The journey that changed my life (Part 2)

A simple Catholic couple risked everything to save others

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imagePeople flocked to greet Leo (white shirt) in 1982

By Lawrence P. Levitt

In Part 1 of author Larry Levitt’s story, “The journey that changed my life,” we traveled along with Levitt, his wife, Eva, and their family as they toured the Europe Eva and her family left behind 40 years ago. After a touching reunion with the villagers of Radvan, Slovakia, Eva and her family’s hometown, the group continued to retrace the World War II journey of Eva’s father, Leopold Ritter. They faced, once again, the atrocity of Auschwitz, where Ritter’s parents were murdered. Ritter quietly recounted the horror of his experience, which ended with the Allied liberation of the camp before his own execution could take place.

Deeply shaken, we left Auschwitz and traveled on to Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. This was the home of Geza and Klara Hajtas, a soft-spoken couple and longtime friends of the Ritter family who played a vital role in their wartime experience. Our visit to their home gave us an opportunity to thank them personally for their role in the war on behalf of our family, a role that literally made our family possible.

When we arrived at the Hajtas’ small cement house, we walked through a black metal gate into a garden dancing with orange, yellow, and pale pink daylilies. A small backyard had been dug up into a vegetable and fruit garden, with fat tomatoes hanging off their stems and pea and bean plants snaking their way up trellises.   

At the door, we were welcomed by the Hajtases with hugs and much delight. Geza was a bald-headed, bright-eyed man of 69 with an enormous belly and a laugh to match. His wife, Klara, 65, tall and majestic, guided us into their living room, where I noticed several statues of Jesus and Mary, and many crucifixes elsewhere in their home. In the course of conversation, we learned that the Hajtases remained devout Roman Catholics throughout all they had seen.

The two families went way back. Growing up in Czechoslovakia, Geza had been a classmate of Eva’s mother, Olga, and the two had remained friends after they grew up and started families of their own. Then the Gestapo stormed into town in search of any remaining Jews, and their peaceful world exploded. Leo was one of hundreds who were rounded up and sent to Auschwitz. Others abandoned their homes and went into hiding.

“I will never forget hearing our doorbell ring in the middle of the night,” Klara said softly. “When we opened the door, there stood a young woman with a very sick 1-year-old girl in her arms. The child had a fever and a terrible, hacking cough. It was Olga and Eva.”
It was a life-altering moment for Geza and Klara, who up to then had led lives of comparative quiet and safety. “It was forbidden to provide any help or protection to Jews,” said Klara. That was an understatement: Any Christian caught helping a Jew was shot.

But Geza and Klara never hesitated. They hid Olga and Eva in their own home for several days, nursing Eva back to health and providing the mother and daughter with nutritious meals. When it became too dangerous for them to remain, the couple spent the next several months helping Olga and Eva move from shelter to shelter under cover of darkness, managing to stay just one step ahead of the Gestapo. Geza had obtained false papers for Olga and Eva with money that Leo had left him. He introduced Olga as his cousin and said that her husband, Leo, was away in the German army, which contributed to the successful deception.  

One night, the Nazis pounded loudly at the Hajtases’ front door. Geza was out of town, so Klara faced the Gestapo alone. Terrified by their harsh questioning and threatening manner, she nonetheless did her best to remain calm, repeating over and over that she was alone in the house. Finally, the troopers left. They never knew that Eva’s aunt, Manci Goldberg, was masquerading as the Hajtases’ maid.

Finally, I asked the Hajtases the question that had been haunting me. “Why did you do this?” I asked. “You knew that if you’d been caught, you and your family would have been killed.” Putting his arm around my shoulder, Geza said simply, “Mlady muz, ak clovek poctivo pracuje a pomaha inym ludom, zije spokojne” (“Young man, a good life comes from working hard and helping other people.”)

Later in the conversation, I learned that 500 Jewish children had lived in Olga and Eva’s hometown of Humenne before the war. Eva was one of five children who survived.

We began our journey home by train to Budapest, Hungary, where we would board a plane to Kennedy Airport in New York. At the Hungarian border, Communist guards carrying semiautomatic rifles entered the train and demanded to see everyone’s passport and visa. For unknown reasons, they trained their sights on our 12-year-old daughter, Lora, demanding that she open her luggage. As two large, uniformed men rummaged through our daughter’s personal things, I could see and feel her terror. Though I held her hand and spoke reassuring words, I also found myself deeply unsettled. How thin the line is between autonomy and helplessness; how quickly we can be ushered from safety to danger.

Five years after our visit, we learned that Geza had begun to suffer serious health problems. The doctors in Bratislava had told him that he had an enlarged prostate, but advised that he was “too old, too heavy, and too fragile” to undergo the necessary operation, called a transurethral prostatectomy. I worried that if Geza’s symptoms worsened, he would encounter still more debilitating and painful medical problems. I also knew that the Hajtases had limited funds for medical care outside their own country. As a physician, I decided to investigate the options.

I spoke with several doctors and administrative officials at Lehigh Valley Hospital in Allentown, Pennsylvania, with which I was associated. When I told each person Geza’s story, the response was immediate: “We will be happy to treat him without charge.” Eva and I brought the Hajtases to our home in Allentown, and a week later Geza underwent surgery by a skilled urologist named John Jaffe, with preoperative clearance by Stanley Zeeman — a friend and a fine cardiologist. The surgery was a success and helped him greatly.

John, also a friend of mine, would later tell me that when Geza first came into his office, he felt moved to thank his patient. “For what?” asked the puzzled Geza in Slovak as Leo acted as translator. “For your courage in risking your life for others,” John responded, surprised to hear himself saying something so personal to a patient. John recalls Geza shrugging and saying, “It was what anyone would do.” Later, during the discharge process, John surprised himself again: He spontaneously hugged his patient goodbye.

The Hajtases stayed with us for three months as Geza recovered from his surgery. As soon as they returned home to Slovakia, Eva swung into action. She wanted the Hajtases to be recognized as Righteous Gentiles by the Holocaust Museum at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. Currently, there are more than 22,000 recognized Righteous Gentiles, non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. After sending multiple documents, affidavits, and other materials to the museum, we received the letter we’d been hoping for, announcing that the Hajtases had been accepted.

A few years later, Klara traveled to Allentown to visit us. While here she received an award from Muhlenberg College’s Institute for Jewish-Christian Understanding, for the actions she and Geza had taken to save the lives of Jews during the war. At this ceremony and afterward, we learned that the Ritters were not the only Jews that the Hajtases had aided. Over a period of a year, the couple had helped 16 other people obtain shelter, food, money, transportation, papers, and other means of survival as Nazis doggedly tried to hunt them down. Geza, who worked as a dispatcher at the Bratislava railway station during the war, made use of service coaches, inspection rooms, and railway uniforms to help people escape the Nazis’ notice. Again and again, the couple risked their lives to keep others from capture, suffering, and death.

I can’t help but think of what Geza had said to John Jaffe: “It’s what anyone would have done.” Is that possible? I think not. Geza’s and Klara’s acts of courage and generosity were not examples of ordinary goodness; by any measure their actions were extraordinary. To me, their lives serve as candles in the dark, lighting the way toward what is best in us. The Hajtases have shown our family and many others a human capacity for bravery and selflessness that is often hidden to us, especially in the face of evil. Geza, Klara, and so many others who helped Jews in the face of mortal peril show us something of the oceanic depths of the human heart.

Geza Hajtas died of heart failure in 1995. At this writing, Klara is still alive at age 88. Last year, we visited her in Bratislava. After dinner in her home one evening, we showed her some photos of our travels. One of the photos featured Eva and me, our three children, and our six grandchildren striking a pose at Disney World. Our arms are draped around each other, our faces aglow with joy. Klara studied this photo for a long time. When she looked up, tears were streaming down her cheeks. She looked into our eyes. There was no need to explain. We were crying, too. Without her and Geza there would be no Disney pictures of our family.

Lawrence P. Levitt

Lawrence P. Levitt, M.D., is co-author with John E. Castaldo of The Man with the Iron Tattoo and Other True Tales of Uncommon Wisdom: What Our Patients Have Taught Us About Love, Faith, and Healing (BenBella, 2006) and is senior consultant emeritus in neurology at Lehigh Valley Hospital in Allentown, Pennsylvania. He is also the co-author of Neurology, now in its eighth edition. He lives in Allentown with his wife, Eva. He is currently working on the second edition of The Man with the Iron Tattoo, to be published by Rodale Press.