Zsuzsanna Ozsváth, When the Danube Ran Red (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2010), pp. 95-104.
Reproduced with the kind permission of the publisher.
In memory of Erzsébet Fajó, who saved our lives
Chapter 16: The Children of 10 Abonyi Street
It was about noon on June 20 when the Beers appeared in the doorway of our apartment, with one of them pulling a cart, the rest carrying blankets and pillows in their hands and on their backs. They smiled kindly, but behind that smile their faces looked dark and deeply disturbed. Not ﬁve minutes passed before Mrs. Beer could no longer hide her sadness or her confusion. Her beautifully drawn face clouded with pain, her large dark eyes red, she started to sob as soon as they closed the door of their room behind themselves, and she could not stop for a long time. They seemed to be nice people, and I felt tremendously sorry for their plight.
Mr. Beer stayed with us for a little while, trying to explain that they would do everything to be good members of the household, remain strong, and survive these terrible times. They wanted, he said, to see the end of the war and, therefore, to continue to live their lives as if they had never been uprooted. We were touched by his openness and kindness, being aware of the fact that they now had a larger and heavier load to carry than we did: they had had to move; we had not. I was quite happy they came. I liked Jancsi, and I thought we would have a great time playing games. Also, I was eagerly awaiting the rest of the people moving into the building. I did not yet know what that would entail. Our apartment house had four ﬂoors, three apartments on each.
The next few days brought about changes of a magnitude that we could not even have imagined before. First of all, large numbers of people were moving into our building. Some were children, some adults; some were old, some sick, some invalid. The foyer on each ﬂoor, as well as the entrance halls of the individual apartments, were filled with groups of men, women, children, old people, furniture, packages, and personal belongings. The building looked, as my father said, like a war zone, with large groups of combatants and refugees moving back and forth, both inside and out. It took a few days before the chaos settled. Or did I just get used to it? I am not sure. But my sense of being overwhelmed, overrun, and besieged by large masses of people faded after a while. I also started to get used to the permanent change of our building’s character. Its beauty and quiet elegance were gone; throngs of people ﬁlled the garden, floors, and staircases. The house took on the feel of a huge market. Its tenants changed as well: some of the older couples became more withdrawn and rarely left their apartments. Others were more sociable, while some of the new families turned out to be quite nice and friendly. In addition, a new set of children appeared, both older and younger than Iván and I, and started to play around in the backyard and the corridors.
Despite the Beers and the people living above and below us, I practiced the piano several hours a day. I also listened to the recordings of some of the great artists of the world, learning from them new phrasing, new technique, and new ways of performance. And curiously enough, despite the life-threatening events playing themselves out before our eyes, I went on practicing throughout the spring, summer, and fall of that year, until November, when we had to ﬂee our apartment. The Beers, as well as the people above and under us, were obviously extraordinarily kind and tolerant. They never asked me to reduce my time practicing, let alone playing the piano altogether.
Soon a group of children started to get acquainted and play with one another. Of course, there were children who did not mix too much with others living in our house, but I am speaking now about a group of youngsters between the ages of nine and eighteen, who looked for one another, came together, and played together every day. Iván and I belonged among them. We even played during the night, when we were supposed to sleep, an activity that by now seemed less important to our parents to enforce as “a period of rest” than it had been before. In fact, for the moment, all rules and regulations had lost their meaning and urgency to most parents of the ghetto house. We did not have to sit down for our meals each time we ate; and nobody watched whether or not we chewed our food as we should. Neither did we have to do homework every day, nor learn French, German, or Latin words regularly, as we had had to at ﬁrst when we stopped going to school in March. Now the adults were involved in things other than our training. They talked mostly to one another, trying to understand the various decrees and ordinances issued by the government; and again and again they attempted to evaluate and interpret the constantly changing stages of the war, inventing and hoping to locate ever new ways of escape. People came in and out of our apartment, held discussions with my father, and listened to the radio Iván put together. Others left the house and went out shopping, obsessed with the task of ﬁnding warm clothing or canned food for times of need, which, everybody seemed to believe, would inevitably arrive.
Never giving up the hope of escape, my father found someone who offered to take us to Romania and from there to a boat, heading toward what was then called Palestine. The person in question offered to do this for a huge amount of money, and my father considered the offer for some time. We had money. But I think he was worried about what would happen if things did not go as planned. Later he made contact with another person who also was willing to help. In fact, this one had a quite manageable plan: we should move into his house, he suggested, in Mátraháza, a resort in Hungary, where, he claimed, we could live for a thousand U.S. dollars or the equivalent thereof, paid out in advance, until the end of the war. In this case, my parents were concerned about leaving the house by car or traveling by train and about living in foreign surroundings.
In the meantime, however, we were bombarded with horror stories Erzsi and others picked up about the reaction of the police and the gendarmerie to Jews caught in hiding. One of these was my father’s friend, the radiologist Mihály Fischmann, who had been in the labor service but whose wife and daughter were in Békéscsaba, trying to evade the ghetto and the ensuing deportation. They had been denounced by their neighbors, however, who had led the gendarmerie to the two women lying low in the attic of a peasant house. They had been beaten and deported just the same.
Pondering both possible escapes for some days, my parents decided against the route from Budapest to Palestine, seeing it as a terrible risk, and found the plan that would place us in a house at Mátraháza, where people would take care of us, better. But there was a problem: they had not known these people before the occupation and therefore felt they could not trust them completely. Also, the price the negotiators wanted in exchange was exorbitant. Reviewing these plans night after night (I never stopped watching the golden stream gleaming on my parents’ threshold), my father decided against both and withdrew his request. At the same time, he was desperate at the thought of staying and waiting for the fulﬁllment of the fate the Germans designed for us. Soon he started to search for new options.
But while our parents were weighed down by the tremendous pressures created by both the daily threat and their own sense of powerlessness, the children of 10 Abonyi Street lived in a world that was different from that of the adults. In fact, amid horriﬁc rumors, we lived in the world of fantasy, threats, fairy-tale, and imagination.
First of all, merely seeing one another meant starting to play a game that included make-believe or drama.
“Good morning, Ophelia,” or “Good morning, Tristan,” or “Good morning, Rigoletto,” one would call out on encountering another. Picking up the game, the person so addressed would answer the call, reacting to the names of Ophelia or Tristan or Rigoletto, and starting or spinning out a scene, which then the two players either completed according to the scripts of these pieces, or invented on the spot, offering new texts and a new space for others to enter. To be able to directly continue the scripts that had been started was regarded as the greatest of all achievements.
Every day, late at night, we were told by the older children which play we would rehearse or which poem we would work on the next day. In this way, we tried to recall and learn during the night or next morning acts out of dramas or poems that were masterpieces of world literature. Or we invented plays in which these characters played leading roles, offering new performances and new experiences to one another. Whichever was the case, those playing along had to pick up and continue the pieces others (or they themselves) had started by acting out the scenes; or, if they had invented the play, they would continue to produce new texts and new sets of actions. If we were not playing, we were memorizing texts in our apartments or the corridors all day.
Another way of responding to one another was to start to draw speciﬁc rules around a highly regulated series of formal questions and answers. We invented new roles and new characters, placing them next to Romeo and Juliet or Lear and Ophelia, echoing these characters’ pain or happiness or counteracting them, using a text that was similar to Shakespeare’s style. Besides Shakespeare, we studied parts of, and participated in, plays of Molière, Racine, Ibsen, and Goethe, and put on performances of pieces by Karinthy, Molnar, Vörösmarty, Schiller, and Hofmannsthal. We recited Rilke’s lyrics and his Tales about God, acted out poems by Ady, Petőﬁ, and Arany, and composed new plays and actions. We pretended to be imaginary characters, performing the dramas we improvised, often together with two or three other players; we recited poems by such authors as Shakespeare, Milton, and Oscar Wilde. We also wrote about and discussed books, politics, ethics, and religion, with a passion that made us inseparable from one another, a passion that forever deﬁned our notions of play and friendship. These games shaped our world and relationships with one another, not only then and there, at that particular moment of our lives, but also for the rest of our days. In fact, later in life, most of us who were there and played with one another have tried to recreate a world of friendships and relationships similar to those we had in the ghetto house. Although the group did not stay together after the war, its magic and power on our intellectual, emotional, and creative development have been active and long-lasting, having an impact on our being and on our ways of thinking for the rest of our lives.
I became friends with Márti Elek, a beautiful twelve-year-old with dark hair, dark eyes, freckles, and funny views about the world. Iván and she fell in love with one another, and the group celebrated them as “the ﬁrst young pair of our children’s society.” Marti had a sister, Zsuzsa, sixteen, whose blue eyes, heart-shaped face, and long, dark-blond hair made a signiﬁcant impact on the boys of the yellow-star house at 10 Abonyi Street, and whose dedication to and appreciation of our games were a link in keeping the group together. And Kitty Burg, a curly-haired nine-year-old, loved my reading of Winnie the Pooh so much that she waited for my appearance in the foyer with this book in hand every day that summer, listening to the stories again and again. Her brother, Robi, a tall, good-looking boy with dark hair and dark eyes, was as old as Iván, and close to him as well. He played, as everybody did, but he was also very proud of his success with girls. Also Denise Vilcsek, an enormously intelligent ﬁfteen-year-old girl, was part of the group. She hoped to become a famous writer one day. She, too, played enthusiastically with all of us, planning and explaining again and again the meaning of her beautiful short stories and poems to the group. She died of polio at the age of seventeen, a couple of years after the war. Ervin László, the twelve-year-old pianist, a wunderkind, another student of Faragó, played with us as well, and so did Felix Mérő, a nineteen-year-old young man who was courting Marti’s sister, Zsuzsa Elek. Nonetheless, he often came just to play with the group. Then there were for a short while the Margittai children: Tomi played mostly with Iván, and Gyuri listened to my piano performances. One day, both boys disappeared with their families from the ghetto house. Gossip had it that they left Budapest on a train with some other Jews who bought their freedom from the Germans with money. After the war, we heard that they had survived, together with some 1,700 Jews who had ridden with them on the Kasztner train. I felt sad after their departure because they ﬁt so well into our circle.
But we stayed together mostly because there was Márta Edinger, or EDMA, as she signed her artwork and cartoons in newspapers and magazines after the war, a brilliant twenty-year-old girl who became the leader of our “children’s society.” Turning into its organizer and the major inventor of the games we played, she also was our storyteller and theater director, in fact the poet, game-leader, jury, and judge of the group. There was no end to the stories she invented or to her reading of tales by Eichendorff, Brentano, and Rilke, in addition to her recitation of poems by Goethe, Mallarmé, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Ady, and Babits. She planned the programs the group performed and arranged the concerts given by Ervin László and me. She even helped us write the concert notes that introduced and explained the pieces we were performing. She gave talks to the children’s group of 10 Abonyi Street on the great painters of the world, old and modern alike, whose works she showed around in the books she found on the bookshelves in our apartments. And she became the director of several plays we learned by heart and performed. We usually held both our rehearsals and performances in the big, comfortable foyer of the second ﬂoor of the building, bringing from the apartments for the performances chairs for the “adults,” as we called our parents a bit contemptuously. The concerts in our apartment were held for a signiﬁcantly smaller group of people, but with the Beers letting us take over their room and use the chairs and other pieces of furniture, we could still accommodate some ﬁfteen to twenty people in our library room. The program notes were designed by EDMA, who made them piece after piece, using a variety of patterns and drawings as well as a number of fabulous caricatures of the people who lived in the “Jewish-House,” or of the characters in the plays or political cartoons, or of all mixed together.
There can be no doubt that the world we created was above the boundaries of the ordinary, apart from the realm of politics, the war, and the future the Germans and their Hungarian partners prepared for the Jews. Ours was the world of fairy tales and games, the land of make-believe, the realm of El Dorado, which was heartbreakingly beautiful: easy to summon and impossible to resist.
In fact, these games determined the path on which the children of our group moved. Of course, our daily schedules differed. I, for example, practiced the piano in the morning, learned roles and poems in the early part of the afternoon, and threw myself into the world of games every single evening, whereas other children started to play as soon as they woke up in the morning. And while we were constantly aware of the danger threatening us, we also felt delighted by the power of these games, by the power of make-believe, by our friendship and art, and by our freedom in the world we created. Throughout the summer, leaving our apartment usually at four in the afternoon, I sat with Kitty in a corner of the stair-case and read Winnie the Pooh to her. An essential part of our session was the last sentence of the book, which she wanted me to reread each day. This made me miraculously sad and happy alike, no matter where we stopped in the story: “But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest, a little boy and his Bear will always be playing.” Kitty Burg seemed to understand, as all of us did that summer, that if we wanted, we could leave this world behind and could act as if we were living in another one that was ruled by games. Kitty loved us to act out some of the book’s scenes, and promised me again and again that she would play for ever, even when she grew up, just as Pooh and Christopher Robin would continue to play. At that time, I was not aware of the reason for our passionate desire for our games; nor, I am sure, did the others know why we did it. But later I recognized that in these games, we found a space that allowed us to leave behind the world of the “the adults” as well as the ghetto house and with it the Germans, our fear of separation, and the threat of death.
After I ﬁnished reading Kitty a new section from Winnie the Pooh, we looked for the rest of the group. We usually found them somewhere in the house, and we started to play immediately.
Somebody always asked, even before we agreed which game we would start out the night with, “Who will ask the questions?”
“I will,” each of us volunteered in turn.
Whoever had that role could decide what kind of a game we would play. If it was not theater, one child would leave, while the rest agreed on a particular task, such as, for example, ﬁguring out the person the group had in mind.
Returning, the child would ask, “What kind of ﬂower would he or she be?”
“A rose!” someone screamed.
“No,” argued another. “A violet.”
“Not me,” said a third person. “I agree with the ﬁrst answer; although I see there lilies as well.”
“OK. What kind of a river? A fast one?”
“A quiet, lovely one?”
“Well, I don’t agree,” someone would say. “I see the person more as a glittery rivulet.”
“And I,” yet another would chime in, “perceive her as a stream at times, running among ﬂowery ﬁelds at others, stretching out as a silvery ribbon.”
“And what kind of a composer would he or she be?...”
“And what color?...”
“And what instrument?...”
And so it went on and on, until an unmistakable proﬁle would emerge of the person around whom the children’s game revolved, and the boy or girl asking the question could name the ﬁgure.
This was my favorite game. Years, even decades later, I still ask myself when thinking of someone, “What kind of plant would this person be?”
“What kind of dish?”
"What kind of painter?”
But other children liked “Bar Kokhba,” a clever, tightly moving question-and-answer game, which required a group selecting a notion, character, or object, and a person ﬁguring out the answer. At other times, he group acted out the ways in which an individual would behave or write or speak, all of which were clues given to the person’s identity, and one had to attempt to ﬁgure out whom the group had in mind. There were endless poems and plays the group acted out at times to people whose task was to name the piece by listening to the texts or the details of a scene. And there were new games, every day.
The summer moved slowly. The war, of course, with our fate tied to it, was at the center of everything we did or thought of. But the children’s group was free of the life-and-death struggle of the grown-ups. We played.