In my family, we have more than our fair share of Uncle Joes. My kids have an Uncle Joe, My Aunt G was married to Uncle Joe, and my grandfather had a brother Joe who died before we were born, making yet another Uncle Joe, who we grew up hearing stories about from time to time.
But some time around my teen years I heard rumblings of a mysterious figure in my family’s past. He seemed larger-than-life, and it was strange to me that I had never heard of him before. He was a much adored uncle, the baby of the family, doted on and well-loved by everyone. Whenever people spoke of him, they smiled and then teared up, yet nobody seemed to have any photos of him around. It took a while to piece together exactly how he fit into the puzzle of our family, and why it took me so long to hear about his existence.
They called him Yosji Batchi, which is Hungarian for Uncle Joe. Since my Grandma was raised by her grandparents, and her aunt was only about ten years older than she was, they were more like sisters and the lines between generations was a bit fuzzy. Yosji Batchi would come over and bring candy and take the nieces and grandchildren out to play and do all sorts of fun things that the grandparents were too old or too strict and stodgy to do. He was Uncle Fun at a time when it was more proper for girls to sit inside and embroider, and it seems like all of the kids pretty much worshipped him.
When Yosji got older he broke away from the Orthodox Judaism of his youth. He considered himself a modern and free-thinking Hungarian, and my great-grandparents superstitious and behind the times. He became somewhat estranged from the family and married a stunning Catholic woman, and together they had a bunch of blond-haired, blue-eyed children. From time to time, my Aunt or my Grandma would run into Yosji, and they said their heart always ached to have him back in their lives, but he was living happily as a Catholic, and he was really trying to put his old life behind him.
My Grandma’s people came to America and Yosji stayed behind in Hungary with his wife’s family, securely blended into his new life. His robust family continued to grow and prosper and all was well, and by all accounts they were model Hungarians. I think it is likely that many people didn’t even know he had a Jewish background.
It isn’t clear how Hitler’s troops found out Yosji’s secret, but we know that his renouncing of his Judaism didn’t save him. When his family was sent to the concentration camp, away went his lovely Hungarian wife, along with his innocent children, who were “contaminated” with his Jewish blood. In one fell swoop, his new life merged with his old, and his rosy-faced cherubs went into the same ovens with the Yiddish-speaking emaciated ghetto Jews, although his kids probably had no idea why they would have been separated from their Hungarian relatives. It’s likely that while the prevalent emotion around them was desperation, theirs was utter confusion, yet their entire family was wiped out in the Holocaust, along with many relatives they didn’t even know they had ties to.
I used to sit with my Aunt G (now deceased) and look through her photos of the relatives from Europe. It was a catalogue of destruction: He was a great Rabbi, but his whole family died in the Holocaust. She was my favorite cousin, but they didn’t make it out. She was married to your Uncle’s brother and they escaped to Israel, but then we lost touch…
When I look at my family now, I see hope and rebuilding. I see a future. I see the faces of those who came before me and didn’t make it, and I want this world to do better. I have seen what people can do when they band together in kindness and caring and I KNOW we can do better. It would be so easy in the face of evil to lose hope and just throw up my hands in the face of it all, but I have faith.
At the end of The Dairy of Anne Frank she writes that in spite of everything she still had faith- and then you find out that she never made it out of the Holocaust and I used to be crushed by that. Any time someone brought up that quote as a source of inspiration, I died inside. They would say, “Listen, if Anne Frank could still have faith in spite of the evil she was up against, how could we not have faith?” And I was always appalled! Look what a fat lot of good Anne Frank’s faith did for her! But now I feel differently. Now I feel like there is a reason to have faith. Because I feel like evil does NOT triumph over good. Evil can gain a foothold here and there, but ultimately the good people rally and good does prevail.
It is so hard to look at what is happening now and know what to do. Right now I don’t have an answer, but I believe that when the time comes, I will. I believe in myself that when the time comes, I will make the right choice, whatever that will be.
When I look around me these days, and it’s so hard to know who is a friend and who isn’t, I just offer up a silent prayer: that if or when the time comes, those around me will make the right choices too.
And that’s about all I have to say.
In loving memory of Yosji Batchi