Behind Every Name a Story (BENAS) is a project of the Museum's Holocaust Survivors and Victims Resource Center. The BENAS Web project consists of essays describing survivors' experiences during the Holocaust
Rivka (Hungarian: Regina) née Kleinman Grossman and Mordechai Gimpel (Hungarian: Geza) Grossman were our parents. Our family lived in the bucolic village of Mad (pronounced “Mahd"), about 100 kilometers north of Debrecen, in the northeast part of Hungary, in the wine country near the Carpathian Mountains.
This narrative is told primarily from the perspectives of two of the Grossman sisters, Esther and Iren (Goldie). They recounted their family's Holocaust story in several interviews. Memories from these transcripts are combined with the stories they told their children and grandchildren.
Rivka and Mordechai Gimpel Meet: 1904
This is the story of how our parents met. Our mother was going to school in Vienna. On a train she met an older woman, who happened to be the mother of Mordechai. Mrs. Grossman came home and told her son, “If you would go around the world, you would never find a girl like Regina Kleinman!”
Both of our parents were very well-educated—in addition to Hungarian, they spoke high German. Our father was an officer in the Hungarian army in the 1920s. He had attended public school, and then Gymnasium in Miskolc, 48 kilometers west of Mad. He was quite adept at dealing with government officials, such as the town mayor. If any of the Jews were under threat of punishment for any legal infractions, they would come to Mordechai Grossman and he would write out their pleas. In return, the family frequently received fruits and vegetables from the townspeople.
Rivka Grossman, before her marriage, had attended the Fashion Institute in Vienna. There she learned the fine sewing skills that would later save the Grossman girls from death at the hands of SS authorities in the concentration camps. Our mother had "hands like an angel's, hands of gold." She was an artist at designing and sewing clothing for the townspeople, using the fine fabric sold in our father's store. She was expert at embroidering monograms, among other things. Unfortunately, some clients did not always pay their bills, and so sometimes there was not enough money to buy more fabric for the shop.
Family Life in Mad: 1904–1941
Mad had a lovely Jewish community, near the Carpathian Mountains. Before the war, there were 800 Jewish people in Mad, out of a total population of about 5,000. The town is about 44 km from Miskolc, the closest “big city.” Mad is only 17 km from Tokaj, in the center of the Tokaj wine country. Some people in the town had vineyards, others were wheat farmers. Most of the Jews ran businesses.
Mad was well known in orthodox Jewish circles for its illustrious yeshiva, led by Rabbi Mordechai Leib Winkler, the Rav of Mad, also known as the “Madder Rebbe.” The Mad Yeshiva was associated with scholarly rabbis from all over Hungary and Europe.
We lived in a large house with two kitchens. The garden had an arbor. Our sister Chana painted murals on the walls. All of the sisters worked outside in the summertime. We had beautiful flowers and a vegetable garden.
Our father Mordechai Grossman owned a general store, with a warehouse—he sold a wide variety of products, including hardware and fabrics. This store was in the Grossman family for over one hundred years. Its rounded walls were one yard thick, with deeply recessed windows.
There were seven children—six girls and one boy. Barbara (Borishka), the oldest girl, brother Berel (Barry, Dov), and Iren (Irene, Goldie, Goldika), were all born a year apart, from 1909 through 1912. After these three children, there was a gap in years—it was not until 1921 that Berta (Bina, Binuka) was born. After Berta came Anna (Chana, Chanuka), Adel (Adele, Udi, Udika), and Esther (Ester, Estikeh), who was born in 1924. The gap was due to our father Mordechai's military service during World War I. He was a sergeant in the transportation corps in the Austro-Hungarian army. During this time period, our mother Rivka sold milk to help support her family.
Our grandmother Shari (our father's mother) lived with our family. The children in our family went to the public school in Mad. We couldn't get into university because relatively few Jews were permitted to attend, after Hungarian authorities passed a quota law to limit slots for Jewish students. The six sisters were grouped into pairs: Anna and Berta, Goldie and Barbara, Esther and Adel. We went to the movies— we remember seeing The Wizard of Oz. The family was very content.
Rivka taught all of her daughters how to sew when they were very young. She would say that every woman must know how to sew, so that she would be able to make little dresses for her own daughters. On Saturday nights, we stayed up all night sewing, finishing off the clothing that our non-Jewish clients would wear to church on Sunday morning. Mordechai would stay up with us, reading us stories, to “improve our intelligence” while we worked. Rivka used to chide us if she saw us outside playing without any needlework in our hands.
One room in the Grossman house was rented out to the Yeshiva, for students who came from other towns to learn in Mad—they all studied under the supervision of Rav Winkler. Some of these boys went on to become prominent rabbis.
Jews and non-Jews in Mad got along well until about 1938. In 1941, Mordechai had to close the store. Our two oldest sisters, Barbara and Berta, went to Budapest, where they learned how to design womens' clothing. They returned to Mad and started a dressmaking shop in our home, and made a good living.
Our mother Rivka was always singing arias from operas. Father played the violin, and he loved woodcarving. He carved a beautiful Torah yad (pointer) for the shul (synagogue). He was very important in the town, townspeople would ask him to talk to the mayor for them. Everybody admired him. A few years later, this changed.
Our family was religious, but not Hasidic. Esther dated boys, went to parties, and could wear sleeveless dresses. The family's store was closed on Shabbat—they were Shomer Shabbat (Sabbath observant). Mother wore a babushka—she had a sheitel (wig) but never wanted to wear it. She eventually wore it in the ghetto.
We had a maid, and our grandmother supervised her activities. Someone came to clean the house every week. We had a laundress every two weeks.
Shabbat, Holidays, and our Beautiful Synagogue
Shabbat in our home was beautiful. Our father used to sit with the children and read to us from the Tanach (Old Testament). He went to shul every day. Our mother went for Rosh Chodesh (the beginning of the new month) and Rosh Hashana (the New Year). Girls didn't really go to shul in those days, other than to visit their parents. Even the non-religious men came to shul every Shabbat.
The shul was unbelievably beautiful [see photographs by clicking on "View Photographs" above] . The ceiling had angels and stars, and was painted with pure gold. The women sat in the balcony. There was a smaller shul in the Beis Medrash (chapel) for the more religious people. Father was head of the Chevra Kadisha (burial society); at one time he was the president of the shul.
On Friday night, our father would bless all of us with the traditional priestly blessing. We all lined up, we kissed his face, and when we got older we kissed his hands.
May G-d bless you and guard you
May G-d make His face shed light upon you and be gracious unto you
May G-d lift up His face unto you and give you peace
On Shabbat, we had wonderful meals. There was an appetizer—chicken fricassee or cooked fish, followed by soup of course. We always had poultry or meat. When our mother went to the shochet (ritual slaughterer), she made sure there was food for the poor people. Our mother made delicious farfel, and cakes for dessert. For Shabbat lunch, we had cold food and cholent. There was no eruv (ritual enclosure that allows carrying on the Sabbath), so the maid carried the cholent home from the bakery. For Shalas Seudos (the third Sabbath meal), we would have strawberries and cottage cheese. The table was always covered with a beautiful white tablecloth.
In Esther's voice: My favorite holidays were Pesach (Passover), Purim, and Rosh Hashana. I remember that on the holidays the family enjoyed good meals, dressed up beautifully, and spent time being together as a family. We had new shoes and clothes for Pesach and Rosh Hashana. The shoemaker in Mad made custom new shoes.
Rosh Hashana was a very holy time, and we had delicious food. I remember fried apples with bread crumbs. Our sisters did the cooking, while our parents and grandmother were in shul.
Of course there were special foods for Pesach—our mother force-fed a turkey to make it very fat. After it was slaughtered, she stuffed the neck. She made delicious chicken soup and matzo balls, and very good cakes—everything tasted different than now! We had Meissen china, and beautiful silver flatware. Seder: only the family, sometimes cousins. Grandmother used to dress in all white on Friday night—she would wash herself with cold water at the washstand. “She was like a beautiful angel.”
Mother was very tired after all of the work preparing for the holidays. After Pesach she would go to a resort with natural hot springs, where she would rest up. She would return home “like new”.
Hungarian Jews, including the Grossman family, had interesting traditions and customs. After Havdalah (the ceremony ending Shabbat), Rivka would go to the stream behind the Grossman home get a fresh bucket of water. Everyone in the family had to drink from this water, which they called Miriam Vasser, Yiddish for "Water of Miriam." This custom is based on the belief that Miriam's well, located in the Yam Kinneret (the Sea of Galilee), flows into all the wells and springs on Saturday night. Those who succeed in drinking from its waters are immediately healed of any ailments. Therefore, people would draw water on Saturday night in the hope that they will draw some from Miriam's well. Even the Madder Rebbe himself came to the Grossman home to draw water to bake special matzos for Pesach (Passover).
There were many other customs passed down to the family, that the grandchildren follow to this day. For example, when you have to change the time on a clock, always move the hands of the clock forward—never backward—even if it takes longer! Because life always moves forward.
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