Carl Flesch survived the persecution of Jews in Hungary
,“How did you find Yeshua?” a pastor of a church asked me recently. My answer was, “I didn’t find Him, because I never searched for Him. He found me.” During 2000 year church history there have always been Messianic Jews, Jews who believe that Jesus is the promised Messiah, the suffering Servant of the Lord who came to die for our sins. These are the roots of Christianity. I can’t sum up my biography in a few pages, not even a part of it, but I will mention a few episodes and miracles that happened in our family and give some historical data.
I was born in Budapest, Hungary, in 1933, two weeks before Hitler became the chancellor in Germany. This may have been the reason why I remained the only child of my parents. My parents were religious but not Orthodox Jews. My mother lit the candles every Friday night and we went to the synagogue on the holidays. We celebrated Pesach and read the Haggada, but as with the majority of European Jews in Germany or in the Austrian-Hungarian Monarchy, we were assimilated—Jews by race or religion, but first of all Germans or Hungarians. The awakening came after 1933.
Hungary and the persecution of Jews
Hungary had observed, even before World War II, the so-called ‘Judengesetze,’ laws limiting how many Jews could study or practice certain professions (numerous clauses). Miklós Horthy, a rear admiral of the Austrian-Hungarian navy, who became regent of Hungary after a 133-day Soviet government in 1919, hung Jews when he with his anti-communist entourage marched into Hungary. At this time Hitler was still a lance corporal. Hungary fought in World War II with the Germans against the Soviet Union. Jews were called up to non-combatant, forced labor service. They had to dig trenches or were driven to clear minefields.
When the Russians had crossed the Carpathian Mountains, the border to Hungary, Horthy wanted to cancel the alliance with Germany. The Germans occupied Hungary on March 19, 1944. The situation for the Jews deteriorated dramatically. I remember seeing long lines of German motorbikes with soldiers driving through the streets. The same day Adolph Eichmann came to Budapest and the deportation of Jews to Auschwitz and other death camps started. Jews from the country and towns were first, only a few returned from those transportations. After a few days my father was called up to forced labor and was taken to Buchenwald. We received one or two postcards from him. Only after the war were we told that he spent the last days of his life in a camp close to Weimar in Germany, in Berga an der Elster, where the Germans wanted to build an underground factory. This happened when they could already hear the artillery fire of the Americans! One morning when my father could not get up, he was beaten to death.
My family had a big haberdashery in the city centre of Budapest. Our shop was closed, as were all shops or factories owned by Jews. Jewish families were given one room per family in specific houses marked with a yellow star. We had to wear a yellow star on our clothes. My three grandparents, my mother and I had two rooms in a flat, the other rooms were occupied by another family and we had to share kitchen and bathroom with them. We could leave the house only between 2 and 4 p.m. daily to do some shopping. There was no school for Jewish children. With a classmate of mine who was living with his family in the same house, we played to pass the time.
During the ten months between March 1944 and January 1945, we survived miraculously. The Germans and the Hungarian Nazis had no time to kill every Jew in Budapest. Whoever doesn’t believe in miracles is not a realist, there is nothing accidental. An example of one of the miracles that happened was when all the Jewish men were all gone into forced labor, the Hungarian Nazis were collecting women for labor. One morning all women between 18 and 50 had to gather in the courtyard to get ready for the transport. My mother was 42 at the time. The Nazis had a roll call of all inhabitants of the house. As the roll was called, a woman’s name was read out and somebody called, “She is over 50,” so she was crossed off the list. My mother could for a moment return to the stairwell to tell the woman not to appear in the courtyard. A young woman who had a baby pulled my mother into her flat and hid her in the bathroom. The Nazis somehow did not miss her when they left with the rest of the women.
It was time to go into hiding. My mother decided that we should go into the cellar of our closed shop. At that time the Nazis raided the streets, collecting Jews in a brickworks and sending them on foot to the West. My mother and I were carrying supplies to our hiding place when we were caught in the raid. My grandparents were still in our flat and we were taken in the direction of the brickworks. It was raining and twilight, almost night, and we were herded by foot along the road with low, ground floor houses with huge gates, which had little doors in them. One of those doors was half open and we slipped behind the door and waited till the column passed. We removed the yellow star from our coats and had to be very careful not to leave a yellow thread on the tissue. We walked through the dark streets back to our house and rang the bell. The warden’s wife opened the gate rather than the Nazi house warden himself. She let us in. Next day all of us moved to our hiding place in the cellar of our closed shop. Here we sat all day by the light of a single bulb. After about two weeks we couldn’t bear the isolation. My mother’s cousin finally got us a so-called ‘Schutzpass’. These were made out by the consulates of Switzerland, Sweden or the Vatican. Certain houses in different districts were under the protectorate of these states. The Red army at that time had already surrounded Budapest. The Hungarian Nazis, the ‘arrow-cross’ party, had all the power in the country and they killed every Jew they could find.
It was already November and my grandfather went to find a place for us in a protected house. We spent several weeks in this house. The arrow-cross henchmen came twice with no respect for the foreign consular protection and carried Jews away. Mother escaped again miraculously by hiding behind a wardrobe in our room. When people were carried away, the question was always in which direction they were taken. There were two possibilities, either the ghetto or the Danube. Jews taken to the Danube had to leave behind their belongings and shoes, then they were shot with semi-automatic rifles and fell into the river.
The ghetto and its fall
A few days before Christmas 1944 all people from the ‘protected house’ were taken to the ghetto. When people entered the gate they had had to pass the henchmen and hand over all their belongings. I slipped away behind their backs with a bag with a loaf of bread of about 2 kg. This was the food we had, a ration of about 20 g a day before the Russians arrived. There was one tap in the cellar of the house from which hundreds of people had to collect water, which was only dripping. The temperatures were far below freezing and there was no glass in the windows in the room where we stayed. We were sleeping on the floor. I had to get a haircut because I was infested with lice. There were no relief organizations, no ambulances, and no cemeteries. When somebody died they were buried in the nearest park in a mass grave.
On January 17th 1945, the Russians occupied Pest, the east side of Budapest, and the walls of the ghetto were torn down. We were free. It was a severe winter, the only advantage was that you didn’t need a refrigerator to preserve food. We moved into the smallest room of the flat of my grandparents. We closed the windows with cardboard and used some pieces of glass we recovered. We were heating the flat with wood that we collected from the ruins of bombed houses. The frozen corpses of horses provided meat for us, and lentils, beans and maize were our food for months.
1945-1948 were years of democracy with elections and several parties. In 1948 the Communists seized power by cheating in the elections. My mother reopened the store but our shop was nationalized, so my mother got a job in a music school as she was a piano teacher. After graduation from high school I was not allowed to study. This time not because I was a Jew, but because my father was a ‘capitalist’ and not a farmer or worker. I spent a year in the pathology department of a big hospital and became a lab technician. A year later, this was also miraculous, I was accepted as a student of pharmacy. Five months before my final exams I left Hungary during the revolt of 1956. This is a story in itself. I crossed the border at night and a week later was in Basel. The Lord made the arrangements. No travel agent could have done such perfect planning in those chaotic circumstances.
I would like to turn the pages back to December 1944 while we were in this ‘protected’ house. As I mentioned, twice the henchmen wanted to separate my mother from my grandparents and me but she had a wondrous escape each time. On one occasion, I stood on the flat roof of the house with a boy of the same age and we watched the allied air force bombing the industrial district, which was about four miles away. We were not afraid, we were children and we thought it was an adventure. However the knowledge that we could be taken to the Danube and shot any time of the day was a terrible threat.
In 1945 spring my mother met a Jewish lady. She and her husband had a business in interior design. Her name was Maria Rózsa. Ms. Rózsa lost her sixteen-year-old son and her younger brother, both were shot on the way to a death camp. They were Messianic Jews, Jews who believe in Jesus. They had the opportunity to be exempted and stay in hiding, but they decided to go with their folk and share their destiny.
Ms. Rózsa called our attention to Deuteronomy chapter 28 and explained the background to us. Though she suffered under the Shoa and lost two of the most beloved members of her family, her face was radiant and the peace of her soul was visible. I want to share some verses from this chapter:
Verse 49-50 ‘The LORD will bring a nation against you from far away, from the ends of the earth, like an eagle (the Roman or the German eagle?) swooping down, a nation whose language you will not understand, a fierce-looking nation without respect for the old or pity for the young . . . ‘
Verse 64-67 ‘Then the LORD will scatter you among all nations, from one end of the earth to the other. There you will worship other gods—gods of wood and stone, which neither you nor your fathers have known. Among those nations you will find no repose, no resting place for the sole of your foot. There the LORD will give you an anxious mind, eyes weary with longing, and a despairing heart. You will live in constant suspense, filled with dread both night and day, never sure of your life. In the morning you will say, “If only it were evening!” and in the evening, “If only it were morning!”– because of the terror that will fill your hearts and the sights that your eyes will see.’ This hit me like a lightning. I was eleven and this is what I said every evening and morning, “…if only it were (morning, or evening).” Here was somebody who knew me, for whom I was transparent as glass, who knew my thoughts thousands of years before I was born. This was an experience like Nathanael had. You can find his story in John, chapter 1: 45-50. Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote–Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked. “Come and see,” said Philip. When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.” “How do you know me?” Nathanael asked. Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.“ Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.” Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You shall see greater things than that.” My reaction was similar to his, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel,” and ever since I have really seen greater things than that came to pass!
My mother and I joined a Brethren Assembly with about 20 percent Messianic Jews, which was absolutely unique at that time in Eastern Europe. Andy Ungar and Hugo Berliner were my rabbis and also, in many respects, fathers instead of my father. Their expositions of the Tenach and the New Testament was the milk I was brought up with. Professor F. Kiss, professor of anatomy at the University of Budapest, was another ‘guru.’ He was the founder of the assembly and he saved several people during the Holocaust.
Yeshua told Nathanael “You shall see greater things than that,” and for me, those greater things were what I learned by reading and studying the Bible. Some may say, “You were only 12 and it was an emotional experience which will fade out over time.” Had not Saul an emotional experience on the road to Damascus? Yes, but he studied the Scriptures and found out that Yeshua who met him on the road was the Messiah who was prophesied in the Tanakh to come and suffer for the sins of his nation. Luther and Blaise Pascal also had dramatic experiences that changed their lives permanently. I am neither like Nathanael nor Paul, but when somebody is touched by the Holy Spirit, the Ruach, then changes are deep, permanent and even eternal. It can also happen the other way around, some people are searching for truth in the Scriptures, intellectually, honestly, and when they find the truth they have an emotional experience when realizing they are sinners and in Yeshua’s cross they find forgiveness.
Israel as a model
God has chosen Israel as a prototype, a model for demonstration of how He deals with the nations. Why Israel? I have no answer, only that God is sovereign and this was His will. Israel is a model, a prototype on whom God demonstrates for all nations His righteousness, love and mercy. I want to close by quoting Karl Barth:
‘All in all, the history of Israel is a paradigm and a model for the history of the nations if they accept and acknowledge prophecy as such, which will give them the key to understand world history.’