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The Girl From Transylvania

By Steven Plaut February 18, 2004

“You will never see your land of Israel, your precious
Jerusalem, your Carmel, your Galilee. It will never happen. You will never leave
Romania.”

The Securitate agent glared at her in anger.

The Romanian Securitate was the feared secret police, the foundation block of
the totalitarian regime imposed on Transylvania by Stalin, and it controlled
Romania until the fall of the dictator Nicolae Ceausescu. Years later, after
Russia itself had junked its rusty communist regime, the methods and secrets of
the Securitate would be exposed, its files opened and scrutinized. There were
files on millions of ordinary Romanian citizens. More than 700,000 people had
been employed as informants.

“You will tell us everything you know about the Zionist underground in
Romania. You will tell us the names. Or you will never see the sun again.”

She was born Magdalena Fisher in 1920 inside Hungary, but while she was still
a toddler her parents moved to the Transylvanian town of Brasov. Hungarian
Jews, including those in Transylvania, were a heterogeneous lot. They ranged
from the ultra-Orthodox in their black coats to the modernist secularists. Large
numbers belonged to the “Neolog” movement, something roughly analogous to the
Reform and Conservative movements in the United States.

While Jews had been murdered and brutalized by the Romanian fascists during
World War II, especially those from the Iron Guard, most survived the Holocaust
years. Jews from the northern part of Transylvania had been deported to the
death camps by the Hungarian fascists. But Brasov was in southern Transylvania
and most of its Jews had survived the war.

Transylvania: The name conjures up late-night horror movies and Count
Dracula. But in fact Transylvania had been a center of culture, including Jewish
culture, for centuries. The first Jews had settled there in Roman times. The
Khazars probably had contact and influence with Transylvanian Jews.

Transylvania became a multicultural wonderland, a mix of Magyars, Romanians,
Vlachs, Tartars, Gypsies, Swabian Germans, and Jews. Many of the Transylvanian
Jews were Magyarized, migrants from other Hungarian areas, while others were
German-speaking, and there were also communities of Sephardim mixed among
them.

World War I found Hungary still under the Habsburg rule, and so on the losing
side of the war. The Trianon Treaty of 1920, which officially ended the war,
stripped Hungary of many of its territories and awarded Transylvania to
Romania. It remained an enclave of predominantly Hungarian speakers within the
Romanian state. The resentment at this played a role in Hungary aligning itself
with Hitler in World War II.

A Leader Of Betar

Magdalena’s father was a Czech-born engineer who worked with the sugar
factories concentrated in Brasov. They were modern Jews, Neologs. The Jewish day
school went only up to the fourth grade, after which she attended Catholic
school, excused from the religion classes, and with classes in Judaism with the
local rabbi, Dr. Deutsch, after school. She was an only child. Her classmates
would argue over what they were – Hungarians, Romanians, Transylvanians, Magyars –
but for her the question was easy. She was a Jew.

Her father, one of the early leaders of the Betar movement of Transylvania,
raised her not only as a Jew, but as a militant Zionist. In 1923, the
mainstream Zionist movement had been split when Vladimir Jabotinsky resigned from the
Zionist Federation, which was dominated by socialists seeking to create a
Jewish state through cooperation with the Arabs.

Jabotinsky was a skeptic and a realist. He correctly expected the Arabs to
oppose any form of Jewish sovereignty and concluded that the Jewish state must
be created through uprising and armed struggle by the Jews. He expounded his
views in his most famous essay, “The Iron Wall.”

Jabotinsky had set up his own dissident Zionist movement outside the Zionist
Federation. He named it Betar, a play on words. Betar had been one of the last
holdouts in the Bar Kochba revolt against Rome, but it was also the acronym
for Brit Trumpeldor, the Covenant of Joseph Trumpeldor, named for the martyred
hero of the Zionist militias in the Ottoman Galilee.

Jabotinsky called his movement “Revisionist Zionism” – revisionist in the
sense that it wanted some revisions in the British Mandate for Palestine, such
as restoration of Transjordan, which had been stripped away from what
Jabotinsky regarded as the Jewish homeland. Betar grew to a mass movement in Eastern
Europe. Its Romanian headquarters were in Bucharest. Brasov in Transylvania had
a large chapter. Its members leafleted, organized, lectured, published,
harangued.

From the time she was in high school, Magdalena was one of the central
leaders in Betar in her town. It was one of the high points in her life when
Jabotinsky himself came to Romania. She and the other leaders met him in Bucharest.
Asher Diament, the chairman of Betar in Braslov, introduced her to Jabotinsky
as the most effective leader in the local chapter, the leader who “works with
her heart,” and her face beamed with pride.

Before World War II, Romania had the third largest Jewish population in
Europe, after the Soviet Union and Poland. At the start of the war, the Romanian
government, headed by Ion Gigurtu, introduced draconian anti-Jewish legislature,
which was openly inspired by the Nazi Nuremberg Laws. Antonescu, who followed
Gigurtu as leader of the nation, created the “Legionnaire State” in
coalition with the Iron Guard. Many Jews sought ways to escape to Palestine.

She continued her Zionist work at the university in Bucharest, until all
Jewish students were expelled in 1943. Jews were also being barred from a long
list of professions in Romania. In June of 1941, the Iasi pogrom had taken place.
After false rumors that the local Iasi Jews were collaborating with Soviet
paratroopers, the Romanian police had carried out a massacre of Jews, the worst
in Romania during the war.

Meanwhile, Jabotinsky had died in the United States and was buried in the
Catskills. (Jabotinsky’s remains would not be moved to Mount Herzl in Jerusalem
until after David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister and a bitter
opponent of Revisionist Zionism, left office.)

The war ended when Romania was liberated by the Red Army, but in a wink of an
eye the Soviets had imposed a totalitarian communist regime on the country.
The Romanian king was forced to resign. The Romanian communist party, which had
perhaps a few hundred members before the war, was installed as the single
political party, with a monopoly on the state. Industry was nationalized,
agriculture collectivized, rival parties banned, gulag camps set up.

Magdalena had not planned to marry until she reached Israel, but she met
Ladislau (Laszlo) Rosenberg, an engineering student. He was a member of the rival
socialist Zionist movement, a cause of some early ideological debates between
them, but she agreed to his proposal of marriage anyway. Some of her Betar
comrades were displeased, preferring that she had chosen an ideologically purer
mate. Together they dreamed of moving to Israel

Communist Harassment

Ironically, the Zionist movements had been legal in fascist Romania during
World War II. Now the communist regime banned them altogether. She continued her
work with Betar. She ran the local Keren Kayemet fund. She was the liaison of
the movement for “Aliya Bet,” the illegal smuggling of Jews out of Europe
and into Palestine in defiance of the British White Paper and its restrictions
on entry of Jews into the Jewish homeland.
She would get a call late at night that several spaces on a ship had come
open. People chosen for the ordeal had to leave before dawn the next morning,
leaving behind everything except a small handbag.

The passage was dangerous. Even if they reached the ships safely, there was
no guarantee – several had already sunk en route to Palestine, their human
cargos drowning. She sent out not only Betar activists, but any Jew prepared to
go. Her goal was to send one more Jew to Israel, and one more, and then one
more.

The very first time the Securitate confronted her, she and Ladislau were at
home. The agent barged in and informed her that she would have to report to
Securitate headquarters the next day. But he began the interrogation in their
home. We understand there are Zionist organizations that operate in Brasov, he
said, reciting the names of all the movements except Betar.

She smelled a rat. Yes, she said, those are all Zionist organizations, but
you left out one, an organization named Betar. The Securitate man grinned.

“You are a very lucky young woman,” he said. “Had you not volunteered the
name of Betar, you would already be under arrest and would never have been heard
from again.”

The interrogations at Securitate headquarters took place about once a month
for the next two years. We demand the names of the Zionist leaders, they would
repeat. She would give them names, lots of names, but only those of local
Zionists who had already left Romania and were in Israel. As for those left
behind, she would sigh and complain to the interrogators about how selfish it had
been of those leaders to just abandon the simple folks left behind, people with
no leaders at all.

She risked her life by refusing to name the actual leaders still operating in
the Zionist underground. One day the interrogators demanded that she tell
them everything she knew about Moshe Fogel, one of the local Betar leaders. The
Securitate claimed he was planning to blow up a local factory. We have a
problem, she said. You see, every Jew has two names – one modern or ordinary, in
Hungarian or Romanian, and one Jewish name. If you do not believe me, just go to
the synagogue and ask the people there if this is so. I am afraid I only know
people by their Jewish names and so, alas, I do not know whom you are talking
about.

The Securitate interrogators were not amused. When she denied she knew what ”
Irgun Zvai Leumi’ (the name of the Betar militia in Palestine) meant, their
anger grew. She had said it so convincingly that even her husband momentarily
thought it was true. If you tell Fogel we asked about him, you will be
imprisoned, they threatened. The next day, Ladislau met Fogel in an alley and warned
him of the investigation.

You will never be allowed to leave Romania, they promised. Emigration of Jews
from Romania had begun, allowed in trickles, mainly people with immediate
relatives abroad. She corresponded with those Betar leaders from her town now in
Israel. Her mother managed to get an exit visa and was already living in
Israel. They had hoped this would be a sufficient “family reunification” basis for
obtaining a visa, but the regime was being vindictive with those who had been
Zionist activists.

Home At Last

For eleven years Magdalena and her husband waited. They sang songs of the
Jewish homeland from their small apartment on Stalin Street. They dreamed of
setting up house some place in the Land of Israel. She learned that one of the
leaders from Romanian Betar was now in Australia. He had gone there to settle the
affairs of an aunt who had died, then stayed on, and she asked him to file an
affidavit to sponsor their immigration to Australia. It worked.

They got papers to allow them to leave Romania, to go to Australia. They left
for Austria as if they were en route to Australia, and the first thing they
did in Vienna was to contact the Jewish Agency, in charge of immigration to
Israel. It was 1960. We want to go home, they announced.

They were moved to the port in Italy from which they would embark. They could
not believe their eyes. An indescribably lovely white ship was waiting for
them – a ship called the Theodore Herzl, no less. They were on their way home at
last.

On the ship, they were “processed” by the absorption bureaucrats. The clerks
were sending everyone to the depressed Negev town of Dimona. They had had
their share of experiences with bureaucrats before. Ladislau wanted to set up his
own factory using some of his know-how, and Dimona obviously was not the
place. Diament, the Betar commander from Transylvania, invited them to live in Tel
Aviv near him. When the ship landed in Haifa, they looked up at the green
mountain. By hook or by crook, they swore, we will live in this lovely town.

They agreed to forgo the nearly-free housing offered them in Dimona. They
decided to pay their own way and live in Haifa. They set up a small furniture
workshop, in which they both worked 16-hour days. They never had any children.
Israel was their family and Haifa was their home. The Carmel, about which they
had sung in the Transylvanian underground, was now theirs.

***************

Israel is a country of modest apartments and simple ordinary doors, behind
which quietly live the most extraordinary of people. She bites her lip in pain
as she limps across the floor. Ladislau died many years ago, and she lives
alone, 83 years old, with a helper from Romania. She has been handicapped since a
careless bus driver last year started the engine while she was only half on
board, knocking her down and breaking her thigh.

But she is as energetic and optimistic as she had been back in Transylvania
as a young girl. She lives every single moment that the state of Israel lives;
she celebrates every moment of triumph and she suffers from every moment of
tragedy.

There is only one thing I do not understand, my dear next-door neighbor, she
says to me as I make notes for this article. The Chanukah candles are still
flickering as we chat.

I am just an ordinary person, a girl from Transylvania, a Jew and a Zionist
who loves all Jews and who loves her land and her country with all her heart –
a simple Jewish woman whose life is of no interest. Why on earth do you think
my story is worth telling?

Steven Plaut is a professor at Haifa University. His book “The Scout” is
available at Amazon.com. He can be reached at steven_plaut@yahoo.com.

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