Women accused of poisoning stand in the garden of a makeshift prison in Nagyrev, Hungary, 1929

Martin Munkacsi/ullstein bild via Getty Images

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How They Lived

An unlikely book opened a window into my grandmothers’ lives in Hungary before they were murdered in the Holocaust

Carol Ungar
August 21, 2023
Women accused of poisoning stand in the garden of a makeshift prison in Nagyrev, Hungary, 1929

Martin Munkacsi/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Like many of the 6 million Jews murdered in the Holocaust, my grandmothers—both of whom were gassed in Auschwitz—vanished from the world almost without a trace. My maternal grandmother’s legacy consisted of four photographs, a few tablecloths, and a tarnished gold locket. My paternal grandmother left nothing—not even a snapshot.

For years, I mined the memories of surviving relatives trying to recreate their lives. I squeezed out a few stories, but not enough. Through internet genealogical research, I discovered names and places, but no context. In an attempt to pull it all together, I even journeyed to my grandmothers’ birthplaces, but aside from family tombstones, which thankfully remained intact, I found nothing.

After years of searching, I had almost given up on learning more about the lives of my grandmothers. Recently, however, an unlikely book opened a window into their lives. The Angel Makers: Arsenic, a Midwife, and Modern History’s Most Astonishing Murder Ring tells the bizarre story of Suzannah “Auntie Suzy” Fazekas, an early-20th-century midwife whose lucrative side hustle in murder resulted in 160 deaths by poisoning.

My grandmothers weren’t midwives, nor were they criminals. However, they probably heard the story of “Auntie Suzy” when it broke; it captured headlines everywhere, even in The New York Times and, most appropriately, the 1931 edition of Ripley’s Believe It or Not, but especially in Hungary, where my grandmothers and Auntie Suzy lived in small towns.

Auntie Suzy’s hometown of Nagyrev, a farming village of 800 two hours from Budapest, resembled my grandmothers’ towns. My mother’s mother grew up in the small northeast Hungarian town of Csenger and my father’s mother in Petelea, an even smaller village with a tiny Jewish population and an unusually high concentration of Roma. With its vivid descriptions of early-20th-century small-town Hungary compiled over 14 years of painstaking research—including interviews with Nagyrev village elders, a survey of police records, and even a review of Hungarian meteorological service reports—The Angel Makers opened for me a previously boarded window into my grandmothers’ world.

The work that author Patti McCracken evokes is hard and crude. As late as 1929, towns like Nagyrev and my grandmothers’ birthplaces lacked cars, telephones, electricity, central heating, washers and dryers, fridges, and even indoor toilets. Clothes were washed by hand, usually on Mondays or Thursdays, and everything from canned goods, jams, smoked meats, liquor, wine, and cheese to candles and soap was made at home, from scratch.

Those homemade goodies were meager compensation for a life full of struggle. Money was scarce; post-WWI Hungary was wracked by hyperinflation. Food insecurity was real. That’s probably why my maternal grandmother agreed to let her husband leave her to work in the U.S. That’s also why Auntie Suzy believed that poisoning newborns was an act of kindness.

Even when the crops were bounteous, food could be scarce; McCracken reveals that nearly half the harvested produce was lost due to lack of refrigeration or transportation problems. And the absence of blacktop roads made traveling even short distances difficult. During the dry months, the roads were dirt trails kicking up dust. On wet days, my grandmothers and Auntie Suzy and other Hungarian villagers clad in heavy leather boots waded through rivers of mud, ice, and snow.

“During the long cold season,” McCracken writes, “the village snapped shut on her like a snare. The sky was a smothering one, low and heavy, and most of the cottages were closed tight swaddling families inside. Window shutters were clasped against the foul weather. Tall bundles of kindling and firewood were stacked like fortresses in the side years.”

To keep warm, both genders bundled up in heavy coats, the women adding shawls. Hungarian women adopted what McCracken calls “crow” garb: long black skirts insulated during the winters with layers of petticoats topped by black blouses, and black headscarves tied under the chin, which didn’t make for a pretty site. Jews dressed this way, too.

What rural Hungary lacked in chic, it made up for in cleanliness.

“Most plains peasants, despite their work in the fields, were obsessively hygienic. They bathed even in the iciest water if that was the only means of getting clean,” writes McCracken. Devotion to cleanliness is a part of Jewish culture. Hungarian Jews have taken it to the next level. In her Spielberg Foundation interview, my mother recalled washing her body under an icy tap in Auschwitz.

Lacking access to modern medicine, small-town Hungarians recognized that cleanliness was the first line and possibly only line of defense against disease. In these towns, midwives like Auntie Suzy—who McCracken tells us was also a gifted herbalist—were often the only medical professionals. Jews in need turned to them. A famous story from my maternal grandmother’s era involved a non-Jewish nanny who treated a Jewish baby with herbal anti-colic drops, which caused him to sleep for three days.

As to the toxic tinctures, it’s unlikely that they were used by my ancestors or other Jews. Among small-town Hungarian Jews, murder was virtually unknown; when a Jew was accused of taking a life, my maternal great-grandfather, a rabbi and scholar, assumed the charges and fasted on his behalf.

Jews also turned to their own healing tradition rooted in Jewish mystical texts. In my maternal grandmother’s town, Rabbi Asher Anschel Jungreis, known as the Menuchos Osher, was a skilled healer who attracted Jews and even non-Jews from all over Hungary.

But even with holy men to guide them, how did my grandmothers survive in these towns? In Nagyrev, says McCracken, disheartened villagers escaped into drunkenness—alcoholism was rampant.

What about my grandmothers? According to Hungarian Jewish historian András Koerner, few Jews abused alcohol, and presumably even fewer Jewish women. So what did my grandmothers do to survive the rough winters, the mud, and the poverty?

It appears that they leaned into their faith—both of my grandmothers were believing Jews.

Using language that seem lifted from Abraham Joshua Heschel’s classic The Earth Is the Lord’s, the anonymous author of the Csenger Memorial Book describes Shabbos in my maternal grandmother’s town:

“The appearance of their (the townspeople’s) faces radiated holiness as if the Holy Shechina (Divine Presence) rested on their faces … these Jews who a short time earlier working hard to support their families, who just sanctified themselves … to serve their Creator, and go to shul to greet the holy Shabbos queen. The Gentiles in the street knew that the Jew whom they had just previously been able to converse with about day-to-day matters, was now completely transformed into a different type of person immersed in the service of his Creator. … That Gentile from the street strove in his subconscious mind to be like him and envied him because of it.”

Perhaps so, but that envy would quickly turn to hate, a mass ideology of eugenics and murder. Barely a decade after Auntie Suzy poisoned dozens of newborn babies—a number that seemed shocking at the time—my grandmother, along with 800,000 other Hungarian Jews now labeled “undesirables,” had their lives terminated in the greatest mass poisoning in history.

Like the rest of the 6 million, my grandmothers are gone, lacking even a burial place. I think about them when I say the Shema—probably the last words they ever said. I also think about them when I do things they must have done, such as watering my tomato plants, braiding challahs, or laying homemade pasta on dish towels to dry.

But now, thanks to McCracken’s book, I can also imagine what my grandmothers’ lives were like before the Holocaust, in small-town Hungary. And they don’t seem so distant and mysterious after all.

Carol Ungar’s writing has appeared in Next Avenue, Forbes, NPR, the Jerusalem Post Magazine, and Fox News. She also leads memoir writing workshops on Zoom.