Extract from Scattered Ghosts: One Family’s Survival Through War, Holocaust and Revolution (London: IB Tauris, 2013); Hungarian edition: Szellemek nyomában (Budapest: KUK, 2014). Copyright: Nick Barlay.
The Anatomy of a Massacre
He knows of a massacre never told. He remembers the smell of blood. He remembers the darkness of a hiding place. He dreamed only recently of both the smell and the darkness of a certain event on a certain night. He wrote plenty of lines about plenty of things but never a line about this. The history books, too, however detailed, however thorough, never mention it.
The memories are muddied, sunken into the earth like a grave in a Budapest cemetery. Or they are heavily dusted, unopened and forgotten like a diary in the archive of the Budapest ambulance service. Yet the events can only be pieced together from these memories, and from the documents in front of me: a handwritten paragraph from my grandmother who died in 1985; a broken Israelite prayer book for women; a strange passport. Why disturb them? Why not leave them be?
Possibly because there are certain memories, like certain objects, that come to stand for a life. The memory, for example, of a disappearance. Nándor. Or the memory of an arrival. Uncle Józsi. There are other memories that stand for part of a life, like a childhood or for part of a childhood, like a day. This memory, of blood, of darkness, stands for a day in the childhood of my father.
Some of my father’s childhood memories are as follows:
- running along the ‘gang’, the corridor outside the flats on every floor of the block, while avoiding the glass jars of pickles and preserves fermenting in sunlight;
- playing football against a neighbourhood wall with a kid called Sándor Kocsis who would one day head goals for Hungary against England;
- picking up discarded siphons outside the soda factory for a special use;
- racing his best friend, Tomi, through the square, a snap catching them mid-step;
- waving goodbye, Tomi and him, to their fathers at the railway station;
- punching holes in family photographs for amusement;
- having a family servant, a country girl called Rebus;
- being the only one made to wear long woollen socks to a children's party.
And then there is the smell of blood in the courtyard, the darkness of a cellar in which he and his best friend, Tomi, hid.
Memories have weight. Some are heavier than others. Their gravity pulls lighter things towards them. Their gravity even bends light. We are made to see things their way.
In 1978, my father returned to the courtyard where, over thirty years before, the blood had been, to where the smell had been. I was there, too, as old as he was thirty years before. I remember a long, wide street, its pavement shadowed by its tall, silhouetted apartment blocks, the height of the front doors. I remember my father talking to a woman. I remember my brother was there, too, and he remembers a building. We were in Budapest to visit family but the point of this trip to visit someone in a building on a hot day was opaque. He was not family. Perhaps that is why the memory of it, mine and my brother’s, is also opaque. There was a woman in a building, that’s all, and neither obviously belonged to a holiday. It wasn’t that we looked away. It was the light, that day, bending around something heavy.
I now know the name of the woman and, thirty years later, as old as my father was when he returned to the building, I have returned. I’m standing outside the street door, separated from the courtyard where the blood was, where its smell was, near where the hiding place was. The woman’s name was Mrs. Farkas. She was the widow of Rezső Farkas, who was the concierge of 59, Népszínház Street. Mr. and Mrs. Farkas lived, as did all concierges, on the ground floor near the stairwell.
The event that led to a smell of blood, that led to a memory of a smell, that led a father who was a boy to return, that led a son who remembered his father’s memory to return, occurred over sixty years ago. It occurred after certain ghosts had been and gone. Uncle Józsi had lived here in the late 1930s, and Nándor had been taken from here in 1942. The event that brings me to 59, Népszínház Street, occurred two years later, on a particular day in October 1944. Why disturb it? Why not leave it be?
Possibly because it has never been told. In the hot summer after the war was over, when my father looked out over the broken-bridged Danube, he looked forward, up river. Like many of his generation he did not look back. What would looking back have been good for? Like many of his generation, he did not think back, either. Many of his generation, despite knowing each other a long time, never discussed what happened to them and their families during the war. These were shared gestures, a collective gesture of forgetting. The rubble of a rubbled city, through which the Germans and Russians had passed, was slowly cleared, mostly cleared. Along with it, the stories of lives were swept away. Many citizens were involved in clearing up after the war was over. They took brooms and swept up their own memories. Some claim to remember nothing, nothing at all.
Should this story be told simply because it has never been told? It’s too late because I have a memory of a woman in a building. I have a memory of my father’s memory of a smell. The story has already begun. It began without me. By the time I come to write it, I know more than anyone else about it, about what happened. More and not enough. My father’s memories occur randomly in my head.
I’m standing outside the street door. Behind me, the wheels of the number 28 tram jog the pavement, drowning out sounds of the past and of the present as they roll towards their terminus, the Kozma Street cemetery. There’s nothing to be done except to push the door open and to walk in.
Lili steps into the dark hallway for the first time. She’s carrying her new-born baby, István. Behind her is Nándor. He’s carrying suitcases. It’s early 1930 – he’s 27 and she’s 24 – and they’re moving in along the tiled hallway, climbing the dank and stained staircase with its wrought iron handrail, its pocked and powdery walls, its wooden spittoons layered with sawdust in the corner at each turn of the staircase. Theirs is a three-roomed corner flat on the top floor. It has a small balcony. Flat 4 is not of the less desirable ‘udvari’ type whose windows look inwards to the courtyard. Its windows are at the apex of the triangular building and look out onto the bottom end of the street, to where it becomes Teleki Square.
Number 59 was meant to be grand. The last building before the square was constructed to order in 1898 in an era of architectural pretension, and was meant for the upper classes, for nobility. It dominates a corner near the bottom end of the wide and busy street. By 1930, its tiled roof and halls, stucco mouldings and fancy façade are dilapidated ironies. Népszínház Street, with its tram terminus at the top end, its prostitutes in subtle gradations of sidestreets, from the quality brothel at 12, Víg Street known as ‘the dozen’ to the well-heeled streetwalkers of Conti Street and on to the budget ones of Kender Street, is part of a poorer district, the 8th ‘kerület’ on the East side of Pest. Its down-at-heel population comprises many Jews and Gypsies. There are small prayer houses dotted around and a cheap cinema called ‘Eldorado’.
The open space of Teleki Square has become a shambling, perpetual market of shanty stalls, home to beggars and peddlers, rats, moneylenders and close-knit merchants, some with their own Yiddish, others with the street slang of Budapest. They come with old clothes, with a goose or a chicken, with crates of vegetables from the countryside, with boxes of trinkets, junk, coat buttons and heirlooms to pawn and to barter. It’s a place where István will see a Gypsy woman giving birth while leaning against a lamp post, her baby conjured from beneath a voluminous skirt.
Today, drunks keep pigeons company on patchy grass. The genealogy is clear. There are pigeons with ancestral faces. There is something in the air that has held the place back, kept it where it was like a perfectly remembered moment. Lili said she had the happiest marriage of all her friends, a long 16 years before her husband was taken. They argued about his left-wing views, his activities, his socialising at the Union of Ironworkers, his attitude to political developments. István overheard these arguments. He wasn’t supposed to. ‘Zsindely van a háztetőn,’ Lili would say. ‘There’s a tile on the roof,’ meaning ‘be quiet, someone is listening’, someone like a child. But these arguments over politics were the only ones they had. The rest of the time, as if a long and perfectly remembered moment, they were happy.
Isn’t that the way of it, the way of such stories? These stories often say, ‘They were happy until...’ or ‘Their happiness came to an end when...’ as if the happiness and the suddenness were absolute, as if an out-of-the-blue and very sudden suddenness changed everything. But pick up some history book or other and the story is not quite as sudden. Instead, it is often written that ‘the storm clouds were gathering...’ or that people began to ‘sense something in the air...’. People were happy but, all the while, storm clouds were gathering. Can storm clouds gather suddenly? How sudden is sudden? Who knows what storm clouds really are?
As they climb the stairs for the first time, do they know, Lili and Nándor? Whether they suspect the future or not, whether they sense something in the air or not, they never have a second child. Maybe it was a lack of money. Or the lack of prospects in the 8th ‘kerület’. Or the fact that it had been a difficult first birth. ‘I was tearing the sheets,’ Lili once told my mother a lifetime later. So maybe it was this that put her off. Or maybe she really did notice a storm cloud.
In the early 1930s, the whole ‘mishpocheh’, the whole clan, gathers in the countryside in Székesfehérvár where Nándor’s mother, Mária, and numerous siblings come from. The men are in jackets and shirts, the shirts open-necked and folded over the jackets’ collars. The women are in hats and short-sleeved blouses. They hold children. As the day ages, the men are in shirts, talking over newspapers, then in deckchairs, dozing, while the women, hatless, lie in the shade of a tree. Among them is one much older woman, great great grandmother Rozália, around 90 years old, face set and wrinkled like dry shtetl mud. When the sun begins to sink, they all sit around a big wooden outdoor table to eat and drink, a family at home in their land.
By the end of the decade, István expends considerable energy drilling holes in family photographs. Ventilated in this way, another great great grandmother, Netti, has survived a long time, air passing through her heavy layered dress to her angular bones beneath. A single child looks through a hole in a photograph and sees the past of a family, where it has come from. Then he flips the photograph and looks through the hole again to see where it is going. He senses the branches of the tree around him.
Some late summer afternoons, Lili takes her son on a short walk from Népszínház Street to Mária Terézia Square, a shaded interruption on busy Baross Street. She dreams of moving up to Baross Street, the classier central thoroughfare of the 8th ‘kerület’. But the reason for Lili taking these walks is not so much to dream but to enrol her son at a fashionable ‘Svéd torna’, Swedish gym, class that takes place in an elementary school. You never know who you might meet, who might help you to get from Népszínház Street to Baross Street. The children are equal in their white gym outfits, although a small difference can make all the difference. One gymnast, a four-year-old girl, wears a distinctive white hair band. Every time Lili takes her son, this same girl stands at the front because of course she’s the best in the class. Her name is Ági. One day, István will marry her.
Then it’s time for school. István Bokor, as he was then or, more accurately since Hungarian family names come first, Bokor István, stands, aged seven and three quarters, on the ‘gang’ outside Flat 4. He’s in uniform, an immaculate pale grey wool jacket with embroidered lapels, arms rigid by his sides just like he’s been told, shorts, white socks and lace-up boots. The boots, made by a local cobbler, are originally ski boots with metal tips and edges that are ‘good for kicking doors’. István’s black hair has been slicked by his mother’s saliva-moistened hand, a hand that will one day slick her grandchildren’s hair, too. He might be smiling at the camera but there is impishness and chutzpah in his face.
The smoke from his father’s cigarettes, a blend of two types of Turkish tobacco, fills the flat, especially on card nights. Bridge is the game that István watches the men play, one that he will grow up to play, while his mother stands behind them, ever the ‘kibbitzer’, a commentator, an ‘adviser’ who provides a commentary on their hands. The only time István gets a hiding is when he disturbs the game, demanding cake. At this age, he resembles one of the kids from Ferenc Molnár’s much loved novel, ‘The Paul Street Boys’, the 1907 Budapest-set story of a group of boys who have to fight for their territory, their ‘grund’. István and his friends go past the soda factory on the way to school. They collect discarded siphons or barter cigarettes for them with the workers. The siphons have inner glass tubes that they can repurpose as deadly blowpipes. But who are their enemies?
István goes to the Madách Imre school in nearby Barcsay Street, running up the steep steps to the entrance with 800 other kids, each a ‘Paul Street boy’ to one degree or another. They play football with a ball of compacted paper bound by string. They re-enact scenes from ‘The Mark of Zorro’, the masked champion of the people. They barter cigarettes. They aim their blowpipes. But in 1939 a change takes place. The world is reorganised. The pupils are divided into Jewish and non-Jewish classes, ‘A’ and ‘B’ classes. Some don’t really know they are Jewish until they are told. Others don’t know they’re not for the same reason. The new world contains a ‘B’ class with 40 Jews. In his class, Bokor leads the alphabet, followed by Bolgár, Fenyvesi, Freund, Gadó, Gara, Gerlei, Grósz, Grünfeld, Gyenes, Hedvig, Heksch, Herzog, Hirsch, Ivanovszki, Kelemen, Kelen, Kertész, Klein, Klein W, Kovács, Lazarovics, Lóránt, Mandl, Pártos, Reichman, Reiner, Schőnfeld, Schwartz F, Schwartz G, Seregi, Solt, Steiner, Strausz, Szegő, Taubner, Tehel, Tormási, Wárman, Winternitz.
Some of the school’s teachers try to resist this change. The headmaster even writes to the government in late 1940. His long letter argues against segregation for the most complex and contorted of reasons: because at this particular school there are trainee teachers taking classes, and if they see that Jewish classes are better than non-Jewish classes, it would have a negative effect on the trainees. Some teachers, such as the one who accompanies the ‘B’ class on a trip up to Kisinóc in the mountains north of Budapest, see no difference between ‘A’ and ‘B’ classes or between ‘A’ and ‘B’ mountains. Lower down, things are less abstract. A new verb has entered the schoolboy lexicon: ‘zsidózni’, ‘to Jew’. It’s a verb whose meaning is free-range, beginning with an abusive name shouted in a corridor, an act of singling out in a classroom, before roaming further afield, before becoming a physical education teacher with a discriminatory length of rope. The Jewish boys have to do a form of community service while the non-Jewish ones go into the ‘Levente’. Taking its name from the old Hungarian word for ‘knight’, the ‘Levente’ is a paramilitary youth organisation.
All the while, Farkas the concierge maintains the 59, Népszínház Street. He exchanges pleasantries, coordinates the cycles of carpet-beating in the courtyard, fixes little problems, takes care of Mrs. Farkas and the children, his flat constantly exuding a general odour of cabbage, onions, paprika. But the job of block concierge is one that hides a potentially limitless range of tasks, including the locking of the gate at 10pm. People coming in after that have to ring the bell, and either the concierge or his wife has to get out of bed to open up. A tip is in order. Duties and favours grow organically, depending on the character of the concierge and the character of the tenants. Farkas is also the ‘hat. eng. vil.’ – the abbreviation for ‘officially authorised electrician’ that is signed on the door of his flat. It gives him power over light and dark.
Bokor sees his best friend, Fenyvesi, all the time. Their fathers, Nándor and Imre, are already ghosts, away on the first round of forced labour, then back, then gone, gone for good. Their mothers, Lili – rounder, shorter, darker – and Panci – blonder, taller, slimmer – are best friends, Panci living nearby, on the more desirable Baross Street. They are single children with single mothers, all bound together by the disappearance of the men. Maybe both mothers had difficult births, tearing at the sheets.
Aged 13, the boys become ‘sons of the commandment’. This is not because their mothers are religious. A Bar Mitzvah is just the thing to do. On January 18 1943 István comes of age, becomes a man, through this special ceremony. ‘Mine vuz a cheap vun,’ my father grins in another century. It’s his last religious act, the memory of which bubbles to the surface for the first time in the present, surprising and strange in a godless family. When did religion leave the family? Or when did the family leave religion? And when did István really leave the country of his childhood to become an adult?
These are merely everyday questions, as ordinary as the everyday questions that creep into the curriculum. By 1943, two to three times a week at noon on the first floor mezzanine with the boys grouped on the steps and in the mouths of corridors, a teacher gives a short talk about the Hungarian nation, its former lands, the lands recently reclaimed with Germany’s help, the territory it should have and should have had, the ancient gripes of the Hungarian nation. These ‘everyday questions’ are developed in a class that is different from others. It’s fascist propaganda.
The boys dream of slipping out of school to play ping pong. Back at home, István spies on the washerwoman who lives and works in the attic. He plays with the red-haired Sperber brothers from two floors below. He notices one of his uncles, László, going regularly into the flat next door, and later learns he’s having ‘an affair’ with a female neighbour. István also visits the Dávid family across the ‘gang’. They have a loom in their flat and use it to make rugs and carpets. He and Lili learn to operate it. What Lili produces, she sells. It’s the only income there is.
Around this time, on one gloomy Sunday or other, Rebus commits suicide. Gloomy Sundays are all the rage, inspired by the haunting 1933 Hungarian song of that name, ‘Szomoru vasárnap’, that already has a reputation as the suicide anthem. Rebus, like many country girls, had come to Budapest to look for work and to escape poverty. Like many, she’d found a place with a Jewish family who had no money to pay wages but offered food and a bed in exchange for domestic help. There are no pictures of Rebus, no sense of what she was like, except that she was like other country girls, stick-thin, hard-knuckled and hard-working. There is one other fact. When she died, she smelled of gas, the oven gas that killed her, slowly, eventually, in the draughty kitchen of 59, Népszínház Street. The cause of her gloom was most likely her accidental pregnancy, with the most likely father being a policeman. Maybe on Rebus’s afternoon off they went to the ‘Eldorado’ cinema on Népszínház Street, where a box with its own door was the cheapest way for amorous couples to get intimate and a bell would warn them that the lights were about to come on. Then they had a ‘szilva pálinka’, a plum brandy. Or two. And then it was too late. She feared the unavoidable gossip. One perceived shame compounds another. A difficult birth. A difficult death. Everyday questions.
István still goes to school. His name leads the alphabet, and his academic results aren’t far behind. By now, he has grown out of deadly blowpipes and punching holes in pictures. Instead, on Fridays, he passes by the synagogue in Nagyfuvaros Street with its concealed entrance, not out of religious fervour but to spy on the girls. He also develops a keen interest in football, playing for a youth team but mostly in the street.
Then, one other Sunday, some of the boys are at the big game between ‘Elektromos’ and ‘Vasas’, Electrical and Iron workers. The former is a team of fascist character whose opponents are often helpfully depleted by arrests; the latter has its roots in the left-wing Union of Ironworkers, headquartered near Népszínház Street, where István’s father regularly attended meetings. The Sunday is March 19 1944. As the game progresses, with the boys cheering the red and blue players of Vasas, word goes around the crowd that something major has happened in the world outside the stadium: the Germans have invaded.
The 14-year-olds know little of the Hungarian leader, Horthy, except perhaps from the picture postcards sent by their fathers on forced labour. Horthy isn’t even in Hungary. He’s in Schloss Klessheim near Salzburg in Austria, having been ‘invited’ by Hitler because of his overtures to the Allies about getting Hungary out of the war. The springtime invasion, with its springtime name, Operation Margarete, takes places in his absence. There’s no mistaking the storm cloud.
In its wake comes SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann, who installs himself close to the clouds up at the top of a winding, pitted road called Sváb Hill. One of the hills of Buda, Sváb Hill is home to a discreet group of tree-shrouded pensions, its cool air making it an attractive summer retreat from the heat of Pest across the river. The Majestic and Little Majestic become Eichmann’s headquarters but he also takes over other pensions, including the Mirabelle on Karthauzi Street, one of a pair of hotels that once belonged to a woman called Ibolya. Ibolya was a cousin of my maternal grandmother. From leafy Sváb Hill, from a place where my mother went to play ping pong a couple of years before, Eichmann’s 200-strong ‘Sonderkommando’ can direct a nation of Hungarian officials, police, gendarmes and clerks below.
From early April, these officials begin to record Jews, a precursor to the so-called ‘öszeköltöztetés’, the ‘moving together’ of people behind designated front doors. Yellow star houses, 2600 of them, become homes for 170,000 yellow star people, each house marked with a canary yellow star of precise dimensions, 30cm on a black background of 51cm x 36cm, to be kept in a clean condition. From early April, each Jew is similarly identified with a personal star of 10cm x 10cm to be sewn on the left breast of all outer garments. The skills of a few generations of tailors and ladies outfitters are put to new use.
Three weeks after the invasion, school is over. As the members of the blowpipe gang go home, their enemies are materialising everywhere. On Népszínház Street there are several designated yellow star houses. One of them is No. 59. The familiarity of the street is erased, its people divided unevenly. Lili struggles with the unfamiliar. She finds it difficult to get used to things generally. She doesn’t imagine things. She fears what she sees beyond the window. Now, like everyone, she fears stepping outside. The shops she knows proclaim that ‘Jews are not served here’. Some display the ‘turul’, the mythological bird that guided ancient tribes to the land of Hungary. The entrances to certain flats state that ‘no Jews live here’. When she’s not looking out of the third floor window into the sky above Teleki Square and imagining the worst about her husband, Lili fears for her son. She hears stories from the streets more frightening than clouds.
From one day to the next in June, the population of No. 59 triples, quadruples. Where there lived around seventy or eighty, there are now two to three hundred. There is a constant scuffing and shuffling and grating and scraping up the dirty steps, the sound echoing around the ‘gang’ on each floor. People bringing their belongings. People with their ‘batyu’, their bundles. People with their salvaged wealth, a ring concealed in a mouth, a bracelet in an undergarment, heirlooms travelling through time.
One room is allowed per family. Flat 4 now has 11 people, including Lili’s parents, Móric with his walking stick to chase cats, and Katalin who, with her diabetes and swollen legs, has to be carried up to the top floor by Móric and his grandson on a specially adapted wooden chair. It also includes the Pogány family, friends of Lili’s, and one or two ghosts from the neighbourhood. These have all been moved out of their homes by Hungarian officials to make way for non-Jewish families whose own homes have been bomb-damaged.
Since early April the bombs have been falling. The first bombs are American, dropped in daylight. Then come British bombs, dropped at night. The bombing has an effect on policy, on whether Jews should be ghettoised or not and whether this might adversely influence Allied bombing patterns. In June, the decision is taken to leave the yellow star houses spread across town to avoid giving the bombers easier non-Jewish targets.
Later that month, on the 24th, Panci and her son, Tomi, move in. Panci’s sister and her children, who lived in Novi Sad, were deported as early as 1942. The verb Panci uses, and records in her flaking prayer book, is one rarely heard or written: ‘vagonírozták, ‘they were wagonised’. She tells Lili but neither has any idea where the wagons were going, just as they have no idea of their husbands’ fates. They cannot look behind them in case they see all that they have left behind.
The scores of newcomers are allowed to bring what they can carry, their personal baggage and personal faces and whatever furniture would fit. Farkas, the concierge and officially authorised electrician at the hub of life in the block, is suddenly out of his depth on the ground floor. He’s overshadowed by someone else, higher up.
One of the few other non-Jews left in the block is a tall and gaunt man named Molnár. He lives on the third floor, two doors away from Lili’s flat. Until now, he has barely been noticeable except for the death of his son a couple of years before. It sticks in István’s mind because the cause of death is difficult to forget: a twisted bowel. It makes an impression on everyone. But neither the tragedy of his son’s death, nor his height, nor his gaunt demeanour, is Molnár’s defining characteristic.
In this new atmosphere, with Jews having to live in yellow star houses, Molnár volunteers, and is appointed, as the officially authorised ‘ház parancsnok’, ‘house commander’. Every such house has one. Number 59’s is a keen if opportunistic sympathiser of the Hungarian fascist Arrow Cross, ‘Nyilas’, party. Formed in 1939 from a range of ultra-right ‘Hungarist’ groups, the party is on the up, and so is Molnár. He doesn’t wear the green party uniform or barbed cross armband but he dresses for the part, donning his old Hungarian army uniform, complete with holster and service pistol. An opportunity presents itself, an opportunity to exert power over the ‘B’ class, and Molnár transforms into or emerges as or simply becomes something other than he was. Whatever the verb, his new position defines his actions.
As ‘house commander’, his main duty is to ‘supervise’ the resident Jews and to inform them of new regulations. Given that the young men are mostly gone, taken on forced labour, the remaining residents are old men and mothers and children, whose names are listed on the locked gate, whose movements are controlled by specified hours.
One of Molnár’s other duties, which he carries out with religious zeal, is to bang the length of iron rail that now hangs in the courtyard to warn of the bombing raids. The sound echoes around the stone walls before funnelling up towards the sky. In the blackout, everyone grabs their panicky little bags or prepared parcels and descends to the cellar, its steps cut into one corner of the courtyard, Katalin carried down on her chair, Móric with his stick, packed in among the coal sacks and wood piles and crates.
The bombs might be aimed at Nazis and fascists, at the weapons plant in Csepel or the main Keleti railway station but they fall blindly, and especially heavily, on the 8th ‘kerület’, the explosions too frequent to remember. Some say that the bombing is a warning to the Germans about making the Jews wear yellow stars. Others read the leaflets distributed on the streets which warn that every dead Christian will be avenged by the killing of a hundred Jews.
The banging of the iron rail might as well be a general warning. István can’t go out on his own. Lili has to venture out for food despite the many dangers. There are stories of Jews being thrown off moving trams or being arrested or simply disappearing from the street. The help of a non-Jew is essential. But such people are rare. The non-Jewish concierge and his wife find ways of passing on potatoes or peas or cabbage or bread or flour or butter. The cucumbers fermenting on the ‘gang’ diminish to rations, to single bites at a time.
Around the armed and uniformed Molnár, people tread carefully. He tells them to watch their step. Lili and István see more of him than most as he stands on the ‘gang’ outside his door looking down at the rows of windows to the courtyard, to Farkas’s flat. If Farkas has power over light and dark, Molnár has power over him. If anyone sees what’s coming, Molnár does. But nobody at No. 59 has any real idea about what’s going on in the countryside, from the middle of May and into June, in places like Székesfehérvár, to people like István’s grandmother Mária.
In early July, someone arrives in the capital who knows more about what is facing Budapest’s Jews than they know themselves. Raoul Wallenberg, the Swedish diplomat who would disappear into Russian hands after the war and whose whereabouts and likely death would inspire endless speculation, comes to Budapest with only one purpose: to save as many Jews as possible by placing them under the protection of the Swedish state. There are others, too, working through the Vatican or the Red Cross. Everyone soon knows what is happening, that new documents, the right documents, could ensure survival. One of Nándor’s four brothers, László, queues for hours outside 29, Vadász Street, known as the ‘glasshouse’ because of its façade and former purpose, where the Swiss legation is doing similar work to Wallenberg.
That name, Wallenberg, I first heard as a child. It was only half heard, muttered by my grandmother but I liked the sound of the syllables, and the way she pronounced it with a ‘V’, Vallenberg, and the way she rolled the ‘r’. It was like a codeword, a shibboleth, as if she was momentarily closer to an otherwise distant faith.
On Tuesday, October 10, Panci shows Lili a type of passport, a hard-backed booklet, black, with a gold-encircled red cross, bearing three words in three languages, Swedish, Hungarian and German:
‘SKYDDSBREV’; ‘OLTALOMLEVÉL’; ‘SCHUTZBRIEF’.
It’s one of the documents given out by the Swedish Red Cross to as many Jews as possible, providing the protection of the Swedish state. Among Hungarian Jews, Yiddish speakers, it is referred to by its German name. Panci’s ‘Schutzbrief’ is valid from October 10 1944 to January 10 1945, made out to her mother, Berta, also living at Number 59, with Panci and her father, Aladár, named on it. The feel of this document in Lili’s hands, its impressive gold and red and black, makes her all the more anxious. To be without one. To lack one. To fail to save yourself. To fail to save your son. A document that saves also divides.
Lili stands by the window, as she stood so often later in life, looking out at the things she does not know and cannot imagine, at the politics she does not understand. Her home is a prison. She fears simply what she sees. And what she hears, too, such as a catchy Arrow Cross ditty that her son will remember all his life, all the way to a spring afternoon in North London:
Megdöglött a fő rabbi!
Éljen a Szálasi!
Meg a Hitler!
Innen a zsidóknak
Dropped dead, he did, the chief rabbi!
Long live Szálasi!
Long live Szálasi! (the Arrow Cross leader)
From here the Jews
Must be eradicated!’
The following Sunday, the 15th, is more than gloomy. It’s when everyone’s worst fear is realised. At noon, the Hungarian head of state Horthy announces that he has requested a ceasefire from the Soviet army but his attempt fails. Around 9.30pm that evening, a proclamation of the Arrow Cross party is broadcast. Ferenc Szálasi, the party leader, is now effectively ‘nemzetvezető’, leader of the nation, Hungary’s own ‘Führer’.
The name of the Arrow Cross newspaper is ‘Harc’, combat, and the party’s enemies in this combat aren’t difficult to find in their starred clothes and starred houses. Already that evening there are incidents, shooting, Arrow Cross gangs on the prowl, suicides. Months before, there had been older Jews who had committed suicide rather than leaving their home. Now a new spate of suicides begins, self-poisonings, hangings and the desperate attempts of those who jump from first-floor balconies.
Molnár only needs to look out of his window to see his enemies, not the street window because Jews are few and far between on the street but around the ‘gang’, down the stairs, to the home that is their overcrowded prison. He had an opportunity to do something about his cohabitants once already. Shortly after the German invasion, there were rewards offered for denouncing Jews. The national response had been tens of thousands of denunciations. But there is nothing to suggest that Molnár took advantage of this. He waited. He has waited.
On the 15th, like the rest of Hungary, he hears the broadcasts. The deportation of Budapest Jews had been stopped at the end of June; the condition of Jews had improved in the summer; in September the curfew had been lifted. In mid-October, deportation is in the cold air again. It’s in the clouds. But for Molnár, Sunday evening is not so gloomy. His uniform is off. His feet are up. His service pistol is around, in a drawer or hanging in its holster or on the table in front of him. It’s most likely a Frommer Stop, a remnant of a previous era but still in use by army and police to the end of the war. A gun takes a certain maintenance. A certain amount of time must be spent on it to keep it in working order. When was the last time he oiled it? When was the last time he used it? He has waited years to put on his army uniform again, and he’s been waiting years to use his gun.
On the afternoon of the 16th, the doors of all yellow star houses are closed by police order. Nobody is allowed to enter or to leave, not even doctors. The Arrow Cross have plans for the 8th ‘kerület’. A trial deportation – or a prelude to them – is scheduled for Tuesday 17th. At some time, late at night on the 16th or in the early hours of the 17th, under cover of dark and the general blackout, Molnár loads his pistol, opens the window, not the internal window looking onto the ‘gang’ but the street window, and he fires a shot.
Where the bullet goes nobody knows for sure. According to one resident, the shot kills someone. Péter Kutas had just turned seven on October 15th. His family had moved in two months earlier and were living in an aunt’s flat. Molnár, according to him, shoots and kills an Arrow Cross man deliberately. But it’s more likely that Molnár fires into the sky or over the rooftops or towards the street. That’s what István is later told. Either way, Molnár’s objective is the same: to attract the Arrow Cross to the building by reporting that a Jew was responsible for firing. Killing an Arrow Cross man is much the riskier option, and Molnár does not need to go that far. He simply needs a gunshot, the sound of a gunshot from a certain quarter on a night when the whole city is simmering and there are shots from other quarters. Even a general denunciation or a hint about an armed Jew or a suggestion that a Jew had fired would easily have been enough.
Late on the 16th or in the early hours of the 17th, Panci and Lili take their sons down. In the October darkness they descend three floors, turn right out of the patterned tile stairwell, cross the puddled courtyard and, with the concierge’s help, sneak the two boys down the low steps in the corner of the courtyard. The cellar extends beneath the flats opposite Farkas’s flat. It is divided into padlocked sections with planks of wood, each section belonging to a flat and accessible along a narrow corridor. According to Panci’s note in her prayer book, the two boys are hidden in the cellar, in one of its sections, from the 16th. According to Lili, Farkas helps to hide them there. Also according to her, Molnár knows of this. In fact, he allows it. He allows it because, in Lili’s words, ‘we were his acceptable and chosen Jews’. ‘Mi voltunk a kiválasztott és megkülönbőztetett zsidai.’
Of course, she writes these words afterwards, later, beyond the event, once it’s all over. But it means that late on the 16th or early on the 17th, Molnár makes it known to some people, his certain Jews, his chosen Jews who live on the same floor, with whom he must have exchanged a thousand greetings and benign pleasantries before the day he donned his uniform, that something is about to happen. He must also have told Farkas. In other words, on this October night, the concierge and his wife and the two mothers are forced to make a decision. They can hide certain people but not others, and the two mothers must hide their children without hiding themselves, accepting the possibility that they will not see each other again.
With so many living in the building, it’s difficult for a few chosen residents to hide or to be hidden without being noticed by others. So, on the night of the 16th or in the early hours of the 17th, Lili and Panci sneak their sons to the cellar. The boys are told to get into a large crate. Final words, a word about food, a word more about noise and silence and staying put, another final word, a hug, a hand, a pointless slicking of István’s hair. They are then covered with sacks and pieces of wood. Is Molnár looking down from the third floor? Do they - the mothers, the concierge and his wife, the two boys - look back up at him? The boys have already said goodbye to their fathers. Now they say goodbye to their mothers. Then the cellar door is closed.
The two mothers return upstairs. What can they say? What can they do? They know something is about to happen. How much did Molnár tell them? Lili has a word for him, a very specific word, but that comes later, much later. The two mothers return upstairs with the burden of what they know. The rest of the night is sleepless.
Just before dawn on the 17th, the Arrow Cross arrive in force in the 8th ‘kerület’. They seal the neighbourhood, and squads begin to enter the yellow star houses, some in uniform, others in civilian clothes with Arrow Cross armbands. All along the mile and a half of Népszínház Street, from the tram terminus to Teleki Square, there is huge commotion as Jews are roused.
Number 19 is a house designed by the Jewish architect Béla Lajta before World War One, its intricate doorway with floral reliefs pointing to a previous era of Jewish life. From here, the residents are ordered out and told to line up on the opposite side of the street. Anni Frankl, eight years old in 1944, a family friend in 2008, remembers that back in the summer a strange thing happened at Number 19: a Catholic priest turned up offering to convert the resident Jews as a way of helping to save them. But this makes no difference as everyone is ordered out to the street where they will stand until, as Anni Frankl remembers, she loses track of time.
Further down, at Number 29, a 65-year-old man hangs himself. At Number 32, from where residents are also forced into the street, Gyuri Badacsonyi, a friend of Anni Frankl and ten at the time, remembers Arrow Cross ‘thugs’ shooting into the roof of a building for several minutes. The justification is that someone is shooting at them but Gyuri doesn’t recall seeing any return fire. At Number 42, someone wounded by gunfire, most likely Arrow Cross gunfire, is taken to hospital in South Pest by ambulance. In neighbouring sidestreets, such as Bérkocsis Street, other shootings occur.
At Number 59, most residents are unaware of Molnár’s actions the previous night. Ibi Temes, another friend of a family friend, was 11 years old at the time. She lived with her mother on the same floor as István, and remembers a single bullet coming through the window of the flat. It passed over her head before ending up in the ceiling. Who fired this is unclear but she remembers Molnár with a single word: ‘dög’. It means, literally, ‘corpse’ and is usually preceded by the adjective ‘rotten’, the rotten corpse.
When the Arrow Cross enter the building, yelling, with Molnár banging the rail in support, residents immediately assume they are to be taken somewhere. They’re being ordered out, all of them from every overcrowded flat. They dress in a hurry, never forgetting their starred outer garment. Reflexively, they grab their air-raid bundles, and emerge onto the ‘gang’. All the front doors are open or opening, people more or less queuing to get to the stairs to go down, the Sperber brothers, the Dávid family, Lili’s parents, Móric with his stick, Katalin on her chair.
From the cellar the boys can hear footfall on the stairs and on the courtyard stone. They can hear shouts and the echoes of shouts. ‘Gyerünk!’ Come on! ‘Büdös zsidó!’ Stinking Jew. Or ‘rohadt’, rotten. Then the boys hear the cellar door opening, Arrow Cross men shouting, then moving down the narrow corridor. They hold their breaths under the coal sacks. The Arrow Cross order anyone hiding to come out. Give yourselves up and we won’t shoot you, they say. If you don’t, and we catch you, you’re dead. But the boys are well hidden, good at keeping quiet. The Arrow Cross leave. The cellar is deserted once more, pitch black once more.
Marshalling so many people takes several minutes, a procession of the elderly, children and their mothers. At the bottom of the stairs, the Arrow Cross are waiting with their weapons, a machine gun, a pistol or a rifle. One of them, according to Lili, is a postman wearing his postman’s uniform. They order everyone to throw their bundles into the yard. At the same time, men are being separated from women and children. The latter are led outside and lined up along the next door building. People in non-Jewish houses, woken like everyone else by the noise, look out of their windows. Inside, from the group of males, some are picked out. A selection is made.
According to Jutka Goodman, born at 19, Népszínház Street but whose grandfather lived at Number 59, the selection takes place on the basis of the ‘minyan’. The noun is collective. It represents a group of ten men, ‘sons of the commandment’ over the age of 13, necessary for a religious service. If this is the basis of the selection, it’s the Arrow Cross’s sense of humour shining through. However the selection is made, it comprises 22 men. According to what Jutka learns as a child from her mother, Frici, who was a friend of Lili, her grandfather, the 68-year-old Artur Frankl, is among the selected men. So, too, is 19-year-old László Ádler, a student of the rabbinical seminary and the oldest cousin of Péter Kutas. The ages are typical: old and young.
From the cellar, Tomi and István hear the shouted commands: ‘Get over there!’ or ‘Stand here!’ or ‘Move!’ Is there a mention of a reason? Is Molnár present? Each of the 22 men is then taken, one at a time, along the tiled hall to the high-arched doorway, the ‘kapualj’. Each is then shot in the head.
From the cellar, Tomi and István hear the shots. The stairwell is an echo chamber. The hall and doorway are drenched in blood. The corpses will shortly disappear. But where? Who takes them? It’s possible one or more residents are shot on the street just outside the door. The bloodstains will remain for some time, the bullet holes for many years.
Everyone has heard the shots, and their echoes. The women and the children, together with most of the men, are not allowed back inside. Instead, they, Lili, her parents, Panci and the rest, are marched half way up the street, hands raised, to the adjoining Tisza Kálmán Square. The square will host historical events in another generation under another name but on October 17 1944 the Arrow Cross have commandeered the square’s main building, the Városi Theatre, and are using it as a centre to register names and documents.
There are some German soldiers present, standing on the steps between the now derelict theatre’s grey columns. A Wehrmacht photographer takes pictures, some of which survive. One shows a crowd of people standing and watching, some laughing. One shows a uniformed Arrow Cross man on the steps, peaked hat pushed back. In another, an SS officer is shouting at a cringing, pale-haired, yellow starred, old man who has his hands raised above his head.
The raising of hands is a gesture I cannot associate with my grandmother. She gripped her bags. She sewed and embroidered. She fried paprika and boiled dumplings. She smoothed her son’s hair, her grandchildren’s hair. If she had to reach for something, there was always someone taller to do it for her. Yet she walked down Népszínház Street with her hands raised above her head, holding nothing, reaching towards nothing. She is walked into the square and up the broad steps like the old man.
A woman walks her dog across the patchy grass in front of the derelict theatre. When I ask her about the building, she points to a nearby wall. The graffiti on it complains that the square is becoming a desert. To me it seems to be full of people, walking, being walked.
Around midday, during the registration process, Lili and Panci are separated. Panci’s ‘Schutzbrief’, not necessarily respected by the Arrow Cross, is the likely reason why this happens. She and others with certain papers or documents are taken to Budapest’s main synagogue in Dohány Street, where thousands are soon concentrated. Lili and her parents, with everyone else, are taken elsewhere.
Opposite the Keleti railway station, on the main Kerepesi Road that comes into Pest from the East, is the Tattersaal horse-racing track, an alternative spelling from Richard Tattersall’s London horse market. The racing is traditionally between single-rider, one-horse, buggies or chariots. All that remains of the Tattersaal is the single-tiered main stand, now a canary yellow curiosity, an obstacle in front of the commemoratively named ‘arena plaza’ shopping centre. On the 17th, through the morning and well into the afternoon, Jews from the 8th ‘kerület’ are brought here.
‘Are brought here’? ‘Are walked to’? ‘Are taken to’? ‘Are marched to’? The language of history books is vague, general, passive. Lili, too, puts it passively. But in her passive words, ‘we are driven like sheep with lots of beatings’.
Herded, driven, pushed, shoved, struck, hit, and on along the Kerepesi Road to the racing enclosure, Móric without his stick, Katalin without her chair. Lili might have been one of Molnár’s chosen Jews on the 16th but on the 17th, on the way to the Tattersaal, there is no such thing. She must suspect by now Molnár’s real intention. He clearly doesn’t expect any of Number 59’s Jews to return.
The courtyard is silent. The two boys hear nothing. Tomi, the more fearful, wants to get out of the crate. István persuades him that they have to stay put. The tension between going and staying, running away or hanging on, will return to their lives a decade later. Some time that afternoon, Mrs Farkas, ‘a small woman with a sweet smile’, manages to bring the boys some soup, which she will bring again several times. She tells them it’s not safe to come out. The boys stay put. They can hear occasional activity outside. Perhaps it’s the sound of corpses being removed.
According to the diaries of the Budapest ambulance service, ambulances are frequently called to the area between the 17th and the 19th. No ambulances are called in direct connection to the killings at Number 59, although there are many individual, numbered, ‘events’ noted in and around the street, and at that address. The Arrow Cross didn’t want to register Jewish deaths for obvious reasons, and also for a less obvious one: the concern that the deaths could elicit the sympathy of non-Jews. The ambulance diaries nevertheless record callouts to Number 59 on the 18th, albeit for ambiguous reasons. The term used is ‘ismeretlen kapcsán’, unknown connection.
Since the Arrow Cross control the street, and generally prevent burial, it’s possible that they arrange for the removal of bodies or that they commandeer ambulances. It’s possible that some bodies are taken to the Jewish ghetto hospital in Wesselényi Street. What happens to most of them is not immediately clear.
The other residents, those taken to or marched to or driven like sheep to or beaten along the Kerepesi Road to the Tattersaal are made to sit on the grass at the centre of the racetrack. There are Arrow Cross guards, some German soldiers, some Hungarian soldiers and some policemen. These groups are sometimes united by anti-semitism, and sometimes the majority of them unite in their contempt for the Arrow Cross.
Gyuri Badacsonyi remembers his mother, and others from 32, Népszínház Street, worrying about deportation because Keleti railway station is close to the Tattersaal, and the branch line train station of Józsefváros is not far. His mother has brought a tin of sardines. ‘We better eat it before they take it,’ she tells him. Another mother also worries. Lili doesn’t know if she has left her son behind forever. There’s no food as their air-raid bags had to be left behind. The longer they’re kept, the worse it looks. The rest of the day, the freezing night, and the next day are spent in the open, Katalin with her diabetes, Móric wondering what he fought for a generation before. There are no horse-drawn chariots to watch, just the sounds of odd shootings and woundings and beatings. Móric is hit on the head with a stick. László Solymár, a schoolfriend of István’s, remembers seeing him days later with a head wound that, he learns, was sustained at the Tattersaal.
After dark on the 18th, the cellar of Number 59 is unlocked. Mrs Farkas has come to let the boys out. Apparently, it’s safe. It’s just that Mrs Farkas doesn’t know what’s happened to their mothers. István and Tomi emerge into the courtyard. The human mess, the smell, the bullet holes are still there. István thinks he sees bodies still lying in the hallway. He asks Mrs Farkas about the shooting. She tells them people have been killed, residents, men, and mentions in particular a young man in a prayer shawl. The one she’s referring to is László Ádler, Péter Kutas’s cousin. The boys are glad to be out of the cellar but of course can’t leave the building. In any case, where would they go? So they return upstairs to the empty flat, hoping their mothers will return, too. All they have that night are memories playing tricks, photographs with holes in them, slivers of light in the dark courtyard.
At the Tattersaal, the situation is described in different ways, according to where people sit, according to the influence of the moon on the racecourse, according to the mood of individual guards. There’s a story of a German officer preventing an execution of Jews, a story of Jews shouting or being made to shout ‘Long live Szálasi!’ on being allowed out of the Tattersaal, and Gyuri Badacsonyi’s story of being allowed to return home in a group of 50-60 bedraggled people, escorted by policemen, only to be fired at by Arrow Cross militiamen around Tisza Kálmán Square. The policemen, according to Gyuri Badacsonyi, return fire ‘to their credit’.
Only on the 19th is Panci able to return to Number 59 from the Dohány Street synagogue. Later that day, the gate of the Tattersaal is opened by Hungarian soldiers. Lili and her parents, the residents of Number 59 and the Jews of the 8th ‘kerület’ generally, are allowed home, home being a blood-soaked courtyard soon filled with the sound of crying women and children. Two mothers at least have their sons back.
But the blood, the smell of blood, the bullet holes, and Molnár: Lili has a word for him that she holds inside her, that only comes out later. The word is ‘gyilkos’, meaning murderous or, if used as a noun, murderer. Lili uses it in a phrase, ‘a gyilkos házparancsnok’, ‘the murderous house commander’.
The murderous house commander isn’t going anywhere. He doesn’t have to leave. For Lili, it’s impossible to stay. On the following day the Tattersaal becomes a deportation hub, a centre for the gathering of forced labourers, for which the events of October 17-19 have been a prelude. Protective passes are no safeguard as the Arrow Cross are known simply to tear up or confiscate them. But one of the other residents of Flat 4, Lili’s friend Babi Pogány, manages to get a Swiss protection letter to a so-called ‘protected house’ near the Danube. After 14 years at 59, Népszínház Street, a decision is made in a moment. The family escapes.
But the war isn’t over. Nor is Number 59. It’s just that there’s a compression of memories, a flash of events that concertina towards the end. Some of my father’s memories between October 1944 and January 1945 are as follows:
- two weeks hiding with false papers, two nights spent with Catholic friends of Lili, followed by a brief spell at the Swiss protected house at 26, Katona József Street, 40 people in a three-room flat;
- an Arrow Cross ‘search for weapons’ during which he hears a ‘suhogás’, a ‘whoosh’, the sound of a woman with a rucksack jumping from the fifth floor, falling, air rushing, no sound of landing;
- being led out with others, including his grandfather, to Szent István park beside the river, slipping on an Arrow Cross armband procured from somewhere, his grandfather telling him he’s mad, then leading people out of the park;
- being marched at gunpoint to the main Budapest ghetto;
- being in one of the crowded ghetto cellars at 4, Wesselényi Street;
- the baker and her husband who smuggled bread to them;
- seeing his mother naked for the first and only time during an Arrow Cross raid when there is a so-called ‘vetkőztetés’, an ‘undressing’;
- being selected by the Arrow Cross as one of three men, him first, and feeling not scared of imminent death but proud of being selected as a man;
- pushing his watch up his arm to hide it, then having to push a cart piled high with all the clothes to an Arrow Cross headquarters on a Budapest ring road, as Russian planes strafed the street and pigeons dropped from window sills.
He also remembers saying to his mother, while in the boarded ghetto where 70,000 mostly women, children and elderly men were concentrated, that ‘we’ll be out of here by my birthday’. The night before his birthday, on the 17th January 1945, Soviet forces liberated the ghetto. Soon after he turned 15, he smoked his first cigarette, not a ‘Levente’, a brand that reminded him of a fascist youth organisation, but a ‘Szimfónia’, a symphony.
Somewhere in these memories, a child became an adult, a boy became a man. And some time after the war, in April 1945, his mother went to the police headquarters to report on the events at Népszínház Street, to tell about Molnár and the ones who did what they did. There were thousands indicted in People’s Courts after the war but I have no idea if these included Molnár. Jenő Levai, in his post-war ‘Black Book on the Martyrdom of Hungarian Jewry’, collected many examples of atrocities but, even now, the events at Népszínház Street are shrouded in mystery.
I manage to find the location of around ten graves directly associated with Number 59 at the Kozma Street Jewish cemetery. Highly unusually, they are connected by the street name. The graves include Artur Frankl, grandfather of Jutka Goodman, and Márton Steinkohl, uncle of Péter Kutas, and some ten others. It’s just that the ‘parcella’, the lot, that the graves are in is overgrown and almost impenetrable. It’s no coincidence that several of the graves are consecutive, and that the burials apparently took place on the same day. It’s just that the date of the burials is registered as 1 October 1944, as if the victims were put into the earth 16 days before they were killed, as if the Arrow Cross had nothing to do with them. There is no way of knowing whether the date of burial is a mistake or a falsification.
The events of October 1944, like general memories, were swept away along with the rubble of the war. But experience is a thing, a noun, that rubs off, that shapes character, that is carried forward, that is transmitted. Tomi once told me, when I was in my teens and he was chief psychiatrist at the central Budapest hospital in the 1970s, that history could easily be falsified, especially our own. Yet traces do survive, and they are transmitted.
In the archive of the Kresz Géza Ambulance Museum, one of the archivists asks if I am related to Stephen Barlay. He asks because he has read documentary books by him. Stephen Barlay, once István Bokor, translated from English to Hungarian, returns in many ways. He returned 30 years after the events in Népszínház Street as Stephen, and his son returned 30 after that, and in the flat once inhabited by the Bokors another family now lives, and in the silence of the inner space of the building present and past are fused into a single tense. On the staircase, the handrails, the ‘gang’, the windows, the stairwell, the cellar, the courtyard and the doorway, traces remain of the unfalsified residents, the concierge, the house commander, the victims.
Number 59 still guards its impenetrable truth. And it still stands on its corner plot overlooking Teleki Square. And the light on Népszínház Street, especially on October dawns, still seems to bend as if around something heavy.