I hope anyone who wants to see an inspiring true story of great courage will
make sure to mark April 19 on their calendar to see CBS's airing of the
enactment of the life of Elena Sendler the- Polish "Schindler." She is a
credit to her people and Catholics everywhere. Per the Catholic Digest, there
are more than 22,000 recognized Righteous Gentiles -- non-Jews who risked
their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust.
In the April '09 Catholic Digest I read with great surprise and pleasure Dr.
Lawrence Levitt's story of two such righteous Gentiles who lived in my parents'
homeland: Slovakia. They were the reason that one day he was able to marry
his lovely wife, Eva. In this retelling of a journey to the past, the Levitts would
have the opportunity to exemplify the sterling quality of gratitude.
Though the number of rescues of this Catholic couple - Geza and Klara Hajtas
did not measure up to those of either Schindler or Sendler, it still required
great courage to help Olga and Eva from being captured by the Gestapo. They
were also able to help 16 other people as well over a period of a year. Many years
later a grateful Eva and her family made sure that their story was told.
It all began in a Slovak village where Geza Hajtas, Catholic Gentile and Olga, a
Jew had been classmates. They continued to be friends even after Geza
married Klara and Olga married Leo. Both began raising families until that
fateful day when the Gestapo stormed into their village looking for Jews to
transport to the gas chambers.
Leo was rounded up, but Olga carrying her 1-year old sick child, Eva managed to
make her way to the Hajtases' home. This was the first time that the Hajtases
were faced with the realization that taking in Jews was very dangerous and
could mean the end of their own lives if caught, but they also knew they could
not turn their backs on Olga and Eva.
With little Eva restored to health, the Hajtases realized that it would be safer
for mother and child to be moved from shelter to shelter under the cover of
darkness until they were safe from the Gestapo. In the meanwhile, to expedite
their moves, Geza had obtained false papers for Olga from money that Leo had
left him. And then one glorious and happy day -Olga and Eva were finally safe.
Sadly, of the 500 Jewish children who had lived in Olga and Eva's hometown of
Humenne before the war, Eva was only one of five children who survived.
In 1982 Eva Ritter now married to Lawrence P. Levitt, MD was anxious to return
to her past. Their itinerary planned, they soon embarked on their tour of Europe-
retracing the footsteps of Eva's father -Leopold Ritter. They visited Auschwitz where
he was imprisoned and his parents were murdered. Leo himself narrowly missed
being executed due to the wonderful and timely appearance of the Allies who
liberated the camp before this would happen.
After visiting Eva's family's hometown village of Radvan, Slovakia where they
took a picture of a beaming Eva standing by a villager who had given her a
bouquet of flowers, they next made their way to Bratislava where Geza and
Klara Hajtas lived.
After a warm welcome by Geza and Klara, the Levitts told them how very
grateful they were to the couple for literally making their life possible.
At one point in the conversation, Dr. Levitt finally asked the burning question:
"Why did you do this?" "You knew that if you'd been caught, you and your
family would have been killed."
Geza put his arm around the doctor and replied in Slovak - "Young man, a good life
comes from working hard and helping other people." So simple and so beautiful.
I think I've seen and heard this simple philosophy before as I was growing up in
Birdtown - a company town enclave of streets named after birds. Here many
Eastern Europeans resided -most of whom had emigrated from Slovakia to work,
build their homes, and start their families. And I've always been amazed that in
this very small area -seven churches sprung up - all within walking distance.
There were 3 Catholic churches, 2 Lutheran, one Orthodox, and one Calvinist-
all reflecting the faith they were brought up in and practiced in Slovakia. Some
people rightfully take pride in their people's art or literature or dance. I take
pride in the simple, hardworking, and religious character of mine.
Their visit over- the Levitts returned to Allentown, PA - their home. But they
didn't forget the Hajtases. One year they learned that Geza had a serious health
problem - an enlarged prostate for which the doctors in Bratislava advised against
having surgery because they said he was too old, too heavy, and too fragile. Dr.
Levitt decided to see what could be done for Geza in the US.
After speaking about Geza to several doctors and administrative officials at
Lehigh Valley Hospital in Allentown, he was happy to get a positive and immediate
response: "We will be happy to treat him without charge."
The Levitts brought Geza and Klara to Allentown and a week later Geza underwent
surgery by a skilled urologist named John Jaffe with preoperative clearance by Stanley
Zeeman who was a friend and a fine cardiologist.
The surgery was a success and when later John Jaffe had ocassion to see his
patient, he thanked him. Geza asked "For what?" And Leo Ritter who had
accompanied him to act as translator replied "For your courage in risking your
life for others." The Hajtases had saved Olga and Eva's life. Now these wonderful
people had saved Geza's.
Geza Hajtas died of heart failure in 1995. Klara is still alive at 88. The Levitts
visited her last year and after dinner in her home one evening they showed
her some photos of their travels. One of the photos showed Eva, her husband,
their three children, and six grandchildren at Disney World - all with big smiles
clearly conveying a happy occasion.
Klara looked at the photo for a long time and tears began streaming down her
cheeks. She looked at the Levitts and they understood because they were
crying too. There never would have been a Disney World for them but for
the love and kindness which Geza and Klara had extended to one frightened
Jewish lady and her very sick baby called Eva.