25,000 Stars. A tribute to John Chillag | Ray Hodgson
John Chillag - a tribute to a survivor of the 'Hungarian Holocaust'
"Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he has saved the entire world."
Jerusalem Talmud, Sanhedrin 4:8 (37a)
In the summer of 1944 the fortunes of two Austrians overlapped in the sleepy climes of Hungary. More than five years later, both men were to sail off in opposite directions into the oceans of the southern hemisphere...
In the 1930s, as the gathering clouds of fascism darkened over Austria, the Csillag family moved eastwards to the comparative safety of Hungary at the other end of the obsolete Habsburg Empire. The family were Jews and John was a teenager whose formative years had a degree of affluence due to the success of the family construction business.
The second man, Adolph Eichmann, an Obersturmbannfuhrer in the SS (lieutenant-colonel), had special responsibilities for the transport of Jews to the Death Camps. Eichmann was present at the Wannsee Conference called by Heydreich in 1942, and was instrumental in realising the 'Final Solution' to the Jewish problem. He masterminded the mass exodus and subsequent extermination of millions of Jews and other 'sub-humans', including more than 400 000 Hungarian Jews. This ghastly enterprise earned him the title of 'Architect of the Holocaust'.
In May 1944, Eichmann's final solution was targeted on the Hungarian town of Gyor and, of course, John Csillag's family were brutally ghettoised and transported, in suffocating heat and stinking sanitary conditions to Hell itself, Auschwitz-Birkenau. As the cattle-trucks were emptied John, his uncle and his father were selected for slave labour. The other 30 or so of the family were murdered in the gas chambers and their bodies incinerated as the trio were shaved, showered and deloused with a stinging chemical. After a few weeks, John and his father, Jozsef, were transferred to Bochum to work in the foundry of an armaments factory. Six months later, John's father died of exhaustion brought on by 12/13 hour working days, pathetic rations and rampant disease and neglect. John's uncle had simply disappeared in Auschwitz. John eventually ended up in Buchenwald as the allies overran the Westphalian region; he stood over six feet but weighed only 25 kg (4 stone). Liberation by the US troops in April 1945 saved John's life that was hanging by a thread. Unable to stand, he was eventually nursed back to reasonable health.
As the war ended, Eichmann took advantage of the chaos and he was able to assume different identities to mask his complicity in the Final Solution. He was captured but fooled his interrogators and escaped whilst still unidentified. Only when other prisoners of the Third Reich were de-briefed did Eichmann's pivotal role in the Holocaust begin to emerge. Meanwhile, several SS officers helped Eichmann to elude his captors but he knew his eventual discovery was inevitable if he remained in Europe. Using the ODESSA society, he was able to secure a passage on a freighter bound for Argentina from Genoa in Italy. His Argentinean passport was given to him by a Franciscan priest. Bishop Alois Hudal, an apologist for the Nazis, and a thorn in the Pope Pius XII and the Vatican's side, provided the ratline and the wherewithal for top Nazis to escape. Among the escapees were Franz Stangl, Commandant of Treblinka, Edward Roschmann, 'Butcher of Riga' and most notorious of all, Adolph Eichmann whose new identity was that of Ricardo Klement. In Buenos Aires, Ricardo Klement held down several blue collar jobs and, in 1953, his wife and family joined him. However, after tip-offs to the West German government, the Israeli secret service, Mossad, kidnapped and transported him back to Israel to stand trial.
John Chillag as he returned to Gyor did not know his family had been brutally slaughtered. Quickly, he found out that they had perished in the gas chambers and he began to pick up the pieces of the family business. All was going well until the Communists were swept into power in 1949. No private enterprise was allowed and John decided to emigrate. He escaped to freedom and ended up in Australia where he met and married Audrey Banham who survives him along with their three children, Johnathan, Andrew and Wendy. John returned to the UK in 1962.
Adolph Eichmann was put on trial in Israel in 1961 and he was made to listen to the testimony of the survivors of the Holocaust. His plea of mitigation was chillingly shallow, blaming others and admitting only that he had sacrificed himself for the God of Obedience. Adolph Eichmann, even on the scaffold, remained impervious to the deep stain he had scoured into the human condition.
Eichmann was executed in 1962 and in this year John Chillag settled in the land where he to make his mark and change our society for the better. John was recruited by the British Council to work in their library as an archivist and later he worked for Leeds Metropolitan University. He was a volunteer for Mencap, working on an national and international stage, and is fondly remembered as a champion of disabled rights. He co-founded the Holocaust Survivors Friends Association that not only gave mutual support but allowed these men and women to tell their stories to a wider audience, including school children and university students. For many, these eye-witness accounts were education at its very highest level but also they were stories of hope, redemption and the beauty of the human soul. Time and again, John was asked why he was not filled with hatred and bitterness. He was able to reply that it was far more important to channel his energies into educating young people like themselves rather than fermenting hatred and malice in himself. In many schools and colleges visited by John, the pupils and their teachers were never quite the same again after listening to John's odyssey into Hell itself and his emergence as a 'Citizen of the World'. We were better people for knowing John.
On March 22nd of 2009, John died and in Hungarian the word Csillag means star. Perhaps some will say that John's star appears to have died with him, but we know that 25 000 other stars burn brightly, fuelled by the knowledge and understanding that John had passed on to them as he recalled the terrible events of the Hungarian Holocaust.