In the decade following the collapse of communism in Romania, the city of Cluj had a nationalist mayor who painted park benches in the national colors and signs written only in Romanian. Such tactics were designed to make the city’s ethnic Hungarians feel like outsiders, suffering discrimination and humiliation in their native city. Author Edith Pollak can relate to this experience of alienation.
She was born in Cluj to Holocaust survivor parents, but as they were rebuilding their lives, the kingdom became a communist dictatorship, and for 12 years they dreamed of a better life. After fleeing to Belgium and then Brooklyn, Edith Pollack became more aware of her Jewish heritage and spent her life as an activist for restitution. She assisted more than 82,000 survivors and their family members in recovering properties that were taken from them during the Holocaust.
This past Sunday, she spoke at the Young Israel of New Hyde Park about her experiences, as part of its Yom HaShoah program. Scheduling matters pushed the event two weeks past its calendar date, but it also coincided with the yahrzeit of Pollak’s mother, and three parshiyos that relate to the message of Pollak’s book, Inheritance of Loss, which was published in 2021.
“It is eerie but fitting. Acharei Mos, K’doshim, then Emor,” said Rabbi Lawrence Teitelman, the rav of this shul. “These four words mean ‘After the deaths of the holy ones, we say...’ We have an obligation to talk about them.”
The event began with a recitation of poems written by young victims of the Holocaust, read by members of the shul who are their age. Pollak then spoke of her birthplace as a “beautiful, sophisticated Hungarian town.” Beginning in 1942, the pro-Nazi Royal Hungarian Council of Ministers enacted laws that led to the murder of the country’s 800,000 Jews. “In April 1942, the decrees for the Jews on food. Only 300 grams of sugar a month was allowed,” she said, holding a bag smaller than the size of her palm for display. “Only pregnant women from four months to birth were allowed milk, and children up to age three. You can imagine that they were systematically choking the Jews.”
In 1944, ghettos were established, and trains began transporting Jews to the death camps. Pollak’s parents were deported on the sixth train to Auschwitz. “When Jews returned to Cluj, my father took back the house and the business and waited for his wife. She did not return. He quickly remarried, and I was born as a slap to Hitler.”
Pollak described crossing the Iron Curtain as a “culture shock.” Following the collapse of communism, she said that Romania has not “come clean” on its Holocaust record, which included recognizing properties and assets taken by force.
“I found a very decent Romanian attorney. We have the paperwork that says we always paid taxes on time.” She returned with her attorney to Romania six times. When asked to send her father’s birth certificate, she feared losing the document and presented it in person. “I was not going to give them the original.” Then the court asked her for the father’s last will, an impossible request.
“That night I had the results. They are not returning anything,” she said. “I made a promise that I would get back that house.” From 2001 to 2017, she struggled to reclaim the property. “I could have done other things. I wasted 16 years for something that was not going to happen; but think of the people who did not have the chance.” She concluded on a positive note, that the priorities do not lie in Romania or Ukraine; they must be with Israel.
Rabbi Teitelman noted that Parshas B’Har mentions the restitution of ancestral property. “Reclaiming assets from the Holocaust is an uphill battle that is not usually won. But we have other ancestral property – our heritage – and that is up to us to reclaim. We have an obligation to pursue not only our ancestors’ properties, but also their priorities.”
The memorial prayer was recited by survivor Abe Rosenberg, 82, who was born during the war in Soviet Georgia to parents who fled from Nazi-occupied Poland. After the war, they stayed at a Displaced Persons camp in Germany before immigrating to New York. In March, he made the news for reuniting with Michael Epstein, 87, a classmate from that camp whom he hadn’t seen in 76 years. Their meeting took place at the Young Israel of New Hyde Park.
Rabbi Teitelman expressed pride in that event and Pollak’s presentation. Despite a very rainy weekend, the congregants came to hear her speak, testifying to their dedication and the importance of remembering – 78 years since the war ended.
By Sergey Kadinsky