In last week’s installment, Olga takes a temporary leave of absence from her studies because her mother, Karola, is ill, and the anti-Jewish incitement at the University is becoming increasingly problematic as well.
During her stay at home in Dombovar, on one of her visits to her high school, Olga was greeted warmly by Szanyi Istvan, her old history professor. After hearing Olga’s plans to take a leave of absence from the university, Szanyi suggested that until things blow over perhaps Olga should tutor some students who were weak in various subjects. The idea sounded appealing, and anyway she needed the money and had the time. Many of her former teachers remembered her fondly as an exemplary student and a good person and also began to refer students to her for tutoring.
Pretty soon, her reputation as a teacher who could teach all subjects became well-known. More and more students were flocking to her house on Bezeredj Street.
Dombovar is located in the middle of an agricultural and rural community. Many of the farms were cultivated by farmers or peasants who had a very limited education. The children were allowed to attend schools only until about 12 years of age. After that, they were needed on the farm, so school was out. But many of the peasant boys had an interest to educate themselves further and even to earn a high-school diploma. So they sought out Olga and asked her to tutor them and prepare them for the end-of-year examinations. This way, they could work the farm alongside their fathers and study at night. After passing the exams, they would be given credit for the year. They were highly motivated and intended to obtain a gimnazium diploma. Before long, Olga was running a large program with almost 30 students, preparing them all for the end-of-year equivalency examinations.
As Hungary was a Catholic country, the school curriculum naturally included Catholicism. The students needed to prepare for their examination not only in math, geography, history, and literature, but also in Catholicism.
But this presented a unique problem. How could a Jewish girl, raised in the Jewish religion, be entrusted to teach Catholicism accurately and faithfully?
It was therefore decided that Olga would make an appointment with the local Catholic bishop, who, after a rigorous examination, would hopefully certify her knowledge and ability to teach the material contained in the Catholic textbook. Olga prepared for her examination by reading the textbook, and proved to the bishop that she was familiar with the tenets of Catholicism and could teach them accurately. Friends testified to the bishop that Olga Elek could be trusted. Her integrity was known.
While Olga’s students were progressing and improving, her mother’s condition was unfortunately deteriorating. Trips to the Budapest clinics revealed that her condition was turning worse. In the clinics in Budapest she was treated with costly gold injections, but tests revealed that she had also developed kidney disease and pneumonia. Back in Dombovar, Dr. Riesz held little hope for a good prognosis.
A few years later, in the mid-1930s, Olga’s father’s bank went bankrupt and he was suddenly out of a job. He managed to secure another position, this time as chief bookkeeper in a private factory owned by a Mr. Rothermel. Unfortunately, Mr. Rothermel, the owner of the firm, committed suicide, and the company was taken over by his daughters. His daughters, one married to a doctor and the other to a lawyer, had little interest in the business and were absentee owners. As a result, the business suffered and the salary they were able to pay was less than sufficient. Money was tight, with bills mounting.
Ever the resourceful daughter, Olga opened a cosmetics clinic to increase their household income. While in gimnazium, she had studied health science, taught by Dr. Riesz, and was knowledgeable about skin care and other health-related issues. Dr. Riesz, coming to the rescue, gave Olga additional material, aiding her to become proficient in using various creams and treatments. Her cosmetics clinic began to prosper as she treated the women of the town in skin and beauty care.
Between caring for her mother, teaching her students, and running a cosmetics clinic, Olga was busy. Her duties left her little time for personal concerns such as dating and thinking about marriage. Nevertheless, she had started years earlier to prepare a dowry for the eventual time she would marry.
The girls in rural communities learned to needlepoint and crochet, sewing bedsheets, table linens, and other household items, each monogrammed with their initials. In due course, the husband’s initials would be added to the monogram. Olga, too, was putting away such a collection of handmade treasures. But such dreams took a backseat to the realities of everyday life.
The political climate was worsening by the day. Hitler’s ascendency to the chancellery of Germany ushered in a stronger, more strident anti-Semitism in Hungary. The Hungarian right wing, as if needing encouragement, became more outspoken in their persecution of their Jewish citizens. Frequent articles reporting on demonstrations demanding the persecution of the Jews filled the newspapers. Dombovar, not to be left behind, had its share of Jew haters. (In fact, one of the most virulent proponents of the anti-Jewish laws was a citizen of Dombovar.) They demanded the confiscation of Jewish property, the expulsion of Jews from any official positions, and the firing of Jews from all jobs.
On September 1, 1939, Germany overran Poland and the Second World War broke out. Although Hungary had no part in the invasion, the German-leaning government was expecting that German ascendancy would rectify the “wrong” perpetrated by the infamous Trianon Agreement of the 1920s. Sure enough, by August 1940, as part of the Second Vienna Award, parts of northern Transylvania and Szekelyfold (another part that was formerly Hungary) were ceded back to Hungary. Naturally, the people of Hungary, grateful to Germany, were even more deeply entrenched in the German orbit. As a consequence, on November 20, 1940, Hungary officially joined the Axis entente of Germany, Italy, and Japan. Hungary, with the help of Germany, was now on the threshold of conquering and recapturing the southern region of Vojvodina (present-day Serbia). The rewards to Hungary for joining the German orbit were immense. Joining in the anti-Semitic persecution of Jews was simply the icing on the cake.
With the turn of the decade into the 1940s, Hungary had established her four infamous “Jewish Laws” that legally sought to eradicate Jews from any and all positions, seizing their property, including any land, personal jewelry, and money in the banks. In short, Jews were prevented from making a livelihood and their situation was becoming more dire day by day.
In 1943, after a 10-year battle, Karola passed away, leaving behind Olga and Adolf. She was buried in the small Jewish cemetery, not far from the synagogue. The town rabbi, Dr. Hillel Friedman, and Rebbetzin Erzsebet officiated. A small collection of their closest friends, including Kato, attended the funeral.
Shortly after the funeral, Adolf was fired from the Rottermel company on account of his religion. Jews were no longer allowed to work in such positions. Olga’s students, however, continued to come to her house for lessons as before, and her cosmetics clinic continued.
As the anti-Jewish laws curtailed Jewish economic, social, and educational opportunities, what was the reaction of the Dombovar Jewish community?
By and large, the Jews of Dombovar were mainly assimilated and closely woven into the town’s social fabric. Many earned honors for their decades-long contribution to the poor and needy of the town. Dr. Riesz, widely called the “poor’s doctor,” treated both gentiles and Jews alike, especially the poor, without regard to getting paid. He also struggled for years for greater medical care for the children of the local miners and was recognized for his unselfish efforts. After a devastating flood that left many homeless, it was the Jewish citizens who donated the most money for rehabilitation. The town newspapers listed the names of the Jewish citizens along with others for public recognition. Dombovar Jews were proud of their town and their accomplishments in improving the town’s social, economic, and intellectual reputation. They had no intention of deserting their town to escape abroad. In fact, due to their civic pride and their assimilationist beliefs, they had nowhere to go anyway. In an advertisement in the local newspaper Az Est (the Night), the town’s leading citizens wrote:
“We are not guests here but Jews whose ancestors’ blood constantly flowed for this nation. This land is our homeland.”
Olga and her father never thought of living anywhere else. Dombovar was their destiny.
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. Read more of Dr. Sternberg’s articles at 5TJT.com.