At heart, Tom Weisshaus is a storyteller; a youthful spirit guiding his life. And yet, there is the shadow of something more. There is the intensity of his responding to injustice, an impulse to reject simplistic answers to complicated questions, a fear when hearing echoes from a past in the voices of those around him today; Voices of ignorance, violence, bigotry, and political simplicity touch him to the core. What lies behind that distant yet encroaching shadow?
In Thomas Buergenthal’s memoir, A Lucky Child, Elie Wiesel pondered, “Are there rules to help a survivor decide the best time to bear witness to history?” For Tom Weisshaus, like other survivors, there were neither rules nor guidance. His work in recovering the memories of a childhood stolen away and his need to witness it came upon him years later.
After the war Tom made his way to the United States where, like many survivors, he attempted to begin life anew and push his experiences into the dimly lit recesses of memory. After all, he was young, ambitious and full of life when he arrived in New York City. He refused to see himself as a victim and found a new path. He fell in love, earned an education, found his profession as a teacher, and raised a family. He had succeeded.
Upon retirement, his distant past, in another time, in another place, with other people began to revisit hm. Although he had retired to New Hampshire to be closer to his family, it was here that he attended a play by middle school students who wished to remember the Holocaust by telling the stories of Jewish children caught up in the maelstrom of the Shoah. Memories pushed into the background as quiet, shadowy whispers began to grow louder and sharper.
Tom Weisshaus was born in Budapest on December 7, 1928 to Alexander Weisshaus and Elizabeth Furst. As a young boy the growing shadow of the Nazi “Final Solution” first touched him when in 1943 his father was taken and disappeared into a Hungarian forced labor brigade where he died sometime in January 1943. His brother Endre was sent to the forced labor brigades as well and when German troops occupied Hungary in March 1944, Tom became swept up in the Nazi destruction of the Hungarian Jewish population. On May 15, 1944 the Hungarian police, in coordination with the Nazi SS, began the mass deportation of around 440,000 Jews from the Hungarian provinces. From May 15 to July 9, 1944, more than 140 trains carried 437,000 Jews from Hungary to Auschwitz. The vast majority were gassed. Nearly fifty percent of Hungary’s Jews were murdered. Some 200,000 Jews, including Tom and his family, remained in Budapest facing deportation.
The tales of survival presented here echo the voice of a teenage boy whose life in Budapest suddenly became about daily, moment by moment survival. There are tales of youth remembered youthfully: making reflexive – not thought out – decisions that saved his life. There is luck: of Allied bombs falling opportunely during a roundup. There are mysteries: How did his aunt help him and his uncle escape deportation to Auschwitz? There is hope: his mother finding Raoul Wallenberg. There is tragedy and pain. In these captured memories, Tom’s voice reflects the hindsight of a lifetime as well as a youthful desire to reconstruct a childhood that remains clear, but just beyond reach. Why pursue them?
Tom Weisshaus does not see himself as a victim. He does not see the history of Jews as only that of victimhood. Rather, he sees his story and that of the Jewish people as one of witness. He enjoys telling his audiences that Jews are often targeted because “they created conscience.” Through this witness, his stories take hold as an affirmation of the spirit to live and an indictment of those who choose to other the other.
Tom never thought of becoming a witness to the evils of Nazism, to those evils we as human beings inflict on the other. His witness stresses that Jews are not victims, but targets. He illustrates that not every defeat is final and that, in the words of Michael Berenbaum, one can find a way to deal with suffering and grapple with victimization in service to humanity. History is encountered with an eye towards Tikkun.
As a Holocaust educator/student living in the aftermath of the Shoah, I have been privileged to help Tom share his story. Students hearing him are deeply moved, schools are grateful, and discussions continue long after we have left. And yet, I often feel that there is more lurking just below the surface. I remember a particular incident when we were scheduled to discuss the ongoing power of anitsemitism when he came into contact with a group’s words that instantly brought back the reality of what he had experienced in Hungary. He was once again the teenage boy running. He recovered and refused to become a hostage to victimization. But the experience gave me a glimpse of the shadow.
I have also seen the shadow dispersed. In November 2007, Congressman Tom Lantos and his wife Annette were the guest speakers at our annual Kristallnacht Remembrance. Both spoke of their rescuer, Righteous Among the Nations’ Raoul Wallenberg. That night, another of Wallenberg’s children, Tom Weisshaus, was able to be with them to witness what a life lived responsibly can mean.
As Michael Berenbaum points out, we are in a transitional moment. Although my sons and family have met Tom and other survivors we know we will be among the last to have met living witnesses. Soon living history will become remembered history. The forces that came together in the Shoah will still be with us. Tom Weisshaus’ memoir adds one more voice to the collection of witness voices that will remain as the distant yet ever encroaching shadow. We must constantly encounter this history and live responsibly as a new generation of witnesses in a post Shoah world.
Cohen Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies
Tom Weisshaus’ memoir, Not a Victim: Tales of Survival in Nazi Budapest, is soon to be published.
In September, 2009, Cohen Center Fellow Deb Barry accompanied Tom home to Budapest. These are Deb’s photos: