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  • Responsibility and Confronting the Holocaust in MemoirThe Year in Hungary
  • Gergely Kunt (bio)

Facts and Witnesses is one of the most prominent book series in Hungary, regularly publishing diaries and memoirs. The book series is published by Magvető publishing house, which was established in 1955 by the post-Stalinist government with the aim of publishing contemporary Hungarian fiction and classic Hungarian literature. The series was active between 1975 and 1990 in accordance with the state's memory politics,1 and the series was relaunched in 2015, releasing several memoirs, diaries, and interviews each year. This series recently published Háromszázhatvanöt Nap: Emlékek a Magyarországi zsidómentésről 1944-ben, a memoir by Lutheran pastor Gábor Sztehlo (1909–1974) about the Second World War and the persecution of the Jews in Hungary. Sztehlo wrote his memoir in the first half of the 1960s. It was published in a heavily censored form by the Lutheran Church in the first half of the 1980s, and the first full edition did not appear until 2022.

In 1944 and 1945, Sztehlo, with the help of the International Red Cross, rescued almost two thousand Jewish children and adults in Budapest during the Holocaust. After the war, he established the Pax Hungarian Social Foundation in Budapest, which ran children's homes. In these orphanages, under Sztehlo's leadership, children of different religions and social backgrounds took part in a self-ruled children's republic called Gaudiopolis between 1945 and 1950, in an attempt to establish mutual respect and democracy.2 The Stalinist dictatorship nationalized the orphanage in 1950. Fleeing the Communist dictatorship, Sztehlo's wife and two children left Hungary during the 1956 revolution and settled in Switzerland. The minister visited his family in 1961, but suffered a heart attack during the visit and never returned to Hungary. Yad Vashem awarded him the distinction of Righteous Among the Nations in 1972, and he died two years later.

Sztehlo wrote his memoir in Switzerland in 1961 and 1962, motivated by the heart attack and by news about the Eichmann trial. Háromszázhatvanöt Nap is one of the most important documents of the Budapest rescue. The pastor not only [End Page 35] describes his role in saving children, but he also sharply criticizes his past self, the sociopolitical elite of the time, and his church on the issue of moral responsibility. Sztehlo's memoir is primarily addressed to young pastors, who could learn from the failings of their elders: the bitter lesson of the Christian churches' fatal indifference and delay during the genocide. The heart attack was a major crisis for Sztehlo and played a crucial role in the creation of the memoir, forcing him to rethink and reinterpret his life story. The memoir is about the most formative period of his life, and it was from this Swiss period that he was able to draw the most strength to look back on his life. This also explains why the text is so optimistic and positive, even naive at certain points. Sztehlo comments on the joy and comfort of remembering the events of the past, and especially the people who helped him.

At the end of the memoir, Sztehlo moves beyond the chronological order of events. He raises questions rarely discussed in diaries and memoirs written by non-Jews. What responsibility is shouldered by all those who were aware of but indifferent to the genocide? What is this responsibility at the individual, social, and ecclesiastical levels? Sztehlo tried to answer and interpret the significance of the persecution of the Jews in several thematic units. Sztehlo first sees the success of the rescue as a confirmation of his personal identity and faith, as he experienced God's providence. In the next section, he lists those who supported his work as a demonstration of God's providence, including some German and Russian soldiers alongside his colleagues. According to him, war can change people, and emergencies and threats to life can bring out the bad in people, but in some cases the good as well. People may pull together and cooperate, even if they have very different values. Sztehlo offers the example of...