In 1941, I was twenty-three years old, but the relatively carefree, easy period of my life ended abruptly. Satan incarnate in Adolf Hitler, led the dance on the continent of Europe. Since the fall of France, no power was left there to resist his rapacious appetite for conquest. This man, a knight of the slums, a failure as an artist, had become the arbiter of nations. The province of Transylvania where we lived was an apple of discord between Rumania and Hungary, just as Alsace-Lorraine was between France and Germany. Prior to World War I, for a thousand years, it belonged to Hungary, but the population of the territory was racially altered because of the greater birth rate of the Rumanians. Our city remained largely Hungarian in language and culture, but the rural areas were in the majority inhabited by Rumanians. The latter did not enjoy under their Hungarian masters the rights that a democratic state ordinarily grants to national minorities. Rumanians had few schools of their own on the elementary or secondary level and there were no Rumanian universities in Hungary. There were no books or newspapers published in that language, and the courts of Transylvania interpreted the law in Hungarian alone. Rumanian intellectuals had to study at Hungarian universities or go to Rumania proper to get a higher education.
The same attitude prevailed in Hungary toward other minorities, Slovaks, Croats and Germans, which explains why these minorities aspired to be united to the countries of their ethnic origin. As a result, Hungary, one of the losers in World War I, saw its territory severely mangled by the Versailles Treaty. Transylvania became part of Rumania, and the former masters became themselves a national minority. Hitler needed both Hungary and Rumania to secure the flanks of Germany to get supplies and food for his armies. The question of Transylvania was submitted to his arbitration. The fact that he made his decision and that it was obeyed without any intervention or protest by a single nation in Europe demonstrated his absolute power at the time. Europe lay prostrate at his feet. England, the only country that was still opposing him, was too preoccupied with her own survival to play any role in the matter.
Hitler settled the conflict about Transylvania by a Solomon's verdict, adjudging one-half of it, including the city of Cluj to Hungary, leaving the other half to Rumania. This verdict did not satisfy either of the parties, but it was carried out just the same. Our Cluj retrieved its former name of Kolozsvár, and the Hungarian upper-middle class received the entering Hungarian troops with jubilation.
Never shall I forget that night of the 17th of September, 1940. The intoxicated soldiery was not to be held back, nor was there any will on the part of their officers to do so. On the contrary, Rumanians and Jews became the free prey of these savages, at least in the night of their entry in the city and the first few days that followed it. They looted and raped and massacred their victims wholesale. It was the first time that I witnessed what is called lawlessness: the weak finding no protection from the violence of the strong; the life of the jungle succeeding civilization without any warning: man becoming a menace to man; a whole city, made beautiful by the labor of generations, turning into a scene of wanton destruction; drunken devils breaking into houses, taking what they wanted, beating innocent people, blood, curses, tears, screams, accompanying their steps. War has its laws; the unleashing of human beasts upon a helpless population has none. The fury of these bandits was incomprehensible to us. After all, what had Cluj or Kolozsvár done to them? to Hungary? After the attribution of Transylvania to Rumania by the Versailles Treaty in 1918, cultural life, both Rumanian and Hungarian, developed there rapidly. The Rumanian university in Cluj prided itself upon its Medical School, reputed the best in Southeast Europe. Medical scholars of international reputation were attracted to its faculty; students flocked there from many countries; patients came for diagnosis and cure.
The city of Cluj breathed a cultural atmosphere that was exceedingly stimulating. The Hungarians continued to publish their books and newspapers, had their schools in their own language from the elementary to university level. They attended their own theaters, argued their lawsuits in their mother tongue as though there had been no change in the government. The Jewish community possessed in Cluj a theological seminary, seat of scholarship and learning. It is an irony of history that the daily Jewish newspaper, Ujkelet, was published in Hungarian, a proof of the fact that most of the Jews felt at ease in that language. This paper was suspended immediately after the reoccupation of the city by Hungary. In spite of enjoying these democratic freedoms, the Hungarians could not forgive the fact that the Rumanians, whom they considered inferior, had become the ruling nation in the state. They would not accept the new situation. Almost from the first day of the change-over they pursued an active irredentist propaganda campaign both inside Hungary and abroad. Their slogan had been, "Nem, nem, soha!" (No, no, never!); they were poisoned, as it were, by the passion of their own words. Now, thanks to Hitler, they had an opportunity to vent their pent-up frustrations. In their own bestial way they proved to themselves and to the world that they had once more become the masters.
For me and my family, the change in the local government represented a personal disaster. Indeed, we grew attached to the Rumanians who were more broadminded, more pleasant in their personal relations than were the often proud and conceited Hungarians. For a few days, the Jews of Kolozsvár did not dare to show themselves in the streets. A friend of my father's, a Jew who nevertheless was an ardent Hungarian patriot, who resided in the part of Transylvania that remained Rumanian after Hitler's arbitration, hearing about the reattachment of our city to Hungary, had left his family and came to salute the Hungarian flag and the troops that carried it. He was murdered the night of his arrival.
The events of those first days of the Hungarian occupation of our city constituted a shock for me. I realized that with Hitler playing the patron of the Hungarian nation, we Jews must expect great hardships to come upon us. The authorities of the state would undoubtedly introduce new anti-semitic laws, harsher than any of the past. Perhaps the infamous Nuremberg edicts that reduced the German Jews to pariahs as early as 1935, four years before the outbreak of World War II, would be imitated by the Hungarian authorities who were body and soul devoted to Hitler.
Through Jonel Pop, former Chief of Police under the Rumanians, we were for the time being informed of any measures concerning Jews contemplated by the new regime. Though he was no longer in office, he maintained good relations with the Hungarian authorities. He spoke both Rumanian and Hungarian, and his influence was invaluable. Through Pop we also received news coming from Budapest, seat of the Hungarian government.
Mr. Pop assured me that he would facilitate our passing to Rumanian territory whenever our lives were in danger. We gratefully thanked him for this offer and mentally kept it in abeyance; yet when the time came to avail ourselves of it, moral considerations - as I shall relate it- prevented us from taking advantage of this opportunity,
The year 1941 represented the peak of Hitler's power. As time went on, the superiority in manpower and raw materials of the Western allies made itself felt more and more. Hungary, dragged into the war on the side of Germany, suffered grievous losses along with the latter.
Entire Hungarian divisions were annihilated in Russia. The Hungarian army was insufficiently trained and equipped for modern warfare, and the economy of the country was too shaky to sustain the strain. There was general discontent in the land. Rumors circulated to the effect that Regent Horthy was seeking to enter into negotiations with the Allies with a view to concluding a separate peace with them. The rumors expressed the general wish of the nation and certainly that of every clear-thinking person. Indeed, by the beginning of the year 1944 it became obvious to every observer that Hitler had lost the war.
The change in the political atmosphere in Hungary did not escape the attention of the Germans. They had reason to fear Hungary's defection. It threatened to entail the breaking-up of the entire hinterland of the German armies. The vast territories they controlled threatened to rise and turn into a domestic front of enemies.
To ward off this danger, Hitler decided to change the status of Hungary from a friendly to an occupied country on March 19, 1944. He resorted to the same strategy that had worked in Czechoslovakia. He invited Regent Horthy to visit him at his headquarters in Germany, in order to discuss important problems interesting both their countries. He entertained his guest, started sham discussions with him, while his troops were put on the alert ready to cross the borders of Hungary. As soon as the preparations were finished, he presented the Regent with the brutal fact and demanded that he sign an address to the Hungarian nation to welcome the German troops as friends and protectors of the country. Horthy's protest was brushed aside; he would not be permitted to return to Hungary unless he complied with Hitler's ultimatum. When he did return, he found his residence, the former royal castle of Budapest, surrounded by German guards. Horthy and the nation became hostages and prisoners of Hitler.
The forces committed to the occupation of Hungary were small. The Germans relied on the cooperation of high-ranking Hungarian officers, known for their Nazi sympathies. They were to see to it that no resistance should be offered to the occupiers. Only in places where the orders of these traitors arrived late or were not transmitted, did the Germans meet with any opposition.
We, in Kolozsvárr, did not receive the doubtful blessing of their entry immediately. Only the newspapers changed overnight; their tone became wildly enthusiastic in their praise of Germany. Even those among them which in the past had been rather lukewarm or frankly hostile to the German alliance outdid each other to protest their friendship and affection for "the great neighbor, protector of the small."
For me, this change of tone of the newspapers was more of an eye-opener than anything else I had witnessed before. It offered me an insight into the dark side of human nature. Was it possible, I asked myself, that people fore swear so easily principles by which they had lived and which they preached at the slightest pressure put upon them? Where was the sanctity of the written word? Where were faith and sincerity of beliefs?
I asked myself these questions because I was young, and dedicated to my calling as a spiritual leader. I felt that betraying one's beliefs is the worst betrayal, because it meant the abdication of human dignity. Such self-debasement provoked contempt by others; it would be punished - I obscurely recognized - by calculated debasement on the part of the masters of the day. Subsequent events justified my subconscious or semi-conscious fears. What I did not know then was that the Nazis based their plans of world domination exactly on this premise of self-debasement on the part of their defeated enemies.
The newspapers of Budapest narrated the events that occurred in the capital since the German occupation. The take-over had obviously been planned and prepared both in Germany and in Hungary itself. During the night and the day following the occupation of the country, vehicles carrying troops of the SS, armed with machine guns, ran back and forth through the streets. Their aim was to arrest all known or potential enemies of Germany and to secure the occupation. The SS officers were provided with blacklists by their Hungarian accomplices. Politicians, members of Parliament or of the Upper House, aristocrats, diplomats, journalists, attorneys, anyone known to be hostile to the German brand of national-socialism, even the head of the Hungarian counter-intelligence and his assistant, were taken into custody. The Social-Democratic Party, a well-organized political unit, found itself without leaders all at once; they were all captured on that first day of German invasion.
Among the prisoners of the new masters were Keresztes-Fischer, Minister of the Interior and his principal collaborators. Keresztes-Fischer had held his office for more than ten years. He constituted the greatest thorn in the side of the Hungarian Nazis and of their German friends, for he stood firmly for law and the rights of the individual. He professed his faith in democracy and in the parliamentary system which made him the much-hated target of all political adventurers. In spite of enormous pressures exerted on Hungarian leaders since the advent of Hitler, he had succeeded in making the life of the Jewish citizens in Hungary the most tolerable in the entire area subject to German domination.
Within thirty-six hours, Hungarian political life was swept clean of all the people who in the past had shown the courage of standing up for their convictions, and who could have, because of their prestige, made the nazification of Hungary difficult for the invaders. Most of these men were deported to Germany under the most brutal conditions. Only a few were kept in Hungarian prisons.
They were the first line of victims. They were followed by lesser personalities, secretaries, employees of liberal organizations, writers, anyone who in the past decade had at any time spoken out or shown hostility to Germany. Obviously the Germans possessed detailed files on everyone in the public view.
The government, of uncertain loyalty, was dismissed, and a new one, composed of Hitler's Hungarian supporters, was formed. It took four days to set up such a government. Indeed, responsible politicians were reluctant to cooperate; moreover, the Regent himself was reported to be unwilling to sanction the change brought about by force. At last, however, the Nazis succeeded in filling the cabinet posts under the leadership of a certain Döme Sztojay, an unknown until that time.
I can assert without hesitation that not only us Jews, but most of the Gentiles I knew, indeed the immense majority of the members of the middle class in our city were shocked and dismayed by the turn of events. They all realized that the presence of the Germans in our country foreboded a new, perhaps irreparable catastrophe. As to the Jewish population, they, just as I and my family, feared the worst. From morning till late evening, our house was filled with people anxious to talk to us, their leaders, hoping to get some useful advice, some encouragement, to find a ray of hope through our words. What could we tell them? Speak against our conviction; declare that after all the future might not be as gloomy as they feared; that Hungary was not Germany, and pious statements of a similar nature. Nevertheless, we advised them that whoever had the means of leaving, of passing to Rumanian territory, should do so. I spoke to Mr. Pop about that, and he promised that he would intervene with the border guards, so that they should not be too strict with permits to cross over. He urged us to leave as soon as possible, but we replied that we had to put off this decision till later, because our duty required us to remain with our congregation. Actually, we greatly hesitated to face this problem. My father, especially, was firmly opposed to our departure.
The crisis in our lives mirrored the crisis in the outside world. It forced me to rely upon my inner resources in facing it. My past appeared to me suddenly as unreal, or rather, the present took up an aspect of total unreality in relationship to my past. I had lived in contact with God; lofty thoughts had separated me from the fight and ugliness of the everyday world. Now this everyday world was invading my inner world, trying to impress me as the only reality. A terrible feeling of loneliness and helplessness assailed me at times, and also doubts as to the effectiveness of the preaching of God's word in influencing man's orientation. Fortunately, I succeeded in shaking off this feeling of despair. The arguments I brought forth in my solitary meditations, in the debate over the reality of Hitler versus the reality of God, ended with the conviction firmer than ever that Hitler carried with him the seeds of his own destruction, that the victory of Satan was, by its very essence, the prelude to his eventual downfall. This conviction did, however, not blind me as to the possibility of terrible tragedies among my friends and in our own immediate future. I said to myself that I had to await with firmness whatever fate had in store for me. "This is the criterion of my faith:" I said to myself, "whether it will sustain me enough to make me remain a believer in my own higher destiny, whether it will give me courage to endure hardships, suffering, even death." The very suddenness of the crisis around me and within me sharpened my insight. I felt pain and joy at the same time: pain at parting with my carefree past, joy in knowing that I was trying to gain inner strength from chaos, despair and fear. I learned that true victory of the individual can only be gained by facing himself in solitary confrontation. Many things happened to me and to the world in the months and years that followed, but that first debate with myself in those days of obvious, imminent danger constituted for me an unparalleled reward, that of stepping higher on the ladder toward self-confidence and self-esteem, and especially toward the confidence in, and the love of, God.