Vera and Pista Vadas survived the horrors of the Holocaust in Hungary, successfully got out of Hungary when a Communist government took over and built new lives and raised a family in Canada. They thought they had left strife and terror behind.
Then, one day something shattered their sense of security.
“In 2010 we found a wooden crate under our lake house north of Toronto — it was quite new, the contents were absolutely gruesome. It was the most grizzly things you could ever imagine — the fresh remains of a murder victim,” their daughter Deborah Levison said. “This discovery really rocked my family.”
She set out to document her family’s story in “The Crate,” weaving the horrors of her parents’ past with the family grappling with this new horror in the present.
She will tell their story as the featured speaker for the Thaler Holocaust Remembrance Fund’s virtual commemoration of International Holocaust Remembrance Day on Jan. 27.
The presentation will begin at 6 p.m. Registration is required; learn more at HolocaustEducate.org.
“By the time they brought the murderer to trial and convicted him it was 2013,” Levison said. “It was a story that was crying out to be told; here was this murder victim, this young woman who no longer had a voice.”
She also wanted to put what had happened in the context of her parents’ experiences.
“I knew that in order to put the whole story into context, in order for readers to understand why it had such an impact, I had to tell the story of my parents’ past. They were Holocaust survivors who thought they had finally found sanctuary,” she said. “To have this act of just horrendous violence and evil really taint, really defile our sanctuary was traumatizing for our parents. It became the intertwining of evil in the past and evil in the present.”
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Growing up, they didn’t talk about the Holocaust, but Levison said she could always sense something was different about her family. The trauma was always with them.
“I felt sort of a black shadow over our family. I knew we were different from other families,” she said. “We weren’t allowed to get angry, we never disobeyed, we were always respectful, because we always felt our parents would shatter.”
In the mid-1990s, her father gave a video testimony of his story for a project by director Steven Spielberg.
“They had never talked about their past to me; they wanted to protect me from everything they had gone through,” Levison said. “It was by watching my father’s video that I actually learned what they had gone through.”
Her mother grew up in Budapest, Hungary, and her father in a small village north of the city. Then, in March 1944, Germany occupied the country. Her mother’s parents were taken away — her father to forced labor, her mother on a train to Auschwitz. Her mother was just 14 and ended up alone in the Budapest ghetto.
Her father was 17 when he was taken away by the Nazis for forced labor, and eventually sent to three different concentration camps.
When the last camp he was in was liberated by Allied forces in May 1945, he was on the brink of starvation, weighing less than 90 pounds. He spent 90 days in an American infirmary, recovering, before going to Budapest. There, met Levison’s mother, and eventually the two married.
Her father has since died but her mother still is alive. Levison, who now lives in Connecticut, said not seeing her during the COVID-19 pandemic has been difficult.
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She said as the generation that lived through the Holocaust gets older and passes on, it is the duty of children of Holocaust survivors like herself to keep telling their stories.
“As we’re losing their voices, it is incumbent on the next generation to tell the stories, to make it their responsibility to learn the stories and to preserve them — write them down, get them on video, get a voice recording,” she said.
She said we are not far removed from the kind of bigotry and hatred that led to the Holocaust in the first place.
“Unfortunately, the themes are so timely, still. Violence and anti-Semitism and hatred are still with us — it’s only been a few days since the attack on the Capitol with the guys wearing Camp Auschwitz T-shirts,” she said. “I think the themes are just very relevant for right now.”
And when people see that kind of hatred, they have a duty to speak up, she added.
“When you see something unjust happening, you have to step in. The opposite of love is not hate,” she said. “It’s indifference.”
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