Monday 1 October 2007

The Koffán Károly Group - Hungarian Righteous Gentiles

An amazing story by Anshel Pfeffer from the Haaretz:

Budapest, 1944. Precise information from an informer led an officer of the Arrow Cross militia to search for a Jewish man who had slipped away from the ghetto at the studio of painter Lajos Szentivanyi. There was no time to arrange a proper hiding place, and the Jew simply concealed himself behind a screen in a room that was bad for hiding in, his yellow shoes peeking out beneath it. Fortunately, in the room was a spectacular nude painting that Szentivanyi was working on and from which the officer could not look away. Whether or not he saw the shoes, he stopped searching, spoke a few words to Szentivanyi and left.

The incident is one of the war stories of a small group of teachers and students from the Open School of Art in Hungary, founded by Karoly Koffan, which saved hundreds of Jews and other victims of the Nazis. There is something naive, almost comical, in their stories about forging documents and impersonating soldiers in order to enter the ghetto and take out Jews who pretended to be art students. They did not belong to any organized underground and had neither diplomatic immunity nor access to the resources available to a large organization. They did not have a plan to follow and did not keep orderly records of their activities. They helped people on the basis of personal acquaintanceship, motivated by humanitarian feelings and a sense of adventure. And just as their work had begun in an unstructured manner, after liberation and the end of the war they went on with their lives, without memorializing their deeds or asking for credit.

The story of the bohemian underground that was active during the year of the German occupation of Hungary's capital, from March 1944 to February 1945, is coming to light now, over 60 years later, thanks to a young German, Lauren Krupa, who had heard about it in his childhood. Now, together with some friends, he is trying to make a documentary about the Koffan group and to have its members recognized as Righteous Gentiles by Yad Vashem Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority.

It is difficult to imagine anyone less suited than Karoly Koffan to be cast as the leader of a clandestine rescue group. On the eve of the war Koffan was a 30-year-old painter living in Paris. In addition to painting, he also worked in sculpture and graphics, built a puppet theater and made furniture. He was not a political person but like many people in his milieu, he was a member of the Communist Party, and when the Germans occupied Paris in 1940 he fled back to his homeland, Hungary. In Budapest Koffan established the Open School of Art, where he tried to reproduce the cosmopolitan atmosphere he had known during his five years in Paris.

The school, many of whose students were Jewish, had no regular course of study. Students could go into any class, move from one teacher to another and even pay for a single class. Tuition fees were often waived for promising but poor students, who were like family at the school at Erzsebet Square, the top floor of which was the home of Koffan, his wife Keska and their two young children.

Hungary was a German ally. Although tens of thousands of immigrant Jews were deported from the country and murdered, Jewish citizens of Hungary were not touched. Koffan's school enjoyed relative freedom for three years, until 1944, when Germany decided to take over the country. One of the Germans' first actions after entering Budapest on March 19, 1944, was to arrest opponents of the Fascist regime. Among those who were arrested was Lajos Szentivanyi's father, who was sent to the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria.

Perhaps that is why the people at the school, in contrast to a large part of the population, including the many Jews who had flocked to Budapest, understood immediately what was about to happen. The Nazi takeover of Budapest, the arrest of the Jews and their deportation to Auschwitz were swift and not as orderly as in other countries in the Third Reich. Thus, hundreds of thousands of Jews were sent to their deaths, but there were also many opportunities for rescue. Koffan and Szentivanyi ran the group's rescue activities, while three students, carried out the missions. The students - Andre Meszaros, Laszlo Ridovics and Sandor Kovacs - were dispatched to bring Jews forged documents as well as to rescue people from the ghetto and the death marches and bring them to a hiding place.

"Suddenly, many people I knew had to wear a yellow patch and this bothered me very much," Ridovics says in the film Krupa is making about the group. "We were ashamed." At first the group helped anyone who was in danger from the Nazis and their Fascist partners. "It made no difference whether someone was a political refugee, a Jew or a leftist," Ridovics said. Eventually, however, the Jews became the main target for their assistance. "We were a group of people who were determined to stop this slaughter," Meszaros explains simply in the film.
In October 1944, the Germans gained full control over Hungary and appointed Ferenc Zalasi, the head of the Fascist Arrow Cross party, head of state. Mandatory military conscription was imposed, but Koffan's students quickly defected and returned to their rescue activity. Their army coats helped them to go into the ghetto, the walls of which were incomplete.

"We didn't know names but there were people who said, 'Hide us,'" Meszaros related. "In a situation like that you don't say, 'Go away, I don't know you.' You have to hide him. I would simply leave the ghetto with someone. If you walked down the street with a Jew, people knew. I wouldn't say anything, I'd wear an army coat and lead a young man out. I'd speak to him as if he were a slave, ordering him: 'Move. Walk in front of me.'" Sometimes they even used the army uniforms in order to hitch a ride back in a German truck.

Danger was a constant companion, as Ridovics related. "I was in the ghetto and a soldier came up to me: 'What are you doing here? You aren't a Jew.' He searched my pockets and there was a Schutzpass in one of them. He stood me up against a wall and he had a pistol and then he said: 'Run over there and I'll fire in the other direction, but if you don't run fast, I'll shoot you in the ass.'"

Later on, the students even began going into the transit camps where Jews were sent before being transported to Auschwitz. They tried to rescue them physically as well as by using documents. Edith Weinberger, a Jewish student at the Open School, who was rescued, along with her brother, with the help of the group, relates in the film how Ridovics carried on his back a Jewish man who collapsed during a deportation march. At the time, the school served as a temporary hiding place for Jews and others who were trying to flee to safety. Early in the morning, before classes, students would bring the people to other, nearby hiding places. Sometimes as many as 20 people stayed at the school overnight.

Koffan and Szentivanyi continued with their art even during the war. That is how the unfinished nude came to save the Jewish man hiding behind the screen in Szentivanyi's studio. "So many Jews and Communists hid at Szentivanyi's place that you could hardly open the door," Meszaros related. "Jews escaped from the marches and ran to Koffan's home and cried out to be hidden. At first they would hide behind the curtains but Mrs. Koffan said to take them out and took them into the living room. She said that either we would be saved together or we would die together. When the soldiers came in, she gave each one an art book." Amazingly, the ruse worked; the soldiers thought they were students in a class.

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