Before World War II began, Istvan Szonyi lived an ideal life in Budapest, where he was a professor at the city’s art academy and where he painted world-renowned works. But when the war began and the Nazis overtook Hungary, Szonyi saw the lives of his Jewish friends, neighbors, and students being threatened, and he knew he had to act.
One of Szonyi’s students, Miklos Rozenberg-Robert, had just been arrested for hiding Jewish refugees, including his own sister and brother-in-law, in his apartment for two years. Szonyi learned of Miklos’ arrest and used his authority to have the young man released from prison. Once he was released — he had avoided being sent to Auschwitz like hundreds of thousands of others — Miklos went into hiding in Szonyi’s art studio, already a hiding place for eight other Jews.
But Szonyi’s studio was not just a hiding place. It was also where he, his wife, and their three children created and distributed forged documents that saved the lives of many other Jewish refugees. Saving Jewish lives became a family affair.
One of the Jews saved by the Szonyi family was Zsuzsa Biro. Istvan’s son Peter smuggled Zsuzsa out of the ghetto where he had been imprisoned, awaiting deportation to a Nazi death camp, giving the Jewish woman the identification papers of his own sister (also named Zsuzsa). Peter brought the Jewish Zsuzsa to his family’s apartment, where she hid safely until the war ended.
Istvan’s other daughter, Jolan, was a chemist. Using her chemical know-how, Jolan erased the names from identity certificates and then filled in false details that saved Jewish lives.
Zsuzsa Szonyi also did her part to save Jews. One Jew named Moshe Markowitz had escaped forced labor, only to be arrested again. Zsuzsa and a soldier friend approached the officer in charge of Moshe’s fate. Despite the risk to herself, Zsuzsa convinced the official that Moshe had actually received permission to leave the work detail. Upon his release, Moshe also hid with the Szonyi family until the war was over, later making aliyah (immigrating to Israel).
Istvan’s wife Melinda also did her part, making sure that all of the Jews hidden in the family’s apartment had plenty to eat, a huge undertaking during the war.
After the war, the Jews who Istvan Szonyi and his family saved stayed in contact with them, and surely rejoiced when Istvan, Melinda, Peter, Jolan, and Zsuzsa were all named Righteous Among the Nations.Tags: Advocates and Allies Art History Holocaust Hungary Istvan Szonyi Righteous Gentiles