In this podcast we speak to Monica Porter, the daughter of Vali Rácz, an exceptional and courageous woman who risked her life to save Jews in Hungary during the Second World War.
Monica, can you tell me a little bit about Vali’s family and her childhood?
Yes, my mother grew up in a small farming village in rural Hungary, south-western Hungary, and her father was the headmaster of the village school; he was very strict, they were very Catholic, a pious Catholic family, and she spent her early childhood there, she was sent off when she was a little older to a convent school, and she was a very talented singer; this became obvious at a very early age. Her father, my grandfather was also a very good singer but he was never really able to follow a career in music, and I think perhaps he slightly regretted that so when my mother grew up and she expressed an interest in becoming a singer, I think that my grandfather felt he could perhaps enjoy some vicarious musical success through his daughter.
Can you tell me a little bit more about Vali’s varied and successful career?
Yes, she went from this little village, she went to Budapest to study at the academy of music there; a very highly regarded academy where Franz Liszt also studied and taught I think, and she trained to be a singer; she was very, very good. When she graduated she wanted to go into popular music, to light music, she didn’t want to be a classical singer, or an opera singer; her voice seemed to lend itself very well to light, popular singing. But she had a very good trained voice, so it didn’t take long before she was talent-spotted, and began to appear on stage, in fact she made her first film – a small part in which she played a singer, and she sang a song in this film and I think that was probably when she was about 24/25 years old. She began her film career quite early, and then the rest of it all followed, she recorded many, many records. A lot of the very well known, celebrated songwriters wrote music for her; wrote songs specifically for her, and in most of her movies she played a singer, she had some spot in a movie where she would be performing, she’d be singing. And she was very glamorous; she was considered by many people to be the Hungarian Marlena Dietrich, so this very, very sultry, glamorous, beautiful type of actress and singer. During the war when Hungary entered the war, unfortunately on the wrong side, she became a pin-up for the Hungarian soldiers that were fighting and dying in great numbers on the Eastern Front, so she got hundreds and hundreds of fan letters from these soldiers, in fact she once showed me a whole big stack of them that she’d always kept.
And so your mother helped many Jews during the Second World War, can you tell me a little bit about how she helped them?
Yes, in the world of music and films and theatre which my mother moved in, there were a lot of Jews; I mean, Jews have traditionally been very active in the creative arts, so she knew very many of them, they were friends, they were colleagues, some of them were her mentors who had helped her in her career. So when the Nazis came into Hungary in 1944, of course all of these people were, their lives were immediately threatened with deportations, with being ghettoised so they’re all threatened. And so my mother didn’t really know what she could do, what she’d be in a position to help them, but a few people came to her and asked her for help, and so she was able to think of some way which she could keep a handful of people… she couldn’t help a huge number of people, she’s only just one person. But in her home, in her villa in the Buda side of Budapest, she did have enough room that she could accommodate a few people, and there were actually five Jewish people, and a little bit later, a non-Jewish man, a young soldier who had deserted from the army, who would also have been killed if he’d been found, and so there were these six fugitives who she was able to hide in her home, they were able to sleep in the basement, but during the day time they could move around in the house, as long as no one saw them. So they couldn’t go out of the house, and basically they were sort of trapped in this house, but it did mean that they were able to escape from the Gestapo, the Nazis and also the Hungarian Arrow Cross who were just as bad and were also persecuting and killing Jews. She also devised a very clever hiding place where they would be able to remain undetected should there be a raid on the house, and this was always a possibility that she’d be suspected and the secret police would come and raid the house and then if anyone was found there, everyone would be carted off to Auschwitz or imprisoned or killed, it was very, very dangerous for them all. So she had a false partition wall built into a very large wardrobe that she had in her bedroom. It was a sort of double sized wardrobe because it was built to accommodate big, stage dresses, stage costumes. So she had a wall built into it which partitioned it in half, and behind this false wall you could fit a number of people standing quite close together, so that they would remain undetected. As long as they didn’t make any noise. And one day of course this most dreaded raid did actually occur, and while they took my mother away (the Hungarian secret police) and imprisoned her, all of the Jews who were hiding in her house did actually escape and this clever hiding place did do the trick.
Can you tell me about any other tactics that Vali used to keep everyone hidden, how she fed people, how she kept everybody safe?
Well apart from the fact that she had to make sure that they weren’t seen by anyone, their neighbours or anyone who might come to the house. There was of course feeding problems, because it was very difficult as the war progressed and infrastructure in Budapest and in the country began to fall apart it became more and more difficult to get food. My mother did, I think, she travelled on a few occasions. She was able to take a train down to the village where her parents lived and was able to bring back some food from them. They were in a farming community so they had better access perhaps to food so on a few occasions I think she was able to go down there, bring some food back… but that again became more and more difficult as time went on. You couldn’t just go out and buy enough food for eight people; there was supposed to be only two or three people in the house; and that would have looked immediately suspicious, so it was a very difficult thing and I don’t think they had a great deal, nevertheless they had enough. Some way or another my mother was able to organise it.
Trying to find enough food for everyone and keeping everyone secret in those circumstances must have been exhausting; yet from the book Deadly Carousel, you felt that giving up was never an option for Vali. Would you say that this is right?
Yes, my mother, although she was brought up in a very religious home, she was educated in a convent, I can’t actually say that she was a very religious person herself, a very devout Catholic, I can’t say that, but what she did have was a great sense of compassion for people, a great sort of humanity, and very much was someone who would try to help the underdog – and in this case the Jews very much were the underdogs. So she had that sense of just compassion, humanity. I don’t think, as I say, I don’t think it directly came from her religious beliefs, but I think that somewhere underneath it all was the ‘do unto others as you would have others do unto you’ and whether it was in a religious sense or purely in the sort of moral sense I don’t know where the dividing line is but she very much was a person like that who couldn’t stand by and just watch people being hounded and deported and murdered. So she would always do what she could.
Vali was arrested in November 1944, can you tell us a little bit more about what happened there?
Yes, they took her away to a truly terrible place – it was a… actually it had been a hotel, high up in the mountains in the Buda side of the city, very mountainous sort of forested mountain; they took her to this place which the secret police in Hungary had taken over to use as a prison. They turned this hotel into a prison, mainly filled with a lot of Jewish prisoners, but they took her there, and they didn’t actually torture her but they were torturing other people very frequently and my mother heard the screams, and she was absolutely horrified being in this place and sleeping in a very crowded room. They kept interrogating her to try to get her to confess to the fact that she’d been hiding Jews in her home and she never did; she never broke or they couldn’t break her in that way, they tried to set some traps for her; putting her together with someone who they thought would recognise her and give away what she’d been doing – actually the son of one of the women who was hiding in her house, but because she’d never seen the son, and the son had never seen her, they didn’t recognise each other, so that ruse failed, but they also put a woman together with her to befriend her in this prison in this room where they were incarcerated, and she was a plant; she was there pretending to be another prisoner when in fact she was working for the secret police and tried to get my mother to confide in her, but again my mother didn’t do that so in the end they couldn’t actually prove anything. And because my mother had – she was in a way protected by her very great reputation as a very popular singer. So they couldn’t prove anything and they were a little bit reluctant to do away with her without any solid proof, so they weren’t quite sure what to do with her, and in the end, after about I think two weeks, my mother’s very influential friend on the outside, a film director with whom she worked quite closely and who was working with the Hungarian Resistance – secretly of course – he used his influence to have her released. In the end, the police chief who was a very brutal and rather merciless man just on a whim basically who said ‘OK she can go, but just tell her she better not do anything like that ever again.’ So that’s how she finally managed to leave that horrible place. And although she had been very strong, and very composed during her incarceration, as soon as she was actually brought back to her own house, she completely had a sort of collapse, and she – it was a kind of nervous collapse I think – after having been strong for all that time I think. It just got a bit too much emotionally when she was in a very, very low ebb – but she did survive because she was a born survivor, my mother.
Vali was arrested in March 1945 by the ‘newly established council’ and accused of being a Nazi collaborator – can you tell me what happened?
Yes, this is the great sort of irony, in her story. She had risked her life for a period of eight months, hiding these fugitives in her home, was then later accused of having been a Nazi collaborator by, actually a Jewish council – it was very ironic – and there was no way that she could prove to them what she had done because of course those Jews that she’d been hiding in her home, by then they were long gone, and she had no idea how she could get hold of them, where they were, there were no communications in Budapest at the time so it would have been impossible for her to just say ‘I am far from being a collaborator, I actually saved Jewish lives’, because how would she prove it? They just knew – these Jewish former Partisans – that’s who they became, they became a Communist council in this part of Budapest. They assumed – they just thought she had to have been a collaborator because they had seen certain things happening which to them seemed suspicious. For example, she was fraternising with some German officers, and it’s true that she did socialise with some German-Nazi officers, for one thing if they come in and want to take you out for dinner, it’s probably a good idea to go along with it because it would give – it would mean she couldn’t possibly be doing anything against the Nazis, harbouring Jews or anything like that because she was openly seen to be friendly with them, so this was actually something she did for her own protection.
But then later to try to explain that to them was very difficult, and you know they were very, very thirsty at that point for revenge, which we can understand. But they didn’t seem to take too much care about actually proving someone’s guilt before exacting revenge on them. So they had decided that they were going to execute my mother, and my mother had pretty much given up hope that she would be able to avoid this fate and was in fact receiving the last rites from her priest when suddenly rescue came in an amazing and unusual form.
My mother, as I’ve said was a very attractive, very beautiful woman, very glamorous, she never had any problem having male admirers. One of these admirers was a Red Army – a Russian colonel who had been billeted at her house during that period when the Russians were fighting the Germans for control of Budapest – the siege of Budapest went on for quite a while. So this colonel was billeted at her house, they had a little affair, and he then later left because he went with his troops to fight in a different arena of war, I think in Bulgaria. But as it happens just at the point where my mother was due to be executed, he was making his way back to Budapest on his way to Berlin, which was of course the final great push into Berlin, against the Nazis. And he happened to be passing through Budapest on that day, when he came to my mother’s house to see her and he found her receiving her last rites from her priest, he demanded to know what was going on, and when she explained and told him that there was nothing she could do, that they had assumed she was guilty and she was going to be shot, he immediately took matters into his own hands, and of course to a committee of these Hungarian Jewish Communists, a Red Army Colonel held a lot of sway. So the colonel was able to actually save her life because he had huge authority and he had all the contacts able to get this execution order annulled.
Before you wrote Deadly Carousel how much did you know about your mother’s courageous efforts as you were growing up?
I didn’t know very much about it at all when I was growing up. My mother, I knew that she’d been a celebrated singer and had made records and films and I knew about that but I didn’t know what she had done in terms of saving Jewish lives. She never spoke about it and I think that was probably because they were very, very painful memories for her, what happened during the war, and she’d put it all behind her, so it was nothing that she ever spoke about to me, and it wasn’t in fact until I had grown up, I was in my late 20s, I already had, by then I was married and had a small child myself, and I was back in Budapest on a sort of family visit with my mother and we were staying in her house, which she still managed to hold onto – it was basically being lived in by some of her relatives. But we went there to stay, and I spent about a month there, and at one point I was going down to the basement and my mother just said a throw-away line, something to the effect of ‘yes that’s where the Jews were hiding during the war’, and I said ‘What! What are you talking about?’ So basically the whole story of what happened to her during the Nazi Occupation began to come out, and I began to be very, very interested in it of course, because being a journalist, it was a pretty good story which I might want to write up one day, and eventually I did.
In 1992 your mother was awarded the title Righteous Among the Nations, can you tell me about this and how she felt to receive it?
I think that the one thing that I’m most proud of having written is the book about my mother, because it led to her receiving this honour; it got to the attention of the authorities at Yad Vashem, they looked into her story, and they took depositions from some of the people who at that time were still alive and some of them were even living in Israel and so they took the depositions and proved her story and ultimately gave her this award, and we went there together for the ceremony when they unveiled her plaque on what they call the Honour Wall and she was very moved and some of the people who she had saved and their family members were there also on this occasion, it was extremely moving; I thought that this recognition for what she had done came very, very late, I mean it was almost half a century after what she had done, but it was better to recognised for it late in life and a few years before she died than not at all. I found it very fulfilling that I was able to bring it about through writing the book.
If there was one lesson that could be learnt by young people today from Vali’s experiences, what do you think she would have wanted that to be?
Well I think probably the sort of more evident message which is that we have to act on our instincts to try to help those who need our help, even if it’s at the risk of our own safety, in a way I think I my mother didn’t, she tried probably not to think about the possible, the ramifications of what would have happened to her if she’d been captured. I mean obviously she would have been killed if she’d been actually caught, if they’d been able to prove that she’d been hiding the Jews rather than just suspecting her of it; of course she would have been killed, and it was a very, very grave risk and a grave danger, but unless people do decide that they will get involved in spite of the dangers, it’s only just going to be about every man for himself, and that would be a very tragic way for the human race to live.