Lessons on hope from a Hungarian forced labourer in World War II

A renowned human rights lawyer, whose father was a forced labourer during World War II, shares lessons from his life.

[Handout/Human Rights Watch]
Ervin Brody survived forced labour on the eastern front in World War II [Photo courtesy of the Brody family]

“Tomorrow the sun will shine.”

That is how my father encouraged his comrades at the overcrowded “hospital” in Ukraine in the winter of 1943, on the eastern front of World War II.

Hundreds of Hungarian Jewish forced labourers were being treated for wounds and diseases in an abandoned stall with breaking walls. Patients – tangled over beds, chairs and the floor – often found themselves in snow when they woke up in the morning. There were few doctors and almost no medicine.

My father, Ervin Brody, had his toe amputated there, without anaesthesia, to save his leg from the frostbite that had crippled him on a retreat march of 600km through the Russian winter, after their German masters had been defeated at Stalingrad.

Of the 265 men in his labour company, only a few dozen survived. His steel discipline and physical strength, as a championship tennis player, pulled him through that ordeal, as they would his entire life.

The siege of Budapest

“Tomorrow the sun will shine” has become a kind of mantra in my family.

In the 23 years since my father died, I have thought a lot about “Mompi”, as we called him ever since I could not pronounce “mon papa” as a baby. My life as a human rights activist, which has taken me to war-zones, refugee camps and ghettos across the globe, has been a constant reminder that, despite my privileged position, I live only one generation removed from the conflict and turmoil of Mompi’s world. Or perhaps, only one pandemic away.

In Barcelona, where I now live, thousands have died in overburdened make-shift hospitals. At least here, there are doctors, medicine and no snow. In New York, where we grew up, Mompi’s widow (my step-mother) died last month of natural causes at 96, but the virus prevented us from being with her.

After he returned from Ukraine, the Hungarian collaborationist government sent Mompi to a large labour battalion at a Yugoslav copper mine where a sadistic commander took pleasure in torturing the workers.

The battallion was disbanded in the face of a Soviet advance in October 1944, and thousands of Jews were shot by the retreating Nazis on a forced march towards Hungary.

When news of the massacre made it back to my father’s family in Budapest, they assumed he was dead. In fact, he had managed to escape with some friends during a thunderstorm.

Mompi often told me that one of the happiest sights of his life, after three days wending through a forest to avoid detection, was the red star on the cap of one of Marshal Tito’s communist Partisans manning a machine-gun position.

From there, my father joined the advancing Soviet army as a translator and auxiliary and marched with them to the siege of Budapest, his home.

[Courtesy of Reed Brody]
Ervin Brody and Gyorgy Borhegyi, with Hungarian Labor Service Company 108/57 in Sianki, Ukraine, 1942 [Photo courtesy of the Brody family]

By then it was early 1945 and Germany had directly occupied Hungary. Adolf Eichmann was transporting Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz. My father was worried that his family had met such a fate and, throwing caution to the wind, decided to enter the besieged city to find out.

Crawling through the snow in his Soviet uniform, carrying a jar of butter as a gift, he was shot in the hand – his third bullet of the war – before finally reaching his mother’s apartment building near the Danube, a building I visited many times more than 30 years later.

He rang the bell of their apartment. His mother opened the door to find a Russian soldier before her. Fearing he had come to loot the apartment, she protested in broken Russian that she was an old, poor woman. “But mother, don’t you recognise me?” my father asked her.

His mother began to sob hysterically. The son she had thought was dead was still alive.

The New York years

My father worked for the Soviets after they liberated Budapest, but he wanted to escape that world so followed an Austrian woman to Vienna.

In that divided city, he worked for the American army as a train yardmaster and interpreter, helping move POWs and refugees.

He adored the American soldiers with their easy slang, and they valued this athletic multilingual European who could deal with the Russians, the Hungarians and the Austrians. In 1947, they helped him get passage to his dream country – the United States – with 755 other displaced people.

Arriving penniless at the age of 38, his ordeals were not over.

His relatives in New York had no time for him. After three lonely years, he fell in love and married. But his wife committed suicide. She was pregnant with their first child at the time.

After that, he was fired from a good job to make room for the boss’ mistress.

Eventually, he went back to college and graduate school while still working full-time, earning his doctorate from Columbia University when he was 59.

After falsifying his records, to take 10 years off his age, he spent his last 28 years placidly teaching adoring students at a bucolic university and returning home to a loving wife and two (mostly) worshipful kids.

[Courtesy of Reed Brody]
Ervin Brody, right, and Gyorgy Borhegyi, with Hungarian Labor Service Company 108/57 in Sianki, Ukraine in 1942 [Photo courtesy of the Brody family]

Learning from my father

My father taught his literature and language classes from the treasure house of personal experience, from what he ironically called his “European education”.

“My diplomas?” he once wrote, “I wear them on my body.”

He created a Russian studies programme at his university, long before the US-Soviet detente, as a way of promoting dialogue between two peoples he loved.

My upbringing was full of historical and literary references. When I set up the black pieces for our chess matches, we pretended I was the Russian General Kutuzov, from Tolstoy’s War and Peace, drawing Napoleon’s troops to enter my territory only to be defeated by the Russian winter, as Hitler’s troops would be a century later.

In college, I took my father’s classes on Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Solzhenitsyn and Camus. It was there, when a fawning student imitated him to me, that I first realised Mompi spoke with a thick Hungarian accent.

“Wait,” I said, “my father sounds like Zsa Zsa Gabor?”

Rebukes from a president

An idealistic young lawyer, my life changed in 1984 when I took a trip to Nicaragua to witness the Sandinista revolution.

In a mountain village where I knew the priest, locals beseeched me to alert Americans to the killings being carried out by “contra” fighters, backed by the US.

I quit my job as Assistant Attorney General in New York State to investigate for myself.

My father, whose life was a journey from the hunger and uncertainty of central Europe to the stability of a tenured professorship in the US, was aghast that I would not only give up a steady job but deliberately put myself in harm’s way.

Having lived through the heralding of so many new ideological dawns, he also worried that I was starry-eyed about the Sandinistas. When he saw a letter (containing $1,000 I had raised for the village health clinic) which I signed with the Sandinista rallying cry “free homeland or death”, he ridiculed my empty sloganeering.

I went anyway. For five months, I crisscrossed Nicaragua’s remote war zones with priests going to say mass. and came back with hundreds of accounts of atrocities.

“Reedy,” my father said, “when you went to Nicaragua, I was afraid you were going to come back a Communist, but a Catholic I never expected.”

My ensuing report made the front page of the New York Times and helped force a Congressional cutoff in US aid to the contras. The best part for Mompi, I think, was that I earned a rebuke from President Ronald Reagan, whom he hated then more than anybody. (In those days it was still rare to be called out by a US president.)

My father’s pride soared as I embarked on a life trying to combat injustice. He once compared me with Camus’s plague-fighting Dr Bernard Rieux. I often felt more like Camus’s Sisyphus, however, eternally pushing the rock up the hill only to have it roll back down – but happy with “the struggle itself towards the heights”.

I have lost many more battles than I have won in American courts and in places like Haiti and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).

But that has only made the victories sweeter.

In 1998, the year after Mompi’s death at 88, I was at the British House of Lords working on the case against the former Chilean leader Augusto Pinochet, one of the people Mompi most despised. The day the Lords ruled that Pinochet did not have immunity from torture charges, I wore Mompi’s old overcoat to court.

Unlocking the secrets of Mompi’s life

I often thought (and still think) that my father embellished or exaggerated his stories, but two years ago, when I was cleaning out my step-mother’s apartment, I came across boxes of materials in a closet that corroborated his hardships and his strength. They included family letters from the war years, his work brigade orders, a safe-conduct passage from Tito’s army, recommendations from the US army in Vienna. There was even an unpublished book by a friend who was on the long retreat from his labour camp in the Soviet Union who wrote – mistakenly – “One morning we found Ervin on the road frozen to death”.

Years earlier, I broke open the atrocity case against a former Chadian dictator by stumbling on the abandoned files of his secret police, but my joy at that find was nothing compared with the exhilaration of unlocking some of the secrets of Mompi’s life.

I found letters between my father’s parents, dating back to 1895, describing their plight in the village of Satoraljaujhely, Hungary where my grandfather Kalman, a poor-people’s lawyer, died nearly destitute when Mompi was 13.

There were pictures of Mompi’s Viennese wife, who did not follow him as expected to America. There were bundles and bundles of aerogrammes – weekly correspondence over decades between my father in the US, and his mother, sister and brother back home. I even learned he had a fourth sibling who died when my father was two.

A cardboard box marked “Blanche”, tied tightly with string, uncloaked the story of his wife’s suicide. Pictures showed a beautiful woman and a happy couple on the beach and on the tennis court who met at Thanksgiving and were married by January. Notes and letters from two years later, however, revealed a woman paralysed by pregnancy and tormented by whether to have the baby. There were references to an abortion she could not go through with; loving notes from my father; Blanche’s scrawled notes to herself – “I feel as if I am in a burning house with all the doors closed”. Then there was the medical examiner’s report – a 39-year-old woman dead of barbiturate poisoning in a small Manhattan studio apartment, seven months pregnant with a girl – and Blanche’s suicide note to my father saying she saw no way out.

After her death, my father poured his heart out in a five-page letter to his sister in Hungary. Blanche had been abused as a child and could not face the burden of giving birth, he said. “I told her about the harsh circumstances I lived in the labor camp, how I went away with a frozen leg, typhoid fever and begged her to trust in her own strength.”

But my father, too, was faltering. In language I never imagined him using, he even told his sister that his death would be a deliverance. “I do not know how in the world I am going to embark all over again walking down this path.” But, once more, he did find his strength.

I was born only 17 months after Blanche’s suicide, the result of a short romance with my mother, an activist, artist and teacher. Then my father met Prettynka, the “best thing that ever happened to me”, She would give him another child, my brother Clifford, and, finally, 43 years of stability and happiness.

In moments of crisis, I lean on my father’s resilience and his conviction that better days would come.

Camus taught us that “the only way to fight the plague is with decency”. Whether it is saving the sick and preventing infections, like Dr Rieux, standing up for the most vulnerable, or simply, helping our family and others survive, we are all called on now to find our inner strength, the strength of our forebearers.

For tomorrow the sun will shine.

Source: Al Jazeera