There are many heroes of the Holocaust. Brave men and women of all kinds. Martyrs who gave up their lives for others. Crafty spies and fearless soldiers who undertook great risk to break the chains of bondage and save the innocent from a fate of cattle cars and gas chambers. There are also babysitters. Babysitters like Ida Brunelli who found themselves in an impossible place and rose to the occasion. A hero just the same as the others.
This story starts with Yuzzi Galambos, a spirited young woman. A dancer and natural performer, young Yuzzi was a girl with a romantic heart and a deep abiding wanderlust. When she met a 35-year-old Hungarian singer, Kalman Toth, who wanted to take her to Italy, it seemed like a dream come true. For a time, it really was. The two meandered around Italy, going from one city to the next in search of a stage to perform and an adventure to be had. Their love bloomed and soon the couple had three children together.
But the evil brewing in Nazi Germany would soon upset their idyllic lives. In 1940, travel in Italy became more difficult, and the couple fell under increasing police scrutiny. Kalman was torn away from his little family, forcibly deported to Hungary where his story becomes muddy and unhappy. He enlisted in the army but was soon hospitalized for unclear reasons. Yuzzi and Kalman stayed in contact through letters, but in ’42 the letters from Kalman stopped. It’s believed he died at this time.
Yuzzi, alone with three children struggled to provide for them. Dancing wasn’t going to pay the bills, so Yuzzi relied on her talents as a translator to eek out enough of a pittance to feed her small children. She took any translating job she could and even taught private lessons to try and keep her family afloat, but even with all the effort it was an uphill battle. The small family rented a flat in a farmhouse in Tuscany. In another time in different circumstances this might have been nice, but the farmhouse was terribly isolated and spartan, with no running water or plumbing.
It was at this house where Yuzzi hired a young woman, Ida Brunelli to help look after her children while she worked long days in the city. Yuzzi was cautious, knowing full well what was going on, and after the dreadful experience of losing Kalman to deportation, she hid her and her children’s Jewish heritage. As far as Ida understood, she was in charge of three small Italian children.
Ida was only a child herself, fifteen years old, when she took the job. She was no stranger to poverty and looking after the children in exchange for a small amount of money and a room in the flat was an arrangement that worked for her. It was a lot of responsibility for someone so young, but absolutely nothing compared to what was to come.
In 1943, two great tragedies happened to the small family. First, the Germans occupied Italy, upending their already precarious situation and thrusting them straight into the path of the Nazi death machine. The second, Yuzzi took ill - gravely ill.
There she was, a young woman in her own right with a dying heart and three young children she knew she would soon be leaving in the belly of the beast. She had the problems of the entire world pressing down on her, and nowhere else to turn.
On her deathbed, she told Ida everything. Who she was, her children’s Jewish identity, where to find their family documents, what had happened to her Kalman. And she pleaded. She begged Ida to take care of her children that she would soon leave behind, to do whatever it took to save them from the death camps and persecution that awaited them if they were ever found out.
Imagine yourself in Ida’s position in this moment. Remember, she was only a teenager, one who was struggling to support herself. Now she was tasked with an incredible burden, a responsibility so large it would crush most people. She had three children who’s lives depended on her and no one else. Three children who were not her blood, not her children, not her brothers and sisters. Three enemies of the state according to the radio and the newspaper. Three fugitives from the law, and Ida knew as well as anyone else did at that time what kind of punishments awaited anyone who was discovered to be concealing or aiding Jews. Utterly alone and powerless, what could she possibly do?
She did what she believed the Lord would have wanted her to do. She protected those children.
With no source of income, and the increasing threat of being discovered by the German army (Yuzzi’s death would raise questions about where the children should go, who their next of kin was and so on), Ida took the kids back to her own mother. She introduced them as Hungarian refugees, careful not to slip and let anyone know their secret.
Even with the help of her own family, three additional mouths to feed was too much for young Ida and she eventually decided to ask the mayor of Monselice for help. The mayor was known to be kind and trustworthy, with no love for the Nazis. Thankfully, he agreed to help the children. He used his connections to quietly secure them bunks and board in various Christian institutions in the city. But Ida didn’t leave it at that, she continued to visit and support the kids every chance she got, especially Sunday’s where they spent all day with her, essentially acting as their second mother.
After the war, Ida made contact with members of the Jewish Brigade who were actively looking for Jewish orphans. She took them to a military camp in Santa Colomba and told the officers there her story. But the gears of bureaucracy grind slowly, and a number of logistical concerns needed to be cleared before the children could be guaranteed a safe trip out of the country to Israel.
Rather than leave the children on their own, Ida spent more than a month wandering with them as they were resettled and handed off between various camps. She took them this far, and she wasn’t going to leave them until she was sure they were safe.
All three children were patriated to Israel where each lived long and happy lives. They never forgot what Ida did for them and petitioned Yad Vashem to recognize her efforts.
This story could have very easily ended differently. One could easily say that young Ida had no real responsibility to Yuzzi and her children. If Ida had left that flat after Yuzzi gave her deathbed confession and never looked back, you could argue that she had to protect herself first and foremost. There are even some who would say that she couldn’t have been blamed if she turned those kids in because that was the law at the time. Looking at the situation from a detached perspective, it’s hard to call what she did the "smart play.”
Thankfully, Ida knew better. She knew that we are all God’s children, even if we are not bound by blood we all have an obligation to each other. She knew that "whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” is the measure God will measure us all against. She knew that protecting your body means nothing if you give up your soul to do it, and that a barbarism enshrined by the law is still barbarism.
The next time you’re faced with a dilemma that forces you to choose between what is right and what is smart, remember Ida’s courage and moral clarity. If a young girl like that can summon the strength to throw herself in front of the Nazi death machine only for the benefit for others, we can always make the right choice.