Saturday, February 5, 2011

Memory Book Research

I was living with my new Hungarian wife in Budapest and every day I went to the Odeon cafe with my books to read. This time, it was evening and all the neighborhood looked like a flea market, the streets and sidewalks crowded with furniture, televisions, clothes, everything of a larger size not wanted left to be picked up the next day by the city.

The memory book was sitting on top of a box of video tape cases, its cloth binding absorbing the rain just starting drop by drop. Jewish neighborhood, old notebook, attics and basements: I opened the book looking for something important and on one of the first pages see a large 6 pointed star with a poem inscribed within. The pages were filled with handwritten entries, poetry, dated from 1937-1941 and signed with different names, there were beautiful illustrations and decorations.

For me the story begins here. I was someone who had made his living finding things, old watches bought and then sold. I was Jewish, and interested in ideas of what that meant, thinking and writing about it. And I was a reader of detective stories.

A name was written in a childish hand in pencil on the first page: Magda Adler. First step, check the building directories in the neighborhood for the name Adler. Nothing. Then the Budapest telephone directory. Many Adlers, more than 40.

Then United States telephone directories: several listings,in Brooklyn and Miami, for a Magda Adler, aged 83. Right age. I telephoned her. She said she wasn't from Budapest. Wasn't Hungarian. Then asked me in Hungarian if I spoke Hungarian (Later a Hungarian friend telephoned her again, and was told that she married after the war, Adler was her married name, she had lived in the East of Hungary and never in Budapest, she never had a memory book.) I found and contacted through a genealogical site a niece of a Magda Adler of the right age who had lived her whole life in Budapest and died two years before. But after the niece and her relatives saw the pages of the book and considered the names of those who made the entries they said that without a doubt it did not belong to their relative.

I contacted holocaust archives in Jeruselem. They sent me records of several Magda Adlers. Only one was from Budapest and of the right age. An entry document from a camp was signed Magda Alder, the writing very close to that on the memory book.

I visited the archives at the Doheny Street Synagogue in Budapest. A building attendent guided me upstairs and through hallways off the balconies of the synagogue, reserved for women in the orthodox practice. He opened a door to the back balcony and we entered to look down on the vast empty space. Then we went on to the offices of the Jewish archive, a dusty bright room with its own balconies and side rooms filled with shelves of books and papers.

The attendent introduced me to the man sitting at a large table, who asked what he could do for me. I told him, and asked what his job was: he helps people like me do research.

He checked the holocaust data base, no information. He checked the mother and father's names on the camp document. Burial records found, Budapest cemetary. Nothing else. He said based on the date of entry on the document, and the camp, Magda Adler probably was among those who were sent to build fortifications at the Austrian Border. (This was later confirmed by the Austrian historian Eleonore Lapin, an expert on this period.) In the neighborhood where I found the book there had been three sanctuary houses set up by the embassies of Switzerland, Sweden and the Vatican. He thought the book probably came from one of them. In the corner of an attic for 70 years perhaps. He suggested contacting the Budapest Holocaust Museum to see whether they had information. I visited them later. Their newly hired Internet Technology expert checked their database for me. Many entries for Magda Adlers, but none of the right age and from Budapest. (The writings in the memory book make it clear that Magda Adler was living in Budapest).

Meanwhile I had returned to the United States, and then once again came back to Budapest. I asked several Hungarians to call the Adlers living in the neighborhood where the book was found. No one said they knew of a Magda Adler. Since a boarding school is mentioned on one of the book's pages I went to the Central European University's Library (the language school where I was teaching English had written a letter for me that allowed me to get a visitor's admission card there). The Jewish High school, Zido Gymnasium, had been in the streets behind the Doheny Synagogue, in the second Jewish neighborhood of Budapest, founded outside the old city walls in the 19th century when Jews were forbidden to live in the city itself, and later the ghetto of forced enclosure at the end of the war.

I read in one book, Jewish Budapest, that there were many temporary accommodations arranged at this time for students who were moved into this neighborhood. The address on the camp document is on a street just behind the synagogue.

I came across a copy of Anne Frank's diary on the library shelves. Hadn't looked at it for years. What struck me this time was similarity of tone: the seriousness, reflections, book reading, realism and deep religious feeling were the same as were in the memory book entries. Many people who read the translations of the poetry and advice in Magda Adler's book said it was strange, even that it was unlikely that such things were written to a girl at her years of 13 to 17. Anne Frank was the same age when she wrote her diary. I answered them it was part of these books' importance that they give us an idea of a serious and beautiful society, a deep and good way of life that has vanished.

Just before I returned again to the United States I visited the Hungarian State Archives in their several offices in the castle district of Budapest. I knew already that records of Jews were not kept there, and mostly they had been destroyed during the war. Sent from one office to another, finally I found an archivist who when I told the story of finding the book, and showed her the web site I had made for it, asked me what exactly I would like her to do.

I was looking for Budapest City records, court documents, marriage, divorce etc, anything that would mention the name Magda Adler. The archivist said give her a few minutes. Did some checking. And said, yes, she found something that seems to match. A court document from 1947 declaring that Magda Adler, of Ujpest, a suburb of Budapest, was deported in Augest 1944, did not return, and was deceased. Her huband's name, Sandor Strumpf, is mentioned. I have just recently asked my Hungarian contacts to call the few Strumpfs in the Budapest Telephone directory and ask if they knew of Magda.

The story of the research is just about finished. The dates on the two document found: August 1944 deportation, November 1944 entrance to Dachau concentration camp, brought in a period of history I wasn't familiar with, the transportation of the Budapest Jews to Austria, and the negotiations between the Nazi Adolph Eichmann and the Jewish community leaders. I hadn't known the story, but when I looked in the CEU library there were many books on the subject. It was no secret. It is the story of upward of 100,000 people boarding trains, told they were to be "resettled", while their community leaders knew for a fact that almost all of them would be killed on arrival at Auschwitz in Poland, and were arranging with Eichmann the escape by train to Switzerland of 1000 or so at the cost of 1000 dollars each. Later the same leaders watched as thousands more were marched on foot to the Austrian border to dig in the ground without tools, then to work as slaves rented out by the Mayor of Vienna to local farms and factories. From the dates on the documents, Magda Adler was among this group.

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