Friday, 4 December 2015

An Epic Tale

Friday is Archive Day and today we embark on the first part of a truly epic tale, by way of The Uncle (who you met in Toledo last week).  The Uncle, it should be said, is no longer with us, having hung up his boots (and cameras) for the last time some years ago at the ripe old age of 88.

Exactas, he liked Exacta cameras.  Funny thing is, I don't know what became of them.  Although near the end a kindly neighbour took it upon himself to flog off a lot of The Uncle's possessions, so perhaps that what happened to them.  Some people, eh?

As we know, The Uncle liked to travel and sometime in the 1930s he met a Hungarian academic who became a life-long friend.  Balazs was, I believe, a professor in the University of Budapest.  He was also Jewish.

Balazs, 1938
(My knowledge of the Hungarian language is nil, but if memory serves me correctly his name is pronounced Ball-ashe).

Fortunately, The Uncle carried a camera on his travels and he recorded the details of one particular trip in some detail.  In the summer of 1938 he and a few colleagues set sail from Galway, Ireland, destination Budapest.  Their ship docked at Hamburg, Germany.  Not just any ship, mind - a ship that was about to become very famous, for all the wrong reasons.  The SS St Louis.

Less than a year after The Uncle's trip, the SS St Louis set sail from Hamburg to Cuba with over 900 passengers, mostly Jewish, seeking asylum from Nazi persecution.   Unfortunately only a handful of passengers with official Cuban visas were allowed to disembark at Havana.   The German captain, Gustav Schröder, was forced to try another country and headed for Florida.  No luck there - America was having none of it, preventing them from landing and even preventing Schröder from beaching the ship in order for the refugees to escape.  Canada proved no better.  Forced to return to Europe, Schröder, a non-Jewish German, refused to return to Hamburg until all the passengers had been given entry to some other country.  Eventually the ship docked at Antwerp, Belgium and passengers were eventually distributed between the UK, France, Belgium and The Netherlands.  It has been estimated that a quarter of those who disembarked on continental Europe died in death camps.

For his actions, Captain Schröder was awarded the Order of Merit by the Federal Republic of Germany and posthumously named as one of the Righteous among the Nations in the Holocaust Memorial in Israel.

OK let's get all the bad stuff over in one post...

As an intellectual Jew, Balazs was right in the sweet spot for the attention of Mr Hitler et al and so both him and his wife found themselves in one of the death camps during the war.  His wife, separated from him in the camp, didn't survive.  He did.  I can recall The Uncle relating how his friend realised very quickly that you had to be selfish to survive.  They were sent to work during the day - anyone too ill or exhausted to work was dealt with in the usual fashion.  Conditions were cramped to say the least and in order to get some sleep at night Balazs hauled himself up to a beam supporting the roof of the cabin in which they were housed.  He would strap himself to the beam with his belt so as not to fall off and get what sleep he could in order to be ready for work the next day.  Food was scarce and he took to chewing pieces of his belt in order to keep his gastric system working.  But he survived.

Of course after the war, Hungary was under Communist control and behind the 'Iron Curtain'.  The 1956 revolution did improve things but travel, for example, was still severely restricted until the late 1980s and I don't think Balazs was able to go outside his country more than a couple of times.  He did come to The Liberties once, sometime in the late 1970s.  Here he is, along with his second wife.  My father is on the right.

Balazs's second wife is another interesting story, since his first wife died in the camps.  In those days, in Hungary, it was the custom to take a sister as your wife if your first wife died.  My understanding is that that is indeed what happened.

Back to the SS St Louis, of course The Uncle and his friends had no idea of the important place in history that their ship would have - they were, no doubt, excited about the forthcoming journey through Germany and Czechoslovakia en route to Hungary.  Unfortunately no-one had remembered to pack an iPad, so they had to amuse themselves with some exciting board games:

Conditions in Steerage Class were perhaps less than opulent:

They might have had two washbasins, but clearly no beds.  Perhaps they took it in turns to sit on the toilet for a nap - and if so, by the look of things some-one had overstayed their allocated time.

A nice thing is that not only do we have an annotated photo album of this trip - we also have more than a few negatives, some of which I am printing, some 77 years later.   And while I can't promise you amazing shots of political rallies as they passed through Berlin in the summer of 1938 what I can do is show something of their trip on the Friday slot over the next few weeks.

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