Blugolds help bring World War II history to life

| Judy Berthiaume

It’s been nearly 75 years since Alfred Lakos’ mother left him — then just 7 years old — alone in their Budapest apartment so she could take food to his father, who was working in a nearby labor camp.

Seven-plus decades later, Lakos chokes back tears as he tells several UW-Eau Claire history students and their professor that his mother never returned that day in October 1944 or any other.

As the university students sit quietly trying to control their own emotions, Lakos tells them his mother was arrested shortly after leaving their apartment because she wasn’t wearing the yellow star that identified her as a Jew. He learned later that she was sent to Auschwitz that same day, and was murdered.

While under arrest, his mother alerted her sister, who quickly came to get him, Lakos says. They fled to the home of his aunt’s friend, a physician named Dr. Maria Madi, where they hid for nearly four months, leaving the small apartment only after World War II fighting ended in Hungary.

Lakos shared his story with the Blugolds via a video conference, which also included the grandson of the Hungarian doctor who saved Lakos, and researchers at a university in Hungary.

Dr. James Oberly, professor of history at UW-Eau Claire, coordinated the call, creating an opportunity for his students to ask Lakos questions about the months he spent hiding in the apartment of Madi, the Christian physician who risked her life to keep him and his aunt, Irene Lakos, safe.

Why the interest by UW-Eau Claire historians in Lakos’ story?

Madi kept extensive diaries — 1,800 pages filling 16 volumes, mostly written in English — documenting what her life was like in Budapest during World War II.

Oberly, who holds dual U.S.-Hungary citizenships and has previously done research in Hungary, learned about the diaries after Madi’s grandchildren donated them to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

He was fascinated by her stories and the choices she made during the war, he says.

“When the USHMM made Dr. Madi’s diaries available online, I was immediately taken with the acute intelligence of her wartime observations, even as I also read them with a curiosity about the social geography of Dr. Madi’s life,” Oberly says. “Although she lived on the Buda side of the Danube, Madi worked at the Szent Rókus Central Hospital on the Pest side, a hospital with many Jewish physicians on staff up through 1944.

“How, I wondered, did the worlds of the Roman Catholic Maria Madi and the Jewish Irene Lakos intersect?”

Oberly was especially interested in the stories Madi shared about protecting a young Jewish boy and his aunt during the worst of the Arrow Cross terror in the fall of 1944.

“The emotional highlight of the diary was in October 1944, when she hid in her apartment for more than four months a 7-year old Jewish boy,” says Oberly. “That boy, Alfred Lakos, now age 81, is alive and well today, living in Atlanta.”

While intrigued by Madi’s life, Oberly found that the volume and style of her writing made it difficult to access the stories within the diaries.

“The diaries are available to the public on the museum’s website, but they are not very accessible since they’re written in manuscript and not searchable,” Oberly says. “For some entries, Madi lapsed into writing Hungarian, requiring an English translation for readers, something not provided by the USHMM.”

Bringing Madi’s diaries to life

Given the importance of Madi’s diaries, Oberly volunteered to help make them more accessible.

With the help of UW-Eau Claire student researchers and partners at Károli Gáspár University in Hungary, he is building a prototype website using text, video, photos and other interactive tools that will help make the content within the diaries more accessible to historians and the public.

“We want to create what historians call a digital humanities site where the Madi diaries can be fully studied,” Oberly says, noting that curators at the USHMM are supportive of the UW-Eau Claire project. “Digital humanities, as practiced today by historians, is the use of software to enhance and extend the ways that readers encounter texts, in this case, Dr. Madi’s diaries. We will produce a prototype website that allows readers to explore the diaries of Maria Madi in ways beyond reading her words in manuscript. Our project will greatly enhance readers’ engagement with the diaries.”

Ultimately, the project will benefit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum “by having one of its most important archival collections more intensively and more extensively used,” Oberly says.

Katherine Ciolkosz, a broadfield social studies major with a history emphasis, says it’s a privilege to be part of such an important project and an honor to have talked with Lakos.

“I can only describe this experience as surreal,” says Ciolkosz, a junior from Sussex. “Talking to Mr. Lakos certainly made the research more tangible to me.

“As a history student, I’m only able to obtain a limited understanding of world events as I read them in textbooks. Talking to someone who experienced historical events firsthand is incredible. I understand the story and the emotion behind these historical events more than if I’d only learned about them in books. Mr. Lakos' experiences are amazing, and I feel honored to be able to help share his story.”

Madi’s diaries became available online while Oberly was working on a project about the 1941 city census of Budapest, the last one conducted of a great continental European Jewish city before the Holocaust.

Curious about Madi, Oberly identified her apartment, finding it in a Buda district with comparatively few Jewish families in 1941.

“Yet she took in a Jewish friend and a little boy at a time of enforced Jewish segregation in the Budapest ghetto,” Oberly says.

Even more startlingly, he says, is that Madi’s flat was a short distance from the Buda-side Gestapo headquarters in the Twelfth District.

“Almost literally, she hid young Alfred Lakos under the nose of the occupying secret police power,” Oberly says.

During their recent call, Lakos told students he clearly remembers Madi and the apartment, as well as Madi’s constant reminders to him that he could never go near the windows or balcony, fearing that the Gestapo would investigate if they noticed a child in an apartment where none were reported to live.

“I was only 7 years old at the time, but I have very, very vivid memories of her,” Lakos says of Madi.

They never left the apartment, even as bombs dropped around them, Lakos told the students.

“She was a remarkable woman,” says Lakos, adding that he sometimes has dreams that include the woman who saved him years ago. “She took two Jews in to her very small apartment and kept us hidden there for months. She saved our lives.”

‘A witness to the war’

During the early days of World War II, Madi had planned to join her only daughter in the U.S., but those plans were put on hold when the U.S. entered the war.

As Madi struggled with the realities of war and being away from her daughter, she began keeping hand-written diaries, mostly written in English.

In one early entry, she noted that since she could not leave Hungary she would serve as “a witness to the war.”

With that goal in mind, she wrote regularly about the persecution of Jews, as well as her efforts to protect Lakos and his aunt.

The diaries are fascinating, says Ciolkosz, adding that the more she learns about Madi, the more interesting the doctor becomes.

“The most surprising part of this project is Dr. Madi and the resilience that she exhibited throughout the war,” Ciolkosz says. “Even before taking in Mr. Lakos, she had to cope with the daily struggles and dangers of living in a world war. She mentioned time and time again the bombing raids that occurred in Budapest, as well as the fear that her diary would be discovered. She was an incredibly brave and resilient person.”

Ciolkosz and the other Blugold researchers will learn even more about Madi when they travel to Budapest in January 2019.

Oberly will lead the immersion program in Hungary, where students will visit Madi’s apartment, visit Lakos’ parents’ graves and explore other places that are important to the Lakos-Madi story.

The students are even more eager to see the apartment and other places that are described in the diaries after talking with Lakos and hearing him describe his memories of that time.

“I am elated that I am able to be in the city where these diaries were written,” Ciolkosz says. “We are going to immerse ourselves in the history. I am excited to put myself in Dr. Madi's shoes and experience her culture. The immersion will help us to gain an even deeper understanding of what she went through and how she lived.”

Ciolkosz and the other Blugold researchers have been working on the website project, preparing indexes of concepts and ideas, and verifying proper names mentioned in the diaries.

Next steps

However, there is some work that needs to be done in Hungary, Oberly says.

“Video is needed to document the many walks that Dr. Madi recounts in her diary, walks on which she saw important factual details about the Arrow Cross (Nazi) terror in the fall-winter of 1944-45,” Oberly says. “There is also still photography needed of the houses and workplaces she mentions in her diary.”

In addition, the students will conduct research at the Budapest City Archives on the architectural histories of the buildings mentioned in Madi’s diaries, Oberly says, noting that the City Archives holds the original plans for each apartment in each building of the city built after 1872.

The students also will do research at the Budapest City Museum collections, studying Hungarian newspapers published during the war and stories that Madi referred to in her diary, Oberly says.

“Finally, there is a need to have a translator who can help me with some of the idioms that Dr. Madi used in her diary when she chose to write in Hungarian,” Oberly says.

Already, the project has added greatly to her college experience and to her knowledge about an important time in world history, Ciolkosz says.

The immersion in Budapest will make an even greater impact, she says.

“This project is one that won't just enhance my college experience, but my career and my life,” Ciolkosz says. “I am thankful to be able to do undergraduate research and immersion in my college career. This project is interactive and immersive, and the history behind it is tangible.

“Many of the locations that Dr. Madi mentions in her diary still stand in Budapest, so being able to see these places makes the history and the research very real. This is one of the highlights of college and my life.”

As a future educator, the research project also has changed how she sees herself studying and teaching history, Ciolkosz says.

“I certainly want to find more opportunities to immerse myself in historical cities and experience more history firsthand,” Ciolkosz says.

After returning from their Winterim immersion, the students will continue their work on the project during the spring semester, Oberly says, noting that in the future his students will visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, where they will present their work to the curatorial/archives staff.

The researchers will work to build a prototype website that includes the digital enhancements, which is necessary to attract major outside grant funding to create a fuller, more web-based site, Oberly says of the long-term goal of the project.

Oberly currently is working with the staff in UW-Eau Claire’s McIntyre Library, the Office of Research and Sponsored Programs and the Center for International Education to identify funding to continue and sustain the project.

For more information, contact Dr. James Oberly at 715-836-4599 or joberly@uwec.edu.

Photo caption: Dr. James Oberly and student researchers are involved in an international project that will make a set of diaries kept by a Hungarian doctor during World War II more accessible to the public.