I have recently read two memoirs written by European Jews and their experiences in the middle third of the twentieth century. The first was Ralphael Patai’s “Apprentice in Budapest”, published in 1988, and the second Baruch Goldstein’s “For Decades I was Silent”, published in 2008.
The first book I ever read by Raphael Patai was his “Jewish Alchemists”, a fascinating, scholarly book on the role of Jewish (and, in fact, Muslim) alchemists and later chemists in the development of scientific research and discovery. The gist of the book, as I recall it, was that the peculiarities of Christian dogma, and the power of the Church to ensure that Christians’ scientific research did not conflict with Christian dogma, left it open to Jews (in Europe) in part on the basis of the accomplishment of Arab scholars to challenge accepted scientific conclusions and lead the way to new and important scientific discoveries. Certainly, not anything I had thought about on my own. But the book was very scholarly and very dense.
Patai has written many more books, but I had shied away from them because I assumed that they would be as dense and scholarly as the one I had read, but my avoidance did not limit my admiration for his abilities and writing. So, when I ran across a copy of his memoir of his childhood and student years, “Apprentice in Budapest”, I thought that this book would probably be a little less dense and just as interesting. Besides, tales of Jewish life in the Budapest and the Vienna of 100 years ago have fascinated me since I read the first volume of Arthur Koestler’s autobiographical works, “Arrow in the Blue” years ago. (That’s where I read of Jewish student dueling societies, which do not figure in Patai’s book. Ralphael Patai and Arthur Koestler were very different people.)
Patai was born in Hungary in 1910 and died in 1996. He left Budapest at the age of 23 and moved to Palestine, where he received the first PhD. ever given out by The Hebrew University. He came to the U.S. in 1947, where he taught at a number of universities, and became a professor of anthropology at Fairleigh Dickinson University and at Dropsie College. He wrote about 30 books and published hundreds of articles on Jewish cultural history and anthropology.
“Apprentice in Budapest” is not easily found (it was published by University of Utah Press), but is worth searching out. Patai was the son of a well known intellectual and poet, publisher of a Zionist monthly and Budapest Jewish educator. But his parents’ marriage was a mixed marriage, his mother being from a religious Budapest family, and his father, who was much less observant, was born in a small village in the Hungarian countryside. His background was the background of Hungarian Jewish society in all its aspects.
Patai’s memories of his childhood were both extremely detailed and very selective. What he remembers, he remembers well. What he does not remember, he does not try to make up, but admits he just can’t recollect. What you get from his early years is how life was for a middle class Jewish boy growing up in Budapest, where he had extended family including a well known father, and where the Jewish population was one of the largest in Europe. He was clearly bright, but only applied himself sporadically in his early years, but was able to get into the new Jewish high school in the city. Not a religious school, per se, for his family belonged to the liberal Jewish movement (what he calls Neolog).
While he was well educated in Jewish matters, and while his father’s professional career was exclusively centered around Jewish subjects, he gave no thought to a rabbinical education, but instead (after consulting with his uncle) decided to become an engineer and, perhaps eventually an architect. It was not easy for a Jewish boy to get into the Technical University, but after his family pulled some strings, he was admitted, only to find that being Jewish in this very un-Jewish institution was very unpleasant, and not at all where he wanted to stay. He felt very isolated and never spoke to another student, he says.
He quit the Technical University, and his parents sent him to a yeshiva in Montreaux, Switzerland, probably to get him on course after he had turned himself into a drop out. It was eye-opening to spend time in Switzerland, to be sure, but the institution itself was a disaster for young Raphael, and he dropped out (or was asked to drop out) again. He returned to Budapest, took the test for an was admitted to the city’s rabbinical seminary and university. The seminary was unique in Europe in that it was administered as a public institution by the government. Students at the rabbinical seminary were not allowed to exclusively study rabbinics; they also had to be admitted to the University of Budapest’s faculty of philosophy. At the University, there were a number of courses students could take, and most chose subjects close to their seminary studies, but Patai was able to take a broader curriculum than most. It was here that he developed his interest in Jewish cultural studies. He describes many of his classes and professors and their influence on him in detail. After a year at the university, he moved to Breslau (then in Germany; now Wroclaw in Poland) for his sophomore year. Then back to Budapest for his final two years of study. And then to Jerusalem.
Throughout the interesting (and sometimes quite personal) recollections of daily life growing up, you get the crosscurrents of the politics of the time, of sporadic anti-Semitism, and of the life and vibrancy of the Jewish community (or communities), and detailed hints of Hungarian Jewish history and intellectual life, making this a very interesting read.
“For Decades I Was Silent” is different. This is a holocaust book – Baruch Goldstein (who reached the United States in 1948, became a rabbi, and led congregations in Worcester and Wakefield MA, sure had a hell of a time of it. He was raised in Mlawa, a small city in northwestern Poland, near the German border. All was fine until he was 13 and the Germans attacked Poland. Nothing was the same after that. You know the story: the Germans bomb the city, take over, make the Jews clean up the mess. Business at his father’s fairly prosperous store pretty much stopped. Money was tight. Jews were called out for free labor duty. Arbitrary beatings and deaths. A Judenrat (Jewish council) was set up to give the Nazis a way to control the Jews. There was a selection and he and his family were sent to a ghetto in Dzialdowo, nearby, and then to Lubartow. He escapes with a cousin and tries to return to Mlawa. He never sees his father or his sister again. He gets to the border; he is caught, beaten and told not to try again. He tries again and succeeds only to be arrested when he gets to Mlawa. He is beaten and jailed, but eventually released into the new Mlawa ghetto. His mother and brother have been transferred there.
Things go from bad to worse. Conditions in the ghetto become increasingly harsh, and then the ghetto is liquidated. He mother is on one train out – presumably sent to Treblinka where she was murdered. He and his brother are on another transport – they wind up at Auschwitz. At the Auschwitz selection, he is sent one way, his brother (age 16) another. His brother is presumably marched to the gas chambers. He winds up in a work detail and remains imprisoned until the end of the war two and one half years later.
As the war winds to a close, the Germans take the remaining prisoners at put them on death marches. Once he survives that, he is put on another transport train, and winds up at Terezin, but unconscious. Terezin is taken over by the Russians, and he awakens in a hospital, free, but so sick and so numb that the freedom means little.
Recovery is slow. He decides, as he has nowhere else to go, to go illegally to Palestine. But he winds up in a displaced persons camp in Italy for over two years, his trip to Palestine postponed and postponed and postponed again. Then, through an ad in the Jewish Forward, he gets into contact with his two uncles and his aunt in America and, as they say, the rest is history.
This is a very well written book – for someone who does not know how the Nazi regime could affect one young man, this one is perfect. It was published by the University of Alabama Press.