An Interview with Gabriel Laufer, Author of A Survivor’s Duty

Our newest interview is with Gabriel Laufer, author of A Survivor’s Duty: Surviving the Holocaust and Fighting for Israel — A Story of Father and Son

The Holocaust and the birth and growth of Israel are strikingly different Jewish historical events. Yet they are related, just like the author, Gabriel Laufer and his father. With only a few hints in hand, Laufer researched the details of his father’s Holocaust survival in the Hungarian forced labor battalions near Stalingrad, as a slave building German bunkers for weapon factories, and later, his escape from Stalinist Hungary. In this book, Laufer shares the gripping stories of his father’s experiences juxtaposed with his own as an Israeli Defense Force officer in the Six Days War and the three wars that followed. Laufer leads the reader through his family’s personal history and its place in some of the momentous events of the twentieth century.

Academic Studies Press: You named this book after a quote from Elie Wiesel: “The survivor’s duty is to bear witness for the dead and for the living…” Can you explain what this quote means to you, and why you wrote A Survivor’s Duty?

Gabriel Laufer: Approximately ten years ago I learned that Yad Vashem has been collecting the names of the Shoah victims for decades. Despite their significant effort, approximately million and half victims remain unknown. Imagine, nearly twice the population of San Francisco vanishing without a trace.  People who once lived, had families, friends, careers, and houses, laughed, cried, loved and hated are gone as if they never existed. One of Yad Vashem’s albums carries group photographs of men, women and children upon arrival to Auschwitz. The captions identify less than half of them. Despite the wide publicity of the album, the rest remain unknown. Their pictures survived but their identities were lost. No one was left from their previous lives to recognize them. I and my generation are almost the last hope for those names of these forgotten victims to come back to life.

Photo by Sara Kramer

Photo by Sara Kramer

With that in mind I started looking for information about my lost relatives: my half-sister Judit’s birthday, her mother’s first name and maiden name (she was only known as the wife of Dr. Laufer), the circumstances of my grandparents’ deaths.  

My efforts led me to a Budapest lawyer who discovered some of that information as well as information I did not expect to find like details of my father’s service in the Hungarian Forced Labor Battalions.

As information came in, my interest to learn more grew. Soon, updating the Yad Vashem records became secondary. I now was resurrecting a family narrative that was about to be lost. That narrative had to be preserved for my family’s future generations. This book is first and outmost my duty to my children and grandchildren: to tell them their family’s story, lest it be forgotten.

ASP: You mention in the book that your father was resistant to speaking about his past, and that you were reluctant to ask about it. But can you tell us a bit about the few stories in this book that came directly from his account?

GL: When I was a teenager my father, Laci, told me that just as he was about to board the train that would take him to his Forced Labor Battalion unit, his father, Sándor, told him that he could avoid this service if he converted to Catholicism. Sándor had already made all the arrangements and all Laci had to do was walk back home and meet the priest. Laci hesitated for a moment and then told his dad that he could not do that. He would not give up his beliefs and his tradition for the safety and comfort of home.  

I was unimpressed by this story. After all, this was what all heroes in books and movies did. I was convinced that I would have done the same. Fifty years later I am not sure anymore if I would have the courage to turn down Sándor’s offer, certainly not after I learned the price that Laci paid to live by his beliefs and principles. I wonder, however, whether Laci recognized at that moment the full gravity of his own decision.

Like many children, I was picky with food. I really liked my mother’s mashed potatoes; they were rich and tasty. But she prepared them often, too often, until I grew tired of them. One evening I left my potatoes on my plate. Laci noticed and ordered me to eat them. “They are sacred,” he told me.  “They saved my life when I was in Ukraine. Often for days on end, potatoes were the only food I got. I found them in the fields or got them from generous Russian farmers. I would have died if not for the potatoes.”

That evening I struck a deal with my mother—if she would allow me to leave one dish on my plate, no questions asked, I would eat everything else. We agreed on spinach; potatoes were not even an option.

Laci never told me that he had been in prison, though apparently, it was never a secret. His cousin Ági knew about it.  “Everyone knew,” she told me. Laci did tell me that during the war—that’s how he referred to the Holocaust—while in prison, he heard one night the gallows being prepared outside his cell. He was certain that they were being readied for him.  

At that time I did not dare ask him why he was in prison, what prison or why he thought that he might be executed. I just assumed that this was another anecdote in a larger tale that took place in the alien world of concentration camps rather than downtown Budapest.  

Laci told me that at the end of the war he contracted typhus and became delirious. He knew that once delirious, his body had to survive for ten days. If it did, the fever would break and he would recover. He recalled counting the days, and literarily forcing himself to stay alive. On the tenth day his fever broke. He woke up in an American hospital. He did not know how he ended up there. But he was surprised to find under his pillow several packs of cigarettes and chocolate bars. It turns out that every patient in an American hospital was entitled to one pack of cigarettes and one chocolate bar for every day in the hospital. Despite not being an American he got his.

Both my father and mother told me that they escaped Hungary in the middle of the night, crossing the border to Slovakia with me drugged and asleep in a backpack of my father’s back. They never told me where and how they crossed the border.

ASP: What was it like to learn so much about your father and his life from secondary sources?

GL: Though most of the facts I discovered about my father described unimaginable suffering, disappointments and setbacks, they also demonstrated to me his courage, determination, and ultimately his victory, surviving.  As much as I should have been saddened by this negativity, I was inspired by his resilience and his ability to stand up after each blow and set back.

The research work itself felt like solving a puzzle. Finding a new fact was just as exciting as discovering a new physical phenomenon in my scientific work. And each new discovery pointed to a new direction where new facts could be discovered.   

ASP: Why do you think the Hungarian Forced Labor Battalions are overlooked as part of the history of World War II?

GL: I don’t have a good answer to this question, though I do know that the Hungarian government and many Hungarians try to deny their responsibility to the Holocaust and the role they played in the extermination of two-thirds of their Jewish population.

Oddly enough, I grew up in Israel surrounded by Hungarian culture. My parents loved everything Hungarian, food, music and of course the language.  We spoke Hungarian at home. They hardly blamed the Hungarian people or the nation for their losses and suffering. They blamed the Germans, all of them, not just the Nazis. They vowed to never to buy German products or visit Germany while at the same time dreaming about visiting Budapest and of course buying Hungarian paprika.  I still speak Hungarian, love everything Hungarian and like my parents never paid attention to the culpability of the Hungarians; until I started learning about the Holocaust in Hungary. I discovered that the Hungarians enacted anti-Jewish laws early in the twentieth century, well before Germany did; they displaced Jews from any position of power or wealth, actively and enthusiastically participated in looting the Jews and finally deporting them to Auschwitz more efficiently than the Nazis expected.  Yet, most Hungarians, including their newly elected government, and even some of the victims, claim that it was exclusively the Nazis’ fault.

ASP: Can you speak to the unique perspective that your experience in the Israeli wars gave you when researching and writing about your father’s experiences in World War II?

GL: It is hard to compare any of my experiences to my father’s.  After all fighting serving in the Israeli army in a war against an enemy that threatens to destroy your own home cannot be compared to being a slave to deadly masters intent on killing you.

And yet, there are similarities. I too faced danger; I too faced hardships, even if at a much smaller level than my father. I could imagine how one would feel sleeping in the open during a cold winter night, going days without sleep and wondering if the sun rise of this morning was my last, facing a malicious commander, seeing the consequences of war or living through rapid inflation.

Gaby Laufer, Hungarian born and Israeli native, is a retired University of Virginia Engineering professor. Deploying his scientific research skills to discover unknown details of his father’s Holocaust survival and juxtaposing them with accounts of his own participation in Israeli wars, he created a unique parallel father-and-son narrative.