Laszlo Sokoly's hands are soft, his fingernails well-manicured, carefully trimmed and clean. He has the nimble fingers of a man who must do precise work with his hands.
Sokoly is a dentist now, in Washington. There was another time, in another life, when he also worked with his hands -- as a slave laborer.
Sokoly has no trouble remembering those days, almost 40 years ago, when the Germans occupied his native Hungary even though it was nominally an ally of the Axis powers, and he was herded off to slave labor camps with the other able-bodied Jewish men from his village.
In fact, he remembers quite clearly, with precision, names, dates, faces, thoughts. He recalls one night when he and his fellow slave-laborers went to sleep in a cemetery. He was very, very tired. "I looked down at the grave and I said to myself, 'My God, how peaceful and restful. Maybe it would be nicer down there.' I was 17. Psychologically speaking, my life was not such a value to me."
This week Sokoly, who lives in Bethesda, is in Jerusalem with his family. It is not their first visit to Israel. This time, however, Sokoly and his family have come to participate in the first and perhaps the last congregation of Jewish survivors of the Holocaust.
The event has brought together some 3,200 Jewish Holocaust survivors from the United States, another 800 from Europe and about 1,000 from Israel, along with several hundred of their children. The official name of the event is the World Gathering of Holocaust Suvivors. The Sokolys -- Laszlo, his wife Annamarie, his son Tommy, his daughter Kathy and his mother-in-law Edith Orban -- have come to Jerusalem to celebrate with the others their surviving the most cataclysmic event in Jewish history.
They speak of "survival," but when one talks with some of the thousands gathered here from 23 countries, one realizes that their experience was not simply one of survival. They have triumphed.
Organizers of the survivors' gathering have arranged a computerized information center so survivors can try to locate friends, relatives or other persons from their home towns or concentration camps. Despite the modern technology, however, the inevitable bulletin board has been put up. It bears scores of notices that testify to the horror and devastation that swept Europe between 1939 and 1945 when 6 million Jews were killed by the Nazis. Some notices from the board:
Item. "Nacha Weisman, Zdunska Wola. Looking for family and friend."
Item. "Looking for any survivors of the family Baum from Vierzmick in Poland."
Item. "Anyone with information about the S. Goldfinger family, Wierchomla, Poland."
Item. "Perhaps you have seen or remember my father, Israel Bistritz Ermihalyealva, Hungary-Romania was alive after the war. Please call. . ."
Item. "Asking for information about my mother, Wilma (Weiss) Stern. Born in 1905, Topolcany. Lived in Presov, Czechoslovakia. In Auschwitz, Oct. 10, 1944."
Item. "Perhaps do you remember my brother, Pavel Kun, from Bytca, Czechoslovakia. Was 18 years old. In Auschwitz, November December 1944 or later. Please, write me. . ."
But scores of participants have found each other at the conference. The organizers say four sets of siblings who had not known that the other was alive and a father and son have been reunited. In chance encounters, inmates of the same prison camp exchange memories of places and events. Without knowing each other, they speak with an intimacy that no outsider can completely understand.
Many still carry the numbers tattooed on their arms that mean they were at Auschwitz. Many others had the numbers surgically removed after the war. A women is asked why she kept her number. "Why not?" she answers. "I'm not ashamed of it. I didn't do anything wrong. The people who put this number on me should be ashamed. I'm proud to be a Jew."
Annamarie Sokoly was living with her parents in Budapest in October 1944. She was 13. Her father was taken away. The women were taken to a stadium, divided into groups and marched off toward the German border. Winter was approaching. It was cold. Those who could not keep up were left behind.
"We saw several women who were beaten to death," Mrs. Sokoly says. "Whoever was not good to work, they were shot or beaten to death."
One night, some German soldiers got drunk. They came into the place where the women were sleeping -- "they were taking young girls, 13, 14, 16. They wanted to have more fun with five or six girls. We heard their screams. We never saw them again. My mother lay on top of me. That is how they didn't take me."
One Hungarian soldier accompanying the women brought her bread or chocolate every day. Her mother asked why, "He said, 'I have a daughter at home who extremely resembles your daughter, and every time I look at her my conscience is coming over me. I see my daughter in the place of your daughter. And I feel I have to do something.'"
When Mrs. Sokoly and her mother neared the Hungarian border, where Germans guards would take over, the older woman took two diamonds she had hidden in her coat and bribed the friendly Hungarian soldier to smuggle her daughter back to Budapest.
Mrs. Sokoly does not have her husband's facility for remembering details. "Everything is getting very hazy in my memory," she says, "but there are still a couple of things I remember. I never forget that night of terror when they took the girls away. Never. I still hear the screams."
Sokoly, 55, lived in Vac, Hungary, near Budapest, with his parents and two sisters. Sokoly's father was a prosperous businessman, but Sokoly knew from the age of 6 that he was different from his friends.
"We played soccer and if I scored a goal," he says, "they called me by my nickname. If I stepped on their foot, I was 'Jewboy.'"
In 1944, when he was 17, the Germans invaded Hungary, and Hungarian Jews were ordered to start wearing the yellow arm bands with the Star of David. That was on April 4. Sokoly remembers the date precisely. A month later, he was put in the ghetto in Szecseny. His parents and his two sisters were put in the ghetto in Ipolysag. He never saw his parents again. On May 26, 1944, he was sent to a labor camp, No. 107-310. "Do you want to know the name of the commander?" he asks. Does he remember it? "Oh, yes," he smiles. "Lazar. Captain Lazar."
Lazar, a Hungarian, selected the men for two destinations -- those like Sokoly who went to labor camps and those who were sent to death camps. Some of the Jews sent to death camps were also used by the Germans to clear mine fields, with their bodies. Sokoly recites the names and the dates of the work camps where he and his companions were marched. They walked west toward Germany in front of the invading Russian army. For breakfast they had coffee or soup. For lunch, a vegetable. For dinner, vegetable and soup. They were given three slices of bread for the day.
Still, they were comparatively lucky, considering that millions of other Jews in Nazi death camps were starved to virtual skeletons before they died.
At night, his group slept in a stable "Sometimes we had blankets, sometimes not," Sokoly says."We had one blanket for three or four people. Sometimes you got a corner of it."
Sokoly has a photograph made of his group on Sept. 12, 1944, by a Christian Hungarian photographer. The prisoners were given a day off by their Hungarian guards as a reward for working well and because it was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. Sokoly is proud to have the picture. He remembers the names of all but one of the 23 men in it. He names them. Then he points at each one in turn: "Survived, survived," he says, "dead, dead, dead, survived, dead, dead."
Only nine made it to the end of the war.
At the end of November, they arrived at Szentkiralyszabadja. "This was the toughest labor camp in the territory of Hungary," he says. The men had to pick up steel rails. It was bitter cold.
"We could not get gloves. They told us gloves were only for gentlemen, not for Jews. And with the frost, your hands would stick to the rails."
Were people dying around him? "Oh yes," he answers almost matter-of-factly, "that was a daily routine. Fortunately, I was physically and mentally very strong."
It went on that way through the winter. In March, with the Russians advancing quickly, the retreating German forces passed Sokoly's work gang. The Germans fired at them as they went past. "They saw that we were Jews," he explains. The next month, he and the other surviving members were captured by the Russians. On April 4, 1945, he was put in a Russian prison camp but walked out with some Czechoslovak prisoners four hours later when they were released.
Sokoly went to Budapest. Ultimately, he located one of his sisters.
"My father, my mother, my 23-year-old sister were killed in Budapest." Laszlo Sokoly knows that much. He is one of the lucky ones. Thousands of others never found out what happened to their families.
The organizers of the gathering have made it clear that it is not meant to be an occasion for mere hand-wringing and lamentation. They say it is intended to be a reminder to the world of what happened, a warning that it could happen again and also a celebration of life and survival.
Yesterday was the day for the "second generation," the children of Holocaust survivors. They had an assembly in a packed hall usually used as a movie theater here. One of the speakers, a man in his mid-20s whose parents are survivors, said they had come together to challenge the growing stereotype of Holocaust children as "emotionally traumatized, psychologically stigmatized and permanently scarred." Instead, he asserted, it was a privilege to be a member of the second generation. "We have a certain strength that permits us to make a positive contribution."
"Considering what they witnessed," another child of survivor parents said, "they might have succumbed to an extreme passivity. After 1945 a large number of marriages took place in DP camps. And within a year, the DP camps had the highest birth rate of any known population in the world. That's us. That's how our parents chose life."
Laszlo and Annamarie Sokoly will be returning to their home in Bethesda next week. Before they leave Jerusalem, however, their son, Tommy, now 13, the age his father was when World War II started, will have his bar mitzvah at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.
Sokoly's experiences in Hungary did not turn him from his faith. "It is written in the Torah [the first five books of Moses]," he explains, "anything you have done, for seven generations after they can suffer. I do not know. Maybe seven generations back something happened. Another thing written in the Torah." He recites in Hebrew and then translates:
"'Be an example to your children.' Because you are completely and undoubtedly responsible for seven generations of children and great-great-great-grandchildren. What happened seven generations before, I do not know. If I have to suffer, I will take it. If I am rewarded, I will take it."