Barnett, 76, a Hungarian Holocaust survivor, shared pieces of her story on Thursday, Oct. 28, to students at Norwood’s South Area Solomon Schechter Day School and visiting teens from the German International School in Boston.
The Day of Learning focused on Swedish diplomat and businessman Raoul Wallenberg, who saved thousands of Jews during World War II, including Barnett’s parents.
Walking among the students, Barnett, a Stow resident, described the harrowing 10 months she spent in and out of hiding when she was 10 years old, after the Germans occupied Hungary on March 19, 1944. Before that, her family lived in Budapest as second-class citizens, were denied their civil rights and discriminated against, but the mass deportation and extermination of the Jews had not yet begun there.
Barnett said on March 19, 1944, her parents’ 'only goal was to save my life.'
The students listened as Barnett vividly described her wartime childhood.
'Immediately (my parents) looked for a Christian family' with whom to hide her, she said. She recalled how her parents had always told her to tell the truth but, she said, 'now I had to lie about everything.'
Eventually, the Christian family felt it was too dangerous to hide her, kept her parents’ money, and she returned to her family.
Her tale twisted between rising hopes and constant fear.
Barnett said although her mother and father came from Orthodox backgrounds, she, her mother and two aunts decided to study to become Catholics in order to save their lives.
Part of the crowd gasped as Barnett told them the day decreed for their Baptism was Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, one of the Jewish High Holy Days. Some of the German school students that were in the audience were unfamiliar with the holiday, so Barnett explained its importance and why it was too difficult to make such a fundamental change on such an important day.
'So we learned all that for nothing,' she said, adding she didn’t understand why the Catholic hierarchy had decided to choose that day of all days to convert them 'in such a humiliating way.'
Most of the Hungarian Jews ended up in the Auschwitz concentration camp. By May 14, 1944, all of her parents’ relatives were already on the trains heading to their deaths, she said.
Barnett took a deep breath as she paced near the podium, describing the way Jews were segregated at the camps: If you were too old, too young, a mother with a baby, disabled, etc., you went straight to the gas chamber.
'Almost immediately, almost 100 percent (of my family) were directed to the gas chamber,' she said, her voice straining.
At that time, Barnett said, all the convents in Hungary were hiding Jewish children.
On Oct. 12, 1944, in another desperate act to save her life, her parents put her into a convent.
On Oct. 15 the Hungarian Nazi party took over the government. By then the only Jews left in the country were living in Budapest – the rest had already been taken to concentration camps. In the last few months of the war, the Hungarian Nazis took 18,000 Jews to the shores of the Danube and shot and killed them.
Touching her forehead she said, 'I knew (my parents) were in danger. I had nightmares in the convent.'
She was 'absolutely convinced' that she’d get news they were dead.
Holding up four fingers and walking around the desks, she said she later found out her parents were taken away four times to be killed, but each time managed to escape.
And that is when Wallenberg entered her parents’ lives.
Explaining that Wallenberg had a fair complexion while her father’s was dark, she said as her parents were lined up to be taken either to the Danube or to the trains, 'Wallenberg saw my father and he pointed to him … and he said (to a Hungarian Nazi), ‘oh, this is my cousin,’’’ as the audience chuckled. When Wallenberg saw her mother and two aunts clinging to her father, he said, 'this is my family. And he was so convincing.'
'Through the rest of (our) lives, we would only refer to (Wallenberg) as cousin Raoul,' she said as the crowd softly laughed in a moment of levity during the unrelentingly sad story.
In the meantime she studied the catechism at the convent and was converted on Dec. 11, 1944.
With forcefulness she said, 'that was the first and last time in my life I was ever brainwashed. Never again.
'I feel terrible about it. I know I had nothing to do about it. I wish – there was out of 100 children only one boy (who) resisted them … all of us went like sheep to (be) baptized. … I never (forgave) myself for allowing that to happen.'
The mother superior gave her a card afterward saying she was baptized on Dec. 11, 1944, as a 10-year-old. Ironically, she said, that card was 'a dead giveaway that I am a Jew. … I mean, who else would have a paper like that?'
Barnett said she never understood why, if the nuns and priests wanted to save their lives, they didn’t forge Baptism records from when they were born. 'That would have saved my life … but their purpose was to convert us.'
Just one day after she was converted, on Dec. 12, 1944, her father came to get her after he saw Jewish kids being taken away from another convent.
Because of the numerous times she had to move and abandon all of her belongings, she told the students she now she refers to herself as a packrat.
Soon after leaving the convent, Hungarian Nazis came to their home and marched them at gunpoint through the streets to an office building she recognized as being near where her father worked.
As they entered the building, she saw an SS officer. Her father, a Hungarian Nazi and Hungarian soldier then gathered together, poured brandy, lifted their glasses and said 'L’chaim.'
Some of the teachers in the audience who knew Hebrew laughed, since 'L’chaim' is a celebratory Hebrew toast.
SS Officer Kurt Becher saved 1,000 Jews for money. However, SS Sgt. Ganzner, whose first name Barnett didn’t know, stayed with Barnett’s family, got none of the money, yet protected them from the Hungarian Nazis every day until he was killed.
On Jan. 18, 1945, they were liberated when the Russians came, but that was not where her story ended. However, she only had limited time to tell her tale and asked the kids if they had any questions.
A boy from the German school raised his hand and asked when things started getting better and she replied, 'Never. Under communism – never.'
Another student timidly asked, 'Were you scared the whole entire time?'
'Very, very,' she said. 'What scared me the most … (was) the secrecy. (My) parents were whispering sometimes among themselves and it killed me,' she said while shaking her first, 'because I knew whatever they whispered, it would affect me. And that was the worst part – the secrecy.'
When another student asked her what she would say to Wallenberg if he were still alive, she said, 'Thank you, cousin.'
Barnett snuck over the boarder from Hungary to Austria at age 22 and came to the U.S. in 1957 while her parents stayed behind. She has lived and worked across this country and has two sons. Barnett is now an avid writer, photographer and member of a child survivor group. Thirty child survivors, including Barnett, contributed to the book, 'Remember Us: A Collection of Memories from Hungarian Hidden Children of the Holocaust.'
The Day of Learning was made possible through collaboration between the Brookline-based Facing History and Ourselves’ Jewish Education Program and Solomon Schechter. Facing History and Ourselves received a $1 million grant from the nonprofit Jim Joseph Foundation to bring the program to eight Jewish day schools, four in Boston and four in Los Angeles.
Barnett will present Wallenberg (posthumously) with the 2nd Annual Righteous Among Nations Award on Tuesday, Nov. 16, and Dr. Janos Beer, one of Wallenberg’s aides, will accept the award on his behalf. The award is given by the Israel Arbeiter Gallery of Understanding on the campus of the South Area Solomon Schechter Day School in Norwood. The keynote speaker will be Alan M. Dershowitz, lawyer, author and Felix Frankfurter professor of law at Harvard Law School. Space is limited and advance reservations are required. Tickets range from $10-$250. For details and reservations, call 1-781-769-9400, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.sassds.org. Holocaust survivors are invited to attend at no cost, however, advance reservations are required." (source)