Personal Reflections - In Ghettos
Ibi Grossman | Agnes Vadas | Bertha (Panni) Guttman


"Come on! Whatís keeping you so long?" Dad shouted from downstairs.
"Coming, coming.....just a minute."
Why are you so slow getting ready? Because I donít feel like going with him. - And why not? You like your aunt Iren and your cousin Jutka is an adorable kid, so whatís wrong? - Oh I just donít feel like it. And thatís that. Iíd rather go and see Klari, I enjoy her company so much and I could have a smoke. Soo, thatís it! You are becoming an addict to smoking, is that so? Isnít I a bit too early at fifteen?
By the time I got to this point in my dialogue I reached the ground floor.
"Dad, I just re-membered I promised Klari Iíd be over today."
Arenít you ashamed to lie like this? "
"Hell, couldnít you have told me sooner? I have been waiting for you for fifteen minutes.
He muttered some curse words and left. It was a nice, warm day of what the Hungarians calls "old-wife summer" -- the 17th of Sep-tember, 1944 -- I had a good reason not to forget that date. I was strolling towards Klariís lodg-ing and on the way I was pondering about our rather unusual friendship. She was my cousin, an attractive thirty year old married woman. How come she enjoys the company of a teenager, I thought? I am sure she does. She likes me all right. Maybe she is just lonely and depressed and would appreciate any company. No, no, she talks to me seriously even about very personal matters and listens attentively when I talk. Maybe, because I play the violin, since she is a musician too.-- Maybe. But could it be simply because she likes me -- the person? Hush, you little devil in my head! You are always trying to put me down, to make me feel bad. Klari lived alone now; her handsome, smiling husband had been taken away by the Nazis. (He never came back and Klari herself was shot dead a month later, while attempting to escape deportation.)

The moment I arrived at Klariís, the sirens started to wail; air-raid. It was the third day in a row that Budapest had been bombed. Twice a day, in the morning by the English or the Ameri-cans, in the evening by the Russians. Klariís apartment was in a "yellow-starred" house, desig-nated for Jews only. Overcrowded, with several families in each apartment. The cellar which was used as an air-raid shelter was too small for that many people. The air was stifling and the noise of children crying mingled with the noise of explosions and airplanes, was much too much to bear.

The air-raid lasted about an hour. When we returned to Klariís apartment we were a bit shaken. Klari made some coffee and gave me a cigarette. And we talked and talked. The theme was always the same in those days: what will become of us?
The Russians had crossed the border, the fight was already on Hungarian soil. Still the greatest concern of the Nazis, even now when they were obviously loosing the war, seemed to be the completion of the "task" -- the liquidation of the Jews of Budapest.

By now they have deported all the Jews from everywhere in Hungary, except from Budapest.

The fate of all my friends and relatives who lived in other cities were constantly occupying my mind. I imagined scenes of horrors happening to them. There were rumors of how they were put into cattle wagons and how they were sent to the gas-chambers on arrival in the death camps. I thought of Zoli, my first love, who was taken to the Russian front --- it was well known how they were treated, those with the yellow star. Worse than animals. My own brother was still close by in a labour camp for young Jewish men who were used for menial work. We heard from him occasionally, but they could take him away any time to a death camp. Budapest will be a hard nut to crack though since there were still about 200,000 Jews living there. Would they have enough time to kill us all? This was a race against time.

When our conversation reached this point I asked for one more cigarette.
"I will be respon-sible for you being addicted" Klari said smiling, handing me her cigarette case. "What the hell. I might not live to be sixteen, why not enjoy what little this damned life can offer me?" I said inhaling the smoke with delight. It was about four oíclock when I got back from Klariís. My father wasnít home yet.

Where could he be? "He said heíd be back by three," Mom said. There was a curfew for Jews, starting at six oíclock, p.m. We didnít have a phone and the only neighbour who had one was a member of the "Arrow Cross" the Hungarian Nazi Party.

My mother and I sat in silence. Then I couldnít stand it any more.
"You know what Mom Iíll run over to Ireneís house to see if anything is wrong there? We still have an hour till the curfew starts."
When I turned the corner, two blocks from the house where Iren and Jutka lived, my heart sank.....a crowd.......a police-line.......good God! Is that the very house? No mercy, it is....!
"What happened," trembling I asked a man standing there.
"Bomb of course, a split-bomb which goes straight down. Probably everybody is done for in there. It was a "yellow-starred" house and very crowded. Must have been over hundred people in there."
The man noticed my yellow star on my garment and apologized.
"Sorry". "Is there someone you know in there?"

I couldnít answer. I went to a policeman --- they were usually more humane than the Arrow-Cross mob. This one was all right too. He talked to me in spite of my yellow star. He explained that they didnít know yet what happened to the people in the house. Rescuers had been at work for three hours but they couldnít reach the people trapped underneath the rubble. The whole house collapsed and debris was blocking the entrance to the cellar. The best thing for me was to go home, he said. As soon as they knew something they would notify us. He took my name and address.
I went home. What else could I do? My mother just looked at me and exclaimed "God! What happened?"
I told her all I knew then we waited in silence.
Around eight oíclock somebody slipped a note under the door. The message from St. Ste-phen Hospital read: "Your father is here, wounded, but walked on his own to wash up. You can visit him tomor-row."

Thank God!. It canít be very serious if he was on his feet. My mother laughed with a tinge of hysteria. I could neither laugh nor cry.
Next morning we ran to the hospital.
"It looks like a hell of a Catholic place" I whispered to Mom. "Look at that all the nurses are nuns. Just the right place for Dad, right?" We found him in bed with a thick bandage on his head. His first words were: "Am I glad you didnít come with me."
So it was the cigarette that saved my life -- no it was fate or God using your addiction. Yes I am inclined to believe that.
"But tell me what is this Ďturbaní on your head?" I asked.
"We thought we could take you home today" my mother said. "We heard you were walking on your own to the bathroom."
"Theyíre full of shit. My legs are paralyzed. I have lost all feeling. You could cut them off without me noticing it."
My God, thatís no good. It looks more serious than we thought.
"Whatís wrong with your head, Dad?" My voice was a bit unsteady.
"Good question! The whole goddamned house fell on it. I was sitting there for four hours with the bloody mess Itís a miracle that it didnít break into thousand pieces. You alweays said I had a hard head." At that we laughed. He has all his wits, speaks normally, it canít be all that bad..

"Do you know what happened to Iren and Jutka?" My mother asked. This question was burning in me but I hesitated to ask, dreading the answer.

"Yes I know. They are dead."
Oh God, Jutka only four years old! An unusually bright and adorable little girlÖ.and Iren, cheerful "little Iren", as we called her, because she was short and always smiling. And Imre, my uncle has now lost his wife and daughter.
"Are you quite sure?" I asked weakly.

"When it happened I was playing with the kid. My hand was on her head Ė and it remained there until they dug us out some four hours later. Jutka didnít move, didnít breathe. It was clear that she was gone. I tried to call to Iren but no sign of life came from her either.
"And you were conscious duringthe whole time?" My mother asked.
"Yes, I was cursing my hard head. It would have been nice to faint, let me tell you."

I believed he said the truth that he didnít lose consciousness. He was incredibly tough, never sick for a day in his life. Everyone in his place would have died. There was only one other sur-vivor. By some miracle a chair or a table fell on a woman, keeping the debris away and pro-tecting her. She escaped unhurt. I was about to say something when the sirens started to wail. "Here we go again. Damnation!" Dad exclaimed. The nuns ordered everyone to the shelter. They took Dad on a stretcher. Once in the cellar the nuns separated men and women. "What the hell are they doing that for? Are they afraid of inappropriate behaviour during the air-raid?"

The cellar wasnít a proper shelter, it was just a few steps down, shallow and echoing. It consisted of several chambers separated only vaults, so that the whole place was one unit. The nuns gathered in a central room and started to pray loudly and monotonously. They began with the Lordís prayer and recited it over and over --- after a while I was ready to scream. Then they switched to the Ave MariaÖ..It sounded like a souless routine, lacking any feeling.

The sound of a radio somewhere announced: "An enemy unit is nearing the capital". Soon we could hear machine gun and canon fire, the noise airplanes and explosions coming nearer and nearer and finally it seemed as if the shells were exploding right nest to us. The first wave passed and there was silence for a minute, except for the Ave MariaÖ..
Then the second wave started. The nuns now did something new: as the noise came nearer they repeated, matching the crescendo of the planes: "Have mercy Jesus, misericordia JesusÖ. "
When the bombs exploded like thunder the nuns were shouting with all their might.
Finally they were showing some feelings. Then the lights had gone off and the radio has fallen silent. We were sitting in the dark, listening to the Lordís prayer. People around us were going hysterical; a lot of them were patients who were injured by bombs. There was wailing and sobbing and cries. Two more waves passed, then my first encounter with the fear of death was over.

We were alive, incredible as it seemed.

I was thinking of my fatherís ordeal, four hours under the ruins, with broken skull, his hand on a dead childís head it must have felt like an eter-nity. We staggered over where the men were. My Dadís black had humour not deserted him. "Hell, that chanting nearly achieved what the bomb failed to do." We tried to find a doctor to ask him about Dad, but in the chaos after the air-raid it was impossible. We finally said good bye and left.

When we got out of the hospital I could see that our fears were not mere hysteria. There were bomb craters quite close, a couple of houses collapsed. Rescue teams were working fever-ishly and ambulances were taking away the wounded dead. A nearby oil refinery was burning with mile long flames. The sight was incredible, terrifying but fantastically beautiful too.

Two days later they brought Dad home. First we rejoiced, then we gradually realized he wasnít better at all. His legs were still numb and he had clotted blood on his lips from internal bleeding. But it was difficult to believe that he was gravely ill. He was very alert and his brain worked better than ever.

He would categorically refuse to use the bedpan. In spite of our objections he insisted on using the bathroom. He would slide down from the bed, with our help. Sit on a small pillow and slide on it driving himself with his arms to the bathroom while reciting a famous poem: "My God, my God why didnít you give me wings?" I never knew until then that he read poetry.

A few days later he started to moan. He was probably in terrible pain but even this sounded like another of his jokes. Thinking back it is difficult to believe that till the last hours we did not think for a moment that was dying. He must have been back home for about a week when one night I woke up to a commotion. My mother was standing by his bed and he spoke some words then fell back on the pillow unconscious. It was about three in the morning.

At this hour Jews were not allowed to be on the streets and if an Arrow-Cross soldier caught one, it meant certain death.

I got dressed in a second, ran down the stairs and woke up the janitor who was a member of the Arrow-Cross. After I explained the situation he let me out without a word of protest. Some human feeling was still glimmering in him. I ran in the deserted streets to our doctor who lived a few blocks away. He was Jewish as well but despite the danger he agreed to come with me.

When we got back, Dad was conscious again and recognized the doctor.
"Here you are again DocÖ." His voice sounding strangely high.
The doctor gave him a shot. Then he waited. I was crouching on my bed with my head buried in my pillow listening to Dadís rattling breathing. Slowly, gradually it became more and spaced, then it stopped. I am convinced that the doctor killed him----probably saving him from a day or two of agony.

My mother and I looked uncomprehendingly on the corpse. Neither of us thought of closing his eyes. They were open the next day when they took him away. I can still see his blue eyes, looking at something unknown, beyond us.

Agnes Vadas was fifteen at the time of this particular story. She was born and raised in Budapest where she lived until the time of her escape in 1956. Having been something of a child prodigy, she was a violinist from early childhood on. By the time she left Hungary she was rather well known. She'd been a State Soloist, concertized in the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia, and received several international prizes. From 1956 to 1962 she lived in Paris. From 1962 to 1966 she resided in Germany. Came to the United States in 1966 and taught at the Universities of Indiana, Texas, Georgia and Ithaca New York. (Also played as a soloist in those states.) In 1980 Vadas joined the San Francisco Opera orchestra from where I retired in 1993.


© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
All rights reserved.