In 1990, Hungary slipped out of the clutches of Communist dictatorship. People were free as they had not been since 1956 when Russia first invaded Hungary, and now for the first time in three decades, people were at liberty to make choices regarding the schooling of their children.
It was at that time that Mr. Albert Reichmann of Toronto and Mr. David Moskowitz of Brooklyn decided to start a religious school in the Hungarian capital of Budapest. They invited Mr. Michael Cohen of London, who had served for more than twenty years in numerous educational capacities in England, to come to Hungary and help organize the school.
Mr. Cohen readily agreed and traveled to Budapest. There he placed ads in several newspapers announcing the formation of a new religious school. Mr. Reichmann and Mr. Moskowitz asked Mr. Cohen how many children he expected to register for the school. He replied that according to what he heard in the streets and the interest that he thought the ads had generated, he was sure they would have at least 50 children. Based on that estimate, they rented a few rooms to house the school.
On the first day of school, 450 children and their parents came to register! Mr. Cohen and his teaching staff were shocked! The crowd was nine times greater than they had expected. How was it that so many parents with no religious upbringing had such an avid interest in the new school? What compelled these people to yearn suddenly for their children to have a religious education?
Immediately, calls were made to Israel, America, and England to recruit teachers for the classes, which had to begin almost at once. After a few weeks of frantic juggling of students, schedules, and study courses, a semblance of order was achieved and the school day took on a regular rhythm.
A few weeks later, Mr. Cohen extended an invitation to a group of parents to join him one evening at the school for a discussion. He wanted to probe their reactions and reflections on the new school, and hear their suggestions as to how they and their children could best be served.
The following week, ten sets of parents met with Mr. Cohen in the fourth-grade classroom. Mr. Cohen opened the meeting with a talk about the education of the children and the proficiency of the teachers. Then he posed the question that intrigued him more than anything else. "Tell me," he said to all of the parents, "why did you send your children to this school? Why, after so many years of not having any religious education, did all of you want to enroll your children here?"
The parents were a bit surprised at the question but were willing to talk about it openly. "I remember," began one father, "that as a very young child, I went to a cheder (a Jewish school), and so I wanted my child to go to one as well."
A mother explained that she and her husband were not satisfied with the municipal school in their neighborhood and they thought the yeshivah would give their child more of a challenge. A third parent spoke of a return to "Jewish roots." They went around the room, and almost every parent offered some sort of explanation -- but there was one man who had not spoken at all. Mr. Cohen looked around the room, and then, turning to the fellow, he said, "Sir, you have not told us anything. Isn't there a reason you chose to send your child here?"
Seeming embarrassed and looking downward, the man said, "Yes, there is a reason that I brought my child here, but it is difficult for me to talk about it."
"I am sure that it is," said Mr. Cohen sympathetically, "but I have the feeling that we all might learn something from what you can tell us."
The man thought for a moment and then said softly, "I will try."
Somewhat subdued, the gentleman began reliving and retelling the event that would never be forgotten by anyone who was fortunate enough to hear it.
He began. "The Germans occupied Hungary in 1944. They knew that the war was almost over for them, but in their savage obsession to kill as many Jews as possible, they rounded up as many of us as they could to send off to Auschwitz. All Hungarian Jews were terrified.
"One night I heard my parents arguing frantically. I was listening from my bedroom upstairs and I came down to hear what they were saying, but the door to the living room was locked, and so all I could do was look through the keyhole and watch.
"My father was extremely agitated. He said to my mother, 'What are you so worried about? No one knows we are Jewish. We don't look Jewish. We don't act Jewish. We don't have any Jewish friends, and there is nothing Jewish in this house. Why would the Nazis even think of coming here?'
"My mother protested. 'How can you be sure that no one knows we are Jewish? Maybe there is a list somewhere. Maybe someone knows the truth about us and will turn us in to save his own skin?'
"My father dismissed her argument. He said, 'Even if they did come here, they could not prove we were Jewish. There is nothing in this house that ... ' Then he stopped talking in mid-sentence. His eyes had been darting around the room, and now, suddenly startled, he pointed to the highest shelf in the bookcase. My mother turned slowly, and then she saw what he was pointing to. It was a siddur (a prayer book), the siddur that her mother had given her on her wedding day. It was the same siddur her mother's mother had given her mother on the day she was married.
"My mother took the siddur from the shelf and leafed through it with great emotion. My heart was pumping rapidly, for she was standing right next to a fireplace with a burning fire. I didn't want to believe what I thought could happen, but she suddenly turned to my father and said emphatically, 'You're right! What do we need this for!' And with that she threw the siddur into the fire, and it was consumed in the flames.
"I was horrified. I ran upstairs, threw myself onto my bed, and cried as I had never cried before. I cried for more than an hour; for although we had no Jewish friends and had never acted Jewish, I knew in my heart that my mother had done something terribly wrong."
The gentleman paused for a moment as he relived the pain of his past. "All these years, I could see those pages burning -- so when I finally heard that you were going to open up a religious school, I knew that I had to bring my child to you... because here I could give my child a siddur!"