Oradea, under Hungarian rule and known
as Nagyvárad during the years of World War II, was home to a
Jewish Community second in size only to that of Budapest in
all of Hungary. Of the ghettos established throughout the region
in the spring of 1944, Oradea's was again second only to that
of Budapest. A total of about 27,000 people were forced into
a main ghetto in the area surrounding the Orthodox Synagogue.
Another ghetto, near the lumberyards, was created to house about
8,000 people gathered from nearby towns.
Terez Mozes was among those interned
in the main ghetto. Her experiences are recounted in a chapter
of her book "Staying Human through the Holocaust," which has
been translated into English and is scheduled for publication
by the University of Calgary Press.
the Oradea Ghetto
A chapter from "Staying
Human through the Holocaust" by Terez
Original title in Hungarian
Published in Hungarian (1993) and Romanian (1995)
Translators and editors:
Maureen Wise, Audrey Demarsico, Oren Hercz, Anna Hercz
Days full of terror followed.
Arrests became routine. From one day to the next, people lost
their jobs and livelihoods. The Jewish population was constantly
subjected to new forms of the forced surrender of goods and
was plundered without mercy. And yet that was not all. Bad news
spread like wildfire, predicting much worse things to come.
Railway workers were saying that in the Subcarpathian region
and in Sighet the villages had been emptied of Jews. Jews were
led away from their homes on foot or by cart, gathered together
in some bigger towns and then loaded into cattle cars and sent
to unknown destinations.
But oh, eternal Jewish optimism!
We tried to look at this development too from the authorities'
perspective, to justify to ourselves what was nothing other
than madness: we were on a frontier, an area for military manoeuvres.
We worried about our relatives and friends, but we continued
to be hopeful for ourselves. We were deluded by the thought
that this was the fifth year of war and time was on our side.
The fanatical advocates of the "final solution to the Jewish
problem" had also realized that time was short however. They
brought their plans to fruition in record time. Lászlo Endre,
the Secretary of State who was known as "the butcher of Hungarian
Jews", called a meeting on April 30, 1944 at the Oradea town
hall. Information had leaked out about a discussion that a ghetto
was to be organized. Officially this was denied, but events
led us to believe that the authorities were preparing something.
On May 1, the SS General Obersturmbannführer Dannecker, who
had organized the Warsaw ghetto, arrived in Oradea. On May 2,
a larger unit of gendarmes arrived in Oradea from the other
side of the Danube. At the same time, those who had been arrested
were unexpectedly allowed to return home. And even these events
did not open our eyes. Despite these warning signs, we were
shocked by the announcements posted on walls on May 3. I quote
a few lines from the abrupt order signed by Dr Lászlo Gyapay,
the deputy mayor:
"Jews obliged to wear
the yellow star are forbidden to leave their homes from the
time that my announcement is made public. Until further orders,
Jews may only leave their homes between 9 and 10 in the morning.
Therefore outside these hours everyone is obliged to remain
at home. By the order of the royal Hungarian government in Nagyvárad
(Oradea), I will place all the Jews obliged to wear a yellow
star in the ghetto…"
People read the announcement
in silence and rushed home. Within hours a wooden fence 2 metres
high was being erected. This fence would surround the ghetto.
Our neighbors who still had the right to move freely told us
that the area around the big Orthodox Jewish synagogue on the
left bank of the Körös (Crisul) River had been designated for
the ghetto. This was the poorest and most crowded Jewish quarter.
It included the following streets: Mezei Mihály or Kert Utca
(Avram Iancu), Capucinus utca, (Prahovei), south to the Nagy
Piac Square (1st December Square) and Liliom utca (Crinului),
then further on to Váradi Zsigmond utca (Kogalniceanu) and the
group of houses on the eastern edge which used to be a food
market, closing with Vámház utca (Sucevei). The Capuchin monastery
was separated from the ghetto with wooden boards. The area around
the Kaszárnyatér Square (Cazarmelor Square), which also included
Köröslaktanya, and was normally reserved for street cleaners,
had been earmarked for the Jews from the provinces. There, many
of those interned in the ghetto lived in the open air.
The area for the ghetto
covered about one fifteenth of the total area of the town. More
than a quarter of the population of 90 000 was to be crowded
here. Of the 30 000 Jews living in Oradea then, five or six
thousand were in the labour service at that time. It took six
days to shut the Jewish population into the ghetto. Our turn
to move came on the evening of the third day, on May 6. We were
no longer allowed to go out except between 9 and 10 in the morning,
when we tried to buy food.
We spent two days packing.
Every now and then we secretly listened to the English news,
the BBC, at our neighbours' house, as they had been exempted
of wearing the yellow star. Our own radio had already been sealed
off. At first we filled suitcases, but then, when news arrived
that these were being confiscated with all their contents, we
began to stuff things into bags - bedding, clothes, groceries,
cooking utensils, a small supply of wood and coal. I glanced
at the bags. Was this all we had after my father's 40 years
of work? Although we did not complain or cry, we had tears in
our eyes most of the time. It was like a funeral. We were burying
our beautiful family life, all the happy years spent together.
And as for our home, we felt that even if the situation should
ever change, it would be impossible to recapture its former
From time to time we looked
out the window at those whose turn had already come. One sad,
grieving group followed another. Old people, young people and
children with bundles on their backs gathered together and followed
luggage-filled carts towards the ghetto. When we recognized
someone, we uttered a little cry.
In the evening, we called
the Katz brothers to come to our house. They were exempted because
of their father's war disability status, and we wanted to see
if they could keep or eventually use anything from our house,
in which we now felt like strangers. It was a strange sensation
to walk through the house, to open doors and cupboards, to rummage
through things that at one time had been so important to us.
A few weeks earlier I could not have imagined anything like
this. I would have been very upset if a stranger had gone through
my things. Now it left me completely cold. I was looking at
the whole scene, not only at the Katz brothers but at myself
too, in a strange and distant way. I did not find it difficult
to part with a single object. I felt that nothing belonged to
me any more apart from the things already in the bags. Late
at night, I listened to the English news again. In truth I was
only interested in news that could directly influence our situation,
mostly news about the position of the front.
On Friday, we finished our
preparations. The house appeared to be in order again, but we
only felt how desolate it had become. As we could not find anything
else to do, we sat around, disoriented and apathetic, waiting
for our turn to go.
Finally, in the afternoon, a commission
of three arrived: a civilian, a clerk and a gendarme. It made
me realize that at least a hundred commissions of this kind
must now be at work throughout the town. Three hundred people,
who had at one time been honest and respected individuals, were
now visiting thousands of families to evict them from their
own homes. We would never have believed that so many people
would undertake such heartless work. At the time, though, we
did not have a moment to think about this. The commission set
to work immediately. They rifled through our luggage. They rudely
asked if all the goods we had chosen were really necessary.
They made an inventory of the valuables left in the house, such
as carpets and candlesticks. They took away our money, and most
painful of all, they took the wedding rings off Mother's and
Magda's fingers. Poor Magda had tried to be strong, but at this
she broke into inconsolable sobs. Together with the other occupants
of the house, we went down to the street with our bags. With
the exception of the Katz family (who were exempted), and Balogh
the tavern keeper, all the tenants were Jews forced into internment
in the ghetto.
The moment we closed the door after us
has remained etched in my memory. The key turned in the lock
and disappeared immediately into the pocket of one our supervisors.
The symbol of our home was in the hands of a stranger. Would
there be any way back? Would we ever see our home again? We
stepped out of the house and together with our companions in
suffering put our bags onto the loaded cart. I must have been
very deep in thought because I learned later that mother and
Magda had suddenly remembered that it was Friday evening and
they had not yet fulfilled the traditional obligations. They
went back upstairs to the Katz family's apartment and lit the
Sabbath candles. And the flame was lit one more time, the flame
that so many times had thrown its golden light over our beautiful
family life. Later, during our dreary days, I often returned
to these happy times. But then I looked up one more time to
the windows with the drawn blinds. Although we had decided to
be strong and keep our dignity, I could not control myself.
I felt drained of strength, and tears streamed down my face.
We lined up next to the cart and started
off. We only looked straight ahead. I could not say if we were
followed by looks full of pity or by gloating faces. Supporting
one another, and trying to encourage each other with glances,
we followed in the steps of those ahead, crushed and stigmatized.
The sight of this sad formation wearing stars, this army recruited
from stigmatized humans filled me with an indescribable sorrow.
Our circumstances had never felt so bitter.
Never before had I felt so helpless, so defenceless. My strong,
wise father and my loving, caring mother were both walking beside
me, but I could no longer count on their protection. I was walking
with them, and yet in a profound sense I was alone. From now
on neither the law nor human rights could protect us. It was
spring, but at the time we were not aware of it. I felt cast
out, excluded, naked. I was cold.
New groups joined us at intersections.
We had grown into a huge crowd by the time we arrived at the
ghetto. At the entrance, I realized that as far as the ghetto
was concerned we could only go in: there was no way out. When
I went through the gate, I felt that I was crossing a gulf away
from the world as I knew it, a world that no longer existed
People we knew and total strangers surrounded
us. Volunteer helpers smiled encouragement. They picked up our
belongings and accompanied us to our new accommodations. At
our request, we were assigned to my friend Sári Feldheim's house
at 14 Váradi Zsigmond Street. Today the administration of the
co-operative Lemnul is there. According to the ghetto rules,
15 or 16 people had to be housed in each room. Many other families
had already arrived at the Feldheims' house, relatives, friends
and acquaintances; 47 people were crowded into a small house
with three rooms and a hall. Another 150 people were crowded
behind this house, in homes adjacent to the courtyard. During
the first few hours, I got to know a lot of these people as
they swarmed through the rooms. We spent the time wandering
aimlessly, putting off going to bed. We covered every centimetre
with straw mattresses and blankets. We did not close our eyes
that first night.
On the second day we evaluated our situation.
We realized that we could not survive unless we organized our
life in a way that was as unemotional and rational as possible.
Aunty Feldheim rose to the occasion. At her suggestion, we took
all the furniture out of the house, either to the attic under
the eaves or into the courtyard out in the open. We put out
furniture that had been lovingly cared for. Only places for
sleeping left inside the house. We built makeshift ledges out
of the cupboard shelves and attached them to the walls. We put
the most essential things on these shelves or hung them on nails
that we had put into the walls. Older women lived in one of
the rooms and younger women in another, mothers with children
were in a third room, and the men were in the relatively small
hall. There were fewer men, and they were almost all elderly,
as the young men had been taken off to labour service. In other
houses, a number of families lived in each room, but we thought
our solution was the most sensible.
We gathered together all our food and
stored it in the only pantry of the house. We established a
roster and times for cooking and cleaning. We also had to regulate
the use of the bathroom. As we were living in such crowded conditions,
we had to follow a strict order. Outside the walls of the house
a world was being born, a state within a state or a town within
a town. It was difficult to compare with any other settlement.
Jews had been crowded quickly into the houses of a few narrow
streets without preparation. From outside, gendarmes supervised
our every move.
Inside the ghetto, a five-member Jewish
Council assumed control. This internal organization was in the
hands of the president of the orthodox community, Sándor Leitner,
and this had a calming effect. The council oversaw the day-to-day
life in the ghetto and tried to solve foreseeable problems with
food, public sanitation and administration. The other members
of the council were István Vajda, the rabbi of the Neolog community,
Dr. Sándor Lörinc, a lawyer, Dr René Osváth, a doctor, and Sámuel
Motzen. Each member of the council had to deal with a wide range
of responsibilities. Under their aegis some subcommittees came
into being and these formed the essential elements of an administration.
Within the limits of this mass misfortune, the council tried
to maintain a semblance of civilized life.
How happy we were when in the first days
young Jews dressed as postmen knocked on our doors and brought
us military postcards from those in labour battalions, our brothers
and husbands who were suffering in the Ukraine. The postmen
came from the ranks of the Jewish volunteer police. In general
keeping public order and overseeing the housing administration
had been assumed by those who had returned from labour battalions
in the Ukraine, people of experience who had already gone through
many hardships. Leaders among these were József Gréda, a translator,
and József Halmi, Dr. Izsák Mihály, a lawyer, Dr József Biró,
an ex-police officer, Béla Fodor, a detective, and Jenö Pásztor,
a journalist. The postal service, however, was soon stopped.
The city police ordered the post office to send the letters
back to the front with the words "Jew interned in the ghetto
The housing office functioned very well.
The administrators allocated places to live and kept a clear
record of who was where. They were extremely efficient - unfortunately.
It is painful to write these words because these were the ghetto
officials who later had to locate and notify the people who
were summoned by gendarmerie, and it happened more than once
that they were their brothers, friends or close acquaintances.
But what else could they have done?
From the very beginning, it was clear
that many people had come into the ghetto unprepared. These
people had to rely on the community canteen facilities right
from the start. By the eighth day of internment, 7000 people
were eating there. As food supplies diminished, the number of
those who needed the canteen kept rising. The old kitchen had
to be extended and soon a new one had to be set up. But how,
and with what resources? Necessity made us inventive. In an
abandoned laundry building, boilers that had been used for dyeing
and washing were turned into cooking vats. As food reserves
decreased, the Jewish Council addressed all the people of the
ghetto. Everyone was asked to hand over all food supplies over
the minimum needed for the next two weeks. With heavy hearts
we complied. At the time, we never suspected that we too would
come to depend on the canteen.
Many people had arrived in the ghetto
seriously ill, but in those harsh living conditions the number
of sick people rose steadily, especially once the gendarmerie
torture chambers began to function. An avalanche of suicides
began. We were among the first to learn of this sad situation
because the ghetto's central hospital had been set up close
to our house, in the unfinished temple of the rabbi from Wisnicz.
On the order of the gendarmerie, the Jewish community had to
provide simple beds made of wooden planks and benches. Bedclothes,
underwear and bedcovers were obtained by means of a public collection.
Medical instruments, bandages and medication were obtained from
the personal reserves of doctors confined in the ghetto.
As the hospital was right next to us,
we often went there to help. Overcrowding in the hospital was
worse than in the rest of the ghetto. The section for internal
diseases was situated on the ground floor and the head of the
section was our family doctor, Dr. Vilmos Molnár, the former
director of the Jewish hospital. Surgery and gynecology was
on the first floor and was led by the well-known surgeon Dr.
Ernö Elias and the equally well-known Dr. Miksa Kupfer, who
had written Herodes as well as numerous other historical novels.
Dr Kupfer wrote under the pseudonym Ádám Raffy, and he was the
father of the writers and translators Ádám Réz and Pál Réz.
In the hospital, I found out that people
with psychiatric illnesses had also been interned in the ghetto,
as had people with neurological disorders and contagious diseases.
The orthodox school for boys was set up for them. The chief
doctor of the former hospital, Dr. Ignác Dénes, headed the section
for contagious diseases. Because of lack of space, only those
who were seriously ill were admitted to hospital. Instructions
were given for the care of those who were ill and bedridden
at home as well as those who were still ambulatory. A few exceptional
doctors, who had been through the labour service experience
of the Ukraine, visited the sick in their homes in addition
to working at the hospital. Among these were Dr. Elemér Deutsch,
Dr. Endre Popper, Dr. Sándor Bálint, and Dr. Sándor Németi.
Keeping up standards of hygiene was the
most important thing in our overcrowded conditions in the ghetto.
We realized this from the beginning, from the situation in our
own house. The bathroom, planned for use by a single family,
was now shared by nearly 50 people. In fact, we were lucky to
have a bathroom. The ghetto area had been considered the poorest
Jewish quarter. Here, people often still washed their clothes
and bodies in a basin or a trough, and the toilets were usually
situated at the end of the courtyard. Space in the ghetto was
tight and extremely limited. In our house, and I would guess
it was the same in all the others, it was decided exactly, to
the minute, how much time each person could spend in bathroom
and especially how much water could be used because the water
pressure was low. The plumbers were always busy fixing blocked
pipes. Latrines were dug at the request of the Jewish Council.
And so at the ends of the courtyards, huts appeared with thin
wooden walls. There was a lack of wood because the wall surrounding
the ghetto had been made from fences that had once separated
the courtyards. Latrines were often just hidden by curtains
made from bedspreads or sheets. After a few days, a stench hung
over the ghetto. We were forever yielding on yet another point
and found it harder to tolerate living from one day to the next.
And still we continued to hope that somehow we would be able
to survive the few remaining months of war. We did not realize
that the ghetto, the yellow star, and the restrictions were
just links in the chain leading to the final goal of total annihilation.
All these things were part of a carefully calculated plan that
had already been successfully carried out in the rest of Europe.
At first, communication with the town
outside the ghetto walls was not completely severed. Carpenters
were still working on the 2-metre high fence, Christian families
who had homes in the area were still moving out, and public
maintenance workers still entered the ghetto. In Vámház Street,
within the ghetto area itself, there was a small chemical products
business, NORMA, which was owned by István Radó, a Jewish engineer
who was a war invalid. Although he was not offered another location
outside the ghetto, he was forced to move his business. As he
was an invalid, his 20-year-old daughter Márta took this task
upon herself. She put off the move for as long as she could,
because as long as she had permission to come into the ghetto
daily she could still, albeit through intermediaries and under
police supervision, maintain her relationship with her grandmother,
Mrs. Ede Mandel. She could not visit her personally, because
she only had the right to go through the ghetto by an established
route and under supervision.
There was another means of communication
between the ghetto and the town: every day a number of people
were requested to be used as workers in the hospital, to clear
debris, to look after the cemetery, or to help in the municipal
bakery. Under ghetto conditions, such opportunities might have
appeared to be an advantage, but the brutality of the employers
and the supervisory officials made everyone try to avoid such
During those days, an old acquaintance
from the countryside, whose name I do not remember, sought out
my father. This man offered to get my sister Erzsi and me out
of the ghetto. He had a daughter who was close to us in age,
and for two consecutive days when he was to be working in the
ghetto he would have brought his daughter's identity card with
him. When he left in the evenings he would have taken each of
us with him in turn, saying that we were his daughters. When
we were both outside, he planned to take us to the border point
near Félix spa where we could have crossed into Romania.
A few weeks earlier, before entering
the ghetto, when we had heard rumours about girls being threatened,
we might have accepted this wonderful opportunity of escape.
But now, when conditions in the ghetto were deteriorating daily
and every minute brought surprises, we would not leave our family.
Our brother Duci was somewhere on the front line of the Ukraine.
We felt that the time was coming when only we young ones would
be able to be a support to our family. We could not abandon
them. How could only two of us escape? If there had been a chance
of freeing the entire family, we would certainly have considered
it. But as for this - there was no question of it. My poor father,
with tears in his eyes, tried to persuade us to leave. We discussed
the matter for a few days. Much later, when only Erzsi and I
were left and were suffering in the concentration camps, we
often thought that if we had made a different decision then,
we would have been free. But we never regretted this decision.
Neither of us was sorry that we stayed alongside our parents
until the last possible moment. Even if I had known that we
would only be together for a few more days, I would not have
left them on their own.
In the ghetto, I lived in the same house
as Ági Wilkesz and her parents. To our amazement, their cousin
from Budapest appeared one day with her hair dyed honey-blond
and carrying false Arian papers. She had brought false papers
for Ági and tried to persuade her to leave with her for Budapest,
where she had already found a hiding place for her. Ági reacted
as we had to our offer of escape: she did not want to leave
her parents. Seeing that her attempts were in vain, the well-intentioned
cousin quickly left the ghetto. She went to the station and
took the train to Budapest. I was with Ági in many concentration
camps, until a selection put an end to her life. Only then was
I truly sorry that she had not taken this opportunity. Many
months after liberation, I met Ági's cousin in a Russian camp
for ex-deportees, and her hair, which was just starting to grow
back, was raven black.
On May 9, when internment in the ghetto
was complete, 2500 people were summoned for labour service.
Some of them were declared reserves, while the rest were ordered
to equip themselves with food and tools to leave for work the
next day. Once again, the inhabitants of the ghetto had to outfit
themselves from their own supplies. At first we were horrified
by this news, but then we began to wonder if enlistment in labour
battalions would in fact be better. People were never sent off
however. Unexpectedly, the commander of the gendarme regiment
in Oradea took over leadership of the ghetto, with the role
of ghetto commander filled first by the gendarme István Garay
and then by Lieutenant Colonel Jenö Péterffy.
I would not have said that life in the
ghetto was monotonous until then, as every day had its own sad
and sensational news. Starting that day however, decisions that
further distressed the defenseless population followed one after
another with incredible speed. Immediately after the new leader's
installation, the five-member Jewish Council was summoned. They
were ordered to empty all their offices in the ghetto and give
them to the gendarmes. They had to hand over the space used
by the Jewish ritual burial society (Chevra Kadisha) and the
two synagogue buildings, together with their courtyards and
outbuildings, as well as the public kitchen and the hospital
buildings for contagious diseases and mental illnesses. The
gendarmes ordered the inhabitants of the ghetto to isolate these
buildings immediately by putting up a wooden fence. We started
to execute this order, but after a while the gendarmes changed
their plan. Instead, they evacuated the Dreher-Hagenmacher beer
factory and took over their offices. This hasty move destroyed
many of the Jewish community's archives.
Not even 3 hours had passed since the
change of leadership when the shock waves began. New rules for
the internal running of the ghetto were made public. Within
1 hour of the declaration of the rules, the announcements had
to be glued over the entire ghetto area, which meant on the
doors of all the houses and on every floor of each multi-storey
house. The yellow star, the order to wear a Jewish label, had
been humiliating enough. We had been forcibly driven out of
our homes and deprived of our rights. These new arrangements
meant the trampling underfoot of our last vestiges of human
dignity. When the Fascist regime fell, authorities sought to
destroy all copies of this decree, along with other incriminating
documents. Almost miraculously, Zsiga Kenyeres, one of my brother's
friends, found, kept and later gave my husband a copy of this
decree. These arbitrary and humiliating rules set out our bed
time, waking time and meal times; they demanded total isolation
from the outside world; they ordered that the ghetto should
be as silent as the grave. The decree stipulated death by shooting
as a punishment for escape attempts, and internment in detention
camps for any non-compliance.
In front of me, framed and hanging on
my library wall, are The Ghetto Rules. I read them from time
to time, and each time I wonder why they had to further humiliate
these people who were locked up without reason and deprived
of their rights. Why did they have to specify that "inside the
house - which must not be left - each occupant must stay only
in the room to which he was allocated" and only be allowed to
leave to perform bodily functions? Why did we have to rise at
exactly 6:00 a.m., breakfast at 7:00 a.m., lunch at 12:30 p.m.,
dine at 6:00 p.m., and turn out our lights at 8:00 p.m.? Of
what possible use was the order that nobody could go out into
the street without permission, and that after 8:00 p.m. we could
not even go to the courtyard of the house? What sick minds determined
that in the evening after 8:00 p.m. the ghetto should be totally
And indeed, after 8:00 p.m. the silence
of a cemetery settled over the ghetto, silence and darkness.
The electricity was cut off, and the windows were boarded up
or whitewashed; it was forbidden to open them. Sometimes we
went up to the attic and watched the town through the air vents.
From the noises that stole into the house we tried to measure
the rhythm of life of the town, as one does from the beating
of a pulse. It seemed to me that in our absence this pulse was
weaker. Perhaps I was fooling myself, wanting to believe that
the town missed us.
The ghetto was divided into districts,
which were subdivided into groups of houses. We had to choose
house leaders from those in the building. These leaders and
their assistants had to ensure that the ghetto rules were respected.
I was the leader of my house, and Sári was my assistant. Usually,
this responsibility was given to a man, but when my father was
chosen in our house, I took on the task to spare him from the
rudeness of the gendarmes.
The house leaders wore yellow armbands
(again yellow!) with the initials HP (Ház Parancsnok or house
leader in English) in red beside the house number. We received
identity papers but even we could not go outside without a valid
reason. Twice a day, in the morning and in the evening, we had
to give a report at the headquarters of the gendarmerie where
we were then given new orders that we had to enforce without
question. One day, they ordered that all the women had to have
their hair cut in two days' time. It was specified that it could
not be longer than the earlobes. I knew that this would be greeted
by protests, so I cut my own hair before I passed on the order.
It hurt me to part with my blond curls. We also had to choose
the members and shifts of the groups that went to do community
work in the town. I think this was our most difficult job. With
200 people living in the house, we had to be careful to divide
the work evenly to avoid complaints of favouritism. We had the
most trouble with those who thought their previous social status
entitled them to special treatment.
People were only allowed out into the
ghetto streets in groups, according to plans pre-established
in writing and accompanied by Sári or me. We had to go to the
canteen every day for bread, and the sick had to be taken for
treatment. We went to the public bath in the same way. The ritual
bath was situated in the ghetto area, and we used it as the
My father conducted himself admirably.
He had always been demanding and particular, living by certain
standards, but he accommodated himself to his new situation.
Our acquaintances loved and respected him, particularly our
landlord's family, and supported us in our attempts to create
the illusion of an ordered existence. Of course, this was limited.
My father refused any privilege and seemed to be content with
everything. Often I found him at the bottom of the courtyard,
despondent. However, when questioned, he gave a show of confidence
and tried to encourage others even if he did not feel it himself.
Our landlady was Aunty Aranka, the widow
of Manó Feldheim, and she was marvellous. When we entered the
ghetto, we abandoned our previous lives and our house; we knew
there was no going back. Aunty Aranka, on the other hand, had
stayed in her own house but no longer considered it hers. Her
major preoccupation was to ensure, as much as possible, that
our little community had a relatively comfortable life. It was
her decision to put her furniture in the courtyard and the piano
and carpets in the attic. Without complaint or reproach, she
was hospitable, although in fact such hospitality had been imposed
With the gendarmerie's occupation of
the Dreher-Hagenmacher brewery a new phase began in the ghetto.
This diabolical war machine was not satisfied with forcibly
evicting people from their homes and seizing their belongings
under the pretext of the needs of the war. They then decided
to take everything that Jewish families had left with friends
or neighbours for safekeeping. They would allow nothing to stand
in the way of achieving this goal. Within a short time the inhabitants
of the ghetto began to call the administrative building of the
brewery just "Dreher" or the Mint, because it was the place
where money was beaten out of people. The name reflected the
atrocities committed there. This became our new terror. Every
day, 100 to 200 people were summoned there for interrogation,
as the gendarmes wanted the names of friends who had objects
of sentimental or material value for safekeeping. All the members
of the Jewish Council were arrested. They tortured Sándor Leitner,
the president of the Jewish orthodox community, for 13 days.
They tried unsuccessfully to force him to give a list of the
wealthiest Jews. They spared neither his elderly parents nor
his brother. They took and tortured the 84-year-old dentist
Dr. Munk, the 76-year-old Dr. Samu Grosz, and the 73-year-old
Dr. Fisch. Women were not spared either. For days on end, they
tortured Puti Steiner, who was a native of Simleul Silvaniei
and the wife of the journalist Laszló Bárdos; they also tortured
the wife of the chief Neolog rabbi, Dr. István Vajda.
When people were summoned to the Dreher,
the task of finding their homes fell to people trained as "detectives",
who also had the job of escorting them to the ghetto gendarmerie.
People presented themselves at the first summons. It did not
enter anybody's mind to try to escape or to hide. In any case,
there was nowhere to go. Even if there had been, who would have
tried to save himself knowing that his entire family could end
up in the hands of the inquisition.
During that time, Márta Radó, who was
still able to go in and out of the ghetto for the chemical products
business, acquired some Romanian peasant clothing with the help
of some friends. Her plan was to disguise her grandmother, Aunty
Mandel, and get her out of the ghetto and across the Romanian
border. But this lively 61-year-old woman, who was still young
in her ways, did not take the opportunity. She was afraid that
if they looked for her and did not find her they would take
revenge on her exempted son-in-law and his family. She was afraid
they might lose their exempted status. Above all she was afraid
for her niece, Anna Mandel, whom the engineer Radó had adopted
to save her (the adoption was predated).
On one of the first days in the ghetto,
my friend Hédi's father, the textile manufacturer József Silbermann,
was taken from our house. He was brought home a few days later
on a stretcher, half dead from the beatings. He was physically
and spiritually destroyed. We never heard him speak a word again.
We learned what was happening inside the walls of the Dreher
from others who had been tortured there. Gendarmes trained in
the German political police interrogation course put great effort
into combining medieval torture with modern techniques. First,
they stripped their victims naked, then they beat them with
leather belts, whips, iron rods, canes and rubber truncheons
until they lost consciousness. They squeezed women's breasts
in the door and holding them by their hair, hit their heads
on the wall. They chained their wrists and tightened the chain,
link by link, until their bones broke. They hung their prisoners
from iron bars, with their hands tied to their feet, and beat
their bodies and the soles of their feet. They also tortured
their victims mentally. They tortured children in front of their
parents. Along with beatings they used subtler methods. They
put a copper strip over the victim's head and passed an electric
current through it. They put electrical wires on the most sensitive
parts of the body - in the mouth, in the ears, in the nostrils,
on the nipples, on the genital organs - and applied an electric
current for 40 to 50 minutes. They used an intestinal wash pumping
enormous quantities of liquid into their victims' stomachs.
People tortured in this way should have quickly given up their
possessions, yet often refused to speak even when half conscious
rather than betray their benefactors. Some resisted. Others
gave in. Tortures that did not produce results angered the interrogators.
Successful ones encouraged them. They began to widen their radius
of action. People were brought in the hundreds to the torture
chambers. Music blared constantly from the Dreher to cover the
screams of pain.
Fear and panic dominated those who lived
in the ghetto. People sunk into themselves without hope, startled
by any suspicious sound. No one knew when his turn would come.
For fear of torture, many took refuge in death.
In the town, announcements stuck on walls,
notices in the newspapers and newsreels at the cinema declared
that there would be an amnesty of 48 hours for those who had
hidden goods belonging to Jews. Frightened, people presented
themselves in the hundreds to relieve themselves of the obligations
they had taken on, while we, shut within the walls of the ghetto,
trembling, waited for the summons. Some had left valuable objects
with several families; when summoned, they did not know whom
to declare, so as not to make things worse for those who continued
to remain silent.
Hundreds of Jews were tortured daily
at the Dreher. Out of their minds with pain, many gave some
names. Things got more complicated, and the summons went out
in waves with an ever-widening scope. On one occasion someone's
hidden treasure was returned. One man, when summoned, was amazed
to find his son's cradle with his son inside; the child had
been left in the care of a good friend.
We were living in terror. At the beginning,
people known to be rich were taken to the Dreher. Those who
had been denounced followed, then those whose names had arisen
accidentally during interrogation. Only those Jews who had nothing
could live in relative calm. Yet even this calm soon came to
an end. Bread was distributed at the public kitchen, and each
house sent two people for an amount designated according to
the number of occupants in the house. Every day, they lined
up for endless hours before the bread was distributed. The kitchen
was opposite the Dreher, and one day it occurred to an interrogator
to question those in the queue too. About 50 people were lifted
from the queue and taken to the torture chambers. Then new groups
were chosen and then more new groups. The inhabitants of the
ghetto were terrorized.
During these days of pain and fear, news
began to circulate that the ghetto would be disbanded, or more
precisely that the occupants of the ghetto were to be sent to
a concentration camp. At the time we did not understand what
this meant. In our distress we were only aware of the fact that
we would be going far away from the torture chambers that were
giving us nightmares. We hoped that the immediate danger that
we were facing would thus be removed.
We tried to get information about what
awaited us, but nobody knew anything. Once again, an elaborate
plan was put into place to mislead us. The interrogators of
the Dreher staged a telephone conversation with misleading information
that was overheard by their victims. The victims pieced together
what they had overheard and joyfully passed the news along.
To avoid panic, the gendarmes wanted to make us believe that
we would all remain together at a place on the other side of
the Danube in a centralized ghetto town. Again, we were naive.
We tried to calm one another with the thought that conditions
there would be different. A place of work would be assured.
We wondered in what capacity we could be used, whether in factories,
in workshops or in agricultural work. I had left my baccalaureate
diploma with the Katz family for safekeeping, but I had my certificate
of dressmaking training with me. I hoped that now I could make
use of my sewing skills.
We awoke one morning, only 3 weeks after
our internment in the ghetto, to the news that one of the ghetto
streets had been closed off and evacuated. The inhabitants had
only been given half an hour to get ready to leave. Each ghetto
Jew could take only a knapsack and a bag for bread. That day,
300 Jews were removed from Károly Rimler Street. Later we learnt
that this group was assembled to complete the numbers of those
from the province who had been evacuated and transported earlier.
The leadership of the Jewish Council
asked the commander of the ghetto for an explanation. The response
was the same as usual. Commander Bodolay informed the leaders
that the people who had been taken would remain in the country,
he could not say exactly where, and he assumed they had probably
gone to do agricultural work.
The following day the deportation continued.
Where? How? When? For how long? Together or separately? The
terror of deportation had paralysed all our minds. The order
to organize the ghetto had been given on May 3, and after only
a few weeks, on May 25, its disbanding had begun. We had gone
through so much in that short period. By this time we had already
begun to guess that everything we had gone through until then
was only preparation for some final inevitable act.
A feverish agitation possessed the ghetto.
More and more measures followed. The ghetto area was divided
into a number of subunits. The evacuation was organized and
scheduled by sectors, and 2500 to 3000 people left the ghetto
each day. Our turn came on the day before the last.
Reverse numbering began. To avoid panic,
we were forbidden to leave our houses. Only the house leaders
were allowed to go outside, and only at particular times and
in certain streets. Across the courtyards and gardens of the
houses (the fences separating them had been used for wood from
the start) we found relatives and acquaintances and kept in
contact with them. We learned that Kert (Avram Iancu) and Vámház
(Sucevei) streets had already been evacuated and that Kapucinus
and Szacsvai (Cuza Voda) streets were next. The evacuated streets
were closed, but as the gendarmes still supervised them, no
one could go there.
Wishing to visit my cousin Manci Szmuk's
family, whose turn was to come before ours, I wandered into
an evacuated street. A terrible sight unfolded in front of me.
he silence of death pervaded the street. Houses had been left
in haste with their doors wide open, inviting me to look inside;
they were in a state of disarray. In the dust of the street
you could still see the footprints of those who had recently
been deported. Here and there knapsacks, bundles, and rags tied
in scarves were lying around, evidence that people were driven
out hurriedly and not allowed to pick up their fallen belongings.
Toys had been trampled underfoot, teddy bears once carefully
guarded were now scattered in the dust of the street, and I
thought of frightened, crying children. In that silent deserted
street, a strange feeling came over me, as if I was walking
through open graves. I was riveted to the spot. The nightmare
vision only lasted a few moments. The threatening whistle of
a gendarme brought me back to reality. I quickly retraced my
steps to the inhabited area. I had just glimpsed what our fate
would be in a few days time.
Following the internment of the Jews
in the ghetto, the population of 60 000 in Oradea was left with
only eight Christian doctors. To ensure the medical care of
the Christian population, six Jewish doctors and their families
had been left in the town. During the days of deportation, they
were also brought unexpectedly to the ghetto. Thus Dr. Kornelia
Mózes, a specialist in the sanatorium for pulmonary diseases
and my friend Sári's cousin, arrived in our house. At the same
time, Dr. Lajos Ertzmann, an ear, nose and throat specialist,
moved into the ghetto with his wife and their beautiful twin
daughters, as did the specialist for internal diseases, Dr.
Artur Sebestyén, the ophthalmologist Dr Alfréd Bock, the dermatologist
Dr. László Barna, and the pediatrician Dr. Ede Aufricht. Watching
Kornélia, I realized what it was like for these people, who
had been in a privileged situation, to face this unexpected
turn of fate. We had got used to things gradually going from
bad to worse, while they were overwhelmed and virtually crushed.
Only this could explain the action of Dr. Ertzmann, usually
a strong man full of life, who administered a lethal injection
to his wife and daughters and then to himself while they were
still on the train.
Dr. Kornélia Mózes brought us news about
the town. The 16 Jewish families who had exempted status because
of war disability or because of some special war merit were
living in a voluntary ghetto that they had created in their
own houses, isolated from the town. Although they were exempted
from wearing the yellow star, they did not leave their houses
for fear of insults. Those from mixed marriages tried, with
the help of lawyers, to save those family members who according
to the legislation had exempted status, cases that the ghetto
commanders had not taken into account. The only situations where
they gave way were those in which, in spite of the fact that
they were Christians, the wife or the husband wanted to follow
the Jewish spouse and children. Because of this the families
of the lawyers Dr. Endre Fehér and Béla Friedmann were taken.
Some committed suicide, overwhelmed by the terrible circumstances,
as did poor Margit Kemény, the wife of Dr. Romulus Costa.
Even those with exempted status suffered
abuse. The engineer Radó was denounced by his neighbor on false
grounds, and members of the Katz family were summoned to an
inspection in the ghetto with all their possessions and documents.
Their exemption papers were torn up, they were taken out into
Rhédey Park where people were being loaded into cattle cars,
and they were crowded into a train that was just leaving. The
chemical engineer Miklós Stern had exempt status because of
a war merit. At the last moment, he wanted to give some medication
to his family who were already on the train. The door of the
cattle car opened and Miklós Stern was pushed inside and deported.
He perished with his family.
As the inhabitants of the ghetto were
getting ready for the journey, not all were able to endure the
tension. Some took poison. The most frequent cases of suicide
were among older people, husbands and wives together. Many committed
suicide because of the tortures at the Dreher, such as Gyula
Stolz and Márton László.
During these last days, many wanted to
get into the ghetto hospital. They thought they would enjoy
more humane treatment among the sick. Others moved, with or
without their luggage and their families, into the attics of
those houses that would not be evacuated until the final days.
They thought if they gained time they would live. Two families
moved in with us as well. I condemned them at the time because
I thought it cowardly to disrupt our lives for the sake of a
few days' postponement. Later I realized that I was wrong. These
people were courageous; they were willing to take a risk, to
choose a difficult course of action. They opted for personal
solutions, even if the outcome was uncertain. I heard of some
who escaped through the wooden fence into town, hid for a few
days in a safe place, and then crossed illegally into Romania.
Others walled themselves into the cellars of evacuated houses
and stayed there until the ghetto was empty and the last train
of deportees had left. They still ended up in internment camps,
but they survived. Dr. Miksa Kupfer and Dr. Sándor Bálint gathered
a group of about 30 people on the pretext that they were suffering
from typhoid fever and isolated them for a few days in the section
for contagious diseases. When the deportation ended, control
weakened and they managed to escape. They crossed the border
and got away.
Considering the many thousands of people
interned in the ghetto, the number of those who escaped was
far too small. Mass opposition could have achieved more, but
few thought of resistance. Although at the time we already knew
about the Warsaw ghetto uprising, or maybe precisely because
of that, we did not have the courage to do anything. In any
case, my sister Erzsi was one of those who wanted to act, to
do something. "We have nothing to lose," she used to say. "Let's
unite. Let's open a breach in the wall and let's rush hundreds
through it at once!" It was clear that we would be machine-gunned
and many of us would die, but in such a surprise breakout many
Of course, all these plans were childish,
but even now, many years later, I sometimes wonder why we did
not try to organize some resistance. Some of the reasons are
obvious: our strong young men had all been taken away to labour
service; we were unarmed; we had only spent a short time in
the ghetto; we had only just managed to get some order into
our daily life. The time was not ripe for an uprising. Most
of all we believed in humanity, and we let ourselves be deluded
by a campaign of manipulation.
During those terrible days, we again
remembered my sister Magda's Cuban passport. Magda and I went
to the president of the Jewish Council, Sándor Leitner. We explained
Magda's situation to him and sought his advice. Unfortunately,
his reply was not clear enough, or perhaps we simply did not
have the courage to take the necessary risk. We told him that
Magda's passport was hidden in the attic of our house in town.
He said that we must show it to the authorities. Official representatives
would accompany Magda. They would find the passport and on the
basis of this would intern her together with little Aniko. Magda
was afraid at the very thought of separation and internment,
and also of the fact that other documents were hidden in the
same place as the passport, for which our father could be summoned
for interrogation and perhaps tortured. We did not know what
would be waiting for Magda if she parted from us, but we felt
that it would be the less dangerous alternative for her. Perhaps
if we had not been so afraid for our father, we would have acted.
Sándor Leitner kindled a gleam of hope for Magda and her daughter.
I can never forgive myself for being indecisive then. Why did
I not convince Magda to take this last chance? Our generous,
good, beautiful Magda, who had always let herself be ruled by
the will of fate, simply could not take a decisive step this
time either. She remained with us and shared our common fate.
I never discussed this with her, but I am sure that she too
was afraid for our father. I have wondered many times what would
have happened if she had chosen internment. Certainly she and
her daughter would have been saved, but I would have reproached
myself my whole life if I had caused the torture of my father.
During those last disturbing days in
the ghetto, many people decided to get married. People sought
strength in being loved. We organized a wedding in our house.
Hédi Silbermann's 17-year-old cousin Vita was living with her.
She had taken refuge here from Vienna. Vita married Bandi, the
son of the lawyer Pál Ney. Because we did not want to attract
attention and get into trouble, we did not erect a chupa in
the courtyard. As this is very important for the Jewish marriage
ceremony, we substituted a prayer shawl, a talith, that four
men stretched out like a tent. We did everything we could to
create the illusion of peacetime. In the attic, from the depths
of a cupboard, we found an old bride's veil. We bleached it
and starched it. The bride received her congratulations dressed
in immaculate white. Not even the bride's bouquet was missing,
as it was mid-May and the lilacs were in bloom. The ceremony
was performed according to the prescribed ritual. We were all
deeply moved. Unfortunately, we could not invite guests or even
our closest family members to a celebratory meal. We were, however,
able to prepare a surprise for the new couple: they received
a cup of hot chocolate and cake, and later the traditional golden
chicken soup. After lunch they had real coffee from ground beans.
Then the moment of parting arrived. The new pair left for their
honeymoon. They put their bags on their backs and took pillows
and blankets in their arms and left for the groom's house where
the attic had been prepared for them.
Our life of constant fear was brightened
by the brief spark of these moments of joy. We continued preparations
for the journey to the unknown. There were no shops in the ghetto
where we could buy essential articles, as business had ceased.
Everything had to be done at home, with whatever we could find
at hand. In a very short time, we had to sew 47 knapsacks and
bread bags from sheets and tablecloths. We made straps from
towels, and blankets from curtains and tablecloths, using buckles
from belts or buttons. Each of us picked through our belongings
for things to pack into a single knapsack. We had no idea what
fate had in store for us or what we might need. Thinking of
the cold, rain, and frost that was coming, we chose raincoats
and warm pullovers with long sleeves. But we would also need
underwear, detergent, cooking pots and of course food and blankets.
We each packed separately because we had no way of knowing where
any of us would end up. Forty-two people raced through the house
getting ready for the journey. We sewed, we chose and we packed.
We tried out our knapsacks, thinking about what we would miss
and what we would need most. Since there were hardly any chairs,
each of us was doing all this crouched down on the floor.
Aunty Feldheim, who used to seek advice
from the rabbi of Páva before making important decisions, turned
to him now. The rabbi gave her a laconic answer: "You don't
need to prepare bags; you don't need to pack anything; you don't
need anything." Two days later, the rabbi was deported with
his family, and we observed, smiling, that on this occasion
his prophecy was not correct. In fact he was right, but we did
not know it at the time.
Time was passing with astounding speed,
and the day of departure was getting closer. The butchers at
the Dreher came up with a new plan. Just before a new section
was due to be evacuated, they took about 50 people from each
group of houses for interrogation. Trembling at the thought
that they could be separated from their families, these people
We were to go on Thursday June 1. We
spent Wednesday in a state of great agitation, waiting to see
what would come from the Dreher. To our amazement, nothing came.
By Wednesday evening no one cared about keeping the rules anymore.
We sat outside in the courtyard, ignoring our curfew. As a body
we refused to obey, because now that we were being deported,
we believed that nothing else could happen to us.
Dr. Terez Mozes was born
in Simleul Silvaniei (Szilágysomlyó), Romania in 1919. In June
1944 she was deported to Auschwitz and subsequently to other
Nazi concentration camps. She was liberated in February 1945
and returned to her home in August of that year. In her long
and distinguished career she has worked as a journalist, teacher,
director of a cultural institution, and head of the Ethnography
Section of the regional Museum of Oradea, Romania. In 1976 she
received a PhD in History from the Institute of Art History,
Academy of Social Sciences, Bucharest, Romania. In addition
to publishing 9 books and over 100 articles in professional
and scientific journals in Romanian, Hungarian, German and French,
she has published two books on Jewish themes. Her Holocaust
memoir "Shattered Tablets" was published in Hungarian and Romanian.
The historical account of Jewish life in the Oradea region,
"The Jews of Oradea" also appears in Hungarian and in Romanian.
She is still active and participates in many professional and
community projects. She has two children and five grandchildren.
Dr. Mozes divides her time between Oradea, Romania and Tel Aviv,