Barnabas Balint Lectures About Growing Up Jewish During the Holocaust In Hungary

Fri, 04/29/2022 - 4:30pm

"Growing Up Jewish During the Holocaust in Hungary”
Barnabas Balint (PhD candidate in History, Magdalen College, University of Oxford, UK) 
2021-2022 Breslauer, Rutman, and Anderson Research Fellow 
March 29, 2022

During his monthlong residency at the USC Dornsife Center for Advanced Genocide Research, the Center’s 2021-2022 Breslauer, Rutman, and Anderson Research Fellow Barnabas Balint delivered a lecture about his research in the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive. In the lecture, entitled “Growing Up Jewish During the Holocaust in Hungary”, Balint traced the themes of his research on Hungarian Jewish youth through the life history and survivor testimony of one Holocaust survivor, Alan Brown (formerly Andor Braun). He examined how Alan Brown's experience of his youth shares so much in common with other Hungarian Jewish youth for whom age intersected with developing ideas about gender, space, ideology, religion, and identity.

In the first part of the lecture, Balint offered a deep dive into the life history and testimony of Alan Brown (Andor Braun), beginning with two photographs from Alan's 1996 VHA testimony – one a photo of Andor Braun at 10 years old, photographed with his parents, and another photo of 35-year old Alan Brown at his desk at USC after being hired as a professor of Economics in 1963. Balint discussed Alan’s life history, from his education, the antisemitic persecution he experienced at the Catholic school he attended, him switching schools to a Jewish school for one year before returning to his Catholic school, joining a Zionist youth movement, his family’s enforced move to the ghetto in April 1944 when Germany began its occupation of Hungary, and his attitude that he relates in his interview that at just 16, he found the prospect of moving to the ghetto an exciting experience, and as part of the youth service, he had special privileges, like being able to leave and enter the ghetto to run errands. Balint pointed out that in many histories of the Holocaust, when people refer to age, their focus is on how quickly young people had to grow up, assume adult roles, how they lost their childhood. Here, Brown is articulating precisely the opposite, affirming that his youth influenced how he experienced the Holocaust. Balint argues that Alan’s age gave him agency and the opportunity to respond in a youthful way. 

Balint detailed Alan’s work in the ghetto, which sometimes involved carrying dead bodies out of the prison. A doctor at a makeshift ghetto hospital approached Alan about the doctor’s sister, who was at the prison. He asked Alan to give her a pill that would make her appear dead. Alan did so and brought the seemingly dead body of the sister to the doctor, allowing her to escape. The doctor promised that in return he would attest that Alan’s family needed to be in the hospital, where there were better living conditions and food. Alan shares that the family was more comfortable in the hospital than at home. Balint describes the pace of interview slowing down, with Alan pausing and struggling to form sentences as he shares that the inhabitants of the hospital were the first to go to the gas chambers. Thus, he feels he shortened their lives. 

The ghetto was liquidated in June 1944, with its residents transported to Auschwitz. The week before, Alan had been summoned by the Hungarian military to be enlisted in a forced labor battalion. The minimum age was 21. Alan was 16. The commissioning officer encouraged Alan to lie about his age, as Balint illustrated with an excerpt from Alan’s testimony. Age deceptions are a key theme when examining age as a category of analysis for understanding the Holocaust. The frequency and contexts of people lying about their age are revealing not only about how perpetrators viewed age as being linked to ideas about physical usefulness and readiness for work, but also revealing when considering the ways Jews could leverage perceptions of age and physical appearance to survive. 

When Alan was sent to a forced labor camp, he was reunited with his father who was there. Alan shares there were three other pairs of fathers and sons in the camp. Balint describes how forced labor created new masculine communities. Despite receiving aid from a non-Jewish pharmacist in Austria, the place of one of the many camps where Alan’s forced labor battalion was transported, Alan’s father died the morning the Red Army arrived to liberate their camp. Alan returned to Budapest and then to his hometown of Miskolc but finding no surviving family members, he traveled through DP camps and ultimately emigrated to Miami. He pursued his education, married, had a family, and built an impressive career before retiring to Ontario, Canada, where he died in 2010.

After sharing Alan’s life history, Balint focused in on the variety of themes Alan’s life history illuminates. Among the many themes Balint attended to in his lecture was the balance between assimilation and Jewish identity. Hungarian Jews were deeply assimilated into society. Yet Alan describes many incidents of harassment and antisemitism he faced, included fighting every day, often against multiple people at once. The majority of Jewish youth in Hungary attended non-Jewish schools, and in the changing environment of the 1920s and 1930s as antisemitism was on the rise, Alan and other Jewish youth were exposed to attack. These young Jews were growing up in an environment very different from their parents. This generational gap was evident as well in attitudes towards Zionsim, with more active and activistic attitudes coming from the youth, Balint argued. The shift in the dynamics between Jews and non-Jews played out along generational lines and had a powerful impact on families.

There were transformations in Alan’s family as Alan’s father was away from home a great deal due to being in the forced labor battalion. Alan’s father’s weakness and sickness upon his return undermined his position as strong masculine head of the family. The dynamics of Alan’s family and many other families changed as families lost men to forced labor. Even in the forced labor camp where they were reunited, Alan’s father couldn’t care for, look after, or protect his son. Yet family bonds remained important, Balint argued, as did small acts of care. In 1945, Alan’s father gave Alan tobacco for his birthday, which he could use to barter for food. 12 days later, Alan’s father died. Balint argued that having the presence of his father at his side acted as a reminder, a signifier, of Alan’s youth.

Persecution changed people’s perception of age and what it meant, Balint argued, and he illustrated the ways in which people’s understanding of themselves as being young formed a crucial part of their identity. Balint evoked the ways these conceptions were challenged by the effects of persecution in a powerful excerpt from Alan’s testimony about meeting a young man who looked far older. Balint went on to discuss the ways in which forced labor was both an aged and gendered phenomenon, tracing the changes in forced labor before and during the war and how age intersected with perceptions of fitness for labor and ability, just as antisemitism was influencing people’s perceptions of those too. Balint argued that age and gender are key categories that shape each other, and culture weaves a powerful thread between these as well. Returning to education and schooling, Balint pointed out that in Hungarian middle schools between 1927 and 1933, the number of girls attending school was always lower than the number of boys, but the proportion of Jewish girls attending school was significantly higher than the proportion of Jewish boys, almost double in some years, revealing a stronger tendency towards girls’ education in Jewish families than non-Jewish ones. While one might assume Jewish schools were an oasis for Jews, while they provided a safe space from antisemitic persecution, Balint argued that the gendered, age, and school experiences were strikingly similar with non-Jewish schools. Both systems shared similar structures and curriculums. Here again, Balint asserted, the balance and the tension between assimilation and the Jewish community played out. Focusing on the Jewish school that Alan attended for a year, Balint pointed out that the guiding ideology was that of instilling Jewish boys with national Hungarian spirit. The school, its founder (who died in a concentration camp in Austria), and Alan’s testimony and experiences provide a window into the complexities of the Hungarian Jewish identity, Balint described. 

Balint reflected on the interconnectivity of the elements he had discussed in his lecture – assimilation, Jewish identity, family, age, gender – and the ways in which these elements or categories shaped each other. Exploring these categories and recognizing their entanglements helps us to understand how young Jews grew up in Hungary during the Holocaust. In the lecture's conclusion, Balint returned to talking about Alan’s achievements and what he accomplished in life. Alan’s life and testimony are a testament to the ultimate failure of the genocide that sought to murder all Jews in Europe, Balint argued, but the testimony is also filled with so many people who died, people whose names we will never know. 

There was a lively and lengthy discussion following Balint’s lecture, with questions on many topics, including the evolution of relationships in the forced labor camp, gender differences in how boys and girls experienced and responded to persecution, religious identity, Balint’s interpretations of silences and movement in the testimonies, age deceptions, the timing of and reasons for people's attempted escapes from forced labor battalions, where we can see Alan’s agency (joining the Zionist group) and where we can’t (his parents picked his schools), the role of school choices in assimilating and protecting children, among many other topics. 

Summary by Martha Stroud

 

Martha Stroud
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