Tuesday, June 1, 2010


I walked today in the footsteps of my Hungarian grandparents, and my life is more complete.

My grandparents, Sam Moldowan and Margaret Ornestein, came to Canada from Tolcsva, Hungary in the 1920's. Some of their family left with them, or came later to North America, but most stayed in Tolcsva, and with one exception, all of the remaining members of their family were killed by the Nazis in Auschwitz or Mauthausen. I owe my existence to my grandparents' departure. Since I never had the foresight to speak to them about their life in Hungary, I don't know many details but I believe that their family had lived in the Tolcsva area for generations. My grandfather Sam died when I was very young, and I only have a vague memory of him, but I knew and loved my grandmother Margaret. She was and remains, an important part of my life. She understood me and accepted me, and there was a special bond between us. I named my daughter Julianne Margaret. One of my greatest regrets is that my grandmother died only two years before Julianne was born; if only she could have met and held Julianne, it would have been wonderful.

It was therefore natural, if not essential for me, to visit Tolcsva. I was pleased and grateful when my friends Claude, Wes and Vince agreed to accompany me. We left from the main station in Budapest (Keleti), took an intercity train from Budapest to Szerencs, then took a local train to the station of Olaszliszka-Tolcsva, and we then took a bus, seven or so kilometres from Olaszliszka to Tolcsva.

When we arrived in Tolcsva, it was raining, we later learned that it has been raining there for weeks, and since our journey had taken four hours, we were all hungry and wanted to find a restaurant. None was evident so I went into a pharmacy, the employee at the pharmacy didn't speak English, but luckily one of the customers, whose name is Anita did, and she kindly offered to drive us to a restaurant. Its name was Kinzsen Etterem (which is the Hungarian word for restaurant) and since the owner didn't speak English and the menus were only in Hungarian, she stayed to help interpret the menu and choose what we would eat. We ended up asking for a number of typical local dishes and a local bottle of wine. We sat in the type of restaurant where my grandparents would have been, we ate the food they ate, and drank the type of sweet wine that was probably made in their day. It was authentic and felt wonderful. When we wanted dessert, I used google translate and showed the onscreen translation to the owner who brought us some delicious little cakes. We took pictures of the food, of the chef and of the owner, and when we left, he gave us a bottle of wine.

While we were in the restaurant, Wes went to an ATM machine and withdrew some Hungarian Forint's. I called my mother from the restaurant and told her where I was. It's times like this when we can't help but be amazed by the wonders of modern technology, linking the old and the new world.

After lunch, we went for a walk through Tolcsva which is situated in the wine growing district of Tokai. There are vineyards in the hills surrounding the town, and by and large, the town looks fairly prosperous. Most of the buildings are well kept and it all looks very pleasant. I walked down the main (pretty much only) road, I saw houses my grandmother would have seen, I passed by what I think was at some point a Jewish school, with a plaque in Hebrew and Hungarian containing the date 1871, and evidencing the existence of a Jewish population destroyed by the Nazis. The Nazis may have destroyed people, but thankfully they couldn't destroy history, which continues to speak to us. Being in Tolcsva was very moving, it touched my soul, it spoke to my connection with my grandparents, and particularly my grandmother Margaret, who is still in my heart.

Today was a wonderful conclusion to a spectacular journey. I was privileged to share the day with friends. We raised a glass of wine together and made a toast to my grandmother, we laughed together and walked in the rain together. We marvelled at the wonders of Hungarian bureaucracy at the train station, which requires two or three lavatory attendants to make sure that the people using the toilet pay the required 70 Forints (around 30 cents CDN). When Vince tried to leave without realizing he had to make this payment, one of the attendants screamed at him and he found out that this payment was necessary, and when he paid his 70 Forints, he was given a very official looking numbered, signed, dated and stamped receipt to evidence that he had in fact paid the required fee. Somewhere in Hungary, there must exist a warehouse where millions upon millions of these little numbered lavatory receipts stubs are kept. Someone has deemed it necessary to issue a stamped and numbered receipt for every excretion (we are not sure if the fee varies by type of excretion, without going into more detail 70 Forints may be the basic fee). This of course, is part of the joy of being here.

Our train journeys were comfortable, although not thoroughly modern, and the rail system in Hungary seems to be reasonably efficient, it is certainly well used and gets you where you want to go. Vince, Claude and Wes had a good laugh when I went to get cappuccinos for Wes and myself from the dining car and I tried to carry both cappuccinos back to our compartment holding the porcelain cups one on top of another while opening train doors (in retrospect, not a very good idea). I am sure you can imagine what happened next, there was one door between cars that was particularly difficult to open, the train lurched a little bit, the cups went flying, and pieces of cappuccino cup and cappuccino all ended up on a metal grate between two cars. My friends told me that when they heard the crash of cups, they all said "that has got to be Bill". And so it was. We did however, enjoy cappuccinos on the train, although I was more intelligent the second time around, we drank them in the dining car, served by an attendant with a name tag simply marked “38” – we are still not quite sure what that was a reference to. We looked for her relatives 37 and 39, but they were no-where to be found.

Just before we left Tolcsva, Vince stopped at a wine store and bought me a nice bottle of wine, which I will enjoy with my family. The owner of the store then heard we were going back to the train station at Olaszliszka-Tolcsva and rather than have us wait for the bus, he offer to drive us there. On the way, we passed through flooded areas, as a result of the heavy rainfall recently rivers are overflowing their banks and as the pictures below show, the situation is quite serious, people were sandbagging, rivers were flowing wildly and as the train took us through the countryside, there was ample evidence of flooded fields.

When we reached the train station at Olaszliszka-Tolcsva, we had about a half hour wait, and while I was waiting and looking at the train tracks, I realized that members of my grandparents' family were no doubt shipped along those very same train tracks to Auschwitz and Mauthausen where they were murdered by the Nazis. I was drawn to the train tracks, I couldn't stop looking at them and wondering what it must have felt like for my ancestors to be shipped in box cars along the same rails which I would be riding back to Budapest. Over sixty years have passed, but the rails are still there, and so are the memories.

I spent today in my family's old home. Tomorrow I return to my home. Both are now part of my life.


  1. Hi Bill, Maryse and Friends,

    Your extraordinary journey continues to move us more, day by day. The pilgrimage to your family's home at Tolcsva bespeaks Jewish heritage and continuity all at once. Looking forward to more, of course.


  2. My family was also from Tolcsva. Since I am also Jewish, most of my family were murdered by the Nazis. My Grandfather's name was Adolf Dick. My Great, Great Grandfather moved from Manchester England to Tolcsva in the early-1800s. My grandparents were somewhat wealthy and owned vineyards and a textile shop. They had a 600 square meter house which was turned into 12 apartments by the Communists.

    My Grandmother's maiden name was Friedman. The cousins who survived the war moved to Budapest and married Christens which was very common. They changed their name from Friedman to Ferenczi which appears to be a common Hungarian last name I still have two first cousins with one son and four grandchildren who live in Budapest. We were fortunate that three of them came to my daughter's wedding five years ago.

    My father moved to the US in 1928 and settled in Chicago where I live. Though I have been in Europe 30-35 times since 1983 mostly due to my profession, I was in Tolscva only once about fifteen years ago. I found my Grandparent's house, but more importantly, I saw the Jewish gravestones which were knocked down and landed on the ground in all directions. Since I do not speak Hebrew, I could not determine whether any of my family was buried there.

    My cousin who drove be there took a photograph of me at the city limits sign. Just recently, I looked at the photo. I was not exactly smiling.

    I plan to go back to Budapest next year and will again go to Tolscva. Of course, the shock of seeing the village for the first time is gone and I feel that I can deal with it in a much more positive way than the first. Your comments about Tolscva are so great that they have given me even more interest in going back.

    I am very happy about your recovery. As my mother used to say (and many mothers say), you should live to be 120!


    1. Richard,

      My great great grandmother was a Friedman from Tolcsva. Is your Friedman grandmother also from Tolscva? I am curious if we have a connection-- can you please contact me at poo.junior@me.com.

  3. Last night I thought about my statements and they were quite negative Frankly, I don't know why. Every time I travel to Budapest, I feel that I am home to some extent. It is not only because of my cousins live there; it is because I am a first generation American and maybe my relationship with Hungary is slightly closer. Again, I cannot wait to go back to Tolscva next year!

  4. Hi! I wanted to know if your grandmother may have known my great-grandparents. George Guthy and Veronika Vitovics. They were from Tolcsva and apparently my great-grandpa George's family owned a vineyard. They came to Canada (Guelph, ON) in the early 1920's as well. I am unsure of the date, but since I can't find any census records online, your blog showed up in my search. Sounds like a wonderful and moving trip. I recently just got back from Hungary (I'm also Canadian), for work but didn't have a chance to make it to Tolcsva. I am hoping to when I return. susankurtz@me.com I would love to hear if your grandmother may recognize the names of my great-grandparents. I have very little from them, and unfortunately, my family on that side is all deceased.

  5. I thank you for blogging this and the pictures! MY great-grandparents were from the Tolcsva/Vamosujfalu area. The last name was Markovitz/Markovics. We have done some research on the family all the way back to 1704. Before that we don't know where they came from. My great-grandparents left in the late 1800's/early 1900's and they do emigrated to Canada. It must have been easier to go to Canada than the US. Yet with in a year or 2 they came to America (North Tonawanda NY). I would love to one day go to these 2 towns and visit and learn what I can of them. We have 2 sides of the family, the Catholics and Jewish side. I dont know why there were 2 branches other than it had to do with the politics of the time. I would love to learn more and thanks to you I now have a mental imagine in my mind of what the place looks like! Thanks again! Marion Ounis

  6. My great-grandfather, Samuel Fried/Freed was born in Tolscva in 1859. He lived in Debrecen, Nagy Karolyi and Budapest. He married Fannie Bruder from Nagy Karoli and emigrated to the U.S. in 1888.

    I am searching for any information about the Fried/Freed family from Tolscva. Is there a Jewish cemetery? Is there a municipal registery of births/marriages/deaths/census?

    Has the Hebrew plaque been translated to English?

    Any information about the Fried/Freed family would be so appreciated. Or suggestions/links to researching the 19th Century.

    Thanks for the wonderful blog. I enjoyed reading about the trip and seeing the photos.