A friend of mine got a lifetime achievement award recently, and it got me to thinking about the Holocaust again, something that’s never been completely out of my mind for the last 22 years.
Randolph L. Braham and I are an odd couple to be friends because our families were on different sides of the Holocaust. His emails to me over the last 20 years have always been signed Randy, but I call him Professor Braham out of respect.
Braham is distinguished professor emeritus of political science at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, director of the Rosenthal Center for Holocaust Studies there, and the author of more than 60 books on the Holocaust. His parents and many relatives were killed — murdered in cold blood is more accurate — in the Holocaust in Northern Transylvania, which during World War II was part of Hungary. Braham himself was in a forced-labor camp during the war.
My late father, on the other hand, was one of the perpetrators of the Holocaust in Hungary.
His name was Laszlo Gyapay, and he was the mayor of a large city in the Transylvanian portion of Hungary during the war. In 1944, he created a ghetto where Jews were required to live. Ultimately, 36,000 Jews were sent from Nagyvarad to the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, most to their deaths. My father was convicted in 1946 of anti-Jewish war crimes in absentia and sentenced to life in prison. But I knew nothing about his past growing up as a child in Montana, where we settled in 1951 after living for 51/2 years in West German camps for displaced persons.
It wasn’t until after a divorce in 1987 that I started trying to find out more about who I was, a search that ultimately led to the truth about my father. In 1990, I traveled to Hungary, where long-lost relatives and a friend of my late mother told me about my father’s role during the war. I then began trying to learn everything I could about his actions.
After I found a mention of my father in one of Braham’s books in 1991, I phoned him in New York. He was surprised by my call, but very kind and helpful and referred me to other works of his, including one that contained the war crimes judgment against my father and others. He sent me various documents over the years and even translated them when necessary.
Concerned about what effect the revelations were having on me, he also offered some advice. “You should do as I do,” he said. “Treat your research like a surgeon doing an emergency procedure on his own mother. You can’t afford to get personally involved.”
It was difficult advice to follow, especially after I began talking to Hungarian Holocaust survivors in New York and Europe who remembered my father. One told me about an exhibit mentioning my father in a Jewish museum in Budapest. A couple said conditions in the ghetto had a reputation as being the worst in Hungary. Others blamed my father personally for what happened to them in the ghetto and at Auschwitz.
I also visited the scene of my father’s war crimes in what is now the city of Oradea, but was then called Nagyvarad. There, I met with a handful of surviving Jews who showed me the former ghetto, including the chambers where Jews thought to be hiding valuables were tortured.At Auschwitz, I saw the barracks and bunks that some of the survivors I’d interviewed had lived in.
When I first wrote about my discoveries in the early 1990s, my former wife and two daughters were supportive, but my three brothers quit speaking to me. In Hungary, the stories split my relatives, with half cutting me off and the rest offering to help with my continuing research.
I was moved by the reactions of some Holocaust survivors. In 1992, I got a letter from Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel, who noted that I had discovered, as he had, that the way “to cope with the anger of truth” is “in your words.” Braham invited me to be his guest at the dedication of the Holocaust museum in Washington in 1993. I sat with him and his wife while President Bill Clinton and others spoke.
Many survivors, including Wiesel and Braham, have said that the Holocaust caused them to question the existence of God. But for me, immersing myself in that horror ultimately sent me back to my Roman Catholic faith after an absence of 30 years. After discovering my father’s secret past, I found myself going to cathedrals and churches in Eastern Europe to grapple with it all. At first I wanted God to send my father to hell for his actions, but after a couple of years I started praying for his soul (and hoping that he had asked for forgiveness before he died). I also prayed for my mother, whose views on my father’s actions I never knew.
Last year, I re-read Wiesel’s Holocaust memoir “Night.” He tells of witnessing some hangings of concentration camp prisoners at Auschwitz who were found to have arms or were suspected of sabotage. “Bare your heads!” the head of the camp would yell after each hanging that the other prisoners were forced to watch. Ten thousand caps came off simultaneously. Then “Cover your heads!” Someone asked where God was when a young boy was hanged, and Wiesel heard a voice within him say, “He is hanging here on this gallows.”
Not long after reading that, I attended a Good Friday service in Palm Desert. While pondering a giant crucifix of Jesus hanging on the wall, Wiesel’s words came back to me: “Bare your heads,” I thought. “Cover your heads.” There is God, I thought, hanging on that cross made from a tree. I then said a prayer for the Jews of Nagyvarad, but I knew it wasn’t necessary. If there is a God in heaven, they are there by his side.
Les Gapay is a freelance writer in Rancho Mirage.