In December 1941, when Hungary severed relations with the United States during World War II, Maria Madi, a doctor in Budapest, started keeping a diary for her daughter, who had just immigrated to Louisiana.
Madi did not know if her daughter would ever see her words. But she wrote anyhow: About the war. About the Nazis. About the suffering of Jews. And about the two people she hid in her apartment, at times behind a large mirror when visitors came to call.
By war’s end, Madi, who was not Jewish, had filled 16 notebooks in handwritten English that serve as a grim portrait of the Holocaust in Hungary and of a defiant woman sickened by its cruelty.
“I am going to see, to hear, to witness everything,” Madi wrote, adding later, “it may happen of course that neither myself nor my diary will ever reach you.”
Now, Washington’s U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, which was given the diary last year, is preparing to post it online in the coming months and hopes eventually to have it fully transcribed.
Among the thousands of Holocaust diaries, Madi’s is a rare account written in English by a non-Jewish member of a local gentry, the museum said.
It is blunt, harsh in parts, compassionate, wistful, sarcastic.
It tells the story of an unusual woman, a British-educated, divorced Hungarian doctor who held some negative views about Jews but risked her life to hide a Jewish friend, Irene Lakos, and her friend’s 7-year-old nephew.
The nephew, Alfred Lakos, now 77, who lives in Waleska, Ga., north of Atlanta, said recently: “She was a hero, in my book.” His aunt survived, as well, and died in Italy in 1998, he said.
The Holocaust, the slaughter of Europe’s Jews by the Nazis and their allies, came relatively late to Hungary, which was allied with Germany.
But by the end of the war, more than 400,000 Hungarian Jews had been murdered, many of them in the gas chambers at the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz, historians have said.
In Budapest, Madi, then in her mid 40s, watched in dismay as Jews were humiliated, harassed, and rounded up to be sent to labor or concentration camps.
Alfred Lakos’s father, Laszlo, for example, was sent to a labor camp, from which he escaped, and survived. His mother, Rosza, was sent to Auschwitz, where she was killed.
With his parents gone, and alone in his apartment, “Fredi” Lakos found refuge with Madi, and a place in her narrative.
Madi, who had lived alone and was unaccustomed to children, found “the poor little worm” exasperating during the almost four months he spent cooped up in her apartment.
“I am never alone,” she wrote on Jan. 7, 1945. “The child is all the time talking, irritating, making noises and trouble.”
Two weeks later, she wrote: “It is with the utmost self control, I can tolerate the boy here in my flat.”
Yet she soothed him when gunfire frightened him, vowed to stay with him when he was in bed with chicken pox, she wrote, and he came to be affectionate with her.
The diary, which also contains snapshots of Madi’s dog, Joe, newspaper clippings, and comments about food prices, the weather and politics, was donated to the museum by Madi’s grandson, Stephen Walton, of Amarillo, Tex.
He said in a telephone interview that the notebooks had been kept in plastic bags in a family safe for 30 years. “Hardly ever looked at them,” he said.
After the war, Madi came to the United States, bringing the diary, which she later amended slightly in pencil. She worked as a psychiatrist, Walton said. The family called her “Mami.”
She died in Houston in 1970, at age 72, he said.
“I’m humbled by the fact that she never mentioned” what she had done, he said. “It was just something she felt she had to do.”
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SOURCE: The Washington Post
Michael E. Ruane