BUFFALO, NY (WBFO) – Funeral services were held Friday morning at Christ the King Church in Snyder for a man who, during his years as a young priest in his native Hungary, saved the lives of thousands of Jews, first from the Nazis and then from the Soviets.
Tibor Baranski was designated by Yad Vashem, World Holocaust Remembrance Center located in Jerusalem, as one of the Righteous Among The Nations in 1979. He is credited officially with saving approximately 3,000 Jews in his homeland. However, his children, including Tibor Baranski, Jr., suggest he saved many more beyond that number, in excess of 10,000 Jews.
“The old European city block are massive,” said the son. “He had entire city blocks of what he called ‘his Jews,’ who were under his protection for the Vatican. And there were several city blocks.”
Baranski was born in Hungary in 1921. He grew up in an impoverished broken family, living in a polluted industrial part of Budapest. He was poor and had serious health problems while growing up but a good student, and was able to secure medical care by serving as a tutor for a friend whose father was a doctor.
He was also someone with a strong sense of right and wrong and could also be something of a rebel in his youth, as his stepson Peter Forgach explained while he and his siblings gathered to share stories of their father earlier this week.
“The first big instance I can think of was when he was 15 or 16. He wrote a letter to the Premier of Hungary. Now that’s nothing unusual today to write a letter to your president, but at that time it was an unheard of thing, that a 15-year-old would have the gall to the Regent, it was called, of Hungary,” Forgach said. “It was a very polite letter. It was about some social issues during the Depression. Nothing nasty about it but because he dared to write this letter he got kicked out of all the high schools of Hungary.”
Baranski instead pursued studies to become a Roman Catholic priest. In 1944, at the age of 22 and with World War II ongoing, he lived in territory occupied by Nazi Germany. The Nazis were planning a roundup of Jewish residents. A relative approached Baranski, asking to obtain letters from the Vatican that would protect a Jewish family who were friends. Baranski went to his superior, Papal Nuncio Angelo Rotta, and successfully acquired the paperwork which ensured protection for the Szekeres family.
It would become the first of several requests to Baranski to secure Vatican papers.
“It probably was the most unusual job interview ever,” said Kathy Baranski Spangler, his daughter. “He went to help a neighbor and ended up, two or three days later, being asked ‘hey, you want to be the executive secretary of the Jewish protection movement?’ And it was ‘okay, done!'”
In time, Rotta assisted him with resources including a Vatican vehicle, which boosted his credibility with local police. Tibor Baranski, Jr. suggested Rotta was also physically weak, making it more important to give his father the task of securing protection for Jewish residents.
Heading into 1945, though, Nazi occupation gave way to Soviet advancement and soon Baranski was dealing with Russian occupiers. By January 1945, he was working alongside Raoul Wallenberg to protect local Jews. One fateful day, Baranski sought to acquire food for his mother but was arrested on the spot by communist police. Wallenberg, who had arrived to what he thought was to be a meeting to negotiate with communist leaders, was never again seen alive.
Baranski was put on a “death march.” His children explained that the Soviets, unlike the Nazis, didn’t seek quick extermination of their captives but instead sought to wear them down. The death marches, they explained, also served as a train of human shields from attacks. A sympathetic Russian soldier, however, allowed Baranski to slip out of the march and he took up shelter with a local family.
Years later, when Hungary’s 1956 Revolution was thwarted by Soviet forces, Baranski left for Italy for his safety. He reunited with Rotta and attempted to gain the pope’s condemnation of communist rule in his homeland.
“What they wanted to do was get 10- or 20-minute audience with Pope Pius XII and to ask the pope to take a public stance and make a publis statement, as he did against the Nazis a decade earlier, against the Soviet communists and what they were doing in Hungary as genocide.”
That didn’t happen. Baranski, very disappointed, remained a devout Catholic but decided to leave the priesthood. He met and married his wife, Katalin, and together they relocated to North America, first living in Canada but ultimately settling in Buffalo.
In addition to his designation in 1979 as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem, Baranski was appointed in 1980 by President Jimmy Carter to the US Holocaust Memorial Council. Last April, he was honored by the Holocaust Resource Center of Buffalo but prior to that, in 2017, he was honored by dignitaries in Sweden as part of an annual Raoul Wallenberg Day. One of the personal highlights of his visit was a meeting with his former associate’s sister.
The Szekeres family, meanwhile, continued to thrive after the end of World War II and remained friends with Baranski’s family.
Baranski remained dedicated to his Catholic faith up until his death. Peter Forgach said his father restated his faith in his final moments.
“Father (Paul) Litwin came to give him the Last Rites and, that evening, he perked up and very strongly stated the essence of his life,” he said. “He said the only thing that matters in this life is God.”
While Baranski’s children say their father never sought glory for his lifesaving efforts, he saved far more Jews than Oskar Schindler, a German and a member of the Nazi party, whose efforts were celebrated in a Hollywood film. Baranski’s offspring suggest their father’s strong faith and willingness to assert it earned him the scorn of many.
“The left hated him passionately,” Tibor Baranski, Jr. said. “Everything he stood for goes in direct contradiction to the current narrative that is being spewed out.”