This is the story of two Hungarian Jews and their diametrically opposed responses to the unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust. The reactions and their consequences for Israel and the Jewish people to this day bear examination.
One, Haganah heroine Hannah Szenes (often spelled Senesh) returned from the relative safety of Palestine to parachute into war-torn Europe in a courageous – yet ultimately doomed – bid to save her fellow Jews. Born in Budapest, Szenes became an ardent Zionist and went to Palestine at age 18 in 1939. She joined a kibbutz and the Haganah, becoming a member of the Palmach, its elite strike force.
With the war raging, the British military hatched a plan to drop Haganah fighters with radio transmitters into Yugoslavia to help in the intensifying battle between Tito’s partisans and the Nazis. Szenes willingly entered the dangerous battle, spending several months in Yugoslavia.
But with the Nazis occupying adjacent Hungry and gearing up their deportations of the Jews there, she crossed into her homeland, planning to help her brethren resist.
A short time after crossing the frontier, Szenes was arrested by Hungarian fascist soldiers, thrown into prison and charged with treason. The Nazis, not content to wait for a trial, summarily placed her before a firing squad. She refused a blindfold, bravely facing her executioners at age 23.
In 1950, her body was returned to Israel and she was buried among the heroes of the Jewish people on Har Herzl. A prolific poet, she had left a large body of her writings at her kibbutz and they are known widely in Israel. One, “Eli Eli,” an ode to love, hope and beauty, has been put to music and is now a haunting anthem to Yom HaShoah and the lost of the Holocaust.
The other Hungarian Jew, George Soros, now 80, is a billionaire financial wizard who runs a New York-based hedge fund. He moves international currency markets with his pronouncements and, through a maze of foundations and front groups, bankrolls and backs a slew of radical far-left campaigns intended to, in his words, “puncture the bubble of American supremacy.”
Just like Szenes, he was born to assimilated parents. His father changed the family name of Schwartz to Soros both to avoid anti-Semitism and to try to shed the family’s Jewishness. But faced with the Nazi occupation, his father realized there was no shedding the Nazis’ hatred. He saved his family by splitting them up, providing them with forged papers and false identities as Christians and bribing gentile families to take them in.
The young Soros, then fourteen, posed as the godson of an official of Hungary’s fascist regime – a member of the Agricultural Ministry. The official was assigned to deliver deportation notices to Jews and confiscate Jewish property and the young Soros accompanied him on his rounds.
In interviews and his memoir, Soros acknowledged he understood the gravity of what was occurring. Asked on CBS’s “60 Minutes” if it had psychologically scarred him, he said, “it created no problems at all.”
Of course, we who didn’t live through the nightmare of the Holocaust can’t say how we would react in such circumstances, but Szenes and Soros were both put to the test and their very different reactions are worth examination. Szenes’s selfless bravery has inspired hundreds of young Israelis to join paratroop commando units and fight for the Jewish people. Soros is now a leading Israel basher who calls Zionism “a tribal” behavior that turns Jews into “oppressors” of the Palestinians and creates worldwide anti-Semitism. He also is involved with the J Street lobby, which espouses positions commonly associated with the far fringes of anti-Israel rhetoric.
Both the Szenes and Soros stories are presently very much in the public discourse. Manhattan’s Museum of Jewish Heritage in Battery Park City is running a multimedia exhibit on Szenes through next August. Conservative television and radio commentator Glenn Beck, a staunch Israel supporter, recently explored Soros’s history and political backing of radical causes. As a result, some in the Jewish community have charged Beck with anti-Semitism – a patently ridiculous accusation given his support of Israel during the Second Lebanon War and the Gaza blockade battle.
Sixty-five years after the Shoah and when Israel is encircled with enemies – including “delegitimize, boycott and divest” leftist campaigners in America – Jews should reflect on history and who our heroes and friends really are.