I recently returned from a two-week visit to Budapest. The weeks flew by so fast that it seemed that we barely unpacked our bags and were packing up again, ready to leave.
Accompanying me to Budapest was Yonatan, my 14-year-old son. We both had a hectic schedule ahead of us that at times seemed to be dictated by an unforgiving drill sergeant.
Next year, the quadrennial European Maccabiah Games will take place in Budapest, and I have been given a role as one of the delegation leaders. I had preliminary meetings with the head of Maccabi Hungary, to discuss the itinerary and other logistical issues for next year. I met with publishers and researchers regarding my forthcoming book. I also traveled to Dombovar, my mother’s hometown, to meet with some historians knowledgeable about the Jewish community there before the war. A highlight of this visit was meeting with a man (close to 90 years old) who knew my mother and her family. He was able to fill in many details about my mother and my grandparents that I was not aware of.
Accompanying me to all these meetings was Yonatan, who is fluent in Hungarian. But Yonatan had his own agenda as well. As a competitive gymnast who aspires to participate in future Maccabiah Games, Yonatan was off his training routine for the summer. I managed to get him invited into an elite gymnastics training program, led by several of the Hungarian national coaches. Now it was my turn to accompany him and take a back seat, as he was the focus of the training sessions. Day after day, I sat outside the training hall at 8:30 in the morning, as Yonatan began his daily training. Each session lasted a minimum of three hours. Hungary has an excellent sports program that includes a very competitive gymnastics team. All the boys training in his group were very serious and focused athletes, and we agreed that we may see some of them in a future Olympic competition.
In between Yonatan’s morning of gymnastics and evening karate training and my meetings, we made time to get together with some of my friends I grew up with in Papa, some 60 years ago.
Yes, 60 years ago!
I was born in Papa, Hungary, a midsize city in the southwest part of the country, with a population of 30,000. Jews had lived there for over 200 years and had comprised about ten percent of the town’s population. Papa — or Pupa, as the chassidim pronounce it — boasted a well-regarded yeshiva that drew students from all over the country. Papa also had a large and beautiful shul, the second-largest Orthodox synagogue in the country and among the largest in Europe. Sadly, in 1944, all the Jews from town were deported to Auschwitz; precious few survived and returned. My father was one of those who returned. Shortly after the survivors began to filter back, the magnitude of their loss became apparent as they realized how many would never return. My father’s wife and child would never return. A year or so later, my mother and father were introduced, and they got married. A few years after their marriage, my brother, Leslie, and I were born.
I vividly remember growing up in Papa in the 1950s. Up till 1956, there was a decent-sized kehillah of about 50 families consisting of several hundred souls. Holidays were observed in our large and beautiful synagogue, although being inside seemed to reinforce the magnitude of the town’s loss, as the congregation looked almost dwarfed by the large shul.
The 1956 Hungarian Revolution gutted even the meager remnant of the once glorious community, as most of the town’s Jews seemed to want to rectify their mistake in returning, and hastily departed. Our glorious shul closed, never to be used again for prayer.
Although not every Jew living in Papa was observant, there was a tacit understanding amongst us all that we needed to band together, religious or not, to survive. This understanding allowed Bela Bacsi (Uncle Bela — all adults were referred to by children as “uncle” or “aunt”) to come to shul on Shabbos morning, daven, and then leave on his motorcycle to open his store for business. We needed every Jew for the minyan. Shortly after, Uncle Bela immigrated to Israel with his family.
In the house we lived in, there were about 15 apartments. Across the courtyard was the Papai family with their daughter Jutka. Directly below us was the Nye family. The Nyes emigrated from Hungary in 1956. We met again after we arrived in New York in 1961, and resumed our friendship. The Papai family stayed in Papa, with Jutka ultimately marrying and moving to Budapest.
By the mid-1960s, most Jews from Papa were gone. Many left to Israel or the U.S., and some who remained in Hungary moved to Budapest. Vidor Gabi, Papai Jutka, Guttman Katica, and some more, made their lives in the capital. They all established families, with some of their children and grandchildren living in Hungary while others moved on to Vienna, Israel, or the United States. The Jewish community of Papa became a memory.
I have returned often since we left in 1960. Every time I return, I make it my business to spend time with those with whom I shared the first 10 years of my life. Our best memories involved each other. Our shared memories inevitably shift conversations to “Remember when I got lost and wandered around town by myself at the age of five?”
It would be considered very rude if I didn’t get together with them. Our parents raised us to be courteous, which meant observing certain conventions. We all behave the way our parents would expect of us, especially when we are together. We know the behavior that was expected from us then. Seeing each other again and getting reacquainted allows us to relive, even for a brief moment, the lives and the world we left behind.
At dinner with Gabi, her husband, Imre, and grandson, Marci, Gabi reminded me that although her family was not observant, they observed all the holidays together with us, the Sternbergs. My father was always observant. While some in town may have scoffed at his religious zeal, everyone respected him for his sincerity. Naturally, when yom tov came, he would invite all who wanted to share in the holiday.
Over the years, my old friends met and got to know Yonatan. During my visits with them, Yonatan dutifully put on nice clothes and suffered through the lengthy Hungarian conversations. As an American young man, this world is alien to him. I am guessing that it’s alien even to boys growing up in present-day Hungary.
But he had a chance to get a glimpse into a world that is gone, a world that disappeared into oblivion.
My American friends often ask me why I return to Hungary when my good memories compete with the memories of the times I was called a “dirty Jew” growing up. It’s difficult to explain. When I am there, I visit the places I went to with my parents, but now I go with my old friends. I step back into my parents’ world and relive my youth; I revel once again with those friends with whom I shared those years. One of my old friends, Jutka, who lived in our apartment complex, organized the Papa Jewish Society. They send news about the lives of those who lived in Papa. They have monthly meetings in Budapest and I once attended a meeting when it coincided with my visit one year.
What is it that holds us together after all these years, despite the miles and continents that separate us? I hope Yonatan will understand that old friends are cherished friends.
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 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.