Friday, June 9, 2017

The topic will be presented by Dr. Peter Tarjan at the IAJGS convention in Orlando , Wednesday July 26 2017 at 11.15 an

Peter Tarjan
In 1988 – 32 years after I left Hungary – I was visiting my mother’s sister, Ágnes (z”l), in Budapest, who had cared for me–an orphan– after the war. I asked her about the family correspondence that somehow survived.
            “I gave those to you long ago”–she said.
But an envelope marked “Utolsó Levelek” –Last Letters–emerged from a secret drawer at the bottom of her antique wardrobe, with a few war-time postcards from my grandparents and my parents. Ágnes could not remember how those items survived. – After her death in 1992, her friend found a valise in another nook in her tiny studio apartment containing letters, photos and other memorabilia. I translated and chronologically organized the reports of my grandparents on the postcards following the German occupation on 3/19/1944 until correspondence from the ghetto in Pécs was forbidden. I juxtaposed these with concurrent articles dealing with the persecution of Jews in the local daily newspaper, Dunántúl (Transdanubia), the only one allowed by the Nazis in the town. The last header on 7/6/1944: “The Ghetto in Pécs is vacant” without further explanation.
Where the present city is located, the Romans established an outpost named Sopianae in the 2nd century C.E. The area has been continuously inhabited for almost two millennia. Christian tombs, a “Necropolis” was discovered from that period. The foundations of the cathedral were laid in the 4th century. The present structure began after a fire in 1064. The town’s life has been heavily influenced by its bishops for more than a millennium. The wall around the town was built in the 15th century, but it did not stop the Ottomans who conquered and held it from 1543 to 1686. Jews were living in the town before and during the Ottoman period, but when the Hapsburgs took over, the locals decided to allow only Christians to live in the town.
Pécs began to prosper in the early part of the 19th century. The first Jew was allowed to settle inside the town around 1820, but they had a cemetery by 1827 and a prayer house by 1841. The large synagogue, a national monument today, was completed in 1869.
My “Papa” –Simon Steiner (1869-1944), my maternal grandfather came to Pécs to be an apprentice men’s tailor in a relative’s shop around 1882 and had lived there until their deportation to Auschwitz in July, 1944. He took over the tailoring shop and then married “Mama” –my grandmother, Margit Katona (1886-1944)–around 1904. She was the only child of József (Krausz) Katona (1860-1939), an agronomist and Bertha Krausz (1867-1933) a teacher and newspaper reporter. My great-grandfather, my “Dédike,”retired early and moved to Pécs to be near their daughter and their two granddaughters, Ágnes (1906-1992) and “Bözsi”- Erzsébet (1910-1945), my mother. They lived in a duplex near the center, but when Bertha died, Papa and Mama moved into a modern apartment building with Dédike–who followed his wife after a few years. Papa spent his days in the home-office of Uncle Ede (Krausz) Bokor, Bertha’s bachelor brother, who died in 1943 and thus escaped the worst year of persecution which began with the German occupation. There was a very old lady living with Uncle Ede, I think she was also his sister. In the next little house lived Aunt Tilda Bokor, Ede’s sister-in-law and her grown son, Laci. Among all these people, only Zsuzsa Bokor, who was Ede’s niece and Mama’s cousin returned, who was about 22 and became a cardiologist.
Both of the Steiner girls were talented and ambitious. Ágnes aspired to be an actress and Bözsi’s talent was in music. The sisters moved to Budapest for their studies and remained there.
Bözsi and Tibor (Friedman) Tarján (1904-1945?) “discovered” each other in Budapest and they were married in Pécs in 1931. Moritz Friedman, (1860-1924) (Tarján after 1910) and his wife, Fáni Löbl (ca. 1870-1910) had four children: Aranka (1888-1944), Kornel (1893-1978), Böske (1898-1985) and Tibor (1904-1945?), all born in Szekszárd, a smaller town about 60 km NE of Pécs.
After Fáni’s early death, they moved to Pécs. It’s a separate story, but Kornel lived with his family in Zagreb from 1922 until Yugoslavia was attacked in 1941. His family went through Italian concentration camps, followed by two years among Tito’s partisans; eventually they  landed in Boston in 1950. Aranka, Böske and her husband were sent to Auschwitz, but only Böske did return as she was found fit to work. There were many relatives living within 50 miles from Pécs, virtually all perished including my four little cousins about my age. 
My parents rented a comfortable apartment in the Jewish district. My father could not enroll at a university due to the Numerus Clausus and he became an apprentice tanner at a factory owned by a Jewish family in Pécs. Eventually he did earn a law degree as a corresponding student and then he was appointed to manage the firm’s office in Budapest, a short walk from our apartment. My mother changed her plans from becoming a performing artist and she took a teacher’s diploma to give voice and piano lessons in our living room. Despite the war, we lived a modest, but comfortable life until the German occupation. We spent nearly all our vacations with our relatives in Pécs, where everyone was busy spoiling me as the only small child in the immediate family. My parents’ families got along well; they were moderately religious, liberal thinking middle class folks.
In Ágnes’s second set, a few letters survived from 1941 until the Occupation, which reflect the close bonds among the relatives, the care and worries for each other and the gathering black clouds. After the Occupation news sources were suppressed, Jewish owned radios and telephones confiscated, intercity travel forbidden and communication was limited to war-time open postcards, readily available for censorship. Mama was a diligent correspondent; hence a fairly complete picture emerges about the stressful period while they were waiting for their belongings to be systematically confiscated and their own move to the ghetto in May. The next set of postcards describes the miserable conditions in the ghetto, but they reflect some hope and dignity. The final set at the end of June reflects justifiable desperation as at the end of the month all the “inhabitants”–read “prisoners”– in the ghetto were transferred to a filthy barn before they were shipped to Auschwitz in unimaginably crowded cattle cars. I don’t know how my mother and Ágnes were able to cope with the postcards, but the official propaganda might have given them some assurance that “the Jews were transferred to work camps, where the young would work and the elderly take care of the children.”
Over the years I had searched for information about the way the Hungarian press reported the persecution of the Jews during the Occupation. The Library of Congress had a few fragile pages from 1944, but copies were hard to obtain. The “KNOWLEDGE CENTER,” a fabulous modern library was built in Pécs with EU funds in 2010. I visited there in 2014 and found digitized copies of the local paper from 1944, transferred from microfilm. My presentation will show in translation a stream of headers about the self-righteous announcements about the persecution of the local Jewish community in the only daily newspaper permitted to be published by the Nazis. The tone of the paper, needless to say, was viciously anti-Semitic without the slightest hint of sympathy or regret.
My father was in and out of “munkaszolgálat” –forced labor for the military from 1941 forward. His company was able to get him released time and again as they were producing leather for the war effort and they claimed him to be an indispensable employee. His service became non-stop after 3/19/44. Eichmann was delegated to Budapest to finish off the Jewish population. They first eliminated about 75 percent of the Jews, those who resided outside of Budapest. By the end of June they began to focus on the approximately 200,000 Jews in the city and forced us into STAR HOUSES. Our building was one of those and our apartment became a crowded camp for more than 20 people. The deportations stopped on 7/8/44; Eichmann was recalled. The Red Army was approaching Hungary. On 10/15/44 Regent Horthy declared neutrality on the radio to save the country from being overrun and destroyed by the Soviet forces. Three hours later the fascist “Arrowcross” or “Nyilas” party forced Horthy’s resignation and with the Russians approaching, focused on the destruction of all the Jews in the city. A few short notes and postcards reflect the tension and worry that affected everyone. My father’s unit was sent west. Eichmann returned to resume the deportations, but as all the railroad cars were used for the retreating army, he ordered the infamous Eichmann March. My mother was among those who were captured and taken on the march in early December. A postcard survived from her, the last signal of life.
There is an unexplained item among the postcards in my father’s handwriting, dated April 6, 1945 and posted in Budapest. It was addressed to a former neighbor with a mysterious message I am unable to explain. Could he possibly have survived the camps and returned by then?
The International Tracing Service had found a few entries about my parents’ separate travels in German areas with the latest entry from February, 1945.
If my father did indeed return to Budapest, then his disappearance is most likely due to the Soviets rounding up able-bodied men and some women to be taken to labor camps in the Soviet Union. Their records either do not exist, or are still kept secret by the current regime.
There are many questions for which I would like answers, but virtually all the survivors who were adults in 1944 have passed away already. While they were still alive, they did not want to talk about their experiences.
In summary, the correspondence amounts to eyewitness reports intended only for staying in touch with each other within the family, but its scope is much larger. Juxtaposed against the official news reports, it is an indictment of the Hungarian fascist government and its subservient hateful press specifically in Pécs, but in a broad sense, the whole country.