(Arcade Publishing)Tivadar Soros was living in Budapest when the Germans took over in the Spring of 1944. Up to that point, most of the Jews had been protected by the Austrian government from deportation, but with the arrival of the SS, their days were numbered.
Soros was an attorney who had survived an earlier deportation as a prisoner-
of- war in Russia. He immediately decided that to avoid being murdered by the Nazis meant that he and his family must split up, go into hiding.
The most rational approach, in my view, was complete separation, followed by a quiet effort to blend in with the general population. That is the way animals do it: when they sense danger, instead of presenting a clear target to their enemies, their natural mode of self-preservation is to blend with the scenery and simply disappear. Naturalists call this phenomenon "mimicry."
Soros was a natural survivor, and the story of his year of hiding out is an intermix of horror and high good humor. His mother-in-law bitterly protested having to hide and change her name:
I could tell from her voice that she was having a hard time and I began to feel very sorry for her. I promised to find her a new place and said I would call her as soon as I had something. Recent experience had shown that apartment-
hunting was hopeless, so I tried the hotels.
I was lucky: after a brief search I found a room at the Hotel Carlton, one of the better hotels in town. Even more surprising was the fact that my mother-in-law accepted my proposal right away. She was convinced not because the Carlton was a good hotel but because it was only about a minute away from her apartment in Eskü Square. So she was pleased.
My son [George Soros, then aged 14] escorted her to the hotel, where she registered as Rosália Bessenyei. My son gleefully reported that when she was handed the registration blank, she exclaimed, "Shema Yisroel, I can't fill it out already. I've forgotten my new name!"
Soros and his family make do under grim and dangerous circumstances, saving countless other lives by printing up and distributing thousands of documents. His description of his pricing of fake papers is wonderful:
I should explain, by the way, that I had three different price categories for documents. First, I gave the documents completely free to people who were very close to me or in desperate straits. Second, from those people to whom I felt a moral obligation not to make a profit at their expense, I simply asked for my actual expenses, without consideration for the trouble or risk involved.
Third, from my wealthy clients I asked for whatever the market would bear. In fact, I had no particular limits for this category, or, as they say, there was no ceiling on the prices. Sometimes I received as much as twenty times the actual cost.
Soros comes out of this as a beguiling trickster, a combination of Woody Allen and Groucho Marx. He is not only resourceful, he has a rich sense of the ridiculous, an eye for detail that puts the reader in the middle of 1944-1945 Budapest. There is, for example, his forger, the one who prepares his documents for him. When they first meet, the artiste tells him that he no longer enjoys his job. In the old days, forging was far more professional and interesting:
"Do you think I enjoy doing this kind of mass production?" he asked angrily. "I don't deny that it pays well compared to the kind of really challenging and complicated work that I used to do. But the quality! The quality of the work is nothing to what it used to be.
Imagine how it was, back in the old days, when someone wanted, say, the title of royal chamberlain. You had to prove that eight patrilineal and matrilineal relatives were members of the nobility. Think of the effort, the study, the heraldic research that had to be done! Getting all the details and then painting the coats of arms could make months, years even. But today..."
His voice trailed off and was replaced by a gesture of despair. "Today all the work and care and study that I devoted my life to is worth nothing. Today all they want is stamped forms. Quality means nothing."
I expressed my incredulity with a slight movement of the head and muttered something under my newly grown moustache. He took it as a challenge to his veracity.
He jumped out of bed and said excitedly, "Let's do a little test, sir. Sign your name on this piece of paper."
He gave me a piece of paper and pushed his pen into my hand. I signed my name. Holding the paper with his right hand and writing backwards with the left, he copied my name three times in a row. Each signature was exactly like the other. One might almost say that the copies were better than the original. I felt that I should express my admiration for his artistic skill. I searched for the right word.
"Remarkable," I said.
Soros is the kind of person that we would want to hang out with just because he has that wry irony and let-
nothing- daunt- me attitude that we'd need if we were trying to survive in Budapest in 1944. Further, there is a powerful implied kindness in all his works. He doesn't say, "I'm a kind person." He doesn't have to. Despite his living in the midst of such human bestiality, he remains a steadfast humanitarian. He comes off as one who is simply not built to see the world in terms of enemies and friends. He explains it,
Living as a victim of persecution had heightened my sense of empathy; the condition of all such victims of persecution became my affair, a part of my condition.
This empathy has its severest test as the occupation was ending. The Russians are fighting through Budapest, street by street, and a soldier comes in through the Soros apartment window:
There stood a fair-haired, blue-eyed German boy in full military equipment, his chin as smooth as a baby's....Chance had so arranged things that this solitary German soldier, representative of the power and might of Germany, now stood before four Jews, who had the opportunity to treat him with the same senseless barbarity and malice that the Germans had used on millions of Jews. With his blue eyes and blond hair he seemed the very embodiment of that Aryan-ness whose fanatical adherents had sought to enslave people and exterminate races. Should the lex talionis, the principle of compensation, of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth, apply? Was he himself guilty? Was it right to punish him for something he had perhaps not done himself, not even approved of? And did the "Aryans" weight such matters with similar exactitude?
We did the boy no harm.
"Wie alt sind Sie? [How old are you]" This was my first question.
"I'm seventeen," he declared, eager to please.
"Do you smoke?"
He took my offered cigarette, lit it, and inhaled eagerly. He explained that there was a Russian tank in front of our building. This was evidently the source of the machine-gun fire we had been hearing. He had run from the Russians into the basement of our building, and, looking for a way out, had gone from there to the air shaft. Our bathroom window looked out on this air shaft, so he had broken the glass of the outer window and pushed at the inner one. When it gave way he tumbled into the room.
We talked for perhaps a quarter of an hour. The question then was what to do with him.
The eyes of fourteen-year-old George seemed filled with tears. I put a handful of cigarettes into the Aryan soldier's fist and gave him his orders: "You're to go out the same way you came in."
The boys helped him to climb on to the window-sill, and the armed representative of the German Reich exited Jewish-occupied territory.
Soros concludes, with delicious irony --- referring to the disguise he and his family had had to adopt for more than a year: "As pseudo-
Christians, we had not quite reached that level of Christianity where we were willing to return bread for stones."--- Ignacio Schwartz