Written by Olivia Marks-Woldman, Chief Executive of Holocaust Memorial Day Trust
These actions, however, had been to create cover for her resistance activities: who would suspect a woman who socialised with Nazis to be hiding Jews in her basement?
By the time Hungary entered WWII, supporting Germany, Vali Rácz was in her twenties and was an established singer and film star. When Germany entered Hungary in 1944, and with many Jewish friends and colleagues from the music, film and theatrical world, she arranged to hide six people: five Jews and one non-Jew.
Who would suspect a woman who socialised with Nazis?
These hidden people could move freely around her house as long as neighbours did not see them, and they slept in her basement. A partition was added to the enormous wardrobe that housed her huge, billowy stage dresses, creating a secret compartment where the people could hide should there be a raid. In addition to the pressure of keeping six people hidden from sight, Rácz had the responsibility to keep them all fed without arousing suspicion – no easy task during a war and as the months dragged on.
In November 1944, however, Rácz was arrested and imprisoned, subjected to interrogation and tricks to try to force a confession that she had been hiding Jews. Without solid proof, and with Rácz’s profile as a film star and the influence of a film director (who was in the resistance), she was released.
For approximately eight months, she had kept six people hidden, fed and safe. Soviet troops liberated Budapest Ghetto in February 1945, and Rácz’s hidden Jews were now able to leave and try to rebuild their lives.
Yet in March 1945, she was arrested again, this time by the newly formed Council, and sentenced to execution as a collaborator. Unable to prove that she had rescued Jews, Vali Rácz prepared for death by execution, and took the last rites. Rescue came at the very last moment, from a Russian Colonel who had been billeted at her house previously, and with whom she had had a brief affair.
Righteous Among the Nations
She did not speak of her experiences for many years, and her bravery and resourcefulness went unacknowledged. A throwaway remark to her daughter, decades later, on a trip back to the family home in Budapest, led to the uncovering of this history: "Oh yes, the basement, that’s where the Jews were hidden".
In 1992, Vali Rácz was awarded the title of Righteous Among the Nations.
The history of Vali Rácz’s courage in hiding and saving Jews during the Holocaust has everything: a glamorous film star, danger, love affairs, plot twists - and yet it is not a story. It was the real lived experience of a brave woman who not only had the quick wits to bluff through Nazi raids, but who also slogged for eight months to find the food for six extra people. ‘Doing the right thing’ isn’t always a momentary decision or flash of bravery; during genocide it can involve months and months of deceptions, watchfulness and drudgery.
Vali’s spirit, resourcefulness and determination are inspirational. I often think of her, and how the drama of her history, revealed after extensive research by her daughter, Monica Porter, hides profound lessons in humanity.