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"Defend the Right Way" - Holocaust Survivor Agnes Vertes Inspires at Upper School Assembly

"Defend the Right Way" - Holocaust Survivor Agnes Vertes Inspires at Upper School Assembly

Three weeks ago, senior Sam MacDonald honored Holocaust Remembrance Day, saying “as the number of years since the Shoah nears 100, we aren't very far away from a time where no firsthand survivors will be left to tell the stories themselves. The duty will fall on us to keep their stories alive, and to make sure that history never repeats itself." Today we were fortunate to have Agnes Vertes, President of the Child Holocaust Survivors of Connecticut, Jewish Historical Society Board member, documentary filmmaker, and survivor of Nazi Europe with us to do just that. 

In 2003, Vertes produced "Passport for Life,” a documentary about the thousands of Jews saved from the Nazis. Like many children who escaped death during the Holocaust, Vertes feels duty-bound to share her story so that the horrific genocide, persecution, and hate that surrounded this most shameful period in our history can never be repeated. 

Born Agnes Katz in Budapest, Hungary, in 1940, Vertes detailed her experiences, explaining that she was just four years old when her family began their escape to safety. At first, Vertes, her younger sister, and her mother lived with relatives in the countryside to escape the bombing. She explained that every Jewish person had to wear a yellow star to make them more easily identifiable, and in an effort to move to the city to stand out less, Vertes’ father led her family to a train station. 

After almost being thrown off the train by people that noticed they were Jewish, Vertes’ family finally made it to Budapest, where her father went to city hall to forge new birth certificates for Vertes and her sister. The documents that previously noted her Jewish identity then read “Protestant.”

She and her sister were then taken in by a woman who promised her parents that she would keep them safe. “I saw that my mother was following us, and she was crying, and I was kind of desperate, but I didn't say a word,” Vertes recalls. “I was told not to cry. I was such a good kid, I didn't cry. But as the tram was leaving the station, I saw mom was getting smaller and smaller and smaller. And then she disappeared. And then I started crying like crazy.”

At four years old, she had never been away from her parents, and had no idea what was in store for her. When they arrived at the woman’s house, Vertes considered it more like a shack, with a dirt floor, no running water, and no toilet facilities. When the shack was destroyed and there was no roof, the woman wrote to Vertes’ parents desperate to give them back. 

Vertes and her sister were then taken by a friend of her father, and experienced several run-ins and raids by Nazi soldiers, where they had to produce the new birth certificates that had been keeping them safe thus far. During one confrontation, they were with dozens of other children, where she recalls being confronted by Hungarian Nazis that demanded to see everyone’s papers. Her sister, whom Vertes says was “awfully cute” went up to one of the soldiers, asking to try on his hat.

 “The guy melted, he picked her up, threw her in the air, and said ‘How can anyone but an Aryan child be as cute as this one?’ and my little sister saved a hundred Jewish children,” Vertes remembers.

Ultimately, Vertes and her family were reunited and saved.

In a piece of advice Vertes shared with GFA’s Upper Schoolers, she says, “I want you to remember that antisemitism has been around for a couple of thousand years and it never goes away. I was thinking, why, why? Especially when I was a child, why did they hate me? What is it about me and my family and other Jewish people that they have to hate? Now, I want you to never hate. If you see signs of things going the wrong way, stand up and defend the right way. It's up to you what kind of future you're going to have. You are our future, and I trust you.”