A remarkable story of changing borders and stubborn optimism. Heinrich Nussbaum lived in the Austo-Hungarian Empire and had four sons who fought in the First World War. The empire collapsed and Europe was divided, but Heinrich didn't believe in borders and sent his sons to universities all over Europe: Sandor studied economics in Prague, Joseph became a doctor in Berlin, Laszlo received his degree in philosophy in Paris and Jeno, Laszlo's father, studied mathematics in Florence.
When war came, Sandor was killed in a Hungarian forced labor brigade, Laszlo was hidden by a familiy in Paris, Jeno was murdered in Buchenwald and Joseph, the doctor, fled to America, joined the US Army and entered Germany as a medic.
Our story belongs to Jeno's son Laszlo, who tells us that he lost his grandfather's optimism in the Buchenwald concentration camp and that it took until the Romanian revolution of 1989 to get it back.
Lazslo’s grandfather, Heinrich Nussbaum, was born in 1864 in the Zsombor community in Transylvania, which lies near the Romanian city of Cluj-Napoca. The Zsombor’s were a Hungarian clan that settled in Romania.
Transylvania has had a long collective history with Hungary. It was under Hungarian possession in the 11th century and incorporated into the Kingdom of Hungary. The Habsburg monarchy acquired the territory of Transylvania after the Battle of Vienna in 1683. In the year Heinrich Nussbaum was born, Transylvania was ruled by Austria. The region became fully absorbed into Hungary as part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire (1867-1918).
Heinrich Nussbaum was highly proud of the Empire. The reigning emperor for the majority of the monarchy was Franz Josef I. His grandnephew, Karl I, assumed the throne for the last two years of the monarchy.
In 1914 the First World War broke out. Heinrich’s three eldest sons - Laszlo’s father, Jenő, included – all fought for the Austro-Hungarian monarchy. Watch Centropa’s video about Jewish soldiers in the Austro-Hungarian army.
To support the war effort and to show his loyalty to the empire, Heinrich Nussbaum purchased war bonds. This, as Laszlo mentioned, would later ruin him as Austria-Hungary lost the war and therefore much economic power.
Although the First World War was fought, in part, to secure the power of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy, its defeat heralded its dissolution. The monarchy was disbanded and territory was partitioned. After the war, Transylvania joined Romania.
After the war, Heinrich Nussbaum bought a house in the Transylvanian city of Torda and died in 1932, the year before Hitler came to power.
Many Jews throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire were assimilated, more or less, into secular life. However, Jews living in independent Romania before the First World War were subject to an atmosphere of heightened anti-Semitism. After WWI, with the acquisition of territory including the region of Transylvania, Romania reluctantly legislated the naturalization of Jews in both the prewar and annexed territories. In the years before the Second World War, anti-Semitic attitudes and violence intensified.
Today the American Joint Distribution Committee is active in Romania, helping the Jewish community through the challenges of transition after the regime change in 1989.
In 1933, Adolf Hitler came to power, marking the beginning of the end for much of European Jewry.
With right-wing military officer Ion Antonescu’s ascension to power in 1940, Romania formally joined the Axis alliance. Antonescu initiated violent measures against Jews in Romania and in the areas re-annexed from the Soviet Union known as Transnistria. Romanian authorities established their own ghettos and two concentration camps in Transnistria. Antonescu was overthrown in 1944.
Antonescu was a Romanian nationalist and supported the idea of “Romanianization” through which the race would be purified. He was a staunch anti-Semite, but also an anti-Communist. This review of Dennis Deletant’s book, “Hitler’s Forgotten Ally,” provides a useful overview of Antonescu’s policies and actions in Romania from 1940-1944.
In 1940, Romania was forced to give a great part of Transylvania to Hungary. The Jews who lived in this part of Transylvania were subject to Hungary’s anti-Jewish measures. Ghettos were established across Transylvania. In 1944 ghetto inhabitants were sent to Auschwitz.
Laszlo explains that out of his father and three uncles, only two survived the Second World War. His uncle Laci survived the war in Paris. Jozéf was fortunate to make his was to America. His uncle Sándor, who had been living in Prague, left for Hungary where he was killed in a forced labor unit in Ukraine.
Both Laszlo and his father were interned in the concentration camp Buchenwald, one of the largest in Germany. It is there where his father, Jenő, perished.
Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel was also a survivor of Buchenwald.
Visit the website of the Buchenwald memorial site.
Following WWII, Romania was occupied by the Soviets and after elections in 1946, communism was established as the dominant political force. In 1947, the People’s Republic of Romania was established.
In 1965, the name of the country was changed to the Socialist Republic of Romania and was led by Nicolae Ceauşescu – the country’s last communist leader. During his rule, he became increasingly aggressive and despotic and was eventually overthrown. He and his wife, Elena, attempted to flee but were captured and then executed on Christmas Day, 1989.
Laszlo recalls that 1989 was the first year since before his time in Buchenwald that he could think about good times again. Because of mounting anger and opposition, large, violent demonstrations were led against Ceausescu and his regime. The Romanian revolution was one of the bloodiest of all the 1989 revolutions, which were held across Eastern Europe to overthrow the communist state.
Watch documentary footage of the Romanian revolution and Ceausescu’s capture and execution.