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The Fall of the House of Bartha

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The floor plan from Bartha's building; inset, Bartha's wife, Cordula. (Photo-collage by Gerald Slota)  

But for all the focus about the divorce from hell, what finally drove Dr. Bartha mad began in the old country, 60 years ago. His case has everything to do with refugees in America, the unquenchable anger of the dispossessed.

They met in Rome in 1973. Cordula Hahn had earned her doctorate in German literature, reading the classics—Goethe, Mann, Hesse. He was trying to finish up medical training and shuttled back and forth from New York, to where he and his parents had immigrated from Romania in 1965, after the communists had let them out of prison. They spoke in Italian in their respective accents—her Dutch, his Eastern European—and swapped stories about oppressed childhoods.

She had hidden from the Nazis. Her grandfather had been a painter. Her father was born in Bohemia, in Czechoslovakia, just across the German border, in a hilly region dotted by peat bogs, glacial lakes, and slashing pines. With the Nazis marching through Europe, the Hahn family fled to the Netherlands in 1938. Cordula was born there. Her mother was forced to wear a Jewish star and converted to Catholicism, concealing her daughter’s Jewish origins.

Romania had its own homegrown Holocaust. The Romanian Army, its troops often working with the Einsatzkommando, the Nazi killing squads, had already initiated pogroms during the so-called Romanian Holocaust. Jews were rounded up by Romanian troops and police and arrested, robbed, hanged, suffocated to death, or sent to labor camps. In one pogrom in 1941, the year after Bartha was born, at least 13,266 Jews were killed on “death trains,” which shuttled back and forth across the Romanian countryside for a week without food or water. Nicholas moved with his grandmother to the nearest city, Cluj, in the north.

“There were conflicts within conflicts within conflicts,” says Corina Suteu, director of the Romanian Cultural Institute in New York, about the different regimes in Romania during the war era. “The generation was entering an unknown period of social change. They didn’t know how to deal with the immediate past, and were uncertain about the immediate future. It was all unknown.”

Then the communists came after the war, ousting the king by December 1947, arresting dissidents in sweeps, and nationalizing the country’s private companies, including the Bartha family mine. Janos Bartha, Nicholas’s father, was arrested during these seizures. The communists accused him of hoarding gold; he spent two years in prison.

By the fifties, Nicholas wanted to enter medical school, but he couldn’t apply because his father was a convict. Instead, Nicholas enrolled in a technical school and learned to work with machines like the lathe. He had nimble, steady hands.

Finally, in 1960, Bartha was accepted to medical school. But then his father was rearrested—again accused of stockpiling gold. The communists also arrested his mother, Ethel, thinking her imprisonment would compel her husband to provide information about the gold’s alleged hiding place. Did they know where the gold was? Was there any gold to begin with? Nicholas didn’t say. As a result, he was “ex matriculated” from medical school, Bartha wrote.

He was tracked down by an officer from the Romanian police, who told him that his arrest was imminent; if the communists tortured Nicholas, they figured, perhaps his father would finally give up the family gold. Nicholas did not waste much time. Leaving his parents behind in prison, he disappeared. He fled to Israel, where he lived on a kibbutz. When his parents were released from prison after nine months, he reunited with them in Rome with the help of a relative who was a priest in the Vatican.

Cordula had landed a job as an assistant to a publisher, but Nicholas wanted to leave. One reason was politics. In Italy, the socialists could not be ignored, he felt. After all the horrors his family had endured in Romania, he had become distrustful of government control. He wanted her to move with him to New York. His parents had been working and now owned a house in Rego Park. It was a Jewish neighborhood. They could live in the basement. Save money, be safe.

It wasn’t easy for Bartha to get his medical certification here. His English was lousy, garbled at first. He failed his exams several times. To subsidize the schooling foreign doctors needed to get American licenses, he took a job at Bulova, the watch company. His pay was minimum wage: $1.25 an hour. He saved every nickel with missionary zeal. Copies of his bankbook issued from the Greater New York Savings Bank in 1966 show deposits made religiously every week: $65 on the 10th, $25 on the 17th, $85 on the 24th.

Hahn took a job at the Dutch Consulate. She worked in the cultural section and made the commute to work from Rego Park. He studied for his boards. They fell into routines. Three years after they arrived, after Dr. Bartha had finally received his American certification (he had to travel to Chicago to get approved), Hahn learned she was pregnant. He wanted her to have an abortion, he wrote. “She refused.” Quickly, they married in a civil ceremony. Serena, their first child, was born seven months later. A year after that came Johanna. Hahn left her job at the consulate to raise them. To finance the young family he now had, Bartha took extra shifts. They were twelve-, fourteen-hour days on his feet, six days a week, sometimes seven, sewing up gunshot wounds in teens with no insurance, handling car-wreck victims. He worked nights, mostly.


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