The Fall of the House of Bartha

From left, Bartha in his mid-twenties in a Queens tool factory; the remains of Bartha's East 62nd Street townhouse. (Photo-collage by Gerald Slota)Photo: Courtesy of Mark Baum (Nicholas Bartha); Patrick Andrade/Polaris (Building)

Dr. Nicholas Bartha was driven from his first home at the age of 4. He came from a prosperous family in Romania. His father owned a gold mine in the Carpathian foothills, in a Transylvanian town of 4,000 called Rosia Montana, the oldest mining settlement in the country. It was founded by the Romans almost 2,000 years before. The family was a quarter Jewish (his grandfather was a rabbi), and during World War II, harassed by Romania’s Nazi-allied Iron Guard, they were driven into hiding up in the mountains, in the mines, with many of their Jewish neighbors.

“Being in a cavern,” he wrote, “was one of my earliest memories.”

The doctor was thinking about his childhood and planning to share these and other memories and last thoughts with the world in an ongoing suicide note that he started four years ago and finished on July 10. He made his way downstairs at daybreak to the desktop computer in his study, which he had set up on the third floor of his landmarked townhouse on East 62nd Street, between Park and Madison Avenues. Outside, trucks had already started to make their deliveries. He’d always hated their smoke and noise.

Inside the house was clutter. Mostly books, medical journals, newspapers. On his dining-room table, for instance, loose papers rose as high as two feet in stacks; buried between them one could see a lone bowl he was using for his meals. His wife, Cordula, had left him five years earlier, taking his children, suing him for divorce, seeking compensation for decades spent together.

In his life as a bachelor, the doctor’s health had deteriorated. He weighed a bearish 350 pounds, suffered from diabetes and heart trouble, and, at 66, didn’t bother much with appearances. He dressed in cheap khaki pants most days, often leaving his checkered shirts untucked, his fly unzipped. Once, when his real-estate broker and friend, Mark Baum, came to the townhouse, he noticed the lenses of the doctor’s glasses covered in specks of white dust. “You been up painting all night, doctor?” Baum, who was always charmed by the doctor, remembers saying. “No,” was Bartha’s reply. “It is just the dandruff.” With that declaration, Bartha removed his brown frames and gave his lenses a hearty puff.

The townhouse was a Neo-Grecian gem, built in 1882, one of the first erected on the Upper East Side. But Bartha’s passion for it was not as a historical artifact. The room off the parlor, with the white marble fireplace, grand chandelier, and gold-leaf ceiling, for instance, was once used by Franklin Delano Roosevelt and captains of New York industry like Vincent Astor and Nelson Doubleday as a secret war room, where they discussed military intelligence during the forties. “You could feel them,” says Baum. “You walked in that room and you could see those men playing cards and tossing their nubby stogies into a roaring fire.” Dr. Bartha didn’t see the romance. He capped the fireplace—he didn’t want to lose any pricey air-conditioning up the chimney—and took the chandelier down to the basement. He used FDR’s hideaway for storage. A three-speed Schwinn was parked there, and a creepy pair of rusting, sixties-style hair dryers his mother used in her beauty shop (it was said she styled the hair of Barbara Walters) were marooned, along with more books, more papers, gathering dust. Over the years, Baum often told Bartha to move his junk to the basement, open the space up a bit. The doctor usually ignored him. He cherished his possessions, his papers, his clutter. They kept him company.

But that morning, sitting at his computer in his study, he planned on leaving nothing behind. He looked at his screen saver, which featured a scanned-in black-and-white photo of his family’s seized home back in Rosia Montana—a concrete, one-story structure. The grainy image showed himself and his now-deceased younger brother, Attila, smiling and playing out front. Dr. Bartha then focused on his letter, addressed first to the conservatives he admired, like Senator Arlen Specter and Brit Hume, and then to the objects of his revenge: his wife and daughters. “When you read this lines your life will change forever,” he wrote in a now-famous farewell, before he rigged a gas pipe in his basement and blew up his house in an explosion so loud and fearsome that the White House was informed. “You deserve it. You will be transformed from gold digger to rubbish digger. You always wanted me to sell the house. I always told you ‘I will leave the house only if I am dead.’ You ridiculed me. You should have taken it seriously.”

Divorce lawyers and matrimonial experts said the vindictive nature of the case was unusual only in degree. “We call them barn burners,” says Jeffrey Strauss, a lawyer with Wachtel & Masyr who once fought over ownership of a house for more than twenty years in divorce court. “They’d rather take away the sandbox than let anyone else play in it.”

The floor plan from Bartha's building; inset, Bartha's wife, Cordula. (Photo-collage by Gerald Slota)Photo: Gary Listort/Polaris (Cordula Hahn); Courtesy of Mark Baum (Floor Plan)

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.

“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.

Instead of traveling back to Romania to oversee his mother’s funeral, Dr. Bartha decided to say home in New York. Cordula went in his stead. Again, he claimed he had to work.

The real trouble started with his daughters, he wrote. He couldn’t control them. He blamed Cordula. “She permitted them to come and go as they wished,” he wrote. “There were no rules. She never asked them to do anything in the house.” He wanted them to study in college and secure honorable professions like lawyers or doctors. His oldest, Johanna, was interested in fashion. His youngest, Serena, had tattoos around both shoulders. She wanted to be a chef. Bartha saw this as Cordula’s fault and refused to pay their tuitions. “She was supposed to educate her children,” he wrote. “I do not think that a COOK and a SEAMSTRESS is a very good result. Cordula had only one responsibility and she failed!”

One night, a fight broke out. It was between Johanna and Serena. “When I asked Cordula to help me to control Johanna, Cordula refused to get involved,” Bartha wrote. He and Cordula became estranged. He worked the night shifts—sometimes as many as six a week—along with moonlighting at other hospitals. Eventually, in October 2001, she moved out with her daughters. This is the note she left him: “Nicholas, it is clear we cannot live together. More than two years of no communication seems enough. All the best for your future. Cordula.”

“That house to Dr. Bartha was the incarnation of the American Dream,” says his first divorce lawyer. “It wasall he cared about. It was like his mistress.”

Dr. Bartha didn’t even know where they had moved at first. One day shortly after, he saw Cordula’s car parked in the neighborhood. He was curious. He waited until she returned. Then, according to one of his confidants, he followed her. She drove north, all the way up to Washington Heights. She had taken an apartment there. “He couldn’t understand,” the friend says. “He couldn’t understand why they would want to live in Washington Heights when they could live on the Upper East Side.”

Then she filed for divorce. He was shocked and panicked, the friend says. He always blamed his brother Attila’s death on divorce. “Now my brother is dead and his ex-wife is enjoying his house,” Bartha wrote. “I don’t know why he worked all his life.”

When Bartha first arrived in his lawyer’s office in late 2001, Garr was unsure about taking his case. Garr is one of the high-profile divorce lawyers in the city, taking boldface clients with big bank accounts. He went after Donald Trump on behalf of Ivana. He went after Anthony Quinn on behalf of the actor’s wife. He repped Playboy Bunny turned federal judge Kimba Wood. Who was this overweight, disheveled doctor in front of him, saying his divorce was a by-product of the world’s political ills? “He was very serious, very strict, humorless,” Garr says. “A very withdrawn, isolated individual.” And stubborn. “He didn’t seem to understand the system and how sometimes the system forces people to settle. Litigating is time-consuming. It’s risky. So with most people I say, ‘Look, we never know who the judge is going to like. Maybe you win. Maybe you lose.’ He couldn’t discuss it. He didn’t want to settle.”

They went to trial in March 2002. Unlike their gloomy criminal counterparts up the street, where the courtrooms are flooded with fluorescent light and designed “rough” to deter would-be criminals, the matrimonial parts at New York State Supreme Court, at 60 Centre Street, have a more polished feel. The trial was held on the third floor, Room 345. The front door is wrapped in brown leather and secured with brass rivets, like an antique trunk. Inside, the courtroom looks much like the interior of Bartha’s home, with dark mahogany wainscoting around the walls.

This is Supreme Court Justice Joan Lobis’s part. With short, spiky hair that looks frosted blonde on top, Lobis is considered one of the more liberal judges in the state, in part because she is openly gay. From the outset, Garr sensed she had a “negative” opinion of Dr. Bartha, according to letters.

Unlike every other state, New York still has the controversial “fault” laws on the books, which means you need a reason to get divorced. In Bartha v. Bartha, the fault was fuzzy. Bartha may have been cold and absent emotionally, but he didn’t cheat and didn’t hit her. Besides, it was Cordula who had left him. In presenting their case, Cordula’s attorneys told of how he refused to go to his mother’s funeral and didn’t show up when Cordula was suffering from breast cancer. They also produced two clippings from the New York Times with swastikas and hammers and sickles. Bartha claimed she was after his money. “If one is a gold digger any lie will do,” he wrote. “She never consulted a psychiatrist or priest or rabbi or marriage counselor!!!”

Lobis granted a divorce to Hahn on the grounds of “cruel and inhuman” treatment. Both parties agreed to let a special referee make any financial determinations in the case. At this point, Garr also begged Bartha to offer Hahn a “legitimate” cash settlement to end the case. Dr. Bartha had made an offer, but it was far from reasonable: $400,000. She countered with $1.2 million, but he refused to budge.

When the referee, Marilyn Dershowitz, sister-in-law to Harvard legal giant Alan Dershowitz, looked at the financial records in the case, she made a ruling that would prove controversial. While she believed Bartha was legally entitled to keep his house, she looked to compensate Hahn for getting edged out of what Dershowitz believed was her fair share. The total figure she came up with was $1,227,733.50, nearly half of which was compensation for the decade or so she’d spent raising their children and looking after his parents. “If I could have found her any more money, I would have,” says Dershowitz.

The ruling meant Bartha would have to sell the house, or take another mortgage. He was shell-shocked, and his mental state began to slip from gruff eccentricity toward depression. It was around this time that he penned his first suicide letter, documenting his life in scribbly handwriting. He also made his first suicide attempt, shutting himself in his basement office and dousing the air with insecticide.

His emotional downfall was just beginning. After refusing to accept Dershowitz’s findings, Bartha appealed the decision. Hahn also appealed. Despite the fact that Bartha was holding title to 34 East 62nd, she believed she was entitled to a share. The ruling from the higher court finally came down in January 2005. As it happened, the appeal proved a terrible blunder. Dr. Bartha had been foolish not to settle. Although the court agreed with Bartha that the $1.2 million in compensation for Hahn was unfair, it also held that she had a legal claim to the house. By this point, Garr says the case was turning into “a classic runaway train.” His client became despondent. Garr tried to contact Bartha to discuss the opinion but couldn’t reach him via letter or phone.“Emotionally, he just checked out,” says Garr, who removed himself as counsel. “That house to Dr. Bartha was the incarnation of the American Dream. It validated all the work he had done, how far he had come from his childhood. It was all he cared about. That house was his mistress.”

Around this period, Bartha tried suicide again. This time, he was found in the basement with the gas on. When his secretary arrived in the morning, she called the police, who broke down the door.

A new trial on the matter of finances was scheduled last fall. But when the day came, Bartha’s seat at the defense table was empty. He didn’t show up. His wife’s requests—stakes in the house worth $4 million, $125,000 in fees for her lawyer, $5,000 a month in maintenance—were all unopposed. With capital-gains taxes and all other payments and debts to her, Bartha would be broke. “Not one nickel,” Garr says. “Nothing. Zippo.”

She then moved to sell the house by auction. A sheriff was instructed to remove her former husband from the house, along with an antique secretary and two desks. The servers came with legal papers and notices. Dr. Bartha did not respond. Two weeks before the explosion, he called Baum, the broker. Bartha wanted to know, if he chose to sell the house, how long would it take. “Three months,” Baum said. No follow-up calls by Bartha were made.

Bartha was also sick around the times of his court dates, he wrote. One day he came down with the flu, the next with gastroenteritis. He gained more weight. “I was very sick but I went to work,” he wrote. “The nurses did not let me stay. I went in because I did not want to be told that I am malingering.”

Then the boiler broke down—it was an ancient contraption, and it needed fixing. Then the electric line broke. The house, like its owner, was crumbling.

Bartha did not fear death. “Dead people do not suffer,” he wrote. Besides, he had the satisfaction of revenge, the satisfaction a life’s work was never up for sale. “Cordula now you believe what I told you,” he wrote. “I am not going to let any body evict me as the communists did it in Rumania, in 1947.”

After the blast, Bartha spent six days in a coma. He died of burns he suffered and of medical complications stemming from his weight. He was buried last week in the same grave as his father, born 1910, and his younger brother Attila. Their modest granite tombstone is shared with other family members. There were a dozen or so people at the burial, including his wife and daughters. “Nobody showed any emotion—it was like nobody really gave a damn,” says Michael Schneider, who works at Cypress Hills Cemetery. “The priest came and said a couple of words and that was it. It was over.”

Then Schneider used his backhoe to shovel the dirt back over. “I had no emotion,” says Schneider. “I was just feeling what he did to others.”

Now the three refugees are together—in a home no one can force them out of.

Additional reporting by Yael Kohen.

The Fall of the House of Bartha