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My Heroic Mother

By Les Besser

As a young boy growing up in Budapest during WWII, I didn’t realize the risks my mother was taking by helping Jews persecuted by the Fascists. Several of her previous employers were well-to-do Jews who had treated
her kindly, so she wanted to protect them as much she could. In the early part of the Nazi era, safe-conduct passes issued by consulates of neutral countries like Sweden and Switzerland were still recognized by the authorities. Mother immediately sprang into action to obtain passes for some of those in need.

I recall standing in line with her at one consulate until the Hungarian “Arrowcross” Nazi thugs used rubber truncheons to disperse the crowd. Later, when those papers were no longer honored, she helped Jews to hide by providing them with documents from our extended family.

The birth certificates of Mother’s father and uncle went to two elderly Jewish men whose apartments had already been confiscated, leaving them homeless. We told our neighbors that the homes of our “relatives” had been destroyed — a common occurrence in those times — and the men would stay with us until the fighting stopped. Near the end of the war, when it was no longer safe in our apartment, Mother and I hid with them in our 8×10-foot rat-infested, dirtfloored coal cellar. Without adequate food, heat, or sanitation, we miraculously survived the brutal winter of 1945.

An Israeli organization, Yad Vashem, recognized my brave mother as one of the Righteous Among The Nations—an award given to Christians who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews from extermination by the Nazis. In her honor, a special candle was lighted last month at the Holocaust Memorial service, held at the Jewish Community Center of La Jolla.

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