“We are here to learn about the Holocaust and make sure it never happens again,” said Andy Réti to our group of thirty in the program room of High Park Library. Most of the audience were Grade 7 and 8 students plus a smattering of adults.
Born in 1942 on a hospital floor in Budapest, Hungary, Mr. Réti was only two years old when the Nazis forced his family and neighbours from their homes at gunpoint on October 16, 1944. Then they were marched to an empty racetrack, where they spent two days sitting on the cold ground. At one point on the terrifying march, a blanket was thrown on the ground and everybody in the roundup was ordered to put their valuables on it. Andy’s mother Ibolya was determined to protect her wedding ring from these armed thieves, so she quickly hid it in the baby’s diaper. (One of the grade eight students in attendance gave a cheer when she heard this, a heartfelt sound of admiration for the mother’s quick-thinking act of defiance).
After two days, the captives at the racetrack were elated when their captors told them they could return home. Momentary happiness turned to terror, however, when the Nazis opened machine-gun fire on the fleeing crowd. The young Mr. Réti, his mother, and paternal grandmother escaped the attack, only to endure a second roundup the same month (October, 1944).
This time, the Jews of the city were “herded” into what became the Budapest Ghetto. Mr. Réti described how his family had to share an apartment building (capacity, 600) with three thousand people. He lived in a two-room apartment with twenty five others, including five children like himself. His first conscious memory of the Holocaust was the cold sensation of his friend Kati’s feet as they slept head to foot at the bottom of the bed. Andy and Kati’s mother were in the bed, too, and Andy’s grandmother slept on the floor. There were no toys to entertain the children, only stories which were read over and over again.
In December of 1944, the Budapest Ghetto was completely shut off to the world: “Nobody came out except the dead.” Already extremely scarce, food became next to non-existent in the Ghetto. Réti’s grandmother hardly ate at all, saving what little she had for her grandson and daughter-in-law. “By this time, we were hungry all the time. When you’re that hungry, you can’t think about anything else but food.”
Starvation formed the background for Andy’s second conscious Holocaust memory, which was eating a roll of brown bread after the Russians liberated the Ghetto on January 18th, 1945. In later years, his mother wrote a poem about this incident, describing her tears as she begged a Russian soldier for some food for her child.
Mr. Réti never knew his father Zolti, who was conscripted into a Hungarian military labour battalion at the beginning of the war. Initially, it was reported that he died of typhus, but his son never believed this, for Zolti was a tall man and incredibly fit, a strapping swimming instructor. It wasn’t until decades after the war that Andy found out the truth: his father was murdered for having “the audacity to be a Jew.” A relative of Andy’s dad had tried to persuade Zolti to escape the labour battalion, but he didn’t want to risk it for fear of making his beloved wife a widow and his baby boy fatherless. More than six decades after the outrageous crime perpetrated against his father, Andy praised him as a “a martyr for love.”
The triumph of love over evil was Mr. Andy Réti’s central message. He titled his talk “The Ring of Love” and shared with us the profound words of a friend: “Every Holocaust survivor’s story is a love story. It’s a story that celebrates love of life, love of family, and love of freedom.”
Hatred or bitterness never overwhelmed Andy’s testimony, only love and the imperative to be “an upstander instead of a bystander. When you see something wrong, speak up! The Nazis were the biggest bullies in history. How differently would things have turned out if more people had stood up to them?”
Andy Réti’s testimony at High Park Library more than fulfilled the purpose of the 31st Annual Holocaust Education Week, for we gained personal understanding and appreciation of the loving resilience of Andy’s family in the face of brutality. Like the student who said, “Yes!” when she heard the story of the wedding ring hidden in a diaper, I wanted to cheer for Andy, a dynamic individual who Rides (a motorcycle) to Remember and teaches future generations to say, “Never again!”
Never this cruelty, never this monstrous disrespect for life, love, and freedom.