Sunday, January 10, 2010

The Extraordinary Life of Ernest Bokor

From the 1960s to the 1980s, when Ernest Bokor worked in the gold district of New York City, he didn’t talk much about his past. By day he used his mechanical skills and an artistic streak to make jewelry molds. At night, he went home to his wife and two daughters in Passaic, NJ. Nothing suggested that he was a man of extraordinary courage, nerve and resourcefulness who saved his fellow Jews from the Nazis in Hungary during World War II.

I knew him only in passing through his daughter Raya, one of my college friends from the 1970s. When he died recently, she wrote a short chronicle of his life and gave it to friends and family. The story astounded me.

Born in southern Czechoslovakia in 1920, Mr. Bokor went to Budapest in 1939 to look for work. When Nazi Germany occupied Hungary in 1944, he was sent to do forced labor. Sensing imminent danger, he had his identification papers altered to conceal the fact that he was Jewish.

One desperate improvisation led to another. Eventually he used his forged identify, and his blond-haired, blue-eyed “Aryan” looks, to help the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg rescue Jews from deportation to concentration camps. Armed and dressed in fascist uniforms, Mr. Bokor and his comrades tricked real Nazis into releasing their prisoners into their custody. Then, they set them free with “Sheuss Passes” from Wallenberg that placed the holder under the protection of Sweden.

Mr. Bokor related one of his rescues as follows.

One day, Raoul Wallenberg called a meeting and gave us instructions. We were to take two open back trucks and go to a cinderblock factory where Jews were being collected for deportation on a death march toward Austria. We were to tell the guards that we had orders to get workers to help clear rubble from the streets so that the military could move trucks and supplies. We were to pick up as many as we could possibly fit into the two trucks.

It was already late fall, rainy and cold. Many people were without shoes or coats. When we arrived and the prisoners saw us they became very frightened thinking we were there to round them up, take them away, and kill them. There were old women, young women with children, and old men.

In order to seem convincing we shouted anti-Jewish slogans at them. At first it was difficult to get the people onto the truck.

As we got them on, they tried to jump off and run back into the crowd. I had to get some real Hungarian Nazis to help. One of them said he would help if we promised not to bring them back but to kill them all. We assured him that he would never see these people again.

They surrounded the truck and we squeezed in as many as we could. The people were terribly frightened as we packed them in tighter and tighter. We packed them in like pickled herrings and when we couldn’t fit any more, we drove away. They kept screaming and trying to escape.

I sat on top of the cab holding a submachine gun at the prisoners and yelled at them not to move or they would be shot. This was very harsh but necessary in order to fool the Nazis. If anyone suspected or looked carefully at our papers, we would be lost.

When we got far away fro the factory we stopped the trucks. It was late in the day, rainy and dark. Many people were crying in anticipation of being shot. Finally we could tell them the truth—that we were Jews as well and were there to save them. We gave them the Sheuss Passes, instructed them to fill in their names, and released them to go into hiding as best they could.

We didn’t have a place for them to go, but, at least for the moment they had a new chance to survive.

Ernest had more such experiences, and his share of sorrows, before the war ended. In peacetime he met Helen Lebovic, who had been in Auschwitz. They married in 1948. In 1949 they immigrated to Israel and in 1958 to the United States.

Only in his retirement years did he begin to speak publicly about his wartime experiences. When he did he deferred to his wife because she was an Auschwitz survivor.

Frank Yusko, a high school history teacher in Spotswood, NJ who worked with Mr. Bokor on Holocaust education, called him "a good friend and a great man" who should be remembered because he “made the choice to place himself in harm’s way to help others in desperate need. People such as these should serve as an example for all of us.” I can't think of a better way to sum up his heroism in World War II.


Anonymous said...

What an incredible and wonderful man. He leaves his family a legacy of heroism and honour.

suzyq said...

A hero and a man of great honor and distinction.

Anonymous said...

A wonderfully decent man who my family and I had the pleasure of knowing since 1957 when we first met in Passaic, NJ.

Gary R.

Robyn said...

I will always remember him; not only as an extraordinary hero, but also as a kind, sweet, warm-hearted man who always had a smile on his face.

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