The assembled ninth graders hung on Zsuzsannah Ozsváth’s every word, listening intently to her personal history full of tragedy, fear, suffering and, ultimately, joy.
Ozsváth, the director of the Holocaust Studies program at the University of Texas at Dallas, was invited to address the ninth graders as a capstone of sorts for their yearlong study of World War II and the Holocaust. The Hungarian native was just a young girl when Nazi soldiers began taking over her homeland in 1944.
“I remember when I was four years old, my father was listening to the radio and he said, ‘Everything is over,’” Ozsváth said. “I knew something terrible had happened. Walking down the street, people started speaking in soft voices, neighbors discussing current events. I knew there would be big problems for my father’s pharmacy.”
Young Zsuzsannah simply couldn’t understand why all these terrible things were happening to her family and her people. But a foreboding conversation at a birthday party shined a light on the actions of the Nazis.
“I was invited to a birthday party of a little girl named Hannah who had been smuggled into Hungary,” Ozsváth said. “She told terrible stories about what happened in Poland. She told me of the Germans making groups of the men, women and children. The men were shot. I asked her why. ‘Because we are Jewish,’ she said.”
On March 19, 1944, the Nazis began their invasion of Hungary. While many of the Jews there were allowed to stay in the city of Budapest, most lost their businesses and almost everything else. Ozsváth and her family members were forced to wear the yellow Star of David on all of their clothing to identify them as Jewish. Ghettos were created in the city and filled with Jews who were housed up in apartments with up to 18 people living together in one unit.
Perhaps the most heartwarming part of Ozsváth’s talk was the story of Erzsi, a young girl who came to work as a helper at the Ozsváth family pharmacy before the Nazi occupation. Zsuzsannah and her brother liked her so much that she eventually became their live-nanny. Once the Nazis invaded and the family had to limit their movements and hide, Erzsi told them not to worry, because she would save them. Erzsi would come by every day and bring food to the family, and she eventually acquired false papers that allowed them all to escape.
The Allies finally pressed through to victory. Hungary and, eventually, the whole of Europe was liberated from the Nazis. In the worst of times, Ozsváth had done her best to maintain a positive outlook. After the war was over, the memories of the perilous experiences she had endured stayed with her, and they remain deeply embedded in her being.
“I didn’t decide this is what I will be,” Ozsváth said. “This is what I am. It has completely influenced my life forever. You can suffer tremendously and be tremendously joyful. I don’t know that you can experience one without the other.”