By Dr. Alex Sternberg

In last week’s installment, the Germans invaded Hungary, which spelled disaster for the Jews of Hungary and, of course, Dombovar.

No longer was the agenda the confiscation of Jewish property, but the complete disenfranchisement of all civic rights and human rights. In short, unbeknownst to Olga and her neighbors, their destiny now was extermination.

The preparation for the deportation of Jews followed a familiar script.

At first, they dissolved the Jewish community’s autonomy and from the leading citizens they created the Jewish Committee (Judenrat). As elsewhere, the purpose of such a committee was to lull the Jews into a false sense of security in order to forestall any resistance. The Judenrat was charged with compiling a list of all the Jews in town for relocation to the ghetto.

From March 19 until July 10, 1944, 69 separate anti-Jewish measures were enacted by the government. Horthy (still holding the title of regent but with diminished powers), mindful of the warning he received, was not in favor of these measures so he appointed others who were charged with carrying them out. Most of these measures’ intended purpose was the confiscation of all Jewish wealth.

Part of the step-by-step method leading to the deportation was the identification of all Jews. Toward this end, the decree forcing all Jews to wear the identifying yellow Star of David was issued on April 5. Olga awoke to her “birthday present” on April 6, having to sew the yellow star onto her outer clothing.

The Hungarians, methodical and law-abiding people that they were, mandated that all those who were deemed Jews according to the recently enacted Jewish Laws wear the identifying yellow star of at least 10 cm by 10 cm on the left side of their outer garment. Naturally, the intent of this regulation was the segregation of Jews from the rest of the population. The Jews were horrified at the “humiliation” that such differentiation caused. This shameful regulation was obligatory for all Jews, even those who had converted to Christianity generations before. Imagine the horror of these converted Jews who were now forced to identify with the coreligionists they thought they left behind long ago.

On April 19, the Jews’ right to use public transportation was rescinded. All radios were confiscated, preventing Jews from receiving any news. Possession of typewriters and bicycles were forbidden as well.

Suddenly, there were German forces all over the town and in the streets. Upon seeing the Germans, a dread and fear gripped the Jews. Increasing regulations spelled increased shortages. Suddenly there was no meat. As per regulations, Jewish businesses were seized along with all cash and jewelry. Olga actually had no silver or jewelry left, having sold it all earlier to erect a monument on her mother’s grave.

The German forces that occupied Dombovar were housed in the most desirable and luxurious Jewish homes. Several soldiers came banging on Olga’s gate in order to take possession of her house. But Olga was suffering from the measles she contracted from one of her students. Upon seeing the feverish, measles-ridden Olga, the Germans withdrew.

Along with the seizure of the homes and furniture, the confiscation of all personal property followed. According to the regulations published in the official county newspapers: “The Jews are obliged to immediately surrender all personal cash, silverware, carpets, art. They are notified that all real property must be immediately listed with the county notary. Sale or transfer of any such property is strictly forbidden on pain of punishment.”

As a result of the regulations prohibiting contact between Jews and gentiles, Olga’s students and the ladies in her cosmetics clinic disappeared. Some left reluctantly, though others were not as reluctant.

While the future was bleak, they still needed to eat. So Olga and her Christian friend Kato came upon an idea. They bought a weaving machine and a quantity of wool, intending to set up a weave shop. But it was by then too late for any enterprise. The regulations demanded the surrender of all property. The gendarmes came with a list containing all Jewish property. These lists were generated with the help of neighbors who were only too happy to inform.

One of Olga’s students, Haraszti, had joined the Levente Association. The Levente was a paramilitary youth movement that, with the changing of the times, had turned anti-Semitic. Their leader, Sandor Molnar, another anti-Semite, had ordered all the Levente members to be vigilant and report any Jews hiding money or possessions. So Haraszti came to Olga and asked her, “Miss Olga, I just saw you take the wool and hide it in Kato’s house. What should I do now to remain true to my oath?”

Olga told him to follow his conscience and his oath. Haraszti reported Olga, and the gendarmeries came and confiscated the wool that Olga bought in the open market. It was not contraband, just Jewish property. Olga barely escaped a physical beating. Kato was severely reprimanded and warned of the consequences should something like this occur again.

The atmosphere in town was tense. Many Hungarians, happy to see the Jews get their comeuppance, were openly hostile. In better times, Olga would walk in the street with her father to be greeted by the tipping of a hat by her neighbors. Now, many looked away or crossed the street to avoid greeting her. Not many wanted to risk trouble to greet the yellow-starred Jew. But not everyone forgot their humanity.

Szani Istvan, her old history professor who was so kind to her and got her “school” going, was walking on the street when he saw Olga walking on the other side. He tipped his hat and in a very loud voice called out to her. Olga was scared for him, understanding the potential danger that such a gesture could mean for him. She shyly accepted his greeting and hurried along.

On another day, she saw one of her former students, now wearing the uniform of a soldier. He greeted her loudly and approached her. Linking his arm with hers, he walked with her, arm in arm, despite Olga’s protestation. He walked her all the way to her home, assuring that no one would molest her.

There were some who retained their humanity and their decency despite the prevailing winds. But they were few. Very few.

For centuries, Hungarian anti-Semitism was fueled by jealousy. The Jews who immigrated to Hungary in the 1700s were invited in by local noblemen who were interested in boosting their commercial wealth. They knew that the Jews, long reputed to be industrious, would be able to increase commerce and industry and thus boost the economy wherever they lived. After all, the Jews, with their network of international contacts, could open new opportunities.

But the Jews became too successful and too wealthy, making the Hungarians envious. The envy soon turned into outright hatred. For a long time, this hatred simmered below the surface, not bubbling over. They dared not allow it, as the Jews had power and influence. But even Jewish power was no match for the competing power block looking to acquire Jewish wealth: the Church.

Beginning in the late 1880s, strident anti-Jewish agitation by leading priests and church leaders, such as Ottokar Prohaszka, incited the population against the “foreign, unwanted” influence. The “Christ killers” had no place polluting “honest Hungarian soil.”

Most troubling for the Church was the law emancipating Jews. Not only did this law give them equal rights, but now Judaism was finally recognized as an equal religion, on par with Christianity. Much to their disgust, the Church lost that battle. But not for long. The anti-Semitic laws such as the numerus clausus were meant to roll back the hard-won emancipation the Jews had fought for all those years ago.

And now, with right-wing forces sweeping Europe, and with the help of Hitler, the time had come to finally get revenge. In this context, the laws enacted had two specific goals: roll back the emancipation of the Jews in Hungary, and seize all Jewish property.

It was outright theft supported by government laws. Jewish property accumulated over centuries was now up for grabs. Every resourceful Hungarian helped himself to the loot.

Olga and her father were awaiting each day’s new regulations with increased fear. What more could happen? How much worse could things become?

The regulation of April 7, the day after Olga’s birthday, when the yellow-star regulation went into effect, demanded that all those deemed Jewish begin to move into designated concentration areas or ghettos. According to the regulation published by the interior minister, Baky Laszlo: “The royal Hungarian government is preparing to cleanse the nation from Jews. This cleansing will be conducted region by region, regardless of age or gender, and all Jews are therefore to be shipped to the designated concentration areas. The deportation will be conducted by area police and gendarme forces. The area to be designated for this ghetto should comprise the neighborhoods where most Jews reside. Any gentiles presently living in such areas are to be relocated into the vacated Jewish homes. All seized Jewish homes and businesses are to be hereby locked and sealed for disposition in due time.”

So the 622 Dombovar Jews, along with approximately 80 Jews who were residing in the suburbs, were concentrated into the Dombovar ghetto, which was situated near the synagogue. This number would soon swell to over 800 Jews. 

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. 

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