New Year’s Eve, 1943. Lajos Stillmann is celebrating his 22nd birthday with friends in a Budapest apartment. Someone suggests paying a visit to a nearby palm reader. Stillmann goes along, reluctantly. The palm reader takes a look at his hand, then tells him she would rather not say what she’s seen.
He insists, and she relents. “You will not live to see your next birthday,” she says.
New Year’s Eve, 1944. Hungary’s puppet Nazi regime has handed Stillmann and other Jews over to the Germans. He is put to work as a slave laborer, digging trenches and tank traps along the Austrian border.
A young soldier from an S.S. unit accuses someone in Stillmann’s work crew of stealing a pair of gloves. He orders the workers to line up in rows and threatens to kill the 10th man in each row if the gloves don’t materialize.
Stillmann casts a sideways glance down his row and counts. He’s the 10th man. The soldier draws his pistol, turns to Stillmann, asks whether he has the gloves. Right then, a German officer arrives and orders the soldier to holster his weapon and move along. Stillmann is spared.
The thought runs through his mind: “I shouldn’t be so dismissive of fortune tellers.”
That evening, Stillmann and other prisoners are put on a train, headed west. Afterward they are marched in darkness until they reach a gate that opens to a plaza surrounded by barracks.
Stillmann learns where he is: Mauthausen, a concentration camp near Linz.
Soon after his arrival he runs into Jancsi, his best friend from their childhood in the town of Kiskunfélegyháza. His friend is filthy, skeletal, stinking. Stillmann gives him a spare pair of underpants and tells him he will look for him the next day. Jancsi dies overnight.
Stillmann is put to work in the camp’s rock quarry. The guards have become lethargic. They don’t torture the prisoners, but they barely feed them. He tries to conserve his strength and waits for the end to come, either the war’s or his own. A few months later he is forced to march again, this time toward a sub-camp called Gunskirchen. Along the way, at night, he is stopped at gunpoint by an S.S. officer.
“Here we go again,” Stillmann tells himself.
“You are a Jew,” the officer says.
“I am not a Jew, I’m Portuguese,” Stillmann replies. He produces a falsified passport obtained the previous summer thanks to a family relative working in Lisbon’s embassy in Budapest.
“Swear that Germany is winning the war and I’ll let you go,” the officer says.
“Germany has already won the war,” he answers. Between 60 and 70 percent of Hungary’s Jews have already perished in the Holocaust. The officer puts away his gun.
They are not long in the new camp before it is liberated by elements of the 71st Division and the African-American 761st Tank Battalion. The date is Friday, May 4, 1945. Prisoners, half-crazed with hunger, crawl toward their liberators over ground that is a putty of mud, urine and feces. Stillmann, with an infected leg wound, makes his way to a nearby American field hospital. He weighs 83 lbs.
He recovers and serves a stint as an interpreter for the Americans. He meets George Patton. After several months he decides to go home. In his hometown he finds survivors who had been with his mother at Auschwitz. She had passed the initial selection, then got sick and vanished.
One night, in a dream, he sees his father bury family heirlooms under a lilac tree in the garden. In the morning he takes a shovel to the spot he dreamed about and finds the heirlooms.
Russian troops are quartered in his family home. He slips across the border to Austria, where he shuffles between displaced-persons camps while looking for a country that might take him. A visa from Mexico comes through, and Lajos becomes Luis. There he meets Buba, also a Hungarian refugee and an Auschwitz survivor. Together they raise a thriving family. In time he becomes a pharmaceutical executive and a pillar of the Mexican-Jewish community.
I’ve known Luis nearly my whole life, thanks to his friendship with my parents. When I see him and say, “I’m so happy to see you,” he’s fond of replying, “You have no idea how happy I am to see you.” At 98, he cherishes his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, slips effortlessly between cultures and languages, dispenses sound medical advice to his friends, propounds historical counterfactuals, has an endless stock of anecdotes (some heartbreaking, many hilarious), and is always good for a joke. He’s the most positive man I’ve ever met.
Lately, he and Buba have been staying at home — Covid-19 gives them no choice — while he works on the memoir on which this column is based. “¿Es una tontería?” he wonders after showing me a draft. I promise there’s nothing foolish about it at all: It’s a monument of the past for the future. Amid today’s dark prophecies, remember how one man survived a darker one, 76 birthdays ago and counting.
The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email: [email protected].
Source: NY times