weld. As he stood there, trying to figure out how to use the welding machine, the German shop foreman came over and, rather than turning my father in, took the piece and did the work. He handed it to my father, saying, “Take it and show them,” the “them” being the Gestapo official who would be making sure that the laborers could do the work. That same foreman, never saying a word, then guided my father’s hands at the welding machine to teach him to do the job.
In this way, perpetually starved and ill-treated, he survived, even as the chimneys of Auschwitz continued to belch forth the remains of European Jewry. As Russian forces approached, however, my father and other prisoners were taken on what became known as the “death march.” His leg was swollen, and he could not keep up; four friends stayed behind to help him. The Nazi guards were quick to kill any stragglers, but somehow this group had fallen out of sight, and the death march proceeded without them. A few hours later the Russians came upon my father and his friends, and they were saved. It later became known that all the prisoners who remained on the death march perished.
Each of my parents, as I said earlier, survived by the most unlikely of circumstances. They were both resourceful and determined to seize every opportunity to live to the next day—and, in my mother’s case, to fight back. But, as my mother once observed, even among those who fought back most of them perished. It was helpful, even necessary, to be resilient, but it was not sufficient. There were many times my parents could have died and been just two more of those six million Jews. Against the remorseless forces of hatred, amplified first by a campaign of demonization and delegitimization, and then put into force by modern technology, organization, and bureaucracy, only a lucky few survived.
Ultimately, my parents returned to Bratislava seeking surviving relatives—and each did, even as they also found that many of their loved ones had been deported to their deaths. During that time they met and became a couple, and, after many additional travails, they emigrated to the United States. They had the strength and fortitude to make new lives for themselves and raise a family, even as they were haunted by the horrors through which they had lived.
I make no claim, even as a second-generation survivor, to unique insights on the lessons of the Holocaust. Yet even though I did not experience it myself, there is no doubt that the Holocaust—what Arthur Cohen has called the “Tremendum,” an event that is meaningless and cannot be redeemed—has been a brooding presence in my life. We cannot understand the Shoah, and it is impossible to reconcile with the concept of a just God, even as some of us still seek comfort and wisdom in our faith. Yet we must come to terms with how to proceed in a world in which such an enormous crime against humanity could take place.
First, and as I said at the outset, I understood from an early age the thin veneer on which civilization and our most precious liberties rest. How could the Holocaust have happened in a so-called enlightened and civilized society within (now barely) living memory? Yet it did, and no part of the world has been exempt in succeeding years from letting us down over and over again—sometimes even in the name of God.
The lawyer in me teaches that it is essential that we maintain and protect the legal codes and structures that safeguard our liberties and rights. At the same time, we must remember, in the words of the great American judge Learned Hand, that these safeguards ultimately have meaning only as long as “liberty lies in the hearts of men and women.” It is therefore just as essential that, through education and building relations across ethnic and religious differences, we teach habits of the heart that value pluralism and democracy—most of all with respect to those with whom we may have deep differences. We see what can happen when those efforts fail, not only with the Holocaust but also (and not in any way to make a comparison) the polarization and contempt that have become a feature of our current politics.
Second, I came to understand—although perhaps not at an early age—that the pledge of “never again” can sometimes be mere virtue signaling. The promise to stand against antisemitism and all forms of hate means little if the world turns a blind eye to religious and ethnic persecution, and even to acts of genocide. That is the universalist message of the Holocaust. We must combat hate from wherever it comes and to whomever it is directed.
And then there is the particularist message—we must be alert to, and speak out against, the ever-transmogrifying virus of antisemitism, in whatever form it manifests itself and from whatever quarter it emanates. In the United States, as elsewhere in the world, we have in recent years been witness to a wave of antisemitic expression and physical attacks, even murder. However, unlike mid-century Europe, leaders of diverse communities and government officials have been quick to condemn such attacks. That is, at least when they are able to look past their ideological preconceptions and recognize antisemitic expressions for what they are.
I make this last caveat because, even as we have seen a rise in antisemitism, we have also witnessed deflection and denial as political forces often seem quick to detect the mote of antisemitism in the eyes of their ideological adversaries, even as they are incapable of doing so in those of their allies.
To be sure, today’s White supremacist movements, rooted in the same racial ideology that fueled Nazi hatred, pose the greatest threat to the physical safety of American Jews. But there are other wellsprings of antisemitism, notably radical violent Islamism and extremist leftist ideology. These both share with right-wing antisemitism conspiratorial ideas about Jews, whether as individuals or in the form of the Jewish state of Israel. Whatever the source, Jews are increasingly being targeted, with their actual or perceived support for Israel often serving as both a catalyst and a pretext for expressions of hate and violence.
Remember the story of my mother and her Jewish compatriots being shunned and then expelled from their schools? Today’s parallel is an effort on some campuses to deny Jewish students a place at the social justice table, or even at the university itself, if they will not recant support for the very existence of Israel, an important and even essential aspect of their identity. This imposition of a litmus test as the price of involvement in civil society would be intolerable for any other minority group. And, along with physical assaults on Jews in Brooklyn and elsewhere who are identifiably Jewish, it is a canary in the coal mine for future treatment of Jews who refuse keep their true selves closeted.
It is praiseworthy to remember and condemn the crimes against humanity of 80 years ago. It is praiseworthy, also, that the Biden Administration recently announced an ambitious, all-government National Strategy to Combat Antisemitism. These are necessary steps. But these efforts will only be sufficient when the lessons of the past, including the dangers of demonizing any population—Jews or otherwise—are recognized and acted upon broadly by our society.
Article Author: Richard T. Foltin
Richard T. Foltin is a longtime advocate and analyst on religious freedom issues, including several appearances before congressional committees to testify on religious discrimination in the workplace. He formerly served as director of National and Legislative Affairs for the American Jewish Committee. Among other current activities, Foltin serves as cochair of the Religious Freedom Committee of the American Bar Association Section of Civil Rights and Social Justice. His chapter on the religious freedom implications of COVID-19 is included in an ABA book published this summer. The views expressed here are his own. Follow him on Twitter at @rfoltin.