by Susan Wichter
Well, here it is, the story of how I came to travel to Hungary and Serbia, yes Serbia.
As most of you know I have been working on my genealogy for years now and one who does this kind of work runs into the famous “brick wall.” I had one on my mother’s paternal side, the Weinberger side. But one day, really killing time, I stopped by the LA Public Library where Ancestry.com is free. And for the millionth time I put in Marcus Weinberger, my mother’s father. But this time it showed the names of his mother and father: Bernat and Celia Weinberger. I was really speechless for a few moments. I knew this info was correct because it correctly identified the wife of Marcus as Rebecca (my gr. Mother). So, this was truly exciting.
Next, I contacted Beth Long, an American, who lives in Budapest. I had met her when she attended the annual International Jewish Genealogy Societies conference that our group organized last year at the new Marriott downtown. BTW, the conference will be held this year in Paris! Well, back to the story… I asked Beth for a recommendation of a researcher and she gave me the name of Laszlo Rudolf. It took a few months of communication with Laszlo but eventually he provided me with scanned civil records from the archives in Novi Sad, Serbia, the second largest city in Serbia. He charged me $100/day but with expenses for a total of $289. I had to piece all the attachments together and then I had to translate all the Hungarian headings. So for a while I didn’t know if I was looking at birth, death or marriage records. But Laszlo was helpful and so were some of my Hungarian reading friends. So voila. But…
Let me back up to tell you a little of what I knew about Marcus. He married Rebecca in 1920 and they had Bernard, Shirley, Doris/Dinah (my mother) and Henrietta. The first three had children.
Marcus came to the US from Hungary at age 16 and joined the US Army for 10 years until he got married in 1920. Years ago I requested military records from NARA and I’d just about given up when six months later the package arrived with some great stuff. The most interesting pieces were 4 letters around 1919. Two from a SISTER, name Julia. A sister? We knew nothing of any siblings. My mother nor her brother ever mentioned a sister. This sister was writing to the War Dept. after WWI looking for Marcus and probably to see if there was any kind of insurance money. The War Dept. wrote back, as well. Later, I learned that my uncle here in LA had a letter from this sister to his father. I asked to see it and he said no because there might be something in it that I shouldn’t read. Well, I reminded him, I don’t read Hungarian. He still said no. I asked to see the envelope for the address and when he returned from looking in his little box he didn’t find this envelope. Hmmm. There continues the mystery.
Time passed and I plugged along with other family lines, not really having anything much new. Through the years I had been successful digging up relatives on my maternal grandmother’s side, visited them in Philadelphia and later at their son’s wedding in Oakland. I found a cousin on my father’s side living only 5 miles from me in Burbank and we see each other often.
So back to the story: After I learned the names of my grandfather Marcus/Markusz/Markus’s siblings I then tried to find them on the Yad Vashem website. I had looked up the name Weinberger in the town of Peterreve and Bekescaba. All I’d known was this town name of Peterreve in Hungary. Well, it’s no longer in Hungary but in Serbia and now called Backo Petrovo Selo. And Bekescaba, still in Hungary, was the town shown on those letters from Julia to the War Dept. Years ago I had printed out every possible person who, even remotely, could be related. I saved everything! But, that day I did find one person on the site, Daniel Weinberger. My heart stopped, I couldn’t breathe for a minute. This was the first person in my family I had ever learned perished in the Holocaust. It was a profound moment and a really sad moment.
The testimony had been given in 1990 in Budapest by his son – Gabor Vero. I couldn’t read the name because of the handwriting and what was Vero? Once I figured out that Vero Gabor is Gabor Vero I tried, fruitlessly, to find him a Budapest directory. All cumbersome attempts failed and already 11 years had passed and I was getting worried that he might not be alive. So, I posted my request on Jewishgen.org H-Sig (that’s Hungarian Special Interest Group) and several people came forth online to help me but one man was really helpful – Andras Hirschler of Budapest. He sent me a PHOTO with an article of Gabor Vero. Can you believe that? And guess what? He had been the Executive Director of the Hungarian National Archives!
The photo, although probably from the 80s or 90s looked remarkably like my uncle Bernie. Unfortunately, my mother, Bernie and the other two siblings had already passed away. I shared this photo with my local cousins and my east coast cousins. So, Andras Hirschler wrote that he was going to call the National Archives to make sure this was my relative. A few days passed and beginning to worry that was the end of it, I then got a fantastic surprise: Gabor’s son, Peter, wrote to me and said we are cousins. What followed were many emails explaining our families and our lives. So then, the next important event took place.
My friend, Catherine, who I know from my time with Habitat for Humanity and later we got to know each other better when we both participated in Global Village Habitat trip to Belfast, Ireland in 1998 (I also went to northern Portugal in 2000 for another Global Village experience) had told me that her family was also from Hungary. The town is Kikinda. When I looked at a map I could see that not only had Kikinda also been in Hungary but like my town of Peterreve it is now in northern Serbia and furthermore it’s in the same province and only 45 minutes from Peterreve! And so, last year I asked if she’d be interested in going there and she was but she had new grandchildren and to ask in the Spring of 2011. I wasn’t in a rush so didn’t ask her again until……………..I had made contact with Gabor and Peter Vero in Budapest. And then I sent an email to Catherine and asked if she’d like to travel to Hungary and Serbia because now I had found family.
We agreed to meet after her doctor’s appointment at a Chinese restaurant a week later.
So it was great to see her and we caught up on our lives and in the middle of lunch she exclaimed that she did want to go to Hungary and Serbia and furthermore her husband, Alan, wants to accompany us for support! I was absolutely thrilled. Not only was I not working because my job had been eliminated, that I had 60,000 frequent flier miles which gave me a free European ticket but that I would have not one travel partner but two. There was no wasting time making a plan to meet at their home in Belmont Shores to discuss details of the trip. We had agreed on 10/18 and I had picked that date because it was still Fall and truthfully wanted not to wait too long because Gabor is already 86. And so, hotels and flights were chosen over time. I was to travel alone on three flights and meet Catherine and Alan five hours after their arrival on a different airline. We had chosen a very cute Best Western in the heart of Budapest. My room was small but everything I needed was present. The breakfast buffet was really good. And walking to the tram was convenient. Of course, we took a lot of taxis. All the staff speaking English.
I was in constant contact with Peter, the new cousin, to inform him of my plans and itinerary. I said I’d like to meet the family and while he was at a nieces wedding in September he announced that I was coming so that a lot of family members would know there’d be a party in October to meet me.
I also mentioned that I’d like to spend time with Gabor to go over the family chart I’d created and other genealogy information. So Peter planned a private visit with Gabor for the day after I arrived, on a Thursday and the party would take place the next day. The neighborhoods are called districts in Budapest. Gabor lives on the Buda side and Peter lives on the Pest side of the beautiful Danube.
The first part of my time in Budapest was wonderful. Catherine, Alan and I ate at great restaurants, took the Hop On, Hop Off, double-decker bus all around the city including the Castle Hill area for which I took picture post-card worthy photos of the Danube, and the ride around the city was excellent, explaining the architecture and important structures. We had really really good food. And, yes, on my first night, I ate goulash and it was delicious!! We ate at the famous Gundels near the zoo, park and Heroes Square. That was truly special. We also attended an impromptu opera, Tosca, at the famous Budapest Opera House, had box seats and didn’t understand a word of the opera since the translation above the stage was in Hungarian but the experience was so special. We also attended the 200th birthday concert of Franz Liszt at the Palace of Arts/Bela Bartok auditorium.
This music center is rather new and modern and beautiful. We had to walk to the famous Andrassy Street (ooh lah lah, this their Rodeo Drive or high high end shopping area) to a ticket sales p
lace. Our tickets were behind the orchestra and so we could almost touch the musicians and clearly see the conductor. The pianist was Denis Matsuev, a Russian. The concert was spectacular. 5 standing ovations and encores with the last piece a jazz piece that somehow almost brought me to tears.
On that Thursday, Peter, picked me up at the hotel, met Catherine and Alan to shake hands and off we went to see Gabor. I would describe the building as cold war grim. Gabor lives with a rotating caregiver (every 6 wks). He doesn’t speak English but Peter does. Peter had been an IT guy and I learned on that 20 minute ride that he’d made business trips to California over the years….oh my… Well, anyhow, Gabor was uncannily reminiscent of my Uncle Bernie. How would it be that so many thousands of miles away the expressions and some mannerisms would be so similar. Wow. I showed him my chart and he didn’t agree with the secondary family I had found having pieced together the names from those original civil records but I haven’t given up yet. I also showed him only a photo I’d found of those from Peterreve who perished in the Holocaust. He was rather moved by this because he didn’t know about it. After he retired from the National Archives he started a Jewish Hungarian Holocaust Institute so I realized how important such a photo would be. His caregiver prepared a beautiful tray of open-faced sandwiches, each laid out in geometric designs. I have a photo.
So I left and the next evening Peter picked me up to take me to his large modern condo in another district for the family party. I met his wife who he described as having many sicknesses but there she was thin thin thin, as he had warned me, but beautiful and charming. One by one the families gathered along with spouses and fiancés. We took photos and at one point they all gathered around me wanting to know how I’d found them. All, except for Gabor, speak English. The youngest, Mark, age 13 wanted to know right away if he could visit and also wanted to know if I knew the cost of David Beckham’s house.
So, it’s taken me months to finish this and so to finish it I will speed up the rest of the story: Catherine, Alan and I traveled by train for 6 hours to Novi Sad, Serbia. At the border the border police walk through the train checking passports and we had been told this could take an hour or more. It took a while but not that long and then the train moves to the other side of the border and the same thing happens. We stayed in another Best Western Hotel, this one had more of a disco vibe and the morning buffet was long and plentiful, so that was fun.
Our first night we went with our guide and his wife to a nice restaurant up on the hill, at the old fortress, overlooking the Danube. Then the next day we journeyed to Catherine’s ancestral town of Kikinda, but first Stasia showed us a house in another town that he is preparing to rent out. We looked up on a power line and saw the biggest bird nest ever, that of a stork. We traveled on to Kikinda. Went to the main square where we met a cousin of a friend of hers from LA who’s cousin, Bebe, is a doctor in Kikinda. It was raining and atmospheric and Catherine and Stasia went to the gov’t office but that was unsuccessful. All of us had coffee and desserts in the café. Later we crawled around the cemetery looking for family names without luck but it was interesting traveling through the countryside.
I should say there is a LOT of smoking in restaurants in Serbia and we had one particularly bad experience in a rather hip looking Italian restaurant next to the Performing Arts Center. The food was good but the smoke wasn’t.
The next day we headed for my town of Peterreve, now known at Backo Petrovo Selo. We drove around and found the Jewish cemetery. All the headstones were in Hebrew. But, there I saw the big white memorial stone, also in Hebrew and Hungarian, the same one I had found online months before! As we departed down the road to return the key to the caretaker he suggested I contact two people in NY who are supporting the cemetery. Paul Fisher and Rabbi Weiser. I also gave him my phone number.
Weeks later I had a voice mail from a Schlomo Fisher. I called back and spoke to him a day or two later. He is also known as Paul Fisher. An Orthodox Jew from Brooklyn. We spoke for quite a while. He wanted to know the condition of the cemetery and I explained my purpose in being there. He and his family had paid for the white monument of those that died in the Holocaust from that village. I eventually had two friends from JGSLA translate the monument, still finding no relatives! In the documents that my researcher sent there are Fischers but so far Paul Schlomo Fisher and I are not related, at least not yet. This man was actually born in that town! Lived most of his life in Israel. He told me of his lifelong quest to find the person who buried his father in the Holocaust. Can you believe that? And he had found him! Can you believe that? And furthermore, he was soon to travel to Israel to meet this man. Wow, wow!
I spoke to him weeks after his return but somehow didn’t really get into the meeting very much. I hope to contact him because I feel certain he will publish something about this even though he is not handy with computers. He runs some kind of a Jewish organization in Brooklyn.
I can’t forget to mention that Stasia took us Batchko Topolya to meet with Antal Koscis and his wife. They were very gracious with desserts and beverages. We were taken to their basement which was truly like an ancient museum. He is a man with a long white beard, smoking up a storm, who is not Jewish BUT has made it his life’s work to record Jewish life in Topolya and for these continuing efforts he has been acknowledged several times by the Israeli government with certificates to show. He also gave me a brochure with photos and lists of names including Weinbergers in that village. Let me tell you that was quite and experience. His wife stays in touch with me by computer. Catherine had shown him a copy of the military record she had for her great-grandfather and they were keenly interested in having that scanned into their computer. Catherine took many photographs of the extremely unique basement/library. Stasia was right to bring us to him but the smoke was so intense I found a way for us gracefully exit.
One last thing to mention: Gabor gave me the name and phone number of another relative living in Toronto. After many attempts I reached him. He is rather old and his wife was in the hospital. I also had a very kind friend in our genealogy group reach out to her contacts in Toronto who also learned about this man and his wife. I have yet to find the daughter who might have a different last name. The phone number I have does not work. In addition, I was also given a name of a relative in Ben Ami Moshav, Israel. Until now I was the only Jew I know who didn’t have relatives in Israel but now I do. I tried looking online for information about Lajos (Loondi) Eli Dagan.. I haven’t yet made the call to Israel. So, apparently, the both the Toronto relative (the wife and daughter) and the Israel relative would be related to me in the same way as I am to Gabor.
Finally, I emailed Andras Hirschler while in Budapest and he met me at a café near my hotel. It was such a pleasure to meet and thank him person for being the catalyst and go-between in finding my Weinberger/Vero relatives.
And so, I returned from my journey on three long and grueling flights from Budapest to Munich, to Chicago and to L.A.