I still have nightmares about the camps. It’s always the same: I’m in a camp and I can’t get out and I’m hungry. I’m always hungry….Irving Kutas, May 2010
My Uncle Irving isn’t really named “Irving”. His real name is Tibor Klein. But after WWII his siblings changed the family name to ‘Kutas’ because they wanted something less Jewish sounding. Despite the war being over and all, Hungarians weren’t particularly fond of or kind to their Jews. And with the Klein parents no longer there to make decisions, the children felt they couldn’t take any chances. So Sandor, the oldest of the boys, had the family name officially changed to Kutas.
Irving, or Tibor, was born in January 1929 in Fulpos: a small town in northeast, Hungary on the Romanian border. He was the 5th of Andor and Maria Klein’s five boys and two girls and his siblings were Erszebet, Borbala, Sandor, Erno, Gyorge and Dezso.
Fulpos was a tiny, close knit, agricultural community of about 100 families with a population of 100,000 characterized by cohesive families. “Not like today,” Irving commented as he shared his history while seated at the dining room table of his Tel Aviv suburb home.
Irving’s father Andor was in the business of buying agricultural products to loan out to farmers who didn’t have funds to pay for equipment. When they eventually turned a profit the farmers paid him back. It was semi-lucrative because everyone in town was a farmer subsisting off of corn, potatoes, poppyseed, wheat & barley crops. There were also a lot of cows in town and most families, aside from Irving’s, owned at least one cow for seeing to their dairy needs. No one had electricity.
Aside from loaning money to farmers, Andor also ran a small mini-market out of one room of their farmhouse style home and he operated a pub out of another room. His ”enterprises” were the only official businesses in town.
“My mother raised us kids and managed the bar and washed clothing by hand. My father was smart but they had too many kids to support so we were poor. We had enough to eat and we owned our home – it had the bar and store and the main house had three bedrooms, a balcony and an outhouse – but that was it. I remember that it was cold in the winter,” he shared.
“They were good and kind parents but they didn’t have time for us.”
Andor and Maria were born and raised in Hungary and both were observant Jews. They observed the Sabbath and except for days Maria stayed home to prepare meals, the entire family walked 3-4 miles to the neighboring town every Saturday to attend synagogue as there was no synagogue in Furpos. There wasn’t a hospital either.
A total of four Jewish families lived in Furpos and until the 1940’s the Klein family was well liked by all. “Everyone in town came to borrow money from my father; they knew he was approachable and that if they were having a bad year, they could hold off on paying him back until things were going well,” Irving recalled. Knowing Irving today, it is clear he inherited his father’s generous spirit.
“My childhood was very good until the 1940’s. I was a good student in school – I was best at math and I got straight A’s all the way through. But when laws against Jews came into play in the 1940’s, we weren’t allowed to go to school anymore. And my friends became anti-Semitic overnight,” Irving shared.
He was referring to offshoot decrees throughout Europe resulting from Germany’s insidious 1935 Nuremberg Laws that strangulated Jewish populations by barring them from basic rights.
As Irving relayed, around 1940 the anti-Jewish laws kept him and his siblings from attending school.
“I went to grade school until age 12 and after that I wasn’t allowed to go to junior high or high school because of the laws. Instead, I was ordered to go work for the “public youth organization” which meant doing whatever town officials told me to: cleaning out cemetery grass, weeding lawns… whatever they decided.
“Luckily we weren’t really supervised so we did whatever we wanted to do. But we made sure to stay away from our peers. If I had played cards with my friends before, all of a sudden they’d beat me up. So we stayed away from them.”
At the time, his three older siblings – Erszebet, Borbala and Sandor – were staying with wealthy relatives in Budapest so they could get a better education.
The laws and growing anti-Semitism lasted from the time Irving was 12 until he was 15, in 1944. That’s when the home and family life he had known all of his life came crashing down.
“In April 1944, the Germans ordered all Jewish families to leave their homes and go into a forced ghetto. It literally happened overnight. One night they announced that at 9 a.m. the next day we were to leave everything and congregate in the town square – each Jewish family with its horse drawn wagon. We loaded onto the wagons and the police escorted us… Within a few hours all of us were placed in a centrally located ghetto – Mateszalka.”
Irving’s parents had already heard stories leaked across the borders from Poland, Czechoslovakia and other Eastern European countries: Jews were being taken away to concentration camps. But the children were unaware. “We weren’t old enough to catch onto what was in store for us but our parents knew what was going on.
“But that day we were put into the ghetto and in the ghetto we had homes. . .”
At this point, Irving trailed off. He wept quietly into the table napkins, his shoulders heaving.
“There we had homes. They closed a few city blocks off and the Jews were concentrated into five or six blocks and everybody moved into the homes together. It was one family to a room so there might be five or six families to each home. There was no bed, no food, no nothing.
“I remember we kids went out to the street together to cry and beg for food for the family…”
Overcome, Irving trailed off again, crying.
“The police were on horses all the time both inside and outside the ghetto to make sure nobody escaped. They would beat up Jewish children and openly rape the girls. The Hungarian police basically picked up young girls and did whatever they wanted to do with them.
“I don’t know exactly how often but maybe every few days or every week there would be a transport and people would be taken from the ghetto. They didn’t do it all at once because there were too many people.
“And Jewish community leaders were elected to make sure everyone was following orders. Probably a week after we got there they started transporting people out of the ghetto. They picked a certain number of families each time to transport to Auschwitz. We didn’t know where we were going at the time – we just knew we were going to a labor camp.”