The KALEIDOSCOPE Interview
Never Forget, Never Again: Agnes Vertes
By Vivien Orbach-Smith
The family photos adorning Agnes Vertes’s Weston home depict more than 50 years of a robust Jewish life in America – from a striking black-and-white wedding portrait of Agnes and her late husband, Michael (who passed away in 2005), to colorful shots of their grandchildren’s bar- and bat-mitzvahs.
But one image of a distant time and place – the couple’s native Hungary – tells a starkly different story. It is the story that has dictated Agnes’s life mission, as one of the youngest survivors of the Holocaust, and a documentary filmmaker, educator, advocate and activist: the rallying cry of “never forget, never again.”
“This was taken at my uncle’s wedding in a small village outside Budapest in 1931, almost a decade before I was born,” she says, displaying a grainy, poster-sized blowup of a gathering of smiling adults and children. “Of the 27 people in the picture, only three survived – my mother and two of her three brothers.” Most died in ghettos or in concentration camps. Her two grandmothers were doused with gasoline and torched when the Nazis discovered their safe-house. One aunt and a cousin, unable to overcome their trauma, committed suicide years after the war.
Agnes (née Katz) was only 4 when the Germans invaded Budapest with ferocious speed, turning her privileged childhood into a desperate race for survival. Its twists and turns encompassed false Christian identities for her and her 2-year-old sister; stints in a foster home and then in an orphanage that was destroyed by the Germans, leaving the two little girls homeless and starving in the freezing streets of the city. Subsequently, they were crowded into a squalid, disease-ridden Catholic children’s home until the war’s end, when they were finally reunited with their parents.
It would be 10 more years before the family would know true freedom, fleeing Communist rule and ultimately emigrating to New York.
There, as a student at Hunter College, Agnes met Michael Vertes, who survived thanks to a fake passport and schutzpass (letter of protection) issued in Budapest by Swiss diplomat Carl Lutz. (Lutz’s heroism is the topic of a new book, Under Swiss Protection, by Agnes Hirschi, his stepdaughter.)
Michael’s history was, in part, the inspiration for his wife’s 2003 documentary Passport to Life, which took her back to Budapest, and to Rome, Stockholm and Bern, to interview diplomats and clerics who had risked their lives to save Jews. She was accompanied by their daughter, Vivian Rockmacher, who narrated the film.
“My mother looks for little-told stories that will transmit the truth of what happened, especially to young people in an age-appropriate way,” says Vivian, who lives with her family in Wellington, Fla. “She considers it her responsibility to educate people on how even a small amount of intolerance can mushroom – and also, that there are always good people out there who can make a difference. She’s always been a ‘seize the day’ kind of person and I think she’ll be doing this until her last breath.”
The Verteses’ son, Roger, of Newton, Mass., provided voiceovers for the film’s male narrations.
Agnes’s career as a documentarian grew out of oral-history/videography training from Steven Spielberg’s Shoah Foundation, which she decided to undertake after she and Michael were interviewed. This led, in 1998, to her first independent film, One Out of Ten, which features the firsthand accounts of eight survivors with vastly different backgrounds, all of them members of the Holocaust Child Survivors of Connecticut organization (HCSC). Both documentaries were recipients of international independent film awards.
Agnes has served as president of HCSC for the last 15 years, coordinating programs and a speakers’ bureau, which – though its numbers have sharply dwindled – addresses area middle- and high-schools, civic organizations and community-wide gatherings. She finds it especially gratifying to speak at schools in underserved neighborhoods, to minority students who may themselves be immigrants. “They’re respectful and quiet and you can hear a pin drop,” she says, with a smile. “Some of them cry, they call me a hero – they ask to hug me and take ‘selfies’ with me.”
She also dedicates many hours to sorting out the escalating needs of HCSC members who have reached advanced old age, advocating for them with the Claims Conference and other agencies, including Federation for Jewish Philanthropy.
In a world where Holocaust survivors are dying out and antisemitism is again on the upswing, Agnes’s mission is more important to her than ever. “I don’t think antisemitism was ever extinguished; it was just put to sleep for a while,” she declares. “Right now, a lot of it takes the form of being anti-Israel. I find it very upsetting when Jewish people aren’t fully cognizant of this.”
Her third documentary, which is nearing completion, is titled, Judy, You Will Live. It features her close friend, Stamford resident Judith Altmann, a 93-year-old survivor of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, whose harrowing story and powerful delivery make her, says Agnes, “the HCSC’s biggest money-maker.” While the speakers never charge for their appearances, schools and other groups often make voluntary donations that go directly into the organization’s coffers. Last year alone, Judith addressed 7,500 students at 51 schools.
The idea for the film was born in 2015, when both women traveled to Berlin to attend a meeting of the World Federation of Jewish Child Holocaust Survivors and Descendants. Judith was invited by a newspaper in the nearby town of Essen, where she had been interned as a slave-laborer, to return and speak to schools and civic groups; the publication agreed to cover her expenses and Agnes’s for this side-trip. When Agnes observed the townspeople’s overwhelmingly emotional response to Judith’s presence, she knew that this unique journey must be her next project.
“Judy’s a remarkable person, with such a zest for life, such energy,” says Agnes, “and her testimony is truly a microcosm of the Holocaust experience.” A local videographer and sound technician immediately agreed to provide their services, refusing any payment.
The film also features Agnes’s interview with Renée Hammond, also 93, a Florida-based survivor who was one of six young women who escaped from Essen while its electrified barbed-wire fence was briefly unattended.
The film’s title reprises the final words Judith’s father uttered in her direction in Auschwitz, while hastily placing his hands upon her head to bless her as he had every Shabbat throughout her childhood. The two were instantly separated and he was sent to the gas chambers.
Revisiting Essen, says Judith Altmann, was “in a way a relief, a closure... a kind of victory, that ‘I am here and you [Nazis] are gone.’” Having Agnes there made victory even sweeter, says Judith, who also accompanied 10,000 Jewish students to Poland on March of the Living in 2010. “Agnes is not only a very good president, devoted to our membership, but a great friend,” Judith points out. “And our friendships, they’re like ‘mishpuche [family].’
The two women sometimes make joint appearances in classrooms, to illustrate the breadth of the Holocaust experience and to give voice to the 1.5 million children among the six million Jews murdered.
Their message is strong and unequivocal.
“Don’t be a follower, be suspicious of demagogues, always listen to your conscience,” says Agnes emphatically. “Don’t be a bystander; if you see someone being abused, stand up for them!”
“We always tell the young people: you are very lucky, because you are probably the last generation who will have firsthand access to a survivor of the Holocaust. We are counting on you to tell your children and grandchildren... you are the future, and we are entrusting you to make this a better world.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Vivien Orbach-Smith of Wilton was a longtime board-member of UJA/Federation Westport Weston Wilton Norwalk. She teaches journalism at NYU, works as a college-essay coach, and is the co-author of her late father's memoir, Young Lothar: An Underground Fugitive in Nazi Berlin (I.B. Tauris, 2017). Learn more about the book and a Berlin walking tour based on it at younglothar.com.