Thirteen Jews survived the Holocaust in Budapest after being hidden in a District VI basement for more than a year in 1944-45 by two employees of the Embassy
of Czechoslovakia. Seventy years after the Second World War ended, the actions of the two men have been recalled with the unveiling of a memorial plaque at the building.
The Czech Republic’s Ambassador to Hungary, Juraj Chmiel, told the gathering that the father and son’s courageous act had nearly been forgotten. The two heroes had never spoken about what happened and they never learned that they had been honoured by Israel through Yad Vashem, that country’s official memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. On May 25, 1971 Yad Vashem granted them the title “Righteous Among the Nations”.
Emanuel Zima (1881-1963 – pictured top right) had died long before this and his son Josef (1914-1984) had never received the news because of the Iron Curtain, Ambassador Chmiel said. The honour had been handed over only last year by Israel’s Ambassador to Hungary, Ilan Mor, to relatives of the two following investigative work by a Slovak journalist, Martin Mózer.
The Yad Vashem website carries their story and a gallery of photographs showing Emanuel and a tree-planting ceremony in Jerusalem on April 2, 1972. On the eve of the war, Emanuel Zíma was a concierge at the Czechoslovak embassy in Budapest. Following the German conquest of the Czech Republic and Slovakia’s transformation to an independent state in spring 1939, the Germans took over the Czechoslovak embassy and made it part of the German embassy. Zíma continued in his job.
During the war he fell ill and was hospitalised in the Jewish hospital, where he met a Jewish doctor, Mária Flamm. Grateful for her dedicated attention, he told her that if the situation for Jews worsened, he would allow her and her relatives to stay in a room in the embassy damaged during the bombardments that was no longer in use.
In summer 1944, Flamm and her husband accepted the offer. Under cover of darkness, they were moved into the room. The German clerks used to leave the building in the afternoons when their workday ended. Zíma was living outside the embassy building and he went there early every morning to supply the couple with food.
His son Josef knew about his actions and, on days that Emanuel could not visit, Josef replaced him.
As the Red Army approached, the Germans evacuated the embassy building, relocated to further west in Hungary and locked the building in the capital. They ordered Zíma to move with them but his wife’s serious illness gave him a good excuse to stay in the capital and extend his rescue activities to others.
As marauding in the streets of Budapest by members of the Arrow Cross intensified, at different times Mária Flamm’s brother Sandor Flamm and his wife, Gabriel Kemenyi and his wife, “Rosenthal” with his wife and two children, and Hillel Kornfeld hid in the shelter.
When German soldiers wanted to move in, Zíma managed to discourage them and to find them another building. The entrance of the Red Army into Pest did not bring about immediate liberation for the hidden Jews because there was a chance the area would be re-occupied. At this point, Aharon Gruenhut, a leader in the Orthodox community of Bratislava, and his wife moved into the hiding place.
Only when it was safe did Zíma let the people return to their homes. A few of the survivors remained in Hungary after the war while others emigrated to Israel.
As Ambassador Mor asked at the ceremony, how would you react if you were approached in the street and asked by desperate people to save them from harm, a decision that could put at risk your life, your family, your job, everything?
Ambassador Chmiel told the gathering at 6 Rozsa utca that as time passes and memories fade, it is important to remember one of the remarkable stories of the period. We are shocked by the tragedy of the victims of genocide that happened during the war but at this dark time of history were some who showed the light like a lighthouse and brought hope, he said. Among these heroes had been the two Czechoslovak citizens who saved the lives of 13 persecuted Jewish citizens.
To quote the Talmud, “Whoever saves one life, saves the world entire”. Josef and Emanuel Zima had done this – thirteen times saved the world. Grateful posterity preserved their memory.