After putting things off time and time again, it was about three years ago that I started reading the files in the archives of my father and my grandfather. My grandfather finished legal studies in Budapest in 1889, and opened his law office in Becskerek in 1893. The office has continued to exist since then. My father took it over from my grandfather. Today it is led by the widow of my younger brother. I think all files have remained as they were stored. Countries, systems, official languages – just as the name of my home town – kept changing time and again, but the files have stayed on the shelves next to each other (sometimes above each other). There are very few files in which all documents (submissions, letter of the clients, letters to the clients, evidence, judgements) were restricted to one language only. Hungarian, Serbian and German have been used interchangeably. Destinies have also kept changing. For me, these files represent some sort of a private entrance into history – the history of everyday life.
Many books I have read start with the caveat that all actors and all events are fictitious, resemblance with true actors or true events can only be a coincidence. Trying to shape prose from the files in the family archive, I took an opposite approach. In the book I published in Hungarian (which carries the same title as that of this story) all actors and events are real. I added some reflections here and there, but I did not change the facts. The names are also real, with some exceptions. This case belongs to those exceptions. The facts remained unchanged, just as most names, but details of the divorce case forced a change in names of the main protagonists.
A MARRIAGE AND “SEPARATION FROM BED AND BOARD”
Separatio a mensa et thoro
Karl Engel and Márta Kuzmin got married on 28 January 1938. Their daughter Judit was born around three and a half years later, on 2 August 1941.
Karl was German, Márta Jewish. By January 1938, fascism had been gaining ground rapidly, but not yet to the point of stopping a mixed marriage in the town of Becskerek.
Apart from recording the cause for the divorce, the files say nothing about the marriage itself. People’s memories lingered on however. There was one episode I often heard about from my parents and their acquaintances. Some time after the wedding ceremony, probably early in the spring of 1938, Márta and Karl invited guests over. Karl was the same generation as my parents, and quite possibly one of my mother’s classmates. When the first guests, including my parents, arrived, they were received by Márta. Karl, barefoot, showed up a few minutes later and with an irritable tone, enquired: “Márta, where are my socks?” “Why, on the luszter, where else?” Márta replied with a nonchalant smile. (Some witnesses claim that the exchange transpired in German; others insist the couple spoke in Serbian. Whichever was the language, the words zokni [“socks”] and luszter [a type of chandelier], go roughly by the same name in the various linguae francae of Becskerek (Hungarian, German, and Serbian). In the various accounts of the incident, consternation mingled with sympathy, with frequent references to the Engels’ household habits departing from middle-class towards bohemian. The stories I heard contained no trace of German–Jewish tension, nor of any grudge against history as it unfolded. This was not a Romeo-and-Juliet relationship.
At one point in the story, Karl’s grammar school friends play an important role. Their names suggest it was a Serbian grammar school he went to, as did probably Márta herself. The stack of documents contains a number of letters written by the Engels to my parents. Some are in Hungarian, others in Serbian or German. After being enlisted in the German army, Karl wrote his letters to my father in German, logical given the censorship in place as well as his status as a German soldier. Márta herself also wrote in three languages. More often than not, there seemed no logic of any kind behind why a particular language was chosen – unless the apparent randomness or even indifference was a sort of logic in its own right.
But let me make a short tangent here. It goes without saying that Becskerek was not without its national identities and pride, of which mother tongue was a key part. Multilingualism was also important however. When I went to elementary school in Becskerek, there was hardly a day when I only spoke in just one language. Exceptions were when I stayed home sick and received either no visitors or Hungarian-speaking visitors only. Outside the confines of the house, in the real world of neighbours, acquaintances and shops, trilingual communication was the norm. Then, during my grammar school years, the German language gradually faded out of public life. As a result, my German never reached the level of my grandfather’s, although my bilingualism survived unscathed. In fact, even after my Becskerek years, I can remember only a few occasions in my life when I spoke in just a single language throughout the day. In Belgrade, I had a Hungarian roommate, as I had in Aleksinac, where I did my military service, sharing digs with around eighty young conscripts in a huge warehouse of a barracks building. Our group included two Hungarian country boys (from around Subotica, the village of Kispiac, if memory serves), with whom I swapped a few daily words in Hungarian. I also had Hungarian and Serbian acquaintances in America as well, and often had my family around, and of course later the advent of email facilitated regular correspondence in the different languages. The trilingual way of life continued when I moved to Budapest, the Hungarian capital, where my wife and I alternated between Hungarian and Serbian, while I also taught in English at the university. Looking back however, trilingual days are about all that was preserved from my Becskerek days, there was not much else.
Although the stack of documents begins with the divorce law suitpapers – which began in 1943 – many things had led up to the suit being filed, not least the occupation of Becskerek by Germany. The lawsuit I am writing about begins in 1943. An issue of the local daily newspaper Torontál, dated 26 June 1943, cropped up among the papers. I went through it with a fine comb but could not find a single reference to the case. The paper may have been stashed among the case file documents by accident, but it does have its uses: it shows a mix of news and perceptions, some shaped by the occupying authorities, others prompted by Becskerek events that managed to maintain relevance. The header reads “Becskerek”, followed by the town’s full name, “Nagybecskerek”, in brackets. The address of the editorial office is listed as “Sepp Kraft (Zápolya) ucca 3”. (I have no idea about the identity of Sepp Kraft, who gave the street its alternative name, no matter how briefly. True enough, during the Occupation, the leader of the German community was one Janko Sepp, but “Sepp” features as a Christian name here.) One full page of the paper’s total of four pages is devoted to the funeral of Andor Marton. This is followed by a headline proclaiming that “Germany has drawn a reliable anti-aircraft shield over its territories to protect against the threat of Anglo-Saxon raids”. Yet other headlines hint at different direction of history. They tell how Banjanin was appointed to head the exile Yugoslavian government in London, and how Groll is the most likely candidate for foreign minister. Moscow meanwhile is calling for the transfer from London to Moscow of all exile governments “of states with a territory within the Soviet’s desired zone of influence”. On page four I read that the Lehel team prevailed over Olympia 4 to 1. (The Lehel I know hails from the village of Muzslya, but what about Olympia? “Olympia of Torda” rings a bell, except I am not sure whether the coupling of these two words is the work of true recollection or of confused memories.) In an encounter between a local Hungarian and a local German team, the Hajrá team defeated the Schwäbischer by 4 to 2. Then there is this announcement on page three, the context of which I seem unable to recall or visualise. I leave it up to the Reader:
At the airport only sheep (ewes) may graze. Grazing of other animals is strictly prohibited under threat of punishment.
Amelung signed Captain
This, then, was the state of affairs.
By then, Karl was no longer a merchant from Becskerek, but had been enlisted in the Wehrmacht as a German national and sent as an Untersturmführer to the Russian front. (As far as I know, such a fate was common among Germans of the Banat region. Like them, most of the Hungarian conscripts from Bácska were taken to the eastern front.) The divorce itself, however, was not triggered by the ebbs and flows of history and the separations they caused. The causes listed were rather more conventional and timeless. Márta, drawing inspiration from her pulse of youth rather than global events, had been leading a life of verve, and word of her small-town secrets had leaked all the way to the Russian front, thanks to earnest neighbours. Life on the battle-front was not conducive to forgiveness.
The divorce suit was filed on “31 September 1943”, proof that official documents in those days were not immune to errors any less than they are today. The seal of the District Court of Becskerek shows the suit was officially registered on 1 October 1943. The explanation reads that, in the summer of 1943, after Karl had been conscripted and taken from Becskerek, Márta established intimate relations with a medical student named R. B. Moreover, during the month of August, in her residence she hosted a “bohemian company” of five or six, including R. B., with whom she spent the entire night drinking, playing cards and dancing, at times stripped down to her bathing suit. Three witnesses were recommended to take the stand for the plaintiff: the lawyer-candidate Ž. Slavko (whose son, of the same name, would later become an attorney himself), Erzsébet L. and Erzsébet P. Márta was defended by attorney-at-law Stojan Adamović. The Adamović family also had a line of lawyers running through generations. Stojan was a few years younger than my father. I got to know him during the 1950s at an aquatic sports centre called Brankovan. He was a noted swimming coach, among other things.
The first court date, scheduled for 18 November 1943, was for a reconciliation hearing, the summons from the Petrovgrad District Court were delivered to Karl Engel, Becskerek and Márta Engel née Kuzmin of Becskerek. With all the changes of the name of the city there was never any chance all the papers would be completely consistent. In any event, the reconciliation failed. Karl did not even show up for the hearing. My father wrote to him in German, informing him about the outcome and about the next hearing probably being scheduled for January 1944, expressing his hope that Karl would be able to attend. The letter is postmarked from “Betschkerek” and addressed to a camp, Feldpostnummer 44609/A. On 18 December, my father wrote another letter to the same postal address, wondering if Karl, from whom he received no reply, had received his November letter. This time, he informs Karl of the exact date and time of the hearing (9 a.m. on 11 January 1944), and that he intends to simplify the deposition and reduce details to a bare minimum. No reply is to be found among the documents.
Neither Karl nor Márta showed up for the second hearing. There is no sign of official minutes anywhere, although my father did make notes of witness testimony on the reverse of a document. Ž. Slavko stated that both Márta and R. B. had told him they had an affair. Taking the stand, the charwoman Erzsébet L. testified that one day, as she brought water into the bedroom, she noticed Márta lying in bed with R. B. (A cross-examination by the defence established that both had their clothes on.) R. B., upset by Erzsébet’s unexpected entry, was calmed down by Márta with the words, “It’s all right, it’s all right… It’s just her, Erzsike”. Erzsébet L. further recalled finding men’s underwear in the laundry one day, when Karl had already left for military duty. The same day the maid Erzsébet P. also gave incriminating testimony. She said that, having been hired on 5 August 1943, she noticed R. B. spending entire days at Márta’s. Prompted by the defence, she added that Márta slept in the bedroom with her little daughter, while R. B. stayed over in the dining room. She also recalled several visits by a company of men and “a lady from Pančevo”. There was revelry, drinking and cards, while Márta would strip down to her bathing suit on occasion.
I am overcome by a sense of indecision as I quote from these testimonies. Admittedly, the case is far from egregious in the context of the international practice of divorce cases. Things like this do happen. Yet still vivid in our memories is the tempest of prejudice which instantly rounds up all unleashed ideas and comments and binds them to the pillory. Today the tempest has subsided, but the ingrained habit remains to look around and check if the brutish turbulence has really disappeared or just become petrified instead, and whether a story can remain in the simple human space between neighbours, friends or gossipers. Or, will the story painted by Slavko and the two Erzsikes drift away from us, and will the little crabby letters stiffen into an exclamation mark proclaiming that this is “how Jewish women are”? (Aryans not?) Drifted by the storm, Slavko, the two Erzsikes (and myself) may be caught up between two taggings: looking from one or the other vantage point we shall either be qualified as outspoken Aryan visionaries or, alternatively, as scummy anti-Semites. Meanwhile, looking at things in calmness, it becomes plain that the testimonies do not only fail to reveal what Jewish women – or women, period – are like, they also fail to make known what kind of person Márta actually was.
The verdict was delivered on 29 January 1944. Pursuant to the laws in force at the time, the judgement and any dissolution of the marriage were to be preceded by six months of “separation from bed and board”, imposed on the parties by a court order. (The institution of separatio a mensa et thoro had been a part of canonical law that survived in several European legal systems for a long time, superseding or preceding an actual divorce.)
During those six months, many things came to pass. A concentration camp, filled with mostly Gypsy prisoners, was set up at the end of our street. The German soldiers were fond of making the Gypsies fight against one another. The soldiers, above the fray, would watch over the melee, clearly enjoying the evidence of their superiority. Then afterwards, they would demonstrate their magnanimity by serving soup to the opponents. Decades later I recognised the same concept, albeit toned down for the milder tastes of a new civilisation, when I watched the Jerry Springer show in the USA. Here, too, the main event consisted of real human beings embroiled in a real fight against each other, typically a love-triangle fracas or neighbourly feud. Incited by the host, the arguments would develop into a spectacular verbal bout sometimes spilling over the line into an all-out brawl. The participants at least reaped a more substantial reward than that camp soup, and were also then presumably free to go home. I watched those Jerry Springer shows in the company of a group of students in a dorm room. Most of them looked on smiling at the onscreen frays, with a smug glee not unlike that of the Übermensch. Some of us, instead of congratulating ourselves on rising above the filth, identified intimately with and rooted for one opponent or another. A few were outraged by the sheer humiliation of it all. Nowadays, you do not need to travel as far as the US for this kind of reality show entertainment. The paradigm of audience attitudes has remained unchanged. While I have no statistical data at hand to prove or disprove this, it seems to me that many continue to opt for the stance of the Übermensch, while a roughly equal number continue to somehow combine (or confuse) the superiority of the outsider with empathy for a participant. Yet the outrage has been marginalised, and the scheme divorced from the Fascist ethos. It has become natural.
19 March fell within the six months of separation in bed and at table. Being the day of Joseph, my father’s name-day, it was a day my family always looked forward to with relish. But in 1944, 19 March did not work out as usual. I quote from my grandfather’s diary:
19/III 1944, Day of Joseph. At half past six in the morning, I hear footsteps and raised voices at the door. A little later – I was lying in bed – Józsi enters with a plaid blanket and a small pillow over his arm, and gives me a kiss. He came to say good-bye. Two German militia men had shown up at his place with orders for him to get dressed immediately, to take him and myself to the internment facility of the Messinger Institute. They said that militia had been dispatched around town to round up all the elders of the Hungarian minority. The argument in front of my door involved Józsi and Zorka who tried to explain to them I had been bedridden for two days and was unfit to be taken away. Thereupon one of the guards led Józsi away, while the other called his commander from the office and told him the old Várady was ill and lying in bed. What was he to do with a 77-year-old? At last, he left me alone. Meanwhile word came about those rounded up already. The entire known Hungarian leadership had been taken, along with our prelate; even the leaders of the women’s camp, Saczi Mara and Vilma Végh had not been spared.
The radio in Budapest aired no news at all. The word here is that the German army has occupied Hungary’s borders and is pushing into the country from Serbia, Croatia and Romania. There is no resistance to talk about. The government resigned this morning. Some say that a military dictatorship under Henrik Werth has been declared; others report that Szálasi and his men have taken over the government. Confusion reigns everywhere. I have been at home. I have been lying here all day long.
This is how I spent Joseph’s Day, for which we had such high hopes.
At half past seven, Pali returned home, and then Józsi a little later. They were all released. They were told it was just a routine security round-up. The German army was in the process of occupying Hungary, and they had to be stashed away for safety in case the local Hungarians began to conspire to stage a reckless movement. – Poor Hungary! Józsi and Pali tell us that, before being released, all detainees had to sign a statement agreeing not to leave town without a special permit. All political congregation and discussion were banned.
Becskerek had been under German occupation for a while, but the tense German– Hungarian relations and the occupation of Hungary ushered in a change in the streets of Becskerek as well. Here are another few lines from my grandfather’s diary:
20–21 March 1944: It’s all rumours, guesswork, total uncertainty. No radio news of the events in Hungary. Unpleasant incidents in the towns of the Banat. On Sunday (19 March) Hungarian students, both boys and girls, had their Bocskay hats knocked off their heads by the Hitler Jugend, and the ornamental cords of their suits torn off.
Also some time during these six months, Márta was taken away to the camp in Csóka, then released after a while, possibly in part thanks to her soon-to-be- divorced husband. At least I recall hearing my parents say something like this later on, but I cannot be sure.
The six months of separation ended on 11 July 1944. The divorce suit carried on at its own pace. On 17 July 1944, Karl states for the court that the matrimonial community has not been restored and no child has been born for the past six months. Citing the provisions of the Matrimony Act of 1894, he requests the court to dissolve the marriage. He lays no claim to a reimbursement of court costs (neither does the defendant). The verdict, passed on 28 September 1944, relies chiefly on the formerly established facts of the case, and is written in Serbian, in the Cyrillic script. I fail to see the imprint of history in its lines or arguments and findings. A verdict worded like this might have been handed down fifty years before or after. Having described the parties’ positions and summarised witness testimonies, the judges conclude that they are unable to concede the claim that adultery has been perpetrated. Although they do perceive certain signs of adultery, they insist that the factthereof cannot be established solely by inference, but that it must be demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt. They add that adultery cannot be substantiated even by the circumstance that R. B. spent days in the defendant’s home, often lying in bed with her (fully dressed, for that matter). At the same time, the judges do allow another ground for divorce when they affirm, in a language that strikes us as archaic today, that the defendant’s way of life satisfies the definition of intractable, immoral conduct.
Next comes an appeal against first-instance judgement, but from this point on things take a different turn. Márta is taken to Auschwitz; Karl deserts the German army; the three-year-old Judit comes into the custody of family acquaintances. A year and a half later, on 5 February 1946, my father, responding to the request of the Petrovgrad District Court dated 29 January, states for the record that the parties have moved to an unknown location. He will notify the court of any resumption as soon as he has established contact with his client. The court acknowledges that the process “has been stayed due to wartime events” and calls on the parties to report to the court in fifteen days if desiring to continue the litigation. No such notice was ever received. At this point, I am concluding the first episode of the story.
Restitutio in integrum
Before my father notified the Petrovgrad court of the absence of the parties, and after the separation from bed and board was declared, many things transpired. Karl returns to Pančevo with the German troops, only to defect on 30 September 1944, two days after the divorce suit judgement is delivered, by which time Márta had been deported to Auschwitz.
One year later the war is over, but it is completely uncertain whether one can scrub off the stigmas stuck on during the past years – and whether one can return home. The stack of documents contains a letter by Karl, written from the town of Szeged on 1 October 1945, in which he recounts what befell him in the past year. This letter, which among other things reveals that he managed to survive, is not simply a report but a statement of purpose – of his intention to return home. He wrote the letter to my father asking him to forward copies to Serbian schoolmates who joined the partisans. He asks the addressees for certified affidavits affirming that he has always been on the side of the partisans, despite his rank as Untersturmführer in the German army. Ostensibly, such affidavits could have allowed Karl to return to Becskerek and claim immunity from the laws imposing sanctions on German nationals and German-owned property. Naturally, the events recounted by Karl were selected and portrayed with this aim in mind. Nevertheless, subsequent correspondence and documents do substantiate Karl’s version of events. A letter of 1 October 1945 is addressed to Dragi Mišo (“Dear Mišo”) – a certain Miša Dragović who was assigned to the Yugoslav embassy in Tehran in the autumn of 1945. A copy is sent to Stanoje Županski, known as Bato by his friends (including Karl). My father tried to forward this copy via Bato’s father, a lawyer in Becskerek. Another copy is sent to Nikola Škundrić, an official of the provincial authorities based in Novi Sad at the time. A further copy was addressed to Svetolik Popović, an instructor at the Trade Academy in Niš.
Karl relates how he escaped from the German army on 30 September 1944. He had a tryst near Besni Fok with three partisans, to whom he promised that he would rally others for the partisan cause with the help of instructions from a priest named Božin. For the sake of credibility, Karl furnishes Božin’s address (Veršec, Zlatne grede 6) and reminds Miša Dragović of his recent meetings with him at the Local Committee of People’s Liberation in Opovo. In Besni Fok, he asked for permission to enter armed combat on the side of the partisans, only to be dispatched from Besni Fok to Opovo so that his request may be decided by the local command there. Meanwhile, the Red Army was marching into Besni Fok, and Karl, along with a number of his mates who had joined the partisans after deserting from the German Army, was taken prisoner on 7 October. According to Karl’s letter, they were treated better than those German soldiers who did not try to join the partisans. The prisoners were taken first to Timișoara (Temesvár), then to Debrecen, Jászberény, and finally to Brno. In the hectic coming and going, prisoner of war numbers varied widely, sometimes peaking at fifty or fifty-five thousand. The camp prisoners even formed a sort of anti-Fascist league, Karl being one of the leaders. He was released on 12 September 1945 in Brno, from where he somehow reached Szeged.
In the letter Karl is also bent on proving that he had planned to join the partisans long before the tide of war turned and the German army’s collapse became certain. He recalls making a proposal to Svetolik Popović as early as in May 1944, and even giving him information about German armouries. Shortly afterwards he fell ill with malaria and remained bedridden for a long time. He asks Bato and Mišo to corroborate his delivery of intelligence for the partisan movement after his conscription in the German army. He adds that he even sent winter clothes to the partisans via Márta.
The letters were mailed out of Becskerek as intended. There are copies of two cover letters among the documents, penned by my father to Nikola Škundrić and Svetolik Popović, to whom he was forwarding them. No reply to these letters was ever received.
My father wrote to Karl on 31 October 1945, informing him that he had delivered Karl’s letters intended for Dragović to Županski’s father, while sending the letters to Škundrić and Popović by registered mail. But this is not how my father begins his own letter. Karl’s whereabouts had been unknown until his letter from Szeged arrived. The autumn of 1945 was a period of reckonings when news of surviving family and friends was received and deaths were confirmed. Not until he received Karl’s letter dated 1 October – a letter Karl intended as a circular – did my father know he was alive and in good health. This is what my father deals with first, “with immense and sincere joy”, as he writes. Then he proceeds to share some consequential news with Karl: Márta had survived the horrors of Auschwitz and sent word from the Netherlands. My father attaches a copy of her telegram from Amsterdam. Before reading my father’s letter (which spent additional time in the hands of the censors) Karl could not have been sure that Márta was alive. There was hardly any telephone service between Becskerek and Szeged in those days, which contributed greatly to the protracted interlude of both hopes and fears.
There was so much to say. In his letter, my father gives an account of mutual acquaintances, listing the survivors. He mentions László Szerb, one of his fellow university students in Zagreb, whom Karl knew well. Szerb had been among the Jews deported to Bor. After being liberated from the camp there, he took a job in the Foreign Ministry in Belgrade. (I was introduced to him by my father when I enrolled in the university in Belgrade. They lived a few blocks from my rented room, and I visited them every two or three weeks. He was born in Čakovec. His favourite poet was Árpád Tóth. He served as councillor for the Yugoslav Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He was always reticent about speaking of his experiences in Bor. One day, though, he spoke of meeting a Hungarian poet there, and even told me about the man’s poems. That man was Radnóti. Szerb was unaware of Radnóti’s fame and stature as a poet. I would often ask him to tell me everything he knew about Radnóti, or to write it down. He would not. He had a rather taciturn habit to begin with, and it was about a period of his life he opted not to recall, he only wanted to be done with it, once and for all.) My father’s letter to Karl touches on one more mutual friend, nicknamed Csicsi. “Two weeks ago, Csicsi showed up as well”, he writes. “He lost everything in the war. All he had left to his name is a shirt, a pair of trousers, and orders to travel to Nova Crnja, where he was mistaken for a German and taken to a camp. He has not been released yet.”
The storm that had plucked Karl and Márta out of Gundulić Street and swept them away in turns to Besni Fok, Auschwitz, Amsterdam, Timișoara (Temesvár), Debrecen, Jászberény and Brno, and which had more often than not reduced the chances of their survival virtually to nil, was slowly abating. Gusts of wind continued to gather however and to carry people away from Becskerek – and not only from Becskerek. The same thing happened to Csicsi – Uncle Csicsi to me – whose fate is worth another detour. His real name was Jenő Héger. He also attended university in Zagreb as a medical student. After the war, he was taken to a camp on account of his German name where he worked as a doctor. In his diary, my grandfather mentions that he visited us in December 1945. The entry of 31 December 1945 reads as follows:
Toward the evening, we were paid a visit by Dr Jenő Héger, aka Csicsi, on his way from Rudolfsgnad to Mollyfalva. He had been employed – or, rather, starved, frozen, and tormented – as a physician in the lager in Rudolfsgnad, and has now been assigned to Mollyfalva as a therapist. Both he and the partisan accompanying him spent the night here. Everything he says reconfirms the rumours about the Rudolfsgnad camp. On average, 30 Germans perish of hunger, the cold, and sheer exhaustion each day. Yesterday, he says, there were 41 dead. The bodies are left lying there with the living, in the same rooms already overcrowded with miserable souls. – Csicsi and his companion left for the other camp this morning.
Having been liberated from the camp – I do not know exactly on what date – Csicsi emigrated to Venezuela. In a way, it is a typical story from Becskerek, a town that supplied Venezuela, and Caracas in particular, with quite a few new residents after the Second World War. Among them were my aunt Piroska with his husband, Pál Heklai, and a radio technician by the name of Halmai. Other people from Becskerek also wound up in Caracas. I am not sure how it all started. I do not even know whether Csicsi was a pioneer or a follower. Having arrived in the New World, Csicsi denied his profession as a physician because in those days in the 1950s, Venezuela, allegedly bowing to pressure from the local medical chamber, was not admitting immigrant doctors. Csicsi succeeded anyway in entering the country by passing himself off as a confectioner. Later, already in possession of his papers, he confessed to be a physician. They did not deport him but prohibited him from practising in Caracas and other major cities, so he ended up in a tiny village, in the middle of nowhere, called El Socorro, which means “succour” or “relief”. In the summer of 1968, I visited the place myself by a twist of fate that had nothing to do with any intention of emigrating to Venezuela. What happened was that, in a pub on Harvard campus, I had befriended a Pole who was in the business of peddling the Encyclopaedia Britannica. After I made short work of convincing him of the impracticability of taking a series of heavy tomes with me to Yugoslavia, he told me the story of his life. He drank round after round, and I footed most of his bill. As a sign of his gratitude, he gave me a raffle ticket which he normally reserved for those who purchased the entire set of volumes from him. It was my lucky day. I won a bus ticket from Boston to Miami, and two nights’ stay in a reasonable hotel there. The voucher had to be used early in the month of July. (The tourist season in Miami centres on the winter and early spring; July is muggy and hot.) Since my aunt had been begging me for a visit for some time, and seeing that in Miami I was already half way, I decided to take up the invitation. To break up the bus ride from Boston to Miami which would have lasted several days in a row, I dropped by Bruno Draxlers’, a family from Becskerek who had settled in North Carolina.
In Caracas, I met several people hailing from Becskerek. Naturally, the conversation kept coming back to our home town. That was when I realised that in exile/emigration it becomes suddenly clear from where the past starts. Mental images, like pictures at an exhibition, are fitted into frames and gain significance, just as the salt shaker on the dining table that was brought from home and carried over the ocean, and now no meal can be complete without it. I was astonished to find among these relics the last stanza of a limerick I penned at the age of twelve. (Even the folks in Caracas were unable to recall the rest of the lines.) I had written the poem on the occasion of my Uncle Pali’s fortieth birthday, and he recited it to our audience by heart in Caracas. Uncle Pali was the tallest man in the family. I remember a wall clock in our dining room which no one else could wind up without standing on a chair. He was also well-known for his hobby of gardening as a source of respite from his work as a lawyer. These circumstances, along of course with poetic inspiration, shaped the conclusion of my poem:
Soft rain in the springtime
Falls on my sweet briar;
Uncle Pali dearest,
May you grow much higher!
Lo and behold, I seemed to have acquired a measure of fame in Caracas as the author of these lines.
Uncle Csicsi insisted that I visit them in El Socorro. In hindsight, as I type these words on my computer as a septuagenarian, that whole trip appears utterly implausible. The bus stopped a couple of times in order to get repaired. But the final bus-stop was not El Socorro. No paved road went as far as El Socorro, so in a village on the way I was met by a young American, a missionary in El Socorro, who was sent by Csicsi to pick me up. I was surprised to note he came with two horses. We covered the last stretch, a distance of some 15 or 20 kilometres, on horseback. The majority of El Socorro’s inhabitants were native Indians who had received Csicsi among them almost as a sort of deity – or at least this is how Csicsi described the impression he created upon his arrival. His occupation as a healer probably played a part in this, as did the fact that he was an albino, whose white hair and pink eyes fit the local image of a god perfectly. Over the years that he spent among them, the miracle wore off, although it was plain to see that everyone in the village streets continued to greet him with the utmost respect. During the two or three days of my stay, we went to see a cock fight, and of course we talked a great deal about Becskerek and its residents. (In fact, Csicsi was not born there, but from nearby in the same Banat region, and most of his roots tied him in some way to Becskerek.) He asked me about Karl and his wife. He knew that both had survived. Then the subject of sports inevitably came up. Csicsi was an ardent soccer fan. Ferencváros was his favourite team. I could hardly believe my eyes when he showed me a copy of the Budapest sports paper Népsport, boasting that he had a subscription! The paper would be delivered, often by a mailman riding a horse, with a time lag of about three months, which meant that there was a major phase shift between the conclusion of each game and Csicsi’s elation or dismay, depending on the final score.
But let me come back to Márta and Karl. Late November 1945 brought relief from another fear. On 22 November, my father wrote briefly to Karl informing his “Dear Friend”, among a few other terse details, of having “learned today that your little girl is in Kaposvár in the home of Ferenc Szikics at 48 Talián Gyula Street”.
Previously, in his letter of 31 October 1945, my father forwarded Márta’s telegram in which she said she had survived Auschwitz. The telegram was in English. Censorship was still the order of the day everywhere, and I suppose that the Dutch authorities refused to accept telegrams in Hungarian or Serbian on account of the time it would take them to locate a competent censor. They probably understood German but pretended not to. (Needless to say, incoming letters were equally subject to censorship. The authorities – obviously not just in the Netherlands – imposed restrictions where they could.) As far as I know Márta spoke no English; she must have had help with the text. The main reason why she addressed the telegram to my father was probably that she did not have Karl’s address (or for that matter, any certainty that Karl had survived the war himself). Additionally, it is possible that she counted on my father’s mediation in restoring their relationship. The papers include Karl’s reply to Márta. It is undated, but the fact that he writes about their daughter staying in Kaposvár makes it likely that he mailed it at the end of 1945. The letter is in Hungarian and reads as follows:
Your letter gave me heartfelt joy. Congratulations to you for luckily surviving the horrors of the concentration camps. I did not understand everything you say in your telegram due to the poor English. I have located our daughter; she is staying with the Mariskas’ in Kaposvár. We can rightly be proud of Her in every way; you are going to be delighted by Her. She recognises you in the photos and speaks of you very gently. She is calm and soft-spoken in her habit, but everything interests Her. Although she is in good hands at present, I would like to see Her being taken care of by You, Her mother. Therefore I ask you to come to Budapest. You will find me under 5 Báthory Street, in District V, where I am staying at Dr Ferenc Lengyel’s. You should ask for your travel documents to be sent to the town where you were born, for you will not be able to stay in Kaposvár longer than it will take for us to settle financial and other outstanding matters between us, and for our Little Girl to warm up to you again.
I send you my sincere love and a warm embrace.
P. S. Hugs and kisses from our little Judit as well.
The word congratulate in the second sentence comes off as a tad constrained given the context. Evidently, Karl must have had a hard time figuring out how to begin this letter. It is quite understandable that the divorce litigation had been overshadowed and dwarfed by the war, but the communication block is still very much in evidence. Yet I feel he manages to overcome this block as he progresses with the letter.
The subtitle introducing this part of the text is the legal concept of restitutio inintegrum, which means the restoration of original state of affairs (or original position). In that segment of society in Becskerek that I knew best, this concept provided the framework for much of people’s longing for everything to be as it had been before the war: goods available in the shops; a lumberyard in lieu of the concentration camp; a resumption of city balls; a fresh produce market where it used to be; each religion and denomination restored to equality; a Messinger Institute as we had known it; Búza’s stationery and book store and the Pentz confectionery shop reinstated in their antebellum splendour. The yearning for the restoration of the past was more likely than not informed by the selectivity of recollection. I grew up in this, although there were other desires around. Some would not seek to replace the war-torn years by what had been before, but by a whole new world. And these people prevailed.
Presumably, Márta and Karl, having survived all that horror, were also thinking along the lines of concepts and desires subsumed in the notion of restitutio in integrum. They set about the work of restoration by tackling their marriage first. Since they had survived, this was now all entirely within their own discretion, except for the issuance of travel documents. Following in the tracks of restitutio, the next step would have been their return to Becskerek, a plan easily gleaned from the case documents. On 3 November 1945, my father writes to the Local People’s Committee in Besni Fok, asking for an affidavit substantiating Karl’s claim that he had intended to join the liberation army one year previously. The affidavit is solicited as a means of securing for Karl immunity from the restrictions of person and property applicable to all individuals of German extraction under a resolution passed by the AVNOJ (Antifašističko veće naroda oslobodene Jugoslavije, or Anti-Fascist Council of National Liberation of Yugoslavia). The resolution made an exception for those who undertook to fight in the liberation army or partisan outfits. The application was granted in a seal-embossed letter of 16 January 1946, from Besni Fok, addressed to “Drug Varadi Josif, advokat, Petrovgrad”, i.e. Comrade József Várady, attorney at law, Petrovgrad. The sealed affidavit states that Comrade Karl, former officer of the Wehrmacht, reported to the liberation forces on 2 October 1944, asking to join them.
Some time later another affidavit is delivered from Besni Fok describing what happened to Karl following 2 October: “He did not receive rank or orders on the date first mentioned above, but was removed from the location as a prisoner of war two days later by a contingent of the Red Army.” The affidavit also mentions Karl’s claim upon arriving in Besni Fok that he had been in contact with the people’s liberation movement prior to that date, and even supplied intelligence about the German army. Not only does the letter confirm that Karl made this deposition but it certifies that his claims had been checked, verified and found to have been true to the facts. It goes without saying that the affidavit concludes with the customary slogan “Death to Fascism, Freedom to the People!”
A few days later, on 22 January 1946, my father writes to Karl telling him that the affidavits have been delivered and enclosing a certified copy. He expresses his hope that Karl may be reinstated in his civil rights in Serbia (and Becskerek in particular) now that he has the affidavit from Besni Fok in hand. (Now that I have mentioned Besni Fok so many times, let me tell you about this locality, the name of which probably does not ring a bell even for most of my readers in the Voivodina region. Here is everything I know about it: during the time that I drove often from Becskerek to Belgrade, just before the Danube came into view ahead of the turnoff to Pančevo, I would glimpse a road sign pointing the direction to Besni Fok to the right. That is all.)
Next up in the stack of documents is a handwritten letter by Karl. It is undated, but it is no doubt a reply to my father’s letter of 22 January 1946, to him. Thanking him for the affidavit from Besni Fok, he adds that his former fellow students, now employed in the government, have not answered his letters. Then he proceeds to cite examples from his track record of anti-Fascist sympathies. For instance, Bato Županski left in his care (i.e., asked him to hide) certain books that would have constituted incriminating evidence against him under the German occupation, such as The Capital and Anti-Dühring. (Presumably, these volumes were safer in the keep of a German officer.)
Next up is a letter my father wrote on 2 August 1946, in reply to a letter received in June, which is nowhere to be found among the documents, about letters of baptism and other papers requested by Márta and Karl. They are also trying to locate Márta’s valuables. My father establishes that, when Márta was deported to Auschwitz, Mariska (her first name is all I know about her) handed over some of Márta’s possessions to a certain Nelli. My father remains pessimistic about the chances of a return to Becskerek. He says that even having Bato and other friends, in addition to the authorities in Besni Fok, corroborate Karl’s anti-Fascist leanings would probably be of little help. “Exasperation with the Germans is rampant”, he explains. “Their property and assets have been confiscated and all, barring a select few, interned in camps. It is virtually out of the question for the authorities to make an exception for anyone who was involved with a German organisation in any way. Of course, in your case, we have evidence for your record of actively supporting the movement. Nevertheless, we cannot ignore the general climate of public sentiment which, as I have suggested, is embittered.”
On 7 November 1946, my father writes again to Bato Županski and Svetolik Popović, reiterating his request of a certified affidavit from each affirming Karl’s anti-Fascist conduct. Once again, no reply ever came. At this point, I see that my words are sliding towards the conclusion that these school buddies, whose fortunes had taken a turn for the better, simply turned their back on their old friend. But we cannot see from inside the position of Bato and Svetolik. Admittedly, no one could have been expected to make positive pronouncements about an Untersturmführer easily, even if that person happened to make an effort to collaborate (and even collaborated) with the partisans. Then again, I have no way of knowing exactly how much they knew. The Županskis were a well-regarded family in Becskerek; I had never heard anyone speak ill of them. But anyway, they could have put in a good word for Karl, or, at least, they could have responded to his letters.
Then comes an exchange of letters regarding registrar’s certificates, followed by a hand-written, undated letter from Karl wishing a “belated Happy New Year”. In this letter, Karl requests my father repeatedly to try to find “whatever remains of my wife’s belongings”. The letter is written in ink; at the bottom of the page, Márta adds a note in pencil: “My deepest love to you and Zorka.”
The last letter in the stack, again from my father, is dated 10 February 1948. It continues to deal with the registrar’s certificates as well as family news of a personal nature. It ends with the overall conclusion that, “In my opinion, your coming home within the foreseeable future will not be feasible”.
And, at this point, the “original state of affairs” fell short of being restored: Karl and Márta became Hungarian residents. I have often heard the cliché “starting a new life”; I have probably used it myself on occasion, as a sort of casual phrase without serious substance more than anything else. Here, this is literally what happened: they started out anew, changed profession and became quite successful at applied arts and crafts. Judit duly followed in their wake. She lives with her two daughters west of the Danube in Hungary.
Translation by Péter Balikó Lengyel