Image: Erzsebet Garai
Bela Szandelszky  /  AP
Holocaust survivor Erzsebet Garai thanks her late friend Ilona Kolonits, who saved her life in October 1944, during a ceremony Tuesday awarding medals to the descendants of Hungarians who helped save Jews during Holocaust.
updated 4/7/2009 3:39:38 PM ET 2009-04-07T19:39:38

Israel posthumously honored 15 Hungarians and a Swiss man who helped save Jews during the Holocaust, and presented their descendants with an award on Tuesday.

"When the old gates disastrously closed, their gates remained unprecedentedly open," Israeli Ambassador to Hungary Aliza Bin-Noun said during a ceremony at the country's Holocaust Memorial Center. "They represented the small islands of hope of escape and survival in that traumatic state of siege."

Some 550,000 of Hungary's 1 million Jews were deported and killed during the Holocaust. Historians say that about a third of those killed in the Auschwitz concentration camp were Hungarian.

An estimated 100,000 Jews live in the country today.

Among those honored Tuesday was Pal Szalai, who worked with Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg to save hundreds of Jews by organizing food and water supplies to the sealed-off Budapest ghetto in January 1945.

Also celebrated was Jozsef Vamos, who rescued Panni and Georgette Fellner from a forced march toward Austria and led them back to Budapest.

Swiss businessman Eduard Benedek Brunschweiler, who had been working in Budapest, was honored for saving thousands of people, including around 30 Jewish children, when he took charge of the Pannonhalma Abbey in central Hungary in October 1944 and kept it under Red Cross protection.

Bin-Noun presented the descendants of the 16 honored with Israel's Medal of the Righteous, which was created in 1953 by the Yad Vashem Institute, Israel's Holocaust memorial, to honor non-Jews who risked their own lives to save Jews from the Nazis.

More than 700 Hungarians have received Medal of the Righteous since Hungary and Israel re-established diplomatic relations in 1989.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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