Magdalena Berger

Belgrade, Serbia

Magdalena Berger
Belgrade
Serbia
Interviewer: Rachel Chanin

 

Family background
Growing up
During the war
Post-war

Family background

My father, David Grossberger, was born in Bonyhad (Hungary) in 1891 to Leopold Grossberger and Roza Grossberger (nee Veseli). Leopold and Roza Grossberger moved to Subotica with their 8 children to pursue a better financial and Jewish life. At the time, Yugoslavia offered a more tolerant and receptive atmosphere for religious Jews as well as more economic
opportunities. Once in Yugoslavia, Leopold worked as a peddler in local markets. While he was not as poor as many of the other people in the community, he never achieved great financial success. Leopold and Roza were both very observant and raised their family that way. In their later years they were supported by their children, and Leopold devoted himself to Torah study.

My father loved and respected his parents but he was not able to remain as
steadfast in his observance and worldview as they. As a young adult he
moved to the less religious city of Sombor. It is not known why he left but
I believe that part of the motivation was to allow himself space for his
more relaxed religious observance. In Sombor, he opened a textile factory
and a wholesale textile shop. The factory was named something like Prva
Jugoslovenska Fabrika za Tapaciranje, and is still located near the bus
station in Sombor. The factory was functioning up to a few years ago. The
shop was on the ground floor of the building where we lived.

Because he tried so hard, my father achieved a level of success his father
never had. He was a successful businessman, which allowed his family to
live a comfortable but by no means extravagant life. I remember that my
father never gave us pocket money and he urged us to play with his workers'
children. My father kept a diary on his business activities so that we, his
children, would know that he was an honest businessman. Despite his success
he always maintained a sense of modesty and made sure we all did as well.

Growing up

My father married my mother, Klara Guszman of Sombor, and they had two
children together: my brother Andrija-Tzvi Grossberger, who was born in
1924, and me. I was born in 1926. My mother was born in 1903. She came from
an entirely non-religious Jewish family from Sombor. She died when I was
eight years old but I remember her as a sensitive and artistic woman. When
she was not in the sanatorium, she enjoyed playing the piano and painting,
but she was sick most of the time until she died in 1934. My father, my
brother and I were on our family farm on T'isha B'av of that year when my
father, my brother and a cousin left the farm in the family car for the
city. They were headed to town for her funeral. I only learned later about
her death. I have no recollection of whether shiva was observed for her or
anything about that time.

My father remarried in 1936. His sister was living in Romania. She
introduced him to a woman named Joli Kohn and they married sometime
thereafter. I don't remember the specifics of their courtship or where and
when they married. However, I recall that it was a very natural transition
when my stepmother came to live with us. Joli was religious. She did not
wear a wig but I think she did go to the mikvah (ritual bath). In the few
years that my stepmother lived in Sombor before the war, she did not make
many friends and did not socialize much. Her mother and the rest of her
family would come to visit her in Sombor but she did not travel back to
Romania. My stepmother was a very strict and conventional woman and kept me
under close observation even when I was in my late teens.

We had an apartment on the first floor of an apartment building on Laze
Kostic and Bojevica Venac in Sombor, and also a farm outside the city. One
female servant and a cook lived and worked in our house. These women were
foreigners and non-Jews. The servants were a normal practice at the time
and not a sign of luxury. In our family's case they were especially
necessary because my mother, Klara, was often sick and my stepmother did
not know how to cook.

My parents, and then my father and stepmother, socialized almost
exclusively with Jews. I cannot recall them having any non-Jewish friends.
But none of them socialized much. It was not the custom for Jews to go to
bars. Those who did were put on an informal community blacklist. When they
went out, many went to one particular pastry shop in Sombor. My parents
usually celebrated the secular New Year at home with us children. Only one
year, 1940-41, was I allowed to celebrate the New Year at a friend's house.

Sombor was not a large Jewish community. Most of the 1,000 Jews that lived
in the town belonged to the Neolog (Conservative) community. There were
some Orthodox Jews but they were a minority and were in general much poorer
than the other Jews. They did not have a big synagogue, only a few
shtiebls.

There was a large Neolog synagogue in the center of Sombor, close to our
house, where we were members. I would go to the synagogue with my aunt and
grandmother, and we sat in our permanent seats, on the left side near the
ark. From there I could see my father sitting in the men's section. The
service was traditional and all in Hebrew and the congregation could follow
and participate. During the Torah reading the cantor would call out in
German (or maybe it was Yiddish, I'm not sure): "Who has a contribution for
the chevra kadishah?"

There was no hall in the synagogue so there was no socializing after the
service. When my brother had his bar mitzvah, the family's guests and
relatives came back to the house after the service for kiddush. In this
community of modest means, it was not customary to provide lunch for the
guests. I remember that my brother received some gifts, including 10 of the
same pen sets.

Our family was less religious than Father's parents but we were certainly
not a typical Neolog Jewish family in Sombor: we were considerably more
observant than most of the other non-Orthodox Jews in Sombor at the time.
We kept kosher and bought all of the meat from the kosher butcher. I
believe that my father maintained these traditions more out of respect for
his parents than out of ideology.

My family observed the Shabbat. Father's store was closed on Saturday and
although my brother and I went to school on Saturdays, we were not allowed
to write or do other things that violated the Sabbath. On Friday, Mother
lit candles and we had a Shabbat dinner. Dinner usually consisted of a
goose, goose liver, charvas, kiska, fried eggs and onions. For the second
Shabbat meal we ate cholent and cold zucchini. The Shabbat leftovers were
then eaten the rest of the week. We rarely had beef, mostly only poultry,
and we made challah at home. I recall my father saying havdalah at the end
of each Sabbath, using a flat, braided, brightly colored candle.

All Jewish holidays were observed in our house. Before Rosh Hashanah we
would buy a chicken and perform kaporot at home and then take the dead
chicken to the butcher. On Succoth my family had a small succah on our
terrace. Not many other people had one but each year my father put one up
and decorated it. He would cut up strips of colored paper and hang paper
chains around the succah. We would eat in the succah during this week. We
had the family Seder at our house, which my father led. The Haggadah was
read in Hebrew and I believe that we had copies with a translation in
Hungarian. As the youngest child, I was always responsible for reading the
Ma Nishtana (the four questions about the meaning of Pesach). We celebrated
Purim but I cannot remember where the Purim Ball was held or exactly what
the service in the synagogue was like. On Hanukah we lit a menorah
(candlabra) and the children played dreidel (spinning top), gambling for
walnuts. I don't remember getting presents but I know that it was common
for most Jewish families to light Hanukah candles.

Even though my family was more religious than the other Jews in our
community, I had no problem socializing with the other children. My
family's religious practices were never an issue for me as a young girl. In
all other respects my childhood was similar to that experienced by the
other Jewish children in Sombor at the time.

There was no Jewish school in Sombor, the closest was in Novi Sad, so I
attended the local schools. There were 3 or 4 other Jewish kids in my class
at school, but no Jewish teachers. The Jewish children were always among
the best students. In my grade, boys and girls were in the same class. Once
a week all the children in the school had religion lessons. Each minority
group had a teacher sent in to teach that group. All of the Jewish kids in
the school were together in one class for this lesson. We mainly studied
Bible stories and Hebrew. The law allowed us Jewish children to stay at
home on Jewish holidays. The Jewish children in my school went to school on
Saturdays but none of the Jewish kids went to school on the holidays.

I recall that young people did not socialize or travel in those days as
they do now; people spent more time closer to home. As a child I went to
school and came home. During the free time I rode bicycle or played by the
canal near our house. My friends did not come to our house very often and
almost never slept over. Most of my friends were Jewish but I had a few non-
Jewish friends. Once the war started the non-Jewish children in the school
would no longer socialize with the Jewish ones. I would pass other kids
from my class on the street and they would not say hello. However, even
during the war I maintained friendships with two Serbian students from
school.

Like most of the teenagers in Sombor at the time, I took both dance lessons
and music lessons. I took a dance course for several months and although I
did not enjoy it, I finished the course. I took private piano lessons at a
Jewish woman's house, but was not very good, and quit after a while. I also
had private French lessons after school. All of these things were normal
practices for young adults at the time.

I was a member of the local Hashomer Hazair youth group. We used to meet in
the yard of the synagogue and sing songs but I cannot remember what else we
did. I was not particularly Zionist but the youth group was something to
do. We did not go on trips because the parents would not let youth go away
overnight. Occasionally, the Hashomer Hazair youth from Subotica would come
to Sombor. My brother was not in Hashomer Hazair but he was a scout for a
while. My family did not travel much but Father would take us to the
Croatian seaside or to Bled for summer vacations and we spent time on our
family farm.

During the war

We remained in Sombor through spring 1944 when the Hungarian fascists took
control of the region. When the Jews from Sombor were captured and held
hostage, my father put up one million of the required two million Hungarian
pengo ransom to have the Jews released. My stepmother and I were deported
to Austria, were we were held in a labor camp. In 1944, while in the camp,
my stepmother gave birth to a baby girl. I was given the honor of naming
the baby and I called her Mira Ruth Grossberger. As an infant she was quite
ill and my stepmother wanted her to have two names to protect her from
death.

Post-war

We were liberated on the 8 May 1945 and immediately left Austria. We
returned to Sombor, where we learned that my father had been killed in
Auschwitz. I finished the last year of high school in Sombor and then moved
to Belgrade. In Belgrade, I lived in the Jewish dormitory and studied at
the Faculty of Technology. In the meantime, my stepmother and half-sister
went to Israel. Mira still lives in Israel and my stepmother died in Israel
in 1989.

I met my husband after the war, in the Jewish student dormitory in the
Belgrade synagogue. He came from a rural Jewish family that was not at all
religious. He had a drastically different upbringing than I did. For
example, his father was inclined to drink a lot, and socialized with the
local gypsies, things that my father never did. We married in Belgrade on
the same day as another Jewish couple from the dormitory. The two of us,
the other couple and all the witnesses lived in the Jewish dormitory, which
confused the judge officiating at the weddings. We married on a Friday
because on Friday afternoons the Jewish cafeteria served the best lunch,
beans and apple pie, which served as our wedding feast.

Ivan and I had one son, Ivar, who was born in 1957 in Zemun. Ivan, while
aware of his Jewish background, was never active in the Jewish community.
We lived in Zemun and worked a lot and there was not much time left to go
to the community. My son is 43 and not married and says that he is waiting
to find a nice educated Ashkenazi woman to marry. Personally, I am inclined
to think that this is just an excuse.

Country: 
City: 
Belgrade

Interview details

Interviewee: Magdalena Berger
Interviewer:
Rachel Chanin
Month of interview:
August
Year of interview:
2000
Belgrade, Serbia

KEY PERSON

Magdalena Berger
Year of birth:
1926
City of birth:
Sombor
Occupation
after WW II:
Working in natural and technical sciences
Family names
  • Previous family name: 
    Grossberger
    Reason for changing: 
    Marriage
    Decade of changing: 
    1940

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