AMARILLO, Texas — Late on the night of October 17, 1944, shortly after her native Hungary had been invaded by the German army, Dr. Maria Kiss Madi answered a frantic knock on the door.
On her doorstep huddled Irene “Lacy” Lakos and her seven-year-old nephew, Alfred.
Half of Hungary’s Jewish population had disappeared in the previous six months, including a number of Madi’s neighbors. Now, Madi’s best friend and her nephew were begging for refuge.
A divorced Catholic radiologist living alone in Budapest, Madi hid Lacy and Alfred from the crumbling outside world for the next four months, risking their lives — and her own — in the name of friendship.
For saving Lacy and Alfred Lakos from certain death, Madi was posthumously honored as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem at a ceremony in Denver, Colorado May 4.
However, Madi’s heroics were very nearly lost to history.
Madi’s grandson, Steve Walton of Amarillo, Texas, received several family heirlooms prior to the death of his mother in 1989. One such heirloom was a dusty box containing 16 spiral-bound notebooks yellowed with age and beginning to disintegrate.
Steve placed each notebook in a Ziploc bag, locked them all away in a safe, and promptly forgot about them. What they contained was the handwritten story of his grandmother’s life in World War II, which she documented in English for the benefit of her daughter living abroad in the US. As Madi wrote, she wanted her journal “to be a witness.”
A young life saved
Shortly after the German Army invaded Hungary in March, 1944, “They gathered all the Jewish people who were able to work,” says Alfred Lakos, now 79. “My father was about 47 years old and he was young and strong.”
Both Lakos’s father, Laszlo, and his uncle were sent to a labor camp. Soon afterwards his mother, Rozsi Schonberg Lakos, tried to board a Budapest train to take her husband food.
“She forgot to wear the yellow star and they asked for her papers,” says Alfred. “Because of that they arrested her.”
Rozsi died in Auschwitz.
Perhaps Rozsi’s arrest was the inspiration for Madi’s journal entry from October 16, 1944, which reads: “According to latest radio order Jews, all exempted etc. have to wear the yellow star again, else they will be deported. But just the same, they are arrested on the streets, star or no star.”
During the four months of hiding “when she had patients or visitors, we would hide behind a big, big mirror,” remembers Lakos.
The floor-to-ceiling mirror was built into a bookcase that sat against the wall.
“I don’t know how I was able to stay silent. It was a matter of survival,” Lakos says.
Madi wrote on November 8, 1944: “In today’s papers, house commanders and janitors are obliged to search all flats for hiding Jews. The child with us here is difficult and his naughtiness may mean death for us all. I have to confess, I am a bit nervous.”
Miraculously, Laszlo escaped the labor camp and reunited with his son and sister in the spring of 1945. All three survived World War II. But by December, 1956, their homeland had again fallen into war and the Hungarian Revolution raged around them.
“The dictator was Tito and when they turned him over to the Russians, I told my father I was going to leave,” explains Alfred.
‘In today’s papers, house commanders and janitors are obliged to search all flats for hiding Jews’
Laszlo Lakos believed his 19-year-old son would never make it alone, so he agreed to accompany him. The little boy who hid behind a mirror with his aunt during World War II now hid in a furniture truck with his father.
“We managed to get to the Austrian border in the truck,” remembers Alfred. “We then found a guide who would walk with us at night into Austria, about 10 kilometers distance, for money or jewelry.”
Alfred carried his two most prized possessions in his knapsack during the journey — a photograph of his mother and a pair of new ski boots. The photo remains on his bedside table to this day.
Eventually, Alfred and his father made it to Italy where they joined other family members. Alfred graduated from college and later immigrated to Canada were he married and had children, finally settling in the United States for a job with the textile industry. In 1976, he became a US citizen.
Madi had also left Hungary to join her only child in America. Although she had been a radiologist in Hungary, she was forced to retake her medical exams upon entering the United States. She then chose to work as a psychiatrist, practicing in Boston, Massachusetts and Columbus, Ohio.
Although Madi managed to save the 16 journals as witness to the atrocities of war, she chose not to talk about her experiences in Hungary. Occasionally, over the years she would review the entries which had been made in ink and add notations in pencil. But she didn’t speak of her memories with her family before her death in 1970.
An unlikely reunion
In 1989, Steve Walton’s phone rang. And much like the knock on his grandmother’s door in 1944, this phone call would impact its recipient’s life in ways he could never have imagined.
“Hello,” the caller said. “I’m Alfred Lakos. You don’t know me, but I’m the boy your grandmother saved.”
Steve had never heard Alfred’s name. While there was a vague recollection of a boy and the war, Alfred was a stranger.
The families arranged a meeting during which Lakos asked to see the diaries. He had spoken with Madi in her later years and presumably had learned about the journals’ existence from her.
‘Hello,’ the caller said. ‘You don’t know me, but I’m the boy your grandmother saved’
At that time, the Walton family said no. They felt the journals were private and likely not very important. Lakos understood and the men kept in touch sporadically through the years.
In 2012, the phone rang again. Lakos had begun the process of filing a claim against the German government and he needed the help of Madi’s family.
“Alfred said ‘You’re the only one that knows where the Budapest apartment was located. Can you help me?'” Walton recalls.
Steve and his wife Martha had traveled to Europe in 1972 thanks to a small bequest in his grandmother’s will. They visited the location of her World War II Budapest apartment and took a Polaroid photo – another heirloom that had been gathering dust for almost 40 years.
Walton took a photo of the Polaroid and sent it to Lakos.
Months later, the Walton family was gathered for a wedding and began talking about Lakos and the journals.
“My niece’s husband said, ‘Contact the Holocaust Museum and see if they want them,'” recalls Walton. “So I sent a photo and a brief description.”
The Museum was very interested, and offered to make a camera-ready copy of the journals for the family to have on DVD. Still, the Waltons lingered over the decision.
Finally, they decided to read the journals.
Although a native of Hungary, Madi had been educated in England. She was therefore able to compose most of her writing in English as a precautionary measure.
Dr. Rebecca Erbelding, Archivist of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, was the staff member who worked with new paper material at that time.
“We are fortunate enough to get multiple offers each day,” she says. “The journals were different — I was curious why they would be in English and how much she would have written about what she was witnessing. I tried not to get my hopes up.”
Walton found the journals filled with boring details of life and hard to read Hungarian
But then, he says, things pick up: “At journal number 12 of the 16, Fredi Lakos enters.”
Today, Madi’s journals are described as fantastically significant for historians.
“You have a well-educated woman writing in English about what she’s seeing on an intimate level, the rumors circulating on the streets, the claustrophobia of living under occupation, daily and existential worries, loss, and love,” explains Erbelding.
According to the Museum, the handwritten diaries consist of approximately 1,200 pages and include newspaper clippings, propaganda leaflets, photographs, and even a piece of shrapnel from an Allied bombing raid.
“They’re really compelling,” Erbelding says. They “give us the opportunity to understand what a non-Jewish, but generally sympathetic, person was experiencing in wartime Budapest.”
“Becky [Dr. Erbelding] fell in love with Maria Madi,” says Walton.
Erbelding helped identify an appraiser for the journals to satisfy a requirement for the Walton’s charitable donation to the Museum and also recommended Walton submit his grandmother’s name for the Righteous Among the Nations award.
The honor requires a witness letter among the other documentation Erbelding helped assemble. This time, Walton made the call.
‘I want the world to know’
“I called Alfred and asked if he would write the witness letter,” remembers Walton.
Walton says that Lakos answered, “Absolutely! I want the world to know.”
Both families gathered in Denver, Colorado May 4 at the 2016 Governor’s
Holocaust Remembrance Program sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). The event was held in Temple Emanuel, one of the largest synagogues in the United States. Student winners of ADL’s “Moral Courage” essay contest were also recognized.
“Dr. Madi embodies the values of those whom the students wrote about in their essays for the competition,” said Sue Parker Gerson, ADL Associate Regional Director. “These remarkable individuals stand up for what is right and moral in the face of real danger.”
From the journals, it is clear Madi recognized the risk she was taking. On October 27, 1944 she wrote: “Mr. and Mrs. Laing are missing, on their door the same arrow cross sign as on Mr. Pato’s door. We do not know when it happened, but Lacy heard two shots very near this noon. I am very worried about them but do not even know how to begin to help them. Darkest middle ages. I suppose you will never believe all these things could really happen.”
“She really loved Lacy, her best friend,” said Barbara Blankinship, Dr. Madi’s granddaughter and Steve Walton’s sister. Blankinship currently resides in Colorado Springs, Colorado, not far from the program venue in Denver.
“She didn’t do it to be a hero. She knew it was the right and decent action to take,” said Blankinship. “They all knew what would happen if she did not offer to help them.”
Following the presentation, Steve and Barbara sat with their arms encircling one another as the audience responded with a thundering standing ovation.
For Lakos, the award ceremony was the opportunity to publicly say thank you in honor of this amazing woman.
“She was a hero and she has to be acknowledged as a hero,” he says. “She didn’t think of herself, she just wanted to do something for her best friend. It is very important for her grandchildren and great grandchildren.”
‘She was a hero and she has to be acknowledged as a hero’
Daniel Walton, one of Madi’s great grandchildren, also attended the ceremony and reflected on the appreciation of his great grandmother.
“It highlights how normal people can perform startling acts of good in the midst of overwhelming evil. Maria has left us a legacy that evil can and must be countered with courage, kindness, and risky love,” said Walton.
Consul for Political Affairs Yaki Lopez of the Consulate General of Israel expressed his appreciation during the event. “Thank you to the Walton family for not leaving their heirlooms in the attic but sharing them with the world,” said Lopez.
In his presentation of the award, Lopez remarked there was no better word to acknowledge Madi than the one engraved on the medal itself — righteousness — an act arising from an outraged sense of justice and morality.
Today, the Walton family is grateful their family heirlooms, the daring history of two best friends and a little boy, reside in the hands of archivists who will preserve them for generations to come.