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 Zsombors were a Hungarian clan that settled in Romania prior to the Mongol Invasion of the thirteenth century.
Transylvania has a long history with Hungary. Under Hungarian control in the eleventh century, Transylvania was later incorporated into the Kingdom of Hungary. It was then acquired by the Hapsburg monarchy after the Battle of Vienna in 1683. Transylvania was ruled by Austria until the formation of the dual monarchy in 1867, when it was absorbed back into Hungary. Read more about the Austro-Hungarian Empire here.
Heinrich Nussbaum was very proud of the Empire, which laster for just over forty years. The reigning emperor for the majority of this time was Franz Josef I. His grandnephew, Karl I, assumed the throne in the last two years of the monarchy.
The First World War broke out in 1914. This conflict was one of the most devastating the modern world has seen- the new, mechanised technology used to create the war's weaponry was profoundly deadly, especially when used against the old-fashioned military tactics the favoured by both sides' high commands. For an overview of the war, read this article, or explore this page for in-depth biographies and accounts of the battles. Heinrich’s three eldest sons -Laszlo’s father, Jenő, included– all fought for Austria-Hungary. Watch Centropa's video Jewish Soldiers in the Austro-Hungarian Army to learn more about World War One and Jewish life in Austria-Hungary.
Austria-Hungary was not victorious in the war, and a result of its defeat was that the Empire was dissolved. The monarchy was disbanded and territory was partitioned. After the war, Transylvania became a part of 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.
Jewish communities have been present in Transylvania for centuries. Read about Jewish history in Transylvania here, and present-day Romania here. The earliest records indicate a Jewish presence during Roman times. Jews began to settle in Torda in the 18th century.
Under Hapsburg rule, Jewish life was marked by periods of oppression and heightened anti-Semitism, as well as periods of freedom and tolerance. Learn more about Jewish life under the Hapsburgs here. Many Jews in Austria-Hungary were assimilated into secular (or close to 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.
The Second Vienna Award made Transylvania once more a part of Hungary. Read about the restrictions placed on Hungarian Jews that were in place at the time of the Vienna Award.
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.
This page contains a broader overview of Jewish life in Europe before the Holocaust.
In 1933, Adolf Hitler came to power, further heightening Europe's growing anti-Semitism.
When right-wing military officer Ion Antonescu came to to power in Romania in 1940, the country 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. Read more about the Holocaust in Romania here.
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, Hitler’s Forgotten Ally, provides a useful overview of Antonescu’s policies and actions in Romania from 1940-1944. Antonescu was overthrown in 1944.
In 1940, The Second Vienna Award forced Romania 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, and in 1944 ghetto inhabitants were sent to Auschwitz. Learn more in this article from Vad Yashem.
Laszlo explains that of Heinrich's four sons, only two survived the Second World War. His uncle Laci survived the war in Paris- read about wartime France here. Jozéf was fortunate to make his was to America, a very difficult feat in the interwar period. His uncle Sándor, who had been living in Prague, left for Hungary where he was killed in a forced labor unit in Ukraine.
Laszlo and his father were interned in Buchenwald concentration camp, one of the largest camp complexes in Germany. Loszlo survived, but lost his father, Jenő.
Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel was also a survivor of Buchenwald.
At the end of the war, Transylvania returned to Romania, which was occupied by Soviet forces. Elections held in 1946 established communism as the dominant political force. The People's Republic of Romania was created in 1947. Learn more about the period immediately folowing WWII here.
In 1965, the name of the country was changed to the Socialist Republic of Romania. The country's last communist leader was Nicolae Ceauşescu. He was unashamedly corrupt, the most famous example of his hoarding of wealth being the construction of the enormous parliament building that ground Romania's production and economy to a halt. 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 executed on Christmas Day, 1989.
Laszlo recalls that 1989 was the first year since his incarceration in Buchenwald that he could think of good times again. Because of mounting anger and opposition, large, violent demonstrations were led against Ceauşescu and his regime. The Romanian Revolution was the bloodiest of all the 1989 revolutions, which overthrew the communist states across Eastern and Central Europe. This resulted in the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union.
Find here documentary footage of the Romanian Revolution and Ceauşescu's capture and execution. Please note that this footage contains images some may find distressing.