From Generation to Generation

A Letter

Anna Aczél

I do not really like writing, especially about personal matters, so I was very surprised when I felt a stronger and stronger urge to keep and publicize something of the letter I found by accident. I, of course, discussed it with my sibling: the two of us constitute our family now.

The antecedents:

We were one of the families that did not talk about our Jewish origins, after the war. My grandparents would probably have wanted to talk about this, but they respected our parents’ wish. They trusted and believed that anti-Semitism would disappear if Jewish people were going to be regarded as Hungarians: if we do not stand out. My father, who died in the 1990s, eventually began to see it in a different light. He accepted that his grandchild visited a kibbutz, (a settlement in Israel) and he didn’t live to see that two of his granddaughters live in Israel now, with different identities.

It is characteristic of my mother’s coy, shy life that she didn’t leave anything personal behind: neither letters nor any papers. I don’t know whether it was she herself who destroyed such things, or she asked my father to do that. Because of this, when I looked at the letter I found in my grandparents’ letter bag, I thought it belonged to my grandmother. I know it was not nice of me but, in fact, I did not read it for a long time. 1982, ’84, ’86 – these are the years my grandmother, grandfather and my mother died, one after the other.

Well, once I began to read it, I was shocked when I saw that it was a letter written by my mother. She probably never sent it, and my grandmother kept it. I don’t think that the entire letter would be of interest to others, but parts of it, means a lot to us. Listening to the Esztertáska stories, I thought that it might say something not only to us, but also to those who would like to know what life was like for ordinary people. My mother was 22 then. Her parents let her marry a young man when she was 16, because they thought the war was coming, so at least she should have something good happening in her life. Otherwise, how could the daughter of a well-known lawyer marry a stonemason? Of course, the well-known lawyer had to emigrate for a while in 1919, and everyone knew he was a social democrat; and the 22 years old stonemason was just as well-read as a university student: an open-minded, inquiring young man, who was befriended by poets and artists alike. I think that the plump, spectacled girl was enchanted by this beautiful and smart young man and by the romantic nature of their relationship – and he was enchanted by the knowledge that he might be the safeguard to the daughter of such a family. Who knows that now? During the war, my father was mostly in illegality: he was hiding, or hid others while wearing a Nazi uniform, not speaking languages. He helped to escape whomever he could, the members of his family among them. The letter I found was written after all these events were over, to a sibling of my grandmother who lived in America.

I added a few sentences, marked by italics, to the letter, to help others understand it. Most of the people who are mentioned have died – I carefully left out the names of those who are alive.

Dear Feri and Bella!

You complained about not knowing what happened to the family from the time the Germans came in until now. I am trying here to give you an account.

1. Grandpa’s family. Pali and Géza were taken away for forced labor service (this was in the end October 1944, when all the men were taken away from the Jewish houses in the ghetto). Pali got a good position: he became an enlisting doctor on the draft board in one of the barracks. Gyuri (Aczél) managed to get Swiss Schutzpasses (safe ID cards) for them (Pali, Géza and Márton): that’s how they got into that barrack, and Pali could have discharged all of them. (My grandmother had 9 siblings: Géza, Márton, Pali and Feri, to whom the letter was written, were also her brothers. Pali was a doctor, who didn’t leave the people in the camp even when he had the chance to leave.) Géza was already in a bad state, he could hardly see, but Pali thought it was better for them to stay in a protected company (this means a company of those with Schutzpasses – they thought they would do better), and if the war had ended somewhat sooner, they would have survived. But it lasted too long, and finally they took even the protected units to Germany. It was Klári Bíró’s brother-in-law who met them last in Oranienburg, in December. He says that Géza was in a bad state, he was taken to a hospital. Pali was in excellent condition, and everyone liked him a lot. We haven’t heard anything definite since then. We received vague, bad news about Pali, but we haven’t met anyone who had seen him personally. (The news said that he tried to help someone while marching, and he was shot dead.) Grandpa was in the ghetto, and as soon as the city was liberated, he appeared at Lia’s. From there he went to Lili, and from her to Mom, and finally he moved home. His loving daughters agreed with Margit T. that she would move in to keep house for him but Grandpa did not like the idea at all. He found a much prettier and younger woman, and sacked Margit. He still spends his days in cafés, and to make his life more interesting, he keeps arguing with either Uncle Poldi or Uncle Jenő and doing some shady businesses with infamous lawyers in Budapest.

2. Márton and family: (Márton was also a brother, whose wife Lia was Christian, and who made sacrifices to help then and later, too. Their son went to Israel, and became a hero there, although he had some problems related to defining whether he was Jewish or not). Márton also walked in on the same day, when the men were taken away, but Lia got him out, partly with a Schutzpass, and partly as a spouse of an Aryan person, and she hid him at home. No one knows what Marton does exactly: it is just as it had been before, although it is even more curious, but it seems he does it well, as Lia does not even have to work any more. (This lasted for minutes only, as by the time I got to know Lia, she worked behind her strength: she sew for the whole family, put her daughter through medical university, and she was always very nice.)

3. The Rózsas: Ernő managed to survive it somehow, but he was interned right at the start of the new world, I think it was after the liberation, and we haven’t heard about him recently. Pali was deported from Újpest (this is another Pali, not the doctor mentioned above), but he was taken to Sárvár only: he kept saying that he was the spouse of an Aryan person, and he was allowed to go home. (The letter gets unclear at this point: the pencil-written lines have been written over by someone, so it is not possible to follow through.) The Rózsas pulled through in a Swedish protected house, and they are doing very well now.

4. The K.-s: Klari was in a convent for women, and Gyuri in a convent for men, and they felt so good that they still live there, even after the liberation – not separately, of course: Gyuri moved in with Klári, they are living together. Their old apartment was bombed, and their new place is just being finished. They didn’t like the old one, anyway, and according to the experts their new apartment will be wonderful, combining all the achievements of modern interior furnishing. Needless to say: Gyuri is doing better than ever.

5. The Kepes family: when they assigned houses for the Jews, neither ours, nor Mom’s house was marked Jewish (Mom’s house was taken over and used by the Luftwaffe, so they had moved in with us by that time), and we went to live with the Kepes family. As the summer went on, things got easier, we didn’t wear the star, neither did Ági and Pali Kepes, we got our apartment back, and we left them. Pali K. had a heart attack because of the constant agitation. He was ill for a long time, and he became completely deaf. Ági’s husband was taken away for forced labor service. Jancsi worked at the Portuguese embassy, and when they had to leave the house, he took Ági to the Ritz, where the officers of the embassy lived. Uncle Pali moved into a Portuguese protected house. Ági gave birth to a child right in the beginning of the fight for Budapest, during Christmas, but the hospital was hit by a bomb on the third day, and they sent Ági and the child away. She went to Lia, but the child died there; it died of hunger. But at least her husband was among the first to arrive in the spring (three weeks later). They are well, although Uncle Pali is not as successful as he used to be, as people are stupid, and they don’t want to go to a deaf ear specialist; but Ági’s husband makes a good living. To show how time passes I tell you that Jancsi K. is finishing high school this year: he is very clever and talented, he will presumably become a doctor. (He did become a doctor, he is a recognized oncologist in America. We met him in 1986, right before our mother died: he was a lecturer at a conference for oncologists. Mother was very ill at that time, so I don’t remember our meeting too well.)

6. Lili and the others: I am not writing about them, as Lili has related everything in the letter she sent with Bandi, Dezső H.’s son. Mari is also finishing high school, she is very nice and pretty. She would like to become a hotel manager, and we would support her, but this profession has no future here at the moment. I am afraid that her talent will be lost.

7. Mom and us: The German occupation was like a bolt from the not so blue sky. We knew that this would happen by all probability before the end of the war, but we hoped it would not be so early. We suspected that they would have enough time to finish their job here before the Russians finish them off. At first I felt incredibly angry at the thought that I would not live till the end of it. By that time we knew exactly what had happened to the Yugoslavian, Slovakian and Polish Jews, and we had no reason to believe that we’d survive. Then they began to intern the Jewish lawyers, according to lists put together by Nazi lawyers. I think they got to the letter D, and then halted it. Father was probably saved by his eminently Christian-sounding name. But anyway, for a long time we kept his luggage packed out in the hall, so that he would not have to hurry if he had to go. He got fifty phone calls each evening: people asked how he was. Then they switched off the telephones of the Jewish people, except for the doctors, so this form of amusement ended, too. Everybody was paralized in the head at that time. Nobody thought of ways to escape illegally, they just went to the slaughterhouse obediently. Then we had to begin to wear the yellow star. I cannot depict what it was like, what we felt when we had to walk down the street wearing a star: it meant that anyone could spit on us, or kick us as they liked. However, generally, they did not do that. What they did was worse than that: they showed a mixture of disgust and indifference as they bore our presence, hoping that we would be taken away soon. The young men were called up, Gyuri had to go, too. We said goodbye to each other, as if we were going to our separate deaths. I tried to convince him to commit suicide together, but luckily he was an optimist. He came back on the third day: he was sent to a hospital. However, he got bad papers: they said he was healthy. We said goodbye again, but on the third day he came back again: he got two weeks off before he was examined again. Two weeks later, we forged the date of his leave, which meant he could stay two more weeks. After that, I did not let him go back any more. We moved to the Kepes family in the meantime. It was Mom’s and Dad’s second move, so they hardly had anything left. (One left behind more and more of the things we had thought indispensable before, so in the end we had one bag altogether.) On that day, Pest looked like a huge garbage heap. Half of the city’s inhabitants had to move, and the other half watched this gloating over the sight. In many Jewish houses, people just lived: putting money away had no sense, they did not buy anything for the long run, only food. People ate and drank like crazy: many had earned a lot of money during the previous years, and they thought they would feed themselves well before being deported.

The tension eased a bit by the end of the summer: some people stopped wearing their stars. Gyuri changed his status of a simple deserter to the more secure position of a Paraguay citizen, which was then extended to Mom and Dad and Ági Kepes as well. Gyuri could move freely now, so he joined the resistance, and worked for the International Red Cross, too. He managed to get many people out from different internment camps, and we got our apartment back, although we could not enjoy it for a very long time. On October 15, 1945, Ferenc Szálasi (Hungarian Fascist leader) came into power. My life was a nightmare from then on until the liberation. The Hungarian Nazi air raid officer told us immediately that we had to leave the apartment within the next 24 hours. Besides us (Mom, Dad and me) a number of army and forced labor service deserters lived there – Gyuri K. was also among the latter. So they also became homeless now. Gyuri went out to the convent to Klári. We went out to find a place that evening, and settled that Gyuri would come back the next morning for Mom and Dad. Unfortunately, the Nazi officer threw them out before Gyuri arrived, and he also forced them to sew up their stars. They were herded into an unknown Jewish house, from which Dad was taken away later, when they collected all the men. Gyuri managed to bring him back only two weeks later: just in time, as the unit was starting out to Western Hungary right then, that night. Only two people returned from that unit. Mom and János (my mother’s brother, an adolescent at that time) went to a camp protected by the International Red Cross, and Dad joined them there. Later Lili, Marika and Imre H. got in there, too. Gyuri and I lived at random places. Practically, each day we slept somewhere else. By that time I was working for the Red Cross, too, without papers, trusting that a miracle would happen. I was lucky. Once I arrived right after a roundup, and the next time I left two minutes before one. Gyuri organized a few Hungarian gendarmes into the resistance movement, and they provided him with a gendarmerie detective ID, so he could go anywhere happily. He went out to the brick factory every day (that’s where the Jews were deported from), and brought people, especially children back. There were small children every day, dozens of them, we didn’t even know their names: their parents or acquaintances left them there in the tenement hall. In December the Hungarian Nazis (Nyilasok) suddenly invaded the camp in which Mom and the others lived: they killed the leaders, and herded the others into railway cars. Gyuri managed to arrange in the end that those who had not been taken away yet were brought back to the ghetto. Mom and the others got there, and then we brought them out into a Red Cross hospital, which was protected by the Nazis in that district: they wanted to get good points, saying that “one can never know how it all ends”. They stayed there till the end. The hospital was hit several times, but they were not hurt at all, thanks G-d. By Christmas, it was completely crazy. The Nazis killed everyone they found. People in the resistance also managed to kill a few Nazis, but that was only a drop in the bucket. The Russian assault is among my worst memories. I hadn’t been so much afraid of the Nazis – but now I was convinced that I would not survive the assault. I was almost right. A bomb hit the cellar of that house, and everyone died who was in there: we were lucky, as we didn’t manage to get in, it was too full, so we stayed in a basement room. We couldn’t really enjoy the arrival of the Russians either, as the Germans took the place back on that day, and we were only liberated on the next morning. Then everything became wonderful. I still cannot believe that I am alive, and I feel as if this was a gift I have to deserve from now on. I am thankful for the opportunity that I can see this dead, starving, ruined city resuscitate. I feel as if Pest was mine, and I have begun to like it – just as much as I used to hate it before. The first things we could buy after the fights were over calendars and combs - out on the street, of course. Then people began to sell cakes, mostly made of corn flour. Then the whole Nagykörút became full of vendors, it looked just like a huge fair, but it was even more crowded. We met people we knew whenever we went there. In the beginning, we would be very happy. Later, slowly, it downed on us that people were missing. And it’s only now that we feel the pain; now that things are getting back to normal; and it doesn’t take all one’s energy to merely survive.

We became harder, and I have learned that one must actively take part in shaping one’s own future: I will never be so helpless again. I won’t just let myself be put here and there, not knowing what to do, and if (God save us) something similarly terrible happens in my life, well, then it was useful. My daughter, Anna Mária is a ‘grown-up’, five weeks old woman: I hope that by the time she grows up, she would be rolling with laughter when we tell her that once there were air raids, and then everyone rushed down to a cellar when they heard a signal, to sit there for hours, and then rushed back up, just to do the whole thing again 30 minutes later. Gyuri works in the Party, I am going to a university (I am going to be a doctor, as I used to be a scrub nurse), and Anna Mária is growing.

I wish you all the best, too, and I am sending my kisses,


(I don’t know what would have happened if my mother had been told about everything that was to come, if someone had revealed the future to her, drawing the curtain hiding it just for a moment. Many things happened to her, to them. I don’t know how she would have summed it up in the end.)

Anna Aczel lives in Budapest with her family.

She is the Director of girl’s home. She is involved in the rehabilitation of young deviant people.

Budapesten él családjával. Deviáns fiatalok reszocializációjával foglalkozik, egy lány nevelőotthon igazgatója.

© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2007.
All rights reserved.