Survival Stories of Hungarian Jews Olga Elek and Marton Sternberg
By Michele Justic
Besides the total annihilation of the Jews, the Nazis also sought to erase Jewish personalities. Forcing them to shave their heads, wear striped rags and forsake all heirlooms, they effectively turned the Jewish community into nameless, faceless victims. Baruch Hashem, they did not ultimately succeed in these plans. Yet even the most well-meaning Holocaust scholar can get trapped in the methodology of relating to Holocaust victims and survivors as a large group, not delving into the individual personalities.
In Dr. Alex Sternberg’s first foray into the world of writing Holocaust history, he pulls a remarkable twist: He fleshes out the lives of his parents and others in their lives, turning them back into the mothers and fathers, businessmen and teachers, doctors and artists that they were. He also relates a little-known phenomenon in the camps where ladies “cooked” in their heads and hearts and, through sharing these recipes and memories of meals while in the throes of starvation, sustained themselves long enough to be rescued. Remarkably, these memories continued to be conveyed to the next generation, as Dr. Sternberg’s mother served his family these meals along with the stories. Now in honoring her memory, Dr. Sternberg seeks to share these recipes and stories with the next generation in “Recipes from Auschwitz,” so they can remember the victims as full individuals who enjoyed good food and good times while also contributing to their families and communities.
The book begins with a thorough review of Hungarian Jewish history filled with the ups and downs of Jewish integration and segregation in Hungary and its surrounding lands. Olga Elek and Marton Sternberg were born in this land drenched with the blood of thousands of Jews killed in blood libels. Yet they grew up innocently following their families’ customs and studying in school. Olga grew up in a middle-class assimilated family, though she did enjoy singing in synagogue. Marton grew up poor, spending memorable time learning from the Liska Rebbe and also helping his mother run an inn favored by drunk people. Marton became a successful businessman and married Manci. Together they had a boy, Avrohom. Sternberg paints a colorful, detailed portrait of his parents that is enjoyable to read.
But of course, history takes a turn for the worse and antisemitic sentiment rises. It’s especially frightening to read this now, as antisemitism similar to that portrayed in the book is becoming our reality as well. The main difference is that the governing bodies and leaders adapted antisemitic doctrine into their policies and we can be thankful modern-day governments remain on the side of fairness and inclusiveness to all, including Jews.
Olga and her father were forcibly transferred to the filthy ghetto to starve and then deported to Auschwitz to suffer further degradations and brutality, which killed her father. On a parallel path, Marton was imprisoned while Manci returned to her family, only to be sent to death at Auschwitz anyway. Marton was sent to Auschwitz later. The harrowing tale is so brutal, it’s hard to believe anyone could survive. Yet, we know that through the hand of G-d, Alex’s parents survived, found each other in the chaotic aftermath of the war, created their own family and legacy, and remained married for 60 years until Olga’s death separated them.
After a riveting account of many near-death experiences, Sternberg captures the unique tragedy of survivor trauma and its legacy for children of survivors: “Marton and Olga were liberated in 1945. But were they ever set free? I doubt it.”
Sternberg gives the reader the ability to set them free posthumously by learning their history and recreating the recipes to share with friends and family.