The lives of about 9,000 Hungarian Jews hinged in 1944 on Hitler henchman Adolf Eichmann’s interpretation of the number 12. But it was an interpretation Tibor Baranski, then the 22-year-old executive secretary to the Vatican ambassador in Budapest, couldn’t tolerate.
The number 12 meant the Apostolic Nuncio Angelo Rotto, the Vatican’s ambassador, issued crucial letters of protection to 12,000 Jews in 42 apartment houses, says Baranski, now 81.
The Nazis had taken over Hungary in early 1944. And Eichmann, in a brutal phone call to Baranski several months later, insisted only 3,000 Jews in 12 apartment buildings could be saved from transport to concentration camps in Poland and Germany.
“(Eichmann) told us we are confused, we are stupid – only 3,000 Jews can be protected,” says Baranski, whose daughter, Kathy Spangler, lives in Edwards. “He was very obnoxious. I was amazed a German officer could be so extremely unpolite.”
Baranski, who now lives in Buffalo, N.Y. and visited the Vail Valley last week, says the phone conversation with Eichmann lasted about five minutes.
“He was very inhuman,” Baranski says.
Baranski describes himself as the soldier and Rotto as the general in their rescue efforts. He says he did not obey Eichmann’s orders.
“The life for the Jews was absolutely horrible – many of them were shipped out to Germany or Poland and killed in the camps,” Baranski says. “Some of them were shot into the Danube.”
Baranski says after Eichmann’s phone call he did not take back any of the letters of protection the papal embassy had issued.
“I had to go through all these apartment houses and declare whose protection letters were invalid,” Baranski says. “What I did not do, I did not collect those letters and these letters still protected these Jews. Thank God, I succeeded.”
Baranski became involved with the Papal embassy when the seminary where he was studying to become a priest was closed. He first visited Rotto trying to help a few Jewish families. Rotto, impressed with his compassion and persistence, recruited him.
Baranski says he often spent entire days talking with Jews seeking protection from the Nazis. Each night, he reported these discussions to Rotto, who would then try to arrange protection.
Baranski’s work on behalf of the Jews could have gotten him killed by the Nazis, but he says he was often too busy to be frightened.
“The work, what I did, was in such a hurry,” he says. “I had so much work, I had no time to fear.”
The Nazis’ violence was not only vicious, but often random, Baranski says. “The Nazis, exactly like the Communists, gave rules ambiguously, they gave orders orally, rules they can twist as much as they want,” Baranski says. “Not only were Jews captured or put in unhuman conditions, but Hungarians, as well. The Germans took control of the entire country.”
Baranski’s protection extended beyond the letters. When about 2,000 Jews were penned in an abandoned factory, some of the captives threw pieces of paper inscribed with their names through holes in a fence.
Baranski collected the shreds of paper and was able to rescue about 50 people from the factory before they were taken away by the Nazis.
And Baranski says he was almost shot when he travelled to the border between Austria and Hungary to retrieve Jews from a Nazi train. He was stopped by members of the Gestapo, who threatened Baranski’s life.
“For about half-an-hour, three-quarters of an hour, my life was in serious danger,” he says. “I was very near to being shot.”
Baranski convinced the Gestapo officers he wasn’t up to anything illegal and they left. Baranski later took 250 Jews off the train and brought them back to Budapest and back to apartments about two days later.
“I was even able to frighten the Nazis in Budapest to take these Jews to the Jewish Center where they were distributed to the international houses,” says Baranski, using the term for the apartment buildings the Jews lived in.
Baranski also worked with a more well-known savior of Jews, the Swedish citizen Raoul Wallenberg.
At one point during the Nazi terror, Wallenberg and Baranski talked almost everyday. Baranski says he used his connections with drug companies to send medicine to Wallenberg and Wallenberg sent food for the Hungarian Jews.
“We collaborated,” he says.
Lessons of hate and love
Some survivors and scholars of the Holocaust say the Nazi’s “Final Solution” of wiping out the Jews and others was so evil there is nothing to be learned from the Holocaust. But Baranski, who spent most of his career in the U.S. teaching high school, says the Holocaust is an ideal lesson of love and hate.
“It gives me a lot of opportunities to explain hatred and heroes,” he says. “I have tried to explain what is unexplainable, that there is no logic – why should we hate anyone when we can love?”
Baranski’s own suffering came after he fought with the resistance in the Hungarian Revolution against Stalin’s Soviet troops. He was imprisoned by the Soviets for five years until Stalin’s death.
“They wanted to make a simple machine, Stalin and Hitler,” Baranski says. “Hitler had not so much time to be a gangster; Stalin had more time.”
The weight of history
Baranski’s daughter, Kathy Spangler, lives in Edwards. Before coming to the valley, she worked in the Reagan and Bush administrations. She worked for Jack Kemp when he was the secretary of Housing and Urban Development and for former attorney general, Edwin Meese.
She also accompanied her father at many of his talks and joined him at meetings of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council, to which Baranski was appointed by President Carter in 1979. The council’s task was to plan and design the National Holocaust Museum.
“It’s been a part of my entire life. We were raised in a home where our parents lived history and taught it to us,” Spangler says. “That gave me a very rich and bountiful upbringing.”
Spangler once spoke about her father at Syracuse University with Elie Wiesel, the famed Nazi hunter.
“Passing on history of that magnitude is critical,” Spangler says. “You can’t be a complete person, you cannot live life in an intelligent way, when you are apathetic or indifferent to things. There is a huge message in connecting a horrific event of the past to a horrific event of two years ago.”
While the scale of death on Sept. 11 may not be equal to the Holocaust, the hate behind those terrorist attacks and the Nazis’ Final Solution was the same.
Spangler says her parents’ ordeals gave them a deeper appreciation for the U.S. when they immigrated.
“My parents love America … There is a gratitude, there is a respect, that comes from a country opening its arms,” Spangler says. “We were raised in a very patriotic household.”
The tyranny of Nazism and Soviet Communism should give all Americans a greater appreciation of freedom, Spangler says.
“Without a doubt, we’re in the greatest country in the world,” Spangler says. “We have the right given to us to vote and we need to vote. That’s the biggest disgrace in our country, that so few people vote.”
Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at email@example.com.