Personal Reflections - In Camps

ANNA KUN - "Coming Home"

Anna Kun was born in 1920 into a lower middle class family in the Hungarian countryside. She used to work as a beautician, a nurse, a jersey-weaving worker, then as a leather industry worker. In 1944 she was deported together with her four-month-old baby from the Szeged brickworks to Austria where she worked in a war factory for six months. Later she was transferred to the Bergen-Belsen (Nazi concentration camp in Germany) and finally liberated in Terezin, (another Nazi camp for Jews in Czechoslovakia.)

After 1945 she became a journalist, and editor of children’s papers (Pajtás, Pioneer and the Slovakian Nas pajtas). She also worked for Család és Iskola (Family and School) and for School Radio. Meanwhile she was studying at university and graduated of pedagogy. Now she’s retired and lives in Budapest.

This story is part of a longer piece of recollections, the chapters of which Anna Kun has presented one by one to her daughter, Vera Surányi.

I’m trudging along Kossuth Street all the way from the station to the city centre desperate, in a pair of jeans cut short, boots, blue linen shirt, and a German military calfskin knapsack on my back. It’s a small bag opening like leather tobacco boxes, with sides over overlapping. Only a few things fit into it but a number of stuff can be packed under its brown-white spotted, hairy cover, like coats or blankets. My hair’s short cropped like a boy’s. It’s early summer, quiet, peaceful. Storms rage only in my soul.

I decided to leave on my own. My father and mother stayed in Budapest, at the Jewish Community Centre, to get some aid, some starting capital or advice. There were masses of people waiting, together with them.

I grew restless, though, couldn’t stay any longer. I wanted to know if Pista was indeed at home? I didn’t want anyone to be there when the two of us will meet again. I had to see whether the war had destroyed anything in our relationship, how were we to continue to live on after all what happened? Was he expecting me to come home? Did he store the memory of me within himself as I did his? Is it possible to start all over again? We’d hardly lived together, what did we know about each other? Will it be possible to live in this city again?

Will it be possible to stay here where I was last seen with a bundle on my back, in someone else’s coat, together with a bunch of frightened women, old men and children, driven towards the station with the Gendarmes and Arrow Cross (Hungarian Fascists) men yelling at us. Here, where everyone knew me but nobody could or would do a thing to help me. Would their and my shame permit me to live here again?

I walk along with my head hanging low. I am ashamed for coming back. I feel guilty to have survived. I didn’t want anyone to recognize me. I didn’t want anyone to greet me, to stop me, to ask me questions. I was ashamed that this city looked silently upon us being driven away. Now, however, out of sheer guilt they would have to accept some of us again. They can’t get used to this idea, just yet, that there might be a few survivors they’d have to face.

There is hardly anything in the calfskin bag - only a change of underwear and a temporary identity card I was given in Budapest. I paid for it dearly though with all that happened last year. This burden, this film I’m carrying in my mind, weighs heavily on my shoulders. My knees too bend under their weight. I see all those images in spite of me. They’re burnt into my retina. There’s that night in Bergen-Belsen, in the typhus-infested-barracks where the Dutch surgeon was operating on the Greek woman – in vain. As the spectators around – the other patients – were crouching, wrapped in blankets on the three-tiered bunks. Rain was beating against the leaking roof and gathered in pools on the barrack floor. The professor was operating by candlelight. His stout, stooping figure a shadow on the wall, grown huge. I see him spread his arms and stand by the table, crushed. I see the woman’s face white as wax, slowly disappear under the coarse blanket pulled over her head. I also see myself a year earlier, before leaving the Büchlers’ court in the ghetto, trying on that brown winter coat, almost reaching the ground and thinking, “yes, this would suit me. I put that dark shawl on my head, not even my mother would recognize me.” And I see the five-litre bottle of honey on the garden table, knocked over, for someone had hastily pushed his backpack against it before leaving... now the honey was lazily dripping, pouring in sparkling golden streams in the sparkling sunlight. And I see my little son on the examination table, wasted to skin and bone, eyes wide open with terror, his mouth curved to cry, reaching towards me, not wanting to lie down on that clean, enclosed cot...

It’s early in the afternoon with almost no traffic around. Two men are just turning round the corner at the grammar school, talking. They’re quite close now when there’s something about that voice...I look up. My heart misses a beat. I must lean on the fence. It is Pista speaking. I wanted to stay alive for this very moment. The hope of this moment carried me through typhoid, through fever, and the belief that I’ve got something to do in this world, to set things right. What I’ve got to do is left for Pista to decide, he knows.

Did we embrace each other? Did we hold hands? Joy, fulfilment, finding one another?

I don’t know. I was out of my wits. I arrived home.

“Meet my friend, the Mayor – he said.” “Tibor, this is my wife. We’ll continue tomorrow, shall we? Now, we’re going home.”

The child? He asked. I waved to him with a single, silent motion.

He took my hand and we walked on side by side - without a word.

A block further he asked again.

“I couldn’t bring our child home. He didn’t survive.”

He let go of my hand. I could feel that he wasn’t happy to see me. He would have preferred the child’s return to mine. We walked to our former house. I put the backpack down on the porch, tumbled on it and a fit of crying burst out of me that I almost died. Pista sat down beside me and patted my back, startled.

“Try to forget! Don’t look back! It will pass. You’ll forget...We’re at home now, we’ve got plenty to do.”

I was trying to forget. I never talked about of what I’d been through.

A bare yard took the place of the old garden. Tires thrown about, wheel tracks in the mud. The pine trees and the bushes are not around any more either. We live in an estranged house, among strange furniture, in a small, strange looking room.

Gone is our home. Gone is our youth.

Nothing ever is going to be like it was.

This is published here with the permission of the author 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.