From Generation to Generation

At My Grandmother’s Feet

Klári László


I grew up as a child of the Holocaust.  I was pretty well at home in the camps; wondered in and out. I was familiar with places, names, faces and dishes. No! There were no dishes; instead there were curious sounding stuff, such as dörgemüse.  And hunger!

I knew the Lagerführer, the SS female guards, and the kapos.  I learned strange words like appelplatz, heftling, and blockelteste.  I could see those barracks from inside out. I walked in the forced marches.  I was there at the selections. All those belonging to me were always sent to the right. 

We were fortunate!

A typical scene from my childhood:  My grandmother is telling me stories while I sit at her feet on my small wooden stool.  Her stories began early.  Perhaps I was five years old when my grandma started.

“At night they banged on our windows,” she tells me, and together with her two adult daughters she started to walk toward the “Kossuth Lajos” School. This school was the designated ghetto for the Jews of Esztergom and vicinity.  Reportedly, grandma threw all her gold into the school’s toilet and flushed it down.  Did she sense something? 

A while later, during the early hours of dawn, not to be noticed by anyone, all of them were taken to the railway station, and forced into the cars. “Cattle cars”, said my grandmother and I could actually hear the loud rattle of the cattle cars’ heavy doors closing in on them. I could see the childlike gendarme, who my grandmother asked “My son, why do you do this to us, we are Hungarians too”.

The train first went to Komárom and then for many days, nobody knew to where they were heading?

At this point, my mother would interrupt, if she was within earshot. Indeed, we had no idea where we were going but we were terribly crowded.  I was squeezed into a corner, and my shoulder was damaged and it is still painful.  When my mother left the room, my grandma turned towards me and said. You heard what she said?  She wasn’t even standing there but I do believe that her shoulders still hurt because she was holding up with her shoulders, for hours, your father’s dead mother, your grandmother Fáni Sulc.  But she wasn’t my grandmother; I would insist at this point, she was my father’s mother.  I just can’t call her ‘grandmother’.  “If you don’t want, you don’t have to.  Also, there was in the cattle car your father’s first wife too…” here she stopped.  If, inadvertently, my father would walk in, my grandmother would stop talking immediately and would whisper to my mother “pszt don’t, Zoli is here”.  They wrapped my father into the silence of forgetting.

Finally, we arrived somewhere. The tracks ended.  This was the last stop. A weird place - on one side pyres are burning.  One gate, one ramp. 

This is the point where my mother would interrupt the second time: “I went first,” she used to say, and behind me were Julika and then mother.  When we arrived to the front of the line, a good looking, tall man, dressed in impeccable military uniform, was indicating with his thumb only: to left, to right, to left, to right.”

I was sent to the right and suddenly I froze. I lost track of time, space and place. I just walked on. I am not sure what distance.  It happened in thousands of a second.  Slowly, I turned around and I saw Julika behind me and above her head I saw mother’s head.  I breathed easier. Now nothing grave can happen,” she would say.

I sit on my small stool.  Grandma is unusually quiet.  Suddenly, I am all confused by the right and by the left.  I am left-handed, then what, which way?  And what is on the left side? Who are there and what’s with them? What about the fire?  The noise? The odour? The smoke? – I heard a lot about them.  But I don’t ask.  I had more than enough.

“In the early dawn, we are standing on the appelplatz in the nude, heads shaven.  The sun didn’t rise yet. We are shivering.  No hair, which would warm us.”  I hear my grandma’s voice. I see the appelplatz.  Right, across from me is grandma’s face, because this time I am not sitting on my small stool.  I am in my bed shivering.  I am sick. The sun rose.  It is very warm.  Terribly hot. The sun burns me.  I am feverish.  There are those who couldn’t stand any longer. They collapse. They disappear.  If the counting is accurate we may leave.  Bodies are left on the ground.  I fall asleep.

“Three weeks have passed”.  This is how grandma begins the next phase.

“By then, your Aunt Julika is almost at the end of her sanity. For supper they usually gave us kvargli but after, no water or any kind of liquid.  On all water faucets in the camp there are signs ‘contaminated water, forbidden to drink’.  Your Aunt Julika literally went crazy.  She was screaming: thirst is worse than hunger and was running towards a dirty puddle of water. I caught her and held her tightly.  That calmed her down a bit.  Fortunately, that day we went to the showers.  From the showerheads, alternately, flowed warm and cold water. Julika didn’t care which one, she tossed her head back, opened her mouth and didn’t just drink the flowing water but greedily tried to hoard as much into her mouth as she could.  Her tears of joy flowing, mingling with the water to comfort her tortured insides.”

“A few days later a rash appeared on her body.  Not everywhere. Mainly on the arms and legs.  Her legs looked particularly awful, full of reddish, pustules.  I exchanged my bread ration for paper, and with my saliva-soaked paper I covered the spots” – grandma used tell this with the most vivid descriptions. 

Yesterday, while I visited my son, he cut his hand with an old saw. He looked at me with desperation and asked, “Will this cause me blood poising? I told him to soak a paper napkin with his saliva and cover the wound tightly with it.  On the way home, I reflected how I continued with the story about the sores.  Grandma used to tell this so frequently that it stayed within me in its entirety.  I am imprisoned by its tragic meaning but I am embarrassed when I use it.

“One day some kind of delegation came into the camp” grandma would start or continue, depending if I was already in place at her feet, or just sat down on my little wooden stool for a few minutes.  This was my prerogative. I could flee from her stories forever but I didn’t want to.

“The delegation,” she went on, “consisted of several SS officers, few of them women.  We all had to line up, not as usually, behind each other but beside each other, in one line. This was an ominous sign. This wasn’t a delegation. This wasn’t a zehlappel.  This was Selection!  Shortly, the inevitable truck also appeared.  This vehicle was used to cart away those who were selected out “– used to explain my grandma. 

I hated that word ‘selection’ and I feel the same way even today.  Thousands of images, voices, screams and tears are interwoven with it and with its unbearable burden. 

“In the meantime, a tall, skinny, SS woman, her hair tightly pulled into a bun under her cap, standing at a distance from us, started to stroll slowly in front of our line, looking mainly at our legs”, flowed my grandma’s story.  At this point in the story, she usually lowered her voice and started to tremble.

This didn’t last long.  She usually repeated it by shouting “she looked at the legs!”  When she stopped at Julika, with her chin, indicated toward the truck. It was a hardly perceptible signal considering that it could mean a death sentence. My grandmother, (here I used to feel embarrassed), ran out of the line, dropped to her knees in front of the woman and pleaded;  “Meine tochter!” My daughter! The SS woman hinted ever so slightly and Julika stayed in the line.

“We have been marching for days towards East.”  This is the part of her story during which I just stared at her being incapable of believing that the person she was talking about is actually she, herself. It had to be someone else.  “We were marching, five abreast”- “The three of us at one end, because your mother would walk only at the outer edge, due to her claustrophobia.”

“Well, not only for that reason”, my mother would interrupt, “rather, mainly because a few kilometers earlier, a girl in our line, asked me to change places with her.  She said she was afraid to be lying at the very edge, she felt safer in an inside spot - at this point we were all laying flat on the ground because of an air raid.  The planes were flying so low that I can see, even now, the pilots’ faces and they shot the girl dead on the very spot where I lay just a few minutes earlier, the second space, counting from the edge.  I decided then that I always want to be on the outer edge.  I can’t sit anywhere else in the cinema or theatre than in the number one seat, my mother stated.”

I remembered, that as soon as she would buy her ticket she would say, please, seat number one. Now, I also recall that my own daughter, many, many years later asked me, “Mommy, why do you ask always for the first seat in a row?”  I couldn’t possibly answer her because if I could I would have told her that ‘I could still see the faces of the pilots’, but that wouldn’t have made any sense to her.

“As we were marching,” grandma would continue, “I, in the middle, on one side of me Magda Kövesi and on the other Julika Kövesi. I was wearing a ‘garment’ cut from a sack, a walking stick in my hand and a belt on which hung my dish.  As we were marching, a military jeep passes by. In it sits an SS woman with a gun in her hand. It was her job to shoot all those who were collapsing.  Several shots were heard behind us too, one after another – then silence.  It was too silent.  I look at my left and where Magda Kövesi walked a minute ago, now, nobody. Oh, my God, what will I tell those who’ll ask me at home where did you leave Magda Kövesi, why didn’t you take better care of her?  What will I say?”

I felt like a robot. I couldn’t ever understand this sentence of grandma’s until later when I saw in a film the returning, robot-like, walking skeletons with their angular movements and their unimaginable bodies. 

Mrs. Istvan Kövesi went back to the end of the column where she spotted a hovel.  She started to poke with her stick at all the bodies covered with straw until she found her ward, Magda Kövesi and dragged her back to the marchers, to lay down and rest because by then it was nightfall.

“By the morning, all those who remained in the barn were dead” - these were my grandma’s closing words of this episode.

And I, sitting on the small stool, would start to tremble, with no mother and daughter and ‘meine tochter’, with someone beside me and now, she is nowhere, and what will I say if they ask, where did I leave her?

My mother has only one story - a painful, guilt-ridden, masochistic story that happened during the march as they were nearing the city of Pilsen. 

By then, for days, they had hardly anything to eat.  According to my grandmother, my Aunt, Julika ate grass, potato peels picked up on the road and later she was sucking on an empty toothpaste tube.  However, the greater problem was not having any water to drink.  “Suddenly, just as in a fairy tale,” grandma would say, “from somewhere appeared a large horse-drawn wagon.  It was loaded with beer caskets. The drivers, taken aback by the look of these pitiful, unsteady marchers, ever so carefully, started to drop caskets of beers on the ground.  Unfortunately, some of the beer bottles fell out of the caskets and rolled all over the place. The women started to run for them while the guards were beating them wherever they could reach them.”

At this junction my mother would interrupt because from here on it is her story.  “Amidst the ruckus, the noise and the stampede I suddenly notice that one of the soldiers hit your grandmother so hard that the metal dish on her waist was flattened.  At that very moment a bottle rolled to my feet.

It took only an instant in my brain to realize that if I run to my mother I’ll loose the drink.  As I was lifting the bottle in order to hide it in my trousers’ long pocket, I see that others were attending to my unconscious mother….”

Even till this very day…the sentence is not finished and my mother is crying.  And her story is always told in the present tense.

My grandmother never cried. My strength comes from her, but in reality, perhaps my mother’s tears that sustained me.

Klári Laszlo was born in 1947 in Esztergom, Hungary. She considers herself as a “second generation” Holocaust survivor. From her mother’s family, her grandmother, her mother and her Aunt survived.  The fate of her father’s family is wrapped in silence.  Her present work is based on these two inheritances.  She works with groups of survivors and rescuers.


Notes on foreign words: 

Dörgemüse – thick stew-like dish. In Auschwitz it tasted and smelled terrible.

Lagerführer – camp leader

Kapo – a prisoner with authority to assist the Nazi leadership

appelplatz, - large area for roll calls and for selection of prisoners.

heftling, - prisoner

blockelteste – barrack elder/leader

selections – prisoners being lined up for either to be sent to be gassed or to be transferred to another camp.

Ghetto – designated, isolated area for Jews only

Gendarmerie – the dreaded provincial or (state) police

Zehlappel -  prisoners gathered for roll-call

Pilsen – city in Czechoslovakia – home of the famous beer.

This story is published here with the permission of the author and that of Dr. Katalin Pecsi, editor of the Esztertaska Blog, where it appeared in the original Hungarian.  English editing : Judy Weiszenberg Cohen.

© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2007.
All rights reserved.