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Annual 7 Chapter 3

The Anatomy of a Massacre:
Sarmas 1944
by Nicholas M. Nagy-Talavera

During 1945 in Transylvania, I heard rumors about a massacre of Jews, allegedly perpetrated during the fall of 1944 in Sarmas with the help of local Hungarians. Soon Romania was communized, and a veil of silence descended over this massacre. Not another word was heard about it. In 1981 during a visit to Romania, I drove across Sarmasel. Suddenly at the bottom of the barren hills, I noticed a lonely cemetery and a monument, on which was written the long-forgotten story of the Sarmas massacre. My interest was thus aroused, and I decided to investigate during my next research trip to Romania. This account is based on that investigation.

The reconstruction of events is based largely on personal interviews conducted from 18 June to 28 June 1984 in Sarmas, Sarmasel, and many of the neighboring villages. Fifteen villagers and their spouses-16 Hungarians and 14 Romanians-who witnessed events were interviewed at length, most of them more than once. The interviews lasted several days. In addition to the lengthy, detailed interviews, more than two dozen villagers, both Hungarians and Romanians, offered their reminiscences, all of them substantiating the picture that emerged during the lengthy interviews.

During my research, Professor Grigore Ploesteanu, the Chief Scientific Researcher at the Center of Social Sciences in Tirgu-Mures, placed his unpublished research and archival materials concerning the Sarmas massacre at my disposal. Professor Vasilie Suciu of Tirgu-Mures and his wife Irene deserve special gratitude for establishing contacts and arranging interviews during the many field trips to Sarmas and the neighboring villages.

My research and the field trips coincided almost to the day with the somber remembrance services on the fortieth anniversary of the Holocaust in Transylvania. On this occasion many Romanian and foreign dignitaries visited the cemetery in Sarmasel. All this activity inevitably revived memories and increased the intensity of feelings in Sarmas.

I have listened to many statements about the massacre at Sarmas, some of them obviously false, stated only to justify what happened. In the following pages, I have reconstructed the massacre as I believe it occurred, and am asking you to trust my integrity.

Sarmas and Sarmasel, surrounded by hills and forests, are villages in the Cimpiei district of Transylvania, almost halfway between Cluj and Tirgu- Mures. At the start of World War II, the population of these villages was about 4,000, almost equally divided into Hungarians and Romanians with 200 Jews holding the balance. These were prosperous settlements, situated over rich natural gas deposits.

In September 1940, the Second Vienna Award, based on arbitration provided by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, transferred northern Transylvania, including two-thirds of the Jewish population of the territory, from Romania to Hungary. In Sarmas, more than anywhere else in Transylvania, the deficiencies of this arbitration award could be observed. Sarmas was left in Romania, and the line of partition drawn by Joachim von Ribbentrop and Galeazzo Ciano formed a huge bulge around it, disrupting all rail and road traffic between the rest of northern Transylvania and the Szeklerland. Some believed that Hermann Goring wanted to acquire the methane gas for his enterprises, and that the bulge was created to accomplish this. The reason for the disruptive bulge was, however, never sufficiently explained. The coherent, massive Romanian areas of Maramures, Salaj, Somes, Bistrita-Nasaud, and the Oas of Saturnare were given to Hungary, while the Sarmas area, with a sizable Hungarian population, remained Romanian. Sarmas epitomized the problems of divided Transylvania.

During the long history of Transylvania, both the Hungarians, who arrived in A.D. 1000, and the Romanians, who saw themselves as the descendants of the colonists of the Roman province of Dacia, claimed this territory. At the end of World War I, President Woodrow Wilson endorsed the right to self-determination of the Romanian majority of Transylvania, and the territory became part of Romania. The large Hungarian minority remained irredentists; they waited for intervention by Hungary, later by Fascist Italy, and eventually by Nazi Germany.

Although Hungary and Romania are neighbors, the treatment and the condition of the Jews in the two countries differed considerably. The Jews of Hungary were assimilated, while those of Romania varied a great deal in the extent of assimilation. Although antisemitism increased in both Hungary and Romania during the interwar years, the Jews of Transylvania remained loyal to Hungary even after the territory was ceded to Romania.1 This loyalty was only strengthened by Romanian corruption and the violence of Romanian antisemitism.

The German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 created an entirely new situation. In Romania the war brought pogroms-for example, in Iasi -and the deportation of the Jews of the Bucovina and of Bessarabia to Transnistria, an area of the Soviet Union occupied by the Romanians. There the Romanians committed terrible excesses against the Jews. The Romanians did, however, refuse the demands of the Germans to turn over their Jews to Germany for deportation to the killing centers in the East; and a significant number of Romanian Jews were treated with surprising moderation, including the Jews in southern Transylvania under Romanian rule.

In Hungary the conservative wing of the ruling class, represented by the regent Miklos Horthy and Prime Minister Miklos Kallay, protected the more than 800,000 Jews under Hungarian rule from deportation by the Germans. They argued that if they should yield to the Germans on the Jewish issue, the Nazis would soon make demands "against the whole Hungarian elite."2 Nonetheless, antisemitism continued and increased; and the pro-Nazi forces, led by Be1a Imredy, could count on a strong antisemitic following among the bureaucracy and the middle class, especially from the students and the officer corps. 3 Antisemitism was also prevalent in those parts of Transylvania located within Hungary. In Carei, Hungarian officers and soldiers desecrated the synagogue. In Sighet, Hungarian soldiers routinely attacked religious Jews. Some Hungarian officers were not averse to the German plan to kill all the Jews of Hungary.4

On 19 March 1944 the Germans occupied Hungary, deposed Ka1lay, and appointed an Imredist cabinet; Adolf Eichmann arrived in Budapest to implement the "final solution" in Hungary.5 Although he feared complications, Eichmann would later testify that in Hungary "everything went like a dream."6 The deportations, which commenced in May, took place in full view of the whole world, and at a time when the war was already Iost.7 The Hungarian Imredist authorities exceeded the Germans in their eagerness to expel the Jews.8 The Hungarian Jews, with the exception of those in Budapest, were taken to Auschwitz.9 This record could not have been established without the full cooperation of the Imredist leaders.10

Most Hungarians in Sarmas, like those in other parts of Transylvania, were gambling on German victory. They reasoned that "if Hitler gave one-half of Transylvania to Hungary, he will give the other half too should he win."11 The majority of Hungarians in Transylvania and Sarmas acted on the basis of what they believed to be Hungary's future: their faith in a common Hungarian- German destiny.12 This version of Hungarian nationalism in 1944-its hopes, its fears, its moral and intellectual standards, and its mentality -played a crucial role in the unfolding Sarmas events.

For four years the border with Hungary was less than an hour's walk from Sarmas. Thus, many Hungarians in Sarmas welcomed the German occupation of Hungary on 19 March 1944 and the formation of an Imredist government only a few miles away. A period of daily provocations and incidents against Jews and Romanians started. After that date, the Jews of Sarmas did not have a single quiet day.13

The Jew of Sarmas, like other Jews in Transylvania, considered themselves loyal Hungarians.14 The Transylvanian Jews maintained their Hungarian identity during more than 20 years of Romanian rule, ignoring the time- honored custom that a minority has to go along with the government in power. They kept that identity at great economic, political, and social detriment to themselves. As Iuliu Maniu, the Romanian democratic leader of Transylvania, commented: "The Jews in Transylvania look toward Budapest."

The Romanians of Sarmas did not feel particular sympathy for the Jews there, or elsewhere in Transylvania. The Jews were Hungarians in language, feeling, and culture. Before 1918 they had been loyal Hungarians, and after 1918 they remained a Hungarian enclave that resisted assimilation. The attitudes of the Romanian peasants of Sarmas toward the Jews were governed by decency and reason.15 Nothing was further from the Romanian peasant of Sarmas than to plunder and torture his neighbor, and then to hand him over to be slaughtered.16 After the occupation of Sarmas by the Hungarians in September 1944, the Romanians instinctively looked at the Jews as another persecuted minority like themselves.

By 1944 the Transylvanian Jews in northern Transylvania (under Hungarian rule) understood, their Hungarian culture notwithstanding, what the government of Hungary planned for them. Yet despite the proximity of the border and the knowledge of the Romanian language and the terrain -and in many cases, even with relatives in southern Transylvania -few Jews fled from northern Transylvania south to Romania.

The Jews in Romania on the Hungarian border did organize an "underground railroad" with the help of Romanian peasants to save Jews from the clutches of Eichmann and the Hungarian gendarmery; the Romanian authorities ignored the rescue.17 Most of the refugees who got through the border to Romania, however, came from far away, from Budapest and Trianon- Hungary proper. In the Transylvanian villages and towns, the crackdown on Jews came very fast; and during the three to four weeks before incarceration, they were kept under such close scrutiny by the local Hungarian fascists that they could not possibly escape. The Jewish refugees from Budapest, on the other hand, were unknown by the locals and slipped through.

On 23 August 1944 Romania changed sides in the war. Although Romanians feared opening the gates for the hereditary Russian enemy, Romanian realism understood that there was no alternative. At the same time, King Michael called for the liberation of northern Transylvania. The Romanian move was a total surprise, both in Berlin and in Budapest. In the ensuing commotion, and while the Germans were occupied with the Romanian defection, Miklos Horthy got rid of the Imredist cabinet in Budapest and appointed General Geza Lakatos as prime minister to conclude an armistice with the Western powers.

In response, the Hungarian military, in all too many cases led by officers of ethnic German origin, ordered a hopeless preventive military move against Romania. On 1 September 1944 an artillery duel erupted near Sarmas. The Jews and the Romanian intelligentsia fled Sarmas by train. Yet, at a railroad station not far from Sarmas, a high-ranking Romanian officer stopped the train and sent all of them back to Sarmas, assuring them that adequate Romanian defensive measures had been taken.18

The main Hungarian thrust opened on 5 September 1944.19 There were practically no Romanian forces to oppose the invading Hungarians. The Hungarian goal was to occupy southern Transylvania and to establish a good defensive position on the crest of the Carpathians and the Transylvanian Alps. After it became clear that this objective could not be achieved, the Hungarians and Germans at least wished to reach the Mures River and defend this line. They failed. The scarce Romanian forces, together with civilian volunteers, offered fierce resistance and held them at bay.20 Major Romanian forces, however, could not be diverted for the defense of the border because of the strategic need to assure the speedy and successful passage of Soviet forces through the Transylvanian Alps and the Iron Gate of the Danube. The price for this strategic success was to allow the temporary occupation of about 1,500-2,000 square miles of Romanian territory by the Hungarian army and, to a lesser extent, the German army.

About 10:00 A.M. on 5 September 1944, the Hungarian army (commonly known since 1848 as Honved, that is, "defender of the fatherland") entered Sarmas-singing resoundingly, as eyewitnesses recall. With them came a native son of Sarmas: Jozsef Biro in the uniform of a Hungarian lieutenant. He was promptly appointed praetor (the equivalent of a county executive in the Romanian administration) by the occupation authorities. Immediately Biro called upon all male Hungarians in the village between the ages of 15 and 45 to volunteer for the Nemzetorseg (National Guard) -almost all of them did so. He distributed leaflets printed in Hungarian and Romanian urging Jews and Romanians who were in hiding to return to their homes. The Hungarian army and the Hungarian state would guarantee and safeguard the rights of the peaceful population.21 At that time 126 Jews were still living in the village.22

Biro then made contact with Gyula Varga, the local Hungarian pharmacist, and his wife;23 organized the National Guard; set up a network of Hungarian informers; and ordered a manhunt on hiding Jews and the arrest of Romanian intellectuals. With his agreement, the houses of those Jews and Romanians who fled were systematically pillaged by the Hungarian population.24 After these events, Biro resigned, yielding his place to locals: Sandor Szalay as primar (head of the community) and J. Cziraky as his assistant, both Hungarian Nazi-sympathizers.25

On 7 September 1944, the third day of the Hungarian occupation, a detachment of the Hungarian gendarmery -rooster feathers on their hats and singing the march of the Vienna Award-entered Sarmas.26 Older villagers remembered them from before 1918; their brutality against peasants had been notorious (gendarmes were stationed only in rural areas; the cities had a more civilized police force). The entry of the gendarmes changed the situation. Events unfolded at a dramatically fast pace. The gendarme detachment came from the fascist Training School of the Gendarmery in Zalau, located near Sarmas on the Hungarian side of Transylvania. The very same trainees had in May 1944 participated in the roundup and deportation to Auschwitz of Hungarian Jews.

The front line was at the most 15 to 20 miles away during September 1944, so the backdrop to unfolding events was a constant, heavy rumbling of artillery, with wounded Hungarian soldiers pouring daily into Sarmas. Despite Biro's promises, the gendarmes encouraged the Hungarian population to act against Jews and Romanians. They played on Hungarian fears and prejudices. A hunt for Romanian POWs was undertaken. Terror directed toward Romanian intellectuals, Romanian POWs, and hiding Jews was extended to the neighboring villages.27

Captain Laszlo Lancz assumed the direction of the operations on 7 September 1944 and issued arms for the local volunteers of the National Guard.28 As in Hungary earlier, Jews were ordered to wear and mark their homes with yellow stars. The closest advisors of Captain Lancz were Gyula Varga, the Hungarian pharmacist, and his wife, Catherine. Together with their adopted son, Daniel Bethlen, they played a major role in the unfolding events.

Sunday, 10 September 1944, was the decisive day for the Jews of Sarmas. On that day Captain Lancz and the pharmacist Varga convoked a conference of the landed gentry of the neighboring villages at Varga's house; in Transylvania the gentry was by definition Hungarian. It is not clear who initiated the meeting, but they came: the Baron of Camarasiu, Be1a Kemeny; Sandor Betegh of Balda; Istvan Moitelly and Jozsef Gall of Silvas; Karoly Wachsmann and his son Elemer from Tacsor. They came in the traditional Hungarian gentry attire and decided on the extermination of the Jews.29

Next evening, Monday, 11 September 1944, gendarmes, accompanied by a local guide from the National Guard, took the Jews from their houses and collected them in the house and barn of Ioan Pop, the road overseer. This was designated as the ghetto until the "final solution" could be carried out.

Since several prominent Romanians from Sarmas and some Romanian POWs were already imprisoned there, the premises became intolerably crowded with the arrival of 126 Jews. Except for the overcrowding, the treatment of the Jews and Romanians during the first day was decent. Jews were even allowed to return under guard to their homes to get belongings they could not bring with them because of the hurried arrests. Armed gendarmes and Hungarian villagers in the National Guard, however, sealed off the holding area completely, day and night.30

On Tuesday, 12 September 1944, with the Jews under guard, Sandor Szalay, the village chief, and his deputy, J. Cziraky, organized and led the thorough pillage of the Jewish houses and the homes of the arrested Romanians.31 According to the signed testimony of Karoly Buss, a former Hungarian National Guardsman, "Almost all Hungarians of Sarmas participated in this pillage."32 The Hungarians invited the Romanian inhabitants to take part, too; they met with a firm refusal.33

Wednesday, 13 September 1944, was still a relatively quiet day for the prisoners -only some Jews were taken to dig trenches or graves for the Hungarian war dead. But food and water had run out. The gendarmes, and especially the National Guard made up of village volunteers, prevented other villagers, mostly Romanians and a few Hungarians, from bringing food and water to the inmates. Voicing obscenities, they drove those who attempted to help away at gunpoint.34 Hunger and thirst continued for the prisoners from then on. The gendarmes and the National Guard maintained an effective quarantine without themselves supplying food or water.

On Thursday, 14 September 1944, the physical and psychological torments and degradations started. In the morning, elderly Jews, carefully selected according to age - 75, 82, and 83 years old - were taken into the courtyard, where they had to perform at gunpoint all kinds of dances for the benefit of laughing National Guardsmen and gendarmes. Elderly prisoners were subjected to this harassment repeatedly until the end.

Among the imprisoned Jews were Arthur Hasz and his family, the most respected Jews in Sarmas, including their daughter, Vera. Arthur Hasz, who had been educated in Leipzig, was the chief engineer and manager of the local mill. Vera was remembered as beautiful and well educated. Perhaps many of the young Hungarians resented her with a mixture of envy and frustration. 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. During the public orgy, E. Mora, the Romanian physician, and the two Romanian priests, Stupineanu and Micu - all fellow prisoners - were fetched and ordered to participate.35

On Friday, 15 September 1944, business went on as usual: hunger, thirst, and tormenting games with the elderly. All valuables were stolen from the Jews and the Romanian inmates by the National Guard. 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. E. Mora and the Romanian priests were again invited to take part. Mora remembered that "the girls returned in the morning almost unconscious, lying during the whole day as if they were dead."36

That Friday afternoon the Hungarian gendarmes had staged a trial for the Romanian prisoners. E. Mora was set free.37 The others were also freed, only to be promptly rearrested. Vasile Banu, the attorney, was probably murdered;38 the rest were taken on an open truck to Cluj, then sent on death marches first to Hungary and later to Austria, where they were eventually liberated by the United States Army. Not all of them made it. The old priest Micu, who could not march fast enough, was shot outside Budapest. So, too, were other Romanians, who were added to this group of prisoners at a later date along the road.39 E. Mora was luckier. Since the village and the Hungarian wounded needed a physician, he was left alone and was not deported.

The Jews prepared for the Sabbath and for the arrival of Rosh Hashanah on the evening of 17 September. The Jewish prisoners asked about their fate when the Romanians were put on trial. They were told that they would be taken to Cluj, then to Budapest, and put to work in the industrial complex in Csepel. The Jews believed what they were told.40

After another warm summer-like night amidst hunger, thirst, and rape, the morning dawned with compulsory dancing and gymnastics for the elderly. Twenty younger Jewish men were selected to work, given spades and other instruments, and marched off . They were taken to the hills of Suscut on the other side of the Cluj-Tirgu-Mures highway, two or three miles away, to dig two large graves (one about eleven by three yards, the other about ten by two yards).41 Since these were obviously mass graves, the Jewish workers who had seen too much were never allowed to return.42

The farmers Traian Oroian (75 years old in 1984), the old Ioan Hulpe (96 years in 1984 but still very alert), and his son Ioan Hulpe (15 years old in 1944) told the rest of the story.43 On the night of Friday, 15 September 1944, they were ordered by National Guardsmen to appear at noon the next day with their ox carts and with food for three days at the house of the road overseer. When they arrived, they found other villagers there, all Romanians, with 12 additional ox carts.

At noon on Saturday, 16 September 1944, the villagers with their 14 ox carts waited in the sweltering heat. Around 2:00 P.m. gendarmes ordered the Jews out. After the 20 young men had been taken away, the group included 68 women, more than a dozen children between the ages of one and eight, more than three dozen teen-agers (most of them in the lower teens), 20 people between 50 and 60 years, and six people between 70 and 83 years.44 The Jews were fearful. They asked the gendarmes and their fellow villagers in the National Guard where they were going. Many women began to cry, and there was panic. The older men and women and the small children were ordered to board the ox carts; the younger people were to march in groups close to each cart. At least two gendarmes accompanied each ox cart, and the procession began to move. Traian Oroian, a decisive man, put the two Hulpes at the head of the column. Ioan Hulpe, the father, was the only one who understood Hungarian perfectly. "Let him be in front-just in case," T. Oroian recalled.

The column moved slowly toward Sarmasel. The Jews were exhausted by hunger and five or six days of thirst. Even the oxen suffered. Oroian told Hulpe to ask the gendarmes in Hungarian to allow water to be given to the oxen. They replied: "To the beasts under the yoke -yes; but you will lose your head if you dare to give as much as a drop of water to the beasts on the ox carts or on foot." The Romanians were forced to take the oxen off the carts and to give them a drink at a well, while the Jews, especially children, begged in vain for water.

In Sarmasel, Erzsebet Budai, a Hungarian woman, saw the column and recognized two gendarmes, Janos PanczeI and Sandor Pa1, both originally from Sarmas, as former schoolmates. She asked them, "Where are they taking the Jews?" Panczel answered in universal military style: "Where we have received our orders to take them." Mrs. Budai wanted to give water to the Jewish children but was driven away.45

As the shadows grew longer, the pitiful column of Jews cleared Sarmasel and was proceeding on the Cluj-Tirgu-Mures highway, near the forest. Mr. Oroian remembers that, at one point, the column came to a sudden halt. A guard left to see what caused the delay. The Hasz family were among those on the cart of Mr. Oroian, with Mr. Hasz on foot next to his battered daughter, embraced by her mother. Mr. Oroian suggested, "Mr. Hasz, now is the time. Run away to the forest next to us. The gendarme left. You will make it. "Mr. Hasz, pointing to his wife and the bleeding, beaten Vera, turned to Mr. Oroian, "Thank you, Traiane-God bless you-but I just cannot abandon them." And he stayed.

Finally around sunset, the column arrived on the highway at the kilometer 61-62 road marker, a lonely spot: on one side the barren hills of Suscut (with the mass graves open and waiting); on the other side, a fountain and, not much farther away, two small houses belonging to forester Ioan Mocean and his assistant Ioan Aluasi. The column of ox carts was ordered to halt at the fountain. The Jews were ordered to descend and were pushed off with great brutality. They begged for water. Their request was answered with insults. The Jews were forced to sit down around the fountain and remain silent and motionless. The Romanians with their 14 ox carts were sent back to Sarmas.

Almost 40 years later, on 21 June 1984, 1 drove in the sunset along the same stretch of highway toward Camarasiu, where the last living witnesses of that night now reside: the former deputy forester, Ioan Aluasi, and his wife.46 A mile farther away, one has to turn left and abandon the asphalt road to reach Camarasiu. From there on, the road is a country-cart track.

Both Mr. and Mrs. Aluasi, now in their seventies, were working in their vegetable garden. After the village children called them, I introduced myself and stated the purpose of the visit. We sat down around a table, a kerosene lamp was lit, and the Aluasis recalled the happenings during that unforgettable night of 16-17 September 1944.

At that time, both Mr. Aluasi and Mr. Mocean, working as foresters, lived in the two houses near the fountain together with their wives and children (six and nine children, respectively). At sunset they saw the arrival of the ox carts and recognized the Jews of Sarmas instantly. The Jews begged for water; they wanted to give them water but were driven away by the gendarmes. They sent their children with water, but they had no more luck than the parents. Mr. Aluasi overheard the gendarmes telling the Jews that they would be taken "to Kolozsvar," that is, Cluj.

The gendarmes and some National Guardsmen came to their houses and told them "to lay low, stay away from the Jews -or else." After it was dark, trucks arrived loaded with Hungarian gendarmes.47 An elegant sedan came, and an officer got out.48 Several kerosene lanterns were lit, and gendarmes climbed the hills, carrying arms and kerosene lanterns. There was a lot of coming and going between the trucks on the highway and the hill near the mass graves.

I. Aluasi and I. Mocean, deeply worried, hid in the cornfields. They were closer to the mass graves but could not be seen. They left the women with the children in one of the houses, hoping that if the Hungarians came, they would have no interest in women and children without males of military age.

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."

Indeed, shortly after the light signals, the Jews at the well were ordered to rise and to climb up on the hill of Suscut toward the mass graves. This climb was very difficult. A lot of brutal beatings by the gendarmes, moaning, and crying followed, with people forced to climb with one, sometimes two little children in their arms.49

The deadly silence fell again-Mr. Aluasi could even hear the footsteps of the gendarmes patrolling the highway in the darkness. Suddenly up on the hill (about 200 yards from Mr. Aluasi's hiding place in the cornfield), a horrible wailing and crying started. Before the mass graves, the Je ws from the ox carts met the 20 men who had dug the graves during the day. Since the gendarmes did not want the clothes to be buried, they ordered the Jews to undress. Now the Jews, standing naked in the pale light of the lanterns, finally realized that this was the end.50

After the Jews had been divided into two groups - 65 and 61 persons the gendarmes apparently chased them toward the mass graves.51 Shots from two machine guns and numerous other weapons could be heard. The pandemonium of howls, shrieks, and cries increased. Mr. Aluasi, the veteran, clearly distinguished the shots coming from the different weapons-almost drowned out by the cries of pain. The screams went on and on for hours until dawn.52 One gendarme detachment after the other (each about 10 men strong) ascended from the trucks on the highway amidst the crying and shooting to relieve other gendarmes tired of killing. Then, after relaxing, the gendarmes from the highway mounted the hill again while the others returned to relax. So it went for hours.

Mr. Aluasi asked himself at the time what could possibly take so long. Could it take hours to shoot 126 naked people-mostly women, children, and the elderly? Mr. Aluasi would understand only in February 1945, when the exhumation took place.

The victims were, as multiple reports of their exhumation show, beaten with shovels and other unidentified sharp, hard objects. In addition to bullet wounds, most of them had fractured skulls -with deep fractures, not bullet holes in them- and sometimes severed bones in their arms, legs, or ribs. Many of them were shot with handguns more than once. Almost all the children from one to six years of age were not shot at all. Their bodies do not show any wounds. Little children were buried alive-sometimes in the protective arms of the mutilated, murdered parents. In all probability, some grown-ups- deadly wounded with gun butts, spades, bayonets, and the like -were thrown into the graves still alive and were later buried under layers of earth.53

Before sunrise Mr. Aluasi saw in the twilight gendarmes mounting the hills with spades, apparently to throw layers of earth on the mass graves.54 They descended later, overloaded with the clothes of the victims, which they put into the trucks. All of them left the scene. There followed, as Mr. and Mrs. Aluasi remembered, a beautiful sunrise on Sunday, 17 September 1944. PSI Kiss, a Hungarian villager who, because of his good command of Romanian, was censor in the post office and worked in Sarmas for the National Guard, was the first to announce: "Now the Jews sleep well. We made sure of it."55

The Aluasi and the Mocean families were shattered by their experiences of that night, as were the villagers in Sarmasel and Sarmas, who had heard the shots and the cries from the distance. As Sunday, 17 September 1944, was coming to a close, something infinitely more disquieting than terrible memories was developing for the Aluasi and Mocean families. 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.

Ioan Aluasi and Ioan Mocean, fearful for their lives, fled their homes, together with their families, under the cover of night. They hid until the liberation in the forests. The forests were teeming with refugees from neighboring villages-and after the massacre of the Jews, also from Sarmas.56 Mr. Aluasi and Mr. Mocean escaped not a moment too soon. The Hungarian authorities, especially the villagers, organized during the following weeks a veritable manhunt to catch the only Romanian eyewitnesses to that night at Suscut.

There was a deadly silence hanging over Sarmas for three or four weeks after the massacre. Captain Lancz and his gendarmes pulled out, and the new, more decent Hungarian commander learned with disgust about the excesses. He threatened dire military justice if the slightest cruelty was repeated and assured everyone that order and justice would be maintained.57 Unfortunately for the victims -Jewish and Romanian -this Hungarian commander arrived too late.58

By the end of the first week of October 1944, the thunder of guns came very close. Varga, the pharmacist, and his wife fled with some of the National Guardsmen. Romanian and Soviet forces entered Sarmas a few hours later. The deadly silence of the last three weeks was lifted. People returned from the forests, and Ioan Aluasi and Ioan Mocean reported what had happened.

Some Jewish refugees also returned. They found neither family members nor other Jews alive. Their homes had been thoroughly plundered. The Jews recognized their furniture and belongings in Hungarian homes; the new owners did not want to return the loot. But the main questions of the returned Jews concerned not property but people. Mr. Aluasi took them to Suscut and showed them the two mass graves. After that, there were even more questions, primarily for the Hungarians of Sarmas.

The answers were neither exhaustive nor particularly helpful. The former National Guardsmen professed to know nothing. The Hungarian pastor swore that he had seen an official document proving that the Jews arrived and were handed over in Cluj, safe and sound, to the authorities. What about Mr. Aluasi's and Mr. Mocean's story and the graves at Suscut? "Honveds are buried there; they died in a car accident."59

Then the Varga couple returned. They had had bad luck. When they left their valuable belongings on a Hungarian military truck around Dej because of an air raid, the Hungarian soldiers left with the truck and their possessions. They decided to return to Sarmas. Mr. and Mrs. Varga could not say that the Jews were sent to Cluj, nor that there were Hungarian soldiers buried in the mass graves at Suscut. Shortly after their return, both of them committed suicide. Many Hungarians in Sarmas maintain that the Varga couple did not commit suicide but "were brutally beaten to death by the Maniu guards." The available evidence, however, proves that their deaths were suicides.

During November and December 1944, there was a growing demand for an investigation in Sarmas. The military tribunal of Sibiu decided to look into the matter and ordered the arrest of several Hungarian villagers, most of them members of the National Guard. But shortly thereafter, the prisoners were inexplicably released and quickly disappeared; nobody has seen them since.60

The new Communist leaders in Cluj -mostly Hungarians, but also some Jews and Romanians, all Stalinist functionaries -were also not very helpful. But the energetic Jewish leader in Bucharest, Dr. Willy Fildermann, was able to outmaneuver the Cluj leaders. He obtained money for the exhumation from the American Jewish joint Distribution Committee; he also gained the support of the Communist Minister of justice, Lucretiu Patrascanu. In February 1945 the orders to start the exhumation arrived.61

The commission to exhume the victims was constituted in Turda on 20 February. It was headed by Matatias Carp, the representative of the Romanian Jews from Bucharest, and Captain Emil Puscasiu, commander of the Romanian gendarmery at Cluj. Ignac Honig, the rabbi of the Jewish community of Sarmas, received the commission upon its arrival in Sarmas and handed them a list with the names of the members of the Jewish community. Physicians (including E. Mora) and representatives of the political parties in Sarmas joined the commission members. They all made the difficult ascent together to the site of the mass graves on the hill Of Suscut.62

The Romanian authorities ordered the Hungarians of Sarmas to help in the exhumation. But the Hungarians spread rumors that after the exhumation 250 Hungarians would be shot in retaliation. Therefore, the Hungarian male population fled, filtering back a few days later only when it became clear that no vengeance would be taken. Romanians from Sarmas and the Romanian gendarmes volunteered to unearth the victims. The exhumation started on 21 February.63

Slowly the mass graves were opened. The exhumation took more than two days. A picture emerged of the horrible mayhem: the sadistic mutilations, the use of side arms in the manhunt, the unscathed little children buried alive.64 Finally, after the official on-site investigation was completed, the 126 bodies were brought down to the highway and laid to rest in three rows, with burial rituals performed by Rabbi Honig.65 That lonely cemetery has remained their resting place.

Since the Sarmas massacre was the worst atrocity committed in Transylvania during World War II, one might ask why so little was known about it until the 1980s. Postwar Soviet policy concerning Romania, and in particular Transylvania, provides the answer. On 6 March 1945, a few days after the exhumation in Sarmas, the Soviets imposed a Communist regime on Romania. In Transylvania the Hungarian minority felt uneasy, because of the traditional rivalry with Romania and its pro-Nazi activities during the war.66 To pacify and control the region, the postwar Stalinist rulers gained the support of the Hungarian minority by refusing to pursue Hungarian war crimes. When approached on the Sarmas massacre or the killings of Romanians, the Communist leader Avram Bunaciu always replied that one should emphasize in the media only those things that enhance the friendship and the cooperation between the ethnic groups of Transylvania.67 For almost 40 years, silence surrounded the fate of the victims. The Sarmas massacre became a topic for discussion in Romania only when the regime embarked on a more independent foreign policy and when the controversy with Hungary about Transylvania resurfaced.68

In 1986 the Hungarian Academy of Sciences published a set of three volumes entitled The History of Transylvania, under the sponsorship of the Minister of Education, Professor B. Kopeczi. Out of almost 2,000 pages dedicated to Transylvanian history, only five lines appear about the Holocaust in Transylvania and those contain inaccuracies and distortions. The massacre at Sarmas is not even mentioned.69 Understandably, Transylvanian Jews, once assimilated and loyal Hungarians, feel that Hungary betrayed them.70

The victims of Sarmas must not be forgotten. Further, posterity should know that in 1944 there were killers who, a few miles from the approaching front, could think of nothing more urgent that to torture, mutilate, and exterminate Jews.


I wish to dedicate this essay to the memory of Vera Hasz.

1. Thus, for example, in 1923 the Jews of Transylvania rejected the creation of Jewish schools, offered by the Romanians, in favor of Hungarian schools: 'We are Hungarians of the Israelite faith. We were born with the Hungarian language. With the Hungarian language, our soul is tightly united. Our spiritual condition is associated with St. Stephen and St. Ladislaus. We form a united moral community with them. Do not send us back to the Zorobabel of Jerusalem!" Neamul Romanesc (Bucharest), 20 Sept.1923.

2. Nicholas Kallay, Hungarian Premier: A Personal Account of a Nation's Struggle During the Second World War (New York, 1954), p. 122.

3. On the students, see (Hungarian) House of Representatives, Parliamentary Diary, 19 Nov. 1941, p. 343 [Hungarian]; on the officer corps, see Gyula Kadar, From the Ludovika to Sporonkohida, 2 vols. (Budapest, 1984), 2: 507 [Hungarian].

4. Kadar, Ludovika to Sporonkohida, 2: 506, 639-40.

5. Jeno Levai, Black Book about the Suffering of the Hungarian Jews (Budapest, n.d.), p. 106 [Hungarian].

6. Hannah Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem (New York, 1963), p. 125.

7. Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (Chicago, 1961), p. 510.

8. C. A. Macartney, October Fifteenth: A History of Modern Hungary, 1929- 1944, 2 vols. (Edinburgh, 1961), 2: 286.

9. Levai, Black Book, p. 306; Randolph Braham, The Destruction of the Hungarian Jews (New York, 1964); idem, Genocide and Reward (The Hague, 1983).

10. Gyorgy Ranki, The 19th of March 1944 (Budapest, 1968), p. 192 [Hungarian].

11. Uj Kelet (Tel Aviv), 31 Mar. 1961. Yehuda Matyas, the writer of the newspaper article quoted, was instrumental in spring 1944 in organizing one of the "underground railroads" that helped Hungarian Jews escape to Romania. In a personal interview in July 1984 in Paris, where he now lives, he spoke about the Hungarian attitudes in Bihor and the rescue operation he led.

12. This theory (Magyar-Nemet Sorskozosseg), coined by Balint Homan, the Imredist historian, held that Hungary and Hungarian revisionism stands or falls with Nazi victory.

13. Matatias Carp, Sarmas: One of the Most Horrible of Fascist Crimes (Bucharest, 1945), pp. 11, 39 [Romanian]. This is the best written account of the Sarmas massacre. Carp was sent to Sarmas in February 1945 to investigate the circumstances of the massacre, and to exhume and Jay the victims to rest. Carp spent several days before and after the exhumation in and around Sarmas, made numerous inquiries about every aspect of the massacre, and carried out the exhumation with the help of the authorities. He drew up the different official documents and reports about the condition of the bodies found, and also the affidavits of witnesses. Istvan Morocz, a Hungarian from Sarmas, declared that "not until all Jews are shot, can Transylvania become Hungarian." I met Morocz on 25 June 1984 in Sarmas.

14. See note 1. On 22 June 1984, during a personal interview, Rev. Janos Herman, the Hungarian Presbyterian pastor of Sarmas, observed that "the Jews were always representing Hungarian culture in Transylvania."

15. After the establishment of the "National-Legionary State" in Romania in Sept. 1940, some Iron-Guardists came also to Sarmas to expropriate Jewish property; but, unlike other places, there was no physical violence. During the Antonescu regime, in the fall of 1941, the Jews of Sarmas were concentrated in Turda, but a few months later they were allowed to return to their homes.

16. During my research, I did not find a single accusation by a Jewish survivor or a Hungarian resident that any Romanian in Sarmas participated in the massacre or plunder. KaIlay, the anti-Nazi prime minister of Hungary, considered the Romanian peasants of Transylvania to be the most honest people in the world. See Kallay, Hungarian Premier, p. 223. See also Oliver Lustig, "Distortions and Falsehoods Insulting and Profaning the Memory of Horthy Terror Victims," in Romania: Pages of History, 12 vols. (Bucharest, 1987) 3:246-47 [Romanian].

17. See note 11. When Jewish refugees crossed from northern (Hungarian) Transylvania into southern (Romanian) Transylvania, Maniu used the rather artificial-but effective- argument that since Romania did not recognize the "Vienna Dictate," there could be no question of illegal border crossing. The Jews were going from one Romanian locality to another.

18. Carp, Sarmas, pp. 12-13.

19. The night before, in Sarmas and elsewhere, Hungarian fifth columnists attacked Romanian police posts, communication and postal centers, and other goverrunent installations. Grigore Ploesteanu, unpublished research and archival materials [hereafter cited as GPM].

20. Captain Enea Ludovic Todea, who participated in the battles in 1944, provided maps and documents (personal interview, Cluj, 16 June 1984). For his participation, see Facla (Cluj), 23 Aug. 1973 and 23 Aug. 1974.

21. Carp, Sarmas, p. 13. When I visited Sarmas and the vicinity in June 1984, many eyewitnesses confirmed Carp's account of the activities of Bir6.

22. Ibid., p. 10. There were originally about 200 Jews in Sarmas, but more than 70 of them managed to escape before the arrival of the Hungarian army.

23. Ibid., p. 14.

24. The commander of the National Guard, the villager Marton Szekely, denounced Jews in hiding, who were duly sought out. Also arrested were E. Mora, the local physician; two priests, Stupineanu and Micu; V. Banu, an attorney; and F. Mornaila, a notary. All were Romanians. During personal interviews, villagers stated that the pharmacist Varga and the physician Mora had earlier made a kind of pact "to defend each other from the Romanians and from the Hungarians respectively." Nonetheless, Varga denounced Mora to Biro and made certain of his arrest. The pillage of Jewish property by the National Guard started immediately. I. Grosz was tortured to reveal the location of his valuables, and M. Weiss was murdered by a Hungarian villager because he did not have anything to hand over. See ibid., p. 13.

25. After the retreat of the Hungarians, a great amount of stolen Jewish goods were found in their houses. See ibid., p. 25.

26. During a personal interview, the farmer Traian Oroian (born 1907), one of the most important and reliable witnesses, ranked the behavior of the Hungarian occupation: (1) the least cruel were the Hungarian army; (2) much worse were the gendarmes; and (3) the local Hungarians were the worst.

27. The village of Naoi is about six miles from Sarmas. Mihaly Szabo, the only Hungarian there, was appointed village chief by the gendarmes. He resisted instructions to denounce Jews (he saved a family of 10) and saved Romanian POWS and other Romanians despite a Hungarian colonel's order of "no mercy to Jews and Romanians!" Personal interview with M. Szabo, 22, 23, and 25 June 1984.

28. According to many personal interviews with villagers, armed volunteers went to Romanian and Jewish homes and extorted money, belongings, or whatever they wished to take.

29. Carp, Sarmas, pp. 14, 24; "Reestablishing a Historical Truth," Vatra (TirguMures), New Series 11, no. 120 (20 Mar. 1981) [Romanian]; and GPM. During personal interviews, numerous villagers from Sarmas confirmed that this conference took place on 10 Sept. 1944. Still, the agreement of aristocrats to such a crime seems strange. In Hungary, the aristocracy, although arch- conservative, was too devoted to Christian values to acquiesce in the murder of over 126 human beings (mostly women, children, and the elderly). The participation of Captain Lancz and the Varga couple, representatives of Imredism and Hungarian fascism at its worst, is less difficult to understand.

30. Carp, Sarmas, p. 14.

31. Vilma Szilagy expressed the opinion that "it would have been better if they had shot all Jews." Ibid., p. 38.

32. Ibid., pp. 44-45. When after the liberation of Sarmas, some Jews returned and, recognizing their belongings in Hungarian houses, demanded them, the Hungarians disputed their claims.

33. 1 made many inquiries about Romanian participation in Sarmas and interviewed at least a dozen people. All Romanians interviewed emphatically denied Romanian involvement.

34. Dozens of villagers, Romanians and Hungarians, tried to bring food and water to the inmates. M. Szabo (see note 27) stated in a personal interview on 25 June 1984 that he came at the request of E. Mora, a prisoner, who begged him to bring food and water for the Jewish children. Erzsebet Budai, a Hungarian from Sarmasel, recounted in a personal interview on 20 June 1984 how she was driven away more than once while trying to bring food and water. Arpad Tokes, another Hungarian villager, recalled how he as a youngster was sent by his father with food and water, only to be driven away with dire threats. See "Reestablishing a Historical Truth." In a personal interview on 19 and 20 June 1984, Anastasia Hulpe remembered that after being insulted and driven away at gunpoint, she hid food and water in the haystack, and making a sign of "sleep," indicated to the Jews to get it during the night.

35. For the events of 14 Sept. 1944, see Carp, Sarmas, pp. 22-23, 36-37; "Reestablishing Historical Truth"; GPM; and several personal interviews in Sarmas between 19 and 24 June 1984. Anastasia Hulpe remembered that during the public orgy the National Guardsmen, all drunk, tried at gunpoint to force the priest to have sexual intercourse with the girl, but that the priest successfully resisted despite a brutal beating.

36. Carp, Sarmas, pp. 36-37.

37. M. Szabo recalled in a personal interview on 25 June 1984 that he intervened with Count PSI Beldy, whose life E. Mora had saved. Count Beldy wrote a letter to Capt. Lancz, who thereupon personally ordered Mora's release.

38. T. Oroian recounted in a personal interview on 22 June 1984 that he tried to hide Banu, but that a Hungarian villager disclosed the hiding place.

39. "Reestablishing Historical Truth."

40. Ibid.; GPM; and numerous personal interviews.

41. Anastasia Hulpe remembered during personal interviews on 19 and 20 June 1984 that she observed the Jews digging the graves under the supervision of the National Guard from the village.

42. Neither Carp nor other sources have clarified where they were kept until the massacre. They were certainly among the victims. See Carp, Saatmas, pp. 46-

47. According to GPM, they were kept under guard at the side of the mass graves until the others arrived and the killings commenced.

43. 1 have copious notes from interviews with them on 20-23 June 1984. Much of this information can also be found in Carp, Sarmas; and in "Reestablishing Historical Truth."

44. See Carp, Sarmas, pp. 46-47.

45. Interview with Erzsebet Budai, 20 June 1984. During an interview on 22 June 1984 in the village of Sincai, about 15 miles from Sarmas, Janos PanczeI asserted that Mrs. Budai "was lying." Sandor Pal, the other gendarme, had fled to the West.

46. The only other witness, Ioan Mocean, died a few years ago.

47. Hungarians in Sarmas blame a German Einsatzkommando for the massacre. However, there was never even a trace of evidence suggesting any German role in the Sarmas massacre. Mr. and Mrs. Aluasi saw the guards clearly and heard them talk in Hungarian for hours. Any native of Sarmas knows the difference between the Hungarian and the German languages.

48. According to GPM, Karoly Vekardy, the deputy of Captain Laszlo Lancz, was in charge during the massacre. The Romanian phone operator at the post office remembered that Captain Lancz gave the order to start the massacre via telephone from Sarmasel, where the headquarters of the gendarmes were located. Carp, Sarmas, p. 16.

49. According to some sources, some National Guardsmen from the village also participated in the massacre. Mr. Aluasi could not confirm this: "It was too dark, and [from my hiding place] one Hungarian word sounded like another."

50. According to GPM, there were at the last moment some attempts to flee, even to offer resistance, although escape on those barren hills of Suscut would have been extremely difficult.

51. Carp, Sarmas, p. 30. The exhumation of the bodies five months later showed this distribution.

52. Even 40 years later, Mrs. Aluasi had to take a glass of cold water to calm herself when she remembered that night. She recalled how her little children woke up terrified.

53. The commission that carried out the exhumation stated in its report: Very many of the dead bodies -especially those in the second mass grave, where mostly women and children were found showed vestiges of the most savage violence: bashed, even crushed skulls, the result of powerful blows with heavy or sharp objects (gun butts, shovels, pickaxes, etc.). Many dead bodies were penetrated or were even torn part by sidearms; other bodies showed broken arms or legs.

The bodies were thrown into the graves in a disorderly fashion, yet one could find husbands and wives embracing each other, or a father holding his child tightly to his breast.

It was established that some bodies, especially those of the small children, lacked any bullet wounds, which suggests that not being hit by the fusillade, they were buried alive.

The bodies were found completely naked. Only a few little children were wearing shoes or socks on their feet. Carp, Sarmas, pp. 30-31, 34-35.

54. They did not appear to have done a good job. Mrs. Aluasi climbed the hill the next morning, and she recalled with horror that the earth moved over some parts of the graves as if people were still moving.

55. Carp, Sarmas, p. 39. Kiss committed suicide the day the Romanian commission of inquiry arrived in Sarmas.

56. Hungarian excesses in Transylvania after 23 Aug. 1944 are little known outside the area. Besides the relatively well-known massacre in Moisei (in Maramures) in October 1944, there is a long list of atrocities committed in the villages around Sarmas, Turda, Beius, and Arad. These actions were directed almost exclusively against Romanians, both POWs and civilians.

57. "Reestablishing Historical Truth." There were many decent Hungarian commanders. During a personal interview, Captain Enea Ludovic Todea produced for me documents that told of a Hungarian captain near Turda who prevented the killing of an invalid Romanian schoolteacher by the local Hungarians. See note 20. Yehuda Matyas recalled that in Ghianta (Bihor) a Hungarian military physician employed the local Jewish physician to help him handle the wounded, and did now allow the Jewish physician to be killed. See note 11.

58. Traian Oroian explained that many of the regular Hungarian soldiers were also very concerned: "Why do we Hungarians kill these Jews?" However, according to Oroian, most of the local Hungarians were merciless. See note 43.

59. Carp, Sarmas, p. 23.

60. Personal interviews; and Carp, Sarmas, pp. 17, 25.

61. Carp, Sarmas, p. 4.

62. Ibid., pp. 19-20.

63. Ibid., pp. 20, 30-35. Anna Szilagyi (Abraham), a Hungarian, recalled with indignation that she was forced by the Romanian authorities not only to help with the exhumation, but also to take a good look at the victims together with other Hungarians in the village (Interview, 20 June 1984).

64. Carp, Sarmas, pp. 34-35.

65. Ibid., p. 23.

66. Peter Sipos, Be1a Imredy and the Party of Hungarian Reneval (Budapest, 1970) [Hungarian], shows conclusively that the Imredy party had stronger following among Hungarians in Transylvania than in Hungary proper.

67. Personal interview with Professor Vasilie Suciu, June 1984.

68. The title of the 1981 article, "Reestablishing Historical Truth," often quoted in this study, is revealing. With this article, the Romanian government ended the cover-up and dealt with the massacre in Sarmas for the first time.

69. A History of Transylvania, 3 vols. (Budapest, 1986), 3: 1757 [Hungarian].

70. In his book about the Eichmann trial, Dezso Schon cited the following comment: "Me Hungarians were the most merciless of all. With no other people of Europe have we found such a savagery, such inhumanity shown toward the Jews." Then Schon, a Transylvanian Jew of Hungarian culture, remarked: "It is painful to record such a conclusion, and it is all the more painful to record it in Hungarian." The Trial of Jerusalem (Tel Aviv, 1963) [Hungarian]. See also Lustig, "Distortions and Falsehoods," 3: 234.

Chap 4

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