Saviors in History: Ara Jeretzian

English
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In 1981 Ara George Jeretzian became the first of more than 20 Armenians whose name appears on the list of the Righteous Among the Nations – an honorific used by the State of Israel to describe non-Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews from extermination by the Nazis. During World War II, Jeretzian saved more than 400 Jews by hiding them in a hospital that he founded in occupied Budapest.
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In 1981 Ara George Jeretzian became the first of more than 20 Armenians whose name appears on the list of the Righteous Among the Nations – an honorific used by the State of Israel to describe non-Jews who risked their lives during the Holocaust to save Jews from extermination by the Nazis. During World War II, Jeretzian saved more than 400 Jews by hiding them in a hospital that he founded in occupied Budapest.
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One of five children, Ara Jeretzian was born in Constantinople in 1918. Soon after his birth his entire family fled to Hungary to escape the on-going violence against Armenians. In the 1930s Jeretzian joined the youth movement of Hungary’s Fascist Arrow Cross Party, but resigned when the persecution of Jews began. He went into tailoring.
 
In March 1944 Budapest was occupied by the German army. The city’s Jews were subjected to a curfew and ordered into a ghetto. More than 220,000 people were supposed to be moved there prior to being sent to death camps in Poland.
Jeretzian was quick to spot the parallels between the events his family witnessed 30 years earlier and what he was observing in the very heart of Europe. 
His son, Ara Jeretzian Jr, a businessman in Vienna, explains: “His mother told a lot of stories about the persecution of minorities in Turkey, and so my father felt a moral obligation to do everything he could to help other people who found themselves in the same circumstances. After all, he was only human.”
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The Jeretzian family (left to right): Ara’s wife Maria, daughter Sofia, mother Sofia, son Ara Jeretzian Jr and Ara. From the family archive of Ara Jeretzian.

In the fall of 1944 the Soviet army approached Budapest. Ara Jeretzian, just 26 years old, was appointed commander of civil defence in the sixth district of Budapest. Ilby Frank, one of the people whom Jeretzian saved, continues the story: “As Jeretzian himself told us, he left the Fascist Party at the beginning of the war, but he didn’t draw a lot of attention to that. So he put on his old military uniform and went to the interior minister. Jeretzian told him that the Russians were very close, there were lots of wounded people in the city and the existing hospitals couldn’t cope. He proposed the creation of a new hospital where he would gather the best doctors and surgeons. The minister signed the decree that gave the hospital everything it needed. It was just incredible.”
According to Frank, Jeretzian also stole several seals and letters signed by the minister, which he later used to protect the hospital’s residents. 
Together with well-known Hungarian-Jewish psychiatrist Ferenc Völgyesi, he opened a clinic in the basement of 1 Zichy Jeno Street. This clinic would save save hundreds of lives.

 

Robert Holczer was just 15 years old when he and his mother moved to his aunt’s house, trying to escape Nazi persecution in the late fall of 1944. His story is kept in the archives of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. His aunt’s one-bedroom apartment sheltered ten relatives, but despite such cramped quarters they were all happy because they could sleep peacefully, at least. Holczer believes the decision to move to this house was fateful – that was where Jeretzian and Völgyesi’s clinic had opened. “Jeretzian was a tall, handsome man. He wore a Fascist uniform and scared a lot of people, but he was very kind to us,” Holczer remembers.
 
Ara Jeretzian moved to the basement hospital with several loyal associates. Together with Völgyesi, they were able to staff the clinic with top-tier professionals. Anyone who was persecuted by the Nazis could find refuge in the hospital, whether as a patient or a member of staff. To make this happen, Jeretzian procured false papers. They managed to save 440 Jews in total, including 40 doctors. The Arrow Cross Party rarely bothered with inspections, despite numerous reports that Jeretzian was hiding Jews. The Fascists were distracted by detailed accounts of the hospital’s medical prowess.
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                                                      1 Zichy Jeno Street, Budapest

In his book “Stories of a Survivor,” Canadian physician Norbert Kerényi shares his recollections of his time in the hospital. Kerényi was 17 years old at the time. One day, he met a former high school classmate on the street. The boy, wearing a Nazi uniform, didn’t shake his old friend’s hand, but instead reported to the commander of the sixth district that he had seen a Jew entering the hospital and asked for permission to arrest him. The commander (Jeretzian himself) said that he knew this Jew personally, adding that if the young man was so full of patriotic fervor, he should go to the front and fight there. 
“This certainly was a dangerous situation, but our commander, George Jeretzian Ara protected me,” writes Kerényi.
The clinic played an important role in the city’s life by providing free medical assistance to the district’s residents. In November 1944, when the Soviet army surrounded Budapest, the clinic was turned into a full-fledged military hospital. During the siege, the Nazis were impressed by Jeretzian’s patriotism, as he treated Hungarian soldiers and Budapest residents at his own expense.
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 The forged documents of one of Jeretzian’s patients. From the Open Society Institute archive.

“The days during the siege were full of events, with constant actions and interactions. In a way, they could to a certain extent be compared to ‘Forty Days of Musa Dagh’ written by Franz Werfel, describing a small group of Armenians resisting a holocaust of Turkish design. We had essentially passive resistance, using forged papers and the hospital’s protection,” writes Norbert Kerényi.
 
Before the occupation, more than 250,000 Jews lived in Budapest. During the Holocaust, most were annihilated by the Nazis. Mass murders continued all the way untill the Soviet army entered the city. 
Any Jews found outside the ghetto were taken on a death march toward the Danube.
Several non-Jewish families lived in the hospital building. Some of them hoped that this would give them protection when the Red Army entered the city. But even then, there were those who continued to inform on their neighbors. 
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Ara Jeretzian with his wife Maria, daughter Sofia, and son Ara, 1956. From the family archive of Ara Jeretzian.

“Not long before the military assault on the city, a neighbor informed on us, and the Fascists attempted to disarm Jeretzian’s people to stop them from guarding us. He seemed somewhat bewildered. We all got ready to pack up and go, but suddenly Ara was back with some document from a higher authority and ordered them to leave because this was a protected territory and the clinic was working for the government,” Holczer recalls.
 
Here’s how Ilby Frank remembered this story: “Early in the morning on January 2 we were woken by the Hungarian Nazis. They ordered us out into the courtyard. The winter air was very cold. Jeretzian came in wearing a Nazi uniform, and he ordered them not to touch anyone until he had spoken with the higher-ups. Several hours later he was back with a letter signed by the minister. Two days later Jeretzian admitted to my husband that he couldn’t find the minister because the government was already in chaos. He simply took a piece of paper with the minister’s signature, wrote the letter himself and stamped it with one of the seals he stole earlier.”

 

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 Ara Jeretzian Jr with his daughters Constance and Clarissa. From the family archive of Ara Jeretzian.

 
On February 13, 1945 Budapest was overtaken by the Soviet army, which began arresting Nazis and their collaborators. After the city was liberated, Ara Jeretzian was arrested and spent about six months in the custody of the Soviet intelligence service. “There he met an Armenian prison guard who advised him not to sign any confessions. Thus, after suffering through much torture, he was finally freed,” says Jeretzian Jr.
 
In the early 1960s Ara Jeretzian moved to Vienna. He kept in touch with very few of the people he saved. 
“Father didn’t think much of gratitude. For him, everything he did was a matter of course,” says his son. 
It wasn’t until 1982 that the Israeli Ambassador to Austria and the bishop of the Armenian church presented Ara Jeretzian with a Yad Vashem medal at a ceremony in the Armenian church of Vienna.
 
Ara Jeretzian died in 2010. He was 92.
 
“For many years nobody was interested in this story of salvation. But over the last few years, my father has been awarded several prizes posthumously. Right now, they are filming a documentary about him, and they plan to hang a memorial plaque on the building where the hospital was,” Ara Jeretzian Jr. says proudly.
Subtitle: 
The first Armenian Righteous Among the Nations
Author: 
Gayane Mirzoyan
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