Tell your pupils about the courageous tale of the Hungarian Catholic Vali Racz, a famous singer who risked her own life to hide her Jewish friends from the Nazis.
Imagine waking up to find that the neighbours you have known all your life and even sat next to at school, now walk past you without stopping. You are now forbidden to hang out with your friend from next door; they may now spit at you and even attack you.
Imagine having nowhere to turn, that the walls are closing in and that there is no escape. Imagine that you have done nothing wrong, yet you are to be punished nonetheless and no-one will stand by you.
On Holocaust Memorial Day – 27 January 2013 – we’re asking you to remember and stand by those who were forced to live through these experiences. We want you to honour those communities which were destroyed in the Holocaust, under Nazi Persecution and in subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur, as well as the atrocities in Armenia.
History tells us that communities which have lived side by side peacefully for generations and even centuries can be persuaded to turn on each other with murderous intent. People were betrayed by their neighbours and removed from the safety of their former communities and subjected to extremes of violence and injustice. It is the courage and determination of those who survived and rebuilt their lives that we can draw on today.
On HMD 2013 we are asking you to respect different communities. In cities, towns and villages – wherever we live, there are others around us. Our communities are made up of individuals with different backgrounds, occupations and lives. Communities may be defined by geography, by interest, by cultural activities or by faith. On HMD 2013, whether individually or as groups we can make links, forge connections and reach out to different communities.
When the Nazis took over Germany in 1933, Jewish families were no longer welcome in German society and Jews were sacked from their jobs, including those who had been decorated for their courage in military service in World War One. Families with generations of German citizenship were stripped of their rights and excluded from schools, shops and parks. The exclusion was legislated by Nazi officials, but communities supported it by boycotting Jewish people and their businesses. As neighbourhoods fractured, Nazi policies became more radical in their means of excluding Jews.
During the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides in the 1990s, many communities were divided by ethnicity. Tutsis in Rwanda and Bosniak Muslims in Bosnia were attacked by neighbours and colleagues within their communities. Kemal Pervanic was imprisoned in a concentration camp during the Bosnian War. Many of the Bosnian Serb guards who held Kemal captive in appalling conditions were former neighbours, schoolmates and even a friend he had shared a desk with.
In the genocides in Cambodia and Darfur, many communities were attacked because others wanted to gain from their destruction. There are also those who protected their communities. In Albania during the Holocaust, many Muslim communities chose to save Jews. People saved Jews by providing hiding places and misdirecting the Nazis. At the end of the Holocaust, Albania was the only country in Europe where the Jewish population had increased during the years 1939-45. These remarkable acts of courage built bridges between different communities.
Slide 2 – picture of Vali
I would like to tell you the story of a courageous young woman called Vali Rácz. Vali was a Catholic Hungarian born in 1911 – a famous singer and actress who went to great lengths to hide her Jewish friends, from the Nazi regime – putting her own life at risk on more than one occasion.
Slide 3 – picture of Vali with her family
Vali was brought up by her parents in the countryside, in a small town called Golle. She loved music and started showing signs of her musical talent at a young age. When her parent’s friend, a Jewish professor at a music academy in Budapest came to visit, he saw her talent and invited her to audition. From here her passion for music grew and her talent continued to develop.
Slide 4 – picture of Vali
It was not long before Vali got her first big break which led to a two year stint performing in a famous Budapest revue theatre. Her musical fame resulted in her becoming a pin-up for the Hungarian troops fighting on the Eastern Front during World War II and between 1936 and 1943, Vali made eighteen films.
News of the mass deportation of Jews from rural areas began to spread to the cities, and Vali became concerned for her many Jewish friends. In May 1944, an old friend (a Jewish man who was married to a Christian) contacted her appealing for help. The friend wanted Vali to hide his cousin and his wife, who were desperate for somewhere safe to go to avoid deportation.
After seeking the opinion of a friend, a plan was hatched and Vali agreed. A hiding space was created at the back of an enormous wardrobe, with a false partition in it where they could hide in the event of a Nazi raid. For the rest of the time, they could stay in the house, sleeping in the basement.
The hiders were careful not to get discovered, by staying away from the front windows and only going out for fresh air in the garden at night. They had to stay absolutely silent if Vali had visitors. Vali continued to go out to work during this time, keen not to arouse suspicion.
Despite the religious and cultural differences between Vali and her hidden fugitives, everyone grew to understand and respect one other and the plan was working extremely well. When Vali was asked for help by another Jewish friend and her daughter, she took them in.
In November 1944, Vali was arrested by the Secret Police and imprisoned and interrogated for two weeks. News of her plight reached an influential friend who used his contacts to plea for Vali’s innocence. Eventually she was released and, despite traps being set for her, she never gave anything away about the fugitives in her house.
Even being arrested did not stop Vali from helping her friends. Another Christian family contacted Vali and asked for her help too. Soon enough the Baroness, her daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter also moved in. The house was full with people staying in every room.
However, after the Russians liberated Budapest, a group of Jewish partisans arrested Vali and accused her of collaboration with the Nazis. After an interrogation, it was announced that Vali would be collected from her home the following day and shot. At first, she couldn’t understand where they got their evidence from, but it turned out that the techniques that she used to keep her hidden Jewish friends safe were what would lead to her arrest. Vali had continued to perform for German officers if requested and to socialise with them, so not to arouse suspicion, and on one occasion had been seen walking with a young German officer who used to be a neighbor – he was going to help her by shooting rabbits in the forest, which would enable her to feed her visitors, but he was killed before he could do it.
Just hours before she was due to be executed, news reached a Red Army Colonel with whom Vali had had a relationship during the war. He had moved on to another country, and just happened to be passing through Budapest on that fateful day. He was able to use his considerable influence, and after two hours announced that he had contacted higher authorities and that Vali was completely exonerated.
All the people she had hidden survived the war and some emigrated to Israel.
Vali married and had two children before moving to the USA, then London before finally relocating to Munich where she died in February 1997.
Slide 5 – picture of Vali with her daughter
In the state of Israel, those who went to considerable trouble to hide or help Jews, a lot of the time at great risk to themselves, are recognised and rewarded by having their name added to the Wall of Honor in Yad Vashem in Israel. Vali was recognised as a Righteous Among the Nations in 1991.
Slide 6 – candle
Let us take a moment to remember those who lost their lives and honour those who survived.
Many people who fled from persecution during the Holocaust and subsequent genocides have rebuilt their lives and supported new communities in Britain. Today, we each have responsibilities as individuals and as members of our own communities. We can start by getting to know and support the diverse communities in the UK and the individuals who make up the whole. We can respect each other’s differences and places in communities. Ultimately, some of the ways in which you can prevent hatred and discrimination are by making connections with, and between, communities.
On Holocaust Memorial Day 2013 we can all take action by getting to know, respect and support our communities. On 27 January 2013 we can come together and connect.
Play the film for HMD 2013 Lessons learnt?
Slide 7 – quote from Daoud Hari
Final thoughts of the day / prayer (select as appropriate):
‘What can one person do? You make friends, of course, and do what you can.’ Daoud Hari, survivor of the Genocide in Darfur
‘Be curious, not judgmental’ Walt Whitman, Poet
No Man is an Island – we are all interconnected. No man can truly succeed when isolated from others; we depend on one another. There’s no place, culture, race or people better than another. It takes the sum of all to make up the human race.
God, you created us all in your own likeness.
We thank you for the wonderful diversity of races and cultures in your world.
Enrich our lives by ever-widening circles of fellow feeling and understanding;
show us your presence in those most different from us, so that in all our relationships,
both by what we have in common and by things in which we differ,
we may come to know you more fully in your creation;
for you are Father, Son and Holy Spirit for ever.