Personal Reflections - In Camps
Judy Cohen | Irene Csillag | Elisabeth De Jong | Judith Rubinstein
Judith Rubinstein Remembers Some More | Judith Jaegermann | Vera Szöllős

VERA SZÖLLŐS - "We Survived - In Camps"


Silently but firmly the door shut in our face. We were left there stranded on the corridor. Dad and Mom looked at each other over my head. ”Let’s go, dad said, “there’s nothing for us here.”

We stumped silently along the familiar corridor. All doors and windows were shut. Nobody came out. I thought I feel the neighbours watching our mortification from behind their tightly drawn curtains.
The corridor seemed endlessly long. Felt as if we rang the bell ages ago over the door of our flat we were forced to leave a year before. A stranger opened the door.
Good afternoon’, my father said, ’we have just come home from the deportation. We used to live here before that.” The expression on the woman’s face grew hard. “It’s our home now” she answered and slammed the door.
The neighbours withdrew into their rooms a year ago, too, when we had to move to the ghetto. We turned the corner and walked past the flat of the Kerepes family.

Laci Kerepes was my best friend in the house. We did everything together. His mother was a strict woman. She used to beat up Laci regularly and made him kneel on dry corn for every petty little thing. I wondered if he was peeping from behind the curtain too.

We got out to the street at last. My parents were not talking. We returned to our temporary shelter: the tiny sixth floor room of the Korona Hotel. Gasping from the long flights of stairs we climbed, we sat down on our plank beds.

‘We have to leave here’, said Dad finally, ‘I’ll find a bed-sitting room and then we’ll see if we can find a flat of our own.’At noon we went to the cafeteria restaurant. It was maintained by the Joint. The Joint gave us the clothes as well, even the ones we were wearing, because our own were worn out and ragged by the time we got home. The Joint is operated by The American Jewish Joint Committee. They didn’t have war over there.  In the canteen Dad was talking to a man. He knew of a place with a bed-sitting room. He suggested we should take a look. If it is not yet rented, it could be suitable. We went there straight after lunch. We were lucky. The room is still available. It is furnished, too. It is important because we don’t have our own furniture. We will have to go to the big synagogue. That’s where all the furniture and other belongings of the Jewish people were dumped, the items that were not hauled away by others.

This flat belongs to an old lady who lives alone. She allowed us to use the bathroom for cooking. We have to cross it anyway to our room. We moved in the same day. We heated up the bathroom and soaked ourselves in the bath for at least half an hour each. Next morning we went to the synagogue. All sorts of furniture and carpets were piled up there in a mess. Quite a lot of people were looking around but we couldn’t spot anyone familiar to us. We found granny’s old armchair up on the female chancel and a bit further away, the big Persian rug as well. It was a very old carpet, dingy, hardly any pile left on it. My parents rolled it out to make sure that was the one they were looking for. Someone had cut half a meter off at one end. Mom crouched down to roll the rug back. “Must have been the Russians”, she guessed, “They must have cut it off.” Why the Russians? What on earth would the Russians be doing in the synagogue? And what would they need the end of granny’s rug for?  Granny hasn’t come back yet. We haven’t heard about them. Mom has been asking everybody who had gone with the first transport. We went with the third. Went? Were taken. Were driven out into the trucks. Then out of the trucks, into the camp. Then, into the fertilizing unit and out of the fertilizing unit in our own, hardened clothes. Then, onto the train and out to a brick factory, to work.  My parents carried raw bricks to the drying unit. A brick like that weighed at least twenty kilos. We, children, were studying with a teacher at a fenced-in, warm place on the top of the factory’s brick furnace. I already knew the teacher from my previous school. She wasn’t our teacher though, she was teaching grade three.

We, in grade one, were taught by a beautiful, twenty-year-old girl. She used to bring in colourful beads, sticks and disks in a huge box and used them to help us learn arithmetic. We had a reading book too, all white and azure green. In it pictures and letters. In one of the pictures a Jewish family was observing Sabbath. The mother, with a shawl over her head, was lighting a candle. The father was standing there, wearing a little hat, and two children in nice, smart clothes were watching the candles. It was interesting. I had no idea at all where people like this lived? We never used to do anything like this at home.

My home. I wonder who lives in our home now? I wonder where my bed is? I wonder where the biscuit tin is in which I had put all my important things in case there was an air-raid alarm at night and I would just have to grab it and take it down with me. Adults take their important things with them too. I had my pressed flowers in the tin, which we had picked with Dad on our excursions, my colour pencils, a notebook and a little marzipan.

Now we lived here, amongst unfamiliar furniture. Mom is making pancakes and doughnuts. The bathroom is filled with the smell of cooking lard and it is seeping into the room as well. Dad will start work in the bank in a couple of days from where he had been sacked before because of the anti-Jewish Laws. Mom says we will have to begin studying soon so that I won’t loose a year at school. If I take my second year exams at the end of the summer, I can start at grade three in September.
I don’t understand why it is so urgent. If it has to be year two, let it be year two. Though this learning won’t be the same as in school. Mom even said that we would go to the outdoor swimming pool and we can study there. Everybody is having a summer vacation only I have to be studying. Everybody will think I had failed and now preparing for the retakes. Obviously, those who were not deported don’t have to study in the summer and by the outdoor swimming pool. I wonder what the others were doing while we were away? We? All the Jewish people. Everybody from our transport came back. Hardly anyone has come back from the other two transports yet. I don’t know where they could be?

It took us almost two weeks to get home from Czechoslovakia by train and we’ve been home for about two weeks now. You can make it home even from America in that time, even though there’s the ocean to cross between us.

I got two presents from Dad. One was a little flat box with little dice in it. Each of them has a number painted on them. The box is not full, there is place for one more little dice in there. Using this space you have to shift the dice so that they form a nice row. One, two, three, and so on. It’s a very good game although it’s quite hard to shift the dice to their places.
The other game was a pack of jack-straw. I haven’t seen anything like this before. It consists of a lot of sticks which have different stripes painted on them. The stripes indicate numbers. You have to hold the straws in your fist tight, stand them on the table, twist it a bit and then release it. It falls all over the place in a mess, one straw on top of the other. Then you have to pick them up cautiously, one by one, making sure that none of the other sticks move, apart from the one you are picking up. It’s a difficult game. It often moves when I play. I don’t know the stripes well enough yet. My parents always help. They tell me how much each stripe worth and I try to add it up. I always play with my parents. I haven’t seen any children here in the house yet. True, it’s not a house with an open corridor, all the doors open from the staircase. We hardly ever meet other people. I wouldn’t really like to go into other people’s flat anyway.

I had had a bad experience once, before the deportation. Pista Balogh lived on the other side of the street. He often came over to our house to play because we had a bigger yard than they had. When the weather was bad, Laci and I used to go over to his place. He had his own room, and it was good to play there, we didn’t disturb anyone. One day last year when I was bored I walked over to them. His mother let me in but somehow she was different than she usually was. We barely began to play when Mom turned up. She was breathless from hurrying. She apologized and took me home immediately. Pista’s mother never objected. Mom did not scold me but she explained on the way home why I had to leave. We are not allowed to go out on the street without the yellow star. Every Jew has to sew a big yellow star on their clothes. I wasn’t wearing one on mine. If somebody doesn’t wear the star and a Christian realizes that he or she is a Jew and doesn’t wear the star, there could be big trouble.

In the afternoons we go out for a walk with Mom. Sometimes we have a pastry at the bakery. I don’t know anybody at the playground. When I used to go to school, a boy and a girl used to come with me on the way there and back. They lived even further away than we did. I wonder what happened to them?


I had a nightmare at night. I was sitting under grandmama’s piano and then it turned out that it was a gas chamber. I was sniffing in the air but could not detect any odour. I wanted to climb out but I couldn’t. I woke up. Eyes open I lay in the darkness for a while. Mom and Dad were asleep at the other end of the room. Are they really there? Is it possible that I’m alone in the room?
  I got up and tiptoed over to their bed. Dad was lying on his back with his eyes closed. The dim light seeping through the window highlighted the silhouette of his face. I startled. He looks like a dead man. I touched his face with my palm. It was warm. Slightly startled, he opened his eyes.

‘What is it? What happened?’, he asked.

I was confused. What should I say?

‘Nothing, just came here for a bit.’

Dad sat up in his bed. He stroked my hair.

“Everything is all right son. Go back to bed and try to sleep.”

I felt I was more awake now than before. I climbed back into my bed. Dad lay down back again, too.

Who says everything’s all right?! Of course they thought I had been asleep. Auntie Olga had come to visit just after eight at night. They used to go to school together with Mom. She has recently come back from deportation too, but not from the same place where we had been.  My parents and Auntie Olga were talking quietly under the dim light of a table lamp, at the other end of the room. I had been sent to bed earlier and Auntie Olga was still sitting there under the lamp. Mom was crying. She was blowing her nose and with a choke in her voice she said: “I cannot believe it. In a gas chamber! Olga dear, are you absolutely sure?”

“My dear Rozsi, I only wish I wasn’t so sure. Believe me, I have my reasons when I tell you not to expect your mother back.”

Mom continued sobbing. Dad buried his head in his palms. What is a gas chamber?”
“Mengele was standing there at the gate,” Auntie Olga whispered, “and he was sorting people out. Your mother went to the right with Erzsike and little Tomi.” Erzsike is the wife of Dad’s brother and Tomi is my cousin; two years older than me.
“I was sent to the left, my mother to the right. My little Zsuzsi was standing in the middle between us, and I said to her: “Go with grandma, sweetheart.” I sent her to her death. My own child.

“But how could you have known where she was going?”

“No, I should have stayed with her. Then at least I would be dead too. I don’t know anything about my dear Józsi. I might be the only one alive.” There was silence. Everybody was weeping.
“They were taken into a room,” Auntie Olga continued, they thought it was a shower room. The guards locked the doors behind them and let the zyclone B gas in.”

Mom couldn’t take any more. She cried out aloud. Dad touched her arm gently. “Darling, the child…”

“As if they were bugs,” whispered my mother. “Oh, God… I can’t take any more… I just can’t…

There was a very long silence. I heard Auntie Olga speak first.

“Any news about your father and about Bandi?” she asked.

Bandi is Dad’s older brother.
‘We haven’t heard anything about Rózsi’s father,’ Dad whispered. “Bandi was seen shot dead by a fellow soldier. He was shot during a decimation.” Oh my God! What is a decimation? And why would anyone want to shoot Uncle Bandi?

I couldn’t go back to sleep for hours. After Auntie Olga had left my parents were whispering in the dark for a long time. Then finally I drifted back to my dream world. And now I’m up again. My heart is still thumping loud with fear.
Next morning Mom seemed very tired. Her eyes were red because of crying. Dad had already left for work. I got up and cuddled up against her. She hugged me close and I felt her shaking a bit. She must have been crying. When I looked up at her she smiled at me faintly through her tears and said that after breakfast we would go down to the out-door swimming pool and we’ll do some studying there. She won’t tell me about the gas chamber. Why?

I know it anyway. Does she really want me to keep waiting for grandmamma to come back? We didn’t talk. I was thinking and she must have found it easier this way.  When we were down by swimming pool she got the year two reading book out. “Gabi sweetheart, let’s do a bit of reading, shall we?”  I didn’t feel like reading at all. I looked up at her face. She had a faint smile but her eyes were horrid. I didn’t want to make a fuss. My reading was clumsy. She corrected me every now and again.  After studying we went into the pool. I already can do five strokes without help.

This was going on like this for a week. In the afternoons I had a nap and then I did some math with Dad.

One night I woke up with a start. Mom was packing clothes into a sports bag. I shook with fear. “Where are we going now?” I asked in a whisper. I caused her to jump. She stopped the packing, turned around and walked over to me. She sat down on my bed.  “Sweetheart, Daddy is not feeling well, his heart aches. Aunt Irma has called the ambulance, they’ll be here soon. I’ll go to the hospital with Daddy. I may not be home before the morning.” She smiled faintly and cupped my face. “Aunt Irma stays here, you won’t be alone. Go back to sleep. By the time you wake up, I’ll be home. “And if I hadn’t woken up, would you have left without me?” “Of course not, don’t be silly. I would have woken you up before we left.” I cuddled up to her and she gave me a hug.

I heard Dad moan. Mom let go of me. She stroked my hair one last time. “I have to go now.”
She hurried over to Dad’s bed. I got out of bed and stood a bit further away from them. Dad was lying there with his eyes closed. He held his lips very tight and was incredibly pale. The reading lamp was turned away from him so that it wouldn’t shine in his face.
  Mom continued packing hastily. I only just realized that they were already dressed and ready to go.

A sharp ring broke the tense silence.

‘The ambulance,’ said Mom excitedly and hurried out. Two men came into the room with a stretcher. They lifted up Dad very cautiously from the bed and over to the stretcher. Mom gently tucked him in and grabbed the bag. She gave me another kiss.  “Sleep well, sweetheart. I’ll be home soon. ”The ambulance people struggled out through the door with the stretcher across the bathroom. I watched through the widely open entrance door as they started to descend down the stairs. Mum followed them close behind. Aunt Irma closed the door and gave out a big sigh.

‘Oh dear.’

I looked up at her. I had never seen her at night before. She was standing there in the dimly lit hallway with curling pins in her hair. Her skinny legs stuck out from under the nightgown.  Suddenly I felt the cold tiles beneath my feet. She walked into the kitchen and then returned with a paper bag.

‘Take one, Gabika,’ she said and held the bag in front of me.

I took a candy.

‘Thank you.’

“Alright now,” she put a hand on my head, “go to bed now. Your father will be fine, you’ll see.”
She waited for me to leave and then I heard her close the door of her room. I stepped inside the empty room. I didn’t switch the light off. I ran my fingers across Dad’s bed, then on Mom’s. I sat on the bed.
The window was open. A light breeze was penetrating the room. I suddenly felt cold so I slipped into Mum’s bed. I pulled the duvet over my head. This way I may survive. In this cave.
I started shivering. It’s not even cold. I was shivering on that day too. That day in the deportation when they said that the old and the children should sit on the cart on top of the luggage and the adults would follow on foot. We would meet in one and a half hours.

I never went separately. Even in the fertilizer I stayed with Dad.

‘Sit on the cart, son,’ Dad said to me, ‘we’ll see each other shortly.’ I was quite reluctant but I did sit on the cart. I had been walking so far, hadn’t I? Had I ever complained? No. So why would I have to sit on the cart?

The sun was shining brightly but the ride was long. It must have been around noon by the time the tractor stopped and resting time was ordered. A grandmother with her granddaughter was with us as well. They both sat down on the ground and the grandmother made a jam sandwich for her granddaughter. The others were sitting or lying down scattered around on the field. Some were eating some weren’t. They didn’t give me food because we would meet soon anyway. I was standing near the grandmother and glanced at the jam sandwich. I shouldn’t be watching them. They might think I’m begging. But I just couldn’t help staring at them. The grandmother raised her eyes at me. “Come here,” she said to me. She put some jam on a slice of bread and held it in front of me. I felt ashamed. I shouldn’t have let them know that I’m so hungry.

We were bumping along on the cart all afternoon. At dusk we finally turned into a village, stopped in front of a huge barn and everybody got off. The tractor was disconnected from the cart and went on its way. The cart with all the bags stayed there. I walked into the barn and looked around. There was a big farmyard behind the door and sheds for storing hay all around. The whole place was open towards the yard, and the roof was supported by wooden poles. Suddenly I heard some rumbling coming towards us. Our group arrived. Everybody seemed to hurry. They pulled their bags down from the cart and ran to find a good place for themselves for the night.

My heart sank. There I am agape and our luggage is nowhere to be seen. We won’t have shelter above our head for the night and it is going to be my fault. I ran out to the cart struggling against the masses and started looking for our bag frantically. I found it at last. I dragged it off the cart but I couldn’t lift it. I started dragging it inside. Hundreds of people ran past me. Feet, bags, shouts. “My God,” my heart froze, ‘I am lost.’
My legs went suddenly weak. I fell down on my knees, collapsed over the bag and started sobbing. The sound of trampling feet got stronger and stronger. Suddenly I heard my mother’s voice.‘He is here, Imre, he’s here!’ Mom lifted me up, Dad grabbed the bag. We managed to get a place next to the wall. Mom and I clung to each other and just cried and cried and cried.

‘O, my little sweetheart, we were so worried about you. They said everywhere by the time we got there your lot had been gone. And I didn’t even give some food with you.’

“Pataki Agi’s grandma gave me a slice of bread with jam.”

‘Good, God bless her for that, I’ll pay her back.’

That is when I started shivering. I was shaking with cold. Dad wrapped his coat around me. He put his palm on my forehead. ‘Must be at least thirty-eight,’ he whispered to Mom, ‘and I don’t even have an aspirin. Wait here, I’ll try and get one somewhere.’ After a short time they made me sit up and I had to take a pill with some water. They kept me warm from both sides. Suddenly my shivering stopped. I fell asleep.

Who’s going to warm me up now? Who’s going to give me a pill? Mommy, why did you leave me here again?

I stuck my head out from under the duvet. The room is familiar. It is our clothes in the wardrobe. We don’t have to go on from here.  The best thing to do is to get all the blankets together. I dragged them all over to Mom’s bed and snuggled under them. I even covered my head. It is morning soon, and she is coming … it is morning soon and she is coming…
When I stuck my head from under the coverings even my hair was wet. Mom was sitting next to the table, her head lowered into her palms and she was crying. Very quietly. ‘Mum,’ I whispered.

She turned her head towards me, wiped her tears and smiled at me.

‘Were you cold at night? You’ve put all the blankets on yourself.’

‘I was shivering but I’m alright now. How is Dad?” “He is in good hands. He has to stay in the hospital for a while. We’ll go and visit him. I’ll go and have a bit of rest now, right? There’s something to eat on the shelf. Have some breakfast and then read quietly. When I wake up we’ll discuss what we shall do today.


The sun was already high by the time Mum woke up. We put everything away together then we went to the market.

Dad had a heart attack at night. He had to rest. Mom can go to see him every day but I can only visit him after a couple of days.

The vendors put their goods out under the shade of the giant trees of the Boulevard. There was a separate place for the greengrocers, one for the diary products, one for the pickles, one for the peppers. I knew the market quite well. I used to come here with grandmamma. The scent of fruits and dill reminded me of the old days.

We reached the house where grandmamma used to live. One side of the gate was open and we could see through the cool, dark gateway the little garden filled with sunshine. I stopped and I just could not walk on. ‘Let’s go inside a bit,’ I asked Mom, and without waiting for a reply I walked in. Mom said nothing, just followed close behind me.

A couple of low steps led to grandma’s flat from the yard. I was told that when I was learning to walk I had spent hours climbing up and down those steps. Later, and I remember that very well, I used to like sitting there and play. Sometimes grandmamma would bring a chair next to the door for herself and would tell me stories.

On the stairs there were two other children playing I’ve never seen before. The door was open wide. A young woman wearing a kerchief was putting out the bedding to air on the windowsill. She glanced briefly at the children then she disappeared.

‘Grandma’s bed linen,’ Mom whispered, ‘and her curtains, too…’ She could not take her eyes off the window.

I didn’t dare look at her but I could sense that she was weeping.

What if we went over to the woman and asked to have grandma’s curtains back? Would she also slam the door in our face? Maybe the neighbours here would come out too pointing their fingers at us. “What now, how lively you all are. You should be happy to have come back. Some people just have the nerve!”

“Let’s go,” said Mom. ‘”Come on, sweetheart/” She turned to face me and cupped my face with her hands. “We won’t see grandma again. She is not coming back.”

At last! I knew she expected me to start crying, to be shocked, to ask something. I could feel my face grow stiff, my eyes go blank and words got stuck in my throat. Because I knew more than that.

I met Pista Tausz at the swimming pool. He told me that those who were killed in the gas chambers were then burnt and the smoke was swirling from a big chimney. People were locked up in a camp that was surrounded by electric barbed wire fence. If somebody wanted to escape or just touched the fence accidentally, they died immediately. Pista had overheard the conversation between his mom and their guests who came back from a camp like that. A mother and her adult daughter had visited them, distant relatives, and they were in the gas chamber as well. Of course they didn’t know at the time. Suddenly the first two rows were let got for some reason. Maybe they had to do some work urgently. When they got out a German called over to them.

“Do you know where you have just been? In the gas chamber.”

Maybe Mom has never heard about it so far?

I think about it a lot. It could easily have been me who had been sent there. And I wouldn’t have been let out.

I always wake up at night. I seem to see a burglar climbing up on the stove in the darkness. I’m scared. On one occasion like that I got up and wanted to sit next to Mom’s bed in the armchair. I managed to get there but on the way I knocked a book off the shelf. They woke up and saw me sitting in the armchair.

‘What are you doing, son?’ Dad asked.

Yet again I felt as if I only had woken up at that moment although I had already been up for a while by then.

‘Nothing, I’m just sitting here,’ I answered.

Then Dad got out of his bed and walked me back to mine. He sat with me for a while then he went back to his place.

I have to sleep in the afternoon, too. I don’t like it. I always dream so much. And when I awake I always feel hot.

Dad has already been in the hospital for a week when Mom realised that my cheeks are always red when I wake up. She touched my forehead and gave me a thermometer. She did so for three days. Every afternoon I had a temperature. We checked it in the mornings and at nights as well. I was all right then.

On the forth day Mom said, “We’ll go to see Doctor Kalocsai today. Previously Kohn,” she added almost automatically, laughing.

When I was born Doctor Kalocsai was still called Kohn. I remember when he changed his name. Mom and Dad used to laugh at this, and whenever his name got mentioned, they added this remark.

In the waiting room the wall was full of photographs of those children whom Doctor Kalocsai ever treated. My picture was there too in the third row from the top, from the time when I was two. I was quite a nice little boy. My hair is exactly as black and curly as my Mom’s. Sometimes people say I take after her.

The Doctor showed the previous patient out and called out.

“Next please. Good afternoon, Rózsika, hello Gabi. How are things? How is Imre?”

“Thank God, he is getting better,” Mum answered, “medication, rest, peace. He’ll stay in the hospital for a while and then I’ll take care of him at home.” ‘Found a flat yet?’

“Nothing so far, but quite a lot of people promised they would look around.” ‘And what’s with the boy?’

“I noticed three days ago that he has a temperature in the afternoons,” Mom said in a slightly shaking voice.

“Let’s have a look,” smiled the Doctor. “Take your shirt off.”

He moved his stethoscope over my back and my chest. You could never tell where he would put it next. I was shivering.

“Now, step up here, I’ll x-ray you.”

When I got dressed again he put his palm on my head and said, “Wait outside for a minute, son, will you?”

I was watching the photographs and was bored.

“Come on, let’s walk a bit in the garden of the hospital, shall we?’” said Mom when she stepped out from the surgery.

We were walking on the yellow gravel path under the shade of the giant trees. We sat down on a white bench. I didn’t ask anything. I waited.

“Doctor Kalocsai had a look at your lungs,” she began, “you know, there are these little bubbles called chyle. The Doctor says that these bubbles got swollen at one point. It’s not a big problem but now you have to rest a lot and you’ll get some medicines as well. The best thing in this condition is to travel to the mountains to a sanatorium. I don’t want you to travel to another town. There is a Jewish children’s home just on the outskirts of the city with a big park. The Doctor knows the doctors over there and will tell him about you. You will stay there for a couple of weeks on the fresh air. You’ll get medication, you won’t run around and won’t play hopscotch, and by the time autumn comes you’ll be ready to go to school.”

I was speechless.

“Now wait here. I’ll go upstairs to see Dad. You can visit him as soon as possible.”

I grew restless. I started walking among the flowerbeds. There is a tree further up with burgundy-red bark. I like it very much. I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else.

I have to go again. What’s more, I have to go alone. How can you get out there? Is everybody ill there or am I going to be the only one who has to stay in bed all day?

I drew a hopscotch on the ground and started hopping. By the time I got to the end Mom had already returned. I suddenly remembered that I’m not allowed to hop around any more, but Mom didn’t scold me.

“Come on, sweetheart, we’ll go and see Daddy,” she said.

From the wide, well-lit corridor we entered into a hospital room with six beds in it. Dad was lying next to the window. He smiled at us as we entered the room.

“Hello, son, I haven’t seen you for ages. I hear you’re going on a vacation. So how are things? How are you doing with the studying?” Dad looked so strange lying on that white hospital bed. He seemed very skinny and his voice sounded strangely different.

‘”’m getting better at reading,” I managed finally.

“You will have a lot of time to study now. Practice your maths as well. When I get out of here I’ll buy you new books.”

Mom, who had been standing behind me all this time, now put her hand on my shoulder.

‘Let’s say goodbye to Dad now, shall we?’

We kissed each other on the cheek. I turned back once more from the door. Dad was smiling and waving at us.

We step out on the street. Suddenly something struck me.

“When do I have to go to that children’s home?” I asked Mom sharply.

“Tomorrow morning,” she answered and drew me closer.


I had endless number of questions but even Mom had no answer most of them. We were packing in a miserable mood.

She found it hard to smile.

I managed to learn at least that the home is basically for orphaned children who lost their entire families. I will be put up in a separate house where there are rooms only for the ill. Of course, there will be other patients too. We will travel there by a horse-drawn cart because there is no other public transportation there.

Mom will come and visit three times a week and help me with the studying. She will have to get herself a bicycle soon because the horse-drawn cart is an expensive commodity if you use it so often.

Well, it was at least better than nothing.

“You might even get some chocolate,” Mom told me sitting on the side of my bed. “There is usually a bit of chocolate in the American parcels. The children’s home gets lots of parcels like that.”

What did I care about the chocolate? I can’t even remember if I’ve ever had any.

Mom went on talking. By the time I get home we will surely have our own flat. And Dad will be out of hospital too. They will find a school for me where I can take my grade two exams and can start grade three in September.

“Why? I will go to a Jewish school, won’t I?’”I asked startled.

“No, I don’t think so. There aren’t too many children there now. It’s not a very good school now. I’ll find a better school for you.”

Just another thing I don’t need. New classmates. True, I don’t remember all the old classmates but I already knew that Pista Tausz will be enrolled in the Jewish school.

What’s the big fuss about learning anyway? Is it really the most important thing now?

Mom bent over me and I folded my arms around her neck. How many nights will I have to go to sleep without cuddling up to her?

We cried a little.

The morning was a gloomy, cloudy one. We walked to the horse-drawn carts station and found a seat in one of the stationed cars. The ride was good. The horseshoes clapped in a rhythm on the cobblestones. The rain was drumming in line with it on the canvas roof of the car. We trotted out of town, passing gardens and fields.

We stopped at the entrance of a park. On the left a several storey building towered above the trees.

The principal knew we would be coming. She led us across the park to the pavilion used for the ill children. I saw a couple of children on the way. It wasn’t visible that they were orphans; I couldn’t tell.

The principal handed us over to a nurse who was very young and blonde and rather fat. They were expecting the doctor to come later.

There were two rooms for the ill in the bungalow. The plants from the park blocked the sunlight from getting in through the windows. Because of this or because it was cloudy the rooms were quite dark. The nurse showed me my bed. The other two beds were unoccupied and a thin, dark haired boy was lying on the third one. Is he an orphan too? Is it very bad for him that I came here with my Mom?

“Allright, sweetheart, I’m going now,” said Mom, ‘‘you know, the cart is waiting. I can see you’ll be fine here. Only two sleeps and I’ll be here to visit you. Till then study nicely and rest a lot.”

I watched through the glass door as she spoke a few words with the nurse, then she disappeared from my sight.


The first couple of days seemed endlessly long. I never knew what was going to happen in the next hour. Then slowly we settled into a daily routine but by that time everything became monotonous and boring. It was summertime after all. The sun was shining a lot. The room became lighter, too.

Peter Koltai spent a week together with me in the infirmary, then a sixteen-year-old boy came next, and after that others came, always someone else. Sometimes I would be alone in the room for days.

Koltai did have a grandmother but she could not work any more and that’s why she decided to send him to the children’s home. The sixteen-year-old and most of the others were all by themselves in this world and they all wanted to go the Palestine. They were learning Hebrew and mixed Hebrew words into their sentences when they talked.

In the evenings they would light a bonfire and danced around it singing loudly, or they would just sit around the fire and sing Hebrew songs I have never heard before.

I could not go and sit with them. I don’t really belong here. The fact that I am Jewish and they are Jewish as well seemed insignificant now. They, the orphans, were always running around fired by eagerness to do something and had lots of fun. I wasn’t an orphan, true, but in the morning I was given a bench under the trees and had to lie there all day. I would watch the bonfire at night, leaning on my windowsill.

Mom did get herself a bicycle. She came exactly three times a week to visit me. She would bring semolina pudding into which she stirred a bit of fruit and eggs. Every time she came we studied a bit together, she prepared homework for me and checked the ones I had finished from the previous days.

I got colour pencils, a sketchbook, plasticine and a colouring book.

The others who stayed at the infirmary would play jack-straws with me if they were not too feverish. I asked them why they were going to Palestine. It was our homeland, they would answer. We would build it for ourselves and nobody can persecute us there because we are going to defend ourselves.

You will defend yourselves? How? With weapons, of course. We, Jews, with weapons? I liked the idea.

“Please, can we go to Palestine, too?” I asked Mom.

She was surprised.

“We can’t go there,” she answered after hesitating for a while.

“Why? Aren’t we Jewish?”

“Yes, we are unfortunately,” she said with a bitter smile. ‘But, you know, Palestine is a very-very poor country. It is extremely hot over there all year round. Almost the whole place is a desert. ‘

‘But everybody is going there. They don’t think it’s a desert.’

“With what would we make a living there?”

‘Why, what will the others make a living with?’

‘They will cultivate the land, they will work together.’

‘Is it not good for us?’

“We are not young any more. Dad doesn’t know anything about farming. He’s got a job here and we will have our own flat soon, too. We can’t leave for the uncertain.”

‘What if they want to hurt us again over here?’

‘They can’t hurt us now. The Russians are here now.’

‘What if they weren’t here?’

“Look, sweetheart, people are not bad. There was a smaller group of people who didn’t like us, so they did a lot of bad things to us. These people are now facing the courts and they will be punished.”

‘What about the Germans?’

“They lost the war. They will never ever be the same as they were in the past.”

I wasn’t convinced. I would have liked to leave from here. It would have been much better far away from here. We are not safe here. Anything can happen here.

At night, in the dark, I was left alone with the dead. There they were, suffocating around me. They ran into the electric fence and died, heavy smoke came swirling out of a huge chimney.

They were around me day and night. They were shouting at h me, scolding me, arguing with me. I tried to defend myself but there were too many of them.

What do you mean there aren’t enough students in the Jewish school? Where are the absent ones? Were they all killed? What have my classmates done? And what have I done to have stayed alive?

If an old person dies, everybody mourns them. Poor Uncle Jóska, could have lived a bit longer. What about the children? Couldn’t they have lived a bit longer, too? Are they not considered a loss? All we have to say about them is that there aren’t enough of them?

Where are all the people? Why did they do it to them? They didn’t love us? Is it a reason for killing someone? I don’t really like Aunt Irma. So can I kill her? In whose way were grandma and Toni? In whose way did I get so they could toss me around form here to there for a year? So they could take my bed and my toys away? Why did all this happen?

Nobody answered these questions. So do I have to answer them, I, who is only just learning to read? I’m left here, sitting among the walls of silence with my dead and with my thoughts. Why can’t they read my mind? Why don’t they answer? Do they not know themselves? The adults, who know everything? They turn their eyes away from the horrors. They do not look.

My eyes don’t ask if they can look or not. The dead are there always and everywhere. I cannot send them away. They are calling me, they are shouting at me. You are one of us! You belong here with us! Why didn’t you come with us? Do you think you are different?

I try to defend myself. No, I am not different. It’s just an accident. Please forgive me. I can’t help being alive, don’t be angry with me, please. I will die eventually when I get old.

But we died young, they scream. And your mother doesn’t even feel pity for us. There aren’t enough students in the school, that’s what she says. And why is she alive? There are all these orphans here. None of them has a mother and yours is alive. It is not fair!

Leave me alone, leave me alone, I beg them. I want to wake up. It’s a dream. It’s not a dream.

This is reality! Face it!

I can’t face it. It is killing me, I’m going to die, too. You’ll take me with you, I know.

I’m scared, I’m scared! I don’t understand. Maybe we did commit something terrible, just I don’t know about it. There must be a reason for this horror, surely. There must be something dark lurking somewhere behind it all.

If we weren’t guilty, how could Mom just simply say that there aren’t enough students in the school? Just like that, as simple as that. Surely, she knows something that I don’t know.

She knows there’s nothing to shout about because they were right. We deserved to be punished.

But what have I done? Or do I and all other children have to suffer the consequences of the sins of the adults? Oh, how I hate the sinners who caused us all this trouble! How I hate the Jews! No, no! I don’t want to be Jewish any more.

You don’t want to be? But you are! The dead are shouting.

No! If I want, I won’t be a Jew any more. No, no, no! It’s bad for me, I can’t bare it any more.

If I’m not Jewish any more, I can forget about you. I don’t belong with you. I’m not responsible for you.

The dead slowly withdrew to a distant little chamber of my soul and I slowly closed the door behind them. They disappeared. My heart, however, grew heavier and heavier. And threateningly and unpredictably the world began to tower above my head.


One day Mom arrived in her old military raincoat because it was pouring down with rain. She told me that Dad was out from the hospital and is already at home. He is allowed to go on short walks but he still has to take good care of himself.

We were studying for a long time but then Mom had to start for home. I wrapped a blanket around myself and saw her out to the gates.  Mom was pushing the bicycle on one side, I was on her other. The huge raincoat covered her completely from head to toe.  We reached the gates. The country road was deserted, not a single passer-by, not a single horse cart was out in such weather.  We kissed our goodbyes. Mom mounted the bike and started pedalling through the wet curtain of the pouring rain.

I suddenly felt my heart sink. There she is, pedaling away from me, leaving me behind. At home they will be together and I am shoved out here into the unknown, out in the rain.  I started running after the bike and shouted at the top of my voice.

‘Mom, mom! Take me home! Take me away from here!’  I felt strong enough to run into town right then.
Mom got off her bicycle and turned around. I had caught up with her and clung to her as hard as I could.

‘Take me home. Take me home!’  Mom let me under her raincoat and cuddled me for a while.

“Sweetheart, my dear, I can’t take you yet. You have to cure properly. Be a good boy and go back there. You are a big and clever boy now. You know you cannot come home yet. I’ll see you the day after tomorrow again. We’ll go into town soon to have your x-ray taken again. If everything goes well, you won’t have to spend too much more here. You can come home soon.” She went on murmuring like this to me for a while and then started walking back towards the home with me. When we reached the gate she spoke again.

“Be a good boy and go inside, will you? Give me a kiss and be my clever big boy.”
I was plodding along the path, sobbing all the way. All my hopes seemed distant and lifeless. The only thing I felt was the loneliness that surrounded me and cut me off from the world.


Last week Mom told me that I had been in the children’s home for six weeks already and doctor Kalocsai wished to see me. She would come by horse cart next time and would take me with her. We would be together all day and she would only take me back in the evening. I have been excited about this day all week. I got dressed and waited for Mom. I felt extremely hyper.

‘What are we going to do after the doctor’s appointment?’ I asked.  It’s a surprise,” she answered with a mysterious smile on her face.  We said goodbye to the nurse who waved with a big smile on her face after us from the door.
The horse-drawn cart had been waiting for us just outside the gates. I climbed on and to my surprise I landed immediately on my father’s lap.

‘Daddy!’ I cried and choked on the word. Dad pulled me close on his lap showered me with kisses and I was blubbering on end.  “Now, now,’ he said softly, so what do you think? I came to meet you here.”

I couldn’t say a single word. Mom got in the cart as well and I sat there in the middle between them. Each of them held one of my hands as we trotted into town quietly.”

“It is healing nicely,” said the Doctor when I stepped down from the steps of the X-ray machine. “Three or four more weeks and you will be as good as new.” He turned to face my parents. “When he comes home he should sleep with the windows open, come rain or shine. And of course he has to eat plenty. But we will talk about these things later anyway.”

The horse cart had been dismissed. We started walking but not homewards.

Where are we going?” I asked.

When we reached Őz Street, we turned to enter a house. Who are we visiting, I wondered. On the first floor we stopped in front of a door. “‘Take a look at the door-plate,” my father urged me.

On a shiny, new doorplate it said: Imre Klein. Suddenly everything became clear.

‘We live here. This is the new flat!’

Dad opened the door. We stepped inside. From the long hallway we walked into a room with two windows and from there we opened the door of a smaller room.  ‘This is going to be your room,’ Mom explained.
“My room? I will have my own room?” I could not believe my own eyes.

“So far we only managed to get these second hand pieces of furniture, but now that we have our own flat I can start working again,” Mom went on. “The hallway is spacious enough to fit my sewing machine in it. The bigger room can be used for measuring the clients and as a changing room. When we have a little money, we will buy you some nice, colourful furniture.”

I wandered around in the flat, touching everything. There was a view from the windows down onto the street that was lined with tall trees on both sides.

‘Right, now we can go and have lunch,’ said Mom. ”We were sitting together in the kitchen by the nicely laid table.

“You see, sweetheart,” Mum said, “things are getting better every day. You will get better and in a couple of weeks we are going to be sitting by this table together every day.”
The kitchen was unfamiliar but my parents were the same. Surely, everything will get better.


It is the big day today. First morning in the new school. To be perfectly honest I got pretty used to not going to school. We finished grade one last year, somewhere in March when the Germans occupied the country.

The school on the roof of the brick furnace was hardly the real thing.

“It’s a brilliant day for starting school today,” Mom announced when she came to wake me up.

When she was a child she used to love clear, shiny, cool September mornings like this.

The school is a huge house meeting three streets on its sides. It is like a castle. The gates are framed by protruding carved stone ornaments.

After my exams, which were held in the staff room, Mom asked me if I wanted to go and find my new classroom.

I gladly said yes because it was a strange feeling to know that I would have to come into this enormous building alone. I might not be able to find the classroom and the lessons will start without me.

We stepped out from the spacious hallway through a glassed door of the first floor and turned onto a corridor. The floor was covered with black and white tiles. The doors and windowsills of the classrooms were painted light green. The sunshine filled the rooms shining through the huge windows. Wow! What a school. The dull brown doors of the Jewish elementary school now seemed pitiful in comparison.

We found the third form classroom and even peeped in a bit.

I got a new bag, new pair of shoes and a white shirt. Lots of children were crowding in front of the school but girls and boys grouped up separately. When I entered the classroom some turned around and looked at me then carried on talking. Everybody seemed to have known each other. The noise level was quite high.
I spotted a short, blonde little boy who was standing alone by the window. I walked up to him and asked.

“Are you also new here?”

“Yes,’ he answered, “are you?”


‘I went to the Fürdő Street school last year but we moved here in the neighbourhood. Where do you come from?”
From the deportation, I would have said suddenly, but the words got stuck in my throat. I got embarrassed and could feel my cheeks growing redder by the minute.

”I used to go to the Jewish school,” I managed finally.

What do they know about life, I thought to myself. They just walk out from one school to another and nobody is trying to hurt them.

The teacher entered the room. Everybody found a seat and we settled down. The teacher scanned across the room and we were all looking at her. She was not young any more. Her long hair was twisted awkwardly around her head.

“Let us pray,” she said.

Here? Now? What prayer? And according to what religion? The boys put their hands together, standing next to their desks, and they all started praying aloud together. The prayer seemed to be general, anybody could say that. So I put my hands together, too, although it felt really strange.  I never used to go to the synagogue that often, just sometimes with the school and on Fridays with Grandpa, but nobody put hands together there.

“Sit down, everybody,” instructed the teacher. “Let’s see how much you’ve grown during the summer. And let’s meet our new students…”  She took out the register and read out the list of names aloud. The boys one by one put their hands up from behind their desks and said: ‘Here!’  There was something military about this.

Apart form us two there were two more new boys in the class.  Please welcome them with love,” said the teacher.
With love? Surely she does not mean it seriously. She was just being polite. We did not study on that day. We wrote down the timetable and got to know what we had to buy for the school year. We said another prayer before leaving.

“Praise the Lord for His mercy, which allowed us to learn more of the world and of ourselves today.|
After the prayer we all swirled out through the door. I walked together with the new boy till the gate then we parted.
I was walking slowly towards our new home.


One afternoon when I got home from my violin lesson I found Uncle Gyula in my parents’ room. He had turned very gray and seemed a lot skinnier then when I last had seen him. Was it really him?
Only when he turned his head towards me and his bright eyes smiled at me was I sure that it was Grandpa’s old friend at our table.

“Hello, Gabi my dear. Look how much you’ve grown. God, time flies, doesn’t it? It must be at least one and a half year since I last saw you. Come over here, son.”
He said these last words in a strange way, as if his throat suddenly went dry. I put the violin down. He stood me in between his knees and stroked my hair, then tilted his head and looked me up and down.“spitting image of poor Sándor. My word, what resemblance. He had your father’s features earlier, too, Rózsi love, but now that he has grown a bit, it is just amazing… We had known each other with your grandpa,” he turned to me, “since the age of ten. All the things we did together… I could be telling you stories for a week non stop… and now … I suspected he had been killed. He should have made contact by now,” he said staring at the floor.

“Neither of them came back. Not my mother, nor my father,” said Mom.

I felt very uncomfortable. Here comes this “didn’t come back” again. It sounds completely as if they had gone on a holiday somewhere or as if they had emigrated to America. Why does it have to be said like that? Uncle Gyula is right. He says it as it is: “they were killed”. Yes. They were suffocated with gas then they were burnt with fire and the rest were shot with guns. This is killing.  Uncle Gyula pulled himself together and turned back to me.

“So tell me, Gabi my dear, how is your life nowadays?” “I go to the Mező Street school now, and I have English classes in the afternoon and violin lessons, too.”

“To the Mező Street?” Uncle Gyula echoed my words in amazement. “It’s pretty far from here, and anyway… Imre, why did you enrol him there?” “Look, Uncle Gyula, there are very few students at the Jewish school, it can’t be a strong school now. There is no development without competition. Now the kid can learn, not like before.”

“How many Jews children are there in the class?” Uncle Gyula asked. “I am the only one” I answered, but this fact now sounded so different form before during the course of everyday life. I saw myself standing out on the corridor alone. Everybody is Catholic. The priest comes and teaches religion. Those of other religions, of course, leave. That’s me, all by myself. And you cannot even sit down because there are no chairs or desks in the corridor.

Uncle Gyula looked at me thoughtfully and I felt he could see right through me and he knows exactly what it feels like to be of a different religion in a Catholic class, especially if that other religion is Jewish. Suddenly I saw him differently. When I was little I was playing under the table while the adults were playing cards, and he was just one of grandpa’s guests. A nice guest, old friend, but nobody really important to me.

“Look, Uncle Gyula,” my mother interrupted, trying to explain, “you know, that we have never been religious. Now, even those who had it before have lost their faith. Just see how many people say nowadays that if these horrible things could happen to us God doesn’t exist, because if he did, he wouldn’t have let this to happen.” “I cannot think like that,” replied Uncle Gyula slowly, contemplating. “We don’t know why God does or doesn’t do things. We are Jews whether we like it or not. But I don’t want to force anything on you. Everybody has to live according to their own beliefs.” Then he turned to me again. “What do you do with yourself when you are not at school or at extra lessons?”

“I collect plants.” “Do you press them?”

“Yes, and I stick them in a book. And I try to identify them, too.”

“Will you show me your collection?”

I was looking at him cautiously. Could he really be interested? Uncle Gyula was taking me seriously. He was awaiting my answer.

“Come into my room,” I answered finally. “I’ll show you.”

“I’m sorry, dears, “said Uncle Gyula to my parents, “I have to leave you for a while. We’ll go into Gabi’s room.”

“No problem Uncle Gyula,” said Mom with a natural tone in her voice, “but honey, take this little cake with you. You haven’t even tried it yet.”  I turned and looked back from the door. With her head low, Mom started collecting the plates from the table.


Uncle Gyula had a grocery shop in Erzsébet Street, not far from the synagogue. With a little detour after the English lesson I could pop in to his shop.

Uncle Gyula served the customers alone in his long, grey cloak. He measured and put the goods into brown paper bags with a metal spoon. Smaller items got wrapped in a’cone’, made out of rolled up newspaper. I watched carefully the way he rolled up newspapers. I wanted to learn how to do it. He held the unfolded paper in one hand, twisted it once skilfully and tucked in the end a bit before filling it up with something. His candy jars stood mostly empty on the shelves.
However, most of the times I used to sit on a cricked and would watch the world go by. When there were no customers, we would talk. At times he would sit on a crummy chair behind the counter. When the little bell on the door chimed to indicate that a customer entered, he stood up painfully. He had a sore leg.

Uncle Gyula lived behind the shop. A door led from the shop to the room and another from the room to the kitchen, the other door of which led directly to the backyard. He did not have a bathroom.
A woman came to do the cooking and cleaning for him. Not everybody was able cook for him. This lady worked in the kitchen of the synagogue and thus knew what is permitted in his house and what isn’t.

In Autumn afternoons darkness descended early. Uncle Gyula closed the shop. I helped him pull down the shutter with the hook-end pole. Then we went back to the flat. He stood in front of one of the walls on which a little board hung with Hebrew writing. He started to pray. I sat there in silence. He prayed in Hebrew. His upper body moved backwards and forwards slightly. He said the prayer in a singing voice. It always reminded me of Grandpa. Sometimes he took me to the synagogue. Lots of people were there. You could hear the organ playing and people were singing together. Suddenly everybody turned around and looked at the entrance.

‘The Sabbath has just come in, like a beautiful bride’, Grandpa would whisper. I did not see anyone. I looked up at the dome that was decorated with golden stars against blue background.  I still remember what a great time I had there.

When I got home I would tell my parents with great enthusiasm:

“The Sabbath has come in but I didn’t see it. It was really great.”

My God, it has just struck me, that my parents looked at each other cautiously over my head but I still saw the expression in their eyes. Of course, I haven’t been to the synagogue since then. They did not want me to go there. But why? What is it that they claim as being enlightened? Is it about me having to be the only one with a different religion in the class? Those boys are not enlightened either. I know, they go to church on Sunday afternoons. Why is it me that has to be enlightened? Like this thing now. It is only November. Yes, it is only November but everybody is already talking about how tall their Christmas tree is going to be. I will not have a Christmas tree, I cannot go to the synagogue but at least I am enlightened. Eventually it might become clear what it means.


It was only three days until Christmas. Everybody was getting excited at school. They were guessing the size of this year’s Christmas trees.

‘The Christmas of the first peaceful year is approaching,’ said Miss Maria with some awe in her voice. Somehow this awe stuck with me. A row of vendors selling Christmas trees were lined up on the Main Street, alongside with stalls offering tree decorations and illuminations. In the evening they would count out the change by candlelight. We went for a walk on the Main Street these days with Mom a lot. The strong scent of the pines filled the air with festive mood. Mom bent down and picked up a couple of loose branches that had fallen off.

“Just mething about”, she said smiling. ‘You know, when I was a child Grandma used to bring me here to see the tree vendors. I used to pick up some branches then. I had a bit of speech impediment and I always said mething instead of messing. It stayed like that in the family.”  An awkward feeling came suddenly over me. We should either buy a tree or not buy one. If, we are not buying, what on earth are we doing here? Why are we messing about with the loose branches? Does enlightenment include Christian holidays but exclude the Jewish ones?

I had to fight my tears back. I lost my voice.

My silence became very apparent at dinner. I had to concentrate hard to swallow my tears.

‘What’s wrong, son?’ Dad asked.

I was just shaking my head and could not utter a single word. Mom, who was sitting beside me, held my chin to raise my head and tried to look me in the eye. I closed my eyes as tight as I could but I felt the tears slowly running down on my cheeks. Mom stood up, moved close to me and hugged my head against her chest. She stroke my hair. That set off the heaviest of sobs.  When finally the crying subsided Mom sat down beside me and asked:

“What’s bothering you, my love?”  I could not keep it inside any more.

“Everybody is talking about Christmas, everybody is preparing for Christmas. It’s all they talk about in class. Even the teachers keep going on about it. Everybody will have a Christmas tree, everybody, even the poorest kid, but me. What am I supposed to say when they ask me how big our tree was and what presents I got?”
There was a long silence after this. I looked at Mom and then Dad and then at Mom again. They seemed to be slightly embarrassed.

“You know, son, we have never had a Christmas tree because we are Jewish,” said Dad finally.
“Normal Jews go to the synagogue and send their children to the Jewish school. You say we are enlightened and not religious. So what are we after all?”

‘Christmas…, ‘ Mom mused, “the festival of love… come to think of it, why not?”

They looked at each other with Dad and went silent again for a while. Then Dad started nodding while slightly shrugging his shoulders, as if to say, he might as well… “Well then,’ Mom decided, ‘let it be if you want it so much. What would my poor father say?’” she added in a low voice, as if talking to herself.

What would he say? What would he say? What did he say when in his life you did not go to the synagogue and would not let me go with him either? And what did he say when he found out that you did not keep the fast at Yom Kippur?
So the next day we went to buy a Christmas tree. It was as tall as me, and we bought decoration as well, and spiky, silver tinsels and candles and sparklers, and everything.

On Christmas day we decorated the tree in the afternoon together. After dinner we went into the room. Dad lit the candles and the sparklers. There were boxes lying under the tree. I got a book from my parents, Mom got a bottle of perfume from Dad and he got a wallet from Mom. We switched the lights off. The flames were dancing on top of the candles, illuminating the colourful, lean wax body bellow. The rest faded away. The sparklers slowly died down. Te strong scent of the pine filled up the room. Yes, that is it. Now I am real too. I have my Christmas too.

“Let’s sing Silent Night,” I asked.

An embarrassed silence was the answer.

I started singing: Silent Night, Holy Night, all is calm, all is bright. 
Mom and Dad started humming along faintly, then gradually joined in with the lyrics. ‘Christ the saviour is born, Christ the saviour is born.” When there was only one candle flickering in the dark Dad switched back the lights on and faintly humming to himself settled into his favourite armchair by the stove.

“Well, I’ll go and do the dishes,” Mom announced casually, ‘will you come and do the drying, Gabi love?”
I stiffened. The fast-fading magic of the moment vanished in the air. So was it all just because of me? So that I wouldn’t cry? Is it not the real thing? This is not holiday after all?
  My heart sank. Once again, I was completely on my own.


Pista Tausz was a regular customer at Uncle Gyula’s shop. We met quite often there.

‘So what’s the new school like?’ he asked me.

‘Nice. It’s got a big gym and a huge yard.’

‘And the boys?’

‘They’re nice.’

‘Don’t they bully you as a Jew?’


‘Don’t worry, they were told at home what they can and can’t say nowadays,’ Uncle Gyula remarked as if to himself. Still I felt he was saying it to Pista as something that binds them together; a bond I cannot be part of.

‘And what’s the Jewish school like?’ I asked.

‘Rather homely. There’s the six of us in the class. Two of them are from the orphanage, they’re not even locals.’

‘Six in a class,’ I echoed his words and I remembered Mom saying there were too few students. That few?

‘That’s not too bad. There’s only three in year one.’

Three? Where are the others? Did they go to other schools? Or… oh, my God… was the whole school killed? All those many children who used to run around in the yard during lunch break? Those who filled up the synagogue on the last day of school before summer holidays?

When the weather was good in the Autumn we studied outside in the church yard. We were sitting on the grass around Miss Lili who gave us arithmetic puzzles to solve. Whoever finished first, put their hand up and could say the solution. If it was correct, Miss Lili praised us. I pictured the scene of a small group of children sitting on the grass. This is not real school.  ‘You don’t even have recitations? You surely have to go to the blackboard sometimes.’

‘Not really. We just talk. They ask questions and whoever knows the answer puts their hand up, stands up when asked and gives the answer. They always have a look at the homework.’

I suddenly remembered the horror of recitations. Standing all alone in front of the blackboard. Fair enough, I have always known the answers so far, but the long walk to the blackboard… We never had to go up to the blackboard in grade one.

“We’ll have a Chanukah festival,” Pista changed the subject abruptly.

‘How now,’ Uncle Gyula murmured, ‘are you taking part?’

‘But of course. Everybody is taking part. We are rehearsing a play and there will be a choir, too. The whole school will take part.’

‘And when is the festival?’

“On Sunday, at four o’clock. Please come, Uncle Gyula. You too, Klein. Tell your parents as well.”

I had no idea what my parents would say to the invitation for the Chanukah festival. Luckily it was not me who had to break the news. Pista’s mother has her clothes made by Mom, and she presented the invitation.

“The children get some present as well,” she said knowingly.

Present? I pretended not to have heard anything. I would really have liked if my parents took me on their own accord.

When the door closed behind Mrs. Tausz, Mom got the tape-measure off around her neck and while she was rolling it up neatly she asked without even looking at me.

“Well, shall we go?”

“Yes,” I answered, trying to hide my excitement. Dhe might not like my enthusiasm.

“We might go,” Mum said slowly.

Sunday afternoon we dressed up in our best clothes and left together. The ballroom was on the first floor of the red brick building of the community centre. We had to queue up at the cloak room. The Jews from the outskirts came into town for the festival too. It was nice and warm in the ballroom. The giant portraits of old community aldermen were hanging from the walls heavy with stuccoes. Some of them had posed in hussar-pelisse for the painter.

We sat down. Only every second bulb of the gigantic chandeliers was lit. Yes, I have been here before a couple of times.

The end-of-the-year ceremony for the kindergarten was held here every year.

The murmur of the audience slowly died down. The members of the choir lined up on the stage. Three children stepped out from the group. They went up to the big candelabrum where five candles were waiting to be lit. The audience stood up. The tall boy in the middle, wearing a little cap, took the sixth candle, which stood apart from the others, from its place and the girl standing next to him lit it. The boy held the burning candle high and in a beautifully clear voice began the prayer. There were choking sighs and faint sobbing from here and there. The boy lit the five candles one by one then stepped back with his mates into their place. One of the teachers moved in front of the choir, held her hands up and gave the cue.

’Maoz tzur y'shuati l'cha noeh l'shabeach…’ the children sang.

The women were crying aloud, the men were blowing their noses. Even I knew this song. We learnt it at kindergarten and we also sang it in grade one.   I counted the members of the choir. There were twenty-eight of them.  The audience slowly picked up the tune and gradually the ballroom has turned into a single choir.

After singing, everybody sat down and the programme went on its way. The children performed short plays and recited poems. Pista Tausz took part in a speaking choir performed by the grade three pupils. All six of them. They recited a poem by Jozsef Kis. It was about some kind of a boat.

A strange feeling came over me. There was something unnatural about the class of six, something uncanny. The grimness of the absence of the others surrounded them. I did not want to belong with them. This is abnormal. This is not a real class. Mom was right.  On the other hand I felt a indissoluble bond that tightened painfully every time I moved away.
After the show the presents were brought out. Suddenly the whole place came alive as they put the big baskets on a table covered with a simple cloth. The children queued up, giggled and cheered.

“Go and get your present” Mom urged me.

I had mixed feelings, wanting and not wanting to go. Do I deserve this present? Mom says I should go. Mrs.Tausz also said there would be presents. Still, it didn’t feel right for me to get one.
“Go on, son, just go there,” said Dad. “You see, all the others go without their parents, too.”
He thinks I don’t dare to stand in the queue alone. I didn’t have problems going to the new school alone and I didn’t even no anyone I there. I joined the queue.

“Hello, Klein,” someone nudged me on the side.

“Hey, Eszti Pollak, fancy seeing you here! I didn’t see you in the choir.”

“I was standing in the third row.”

“Where do you live now?”

“ At the same place. We got our house back. But I haven’t see you around there. I go past your house every day on the way to school.”

“We live in Oz Street now.”

“That’s not very far. I’ve heard from Tausz that you go to the Mezo Street School.”

“Where do you play nowadays?”

“Just across the road in the churchyard. Come out in the afternoons if you like.”


It was Friday afternoon. At four o’clock it was already dark. I was on my way home from my violin lesson. In the middle of the pavement there was a thin path cleared away by the footsteps of the pedestrians, snow piling up high on both sides. My hand that was holding the violin case started to feel cold. I had to go past the synagogue. There was warm light seeping through the window high above.

When was the last time I was here? Long-long time ago, I must have been very young, maybe five or so. I was standing next to Grandpa with a little cap on my head. We were listening to the organ and we were covered in bright light coming from the chandeliers. People were singing. Suddenly everybody turned towards the door, with the backs to the Ark.

“The Sabbath has just arrived, like a beautiful bride,” Grandpa whispered.

But the door failed to open and a bride in white failed to enter. I was slightly disappointed.

“Where is the bride?” I asked Grandpa.

He just smiled mysteriously.

“She is already here with us.”

We turned back. Grandpa let me kneel on the bench. There were only men standing on our side, the women prayed on the other side. Grandma turned to look at me and gave me a smile.

Little toddlers were running up and down on the red carpet of the aisle between the rows for men and the one for women. The older children were standing with their parents or grandparents.

The synagogue was crowded and shiny.

I stopped in front of the gate. I had a sudden urge to go inside. It is Friday evening. The service must have started already. I wonder if they have turned back yet to welcome the beautiful bride? What would my parents say if they knew I wanted to go in? Me, for whom they even bought a Christmas tree.

What if I go in? Who could be in there? Uncle Gyula must be there, surely. I’ll just visit him in the synagogue. Yes, I’ll go in to see him. I have to go in. That is where I have to be. The gate in the wrought iron fence was ajar. It got stuck in the snow. I stepped inside the yard. I followed the beaten path in the snow to reach the building. The handle was high on the tall entrance-door darkened by times. I stood on tiptoes.

It was hard to open. Holding the heavy wing with my hands, I stepped inside. The synagogue was almost empty. Not more than fifteen-twenty men stood in the front in the dim light, across the entrance, and were singing in a harsh, old-fashion voice. There was a bit more women on the other side.

‘L'chah Dodi likrat Kallah…’

I entered instead of the beautiful bride. I was paralysed by the gazes fixed upon me, although the faces were blurred in the dimness. There was only a little, weak light coming from in front of the Ark. In my dismay my hands slipped from the heavy door and it shut with a loud bang behind me.  I did not dare to move. Suddenly a figure arose from among the men and started walking towards me in the aisle. I recognized Uncle Gyula from his funny way of walking. I ran into his arms.

“Gabi, my dear, you’re here…?” he asked, but I could not answer. “Come then, have you come to see me?” I only managed to nod my head.

“Mr. Kardos, please let this boy move in here,” said Uncle Gyula to the man standing next to him, then he turned to me. “Come, Gabi, my dear, this is where your grandfather used to stand. Stand here.”

The service went on its course. The Chazzan chanted the Hebrew words aloud, the others muttered to themselves. No organ, no singing. You could see your breath in the cold room.  I looked up. Tried to look for the golden stars against the blue background. But the dome was covered in darkness. Uncle Gyula put his hand on my shoulder, gave me a hug and kissed me on the cheek.

I nestled up close to him and broke into loud tears.

Vera Szöllős was born in 1937 in Szeged, Hungary, into a totally assimilated Jewish family. In 1944, when she was seven years old, together with her family, she was deported to Czechoslovakia. Here, she and her family survived the war and the Holocaust, under rather difficult circumstances but in relative safety. In 1950 with her family she moved to Budapest and lives there till today. She married, has two children and three grandchildren. In her mature years she began to write mainly life-stories and biographies.

English editing: Judy Weiszenberg Cohen

This article is published here with the permission of the author and that of Dr. Katalin Pecsi, editor of the Esztertaska Blog where it appeared also in Hungarian.


© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2007.
All rights reserved.