At about half way in the course of the Second World War, I shocked my family by using a foreign phrase for the first time. The word came from the dictator of a neighbouring state, Nazi Germany, our dreaded enemy.
My family’s policy was to keep us children in the dark about the Nazi plan for “The Final Solution to the Jewish Question”. I was aware of being Jewish. (Such an identification was “in the air”, as people used to say.) But I could not understand why Adolf Hitler was so furious at all Jews. I knew that my Jewish cousins were the nicest people who loved their relatives, celebrated the birthdays of one another, and enjoyed swapping stories and jokes, some of them new but most of them around for ages. It seemed to me that all the Jews I met spoke several languages, or at least used some foreign words.
I watched with some trepidation the strange geometric sign painted in black and red on the German bombers that swooped low several times every day on their way to crush the Soviet Union. (My parents did not use such Nazi words as “swastika”.)
Listening to Hitler’s shouting on Radio Berlin I took it seriously when he threatened to rub out every one of us Jews. His use of the word ausradieren was familiar from my kindergarten in Budapest where German was the language of instruction and my classmates quarrelled over who owned the largest and most effective eraser, radier in German (as well as in Hungarian, though the spelling is different). The verb ausradieren translates as “erase” – then and now a slang word for murder.
THE GREAT DOG HARRY
I was sitting on the wooden floor covered with thick carpets. I was leaning on Harry. He was a member of the family, a large breed known as a “Saint Bernard mountain dog”, according to Jenő Krausz, our host in the Carpathian town of Huszt. I called him Jenő bácsi – uncle in Hungarian – because he was a close relative, always patient, and ready to answer my many questions, far too many I am sure.
“No, our Harry is not a Christian”, Jenő bácsi explained to me. “And he is not Jewish either. Please keep in mind that he is a dog, a well-trained, wonderful, friendly dog. A great dog. He sleeps under your bed that was originally my son Imre’s. Now Imre is supposed to be in a Hungarian military unit but we lost contact with him. The dog Harry will listen to your commands. But no, there is no mountain called Saint Bernard anywhere on the globe.” (Imre, an especially beloved cousin in his early twenties, disappeared in Soviet Ukraine, and our family could not find out where, when, and under what circumstances. Only the end result was clear, even to me: a tragedy.)
In one instance I woke up at night for a pack of wolves howling. I knew that they were wolves as on several occasions Jenő bácsi imitated their powerful howl. Harry got up from underneath my bed, placed his big paws on the broad windowsill, and growled ferociously. A moment later, the wolves stopped their howling. Harry made the wolves retreat to the woods.
Around us in the spacious living room were two couches and various armchairs that seated my mother and our relatives and friends, while Hitler kept screaming on Radio Berlin, threatening to ausradieren – rub out of existence every Jew in the world. But family members soon realised that I knew enough German to understand what Hitler was saying and one of the grown-ups turned off Radio Berlin whenever Hitler addressed the German people and the whole world. (Knowing languages is important for a future cosmopolitan – a citizen of the world – as my parents and our relatives taught me. Strangely enough, we were never told that the Führer spoke one language only – and it had to be German.)
THE CENTRALITY OF CENTRAL EUROPE
Hitler’s armies focused on their murders of millions of my fellow Jews who crowded into a large geographical region known as Central Europe. Jenő bácsi or his adult daughter Kati showed me the map that included Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Austria, Yugoslavia and Romania. The two of them explained to me that after the peace treaties following the First World War, Hungary lost a historically important land known in Hungarian as Kárpátalja – Podkarpatská Rus was one of its Slavic names – endowed with beautiful mountains and trees that seemed to race with the clouds. People on the street and in the markets and stores spoke Ukrainian (and its local version called Ruthenian), Hungarian, Yiddish, German, Romanian, Gypsy and Czech. (Ruthenian is a Ukrainian dialect looked down upon by other Ukrainians – the great majority who lived to the east of the Carpathian mountain range. The historian Géza Komoróczy listed Kárpátalja as having been home to 725,000 Jews before the Second World War.
My mother Anna Schwarcz was born in 1905, and raised in the small village of Nyírgyulaj, Szabolcs County. She spoke Hungarian with the melodic singsong of the north-eastern part of Hungary known as Tiszántúl – beyond the Tisza, a tributary of the Duna, the country’s principal river.
My father Aladár was born in 1892 in a town called Kassa (Košice in Slovakian) which then belonged to the Kingdom of Hungary and is nowadays part of the independent republic known as Slovakia. The Fenyvesi family moved to Budapest shortly after the First World War ended. Over the centuries, in both cities German became the second language. Aladár said that his mother Rosalie Kosch never bothered to learn Hungarian. Her eldest son maintained that Rosalie “refused” to study that language. As far as I know, no one in the Fenyvesi family picked up the local Slavic dialect, Slovak, and they considered themselves “culturally Hungarian”. (A few generations earlier, our family name was registered as Kohn.)
Aladár persuaded my mother Anna to move to Vienna after their marriage in the mid-1930s. He said he had plenty of solid business contacts there. (He loved the word “solid”.) As for Hitler’s threat of the Anschluss, my father said he was confident that Hitler will not invade Austria, his own birthplace. (My father used to say that he knew the German-speaking world like the palm of his hand.)
My father inherited his mother’s Viennese dialect and he mastered the Hungarian language only in secondary school. He took pride in becoming equally proficient in both languages. He was also in command of the precise and dignified Prussian German, better known as hochdeutsch or high German. He claimed that he picked up many different German dialects, useful when selling his abrasive stones that cut, sharpen and polish industrial equipment. (He used to say that his abrasive stones “were the very best in the world”.) When he was conscripted to the Labour Battalion, unarmed and maligned by right-wing Hungarians, he tried to persuade his wife and family members that he will surely return home alive because in the event when a German soldier gives him orders he will be able to befriend that soldier by speaking the local dialect where the man was from. But upon his return home he acknowledged that the soldiers he met were invariably Hungarians, some of them resentful and angered by his pretension of speaking German.
My father’s mother came from imperial Austria, the western neighbour that colonised Hungary for four centuries. Aladár loved the “soft” and “casual” Viennese German dialect, and favoured the Habsburg dynasty for having been at times reasonably sympathetic to Jews for more than a century.
My paternal grandmother Rosalie, whom I never met, spent most of her life in the Hungarian part of the so-called Dual Monarchy – also known as Kaiserlich und Königlich (imperial and royal, abbreviated as K. und K.). According to her son Aladár, Rosalie learned only a few words of Hungarian she needed to bargain over the price of a bag of potatoes in the market. According to her eldest son, she charged that Hungarian was “an impossible Asiatic language”.
To this day I have no plausible explanation why Rosalie agreed to name her youngest child, my father Aladár, which was the Asiatic name chosen by Attila for one of his favourite sons. (Attila was the feared fifth-century Hun leader Europeans called “the scourge of God” for ransacking and burning down more than a dozen West European cities. After Attila’s death – rumoured to have been killed by a Germanic princess during their wedding night – Crown Prince Aladár never inherited any part of the Hun empire. Nevertheless, over the past centuries many Hungarians emphasised their patriotic fervour by giving their sons the names Attila or Aladár.)
Rosalie lived most of her life in Hungary, but she insisted that she be buried in her beloved homeland Austria. She regretted the collapse of the Habsburg monarchy. Her five children were upset with the authorities of independent Hungary for making it “extremely difficult” and “far too expensive” to ship her coffin from Budapest to Vienna.
WHO OWNS THE RIVER DUNA? OR IS IT DONAU? AND WHY NOT DANUBIUS?
I understood that I should avoid to identify myself as Jewish. “Simply not mention the subject”, my family, especially my parents, cautioned. In the evening I heard on the radio speeches that threatened every one us Jews to be ausradieren – erase every member of my family regardless where they lived and whichever way they earned their living.
Wherever my parents or my relatives took me for a walk – which they did often and which I very much enjoyed – they usually referred to it in German as a Spazirengang. They called my attention to the beauty of the fast-moving river Duna and its graceful bridges. I was told that the river was “the mightiest in Europe” and admired as Danubius since the days of the Roman Empire. My mother suggested that “our Duna” was “crowned” when in Budapest two of the finest bridges were named after Franz Josef, the Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, and “his wife Queen Elisabeth who loved us all Hungarians”.
I frequently asked my mother: “Is the Duna really our river?” She responded promptly, “Yes, of course”. My father Aladár was less certain and he reminded us that in German the river was called Donau. After the German army in retreat blew up all the bridges of Budapest, the Communist regime rebuilt the bridges and renamed the Franz Josef Bridge as “Freedom Bridge”. Another bridge originally named after “Queen Elizabeth” was reduced to “Erzsébet”, a common name in Hungary. The title “queen” was simply dropped as unacceptable in “a people’s democracy”.
As pro-Nazi sentiment mounted among Austrians, my mother, pregnant with me, panicked that Hitler might overrun Austria at any moment. She said that she did not want to live in a Nazi state. My father himself too had “some unfortunate encounters” with Austrian Nazis who ridiculed his Austrian connections and pro- Habsburg sentiments. My parents quickly packed their few possessions and took the next train to Debrecen, Hungary’s second most populous city and Hungarian nationalist in spirit.
Then came Hitler’s “final and irrevocable decision” to annex Austria – the Anschluss that my father could not imagine may possibly happen. My mother, who was not usually politically minded, wanted to return home to Hungary.
But then my father had a different idea. He travelled to what is now called Slovenia just south of Austria and looked for new business contacts there. First he thought that Slovenia looked much like “the good old Austria” he knew and loved. He found that most Slovenian craftsmen spoke passable German – but he had only very few business possibilities. He did not like to speak about the subject of not getting paid for his abrasive stones. But I overheard my mother complaining that only some of his bills were not paid. In a few weeks he concluded that he had no relatives in Slovenia and the country offered no reliable new business clients.
When my parents were together after the Germans annexed Austria in 1938, Aladár began studying Serbian because he thought that the Serbs would resist the Germans.
Like many other conservative Hungarians, Aladár felt a lingering sense of loss over his business and personal connections in Austria. As for Anna, the First World War had led to her parents’ losing hundreds of acres of land acquired over generations.
My mother Anna spoke an imperfect German and did not try to learn a Slavic language. In the playgrounds of the country then named the Kingdom of Yugoslavia I heard my mother Anna communicate in her poor German. She chatted with other mothers pushing strollers, neighbours and storekeepers, and spoke with a strong Hungarian accent ridiculed by Serbs and Croatians. She never lost the singsong tones of her native village of Nyírgyulaj hundreds of miles to the northeast of the Hungarian sector of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. My mother was upset hearing me use a number of Serbian words when playing a soccer game. Within our family she was remembered for her comment: “I did not want to raise a Serbian child.”
My mother did not care for Serbs and other Slavs. She did not learn any of their languages and was happy to return to Debrecen where her mother and several siblings lived. But my father did not want to resettle in Hungary, thinking that too many Hungarians were pro-German.
Aladár decided that Serbs and Croatians were “honest” and “brave”. He also thought that the Serbs were really tough with the Germans they hated and the Germans were not ready to invade any of the provinces of the south Slavic state. He was hopeful that he would make friends in Novi Sad – known as Újvidék in Hungarian – and expected to find some Jewish relatives in the region. But they turned out to be converts to Christianity who refused to speak with him.
RESCUED BY FAMILY SOLIDARITY
A traditional solution presented itself. A message came from the beautiful Carpathian mountains where the Schwarcz family of Nyírgyulaj had relatives who were not wealthy but were always friendly and helpful. Jenő Krausz – who was a few years older than Aladár – was my father’s second cousin and Jenő’s wife Mariska was my mother’s first cousin and one of her closest friends. (Moreover, my maternal grandfather who died in 1921 arranged the marriage of Jenő Krausz and Mariska Schwarcz.) Jenő was generous with his time and arranged valuable business connections for Aladár.
When Jenő bácsi – Uncle Jenő – heard that my father was banished from Hitler’s Reich and was looking for a new base for his business, he invited Aladár to visit Huszt. He accompanied my father’s search in the Carpathian Mountains for stones that could be pulverised and turned into abrasive stones by adding cement to the mix. And of course Aladár and Anna and I were welcome to stay in his large, comfortable house.
Jenő Krausz was a well-known businessman and part of the large Krausz family with all sorts of local connections. His sawmill made use of the local pine trees. His saws could be sharpened with Aladár’s superior tools he carried with him in a sturdy German military backpack that survived the First World War. I was impressed that Jenő bácsi spoke fluent Yiddish (as did 5,000 Jews in Huszt – or perhaps only 3,000) – as well as other languages in use in the Subcarpathian region that the Soviet Union occupied toward the end of 1944 and is now part of the independent republic of Ukraine. But his best language was Hungarian. Uncle Jenő also liked to speak Ruthenian. His wife Mariska took me to a synagogue often, and the languages spoken there were Hungarian and Yiddish.
Then came the Nazi occupation of Hungary and the tragic summer of 1944. I saw Jenő bácsi receive lots of visitors and heard their conversations in Yiddish or Ruthenian. My father went to Budapest to join the Labour Battalion. They were supposed to dig ditches and tank traps. My mother was lucky to have a good friend who gave her birth certificates that changed our family name to Farkas and listed our religion as Calvinist (Presbyterian), the majority religion in Debrecen.
THE OFFER OF A HIDEOUT IN THE HIGH MOUNTAINS
Many years later Kati Krausz told me that one of the Ruthenian workers from the Krausz sawmill offered Jenő Krausz to rent his house that he and his cousins built high up in the mountains. The worker tried to assure Jenő bácsi that the authorities would never track us down and send us to Auschwitz. The worker was huge and very friendly. But Mariska néni – Aunt Mariska – did not like when the Ruthenian worker picked me up and taught me a few words of his language. She was upset that he was reeking of alcohol and bathed only occasionally in the River Tisza.
The worker spoke no language other than Ruthenian. Cousin Kati explained to me that her father Jenő trusted the worker but her mother Mariska said that she would not even take a look at the house he owned. She thought it must be a pigsty.
According to Kati, Jenő bácsi was seriously considering to hide out in the mountains he loved. But Mariska néni – Aunt Mariska – would not give the idea of hiding in the wilderness a second thought.
I am sorry that I do not even remember the worker’s name – or a single Ruthenian word he once taught me.
Jews in Huszt were ordered to move to an unused industrial plant that became the first Hungarian Jewish “transfer camp” before other Hungarian citizens were sent off to Auschwitz.
In the spring of 1945 Russia’s Red Army occupied all of Hungary and marched into Austria. My father walked back to Budapest from the highway leading to the Mauthausen concentration camp in Austria. He was lucky to find an apartment in Budapest – an unexpected bargain he was given by the city in exchange for presiding over the reconstruction of the popular bath and public swimming pool called Császár – the Hungarian word for emperor. It was – and is – near the River Duna.
My mother took me to the Jewish information office near the big synagogue in downtown Budapest. There was a huge crowd reading messages covering several walls about survivors of concentration camps. My mother prepared two pieces of paper, giving details of our new address, Kavics utca 8/b. She described a tram stop and the synagogue across the street. She invited our relatives to look us up; we had two extra rooms and beds.
Reading lots of messages, my mother cried and cried. Then she decided to rush home. “Some from our family will surely look us up”, she said to me, living up to her reputation as an eternal optimist. “We will hear from our people. Some of our relatives must have survived.”
A SURVIVOR RETURNS FROM AUSCHWITZ
Soon after we arrived to our new home, someone rang our bell. I opened the front door and I faced an extremely thin woman in torn clothing. But she looked familiar. She asked me. “Do you remember me from Huszt? I am your cousin Kati Krausz.”
She fell as she tried to pick me up in her arms, as she used to do in Huszt. Kati was in her early 20s; I was seven years old.
I cried out: “But where are Jenő bácsi and Mariska néni and our many Krausz cousins? Weren’t there so many of them?”
Kati was in tears but replied immediately: “I am the only one still alive from the Krausz family in Huszt. And I will never go back to Huszt. Never!” (Kati stood by her decision.)
Upon hearing our conversation, my mother and father joined us; they kissed and hugged Kati who repeated what she told me about her family. We all cried and cried together. My father kept saying, “My cousin Jenő was my best friend. I will never again have such a good friend. He was my best friend, the very best.” My mother mostly cried and cried.
Cousin Kati stayed with us for some time, until she moved to Palestine, then still under attack by Arab states. She found a decent life in Israel. She was married but could not have children.
“What happened to the dog Harry?” I asked Kati. She said: “Harry disappeared the morning when our family members were rounded up to pack the train to Auschwitz.” Years later Kati visited my mother in Budapest and me in Washington DC. But she never went back to Huszt. “I don’t have anybody left in Kárpátalja”, she said.
In the early 1950s my parents divorced. In 1957 Aladár walked into the Embassy of Austria in Budapest and applied for Austrian citizenship and a passport. He was very pleased by the way he was received by the Austrian officials. He had only a few documents and the Austrian officials accepted his narrative about his mother and the Kosch family in imperial Vienna. The following day his brand new Austrian passport was ready and he took the express train to Vienna. (He mentioned the dramatic contrast with his “banishment” from Hitler’s Reich after the Anschluss.) In 1959 I went to see him and found him enthusiastic about several reunions with his pre-war business contacts. He also saw solid prospects ahead. He might have been right. But suddenly a heart attack took him away.
In the 1990s my mother Anna was hospitalised with signs of dementia at St John’s hospital in Budapest – the same institution where I was supposed to deliver medicines and medical equipment to revolutionary Budapest from Vienna. In early November 1956 I typed a letter on the hospital’s stationery – in Hungarian and Russian, then the language compulsory in secondary school – to explain my mission and arranged for a truck and a driver, only to be arrested in the border town of Sopron by Hungarian border guards for “counterrevolutionary activities”. After my release – as unexplained and brutal as the arrest itself – I walked across the frontier to the village of Oberpullendorf that once had a Hungarian name: Felsőpulya. Austrian officials recommended that I try to remember my knowledge of German as most Hungarians knew German. I first registered as a refugee in the neutral republic of Austria, then in the United States, and soon I won a scholarship to Harvard. A young, handsome lecturer interviewed me. He introduced himself as a Polish immigrant. His name was Zbigniew Brzezinski and he advised me not to forget the Russian language. Eventually I became a writer, a citizen of the world.
My mother died three days before her ninetieth birthday.