Personal Reflections - In Ghettos

EDIT KEMENY - "The Good Arrow Cross Man"

(Excerpt from her book: “The Difficult Years”)

At about eight a.m. an Arrow-Cross man (Hungarian fascist militia) turns up and selects ten women for work. I’m begging him with tears in my eyes to take me along, too, saying I can cope even if I’m so small. He measures me with his eye, laughing, then says O.K. I’m very glad because anything is better than waiting without a thing to do. We don’t go very far, just the opposite side of the square, to an evacuated Jewish house where there are policemen at the door and in the courtyard instead of the Arrow-Cross guys. They divide us. We suppose to tidy up one of the flats.

I stand in the doorway frozen with horror. Cupboards ripped open, china broken, everything shattered and turned upside down. A thick layer of scattered documents, photos, papers and other bits and pieces on the floor. I pick up trampled-on, crumpled letters, pictures - one by one. A little child smiles at me innocently. Family photos, laughing young people, old-fashioned old people in a “colourful” chaos all over the place. Who knows how many homes do these come from, how many destroyed families’ memories are these? Nobody needs them any longer. Where are all these people, where have they disappeared? They suffer and struggle some place, torn apart, or maybe they’re not even alive any more. But we must hurry. Some of the policemen keep an eye on us so that we don’t laze around. They even try to make small talk with us.

The girls are encouraged by this and start nagging them to be let off. A few of them disappear and we therefore believe that they indeed managed to get away but they drift back, embarrassed, eyes cast down. One of the policemen come up to me, too, and after a few words he asks me to make him a bath upstairs and then to wait for him there, he will let me off afterwards. I’m pondering for a while, should I go? Shall I not? What is he planning to do with me? It would be great to be free again but at what price? I, too, may be coming back here again like the rest. And who can call them to account when they just laugh at me and refuse to keep their part of the bargain?

So I stay and keep on working. Everything looks bright and shiny by the evening. The best things are heaped together from various places of the house, lovely pieces of furniture, paintings, Persian rugs and all the rest of it. We’ve made a real soft, warm nest for one of the chief gangsters to stay there for his heart’s content and have a time of his life amidst all that beauty... We’re ready at last. The magnificent place is waiting for its “lord” to occupy it. We’re also getting paid for our work: we’re allowed to cook a little something for ourselves. There’s some lard and flour, some potatoes in the pantry, our soup is ready within minutes. By the time we’re lined up we’re no longer so hungry. Members of our little group are checked, eleven women, right, off we go! Two policemen escort us so that nobody would escape.

A young, blond, smiling Arrow Cross guy meets us halfway. “I’m coming to fetch them!” He calls from a distance and sends the other two back. We walk slowly, deep in thought. Suddenly he steps close to me and says: “You’re not fourteen, dear, are you?” “You’re quite wrong”, I answer, and “I’m much older than that.” “It doesn’t matter, please, say you’re younger”, he whispers so that the others couldn’t overhear. “What for?” I reply hating even the idea of talking to him because I really detest them all. But he insists: “Please, believe me, I mean no harm, don’t be afraid of me, my dear, I want to help you.”

Meanwhile we get to the house and as he leads us up the stairs he keeps saying, “listen, make up your mind while it’s not too late. Come with me!” Oh, my God! What shall I do? I’m hesitating. How could I possibly believe him? He’s just an Arrow Cross guy like the others. God knows what he wants from me... But I haven’t got time to think. The others disappear behind the door one by one while I keep standing there wordless, hesitant.

Then he takes my hand without a word and leads me on upstairs, along corridors and I follow him like in a dream, unconscious. Finally he stops in front of a door, presses my hand and smiles at me reassuring. “Don’t be afraid”, he whispers and takes me in. Crossing a hall we get to a spacious room and I’m too astonished for, in this bleak, gloomy house where hundreds are crying and wailing and trembling and moaning behind locked doors awaiting their sad fates to come true, here is a place where everything’s different. Where there’s laughter and sweet talk and playfulness and peace. There are twelve children of all ages, even a few toddlers with their mothers. Everyone looks at us. “I’ve brought you another girl, be nice and kind to her”, my escort says. They flock around me, offer me food, everybody talking at the same time, asking my name and where I came from. And they keep telling me that nobody’s doing them any harm here, this good, young Arrow Cross man brings them food and toys. And before long the Red Cross comes along and takes them away from here...

Next morning we’re awakened to the noise of comings and goings. Slamming of doors, crude swearwords, yelling and screams are heard from the corridors. As if all hell broke loose out there. We’re cuddled up together without a word, terrified, not daring to move. Minutes are ticking away agonizingly slowly. The frightening turmoil is receding into the distance and soon a deadly silence enfolds the house. After a while we venture outside and run around in a shock. Windows, doors wide open, not a soul around, nobody of those who were wailing here only an hour ago…nobody.

The days wear on. It’s more than a week I’ve been here among the children. Nobody’s ever asked me how old I was. I’m often afraid, though, when strange soldiers or Arrow Cross men come by and look at us, I’m afraid they’d spot me. But it looks as though I really don’t seem any older and I feel as much a child as the rest. It is so good not to think, not to ponder but to trust and hope, to trust in escape.

Meanwhile the house gets full and empty again and again, the infernal comedy is repeated all the time. The henchmen break in on us clattering, yelling, holding guns high, throwing their evil looks at us, dizzy and drunk by their power but when we repeat the magic words that we’re Red Cross children, they make themselves scarce at once. And then when the noise dies down we just try to go on whatever we were engaged in. As time passes we get more and more newcomers. A new companion arrives almost every day. It becomes quite a habit that our Good Arrow-Cross guy and one or two of his more decent brothers “steal” a child from each transport about to leave. They quickly bring him upstairs and hand him over to us. Sometimes they manage to snatch a young mother with her baby from the group and help them hide among us. We no longer abound in food and space. The three of us share a bed, but we receive each newcomer kindly none the less, comfort them, dry their tears and try to share with them everything we have... This is how the 6th of December arrives. Children can’t wait for the evening because we were promised that Santa Claus would visit us. We’re cleaning, washing and ironing all day. We tidy up the little ones, dress and comb them nicely. Most have that one set of clothes they’re wearing. I’m no exception either. But the house that proved an inexhaustible pantry, so far, provides lots of other things as well. Not valuable stuff, of course, those have been taken away long ago, but everything we can find we make good use of. A nightgown or a piece of linen, an old towel, a blanket, some worn clothes, all come in handy. The little host of children, clean and pretty, are waiting breathlessly. The door opens and Santa Claus appears among us in a long red gown with long grey beard. The little ones greet him with loud cheers. We, older ones recognize him at once: he’s our Good Arrow Cross man but the little ones wouldn’t dream of that. They recite some nursery rhymes and sing songs for him. Then, Santa gives them their little gifts: each child gets some sweets and biscuits. Who knows where they got them...but these men have proved that they’re decent human beings under their Arrow Cross uniform. They organized this little celebration for the children, brought some joy and happiness to their hearts and smiles to their lips. We’re happy and carefree children again, we’re allowed to forget about how forlorn we are, even for a little while.

Edit Kemény was 78, a mother of six when she wrote her book. She was a blue-collar worker all her life. During the past few years of her life, she’s been writing day by day, documenting what happened to her, even learnt to use the word-processor for her testimony. Her stories were published privately in a book “The Difficult Years”, for family and friends only. Edit Kemeny passed away at 81 in 2006.

This is published here with the permission of the estate of Edit Kemeny and Dr. Katalin Pecsi, editor of the Esztertaska blog where it also appeared in Hungarian.

English editing: Judy Weiszenberg Cohen.

© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2007.
All rights reserved.