By Dr. Alex Sternberg

In Part 11, the Jews of Dombovar were relocated to the ghetto where conditions were unbearable.

June brought many changes. The weather turned hot and stifling. Being cooped up in the house with so many others was getting on everyone’s nerves. The future, in its uncertainty, was also depressing.

At that time, a group of gendarmes from Pecs suddenly appeared in town. They were headed by Peter Haind, a hitherto-unknown character from another town. Their presence and their demeanor left no doubt that they were on a mission. As soon as they arrived, they got down to business.

Haind and his thugs set up shop in the house designated as the ghetto headquarters. They began to call in everyone from the ghetto, one by one, asking them where they had hidden their valuables. They asked at first, but when they didn’t get the answers they wanted, their methods changed. The Hungarians called these “mint operations.” After all, they were practically minting money.

No Jew was exempt, no man or woman. These operations were conducted in the most brutal fashion imaginable and involved torture and beatings to get the Jews to confess the secret locations of their hiding places. For the men, electric cattle prods were used on their private parts and other sensitive parts of their body. Teeth were knocked out, and arms and jaws were broken during these interrogations. The women were thoroughly examined by midwives who searched their most private areas. After, it came the women’s turn with the electric prongs.

The gendarmes, when filing their reports, would write that “during the occasion of our questioning, certain locations were volunteered by the Jews.”

While conducting these torture sessions, Hainds turned the radio on full blast so no one would hear the agonizing cries of torture. Despite this, screams were heard all over the ghetto, and those on line waiting for their turn were suitably terrified. The Jews in Dombovar were mainly shopkeepers, storeowners, and clerks who led a more refined life. For them, such brutal beatings and torture was especially hard to endure.

The mint operations were successful, as most Jews were unable to withstand the torture and revealed their secret hiding places.

Olga was also petrified. Her name, already on a blacklist from an earlier incident involving the contraband wool that she and Kato meant to weave and sell, brought her unwanted attention. Now she awaited the worst.

She had no more jewelry left, having sold all her valuables to buy the gravestone on her mother’s grave. But a frightening thought gnawed at her brain. What if during the interrogation she would not be believed that she had sold all her valuables and would therefore get a more severe beating? She would not be able to “confess” anything as she had nothing to confess. She awaited her fate.

But again, she was spared. Her name on the list for interrogation was seen by one of the gendarmes in the room who was one of her former students. He was a decent man who had found employment in the ranks of the gendarmes. When he saw her name, he yelled out, “What is this Jew’s name doing on the list? Don’t you know that she is poorer than a church mouse? She has nothing!”

Olga, however, knew nothing of this conversation, and so, in fear, she waited to be called.

Later that afternoon, while Olga was outside, the gendarme who had been her student came up to her and walked beside her. He whispered in her ear, “Don’t worry, miss. I crossed your name off the list. You will not be interrogated.” But despite his assurance, Olga could not help but worry.

Her friends, the Kertesz family, with whom Olga and her father shared the apartment, were one of those called in. The Kertesz family was well-off. The local Hungarians knew this, and their name was prominently placed on the list. Mr. Kertesz was summoned.

After a severe beating, he revealed the hiding places. He was a wreck as he left the “mint house.” When he informed his wife as to what happened, she complained to him bitterly. “What, you revealed everything? We now have nothing. This means that there will be nothing left for Feri as an inheritance. How could you do this?”

Mr. Kertesz showed her his swollen face and broken arm and said, “There was no way to withstand the pain of the torture!”

He told his wife and the Eleks, “As you know, I was a soldier in the First World War and was wounded and decorated for valor. But nothing I endured there compared with what they did to me here.”

After hearing his story, Olga was even more worried.

Peter Haind and his thugs spent several more days in the Dombovar ghetto torturing the Jews and forcing them to reveal the hiding places of their life savings, jewelry that was handed down through the generations. Haind was finally convinced that they had managed to beat the hiding places out of these poor and defenseless Jews, and the gendarmes departed Dombovar with great satisfaction. For a small community, it was a respectable haul.

But first they waited in the ghetto for a few more days. The lawyer Ballogh informed them that the gendarmes were preparing to evacuate and liquidate the ghetto. They were told that they would be allowed to take with them some personal belongings such as linen, some food, and perhaps a jacket. As it was the summer, this meant that they were being prepared for a long trip lasting many months. News was only trickling in, so they relied on rumors and guesswork for information.

News did seep in, though. Rumors of deportations to Germany were the most prevalent. But news about a place called Auschwitz where they actually gassed the Jews and then burned their dead bodies was also heard. The Hungarians didn’t care where they shipped the Jews as long as they were gotten rid of. And the Jews had no control over their destiny.

Resigned to their fate, many were actually looking forward to leaving Dombovar.

Their neighbors had turned against them, had betrayed them to the gendarme thugs, and were happy to see them beaten, robbed, and humiliated. So what was it that tied them to this little town? Although they had no idea where they would end up, the last several months had conditioned them to expect the worst. They had lost all their possessions, their businesses, their homes, and all their rights. Why stay here? What was there left to leave behind?

Still, the uncertainty about their destination and fate made everyone shudder.

Olga wondered about their future. She had been born into a respectable family. While not rich, her father had made a respectable living and they were comfortable. After graduating from high school she was accepted to college. While she was not allowed to study medicine as she wanted, she was able to enroll in college. Very few women and even fewer Jewish women could say that. It had looked as though she was heading toward a rosy future. But suddenly, the sky over her family turned black.

How strange were these Christian neighbors? Her whole life they appeared to be so friendly, and suddenly they turned hostile. Did they always feel such hatred toward her, she wondered? Her students, with rare exception, now wouldn’t even say hello to her. Her father, a respectable banker, was fired from his last job and was now out of work. What would become of him? He was 69 years old—not the time in one’s life to be forced into such deprivations. How would she take care of him (as she always assumed she would) now when she could not take care of herself?

The sun was setting. It was June 28 and she had been living in the ghetto for over a month. She wondered where she would be next month. Quietly, she prayed. 

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. 

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