By Dr. Alex Sternberg
All conversations lead to Auschwitz.
For many, the Holocaust is a matter of history, but not for me. For me, it’s a matter of personal memory. I am a child of Holocaust survivors.
I was born in Pápa, Hungary, five short years after the end of the Second World War. Both my parents were “survivors.” They survived internment in some of the most notorious concentration camps, designed by the Germans to annihilate the Jews. Their experiences not only haunted them for the balance of their lives, but also left an indelible mark on the way my brother and I looked at the world.
We called my father Apu. He was a stern, serious man and deeply religious. For Apu there were only two colors in the rainbow: black and white. The Torah either allowed you to do something or forbade it. Apu accepted whatever was written in the Torah and the interpretation of the rabbis, and lived by those dictates. He didn’t question the Bible. Growing up an orphan whose father died when he was just a baby, Apu was raised by a widowed mother and older brothers. He grew up poor, often going barefoot in his small farming community of Szegi, where barefoot children were not uncommon. He told me often that his mother would send him with a chicken to a neighboring village to have the rabbi there shecht the bird. His village did not have its own rabbi. The communities that surrounded his village were Bodrogkeresztur, Balassagyarmat, Timar, and Tarcal. Some of these communities had populations of 1,000 to 1,200 Hungarians with about 250 or so Jews. There was little opportunity for an orphan child, and his mother and brothers knew it.
So, shortly after he turned 13, Apu was sent to Pápa where he was apprenticed to Mr. Neuman to work in his shoe store. Pápa was a larger city than his native Szegi, and with over 30,000 inhabitants, it was considered one of the urban centers on the other side of the river Danube. His religious and secular education was now up to him and perhaps Mr. Neuman, who was responsible for him. Apu learned from whoever took the time to teach him.
The Jews were pretty religious in Pápa, with life revolving around the strictly Orthodox Chassidic community. The rabbi was the leader, aided by community leaders consisting of prominent doctors, lawyers, and other learned men. The pride and joy of Jewish Pápa (or, as the town is called by the Chassidim, “Pupa”) was the renowned Pupa Yeshiva, the rabbinical seminary. Young men came from all over Hungary to study here under guidance of the famous Pápa rabbis, the illustrious Grunwald dynasty. Beginning with Grand Rabbi Moshe Greenwald of Chust—author of Arugas HaBosem and disciple of Rebbe Yehoshua of Belz, followed by Grand Rabbi Yaakov Chizkiah Greenwald of Pupa—author of Vayaged Yaakov and son of the Arugas HaBosem, and Grand Rabbi Yosef Greenwald of Pupa—author of Vayechi Yosef. This seminary produced many well-known Orthodox rabbis in Hungary.
The Second World War and Hungary’s alliance with Nazi Germany brought an end to this enterprise when the entire community was deported on June 29, 1944 to Auschwitz, with precious few returning home alive. The once large and prosperous community was reduced to ghosts and memories. My father and the few other Jews who returned struggled to rebuild or at least maintain some of the functions of the once vibrant Jewish kehillah. Among these returnees were the two daughters of the Balatonfured Rebbe, one of whom was married to a man from Pápa. In Auschwitz, the sisters met and befriended a young woman, Olga Elek, from the town of Dombovar. Upon their invitation, Olga visited Pápa, where she was introduced to my father; they subsequently married in 1947. My brother Laci was born in 1948 and I came along in 1950.
In 1952, the government of Hungary adopted a strict communist ideology as it was now firmly entrenched within the so-called Iron Curtain as a Soviet satellite. Religion of any kind was verboten. Some were arrested for going to church or synagogue while others were frozen out of jobs and professions. Suddenly teachers were forced to belong to the Communist Party and couldn’t attend any religious worship. They were especially targeted because they shaped the minds of the next generation. In this postwar world of communism, my father never lost his faith and was still deeply religious. He defied the authorities when ordered to report to work Saturdays. Neither the horrors of Bergen-Belsen nor the threats of the communists made him question his faith. Although some other Jews buckled under the pressure and reported for work on Shabbos, not my father. He had survived Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, and was not going to bow down to the idol of communism. This was a fight he won.
Our family attended shul every Shabbos and naturally observed all holidays. I attended religious instructions daily after public school, although, if given a choice, I preferred to play soccer instead. On Friday evenings, all work in the Sternberg household stopped. No turning on or off any lights, cooking, writing, or riding in cars or on bicycles. Shabbos was devoted to rest and spiritual enlightenment, davening, and learning Torah.
After the 1956 Hungarian uprising, many Jews grabbed the opportunity to flee the country, and getting a minyan became more and more difficult. So, we imported Jews from neighboring villages. My father, my brother Laci, and I went to shul every Friday evening to usher in Shabbos. Upon our return home, we were greeted by the aroma of my mother’s delicious dinner even as we approached our apartment. My mother, Olga, or Anyu, as we called her, was as different from Apu as night is from day. While he grew up strictly religious, she came from an assimilated “traditional” home. He was raised in a Chassidic community, but she followed the Reform (or Neolog) practice, a much more liberal interpretation of Judaism, specific to Hungary. Apu left home to go to work at the age of 14, but Anyu finished gymnasium (high school) in her picturesque town of Dombovar before attending college. This was no small accomplishment for any woman in 1929, anywhere. While Apu studied Chumash and Rashi, Anyu was reading Homer in Greek and reciting poetry in Latin. She was modern, enlightened, and worldly. Unlike my father who only mingled with goyim in the workplace, my mother and her family counted their gentile neighbors as close friends.
After my parents’ marriage, it was not surprising that my father’s religious hashkafah dominated our family structure. But Anyu didn’t seem to mind, and she adapted readily.
My memories from growing up in Hungary are pleasant. Apu took me to shul, learned Chumash with me, and taught me all about frumkeit; Anyu read me poetry both in Hungarian and Latin. She taught me a liberal, enlightened view of the world even when Apu’s world was far darker. It was the late 1950s and TV was just then introduced in Hungary. But for us it didn’t matter, as we didn’t have one. So, we talked. Especially when we sat down for the Friday-evening Shabbos dinners. I remember many such conversations and dinners, but what I remember most of all is that all the conversations inevitably led to Auschwitz. Both my parents were initially shipped to Auschwitz; it was the first stop in their deportation from Hungary. Auschwitz. The horror of all horrors. It was a place of untold suffering and mass murder of babies, children, old, infirm and just about anyone whom Dr. Josef Mengele, the Angel of Death, deemed unfit to work and unfit to live. Having survived Auschwitz, both my parents were forever stamped by that experience. It permeated their lives, their consciences. They measured time with “Oh, that was two years before Auschwitz” or “No, no that happened after Auschwitz.” All conversations inevitably lead to Auschwitz.
Anything could trigger some memory. The behavior of the foreman or one of the workers at the plant would result in a bitter outburst from my father during dinner. “I remember him during the war,” Apu would say. “He was a nyilas,” a member of the notorious Hungarian Arrow Cross, thugs who outdid the Nazis in cruelty, Jew-hatred, and murder.
Even just seeing my brother or me not eating something that Anyu prepared would cause him to ask curtly, “Why aren’t you eating that delicious piece of chicken?” or “Do you know what we would have given for a piece of chicken like that in Auschwitz?” or “Do you children know what dörgemüze was? That was what we ate.”
My mother would then describe this “soup” that was their daily nourishment, called dörgemüze: “It had some water, clumps of dirt with grass still attached to it, pieces of shoe leather, junk. It was not fit for animals, but we ate it because that was all we were given!” Every day at lunchtime they would anxiously look forward to having this horrible, inedible “soup.” Perhaps, by miracle, they would be lucky to get a piece of meat in the soup. This was the highlight of their daily nourishment. News of any tragedies would result in immediate concern by my parents. When a bridge collapsed or an avalanche destroyed a village, the inevitable question would be whispered: “What do you think, is this ‘good for the Jews?’”
Winter and the accompanying cold weather reminded my father how he contracted frostbite in Bergen-Belsen and he would show me his frozen toes. Once the specter of Auschwitz raised its head at our dinner table, both my mother and father would launch into one familiar story or another. I heard again and again how Mengele, the notorious “Angel of Death” sat on a desk and used a conductor’s baton to direct the arriving Jews, motioning them toward either the left or the right line during what was called the “selections.” Left meant immediate death in the gas chamber, while right was a slower process of torture and cruelty. Those who were sent to the right were worked to eventual death within a few months. My father told me countless times about the episode when the German guard found him davening with tefillin one morning. The Nazi ripped off the tefillin—something my father had been able to obtain by bartering life-sustaining bread—and smashing it on the ground with his rifle butt. He claimed Apu was trying to contact the Russians. The German then marched my father out of the camp and into a field. He threw him a shovel and ordered him to dig. While Apu was digging his grave, the Nazi sat down on a rock and lit up a cigarette. When satisfied that the hole was now large enough, he raised his rifle, taking aim at Apu. Apu looked into his sinister eyes and, in a last ditch effort to survive, asked him in German, “Do you have any children?”
The Nazi lowered his rifle and motioned my father back to the barracks. As my father climbed out of his grave, the Nazi smashed the rifle butt into his back as a parting shot.
Growing up, I remember that no dinner was complete without Auschwitz appearing on the menu. I ate my meals and digested the food together with the stories of my parents’ painful memories. As a result of his experiences, my father was bitter and hated the Germans along with the Hungarians. For him, the suffering never ended. All he could remember was that his mother, brothers, and sister, along with their spouses and children, would never return. He would never see his siblings or his nieces and nephews again. Nor would he ever kiss his beloved wife Manci or hug his sweet and precious little four-year-old son, Lacika. They all perished at Auschwitz, along with my father’s spirit.
As I remember him, Apu was a bitter man. My mother, however, never taught us to hate. She told us her stories, and omitted little. The last time she saw her beloved 69-year-old father was when Mengele sent him to the left queue while my mother ended up in the right. I never recall any bitterness in my mother’s stories; her stories were filled with optimism, and there was a silver lining in every cloud. She told us how “lucky” she was to meet up with the two sisters from Pápa, the daughters of the rabbi from Balatonfured and how, on one fortunate day, she was given an extra piece of bread. How “lucky” she was all along. Things could have been worse . . .
She shared her stories with us because she wanted us to know what happened to her. Later, as I got older, my mother told me often that she wanted me to write down her story just like her friend, Rab Erzsebet, the wife of the rabbi of Dombovar, had done. I often heard Anyu speak of her friend’s book, “És nem verik félre a harangot” (And They Don’t Toll the Church Bells). Unfortunately I only got to read this remarkable book recently after Anyu passed away. Rab Erzsebet was an extraordinary young woman. Echoing my mother, Erzsebet describes a vibrant Jewish community in Dombovar, filled with plays during holidays and many other wonderful annual events. Her book notes that the famous Jewish heroine Hanna Szenes spent many months in Dombovar visiting her relatives, the Sas family. Hannah also writes in her memoirs of the wonderful days and months spent there and of worshiping in the Dombovar synagogue. Erzsebet, Hannah, and my mother walked in the same streets, enjoyed the same sunshine, sang together the same melodies during Sabbath worships. Anyu spoke of her life in Dombovar with great fondness. Her parents were friends of the Sas family as well as the rabbi’s. She recalled the plays she participated in and how she sang Friday nights in the synagogue. She taught me some of those tunes.
My mother’s stories came alive again and again in Rab Erzsebet’s book, as well as in the diaries of Hannah Szenes. It was a wonderful life in a wonderful time. In their Dombovar, life was pleasant and they could enjoy themselves along with their neighbors.
But then the stories turn darker when they are branded with the yellow star and herded into the ghetto. Life will turn even more bitter as their neighbors openly turn against them and steal their property and dignity. “Budös zsido,” “Piszkos zsido” they hear, as they pass once-smiling neighbors on the street. “Stinking Jews,” “dirty Jews.”
Finally, they are shipped away to Auschwitz. Anyu shared the cattle car with her father, with Erzsebet, the rabbi, and the rabbi’s two daughters. They all arrived in Auschwitz together, only to be separated in the first of many “selections”: men on one side, women on the other.
Anyu lost her father upon arrival and Erzsebet lost her husband and younger daughter. Over the years, I heard the stories frequently. I learned to understand that my mother was just as affected by her experiences as my father was. She just wore the scars differently. And while I learned to hate from my father, it was my optimistic, worldly mother whose words that still ring in my ears: “Never, ever let anyone call you a dirty Jew!”
One of my mother’s favorite stories was about how she survived the daily deprivations, the humiliation, and the hunger. She told me that she and the other ladies spent the days “cooking”!
“Cooking?” I would ask her. “What about the dörgemüze? What about the hunger?” She would then explain that “cooking” was when during work they would talk recipes and trade cooking secrets. They would each describe how they prepared their favorite dishes while at home. They would describe their kitchens, the fine linen and china, which they would set upon the table. They described their families who would eat these sumptuous meals. Family members who were now gone, perhaps, never to be seen again. During the bitter, hungry, and frightening nights, they would spend the time “cooking” their banquets. Dreaming their dreams of a time long ago, of better days. These dreams were an escape from the horrors of reality. After liberation, when she returned home, she remembered many recipes learned during these “cooking” sessions.
Yes, all conversations always led to Auschwitz.
After a while, listening to the stories, I imagined myself in Auschwitz with them. Jewish tradition mandates that at Passover, as we recount our ancestors’ lives in the Egyptian slavery, we too see ourselves as one of the Hebrew slaves. We are eternally grateful to the L‑rd for having rescued us and for leading the Jews out of Egypt. But that was so long ago. I have always found it hard to imagine myself in the midst of the Egyptian bondage, thousands of years ago.
But Auschwitz is different; it’s a more recent memory. My parents were there and told me again and again what happened to them and our family. Their experiences come alive in their stories. I feel as if I suffered along with them and the Jews of Pápa and Dombovar.
Often, I have thought about my family and imagined myself in Auschwitz together with them:
I see myself walking toward the crematoria after the selection and undressing as I enter the gas chamber. I try to help my grandfather. People are jostling him as they are shoved and crammed into the dark room. The crowd of over 2,000 Jews frightens him. “What will become of us?” he must wonder. I hold him, support him. I too am scared. Suddenly the door clangs shut. We are struggling to breathe as the pellets of Zyklon B release their acrid, poisonous vapors into the cramped chamber. People are clawing and climbing on top of one another to catch one last breath.
There is no escape. There is nowhere to go . . .
I am frightened as I see my older brother clutching his mother’s hand in his tiny little hand. The little one is only four years old. He just spent five days of misery, of hunger and thirst, crowded into the cattle car getting here. “Be brave,” I hear his mommy soothing him, hugging him as she plants her last kiss on his scared little face. “Don’t be afraid. Soon we will be together with Apu and things will be all right again.” And the doors clang shut once more.
There is no escape. There is nowhere to go . . .
All conversations lead to Auschwitz.
Pictures of Jews in Auschwitz invariably have me searching for my parents’ faces. I hope I can catch a glimpse of a young Apu or Anyu. Was one of the children in the picture my brother? And in another picture, was that my uncle or aunt? Was the old lady my grandmother or the old man my grandfather? The pictures remind me of my Auschwitz legacy: a lifetime of holidays spent without any uncles, aunts, cousins, or grandparents. What were they like? What would I have done had I been in their shoes, I wonder? Would I have survived?
Often my thoughts turn to my precious four-year-old older brother. I wish I had a picture of him. I have never even seen his face.
My parents are gone now. I think of Anyu and Auschwitz often when I cook. She left me her stories as my legacy. Along with her stories, she also left me her recipes.
Anyu’s Chicken-Soup Recipe From Auschwitz
- 1 chicken leg (with thigh)
- 2–4 beef marrowbones
- 2–3 chicken necks
- 1 large onion (cut in half)
- 1 green pepper (quartered)
- 2–3 carrots
- 1 white parsnip
- 1 medium purple turnip
- 2–3 sprigs of dill
- 2–3 sprigs of parsley
- salt, to taste
- all-purpose seasoning (large pinch)
- 8–10 peppercorns
Place an 8-quart pot filled halfway with water on high flame on stovetop. Skin chicken; place in water. Add beef marrowbones, chicken necks, onion, pepper, peeled and cut-up carrots, parsnip, and turnip, and the dill and parsley. Add salt, seasoning, and bring to a boil. When soup is boiling, add peppercorns; lower flame to simmer. Place lid on pot, leaving a slight opening. Simmer for three hours.
Optional: Some used turkey parts to give a stronger flavor to the soup.
Alex Sternberg’s forthcoming book, “Recipes from Auschwitz,” is about the plight of Hungarian Jews during the Shoah and tells the story of his parents, both of whom are Holocaust survivors.