By: Dr. Alex Sternberg
April 14, 2020
It was Erev Pesach and the cleaning of the houses had been completed in every home. The fast of the first born, the siyum bechoros was celebrated in the shuls throughout the city. The Jews were getting ready for the sacred holiday as they did every year, but an unease settled over them. A sadness and worry engulfed everyone. Surely this year would be different from all the others. Goods were more and more difficult to obtain. Congregating on the streets was becoming more dangerous, with fewer to be found outside. Some had already lost best friends and heard about acquaintances who were gone. Anyway, what was there to talk about? For the most part, everyone shuttered themselves and their families in their homes as if they could keep the angel of death outside. Yes, surely this would be like no other Pesach.
It was April 7th, 1944 and the first Seder was approaching, The place was Papa, Hungary. Like a virus spreading all over East Europe, the hatred called anti-Semitism was sweeping over the land. Already it had infected many other countries and claimed millions of dead. Germany, Poland, and Romania were willing partners of the Nazi regime and the Jews living in those countries were the first victims. But now with the war almost at an end, it was finally spreading to Hungary. In a last ditch, fever-pitch effort the Nazis, urged on by their all too willing Hungarian collaborators, turned their attention to the last remaining cluster of Jews still living. The Jews of Hungary.
It was not that the Hungarian Jews did not know what this virus was doing to their brothers and sisters in the other lands conquered by the German Third Reich. It was just that they thought, that somehow, they would escape this terrible bloodletting and slaughter. Never mind that their history was replete with an uneasy alliance with their Christian Hungarian neighbors. They knew that the Hungarians barely tolerated their presence for centuries. Still, they thought they would be protected by the aristocracy of Hungary. They thought they would escape.
The war was not going well for Germany and their Hungarian ally. So much so, that the Regent of Hungary Admiral Horthy, a close personal friend of Adolf Hitler, began to make overtures to the Allies trying to switch sides and avoid yet another humiliating defeat for his country. But his friend, Hitler got wind of his intention to jump off the sinking Nazi ship and sent troops into Hungary to prevent this. The troops arrived on March 19, 1944 a mere three weeks before that fateful Pesach. Right now, the Hungarian Jews still harboring the illusion that although they were on a precarious ledge, they would somehow survive. On April 5th, the Hungarian Jews received their “Afikomen Present”: the order to immediately sew on their clothing the yellow Jewish star to identify them and separate them from the “real” Hungarians.
One of the leading citizens of Papa was my father Marton Sternberg, who had been living there for over 15 years. When he arrived in 1928, he went to work as an apprentice in the well-known Neuman shoe store. Under the ever-present, scrutinizing eyes of Mrs. Neuman, he rose from sweeping the floors to becoming the leading salesman. Many years later, he often told me that customers would wait just to be taken care of by him. He was honest and they trusted him. After more than ten years working for the Neuman’s, he finally opened his own shoe store the “Ideal House of Shoes”. He prospered and in 1940 married Margit Kohlman from neighboring Szombathelly. (for more information on Marton or life in Papa, order your copy of Recipes from Auschwitz from Amazon).
The onerous anti Jewish laws of Hungary were being promulgated beginning in 1938 and kept disenfranchising the Jewish citizens. By the time the fourth such law was enacted in 1942, Hungarian Jews had lost all the hard-fought civil and political rights for which they had sacrificed so much in the previous several centuries.
Papa, was a small town nestled in northeaster Hungary. Two small brooks ran through the middle of the town, dividing it. The Jewish inhabitants grew from the early 1970’s slowly but surely. By the time my father arrived, the Puppa Yeshiva was a renown institute of Jewish studies, with students coming from all over Hungary to study there. Marton, although he would have loved to become a student, was busy working and making something of himself.
Papa had just a little under 3000 Jews out of a population numbering about 30,000. Although for the most part, the Jews had lived side by side with the gentiles for centuries, the past few years had made the atmosphere more toxic. Once friendly neighbors were now avoiding eye contact. Some others were openly threatening. “The day is coming. Yes you are about to get yours, you stinking Jews! ”
Marton had lived through such anti-Jewish agitation before and tried not to take things too seriously. His store was thriving despite all the laws demanding divesture of all Jewish property. In 1943 his precious son Lacika was born. By the time the Jews of Papa sat down to celebrate the first Seder on the 7th of April, rumors of coming deportation were in the air. Marton himself was no longer home to celebrate Pesach with his family. He had recently arrived home from over two years of service in the National Labor Forces, the notorious “munkaszolgalat”. Able bodied men from the age of 18 to 45 were conscripted into these gangs for forced or slave labor. Marton spent several month-long stints in these forced labor battalions. But he had been lucky. He was sent to repair railroad tracks and cut down trees in forests. It could have been worse. Many such units were sent out of the country to Ukraine and worked under brutal and cruel conditions. Thousands perished clearing out minefields.
Of the more than 120,000 conscripts, more than 80% perished. Marton was able to come home between his stints for several months at a time. Under such conditions, Marton assumed that, if only he could keep his head down, not arouse the animosity of his commander, he would be able to survive.
But on March 20, one day after the occupation of Hungary by German forces, he decided to travel up to Budapest. It would be a fateful decision. Immediately upon arriving, he was arrested and sent to a Hungarian concentration camp in Kistarcsa. From there, on April 26th Marton was put on a cattle care and shipped to Auschwitz and ultimately to Wustegiersdorf and Bergen Belsen.
Back in Papa, Manci prepared to celebrate the Seder without her husband. Together with her mother, Rosalie, they had hopes that somehow, by some miracle, Marton would arrive home in time. But, unbeknown to her, Marton was long gone. She dreamed that in years to come they would be all united with Lacika asking the “four questions” under the beaming eyes of Marton.
Yes, April 7th Erev Pesach was a momentous date.
On April 7, 1944, two Slovakian-Hungarian Jews—Rudolph Vrba and Alfréd Wetzler—escaped from Auschwitz in a daring and heroic effort. They had spent several years there and knew much about the operation of the camp, even the future plans. They knew the Germans were making preparations for accepting hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews. The Germans were liquidating rows of barracks and murdering tens of thousands of prisoners to make room. Hungary was the only country in Eastern Europe with a Jewish population still intact. Now it was their turn.
After their escape, they prepared a detailed report about Auschwitz and the German plans for the welcoming of Hungarian Jews. It was to be called the “Auschwitz Report” and was sent to the Allies, the Vatican, the Hungarian government. In short everyone knew what awaited the Hungarian Jews there. All except the Hungarian Jews. They either didn’t know, (and many didn’t) or those who knew, didn’t want to believe.
The Jews of Papa would celebrate their last holiday in their magnificent shul on May 29, 1944.
It was Shavuos and the following day they were all moved out of their homes into the cramped and crowded Papa ghetto.
On July 4th the Jews of Papa were shipped by cattle car to Auschwitz. Included in the 2565 Papa Jews and the 300 others from surrounding smaller villages, were Manci, her mother Rosalie and the infant Lacika.
Upon Marton’s return in 1945, he reunited with 470 other survivors. But Manci, Rosalie and of course his Lacika were never coming home. By 1970, long after Marton and his new family left Papa, there remained only 40 Jews. Today, there are no longer any Jews in the city of Papa.
Dr. Alex Sternberg
Author:Recipes from Auschwitz-The Survival Stories of Two Hungarian Jews with Historical Insight
Written on Chal Hamoed April 14, 2020