My mother, Olga Sternberg, passed away on May 11, 2004, at the age of 93. When she died, my wife, Ilyse, and I had just landed in Mexico for a long-overdue vacation. Ilyse was five months pregnant.

We arrived at our resort, put our bags in our room, and ran outside to enjoy the sun and the sea. When we returned to unpack, I received a call from my daughter-in-law informing me that my mother had just passed away. We made immediate plans to return on the next available flight, which was the next morning at 6 a.m. The return flight was very eventful. One of the passengers had a heart attack, forcing our plane to make an emergency landing midway home. We stayed on the ground for a few hours to let the passenger off and to refuel, while I looked at my watch, worrying that I might not arrive in time for her funeral. When we finally landed at about 5 p.m. in New York we had been in flight for close to 12 hours.

While flying home I was in a catatonic state, sort of a stupor, as the news was sinking in: my mother was no more. Gone. I thought about her life and everything she went through during her challenging 93 years. Who was Olga Sternberg? What striking features stood out?

Olga was born on April 6, 1911, in the city of Vegvar, located in the Transylvania region of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. The First World War broke out a few years after her birth and ended around her 8th birthday. I know very little about her very early years. I know that her father, Adolf Elek, was an educated and assimilated Jew, working as a bank official, the bank’s head bookkeeper. My grandfather Adolf was a staunch Hungarian patriot, as were most of the assimilated Jews of his generation.

They enlisted in the wars of Hungary and fought bravely and even heroically as proud members of the Hungarian Army. The Jewish community established a new branch of Judaism called Neolog that sought to present a form of worship that didn’t call too much attention to Jewish separateness. With an easing of the rules of Sabbath observance and laws governing kashrut, and new synagogue liturgy, the Neolog version of Judaism was the perfect choice for those who wanted to get along in non-Jewish society but still retain a Jewish connection. Yes, they were different as Jews, but now not too different.

With the war’s end, and Hungary once again on the losing side, the Austro-Hungarian monarchy was dissolved, with huge swathes of land taken away and given to new, emerging countries. Transylvania was ceded to Romania along with all its citizens. Adolf suddenly found himself a citizen of Romania, a country to which he had no fidelity. To rectify his intolerable situation, he picked up roots and moved over the border into Hungary, eventually settling in the small picturesque town of Dombóvár.

Olga was 13 years old when she arrived in Dombóvár. Befitting Adolf’s stature as an educated and assimilated man, Olga was enrolled in the only grade school in town, the local Catholic elementary school. She graduated with honors. Adolf and his wife, Karola, had big dreams for Olga’s education. She was going to become a doctor.

She enrolled in the local high school, previously restricted to only men. High school was a formative experience for Olga. Along with the seven other girls, she was treated as a curiosity, a delicate flower. They were kept apart from the boys when not in class and treated with deferential respect. Olga’s Jewishness was never discussed as she smoothly assimilated into the school’s community and culture. There were parties to go to, plays to participate in, and pleasant evenings reading poetry. The newspapers from Dombóvár are filled with glowing accounts of the local productions staged by the gymnazium (high school) and prominently feature a talented rising star, a young woman named Olga Elek.

She counted among her friends the daughters of the town elite. In her reminiscences, I don’t recall her differentiating between Jews and Christians. Her Jewishness was evident mainly on Friday evenings when she attended Shabbat services in the small Neolog synagogue on Kakas Domb (Rooster Hill). There she sang Lechah Dodi and other Shabbat songs in the choir and listened attentively to the sermons of the rabbi. But for the other six days a week she was like all her friends, a young woman immersed in the rich Hungarian culture and history.

She often reminisced about her wonderful teenage years. She would recite poetry for me in Latin and in Hungarian. She was familiar with all the great Hungarian poets. At times she told me about how demanding her mother was regarding her education. A near-perfect report card was never good enough. She also told me how proud her father was of her. She seldom spoke about any religious observances in the Elek household.

Neolog Jews believed that their assimilation would reduce the centuries-old anti-Semitism keeping them apart from society. They actually thought they had found safety and protection. After all, they were Hungarians! She often told me of her shock when she, my grandfather, and others were loaded onto the cattle cars by their “good Hungarian friends” who betrayed them at the first chance they had. Too late, they realized that in the eyes of the Hungarians, all Jews were the same: dirty Jews.

In Auschwitz, on those lonely nights, she had an opportunity to think about her identity. She learned to accept what “fate” had in store for her. After several months there, she was befriended by two Orthodox sisters, the daughters of Rabbi Goldstein from Balatonfüred. This chance meeting in Auschwitz gave her the first opportunity to be introduced to Orthodox attitudes.

After liberation, all three girls made it home to Hungary. Olga returned to Dombóvár to try to pick up the shattered pieces of her life, while the Goldstein girls ended up in Pápa. Jolus, the older one, married a religious man, a chassid, who had a friend. Shortly after settling into married life, Jolus wrote to Dombóvár and invited Olga for a visit. After arriving, she was introduced to the friend, Marton Sternberg, a widower whose wife and family perished in Auschwitz.

The courtship became a long-distance one when Olga returned to Dombóvár, but not a long one. Marton explained that he was an Orthodox Jew whose religious convictions strengthened after his concentration camp experiences. If they married, he explained, their house would be a strictly kosher, Shabbos-observant one. Olga accepted, and after the wedding, she began to fit into her newly adopted Orthodox lifestyle. Words or concepts like “ba’al teshuvah” belonged to the future, and my mother never thought of herself in such terms. She learned from my father about what we could eat and what we could not, about separating dairy from meat dishes, etc. As a homemaker, she learned to separate challah when baking bread, and to make an eruv tavshilin when required. With the passing of time, her convictions grew along with her knowledge. She accepted this change as she accepted her situation in Auschwitz. Our home was strictly Orthodox—no different from that of our chassidic neighbors in Pápa and later in Boro Park. Did she do this just for her husband? I never asked her.

I can only assume that it must have been hard to adjust, especially at first. But while growing up, I never knew that she had not always been Orthodox. Years later, I learned about her early, less observant days. I wondered: Did she miss her old, carefree, less observant lifestyle?

Some ba’alei teshuvah might mention how good lobster or a cheeseburger tasted. They seemingly have some fond memories from those old days. But not my mother. She never seemed to regret giving up those things and never mentioned them. She was now a strictly Orthodox woman, mother, and wife. As a child, I remember that both my parents were observant. Period. In Communist Hungary in the 1950s, that was not an easy choice.

The one thing I do know she missed was the culture—the opera, the museums. My father just didn’t understand those things, certainly not the way my mother did. My mother not only missed the culture, but she craved having friends to discuss such topics with.

My parents’ influence on me was profound. My father sent me to “cheder” in Pápa, and later to black-hat yeshivas in Williamsburg, while my mother dragged me to the opera and the art museums. My father never did stop her. He was just as proud of his cultured wife as my grandfather had been. In time, I learned to appreciate both influences.

After we immigrated to New York, my parents got jobs working in sweatshops in the garment trade. My mother, the cultured, educated teacher was now sewing garments eight hours a day. She didn’t complain about this change in lifestyle either. The only thing she regretted was the lack of sophisticated conversations among her coworkers. Most immigrants had no time or patience for art. They were busy putting food on the table.

As we settled in Brooklyn, I, too, had to make a difficult adjustment in my life. My life had been carefree, growing up in a small rural town in Hungary. In the winters, we ice-skated on frozen rivers and lakes. Often, I skated to school, as the roads were all frozen over. In the summer, we swam in the same lakes and went fishing in the rivers. I played soccer after school every day and explored the town with my friends. Once in Brooklyn, however, all this stopped. There was no river, no lake. No exploring. The yeshiva didn’t have much tolerance for sports. Chafing at the restrictions placed on me, unlike my mother, I rebelled.

I found out that black-hat yeshivas also have little tolerance for rebellious students.

Looking back on those years and my adjustment issues, I realized that my mother was better at adapting than I had been. She tried, futilely at times, to get me to fit into the constraint of the yeshiva rules. For me, these new rules were difficult to adopt. When I got in trouble, it was always my mother who understood me. I guess her experience gave her a better handle on making adjustments.

As years passed, I learned to appreciate her decision more and more. I know my father did. Perhaps she realized that the Neolog lifestyle did not save them in 1944? Perhaps Orthodoxy was more meaningful?

Remembering my mother on her yahrzeit, 20 Iyar, I am convinced that she was a sincere ba’alas teshuvah. I am also grateful for all the things she taught me.

L’iluy nishmat Olga Elek Sternberg, whose yahrzeit is 20 Iyar.

Dr. Alex Sternberg authored the book “Recipes from Auschwitz: The Survival Story of Two Hungarian Jews.” He is a lifelong student of Jewish history, focusing on the development of Zionism and the Holocaust. He teaches 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.


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