Town Remembers Holocaust
by Cheryl Lecesse/Staff Writer | published in The Concord Journal
Concord – Marika Barnett carefully but quickly scanned the room back and forth, stopping only to politely ask a handful of people to stand from their folding chairs.
The audience, which filled the hearing room at the Town House, stared up at those few who were out of their seats. But their attention quickly shot back to Barnett as she explained the reason behind her exercise.
“If this room represents Jewish children in Nazi-occupied Europe, those who stand are the ones who survived,” she said.
Barnett said, of all Jewish children alive during the Holocaust, less than 10 percent survived it.
She added: “I am one of the survivors.”
The Concord-Carlisle Human Rights Council concluded a week of remembrance for victims of the Holocaust with an observance Sunday night, featuring music by local composer, singer and guitarist Rosalie Gerut, artwork by Concord middle school students and a presentation by Barnett, a Holocaust survivor who grew up in Budapest, Hungary during World War II.
The Board of Selectmen issued a proclamation in March declaring the week of April 15 the Week of Remembrance. Concord has held its own remembrance of the Holocaust since 1986. Selectmen Chairman Virginia McIntyre said she was pleased the town understands the importance of recognizing the need to pass down stories such as Barnett’s across generations.
“Only that way are we able to make a different world moving forward,” she said.
Born in Budapest in 1934, Barnett escaped in 1956 following the Hungarian uprising. A retired software engineer, she is now an award-winning playwright, photographer and speaker, frequently visiting schools to talk about her experience during the Holocaust.
Hungary had instilled anti-Jewish laws right after World War I, but the Jewish population still owned businesses, drove cars and held land.
“My father owned a car,” Barnett said. “We had a good life and I did not know of any persecution.”
Barnett said things changed after March 1938, following the Nazi annexation of neighboring Austria. In September 1939, all Jewish men between the ages of 18 and 48 had to enlist in what was called “work service.” For many, Barnett said this meant going to the Russian front and digging ditches, wearing only an armband over their street clothes as a uniform. Most did not return home, not necessarily from bullet wounds, but due to torture from the Hungarian Army.
In March 1944, when Germany occupied Hungary, the Nazis started combing through the country’s 20 districts one by one, deporting Jews mainly to Auschwitz. Luckily for Burnett, Budapest was the final district to be checked.
“In Budapest things went slower,” she said. While Jews in other districts were being deported, Jews in Budapest were still sewing yellow stars on their clothing. Houses were designated “yellow star houses” if more than 50 percent of the tenants were Jewish. If a building’s total tenants were less than 50 percent Jewish, all Jewish tenants were forced to move.
“Our house just made it and became a yellow star house,” she said. “We considered ourselves lucky.”
Barnett’s parents twice tried to hide her from the Nazis. The first time, they sent her to live with a Gentile man who started visiting their house and running errands for them after the Nazi occupation. Her new identity was a twice-orphaned Christian child from the first district of Hungary, where her mother’s family was from.
The night before she was to leave, Barnett’s father told her this man was her half-brother from a previous love affair.
“All of my world was turning upside down,” she said. She went to live with the man and his wife and mother. But Barnett’s stay didn’t last. As word spread among neighbors about her, more people started to visit their home to see her.
“Even at that age I had not much problem talking,” she said. When neighbors started pressuring Barnett’s half-brother to adopt her, he panicked and brought her back to her parents.
Later, her parents paid to hide her in a Catholic convent, where 110 Jewish children were being hidden. On Oct. 15, 1944, Barnett’s parents arrived with packages of food and told her the governor of Hungary had announced plans to join the Allies. They let her stay one more night, and her parents spent the evening celebrating. Little did they know, she said, that the Germans put the governor under house arrest and killed his older son, allowing the Hungarian Nazis to take over and immediately begin executing Jews at the shores of the Danube.
When her father learned the Nazis were taking children from convents to the Danube, he immediately went to get Barnett and take her home.
Barnett and her family, however, were able to escape capture finally with the help of German SS. They were able to secure a hiding place in her father’s office, escorted there one night by two men pretending to be Hungarian Nazi officers. She later found out her father paid the German SS officer to help the family; in return her father said he would testify on the officer’s behalf in court at the war’s end.
The event concluded with a meditation by the Rev. Dr. Maureen Dallison Kemeza, who is serving at an Episcopal church in Boston where a Jewish reform start-up is also housed. The experience has allowed her to explore religious heritage, compare texts and search for common roots.
Kemeza said arguments between people of different religions, particularly Jews and Christians, were written into interpretations of evangelists, snowballing into hate, including that of the Third Reich. Now, it’s time for people to accept what has happened, and learn from the history of hate speech’s effects, she said.
“My hope is that we Christians, Jews, people of every religion learn from the tragedies and complexities of history,” she said.
Cheryl Lecesse can be reached at email@example.com or at 978-371-5742.