They met this summer during the great world reunion of Jewish Holocaust survivors in Israel. The last time she had seen him his body was covered with sickening wounds, yellow and green bruises from beatings by the Nazis, who had hung him up by his hands, which were tied behind his back with telephone wire. He weighed 60 pounds then. Today he lives in Israel, honored as a pioneer.
Malvina Burstein is 67 now, wife of an economist, with two daughters. She has lived in Silver Spring 30 years. She paints some. Through the American Jewish Congress, she and her family flew to Israel, where she hoped to find a few of the 1,500 people whose lives she helped to save.
The one she did find, Willi Salgo, met her at her hotel in Tel Aviv, the city where he lives. Everyone cried.
"You are a heroine," he told her.
The story, like so many of them, jumps wildly from scene to scene, a hectic kaleidoscope of events. When Malvina Grunfeld's hometown, Trebisov, in Czechoslovakia, was occupied by the Germans, the gradual pressure on Jews began: First, they had to give up their businesses. Her parents lost their restaurant and hotel; she abandoned her millinery shop. The Grunfelds were prominent, with three rabbis in the family, but that made no difference. The restrictions pulled tighter: no travel outside the ghetto, smaller rations, forced labor. The single members of her family were taken away one by one.
For a year the girl hid in the basement, but a neighbor gave her away. In April 1942 she took off on foot for Hungary, hurrying along by night, until she reached the home of an aunt near the border, where she was given money and the papers of her aunt's former maid. Finally she made it to Budapest. There, she could disappear into the crowds.
"A Jew could exist in Hungary at that time," she said. "I had illegal papers and no visa, but I got along. You had to keep well-dressed, look clean and neat, with nail polish and everything."
She worked in a fancy dress shop. She made hats. She was a maid, a waitress, a packer in a chocolate factory. With no ration card, she had to pay dearly for food. She moved to a different flat every few months or weeks, once three times in a week. Every so often she would meet a half-dozen Jewish friends in a park, and they would reassure each other.
"Sometimes the Christians would expose you," she said, "sometimes not. One man knew I was a Czech. He said, 'Tell me where you come from in Czechoslovakia,' but he let me stay in his house two weeks. Another man, when I was challenged by a policeman, came up and said I was with him, it was all right. I had never seen him before."
Every day she saw bodies in the streets, Jews being beaten, old women being knocked to the pavement. One could do nothing. One walked on.
Then she learned that one of her little group, Salgo, had been captured. When he escaped, he had to be hidden because of his appearance. His brother came up with a crazily daring plan: He simply phoned the National Printing Office and said his assistant would be in to pick up an order of 500 ID cards.
That was Malvina Grunfeld's job. Dressed smartly, a pretty blond in her 20s, she walked confidently into the central Budapest office and asked for the cards.
No problem. She walked out with a stack of the priceless stamped cards. Filled in with appropriate data and false names, they were given to Jews trying to pass as Hungarian gentiles. Over the next few months she made two more trips to the office and got a total of 1,500 cards. Her group felt that, in their own way, they were doing the same work as the Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who rescued many thousands of Budapest Jews by issuing them Swedish passports and protecting them in hastily obtained buildings under the Swedish flag. Wallenberg vanished into the Soviet gulags, where an increasing number of people believe he is living still.
After the war Grunfeld returned to Trebisov, traveling three weeks through the ravaged countryside on the roof of a train. She found no one she knew. Then a brother who had moved to New York earlier brought her to this country, and soon after that she married Max H. Burstein, who recently retired from the Civil Aeronautics Board.
"I was just lucky," she said. "So many times I could have been caught, if they had just looked at my illegal papers. But I wasn't. My friends say most of those people, the 1,500, got out of Hungary and came to Israel. I didn't see them when I was there, but you can imagine how I felt to know that they are alive."