Ahead of this year's Holocaust Memorial Day Dr Tim Cole, Senior Lecturer in Social History at the University of Bristol, reflects upon untold stories and untold journeys. He considers the tangible experiences of the individual as he seeks to further understand the Holocaust and its devastation. Dr Cole's forthcoming book, Traces of the Holocaust, gives significant coverage to this and other aspects of the Holocaust. It will be published in June and can be pre-ordered online now.
I was interested to read that the theme chosen this year for Holocaust Memorial Day – on 27th January, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz – is 'Untold Stories'. It's a theme intended to draw attention away from the overwhelming and depersonalized statistics of genocide, to the more approachable scale of the individual. As the theme paper puts it, the victims of Nazi Germany 'were not a statistic. They were individuals. Somebody's friend. A mother. A father. A child. A colleague. A neighbour.' In many ways such an approach of personalizing genocide is widely adopted in memorial practice: think only of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum where visitors receive the ID card of a victim who accompanies them through the exhibition that tells the continent-wide story of the unrolling of the Nazi persecution of Jews and other victims during the Second World War.
In my latest book – Traces of the Holocaust – I've been interested in thinking about what that kind of personalizing, or telling the stories of named individuals, might contribute to histories of the Holocaust. In large part that approach was first sparked, as is so often the case, by a document that grabbed my attention in the archives. It was a letter, from a local official in the town of Vasvár in western Hungary, himself responding to a letter from a man writing from Budapest, János M. János's 11 year old son, György András M. was spending the summer in the village of Csehimindszent. However in the middle of May 1944, he was taken along with other Jews from the village to the ghetto established in Vasvár. Somehow, his father found out about this and wrote to the local authorities with the request that his son be allowed to come home. Surprising though it seems, this request was granted. That was the piece of paper that grabbed my attention – the letter from the chief constable of Vasvár authorising a local lawyer to accompany György András back to Budapest.
Chancing upon this single story in the archives I wanted to know more. In particular, did György András make it back to Budapest, and if he did, did he survive the war. On the shelf in my office I had a copy of a city-wide survey of Jewish survivors living in Budapest in 1946, so I turned to the pages with names beginning with M. There he was - György András M. was listed living with his mother Margit Magdolna Sz. and his maternal grandmother, Lujza on Dohány utca just a few doors down from the main synagogue in the capital in 1946. Missing was his father, the letter writing János, who set the whole chain of events into action.
György András' counter-journey – a journey out of the ghetto – was one that it seemed a number of other Jews took in Hungary in 1944 for a variety of reasons. Counter journeys such as his and a number of others that I discovered were the exception rather than the norm. For most Hungarian Jews – and it is their journeys that dominate the book – the summer of 1944 was a time when they were taken into urban ghettos, from there to local train stations, and then on through entrainment centres to Auschwitz. But while telling if you like the story, I also wanted to see what those other stories – untold stories such as that of György András M. – might suggest about this event that continues to surprise in its complexity.