Chapters 5 and 6

Born in Budapest in 1935, George Jonas first spoke gibberish, then German, and finally settled on Hungarian in preparation for a lifetime of writing in English. Since 1956 Jonas has lived in Toronto. The excerpt here is from a work-in-progress entitled Me, A Novel. When completed, it will be Jonas’ seventeenth book.

1939


(Germany invades Poland. World War II begins. Being only four, I’m not informed. People tell me about it later.)

***

Actually, they don’t tell me about it. No one sits me down to say: listen, such and such happened. If they did, I probably wouldn’t pay attention. I’d be bored. At four I have a different way of finding out things.

Our gatekeeper’s daughter, a fellow four-year-old, is named Ilona. I play with her sometimes. In our brewery custom calls for the gatehouse to be staffed by an ethnic German family from Buda, so Ilona’s Swabian dialect and my peculiar high German give us a language in common. She tells me her father, a reservist, has been called up for military service. I already know because at table there are a series of conversations, first about hiring a temporary gatekeeper, and a few weeks later about hiring a permanent one because Ilona’s father dies in a training accident.

“Oh, the poor man.” That’s my mother speaking. “Hungary isn’t even at war. What happened, do you know?”

“Not really”, says the company doctor who brings my mother the news. “I understand he was driving a car that collided with something and the steering column crushed his chest. Died instantly. Cardiac tamponade.”

The doctor’s words have a certain ring to them. They stick in my mind. For a second I think of Ilona, too, and what it is like to have no father. It’s a bad thought and I don’t dwell on it.

***

The truth is, I don’t much dwell on anything. Like many children, I’m greedy, self-centred, and essentially incurious. I know and understand little about my own life and nothing about the lives of others. The historic times in which I live are wasted on me. It’s just as well that adults tell me nothing. If they did, it would go right over my head.

For instance, no one tells me that my father’s wife, Aranka, has committed suicide just before the outbreak of the war. True, at this point, I don’t even know that my father is my father. I still think my father is the man who thinks he is my father. Only my father knows better and maybe – maybe – my mother, but she won’t commit herself. In later years, she will smile like the Mona Lisa and say nothing. I’m mentioning Aranka’s suicide here because I am recounting some events not as I learned about them, but as they happened. Apparently father walked into the bathroom one day and there she was in the tub, stone dead. Pills, razor, I don’t know – the tub would suggest razor, because suicides are often fastidious.

That’s all I can say about Aranka’s death. I’ll say more about her life, though, in due course.

***

The period that becomes known as the “phony war” illustrates Einstein’s time- space continuum – another thought, I hasten to add, that doesn’t occur to me until much later. The first months of World War II appear phony in London (where wits call it the Bore War) or in Paris (where it goes by the name of drôle de guerre) or even in Berlin, where wags dismiss Hitler’s Blitzkrieg as Sitzkrieg. The misperception is geographic rather than temporal. During the same six months, a few hundred miles East, or only a few inches on the atlas, war is not sitting down and it certainly does not bore anyone. On the contrary, it rages, enrages and outrages. War is brutal, and total between September 1939, and May 1940, as the Nazis and the Soviets slice up Poland in a joint enterprise.

In retrospect, it is eerie. As Germans round up Jews and Russians gather Polish patriots for their eventual massacre in Katyn Forest, Westerners make quips about the tediousness of it all. Perhaps to demonstrate that all news is local, the world refuses to recognize that it is at war until the Battle of France begins next spring. In Eastern Europe, those who can, emulate the West’s oblivion. Life in Budapest is idyllic. We see, hear, and speak no evil. Whatever is not happening on our street is not happening. Unlike the frightened Jewish boy my age, rounded up in Warsaw, marching with his hands in the air – real or fake, the photograph becomes famous – I’m busy trying to hitch a ride on a vehicular turnstile.

Built into the pavement of a dead-end street near the fashionable Danube promenade, the concrete disc is to save gentlemen drivers the trouble of having to make a three- point turn. Driving a car on it triggers a mechanism that rotates it 180 degrees until the car’s nose points in the opposite direction. In addition to being the pinnacle of urban sophistication, the disc becomes my carousel while mother engages in what seems like an interminable conversation with a friend in a sidewalk café nearby.

As I’m going for my third ride, suddenly a gentleman picks me up and kisses me with gusto. He looks familiar, but not having seen my father for more than a year, I don’t recognize him. Consequently, I’m polite but noncommittal. It’s all very well to be petted, but I don’t want to miss my next ride. There’s a yellow coupe driving on to the turntable. The gentleman respects my priorities because he lets me go.

“A man kissed me”, I tell my mother when I join her again at the sidewalk café. “He said he was Daddy.”

“Oh, it must be your godfather”, replies my mother, glancing at her friend, a woman named Matzko.

“God-daddy?” Matzko asks, raising her eyebrow, but my mother is too quick for her. “No, Teddy”, she says. “He used to buy George Teddy-bears, but George couldn’t say Teddy, so it came out as Daddy-bear, which is why George calls him Daddy.” She turns to me. “Last year we went with Teddy-Daddy to a nice old house in the hills to visit three nice old ladies, remember?”

“No”, I reply truthfully. “Can I go back for another ride?”

“You’ll probably get a Teddy-bear from him”, my mother says. “Tomorrow morning. I bet a courier will ring the bell with a Teddy-bear… Yes, go for one more ride, but that’s it.”

I go around the disc one more time. Next morning a courier rings the bell. It’s not a Teddy-bear. The “boy” – that’s what couriers are called in Budapest – brings me a fire-truck. It is big, red, with a ladder and a siren. The magnificent toy does what the visit to my grandmother the year before did not: it fixes my father firmly in my mind.

***

Time out. Is it that we remember important things, or is it that they are important because we remember them? Are memories as arbitrary as dreams? Are our “memories” dreams of things that happened, and our “dreams” memories of things that did not? In short, am I dreaming my life or remembering it? I don’t know. Perhaps by the time I finish jotting down what I dream or remember, I will.

Chapter 6

1940

The phony war ends on 10 May with the invasion of France. Civilization comes close to ending on 22 June with the fall of France. Hitler reaches his zenith as, in the same railway car as Germany surrendered to France 22 years earlier, he accepts France’s surrender.

***

I sit in my room. The furniture is white. The name of a stuffed dog on the shelf is Flockie. I’m looking at the cover of a movie magazine. The picture is of a smiling Shirley Temple. I can make out the date and read it aloud to myself: one- nine-four-oh, 1940. This, too, sticks in my mind for some reason. It occurs to me that I’m five years old. Along with the red fire truck and the words “cardiac tamponade”, this realization is an independent memory.

***

When I say the cover photograph of the movie magazine is Shirley Temple, I should add “naturally”. If there is a picture on the cover of a magazine, chances are it is of Shirley Temple. She is Goldilocks incarnate, the superstar of the period, in Eastern Europe no less than in North America. The little girl has taken by storm the heart of a world that is in the process of deporting, shooting, gassing, firebombing and nuking little girls, along with their Mommies, Daddies, and doggies. Mayhem and Shirley, the twin attractions of the silver screen.

Go figure, people will say some years later.

***

I read reasonably well by five, although only one book. It’s The Yellow Snake by Edgar Wallace, or rather Die Gelbe Schlange, because I’m reading Wallace in German. My mother pretends to be proud of me, but secretly she doubts if I can read anything else. I’m reading Wallace, Sir Arthur Connan Doyle’s half-forgotten rival, because Wallace happens to be Tante (“Aunt”) Amanda’s favourite mystery writer. My new governess can’t get enough of him. Scotland Yard Inspector Elk makes much more sense to her than the eccentric Sherlock Holmes. The reason I’m reading The Yellow Snake in German to her is that neither she nor I speak any other language. Unlike our earlier Alsatian au pair, Tante Amanda isn’t trying to learn Hungarian – much to everyone’s relief, I might add. My mother says it makes communication with her far easier. Wallace is very boring in German. He doesn’t change much when I pick him up in English many years later.

***

My memory of Karolina is sharp and clear. Well, let me adjust this. My memory of Karolina’s breasts is sharp and clear. They seem ready to burst from her blouse. I stare at them with unabashed admiration. She notices and says something to me in Hungarian. I don’t understand her, but my mother does. She laughs and wags an admonitory finger at my future governess.

“Wash your mouth with soap! Better still, wash your mind.”

“It’s okay, he doesn’t understand me”, Karolina says cheerfully. “He will, though, by this time next year.”

That indeed is the plan. Karolina is to replace the German governess who has replaced the Alsatian au pair. It is suddenly dawning on my mother that I’m due to go to school next September, without knowing the language of instruction. This is something that needs to be remedied.

Karolina is a matter-of-fact girl in her early 20s, big, blonde, freckled and practical. We walk and we talk. We spend as much time outdoors as we can, walking and talking in the rain, in sunshine, in the snow. Karolina hates to be “cooped up” as she calls it. “Books? Sure, I read a book once”, she tells me. There’s no danger I have to go through The Yellow Snake again in Hungarian.

My new governess and I get on well, though in ways that make my mother slightly uneasy. Mother is far from prudish, but Karolina’s response to my inquiring stare appears a little risqué even to her. As I find out later, seeing me ogling her breasts during our first meeting, practical Karolina responds in Hungarian: “Tetszenek? Hát ha jó fiú leszel, később játszhatsz velük egy kicsit.” (Like them? Be a good boy, and one day you can play with them a little.)

One can understand a mother’s unease with this. On the other hand, in less than a year, I’m fluent in Hungarian, a difficult language.

***

About 700 miles West of Karolina’s voluptuous breasts black smoke trails burning bits of aluminium as Messerschmitts and Stukas circle Hurricanes and Spitfires over England’s green and pleasant land. It’s an epic clash with a few men in their

20s settling the future of the world. I don’t recall hearing a word about it at home, but Britain’s new prime minister visits a Royal Air Force operations facility at the height of the Battle of Britain. A few days later he makes an observation. “Never in the field of human conflict”, says Winston Churchill on 20 August, “was so much owed by so many to so few.”

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