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Yom HaSHoah 2022: The Story of George Garai

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My late colleague at the Jewish Chronicle, Hungarian born Dr George Garai was a quiet, dignified presence in the office. I still remember his strong and handsome face; his calm presence. While the usual newsroom arguments raged round him, he did not engage with them. He found his stories, anyway without any perceptible battle.

The JC’s Zionist affairs correspondent had left much tougher battles behind him. Of those he never spoke. But now, years after his death his granddaughter, Ella Garai-Ebner, reveals his personal Holocaust story, describing his native Budapest which fell first to the Nazis, then to the Soviet Union, his escape in 1956 to Australia and finally the UK.

Ella is among several descendants of Holocaust survivors who have been helped to tell their stories by the Generation to Generation movement.

George was born in 1926 into a loving Budapest Jewish family until the fascist Hungarian Arrow Cross Party, loyal to Hitler, came to power in 1944. In his testimony written in the 1990s, he recalls “the fear and foreboding of mortal danger; it was clearly recognised that the new regime would try to destroy all the Jews of the capital.”  He lost many family members and survived both  labour and concentration camps and a death camp. After the war he escaped Soviet-run Budapest and went to Australia, where he married Anna Balajti, a fellow Hungarian refugee, with whom he had two daughters. Finally, in London he joined the JC

Ella, his granddaughter, graduated from Birmingham University of Birmingham in June 2021, with a degree in Education and Sociology. She works at Alyth Synagogue, as an educator in the Youth and Education Hub, having grown up as an active member of Alyth, and says she feels grateful to have the opportunity to work in the community.

In telling her grandfather’s story, Ella speaks of unanswered questions in his life. “George did not feel able to share his memories while he was alive. Therefore I am telling his story – to ensure the memories – can continue to be passed on”. She adds: “It’s hard to verbalise why I think Holocaust education is important; as a third-generation descendant, I have always been aware of the importance of remembering, and ensuring others remember too. I think this comes from a fear that such a horror could be repeated, or forgotten, and history is doomed to repeat itself.  Through education, and the awareness and tolerance it teaches, this fear lessens. George’s final words were a reminder to his family to talk about the atrocities he faced, and I am proud to be fulfilling his wish that his past must not be forgotten.” 

She explained that she first came across the Generation to Generation movement while writing and researching her dissertation in the spring of 2021, which was on the role of third-generation Holocaust descendants in transmitting survivor testimony. She interviewed a couple of G2G third-generation speakers for her research, whom she found inspiring. The findings of her dissertation reiterated the importance of Holocaust education. “I knew I wanted to get involved and tell my Grandpa’s story.

George and his wife

In the 1990s, my Grandpa – who was an incredible writer and journalist and worked for the Jewish Chronicle for many years – wrote a testimony of his life before and during the Holocaust, which he called his ‘CV’. After writing this testimony, he removed and hid certain pages, which documented a particularly painful experience for him, a death march from Mauthausen to Gunskirchen concentration camps. They were so distressing, that he didn’t want his family to know about this experience. Just before he died, in 2007, he told his wife, Anna, that these pages existed, told her where they were hidden and stressed the importance of telling the world what had happened in the Holocaust, and what had happened to him. I’m telling my Grandpa’s story because it was just too painful for him to be able to do so, but he did want his story to be told. I also hope to be able to do what he was never able to do by publishing his testimony for him”. 

For as long as she can remember, Ella had known of her family’s Holocaust history. At the age of 12, her grandmother took her to Budapest, where both she and her grandfather were born, lived and escaped from in 1956. “She showed me significant sights around the city that related to them both, such as where my Grandpa had his Bar Mitzvah, where he worked and where they both lived.

At around the same time her paternal grandparents took her to Vienna, where her paternal grandfather was born, and from where he fled with his parents in 1939 two weeks before war broke out, when he was just two years old.

“Both these family history trips were incredible and really valuable experiences, and brought to life the history of which I’ve always been aware, but not known a great deal about. Since these trips, I have asked my Grandparents question after question, and have learnt more and more about their history”.

Ella had studied the history of World War Two and theHolocaust in History in Year 9, and remembers marking Holocaust Memorial Day and Yom Hashoah every year with ceremonies, memorials and candle-lighting. She insists that presentations from young people like her will have a positive impact on the general understanding of the Holocaust.

“Survivor testimony is such a key, valuable instrument in Holocaust education, and in making human connections and heightened understanding and empathy. I think third-generation descendants have such an important role in allowing education through this method to remain a reality, even once their grandparents are no longer alive. I also hope that hearing a presentation from a grandchild of survivors will remind audiences that this is still very recent history – my Grandma is a survivor, and now owns (and can use!) an iPad”.

Ella is motivated to making her own generation aware of the Holocaust and prevent race hate from happening in the future.  She explained:

“Whilst writing and researching my dissertation, a friend asked me why I think Holocaust Education is important. I realised it’s hard to verbalise; as a third-generation descendant, I have been aware throughout my life of the importance of remembering, and the importance of ensuring others remember too. At its core, particularly given the worrying reality of the presence of all forms of racism in contemporary society, I think this comes from fear; a fear that such a horror could be repeated, or forgotten, and history is doomed to repeat itself. Through education, and the awareness and tolerance it teaches, this fear lessens”. 

Based on her university studies and the work she has done in exploring George’s story, Ella feels committed to taking her Holocaust awareness into her future career.

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Gloria Tessler is a journalist, author, playwright and poet. She is the biographer of Lady Amelie Jakobovits, and her two plays, The Windmill and Unveiling Hagar, both on Jewish themes, have been performed on the London fringe. She is presently obituaries editor at the Jewish Chronicle and art correspondent at AJR Journal. 
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