Holocaust survivor living in Lutz takes grandchildren to his childhood sanctuary in Budapest

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It's said a photograph can say a thousand words, but as David Zohar holds up an old black-and-white family photo, it becomes clear that the snapshot contains thousands of stories forever left untold. 

"These were my uncles and aunts. These were in good times in Budapest," Zohar explained over guava pastries and coffee from his living room in Lutz, with his granddaughter, Ashley Zohar, sitting by his side. 

"The resemblance is pretty incredible," she remarks as she looks at her great-aunts and uncles. 

In the photo, two men and three ladies smile as they pose on a row boat. The men were wearing suits and ties, the women were in dresses, their hair fashionably coifed and pinned up for a day of boating on the Danube. It's a serene moment from a bygone era, an era that came to an abrupt end not long after the picture was taken. 

"She's the only one who survived," Zohar said while pointing to a woman who's holding the boat's oars and smiling at the photographer over her shoulder. "All the rest were killed in the Holocaust." 

The photo was taken just before Nazi occupation of Hungary. Between 1944 and 1945, an estimated 600,000 Hungarian Jews were murdered. Zohar's aunts, uncles, grandparents and countless cousins were murdered, many at Auschwitz, Nazi Germany's deadliest extermination camp. 

Zohar was just nine when his family went into hiding. It was 1944. They were living in Hungary. They were Jewish. 

Zohar has shared his story of surviving the Holocaust countless times with the family he was able to go on to have. But, now living in America, in a very different day and age, it can be hard for those who weren't there to grasp what his experience was like. To give his grandchildren a better understanding of their family's history, this spring Zohar took them to Budapest to visit the place where he found refuge.

"I've always had this image in my head of what it looked like and it was so much worse than I’d imagined. It was this cold cellar, it was damp and wet," recalled Ashley. "I'd always imagined this big building, but this was a tiny space."

In 1944, more than 2,500 people packed an unassuming looking glass manufacturing plant. The building, known as the Glass House, was under the protection of the Swiss Embassy.   

"When we came here there were thousands of Jews," Zohar explains in a cell phone video recorded just outside his one-time sanctuary. His grandchildren, in their early 20s and 30s, shot Instagram stories and countless anecdotes on their cell phones as they documented their grandfather's personally curated tour through his one-time hometown. 

"That why I value family so much," Ashley said, "because I've seen how it can be taken away."

In one video, they stand around Zohar, bundled in hats and coats, scarves wrapped around their necks against the crisp spring air. The building doesn't look like much from the outside, and road construction and temporary fencing obscure it even more. But they're standing in the place where their grandfather's life changed forever. 

In March 1944, Nazi tanks rolled into Budapest. Soon after, thousands of Jewish families were forced to leave their homes and crowd into designated "Jewish Buildings." 

A big yellow star was painted on the front of the Zohar's apartment building. Their home on Király Street, in the Jewish Quarter turned Jewish ghetto, quickly became a prison. Their government squeezed hundreds of thousands of men, women and children into an area less than a square mile.

Food was scarce. Conditions squalid. His grandmother starved to death. Then deportations began. Family members, friends, neighbors disappeared forever. 

"He was taken away," Zohar said, pointing to the black-and-white photo of the boat. "No one knows what happened to him. She was taken away to Auschwitz separately."

They couldn't just leave. Jewish people were banned from walking the streets.

"Those who were caught faced a tragic fate. Many were herded to the bank of the icy Danube, they were tied together with ropes, and shot into the river," Zohar said. 

The Danube. The same river that flows through the heart of Budapest. The same river from the tranquil black-and-white photo of Zohar's smiling aunts and uncles. The same river that under Nazi occupation became a killing ground. 

But as conditions grew more dire in the ghetto and deportations to death camps sky-rocketed, the risk of getting caught trying to run became a gamble Zohar's family was willing to make. They'd heard of the safe house under Swiss protection. Getting in was far from a guarantee, but they knew they needed to get there. 

"So we hired a policeman, bribed a policeman," Zohar conceded with a wry smile. The officer served as their body guard. It turned out they'd need him. 

On their way to the Glass House, a group of fascists stopped the 9-year-old and his family. 

"There were some arrow cross people and they said they wanted to drive us to the Danube," recalled Zohar. Though just a child, he knew exactly what that meant. "People were lined up there and shot into the river." 

It may have been the officer's conscience, or the terms of their deal that saved them. Zohar recounts in his memoir that the officer wouldn't get paid in full until their safe delivery to the Glass House.

Either way, the officer kept his end of the bargain, making it possible for him and future generations of Zohars to walk Budapest's streets, remember their history and ensure their family's story lives on.   

"Many of these things I don’t like to remember but I don’t think we should ever forget," said Zohar. "Almost in every generation, history repeats itself, unfortunately."