[From: Stephen I. Pogany, Living in Modern Times: A Family Memoir (2019, forthcoming]
‘You’re not a Jew!’ snaps my mother, with a sudden and unexpected rush of anger.
For an instant I’m confused, uncertain what to say or what to think. Was I adopted? Have I been the victim of an elaborate though well-intentioned deception like the poet Miklós Radnóti? As recounted in Chapter 16, Radnóti discovered at the age of twelve that the woman he had always known as his mother was really his aunt and that his sister was just a half-sister.
At least Radnóti and his ‘mother’ were related. Is my ‘mother’ a biological stranger? Were my birth parents Christians? Were they even Hungarian? And why did my ‘parents’ adopt me when they were only in their mid-twenties? Unless they had medical problems of which I’m unaware, couldn’t they have counted on having children of their own?
‘Only people who’ve lived through the things I’ve lived through can call themselves Jews!’ exclaims my mother, who turns out to have been my mother after all, even though she rejects the notion that we share a common identity. For my mother, history has erected an impenetrable barrier between us. The Holocaust has created an unbreachable wall between her and her only child. I was born seven years after the defeat of Nazi Germany and the end of the Shoah. How can I possibly understand her or her life?
From a strictly theological perspective my mother’s definition of Jewishness is seriously flawed. If widely adopted, her definition would lead to some bizarre and surprising results. Applying my mother’s narrow, Holocaust-centric characterization of Jewishness, Moses, King David, Jesus and the Twelve Apostles, the great mediaeval physician and Talmudic scholar Moshe ben Maimon, the eighteenth century English prize fighter Daniel Mendoza, as well as a host of supposedly Jewish luminaries, including Baruch Spinoza, Benjamin Disraeli, Felix Mendelssohn, Gusztav Mahler, Alfred Dreyfus, Osip Mandelstam and the venerable founder of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, would no longer qualify as Jews. Unlike my mother, none of them lived through the Shoah.
Of course, those of us born after May 1945, including Sir Alan Sugar, Steven Spielberg, Rachel Weisz, David Schwimmer, Mark Zuckerberg, Roman Abramovich, US ‘shock jock’ Howard Stern, Amy Winehouse, the Olympic athlete Mark Spitz, the overwhelming majority of the citizens of the state of Israel and even the Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, Ephraim Mirvis, would have no right to call ourselves Jews. None of us went through those experiences that have shaped my mother’s life and that so nearly resulted in her death.
There seems little point in arguing with my mother or in reminding her of the conventional religious definition of Jewishness. According to the halakha, or Jewish religious law, the child of a Jewish mother is a Jew. Under the halakha even an atheist or a person raised as a Christian remains a Jew, provided her mother was Jewish. However, the halakha, which evolved over two and a half millennia, is silent on the Shoah and its relationship to Jewishness.
Despite the theological weakness of my mother’s thesis, that only a survivor or a victim of the Shoah may be considered a Jew, my mother is adamant. After all, unlike her, I have never endured persecution because of my Jewish ancestry. I have never had to wear a yellow star sewn onto my outer clothes. I have never had to live amongst strangers, with false identity papers, or experienced the visceral fear that someone might discover my real identity and betray me to the police or to Arrow Cross thugs. I have never had to spend several days and nights sleeping in rain-sodden clothes in a brickyard that has been converted into a makeshift ghetto. I have never had to escape, under cover of darkness, from a column of frightened, weary women who are being led on foot towards the Austrian border by Hungarian gendarmes. I have never had to watch as my lame father was taken away by gun-toting teenage militiamen wearing the insignia of the Hungarian Nyilaskereszt or Arrow Cross. I have never had to wait, with diminishing hope, for my father to return from a destination that was never revealed to him or his family. Even though I am in my mid-sixties, both of my parents are alive.
Almost twenty years earlier, when I conceived the idea of writing this book, I began to record lengthy interviews with my mother and with Bertelan, her younger brother, then a semi-retired civil engineer living in the quiet, outer suburbs of Toronto. On one occasion, when my mother was visiting me in Britain from her home in Holland, we drove to Chipping Camden in the northern Cotswolds, barely half an hour’s distance from my home. After ordering filter coffees and toasted teacakes in an up-market bistro we settled into comfortable leather armchairs, a casette recorder on the table between us
After a little prompting my mother began to talk, although at first she was hesitant and almost inaudible. I asked her to describe, in as much detail as possible, what happened to her and to her father in November 1944, following a German-engineered coup that had brought Hungary’s Nazi-style Arrow Cross Party to power. I already knew that Miklós and my mother had been amongst almost thirty thousand Jewish slave labourers sent on foot, from Budapest, to boost the Reich’s flagging war effort. It was a journey from which only my mother would return.
‘I was so eager to please,’ begins my mother, smiling ruefully. ‘A notice went up in the entrance to our apartment building instructing Jewish women aged between sixteen and forty to present themselves for labour service the following morning. I got up really early the next day so that I would be amongst the very first in line. I wanted them to see how keen I was to work!’
At the time my mother, uncle and grandparents occupied a small room in an apartment at 36 Kresz Géza Street in the Ujliptváros district of Budapest, one of fewer than two thousand ’star houses’ in the city. In accordance with a decree issued by the Hungarian authorities, in June 1944, several weeks after Wehrmacht units had entered Hungary, Budapest’s Jews were instructed to move to the newly designated star houses, which took their name from the yellow Star of David on a black background displayed by the entrance to the buildings.
Although their new occupants were unaware of it, the star houses were intended to be an interim measure, pending the deportation of the capital’s Jews to German-occupied territories further east, in accordance with plans drawn up by Adolf Eichmann and a small German taskforce. Here, Budapest’s Jews were to be ‘disposed of’ in an orderly fashion, like their co-religionists from the Hungarian provinces and the ‘annexed territories’.
Initially, Jews were given just three days to vacate their homes and to move into the star houses. Subsequently, for pragmatic reasons, the deadline was extended by several days. Over one hundred and seventy thousand Jews scrambled to find accommodation in the star houses, which were located at various points around the city.
My mother and her family were lucky. The building in which they had been living, on Szinyei Merse Street, was not designated a star house. However, one of Etelka’s brothers, Ármin, occupied a two-room apartment on Kresz Géza Street with his wife, Ella, and their two children. Located in the heavily Jewish Ujlipotváros district of Budapest, which forms a densely populated wedge between the Nyugati or Western railway station and the Danube, it came as little surprise when Ármin’s building was classified as a star house. Alarmed that he might have to share his modest, two-room flat with total strangers, Ármin invited Etelka and her family to move into the smaller of the two rooms. Although my mother recalls that the room they were given was tiny, Etelka gladly accepted her brother’s offer.
Four months later, in November 1944, when my mother was summoned for labour service along with other able-bodied Jewish women in her building, most of Budapest’s Jews were still living in the star houses. Although the star house system had been conceived as a temporary measure, it had assumed a semi-permanent character after an order issued in July by Hungary’s Regent, Admiral Horthy, suspending the deportation of Hungary’s remaining Jews.
Some historians and publicists have hailed Horthy’s decision as a principled gesture, prompted by the Regent’s abhorrence of the Nazi campaign to annihilate Europe’s Jews. However, most scholars regard Horthy’s belated defiance of Hitler – after four hundred and forty thousand Hungarian Jews from the provinces and the ‘annexed territories’ had already been deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau and to other death camps – as self-serving. Facing mounting international pressure from various quarters, including the Pope, the Kings of Sweden and the United Kingdom and, most importantly, from President Roosevelt of the United States, Horthy reaised that protecting Hungary’s last remaining Jews from extermination would count in his favour in any postwar settling of accounts. The Regent was fully aware that, although German forces continued to put up stiff resistance, Germany had lost the War and that an Allied victory was inevitable. As a result of Horthy’s decision, further, concerted measures against Budapest’s Jews could not be taken until after a German-engineered coup, in October 1944, which brought Ferenc Szálasi and the Nyilaskeresztes, or Arrow Cross, Party to power.
My mother doesn’t recall whether the armed guards who escorted her and the other Jewish women from the star house on Kresz Géza Street to the makeshift ghetto at the Óbuda brickworks were Hungarian gendarmes, Nyilas militiamen or regular soldiers. But she distinctly remembers that they wore uniforms and that they spoke Hungarian. There were no Germans amongst them.
‘When we arrived at the brickworks they put us in a kind of hanger,’ says my mother, taking another sip of her coffee. ‘It had a concrete floor and a roof supported by metal columns. But there were no walls. We slept on sacking.’
It was early November when my mother, then aged eighteen, was taken on foot to the Óbuda brickworks. ’It was cold and it rained a lot,’ she tells me. ‘Because there weren’t any walls the wind blew the rain straight through the hanger. Before long, we were soaked through. We huddled together for warmth.’
My mother has dropped her voice as if afraid that she might be overheard, that the terrible secret of her Jewishness, the secret that she has guarded so carefully for most of her adult life, may finally be discovered through a momentary lapse of vigilance. In her fear of being overheard my mother seems oblivious to the fact that no-one else in this elegant Cotswolds bistro is likely to speak Hungarian, our personal, almost unbreakable code.
‘There was nowhere to wash and there were no toilets,’ my mother adds. ‘They didn’t even give us any work to do. The guards decided when we could leave the hanger to relieve ourselves. We had to do it in the open, even though there were a lot of men at the brick factory too, other Jews.’
‘Did they issue you with uniforms?’
‘We wore whatever clothes we’d come in,’ says my mother. ‘I was wearing these ankle length shoes. They were the only shoes I had. The soles were coming away so my mother had tied them to the upper part of the shoes with string.’
Despite an interval of over fifty years my mother’s memories of the ghetto at the Óbuda brickworks are remarkably detailed and accurate. They tally with the description provided by the historian, Randolph Braham:
Thousands were kept in the brick-drying barns, which had roofs but no walls, and many others were compelled to remain in the rain in the courtyard. They were given little or no food, and the Nyilas, who exercised real power although nominally the police were entrusted with keeping order, robbed them of their valuables, clothing, blankets, and whatever supplies they had.
After two or three days at the brickworks my mother, together with the other Jewish women who were held there, was led away on foot by Hungarian gendarmes mounted on horses. Although the women were unaware of it, Hungary’s new Arrow Cross regime had agreed to supply fifty thousand able-bodied Hungarian Jews to the Reich. Many of the Jews who reached Germany from Budapest, after a harrowing journey mostly on foot, were put to work in underground factories, producing military aircraft and V-2 ballistic missiles. In all, over six thousand missiles were assembled, representing a last desperate bid by Germany’s High Command to halt the Allied advance, now proceeding on two fronts, with Wunderwaffen or ‘wonder weapons’.
‘Did the guards tell you that you were being sent to Germany to work?’
‘They told us nothing, nothing at all.’
Historians’ accounts of the ‘death marches’ that began in November 1944, involving tens of thousands of Budapest’s Jews, make for harrowing reading. Randolph Braham has written that, ‘the Jews were neither fed nor housed en route’ and that, ‘[t]he marches were so horribly barbaric that the route became a veritable highway of death that shocked not only the observers from the neutral countries and the International Red Cross, but also some top Hungarian police and German SS officials’.
“In his History of the Destruction of the European Jews, Raul Hilberg records that, ‘[w]ithout food, the slave laborers walked over a hundred miles in snow, rain, and sleet to Austria’. Hilberg relates that Obergruppenführer Jüttner, head of the SS Operational Main Office, was travelling from Austria to Budapest by car when he passed a column of Jews who were being led on foot in the opposite direction: ’[m]ost of the trekkers, so far as he could see, were women. As the car made its way past the marching people, Jüttner noticed exhausted men and women in the ditches’.”
In addition to historians’ accounts we have the testimony of diplomats from neutral countries who observed, at first hand, the pitiful state of the Jews sent on these ‘death marches’. Raoul Wallenberg, then a Secretary at the Swedish Embassy in Budapest, wrote a long and detailed Note to Hungary’s Foreign Ministry describing what he and a fellow Swedish diplomat, Per Anger, had witnessed on the road leading to the Austrian border on 23 and 24 November 1944. Wallenberg’s Note is worth quoting at length:
Amongst the marchers there were a large number of people aged between sixty and seventy, people who were seriously ill, people afflicted with polio etc; children aged between ten and fourteen, a dwarf, an Aryan woman, people without shoes, people whose belongings had been taken from them by the Arrow Cross at the Újlaki Brick Factory [ghetto], people whose papers or travel documents, entitling them to settle abroad, had been destroyed either at the Újlaki Brick Factory or elsewhere.
Many marchers allege that, throughout the entire journey, they hadn’t eaten properly and that they hadn’t been able to sleep or wash.
At Hegyeshalom the people were handed over to a German reception committee; SS officers shoved and beat them.
On 23 November, seven people died at Mosonmagyaróvár and another seven on 24 November. Two days earlier, a diplomat counted forty two corpses on the highway.
Edmund Veesenmayer, then the Reich plenipotentiary in Hungary, sent a report to his superiors in Berlin in which he recorded that, by 13 November, a total of twenty seven thousand Jews from Budapest, men and women, had been sent on foot in the direction of the Austrian border. Just over a week later Ferenc Szálasi ordered a halt to the foot marches, apparenty out of concern at ’the death rate of the Jewish women’.
‘We began walking at daybreak,’ says my mother, recalling the column of wet, shivering women, several hundred strong, who had left the Óbuda brickworks with an escort of Hungarian gendarmes. ‘We walked and we walked. It was late autumn and it rained a lot.’
From the Óbuda ghetto, at 134 Bécsi Út, my mother says that they were led to a location near Budapest’s airport at Ferihegy. ‘We spent one or two nights there in extremely primitive conditions,’ she tells me. ‘There was no shelter of any kind’.
At first, I was disinclined to believe this part of my mother’s narrative. I thought that, perhaps due to the passage of time or my mother’s advanced age, she had become confused. Why would a column of Jewish women be sent to Ferihegy, which lies on the eastern edge of Budapest, if the women were destined for labour service in the Reich? The death marches, which took an average of eight days to complete, followed a direct, westerly route from Budapest, passing though Piliscsaba, Dorog, Sütő, Szőny, Gönyő, Dunaszeg and Mosonmagyaróvár. Surely my mother was mistaken about having been taken from the Óbuda brickworks to Ferihegy?
Much later, I came across a multi-volume collection of documents in Hungarian, An Indictment of Nazism: Documents Relating to the History of the Persecution of the Jews in Hungary (Vádirat a Nácizmus ellen: dokumentumok a Magyarországi zsidóüldözés történetéhez). The collection was edited by a Hungarian historian and Holocaust survivor, Elek Karsai, with the assistance of various co-editors including his son, László, a noted historian of the Holocaust in Hungary. In painstaking detail, the documents trace the incremental persecution of Hungary’s Jews during the course of World War Two.
Elek Karsai died in 1986, at the comparatively early age of sixty three. Work on Volume IV, which deals with the period 15 October 1944 to 18 January 1945, was completed some years later by Elek Karsai’s son, László Karsai, by then a Professor of History at Szeged University.
As I began to leaf through this volume, comprising almost twelve hundred pages, I came across several references to Jews held at Ferihegy. For example, Document 41b, dated 23 October 1944, is a Verbal Note from the Swedish legation in Budapest, requesting Hungary’s Foreign Ministry to ensure the immediate release of Hungarian Jews who had been issued with official papers of protection by the Swedish Embassy. One of the Hungarian Jews in question is identified as Dr. István Szécsi, born in 1892, who was taken to Ferihegy from his apartment at 58, Damjanich Street, Budapest. Another Hungarian national mentioned in the Note is Jenő Wohl, who had been issued with Swedish papers and who was ‘apparently to be found at Ferihegy’.
Document 45d, dated 23 October 1944, is a Note from the Portuguese Embassy in Budapest. The Note informs Hungary’s Foreign Ministry that Béla Stettner, a Jew, who is the bearer of a Portugese passport, was apprehended at 15 Lónyai Street, Budapest and that, ‘in all likelihood’ he is being held at Ferihegy.
Two days later, the Portuguese Embassy requested the intercession of an official at Hungary’s Foreign Ministry following the disappearance of Dénes and Péter Klein from their home at 27 Magyar Street, Budapest. According to the Note, the two men are bearers of valid Portuguese passports and have ’probably’ been taken to Ferihegy. These documents confirm that Jews were already held at Ferihegy in late October 1944, a matter of days before tens of thousands of Budapest’s Jews were assembled for compulsory labour service in Germany. The documents lend support to my mother’s account that she and other women from the Óbuda brickworks had spent a couple of nights at Ferihegy, in the vicinity of the airport.
Leaving Ferihegy the next morning, my mother says that she and the column of women recrossed the Danube with their escort of mounted gendarmes. Heading west, they eventually found themselves on Fehérvári Street in the Buda district of the capital, a distance of almost 22 kilometers. By the time they reached Fehérvári Street, it was already getting dark.
‘Did the gendarmes give you any food?’ I ask.
‘They gave us pieces of szalona’.
Szalona, which remains hugely popular in Hungary, whether eaten cold with bread or added to savoury dishes such as túrós csusza, is smoked bacon without even a hint of meat. It is streaky bacon with absolutely nothing but streaks.
Whether the gendarmes gave the ravenous Jewish women szalona out of a warped sense of humour – knowing that the consumption of pork is strictly forbidden to Jews – I’m unable to say. It’s possible that the men acted out of a residual sense of humanity and that szalona was the only food they had to give.
‘You can’t eat szalona on it’s own, it’s pure fat, and we didn’t have any bread with us,’ adds my mother. ‘We happened to be passing a field of sugar beet and the guards told us that we could stop and help ourselves. We scraped the soil off the beet with our fingers.’
A root vegetable, sugar beet is commonly fed to livestock, particularly cows. An article I found on the internet, British Sugar Beet Feed the Secret to Cattle Feeding Success, extolls sugar beet’s excellent properties: ‘[i]deal as a supplement fed alongside grazed grass, silage, cereals or cereal-based concentrates, the result is better feed intakes, more milk and better growth’. When intended for human consumption, sugar beet is generally cooked, although an article in Huff Post urges readers to consider eating it raw as part of a salad: ‘[w]hether they’re grated or thinly shaved, beets are wonderful to eat raw — you get much more of that sweet flavor than when it’s cooked’.
For my mother and her bedraggled companions there was no possibilty of grating or ‘thinly shav[ing]’ the sugar beet that they dug out of the earth with their bare hands. Wolfing down mouthfuls of the root vegetable, which the women had no means of washing or peeling, they barely noticed its flavour.
‘After we set off again the gendarmes wouldn’t let us stop even if we needed to relieve ourselves,’ continues my mother. ‘I approached one of the guards and told him that I had to use the toilet right away. He just shrugged and told me to do my business as I walked. That’s when I realized how serious the situation was. I tried to escape many times after that.’
‘What were you afraid of? Did you think they were going to kill you all?’
‘No, I just wanted to go home.’
The callous and uncaring gendarme, to whom my mother had appealled without success, wasn’t exceptional. In a letter dated 19 November 1944, the Jewish Council complained to the authorities in Budapest about the brutish and inhuman treatment meted out to thousands of Jews led, under armed escort, towards the Austrian border:
…Jewish children, women over forty and men over fifty, including persons who are infirm or mentally disturbed, are being taken on foot towards the country’s borders. Some of the marchers have to complete the journey without food or rest and without access to safe drinking water. In some cases, they aren’t even permitted to relieve themselves when they need to and many end up soiling themselves. As a consequence [of this treatment], a significant proportion of the deportees expire en route.
My mother owes her life and mine to Anikó, a slight, dark-haired Jewish woman from Transylvania who’d been living in Budapest for some time and who’d been interned at the Óbuda brickworks along with my mother and the other women. Quite by chance, my mother found herself next to Anikó as they marched along Fehérvári Street, several hours after leaving the improvised camp at Ferihegy.
‘She was a simple, uneducated woman, a few years older than me. But she was tough and street-wise,’ says my mother. ‘Anikó convinced me that this was going to end very badly for us unless we managed to escape.’
‘Were you allowed to talk?’
‘No, not really. But it was getting dark and there weren’t enough gendarmes to keep a close eye on all of us.’
From time to time, says my mother, she and Anikó would pretend that their shoelaces had come undone. They would pause by the side of the road and get down on one knee, as if retying their laces.
‘Each time a gendarme on horseback would approach us and shout at us to get up and rejoin the column,’ recalls my mother. ‘When it had grown dark we pretended to tie our shoelaces once more. By this point, we were almost at the very rear of the column. This time no-one appeared to notice us. When we got to our feet again the column of women and the mounted guards had moved on.’
My mother recognised the street on which they found themselves. ‘I had relatives living on Fehérvári Street,’ she tells me. ‘A young couple, originally from the Felvidék or Upper Hungary, they’d managed to acquire false papers and were using an assumed name’.
My mother recalled visiting the couple at their apartment on Fehérvári Street, accompanied by Etelka. ‘I was pretty sure that they lived at Number 14, on the second floor. But I couldn’t remember what name they were using.’
In his autobiography, A Guest in My Own Country, the Hungarian-Jewish writer, George Konrád, describes how, in October 1944, his uncle and aunt, Andor and Gizella, had gone into hiding with their two children, disappearing without warning from their home in Budapest. What renders this otherwise unexceptionable story so shocking is that Andor and Gizella abandoned eleven-year-old George and his younger sister who had been left in their charge some months earlier after the childrens’ parents were arrested by the Gestapo. That Konrád and his sister survived the War and the Arrow Cross reign of terror was due solely to the humanity and resourcefulness of ‘Aunt’ Zsófi, the indomitable wife of a cousin of Konrád’s father.
Today, No. 14 Fehervari Street, Budapest, next to the ornate, turn of the century Attila József High School, is a nondescript modern office block. However, in 1944 the site was occupied by a large apartment building.
‘The main entrance wasn’t locked,’ recalls my mother. ‘Anikó and I went straight up to the second floor and knocked on a couple of doors. But we were out of luck. Both times a stranger answered the door.’
My mother says that she mumbled an apology and said that she’d made a mistake but the householders had become suspicious. ‘They stood there on the landing and stared after us as we walked away. After all, we hadn’t even been able to tell them who we were looking for.’
It was pitch dark by then and well past ten o’clock at night. ‘I whispered to Anikó that it was too dangerous to hang around and that we’d better leave the building straight away,’ recalls my mother. ‘Otherwise, someone might take it into their heads to try to stop us or to call the police’.
’Did you remove the yellow star sewn onto your coats?’ I ask. ‘After all, that would have immediately identified you as Jews and put you in jeopardy.’
At the end of March 1944, shortly after the German occupation of Hungary, authorities in Budapest had issued Decree No. 1240/1944, stipulating that every Jew aged six or above was required to wear a ‘clearly visible’ canary yellow Star of David sewn onto their outer clothing. Measuring at least 10 cm by 10 cm, the incriminating symbol, which could only be made from cloth, silk or velvet, had to be positioned over the left breast.
‘We ripped off our yellow stars and threw them away as soon as we escaped from the column,’ says my monther.
Exiting the apartment building, Anikó and my mother headed for the nearest railway station, which was in the Kelenföld district of Budapest. ‘I told Anikó that I wanted to get home as quickly as possible and that she should come with me and spend the night there.’
According to Google Maps, Kelenföld Railway Station is 2.7 kilometers from No. 14, Fehérvári Street. That’s about half an hour on foot if you’re reasonably fit and know the way.
‘We were lucky. We managed to scramble onto a local train which took us to the Keleti or Eastern Railway Station’.
‘Did you have money for tickets?’
My mother laughs. ‘We boarded the train without even thinking of buying tickets. You simply can’t imagine how crowded it was! I looked a mess but I was eighteen years old and pretty. There were a lot of Hungarian soldiers in our train compartment. There was one in particular who started talking to me, asking me if I was cold? Although he was drunk and stank of alcohol, I was relieved when he put his arm around me. People would assume that I was his girlfriend and leave us alone’.
At the Eastern Railway Station my mother managed, not without difficulty, to detach herself from the drunken, amorous soldier. Accompanied by Anikó, she set off on foot for Uncle Ármin’s flat on Ernő Hollán Street, a distance of almost four kilometres.
‘We were exhausted by the time we reached the apartment and rang the doorbell,’ says my mother. ‘My parents and uncle had been asleep. They were astonished but very happy to see us!’
My mother says that she slipped off the crude, home-made knapsack that she’d taken with her, several days earlier, when she’d left the apartment with the other Jewish women from her building. ‘I still had a piece of szalona in it and some sugar beet, nothing else. Anikó and I undressed and collapsed into bed. We fell asleep almost immediately.’
’What about your uncle and aunt? Did they say anything? And where did you and Anikó sleep?’ As Etelka, Miklós and Bertelan shared a tiny room in Uncle Ármin’s flat, it’s hard to imagine how there would have been enough space for Anikó and my mother as well.
My mother recalls the scene. ’Ármin, Ella and their two children were no longer in the flat when we turned up that night,’ my mother says at last. ‘It was a star house and Jews had been ordered to move to the Jewish quarter, to the ghetto’.
My mother’s assumption that Ármin and his family had already moved to the Jewish ghetto from their apartment on Kresz Géza Street is mistaken. As related in Chapter 17, plans for the establishment of Budapest’s Jewish ghetto weren’t announced until November 29, more than a week after the death marches had been suspended and a matter of days or possibly weeks following my mother’s escape from the column of women bound on foot for Germany. So the ghetto didn’t yet exist when Ármin and his family left their apartment. In any event, if Jews had been ordered to vacate the star houses, as my mother contends, then Etelka, Miklós and Bertelan would also have had to leave the apartment, along with Ármin, Bella and their children.
I remind myself that my mother, a statistician by training, has never shown much interest in the Shoah. An avid reader, mainly of contemporary fiction, my mother has read little, if anything, about the Holocaust. Like my father, her knowledge of the subject is almost entirely personal. My mother knows what she experienced herself during the War and what relatives, acquaintances and friends, those who survived, have told her. But my mother has never gone out of her way to read books about the Shoah. However much the Holocaust may have impacted on her life – or perhaps for that very reason – it’s a topic she’s shunned. So my mother’s confusion about the precise chronology of events during the autumn and winter of 1944, including the date on which Budapest’s Jews were ordered to move to the newly established ghetto, is understandable.
Like hundreds or even thousands of Budapest’s Jews, it’s likely that Ármin’s wife and children had acquired false papers and a new identity as Christians. Ármin, who’d made a living selling second hand motorcars before the War – and whom my mother invariably describes as ügyes or ’smart’ even though he was said to be incorrigibly lazy – would almost certainly have had sufficient funds and the right connections to obtain forged documents. As for Ármin, his elder brother, Ágoston, is quite certain that he died during the War while serving in an auxiliary labour battalion. A diabetic and in generally poor health, Ármin is believed to have had a massive heart attack while digging anti-tank defences near Budapest.
‘Just a few hours after Anikó and I went to bed we were woken by a loud commotion,’ continues my mother. ‘Several Arrow Cross militiamen had arrived at first light and were making a terrible racket. They were just teenagers, aged sixteen or so, with Arrow Cross armbands and old rifles. They kept beating this gong and shouting that every man in the building aged below sixty had to go with them.’
‘What did you do?’
‘What could we do?’ shrugs my mother. ‘My father got dressed as quickly as possible and shouldered the little knapsack that I’d taken off just a few hours before. The Nyilas hustled Miklós away before we’d even had a chance to say goodbye to one another properly.’
‘Did you hear from your father again?’ I ask, although I already know the answer.
‘Etelka told us later that she’d received a card. She said it was posted from Mosonmagyaróvár, close to the Austrian border. Apart from my mother’s name and address, Miklós had written a few words: Vigyázz a gyerekekre, „Look after the children!”’.
I wondered who could have posted the card and when? And where had Miklós found the necessary writing materials? It’s true that Jews facing imminent death during the Holocaust were sometimes able to write a final note to their loved ones. Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, has a whole file of such letters. Perhaps Miklós had somehow managed to acquire a card and a pencil stub during the week-long treck from Budapest to Mosonmagyaróvár? Maybe he’d decided to write a few words, address the card to Etelka and leave it somewhere that it was likely to be found? Miklós may have hoped that someone coming across the card would take pity on its author, affix a stamp and post it.
But the mystery doesn’t end there. Even if someone had found Miklós’ card in Mosonmagyaróvár and posted it to my grandmother, it wouldn’t have arrived until after Etelka and her children had already left the apartment on Kresz Géza Street, telling no-one where they were going. A matter of days after Miklós was led away by Arrow Cross militiamen and well before he and his column could possibly have reached Mosonmagyaróvár – assuming Miklós hadn’t died or been killed along the way – Etelka slipped out of the apartment on Kresz Géza Street and disappeared without trace, together with her children.
‘When Anikó and I showed up that night at the apartment, Etelka understood right away that it was too dangerous for me to remain there,’ continues my mother. ’Apart from Anikó, who only stayed for a few hours, I was now the only woman in the whole building aged under forty. I was bound to attract attention. People would have wondered why, out of all the women who’d been taken away for labour service, I was the only one who’d come home?’
The following morning, soon after Miklós and the other men from the apartment building had been led away to the ghetto at the Óbuda Brickworks, Etelka devised a plan. ‘Etelka went first of all to Aunt Margit who was still living in the little house in Pesterzsebet with Uncle Jenő and their children,’ says my mother. ‘Aunt Margit was a devout Catholic without even a drop of Jewish blood. Etelka implored her to hurry to the Óbuda Brickworks and to try to speak to someone in authority.’
‘Was Margit able to accomplish anything?’
‘Aunt Margit told my mother afterwards that she’d gone to the Brickworks but that she couldn’t get past the guards at the gate. It would have been obvious to anyone that Aunt Margit was poor and uneducated and that she didn’t know anyone important. I don’t think there was anything Aunt Margit could have said or done that would have persuaded the guards to release my father or even to tell her what hIs ultimate destination might be.’
‘What did Etelka do next?’
‘Etelka told me to get ready as we were going to pay a call on Mr and Mrs Garamszegi.’
For years, Mr and Mrs Garamszegi and their son, János, had lived with Mr Garamszegi’s mother in a one room apartment at No. 6 Szinyei Merse Street. Old Mrs Garamszegi had been the caretaker of the building. My mother and her family had an identical flat on the third floor that they only vacated in June 1944 when, like other Jews in Budapest, they had to move to one of the so-called ‘star houses’. My mother says that Etelka had always been on very friendly terms with the Garamszegis, who were devout Catholics.
Following a direct hit on No. 6 Szinyei Merse Street, in an Allied bombing raid that had reduced the two adjacent buildings to rubble, the Garamszegi family had been obliged to abandon their ground floor apartment. But the Garamszegis had given Etelka their new address, an apartment building in Budapest’s 7th District where the family had been allocated a large, three room flat, quite conceivably an apartment that had been occupied by a Jewish family until June 1944.
‘How could the Garamszegis help your father?’
‘They couldn’t. Etelka asked the Garamszegis to help me, not Miklós. She begged them to take me in for a few days while she found false papers and somewhere for us to live.’
Etelka had brought all of her remaining jewellery with her to the Garamszegis, her wedding ring and a couple of slender gold necklaces. She placed everything on the table in the Garamszegis’ sitting room.
My mother pauses, recalling the scene. ‘Mr. Garamszegi picked up the jewellery and handed it straight back to my mother. “Madam,” he said, “Please don’t offend me. I’m not doing this for money. Please take it all back at once!”’
Mr. Garamszegi agreed right away to shelter my mother. However, he urged Etelka to find another hiding place as soon as possible. Mr. Garamszegi’s only stipulations had been that, for as long as my mother remained with him and his family, no one else must even know that she was there. Neither Etelka nor Öcsi could visit my mother, while she had to make every effort to speak as quietly as possible in the apartment and to avoid passing in front of the windows. In the event that Nyilas militiamen raided the building one night, looking for fugitive Jews and army deserters, my mother was to take off all her clothes immediately and jump into bed with János, the Garamszegis’ son, then a young man in his late teens. The Garamszegis would concoct a story, which the militiamen might or might not believe, that my mother was János’s new girlfriend and that the family had absolutely no idea that she was Jewish.
‘What was it like, living with the Garamszegis?’
‘They were very kind to me,’ says my mother. ‘Although I was only there for a few days, János and I became good friends.’
‘What about food? Did the Garamszegis have enough to spare?’
’Of course!’ says my mother, with a laugh. ’They were Christians!’ The Russians hadn’t yet succeeded in encircling Budapest, cutting it off from the farms in the surrounding countryside from which the city obtained much of its food. Both of the Garamszegis had jobs, while the couple also received regular supplies from relatives who owned a smallholding an hour’s distance from Budapest. ’The Garamszegis had plenty of food!’ recalls my mother.
After spending a few days in the Garamszegis’ comfortable apartment, where my mother slept in the tiny cseléd szoba, or ’maid’s room’, that led off from the kitchen, Etelka came to collect her as promised.
’Where did you go after leaving the Garamszegis?’
’Friends of my mother’s had told her about a couple, the Klukas. The husband was an artist although he never made much money from his paintings. Most of his income came from his in-laws who were wealthy and open-handed. Kluka, who was in his late thirties and extremely handsome, was a Christian. But his wife and her parents were Jews. Kluka was devoted to his wife even though she was very ill with some kind of chronic lung disease. Kluka was determined to save his wife and her elderly parents who’d always been very good to him.’
’What did he do?’
’Kluka was too old to be called up to serve in the army,’ says my mother. ’After the Germans occupied Hungary, in March 1944, Kluka decided that, to protect his wife and in-laws, he’d enroll in the Nemzetőrség or National Guard. That way he could strut about in a uniform. Kluka calculated that people, seeing him in his uniform, would assume that he was a patriotic Hungarian and entirely above suspicion. That would make it much easier for him to help his wife and her family.’
The National Guard, or Nemzetőrség, first formed during Hungary’s revolt against Habsburg rule in the mid-nineteenth century, had been disbanded. However, it was re-established in September 1944, in the final, desperate months of World War Two. A reserve force, the role of the National Guard was to supplement Hungary’s exhausted and over-stretched troops who, with their German allies, were gradually falling back as the Soviet Red Army advanced on all fronts.
’Kluka managed to obtain false papers for his parents-in-law, registering them as Christians,’ continues my mother. ’He also found them an apartment in the Zugló district of Budapest, where his in-laws were unknown.’ The apartment, so my mother learnt, had previously belonged to a Jewish family who’d been forced to vacate the property when the capital’s Jews were ordered to move into the star houses. By a singular irony, the apartment now became a refuge for fugitive Jews.
‘Kluka was looking for a discreet and reliable housekeeper, someone who’d be willing to look after his in-laws who were quite old and infirm,’ says my mother. ‘Etelka agreed to take care of everything, the shopping, cooking and cleaning as well as the old couple’s laundry. In return, Kluka obtained false papers for Etelka, for me and for Öcsi, my little brother.’ According to the documents that Kluka acquired, Etelka and her children were identified as Christians from Szolnok, a large provincial town. The documents stated that they’d moved to Budapest after their home in Szolnok had been destroyed in an Allied bombing raid.
‘Once we were installed in the apartment in Zugló, with Kluka’s elderly in-laws, Etelka refused to let Öcsi go outside, even to play,’ recalls my mother. ’She was afraid that Öcsi looked too Jewish. On the other hand, I could pass for a Gentile so Etelka gave me a gold necklace with a crucifix. She told me to wear it whenever I did the shopping or ran other errands.’
‘What about Kluka’s wife? Did she come to live with you all in Zugló?’
‘No, she stayed with her husband,’ says my mother. ‘She was very ill. I don’t recall her ever coming to visit her parents in Zugló. On the other hand, Kluka came regularly and he often brought food for us. At other times, I would be sent to the Klukas’ apartment to collect items of food. Whenever I went there Kluka’s wife would be lying in bed. I had the impression she was dying.’
In fact, Kluka’s wife, though gravely ill, proved resilient. She survived for well over a year after the end of the War.
‘Kluka suddenly turned up at our flat in Kresz Gáza Street in the early months of 1947,’ recalls my mother. By then, my mother, uncle and Etelka had returned to live in Ármin’s apartment. As recounted elsewhere, Ármin, his wife Bella, and their two children were no longer alive.
‘Kluka showed up without any warning,’ continues my mother. ‘He said that he wanted to talk to me urgently. He told me that his wife had died and that he’d decided he wanted to marry me. He said I owed him at least that much for saving my life in the War!’
Despite Kluka’s efforts to persuade my mother that she was under a moral obligation to marry him, my mother firmly rejected Kluka’s amorous advances. ‘I was already dating your father by then. Your father was studying at ELTE, at the university.’ A dejected Kluka returned alone to Mátrafüred, a picturesque village on the southern slopes of the Mátra mountains, where he’d moved after the death of his wife.
‘What about the siege?’ I ask. I knew from history books, including Krisztián Ungváry’s Battle for Budapest, that the city had endured the longest and bloodiest siege of any European capital city in World War Two. For a little over a hundred days, Hungarian soldiers had fought tenaciously alongside their German comrades, even though they were hopelessly outnumbered and possessed only a fraction of the Red Army’s firepower. An estimated thirty eight thousand non-combatants died during the siege of Budapest, whether from starvation or as a result of military action, out of a total civilian population of eight hundred thousand.
‘Whenever the sirens sounded we left our apartment and hurried to the cellar,’ says my mother. ‘We spent hours at a time in that dark, dismal cellar, sometimes much longer, particularly as the fighting got closer.’
My mother recalls that the German troops she encountered in the apartment building in Zugló – who would have been astonished to learn that my mother, uncle and grandmother were fugitive Jews – had behaved with decorum. ‘At one point, German soldiers came down into the cellar and asked us for keys to our apartments so that they wouldn’t have to break down the doors. They wanted to shoot at the approaching Russians from the windows of apartments that faced onto the street.’ Before withdrawing from the building, once their position had become hopeless and they were in imminent danger of being encircled, the Germans took the time and trouble to descend once more to the dank cellar to return the keys to their owners.
For Jews in Budapest who hadn’t managed to obtain false identity papers, there were heightened hazards. Nyilas militiamen, realising that power was rapidly slipping from their grasp, tried to slaughter any Jews they could find. In his book, Ungváry records that on Christmas Eve 1944:
“Arrow Cross men appeared in the Jewish children’s homes in Munkácsy Mihály Street in Buda and marched the children and their carers – a group of more than 100 – to the courtyard of the Radetzky Barracks (later Bem Barracks), where a machine gun ready to fire was awaiting them.”
The children and their adult carers were only saved by the fact that Russian troops were much closer to their position than the Arrow Cross militiamen had previously supposed. Rather than shooting the Jewish children, the militiamen escorted them from Buda to the ghetto that had been established in Pest.
In contrast to the polite and well-mannered German soldiers, my mother’s initial encounter with Soviet troops had been disconcerting. ‘Not long after the Germans left, Russian soldiers came down the steps to the cellar,’ recalls my mother, ‘They were wild, terribly drunk and rather menacing. They kept shouting and pointing their weapons at us. They demanded wristwatches from everyone, which they wore like bangles, fastening as many onto their forearms as they could.’
A pretty and voluptuous young woman, aged eighteen, my mother sensed that she was in danger. Soviet troops in Hungary and in other Axis countries, including Germany, raped and looted civilians at will.
‘One of the Russian soldiers grabbed hold of my arm and tried to drag me away into an alcove,’ recalls my mother. ’Etelka reacted immediately. She grabbed my other arm and pulled me towards her with all her strength, Meanwhile, Etelka was shouting and screaming for help at the top of her voice.’
This human tug of war, in which my teenage mother substituted for the rope, might easily have ended with the drunken soldier shooting Etelka and raping my mother before handing her on to his comrades. However, a Soviet officer suddenly appeared in the entrance to the cellar and took in the chaotic scene. He barked a command and the soldier released my mother’s arm immediately, slinking away.
‘After that, and for as long as we remained in the cellar, Etelka made me lie down and covered me with some old blankets,’ says my mother. ‘Etelka sat on top of the pile of blankets and hoped that, if any more Russian soldiers came along, they wouldn’t notice me.’
Etelka’s ruse was a success. My mother survived the siege of Budapest and the ensuing Soviet occupation with her virginity intact. ‘I had a classmate who was Jewish who wasn’t as lucky as me,’ recalls my mother. ‘I heard afterwards that, during the siege, she and her mother had taken refuge in another cellar in Budapest. Russian soldiers came into the cellar and raped my classmate before killing her. Her mother tried to intervene so they killed her too.’