The father’s story is one of surviving the Holocaust as a captive laborer who helped build German bunkers for weapons factories near Stalingrad. He returned to his beloved native Hungary only to find a different kind of turmoil — and the need to escape the Stalinist regime.
His son, born in Hungary the same year Israel was founded, was raised in the new nation. As a young man, he served as an officer in the Israeli Defense Force during the Six Days’ War and three others.
Decades later, the son, by now a retired University of Virginia engineering professor, brought his scientific precision to the task of filling in the gaps in his father’s harrowing tale of survival. His research took him to Hungary, Germany, Israel and various places in the United States, including the Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Library of Congress. What he found brought valuable perspective to his own eventful life.
Gabriel Laufer shared what he learned in “A Survivor’s Duty: Surviving the Holocaust and Fighting for Israel: A Story of Father and Son.” His book captures for his own children and grandchildren the ways in which love for family and country, and dedication to truth, can help sustain people under the harshest conditions.
Laufer didn’t start his quest to see his name on a book spine. He originally wanted to piece together how his father, Laszlo Laufer — known to family and friends as Laci — had overcome his ordeals. So few family documents had survived and so many family members had perished that Laufer had relatively few clues to launch his research.
“Sometimes, you get one piece of the story, and it leads to another one,” Laufer said. “I did not set out with the objective of writing a book. But it made me hungrier for one more thing, and one more thing led to another.”
He soon learned that the idyllic homeland his parents spoke of so fondly had a complicated past.
“Probably the most shocking thing to me is that I grew up as the son of two Hungarian immigrants, and everything in the household projected love for Hungary,” Laufer said. “We spoke Hungarian; I still speak Hungarian.”
But as he grew up surrounded by Hungarian food, music and culture, Laufer had no idea that his parents and their countrymen had lived “trying to hide behind the fact that they were under Nazi occupation and then Soviet rule,” he said.
And anti-Semitic laws had been in place in Hungary even before the Nazis arrived.
“That was a big surprise,” Laufer said.
Thoughts of returning home to his home and family sustained Laszlo Laufer during his World War II ordeal. He learned later that Lili, his wife, and their toddler daughter, Judit, perished at Auschwitz, as did his father. His mother was shot dead by Hungarian fascist forces.
He fled the Stalinist regime in Hungary in 1948, taking his second wife, Zsuzsi, and 1-year-old Laufer with him to Austria, and from there to Israel.
The more Laufer learned about his father’s ordeals, the deeper his respect grew. The Holocaust was a subject people simply didn’t discuss when Laufer was growing up. Children often had no idea what their parents had experienced during World War II and the chaos that followed.
“I am the same age as the state of Israel,” Laufer said. “I grew up in Israel, and Israel during my childhood was really made up of native Israelis. Everybody in Israel who was born there played a part in the creation of it.”
The fighting spirit that shaped the new nation made few allowances for perceived weakness. When Holocaust survivors remained silent about their experiences, neighbors sometimes assumed they didn’t stand up for themselves when it counted.
“There was resentment of Holocaust survivors as being passive,” Laufer said. “Often, Israelis called them ‘lambs led to the slaughter.’”
He paused. “If anything,” he said, “they were lions.”
As Laufer uncovered facts about his father’s life, he resolved to preserve them for his own three adult children and six grandchildren, and then for everyone.
“One of the things I want to achieve is to get it archived,” he said. “I’ve done all this effort; I don’t want it to get lost.”
His children welcomed the chance to learn about their family’s past. “Of course, they in fact participated in editing the book and making suggestions,” Laufer said. “They had input.”
Laufer quotes Elie Wiesel’s “Night” at the beginning of his book to encapsulate his quest: “The survivor’s duty is to bear witness for the dead and for the living. He has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory. To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive: to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time,” Wiesel wrote.
His father’s story of perseverance points to another aspect of the Holocaust that can linger in the mind long after his son’s book is closed. The elder Laufer was not able to save his daughter from perishing in a concentration camp, but he succeeded in reaching Austria, and then Israel, with his son.
His son the engineer. The professor. The military officer. And, now, the author, the keeper and teller of the story for posterity. The one who helps others remember a gaping hole in history where so much human potential disappeared.
“Many of the 6 million murdered [in the Holocaust] were scientists and writers and musicians and rabbis,” Gabriel Laufer said. “Some of them were inventors whose inventions were lost.”
During their lives, father Laszlo Laufer and son Gabriel Laufer were involved in some of the 20th century’s major world events. Gabriel Laufer said one of the lessons he came away with from his years of research was that each person’s experiences, no matter how ordinary they may seem on the surface, add to a fuller understanding of history.
“You are part of history,” he said.