Sometimes, historic justice is delayed. Sometimes, it is necessary to wait 62 years for a good deed to receive the recognition it deserves. Last month, history and justice met in the same place simultaneously. This occurred at a festive ceremony that took place in front of the Budapest Cathedral, where the Catholic Church proclaimed the nun Sara Salkahazi, who saved Jews during World War II, "blessed" (a step on the way to sainthood). This was the first ceremony of its kind to be held in Hungary since 1083, because for the past several centuries, ceremonies to declare people blessed or saints have taken place only in the Vatican.
Salkahazi is the first beatified Hungarian Catholic who does not come from nobility or the royal family, and also the first Hungarian to win this accolade from the church on account of her work on behalf of Jews. The Jewish people can note with satisfaction that on this occasion, the Catholic Church was preceded by Yad Vashem, which declared Salkahazi a "righteous among the nations" back in 1972.
The archbishop of Budapest, Peter Erdo, lauded Salkahazi's activities, and afterward - an exceptional occurrence for a Catholic ceremony in Hungary - the chief rabbi of Hungary, Jozsef Schweitzer, also spoke. Schweitzer noted that the Jewish people feel a special gratitude and admiration toward members of other nations who helped Jews during the Holocaust and even sacrificed their lives for this lofty goal.
Sara Salkahazi was born in 1899 in Kassa (then in Hungary, but today the Slovak town of Kosice). As fate would have it, two years earlier, that same town was the birthplace of Ferenc Szalasi, the head of Hungary's fascist Arrow Cross party, whose members killed Sara 45 years later.
Sara's father owned the largest hotel in the city, a favorite meeting place for writers, journalists and intellectuals. At a young age, Sara decided she wanted to work as a journalist, and her articles were published in various Hungarian-language papers in Czechoslovakia. Many years later, she described her lifestyle thus: "independence, cigarettes, cafes, journeying through the wide world without a head covering, one hand in my pocket, a light supper at a small tavern, gypsy music."
After a few years, however, she decided to abandon the delights of the world. She discovered, as she said, that serving God and helping the poor were the real purposes of her life, and in 1929, she became a nun. She filled various social work positions in Hungary's poorer regions. In 1937, she moved to Budapest, and in 1941, she became the national director of the Alliance of Catholic Working Women and Girls.
When the Germans occupied Hungary in March 1944 and the deportation of Jews to concentration camps began, Salkahazi decided, together with a Catholic member of parliament, Margit Slachta, to open the alliance's shelters to fleeing Jews. About 1,000 Jews were hidden in these shelters, including more than 100 in the shelter run by Salkahazi. At that time, hundreds of thousands of Jews from the Hungarian countryside had already been deported to Auschwitz, and the Jews of Budapest had been transferred to special "Jewish houses." Various restrictions were imposed on them, and the threat of deportation was ever present. After the Arrow Cross Party took over Hungary, on October 15, 1944, the Jews were rounded up and moved to the Budapest ghetto. Party members conducted house-to-house searches throughout the city, and if they found a Jew, they shot him.
On December 27, 1944, Arrow Cross members came to Salkahazi's shelter. At that time, the end of their reign was very near: The Soviet army had already encircled Budapest, and about three weeks later, the section of the city where the shelter was located was liberated. But the cruelty of the Arrow Cross did not diminish, and its members' thirst for blood only grew. Historians have discovered that they came to the shelter due to information that was given to them by another nun who for some reason had a grudge against Salkahazi. Salkahazi and four Jewish women who did not manage to either hide or flee were taken to the bank of the Danube, where the Arrow Cross men stripped them, shot them and threw their bodies into the river.
At the site where Salkahazi and those who shared her fate were executed, not far from the tourist mecca of Budapest's main market, a modest memorial has been erected. Her name and memory also grace a tree on the Avenue of the Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. And now, the Catholic Church has also recognized the importance of her deeds.
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