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History lesson brought to life for students studying the Holocaust

Filed in Archive by on April 10, 2018

guest speaker with students guest speaker with students

They were terrifying glimpses of a dark time in history as seen through the eyes of a child. Yet the stories shared by Holocaust survivor Ivan Vamos — a Hungarian-born Jew whose earliest memories are of war and genocide during World War II — remained vivid as he spoke recently with Bethlehem Central High School students, painting a picture of hatred perpetrated against a boy, his family, his neighbors and friends.

Students listened carefully as Mr. Vamos delivered a deeply personal story of survival that included losing his father and spending the better part of two years on the run with his mother, carrying false papers, and living in secret, often with only dry, split peas and toilet water to eat and drink. When he had finished, many of the students gathered around him to quietly ask questions and look at some of the photos, letters and artifacts he brought with him.

Read a passage from Mr. Vamos’ biography.

Vamos visited the school last month at the invitation of Pamela Clark, who teaches The History of the Holocaust, an elective course at BCHS.

Clark said students enrolled in the class engage in a comprehensive study of events leading up to the Holocaust, the Holocaust itself and its impact on the world.

“It is a brand new class for 2017-18,” said Clark. “In addition to learning about the Holocaust, we also examine other genocides and human rights violations, using as many primary sources of information as we can, including poetry, journals, letters and in this case, an eyewitness to history.” 

Clark said the goal of the class is not only to raise awareness about the Holocaust but to look at hateful activity in today’s world. She said students in her class investigate topics such as anti-Semitism, Nazi ideology, resistance, and the “Final Solution,” among other topics.

“We are fortunate to still have people like Mr. Vamos who truly help students understand how the Holocaust unfolded and grasp the magnitude and the human toll of the genocide, including the toll on those who survived,” said Clark. “We thank him for shedding light on a period in history we must never forget.”

From the biography of Ivan P. Vamos:

Ivan Vamos was born in March 1938 in Budapest Hungary nearly on the same day that Hitler’s troops marched (unopposed) to take over Austria. The Vamos family assumed that their long established status in the community would keep them safe; but that was not to be. In contrast, several of Ivan’s mother’s family left Europe, though with considerable difficulty. Two uncles were to return as US GIs, one of them with the Normandy invasion.

Ivan’s father was conscripted into a slave labor battalion that accompanied the Hungarian Army in their invasion of Russia in 1941. Most of these Jewish men died or were killed probably by the retreating Hungarians. This included Ivan’s father. In Hungary, “foreigners” were deported to concentration camps and restrictions for Hungarian Jews were draconian. Parks, pools, theatres, schools, professions and even sidewalks were prohibited for Jews and Gypsies (the Roma). Valuables, businesses and homes were confiscated. Yellow stars had to be worn. In 1943 Ivan’s grandfather, a decorated WWI officer, was called up and severely beaten, so Ivan’s Mother decided to hide. Carrying false papers she and Ivan pretended to be refugees from the Russians, and found lodgings in a rural area until spring 1944.

In 1944, alarmed by roundups of people in the countryside, Ivan’s Mother and Ivan walked back to Budapest. They arrived at a “protected house” (probably one of the houses under Swedish flag, as bravely arranged by Raul Wallenberg). They stayed for a few weeks in a very crowded apartment, until a German takeover of the Hungarian government in March 1944 (a former Axis ally of Germany, Hungary was rumored to be ready to sue for peace). This “invasion” put the ultra-rightist Hungarians called “Nyilas” (represented by crossed arrows) in charge of the country by the fall. These violent criminals herded all those in the protected houses and elsewhere to boxcars that headed for the extermination camps.

In the thousands lined up for deportation, Ivan’s Mother grabbed his hand, and took the risk of running into a group of on-lookers on the sidewalk. Running then walking in haste, and after a few close calls, they ducked into a bombed out apartment house. Fortunately they still carried a hidden bag of split peas Ivan’s Mother obtained months before in the countryside, and water remained in some toilet flushing tanks, allowing for their survival. They continued to hide in several of these smoldering ruins for the months until the Russians arrived.

After the liberation, food and lodgings were scarce, disease rampant and everything seemed unsafe. Several changes in governments added to the turbulence. Ivan’s Mother had US GI brothers who could sponsor a visa to the US. The Hungarian quota was hopelessly backlogged however, so she remarried a Czechoslovak and they could immigrate on that quota. Ivan, still a Hungarian by US INS rules, stayed behind for another year until he could advance on the Hungarian quota as a dependent youth, immigrating to the US in the fall of 1947.

On July 12, 2016 Ivan received a payment of 2,500 Euros from the Conference on Jewish Claims Against Germany Inc. in recognition of his Holocaust losses. The minimal size of this award recognizes that Ivan, fortunately has little current need for financial help, in contrast to other survivors some of whoom are in need. Ivan has already donated these funds to charity, and greatly values this recognition of his experiences during WWII.