My father, Marton, was born just after the turn of the last century, in 1907, in Szegi, a typical small, rural village in Zemplen Megye (county) in northeast Hungary. When speaking of his childhood, he identified several villages as his birthplace.
As a child, I was a little confused as to exactly where he was born and grew up. Looking at the map of Hungary recently, I saw a smattering of little dots clustering around Bodrogkeresztur (or Bodrogszegi), the region he was born in — Tarcal, Timar, and Olaszliszka. Each one was situated around the banks of the river Bodrog (hence Bodrogszegi) in close proximity to one other, at a distance of a few kilometers.
On average, they contained a population of a few hundred each, with Bodrogkeresztur the large metropolis, boasting close to 800. Even in Hungary, these communities do not generate much excitement as there are thousands like them scattered all around the country. Most of Hungary consists of such small villages, many with imaginative names. Rivers, a source of drinking water, irrigation, and transport, were the inviting locales where people settled.
Hungary, a largely agricultural country with over 70 percent of its land fertile, was populated by farmers who established villages along the banks of the Bodrog, Tisza, Duna (Danube), Raba, and the other 30 major rivers in Hungary.
Jews also found such communities inviting and settled in such villages. Hungarian history is rich with numerous illustrious Rebbes establishing chassidic dynasties that are named after such villages. Satmar (Szatmár), Puppa (Pápa), Kerestir (Bodrogkeresztur), Siget (Ujhel-Sziget), and Lisker (Olaszliszka) are just a few examples.
Growing up, my father often found himself visiting some of these chassidic Rebbes, bringing with him chickens or geese for shechitah. Bodrogkszegi, with a Jewish population of 70 in 1930 did not have a shochet who could perform the ritual slaughtering needed to render the birds kosher. The famous Reb Shayele, Rebbe Yeshaya Steiner, the founder of the Kerestir chassidim, was only a few kilometers away, and my grandmother would send Marton to Reb Shayele often.
Just as close was the Lisker Rebbe in Olaszliszka, the illustrious “Miracle Rabbi,” Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Friedlander. My father had many opportunities to visit Olaszliszka and had many memories of being in his “court.” (Years later, I had a roommate and chavrusa in yeshiva who was a Friedlander and a relative of the “Miracle Rabbi.” We became good friends. Jewish geography.)
So, my father’s upbringing was heavily influenced by the many chassidim and Rebbes amongst whom he lived. As he was an orphan, these Rebbes took an interest in little Marton, contributed to his Jewish education and imbued in him a fervent religious zeal that he never lost. Before being deported, he was an observant, religious Jew and nothing he experienced in Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen made him question his deep fundamental faith.
Marton grew up poor. His father died while he was an infant and so he never knew him. He was the youngest of five siblings with his oldest brother Sandor, followed by Herman, sister Piroska, and brother Jeno (Eugene). As the youngest in the family, he was raised by his widowed mother and, at times, by his older brothers.
The loss of his father, the main breadwinner of the family, had a major impact both emotionally and economically. His mother owned and operated a small village inn, frequented by local peasants who came to drink and often to fight. Marton’s memories of helping his mother in the inn were of drunken brawls followed by knife fights among the Hungarians.
Hungarian farmers, or peasants as they were called in Hungarian (paraszt), typically wore a tunic tucked into a pair of pants that were tucked into almost knee-high boots. Every paraszt had a long knife tucked into his boot for protection. Marton’s mother had to take the knives away from the drunken brawlers. She would then throw them up into the ceiling for safekeeping. They would come back later or the next day, sober and a little sheepish, to retrieve their knives from the ceiling.
His brothers lived in neighboring villages. Marton spent time being shunted from brother to brother, taking the pressure off his mother. Money was scarce, but they got by.
Many years later, when my father was in his nineties, he and my mother came to live with us on Long Island. After my mother passed away, I noticed him at times, sitting in the kitchen, waiting. I asked if he was hungry so I could prepare some food for him but he answered emphatically, “No, I am not hungry.” So, I went about my chores and came back to the kitchen sometime later. He still sat there. Again, I asked him if he was hungry and again he answered “no.” I was confused, as he hadn’t eaten in some time. Surely, I thought, he must be hungry by now. So I asked him, “Would you like to eat”? Immediately he answered, “Yes, I would.” It finally occurred to me that due to his upbringing, he would never admit to hunger. Growing up in such conditions, it was embarrassing for him to admit being hungry. I learned to phrase my questions a little more sensitively after that.
His oldest brother, Sandor (after whom I was named), was born in 1898, and he also lived in the village of Szegi. Sandor was a horse dealer in partnership with his Uncle Ignatz who lived in the village of Tarcal, seven kilometers to the south.
Marton received his Jewish education attending a “cheder,” religious school, developed by Reb Shayele of Bodrogkeresztur. Reb Shayele had a heartfelt desire to feed the hungry and to help the poor. He developed several learning institutions of varying levels to educate the children of the poor who did not possess the means to pay for education. Cheder education was basic, designed to enable the boys to read Hebrew in order to read the siddur. A cheder also taught chumash, basic Jewish laws, and customs of holidays.
In his formative years, this education would serve Marton well. It laid a foundation and instilled a lifelong commitment to religious Orthodoxy and an affinity for the chassidic lifestyle that he never forgot.
Around the age of 12, shortly after finishing the 6th grade, he left school, but he did not stop studying. Marton would study all his life, both religious subjects as well as secular, to make up for his lack of a formal education. But now it was time to help around his mother’s inn and on his brother’s ranch. His brothers taught him to do an honest day’s work, and that lesson lasted his entire life.
In Marton’s worldview there were no shortcuts and no excuses. He developed into a serious young man by necessity. Whatever he approached — work or observing Jewish law — he did diligently. He learned early on to see only two colors in his rainbow: black and white; you are either allowed or not allowed to do something. There was no middle ground or mitigating circumstances. The Sabbath was respected meticulously as were the dietary laws of kashrut. He followed the lifestyle of his brothers who taught him the ways of his father.
Life was simple growing up in the rural community of Szegi. You worked as long as there was work to do. There were few opportunities for recreation or for anything other than work. Agricultural work is hard, starting early morning and ending late. He developed physical strength and stamina and enjoyed running and other physical exercises. Shortly after becoming a teenager, he joined the Hungarian paramilitary youth movement, the Levente.
The Levente associations were developed after the end of the First World War in 1921, during the interwar period. The Trianon Agreement ending WWI chopped up Hungary and gave large sections of the country, along with millions of Hungarians, to Romania, Ukraine, and Croatia. Hungary was suddenly left as a shadow of its former self, having lost over ten million of its citizens and a large percent of its territory. Trianon also prohibited the formation, training, and maintaining of an armed force.
So the Hungarians formed paramilitary units such as the Levente to circumvent this prohibition. The boys in the Levente, between ages 12 and 21, practiced marching, physical fitness, and received hand-to-hand combat training — everything short of heavy weapon use. Besides fitness training they also received intense patriotic education. Marton was accepted into the local unit where he practiced long-distance running and boxing.
He often reminisced about and proudly shared stories of his training with the Levente. He excelled at long distance and relay events, winning several Levente competitions. Levente was a good memory for him, not only because of the training he received, but also the thought of being accepted by the Hungarians into a Hungarian unit as an equal.
The political climate at the time was increasingly antisemitic, with newspapers carrying statements and interviews of priests and bishops, urging the government to reject Jewish emancipation. They urged that Hungarian citizenship be denied to those of the Jewish faith on the grounds that Jews could not be trusted. Jews would never be loyal citizens, according to them, as their loyalty was only to other Jews and Judaism. The litmus test of loyalty, as preached by Bishop Prohaszka, a popular and antisemitic Catholic priest, was that only by converting to Christianity could the Jew prove his loyalty to the nation.
Many Jews did convert, while many others changed their Jewish names, opting for more Hungarian ones instead. Although Marton did not succumb to such influences, he was proud of Hungarian acceptance.
The Levente were often compared with the Hitler Jugend of Nazi Germany and the Opera Nazionale Balilla of Fascist Italy. While sharing a common trait of military training with the latter two, Levente was neither openly fascist nor particularly politicized, although it was not isolated from political influences of the time.
Although this training was viewed by Marton as sports training, as the country approached the Second World War, Jews were no longer accepted into their ranks. It was just as well. By the closing stage of the war, after the notorious Arrow Cross took power, Levente units were actually forced into combat units along with the Waffen SS. Many such teenagers perished in combat.
Nevertheless, my father often told me that the training he received would become useful later when he was drafted into Hungarian forced labor battalions and in helping him survive Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen.
As Marton grew older, the time was past due for him to look for a job that had some future. After placing advertisements, he received an opportunity to become an apprentice in the shoe store of Hugo Neuman in the town of Pápa. As a poor orphan, this was a great opportunity. Saying goodbye to his mother and brothers, he boarded the train to Pápa and his future.
To be continued…
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.