While we were still living in the cellar, where people bickered and were impatient and edgy, we were often told how truly rare it was for a mother and daughter to love each other so much; we never raised our voices to each other. I corrected them. Mami was my mother-in-law, not my mother. They were amazed, they hardly wanted to believe me.
Mami was good, neat, simple, and reserved. We saw eye to eye in everything, much more so than I did with my own mother, or anyone else, I could never get along better with any man or woman than I could with Mami, despite the fact that we lived together in midst of dangerous situations and great adversity all the time. Maybe she was an angel. She embodied peacefulness, gentleness, and temperance. These hackneyed words express what she was like.
I loved her, and she loved me. Even when I began my search for János and begged that he not be put to death and not be taken away, she urged, “Don’t go, stay here, don’t go, you will run into trouble.” And when they brought the news that János had been executed and I retorted it was not true, she looked at me, smiling, “You say it isn’t? Are you sure it isn’t?
Let’s not be afraid!”
The following episode took place while we were still living in the cellar. I wasn’t present – I’d been taken away to dig trenches, I think (but more about what it meant to a woman todig trenches in frozen ground later). On my return, I was greeted with the news that Jánoshad suddenly staggered into the cellar and shouted my name. It was then that the men were being herded out of the village, and he asked someone for a hat. He was still in his lounge jacket and slippers. In that terrible cold and snow. Hearing this, I thought my heart would break.
Her heart bursting, also the ground beneath,
And her little child falling into it.
Since that moment I know the language of balladry contains psychological realism. Because this is what humans feel: the heart breaks, the ground splits asunder, and one plummets into the depths of darkness.
I was aware by then that János’s manuscripts had been carried off. I had a piece of paper in my possession. During the night, I put his verses together line by line. I racked my memory until I found and wrote down every word, every line. Then I wrote in tiny letters in the margins, then sideways, backwards, and on the back of the paper. I filled the piece of paper with fourteen or twenty of his poems that I knew and that, though I had not learned them by heart, I was able to quote at the time. Then the Russians took away this sheet, too.
When we became infested by lice in the cellar, I undressed, so I could remove them from my undergarments. The woman behind me screamed. When I took off my slip, I had torn open the wound on my back. Horrified, she questioned me closely, Didn’t you notice you had a sore on your back? Didn’t you realize you would tear it open?” Others ran over to look at the sore. (I got the sore because when the Russians raped me, they pushed my legs against my shoulders.) Later, the wound healed somehow; who could be concerned about it at that time?
Later we became scabby. The town clerk of Gyuró offered his felicitations to someone with these words, “Madam, what you have between your fingers is not a rash, it is scabies; I have it, too.” I already knew so much about lice that I could tell which was female, which was male, which was pregnant, which was full, which was hungry. Sometime, I’ll describe what lice are like. For now, briefly, there are hair lice, clothing lice, crab lice. Crab lice live in the hair of the armpits and in pubic hair, hair lice, as their name states, in the hair on the head.
If you have all three, then it is futile to pluck them out, they bite you constantly. We were advised to smear ourselves with kerosene. The lice did not recoil from it at all, and the kerosene stung even more fiercely, and we became smelly, besides. Of course, there was no possibility of washing up.
At first we spoke about our mouths being smelly because we could not brush our teeth.
Then, after a time, such a notion never occurred to us; we were not even aware of it, not even of the lack of washing up. With eighty of us in the cellar, there was not even enough water for us to drink, and after a couple of days, our demand for water to wash up also ceased. On the other hand, it was horrible to bleed so profusely and not be able to put on clean panties. The blood froze in the trenches, it thawed at night; then it dried, and the panties pinched the thighs, and you always felt you smelled of blood. But then, everything around us smelled of blood.
A bomb exploded near us, the entire cellar shook. Silence followed. In the dead silence of eighty humans, a small child cried out. Then a woman’s voice, pitched peculiarly high, began in a steady, monotonic rhythm, “Hail, Mary, full of Grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Virgin Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.”
(Silence. Forty years later, that voice still rings in my ears. I must open a window.)
I thought I would go mad; I wanted to shout for her to stop, it was unbearable. But, I wonder, would it have been easier to endure the silence? Why did this prayer strike me as being so terrible? At the time I did not know it. This prayer is also the prayer of the dying. Since that time, I have become fond of it.
What is better in the face of a threat to life? For everyone to be silent, or for everyone to yell, for someone to pray, or for many to shout? I don’t know. But fear is terrible if many are afraid, and fear is terrible if you are alone. Fear is somewhat more bearable if a Filike is with you and even somewhat more bearable if someone you love is beside you. How strange that I loved Filike but felt no fear for her. (As if she were invulnerable. As if she were one with me. And as if she never experienced any fear, she never whimpered, never barked. Sometimes she shivered, but dachshunds do that frequently.)
Once a Russian soldier came into the cellar. I was asleep. He woke me up; he bent over me and shook me. The same woman who had noticed the sore on my back told me that my face took on the terrorized look of a horse. My nostrils widened and quivered, the veins on my forehead swelled, and my pupils dilated queerly. This occurred at the firs moment. Then followed my pleading, my begging in Romanian. I implored the others in Hungarian, the kommandatura is nearby, go and tell them! ask for help! Or send a child, you know the Russians will not hurt children. But no, not one of them moved. Eighty beings listened to my pleas and did nothing. I showed them I would cover the pistol’s barrel, I would put my hand over it, so the soldier would not be able to shoot. They were afraid, they kept silent and tolerated my being raped right in front of them and the children. I wonder how they will square this with their consciences. And how will I be able to if I do not help someone because I am afraid – and how many the times I will fail to help?
When there are screams on the street outside, I wake up from the deepest sleep. I run out to the balcony to investigate what is happening; I think I will throw something down, a vase, a potted plant. I have to do something because someone has called out for help, and I know people will not leave their apartments. When I called for help, no one budged.
When I shouted for help out on the street… Yet people were there, looking out their windows. (Fear, not love, conquers all?)
No one took me in on the night I escaped from the parsonage. Much later, I needed help on a street in a small town in Hungary. I pleaded in vain for people just to let me into the cellar or to a chair in a vestibule or into the barn. No! No! During winter, it is not possible to spend the night without a roof over your head. In any case, by the time day breaks, you are exhausted, and if you sit down, you freeze to death. I am afraid when may be attacked; this does happen during a time of peace, in Budapest, too. But I am more afraid of being shut out. Miklós once said they attack me because I am like a closed box to them, and they are curious about what is inside. I simply do not know. Anyway, the Russians attacked me many times. I learned I cannot fight a man; I am weaker, I cannot defend myself. I cannot hit him because he hits harder. I cannot run away because he will run me down. There is nothing useful in the advice to kick the attacker’s sexual organs, to kick him between the legs – as they now say, kick him in the balls! You can kick the first one, but in the next instant you are on the ground, and then most likely, you will never get up again because they will finish you off.
But as for why so many in the cellar were afraid, why they did not dare to help me? That they did not is understandable, but I still wonder about it on the rare occasions when it still comes to my mind. The Russians took us to dig trenches occasionally, and it was excruciating, hacking the frozen ground with a pickaxe between continual bomb hits. But they gave us something to eat. At other times, we helped in the kitchen, which was a large, half-shot-up room.
A soldier stacked the fire under the wash boiler, the cauldron pipe led through and empty window frame into the yard. The door was open – or was the door gone? We still felt some warmth, though. The cook’s foot was missing; the stump was bandaged, he did the cooking like that. The Russians were incredibly brave; pain and fear had no meaning for them.
They prepared soup frequently; they boiled the water in a huge cauldron, tossed chunks of beef into it, then large amounts of cabbage and bay leaves, then potatoes, and finally a handful of dumplings. I don’t know what this soup was called; it had a very good flavour.
Of course, it was no fun cooking for several hundred men.
We peeled potatoes in the cold, squatting on the ground until we thought our backs would break. We were given a dish of soup; I took mine to Mami. We were given the potato peels. We took some to those who were hungry, and we set some aside for spring planting. We stealthily peeled them rather thick, so that they would retain their buds. For by then, in February, it was obvious that the war would not be over by spring, that there would not be a potato crop.
One morning, the Russians gathered the women together again, and a young boy took it upon himself to save me from the round-up. He lay down beside me and put his arms around me; I covered my face, and somehow remained there. But an hour later they mustered the men. I said to the boy, “Now I will help you to stay here.” I scattered straw, clothing, this and that over him; I rummaged about to hide him. There were not enough males around, so they took me away, too. I had two small roundcakes for that day.
I gobbled them down and drank my ration of water on it, thinking that the Russians would give me something to eat. But the officer dressed the soldiers down for bringing women to perform such hard work, and I was chased back to the cellar. I had wolfed down the roundcakes! The other were amused by this, and so was I.
We were all extremely hungry when someone brought fresh bread to the fourth resting place on my left, to the woman who had called out the “Hail, Mary” so loudly. They cut into the loaf and started eating it. I became so agitated, I wanted some so badly, I broke into a sweat, and I considered going over to them, or sending a child, to offer my only treasure, a small bottle of Vetol oil, in exchange for a small piece of bread.
I was holding on to a small bottle of Vetol oil, a German oil for wounds, at that, in the buttoned-down pocket of the checkered blouse I have mentioned. I guarded it like a treasure, though I had noticed that when it was applied, the wound filled with puss, instead of healing. But I did not have anything else, just a safety pin and a small piece of driedup, moldy sausage, which I was saving until the very last, so that in case I or someone else should faint from hunger, something would be available. (I did save it from the war and reached liberated Budapest with it. And then… But what about until then?) I did not dare go over to the woman to propose the exchange. I don’t know how it happened, but to me it was like a miracle, like and embodiment of goodness, as if the firmament had opened up. She sent her child over to me with a small, fresh, real, soft, fragrant piece of her bread. I ate it very slowly, so that I could savor it at leisure. The pleasure of the bread, which we had been without for weeks by then, the pleasure of eating, the pleasure of goodness – this is what that piece of bread meant to me.
The Germans returned, then the Russians came again. I was always more afraid of the Germans. When they said there would be an execution, then you could be certain they would execute someone. The fear began with the Gestapo, and it was regressive.
The persecution of the Jews intensified it.
With the Russians, you could never know anything, never figure out anything. It is amazing that something actually developed from this lack of organization. When they left, they never said good-bye; they simply vanished. When they returned, they greeted us with tremendous joy, took us into their laps, tossed us into the air, as if they were meeting their dearest relatives. They were warm-hearted but unusually impulsive.
First, we learned to swear from them. “Job tvoju” was the first real Russian phrase. Once a real misunderstanding arose. We wanted to say “muzh jesty” that “I have a husband,” meaning “don’t harm me, it will bring me grief.” “Nuzhna” meant “you can”; they generally understood “muzh jesty” as “muzhna”. According to them, when they took a woman away, she was desperately shouting “you can, you can.” I could be translated approximately like that. It made no difference what they understood. It did not change anything.
A woman in the cellar is saying, “I went out and saw all was kaput.” Some asked her, “What did they do with every gate?” Laughter: “kaput” in Russian means something is over, ruined, or something like that. In any case, we learned “kaput” and used it frequently.
“Front jargon” developed quickly. The expression “zabrálni”, “to loot” was the most natural, for it was close to zabálni, “to eat your fill like a pig.” I don’t know how we came to forget it today; after all, we continued to use the expression for twenty years.
The cellar did not give us any bright moments, any jolly times. Hunger, destitution, filth, lice, and sickness weighed us down; also, the constant fear and, naturally before and above all else, the outgoing and incoming firing, sometimes Russian, sometimes German.
We noticed, or thought we noticed, that three days of unbridled pillage followed every larger battle or reoccupation. Unbridled pillage and unbridled rape. After that, all this was forbidden, and generally, anyone who could be proved to have raped a woman would be shot.
I do not know how it came about, but I once found myself in a situation in which soldiers were standing in a row and I had to point out the one who had raped me. I remember it only faintly. On a cold winter morning, I am walking in front of the row; the soldiers are standing stiffly, straight, at attention. Two officers escort me on my left. I saw fear in the eyes of one of the soldiers. He had blue eyes and was quite a young boy. From this fear I knew he was the one. But what flashed in his eyes was so keen, so dreadful that I immediately felt: it is out of the question! There was no sense in having them kill this boy.
Why, when the others would go free? And why only this one?
On another winter morning, however, they flogged me. I no longer know exactly why they did it. I don’t even want to untangle it; somehow it has all become snarled (like so many other things). They stripped me to the waist, some soldiers stood around me, and one of them struck me in a regular rhythm. The lash was not a whip, but a pliable braided strap shaped like a snake, tapering off toward the end and terminating in a know. Of course, it had a grip. When they hit someone hard, the skin tore open. (It did not hurt particularly, or it is possible that it did but that there was some sort of defiance within me or something else I have not spoken about before. I was able to take all that horror from beginning to end because the greater horror above everything else was that they had taken János away and the way they had done it. This completely occupied me, as did seeing the destruction of the village, and what was happening to women, children, and men; and I lived, of course, with the consciousness that this was going on throughout the entire country.
Another time – I no longer know what happened – they injured me and then carried me to the Russian doctor in their arms. He bandaged me, petted me, and took me to the military dining hall for dinner. There was, it seems, something to eat that day. They served me chicken soup; then they cut off the end of a loaf of bread, removed the soft part, and filled it with the livers of all the hens. Eight or ten livers to take with me. It was, of course, an unheard-of treasure. I ran to Mami’s with it. This is what the Russians were like.
They hit me with one hand, petted me with the other.
Sometimes they came to grips over me: one wanted to spare me, the other to rape me, one to beat me, the other to heal me. One to take something from me, the other to give me something.
They often showed up, beaming, bearing this or that as a gift for us. Then it turned out they had stolen it from one of the neighbors. We often took our things over to the neighbors for safekeeping; they stole them from there and unsuspectingly presented them to us as gifts. But then, we were not exactly angels, either; we laid our hands on their belongings, and they did not get angry about it. In general, a kind of joint ownership existed during the war. Maybe it is humorous for me to use that expression, but it hits the nail right on the head. Only slowly did we catch on. When we all were going hungry, they shared their last bite with us.