Kálmán Opré The Szeged Quintet
Written by Admin in Hungarian -
THE SZEGED QUINTET
THE SIRENS’ SONG
MY MOTHER’S FUNERAL
The location of these five stories is the city of my birth, Szeged, Hungary. They carry recollections from the early years of my childhood, my thoughts and impressions of events occurred during my returns to the city as an adult, and finally, a few flights of my fancy. The names of places and persons mentioned are real, although most of the people who populate these stories are dead. I shall cherish their memories forever.
Kalman J. Opré 12/04/11
The main door of the house banged shut and the sharp clicks of heels echoed in the courtyard. He shifted on his favourite perch in the window and watched the inside corner of the Big House where the path curved.
A woman appeared, strode past the corner, turned by the cherry tree and continued toward his front steps; she was the most colourful person he’d ever seen. A pink scarf covered her head, something black hung off one shoulder, and she carried a red bundle in her hand. She was tall and thin, and a full yellow skirt swished above the bright red boots on her feet.
He has never seen the woman before and ran to his mother “a new lady is coming, she has red boots!”
“It must be Viki,” his mother said, and she came back with him into the anteroom to open the door.
The visitor had dark skin, flashing white teeth, and she embraced his mother. When she swished the black thing off her shoulder he saw her blouse was a brilliant green, and there was a shawl folded and knotted across her waist.
When his mother and the visitor went into the kitchen, he followed them. Seated, Viki put her bundle on the floor and then she and his mother visited, chatting and laughing. He stayed in the background, quiet, captivated, overwhelmed, gaping at her, sizing her up, registering everything.
Viki appeared different from all the other women he knew; her clothes, the color of her skin, her eyes, and her voice. She even talked differently. Her shiny black hair had small waves; it was pulled back from her face, tied up with colour ribbons at the back of her neck. Big yellow rings hung in her ears, and when she turned her head, they made a clinking sound, softer than the little glass bells on his Christmas tree. He liked her. And because she was a friend of his mother, he liked her even more.
Viki looked at him, smiled and pulled him into her lap. He did not resist, as it was his wont with people he didn’t like; he stiffened but for a moment at the sharp scent of wood smoke coming from the deep folds of her garments. Then he felt the warmth of her body underneath the clothes, and relaxed into the embrace of her smooth brown arms.
Something cool and sharp touched his forehead as he looked up. Her smile met his eyes as she pulled the string of yellow coins hanging from her neck out of the way. He grinned back at her, satisfied, then rested his head against her chest and listened to the beating of her heart.
I must have been about five or six years old when I met Viki, when she pulled me into her lap for the first time.
Viki was a gypsy, and she told fortunes for a living. According to Mother, she was famous for her beauty, but even more so for her ability to see the future. Because of her talent, (and beauty!) she had her own clientele, and never solicited new ones; people had to approach her. Fiercely proud, she refused to throw the cards for those who would not let her in their residences. On occasion, even if she was well received and well rewarded, she would not return, because the feeling wasn’t right.
Viki’s father was a vajda, a Romany chief, and she was the oldest of his many children. They lived in a muddy and undeveloped area at the far edge of Greater Szeged, designated for gypsies.
In my early teens I bicycled out there once, taking some clothes and stuff Mother had gathered together for Viki. I remember feeling intimidated and hanging onto my bike for dear life when a bunch of swarthy males surrounded and taunted me until Viki appeared and cursed them away. I saw several caravans there, the typical gypsy wagons, and a few scrawny horses and dogs. People sat on the ground around open fires; snotty nosed children, barefoot and in rags, stood in groups or ran around the encampment.
It was the first and the one and only gypsy camp I have ever been inside, and although it was a somewhat frightening experience, I found it fascinating.
Viki would visit our house at least three or four times a year. In the summers she went barefoot, (her feet were small and graceful), and when it got colder, she wore the red, wide necked low boots popular amongst the Romany. The same, medium heeled, three quarter length Russian boots were well known in Europe; most North Americans saw them, probably for the first time, on the members of touring theatre groups from the USSR.
Viki’s boots were always muddy.
After our first encounter, I rated her arrival as a Grade A, five star event in my life; I always stood at the head of the welcoming committee, followed by the maid, and a couple of our girls.
The routine of Viki’s visits seldom varied; after shaking hands with everybody, she was ushered into the kitchen, where she settled on an offered chair at the table and then made herself comfortable.
First she rearranged the folds of her clothes, and then did something with her hair, and only then did she address the food and drink set before her. After eating, she smoked a thin black something, talking, answering questions. When the conversation slowed down, she stood, and walked into the salon with Mother. Not wanting to miss anything, I followed them.
I helped to clear the round table of all the fashion magazines and materials as Viki and Mother settled across from each other. Viki untied her bundle, took out her cards, and grew serious as she shuffled them, laid them out, and started talking in her warm, throaty voice.
At this point, Mother always sent me out. Although I knew I couldn’t comprehend what Viki was saying, I always left reluctantly.
Her visits have always lasted several hours, because, invariably, two or three of our girls were also curious about their future. When Viki finished, I was always right there, waiting, for she always fussed over me, and I, quite willingly, always ended up in her arms.
I must have been about fourteen the last time I saw Viki; I recall how surprised and pleased I was at being slightly taller than she.
She threw the card for Mother, but this time, Mother did not ask me to leave; I stood at her side, taking it all in, listening, trying to make sense of Viki’s stop-and-go commentary.
Suddenly, I became very self-conscious because I could not keep my eyes off her smooth, dark skin, her dark eyes, and their long lashes. I found the fine, dark down above her full, sharply defined lips particularly fascinating. I became aware how elegant and agile her fingers were, watched them caressing the edges of the cards and felt the suspense when she slid them off the deck. I marvelled at her grace as she held each card, as if alive, before placing them on the table, how she snapped their corner, how she hesitated before she flipped the card face up with the long nail of her little finger. I watched her besotted as her eyes shifted back-and-forth from the deck to the cards on the table, as she moved them around, as she tapped some of them with her forefinger. Occasionally, she would name a card or say what it meant. She would smile, grow serious, purse her lips, frown, raise an eyebrow, nod, shake her head. Watching her was more exciting than sitting in the first row of Great Circus in the English Park in Budapest.
Mesmerized by her physical presence, I fantasized about the brown, smooth body under her clothes, the wonderful, yet unknown secrets it might hold, the breathtakingly sweet secrets that torture pubescent boys. Her presence and her beauty simply overwhelmed me.
I rejoiced that I did not feel guilty at all. But didn’t my thoughts constitute a mortal sin? For sure. Should I confess it next Sunday? Which priest? How would I describe it? Should I mention it to Mother? Forget it. My fantasies felt precious, very private, and decided that I am not going to share them with anyone.
When all the cards laid face up on the table, when the silence and the suspense were almost unbearable, Viki commenced her monologue. I tried very hard to understand what she was saying, because by now, I was Mother’s confidant, and knew that our fortunes and futures were intertwined. When Viki finished, she fell silent and folded her hands in her lap; the spell was broken.
As she gathered up the cards, Mother asked her to throw a set for me. This was a totally unexpected turn of events! Embarrassed, I blushed, but at the same time felt flattered; finally, I am turning into somebody with a future!
I giggled when Viki asked me if I believed in the cards; I said yes. When she asked me to cut the deck and to touch the two halves, I did so, feeling exposed and awkward. My eyes followed her left hand gathering up the cards, shuffling the pack, and straightening its edges. I noticed how she hesitated before laying down each card. And then, finally, she told us the message of her cards.
What she said seemed so farfetched, that Mother exclaimed, and I, suddenly nervous, not knowing what to say or do, laughed out loud. But Viki was adamant, “The cards don’t lie,” she said “it’s all here, it’s all very clear here…” tapping some of the cards on the table.
The cards, Viki told us in her most serious manner, predicted a long life for me, success away from home, a happy family, and many crossings of waters, of oceans. Not just one ocean, but many oceans.
She kept her eyes on the cards, repeating the words as if she herself didn’t believe what she saw. Viki’s demeanour was so serious that Mother and I stopped laughing. The three of us just stared at the cards in silence.
Uneasy and confused, I looked at Mother, hoping for her initiative to relieve the tension. She did not even acknowledge me; her eyes never left the cards. I sensed that she was taken aback as much as I was. Mother’s attitude and Viki’s emphatic tone have further increased my apprehension about the future awaiting me.
Turmoil reigned in my fourteen year old, Roman Catholic mind. Almighty Father in Heaven! Will all this really happen to me? When? How? Who is going to pay for all this coming and going across the oceans? Will I be sailing or rowing? Or sitting on a steamer? Maybe I’ll be shipwrecked!
Agitated and afraid, energized and paralyzed, shifting between awe and disbelief, one moment I felt like an all comprehending adult, the next, like a kid. Mother’s voice brought me back to reality “Well now, well…so, you’ll be crossing oceans, we’ll see.” Viki gathered up her cards, stood, and touched my face: “you are getting so tall, my little Kálmán. From now on, you can call me Victoria” she said, turning away to pick up her cards. Embarrassed, ill at ease, I managed to mutter my thanks. There was a curious mood amongst the three of us then, nobody spoke.
Leaving, Viktoria did not hug me, just shook my hand; I well remember my disappointment. I guess she noticed I was growing up.
In 1946, after the War, I returned to Szeged and asked Mother if she knew what became of our beautiful gypsy girl. She hasn’t seen her for couple of years, but heard that the Gypsies were gathered up by the Hungarian Nazis in 1944 and shipped to Germany. By 1946, the whole world knew what that meant.
According to the Holocaust database, the number of Romany (Gypsies) exterminated in Europe between 1933 and 1945 ranges from 250.000 to 1.5 millions; in Hungary from 5,000 to 70,000. These widely fluctuating numbers are due to the lack of a census of the Romany, as well as to their preference of an unsettled lifestyle. Nevertheless, it is sad, that then nobody cared enough about them to know their numbers.
In April 1949, I embarked upon my first sail across an ocean, the Atlantic. Walking up the gangplank of the T.S.S. NEA Hellas, bound for Canada from Naples, Italy, the gentle and colourful image of Viki/Viktoria rose before me. I whispered to my one and only sibyl that her prophesy is about to come true, that I still remembered her intriguing loveliness.
Fate has allowed me to cross almost all the oceans of the world, and on each occasion I thought of Viki’s prediction. I often wondered if her cards foretold her own prospects during those insane years of World War II. She and her people deserved a better fate.
THE SIRENS’ SONG
I left my hometown Szeged, the sunshine capital of Hungary in 1943 as a student, and returned to it for the first time in 1966, as a married businessman from Canada. Since then, I have visited the city often; in 1973 with my wife and two children and afterwards, several times each year for the next seventeen years as I travelled extensively in Western and in Eastern Europe on business.
Now, in the summer of 1990, here I am again, pulled here by some unknown force, visiting people and places or, just walking the streets of the old neighbourhood, as usual, without any specific plan or purpose.
Even before my departure from Canada, I anticipated the emotional roller-coaster ride that awaited me here; yet I came, undeterred by the knowledge. How well l knew that once here, I would willingly step on the treadmill of nostalgia, and embark on a pilgrimage to revisit the stations of my youth.
The dying salmon returns to the waters of his birth; but the cause of it, some mysterious biological process, remains elusive. My reasons for returning to Szeged are also unknown to me; each time I ask myself: why do I keep returning? Do I feel sorry for myself? Do I want to relive those few years of innocence at Mother’s side? Why am I seeking people and places I have ever known here? What do I search for in familiar faces and in familiar surroundings? Why do I feel short changed after each visit, yet wishing I had more time? Why am I punishing myself by coming here, when each time I agonize over the same questions?
I don’t know. Maybe there are no answers.
Spending time in the company of the living or the dead, or by myself, is only a portion of a complex mental and physical ritual I find myself repeating here. Its lesser components are the frustration, the impatience I feel when confronted with the stupidity of bureaucracy and traditions, and with the inflexible habits and mentality of my countrymen. The major component of my quandary is the enigmatic conundrum of being torn between wanting to stay and wanting to get the hell out of here.
But once under the acacias of Szeged these questions fade away unanswered; I let the city envelop me in its aura, filled with faces of family and friends, the living and the dead, the images of graves, the secret places of youth, stitched together with the thread of memory.
I daydream, and find myself on the sidewalks I once trod to kindergarten, to elementary school, to the Gymnasium of the Piarists. No major changes here, the streets are the same; most of the buildings are still there, only the trees have grown thick and tall. Pulled along by some automatic guidance system I invariably find myself on Jósika Street, standing before number 35, where I was born, and where I spent the first dozen years of my life. I take my time to look up and down on the street, comparing reality with images bubbling up from memory.
I meander into doorways and courtyards and scan the list of residents hoping to spot a familiar name in the dusty collages on their walls.
I visit the churches Mother and I frequented, and sit in their pews where the two of us sat. Their air still tastes the same as it did then, of damp masonry, of musty papers, of incense and candle wax. I love the cool, pious silence of their interiors; I reacquaint myself with the patterns of floor tiles, the hand-worn edges of sombre pews, the mysterious confessionals, the statuary, the glow of their stained glass windows.
The time machine fuelled by their collective atmosphere drops me in the midst of little boys in shorts, standing on the marble floor of the Votive Church. We crane our necks, elbow each other, sigh, giggle and squirm, drop our hymnbooks, sing, kneel, shuffle, get hungry, thirsty, tired and bored. It was the same on every Sunday, for years, enduring and surviving the innumerable masses and functions of the Catholic liturgy.
If the choir loft is open, I walk up and look for a hymnbook. If there is one, I look for Ecce Sacerdos Magnus by Schütz, or for the five Agnus Dei by Kodály, my favourite hymns and pieces of my glory days as an alto soloist in the Votive Church. Alas, the books are new, the language of the hymns is no longer Latin, and their Hungarian text is unfamiliar.
Pulled along by some automatic guidance system I invariably find myself again on Jósika Street, standing before number 35. I take my time to look up and down on the street, comparing reality with the images bubbling up from memory.
My three first cousins, my only living blood relations in Hungary, still live in Szeged ; being with them is a much too rare and precious event. In their company I am overwhelmed by a sense of belonging, as I discover yet another shared physical feature, or recognize one of their gestures as my own or as one of my children’s. Their casual familiarity with one another makes me envious, as it reminds me how much I missed out by being an only child with a widowed mother.
The matriarch of the family, their mother, my aunt Ilus, by marriage, is a sweet, lively old lady, my only authentic source of tales about my family and the past, while my cousins don’t seem to be interested in either. The joy of being with them is mixed with regret, and because I know that we soon must part.
While writing this, I admonish myself: So what if you want to return? If it feels good, do it, enjoy it, and stop bitching!
Maybe this is the answer. I don’t know.
My cousin, György (George) Óvári and his wife, Panni, live on Gutenberg Street, and whenever I come to Szeged, they invite me to stay in the spacious guestroom of their comfortable apartment. I treasure the company of this lively couple; I watch their daily routines, and bask in their hospitality.
Both of their children are married and have families; Judit, is a very successful lawyer in Szeged, George Jr. equally successful as a troubleshooter for the international food industry, resides in Budajenő, close to Budapest.
Waking in the guestroom of my cousin, or in any room in any city in Hungary, is always the same: I levitate in a state of happiness, a sort of an out-of-body experience, above a sunny, benign and well-known world. All my senses are involved, and wanting to retain their precious perceptions, I am afraid to open my eyes.
The audiophile in me registers the first sensation. The sounds come through the open window, and switch on my imagination:
I visualize the two women on the sidewalk, approaching. Are they on their way to work, or to shop? One of them is more talkative than the other; is she the younger one of the two? I catch only fragments of their conversation as they pass under my window; the rhythmic click of their steel-shod heel lasts much longer than the sound of their voices. I know both of them have nice legs. The famous legs of Hungarian women.
The purr of a car. No, it’s not a Trabant, the two-stroke tin can, the luxury item of socialist-capitalists. The car rattles as it passes. The street grows quiet.
From above and from the left, dull sounds thump through the brick walls. Rush of water, a pipe whistles. A toilet, a bidet, a kitchen sink? Fantasy goes to work. A distant, but steady pattern of a monologue interrupted by music, a radio on the third floor? A sharp metallic sound close by; did my hostess drop a pan in the kitchen?
The thought of kitchen awakens the olfactory nerve. The dominant odour is gas, a major component of European air, but somehow not as threatening here as it would be in North America. There is bacon, and here comes the aroma of coffee. Is there a hint of Earl Grey as well? I hope so, because I can’t drink the so-called coffee in Hungary.
A golden glow penetrates my closed eyelids. I know what it is: the abstract patterns on the wall by the window of my bedroom, painted there by the morning sun. The wall should be the customary pale yellow ochre of Hungarian interiors. I open my eyes to confirm. I am right.
A look around the room settles on the furniture; it is heavier than in North America. The chairs and sofas are new but bulky, the signature style of the Socialist mentality, much like the graceless statues of women with thick wrists and ankles, either slicing bread or swinging a hammer or a sickle.
I continue my survey of the room. Books are everywhere, on tables, on shelves, and in a large bookcase against the wall. I take a book from the shelf above my bed and start reading, mouthing the words. God knows, I need to practice my Hungarian! My friends tell me I have an American accent, apparently the R-s have softened, and the vowels have lost their razor-sharpness. Too bad, deal with it guys.
Shifting onto my side I realize my back is sore. All this softness. I double my eiderdown pillow and box it into a comfortable headrest. This doesn’t work; I stretch to loosen the stiffness of a good night’s sleep.
I shower, shave and dress, and make my appearance in the kitchen and greet my hostess; she’s busy with pots and pans, and informs me that my cousin left early to check on one of his building sites.
The sight of the Canadian Special on the table makes me smile; its colors and aroma make my mouth water. Sections of hard-boiled eggs with their deep yellow interiors look great next to the Csabai, (the home-made, paprika-red winter sausage), its spicy slices spread out like a winning hand of cards. Fresh yellow peppers, a plate of butter, and a basket, piled high with slices of the sensational crusty bread of the Great Hungarian Plain. There is enough to satisfy the three of me. I hug Panni, the personification of motherly hospitality, and compliment her for her efforts; she protests, as expected.
I sit and salivate in anticipation of the never-forgotten textures of paprika-sausage-peppers-bread and load up a slice of bread. No butter. My hostess brings in the teapot, (I was right!), and the slices of lemon and the jar of honey to go with it. She spoils me and I love it. The water in Hungary is too hard to make a good cup of tea, there is an oily film on the top, that seems insoluble and stains the inside rim of the cup. After a breakfast like this I am unable to eat anything until the evening, and say so. Nevertheless, as per the custom of the land, my hostess admonishes me for not having just a bit more of this! And of that! But I honestly cannot. I am not used to eating like Hungarians do, not anymore, not after fifty years on the shores of the Pacific Ocean. But neither do I sport a well-established stomach like most of the men here, nor take pills for or against indigestion, constipation, high or low blood pressure, insomnia, flatulence and kidney stones.
I thank my hostess, and pick up the morning issue of Szegedi Hirlap, and scan it, in vain, for some news about Canada. The style and language of Hungarian newspapers annoy me: they never credit sources of news, international or local; the language is flowery, full of slang, sensationalism and inferred gossip. This one is no exception.
I brush my teeth, pickup my sketchbook and camera, then hug my busy hostess, and depart.
The heat from the sun-baked cobblestones swirls at the edges of the asphalt sidewalk shaded by the acacias. I check my watch; nine thirty in the morning; my damp skin predicts another hot August day, like the ones I loved as a child.
I slow my steps; lots of time – I think – let’s enjoy this, an unhurried walk uptown, on the shady side of Gutenberg Street. I am heading in the general direction of the pedestrian bridge over the Tisza River, to spend a few hours with a recently discovered friend of my family. I met my host, an eighty-plus old gentleman, two years ago for the first time via the son of my godfather, Dr. Pál Völgyesy. I called him upon my arrival, and felt rewarded and very pleased that he remembered me and asked to visit him today, at ten in the morning, sharp, he said.
My host, Dr. Rudolf Krier, was born and bred in Szeged; the only son of a well to do family; he lived here all his life, conducting the family’s business, the city’s most prominent haberdashery store. It specialized in dress uniforms and riding apparel for officers, and also manufactured the headgears of gymnasiums and other educational institution. I remembered its glass cases and mannequins well, when Mother purchased my first dark blue velvet Piarist cap.
Rudi bácsi is one of the few survivors of a much gentler epoch in Hungarian history, and I very much looked forward to hearing a few more stories about my city and the people I knew here as a youngster.
My host did not disappoint; he told stories, plied me with various aperitifs, books, photos and letters, and then, with his EX LIBRIS collection. He also presented me with several original impressions from it, printed mostly from linocuts, most of them designed and cut by his old and trusty friend, the artist Márta Kopasz.
(I am scheduled at her place tomorrow at three PM, sharp, after her nap. Her spacious apartment on the Stefania Parkway is a veritable museum, full of paintings, hers and others’, and objets d’art. She is another one of my “steadies” in Szeged, a true source of stories and adventures from her colourful life as a teacher of thousands, wife and mistress of a few, and confidant of hundreds. She and Rudi bácsi talk daily.)
Afraid that I might overstay the customary length of an early morning social call, I rose several times; each time my host brought out something else to show me. Being interested and having time, I gladly obliged him. Nevertheless, his obvious desperation for company, his teary hug and long handshake at his door saddened me because I could not help feeling that he was saying good-bye.
Descending the cool and worn marble staircase of his residence, the words of Cole Porter’s melancholy song surfaced “Every time we say good-by, we die a little…” How sad, and how true…and thought of my longstanding love/hate relationship with good-byes. I vowed not to drag out visits with younger people in my old age.
The fresh heat of the noon sun chased me back to the shady side of the streets as I walked toward my residence. I took my time to look into stores, all the while on the lookout for the ones I remembered. The bookstore on the corner of the Little Ring Boulevard seemed to be one of them; its walls and cases were full of comic books and soft porn magazines. Why wasn’t I surprised when told that they did not have SORSTALASÁG, by Kertesz? I waited for the tram to rattle by on the gently curving track under the chestnut trees, and then crossed the Little Ring and walked a block to Gutenberg Street.
The Gutenberg, a quiet residential street, is only four blocks long. In its middle spreads a block-long lot filled with tall evergreens, surrounded by an ornamental wrought iron fence set into a waist high granite base.
I knew this block since childhood, having gone by it a thousand times as a youngster; and I have passed it several times during my recent visits, yet, never once stopped to take a closer look. Nor could I recall ever seeing any sign of life inside the complex, or at its entrance, only sensed a silent presence amongst the shadows and columns of tall pines rising inside the fence. Now, heading home and having the time, I did pause to take a look.
A few patches of pale, yellow brick walls and a few ornate windows showed through the branches of the pines, and above their tips, I glimpsed a magnificent dome with pale blue ribs, and in between them, the colourful pattern of glazed tiles on the roof. I crossed over from the Gutenberg to the Josika Street where the main entrance was. I remembered the double winged wrought iron door well. Now, it was secured with lock and chain, both shiny and worn; the door handle looked also well used. A stained paper sign, hand-printed and buckled in a primitive wood frame, attached to the inside of the door, stated the days and times of visitation.
Pleased to see that the facility would be open on the following day, I made a mental note of the time, and decided to come back tomorrow, to visit this place I had not entered since I was a child.
…dressed in my Sunday best I hung onto the hand of my big friend who brought me here…it was dark and there were lights and a lot of people and I was afraid…but Jóska held my hand and looked down and smiled at me and said we are almost there and then we went up the stairs with all the people…
Suddenly, I remembered my first visit to this place, and then all my other visits when I was a few years older, when I was not afraid any more.
The soft glow of memories hardened into a sharp sense of obligation, and then into a resolve: I shall come back tomorrow, and pay homage to the memory of my friend Jóska and his family, the Wieners, and I shall thank them for their kindness to the child of their widowed friend, my Mother. Their faces bright in my mind, I reminisced for a while longer before the closed gates of the only synagogue in Szeged.
Back at my cousin’s, I accounted for my day, including my visit with the old gentleman; we had a couple of drinks and then settled around the table for supper. Afterwards, as always, we talked about old times, a subject we never seem to exhaust. They were curious about my adventures during and after WW II, as well, about my life in Canada, and I, about their experiences in post-war communist Hungary. My cousin and I persevered until midnight; his wife had said goodnight a couple of hours earlier. We discussed the program for the following day and went to bed.
I never mentioned my intention of visiting the synagogue. Thinking about tomorrow, I suddenly realized that, for them, the synagogue across the street, simply did not exist. This would be the European norm rather than the exception, for the whole of Europe has been anti-Semitic for several hundred years, and unfortunately, will continue to remain anti-Semitic in the foreseeable future. The Hungarians represent only a fraction of the world’s population who received their first dosage of racial and cultural prejudice through their mother’s milk. I concur with the opinion that childhood experiences determine the behaviour of adults.
My cousins and I had, indeed, different childhoods.
For one, they did not live in a Jewish neighbourhood, nor did they have Jewish friends from childhood to adulthood. I did.
Further, my three cousins are, more or less, ten years younger than I, and didn’t see the terror-filled last years of WW II, nor the commencement of the Holocaust in Hungary. I did.
However, my host and his older brother did experience extreme hardships at the hands of the revenge-seeking Jewish and Hungarian communists who reigned after WW II. Their sister was too young to comprehend what was going on.
My cousins witnessed their widowed mother’s struggle against an additional measure of persecution, because of her husband’s title Vitéz (Brave), awarded for his bravery in WW I. The Communists reduced the family’s rations of food, clothing and firewood; they even refused paying the meagre pension of a war widow, and restricted the children’s access to education. The whole of Hungary was terrorized and the people lived in fear of this regime’s uncontrolled excesses of totalitarian dictatorship. My cousins experienced post-war communist Hungary on their own skin. I didn’t.
Settled in bed, I thought about the stupidity of wars, the cattle-like mentality of the masses, man’s tolerance of suffering, the unaccountability of politicians, and the unspeakable terror of the Holocaust.
I relived scenes from my childhood, and acknowledged my self-pity for growing up without a father. I recalled the fear and loneliness of the war years, and the anxieties of a constantly hungry stateless non-person. I regretted not being able to share with Mother my joy and pride about my new country, my successes as an adult and my new family.
My family in Canada. Indeed, how fortunate I am to have them, and to know them safe from the horrors of war! How lucky they are to have been born in a magnificent country, blessed with all the riches in the world, a champion of the rights of free people!
I stayed awake for a while on this warm August evening, in a strange, yet already familiar room, illuminated by the cold blue-green reflection of neon street-lamps, in a strange bed, with eiderdown pillows and comforter. I fell asleep as the images from the golden days of my childhood spun forth under my closed eyelids.
I step into one of those sharp-edged, brilliant summer mornings so typical of my hometown, Szeged, on the Great Hungarian Plain. The warm air caresses your skin, and wishing to become one with the ambience, you want to shed your clothes, drop them on the ground as you walk away from it all, roaring Oh What A Beautiful Morning!
But I am strangely apprehensive, even nervous, as I cross the Gutenberg toward the entrance of the synagogue.
One wing of the black iron gate stands ajar, the chain and the lock of yesterday are gone. I enter the courtyard, walk across a blacktop path to the bottom of the stairs, and pause. Yes, this is the spot where my big friend held my hand as we walked up the stairs. I notice a few chipped and broken edges in the light grey granite. Bullets, jackboots from 1944-45?
The tall, double winged wood-cum-wrought-iron door at the top of the stairs is also ajar, split in its middle by an inch wide dark space. It feels as if someone just walked through it. Don’t they close doors here?
On the top of the stairs I halt, look back on the streets, and relieved that they are empty. Immediately I feel guilty: this is stupid, I want to be here, I am doing my thing, and I don’t care if I am seen! But, I admit that I’m glad to be alone. Ah, the collective conditioned reflex of men, feeling guilty when standing before forbidden doors…
I pull the tall door open, hesitate on the threshold, and look into the grey silence. This must be the vestibule. It is cool in here, and semi-dark. The color differs from the typically warm glow of Hungarian shadows, this one is bluish. A couple of votive candles blink in one corner. Somebody was here.
Behind this shimmering, pale-blue space tall wooden doors form a barrier; their bevelled, untreated façade with inset windows reaches the ceiling. It must be the entrance to the interior.
On both side of the vestibule light-grey marble pillars stretch to the ceiling and guard brightly lit narrow corridors behind them. I catch the glitter of gold lettering on the walls behind the pillars and spot a small vase at the foot of the wall; its limp flowers are bound with a ribbon in red-white-green colors of Hungary. I pass between the pillars, and face golden columns of names engraved on white marble panels, stretching from floor to ceiling. The list is in alphabetical order.
The instant knowledge buckles my knees; I stand before the names of the Jews of Szeged, killed in the Holocaust.
The panel before me carries names with the letter C, as I scan it, the name of the gentle, blind broom vendor, who lived in our house on the Joshika, pops into my head: CAPFERT. I cannot find him in the C-s. Maybe they spelled it with a Z? I cross the vestibule, find the columns of Zs, and there he is, alone; his wife’s name is not there. Mother told me their story in1946: they let her accompany him into the ghetto and she perished there before they shipped them out. She was not Jewish. Who were “they”? Did I go to school with some of “them”? Were “they” from Szeged?
Faces, events, buildings, shops, streets fly through my brain, I search for linkages, wanting desperately to recall the names of all their people as I scan this list of grief. The columns of golden names seem endless, stretching from ground to sky, into infinity, their glittering rows invade my space, envelope me.
Panic drives me from one plaque to the next, but I am unable to focus, unable to read. The front of my shirt is soaked and tears drip from my chin, I’m surprised. What’s happening to me? I must pull myself together.
But the tears won’t stop, and I cannot stop searching. And I find them all.
The BLAUS, the haberdashers on Kelemen Street, the two brothers, their mother and their wives…all five of them. Their women were customers of Mother, and I got my winter coats from them…
The FLAMMS, the elderly couple from across the street. They loved my visits and I, their sweet matza. What happened to their little white dog, Puffy? Did he fight? Did he bite one of “them” when they took his gentle masters away?