In January 1945, two men were walking single file down a freezing and dark street in Bratislava, Slovakia, a puppet ally of Nazi Germany since 1939. There were perhaps a dozen paces between them, and the man in the lead, Karel Palasthy, was carrying a hand-powered Flashlight. ff he flashed the color green, the man behind, Alexander Braun, continued to proceed. If, however, Palasthy noticed a patrol of German soldiers or Slovak collaborators, he flashed red, and Braun dashed off the street. He hid until the green flashing again indicated the danger had passed.
Alexander Braun was making his nightly visit to his ten-year-old son, Jan, who was hiding—like himself but in a different location—from the rapidly accelerating Nazi roundups. The danger was great, but Braun was determined to see his son.
It had not always been this way.
In 1934, Jan was born the only child of Alexander and Cornelia Braun into an upper-middle-class family in Bratislava, then the capital of the province of Slovakia in the Czechoslovak republic. With a father who had been a dashing officer in the Austro-Hungarian army in World War I and a mother who was converted to Christianity, Jan led a highly assimilated life. Father and son themselves converted to Christianity in Bratislava’s Hungarian Reform Protestant Church in 1938. This was a step that they hoped might provide them some protection from the harassment already seen in Germany and the severe anti-Jewish riots then expected and being orchestrated by the Hlinka Guard, an ultranationalist Slovak pro-Nazi militia.
However, as long as the Germans did not actually occupy Slovakia, life was tolerable for the Brauns. Jan ‘s family operated a gourmet grocery store, their circle included many Christians, and they were exempted from wearing the yellow star and from the deportations being supervised by the Nazi expert on “the Jewish problem,” Adolf Eichmann.
In 1942, as the Slovaks maneuvered and competed with the Nazis to exploit Jewish labor and to appropriate— “Aryanize”—Jewish property, the Brauns still survived. Although the business was lost, the previous baptism, for a time, helped. 58,000 Slovak Jews were deported to the east from March to October 1942—most to die in the death camps.
However, as the Germans now moved into Slovakia, Aryan papers no longer provided the vynimka, the protection or exemption from deportation, that had been keeping the family alive.
Alexander Braun’s store had already been confiscated, and he had been forced into more meager employment, but the situation was getting even worse: a Slovak version of the Nuremberg Laws was now brutally enforced. The only hope was false identity and, eventually, hiding. Jan Braun, who was to become Viktor Bratkovic, Peter Dubravicky, Jan Abranic, and a variety of other names, was able to continue to avoid detection and even to attend elementary school.
Nora Palasthyova, a teacher in the school, became particularly fond of Jan and befriended his parents. In 1944, as a result of a major partisan uprising, the Germans occupied Slovakia in earnest, and all pretenses were off. The Palasthys had the Brauns sleep over many evenings because the Nazi roundups occurred in the very early morning hours. They were spared again .
However, on September 28, 1944, the Hlinka Guard came literally to their door: that night, as it turned out, was the velka chytacka (big roundup), of Bratislava Jews. Jan Braun later described what occurred: “At the Palasthys, we heard the noise of the roundup from within the apartment. It was a large building, with a number of staircases. We were on the very top floor to which one of these led. I believe the searchers stopped on the floor just below. ‘Let’s go,’ they called out, ‘there are no more Jews left here.’ A miracle … “
In the following days, Jan was hidden in a large suitcase on top of a closet, and several times his father had to climb outside and hide in a window box. During the following nights, Karel Palasthy took the Brauns to a coal cellar in the basement. During the days, strict silence was enforced , as there was supposed to be no one in the apartment. The Nazis and their collaborators searched for the remaining Jews with a terrifying thoroughness. When someone who knew their hiding places was arrested in January, the family feared their own discovery was only a matter of time.
Using potatoes sliced in half to transfer ink stamps from real onto false documents, the Palasthys helped the Brauns establish new identities yet again (Jan Braun/Viktor Bratkovic was now Peter Dubravicky). They also helped them to find new—and now separate—hiding places. They moved from place to place only at night, with Jan’s mother and father eventually having to escape by leaving Bratislava. Jan, however, remained hidden with several families and protected by the Palasthys, first in Bratislava and then in the countryside, where he survived until liberation.
Reunited with his family after the Soviet army passed through Slovakia, Jan Braun and his parents became the Balans, immigrated to the United States in 1948, and later established contact with surviving cousins, now in Israel. Many less fortunate members of the extended Braun family were gone. For risking their lives daily to save the Brauns and for shining a light of humanity—a red and green flashlight—during the darkness of the Holocaust, Karel and Nora Palasthy have been formally designated “Righteous Among the Nations” by Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem.