Hungary prior to and at the out break of the hololcaust

    December 1998         
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Necessity of Returning

By Ephraim Glaser


Like some events and turning points in my life, which came to me incidentally, so was the idea of writing this book- conceived of all places, at a surgery while waiting for my turn to see the doctor. True to my restless nature, I asked the receptionist for a blank sheet of paper and began jotting down some notes. When my turn came , my scribbled notes were already spread over one and a half pages.

Upon my return home, I looked again at those scribbles and found to my surprise, that those notes were about very personal matters-a kind of an inner call , touching questions about the meaning of my life. It is beyond my grasp as to why I raised such a subject, just in those obscure circumstances.

I woke up early in the morning and, as by some hidden impulse, I sat down at the computer trying to put some order in those tangled notes. From the muddled and scrambled sentences, I could clearly discern an inner struggle embedded in me for some time: the need to open and record the experiences I went through in Europe during the second world war. I had a kind of revelation, discovering the strength and encouragement to accomplish that long desired task.

I started writing. It was on the eve of Rosh Hashana ( the Jewish new year), and spontaneously I recorded some reminiscences from my childhood of my father in the synagogue. The bringing to light of that minor event unlocked something that drew me back to the computer, and very soon I found that my writing had become obsessive. I could no longer hold back the outreaching avalanche of memories and experiences that were locked up and repressed in me for more than half a century. I felt that a hatch had opened to an exciting journey, bringing me back to my past.

There were still some inner obstacles that I had to overcome. For various reasons, I refrained, for many years, from recounting or even talking to my own family about the events of the past, which remained stockpiled into a dark corner of the reservoir of my memory.

I can happily say now that those hindrances are behind me. It dawned upon me that the course of my life and the unusual events into which I was drawn in Europe during WWII and later in Palestine-Israel deserve to be brought into the open. Furthermore, a responsibility was cast upon me to raise these events out of their gloomy oblivion and to recount them, especially for the younger generation.

The author and his family in Hungary.

Thanks to good fortune, two diaries in which I recorded events during the years of 1944-46 have survived and are still with me. These diaries were of immense assistance in reviving the spirit and sensations of events that laid dormant for so many years.

In addition to the notes describing the holocaust period in Hungary, there are included in this book recollections from my childhood and youth, portraying the life of a boy in a Jewish community prior to the second world war, a civilization not far removed, that is today extinct but not forgotten.

I also added some chapters describing my settling and integration in Palestine-Israel in those feverish days, both before and after the war of independence and followed by my professional career in Israel and overseas. I am also attempting to elucidate how I came to be a sculptor, a preoccupation to which I have been devoted for over twenty years.

In any event, writing this book, which took the best part of the last two years, was a beneficial process for me. Unveiling those very personal events from my past, some of them harsh and irksome, helped me to lift the pressures that had accumulated in me for the last fifty years. I also feel certain that by documenting these events, where many family members and friends have perished with their names going into oblivion, I can set a candle to their memory.

On the eve of Rosh Hashana

The eve of Rosh Hashana has always had an inspiring effect on me, since my early childhood. In my youth, the New Year festival and the following Yom Kippur holy day were central and outstanding events of the year.

We started preparing ourselves for these events ten days beforehand, when we were awakened at daybreak to participate in the "slihot" prayers. The tension and excitement grew as we approached the great festivals, which was for a good reason, called "the fearful ten days." The scenery of that month, the change of the seasons, at the end of summer and early autumn, also added to creating that special atmosphere.

The painter Mauritius Gottlieb in a most unusual painting, succeeded in portraying the Yom Kippur holiday in the synagogue, with its special ambience alighting the faces of the worshippers, as if they were floating in another world.

These prayers start in the morning at a slow pace and intensify in a crescendo when they reach the blowing of the shofar (a ram horn). In my youth, I saw some people who came to the synagogue on the eve of Yom Kippur for "Kol Nidrei" services, even though they disassociated themselves from Jews during the year or were descendants from mixed marriages. They came, as if some inner call brought them there.

In our town, we had a famous actor of Jewish origin, in the Hungarian theater, whose name was Fekete. On Yom Kippur eve, he used to come to the synagogue and sit near my father. When my father was at the platform reciting the opening prayer, "Light is shed upon the righteous....," that light was shining on my father's face and the actor could not detract his gaze from my father, with tears welling up in his eyes.

My father's call

Rising early in the morning was introduced in our home not only for high festivals, but throughout the whole year. My father was keen that we get up at 6;00 in the morning and sometimes we walked together with him on his way to work. One midwinter morning, I left early, at daybreak, heading to the school. It was winter and the road was covered with solid snow. I took the snowy path along the Szamos river, with my father a few paces behind me. I presume that on that particular day, there was a quarrel between us. I heard my father calling to me to wait for him so that we could walk together, but I ignored his call and carried on walking, true to my stubborn nature.
The author at the age of 15 years
The author at the age of 15 years

Since then, the sound and tone of my father's call is lodged in my memory, his voice sounding soft, like crying out, not commanding but requesting, as expecting me to come to his assistance. Unfortunately, on this occasion, my pride and stubbornness prevented me from coming forward to assist him.

That marginal event ascends from time to time back into my memory and causes me some distress, a phenomenon that may be related to my age today, being much older than my father was when he was deported to Auschwitz. As a father, I find it now easier to identify myself with the emotions he felt towards me as a child. In the course of writing, reminiscences keep coming back and reminding me about things I did or said to someone, that could have caused pain to a friend or a person in my family, making me feel remorseful. After some soul-searching to find some explanation for these recriminating thoughts, I found that the persons in question were mainly those who had perished in the holocaust.

The remorse possibly derives from a sense of guilt ; I survived, whilst they perished even though it seems to me , that there exists an inner, intuitive sense,which maintains contact with these persons in defiance of the fact that they were removed and cut off from my life. I am wondering about what sense of guilt burdens those henchmen? Do they have such senses? The trials of many war criminals, including that of Adolph Eichmann, have proven that they in fact lack those senses, so critical to any semblance of humanity.

I have come to understand that this inner sense has affected many of my decisions, sometimes even playing a decisive role in them. I have learned, that in many major decisions, I have had to resort and search for an illumination from my inner emotional senses.

The results of such decisions were not always rewarding, some ending up in regretful mistakes. Such an approach is presumably connected with and influenced my involvement in art, where there is room for intuition, emotions and instincts alongside reason and logic. The concept of "intuition," reminds me of Henry Bergson, a French-Jewish philosopher, who wrote about that concept profoundly and in a very attractive and readable way. I read his book in my youth under the guidance of my friend Otto.

Bergson, who came close to Catholicism, was considered in France as one of there most outstanding philosophers. After the establishment of the Vichy Government under the German occupation, he returned the medals he had been awarded and refused to accept their protection. He joined the line of the Jewish deportees and perished in Auschwitz.

The "heder," the candy and the cane

Many images and reminiscences from my early childhood return to me vividly, as if a flash of light was turned on them in the dark. So, too, comes back into my memory my first day in the heder (a sort of preschool ).My hair was shorn off and I was left with side locks. This was the traditional way to introduce children to the precepts and commandments, or as popularly known, the "yoke of the Torah."

On that same morning , my brother Menachem took me to the heder, which was located in the Jewish elementary school. I was received and seated by Reb Yidel, the teacher for preschoolers, and was soon called to the blackboard, where the Hebrew alphabet was printed in large letters on a white canvas. He pointed his long cane to the first letter and asked me what letter it was. As I said "aleph," a large candy dropped from the top of the blackboard. The teacher saw my astonishment and said, "an angel from heaven sent you that candy." So did the angel when I guessed "bet," the second letter of the alphabet, but it did not take too long to understand that the same treat awaited every new child who arrived at the heder.

The teacher, Reb Yidel, taught children aged three to five years. He was a short man, bespectacled with thick glasses through which his eyes looked enormously large. A dense black beard surrounded his face, which he probably never attended to, and he wore a long black coat sprinkled with greasy stains.

My eagerness to go to the heder cooled off as soon as I saw another child arriving with a tricycle. The next day, I refused to go to the heder unless my parents bought me the same tricycle. Of course, they did not buy it, and I returned to the heder, anyway.

The picture that comes back into my memory is that of the teacher sitting in his chair with his long cane in his hand, swaying backwards and forwards while chanting with the children in a monotone voice portions of the daily prayers and blessings.

The use of the cane in the schools was then an acceptable practice in the educational system. Several years later, I attended a lecture given by the head teacher of our Jewish school. The lecturer was explaining the rationale for this primitive disciplinary technique by using an example from the world of animals : If a wild animal has to be trained to prevent him from doing an undesirable act, then the tamer lashes him with his whip and then brandishes the whip in front of him whenever he intends to repeat that same act again.

This prominent educator concluded, that the same should be applied to children. He cited from the bible: "He who saves his cane, hates his son."

In spite of all this, I wish to say, that not all of them were of the same making. I remember some teachers who gave devotion and love to those children when they reached the age to learn the aleph-beth. There was a romantic aura around teaching the alphabet of the holy language, which was also regarded as a holy vocation. Handing down the inherited legacy from generation to generation was a tradition that was religiously maintained throughout the course of the Jewish history.

Our Anna and the conduct of the gentiles

From those faraway times, I also recollect with warmth many persons who bestowed love upon me, and I especially remember the slender and loving figure of Anna. She was a young and pretty Romanian girl, who worked for several years as a maid in our home until she got married to a Romanian military service man. According to my mother, when King Carol came to visit our town, she took me to the town "to show me to the king."

After many scores of years, when I visited Cluj again, I was gripped by the desire to find Anna again. I remembered that after her marriage, she lived with her husband just next to our house, when she used to come and visit us often. I entered the courtyard of the house and asked several tenants if they knew about Anna's whereabouts, but no one knew a person by that name living there for the last thirty years. It was a disappointment, though not a surprise, as Anna and her family had to flee from the town as soon as the Hungarians occupied it fifty years ago.

Nevertheless, for some unknown reason I had an urge to search for her, despite the likelihood that my search would be in vain.

Maids served in our home, as in most middle-class Jewish families, until the Hungarian occupation, when the Jews were forbidden to keep Aryan servants. These girls were of peasant stock of Romanian or Hungarian origin, some of them coming from well-established farmers who sent their daughters to the town in order to improve their education.

On one occasion, after hearing the noise of running water for a long time, my mother went to the kitchen and found the maid standing at the open tap "I wanted to see when it will stop," said the girl. That "miracle" of an endless stream of water did not exist in their village.

On Sundays, these girls wore very colorful dresses and went out to the carousels to meet the boys from the village. One of the markets was transformed into an amusement center for the village youngsters.

The garb of the peasants was varicolored and picturesque and almost completely homemade. The Romanians wore lapidary fur hats resembling an ice-cream cone. Their clothing was made of white wool in the winter and white cotton with black embroidery in the summer. Their footwear was made from pieces of leather or rubber stitched together and wrapped around their feet, similar to the moccasins worn by the American Indians, which is made from the northern reindeer.

I had contacts with Romanian peasants, mainly through the business of my brother, and I have been left with some warm feelings towards them. I found many of them to be good-hearted and joyful people. They used to come to the town to sell their produce and to buy goods for their home and farm before going to the pubs to drink and be merry. It was known that they were capable, after being incited by their anti-Semitic agitators, to attack and even kill Jews with pitchforks and knives.

Drinking was deeply ingrained in the population. On Sundays, towards the evening when those sots emerged from the pubs, we kept away from the area and avoided meeting them. It was a common sight on Sunday evenings, when the pubs closed, to see an inebriated wretch on his own or embraced with another drunkard, rocking down the street and singing on their way home. For some reason ,the drunkards I met in my childhood always sang. Drinking was a relief for these miserable people who lived under distress and poverty. On Mondays, they arrived to work with a hangover and in low spirits. People related to drinking and drunkards with understanding and even with some forgiveness, except towards aggressive drunkards, as almost everyone got drunk occasionally, including the upper classes and the aristocracy.

The clothing of the town dwellers was the sign and mark of their status, following the principle that "clothing makes the man." Rich men wore three-piece suits with a heavy gold chain on their bulging paunches. Every male above thirty had a walking stick, and those of the affluent had a silver-covered handle. The walking stick, apart from being a status symbol, was a useful aid for walking, which was a frequent activity in those days . For my father, it was also used as a means of defense to strike young hooligans who attacked him on the street.

The author at the age of 18 years

The Szamos river

The rear of the house, where I spent my childhood and youth, was situated along the river called Szamos. That was the small Szamos, as opposed to the large Szamos which ran in another part of the town. The river was an estuary used for receiving the overflow from the large Szamos and for irrigating the surrounding fields. It was about five meters wide and its depth sometimes reached as far as two meters. We crossed the river via a wooden bridge adjacent to the courtyard.

That small river constituted an important part of the scenery in my childhood. For the children, the river was fascinating; its flow was swift and often various items and boxes fell into it accidentally and could be found floating on the water.

I remember the tennis balls, that were quite often hit into the river from the neighboring tennis court at the Protestant church which was located on the shore of the river. At every high strike, the ball went above the wire net straight into the river. Young boys, mostly gentiles, would sit along the river at the tennis games, waiting to jump in to retrieve the balls for a few pennies.

There was no fence between the river and the street, which meant that some people, mainly drunkards, fell into it as well. I once saw a Rumanian soldier floating on the river. The older boys from our courtyard jumped in and dragged him out; he was still alive, but deadly drunk.

One day, when I was six, I was sitting on the shore of the river with our neighbor's daughter, who was the same age. We saw a box coming down the river, and the girl told me to "go get that box." She probably "encouraged" me with a light thrust, and suddenly I found myself in the river.

This accident is ingrained in my memory to this day, and I can still see the yellow-white curtain of water that engulfed me so mercilessly. Soon afterwards, the curved head of a walking stick appeared in the water, and I grabbed it with my last strength, to pull myself out of the water. I also remember, that while in the water, I was worried about a bag of candies I had bought shortly before. As soon as I was rescued from the river, I hurried to check whether the bag of candies had become wet.

The saving-stick belonged to a neighbor, who owned a nearby factory and was, just by chance, walking along the river.

Since that day, a bridge and a river still affect me even now when I cross a bridge, I feel queasy with a fuzzy fear that the water may rise over the bridge and sweep me away. During the last ten years, I swim every morning with my head in the water and the sight under the surface sometimes brings me back to that accident in my childhood.

Dej, the first station.

After the fourth grade, I started studying with private teachers ,who prepared me for external high school exams. The high schools were government schools and the pupils had to attend and write on Saturdays. This prevented religious families from sending their children to these schools. My parents decided to send me for a while to another town, to Dej, which was located about 60 kilometers from our town. In those days, it was customary to send adolescent boys to study away from home, in order that they will learn to become independent. I was only eleven years old, but by all indications, my parents must have found it hard to put up with my stubborn nature; which was not easily bent or molded by other people’s wishes. They probably also had their fill of me during the three years in the school. I was a kind of an introvert and did not share my emotional problems with other people.

I accepted their decision to send me away without any grudge. We had relatives in that town, and somebody from the family arranged my lodging and enrolled me in a heder, and found a teacher for my formal studies. I lived in that town for half a year, and that short period had a very positive effect on me. I learned to concede and to restrain myself, perhaps because more attention was focused on me as a boy coming from a big town .I had to take care of myself, to travel on my own on the train, and to take responsibility for all my actions. The boys treated me with respect, not the least due to my strength, which enabled me to fend for myself.

Dej was a scenic little town with a high percentage of Jewish residents. The post of the rabbi of the community was chaired by Rabbi Panet, a descendant of a famous rabbinical family .Very few Jews kept their stores open on the Sabbath, and those few who did open had to face an organized group of Jews demonstrating in the front of their shops and asking to shut down, a scene that repeated itself On Saturday mornings, after the morning prayer, we used to come for the "kiddush" (blessing with wine or other alcoholic drink) to the rabbi’s house. We would hear his sermon about the week’s portion of the Bible, drink a glass of brandy and join in the singing, making it the highlight of the week.

From those visits, I remember a very special character, an old man who trotted, veiled in his tallith (prayer shawl) and murmuring some incomprehensible words .I learned that he was speaking the "holy language," the Hebrew of the Bible, which he pronounced in a strong Ashkenazi accent. I was told that this is his custom on every Sabbath. He explained that in a Hebrew rhyme: "the holy language on the holy Sabbath." Another idiosyncratic way in which he consecrated the Sabbath was that on that day, he drank only pure alcohol, 96 (the percentage of alcohol) in Jewish slang.

A certain quarter of the town was inhabited by mostly Jews, and was therefore considered by the population as a kind of a ghetto. For me, that was quite new and illuminating , as such a thing did not exist in our town. In those few streets of that ghetto, the Jewish children played in the streets more freely and without being harassed by the neighboring gentiles. A Friday was not just a day, it was the eve of Sabbath, people coming and going carrying "challah" (the Sabbath white bread) and the "cholent" to the bakeries. On Sabbath, the street was full of people going to or coming from the synagogue, some with their Though my stay in that town was quite short, its contribution to my transition to adolescence was very significant.

Cluj-my town of birth

The town of Cluj, renamed as Kolozsvar after the Hungarian occupation in 1940, remained in my memory with love as a nice and picturesque old town which has retained much of his medieval charm. In our youth, we were amused by its mystical aura, created by a novel written at the end of the last century by an Irishman, Bram Stoker, with the title "Dracula." For some reason, the author of that horror fiction chose to place the main character, a blood-sucking Transylvanian count, in the town of Klausenburg, which was the name of our town in the Austro-Hungarian period.

The Jewish community in the town numbered 10,000. The cultural and communal life of the town was very active, with two theaters, concert halls and an opera which I visited almost weekly, mostly sneaking in by bribing the usherette. The singers were mostly local, but quite often guest singers appeared from all over Europe, even from the famous La Scala opera in Milan. In my youth, I had a chance to see most of the operas which were being performed at that time in Europe.

Speaking about the operas, an unusual performance of the opera Tosca comes into my mind,, which was once performed with the participation of a famous guest -singer from La-Scala. He gave an excellent performance in the role of Scarpia, the Police inspector. He was tall and paunchy, and in the last scene, when Tosca is supposed to kill Scarpia and lay a candlestick with burning candles on each side, Tosca slipped, falling on Scarpia's paunch and forcing the "dead" Scarpia to rise. The audience broke out in long-lasting tumultuous laughter, and when the singer came out for an encore, the inconsiderable audience received him again with roaring laughter. The hapless singer left the stage insulted and vanished from the town, never to be seen there again.

There was a wide variety of cultural and political activity underway in the Jewish community. The Zionist groups were very alive with strong arguments and debates, sometimes ending in physical clashes between the extreme left and right wings.

Jewish University students, who were admitted on a restricted basis, were mostly sympathizers of the Communist party. The religious sector had different affiliations, belonging either to the more tolerant faction of the Viz'nitzer Hassidic group or followers of the anti-Zionist group of the rabbi of Szatmar.

The memories that connect me now with my town of birth, Cluj-Kolozsvar, are mixed. The deportation of my family, relations, and friends and their tragic end has left me deeply scarred. In spite of all that, I cannot wipe away the twenty years of my childhood and youth, that I spent there in the bosom of my family, friends and relatives swaddled in an environment of warmth and love. Those were my formative years, which were a mixture of joy and sadness.

I visited Cluj again in 1977, after an absence of 31 years. The renewed encounter with the town was overpowering. I was dumbfounded to find that the socialist regime had ravaged the character and beauty of that five-hundred- year- old town. The old streets and buildings ,which were in my time maintained and preserved with great care, were now dirty and neglected. In the heart of the old marketplace, an estate had been put up with some ugly tall buildings. The small Somesh River, which ran alongside our house and played a significant role in the scenes of my youth, was now empty and dirty. I walked around the streets of the town, as I used to do in my youth, and I suddenly realized that the town, which once appeared to me as a big city, is no more than a provincial little town. It was difficult to determine what had changed more the town or myself?

I found life in town bleak and dull, as compared to the active and vivid atmosphere which I remembered from my youth. The small remaining Jewish community consisted mainly of old people living on the handouts organizations. Some of the survivors remembered me and my family.

I visited the house where we lived before the deportation and found the place abandoned. I entered the house and looked around, then suddenly I heard a noise coming from the attic. I was dumbfounded, it made me feel as if ghosts were in the house. Asking who it was, I saw a gypsy coming down frightened from the attic, he was one of those who rummaged abandoned houses, especially where Jews lived before, to steal goods that were left behind.

The greatness of the spirit.

When I left Dej, I was about eleven years old. My father decided to put me in into a more "advanced" heder, under the tutorship of Reb Manashe, who was engaged as a teacher in the school of the Sephardic community. Towards the end of every week, Rabbi Halberstamm used to come to the school to test the children about what they had learned in the weekly portion of the Bible. He had his very peculiar way of punishing those who were unprepared and did not work hard enough during the week. I never went through his exams, but I once saw him pulling the ears of a boy while quoting the passage from the bible : "the law will go out from Zion." The word Zion is pronounced in Hebrew as tziyon, which sounds like tziyen in Yiddish, meaning to pull, which he used to say when pulling a boy’s ear.

The physiognomy of that rabbi; left a strong impression on everyone who met him. His huge black eyes, which shone out of a very densely bearded face, and his quick, brisk walk bore witness to an independent and very dynamic personality. I, occasionally participated in his evening prayers, which were held in his modest apartment. I remember some of his fierce and loud outburst in the middle of the prayers. His devoted followers explained that the outcries were his individual way of expressing his faith, devotion and request to the Almighty. However, in my experience, I have learned that these outburst during the service can only be de profundis, coming from the depth of one’s soul, or, in some rare cases, a dramatic act to impress one’s followers.

There were many stories going around about the genius and outstanding good deeds of that rabbi. He was elected as a rabbi of the community at the age of twenty, making him the youngest person in the country to ever be made a spiritual leader. He was soon recognized as a complex and original personality. He went on to have a large family of eleven children and lived humbly on the modest salary that he received from the community.

When the Hungarians occupied our town, their callous officials declared him to be a Polish citizen and sent a decree for him to be deported to Poland together with all other Jews of Polish origin .But he did not present himself to the authorities and chose to go into hiding for several years, living underground, sleeping in the houses of the members of the community and at certain dangerous times, even seeking shelter in the Jewish cemetery.

Those vile Hungarian security officials deported in the early forties, eighteen thousand Jews to Poland ,under the pretext that they were Polish citizens. They were sent to Kamenetz-Podolsk in Poland, knowing that they would eventually be executed there by the SS, who were in command in that area. Fourteen thousand Jews were murdered there and the rest taken to forced labor camps.

It is most astounding that the rabbi had the courage not to "present himself to the authorities," like many other law abiding Jews. He simply had the foresight not to trust them.

Present day picture of the author at his work

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