Elizabeth Ocskay remembers how her grandfather, the man she called “Dedi,” would walk with her from their apartment to elementary school every morning, a few blocks along Uptown Kingston’s Wall Street. It was a thrill to walk next to the tall man with the sleek dark hair and the trim moustache – the man who always wore a jacket and tie, whatever he was doing, wherever he was going.
On Sundays after mass at St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Church, they would walk together to a diner near Broadway. She always ordered a hamburger. He usually had a cup of coffee. They talked. He had a way about him that made her feel like a grownup.
She remembers how he would sometimes visit her school, St. Joseph’s Roman Catholic Elementary. One visit stands out in memory: She was furious at her third-grade teacher, “a horrible woman who never had a kind word for any of us.” A single visit from her Dedi changed that, and the teacher became sweet as pie.
She doesn’t know what her grandfather did or said to the teacher. All she knew then, as now, was that he protected her and her classmates. It was a role with which he was very familiar.
As she grew older, Elizabeth Ocskay came to recognize grownup things about her Dedi. She could see that he was sad. She gradually learned why.
László Ocskay was a political refugee from his native Hungary. His exile was something from which he never recovered: a lasting and devastating blow to a man who could trace his ancestry back to the 11th century. László Ocskay was a stranger in a strange land, an aristocrat who arrived penniless in Kingston in 1956, where his son and daughter-in-law were already trying to make a living in a new country. Though he spoke five languages, László never learned English. He worked briefly as a night watchman at a Midtown knitting mill, but it was no good. The family survived through the combined efforts of Elizabeth’s parents and László’s lifelong companion and Elizabeth’s de facto grandmother: a resourceful and ebullient woman named Berta Ficker.
László Ocskay died ten years after his arrival in Kingston. Elizabeth remembers his last years as an unhappy and trying time – a time when her grandfather could no longer recognize her, when he spoke wildly of seeing monsters. He died of a stroke in 1966 and was buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery.
As melancholy as her grandfather’s final years became, Elizabeth Ocskay also holds many fond memories of the life that they shared. She smiles as she remembers the times when her family and their few Hungarian friends would gather in the tiny Wall Street apartment and tell stories about the Old Country – stories of her grandfather’s days as a well-connected aristocrat, a notorious flirt and legendary bon vivant. She remembered especially stories that put his antic sense of humor on full display. “He loved to play jokes,” Elizabeth recalled.
After recounting an elaborate prank that he played on a friend, she wondered if her grandfather’s love of playing the trickster might help explain why László committed one of the most incredible charades in European history – why he risked his life to save thousands of helpless men, women and children during the last horrific days of World War II.
László Ocskay was a captain in the Austro-Hungarian Army during World War I, the scion of a wealthy family. His family were Monarchists, fiercely anti-Communist and pro-German. During the war, in which he suffered a severe injury to his knee, Ocskay formed bonds of deep loyalty among his fellow officers – fellow Hungarians, Germans, Austrians, Jews and Gentiles – that would culminate many years later in acts of almost unbelievable bravery.
After the war, he saw his family’s lands appropriated by the victorious and reviled Russian Communists. László Ocskay became a nobleman in name only.
Years later, Hungary once again aligned with Germany during World War II. Ocskay was excused from military service because of his age and the injury he received during the “war to end all wars.”
Initially, the Hungarian government had shown little enthusiasm for Adolf Hitler’s infamous Final Solution. But by 1944, the country’s homegrown fascists, the rabidly anti-Semitic Arrow Cross Party, had gained control of the government. The Arrow Crossers fell in line with Hitler’s murderous edicts and began rounding up Jews for shipment to death camps. It’s estimated that nearly one-tenth of the Holocaust’s six million victims were Hungarian Jews.
In the face of the country’s rampaging government, several prominent Jewish friends begged Ocskay to rejoin the army. They believed that through the connections and friendships he had forged in the trenches of the previous war, he and they could play a pivotal role in an audacious plan to rescue escaped and runaway Jews, AWOL prisoners from other labor camps and children rescued from orphanages from the rampaging fascists. Ocskay agreed. His friends pulled strings and got him the command of Forced Labor Camp Number 101/359, situated in a former high school building just outside of Budapest.
Dan Danieli was 15 years old and imprisoned with his parents and sister at 101/359 in 1944. In an interview 14 years ago, he recalled regularly seeing a “very unassuming man” at the camp who would return to his family’s patrician home at day’s end.
“What Captain Ocskay did – and everyone inside the camp knew this – was protect the people under his command,” Danieli said. “Officially we were there to repair uniforms. But the camp’s real job – and every one of its “prisoners” knew it – was to reunite and protect Jewish families,” Danieli said in a later interview.
Years after his release from the labor camp, Danieli visited the Holocaust Memorial Exhibition in Budapest. He was shocked to discover that Ocskay’s name was not listed among the country’s rescuers. Nobody knew better than he what Ocskay had accomplished. He made it his life’s work to make sure the world would recognize his benefactor’s lonely and dangerous stand against the country’s fascists.
Danieli found that Ocskay and his staff issued IDs to the camp’s new arrivals. He obtained food and medicine for a camp that originally held a few hundred prisoners. When the camp was liberated by the Soviet Army in 1945, it had become a haven for more than 2,000 men, women and children of all ages.
Ocskay’s scheme was a day-to-day effort, and was not without its harrowing moments. Several accounts told of Ocskay taking an armed stand against members of the Arrow Cross Party, according to Danieli. In one such case, Ocskay defended his battalion from Arrow Crossers by co-opting, with what Danieli described as “freewheeling diplomatic skill,” a local corps of Waffen SS who were Hungarians of German descent who also opposed the Arrow Cross.
“The violence and insanity of the times made for some strange alliances,” Danieli wrote. “In this rare case, apparently, it bore fortunate results. Instead of killing Jews, he was saving them.” Of the men women and children under his protection, Danieli later said, “not one person was lost to the Nazis.”
But why hadn’t Ocskay’s heroism received the acclaim it deserved? Particularly after the release of the film Schindler’s List, Danieli wondered why Ocskay hadn’t won similar attention. As he said in his report, “Both [men] saved about the same number of people, both used their German connections. But while Schindler was a somewhat questionable character, Ocskay was simply a humanitarian with no financial gain as his objective.”
Ocskay’s heroism was no match for the poisonous political atmosphere that enveloped postwar Hungary. The country’s Communist “liberators” brought with them a reign of psychological and political terror that cast Ocskay as an archenemy of the new government. He was continually harassed by the Soviets and arrested several times. Because he worked for several years following the war for the American oil company that eventually became ExxonMobil, he was accused of being an American spy. His aristocratic background, his employment with a capitalistic American company and his German military contacts made him a pariah.
Conditions were so extreme, Danieli reported, that “the survivors of the 101/359 in Hungary did not dare to associate with Ocskay, as such association would have been detrimental, to say the least, to one’s own career and even to one’s life.” As a result, he wrote, “No attempt was made in Hungary to honor or even to acknowledge Ocskay.” The only public acknowledgment in the postwar years that Ocskay received was reflected in a single line in his obituary in the Kingston Daily Freeman: “In 1963, Ocskay was recognized by National Jewish Monthly for saving 2,000 Jews from execution at the hands of the Nazis.”
Ocskay’s name was finally acknowledged in the spring of 2003, in Israel. Thanks primarily to Danieli’s research, his name was engraved on the Wall of Honor in the Garden of the Righteous at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, in company with the names of other, more familiar heroes of the Holocaust such as Oscar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg. The medals presented in his honor bear the Talmudic expression, “Whoever saves one life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”
Elizabeth Ocskay was also upset that her grandfather had not won the worldwide acclaim accorded to Schindler. She has been asked, over the years, why she thinks her grandfather took such risks. It’s the kind of question that’s not easily answered. What makes a person perform life-threatening, heroic deeds from which he or she could easily and justifiably walk away? Why does anyone risk their life and the lives of their family for perfect strangers? Why, specifically, did Captain László Ocskay take those daily risks in the face of the world’s most efficient, immoral and deadly military regime?
Elizabeth’s mother had a simple answer to that question: “You have to understand that for him, it was the most natural thing in the world.”
Elizabeth Ocskay agreed with her mother’s assessment, then offered an intriguing possibility. After recounting her grandfather’s story of how he played an elaborate practical joke on a friend, how he loved playing the trickster, she wondered if the challenge of playing such a complex charade appealed to him. “He had this way of being very crafty,” she said.
There’s probably no one answer to the question of “Why?” at the center of László Ocskay’s life. The family never discussed his actions at Labor Camp 101/359. The one person besides her grandfather who could help unravel the mystery was Berta Ficker, who died in 1990, at the age of 84.
Elizabeth Ocskay remembers how her grandfather and the woman she considers her grandmother recorded his memories of those days: “I remember them sitting together while she wrote what he was saying – in Hungarian, of course. On these yellow sheets of paper, page after page after page.” Those sheets got passed along, she said, to one or another friend of the family until they wound up in the hands of person in Chicago, where, in a perfect parallel to the story that those pages held, they were lost to history.
[Author’s note: In reporting and researching this story, I came across countless explanations of heroes and heroism on the internet. None of them seemed to characterize Captain László Ocskay more accurately than author Raymond Chandler’s description of his fictional hero, Philip Marlowe. I found it as easy to recognize Elizabeth Ocskay’s handsome, dashing grandfather in Chandler’s words as it was to imagine Dan Danieli’s “very unassuming man” striding quietly among the people whose lives he was saving: “He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man,” Chandler wrote. “He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor – by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.”]