The Life Of Marton Sternberg, Part 4
In Part 3: The bird of prey had spread its wings over the Jewish community of Hungary. The gas chambers of Auschwitz were not far away.
Shortly after Marton was shoved into the cattle car, his wife, Manci, son Lacika, and mother-in-law, Rosalia, were still hoping to hear some word about his whereabouts.
In Pápa, there were rumors about being forced into a ghetto. Preparations to establish a ghetto were already in progress. In Pápa, this was an area covering neighboring streets surrounding the Pápa Jewish synagogue on Petofi Street. The plan for executing the “Final Solution” was a three-phase operation. It began with separating the Jews from Hungarian society by making them wear distinctive canary-yellow Stars of David. The second phase was herding them into small concentrated areas called ghettos. The third phase was deporting them to the killing fields of Auschwitz.
Marton bypassed the second phase by courting his fate and traveling up to Budapest, where he was captured. But for Manci and family it was a step-by-step process. They were resigned to do whatever G-d had in store for them.
The Pápa ghetto was established on May 17 by surrounding an area several blocks wide with walls. Marton was long gone from Pápa by then. Two gates were erected to access the ghetto from the outside Hungarian Christian side. On May 23, Manci and the Sternberg family, along with 2,656 Jews, were being rounded up to be relocated into the ghetto.
There was still the matter of removing from the ghetto area those Hungarians who lived there in order to make room for the incoming Jews. Just days before, on May 29, it was Shavuos. It would be the last day that the entire kehillah would pray in the beautiful shul of Pápa. As they said goodbye to their beloved shul, they made preparations for their upheaval.
It was now June 1. The ghetto was ready, and Manci and family and their neighbors moved into their new cramped quarters. As they left behind their homes, Hungarian gendarme thugs swept through the abandoned Jewish homes. They were searching for all the loot that was left behind. Furniture, clothing, and any valuables were seized, to be distributed among the eager and waiting Hungarian people.
A list was made of all the homes where jewelry, money, and other valuables were not found. Special gendarmes came into the ghetto, and beat to a bloody pulp the former owners of those homes, demanding they confess where such coveted items were hidden.
On June 29, 1944, almost a month later, the Pápa ghetto was emptied of all its inhabitants. With bowed heads, the Jews of Pápa were walked toward the railroad tracks, to the fertilizer factory on the outskirts of town. On July 17, the Jews of Pápa were put on cattle cars and shipped to Auschwitz.
Of the 2,656 Jews, 2,002 perished in Auschwitz, including 671 children under the age of 12. Included among those who never returned were Manci, Lacika, and Rosalie. They were marched into the gas chambers immediately upon arrival. Neither they nor Marton had any inkling that they had missed each other by only a few weeks.
The entire prison in Kistarcsa was emptied out of the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Jews who were collected there, including Marton. Hungarian gendarmes supervised by German soldiers made Marton and the others board the cattle cars that were brought for the occasion. Once on board, they looked out through some cracks and saw workers lurking about near the wagons. Marton yelled out to them, asking if they knew the destination of the transport. The people below yelled back that they were all going toward Vienna. It was the end of April, the 26th, and this was the beginning of the third phase of the mass murder of Hungarian Jews. Kistarcsa to Auschwitz was the first of the “death trains,” hauling 1,800 Hungarian Jews to their doom.
Marton and the others didn’t know what to believe. They didn’t believe that their final destination would be Vienna, but they had no idea where they would end up. One of the railroad men, wearing a bright red cap, announced with great fanfare that they are “shipping the Jews out.” He seemed very happy about this news, but Marton and the others were sad.
The train was packed to capacity. Only some were able to find seats while all others stood during the several-day ride.
Marton never remembered being fed during the ordeal of the trip to Auschwitz. Upon arrival and disembarkation, they were met by a group of Hungarian-speaking German soldiers, presumed to be Swabs, a German ethnic minority living in Hungary for centuries. These Swabs, as cruel as all the other Nazis, met the new arrivals, demanding that they hand over all their valuables.
“They are going to take it away from you anyway,” they rationalized. “So you might as well give it all to us.”
They realized they had arrived in Auschwitz after reading the sign at the station. But what “Auschwitz” meant, they had no idea. The Germans kept all such news a secret. And although the Allies broadcast much, they also didn’t know or were not telling all.
Some Jews knew full well what “Auschwitz” meant for all of them. In April 7, 1944, two Slovakian Jews, Rudolph Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, escaped from Auschwitz after becoming aware of the German plans to get ready for the arrival of hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews. After their escape, they wrote a detailed report called the Auschwitz Report that included diagrams of the death camp with the location of the gas chambers and crematoria. Their report detailed the Nazi plans for the extermination of the Jewish population in Hungary.
Their report was handed to the Zionist leadership, headed by a Rudolph Kastzner, and smuggled into the hands of the Vatican, the British, and Admiral Horthy, the leader of Hungary.
Their report was suppressed by Kasztner so as “not to panic” the Jewish population. Furthermore, Kasztner, who was the head of the Zionist, Ben Gurion-affiliated rescue committee set up by Adolf Eichmann, knew full well the plans of the Nazis.
Kasztner had been dealing with Eichmann, attempting to buy off the Jews of Hungary. Hundreds of thousands of dollars were exchanged. Years later, after Eichmann’s capture by the Israelis, he confessed that there was no chance for the Jews to buy their freedom. But Eichmann was happy to string Kasztner along and pocket the money. During his dealings with Eichmann, Kasztner was told exactly what fate awaited all those shipped to Auschwitz. Eichmann was candid with him. All that Kasztner accomplished in his posturing was the rescue of 1,684 Jews from his hometown of Kluj (Kolozsvar), consisting mainly of his relatives and friends, and a few well-known Jews, which included the Satmar Rebbe, Yoel Teitelbaum. But Kasztner had to pay a price for rescuing his relatives. He had to suppress any news about the purpose of Auschwitz and keep the calm among the hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews. Kasztner’s compliance would prove invaluable to the Nazis and Hungarians in their efforts to smoothly and quietly ship out and exterminate more than 500,000 Jews from Hungary’s countryside.
Marton knew who Rudolph Kasztner was. Periodically, he traveled to Budapest on behalf of the Pápa Jewish kehillah and had become acquainted with Hungary’s Zionist leader. But like the rest of the Jews, he was also kept in the dark about what awaited him upon arrival in the death camp.
They arrived at Auschwitz during the daytime and were taken from the train to the baths. On the way to the bathhouse, they passed some buildings, including some type of hospital. Someone yelled down in Hungarian as they passed: “If you get striped prisoner clothing you will go to work, but if not, you will be gassed.” Naturally, it was too late to do anything but obey the Nazis.
Marton was led to a large, yard-like area, with a ramp in the middle. They all had to run up to the top of the ramp and down once again. While they were running, a Nazi officer (who turned out to be Dr. Josef Mengele), sat on a chair. With his leg crossed, his arm resting on his thigh, he held a small stick. As each person ran up and down, he gestured with the stick to the left or the right side.
During his youth, in Balassagyarmat, Marton had belonged to the Levente youth movement. He had run track on their sport team, being tall and lanky, and he was still in good shape. Looking at the ones who ran right before, Marton concluded that when his turn came, he had to show a healthy vigor to Mengele. He also realized that he, too, had to go either to the right or the left on Mengele’s command. None of them, at that time, realized the significance of the direction.
Marton was sent to the right by Mengele. After showering, he received his striped prisoner outfit. He knew then that he would live. They numbered everyone for identification, but he was not tattooed. He was given number 34,876—a number he memorized and later wrote down in his records.
After a brief period in Auschwitz, they were all taken to Wüstegiersdorf.
Dr. Alex Sternberg authored the forthcoming book “Recipes from Auschwitz–My Parents’ Story of the Murder of Hungarian Jewry.” He is a lifelong student of Jewish history, focusing on the development of Zionism and the Holocaust. He is presently teaching graduate studies and is active in several pro-Israel organizations. He is a retired research doctor in children’s pulmonary health and a master karate instructor. Read more of Dr. Sternberg’s articles.