To Be Honest


Chapter 1




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In later years József Ehrlich was not to speak much of his childhood or youth.  What remains is a series of glimpses and educated guesses.

He was born on March 17, 1894, in the Hungarian burg of Győr, a "medieval walled city on an island" where the River Raab met the broad blue Danube.

He was the third from youngest of eleven children born to Móric* Ehrlich and Sarolta Rotmann, but never knew his four oldest brothers and sisters; at least one of them had already died before Józsi was born.  [See Appendix below.]

His father was a rabbi, belonging to the moderate reform movement called Neologism that flourished in the cities of western Hungary.  Unlike the Orthodox Jews, the Neologs conducted their services in Hungarian, made use of choirs and organ music, and emphasized something of aesthetics in their teaching.

To the boy Józsi, his father must have seemed fairly remote.  The only notably memory of Móric Ehrlich that Józsi would ever mention involved not the man but his books: beautifully bound volumes kept behind the glass doors of a fine bookcase.

Móric died around 1905, when Józsi was eleven.  For many years he would keep a small silver wine cup that his father had used in religious ceremonies.

After the rabbi's death, each of his surviving children had to leave home in his or her turn because their mother Sarolta lacked the money to feed the younger ones.  Three of the children went on to become teachers: Adolf, Rózsa, and waggish Sándor.  Another daughter, Margit, married a German general; but since he was a Gentile, Sarolta would neither recognize the marriage nor accept Margit's two sons.

Józsi had a younger brother, Miska; and a younger sister and playmate, Eszter "with the long blonde hair" whom he loved dearly; but at the age of ten or so Eszter came down with tuberculosis, and she too died.

In March 1907 Józsi turned thirteen and became, in the eyes of his family and people and God, a man of duty.  Not long afterward his mother told him he was going to have to live as one.  She sent him off to Budapest, saying he must go to school there and complete his education; and Sarolta gave him a prayer book, telling Józsi to turn to it when things seemed hardest for him.

He departed from Győr with the equivalent of eleven cents in his pocket, leaving behind the little enclosed world he had known.

Heading sixty miles east, he suddenly found himself in Metropolis.

Budapest had been created as the capital of Hungary only 35 years earlier, but in that single generation's time there had risen a booming modern city of nearly one million people.  Great buildings of ornate magnificence had gone up: the Parliament, the law courts, the opera, many theaters and many museums.  To the north was a new industrial quarter from whose tall chimneys smoke poured; five colossal bridges spanned the Danube, linking ancient Buda with ambitious Pest; and through the busy streets people were always hurrying, as carriages clattered and trolley cars clanged.

For three or four years József lived with his aunt, Móric's sister Hermina Greenhute**, and attended a Gymnasium or secondary school that prepared students for admission to universities.  In order to pay his Gymnasium fees, and later to earn his keep after leaving Hermina's house, Józsi began to tutor other students.  In exchange he got room and board, but there were times when he had so little money-in-pocket that he could not afford to buy oil for a lamp, and so had to do his own studying by the light of the moon.

He persevered.  He resolved never to be a burden to his relatives, but always be able to make it on his own.  Unhappy things had happened in the past and might recur in the future; they might be inevitable and unavoidable—but he would take them as they came, find his own way around or through them.

József never did turn to Sarolta's prayer book.  It was only much later, and by accident, that he discovered a little cache of money his mother had hidden inside it for him.

At first he went to temple and followed the rituals of Judaism, dutifully, because it was expected of him.  But if he was offered a meal of sausage or pork as his pay for tutoring, the choice was to eat it or go hungry.  So Józsi ate the pork or sausage, was not struck by lightning, and little by little began to challenge the Law.  In school he excelled at mathematics, where everything was provable or disprovable; in algebra he found balance and equilibrium, formulae that worked out and stood up to challenge.  Compared to math, religion seemed not all it was cracked up to be; and József stopped going to temple.

For the rest of his life he would be devoted to the truth, as he saw it.  He could accept that a Creator had "wound up the universe's clock," but to put faith in anything more anthropomorphic was futility at best, and medieval superstition at worst.

And József did not intend to be medieval.  He was going to live in the 20th Century, the enlightened world of electricity and motorcars and aeroplanes and dirigibles; the rational world where modern technology could find cures for all diseases, where science held the promise to solve all the problems.  As the German proverb put it, Jedes warum hatte zein darum—Every question had its answer.

József's devotion to the truth was further expressed in a determination to live up to his name.  Ehrlich is a German word meaning "honest," but also translatable as "fair," "sincere," "loyal," and the like.  As such, it is not undesirable as a family name (merited or not) and such usage doubtless increased in 1787 when Joseph II decreed that all the Jews in his Austrian Empire, including the Kingdom of Hungary, should adopt German surnames "by which they were to be henceforth known."

The Ehrlichs had chosen to be honest, and József saw this as a solemn duty; yet he was also intent on acting like a gentleman.  Always keep your word; politeness pays; never argue about religion with anybody; never try to hurt anyone's feelings, no matter what the cost to your own.

Even when people didn't always treat you the way they ought to.

Even when so-called friends didn't prove to be as fair or loyal or sincere as they might.

Whatever else happened, children could always be relied upon.  Being children, they were still candid and open and honest, and it was a pleasure to tutor them.  A pleasant thing, too, to be looked up to for knowledge and regarded as wise.

His relatives wanted him to be a rabbi like his father, but when József took his Abiturium—the final exam—he deliberately failed Hebrew, while passing everything else.  József had decided to become a teacher.

For a Jewish graduate of a Budapest Gymnasium in 1911, there were many career opportunities.  Even at this late date the Austro-Hungarian Empire was basically a feudal regime, ruled by great landowning families with antiquated traditions.  Since they refused to engage in anything so unspeakably bourgeois as trade, the Jews had been encouraged to enter commerce and industry as well as the professions, the arts and sciences and literature.  By 1911 they had achieved a "preponderating" position in the nation's economic and cultural life; nearly half of all Hungarian lawyers, physicians, and journalists were Jewish.

Education was the key to establishing status and security, and no one in Hungary valued education more highly than the Jews.  When Joseph II had decided to end his Jewish subjects's longtime isolation and turn them into "useful citizens of the country," he had ordered them to establish schools.  Himself a student of the Enlightenment, Joseph II had strongly believed that the surest means of hastening Jewish assimilation lay in widespread education; and the Jews had learned their lessons well.

There is a Hungarian phrase, Ez jó iskola volt neki, which can be translated as "It was an education for him," "It taught him a lot," "It did him a power of good," or even "It made a man of him."

In 1911, at the age of nineteen, József Ehrlich cast his lot in with education.

It was customary for teachers in secondary schools to graduate from a university, and in later years József would hint that he had attended one; but he more likely went to a Budapest tanítóképző or teachers college.  There for three years he was trained as a tanító, an elementary schoolteacher, and during the last year or two he got to do some bona fide teaching.  This was at a fasor or "park school," a home for half-orphans who had lost one parent and could not be kept by the widowed one—a situation József was familiar enough with.

There he taught math and history on what would be a junior high level, to twelve- and thirteen-year-olds.  For this he received nor only meals but also a little money, and thus was able for the first time to buy himself such things as suits of clothes (and lamp oil).

József shared a room with another young man, who worked at night and slept by day, the two of them exchanging the room's single bed.  Here Józsi had time enough to play the violin, to do a little reading; he had become partial to the works of Sándor Petőfi, Hungary's greatest lyric poet:

                    Ha szép lyánnyal van találkozásom,                Whenever I meet a lovely girl,
                    Gondomat még mélyebb sírba ásom,               I bury my cares in a deeper grave
                    S mélyen nézek a szép lyány szemébe,           and look into the depth of her eyes
                    Mint a csillag csendes tó vizébe.                    like a star in the calm of a lake.
                    Dalaim, mik ilyenkor teremnek,                      My songs which are created then
                    Vadrózsái szerelmes lelkemnek.                     are wild roses of my loving soul

And when József laid books and violin aside and turned the lamp down low, he may have indulged in a little thinking about Life.

History had never been an easy subject for him, and teaching it must have bolstered his lifelong conviction that history was filled with lies, written to suit the rulers of the moment.  No, only science was truth, and mathematics its essence; these for him were the subjects worth teaching.

And to teach—to be a teacher—to be called Ehrlich úr, "Mr. Ehrlich," and see the youngsters stand when he entered the classroom, and get them to understand and remember their lessons—to help the slower learners too, teaching them simple tasks such as how to tie their shoes or comb their hair—this was the life for József.  Teaching would be his life's work; he would take his college degree and teach as long as he lived, or at least as long as they let him.

József's ideal world would be a meritocracy, where anyone (even a half-orphan) could become a gentleman.  It was all a manner of being properly taught, provided not only with education but encouragement as well.  A tutor in Petőfi's Az apostol was the first to sympathize with the Oliver Twistlike foundling Szilveszter, even giving him a parting gift of money so he could continue his studies; and Szilveszter had dedicated his life to serving his fellow men.

Well, perhaps some of József's pupils would go on to do great things, and come back to visit the old school and tell the boys how, if not for Ehrlich úr, they would never have mastered their fractions.

And perhaps someday he might meet his own lovely girl with eyes like stars in the calm of a lake, and she would return his love.  They would be married and have children, a family that would stay together; and he would come home from school in the evenings and play with his sons and daughters, tell them stories, watch them growing up.  His children in their turn would attend the university, become teachers or doctors or scientists; they too would marry and have little ones, grandchildren who would be brought to visit József and his wife all the time, to be played with and told stories just as their parents had been.

A splendid dream.

And there was really no reason why it should not come true (assuming the right young lady would come along) for the future seemed very bright.

Even in July 1914, when war broke out between the Empire and Serbia.

Even when, within a week, Russia and Germany and France and Great Britain all got involved as well.

Not to worry: Hungarian military obligation did not begin till the age of twenty-one, and József was still only twenty.  He would certainly be able to complete his final year of college and take his degree, since this war was supposed to be—as wars are always supposed to be—over by Christmas.

But the Imperial generals insisted on a bravura fighting style that was not simply outdated, but suicidal: the elite cavalry was sent charging into machine gun fire.  An expedition sent to punish the Serbs, "those dirty Balkan shepherds," lost 40,000 men; an invasion of Russian Poland was hurled back at the same time, and by late September the Empire's easternmost province of Galicia had been lost, along with 350,000 more soldiers.

So for Austria-Hungary, the first months of the war were an appalling all-around disaster.  By October its trained officers were virtually wiped out, and the army was forced to mobilize more men as the catastrophic Galician casualties mounted.  Exemptions were eliminated, physical requirements lowered, and military obligation extended to those aged eighteen to twenty-one.

And József Ehrlich was promptly called up.

There exists a photograph of him taken at this time.  Fastidiously dressed in suit and tie, complete with wing collar and breast-pocketed white handkerchief, he is seated in a chair with a magazine or newspaper held open on his knee.  His hair, blond in childhood but now brown and wavy, is parted precisely in the middle.  And on his face and in his bright blue eyes is a pensive expression verging on the wistful.

Since he was a Gymnasium graduate, József was sent to a reserve officers's training school.  In peacetime his being Jewish would probably have prevented this, but the desperate need for officers was now overriding, and after a reduced training period he was hastily shipped out to the front.

In November 1914 the Austro-Hungarians invaded Serbia again.  A month later the furious Serbian counterattack drove them into a total headlong rout, slowed only by mud and exhaustion; and another 100,000 men were lost.  Germany was openly disgusted at the performance of their fellow Central Power: "We have shackled ourselves to a corpse," one German general snorted.

As for József Ehrlich, he had been wounded—shot through the foot.  It was going to be amputated ("That was the way they treated wounds") but József told them, "No you don't!" and with his other foot kicked the medic across the room.  So instead they cleaned the bullet hole—by pulling a cloth straight through it.

Along with his older brother Sándor, who had suffered shrapnel wounds, József was sent to convalesce at a mineral water summer resort that had been turned into a hospital for officers.  It was near Lake Balaton, "the Hungarian Sea," but this held little charm in January.

On crutches and with his leg in a cast, József went back to Budapest.  He called on his mother, who had moved here from Győr; and one Saturday afternoon, perhaps urged on by Sarolta, he paid a visit to his Aunt Hermina and cousins Ilona and Rózsa, whom he had not seen for four years.  József found the Greenhutes already had a caller that afternoon: a strikingly attractive and elegant-looking young lady with black hair and black eyes—who happened to be a visitor from Transylvania.

Proceed to Chapter 2 of To Be Honest

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* Hungarian Móric = German Moritz, French Maurice, English Morris.  Single "c" in Hungarian is pronounced "ts"
In the 1830s, liberal advocates such as Lajos Kossuth and Baron József Eötvös asserted it was the duty of everyone living in Hungary to "Magyarize"—adopt the use of Hungarian language and customs.  Many Jews did so wholeheartedly, thinking this the swiftest road to emancipation; and many of these adopted Neologism.
A student of the Enlightenment, Emperor Joseph intended to turn his Jews into "useful citizens of the country" by ending their longtime isolation and assimilating them into general society.  He strongly believed the surest means of this lay in widespread secular education, and by 1783 the Jews of Hungary were ordered to establish German-language elementary schools.  There the same subjects were to be taught and the same textbooks used as in national schools, with anything offensive to "religious nonconformists" being admitted from all.  The Jews were required to learn Latin and Hungarian as well as German, with Hebrew to be used only in worship.  They could now attend universities also, and study any subject there except theology.  After Joseph's death in 1790, the position of Hungarian Jews had its ups and downs—briefly granted full citizenship during the 1848-49 Revolution, then being fined heavily and collectively by Austria after the Revolution was crushed.  Emancipation was not won until 1867.
§ Translation by Anton N. Nyerges; Copyright © 1973 by Anton N. Nyerges

Appendix:  Ehrlichs—The Previous Generation

At the JewishGen website can be found databases of vital records transcribed from LDS microfilm.  Among them are births, marriages, and deaths in Győr during the years 1846-1895.  From these, along with the 1869 Hungary census (also available at JewishGen) I have assembled what appears to be the previous generation of Ehrlichs:

In 1869 Samu/Samuel Ehrlich (born 1826) and Regina Grunhut (born 1839) lived in Győr's Belváros district (inner city, downtown); the census assigned their household the number "356."  Samu and Regina had at least ten children:

  1.  Ignac/Ignatz Ehrlich (born 1855; present in the 1869 census)
  2.  Ida Ehrlich (born 1857; present in the 1869 census; also in the marriages database, where she wed Alexander Deutsch in Győr on May 20, 1877)
  3.  Mór Ehrlich (born 1859; present in the 1869 census)
  4.  Simon Ehrlich (born May 27, 1860; absent from the 1869 census, but appears in the birth database)
  5.  Mathias/Matthias Ehrlich (born September 3, 1861; absent from the 1869 census, but appears in the birth database—twice: as both "Mathias" and "Matthias")
  6.  Arnold Ehrlich (born December 30, 1862; present in the 1869 census [born "1863"])
  7.  Risa Ehrlich (born November 1, 1864; died July 19, 1869; absent from the 1869 census, but appears in the birth and death databases)
  8.  Gizela/Gizella/Gisella Ehrlich (born February 10, 1867; died November 27, 1881; present in the 1869 census [as Gizela], the birth database [as Gisella], and the death database [as Gizella])
  9.  Oszkar Ehrlich (born June 27, 1870; died January 4, 1891; too young to be in the 1869 census, but appears in the birth and death databases—though parentless in the latter)
10.  Richard Ehrlich (born July 23, 1873; too young to be in the 1869 census, but appears in the birth database—with his mother's maiden name truncated to "Grun")

(Also living with the Ehrlichs in the 1869 census was Leny Spitzer, aged nineteen; possibly a maidservant.)

Half of the ten Ehrlich children are evidently buried in the Győr-Szigeti Temető cemetery: Arnold (grave A1-3-17), Mór (grave A1-2-4), Gizella (grave A1-18-49), Ignac (grave B1-2-11, with his wife beside him in B1-2-12), and Oszkar (A1-19-50).  Their parents may also be here: a Samu and his wife are buried in graves O-1-6 and -5 respectively, and there is also a Samuel Ehrlich in grave B2-20-40.  The cemetery list and photographs of some gravestones are available at the Győr Jewish website (; the photographed stone inscriptions are either illegible or in Hebrew, but Ignac's does seem to display the birthyear 1855—and possibly a deathyear of 1929.

Mór Ehrlich's gravestone is especially unhelpful, looking rather like masonry discarded in the corner of a yard.  Nor do the JewishGen databases shed further light on Mór, his wife or family, other than one entry in the birth database and another in the death database:

     Ehrlich, Samu (son of Mor Ehrlich and Sarolta Rottman [sic], born May 20, 1892—but "entry has a strike through line")
     Ehrlich, Iren (daughter of Mor Ehrlich and Sarolta Rothman [sic], died September 17, 1895 at the age of ten)

These hitherto-unremembered children would appear to be two of the four older siblings whom József never knew.  (If Mór did name a son Samu, that would seem to imply that his own father Samu Ehrlich had died by May 20, 1892—given the Judiac tradition of not naming children after living ancestors.)

**What about "Móric's sister Hermina Greenhute," with whom Józsi lived in Budapest circa 1907-11?  "Greenhute" is how József's wife would spell the surname, many decades later.  But Mór Ehrlich's mother was born Regina Grunhut; and a Hermine Grunhut (aged 22, daughter of Elias Grunhut and Marie Reichenfeld) appears in the Győr marriage database, wedding Max Forst [sic], son of Adam and Eva Forstner, on February 28, 1875.  In the Győr birth database we find Hermine and Max Forstner having three children: Aladar Forstner on May 27, 1876; Theodor Foustner [sic] on December 31, 1878; and Hermina Forstner on December 31, 1880.  But just twelve days later, "Hermine Forst" (née Grunhut, the wife of "Miksa Forst") appears in the Győr death database— having died January 11, 1881, aged only 28.

It may be that Regina Grunhut Ehrlich (born 1839) was the older sister of Hermine Grunhut Forst[ner] (born 1852/53).  If so, we might further speculate that Regina took in and raised her late sister's newborn namesake; and that young Hermina was living in Budapest by 1907.  If so, József Ehrlich certainly might have regarded her as an aunt, rather than his father's cousin.  Whether (as the mother of two daughters, mentioned in Chapter 2) she still would have been surnamed Grunhut/Grünhut/"Greenhute," or would simply be remembered as such, are questions without answers.

Hermine Grunhut Forst[ner]'s birthplace is listed as "R Szigett" in the marriage database and "Gyorsiget" in the death database.  Győrsziget ("Győr Island") was originally a separate town on the far side of the River Rába/Raab; one third of its population was Jewish in 1869, as opposed to only 10% or so in Győr itself.

Elias Grunhut, father of Hermine (and Regina?) and husband of Mari/Marie Reichenfeld, is listed in the Győr death database as dying December 17, 1887, aged 79.  His birthplace is recorded as Kispecz, later known as Kajarpec, which is in Győr county.

Last updated December 30, 2009

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