Jewish life in Szegi consisted of a handful of Orthodox Jewish families. Religious life was limited to only Shabbos as there was no minyan during the weekdays. On weekdays, the Jews all had to work. Szegi was a very small and poor town with a handful of inhabitants surrounded by larger villages where the Jewish life was more vibrant.
After WWI was over, Marton stayed in Szegi, a small and poor town. Sandor had just returned from the war where he had served on the Italian front and managed to get his old job back in Balassagyarmat. He took his younger brother Herman along. A few years later, in 1920 or so, circumstances forced Marton to take a full-time job although he would have preferred to remain in school.
A short time before Marton went to work, he had turned 13. There was no party or celebration of this Jewish milestone of becoming a bar mitzvah. It was understood that he was now 13 and had to observe all the regulations and requirements of Orthodox Jewish life. One such observance was to pray every weekday morning with tefillin. The Sternbergs, struggling economically, had no money to buy Marton his own set of tefillin. He shared his brothers’ tefillin, depending on which brother he lived with.
But now he had to follow his brothers to Balassagyarmat. Early morning, he boarded the train, expecting to pray upon arriving in town. But there was an unexpected delay and he arrived several hours later than expected. His brothers had already gone to work, and he was reluctant to bother them. He got off the train and looked at the signs on the stores he was passing. Looking for a Jewish-sounding name, he found one and walked inside the store. After greeting the owner, he asked if he could borrow his tefillin, explaining that he had not yet davened. The owner was shocked and asked him why he didn’t have tefillin of his own. Embarrassed to admit his poverty, he mumbled some answer as he borrowed the tefillin and completed his daily prayers.
Balassagyarmat was a much larger town, boasting an illustrious Jewish community that dated back 600 years in Hungary. The kehillah was an independent entity with its own town council led by the rabbi and consisting of two prosecutors, two judges (dayanim), and seven councilors. Their authority to adjudicate cases involving the Jewish citizens was unquestioned by local authorities. At first, Jews consisted of mainly merchants, but after the emancipation of 1868, Jews became prominent in all aspects of the town’s economic, political, and even social life. A famous yeshiva functioned there in 1850, led by Rabbi Aron David Deutsch, one of the favorite students of Rabbi Moses Schreiber, the Chatam Sofer from Pozsony.
Marton’s brother secured for him a job in a department store. Marton was hired as an apprentice to learn about the retail business. He began each day with sweeping the store and getting the store ready for the day’s customers. As an apprentice, his duties were to do whatever he was told to do. Grateful for the opportunity and not wanting to embarrass his brothers, Marton worked hard and conscientiously. He was liked by the customers and his boss alike.
While at Balassagyarmat, Marton’s Jewish education took a decided step forward. The town offered numerous opportunities for Jewish education with its synagogues and especially the “Tiferes Bachurim,” a religiously oriented youth club. Marton spent numerous evenings and Saturday afternoons there that he vividly and fondly recalled years later. He remained in Balassagyarmat until 1928 when the boss died and the company closed. Marton was 21 and out of a job.
Among the many customers he had met there was a woman called Mrs. Weisz. Her husband owned a shoe store in Balassagyarmat. Originally from the town of Pápa, her maiden name was Sari Neuman. Her parents owned a shoe store there. Sari liked the hardworking Marton and suggested that he send a letter to her mother seeking a position. Marton, grateful for the suggestion, immediately sent the letter off to Pápa to Mrs. Neuman. In due time he received a note from Mrs. Neuman indicating that, unfortunately, the timing was wrong. They had recently hired a young man from Debrecen, Erno Weinberger, who was working for them and they had no need for Marton at that time. Sometime later Sari (Neuman) Weisz ran into Marton and asked him if he ever sent the letter to her mother. Yes, he told her, but, unfortunately, he had received a letter from her mother indicating that they didn’t need him.
Sari instructed him to ignore her mother’s letter, jump on the train, and travel down to Pápa to look up her mother personally. Marton, out of a job, had little to lose. He listened to her and went to Pápa. He walked into the Neumans’ shoe store. Mrs. Neuman, who was really in charge of the business, was taken aback when she met him. Didn’t he receive the letter telling him there was no vacancy? But when she saw Marton’s perseverance, a characteristic of every great salesman, she liked his approach and hired him. He moved to Pápa and stayed working for the Neumans for ten and a half years. As usual, he was a hard worker, doing all that was asked of him. As a salesman with the “customer is always right” attitude, he excelled. He was honest, and customers recognized and appreciated his integrity.
Eventually, he became the main salesman in the Neuman store, with customers patiently waiting for him until he was free. Meanwhile, his brother Herman, back in Balassagyarmat, got married to a cousin of the Ungar family and ran the store of the family. The store was large, with many employees. He continued to manage the Ungar store until he was conscripted into the forced labor battalion of Hungary, in the early 1940s.
Sandor returned to Szegi and had an assortment of jobs. Nothing really stuck, so he decided to focus on the same profession that his uncle in Tarcal was pursuing—trading in horses. He was actually good at it. After he returned to Balassagyarmat, he began to work as a horse trader.
His brother Jeno (Eugene) was also employed in Balassagyarmat, working for Jeno Hirschfeld, selling metal and steel products. Shortly after, Jeno was encouraged by Aunt Etel, (sister of their mother, Margit) to realize the Sternberg family’s unfulfilled dream and immigrate to America. She assured Jeno that she would help him every way she could. So in 1922, Jeno said goodbye to the family and set sail to New York. Shortly after arriving in New York, he got a job in a Brooklyn-based factory and got married.
Life was becoming stable for all the hard-working Sternberg children. The Sternberg boys were making money and putting food on the table. Piroska, their sister, was married to a Grunfeld fellow and had two boys of her own, Adolf and Zoli. Marton was doing well in the Neuman shoe store in Pápa and was establishing his reputation.
Pápa was a large town in Veszprém Megye (county) with over 30,000 inhabitants. Life for Jews was not terribly difficult at that time in Hungary. That is to say, the Hungarians were anti-Semitic as always, but not any more than usual. No one interfered with their religious observance, and all holidays and Shabbos were observed according to each person’s desire. Jews and gentiles lived fairly undisturbed, albeit separate, lives. In Marton’s Orthodox world, there was no mingling with gentiles, except in the workplace.
It was the 1930s, and Hungary was getting on her feet economically. But shortly after, in 1932, Gyula Gömbös became the prime minister and Jew baiting began to increase. As if it were the handwriting on the wall that Hungarian Jews should have heeded, life began to take an ominous turn.
Among the Hungarian leaders in the interwar years, Gömbös was perhaps not the most toxic. His anti-Semitism was fashionable. “Who is an anti-Semite?” The common question was answered with: “He who hates Jews more than he has to!”
A captain during the First World War, Gömbös was neither distinguished nor outstanding. After the war, he joined forces with Admiral Miklós Horthy and supported his rise to power as well as the political idea espoused by the radical “Szeged Idea.” Szeged was the city where the pro-fascist and virulently anti-Semitic Hungarian rightists formulated their program to crush the influence of the Jews that ultimately led to their destruction. Gömbös advocated the reduction of Jews in all strata of Hungarian economic, civil, and cultural life. When he was named prime minister in 1932, he attempted to push through his pernicious anti-Semitic agenda until his death in 1936. Despite his antipathy, he did not advocate the physical destruction of the Jewish community, only their removal from influence. Nevertheless, after he assumed power, the Jews were treated to a series of attacks on their communities, resulting in numerous deaths.
In Budapest, right-wing thugs, with the blessing of the government, naturally, took over the large and elegant Beke Hotel. They set up shop in the basement and began to search for targets on whom to vent their anger. Any Jew passing who they were able to get their hands on, they grabbed and dragged into the basement of that hotel. There, they tortured and beat them to death.
Conditions deteriorated, with ever-increasing segments of the population agitating against the Jews. In the colleges, the Turul student society demanded the expulsion of every Jewish student. They physically barred many from going to classes, and often beat them up. Many chose to drop out and leave their studies behind. My mother was forced out of college at this time as well.
The increased anti-Jewish agitation alarmed the Jewish community, but many of the leaders urged calm in an effort to prove their love and loyalty to the government. Shortly after the First World War, the right wing in Hungary began to demand a solution to the “Jewish Question.” The problem, according to these anti-Semites, was that too many Jews were affluent, professional, and educated. They demanded an end to this inequality.
With time, more newspaper articles popped up, parroting such anti-Semitic trope. Politicians running for office promised their constituents an end to Jewish influence. Deportation was demanded with increased frequency. To the everlasting shame of the Hungarian population, deportation was becoming an acceptable solution, embraced by many.
After centuries of loyalty and sacrifice to the Hungarian nation, the people turned on the Jews with ever-increasing ferocity. And the Jewish leadership’s answer was a thundering silence.
To be sure, this political turmoil coincided with the rise of Hitler and Nazism in Germany. But in truth, the Hungarian people did not need encouragement or a blueprint to hate the Jews living amongst them. They had perfected this skill after centuries of practice.
It was the 1930s, and Hitler was in the headlines everywhere. His speeches and policies were constantly espousing the anti-Jewish message, blaming the Jews for all the ills of Germany. The Hungarians, ever-mindful of the climate in Germany, jumped on the bandwagon. They were pleased to have an additional voice, a kindred spirit in another country. As Germany was much larger and more powerful than Hungary, the emanations coming from there resonated better with the press. Hitler had a larger bully pulpit from where his anti-Jewish narrative was gaining traction.
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.