Some might call him a man of faith. The Jewish community calls him a hero. His family calls him papa. He will be remembered as a man who allowed God's light to shine through him.
Tibor Baranski, who is credited with saving up to 10,000 Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust, died Jan. 20, at the age of 96. At his funeral Mass, Father Richard Augustyn described him as a "gentleman who walked the talk, a gentleman who, probably in my experience so far, had the deepest and richest faith I have ever experienced."
Baranski's heroics stem from a request from Pope Pius XII to help the Jews during the Holocaust, and a request from family friends asking to save their 11-month old son.
It was late October 1944. The Nazis were retreating in Hungary, while the Russian army moved in. The Nazis were still gathering Jews to kill or take to concentration camps. Pope Pius XII gave orders to all Vatican diplomatic missions in Nazi-occupied Europe to do everything within their power to protect Jews.
Baranski's stepmother was friends with the Jewish Szekeres family. They had a son born earlier that year. They asked Baranski to save young Gabor. As a 22-year-old seminarian, Baranski took the boy to the Vatican embassy and asked Cardinal Angelo Rotta to issue a baptismal certificate and give protective papers for his parents. Cardinal Rotta asks Baranski to help protect the Jews living in Budapest. He agrees and is told to start immediately. Baranski returns home with protective passes. So, the first three lives were saved.
"My father was the right choice because he was born and raised in Budapest. He knew Budapest, both sides of the Danube, like the palm of his hands," explained Tibor Baranski Jr.
A non-conformist dedicated to the Catholic Church and its teachings, "He had no qualms, fears or second thoughts about jeopardizing his life or livelihood for what he thought was the right thing to do," explained stepson Peter Forgach.
To be taken seriously he wore the best clerical garb Cardinal Rotta had and took his Rolls Royce. "He wanted to convey absolute authority," his son said.
The five countries involved in the Jewish Protection Movement based in Hungary included the Vatican, represented by Baranski; Sweden, represented by Raoul Wallenberg; Switzerland; Spain and Portugal.
He spent four weeks feeding and caring for a city block full of Jews in Budapest.
"He always said the whole thing from beginning to end was roughly a month, four weeks, but it felt like four years, because you were working 20-hour days including weekends. You slept whenever you can. Twenty minutes here, an hour there," Baranski explained. "The basic idea from him is, if you leave God out of the picture you're screwed, totally. He was never scared. He would say, 'Not only do I believe there is a God, I know there is a God.' His conviction, it wasn't just the faith, it was a display of actual knowledge of the existence of God. Protecting human life, man, woman and children, was a no brainer for him."
Officially credited with saving the lives of 3,000, Baranski, known as a straight shooter, has always given the number as between 12,000 to 15,000 due to the amount of food and provisions he had provided. He was recognized as a Righteous Among Nations at Yad Vashem, the official memorial to the victims of Holocaust, in Israel in 1979.
His story doesn't end there. On Jan. 1, 1945, while grocery shopping for his stepmother, the Russian army picked him up to be used with thousands of others as a human shield as they prepared to face the Nazis. It was a 16-day death march. After collapsing due to hunger, a "kind Russian soldier" left him by the side of the road. A farm family cared for him for two months, then sent him home during Easter of 1945. His ally Raoul Wallenberg requested a visit to the Soviet military headquarters to plead for mercy for the Jews and others. He was never seen in public again.
In 1948, the Russians came to power through election fraud. Baranski, then a graduate student, became a student organizer of anti-communist demonstrations. The Russians put him on trial. The Szekeres family hired him a good lawyer, but he was given a nine-year sentence in a prison camp. He served until 1953, when he was released on amnesty after the death of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin.
"He comes out looking worse than a Jew out of Auschwitz. Literally, skin and bones. He can't stand on his own legs for close to a year," said Tibor Baranski Jr.
Working with the Red Cross, the senior Baranski traveled to Rome to see his old friend Cardinal Rotta. There he met Katalin Forgach. They married and moved to Toronto, Ontario, then to Buffalo, where they raised three children.
Tibor Baranski continued to butt heads with authority. A career of teaching History, Latin and German, saw him conflicted with the value-free education of the '60s and '70s.
"It was popular that you make your own values. Everybody does whatever he wants. He was very much against it," said Forgach. "He thought that kind of ideology is what brings on finally totalitarianism because people start monkeying around with value systems and what's right and wrong, everybody is going to interpret it to his advantage."
"He wouldn't compromise his teaching standards. He wouldn't pass students who deserved to fail," said Tibor Jr., who hears from his father's students who say he was strict, but good-hearted.
His wife, Katalin, was an associate professor in biochemical pharmacology researching leukemia and skin cancer. She developed FDA-approved treatments for cancer. Their son Peter is an ophthalmologist in Williamsville. Tibor Jr. is a lawyer based in Beijing. Daughter Kathy Baranski Spangler serves as communications director for the Diocese of Buffalo.
In generally good health for a man of 96, Baranski became weak in mid-January. Three days after Msgr. Paul Litwin administered last rites, Baranski told Tibor Jr. in his native Hungarian "I'm tired. I've had enough." His son told him he was still a strong man, trying to keep his spirits up. But he said, "Leave me alone."
"He was ready to go on his own terms. No pain," Tibor Jr. said. "This is somebody who's been through five and a half years in hell, in a Stalinist Communist prison."
Through his life, he never forgot his roots. He often told of his experiences to his children and grandchildren. He regularly attended St. Elizabeth Church on Grant Street in Buffalo for the Hungarian Mass. In later years, he attended the St. Jude Center, which offers a Hungarian Mass.
"Basically, an extremely religious person," is how Forgach describes him. "Even on his deathbed one of his last things was praying to God. He was a very loyal member of the Catholic Church. In a way he was a pietist. He wasn't afraid to get into arguments over Church policy, but, finally, whatever the ruling was, he accepted it and lived by it."
Tibor Baranski Sr. was laid to rest in Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo, next to his late wife, Katalin.