Celebrating My Dad at 95 and His Courage During World War II
When I was little, my dad did the usual things fathers do: he tucked me in at night, took me to the beach, and drove me everywhere. Little did I know that earlier in his life, he had been part of a daring group that helped save as many as 100,000 Hungarian Jews during the waning months of World War II.
He celebrated his 95th birthday recently, and as he blew out the candles and cut his cake, I was reminded about what I know of his life in Budapest during the war.
Herman, known to family and friends as Zidy, was the youngest of seven siblings in the Seidenfeld household. He was born in Uzhorod, Czechoslovakia, which became Ungvar, Hungary in 1939. In a 1977 interview for the Shoah Foundation, my dad described life there for a typical teenage Jewish boy for whom religion had become irrelevant: “We knew there was a Jewish problem and for young people, it was a burning issue. The shul (synagogue) wasn’t giving us anything practical.”
Zidy found purpose with B’nei Akiva, a Zionist youth group. “We were very idealistic. We were fed up with being pushed around. We didn’t believe our parents, or the rabbis, who said it would all be okay.”
After a failed attempt to emigrate to Israel in 1939, Zidy was supposed to enter the dreaded Hungarian labor camps, where two of his brothers already had died. Instead, he escaped to Budapest, where another brother, Bela, lived. Arrested shortly afterward as a suspected dissident, Zidy was released thanks to Bela’s connections, but lived in constant fear: “I thought it could happen again. And with insecurity like that, you give yourself away.” My dad lived by himself in a small rented room: “I had a job, and spent spare time in libraries and at the movies, where I kept my head down.”
Everything changed once the Nazis invaded Hungary.
Between May and July 1944, an estimated 450,000 Hungarian Jews were transported to death camps. During this desperate time, Zidy joined B’nei Akiva’s efforts to stem the unprecedented tide of deportations. Against incredible odds, he and other young Zionists others forged ahead, creating tens of thousands of phony ID cards that would give Jews a “pass” to freedom.
They operated out of The Glass House, a factory that had secure status because it was controlled by the neutral Swiss government. My dad’s job was to forge blank documents provided by the Swiss, and distribute them to Jews. It was risky business. “In October of 1944, I was on a tram, with an attaché case filled with blank papers. I was tapped on the shoulder by a Hungarian Nazi, and arrested. During the initial questioning at Nazi offices, they tried to extract information about connections. I lied. I gave them names of people who didn’t exist to buy time.”
When the questioning moved to the police station, the torture began: “They put a chair on my toes and sat on it, they took my neck and a 2x4 and beat me in the arm. I could barely breathe.” My father was so battered they sent him to a hospital so he could recuperate – for more beatings.
In the meantime, B’nei Akiva had learned of Zidy’s arrest, and in a daring mission, two members put on fake Nazi uniforms and rescued him from the hospital. The incident is recorded in Operation Hazalah a book by Gilles Lambert and in the film account, Walking With the Enemy, based on the life of Pinchas Rosenbaum, one of the B’nei Akiva members who rescued my dad. Following his return to The Glass House, my father recuperated and resumed his work in the resistance until after the war. Despite his work, Zidy couldn’t save his parents or his sisters and their families. They all died in Auschwitz.
A year after the liberation, he sailed to Israel, met and married my mother, and became my dad. We moved to the U.S. in 1957, with the help of my uncle Bela, who had settled in New York. I remember my father telling of a woman he met on the subway who recognized him from Budapest. “You saved my life,” she told him.
I’ve often wondered how he could take the risks. “I did what I had to do; there was no choice.” Did he feel like a hero? “Absolutely not. It was a horrible time. We just did what we could.”