A young child’s conscience, and her father’s moral courage at a time when most had lost theirs, is now remembered.
When Robert Rubinstein, a Toronto businessman, had to fulfill the dying wish of a Hungarian Christian woman, he reached out to the Chabad rabbi in Budapest. He was holding the proceeds of the sale of two properties intended for Hungary’s Jews.
In 2010, Magda Zelenka, originally from Hungary, came to Rubinstein’s office. She had inherited her parents’ home and her aunt’s home in Mezőkövesd, a town in northern Hungary, and wanted to see the profits benefit the Jews of her country.
Magda knew Rubinstein through his parents. Bill Rubinstein had owned apartment buildings in her childhood town, and Magda’s father, Marton Lazar, was a superintendent in one of them. The elder Rubinstein was, she said, always kind to her, and treated her father with kindness and respect.
Rubinstein knew the dark history of the Hungarians who collaborated with the Germans to exterminate Hungarian Jewry. His father was among the able-bodied men who had been shipped off to forced-labor camps by the Hungarians in 1944.
“I do not think of Hungary as my country,” he told her, recalling his visit there in 1972 when “there was almost nothing going on Jewishly, and communism looked like it would last forever, hostile to any religion.”
When he visited Mezőkövesd—where he and Magda both had roots, he met only one Jew, a watchmaker.
A Heroic Child
Three months after her visit, a manila envelope landed on Rubinstein’s desk. In it were two official title certificates from the Mezőkövesd land office. The envelope remained on his desk, and soon got buried under a growing pile of more urgent matters.
Three years later Magda wrote him a letter reminding him about the properties. By then, Magda had been diagnosed with lung cancer and was preoccupied with the homes, speaking of little else. Rubinstein visited her in her Toronto home, promising her to sell the houses. But he wondered at the insistence of this dying Christian woman to see her money go to a Jewish cause.
Magda recalled the government restrictions on the local Jews during the Holocaust years. Her father ignored the laws and continued his contact with Jews, causing her own family no small measure of trouble. At some point, Magda’s mother became furious with her father, berating him for destroying their family while befriending the Jews.
Magda stood up to her mother. Her father, she told her mother boldly, is right. There is nothing wrong with the Jews. “They are people just like us.” And the little girl made a pledge, promising that when she grows up and inherits the family home, she will “give it to the Jews.”
A Worthy Cause
In late 2013 the properties were sold and the money was transferred to a trust fund.
Rubinstein then reached out to Rabbi Shlomo Koves, the Chabad-Lubavitch Executive Rabbi of EMIH Unified Hungarian Jewish Congregation. Koves suggested that the funds go to the renovations of Budapest’s oldest standing synagogue. The Obuda Synagogue, converted into a television studio after WWII, was returned to the Jewish community in 2010 and still much in need of repair.
The Toronto businessman was skeptical. He hadn’t been to Hungary in years, and could not understand why Budapest’s synagogue would warrant renovations. But when he finally visited last April, he found a thriving Jewish community. “To see now that the Jewish community is assertive and proud is astonishing,” he told lubavitch.com.
Rubinstein would have loved to see the money go to the Jewish community in Mezőkövesd, but it was destroyed. “It once upon a time had a nice Jewish community, but tragically that does not exist anymore,” he says, his voice cracking with emotion. “If you want to do something for the Jewish community, it is only in Budapest.”
Rabbi Koves confirms that there are no Jews left in Mezőkövesd. “In general the Jews all fled from cities and towns across Hungary after WWII. Besides the two cities, there are almost no Jews in the suburbs outside of Budapest.”
During an April 2014 visit to the Obuda Synagogue, he met a young Jewish mother studying Judaism and sending her child to the Chabad preschool. The woman told him of the recent Jewish revival among the young generation. Rubinstein was moved, and expressed gratitude to Chabad of Budapest. “It is very touching to see this happening once again in Hungary,” he told lubavitch.com.
With anti-Semitism on the rise in Hungary, as in other European countries, Rabbi Koves hopes that as the local community learns about Magda, a Christian child from Hungary who stood up for the Jews in her town, “they will learn from her actions, and be inspired that even a small child can stand up for the truth and for what is right.”
Magda passed away this past August, but a plaque in the Budapest synagogue memorializes her: “In loving memory of Marton Lazar, a rare voice of righteousness in a world turned evil. Dedicated by his daughter, Magdolna Lazar Zelenka of Toronto, Canada.”