Survivors honored in emotional Capitol ceremony

In 1945, Jeno Ickovits died.

And it was hardly noteworthy. There was plenty of death to go around. The Hungarian Jew was barely 90 pounds and riddled with typhus when the Americans liberated him from Mathausen. The soldiers loaded him into an ambulance and rushed him to a hospital, but when no one heard from Ickovits for several months, they didn’t need to connect the dots.

And yet, in 2006, there was Ickovits in the heart of Sacramento’s Capitol Building, sitting stiffly and looking slightly bemused as the state Assembly unanimously approved legislation naming this Holocaust Memorial Week in the presence of Ickovits and more than 90 other California survivors.

Because, you see, Jeno Ickovits really is dead. The survivor present at the Monday, April 24 ceremony is now known as Jack Illes. It was Illes who somehow survived typhus after several months of hospitalization. It was Illes who was shocked to discover his own moniker on a memorial commemorating Hungary’s slaughtered Jews (an engraving the authorities opted not to remove when they discovered Illes had changed his name).

But it was Ickovits who fled to an attic when the Iron Cross stormed the Kiskunhalas ghetto and watched in silent horror as the Hungarian fascists formed a conveyer belt of death, shooting row after row of children, four at a time, into hurriedly filled mass graves that writhed and churned for three days until the last of the Jews expired from exhaustion or suffocation.

“I am the sole survivor of 220 kids,” said Illes, his large hands tightening in his grasp of a polished wooden cane.

Illes sat, alone, toward the rear of a bus chartered by the Jewish Family and Children’s Services in San Francisco — which ferried several score local survivors to the event — and peered out the window as the urban environs of his San Rafael home morphed into almost unbelievably green countryside on the way to the state’s capital.

And everyone on the bus had a story like his.

Taken on the whole, Holocaust survivors are strikingly short. They come from long lines of short people who ate, even in the best of times, a less-than-balanced diet and were horrifically malnourished throughout their formative years.

So it was easy to tell who was who when the survivors, nearly all of whom were near or past their 80th birthday, ambled through the capital rotunda, flanked by young legislative aides in conservative dark suits.

After passing through several metal detectors and surrendering their cameras, penknives and any other pointy objects, the survivors were seated on the Assembly floor in folding chairs alongside their elected representatives. Some chatted amiably with the politicians, a number of whom graciously offered their plush chairs to the elderly survivors. Others sat and stared stonily ahead, alone in a crowded room.

They continued to sit quietly when, almost as if they weren’t there, jargon-infused talk eerily resembling air traffic controller lingo rattled over the public address system, noting that the housing committee would be tackling AB2839, the Local Government committee AB2683 and the Utilities and Commissions commission would be handling AB1891.

The Yom HaShoah resolution was tagged with the innocuous moniker of ACR100.

Assemblywoman Rebecca Cohn (D-Saratoga), who organized the event and sponsored the bill, fought back tears when addressing the survivors. She then turned over the microphone to her fellow Assembly members for speeches supporting the measure — speeches which, to be honest, were incredibly pedestrian. One assemblywoman, in an oration resembling a grade-school book report, chose to recite an encyclopedia definition of the Holocaust to a roomful of survivors.

No one — no one — will remember those speeches. But they will remember those dignified old men and women standing, often with considerable effort, when Cohn called out their names. They won’t forget the clench-jawed, red-eyed glances the survivors shot up to the visitors’ gallery at the wives and husbands they lived to marry and the children and grandchildren they survived to bring into this world.

No one who was there will forget that.

The gravitas of the survivors’ solemn moment later exploded into welcome comic relief. A kosher reception in a wildly undersized room quickly devolved into a scene resembling the Black Hole of Calcutta — only with roast chicken and pita with hummus.

The survivors were told to eat quickly (not at all necessary, by the way) as a “special guest” would soon be arriving. And everyone knew who that was.

A number of the survivors had expressed some ambivalence about Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and doubted — with his father’s Nazi past and Schwarzenegger’s reluctance to castigate his father — if the governor would even show up.

And yet when he did the reaction was downright gleeful, with many survivors joyously shouting that they, too, hailed from Austria. Like a wily old pro, Schwarzenegger worked the room, holding conversations in English, German and even Dutch. Meeting a roomful of survivors meant a lot to him as he’s from “Austria, where it all started.”

San Francisco’s Dede Perlman had bumped into Schwarzenegger’s mother in a Palm Springs hotel around 30 years ago and had a long discussion with her, Austrian-to-Austrian. She asked the governor what year that might have been, but he wasn’t certain either — he brought his mother to Palm Springs every year. And that makes sense, Perlman noted. After all, Mrs. Schwarzenegger did rave about what a good son she had.

“He’s a nice enough man, and a real smart cookie to get where he’s gotten,” said Perlman, who spent the war years fleeing from Austria to Czechoslovakia to France to Spain to Portugal.

“But his father was a Nazi. And he’s a Republican.”

On the bus ride home, a number of the survivors looked more than a little drained, both physically and emotionally.

Paul Schwarzbart, a Vienna-born Jew who spent the war in hiding as a Belgian altar boy, said discussing his past never gets any easier. But he feels it’s required of him.

“Why else did I survive?” he asks.

“The responsibility to bear witness. That is the price of our survival.”

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is the managing editor at Mission Local. He is a former editor-at-large at San Francisco magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.