Giorgio and Nicola Pressburger, Homage to the Eighth District: Tales from Budapest

translated by Gerald Moore (Columbia, LA: Readers International, 1990); first published as Storie dell’Ottavo Distretto (Genoa: Casa Editrice Marietti, 1986)

‘Homage to the Eighth District’, p. 3

By the beginning of the twentieth century of the Christian era, the Eighth District of Budapest was already occupied by tens of thousands of Jews and Gypsies, those two rejected minorities of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, whilst Teleky Square, with kiosks and stalls jammed into every inch, had become a by no means insignificant center of business, as well as a crucible of poverty and human suffering – that poverty and suffering which spring up soon enough and of which no one can see the end.

‘The Temple’, pp. 21-25

[T]his mysterious world was to be overturned at a stroke, that day in 1944 when we were obliged for the first time to enter the [Nagy Fuvaros Street] temple without the reassuring presence of our parents. One morning in late autumn my mother dressed me up, entrusted to me and my brothers a paper bag, with a few bits of bread and roast goose inside, and accompanied us as far as the door of the Community Hall. The complex discussions of the grown-ups the preceding evening had been aimed at explaining to us that we would be quite safe there, because the King of Sweden in person had bought the building and bestowed on it a special protection, so that the Germans were forbidden to cross the threshold in any circumstances, and the same applied to the local Nazis and anyone else who wanted to harm us, the children of the Jewish community. What nobody explained to us was that we would be alone, desperately alone, and for a time that no one could estimate. At the door of the hall, Mother let go our hands. A skinny woman with thick glasses took us in charge, and when I turned about Mother had vanished, as if some magical force had made her invisible. “Where did she go?” I asked the community secretary, anxiously. “Don’t worry, just come with me,” she replied. We passed in front of the temple door, but I only had time for a glimpse of the interior; instead of going in, we continued towards the upper floor, where lay the offices of the community.

We were received in a big room whose window shutter was carefully closed. […] The double door stood open and in these two rooms, destined to be our abode for several months, we found most of the children known from the temple or from families befriended during the little parties organized by the mothers in times of peace. We had passed many hours together, but now all of us felt strange towards one another. We scarcely looked in each others’ faces; there we were, thoroughly inhibited, not knowing what to expect.

Days, weeks and cruel months lay head of us. That evening, mattresses were spread on the floor of the two rooms and some horsehair covers thrown over them. We passed the night side by side, silently. In the morning, the community secretary took everything away and from the depths of the corridor appeared the rabbi with his assistant, to give us lessons in Scripture. Nothing of that religious instruction remains in my memory. We were in the hardest captivity that a bunch of children can expect to suffer, deprived of affection, well-being, proper food, and in our souls there was no trace of guilt or any other explanation of the ills we suffered. The menaces and severity of the Good Book seemed to us injustices, tremendous injustices. Our food was distributed at midday in milk bowls: soup made with stock cubes, beans or cabbage, according to the day.

Gradually orders ceased to affect us. We gave up every habit, every rule. We no longer slept on mattresses. Whoever felt tired just threw himself on the ground and fell asleep; whoever was hungry turned to the wall and ground his teeth. We didn’t even respect any longer the regulations about our bodily needs. The latrine, accessible from the second room by a small corridor, never cleaned by anyone, was brimming with excrement. One day, tired of waiting in line, I fouled myself, standing up in my pants. I carried around this load of dung for a whole month, until the Liberation.

Not even the authority of the secretary or the rabbi counted any longer. In February 1945, while the fighting grew fiercer around us, we rebelled. We had been shut up for at least three months in the community’s premises, hungry, filthy, full of fleas. It was a revolting meal which set the fuse. Our cabbage soup was full of worms. With empty stomach and trembling body, I burst out crying. But it was not really crying. From my throat burst bellows of protest like the roars of a bull, violent enough to shake the door and the shuttered windows. Soon my voice was joined by those of my brothers and all the other children. “I’m hungry!” cried one of them. Many others copied my complaints and began beating their fists on the wooden floor of the rooms. Ludwig Grosz, now a doctor in America, tore the clothes off his back; the bespectacled Maurer pissed on the floor; some children began vomiting gobs of stinking gall. Then, like the exterminating angel, the rabbi appeared in the depths of the corridor. Swinging one arm, he knocked a bunch of children to the floor; eyes flaming and body crouched, he burst among us, ready to knock us down or break us in two. “If he’s so strong, it means he hasn’t been eating worm-infected cabbage, but something better,” I thought. And perhaps I even said it, because a moment later I felt myself swept away as if by a gust of wind, an explosion of energy hit me in the cheek and I fell unconscious to the ground. I spent many days like that, stretched out and void of strength. When I came to myself, I learned of the end of the revolt from the faces of the other children, all pale, disconsolate and deprived of any flicker of vitality. The only concession we won was the abolition of cabbage. As I remember it, from then on we were given nothing but beans.

It was still winter when we finally left our prison and place of refuge. We had endured day after day of a real witches’ Sabbath. The time came when the rooms of the community were lacking even electric light. The hanging lamps which had lit our rooms now dangled useless from the ceiling; just two strips of daylight filtered through the blinds to give us a small field of vision. Even the water was now cut off, and for three days and nights we heard the cannonade drawing ever closer, shaking the walls of our rooms. […] We were taken outside in groups. As for me, I was one of the last. I stopped dead at the door of the temple. It was the first time for ages that I saw the light of day. I lifted my eyes. Two planes were fighting in the grey sky overhead. […] And a moment later an unspeakable thunder shook us and all the buildings around. The bomb had fallen quite nearby. The spectacled Maurer and many more of my companions of those terrible months were carried off by the Angel of Death in that terrible explosion. I still ask myself why.