Elizabeth Ocskay remembers how her grandfather, the man she called Dedi, would walk her to elementary school every morning along a tree-lined Kingston street. It thrilled her to walk next to the tall man she loved, the man with the sleek dark hair and the trim mustache — the man who always wore a jacket and tie in public, whatever he was doing, wherever he was going.
On Sundays after mass, they would walk together to a nearby diner. She always ordered a hamburger. He usually had a cup of coffee. They talked. At least she did. He listened. The way he paid attention to her made her feel like a grownup.
She remembers how he would sometimes visit the elementary Catholic school she attended and hated. One visit stands out in her memory. She was furious at her third-grade teacher, “a horrible woman who never had a kind word for any of us.” She told her Dedi about the teacher. Shortly thereafter, he paid a visit to the school. After that, the teacher was sweet as pie.
Elizabeth Ocskay doesn’t know what her grandfather did or said to the teacher. All she knew then was that he protected her and her classmates. It was a role her grandfather knew very well.
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 in 1956 was like an incurable disease for him. An aristocrat who could trace his ancestry back to the eleventh century was now a night watchman in a Kingston knitting mill, a job he didn’t hold for long. Though he spoke five languages, Ocskay never learned English. 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.
Elizabeth Ocskay remembers his last years as an unhappy and trying time — a time when her grandfather drank too much, and worse, a time when he could no longer recognize her, when he spoke wildly of seeing monsters. He died of a stroke in 1966, ten years after his arrival in Kingston.
As melancholy as her grandfather’s final years became, Elizabeth Ocskay smiles as she remembers the times when her family and their few Hungarian friends would gather in the family’s tiny 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 remembers 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 wonders if her grandfather’s love of playing the trickster might help explain a question that has haunted her and everyone who ever knew her grandfather. Why did this happy-go-lucky member of the Hungarian aristocracy, a man who had fought the Allies on the side of Germany in both world wars, commit one of the most incredible charades in European history — why did he risk his life to save — to protect — 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 who 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 daily 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 and attitude 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 were only too eager to fall in line with Hitler’s murderous edicts. They began rounding up Jews for shipment to death camps. They were as relentless as they were ferocious; 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 had a plan. They believed that through the connections and friendships Ocskay had forged in the trenches of the previous war he could play point man in an audacious plan to rescue escaped and runaway Jews, AWOL prisoners from other labor camps, and children rescued from orphanages.
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 the capital city of Budapest.
Dan Danieli was 15 years old and imprisoned with his parents and sister at 101/359 in 1944. In an interview 19 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.
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 risked and what he had accomplished. But he couldn’t find the man’s name anywhere at the memorial. From that day, Danieli made it his life’s work to ensure the world would recognize his benefactor’s lonely and dangerous stand against the country’s fascists.
According to research conducted by Danieli and Holocaust investigators, Forced Labor Camp Number 101/359 was what was called a clothes collecting company. Ocskay accepted forced laborers who had gone AWOL from other camps and Jewish men who had escaped deportation, providing for them official Hungarian military forced laborer documents. Besides saving the forced laborers and their relatives, Ocskay also hid a small group of Jews in the cellar of his own home. When the camp was liberated by the Soviet Army in 1945, it had become a haven for more than 2000 men, women and children of all ages.
Ocskay regularly assigned people to work for Raoul Wallenberg, the secretary of the Swedish Embassy, who employed them in various rescue operations. Operating under the aegis of the International Red Cross, these laborers distributed food to children’s homes and to houses protected by the Swedish embassy.
Ocskay’s scheme was a day-to-day effort, one that was fraught with harrowing moments. Several accounts tell of Ocskay taking an armed stand against members of the Arrow Cross Party. In one such case, Ocskay defended his battalion from Arrow Crossers by co-opting, with what Danieli described as his “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.”
His audacious success at hiding vulnerable men, women and children should have made Ocskay’s name synonymous with his co-conspirator Wallenberg, Why, Danieli wondered, hadn’t Ocskay’s heroism received the acclaim it deserved, especially after the release of the film Schindler’s List? 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.”
Having helped overcome the viciousness of Hitler’s Final Solution, Ocskay proved to be no match for another strain of political poison: the country’s Communist “liberators” brought with them a reign of psychological and political terror that cast Ocskay as an archenemy of Hungary’s 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 1966 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 and contribution was finally publicly recognized 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 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 following the success of Steven Spielberg’s memorable film.
Over the years, she’s been asked and has wondered herself why her grandfather took such risks. What makes a person perform life-threatening, heroic deeds? 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 killing machine?
Elizabeth’s mother had a simple answer to that question at the time her father-in-law was recognized at Yad Vashem: “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, almost playful explanation. After recounting how she played an elaborate practical joke on a friend, how throughout his life 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.
Ocskay remembers seeing her grandfather and Ficker recording the answers to those questions not long before he died.
“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 scoured the internet, searching for an appropriate aphorism for heroism. None captured the qualities I detect in Captain 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.”