I originally intended to write a column about the year 2001, but I was reading Tivadar Soros' amazing memoir, Masquerade: Dancing Around Death in Nazi-Occupied Hungary, and I kept losing my bearings. Clearly, 2001 was an historic year, a hinge-year that swiveled us fully into the 21st century, woke us up with a bang like a meteor, and put us right back into that mind of catastrophe where humanity is very much at home, thank you. On the other hand, there was 1944 in Budapest, Hungary.
Tivadar Soros was a prosperous, well-liked Jewish attorney who was already 50 years old when Nazi hell came to Hungary. In his youth, he had been a prisoner of war in Russia and had escaped from a Siberian camp in an epic journey. This adventure had impressed on him that life was more precious than possessions and that, in order to survive, one had to use cunning, timing and courage. Now a bourgeois father of two, a husband, and a well-known cafe habitue, Tivadar found himself taking on a new identity, providing his two boys and wife with new identities as well, and, as the persecution of Jews increased, turning many of his relatives and acquaintances into brand-new Christians. While generating protective cover for his extended circle, Tivadar tried to live joyously, showing up imprudently in central cafes, taking his boys swimming in Budapest's best hotels, providing his charges with cheer along with whatever food and wine he could scrounge. Other Jews took the path of obedience and perished. Tivadar knew better than to collaborate even passively with fascists and Nazis, and he trusted in luck. Luck was essential, given his penchant for grand gestures. Many times his life and that of his sons and wife nearly came to an abrupt end because of impatience, boredom or a simple desire to enjoy the sunshine.
There is a picture of my father in the mid 1940s, looking like Clark Gable, his hat at a rakish angle, a devil-may-care look in his eyes. The Devil was pretty close in those days for a Jew in Romania, but Romania was liberated by the Soviets in August 1944, while the darkest period for Hungarian Jews was 1944-45, when Hungarian fascists in collaboration with Adolf Eichmann murdered hundreds of thousands of human beings. In his memoir, completed just after the war, Soros writes: "In my view, international life will never be healthy until we change current notions of national sovereignty. Given the extraordinary technological advances now going on all around us, we must recognize that such concepts are out of date and morally indefensible: we must place limits on the absolute power of the individual state. Not only does every state have a right to intervene in the internal affairs of another state if that state violates fundamental human rights, but it has a moral responsibility to do so." There was the connection to 2001. If the West had intervened when Hitler first started making his gaggy little noises, millions of lives would have been saved. It took 9/11 to cause us to remove the Taliban, but we had the will to do it. It might take another blow to take out the next loathsome tyranny, but I hope not. One of the two sons that Tivadar masqueraded to safety was George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist whose "centers for democracy" are working to build civil societies in many former police states. Civil societies are all anybody asks for. And some joie de vivre, if you please. The palindromic year 2002 need not be a disaster.