Unrequited Love and Close Calls With Nazis: The Story Behind the ‘Anne Frank of Budapest’

Recent Haaretz story on poignant wartime journal written by teen Jewish girl Judit Ornstein leads to surprising new discoveries — including how the diary ended up in Israel and the identity of a mystery man called 'Ephraim Gross'

Ephraim Golan, left, listening to extracts from Judit Ornstein's diary being read to him by Nir Itzik from the Moreshet Archive, where the journal is stored.
Screengrab / Rami Shllush

The 91-year-old man with kind blue eyes and wisps of white hair named Ephraim Golan sits at his kitchen table in this kibbutz he helped build as a young refugee after fleeing Nazi Europe. He is holding a diary he has not seen in many decades.

It was written by Judit Ornstein, a cheerful and intellectually curious Jewish teenager he knew in Budapest 75 years ago. Back then, his name was Jóska Gross and he was Judit’s big crush. She often wrote about him and to him in her diary, including her final journal entry on September 13, 1944 — just days before she was killed in an Allied bombing.

>> Read the original story: Newly Discovered Diary Chronicles Jewish Girl’s Life in Nazi-occupied Hungary

The diary, which resurfaced only recently, provides insights into the situation for Jews in Budapest living under Nazi rule before they were moved into a ghetto, and contains hints of teenage love intrigues and Judit’s inner thoughts.

In the final entry from September 13, 1944, just days before she died. Judit asks Jóska if he remembers the rainy afternoon they spent together.

Nir Itzik, the archivist who has brought Judit’s diary over to Kibbutz Dalia from the Moreshet Archive where it is normally stored, reads this passage out loud for Golan:

“Do you think we will ever meet again?” Judit writes. “I just think that you must think of us sometimes, but we will never meet. The siren has gone off!!!”

Ephraim Golan (née Jóska Gross) at his home in Kibbutz Dalia, northern Israel, May 2019.
Rami Shllush

Golan sits very still, his hands folded in his lap, as the archivist reads Judit’s closing words: “Live happily. We (and I) think of you with love.” He slowly looks up and says: “I missed out. I missed out on so much.”

The discovery of Ornstein’s diary in the Holocaust archive, newly translated into Hebrew and then tracked to Judit’s living relatives — who were unaware of its existence — was first reported by Haaretz earlier this month.

A mystery solved

At the time, the story of how it ended up in the archive remained a mystery. The only record noted was that the diary had been presented to the archive by a gentleman called “Ephraim Gross.” (Ephraim Hebraized his name from Gross to Golan in the 1960s.) But there was no date, nor an address for Gross.

However, a Haaretz reader in Jerusalem, Zlil Sela, read the article and recognized the name as that of his father’s old school friend from Hungary. He connected the diary to a story his father had told him about recovering a journal in Budapest, and proceeded to notify the archive.

Ephraim Golan holding Judit Ornstein's diary, with Zlil Sela opposite him, at Golan's home in Kibbutz Dalia.
Dina Kraft

Sela’s father had immigrated to Israel in 1948, and soon after changed his name from Gyuri Schwartz to Arieh Sela. An electrician by training, he was a manager for Israel’s national water authority. His life story was recorded in a self-published biography entitled “Life in the Shadow of the Inferno,” written by his daughter-in-law Dr. Sagit Blumrosen-Sela. He died in 2014 at age 87.

In the book, he recounts how one Sunday in 1944, after a major Allied bombing on Nazi-occupied Budapest had left 1,500 people dead, he went to visit his sister Eva and her friend Judit, with whom he was in love.

When he arrived at the building, which housed a dormitory for young Jewish women, he found it destroyed. Most of those who lived there had managed to escape in time. But four young women and their caretaker, a Miss Klari, had been killed, their bodies buried under the rubble. He saw the bodies laid out and immediately recognized one of them as Judit.

“Judit’s friends, who knew I liked her, gave me her diary, which they had found in the rubble,” Arieh Sela recounted in the biography. When he read the diary, he continued, “I discovered it was my friend Ephraim she loved.” And so, he said, he decided to pass on the diary to his friend whenever they might next meet.

Arieh Sela, who went on the run and evaded the Nazis in 1944 and 1945 thanks to forged papers saying he was a Hungarian Christian, ended up losing or having to abandon all of his belongings, including his grandfather’s ritual prayer shawl, according to his son — but still managed to hold onto the diary.

“The fact that he kept this diary when he lost everything else — including things that were dear to him — in order to bring it to Ephraim is amazing in itself,” says Zlil Sela, 57, a math professor at the Hebrew University.

Ephraim Golan (née Jóska Gross).
Reproduction: Dina Kraft

Judit writes about Gyuri Schwartz in the diary, noting that they spend a lot of time together and she feels good around him because he is “considerate, sincere and truly kind.” She admits to being aware of his affections for her but says they are not mutual, even after he sends her — “with love” — 18 roses to mark her 18th birthday.

Within days of Schwartz/Sela immigrating to Israel in 1948, he had made his way to Kibbutz Dalia, in the foothills of Mount Carmel, in order to personally deliver the diary to his old friend Jóska.

Optimistic young woman

Speaking at the same kibbutz some 70 years on, Ephraim Golan — whose own wife, Hadassah, is still alive — says that when he was first given the diary, he was surprised to learn that he was the object of Judit’s affections. But he adds that because he knew his friend was interested in her, he would not have wanted to interfere in any potential courtship.

Judit Ornstein, right, photographed with three other young Jewish women, including Jutka (Judit) Greenbaum and Rosi Eisler, who lived with her in Budapest. Greenbaum was also mentioned in the diary.
Reproduction: Dina Kraft

He recalls meeting Judit in the Hungarian capital during the war, their first meeting taking place as they were clearing away rubble from the bombed-out remains of the National Transportation Museum.

“I remember Judit as a curious, cheerful young woman — she was optimistic, very optimistic,” Golan recalls.

When his friend initially gave him the diary, Golan recalls how he thought to himself: “I am so happy that something remains from Judit after all.”

He says he decided to pass the diary on to the archive not long after receiving it, noting how he had been influenced at the time by the recent publication of Anne Frank’s Holocaust diary. “I figured historians would find it important,” Golan explains. “I brought the diary to the archive because I figured that was the best place for a diary that could have historical significance.”

Arieh Sela (née Gyuri Shwartz). One of his first acts upon immigrating to Israel in 1948 was to locate Ephraim Golan and give him Judit Ornstein's diary.
Reproduction: Dina Kraft

Zlil Sela accompanied the archivist Itzik this month to see Golan, whom he had actually met many years ago as a child. Together, they pour over old photos and a copy of the biography of Arieh Sela, and discuss Judit and their own family connections.

Their conversation focuses on the spring and summer months of 1944 when Judit kept her diary, and the circumstances that brought Judit, Jóska and Gyuri — and many other Jewish youths like them — to Budapest, living far from their parents and families in other parts of Hungary.

Although they did not know it at the time, by the fall of 1944 the boys’ parents had been deported and murdered in Auschwitz, likewise Judit’s mother and her three younger brothers.

Jóska’s escape

Ephraim Golan grew up the ninth of 10 children from the town of Aszód, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) east of Budapest, where their father was the cantor and ritual slaughterer. A sister died of a childhood illness, but four other siblings were murdered by the Nazis, including his youngest brother, Miki, who was killed in Auschwitz. A photo of Miki at about age 12 is now the screen saver on Golan’s computer.

Undated photo of Ephraim Golan and his wife Hadassah, on the right, with Arieh Sela and Golan's sister, Zehava, on the left.
Reproduction: Dina Kraft

Golan was a member of the Zionist youth movement Hashomer Hatzair’s underground in Budapest. He says that by 1943 even though they did not know the exact details of the Nazi extermination machine, they were hearing reports from Poland of mass killings of Jews. However, he says he believes that Judit — who writes in her diary about deportations and in one passage imagines her mother and brothers on a train — would have likely not known just how doomed they were.

As hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews were being transported to their deaths in Auschwitz (by the war’s end, some 565,000 Hungarian Jews had been murdered), Ephraim expedited his plans to make his way to British Mandatory Palestine. In August 1944, a month before Judit’s death, he snuck across the Hungarian-Romanian border with other members of the Zionist movement. Within two weeks, he says, the Soviet Army occupied Romania and within a few months an opportunity arose to leave Romania. He traveled to Istanbul by boat and from there took a train to Haifa.

He quickly settled into life at Kibbutz Dalia, some 30 kilometers south of Haifa, working first with the livestock and later in various roles, including in a kibbutz factory. He married, had three children and today has eight grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren.

‘A heart-and-soul Zionist’

Judit Ornstein was seemingly aware of Jóska’s escape from Nazi-occupied Hungary. On August 16, 1944, she writes that she too wishes to settle in Mandatory Palestine and knows that Jóska will make his way to his dream.

Zlil Sela, left, with Ephraim Golan at the latter's home in Kibbutz Dalia, northern Israel.
Dina Kraft

“It is to the Eretz that I wish to go so that I can help in the building of the Old-New-Land,” she writes. “You, Jóska, are a heart-and-soul Zionist and will arrive at your ‘goal.’ You must arrive there because you desire it through thick and thin, overcoming all fatigue and hunger. And because you are good! You want to live. There is something in this life that drew you on, and this is Palestine. Go, go out and live happily!”

In other entries she hints at another potential love triangle — this time involving her best friend, Jutka (Judit) Greenbaum, whose fate after the war is not known. The diarist describes a letter Jóska has written vaguely suggesting his affections for one of them and wonders if they might be for her. She then pivots to the dangerous buzzing of warplanes overhead.

Her diary often features sections specifically addressed to Jóska, frequently written from the basement shelter.

On August 26-27, she addresses him as “My Jóska” and predicts: “It looks like we will finish our passing life here?! I don’t know how you will reach your goal now, when the war rages and burns in the East. I trust that you will stand your ground even at this time of great danger and you will not retreat. I will not think for a moment that you will retreat since ‘Eretz Yisroel’ has been your long-standing goal.”

Less than a month later, on September 16, Judit Ornstein was dead.

Nir Itzik on the final page of Judit Ornstein's diary at the Moreshet Archive in central Israel. He found the diary and had it translated into Hebrew. The diary ends on September 13, 1944.
Rami Shllush

‘We found Jóska!’

Thousands of miles away from Kibbutz Dalia, members of the Ornstein family who live in suburban Boston and in New Jersey were thrilled to learn about the latest developments concerning their aunt Judit — the beloved sister of their father Paul, who was the only one of five siblings to survive the Holocaust. (Judit’s father also survived and immigrated to Israel, where he lived some 20 miles from where Ephraim Golan resides.)

Sharone Ornstein says she called out to her husband “We found Jóska!” when she heard that Ephraim Gross was Jóska. “For most of the day I was imagining Judit and her 18-year-old love for Jóska, happy that she could imagine him in the last terrifying days of her life,” she wrote Haaretz by email.

Sharone’s sister, Miriam Ornstein, says that after hearing about Ephraim, she reread the end of the diary when Judit writes him what would become her final written words. “And again I was overwhelmed, by the depth of the loss and the poignancy of her last words,” Miriam wrote in an email. “So some of her last thoughts before she was killed were of him; what would it have been like for her, for all of us, if she had lived?”

Susannah Sherry, whose husband Rafael is Miriam and Sharone’s brother, wrote by email that the family had felt “deep gratitude that Judit could enter our lives through her diary,” and that the response to the subsequent article could resolve lingering mysteries.

“When I heard Ephraim was Jóska, my heart leaped and tears sprang to my eyes: he had survived after all!” Sherry writes. “Judit’s love and kindness live on in Jóska’s survival and Ephraim’s memories. And while she will always be an 18-year-old girl — and he is now an elderly gentleman — they exist together in the present time, bound by hope and yearning.”

Sharone Ornstein, meanwhile, says she became saddened by the thought of Judit’s unrequited love for Jóska, and Gyuri Schwartz’s in turn for Judit. “In one of the pictures [referring to a photograph of Golan sent to her by this reporter], Ephraim is standing in front of a bookshelf and he is looking lovingly at an image of his younger brother who was killed in Auschwitz. Seeing that Ephraim is a loving man who wants to remember his losses made me feel good and even closer to Judit — as though I could know her better through knowing Ephraim.

“I am searching for that feeling in wanting to talk with Zlil [Sela] and hear about his father, Gyuri,” Sharone continues. “I feel grief for Judit and my family while I am feeling Judit’s presence through her diary and now people that knew her.”

A family album containing images of Judit Ornstein. Paul Ornstein kept the photos in his jacket pocket while in the forced labor battalion.
Courtesy of the Ornstein Family