By Dr. Alex Sternberg


In Part 31, Olga returns to Hungary and finds her aunt. She decides to make her way back to Dombovar to reclaim her home and possessions.

Olga boarded the train and soon arrived at the familiar station with the old train engine standing outside. That engine, now a memorial, had been standing at the Dombovar station for many years. As she disembarked, she thought about the many times she had been at the station. It was always lively and bustling. Now, too, the station was bustling, but for Olga it would never again be the same.

A year but a lifetime ago, she and her father and all the Jews of Dombovar were driven past the station by the hateful Hungarian gendarmes and forced to climb aboard the dirty cattle cars on their way to Auschwitz. Now, a year later, there were no gendarmes, just a bustling station filled with life and vibrancy as if nothing had happened during the fateful past year.

She arrived in Dombovar on a Friday morning. Her childhood friend Kato waited for her with true, sisterly affection. They cried a lot as they talked and went back to Kato’s house. Kato took the news about the death of Olga’s father very hard. But when Olga informed her of her plans to return to Budapest and not remain in Dombovar, Kato was grief-stricken. She tried to convince Olga to remain in Dombovar, that they would reconstruct their lives. But Olga was adamant about not wanting to stay in Dombovar.

It was time for Olga to visit the cemetery. She visited the grave of her mother, who had died a few years before. She stood at the graveside filled with mixed feelings. Her father was also gone, and there was not even a grave to visit. She decided that she would have her father’s name engraved on her mother’s gravestone. There had to be some evidence, some lasting memento to his life. Time stood still as she stood at the grave thinking about her mother and father. But it was Friday evening and it was time to go to the synagogue, as she always did on Shabbat.

Entering the synagogue, she was shocked to see the empty pews. She looked around to see some familiar faces. With her eyes closed, she recalled when it was filled with her happy, singing friends. But not tonight; surely, never again. Now only the ghosts of those who would never return could fill it. The service was all the more moving in the nearly empty hall. The rabbi, Dr. Hillel Friedman, was gone. His sermons were famous, with members listening to every word. But only his wife and older daughter survived, and they were still in Budapest, working up the courage to visit. The ghosts and memories were keeping them away.

Soon the service was over and it was time to walk down the familiar streets and return to Kato.

The next day, Saturday, with news of her return, some of her previous students began to filter back one by one.

“Olgi Neni (Ms. Olga), when will you resume teaching again?”

On Sunday, more of her old students appeared and demanded to know when they could begin to study again. But Olga was reluctant. Could she live among those who turned against her and the other Jews?

Finally, she told them that she will stay and teach, but it will not be permanent. She planned to return to Budapest.

As the weeks passed, more students showed up, now with their pens and notebooks. Kato gave her more clothes and offered to share the apartment. She urged Olga to remain in Dombovar. “After all,” she said, “you have everything here. Your students will provide you with a comfortable livelihood and you can be content.”

Kato treated her as any sister would. Kato’s father, a kindly old farmer, would bring them fresh food from his farm. Kato’s apartment was spacious, and although her sister’s two children lived with her, there was ample room for all of them. After several months Olga decided to remain and rebuild her life in Dombovar.

Slowly, she got used to living again, but not forgetting. She avoided and would not accept the greeting of those who were especially hateful. As optimistic as Olga was, she was no longer naïve. She wrote to the woman who was “safeguarding” her dowry, asking to stop by for a visit. But it seemed that the time was never opportune for Olga’s visit. Finally, after Olga suggested that she would involve the authorities, she was invited to visit. Comments were passed about “how many had returned. In fact, perhaps more Jews had come back than were ever shipped away!” she overheard. The dowry was reluctantly returned, missing some of the choicest pieces, of course. Her family house, where Olga and her father had lived, was gone. A Hungarian family had moved in, claiming that they were given the house by the authorities.

In 1947, her Balatonfured friend from Auschwitz, Yolus, got married and settled with her husband in Pápa. She wrote and invited Olga to come for a visit. Yolus followed the letter with a telegram urging her to come. But Olga explained that it was June and her students were preparing for their year-end examination, and it was impossible. In September she would consider a visit.

When September came, Olga went up to Budapest to visit her aunt, planning to travel from there to Pápa. Upon arriving in Budapest, two letters were waiting for her. One was from Yolus and the other was a mysterious letter without a return address.

Olga wrote to Yolus that she planned to remain in Budapest for a week or so visiting with her aunt and uncle, and then she would travel down to Pápa. But Yolus was quite insistent that Olga must come immediately. Yolus had indicated that there was someone she wanted to introduce to her. As it turned out, the second letter was from Marton Sternberg (Olga’s future husband and my father), who was very interested in meeting her and had included the train schedule going to Pápa. He clearly did not want her to miss the train.

Yolus was a serious and intelligent woman. As the daughter of the Balatonfured rabbi, she was also very religious. She married one of the most religious Chassidic Jews of the town. He, in turn, was a good friend of Marton’s. Yolus hosted her husband’s friends, and she was not above giving advice to anyone, whether they asked for it or not. Yolus began telling Marton that she knew a woman from Auschwitz who would make a great wife for Marton. Marton respected her advice and began to make inquiries in Dombovar about Olga. Always a man of action, he traveled to Budapest, wanting to meet Olga.

Meanwhile, Olga was making herself at home in Margit’s apartment, cleaning the windows and mopping the floor, when Marton knocked on the door looking for Olga Elek. She was quite surprised and completely unprepared to meet her future husband.

Marton had returned from Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen in 1945. His entire family — his mother and brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, as well as his wife and little son — all perished upon arriving in Auschwitz. He was also rebuilding his life and his pre-war shoe business in Pápa.

Olga visited Yolus in Pápa and spent a few weeks getting to know Marton. Marton and Olga got engaged in November 1946 and were married in Budapest in March of 1947.

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 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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