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The Fall of the House of Bartha


“He was a workaholic doctor,” says Napoleon Savescu, an attending physician at Mount Sinai Hospital of Queens and president of the Romanian Medical Society of New York. Savescu first met Bartha in the emergency room at Elmhurst General Hospital in Queens. Bartha’s manner was professional and brusque. “Very to the point,” Savescu says. Bartha wasn’t interested in mixing in with the Romanian immigrant communities in Queens. He was angry about what had happened in Romania, and kept his distance. “It was a mistake,” Savescu says of Bartha’s attitude, but it was tolerable because so many war-era émigrés like Bartha carried displaced grudges. One story that Suteu, the Romanian Cultural Institute director, likes to tell is of the elderly Romanian immigrant who goes to the post office and instead of pulling the door open, he pushes and pushes. “Damn communists!” the man mutters. “Store’s closed again!”

Savescu invited Bartha to join his medical group. There were about 150 members in all: doctors, dentists, psychologists. The group gave out scholarships, hosted dinners.

Bartha wasn’t interested.

“No, no, no,” Bartha said. “I don’t want to get involved in any politics.”

“Politics?” Savescu said with a laugh. “Not politics—just a medical group.”

What Bartha wanted was property. He first found the house in 1980. The price was $395,000. The interior of the townhouse had been refashioned to function as a single-room-occupancy hotel. There were about a dozen small rooms rented out by transients or low-income tenants. Bartha believed it was once a brothel. (“Girls, a little too friendly,” he once explained—wink, wink—to Baum.) If Bartha could kick out those tenants and then renovate—he was a master with machines—his entire family could live there. Mother and father could use the second floor as their apartment—the mother’s hair salon would be on the parlor floor. He, Cordula, and their children could take the top two floors and use it as a duplex. Eventually, the below-ground floor could be partitioned into small rooms and an office. The best part for him was the address: 34 East 62nd Street. When Bartha made his first visit to New York—in 1965, when he was working at the watch factory—he had been traveling around Manhattan and found himself on the Upper East Side. His vision, he would later say, came to him while he stood on the corner of 59th and looking north, up the canyon of Fifth Avenue. “This is where I want to live for the rest of my life,” Bartha said, recounting the story to his former divorce lawyer, Ira Garr.

To make the purchase, the Bartha family—father, mother, Nicholas—all pooled their money. Cordula chipped in, too—$45,095 that she had saved on her own. Nicholas’s mother wrote the seller a check for $199,699, and mortgaged the rest with a bank, taking the title with her husband. After the tenants were finally removed, and basic renovations were made, the Bartha family moved in. The process took six years.

Now living in his dream house, his family began to fall apart. Dr. Bartha was never around. He kept working extra shifts. When he came home, he complained about his wife. She was depressed, he wrote; she drank too much. Nothing she did could please him. He wanted to divorce her in 1980, when they first bought the house but decided against it. “Because of the children,” he wrote.

And life was far from idyllic for Hahn. She claims he told her to wait up until he came home from work so she could do paperwork for him. He would often curse at her, she claims in court papers, calling her a “whore,” “lesbian,” and “lazy bitch.” One time, Bartha told her she owed him “4,000 fucks.” Living with him in that house was like living in “an invisible prison,” she claimed.

When her children heard Bartha turning his key in the door, they raced to their bedrooms, she writes, while she “would pretend to be asleep, her heart pounding.” Then she started finding images of swastikas and hammer and sickles. He had scribbled them on papers and glued them to the kitchen cabinets. “Nothing short of an act of emotional terrorism,” she claimed.

He claimed his swastikas were political jokes. They were “inch-by-inch” doodles inked on clippings from the New York Times. One news story was about Dutch abortion boats; the second was about Dutch pedophiles adopting Eastern European children. He was making an ironic point. “One group exporting abortion, the other importing minors for sexual exploitation,” he wrote.

Then Hahn got sick. In 1999, she discovered she had second-stage breast cancer and underwent chemotherapy treatments. She complained that he was aloof and uncaring and never came to the hospital. He claimed she told him not to come, to go to work instead. Then Bartha’s mother, Ethel, passed away. Against her doctor’s wishes, she had traveled back to Romania to reclaim the house she and her husband had lost to the communists. Ceausescu had been assassinated. Romania was liberated. The Barthas, like many Romanian families, wanted their house back. Back in Rosia Montana for the first time since she was released from prison, Bartha’s mother learned about a new and dangerous presence. A Canadian company, Gabriel Resources, had plans to purchase all the homes from the town, move the people out, and mine for gold. Some of the residents in Rosia Montana protested Gabriel’s plans. Bartha’s mother died during her attempts to reclaim her lost house. She was buried in Rosia Montana. The idea that her grave might be desecrated by a gold-mining concern infuriated Bartha.


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