Uncle Tibor died last week.
Not many people outside of the Hungarian émigré community in the U.S., or some circles of Holocaust survivors or residents of Buffalo, N.Y., my hometown where the Budapest native settled several decades ago, know the name of Tibor Baranski.
And no one, besides members of his own devoutly Catholic family, would call him “Uncle,” as I did. He in turn called me Pista, the Hungarian diminutive for Stephen.
Uncle Tibor was a hero of the Holocaust. He was credited with saving 3,000 Jews. Maybe more. “My Jews,” he called them.
It would be an exaggeration to call someone who was recognized by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Gentile and won several awards from Jewish organizations an unsung hero. But, never seeking accolades, he never achieved the fame of a Raoul Wallenberg, with whom he worked during World War II.
Uncle Tibor, in 1944 a young priest-in-training, did for the Papal Nuncio, the Vatican’s ambassador in Budapest, just what Wallenberg, the Swedish scion of a wealthy banking family, did for the Swedish embassy. He set up safe houses for endangered Jews, printed meaningless but official-looking and lifesaving passes that impressed Nazi soldiers, pulled Jews out of roundups, and defied Nazi officials, risking his life.
Understanding the Nazi mentality, he borrowed the Papal Nuncio’s impressive-looking diplomatic vehicle, a Rolls Royce, and using a combination of bluster, bravado, theatrics, and abusive language he ordinarily would not use, outwitted Nazi soldiers and anti-Semitic Arrow Cross members.
“I worked night and day, and got very little sleep. Some days I didn’t have a second to eat,” he would say. He was 22 then. “Besides the grace of God … I had some courage and some organizational abilities.”
Uncle Tibor wasn’t bragging; he was simply talking about his life. His only reward, he would say, would come from God. “If” he was deserving.
Why did he risk his life? “Because the physical life is nothing.”
He had lived in Buffalo for a few decades — he left his homeland after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, as avidly opposed to the godless communists as he had been to the Nazis. But I never heard his name until 1979 when someone I had known from college mentioned that his landlord was getting some sort of honor from Israel.
He was to be recognized as a “Righteous Among The Nations,” Yad Vashem’s highest designation for gentiles who had put their lives on the line for Jews. I was then editor of the Buffalo Jewish Review, the city’s weekly Jewish newspaper. I contacted Baranski, interviewed him, heard him tell stories of ignoring, because of his deep Catholic faith, demands by Nazi officers that he stop working on behalf of Jews. And I heard other deeds of bravery, Nazi demands that were delivered with a pistol held to his head.
“Why do you, a Christian, help Jews?” Uncle Tibor told me the Nazis asked him.
“You are either silly or an idiot,” he would answer. “It is because I am a Christian that I help the Jews.”
I wrote about Uncle Tibor, the first of a series of articles over the years that developed into a friendship between him and his wife Katalin (he eventually gave up his dream of becoming a priest), and my parents. The Baranskis shared many Shabbat meals and Passover seders with the Lipmans.
That’s when he became “Uncle Tibor.” He would call me, an Orthodox Jew, his “dear Nefew” in letters. Until his health and memory began to fail in recent years, he would send me holiday greeting cards, with messages written in English or Hungarian.
Over the decades, including a day I spent with him traveling to the White House in 1981 to attend the ceremony at which Wallenberg (who had been arrested by the Red Army in Budapest in January 1945 and disappeared into the gulag) became an honorary U.S. citizen, I heard Uncle Tibor tell stories about working with Wallenberg; about sharing a cell with an Orthodox rabbi in Hungary after being arrested for his anti-communist activities; about being embraced in Israel during a trip there by a then-grown Hungarian-born Jew who recognized his savior from one of the Budapest safe houses; about in effect adopting a young Holocaust survivor; about serving on the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council.
The same strength that powered Uncle Tibor’s heroism also made him stubborn. He was unbending as steel when his religious or political beliefs were challenged. That stubbornness cost him many jobs, including as a teacher and as a clerk, employment that failed to use his abilities.
A conservative Catholic, he could be respectfully critical of the liberal turn he thought the Church was taking, especially during the papacy of John Paul II. A loyal U.S. patriot, he would unapologetically lambaste any
number of U.S. politicians.
As a devout Catholic, Uncle Tibor always showed deep respect for my observant Jewish faith; if he would bring me some food, he would make sure it bore a kashrut symbol.
For Uncle Tibor, his own faith, his belief in heaven, was as tangible as the Bible he would frequently hold in his hands. “He always talked about death as his heavenly birthday,” his stepson, Dr. Peter Forgach, a Buffalo eye surgeon, told me last week.
Uncle Tibor died Jan. 21, at 96, surrounded by family, a rosary in his hands; he had received the last rites a few days earlier.
The last words that passed his lips were a prayer.
Steve Lipman is a staff writer at The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.