EDITOR’S NOTE: Les Gapay is a former Montana resident and writer in Rancho Mirage, Calif. He has lived in Miles City, Missoula and Bigfork. He has been a reporter for various newspapers including The Wall Street Journal and The Missoulian.
A friend of mine got a lifetime achievement award recently and it got me to thinking about the Holocaust again, something that’s never been completely out of my mind for the past 22 years.
Randolph L. Braham and I are an odd couple to be friends. That’s what I consider him, even though our families were on different sides of the Holocaust. His emails to me over the past 20 years have always been signed Randy, but I call him Professor Braham out of respect.
Braham is distinguished professor emeritus of political science at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, director of the Rosenthal Center for Holocaust Studies there and the author of more than 60 books on the Holocaust. His parents and many relatives were killed - murdered in cold blood is more accurate - in the Holocaust in Northern Transylvania, which during World War II was part of Hungary. Braham himself was in a forced labor camp during the war.
My late father, on the other hand, was one of the perpetrators of the Holocaust in Hungary.
His name was Laszlo Gyapay and he was the mayor of a large city in the Transylvanian portion of Hungary during World War II. In the spring of 1944, shortly after the Nazi German occupation of Hungary, he created a ghetto in the city of Nagyvarad where 27,000 Jews were forced to live 14-15 to a room after having their homes and possessions taken away.
Ultimately, 36,000 Jews were shipped in railroad cattle and freight cars from that city and its environs to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camps in German-annexed Poland, most to their deaths.
My father was convicted in 1946 of anti-Jewish war crimes in absentia by a court in Romania, as the boundaries changed after the war and Nagyvarad became Oradea, Romania. He was sentenced to life in prison with “hard labor.” The court papers said he fled to Germany, with “current whereabouts unknown.”
I knew nothing about his past growing up as a child in Montana, where we settled in 1951 after living for 5 1/2 years in various Allied-run refugee camps in West Germany for persons displaced by the war. My father died in 1964 and my mother in 1978. It wasn’t until after a divorce in 1987 that I started trying to find out more about who I was, a search that ultimately led to the truth about my father.
In 1990, I traveled to Hungary, where long-lost relatives and a friend of my late mother – to my surprise and shock - told me about my father’s role during the war. I had suspected some political involvement during the war of my father, but nothing involving the Holocaust.
I went to a Holocaust exhibit at the Jewish Museum in Budapest to learn more about that horror and to my amazement found my father’s name mentioned in a large display about creation of the Nagyvarad ghetto. I then began trying to learn everything I could about his actions.
In, 1991, I found my father’s name in an encyclopedia about the Holocaust as being the principal behind the Nagyvarad ghetto. Shortly thereafter, I found several mentions of my father in one of Braham’s books about the Holocaust in Hungary. I phoned him in New York. He was surprised by my call, but very kind and helpful and referred me to others of his works, including one that contained the war crimes judgment against my father and 184 others. Braham sent me various documents over the years and even translated them when necessary.
Concerned about what effect the revelations were having on me, he also offered some advice: “You should do as I do,” he said. “Treat your research like a surgeon doing an emergency procedure on his own mother. You can’t afford to get personally involved.”
It was difficult advice to follow, especially after I began talking to Hungarian Holocaust survivors in New York and in Europe who remembered my father. A couple told me conditions in the ghetto had a reputation as being the worst in Hungary, with over-crowding and lack of water and sanitary facilities. Others in anger blamed my father personally for what happened to them in the ghetto and at Auschwitz. Some told me that torture chambers in the ghetto had been used to get information about suspected hidden valuables.
I also visited the scene of my father’s war crimes in the now Oradea and former Nagyvarad. There, I met with a handful of surviving Jews who showed me the former ghetto, the site of the torture chambers and a large boarded-up synagogue. They took me to my father’s old office in a huge, ornate city hall building. The few survivors told me their stories about the ghetto and Auschwitz in sadness, provided a translator for me, fed me and took me to a service in a small chapel that had no rabbi because the Jewish community was too small after being decimated.
Later, I went to Auschwitz to try to make sense of it all and saw the barracks and bunks that some of the survivors I’d interviewed had lived in. I wept in a cathedral in nearby Krakow.
I first wrote about my discoveries in the early 1990s for various newspapers starting with the Washington Post and eventually including the Jewish press. Braham and others translated the initial piece into Hungarian for various publications internationally and it caused a big stir. The story also was picked up by the news wires and stories ran in papers in Montana, including my old hometown of Miles City.
My former wife and two daughters were supportive, but my three brothers quit speaking to me. It’s been 20 years now for the latter. They didn’t like the publicity and said we didn’t have our late father’s version of events. In Hungary, the stories split my relatives, with half cutting me off and the rest helping me with my continuing research, translations and interpretations.
I was moved by the reactions of some Holocaust survivors. In 1992, I got a letter from Nobel laureate and concentration camp survivor Elie Wiesel, who noted that I had discovered, as he had, that the way “to cope with the anger of truth” is “in your words.”
Professor Braham invited me to be his guest at the dedication of the Holocaust museum in Washington in 1993. I sat with him and his wife while President Bill Clinton and others spoke. Later, I spoke at one of his public lectures at his university and I kept in contact with him over the years.
I never discovered if my father knew the Jews would be sent to their deaths. Relatives and friends of my parents in Hungary said people at the time thought the Jews were being sent to Nazi German work camps.
Nevertheless, the indictment and judgment against my father stated he “illegally” created the ghettos, took away people’s possessions and homes, refused exemptions that were allowed for people like Jewish World War I heroes, made anti-Jewish comments in the press and in speeches, and was callous about ghetto conditions.
He was quoted as telling Christian leaders concerned about ghetto conditions: "The ghetto is not a resort.” The court documents also said he was caught up in “Hitlerism and fascism.” My interviews with relatives and friends of my parents showed that he was also motivated by career ambitions. Starting as deputy mayor, he eagerly took over as interim mayor and then mayor after the previous mayor resigned rather than cooperate with the Nazis. He had ambitions of being promoted to a post in Budapest.
For years my father’s ghost would come at me in a rage in dreams. Eventually that went away as I accepted my father’s role in genocide, one of the worst crimes in humanity. Braham once told me that his “head was full” of the Holocaust. I knew what he meant. “In different ways, we are both victims of the Holocaust,” he said.
Many Holocaust survivors, including Wiesel and Braham, have said that the Holocaust caused them to question the existence of God. But for me, immersing myself in that horror ultimately sent me back to my Roman Catholic faith after an absence of 30 years. After discovering my father’s secret past, I found myself going to cathedrals and churches in Eastern Europe to grapple with it all.
At first I wanted God to send my father to hell for his actions, but after a couple of years I started praying for his soul (and hoping that he had asked for forgiveness before he died). I prayed for my mother, too, whose views on my father’s actions I never knew.
Braham once said that I was the way I am, tolerant and outraged by evil, because I grew up in America. But, he said, had I grown up in Hungary, I likely would be anti-Jewish too.
Perhaps. I hope not, but it is something to ponder. Who are we in this world and why do we think and act as we do? Will we humans ever change? God wants us to live in truth and justice.
Last year, I reread Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir “Night.” He tells of witnessing some hangings of concentration camp prisoners at Auschwitz who were found to have arms or were suspected of sabotage.
“Bare your heads!” the head of the camp would yell after each hanging that the other prisoners were forced to watch. Ten thousand caps came off simultaneously. Then: “Cover your heads!” Someone asked where God was when a young boy was hanged, and Wiesel heard a voice within him say, “He is hanging here on this gallows.”
Not long after reading that, I attended a Good Friday service in Palm Desert, Calif. While pondering a giant crucifix of Jesus hanging on the wall, Wiesel’s words came back to me: “Bare your heads,” I thought. “Cover your heads.” The phrases kept going through my mind.
There is God, I thought, hanging on that cross made from a tree. I then said a prayer for the Jews of Nagyvarad, Hungary, but I knew it wasn’t necessary. If there is a God in heaven, they are by his side. “Bare your heads,” I thought again. “Cover your heads.” A chill went up my spine.