“You will never see your land of Israel, your precious Jerusalem, your Carmel, your Galilee. It will never happen. You will never leave Romania.”
The Securitate agent glared at her in anger.
The Romanian Securitate was the feared secret police, the foundation block of the totalitarian regime imposed on Transylvania by Stalin, and it controlled Romania until the fall of the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Years later, after Russia itself had junked its rusty communist regime, the methods and secrets of the Securitate would be exposed, its files opened and scrutinized. There were files on millions of ordinary Romanian citizens. More than 700,000 people had been employed as informants.
“You will tell us everything you know about the Zionist underground in Romania. You will tell us the names. Or you will never see the sun again.”
She was born Magdalena Fisher in 1920 inside Hungary, but while she was still a toddler her parents moved to the Transylvanian town of Brasov. Hungarian Jews, including those in Transylvania, were a heterogeneous lot. They ranged from the ultra-Orthodox in their black coats to the modernist secularists. Large numbers belonged to the “Neolog” movement, something roughly analogous to the Reform and Conservative movements in the United States.
While Jews had been murdered and brutalized by the Romanian fascists during World War II, especially those from the Iron Guard, most survived the Holocaust years. Jews from the northern part of Transylvania had been deported to the death camps by the Hungarian fascists. But Brasov was in southern Transylvania and most of its Jews had survived the war.
Transylvania: The name conjures up late-night horror movies and Count Dracula. But in fact Transylvania had been a center of culture, including Jewish culture, for centuries. The first Jews had settled there in Roman times. The Khazars probably had contact and influence with Transylvanian Jews.
Transylvania became a multicultural wonderland, a mix of Magyars, Romanians, Vlachs, Tartars, Gypsies, Swabian Germans, and Jews. Many of the Transylvanian Jews were Magyarized, migrants from other Hungarian areas, while others were German-speaking, and there were also communities of Sephardim mixed among them.
World War I found Hungary still under the Habsburg rule, and so on the losing side of the war. The Trianon Treaty of 1920, which officially ended the war, stripped Hungary of many of its territories and awarded Transylvania to Romania. It remained an enclave of predominantly Hungarian speakers within the Romanian state. The resentment at this played a role in Hungary aligning itself with Hitler in World War II.
A Leader Of Betar
Magdalena’s father was a Czech-born engineer who worked with the sugar factories concentrated in Brasov. They were modern Jews, Neologs. The Jewish day school went only up to the fourth grade, after which she attended Catholic school, excused from the religion classes, and with classes in Judaism with the local rabbi, Dr. Deutsch, after school. She was an only child. Her classmates would argue over what they were – Hungarians, Romanians, Transylvanians, Magyars – but for her the question was easy. She was a Jew.
Her father, one of the early leaders of the Betar movement of Transylvania, raised her not only as a Jew, but as a militant Zionist. In 1923, the mainstream Zionist movement had been split when Vladimir Jabotinsky resigned from the Zionist Federation, which was dominated by socialists seeking to create a Jewish state through cooperation with the Arabs.
Jabotinsky was a skeptic and a realist. He correctly expected the Arabs to oppose any form of Jewish sovereignty and concluded that the Jewish state must be created through uprising and armed struggle by the Jews. He expounded his views in his most famous essay, “The Iron Wall.”
Jabotinsky had set up his own dissident Zionist movement outside the Zionist Federation. He named it Betar, a play on words. Betar had been one of the last holdouts in the Bar Kochba revolt against Rome, but it was also the acronym for Brit Trumpeldor, the Covenant of Joseph Trumpeldor, named for the martyred hero of the Zionist militias in the Ottoman Galilee.
Jabotinsky called his movement “Revisionist Zionism” – revisionist in the sense that it wanted some revisions in the British Mandate for Palestine, such as restoration of Transjordan, which had been stripped away from what Jabotinsky regarded as the Jewish homeland. Betar grew to a mass movement in Eastern Europe. Its Romanian headquarters were in Bucharest. Brasov in Transylvania had a large chapter. Its members leafleted, organized, lectured, published, harangued.
From the time she was in high school, Magdalena was one of the central leaders in Betar in her town. It was one of the high points in her life when Jabotinsky himself came to Romania. She and the other leaders met him in Bucharest. Asher Diament, the chairman of Betar in Braslov, introduced her to Jabotinsky as the most effective leader in the local chapter, the leader who “works with her heart,” and her face beamed with pride.
Before World War II, Romania had the third largest Jewish population in Europe, after the Soviet Union and Poland. At the start of the war, the Romanian government, headed by Ion Gigurtu, introduced draconian anti-Jewish legislature, which was openly inspired by the Nazi Nuremberg Laws. Antonescu, who followed Gigurtu as leader of the nation, created the “Legionnaire State” in coalition with the Iron Guard. Many Jews sought ways to escape to Palestine.
She continued her Zionist work at the university in Bucharest, until all Jewish students were expelled in 1943. Jews were also being barred from a long list of professions in Romania. In June of 1941, the Iasi pogrom had taken place. After false rumors that the local Iasi Jews were collaborating with Soviet paratroopers, the Romanian police had carried out a massacre of Jews, the worst in Romania during the war.
Meanwhile, Jabotinsky had died in the United States and was buried in the Catskills. (Jabotinsky’s remains would not be moved to Mount Herzl in Jerusalem until after David Ben Gurion, Israel?s first prime minister and a bitter opponent of Revisionist Zionism, left office.)
The war ended when Romania was liberated by the Red Army, but in a wink of an eye the Soviets had imposed a totalitarian communist regime on the country. The Romanian king was forced to resign. The Romanian communist party, which had perhaps a few hundred members before the war, was installed as the single political party, with a monopoly on the state. Industry was nationalized, agriculture collectivized, rival parties banned, gulag camps set up.
Magdalena had not planned to marry until she reached Israel, but she met Ladislau (Laszlo) Rosenberg, an engineering student. He was a member of the rival socialist Zionist movement, a cause of some early ideological debates between them, but she agreed to his proposal of marriage anyway. Some of her Betar comrades were displeased, preferring that she had chosen an ideologically purer mate. Together they dreamed of moving to Israel
Ironically, the Zionist movements had been legal in fascist Romania during World War II. Now the communist regime banned them altogether. She continued her work with Betar. She ran the local Keren Kayemet fund. She was the liaison of the movement for “Aliya Bet,” the illegal smuggling of Jews out of Europe and into Palestine in defiance of the British White Paper and its restrictions on entry of Jews into the Jewish homeland.
She would get a call late at night that several spaces on a ship had come open. People chosen for the ordeal had to leave before dawn the next morning, leaving behind everything except a small handbag.
The passage was dangerous. Even if they reached the ships safely, there was no guarantee – several had already sunk en route to Palestine, their human cargos drowning. She sent out not only Betar activists, but any Jew prepared to go. Her goal was to send one more Jew to Israel, and one more, and then one more.
The very first time the Securitate confronted her, she and Ladislau were at home. The agent barged in and informed her that she would have to report to Securitate headquarters the next day. But he began the interrogation in their home. We understand there are Zionist organizations that operate in Brasov, he said, reciting the names of all the movements except Betar.
She smelled a rat. Yes, she said, those are all Zionist organizations, but you left out one, an organization named Betar. The Securitate man grinned.
“You are a very lucky young woman,” he said. “Had you not volunteered the name of Betar, you would already be under arrest and would never have been heard from again.”
The interrogations at Securitate headquarters took place about once a month for the next two years. We demand the names of the Zionist leaders, they would repeat. She would give them names, lots of names, but only those of local Zionists who had already left Romania and were in Israel. As for those left behind, she would sigh and complain to the interrogators about how selfish it had been of those leaders to just abandon the simple folks left behind, people with no leaders at all.
She risked her life by refusing to name the actual leaders still operating in the Zionist underground. One day the interrogators demanded that she tell them everything she knew about Moshe Fogel, one of the local Betar leaders. The Securitate claimed he was planning to blow up a local factory. We have a problem, she said. You see, every Jew has two names – one modern or ordinary, in Hungarian or Romanian, and one Jewish name. If you do not believe me, just go to the synagogue and ask the people there if this is so. I am afraid I only know people by their Jewish names and so, alas, I do not know whom you are talking about.
The Securitate interrogators were not amused. When she denied she knew what “Irgun Zvai Leumi” (the name of the Betar militia in Palestine) meant, their anger grew. She had said it so convincingly that even her husband momentarily thought it was true. If you tell Fogel we asked about him, you will be imprisoned, they threatened. The next day, Ladislau met Fogel in an alley and warned him of the investigation.
You will never be allowed to leave Romania, they promised. Emigration of Jews from Romania had begun, allowed in trickles, mainly people with immediate relatives abroad. She corresponded with those Betar leaders from her town now in Israel. Her mother managed to get an exit visa and was already living in Israel. They had hoped this would be a sufficient “family reunification” basis for obtaining a visa, but the regime was being vindictive with those who had been Zionist activists.Home At Last
For eleven years Magdalena and her husband waited. They sang songs of the Jewish homeland from their small apartment on Stalin Street. They dreamed of setting up house some place in the Land of Israel. She learned that one of the leaders from Romanian Betar was now in Australia. He had gone there to settle the affairs of an aunt who had died, then stayed on, and she asked him to file an affidavit to sponsor their immigration to Australia. It worked.
They got papers to allow them to leave Romania, to go to Australia. They left for Austria as if they were en route to Australia, and the first thing they did in Vienna was to contact the Jewish Agency, in charge of immigration to Israel. It was 1960. We want to go home, they announced.
They were moved to the port in Italy from which they would embark. They could not believe their eyes. An indescribably lovely white ship was waiting for them – a ship called the Theodore Herzl, no less. They were on their way home at last.
On the ship, they were “processed” by the absorption bureaucrats. The clerks were sending everyone to the depressed Negev town of Dimona. They had had their share of experiences with bureaucrats before. Ladislau wanted to set up his own factory using some of his know-how, and Dimona obviously was not the place. Diament, the Betar commander from Transylvania, invited them to live in Tel Aviv near him. When the ship landed in Haifa, they looked up at the green mountain. By hook or by crook, they swore, we will live in this lovely town.
They agreed to forgo the nearly-free housing offered them in Dimona. They decided to pay their own way and live in Haifa. They set up a small furniture workshop, in which they both worked 16-hour days. They never had any children. Israel was their family and Haifa was their home. The Carmel, about which they had sung in the Transylvanian underground, was now theirs.
Israel is a country of modest apartments and simple ordinary doors, behind which quietly live the most extraordinary of people. She bites her lip in pain as she limps across the floor. Ladislau died many years ago, and she lives alone, 83 years old, with a helper from Romania. She has been handicapped since a careless bus driver last year started the engine while she was only half on board, knocking her down and breaking her thigh.
But she is as energetic and optimistic as she had been back in Transylvania as a young girl. She lives every single moment that the state of Israel lives; she celebrates every moment of triumph and she suffers from every moment of tragedy.
There is only one thing I do not understand, my dear next-door neighbor, she says to me as I make notes for this article. The Chanukah candles are still flickering as we chat.
I am just an ordinary person, a girl from Transylvania, a Jew and a Zionist who loves all Jews and who loves her land and her country with all her heart – a simple Jewish woman whose life is of no interest. Why on earth do you think my story is worth telling?Steven Plaut is a professor at Haifa University. His book “The Scout” is available at Amazon.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.