Scandinavia Special Interest Group (SIG)

Before it all began...

 

 


Before it all began ...
Father, Olly, Bela, Mother and Alice

It can be hard to remember everything from one's childhood. In 1935 I began to keep a diary. I regarded it as my closest and most intimate friend, confiding every detail to it. Although the Nazis snatched it from me in 1944, much is still vividly etched on my memory.

One of my earliest memories is of a little girl sitting on the steps. My parents were having a nap before dinner, and I was just sitting there, waiting for them to get up. The steps led up to my father's shop. He had the sole agency for Singer sewing machines in a large part of Transylvania. A festive mood prevailed when he went on his trips into the countryside, accompanied by his troupe of sewing experts to demonstrate and sell the machines. In those days country people sewed virtually everything by hand. Now, with the miraculous invention and deft fingers to show what it could do, he was received at the best premises in every town he visited, and the Singer was in great demand.

So my father could afford to keep a car on the road -a huge, black Ford. On his first trip with the family, the car ended up in a ditch. He hired a chauffeur.

Towards the beginning of 1930 the population was somewhat divided. The rift was not very pronounced, but one could feel it in the air. Transylvania had come under Romanian rule in 1918, but its population was mainly Hungarian. In our little town the local Hungarian primary school was turned into a Romanian school. They had to go to Bucharest to recruit the teachers.

My childhood was very ordered, very authoritarian, very bound by tradition. But secure and loving.

The next seven chapters, one for each day of the week, describe my childhood.

Monday


My home town

Right from the early dawn the town was bustling with activity. Everybody got up early. The children had to go to school, the men had to go to work. The mothers stayed at home to mind the small children. Day nurseries and kindergartens were unheard of.

My mother's parents lived in a very big house. They needed a big house, because they had ten children and an army of servants. But now that the children had grown up and departed, my grandparents moved in with my aunt and uncle. There were no old folk's homes in those days either, but as the whole family lived in or near the town, my grandparents were never short of visitors. I still cherish tender memories of the long hours I spent with my grandparents. Days of wonder. Good food, loving hugs, spellbinding stories -security, joy.

My grandparents lived until they were in their eighties. My grandmother died first. Grandfather cried a lot; he couldn't go on living without her. A few days later he died too.

Besides the festive occasions at home with the family there were the festive town occasions, when people got together to celebrate something or other. I have very vivid recollections of the First of May, when we all went out to the forest. Everything was planned in detail; the picnic hampers were loaded, the wines were lovingly selected and handled. It was a day for fun and games, dancing, competitions and a host of other pastimes. And for us children it was rather special, because we were never chastised.

The sun usually shone on the First of May. It took about an hour to walk to the fringe of the forest. By ten o'clock all had arrived. The festivities could commence. The men offered one another glasses of wine. It was homegrown. The pride of the man of the house. And every man of the house basked in the praise of his own wine. So the mood became increasingly jolly. The men's laughter and bantering jocularity could be heard miles away.

Then we began to play. We held sack races and fished with our tongues for coins concealed in the folds of the layer cake. And everyone was thrilled to watch the small, awed faces, covered with jam and cream.

Then dinner was served. The cloths were unfurled and spread on the rich grass, and the sumptuous dishes were produced. There was a lot of eating and drinking, and the conviviality and kindness knew no bounds. But people succumbed to exhaustion and everybody stole off to take a nap for an hour or two.

The afternoon was devoted to games and dancing. Now it was the women who directed matters. Infectious rhythms, flirtation and a swirl of skirts. The men sweated, their eyes shone -this was nothing less than marvellous. When the sun's rays lost their heat, people went round collecting their belongings, exchanged warm embraces in farewell and made their way home, still wreathed in smiles.

Tuesday

The town had a casino. Now and then my father used to spend an afternoon at the casino. The casino was a club for men -and only for men. They could have a meal there and read the newspapers and magazines.

The casino also had a theatre, where films were shown twice a week. On one occasion -I must have been about eleven or twelve at the time -a fire broke out in the cinema during the show. Now there was drama both on and off screen. There was only one exit, and when all two hundred rushed towards it simultaneously, there was a lot of pushing and trampling. Fortunately, nobody got hurt.

The town had permanent agreements with touring theatre companies, so there was a theatre performance twice a month. My parents had "season tickets", and always brought the children. These were evenings of rapture and excitement. I remember the hypnotist who persuaded members of the audience to do the oddest things. Under hypnosis my Aunt Ilonka spoke to her late mother, and later plucked flowers and cradled them. When the hypnotist snapped his fingers, she reverted to her usual self and remembered not a thing.

Getting ready to go to the theatre was itself a lot of fun. Everybody looked forward to the event, everybody dressed up for the evening out. I wore black patent leather shoes. I recall one performance in particular: "Before the Mirror". It was spellbinding, thrilling, daring. The lady on the stage undressed until she stood up there in her underwear. My parents were annoyed at having brought me along. They suffered pangs of conscience; no child should see such things.


The girls' school - "Liceul Unirea"

The Romanian influence on official life was becoming more and more pervasive, and my parents thought that the best course was for me to continue my schooling in a private Romanian girls' school. It was called "Liceul Unirea" in Tūrga-Mures, about seventeen kilometres from our home town. In those days that seemed to be a long, long distance away. I stayed with a Jewish family: Sandor and Bertha Diamenstein and their two daughters. I spent four wonderful years with them, coming home to my parents for Christmas, Easter and the summer holidays.

Unfortunately, Uncle Sandor contracted incurable TB and died; the family was split and I had to move.

The four years 1 spent with the Diamensteins were a period of great development for me. I listened to a lot of music, was a member of various societies, became gradually familiar with another family's attitude to life, became part of their togetherness. Although strictly speaking an outsider, I belonged to the family as a close relative. I learned and experienced -vividly, physically and emotionally -the painful longing for my family, for my home town. But I also experienced counter emotions: the joys of freedom and independence.

School uniform was compulsory. I liked the uniform. It was striped, in grey and white, with a separate collar and cuffs, a navy blue cape, bonnet and stockings. Every morning the teachers supervised as the pupils gargled with salt water. I also have clear recollections of the maths lessons. For a period I had probably been absent, and the gaps in my knowledge made it difficult for me to follow the lessons. My teacher noticed it and invited my parents to a meeting. My mother was told that this sort of thing could not continue, and that I was to have extra tuition from a maths teacher. I got the extra teaching, and in the long run it helped. But I remember feeling proud at being able to arrive for regular lessons well prepared. Of course the credit was due entirely to my auxiliary teacher, who had done it all for me, as I still hadn't fully grasped the subject. We must have received a particularly difficult assignment. Even the brightest pupil in the class couldn't manage it, which she promptly told the teacher.

"Has anyone got the right answer?" the teacher asked.

Eagerly, and happy to have the right answer, I put up my hand. "I have", I said.

"Splendid, little Czitron -just come up to the blackboard and show the others how you worked it all out", said the teacher.

That was the punishment. Yes, that was the punishment, I thought to myself. I shouldn't have boasted.

I stood up there in front of that blackboard clutching the chalk and I couldn't make any headway with the problem. I failed, and was punished. I had to write it all out, step by step, a hundred times, and in the next mathematics lesson I had to explain it all and show on the blackboard how I had reached the correct solution.

Stern punishment? Yes, but effective.

In the teacher's opinion I was rather better at geography. My work was presented as an example of how beautifully and accurately maps could be drawn and coloured.


Olly's childhood home ...
before World War II

Olly in front of her childhood home
(1970)

Wednesday

Wednesday was market day in my home town. The town, which had been granted the formal status of market town, had its own town hall, courthouse, two pharmacies, three doctors, ten smaller shops and other amenities. So it wasn't exactly a town of no importance.

People came to sell their farm produce from the surrounding districts. And to buy. A day when the town was alive and bustling, in festive mood, with buying and selling and bargaining, and shouting and yelling and stealing. A day with a spicy atmosphere, exalted spirits.

They used to tell the following story about my grandfather - on my mother's side. He lived with my grandmother in a tiny village, where he owned a big farm. Apart from the few municipal employees, my grandfather was the only one in the village who could read. He was a respected man, who expected people to show a certain measure of respect.

He ran his home and his family as he saw fit. Things went well, so there was no cause for complaint.

On one occasion he had to provide his wife, his ten children and the servants with shoes. He travelled in to the market and located the shoe stall. Boots and shoes were on display, hanging on hooks - row upon row of them. When grandfather reached the row with the greatest variety of shapes and sizes, he pointed at it with his stick and stated: "I'll buy the entire row."

When he returned home, there was great joy.

"Help yourselves", he said, emptying two sackfuls of boots and shoes on the floor.

They all approached the pile, spending the next few hours trying on various boots and shoes, joking and laughing. But not everyone was pleased with the result.

There were some who ended with a right shoe one size bigger than the left shoe, and vice versa. And some ended up with two different shoes. The most comic turn of all was a girl who ended up with a boot on one foot and a shoe on the other. As the years passed, my father supplied nearly every home in his territory with the Singer machines, and now he started up as a wholesaler and retailer. He bought up the peasants' crops and sold them to merchants. The retail store was established in the two rooms facing the street. As he also had the sole rights to sell tobacco and matches in forty-two villages, he was a busy man. When I had completed my five years at secondary school, my parents decided that I was to have an education. My father in particular emphasised how important it was for a girl to be able to compete on equal terms with boys, in any part of the world. And so my sister Alice and I were packed off to study photography.

I returned to Tūrga-Mures, as an apprentice to the town's best photographer. He taught me all about taking photographs, developing and printing, and retouching techniques. When my education was complete, I was examined in the various subjects by another photographer. I passed.

I returned home to my parents, proud of my achievement. I had already asked them for permission to open a studio, as I was still too young to operate a business under my own name.

They said yes, and the business flourished. In the early days I had to work under very primitive conditions. The photographs were taken on the terrace, were developed in the larder and retouched in the kitchen. But then my father built a house on the site, installing a proper studio. People from the villages were not so used to having their photos taken, but my reputation spread and the "subjects" were satisfied.

I was sixteen years old, an independent photographer, and my job imbued me with a dual sense of pleasure and responsibility.

Wednesday was the busiest day of the week. People who came to the market took the opportunity of having their photos taken, alone, in pairs or in family groups. Wedding photos were always taken on Saturday, in the home, but that meant that I was invited to the wedding dinner travelling in a horse-drawn carriage, and dancing till near dawn.

The real boom in my business came in 1940, when Transylvania again became Hungarian. A military garrison was stationed just outside the town, and all the soldiers were to have identity cards with photographs. We got hold of a military jacket, which they all wore while being photographed. If it happened to be too big for a "sitter", it was fastened behind with a clothes peg to create the impression of the dashing military touch.

Those years with Alice involved loads of work and a lot of fun, and mother and father were proud of us.

A new law was passed stipulating that the border people those living between Hungary and Romania - should also be issued with identity cards.

The border was so drawn that it ran through most people's house, garden or land. One of my uncles lived in a border village, and he sent for me. I set off with my huge camera and tripod and all the other paraphernalia and got there two hours later. My uncle had assembled the entire population of the village, and they formed a queue, waiting to have their photos taken. That job took several days, as everybody had to have three photos. And there were more problems when the pictures were to be developed at home. All the women looked alike, and so did the men. The women wore the same black scarves on their heads, the men the same black hats.

The whole family tried to help me with the sorting. It was simply impossible. I returned to the village with a suitcase full of passport photos - one big mess - and handed the lot over to my uncle.

He failed to see the problem. He sorted the women into one stack, the men into another.

Then he put three photos into each envelope, and when people came to pick them up, they examined them with great care, wondering how they could look so different on the three pictures.

When they mentioned the matter to my uncle, he simply told them that there was no extra charge for the subtle variety.

They got their pictures, I got paid, and nobody complained.

Thursday

Sovata, the spa town, is forty kilometres from my home town. My mother spent three weeks there every year, bringing the children with her -one at a time, in turns. Sovata is surrounded by monumental salt mountains. People from the town hewed rocks from the mountain, boiled them in water and used the resulting salt in their housekeeping. The water gushing down the mountainside was used for cure baths, to treat rheumatic disorders. Some patients were packed into mud containing salt and minerals. The cure baths were on the shore of the lake, right in the centre of Sovata.

At one corner of the lake there was a pavilion, at an elevation of about two metres above the water. A promenade orchestra used to play there every afternoon and evening, creating a real holiday mood. People strolled up and down, chatting animatedly. And in the evening they could go to the Casino and play roulette, or go to a restaurant for a meal and the dancing. When we booked a table at a restaurant, it usually meant putting two or three tables together, to accommodate our large party of family and friends. I enjoyed those days and evenings of rapture in Sovata.

Romance played an important role in everyday life. After an evening's dancing in a restaurant or a private home, the enamoured young man - if he wanted to express his emotions properly - hired a gypsy orchestra. All the instruments were lugged to the place where the girl happened to be living. Then dramatically posing beneath her window he sang his serenades, to the accompaniment of the orchestra.

If the girl chose to reciprocate the young man's display of feeling, she pulled the curtains aside and lit a candle, to express her appreciation of the musical offering and her gratitude.

When I was first serenaded, my family stood behind me, obscured by the darkness. They thought the whole thing was charming. I was embarrassed.

Later, when as a teenager I stood there alone, holding a candle, tears were often shed. It's marvellous to be in, and I've been in love many times, once with a young pilot.

We met at a ball. I had a new dress, new shoes. I probably looked delectable.

Suddenly he walked into the room, looking very dashing in his uniform.

I looked at him - he caught my glance and I blushed. How angry I was at myself! Now he could actually see that I was thinking of him. I cast my glance downwards.

A short while later he was standing in front of me. What a wonderful evening. We danced till dawn broke.

His final farewell greeting came from the skies. A little package was flung down - for Olly - "with thanks to Olly for an unforgettable evening".

On Thursdays my mother started preparations for the Sabbath.

Friday

On Friday people did their shopping for the week in my father's shop. In addition to the usual range of groceries there was stationery, school books, fuel and a myriad of other items. A real "general store". Most of the time my mother was present in the shop. She enjoyed it, and my father wanted it that way.

On Friday the Jewish shops closed early in the afternoon. The men got ready to go to the synagogue, and the housewives had to finish the cleaning and the cooking.

On Friday dinner nearly always consisted of the same courses: fish, soup with homemade noodles, boiled or roast meat, with pickled gherkins and compote.

Father attended the synagogue on Friday evenings and Saturday mornings. On Friday evening the table was festively decorated. My mother lit the two white candles and said her prayer with bowed head. Just after sunset. When father got back from the synagogue, we had dinner, often with foreign Jewish guests at the table. These guests were also invited to the synagogue, a custom which still survives.

I often attended the services, listening to the liturgical singing. As children we played in the synagogue garden, and warm and lasting friendships were formed here. But when I reached my teens I spent more time in the synagogue. I liked the atmosphere, the prayers and the music. On the Day of Atonement - one of the most solemn days in the Jewish calendar - everyone fasted in the synagogue, even the children. On that day we felt it quite natural to ask our parents for forgiveness, if we had committed some offence against them during the preceding year. Everyone in the synagogue prayed to God for forgiveness. I felt truly relieved after a day spent like this, as though I were somehow becoming a better person.

I had a Hebraic prayerbook, which had a parallel translation in Hungarian, so I could understand my prayer to God.

I believed in the prayers. I believed in the traditions. I believed in God. I saw the beauty in faith. When we reached the Passover holiday, the house was subjected to a thorough cleaning and repainting. Outside and inside. The kitchen was scrubbed until it gleamed. Everything was renewed: curtains, pots, pans, porcelain and glassware. Everything was stored up in the attic, and every year it felt like an internal rebirth - pulsating vibrations of joy. As children we experienced many Jewish holidays, and we celebrated them all. And the Christian holidays too. My parents probably thought that we children and young people ought to experience a lot of jubilation, and the Christian holidays were also so full of colour and rooted in tradition. These celebrations - Jewish and Christian - have given me rich experiences, insight and understanding. A feeling of kinship with mankind.

On St. Nicolaus' Day in December we put our shoes outside the door, and by the morning Nicolaus had put presents in them. At Christmas time we had a Christmas tree on the table, decorated with homemade "Salon Cukor" - a sort of toffee, which we made with Mother on a marble slab, and then wrapped in coloured silk and silver foil.

For the Christian Easter we painted eggs in intricate patterns and brilliant colours. On the morning of Easter Sunday three or four young men used to arrive, all dressed up in their white shirts, black trousers and gleaming boots. They entered the living room and sang a special Easter song, and while dancing round us they sprinkled the girls with precious drops from their phials of bewitching Eau de Cologne.

And in return we gave them our hand-decorated Easter eggs.

Saturday

On Saturdays my father used to hold card parties. He enjoyed these cosy affairs, in the company of his friends. He often invited them to dinner on Saturday evenings. In fact it became a sort of tradition. Some of these card parties lasted until Monday morning.

Many amusing stories are told about these bouts of cardplaying. There is the story of Becher Simon, a respected businessman with a wife and three children. He loved to play cards, it was his great passion. But his wife did not approve.

Early one Sunday morning, when Becher had not come home, his wife became so angry that she dashed round to our house. She knew that he had to be there. As soon as she reached the garden, she began to yell, so loudly that everyone could hear it. The neighbours were roused from their slumbers.

"Simon, Simon - I'm going to murder you! This very minute!"

Simon naturally recognised his wife's screeching and ran into the bedroom and hopped in to bed, under the blankets, with my mother.

"Ssshhh", said Simon, "my wife is after me!"

There was one Saturday in 1942 that I'll always remember.

The gate was flung open and a horse and cart carrying three men from the municipal authorities drove in. They showed an official document, stating that they were to confiscate everything from the photography studio: even the finished negatives, glass plates and all the rest of it.

They also informed us that the studio was to be closed down. This action was to be taken, the document stated, because the father is a Jew.

It was beyond all understanding, shocking.

The three men went to work without mercy, removing everything we cherished. Things that I had sorted and filed and packed with infinite care.

Then they brutally grabbed the glass plates, dropping some of them, shattering them into tiny splinters. The following weeks were sad and full of pain. "It just can't be true - it can't be right!" I told myself. I observed silence and went about my own life. I walked up to the cemetery and sat for hours on a bench.

The town lay spread out before me, with the church tower rising above it. Small, low houses, a broad main street and narrow sidestreets.

Can this town, these people, let us down? Let me down? These people whom I have lived alongside for so many years? Father, who had so many friends, who was well liked and respected by young and old alike?

I had heard that in Germany and in Poland the Jews were being persecuted, but I didn't believe it. I couldn't accept it. It was against humanity.

I started a letter to the President, Admiral Miklos Horty. I found my father's decorations and medals from the First World War. He had fought for Hungary and been wounded. I wrote about all this to the President, telling him about the confiscation of the studio equipment and materials, and all on account of my father being a Jew. That's why I asked President Horty if this could be the proper way to treat my father. I signed the letter and sent it off by ordinary mail.

Four weeks passed. Then Father was summoned to the Mayor's presence. My father went along, full of anxiety, and when the Mayor showed him a copy of my letter, which he had received from the ministry in Budapest, my father recognised my handwriting.

In angry tones the Mayor made it amply clear to my father that if he had further cause for appeal, he should approach him and not Horty. Admiral Horty had instructed the Mayor to investigate the case, and if what Olly Czitron had written turned out to be the truth, then all the confiscated property should be returned immediately - and the studio should be re-opened.

It happened the same day. Father kissed me with tears in his eyes. He was proud of me.

I was eighteen years old.

Life returned to normal. I felt like working again.

I won a photo competition conducted in Budapest. First prize. Naturally, I was thrilled, and the diploma was framed and hung on the wall.

Sunday

The major event on Sundays was the football match. The inhabitants were proud of their local football pitch, which was just outside the town. As Father had served for many years as chairman of the club, it was taken for granted that his family should attend the matches.

Father also played - on the old boys' team - but he was not very agile. It was very entertaining and he had to put up with a lot of teasing.


Olly just before deportation to Auschwitz in 1944

TO PART II: AUSCHWITZ


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