Emanuel "Manny" Mandel is a social worker in the Washington, D.C., suburbs who also finds time to volunteer at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. In the early 1950s, he was the new kid at Philadelphia's Central High School in Olney -- and had a background few knew about: He was a teenage Holocaust survivor.
Mandel was back at the school on May 22 to celebrate his 55th high school reunion, and he told his story to more than 500 Central seniors -- a group that, despite the excitement of being less than a month away from graduation, listened to his tale with rapt attention.
Mandel was raised in Budapest, where his father was one of the city's four chief cantors, and he recalled life as a child in wartime Hungary. As he explained, the situation for Jews there was different because Hungary was an ally of Germany; so for much of the war, Hungarian Jews were watched over by their fellow citizens, rather than the Nazis.
While the Jews of Budapest were hardly leading a charmed life at the time, Mandel seemed to look at certain things from an unusual perspective. "As a child, I thought it was terrific to be walking around with a yellow star," he said. "I was just like all the adults, and a 6-year-old wants to be like the adults."
But by 1944, Mandel told the students, the German war machine was faring poorly, and in an attempt to reinvigorate the fight, a greater emphasis was again placed on anti-Semitism, which had initially driven much of Nazism's spirit. As such, Adolf Eichmann, one of Hitler's most ardent pupils, entered Hungary with only one goal -- to deport the entire Jewish populace.
However, Rudolf Kasztner, a Hungarian Jew, was able to convince Eichmann to trade Jews for goods -- ideally for trucks, which the Axis powers needed. Though he had hoped to barter for 1 million Jews, Kasztner settled for two transports, totaling about 1,700 individuals.
Equipped with the proper paperwork for emigration, Mandel and his family left Hungary. The journey, however, included several months at Bergen-Belsen.
While in the camp, negotiations continued for the Hungarian prisoners' release; in January 1945, the Mandels and others were transported to Switzerland.
Over the next several years, Mandel and his family led a peripatetic life, residing in pre-state Palestine, then New York City, and eventually settling in Philadelphia's Logan section -- none of which would have happened, Mandel insisted, were it not for Kasztner, whom he compared to famed rescuer Oskar Schindler.
Mandel didn't have enough speaking time to discuss the fate of Kasztner, who after the war was granted a government post in Israel, but was later prosecuted for collaborating with the Nazis. He was found guilty, although the lower court's verdict was later overturned by the Israeli Supreme Court.
In the wake of the furor surrounding his trial, Kasztner was shot in the street and died nine days later. Even today, he remains controversial, reviled by some and praised by others for saving lives, despite the means.
Among those present for Mandel's remarks were several former classmates, many of whom were hearing his story for the first time.
"None of us ever even knew," marveled Alan Molod, a prominent Philadelphia attorney.
As for why he never spoke of his past, Mandel had a straight answer: "I didn't talk about it as a student not because I wasn't willing. It just wasn't brought up for discussion."