Although I have been friends with Tova Davidovics Lebovits for years, this is the first time she ever shared this remarkable tale with me. With her kind permission, I wanted to share it with you, in Tova’s own words:
I am the child of Holocaust survivors. I belong to the generation that will always be overshadowed by the calamity of our parents. I belong to a generation of kinless childhoods, relatives never met who had perished, yet whose silent presence loomed always in the background. I belong to a generation that has to face the horrors of the past and bridge that past to an uncertain future. I cannot explain Hitler nor can I make what happened go away. I also realize that I myself am practically powerless in the face of denial, revisionism, minimizing, cruel cynicism, distortion, omission and forgetfulness. BUT I CAN REMEMBER and I must pass that memory on.
My father Shammai Davidovics taught me to fight for life. He could not speak about what happened to him during the war, nor of his family who perished. He kept a life-long, self-imposed silence which I painfully learned to accept despite my need to know. Over the years, survivors and people he had saved would find us and then I would hear their tales. Only before his death did he break that silence and substantiate the stories I and my brothers had collected.
He was born in 1912 to a Hassidic family in Danilev (near Hust), a small Czechoslovakian town in the Carpathian mountains. My grandma Gitle after whom I was named (git=good=Tova), was said to be a cheerfully energetic thin wisp of a woman, who managed to bring into this world 14 babies of whom 12 reached adulthood; 8 sons and four daughters with my father somewhere in the middle.
My grandfather Shmuel Hayim Halevi, was the shohet and posek of the town and like most , struggled to earn his daily bread. Like those around him and before him, my father went to ‘heder’, spoke Yiddish, and led a religious life. Yet unlike them, his curiousity and adventurous nature led him to seek knowledge in the big world outside the confines of his shtetl. To his parents chagrin, he secretly studied Hebrew (was an avid Zionist) and other secular subjects. At age 16, he was accepted to a German gymnasium in Berne, where he continued his Torah studies on the side as well. He was the only member of his family to join the Czechoslovakian army (a Jew must learn how to fight) and from there was one of the few Jews accepted to the University of Budapest (a Jew must know what is happening around him).
By the end of 1943, when the German army had invaded Hungary, he was fluent in 12 languages; had already completed his PH.d in Sociology; and had received Rabbinical ordination from Beit Hamidrash Lerabanim in Budapest. At the start , the Germans only took Jews who did not have Hungarian or Czech citizenship papers. Unfortunately, most Jews did not have them, despite having lived in these countries for centuries.
My father and several of his friends organized an underground forgers ring, where they began producing forged citizenship papers and other necessary documents for Jews. Financed by wealthy Jews, they also worked with Raoul Wallenburg, providing him with needed documentation. At this time my father also became the master of disguises, taking on various identities when necessary for his mission. Fortunately for him, he looked Arian, spoke a fluent German, and unlike some who could not see the writing on the wall, he believed that desperate times demanded desperate measures.
The following story was told to us by several survivors of Danilev, my father’s home town, and corroborated by my father himself.. My father had collected all the names of the Jews of Danilev without citizenship papers (half the town was related) and had worked as fast as possible to forge those papers, several hundred in all. He knew time was of the essence. It took almost five days to reach Danilev and he knew the German army was now deporting Jews of nearby regions and they would get to his home town and family within weeks. With papers in hand, he set out to his home town in great haste. As he neared his region, he heard that the Germans had worked much faster than anticipated and that they had most probably reached Danilev.
He arrived at his home town too late. The entire population, including his family, had been herded onto cattle cars and the trains were about to depart. My father saw the Germans soldiers guarding the trains and taunting his people and could only do one thing…
On the scene arrived an impeccably dressed, high -ranking German official. He walked with a quick sure gait and the self confidence of a haughty personage and he was FURIOUS. He approached one of the guards, who immediately saluted him, and in harsh tones demanded to see the highest ranking officer in charge. He sent the guards scuffling off to obey his orders. A perplexed and harried officer quickly appeared, and received a terribly humiliating public scolding.
“Do you realize you have blatantly violated military orders?” the arrogant German official berated him, slamming down a stack of papers in front of his eyes. The Jews of Danilev were released from the cattle cars and returned to their homes.
The arrogant, high-ranking German delivering the scolding was my father.