By Dr. Alex Sternberg

By the time Marton married Olga, he was back in his shoe business. Business was in his marrow. He bought a small truck to transport his purchases from Budapest, as the wholesalers were not yet ready to ship out to the provincial towns.

Hungary was badly damaged during the war from the Allied bombings and was in the process of rebuilding. Marton began to get his old customers back, and with his new wife, Olga, the store was flourishing. He made additional purchases of a motorcycle and a passenger car, and he bought an orchard just outside of town, where he cultivated his fruit trees. He had apples, pears, and walnuts, and he planted berries.

From the 3,000 Jews of Pápa who were shipped to Auschwitz, a few hundred came back. It was time to rebuild the community. Of course, the famous Pápa Yeshiva would never be rebuilt in Pápa ever again. But the shul, the mikveh, and the remnant of the once-mighty kehillah needed to be brought back to life. Marton set himself the task and began to bring the Jews together. A rabbi was procured, Rabbi Kohn, who, like most rabbis in Hungary, was everything spiritual to the kehillah. He was the rabbi, shochet, and leader of the fledgling community. As a new generation of children was starting to be born, Rabbi Kohn would also become the melamed who taught them.

Like everyone else, Rabbi Kohn was a survivor. He was a small man with a beard and bent back who didn’t talk much about his life before the war. Rumor had it that his entire family of ten children perished. Like many of the others, he performed his tasks in a perfunctory manner. Why did he come back to Pápa, some wondered? But like others, where was he going to go?

No one really talked about Auschwitz. The past was locked up, deep inside all the survivors, including Marton and Olga. What was the use in talking about what was? But when Olga delivered their first child — a boy — Marton named him Lacika, perhaps to remember the Lacika who died in Auschwitz a few years before. And when a few years later a second child, also a boy, was born, they named him Sandor and Tzvi after two of Marton’s brothers who had perished. Children were born to the others as well, as the Jews were eager to rebuild their lost families. The community was breathing again, although slowly and, perhaps, sadly.

The large synagogue, once the pride of the Pápa community, was rarely open for services now. With barely 200 Jews in town, there was no point in opening a synagogue that could seat thousands. So services were conducted in a smaller hall and the large one was opened only on the High Holidays.

What must they have been thinking, though, living once again among the very same people who had turned their backs on them in their moment of need? There was no coming to terms with the magnitude of the crime perpetrated by their Hungarian neighbors.

No one even tried — certainly not those neighbors who were among the most vocal when they turned them over to the gendarmes for beatings and confiscation of their belongings. It must have been difficult to forget the comments: “You dirty Jews, now you are gonna get what you deserve.” The smoldering resentment of centuries had flared into open hatred bent on finally destroying the hated Jewish neighbors. Which neighbors were now hiding in their closets the belongings that once were the treasures of the Jews? Who had in his drawers the silver flatware that once belonged to a Jewish neighbor, and who had, among her hidden belongings, the silver candlesticks that were lit every Friday evening to herald the coming of the holy Sabbath? No, none of the Hungarians wanted to discuss what happened and what they had done. For their part, neither did the Jews. Life went on as if nothing had happened.

In 1952, the government of Hungary officially adopted a communist constitution to conform with their patron, the Soviet Union. Private business was abolished, and Marton’s shoe business was “nationalized” and he had to close it. He was placed in a furniture-manufacturing collective as a carpenter. The Jews of Pápa adapted to the new regime as Jews always did: they made lemonade out of the lemons they were dealt. Marton made furniture, while Olga was allowed to sell “accessories” (kerchiefs, belts, pocketbooks, etc.) in neighboring towns on market day.

On Mondays and Thursdays, she would board the train with large suitcases of her merchandise and travel to the nearby villages that had no stores but relied on the markets to supply their needs. These markets offered livestock, clothing, shoes, vegetables — in short, everything one could have needed. It was a hard life for Olga, rising at dawn to catch the train that would transport her merchandise to the markets. She even had to transport the tent she used in which she sold her accessories. In the afternoon, with the market closed, everything had to be packed back in the suitcases, the tent dismantled, and transported back to Pápa.

Shortly after Marton began to work in the furniture factory, he was made the chief lumber buyer. It was not surprising, as he had the organizational skills needed to run a business. In his new position, he began to scour the neighboring towns for raw material from which they would make the furniture. He was on the road often, as was Olga. The children were cared for by a housekeeper, a local Hungarian girl of about 20. When the children came of age, they were enrolled in the local public schools.

Jews and gentiles existed in different worlds, more or less the same as before the war. Interaction was largely polite with the occasional anti-Semitic comment or sentiment from those who were more openly hostile. Although the communist regime officially tolerated no form of discrimination, hostile attitudes toward Jews forged over centuries could not be erased with half-hearted regulations and obscure laws.

School was like all schools, disliked by the kids who couldn’t wait to get it over with. As I recall, I never felt that I was like all the other boys in my class. I was always the “Jewish kid,” and there was no getting over that distinction. The differences in our religions were always a topic of conversation. Not only did our classmates discriminate, but the teachers did as well.

After classes were over, my friends went to play soccer and I went to the shul where Rabbi Kohn conducted classes in religious studies. To be honest, I would have preferred to be with the other kids playing, but my father, Marton, was very strict about the “cheder,” religious instruction. There was no choice for me; it was off to the cheder after school. As I got older, I learned to accept the differences between the Jewish children and the Hungarians. It was what it was.

In 1956, the Hungarians grew tired of the communist experiment and staged a revolution against the regime. During the first few weeks, euphoric Hungarians grabbed guns and fought their communist neighbors and the Russian troops stationed there. Chaos reigned and no one knew who, in fact, was in charge of the country. In the confusion, the police and the soldiers did not report to duty. This situation was especially true on the borders of the country. Suddenly, with no border troops on duty, the population was free to escape.

As news of the open borders seeped into the country, those who had wanted to get out but were prevented by the repressive communist government jumped at the chance to escape.

The Jews of Pápa who had returned from Auschwitz only to look for surviving family members and then found themselves locked into the communist “paradise” were among the first to seize this opportunity.

With the Austrian border less than 200 kilometers away, family after family would pack a few suitcases and slip away during the night. Most of the remnants of Pápa Jewry snuck out of the country during those few fateful weeks, before the revolution was repressed and order restored.

Marton and Olga were unsure of their next step. While they, too, had no interest in staying, each day brought different rumors and more uncertainties. One day, Olga agreed to go, with Marton unsure. On the next day, it was Marton who wanted to leave, with Olga now unsure. Finally, when they both agreed on leaving, order was restored and it was too late. So they stayed.

Sadly, they had witnessed the second emptying of the town of its Jews, but this time perhaps for the final time.

Now there were only a hundred or so Jews left behind. A minyan became more and more elusive. Marton, as the gabbai of the small kehillah, was preoccupied with importing Jews for prayer from neighboring villages, especially on holidays. The large synagogue was now permanently closed for worship. Marton moved the belongings of all those who had left for safekeeping, not knowing if they would ever return.

As my brother and I got older, we began to understand the situation. We suddenly had even fewer friends to play with. On Shabbos and holidays, the shul was even more forlorn and empty. Our classes with Rabbi Kohn got smaller and smaller.

We were learning about Israel, a country far away that was born just a few years before we were. To me, it was a fantastic place that was straight out of the Bible. Jerusalem and Hebron were places I encountered in my classes with Rabbi Kohn. They were all Jews there, I was told. It was our country, even if we never set foot there. On Marton’s trips to Budapest, he often stopped by the Israeli embassy to pick up Siddurim, talleisim, and other religious articles that were no longer available in Hungary.

Then in 1960, my parents sat down with us and told us that we, too, were leaving Pápa. We would be going to Israel, with a short stop in Vienna. As a 10-year-old, I could not comprehend the future. I just knew that I would be leaving all my friends behind and embarking on a new and exciting adventure. I didn’t understand, however, that I was not only changing my address, but that I was about to change my entire life. 

Dr. Alex Sternberg authored the forthcoming book “Recipes from Auschwitz–My Parents’ Story of the Murder of Hungarian Jewry.” He is presently 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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