President's Corner July 2012 - The Trip Back to the Past

I was born in a sleepy Hungarian village; a faraway place where nothing moves and no one gets excited. The church bells clang at 12 p.m. and it is quiet again until 1 p.m. when the bus from the next city drives through.  I always wanted to ring those bells but my father wouldn’t allow it. He told me that they don’t want Jews to ring those bells and I guess he was right. It remains quiet until the howls of the jackals bid you goodnight. This is where I grew up, in Lovaszpatona.

 Polnauer Home

The home in Lovaszpatona where Leibish Polnauer grew up

The village was relaxed. Women gave birth at home as there was no hospital, though the midwife who assisted my mother at my birth is long gone. Our house next to the river is still standing. The few who remained in the village lived and spent their days with a sense of resignation. In fact, even the local Catholic priest moved out and returned just once a week to deliver his sermon.

Here is a list of things we did and did not have;

We had:

  • Cows
  • Horses and wagon
  • Chickens
  • Ducks - they walked every morning in a line to the adjacent river and returned in the evening
  • Goats
  • A dog- called Portash- not the same Portash who taught about the financial markets, but his great grandfather….

We did not have:

  • A car
  • Washing machine
  • Refrigerator
  • Telephone line - no need to talk about a cell phone

We may not have had a lifestyle, but we had a life. No one in the village had a fancy yellow diamond and they lived the day in peace.


The Village of Lovaszpatona

I visited Hungary to participate at the opening of a Holocaust exhibition. Our forgotten neighbors, at Papa Synagogue, wanted to commemorate the memory of the Jewish families that lived in Papa for 200 years. The exhibition was created by Dr. Gyekiczki András, a historian - a gentile with no Jewish connection, who reconstructed the history of the Jewish families of Papa from the ashes of the Holocaust.

At the dark remains of the burnt out Papa Synagogue, the Israel National Hymn, Hatikva, opened the memorial ceremony and the rendition by world-class cantor, Dávid Schwezoff, filled the hearts of those present with the memory of the glorious past of the Jewish Community of Papa. As the cantor sang, I saw the spirits and faces of the murdered 2,157 Jews descending from heaven.

The Nazis destroyed a community and turned the remains to dust. Now, 65 years later, the city remembers them again. The souls of the 2,157 people who disappeared without trace returned one by one to the Temple. My brother from Bern, Rabbi David Polnauer, led the memorial service with great dignity.

Shortly before the trip I received a letter with a strange message. A man named Kollar Kalman from my home village, Lovaszpatona, had written a book about our friendship and he was looking for me. I politely answered that I don’t know anyone by that name. There was a Kollar Kalman in my village who used to be a carpenter and earned his living by making caskets for burials; his wife was a tailor, but he was around 60 years old when I was about 10, so it could not possibly be him.

The next day I received a transcript of a book written by Kollar Kalman. Turned out he was the son of the village carpenter. One of the short stories was about my late brother who I never knew as he perished in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. He was Kalman’s friend and Kalman tried to protect him from the beating of an anti-Semite in the local school. I was stunned how history had walked into my life. I answered that the boy who was his little friend is not me but my brother who was killed in 1944 by the Nazis.

Kollar Kalman was a , a famous 80 year old musician. I called him and told him I wanted to see him on my trip to Hungary. We nearly cried on the phone. He said, “come, I want to see you before I die.” Regretfully, he passed away just 3 days before I arrived in Hungary.

Not everyone was a Nazi. Not everyone participated in the persecution of Jews.

As we arrived to the memorial service, the man standing in front of the band was my high school teacher, Gyula Tungli. He is not a Jew. He had the same broad smile on his face as though we had parted just yesterday.

 Jewish Cemetary in Hungry with Gyula Tungli

The Jewish Cemetary in Hungary where Leibish and his brother David met their high-school teacher, Gyula Tungli

Despite his 80 years, he was alert. As we stood near his bike, he wanted us to open a conversation we had over 40 years ago about my grades in school. I had to stop him from developing this topic further as I was not the greatest student…

The band was a bit out of tune – just like history, it doesn’t always play according to the script.

We returned to our hotel in Budapest in high spirits. I had opened a new page in my own memories.

The next morning I went for a stroll to the Place of Heroes, a great Hungarian Square witness to the history of the country. I heard some strange music from the Hotel Andrassi. I looked back and saw a well-remembered image - a young man with a beer bottle in one hand raising his right arm with the greeting of the fascist youth – Heil!

I had witnessed this scene before. I remained calm, raised my hat and returned his greeting with a wide and visible ‘V’ of my fingers.

Business as usual - the world continues on its path.


Leibish Polnauer

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