Who Was Lili Ney and Why Did She Die?

In an obscure Hungarian hamlet, a teacher helps Gypsy children uncover their village's dark past.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

The village of Magyarmecske lies 255 kilometers south of Budapest, the Hungarian capital, near the Croatian border. According to last year's census it has a population of 313.

There's little else to say about it. Anyone looking for proof of the obsessiveness and thoroughness with which the Nazis persecuted Europe's Jews will find it in this remote, poverty-stricken place. A memorial sign put up three years ago commemorates the village's 11 Jewish victims of the Holocaust. The Nazis did not spare even them.

Lili Ney, left, with friends. Credit: Peter Heindl

The 68th anniversary of the day that Magyarmecske's small Jewish community, numbering six families before the Holocaust, was destroyed. On April 26, 1944, the accomplices of the Nazis raided the village and arrested its 13 Jews. A few weeks later, 11 of them died in Auschwitz. It's doubtful that anyone would have remembered the Jews of this small village were it not for Peter Heindl, a history teacher and youth educator in Magyarmecske.

A few years ago Heindl moved to Magyarmecske with his family, out of a sense of mission as a teacher. In 2008 he responded to an invitation from Yad Vashem and attended a teacher-training seminar at the institution's International School for Holocaust Studies, which every year educates thousands of teachers from around the world about the Holocaust.

When Heindl returned he searched for, and found, an interesting way to tell his students, most of whom are Roma, or Gypsies, about the events of 70 years ago and their ethical and humanitarian implications for today. The detective-story format he created turned into a small but important memorial project - a single ray of light in a country ruled by an ultranationalist right-wing government amid a resurgence of anti-Semitism and anti-Roma sentiment and actions.

Lili Ney, in a photo from her private album.
Lili Ney, in a photo from her private album.
Lili Ney, in a photo from her private album.
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Lili Ney, in a photo from her private album. Credit: Peter Heindl
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Lili Ney, in a photo from her private album.Credit: Peter Heindl
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Lili Ney, in a photo from her private album.Credit: Peter Heindl
Lili ney

Heindl says the project has brought Magyarmecske's Jewish community back to life. In the school he put up a poster with an old photograph of a schoolgirl and the following text: "Lili Ney, a girl from Magyarmecske, disappeared and was murdered a few weeks later. Who was Lili? Why did she die? She wasn't the only person from the village to share this fate. Let's find out together the history of Lili Ney and the others!"

Dozens of schoolchildren wanted to join the afterschool meetings and "sleuthing workshops," which ran for a year. Week by week the children, guided by the chief detective, Heindl, delved more deeply into the history of their village during World War II. A Hungarian historian and fellow Yad Vashem seminar graduate helped expose the children for the first time to the different religious groups that lived in the village in their grandparents' time: Jews and Gypsies, living together amicably.

A village elder, "Aunt Cinka," (Bence Kalmanne ) led them on a guided tour of the Jews' former homes, pointing out each home, describing each family and how they were expelled and their property looted. Despite being considerably older Lili Ney was a close friend, "a pretty girl with long hair," Cinka told them, adding, "It was right before she was supposed to marry." Lili Ney's father, Dr. Eldar Ney, was the village veterinarian, and Lili was studying veterinary science.

The young investigators tracked down one of the two Jews from Magyarmecske to survive the Holocaust, Laszlo Szanto (Steiner ), now 92 and living in Budapest. Steiner was sent to a labor camp in 1944 but escaped, returned to Magyarmecske and spent the rest of the war in hiding, in the home of a good woman in a nearby village who cared for him until he was liberated by the Red Army.

The students asked him to visit them in Magyarmecske. He did so, armed with old photos, including one of him with Dr. Ney's children.

"Students were shocked to find out that a real mass murder had taken place in their small village," Silvia Peto Dittel, liaison of the Hungarian desk in the European Department at the International School for Holocaust Studies, wrote in a report on Heindl's project.

The next stop on the children's journey was a visit to a nearby city, where they met with the chief rabbi, followed by the Jewish cemetery in Kacsota, where most of Magyarmecske's Jews are buried. The school year ended with a visit to the former home of Righteous Among the Nations Erzsebet Toth (nee Juhasz ), who hid Steiner from the Nazis. The hiding place was a surprise to the current owners of the house.

"It was a positive example of human behavior in times when inhumanity prevailed," Heindl said, adding that it was a perfect ending for the detective story.

In August 2008 a dedication ceremony was held for a memorial plaque to commemorate the 11 Jewish victims from Magyarmecske, hung on the wall of the local school (the former home of the Ledrer family, two of whose members were among the victims.)

Lili Ney's niece, Judit Ney, contacted Heindl after reading one of the many articles about the project in the Hungarian press. The connection led to more photographs, including one with her and her family together with Roma children from the village.

"We must not forget the life and the fate of the Jewish communities in Hungary's border areas, whose elimination was made possible by the cooperation of the local authorities and many citizens," Heindl said. "It's important to recognize the nature of prejudice and discrimination and the results of antidemocratic actions. This topic has become very important in Hungary lately," he said, in light of ongoing attempts to restrict freedom of expression and to discriminate against certain religious communities.



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