From Generation to Generation

Romeo 1844

Zsuzsa Gabor

This story starts at the end. Romeo dies at the age of 73, on October 15, 1944 in Budapest, a father of five children and grandfather of many grandchildren, on the day of Horthy’s proclamation. (Miklos Horthy – The Regent of Hungary.)

The day started with unexpected joy! In the morning, hearing Horthy’s proclamation everyone thought the war was over – at least in Hungary. It was even possible that those who managed to survive so far would eventually stay alive! What better news to imagine in a house branded with the Yellow Star of David?

On the ground floor of the big, grey block with circular galleries, someone placed a radio in an open window so that everyone could hear the latest news. An overjoyed Jew went out to the street and told the first Arrow Cross man (Hungarian fascist) he met to run because they were starting to round up the ‘Arrow Crossers’ down the road.

What happened that day in the wider political arena is now in the history books. I only know what happened in our house.

In the evening the news of Szálasi’s (leader of the Hungarian Arrow Cross, Fascist Party) coup drove us to despair. Practically speaking, only women, children and elderly men lived in the house. Those five or six younger men, exempt from forced labour (because of their age, disablement or other illness) were standing around in the yellow-glaze-tiled courtyard in front of the concierge’s flat.

The concierge’s nephew was employed as a civilian by the German occupiers but at the time nobody took any notice of this. Dwellers in the building knew him and his sister since childhood because the father used to have a tailor shop in the house.

The men were chatting in the courtyard and discussing whether or not it would be wise to mount some kind of a guard at the entrance at least with clubs for want of proper arms.

It grew dark. The “guardian angel” of the house, an energetic old man checked if black-out orders were carried out properly, then went down to the air-raid shelter to arrange benches and chairs in case we were to move down there for a longer period.

Our “guardian angel” was a wise, well-informed old man. He’d been to the First World War, been through a lot and retired as a trade unionist printer. He was bald and chubby, with a scarred face and hot temper. His thundering voice filled in the house when someone needed to be taught a “lesson”. He was responsible and firm in his actions, his care and understanding could always be counted on and he loved his meek, soft-voiced, soft eyed old lady dearly.

Two gunshots went off suddenly in the dark. One in the street, one in the courtyard. A few dwellers tried peeping out of the cracks on the Venetian-blinds and saw German soldiers jumping off trucks together with their Arrow-Cross “brothers” who burst into the house and into the flats. They kept kicking the tin letterbox next door furiously, thus letting people know they wanted in.

- Hands up! Everyone down to the doorway! On the double - quick! – They yelled in German. People got so scared they couldn’t even grab their “air-raid packs” ready in the hall with the most necessary belongings.

More gunshots could be heard from other flats and as it turned out later, only the lucky made it to the doorway.

Where the fascists met even with minimal reluctance, they simply shot the people.

Eighteen dead bodies were left in the house.

The others – mothers with toddlers, helpless old people among them – were driven along Aradi street, Teréz boulevard as far as the school building in Nagyatádi-Szabó street (re-named Kertész street) with arms held high. At that time the building had a cellar-door leading to the cellar from the street (walled up since then).

Flanking the staircase, leading to the cellar, German soldiers line up and give each entering person a horrible kick. People are herded into a large, white washed cellar-room and began to be beaten, whacked regardless of age or anything else. With helmets, with truncheons, with pieces of wood they were beaten till blood was shed...

They were looking for arms, or so they say.

They found a piece of biscuit, wrapped in paper, in the pocket of my 18 year-old cousin. They want to cram it into his mouth together with the paper. He resists. They beat him to death in sight of his own mother.

When they’ve let the steam off, they pour bleach on top of the blood on the floor and pick men out of the crowd, cram them into another part of the cellar. Their screams and cries can be heard all night from the direction where they exited. No one ever would see them, dead or alive again. Their traces were ever found.

Those remaining are lined up facing the wall. They have to stand long hours like this, with hands held up high. Meanwhile the German soldiers, who were ordered to guard them, keep the locks of their guns clicking, just to keep reminding the prisoners the loaded weapons they have and might be shooting them any moment. Death is omnipresent.

A 14-year-old boy with a girlish face somehow remained there among the women. When the soldiers catch sight of him he’s summoned out to an empty part of the wall. They draw a circle at eye level with a dot in the middle and order him to keep watching that. So he’s watching it as best he can...

Whenever the soldiers want to have a little “fun”, they yell at him so that he looks away and for this they kick his skinny legs with all their might.

They find other “pastimes” as well. A young orthodox boy is shoved in from the street with skullcap on his head, zizith fringes sticking out from under his shirt. They pressure him to confess that he hides arms under his shirt, in the zizith. While grilling him they keep banging his head with a chair’s leg. This makes a horrible, thumping sound. Then, he’s taken away.

It is dark evening again when the women are driven out to the street. A long line of people is milling around but we cannot see who is who in the dark.

A Tiger tank follows the last row. It switches on the lights from time to time, accelerates so the rumble increases and everyone is certain it is just about to run over us and crush the whole stream of people.

People would run away in a panic but all they can do is pushing those in front of them. They almost trip on each other.

- They drive us to the Danube! – Fear spreads from mouth to mouth.

Eventually the procession ends up in the synagogue of Rumbach Sebestyén Street. It fills up the whole building, the ground floor, the gallery, everything.

Altogether there are one or two water taps and toilets for that many people! Within a very short time our circumstance turns infernal. Corpses lie behind the torah holder. The synagogue’s roof is made of glass. An air raid would be the end of us all! There’s a rumour that we’re held as hostages. What’s a hostage? There’s no food, no one says a word, and nobody knows anything. A permanent fear of death.

This lasts two days, then we’re released, everyone is free to go. It would be most inconvenient for the Germans to be fussing around with so many corpses...

Meanwhile the “guardian angel’s” daughter returns to the big grey Jewish house. Somehow she managed to escape from the line, shortly after departure.

The “guardian angel” emerges from the cellar and asks his daughter: “Where’s Mama?” “Mama’s been taken away”, she answers and before she could go on the old man collapses and dies. He’s the 19th victim of the day.

Mama – just like Julia – returns and finds her husband dead...

Romeo, our “guardian angel”, was my grandfather. His name was Izidor Lichter.

Zsuzsa Gabor lives in Budapest. She was always engaged in commerce, - in the beginning, as an employee and later in independent endeavours. She has two sons and four grandchildren.


© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2007.
All rights reserved.