THE DAY THE RUSSIANS CAME

I was not yet six years old when the Russians came to our provincial town in the northwest of Hungary. I don’t know the date but it was early spring, in 1945. There wasn’t any serious fighting in the immediate vicinity that I know of, although there were three burned-out Russian tanks two or three kilometres east of the town on the main road, pointing toward us, so there must have been some action prior to the arrival of the Red Army.

Our family – my parents, myself and my barely one year old baby brother – was staying in the cellar of the house next door, together with other families, probably about 20 or so people. I believe civil authorities assigned people to available cellars but I don’t know if it was voluntary or mandatory to stay in them. Many people did, at any rate, preferring the additional safety when compared to a house as the war drew near. It was a spacious cellar, with dirt floor but reasonably dry. There were beds and some other basic pieces of furniture, so it was quite liveable. For kids like me, it was fun. I don’t know how long we and the others were staying there but it was at least a number of days. As an aside, the substantial house above this cellar was my father’s childhood home, but it was no longer owned by the family.

It is a relevant detail that my little brother was still recovering, although much improved, from a major surgery he underwent at the age of 3 ½ weeks in the hospital of the provincial capital. That was followed by a serious infection and a string of other complications. The standard of hygiene and other aspects of medical care were likely compromised under wartime conditions. Air raid alerts, when everyone had to take shelter in designated facilities, would not have helped. I experienced many such events, including one while visiting my mother and brother in the hospital with my godmother. As my little brother’s condition deteriorated and the doctors had exhausted all available options, my mother was eventually advised to take her baby home so that he would die at home. I remember when she arrived with him by taxi in the dead of the night. He was laid out on his back on the kitchen table, tiny arms and legs suspended in the air, perfectly still, making no sound. When he was still breathing in the morning, he was taken to the family doctor who began caring for him on a daily basis. Each day he would simply say “The child lived another day”. His survival was considered somewhat of a miracle.

It was early on the particular morning when we heard stomping and other noises above us. People whispered with some trepidation: “It’s the Russians!” The double doors of the cellar opened out into the yard, not into the house, so when the Russians swung them open, we could see only black silhouettes against the bright sky. That sight is still vivid in my memory. Some of the soldiers descended the wide stairs, weapons at the ready. All we could understand was “Ghermansky?”, which they repeated over and over again. They searched the cellar but harmed no one, except for collecting any wrist – and pocket – watches they could find. Watches were an obsession with Russian soldiers, some of them were seen with wrist watches up to the elbow and above on both arms. My father was delighted to have somehow managed to keep his pocket watch but could not have had the slightest notion that he would stand to lose far more than a watch very soon. Seeing that the invaders were behaving quite decently, everybody relaxed and filed out into the open. We seemed to have been rather fortunate in this respect considering the widespread looting and raping elsewhere. Shortly thereafter a brief but dramatic event played out on the street outside the front gate.

As it happened, the most recent occupant of the well appointed house above the cellar was a high ranking Hungarian military officer, who fled in such haste from the advancing Russians that he left behind most of his belongings, all crated up, ready to go. Naturally, the Russians broke open the crates, recognised the uniforms and insignias and were looking for the owner. My father, even though he was an able bodied man of 43, escaped military service due to his severe hearing impediment, the legacy of a serious childhood ear infection which almost took his life. There were no other men around in the likely age group, so the Russians immediately thought he was the one they were seeking.

My memory of the event takes me to the street outside the gate. There was a military vehicle, jeep-like, with heavy machine gun mounted, parked on the side of the road with Russian soldiers on and around it. There were a number of people of all ages casually milling about. I remember that my father was there, so was a girl next door, about in her early teens, holding my little brother in her arms, indulging the penchant of an adolescent girl for babies. It was about this time that soldiers came out of the house and informed their commanding officer about their discovery, carrying with them some of the relevant items they found, including a pistol. They immediately looked at my father, who quickly realised the gravity of the situation. An enemy officer out of uniform hiding among the civilian population! After all, this was the front line and these soldiers were an advanceparty. The Russian officer examined the pistol, casually pointed it in the direction of my father and pulled the trigger. It was not loaded. Then he unholstered his own side arm, cocked it and was waving it at my father, signalling him to move over squarely in front of the high brick fence. The girl holding my brother was old enough to have some idea of what was happening. While my father played dumb, the girl rushed over to him and placed my baby brother into his arms. This gesture seemed to stun the Russian officer, he paused for a moment, waved his pistol in a dismissive manner, holstered it, then they all piled into their vehicle and drove off.

I must confess that I was much too young to know what was taking place at the time. While I witnessed all of it, I was not at all cognisant of the deadly serious nature of the event. The reality dawned on me only gradually as I heard my father and the neighbour girl relating their experiences to my mother and others. Upon hearing their accounts of the harrowing incident, also eventually those of others present at the time, bits and pieces of my own memory of it were falling into place. Only with the passing of the years did I learn to fully appreciate the significance of it.

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