Hungarian couple honoured for saving Jewish family during the Holocaust
Andrew Kun’s voice breaks when he thinks about the actions of his family friends 74 years ago.
“I’m a Holocaust survivor,” says Kun, 79, who was just five years old when the Nazis were rounding up Jews in his native Hungary. He turns to Denis Lehotay, who was his childhood friend, at a ceremony in Ottawa in early February. “That is because of your parents. Without them, I wouldn’t be here.”
In 1944, Lehotay’s parents, Mary and Victor, agreed to hide and protect five-year-old Andrew, while his pregnant mother, Klara Kun, went into hiding elsewhere in Budapest.
On February 9, Mary and Victor Lehotay were awarded the prestigious “Righteous Among the Nations” title posthumously at a ceremony at the Israeli embassy in downtown Ottawa.
“My parents were simple people, (but) when many people covered their ears and eyes and ignored evil, they took a decision with life-long consequences,” said their son, Denis, at the ceremony, which was also attended by an emotional Andrew and his sister, Suzanne, who was born in hiding.
“I was saved, although I was in my mother’s womb when the Nazis took all the Jews from Budapest,” Suzanne told those gathered for the ceremony. “The Lehotays helped my mother find a place with a Christian woman who breastfed me right after I was born (when my mother) couldn’t keep me.”
When nosy neighbours started asking questions about Andrew, Mary Lehotay lied to protect her son’s friend, pretending that she had anti-Semitic attitudes in order to fool others.
“My mom used despicable and derogatory language on Jews when asked about Andrew’s stay with us by our neighbours,” recalls Denis, 78, a retired biochemist who now lives in Kingston. But those necessary lies belied her true beliefs.
“When we asked her why they had saved the Kuns, she simply said ‘there was no other way’. ”
After the war, Andrew’s father, with whom the family was reunited, wrote thank-you letters to their rescuers. These precious letters were found in Denis’ sister’s belongings when she died three years ago.
In his testimonial to Yad Vashem, Andrew, who now lives in Florida, wrote that “in 1956, after the Hungarian revolution, my father arranged and paid for the Lehotay family to come to Montreal, where we lived.”
The two families continued to be in touch over the years.
“As a matter of fact, Victor Lehotay was the photographer at my wedding in 1960,” Andrew wrote. “Need I say more?”
Victor died at the age of 75. Mary died 11 years ago, at the age of 97.
“Victor and Mary displayed extraordinary courage saving the Kuns, despite great risk and threat to their lives,” said Ester Driham, National Executive Director of the Canadian Society for Yad Vashem.
“That’s what made them deserving of this great award,” said Nimrod Barkan, Israel ambassador to Canada, who confided that his own family was rescued by strangers in Hungary as well. “I’m not sure I would have been courageous enough had I been in their shoes.”
Denis said the reason for submitting the application for the award of Righteous Among the Nations “is to remember their legacy.”
“Their grandchildren need to know that their grandparents did the right and honourable thing because ‘there was no other way’. ”
More than 20 Canadians have been awarded the title “Righteous Among the Nations.”