Letters to my Children
Artistic Director, Persephone Theatre, Saskatoon
Saturday, January 11, 2003 -A small thanks to the living!
I was born in Budapest 1932 February into a Catholic family. I grew up in an apartment building in the centre of that beautiful city. This apartment was a middle class place. I lived in apartment #3 on the first floor. The living room windows and my parents’ bedroom faced south and the Sun was always there. The Dining Room, the Entrance Hall, The Maid’s room and the Kitchen faced north into the courtyard. My neighbours on the left and right were professional families. Engineers, Salesmen, Doctors, Lawyers and Businessmen. One day I learned that our building had become special. This was in the early forties. Those years were the beginning of the so called JEWISH LAWS. (Zsido torveny). I did not know till then that most of our neighbours were Jewish. One day someone put up a big Star of David and we became the only YELLOW STAR HOUSE on my street, Gyulai Pal Street 16.
I do not remember ever asking why the yellow star, because I learned about it on many occasions. The visitors to my parents always spoke about it. The interesting thing was when they spoke about “Jewish things” they practically whispered. Naturally a kid listened more intensely. Depending on who came to visit I heard: the Jews are too rich. Hitler is dangerous. He is a madman. He is right to punish the Jews because they are too powerful. They are all communists. They are all bankers and all the money is in their hands. They deserve to be treated differently because they killed Christ. (This was part of our studies in the elementary school, during “catechism” classes. The school was in the same block as our building and was opposite the Rabbinical Training Institute.) They are enemy of the state. They are wonderful. They fought in the army for the country in the War (World War I) and in the revolution against Austria (1848). They had the highest casualties among all nationalities for freedom. They are the hardest working group in our city. They are responsible for cutting up Hungary. International Jewry decided the Treaty of Trianon. Etc. Etc. It really depended on who came; be that family, friends or neighbors.
My father worked nearby and he took me and picked me up from school. When I protested he said I want you become a decent kid not a “street kid”. My mother said: Don’t stay out on the street, you can get hurt. Why? I asked myself. All the other kids played on the street? But I behaved. Plus I had my best friend right beside us in apartment four. Peter. He was two years younger and I had full control over him. He always played what I wanted. Sometimes he stayed longer and if the windows were open his Grandma, Weisz neni*, yelled for him and he ran home. He was often asked: What is so wonderful with Tibi? You spend all your time with him. Once I even heard: What are you always doing with that Goy? His mother Rozsi often slipped into our kitchen at night time complaining about the difficulty of living with her in-laws. Especially when her husband had been taken away to forced labour service (munkaszolgalat). He is Jewish and he could not join the Army, my mother explained. But Rozsi neni often cried. She felt alone and the old man (her father-in-law) was difficult to live with. He did not understand the changes. He demanded money from people who owed him. He was renting tractors to farmers. They started not to pay him, and he “unreasonably” went to the police, sued people. He just did not understand.
In apartment 2 lived the Porjesz family. Porjesz Emil bacsi* always gave me candies, but what was even better, he usually put his hand on the top of my head and looked into my eyes smiling. Once in front of his apartment he and my father were speaking. I was just standing there. My father said something like this: “It does not look good Emil.” To which Porjesz bacsi answered: (I remember well every word as I looked up at him) “But Toni (my father’s shortened first name) I am an engineer for the city, I fought in the War. They are not after my kind. They are after those poor people who just came in from Poland.”
That was about the time when Poland was occupied from West and East by armies.
I never forget his kindness. No. He loved me like his own son. Maybe because he only had a daughter? I don’t know. But he was the first person in my life whose unconditioned love I felt. I could be myself with him. He was always serious and quiet. I never saw him inside his apartment except in the stairway, the elevator or in front of his apartment. But there was a stronger bond than waiting for candies. Something was quiet and strong about him, and the playing child liked those peaceful moments with him. He was the first one taken away and I do not know where he is, what happened to him. He will be with me to the last days of my life. I could never thank him, even now I feel his hand on the top of my head.
Jolanka neni was living in his apartment too. She was his sister-in-law. She always left her window open which was beside our dining room window. She was alone and always sat at her window. She spoke to me often as I was growing up and became a teenager. She complimented me on my manliness, on my successes (I was a child actor and performed till I was accepted to the theatre school), and sometimes when I came home late, she asked me if I had been with a girl. To her I never needed to lie. With my parents I often covered up the truth. Similar things happened with the woman in apartment #1. Doctor Sandor was the husband. Rumor was that he was not Jewish except he got married to one. During the War years more and more family members arrived to this larger apartment. They even had a balcony! To-day I know why. We had been under the protection of the Swedish Red Cross. It seemed safer to keep families in our building. We even had a policeman sometimes in front of the main entrance. In March 1944, when the Germans occupied Hungary and later when the Hungarian fascists took over completely, they put an arrow-cross guard in place of the peaceful policeman. This guy became very friendly with the caretaker’s wife and my mom said I had to be very nice to the caretaker’s family from now on.
Then I often think of my doctor. Doctor Czaler bacsi. He was our family doctor and he used to visit our family every Wednesday. At the age of eight I became seriously ill. I do not know what it was, but nothing stayed in my stomach. My temperature was way up one hour and in the next hour it was not detectable. Everything just went through my system and I lost lots of weight. Doctor Czaler brought the head of the Children’s Hospital and a famous specialist to the house, but they all said I would never make it. The meeting took place in the Dining room. I was separated from my sister in the living room. When my mother came in with tears in her eyes, she sat beside me, lifted me up into her arms and whispered: Just listen to me. Do what I tell you and everything will be all right. She gave me squeezed lemon juice when my temperature was up and strong black coffee when my temperature was way down. In a few weeks I started to eat. Doctor Czaler was there every day during those days supporting my mother. When I recuperated he was so happy that from then on every Wednesday when he came to check on me he took me with him in his fiakker (horse drawn taxi) on his rounds. When he went up to an apartment to visit his patients I stayed with the driver and ate some wonderful pastry or anything Czaler bacsi thought of. And one day the visits stopped. I never saw him again. I never could thank him for what he did for me. You see he was a Jew too. What happened to him? He was a heavy set man. Could he survive a forced march? Did his heart stop as he was forced to dig trenches for the Army in Russia? Or he is mixed together with the ashes of others from one of the crematoria? He used to wash his hands before and after the visits. He insisted that his towel should be separated from all the others. He used to leave it on the edge of the bathtub. It is strange, but every time I see a towel put on the edge of a bathtub something tightens up in my chest. It is painful and I can not help it.
When I started this letter of love, or should I call it at this late stage in my life, this confession, I thought it would be short. Still so many pictures which are steadily coming up. The old man with the David Star on his over coat, bleeding in the face because he was out of the ghetto unlawfully, and was lost. The young soldier with a bayonet in his hand taking him back from our street. Some people cheering on the sidewalk and I have some type of an excitement going through. This time we had a balcony. We had to move out of our building. My father was in the army somewhere and opposed the move. That is my home, those are my neighbours. But my mother saw it differently.
One day a German officer had been shot near the Radio Station two blocks away from us. An Arrow Cross Fascist ordered everyone out of the apartments to the courtyard. Other Guard members were searching for the “terrorist” and this guy ordered me to go up with him to the common laundry room way up under the roof. He had his submachine and at the door he pushed me through. I was laughing because I knew that nobody would be there. Then he came in. I knew even then as a child that he was a coward. If someone had been hiding there they would have shot the child not him. My mother was hysterical. She did not want to have her children killed or damaged. Especially after once I told Peter just let us go out. Her Mother (Rozsi neni) never wanted him alone on the street. Because he had to wear the Yellow Star. I told him let’s leave our jackets at my place and enjoy our life. I do not remember why, but we ended up at the National Theatre (two blocks away). There was a Newspaper Stand. There they sold “clean” Yellow and White David Stars. I was looking at them. The vendor who had a sign that he was a War Amputee (he had no legs), asked me. You need a Yellow Star kid? I was frightened, because I knew that Peter should have his yellow star on.
So some people came around us. A police man had been called. He asked my address. He calmed everyone down that he will take care of us as we lived so near. He was a good guy. He took me to my apartment and Peter, very frightened, went into his immediately. My Mother assured the policeman that I was a Christian, showed my birth certificate. He saluted and left. My mother made a copy of the certificate which I had to carry in my pockets from then on. No one looked at Peter and he was safe. When my mother told this story to my Uncle Gyuri who was a joker, said: “Yes, I always told you that Tibi has a big nose”. From that time on I was looking more into the mirror to check if my nose was really that big. “Only Uncle Gyuri had a bigger nose and he was safe!” - I thought. I did not know then that he had a Jewish wife, Aunti Klari. They did not mention those things in our family front of the kids. Especially in those times.
* the Hungarian words “néni” and “bácsi” translate into English as “auntie” and “uncle” respectively. They do not necessarily refer to a relative but an older person from a child’s point of view – usually a family friend or acquaintance.
In my last letter I forgot something; remember when I spoke about Apartment #2? I forgot to mention that there was one more person in there; it was Sziszi, a little black dog. You had to be very careful with her, because she got very excited when you approached her. Many times I would have played with her, but Porjesz neni*, or their daughter, Alice always pulled her away. I did not understand, as I liked little dogs. They were less frightening than the big ones. Sziszi was the only dog in our building. In our apartment I had little birds in a cage. They sang beautifully. I let them out often to fly around. The only problem was they always died. Maybe when I fed them, I was holding them too tight and they died. My Mom always told me, not to touch them. I thought the Porjesz women were pulling Sziszi away, because if I could hold her, she would die too. This was the only thing I never understood fully. The dog was friendly, but I could not do anything with her. When Porjesz neni or Alice neni took her to walk, and if I met with them, they would hold Sziszi away from me. One day everything changed. This was the day when they took the neighbours away to the Ghetto. I am not sure who, which of the Porjesz women, asked my Mom to look after Sziszi till they came back. My Mom put me in charge of Sziszi and told me that I had to be very good to Sziszi, because for a while she could not be with her family. The place where they were going could be very bad for her.
Why? I knew that place would be terrible. I knew it would be bad for the Porjeszes and Sziszi. Regardless, my Mom explained that no little dogs could go there because they would die. She said that from now on I have to make sure that Sziszi gets food every day, and I have to take her out to do her big and small business. I had to take her in front of the Rokus Hospital. There was a park with lots of trees. She told me to avoid the number “2” streetcars, so Sziszi would not run under them. This streetcar turned around in the park and went North through Ward 7 to the theatre section of the city. But the number 2, to my surprise did not move around anymore. They closed this line, because they put barbed wire around the ghetto. Number 2 used to go through the ghetto and ended up at the Budapest Broadway, our theatre section. She also reminded me to keep the dog away from Mrs Bulka (the caretaker) because she did not like dogs and she would kick Sziszi. I did not understand this because Mrs. Bulka had cats and loved them. Maybe she was worried that Sziszi would eat up the cats? No, Sziszi would not do that. One thing was very important to my mother; I had to tell everybody that Sziszi was my dog, that she belonged to our family. By this time we had moved into a building at the other side of the street. But Mrs. Bulka knew that Sziszi was part of the Porjesz family – I thought. Anyway, she was still the powerful caretaker of our building. As we changed apartment with the Szikla family I knew I could easily avoid her.
The people whom we exchanged apartments with were the owners of the Szikla Pharmacy at Rakoczi Avenue and they stayed in our apartment till they had to go to the Ghetto, which was on the other side of the big Avenue. So they were close to us. From the park at the hospital I could see the barbed wired gate where the number “2” streetcar used to go from the hospital to the Hungarian Broadway. I used it many times. These days I did not need worry that the streetcar could hurt Sziszi. The number “2” did not run anymore. Not even a streetcar was allowed into the Ghetto. It was same with me. I could not see the Porjeszes and I never saw Peter, my best friend; in front of the gate stood a policeman, and several Arrow Cross fascists with submachine guns. I once made it to the front, but the policeman sent me away. I hoped to give Peter “TIBI” chocolate.
He loved it. But everything looked very dangerous. I was afraid, especially after I ran into Mrs. Bulka. She, seeing Sziszi, said something like this: “Hm. You only got a rat from the Jews?” I did not say a word. Sziszi was not a rat. He was a small dog. But I got frightened. Maybe Sziszi should have a Yellow Star of David and then Mrs. Bulka would not kick him? But everyone with a yellow star had to go to the Ghetto where Sziszi would be killed. I began to understand why my Mom said I had to tell everyone I met on the street that Sziszi is my dog.
The fear of lying, the fear that they could take Sziszi away also was terrible. From then on I ran with Sziszi as fast as possible to the park and then back to the apartment, which was not even ours. I always felt strange in it. It was as big as ours, it even had a small balcony, but I did not like it. I liked ours on the other side, but by then three families lived in it. I could see them from our new apartment. They were refugees running away from the Front, which got closer and closer to Budapest. I looked after Sziszi especially during the siege. By this time I had to take her into the courtyard, where there was a toilet dug for us, as we had no more running water. During the siege we had to stay in the air-raid shelter. Nobody asked me about the dog in there and I was out with Sziszi in the courtyard more often.
I did not need to lie anymore. When the Soviet army arrived, the commandant moved in with many soldiers and stayed on to the second floor for a few weeks. They never moved into the Szikla Apartment, because that faced the street. They stayed in the safer places at the back of the building. One of the soldiers always threw chocolate bars to Sziszi. Sometimes these chocolates hit Sziszi. She never touched these broken chocolate bars. After she finished her business I held her as we went back to the shelter. The chocolates came from the Stuhmer Factory, two blocks away from us. Something was not right about it. I love chocolate, but for some reason I did not want to take them. One day the siege ended and Alice neni took back Sziszi. It was normal. I did not mind it. Then the Szikla family came back, and we moved back to our building, back into apartment three. Peter came back too, with his Mom, Rozsi. But his father and Porjesz bacsi* never came back. Sziszi did not pay much attention to me and I did not care that much because my Mother got me a dog.
Peter and I trained him to play soccer with us. He became a very good goalie. We had been very happy and noisy in the courtyard. Mrs. Bulka did not yell at us anymore; most of the time she stayed in her apartment. One day she disappeared without saying good-bye to anyone. My dog’s name was Pajtas, which means Playmate. Until I left Hungary, he was my dog: My only dog. I did not need to lie anymore and I did not need to worry about yellow Stars of David on people’s coats. Although those images often come up in my mind.
Since that time I have often thought about something. The Porjeszes were not the same anymore. Mother and daughter always avoided eye-contact. They did not smile anymore. When Alice neni ( the daughter) who was married, had her husband back with her, you never saw them smile. I always thought that they didn’t love each other anymore. The only person who was nice and always smiled was Jolanka whose room was beside our dining room, she always left her window open so I could speak to her. Porjesz neni sometimes left her kitchen windows open. I stopped and said hello, but no one came to the metal bars on the door to ask me how I was doing, or to say “you are growing up to be a nice young man”. Jolanka said it, but they were different, colder. The doors to the apartment were always closed. I never saw inside their apartment anymore. Not until the first time I went back to visit from Canada. The grandson invited me in to show the renovations he made in the big living room. He made a bed for himself on a high platform and under it he had enough room to read and work. This was nearly 15 years later. When I introduced my Canadian girlfriend to them Porjesz neni started to speak to me. One of her lines I will always remember: “Tibi, this girl is too young for you. She will leave you.” I realized then that after all those hurtful days in the Ghetto, they were deeply hurt and this is why no one thanked me for looking after Sziszi. They carried the pain in their apartment and they hardly went out to enjoy my beautiful city.
Maybe our city betrayed them. Maybe grown up guys like me hit them or spat at them or took away some of their treasured belongings. If they had ever spoken to me about this, or if I had had the courage to ask them what happened… maybe I would have been able to help. But could they trust anybody? Could they embrace anyone again with trust? Maybe I can understand it now. But as a kid I did not. I started to feel guilty. Guilt is a stronger feeling than love. But Jolanka sitting at her window always relaxed me and kept love stronger in me than guilt.
* the Hungarian words “néni” and “bácsi” translate into English as “auntie” and “uncle” respectively. They do not necessarily refer to a relative but an older person from a child’s point of view – usually a family friend or aquaintance.