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UW-Eau Claire history professor James Oberly and student researchers are involved in an international project that will make a set of diaries kept by a Hungarian doctor during World War II more accessible to the public.

UW-Eau Claire News Bureau

It’s been nearly 75 years since Alfred Lakos’ mother left him — then just 7 years old — alone in their Budapest apartment so she could take food to his father, who was working in a nearby labor camp.

Seven-plus decades later, Lakos chokes back tears as he tells several UW-Eau Claire history students and their professor that his mother never returned that day in October 1944 or any other.

As the university students sit quietly trying to control their own emotions, Lakos tells them his mother was arrested shortly after leaving their apartment because she wasn’t wearing the yellow star that identified her as a Jew. He learned later that she was sent to Auschwitz that same day, and was murdered.

While under arrest, his mother alerted her sister, who quickly came to get him, Lakos says. They fled to the home of his aunt’s friend, a physician named Dr. Maria Madi, where they hid for nearly four months, leaving the small apartment only after World War II fighting ended in Hungary.

Lakos shared his story last month with the Blugolds via a video conference, which also included the grandson of the Hungarian doctor who saved Lakos, and researchers at a university in Hungary.

James Oberly, professor of history at UW-Eau Claire, coordinated the call, creating an opportunity for his students to ask Lakos questions about the months he spent hiding in the apartment of Madi, the Christian physician who risked her life to keep him and his aunt, Irene Lakos, safe.

Why the interest by UW-Eau Claire historians in Lakos’ story?

Madi kept extensive diaries — 1,800 pages filling 16 volumes, mostly written in English — documenting what her life was like in Budapest during World War II.

Oberly, who holds dual U.S.-Hungary citizenships and has previously done research in Hungary, learned about the diaries after Madi’s grandchildren donated them to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.

He was fascinated by her stories and the choices she made during the war, he says.

“When the USHMM made Dr. Madi’s diaries available online, I was immediately taken with the acute intelligence of her wartime observations,” Oberly says.

Oberly was especially interested in the stories Madi shared about protecting a young Jewish boy and his aunt during the worst of the Arrow Cross terror in the fall of 1944.

“The emotional highlight of the diary was in October 1944, when she hid in her apartment for more than four months a 7-year old Jewish boy,” says Oberly. “That boy, Alfred Lakos, now age 81, is alive and well today, living in Atlanta.”

While intrigued by Madi’s life, Oberly found that the volume and style of her writing made it difficult to access the stories within the diaries.

“The diaries are available to the public on the museum’s website, but they are not very accessible since they’re written in manuscript and not searchable,” Oberly says. “For some entries, Madi lapsed into writing Hungarian, requiring an English translation for readers, something not provided by the USHMM.”

Bringing Madi’s diaries to life

Given the importance of Madi’s diaries, Oberly volunteered to help make them more accessible.

With the help of UW-Eau Claire student researchers and partners at Károli Gáspár University in Hungary, he is building a prototype website using text, video, photos and other interactive tools that will help make the content within the diaries more accessible to historians and the public.

“We want to create what historians call a digital humanities site where the Madi diaries can be fully studied,” Oberly says, noting that curators at the USHMM are supportive of the UW-Eau Claire project. “Digital humanities, as practiced today by historians, is the use of software to enhance and extend the ways that readers encounter texts, in this case, Dr. Madi’s diaries. We will produce a prototype website that allows readers to explore the diaries of Maria Madi in ways beyond reading her words in manuscript.”

Katherine Ciolkosz, a broadfield social studies major with a history emphasis, says it’s a privilege to be part of such an important project and an honor to have talked with Lakos.

“I can only describe this experience as surreal,” says Ciolkosz, a junior from Sussex. “Talking to Mr. Lakos certainly made the research more tangible to me.

“As a history student, I’m only able to obtain a limited understanding of world events as I read them in textbooks. Talking to someone who experienced historical events firsthand is incredible. I understand the story and the emotion behind these historical events more than if I’d only learned about them in books. Mr. Lakos’ experiences are amazing, and I feel honored to be able to help share his story.”

During their recent call, Lakos told students he clearly remembers Madi and the apartment, as well as Madi’s constant reminders to him that he could never go near the windows or balcony, fearing that the Gestapo would investigate if they noticed a child in an apartment where none were reported to live.

They never left the apartment, even as bombs dropped around them, Lakos told the students.

‘A witness to the war’

During the early days of World War II, Madi had planned to join her only daughter in the U.S., but those plans were put on hold when the U.S. entered the war.

As Madi struggled with the realities of war and being away from her daughter, she began keeping hand-written diaries, mostly written in English.

In one early entry, she noted that since she could not leave Hungary she would serve as “a witness to the war.”

With that goal in mind, she wrote regularly about the persecution of Jews, as well as her efforts to protect Lakos and his aunt.

Ciolkosz and the other Blugold researchers will learn more about Madi during their trip to Budapest this month.

Oberly is leading the immersion program in Hungary, where students will visit Madi’s apartment, see Lakos’ parents’ graves and explore other places that are important to the Lakos-Madi story.

Next steps

However, there is some work that needs to be done in Hungary, Oberly says.

“Video is needed to document the many walks that Dr. Madi recounts in her diary, walks on which she saw important factual details about the Arrow Cross (Nazi) terror in the fall-winter of 1944-45,” Oberly says. “There is also still photography needed of the houses and workplaces she mentions in her diary.”

In addition, the students will conduct research at the Budapest City Archives on the architectural histories of the buildings mentioned in Madi’s diaries and study Hungarian newspapers published during the war and stories that Madi referred to in her diary.

Already, Ciolkosz says, the project has added greatly to her college experience and to her knowledge about an important time in world history.

“Many of the locations that Dr. Madi mentions in her diary still stand in Budapest, so being able to see these places makes the history and the research very real,” she says. “This is one of the highlights of college and my life.”

After returning from their Winterim immersion, the students will continue their work on the project during spring semester, Oberly says, noting that in the future his students will visit the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, where they will present their work to the curatorial/archives staff.