By Dr. Alex Sternberg

Though Olga Elek recalled her high school years fondly, antisemitism was still present in Hungary and Dombovar during her formative years. However, it was not prevalent in her preferred circle of friends, who were educated and intelligent. Yes, there were antisemites, but mainly among the poor and uneducated children of the working class, such as the peasants and the railroad workers. For all practical purposes, Olga and her friends existed in a bubble.

However, in the spirit of growing hostility, some less tolerant Hungarians broke into the synagogue in Dombovar and neighboring villages of Tamisi, Kaposvar, Simonytornyan, Eperjes, and Szekesfehervar. Their target, in addition to vandalism, was also the tzedakah box. Despite the growing hostile atmosphere — or perhaps as a result of it — Olga’s family and other Jews continued to assimilate into Hungarian society and continued to perform charitable deeds, all along absorbing the Hungarian culture. For a few more years, the trend to change their names into Hungarian versions continued, as did the trend of conversion. The dark cloud over their coreligionists elsewhere in Europe would not shadow Hungary, they deluded themselves. Here they were emancipated, here they were assimilated, and here they were protected not only by the government but by the inherent humanity of their Hungarian Christian neighbors.

But the black bird of destruction was spreading her wings and casting a giant shadow over the entire country. Hungary and Dombovar would not escape it.

With the end of WWI and the oft-mentioned Trianon Agreement, Hungary lost almost three-quarters of her territory along with 10 million of her previous population of 17 million. In addition to getting used to such new realities, a large segment of the educated and degreed lost their jobs. The professional ranks were depleted. Many professionals were Jewish, a percentage much larger than their demographics would indicate. The Christian clergy and political wing of the Church would not allow this injustice to continue. In order to limit the saturation of Jewish professionals while at the same time guarantee greater Christian access, the first anti-Jewish law in Europe was enacted — the numerus clausus.

Numerus clausus (closed number) mandated that only six percent of the Jewish population, reflecting the demographic census of the country, would be admitted to universities to study medicine, law, or engineering.

This law contradicted the national right to an education, and also negated the hard-fought status achieved by Jews with the emancipation of 1867. In 1867, Hungary defined the Jews as “Hungarian” and emancipated them from being subject to any discrimination based upon their religion. And now, a mere 50 years later, Jews found themselves once again redefined as a Jewish minority, subject to discrimination.

Numerus clausus had the desired devastating impact on the entire Jewish community of Hungary.

Anti-Jewish prejudice, hitherto seldom seen in Dombovar, was on the rise after the devastating loss of the war. As in Germany, Hungarian Christians, led by priestly sermons on Sunday and articles written in the Christian press, blamed the perennial Jewish scapegoat for the loss of the war, because of a perceived lack of Jewish participation in the war effort.

According to the Christian press, “Jews profited during the war while Christian men bled and died.” This charge was patently untrue. Many Jews had served in the army, with many earning citations for bravery. Many came home wounded and some crippled. Many Jews served as officers, as they were fluent in the German language, which was vital to the war effort, while many Hungarians were consigned to the infantry. As a general rule, there were more casualties in the infantry than among the officers. Despite this, the charge was believed by the population eager to blame someone.

From the early 1920s and on, signs of division in society based upon religion were becoming more evident. Jews who lived near the synagogue would often congregate together, limiting their walks to the nearby streets, forming a kind of self-imposed ghetto. After all, there is strength in numbers. But those in the community who were more assimilated and better off continued to buy homes in the upper part of the city, continuing to integrate with the gentiles. The Elek family was part of this crowd.

Data obtained from town records indicates that Jewish presence among the town’s elite began to decline. Nevertheless, Jews continued to donate to non-denominational causes and continued their charitable activities. Perhaps it was a sort of defense mechanism. Shortly after 1922, the rising tide of antisemitism began to ebb again. Speeches by national leaders urging restraint often made reference to the wealth of the Jews and the need to maintain it continually in Hungary. But some of the speeches also contained the sentiment that it’s still OK and doesn’t hurt the Jewish psyche to get scared once in a while, so they don’t become too confident of the benevolent Christian spirit of charity.

With the decrease in open hostility, Jews once again began to assume more traditional leadership in the city. Newspapers detail the charities benefiting the entire town led by prominent Jews. Social interaction resumed with the customary performances on the town’s gimnazium stage. Performances by the leading stars of the town such as Olga Elek, Manci Singer, Jozsef Singer, and other Jews were once again prominently celebrated. It was in this atmosphere of waning discrimination that the Elek family found themselves upon their arrival in Dombovar in 1924. 

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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