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Friday, September 1, 2017

Another September 11: Remembering The Sarmas Massacre & My Zayde's Role In Burying Its Victims

Exhuming the victims of the Sarmas massacre for burial, 1945. Photo of exhumation via Yad Vashem, via MemorialMuseums.org
Many people don't like to talk about death. But in my family, it has always been the tradition to help out the Chevra Kadisha, or "group who does the sacred." These volunteers make sure that Jewish people receive a proper religious burial. I never understood how, or why, we were so connected to this particular area of Jewish life, nor did I understand why I felt such a personal need to advocate for women. That is, until my father sent me the videotape of my Zayde (grandfather), who recounted his experiences in a series of interviews with the Holocaust memorial organization Yad Vashem. For awhile I couldn't watch the videos; too painful. But then on Tapes 4-5, Zayde tells an important secret he never revealed to me in his lifetime. I had to share it with the world. - Dannielle

Background

Sarmas is located in the south of Transylvania, a region in Eastern Europe.

For centuries, Transylvania was part of Hungary. After World War I, in 1918, the ethnic Romanians declared independence and laid claim to the land.

But Hungary wanted its land back. During World War II, with the help of Germany and Italy, Transylvania was partitioned in 1940, and Hungary took the north.

Beginning in 1941, Hungary and Romania fought together, alongside the Nazis, to defeat the Soviet Union. But on August 23, 1944, Romania flipped and allied itself with Russia.

Hungary resisted this show of Romanian independence. On September 5, 1944, Hungary invaded Sarmas and other parts of Southern Transylvania, which it wanted to reclaim.

On Monday, September 11, 1944, Hungarian troops arrested and imprisoned all the Jews of Sarmas. They forced them into the barn of a man named Ioan Pop, who served as "road overseer." The house would serve as "the ghetto until the 'final solution' could be carried out."

The Torture

The Hungarians had entered Sarmas singing loudly.

The torture started soon after.

At first it did not seem so bad. On September 11, the first day in the improvised ghetto, the Jews were allowed to get some things from home.

But the next day, September 12, the Hungarians ransacked the Jewish homes, taking everything they could.

There was no food or water left by September 13. The Romanians and a few Hungarians tried to help them. But they were kept out, on threat of being shot to death.

September 14 started with a group of old Jews, in their 70s and 80s, marched to the courtyard to "perform...all kinds of dances."

On the night of September 14, the invading soldiers spent the night gang-raping Vera Hasz, daughter of Arthur Hasz, who was chief engineer and manager of the Sarmas mill.
"That night the National Guardsmen dragged Vera outside, brutally beat and raped her. She fought to defend herself. Her screams and the noise of the scuffle mixed in a macabre fashion with the artillery rumblings that heralded the approach of liberation not more than 18 miles away. She returned in the morning. Bleeding, pale, humiliated, she lay next to her parents and seemed to be motionless for the rest of the day." 
The day of September 15 saw more starvation, more "games," and more robbery. And the night saw another gang-rape:
"In the evening Vera Hasz was brought again -this time with another Jewish girl -to be tormented and raped during the night by National Guardsmen and gendarmes....'the girls returned in the morning almost unconscious, lying during the whole day as if they were dead.'"
When the Jews asked what would happen to them, the Hungarians said they would be transported to another town to work.

That night brought the Sabbath, but it was not a Sabbath for the Jews.
"After another warm summer-like night amidst hunger, thirst, and rape, the morning dawned with compulsory dancing and gymnastics for the elderly. "
On Saturday, September 16, they gave shovels to twenty young Jewish men.

Those would be used to dig their own graves.

As the Jews were taken to the site of the massacre, they panicked. Arthur Hasz had the chance to run away, to the forest. But he could not:
"Pointing to his wife and the bleeding, beaten Vera, he said 'Thank you--God bless you--but I just cannot abandon them.' And he stayed."

The Massacre

Here is a close-up of the corpses. They were murdered on September 16-17, 1944, just before Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year.


That night, the Hungarians set about their business.
"Mr. Aluasi remembered the eerie silence in the darkness of the moonless night, full of terror to come. After midnight there was an exchange of light signals between the Hungarians on the hills and those on the highway. Mr. Aluasi, a veteran, sensed what was to come; he said to Mr. Mocean, 'Now they are going to kill the Jews.'"
The Jews had to climb to their graves. If they could not walk, the Hungarians beat them into walking.

The Jews were forced to strip naked as the Hungarians did not want them buried with their clothes.

They were divided into two groups.

The sound of killing went on for hours as the Hungarians changed shifts.

The Jews were:
  • Shot by machine guns
  • Beaten with shovels
  • Beaten with other objects, likely bayonets
Their skulls and bones had deep fractures. Some of the bones were cut entirely.

The children were buried alive. Thrown straight into the graves.

The Aftermath

The Hungarians warned the witnesses not to talk.
"National Guardsmen, Hungarians from the village, came to their houses and, brandishing their guns, asked: 'What did you see last night? Did you hear anything?' They frightened and threatened the foresters and their families."

My Zayde Buried Them

My Zayde, may he rest in peace, returned to Sharmash after being detained by the military police. He found out that his father, may he rest in peace, had died of a heart attack in his absence. And that his uncle had been massacred, along with every other Jew in Sharmash.

It is thanks to my Zayde that the victims of Sarmas were buried.

  1. He asked until he got the truth.
  2. He negotiated to buy land for a cemetery.
  3. He made sure they received a religious burial.
  4. He made sure all 139 victims were buried within one day.
  5. He made sure a monument was put up in their name.
  6. He hunted down the killers
  7. He ensured that the killers were brought to justice.
He promised all the credit to others.

He never told me what happened.


In 1999, my grandfather told the story of his role in burying the victims -- when Yad Vashem asked him to testify on video.

You won't find the name of Rabbi Shmuel Stroli in the history books.

This is my way of recognizing what a truly great man he was.

The kind of human being I can only aspire to be.
__________

By Dannielle (Dossy) Blumenthal, Ph.D. All opinions are the author's own. This blog is hereby released into the public domain.