Personal Reflections - In Ghettos
The moment I arrived at Klariís, the sirens started to wail; air-raid. It was the third day in a row that Budapest had been bombed. Twice a day, in the morning by the English or the Ameri-cans, in the evening by the Russians. Klariís apartment was in a "yellow-starred" house, desig-nated for Jews only. Overcrowded, with several families in each apartment. The cellar which was used as an air-raid shelter was too small for that many people. The air was stifling and the noise of children crying mingled with the noise of explosions and airplanes, was much too much to bear.
The air-raid lasted about an hour. When we returned to Klariís apartment
we were a bit shaken. Klari made some coffee and gave me a cigarette. And
we talked and talked. The theme was always the same in those days: what
will become of us?
By now they have deported all the Jews from everywhere in Hungary, except from Budapest.
The fate of all my friends and relatives who lived in other cities were constantly occupying my mind. I imagined scenes of horrors happening to them. There were rumors of how they were put into cattle wagons and how they were sent to the gas-chambers on arrival in the death camps. I thought of Zoli, my first love, who was taken to the Russian front --- it was well known how they were treated, those with the yellow star. Worse than animals. My own brother was still close by in a labour camp for young Jewish men who were used for menial work. We heard from him occasionally, but they could take him away any time to a death camp. Budapest will be a hard nut to crack though since there were still about 200,000 Jews living there. Would they have enough time to kill us all? This was a race against time.
When our conversation reached this point I asked for one more cigarette.
Where could he be? "He said heíd be back by three," Mom said. There was a curfew for Jews, starting at six oíclock, p.m. We didnít have a phone and the only neighbour who had one was a member of the "Arrow Cross" the Hungarian Nazi Party.
My mother and I sat in silence. Then I couldnít stand it any more.
I couldnít answer. I went to a policeman --- they were usually more
humane than the Arrow-Cross mob. This one was all right too. He talked
to me in spite of my yellow star. He explained that they didnít know yet
what happened to the people in the house. Rescuers had been at work for
three hours but they couldnít reach the people trapped underneath the rubble.
The whole house collapsed and debris was blocking the entrance to the cellar.
The best thing for me was to go home, he said. As soon as they knew something
they would notify us. He took my name and address.
Thank God!. It canít be very serious if he was on his feet. My mother
laughed with a tinge of hysteria. I could neither laugh nor cry.
"Do you know what happened to Iren and Jutka?" My mother asked. This question was burning in me but I hesitated to ask, dreading the answer.
"Yes I know. They are dead."
"When it happened I was playing with the kid. My hand was on her
head Ė and it remained there until they dug us out some four hours later.
Jutka didnít move, didnít breathe. It was clear that she was gone. I tried
to call to Iren but no sign of life came from her either.
I believed he said the truth that he didnít lose consciousness. He was incredibly tough, never sick for a day in his life. Everyone in his place would have died. There was only one other sur-vivor. By some miracle a chair or a table fell on a woman, keeping the debris away and pro-tecting her. She escaped unhurt. I was about to say something when the sirens started to wail. "Here we go again. Damnation!" Dad exclaimed. The nuns ordered everyone to the shelter. They took Dad on a stretcher. Once in the cellar the nuns separated men and women. "What the hell are they doing that for? Are they afraid of inappropriate behaviour during the air-raid?"
The cellar wasnít a proper shelter, it was just a few steps down, shallow and echoing. It consisted of several chambers separated only vaults, so that the whole place was one unit. The nuns gathered in a central room and started to pray loudly and monotonously. They began with the Lordís prayer and recited it over and over --- after a while I was ready to scream. Then they switched to the Ave MariaÖ..It sounded like a souless routine, lacking any feeling.
The sound of a radio somewhere announced: "An enemy unit is nearing
the capital". Soon we could hear machine gun and canon fire, the noise
airplanes and explosions coming nearer and nearer and finally it seemed
as if the shells were exploding right nest to us. The first wave passed
and there was silence for a minute, except for the Ave MariaÖ..
We were alive, incredible as it seemed.
I was thinking of my fatherís ordeal, four hours under the ruins, with broken skull, his hand on a dead childís head it must have felt like an eter-nity. We staggered over where the men were. My Dadís black had humour not deserted him. "Hell, that chanting nearly achieved what the bomb failed to do." We tried to find a doctor to ask him about Dad, but in the chaos after the air-raid it was impossible. We finally said good bye and left.
When we got out of the hospital I could see that our fears were not mere hysteria. There were bomb craters quite close, a couple of houses collapsed. Rescue teams were working fever-ishly and ambulances were taking away the wounded dead. A nearby oil refinery was burning with mile long flames. The sight was incredible, terrifying but fantastically beautiful too.
Two days later they brought Dad home. First we rejoiced, then we gradually realized he wasnít better at all. His legs were still numb and he had clotted blood on his lips from internal bleeding. But it was difficult to believe that he was gravely ill. He was very alert and his brain worked better than ever.
He would categorically refuse to use the bedpan. In spite of our objections he insisted on using the bathroom. He would slide down from the bed, with our help. Sit on a small pillow and slide on it driving himself with his arms to the bathroom while reciting a famous poem: "My God, my God why didnít you give me wings?" I never knew until then that he read poetry.
A few days later he started to moan. He was probably in terrible pain but even this sounded like another of his jokes. Thinking back it is difficult to believe that till the last hours we did not think for a moment that was dying. He must have been back home for about a week when one night I woke up to a commotion. My mother was standing by his bed and he spoke some words then fell back on the pillow unconscious. It was about three in the morning.
At this hour Jews were not allowed to be on the streets and if an Arrow-Cross soldier caught one, it meant certain death.
When we got back, Dad was conscious again and recognized the doctor.
My mother and I looked uncomprehendingly on the corpse. Neither of us thought of closing his eyes. They were open the next day when they took him away. I can still see his blue eyes, looking at something unknown, beyond us.
Agnes Vadas was fifteen at the time of this particular story. She was born and raised in Budapest where she lived until the time of her escape in 1956. Having been something of a child prodigy, she was a violinist from early childhood on. By the time she left Hungary she was rather well known. She'd been a State Soloist, concertized in the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, and received several international prizes. From 1956 to 1962 she lived in Paris. From 1962 to 1966 she resided in Germany. Came to the United States in 1966 and taught at the Universities of Indiana, Texas, Georgia and Ithaca New York. (Also played as a soloist in those states.) In 1980 Vadas joined the San Francisco Opera orchestra from where I retired in 1993.
© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.