The Sternberg Story, Part 10
In Part 9, Marton and Olga decide to leave Hungary for Israel.
It was late in October 1960. We had already said our goodbyes to our friends, our neighbors, and our teachers. My parents had liquidated their possessions. All that was dear to us fit into our few suitcases. At the train station, we met the Kohn family who would be traveling with us to Israel.
Dezso Kohn, Marton’s friend, had passed away a few years before. He left behind a widow, Laura, and three boys. Laura, who suffered from congestive heart disease, had a brother in Israel. She also received permission from the government to emigrate and asked Marton to look after her and the boys and take her family along to Israel. Marton agreed.
We boarded the train at the Pápa train station, not far from the fertilizer factory just a little down the tracks. The fertilizer factory was where the Hungarians forced the Jews of Pápa to assemble before deporting them to Auschwitz. I was unaware of this at the time. But Marton took stock of the town and said goodbye to all the memories — both the good and the bad — that tied him to his adopted city since 1928.
He put all the ghosts behind him — his first wife, Manci, his son Lacika, his mother-in-law, Rosalie, and the others whose faces haunted him silently, each day, as he walked through the town. He boarded the train, wiping the few tears that formed around his eyes, and we were off to Budapest. We would be staying with Olga’s relatives, the Kertesz sisters, whom we always visited when in Budapest. Some relatives, including my cousin Zoli, came up from Debrecen to say goodbye. Who knew if we would ever meet again?
Sunday was the 30th of October, my 10th birthday. Olga took my brother Laci and me to the famous Budapest Amusement Park. We had a great time, almost forgetting what awaited the next day.
But Monday came anyway, and we all boarded the train at the Budapest Western railroad station, heading toward our new life. A few hours later, we and the Kohns arrived in Vienna and were met by representatives of the Jewish Agency of Israel, the Sochnut. The Sochnut provided support in making our transit to Israel smooth and trouble-free. It was a gigantic Israeli bureaucracy tasked with facilitating aliyah to Israel. In 1960, Israel was still a country with transients living in makeshift tent cities waiting for the promised construction of houses to materialize. The country was in desperate need of raw materials and also new immigrants. The Sochnut shepherded the steadily arriving new immigrants in an attempt to weave them into Israel’s immigration and absorption system.
In Vienna, they transported us to the Hotel Augarten where they had suites awaiting.
For us, Vienna was a gigantic, bustling, urban metropolis different from anything we had imagined. Everyone spoke German, a language that mystified all of us except Marton.
Marton had a friend from long ago who established a business in Vienna after the war. They met and became reacquainted. Mr. Krauss, the friend, promised to help in any way he could. We lived in the hotel and went to the local shul on Saturday. We were all becoming adjusted to life as refugees, thinking, “Wow, this is fun.” Naturally, living in the nice Hotel Augarten was not the typical refugee experience.
Unbeknownst to us, Marton had a very different plan for us that only Olga was aware of.
Marton and Olga had no intention to continue on to Israel. Marton’s only surviving brother Eugene (Jeno) lived in Brooklyn. They had not seen each other since 1922, when Jeno left Szegi, Hungary. Olga had cousins who lived in the United States, one in Connecticut and the other in Philadelphia. After losing most of their family, they both craved to reunite with whatever family there was left.
A law intended to repatriate families torn apart by the war was still on the books of most countries in Europe. Hungary was a signatory to the law. Hungary honored this law, but only to allow citizens to immigrate to places like Israel and not to America. So when Marton filed his emigration application, he indicated his desire to go to Israel to be reunited with some family that we had there. Neither my brother nor I — not even Laura Kohn — was aware of his true intentions.
Immediately after settling into the Augarten Hotel, Marton, with the help of longtime friend Mr. Krauss, visited the U.S. Embassy to inquire about the process for immigration to America. He was informed that while it was possible, the process was a months-long one, at times taking even years. He had to make up his mind quickly. The Israelis, unaware of his intentions, still assumed that the Sternberg family was on schedule to depart in a few weeks, along with the Kohns, for Tel Aviv. Naturally, due to the sensitive nature of this information, we still had no idea about our intended destination. In the interim, Marton completed all the paperwork requesting permission to immigrate to the U.S.
As the date for departure to Israel approached, Marton sat down with Laura to inform her of his change of plans. She would have to go take the boys and travel alone. But Marton assured her that she was in good hands with the Sochnut people and the trip would be uneventful. Upon their arrival in Israel, Laura’s brother would take over their care. As I recall, Laura was very upset hearing this news. She felt betrayed by Marton, who, as a friend of her deceased husband, “owed” him to see her journey through, all the way to Israel. Marton explained that she was unreasonable to expect that he would make decisions affecting his family and his children’s future not based on what was good for his family. It was a nasty scene. Laura said she would never forgive him.
Immediately after speaking with Laura, it was time to quickly pack and leave the hotel behind us. With the help of Mr. Krauss, all four of us moved into his office in another part of Vienna.
The next day, it was time to face the Sochnut to inform them of the change of plans. The Sochnut people were not happy. They were also to be feared. Many of them doubled in their tasks and did whatever Israel needed done in getting people to their shores. At times, this included kidnapping young children from such recalcitrant families and putting them on the next flight to Israel. They would then coolly inform the parents that their children were safe in Israel. “Follow them there or not; it’s up to you,” they would say. After all, to build the country, “It’s mainly the children that Israel wants anyway.” Apparently, our situation was not unique and the Sochnut faced it frequently. The kidnapping strategy naturally got all the left-behind parents on the next flight to Israel.
So for the next several weeks, until the Sochnut calmed down and we were officially designated refugees awaiting processing to America, my brother and I were not allowed to leave the upstairs office without our parents. We were hiding from the Israelis.
Meanwhile, the Kohn family departed for Tel Aviv and we never met again.
After a few weeks, our status changed from those in transit through Vienna to being given permission by Austria to remain on their soil, awaiting transport to the U.S. Our hiding from the Sochnut came to an end with our change in status and we left Mr. Krauss’s office/apartment. Marton secured a room for us to live in, in the apartment of a mean and disagreeable Austrian man who didn’t seem to have much sympathy for immigrants or Jews—or both. Apparently, he did need the money, though.
Laci and I were enrolled in school. Due to our two-year age difference, I went to an elementary school while he was enrolled in a middle school in a different building far away from mine. We were both alone, two Jewish boys speaking Hungarian only, in a hostile German-speaking environment. The option of not going to school did not exist. It never even occurred to us to ask. We had no idea how long we needed to wait in Vienna for the decision by the Americans, so life was proceeding. We settled into making lemonade out of the lemons we were dealt.
Looking back, I was a ten-year-old in Vienna who didn’t speak a word of German, with not a friend in the world, thrust into a weird and hostile environment. It was a sink-or-swim situation. Although I didn’t really understand the situation in which I found myself at the time, I decided to swim.
Dr. Alex Sternberg 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.