70 Hungarian postcards to the 70-year-old Israel

Our Israeli-Hungarian Nobel laureate
Avram Hersko

By Zsuzsa Shiri - 2018-03-14

Translated from the Hungarian original: Bea Sara Goll

Herskó Feri, the second, younger son of the Jewish schoolmaster, attended first grade when the Germans occupied Hungary. At first, there was not much change; his father had already long been in forced labor at the Russian front, while he, with his brother, his mother, and the grandparents were still just trying to survive the war.


But soon everything turned worse. First, they had to go to the ghetto at the edge of Karcag, beside the cemetery; but at least, they could still take some suitcases with them on a cart. From there they were taken to a brick factory in Szolnok, with only one suitcase, where they had to sleep in the free. The smart little boy did not ask where the men were taken by the gendarmes and the detectives, looking for gold and valuables; he could hear the cries from the interrogation rooms. As usual, the bodies of women were checked by midwives searching for gold at these "gathering places" on the countryside, but the boy did not know about that.


One will never find out how and why, but one train from Szolnok was not directed to Auschwitz, but to Strathoff, Austria, for actual work. Incidentally, the Hersko family was put on this train by the gendarmes. It is thanks to this coincidence that Israel, and especially the Hungarian-speaking Israeli, now can pride themselves in having a Nobel Prize laureate.

During the deportation in Austria, they suffered a great deal of hunger; the children, too, were made to work, the circumstances were very hard, but afterwards they hardly complained, especially when it was discovered after the war what had happened to Feri's less fortunate classmates. The family returned home, and, miraculously, in 1947 the teacher father also returned from the Soviet prison. There were almost no children left in Karcag at the Jewish school; the family moved to Pest, and then made aliyah to Israel where they had had some relatives. Along with three thousand others, they used the last, still legal Hungarian opportunity granted by Rákosi, in 1950.

In their entire life, the Herskó family has been living in decent poverty on a teacher's salary so that getting started with the new life was not a major challenge, and as they were quick learners, they soon managed to speak Hebrew. Though money was scarce, from the very beginning, the parents sent both boys to the best private school in Jerusalem. They felt one could live on margarine bread; the most important thing was the children's future. Both boys were excellent students, and both of them soon completed the medical school in Jerusalem. Laci was then called Chaim and Feri became Avram Hershko. Chaim Hershko became a renowned hematologist at the Hadassah Medical Center; Avram has never practiced medicine; instead, he became interested in biochemistry.

Meanwhile, their father found his way in their new home as well: a few years after their arrival, he was already writing textbooks for the teaching of mathematics, in Hebrew, and not bad ones either: many, even now, are studying the basics of the arithmetic via the Hershko Methods. He was a versatile man, and as a retiree, he also wrote the story of the Karcag Jewish people – to my great joy, I found the family of my great-grandmother in there. He then recorded the history of the Jewish communities in Nagykunság and the Jewish cemetery in Karcag, shortly before his death in 1999, at the age of 94.


Ferenc-Avram Hershko has decided during a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of California San Francisco Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, that, instead of doing research on hormones, as it was fashionable during the sixties and seventies, he would turn to researching the mechanisms of protein decomposition because he wanted to find the answers to an exciting, mysterious question about them. He noticed that the degradation of the proteins proved to be an energy-intensive process, contrary to the then held assumptions, according to which only the formation of proteins would require energy, but not their degradation. He was interested in the issue of cell death involved in many diseases, and his discovery related to this issue was so important that in 2004 he had received a Nobel Prize for it, together with two others. His discovery was about the ubiquitin-mediated protein disintegration, and anyone can explain further details, provided they are in the possession of a biochemical diploma.

Avram Hershko has been happily married to his Polish-Jewish-Swiss wife Judith for more than fifty years, with whom they raised three boys in Haifa. Two of them became physicians, and the third one is into high tech. Today they have a lot of grandchildren; at the time the Nobel Prize was announced, the Committee could not reach Avram on the phone as he was busy teaching the grandkids to swim. So he learned about it through a call from a relative who heard on the radio that he had received this Prize.

However, the recognition did not change anything: he has continued to do his research about the current mysteries of biochemistry at his laboratory; may he do so bis hundert und zwanzig.

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