ONE WOMAN IN THE FRONT – EXCERPTS

FROM THE HONEYMOON

An old railway man stood on the platform pointing to the sky, “Bombers!” Then his face turned pale, “Look, there come the bombers!” Three formations of what looked like three specks were descending above the buildings. I ran toward garrison headquarters. I found János there; we ran, holding hands, to an emergency air-raid shelter. It was a sort of corridor for an underground bunker; we had to climb down an iron ladder into the shaft. People pushed and pulled each other frantically. At the moment a plane flew directly above us. I stood to the side, spellbound. I was astounded that a formation of three specks was diving directly at our heads. Somebody howled like an animal, “We are done for!”

There was no time to climb down. János grabbed me, picked me up, and threw me into the shaft, then jumped in after me. By this time, bombs were exploding outside. I fell on people, my wrist became wedged in a crack in the wall. Actually, and in every sense of the word, János saved my life, because I did not even try to move. In a strange way I never felt grateful to him. I was amazed, however, at his presence of mind.

We stood leaning against the wall in this narrow concrete corridor, many of us. A great faintness overcame me; I did not dare turn my head to the side to look at those who had remained outside and were now being brought down, horribly torn to shreds, but still alive. One kept trying to say something but could not speak. He articulated something time and again with an unintelligible rattling in his throat. They closed the concrete cover of the shaft. The bomb hits could be heard, the bomb hits, everyone of them close.At times the ground shook around us. A railroad man stood at the extension phone, signalled for silence, and said, “We have casualties. Send first aid!” The same thing ten times over. Then, “I understand”. A long pause, he is paying attention. He wipes his brow, “They cannot help us”.

Then he goes to some device to start the air circulation. It fails to function. He struggles with it; others come to his aid, but the device does not work. The concrete lid that covers the ladder to the shaft has to be opened because the air is being used up rapidly. We will suffocate. The railroad men say, “This is the service shelter, the air-raid shelter; civilians and soldiers must get out, we cannot leave our stations, we cannot run off. A few of you must climb out between bombings and run to the buildings across the street.”

Wild squabbling, “Don’t you have any humanity?” “Do understand, there is no air, we will all choke to death here. “

An officer takes out his revolver, raises it, ready to fire, “Soldiers! The first group get moving!” The railroad man beside the telephone, “The rescue train has been hit! The qualified, the stretcher bearers get going!” Without thinking I step forward. János pulls me back, “What are you doing?” “I am a trained nurse”, I reply. At that, he restrains and holds me tightly, “Nobody here knows that”. “But I do”, I answer, at which he covers my mouth. The first group starts off. They climb up the ladder. The concrete lid cannot be removed. We are buried alive. What will become of us?

Others fiddle with the pump; meanwhile, the railroad man telephones, “There is no air! There is no air! We are buried, send help, send help!” Then he issues orders, “Don’t talk! Don’t move! That way we use less air. Let’s all breathe even, shallow!”

We stand in silence, like sardines; we sweat and breathe desperately because there is still some air. (If I take a deeper breath now, then maybe I will be able to bear it longer.) The telephone was the most frightful. In the deadly, sweaty silence, only the sound of the rattles issuing from the throats of the injured could be heard. “There are seventy of us, we can last only ten to fifteen minutes longer.” Then, “The telephone is not working”. He lowered his arm together with the receiver.

I leaned toward János’s face (he was holding me in an embrace), “I don’t want to die”. He replied with a significant smile, “The others don’t, either”. Somehow this lessened my concern. “Maybe a bomb will strike here and squash this bird cage.” By the time I said this, I shuddered: I could feel the shattered walls falling on me. János noticed, because he whispered, “I will lean over you. Don’t be afraid, only I can fall on you”. Somebody shouted at us to stop talking. The terror of the previous minutes continued. We waited… Then I began choking, then everything turned black.

When I opened my eyes, I saw a black aperture, a palm-sized aperture in front of my face with little green plates revolving in it, like the tuning eye of a radio. Air came slowly seeping in. I was being held up to the height of the low ceiling, so I could get some air directly, in front of a vent of the air pump, which had somehow started up. (I had lost consciousness so quickly because the tuberculosis from which I had suffered had reduced my lung capacity.)

But enough about this day. We were under fire in this concrete corridor from nine in the morning until six in the evening. When they somehow opened the concrete lid, every time we crawled out, after two steps, back we went. And more horrors occurred, but I do not want to go on relating them in detail. Like cattle, like dumb animals, we did not have an inkling, in this concrete hole, that only the railway station was under fire in the entire city. The escape train was also shot up; the wounded and the dead lay alongside the tracks. János behaved nobly throughout it all, in the true sense of the word.

We got away toward dark. We located our luggage in the ruins. The others were nowhere to be found. Away quickly, away from here; let’s not have to crawl back there again.

It was not possible to go back to the city; we were told that Szamos Bridge had been blown up. We found a drunken carriage driver who did not know where to go or what to do with himself. For a large sum of money he accepted the terms that we would go with him wherever his horse took him. Quickly, up with the luggage.

The frightened, scrawny horse started off at a gallop. We soon reached the highway in the direction of Szucság. There he dropped us off and, walking, he led his horse into the fields. We hid under the bushes of an embankment because planes attacked the road frequently. This was the direction in which the military was retreating.

We waved our arms in vain; not a single vehicle stopped. Then I said to János, “Just hide in the bushes; they will stop for a lone woman, and then they won’t say they won’t pick you up”. Angrily but without a word, he slipped into the bushes. (I respected him for that very much; he handled it without getting on his high horse; he did not start strutting around like a rooster.)

The first military truck stopped, and every one thereafter. But not one of them took as aboard. “We can’t, we can’t. There’s no room; it’s a truck, it’s not fit for a woman.” Half-empty personnel carriers did not pick us up, either. I grew very desperate. I hung on to the side of the next vehicle and pleaded, “Don’t you have any heart? Don’t you have a mother? A sister?”

The driver suddenly leaned out of the vehicle. “We can’t pick up anyone, it’s an order. Don’t waste your time. Escape as best you can. I say this because I do have a mother and a sister.”

I went and hid with János in the bushes. “Do you understand this? They can’t pick up refugees. What is going on?” “Bureaucracy”, he said, then when he saw I didn’t understand what he was alluding to, “The military, orders, orders!

There is no point fretting about it, everything must be accepted as it comes… nothing can be done about it”.

I was very worked up, and I really would have loved to look right into the eyes of Lajos Veress, the commander of the Transylvanian army corps, and ask him how he could be so cruel. What could he possibly say? He issues the order to flee, then does not allow us to escape. (I had no idea that on one occasion I would converse with him for hours, and tell him I understood this order of his and respected him for it as well as other things. Five years later, he was condemned to death because of the first Communist conspiracy trial, but, as I remember, he was pardoned.)

The first German truck I hailed stopped to pick us up. It was a truck with exceptionally high sides. We were unable to climb up, but a Hungarian vehicle coming behind it stopped immediately; they flung János up somehow and then handed me up to him, then the luggage, very quickly. We were instantly on our way, for the road was under attack.

A small package remained behind; it contained two kilos of coffee, one kilo of tea, and a gold cigarette case. One of the Hungarian infantrymen ran after our truck; taking a full swing, he hurled it after us. We could not catch it. He picked it up from the ground, and running at breakneck speed, he threw it again with all his might. It fell to the ground. I leaned out, and cupping my hand, I shouted to him, “It’s yours, enjoy it!” This was my first moment of abandon, and I thought, how nice, poetic justice – that life can, after all, be good, for destiny repaid this soldier’s warm and devoted help by having this package remain behind. No matter how hard he tried, it stayed in his hands. (Do any of you today know what so much coffee and tea meant back then?) “How surprised he will be when he discovers the gold cigarette case”, I laughed at János. He knit his brows, looked at me thoughtfully, and said coldly and sharply, “He’ll be as happy as a blind horse with half an eye”. The truck took us to Nagykároly. They dropped us off at the side of the road. I sat on the suitcases on the road; János began looking for a place where we could rest a bit. People surrounded us and stared at us, “Look, refugees”. They knew nothing about Kolozsvár and the front. We reached Debrecen in a couple of days by means of military vehicles. Finally, we were in the longed-for, the trustworthy motherland where there is only one enemy, or rather two, not three, as back home.

FROM A REFUGEE’S IDYLL

We arrived in Budapest in September at the end of an air attack. The Shell Oil refineries were ablaze; we were travelling in their vicinity. The city, the streets, everything was black with smoke.

Life in the city was in full swing. People ran to the air-raid shelters, laughing and joking. They danced as they cleaned up the ruins. Restaurants were jammed. Something sinewy, suitable for chewing, or a vegetable was served in the place of regular fare, but the waiters served it politely and cheerfully. What a tempered citythisBudapestis!(I had occasion to admire it later on as well.) We found a place for ourselves at the Esterházy Palace on Castle Hill. Cleanliness, quiet, tranquillity. If we descended to ever deeper and deeper levels in the system of cellars under Castle Hill, we could walk through the labyrinth on stairs and in passageways, and not hear the din of bombardments. It was as if we had wound up in an enchanted realm. The cellars were clean, properly tended, well-ventilated even at the depth of three levels, and fresh wells were available.

It was here I saw a geyser gas water heater in a bathroom for the first time. (I was afraid of it.) During our flight, wind and dust had so dishevelled my hair, I was barely able to comb it out when it was wet; I had to cut off some of it.

I went down to the Southern Railway Station to inquire about a train.

An air alert. I was so afraid of being caught in the railroad area that I tore across the Vérmező and up the stairs of Castle Hill. You were not permitted to stay out on the streets during an alert. Nobody was around to take note, only some German soldiers lying on their stomachs in the grass on a slope of the Vérmező (still a deep, grassy basin back then). They shouted at me to run into some building. Weren’t they permitted to? Or were there too many of them? They stayed put. Always disciplined, always silent.

Mami, János’s mother, was the head housekeeper at the Esterházy manor house in Csákvár. The year before, when I went there to introduce myself to Mami, Monika Esterházy and I became friends, and I was also a guest at the manor house in Majk. (Monika was a strange creature, as was the entire family; but more about this later.) We were now going to Mami’s; it was the natural thing to do.

Mami was a short, buxom creature (how could she have given birth to such a tall son?) with childlike blue eyes, a loose German chignon; her chignon looked like a braided brioche; she never used face powder or cologne in her life. She had come from Vienna some time ago, but she still spoke in Hungarian a little uncomfortably, with an accent. The elderly mistress of Csákvár didn’t know any Hungarian at all; perhaps, that was why they engaged Mami as head housekeeper of the manor house after the death of her husband.

Mami was the most decent person I ever met in my life. She was a bit deaf to ideas, so was her hearing. Her spirit was not deaf. But it was very difficult to communicate with her in everyday life. János spoke in a very low voice to begin with. If I tried to act as her interpreter by raising my voice, she was annoyed and gestured impatiently for me to desist. She did not understand at all the more complicated Hungarian words, the looser locutions, the allusions, or the war, either. She had only the faintest ideas about Transylvania, and she had never spoken with anyone who had experienced an air raid.

Csákvár was actually a village. Silence prevailed. Sirens and alerts never sounded. With its one hundred and sixty rooms, with its own theatre and chapel, where the parish priest celebrated the mass, with its enormous, one hundred forty-two acre park that stretched into the forests of the Vértes mountain range, and with its immeasurable art treasures and wealth, the manor house knew nothing about the war. (Not so later on.)

In any case, everyone there was getting ready for the arrival of the English. Until that occurred, they were under the protection of the Swiss. On the roof of the manor house was a red cross on a canvas twenty metres long, so that if planes should dive at the village, they could see that they were not allowed to target it. Countess Méri, the grand dame’s spinster daughter, was an organiser of Red Cross Hospitals. Just as in the previous war, everyone knitted for the soldiers, sweaters and other things.

A long time before this crisis, I went to Székesfehérvár one late afternoon. By that time it was clear to us that the front was coming dangerously close. It could have been some kind of Catholic holiday (at the time I was still a Protestant); the church was crammed with flowers and packed with people; they were burning incense and singing in the warmth, over and over again, irresistibly:

Blessed Mother, our great ancient Patroness!

Alone in deep distress, our country hails thee thus: Do not forget Hungary, our dear homeland,

Do not forget the poor Hungarians!

They wept and sang, candles were burning; they pleaded with Mary to protect Hungary or, at least, Székesfehérvár. Could anyone resist such supplication, I thought, filled with anguish, and I began to feel frightened. I was still unacquainted with the horrors that were to come.

Later, when Székesfehérvár changed hands several times, the Russians, after first raping them, cut off with knives the breasts of the women who had cohabited with the Germans.

I had no idea of such horrors; still, there in the church, I felt an ominous fate hanging above the region, the place. This was the first moment that a dreadful terror seized me. I wept and prayed. Then I left the church, and I thought that the spell was caused by mass hypnosis, that I had become impressionable. We were expecting all this ultimately; somehow, we will make it through the period of the front and the war will be over.

But still, I grew ever more afraid.

Mami was deaf. She ran the household with complete meticulousness. János did not speak; above us, the clock chimed every quarter of an hour. The hospital moved out. The manor house lived a life of seemingly immutable orderliness and cleanliness.

All bottlenecks and difficulties halted at the entrance of the manor house park. I played with the kitten and listened to the fear reverberating inside me. I was completely alone, as a wife of six months, loving and feeling out of place beside my own husband.

I did not know anyone in the village. I did not even see anyone who lived in the manor house.

Captives were being taken through the village. Not taken but herded.

I gave my angora scarf to one of them. Mami shook her head, János reprimanded me for giving away that one instead of an old one. “Does it make any difference?” I replied. “We will never have any scarves again.”

János said I was crazy.

In the three higher forms of secondary school, I had worked as a nurse during summer and winter vacations. I had completed three months of training in surgery, and was myself serving as a nursing instructor. (When I had to undo a freshly amputated leg from its dressings for the first time, to hold it while the surgeon was cutting around the shredded flesh without having administered an anaesthetic, and afterwards to bind it up again, my clothing became saturated with sweat, but I quickly got used to it.)

In any case, I knew much more than the local personnel and the nuns, and had greater practical experience. But they handled me very gingerly, like someone from the manor house who was simply “bored”.

I took temperatures, prepared sponges, and wrote reports on the patients. When Sister Franciska found out that I occasionally performed physical labour – for instance, that I tidied up the place – she strongly objected and ordered the others not to let me do it.

The patients called me little nurse, the others madam. In short, I was a carefully handled “ornament”. In that village, just living in the shadow of the manor house was considered a very great thing.

Of course, appearances also indicated this, I arrived at the hospital in my arctic- fox fur coat, fur cap, and top boots, like an elegant lady. But I took them off and my clothes too, and slipped into a white smock and flat cap. Nuns and male doctors worked at the hospital exclusively; the cook was the only civilian woman besides myself.

The patients were all very nice. One of them asked me to chat with him because I resembled his wife. Another to speak to him in Romanian.

One time, the chief physician gave a patient from a forced labour camp, a young, swarthy man, a good tongue-lashing. He did not utter a single word in response, nor did any of the others. (It was a military hospital, but still…) When the doctor left the ward, a profound silence arose. I went over to the youth’s bed and sat down beside him for a few minutes. We talked about trivial things, but I felt that everyone considered it good; they knew why I did it.

The weeks passed. The hospital was without bread. Much running, hurrying around went on. I told Countess Méri about it, and she had foodstuff sent to the hospital for a week. A hundred kilos of bread, fifty kilos of butter, four wagon loads of potatoes – this did not mean trouble for the manor house. They felt very grateful at the hospital, and they treated me even more gingerly.

The front drew nearer. Casualties arrived in mounting numbers. We ran out of pharmaceuticals; we used paper for bandages; the wounded lay on straw mattresses on the floor, then on straw only, often alongside each other. Confusion was at its peak. The doctors tended the wounded only, to the point of complete exhaustion.

They left internal medicine to me, all of it. We had no medicine, no x-ray, no space, no food, but we still had to do something. Desperately ill, unconscious patients were delivered incessantly. What a struggle it was! I was by then also working in the operating room; I became the chief surgeon’s right hand.

I prepared two reports on each of the dead twice, and discharged in the place of each of them a living person who was ambulatory and had somewhere to flee to. Of course, someone like that needed civilian clothes and false documents. Shoes were the greatest worry. I had to account for the boots of the dead – where would I get hold of so many boots? – and fugitives had to wear something on their feet.

Then a brilliant idea struck us, I mean the patients and me. I reported that during the night an unidentified thief had stolen the boots of all the patients in internal medicine. (We had stolen and hidden them as a reserve supply.) My, what a commotion erupted! For, while the doctors and nurses were perishing from work, administrative employees found plenty of time for everything. They investigated and investigated.

I don’t think I was aware of the risk I was taking. After all, this was the military; such an act meant execution by firing squad. This never occurred to me. I did not speak to János about the matter.

The soldiers apparently knew about it, but they kept silent to protect me. Even now my eyes fill with tears when I think of them. These sad, defenceless, sick bodies – what a gallows humour they had; how able they were to die silently, wordlessly; how grateful they were for the slightest bit of attention.

Not one of them ever offended me with a single gesture, a word. I was the only woman among one hundred, then a hundred and fifty men, and they always treated me with affection and respect. If a new patient arrived and swore or used any rude words in my presence, the others instantly rebuked him. However, I never wanted them to restrain themselves because of me; they were suffering enough.

I could relate many more things about this hospital and its patients. You can revile the Hungarians as much as you please, I will never believe you. These unfortunate soldiers could be so magnificent amid all that wretchedness, with death close by, abiding inside them, and threatening them from the outside. Meanwhile, the Russians were drawing closer; the Germans or Szálasi’s men were slaughtering whoever deserted (a bullet in the head immediately); they knew nothing about their families, their homes, not even what they were fighting for.

(From Alaine Polcz, One Woman in the Front. Hungary1944–1945. Translated, with an Introduction and Notes by Albert Tezla. CEU Press, Budapest, 2002.)

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