In Part 30, Olga and her friends try to find their way out of Germany back toward Hungary.
They continued to make their way slowly but surely, city by city, country by country, back toward Hungary. There was no direct route. The war was over, and chaos reigned in Germany and all over Europe. Former prisoners of war and fleeing refugees were creating a huge traffic jam. The roads were all overrun. Those who had a car or a truck usually picked up hitchhikers if they had room for them. But there was the issue of gas (or “benzene” or “petrol,” as the British called it.) This commodity was not always available.
Added to this mayhem was the multitude of languages heard. Jews had been transported to the camps from all over Europe. Greeks, Hungarians, Czechoslovakians, Russians, Polish, Albanians, French, Italians, and more. Some spoke several languages. So aside from being unfamiliar with the roads and which way to proceed, there were foreign languages adding to the cacophony around them. It was utter chaos. For many, it took months to reach their destination. Each one had a story and a tale of misery.
Olga finally reached the town of Prenslau together with her friends and the friendly Italian former POWs. Prenslau, a town in Germany, had over 5,000 Belgian POWs in a POW camp. When the Germans invaded and occupied Belgium, the Belgian soldiers deserted their posts and escaped into the forest, leaving behind their families. The Germans wanted them back, together with their weapons.
As the Belgian soldiers were disinclined to return, the Germans put posters all over the town announcing that if the soldiers did not immediately return, their families would be deported to concentration camps. All 5,000 came back and were shipped to POW camps in Preslau, Germany. Still, they fared much better than Olga and her fellow Jews. They were well-fed and cared for, with decent clothing and shelter, as well as Red Cross packages arriving regularly. They were not beaten, starved, and killed. And now, they, too, were free. They celebrated their freedom by hosting nightly dinners and inviting everyone they encountered. There was no shortage of food. Olga and friends were invited, too. The Belgians even came to pick them up and escort them to the dinners, night after night. This went on for five weeks, allowing the Jewish girls to regain some of their pre-war weight and health. They were recuperating slowly but surely.
After five weeks they had enough. They heard about a bus going to Czechoslovakia, taking all the Czech nationals home. Olga and the girls applied, claiming that, they, too, were Czech nationals, coming from the once Hungarian town of Kassa that now belonged to Czechoslovakia. They were accepted, so they boarded the bus. This was bringing them one step closer to reaching Hungary. They were now approaching the German–Czech border.
When the bus reached the actual border, they stopped and everyone got off. The Czech soldiers lined up and solemnly began to sing the Czech national anthem; they were home. The Hungarians dutifully mouthed the words, making believe that they, too, were singing the anthem. They didn’t want to arouse any suspicion.
After this solemn ceremony, they boarded the bus again and the bus proceeded into Czechoslovakia to the capital, Prague.
In Prague, they found the office of the local “Joint” and registered for assistance. Their stay in Prague, however, was short-lived. After a few days, the girls had a meeting, and the sisters from Balatonfured, Yolus, and Rebekka, decided to stay on in Prague longer while Olga and the other two girls in the celebrated group of five, along with a large detachment of Russian soldiers, would continue on toward Hungary. In the morning, Olga and friends boarded the train taking them on to Pozsony.
Pozsony, once part of Hungary, was now Czechoslovakia and called Bratislava. Borders in many such areas had shifted, reflecting the political climate. So one year you are Hungarian, but the following year you are the proud citizen of Czechoslovakia. The mother tongue for all was Hungarian, though.
It took a few more days, but, finally, after almost a year surrounded by torture, starvation, beatings, deprivation, death, and suffering, Olga finally arrived back in Budapest. It was Friday, June 29, 1945.
Budapest boasted three international railroad stations linking Hungary with over 25 major foreign cities: the Keleti Vasut Allomas (the eastern railroad terminal), the Déli (southern), and the Nyugati (western). Olga arrived into the western station with her meager belongings that she had amassed since her liberation. Like every other city affected by the war, Budapest was the scene of chaos, confusion, and turmoil. There were hundreds of people, some well-dressed, others obviously recently liberated prisoners. Each rail station served as a hub for information with news about the many displaced people coming home. Large poster boards with names of liberated prisoners announcing their return home provided contact information as to their whereabouts, and relatives advertised who they were waiting for, including their contact information.
When a train pulled into the station and passengers disembarked, they were surrounded by men and women asking where they had come from, which concentration camp they were liberated in, and, most important: did they know so-and-so? The posters were constantly inspected for new additions.
When Olga got off, she, too, questioned as to her travels. No, she did not know the relatives of so-and-so. Focusing on her own need, she asked someone where she could make a phone call, which was met with laughter, as telephone service had not been restored yet. She wondered how she would be able to contact her aunt Margit to inform her of her return.
A man standing near the curb with a bicycle came over and asked if he could help. Olga told him that she had just returned from Germany and needed to contact her aunt. The bicyclist asked where her aunt lived. Understanding where Olga had just returned from, he offered to ride over and tell Margit that Olga was at the station. Gratefully, Olga gave him the address and he rode off. Her aunt, Margit, was only 10 years older than Olga. After Margit’s mother died, she came to live with Olga and her parents. Olga and Margit grew up together and were more sisters than aunt and niece.
Unbeknownst to Olga, Margit’s apartment had suffered a direct hit during one of the bombing raids. Luckily, she survived but had to relocate. She managed to get another apartment. When the bicyclist arrived, neighbors gave him Margit’s new address on Eotvos Street, and off he went to the new location.
As the man bicycled up, Margit was sitting outside her apartment doing needlepoint. He asked if she knew a “Simco Oltonut.” Margit immediately knew that Olga had arrived home and rushed to the rail station. However, by the time Margit arrived, Olga and the other returnees were moved to Bethlen Square, the Joint registration point for all Hungarian returnees.
Margit ran home and grabbed some cookies she recently baked and rushed off to the new destination at Bethlen Square.
The Joint Distribution Committee was the preeminent relief agency offering help and support to the millions of refugees floating all over Europe. JDC was founded during World War I, when prominent U.S. Ambassador to Turkey Henry Morgenthau, Sr. wired New York philanthropist Jacob Schiff to ask for money to help Jews suffering in Ottoman Palestine. The JDC, or Joint, was the first Jewish organization in the United States to give large-scale funding for international relief.
Supported mainly by donations from Americans, the Joint had a presence in all the European cities. In Budapest, they were located at Bethlen Square. Olga and her friends took turns going in to register and waiting outside to keep an eye on their meager belongings. Olga sat down and waited for Margit. It never occurred to Olga that something may have happened to Margit during the long and trying year.
Suddenly, Olga looked up and saw Margit approach, crying. They fell into each other’s arms for a long embrace. Olga did not have many relatives, so seeing Margit after all she had been through was very reassuring, though emotional.
They embraced for a long time and wept. After a few moments, Margit asked Olga what happened to Adolf Bacsi, Olga’s father. By this time, Olga was quite aware of the fate of her father. But on her way home she received confirmation from a man who worked in the sonderkommando. “What did you imagine?” he exclaimed. “That the Germans would feed and take care of the useless old? They were all gassed and burned.”
They spoke for a while, with the words flooding out. Margit commented on how skinny and forlorn Olga looked, not realizing that in the few months’ journey home, she actually looked much better than when she was first liberated.
While they were still at Bethlen Square, suddenly Olga’s uncle, her father’s brother, appeared. They all embraced and cried. After quickly comparing notes, they understood that their once beautiful life was now gone.
Uncle Lajos had two daughters. One was safely living in Philadelphia, but the second had been deported. So he, too, came daily to see the list that was posted outside the offices of the Joint.
They all went home, and Margit gave Olga new clothing, as much as she could spare. After her apartment was bombed, she really didn’t have much. Budapest had been bombed pretty thoroughly, and apartments were scarce. Under the circumstances, she explained, she was lucky to have found another apartment.
Olga spent a few weeks recovering in Budapest with Margit, being pampered by her aunt. Soon, however, Olga decided the time had come to travel back to Dombovar. She told Margit that while she had no intention of staying there, she did have to return and see about recovering her old family house and things. Her intention was to say hello to Kato, see who else had returned, and then immediately come back to Budapest.
Olga was 34 years old. Prior to the war and the deportation, several young men had expressed an interest in her. But as a dutiful daughter, when her mother took ill, Olga cared for her. When Karola passed away in 1942, the anti-Jewish laws enacted by the Hungarians did not present the right time or circumstances for marriage. Not that in the back of her mind, she didn’t think about the future. As every eligible girl in Hungary, she kept adding to her “kellende,” or dowry. Girls prepared for marriage by creating elegant tablecloths with matching napkins, towels, and linens, and other household items. One did not buy such items as we do today. The girls needlepointed and crocheted them, and the more beautiful the handiwork was, the more desirable the girl became. Olga was very accomplished in such handiwork and as the years passed, her “trousseau” increased.
Shortly before her deportation, one of her father’s friends suggested that Olga turn over her dowry to the friend’s daughter for “safekeeping.” (Hungarians knew full well what deportation meant, and that death awaited the Jews in Auschwitz.) This suggestion was not received with enthusiasm by Olga, as this family was never known to harbor warm feelings toward Jews. But with circumstances being what they were, Olga reluctantly parted with the belongings she had compiled over many years. She really had no choice at the time. As she decided to travel to Dombovar, she made a mental note to visit the woman and ask for her things back.
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.