In 1944 the youngest member of our family was the one and a half year old Csilla, then came Ágnes (10) alias Gigi, Judit (12), and finally myself (13). My mother was 39 at the time, my father László Németh, 43. My father had a medical degree, and prior to 1943 worked as a doctor in a school where he also taught biology and health. However, writing dominated his life. Although he wrote seven novels (some of which were translated into other languages), and around 35 plays (half of which were performed in Budapest or larger provincial theatres), he regarded himself primarily as a writer of essays, while his favourite work of all was teaching.
My father had little sympathy for the political systems between the two World Wars, and was stridently opposed to both fascism and communism. He thought – as did many other intellectuals at that time – that Hungary should instead follow a third path in the interest of the nation. Such views of course made him unpopular with the ruling political circles of the day during and after the War. With just one exception, no original work of his was published between 1943 and 1957. He spent 1944 mostly in hiding, was a substitute teacher in a grammar school in the southeast of Hungary between 1945 and 1948, and survived materially by translating novels and plays from seven languages into Hungarian.
We lived in various rented apartments until 1935 when we moved into our new house on the outskirts of Buda at 41 Törökvész Street, where we lived until the siege of Budapest in 1944.
Fateful events usually remain in the memory throughout a lifetime. For me, the German occupation of Hungary on 19 March 1944 was such an event. Although still just a child at the time, I was aware of the tragic significance of this event. My mother came to pick us up in the boarding school I stayed in with Judit, and the same evening, to avoid the air raids expected in the capital, our whole family moved out to my grandparents’ house, about 25 kilometres north of Budapest. I still remember the aeroplanes moving south above the Danube in the sparkling sunshine, and shortly after the dull rumble of the bombardment of Budapest, just a couple of days later. My father and his close author friend Gyula Illyés, both on the black-list of the Germans, were with us too, supposed to remain incognito, but prepared for the worst. Both considered suicide in case they were arrested by the Germans.
We had no idea what was happening outside our vacuum. For several days there was no news, nothing on the radio apart from military marches. What we knew was that the new government was not headed by Szálasi, leader of the fascist Arrow Cross party, as had been widely feared. Soon, Mrs Illyés arrived from Budapest and in the difficult months that followed, our families became ever closer. Then Mrs Illyés took her husband to a new hiding place.
Though it seemed that for my father there was no immediate danger of arrest, he left us soon after the departure of Illyés to stay with a widowed elderly aunt in Budapest. By then hundreds of bombers were flying overhead every day and the air raids were beginning to look like they would continue for a long period. Our grandparents too were becoming somewhat exhausted by the four grandchildren so it was decided that we would move to Szilas, my grandfather’s birth place, a small village in Transdanubia, about 100 kilometres south of Lake Balaton, and a place with no military point of interest in the area. We still had relatives in Szilas, who arranged for us to live in a small peasant cottage surrounded by a large garden. Unfortunately the house was damp, and Csilla soon became quite sick. So despite the constant air raids and risk my mother took her back to our home in Budapest, while the three of us remained in Szilas with my father, the first time in my life when I was more or less responsible for running a whole household.
Although schools did not reopen in September as usual, we still returned to our home in Budapest where my parents had decided we would see out the occupation however long it lasted. The Russian front was moving fast towards the capital, air raids were daily events, and my mother set about gathering stocks of non- perishable food.
Budapest had changed since March. German soldiers everywhere, destroyed buildings and rubble all over the city, alarmed people on the streets. The yellow star had made its appearance on the coats of Jewish inhabitants. The Lipót-quarter had become a ghetto. There were rumours about deportations of Jews, but nobody knew when and where they were taken.
Since regular schools were closed, my parents decided I should learn something useful during these weeks so I was enrolled for daily classes at a typing and shorthand school in the downtown, enough for me to become proficient in both skills. Public transport was by then erratic, so I went everywhere on foot, getting to know the city inside out. My father – who was hiding out together with Illyés in small villages mostly around Lake Balaton, as we found out later – visited us rarely and never stayed long.
Then in October, Regent Horthy’s attempted break with the Axis alliance failed and the Germans and their Arrow Cross accomplices set up a new government, headed by Szálasi, on the 16th. The lives of many people, particularly the Jews of Budapest were now in greater danger than ever. Several people unknown to me came to stay with us, afraid of going to their own homes. From Szilas two close female relatives arrived, one with a year-old baby. The husband of the other was a captain in the Hungarian army posted in Buda. My grandmother on my mother’s side from the outskirts of Budapest also moved in with us. It was crowded but thanks to my mother we still had food stocks in reserve, despite the rapidly increasing scarcity in the city.
From the beginning of November the sound of heavy cannon fire coming from the east became clearly audible. There had been hopes that Budapest might be declared an “open city”, safeguarded from the destructions of the War, but those hopes were dashed. The daily bombardments had caused much damage, and now the frontline was dangerously close. By December there were reports of Russian troops crossing the Danube to the south of Budapest. Others were just a few dozen kilometres east of the city.
The Germans not only did not declare Budapest an open city, but decided to concentrate significant forces there. They were not giving the city up without a fight and digging in for a heavy siege. It became unsafe for any Hungarian male over 18 to be seen in public areas as they were regarded by the Nazis as conscripts dodging service. All the Danube bridges as well as many important buildings were mined by the Germans. The Margit Bridge then blew up “accidentally” one afternoon early in November with busy traffic, people, trams and cars passing over it. Nobody ever knew how many people perished in the Danube that day.
The Soviet ring around Budapest closed shut on 24 December. Our house was in the Buda Hills, in the northwestern part of the city, where coincidentally the Hungarian division of our captain relative was posted. In those days that part of town was sparsely populated, we had hardly any neighbours.
My father made it home for Christmas Eve, as did many others who were in hiding. My mother even managed to put up a Christmas tree, and prepare a lovely dinner for all those staying with us. There were about twelve of us around the table. The celebrations were just over and we were sitting down to dinner when the aide-de-camp of our captain relative Zoltán burst into the dining room terrified and announcing to his superior that there were Russian troops close by on the hillside. The dinner was cut short. My mother put wine glasses and some pastries on a tray. If soldiers happened to knock at our door on Christmas Eve, she wanted to have something ready to offer to them. (She still had an optimistic view of what we could expect.)
The Russians did not knock on our door after all, but our friend Illyés and some of his guests did. Their report concurred with the soldier’s: they had wanted to get down the hill and on a tram but were turned back uphill by the Germans before they got to the valley. We tried to make a phone call to some friends down the hill. Surprisingly the phone worked and we were told that there were Russian troops everywhere, while tanks were rolling towards the city centre.
The consensus was that our hill – and house – was going to be taken within days. Illyés recommended that the young women walk over to their home (about two kilometres away), since their house was less exposed to cannons, and with more neighbours they were safer from rowdy soldiers. The reputation of the invading troops had preceded them and made everyone fearful of the threat of rape. My parents decided to stay back with Csilla, but a small group including my two sisters and younger female guests prepared to accompany Illyés to their house. Being Christmas Eve, we took a few small presents with us, as well as some overnight necessities. While walking was not exactly safe, and we heard quite a bit of shooting nearby, we all arrived unscathed at our destination.
A couple of days went by and the Russians made no progress over the hill, indeed some new German troops had moved in. My parents decided to join us, bringing just a few items with them. My grandmother and a couple of guests stayed back in our house, but we learned very soon that they were kicked out: the Germans had taken over the house and set up an artillery post in there. Ours was the sturdiest building in the neighbourhood and had a concrete flat roof, good defence against shells. During the siege it later turned out only the large windows and brick sidewalls were damaged. The house also had a large stock of provisions, and since it had two levels, the upstairs was ideal for setting up a machine gun nest and keeping the area under control. When my parents heard the bad news they realised there would not be much left if or when we ever made it back.
At the Illyés home only two rooms were liveable: the third one already had a large hole in it from a missile hit. So it was decided that we should go instead to a safer building in Óbuda. The Illyés and Németh families were in good contact with the Principal of a girls’ university residence on Zsigmond Square. She was able to offer us a large room in their building, and when the shelling became too strong, we would be able to move down to the enormous cellar adjoining the building. The cellar, carved out from the hillside, was apparently built during the Turkish times in the 16th century, and was regarded as shell- or even bomb-proof.
On 28 December we all moved in. It was a large room with hardly any furniture in it. Some straw was spread on the floor for sleeping, and we were given a few blankets by the Illyés family. There were no provisions of any kind however and after hearing a rumour that there was a bakery still open nearby my parents together with several adults from our group decided to venture out. They did not make it to the bakery. A large shell exploded above them in the wall, its fragments shattering all over the place. My mother was badly hurt in one leg and had to be carried back to our place. There were two wounds on her leg, the larger one about three square centimetres wide. My father managed to get hold of transportation and took her to the nearest hospital. He was advised by the head physician not to leave her there however as proper medical care was almost non-existent, and the place could not cope with the volume of wounded. Meanwhile her temperature had steadily risen to 42 C while her wound had become infected. By New Year’s Eve the situation was critical: children crying, no food, and my mother losing consciousness.
Part of the college residence had been taken over by a German division. On New Year’s Day my father sent me down to try to get a doctor with the right equipment to tend to my mother’s injury. I was told there was no medical doctor in the division, but they had a “sanitez” – a medical help who was willing to look at it. He came up with me and with a small incision he was able to remove the largest fragment of about two centimetres long. The fragment went in through the large wound, and did not surface through the smaller one. Several small fragments surfaced later. He disinfected the wounds and put proper bandage over it; he came back a couple of times to tend to it, and it can be said, saved my mother’s life. Her temperature started to return to normal and the pain became bearable, although she could not walk on the leg for weeks.
We were all very hungry. Mrs Illyés brought some milk powder and potatoes for the two babies. For the rest of us we tried to get leftovers – mostly soup – from the military kitchen nearby. Water was even more of a problem. Running water was cut off and we had to go out to Zsigmond Square (which was under fire most of the time) to line up at a water tap by the side of a nearby building with our bottles.
Sanitary conditions were abominable. For washing ourselves and the babies’ diapers we melted snow from the yard, but we ran out of that very soon. I honestly can not recall how we managed after that. Naturally we were very dirty and invaded by vermin. As toilets were totally clogged, we had to use a ditch along the fence separated from the yard by a palisade. This was used by everyone from the cellar, about 400 people, and also by the soldiers in the building.
Around the middle of January further problems hit us. The Arrow Cross militia moved into the building and demanded the large room we were in. We were given a much smaller one, so most of our group just moved into the cellar. We kept my mother in the small room upstairs and whenever possible I took little Csilla up there as she tolerated the darkness and humidity with great difficulty. There was also very little space in the cellar: we had to sit on a spring wire bed without a mattress near the entrance. In about ten days Ágnes had became sick. She was 10 years old and spent much time in the yard mostly in wet clothes since we had no change. She became feverish, her joints hurting and stiff. We had hardly any medication for her, sometimes not even water for swallowing the pills, and became afraid that she may have polio, which fortunately was not the case; she just had a bad case of arthritis.
To make things worse, the Arrow Cross militia were rounding up all men over 18 and sending them to the frontline. Fortunately we got wind of this from the college Principal, and all the men in our group (including my father) were able to vanish through a back door towards the hillside, where they took shelter in the by then half-destroyed Illyés house.
Back on Zsigmond Square our group now consisted of women and children only. One morning I was upstairs “airing” Csilla in our little room, and my mother and Ágnes were also there lying on a bed, when a tremendous explosion occurred. It was followed by another a few seconds after and so it continued for about 20 minutes. The house shook; we thought it might collapse any minute. Fortunately in our room only the windows broke. After investigating what happened, it turned out that German army trucks loaded with ammunition were parked in the narrow lane beside our building. One was hit by Russian explosives, which blew up all the trucks. The large room we were in originally was near the site and was burnt out completely. Had we been there, we surely would have suffered casualties.
The Russian line was by now just barely 300 metres to the north. They were also on Margit Island to the east from us, separated only by the narrow side branch of the Danube, so we were under constant artillery fire. It seemed like we had been in this horrible situation for ever, and that it would never end.
Then the miracle we had been praying for occurred on 2 February. The German troops and the Arrow Cross had disappeared from the building overnight. The following day we all stayed in the cellar, knowing that the Russians would appear very soon. Around noon they entered the building and the cellar without anyone putting up a fight. They looked around but did no harm. The danger however was that they could come back at night, we were worried that rape of women regardless of age and looting could occur. So we decided to pick up whatever little belongings we had and started walking up the hill to the Illyés house. This normally would have taken 20–25 minutes, but with our load and injuries it took a couple of hours. My mother had great difficulty walking. I was carrying Csilla on my arm, and we were all extremely weak. It was decided that the first night we should remain in cellars, as outbreaks of fighting were still occurring. In the Illyés house there wasn’t room for everybody, so my parents and relatives from Szilas stayed at a neighbour’s house, about 150 metres away.
There was no fighting but Russian troops turned up at both buildings. Fortunately Mr Illyés and my father both knew some Russian. At our house they demanded that we all crowd into the smaller inner doorless and windowless room of the cellar, while they took over the larger one which had an exit. It was dreadful: we had no air and hardly any space for sitting on the concrete floor.
The house where my parents took refuge was occupied by other soldiers. They gave candies to the two babies, but they demanded that my father, the only man in the building, should leave. This was in the middle of the night and of course there was a curfew and anyone outside could be shot. He did not want to leave the women and children but a Russian tossed him outside the building and asked if he had any children. His answer was “yes, four” – “well, that is your luck, otherwise I would kill you now” – and the soldier closed the door behind him. He had no other choice, but to walk over to the Illyés house and join us in the overcrowded cellar. Fortunately he met no patrol on the way. The Russians remained in the other building for the better part of the night. What happened there, we children were never told. All we knew was that the inhabitants all survived.
As soon as daylight came my mother started to look for my father. About halfway to the Illyés house she saw an object in the snow covered by a large sheet of paper. She was convinced it was him. It was not, but her nerves were tried by the ordeal. She made it over to the Illyés house and asked, “Is my husband here?” When the answer was yes, she collapsed, blacked out for a long time. According to the doctors it was probably a heart attack.
Gradually we moved out of the cellar into the two upstairs rooms, which only lost window panes. There were 34 of us in all, mostly families. Each family had a corner. There was no electricity, so we had to bed down early. Looting and rape were every day events and when the Russians came again to the building, Mr Illyés intercepted them, took them to the porter’s lodge in the basement, and pretended there was no one upstairs. It was difficult however to keep the two babies quiet. On one occasion Csilla dropped a spoon, prompting the Russians to come upstairs. Just in time the girls and young women were hidden in the ice- cold bathroom behind a barricaded door and were not discovered. “Only” looting took place.
February was freezing, no more than -10 C most of the time. One day a wounded horse wandered into our garden. It was obvious that it would not live long, so Mr Illyés asked a Russian soldier to shoot it. After it died, it was carved up; the parts were put into a washtub and kept in the cold bathroom. Each day a part of the meat was cooked, saving us from hunger.
Soon afterwards we went over to see what happened to our own home. In the fog we saw the outlines of the building from the distance, but as we got closer it was clear that not much was left. We were told by neighbours that on leaving the Germans set it on fire, destroying about half of the building. On the upper level there were hardly any sidewalls, no furniture remained, just about everything had been looted. On the lower level my father’s study was a shambles. All his books and manuscripts were on the floor covered in dust and debris. The shelves, his desk and furniture were all destroyed. We searched for food and clothes and took away what we could find on a sledge. A few days later we went back to collect some of my father’s books, manuscripts and letters before they were destroyed altogether.
A couple from the neighbourhood had moved into our kitchen and servant’s room, which had only been lightly damaged. They said that a young man with a rucksack had come and removed all the manuscripts and letters, while two people with a push cart had taken most of the valuable books. There was not much left for us. We later found out who took the manuscripts but he refused to return them, not even a list of titles or photocopies. After the year 2000 quite a few of the lost items turned up at auction sales.
Early in February an attempt was made to get my sister Judit and me into a house under Swedish protection. There was much drinking among the Soviet soldiers at night, followed by looting and searching for women to molest, including young girls our age. We managed to spend a few days in a building supposedly under Swedish “protection”, but that did not stop soldiers breaking into our building one night to attack women inside, although fortunately we were considered too young and were left alone.
A few days after that incident, German troops, trapped in the Castle area of Buda, were trying to escape through an ancient tunnel system called the Devil’s Ditch, which surfaced only a couple of hundred metres from where we were. The Russians were waiting for them at the end of the tunnel and a firefight broke out. Hardly any Germans survived.
We sent word to our parents telling them that this “safe” house was not very safe at all. My mother came to fetch us around 15 February just a day or two after the siege of Budapest came to an end. For a young girl who had never seen a dead person before the siege, and since it began only in February near our house on Törökvész Street where we saw a dead German soldier propped up against a fence, his boots and jacket removed, compared to that, the walk home that day through Buda was a horrible experience. Dead bodies and body parts littered the roads, hundreds of corpses of both civilian and German soldiers. We had to watch our step to avoid stepping on parts.
The fighting was over, but life still appeared hopeless. Towards the end of February Mr Sándor Püski – publisher of my father’s books – looked us up in the Illyés home. He had come from his hometown of Békés, a small town in the eastern part of Hungary whose name in Hungarian means “peaceful” and indeed their life there had remained quite peaceful as no fighting had taken place in or around the town. It is an agricultural area, so they had plenty of food; the train line does not go through there either, so they had hardly even seen a single Russian. Mr Püski also knew that our part of Buda had a very bad time during the siege and that we had starved for weeks. He saw our dismal conditions: 34 people in two rooms, no running water or electricity, very little food. He brought a lovely large home-baked loaf of bread. We had not seen bread for over six weeks; each person in the house had a large slice of it. He suggested that any of the families living there who would like to leave the capital could come to Békés; he would make arrangements for them to have roof and food for a while. Since there was no hope for us of returning to our destroyed home anytime soon, we decided to accept his invitation. It was arranged that soon we cross over to Pest, and look up Mr Püski in his publishing house. By then he would have the name and address of a family in Békés willing to accept us as house guests for a few weeks.
We started our “migration” east at the beginning of March. It was an extremely cold winter, the Danube still had much drift ice floating. All the bridges had been blown up by the Germans before they left, so the only way to get across the dangerous and wide river was by fishing boat. On the bank there was a crowd already waiting for a ride when we got there. We must have spent 4–5 hours standing in the cold with fading hope. Then a boat came across with two fishermen. It must have been already after three in the afternoon. They took only families with children into their boat and we managed to get onboard as we were the most eligible in the crowd with four children.
About 30 people crowded on board the rickety vessel. We were about half way across the river surrounded by ice floats when I noticed that the edge of the boat was no more than five centimetres above the water level. It was an extremely dangerous crossing, but we just about made it. We made our way through the centre of Pest. The Püski residence was at least 6–7 kilometres from there though. We were all weak from starvation, while Judit could hardly walk at all due to a digestive problem.
Another hazard was that the Russians were capturing people for what they called malenkirobot:“a little work”. By then we knew that these people were herded into camps and driven towards the Soviet Union, from where many would never return. So we developed a walking order to stave off the danger. We knew that people carrying small children were not taken, so my father walked ahead with Csilla on his arm. The three of us followed about 20 metres behind him, while my mother limped with a large stick and a bandage on her leg 10 metres behind us.
As it was early March, it still turned dark relatively early. And with dark came curfew; anyone on the street could be shot. It was obvious we would not reach Püski’s place in time. Along the way there were large multi-storied buildings, but the entrances were all locked. We had to knock at several gates before we were let in somewhere. We ended up spending the night in the basement of one of these buildings on the cement floor.
The following day we walked (or rather “crawled” through exhaustion) to the Püski’s, got the necessary information, and then carried on to the Western Railway Station. The platform was swarming with people, there was no information about trains, and sanitary conditions were poor. Judit could not walk or stand by then; she just sat down on the stone floor against the wall. We spent three nights at the station, again without much food or drink before a train appeared which would take us to the east of Hungary. We knew that Békés did not have a train station, and had been informed we were to get off about eight kilometres from town.
As soon as the train backed into the station, people scrambled for the doors. Fortunately some of the coach windows were open, so I was pushed up through one of these, and then pulled up one by one my three sisters after me. Our parents also managed to push their way in through the door.
Our end station Békésföldvár was approximately 180 kilometres from Budapest. In normal circumstances the train journey should only have taken three hours, but this time it took over 24 hours. The train stopped several times in the middle of nowhere for long periods. Then from the station we had to walk the eight kilometres to Békés. All we got by way of help was a man with a wheelbarrow to load some of our luggage on, and let Csilla sit on top of the bags.
There was no trace of war in Békés. People were well-dressed and clean, shops were open and there was food on the shelves. We were to go to the Nyeste residence on the main square, just across from the Catholic church. We must have been quite a sight, marching through town single file in wretched condition. Mr János Nyeste owned the hardware store on the same square. They lived in a large house, the main entrance and some of its windows opening directly onto the square. Beyond it they had a nice garden and also a vegetable plot.
I found out later how we happened to be invited to the Nyeste family. On the way from Debrecen by horse and carriage, Mr and Mrs Püski stopped at Békéscsaba, the nearest large town to Békés. She found out that Mr Nyeste had been taken prisoner by the Soviets with a few other well-to-do merchants of Békés. She succeeded in getting him free by taking personal responsibility for him. This happened in the autumn of 1944. Mrs Nyeste said they could ask for any favour to reciprocate their help.
The Nyeste family, which included their 18 year old daughter Piri, received us very kindly. We were given a large room, opening from the veranda. Clean clothes and a hot bath were supplied, while our old rags were burned to get rid of all kinds of vermin. When we were cleaned up, a magnificent dinner lasting hours was waiting for us. This was the middle of March, and we had not seen proper food since Christmas Eve.
During the first week we spent long hours at the dining table. Our appetite could not be sated. The results were spectacular: the six of us gained 30 kilogrammes in one week! Our looks also changed tremendously, for the better. Our biggest problem though was our hair: lice could not be simply washed out. We used vinegar and other chemicals on it to get rid of them but the nits remained and hatched again in a short time. Ágnes had sores on her head, so her head and Csilla’s were shaved bald. They wore a scarf until their hair grew again. My mother spent hours in our room with Judit and myself removing the nits by hand.
Finally we were ready to go back to school. Unfortunately in Békés the only secondary school was for boys only; girls could sit in on classes but we had to pass exams at the end of term. Since the school year opened early in September, we were very much behind with the work. Every day my father devoted hours to help us catch up with our class. We attended school in the morning, and studied with him in the afternoon. All three of us managed to pass the June exams.
We could not take advantage of the Nyeste family’s hospitality indefinitely, so we rented a small room (4 x 4 metres) opening onto an open corridor, and a kitchen with a dirt floor 8–10 metres away from the room. There was no bathroom or running water. The owner of the building kept the rest for himself and visited once a month. We had the use of a chicken yard and a pigsty, and kept their animals with some success. The room had two bunk beds, a table and four chairs, a wardrobe and a stove as furnishings for the six of us. This was our home for over a year from the spring of 1945 to August 1946. There was a draw-well on the property, but water for drinking and cooking had to be brought from the artesian well on the main square.
My father’s political convictions were neither leftist nor rightist, he was always in favour of a Hungarian middle course. As far as our invaders were concerned, he refused to side with either the Soviets or the Germans. As a result he found himself again on a black-list. He had resigned his job as a school doctor in the early forties and now as a writer he was not allowed to publish. Without some sort of a paid job he had no regular income.
Towards the end of March, some secondary school students posted some political cartoons in Békés. The local authorities suspected my father of having been behind them. He was arrested and taken to the police station, where he had to stand facing the wall for several hours. It turned however that the officer who questioned him, knew his writing and realised he had been arrested by mistake, so he apologised and let him go. The incident however left a lasting impression on my father: he started to think that he could be made responsible for the crimes of others. As early as 1945 nasty attacks were appearing against him in the press, and continued in the following years. Apart from Revulsion (Hungarian title “Iszony”), his only novel after the war, no other works of his were published until 1956.
He looked into various job possibilities without success, until in September 1945 he was taken on as a temporary teacher in a reputable secondary school in the town of Hódmezővásárhely, not far from Békés. Rocketing inflation after the war however meant his meagre salary lost most of its value by the time he received it. He adored teaching though and put his energy into working out ideas for new educational programmes, the outlines of which were printed at the end of 1945. The most important innovation he suggested on the secondary school level was to amalgamate certain subjects in order to avoid repetition. For instance Hungarian history could be taught together with Hungarian literature, art, music, and world history as a background. His suggestions were not included in the new national education programme, but he was able to experiment with his ideas in his own teaching. He wrote on several occasions that teaching was the happiest time of his life. He was an excellent educator, remembered fondly by many of his students.