I don’t suppose that anyone with memories of tragic events, atrocities, or nightmares that intrudes into reality, chooses or wishes to remember. I certainly don’t. I would be much happier if I could forget them. For many years I consciously suppressed memories of all unpleasant events I experienced. I was young; I wanted to get on with my life and wanted to forget it all. But memories – like skeletons locked up in a cupboard – have a tendency to emerge unexpectedly, whether one likes it or not… There is no escape; one cannot shake off one’s past… and so, I am cursed with memories…
…It was a bright, pleasantly warm and sunny morning in the first few days of May 1945. The war in Europe was officially over. The “Third Reich” was beaten and in ruins. Hitler - the beast - was dead.
I was eleven years of age and just back in the Capital reunited with my mother, from a little village called Lovászpatona (‘Patona for short) - after a long, painful and forced separation - where my aunt Magda, my cousin Évi and I spent nearly a year in hiding from the Nazis, under assumed names and with falsified identity papers.
The sky was blue, the birds were singing and the tall, mature horse-chestnut trees lining both side of the entire length of Vilma Királynö[i] út[ii] were in full bloom. It was around 7.45 in the morning and I - wearing a grey, quasi-military style uniform cap, with an enamelled badge at the front - found myself standing hesitantly with my mother in front of a large, sombre looking red brick building. Vilma Királynö út, a wide tree lined boulevard, where the carriage way was divided into three sections by two sets of tree lined traffic islands, or “inner pavements”, stretched from Lövölde Tér[iii] to Városliget[iv]. One of the more elegant straight avenues of the Capital, to my surprise it looked as if the war had almost feared to touch its distinctly upper-class facade. There was little sign of damage on any of the buildings and the trees looked as luscious as they always had, from time immemorial, at this time of the year. The famous line of chestnut trees gave the whole avenue a character of its very own and complemented well the elegant buildings along its entire length. (The trees also gave the avenue its other unofficial, but popular name of Fasor, meaning avenue). The building in question and in front of which we stood was a substantial, two storey edifice, attached to an imposing church - both built of the same colour and shape of aged, dark red bricks - on the corner of Bajza utca[v]. It seemed hardly touched by the war; there was even proper glazing in most of its windows.
Young boys of all shapes, sizes and ages, all carrying brief cases, were busily climbing the few stone steps leading up to the heavy doors, to be swallowed up inside. They - like me and in utter contrast to the gloriously blue sky and cheerful weather - were all unsmiling, looking about as happy as lambs going to the slaughter. My mother nervously straightened my tie and shirt collar and - with saliva moistened fingers - quickly rearranged a few misplaced tussles on my head under the cap; then first looking at the building again, turned to me, with an expression reminiscent of a vendor offering a valuable property to a prospective buyer:
- “Well, what do you think?” - she invited my opinion.
- “It’s a school” - I shrugged my shoulders dismissively – “and I’ve seen better ones... especially those hit by a bomb.”
I was not going to enthuse about this building, or about the prospect of going inside, for what promised to be a “life sentence”.
She looked back at me with a long, low, disapproving look and then, with her palm on the back of my neck, she firmly pushed me into a forward march up those steps. For just one brief moment before the door opened I managed to anchor my feet in a last hopeless ditch of resistance, then through the door I went... “Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch’entrate.”[vi]... and my fate was sealed...
Inside the building hung that unmistakable and indescribable odour that characterised all schools. In the entrance hall to the left was the small room of the caretaker’s “office” and slightly to the left and opposite the main door an imposing stone staircase ascended to the first floor. My mother momentarily abandoned me just inside the door and approached the slightly built, thick-moustached man, standing in front of the caretaker’s room. He had a brass bell in his right hand, which he held upside down by its hammer, presumably to prevent it ringing prematurely. He lent a polite ear to my mother’s enquiry and with his outstretched arm, using the handle of the bell as a pointer, he directed my mother towards a door on the opposite side. As I watched them I wondered why my mother looked so nervous. I was going to the slaughter not she, so why the apprehension?
She placed her palm back again on the back of my neck and nudged me towards the door the caretaker had indicated. She knocked timidly and we entered the Headmaster’s office. The office was spacious, with the walls lined by shelves, full of heavy looking books. An opening through one of the walls to the left seemed to lead into an “inner-sanctum”, so well shielded by the bookshelves and the books that you could only sense its existence, without being able to penetrate with your eyes into its secrets. There was a large desk in the middle of the office. It almost felt that it was placed there as an obstacle, barring unauthorised entry into the forbidden sanctuary. An elderly man of diminutive proportions sat behind the desk, looking almost lost in a voluminous leather upholstered armchair. The wrinkled, parchment like skin, tightly drawn over the skull, and the deeply set eyes inside their dark sockets momentarily reminded me of the woman we nick-named “Depus”[vii], whom my aunt Magda had picked up on our way home from ‘Patona and nursed back to life. Only these eyes had none of the horror, agony and living hell reflecting back at you. These eyes - and come to think of it the whole face - were more reminiscent of a wise old gorilla.
He pulled his lips and face into, what might have been intended as a polite smile, but which instead turned out to be like the snarl of an absent minded, dopey, blood-hound, undecided whether to bite or lick.
- “Good day dear Madam” - he addressed my mother in a measured tone – “so this is your son?”
- “No” - I answered his question silently inside my head – “I am just a monkey borrowed for the occasion and only came along ‘cause she was too afraid coming alone.”
Mother poked her elbow into my ribs as if she were alerting the “ape” to perform.
- “Good day Sir Director.” - I recited dutifully, the way she had coached me prior to our departure from home.
- “Well... let me see...” - he mumbled – “we had a little discussion on the matter with my colleagues and the consensus of opinion was, that this young man would be at a disadvantage, indeed in a position of what might be described as severe handicap, if he were to join his class now... well, what I mean is that all the other boys started back in March.”
This sounded positively promising... I was ready to get up and walk away...
- “Bless his heart is he telling my mother that he does not want me here? My very own sentiments...”
- “Mm” - he continued – “he would definitely be severely stretched... he just could not cope... at the same time it would indeed be a great pity, if - through no fault of his own - he would have to miss this term and fall a year behind...”
- “Why? I don’t mind, please Sir, two years if necessary... or perhaps eight?... Really I am quite willing to give the whole thing a miss!...” - I thought to myself. – “After all I have just had a year off... it hurt me none... I am willing to take more of this kind of punishment. Please Sir...”
My mother listened quietly and intently. Too quietly... why didn’t she agree?...
- “We would suggest” - he carried on after a short contemplative pause – “that the only logical solution, apart from delaying his education, would be to... to give him extracurricular private tutoring in all the subjects. Without that... well... mm... there really is no chance of him pulling through...”
- “What?!... He can’t be serious... cramming all afternoon after school, with a boring old fart like him... I’ve just survived the war... Bloody fascist, what does he want, my blood?!!!... Wait a minute... surely we can’t afford all this... lets just go home...”
- “That’s all right” - I could not believe my ears hearing my mother – “we were more or less expecting that he would have to be tutored privately to catch up. Can you recommend any one Sir Director?”
- “Hey... who’s side are you on? Why don’t you ask what my opinion is?... it is my freedom that you are giving away... Traitor!…”
- “Well as a matter of fact dear Madam... mm... in spite of the fact that we, strictly speaking, should not offer the services of one of our own staff... mm... under these exceptional circumstances I would warmly recommend a very able colleague, who would be the perfect choice...” - and he quickly turned some pages in a notebook in front of him.
– “Dr. László Sándor is indeed an excellent man and he will - I am certain - be able and willing to help this boy. Also, fortuitously, he lives quite near you. I will make all the arrangements and you can discuss the fees with him directly... well... now Madam, you may leave the boy with me, I shall escort him to his class. Good day.” - and mother was dismissed.
He then waved me on to follow him into a classroom, about half way down the by then empty and silent corridor on the ground floor and handed me over to the Master sitting behind a desk upon a dais. The two men exchanged words in a quiet whisper, occasionally throwing a glance at me, whilst I stood with mounting apprehension near the dais, in front of a class-full of hostile looking boys.
- “Well Oszmann, sit in the middle row next to Szávay.” - the master on the dais waved me on, pointing to an empty place, third bench from the front next to a puny, thin boy with a rat-like pointed face and pointed nose, tight thin lips and wavy, blondish, short hair. I moved with the speed and willingness of the condemned. Dr. Renner - whom my mother addressed as Sir Director and who in reality was - at that time - Assistant Headmaster only, but who looked like and acted as if he were the Head, now left the class. I sat down timidly next to the boy the Master called Szávay and for the first time looked around to measure up the place, where I was doomed to spend the best part of the next eight years of my life. I nodded silently to Szávay in greeting and he nodded silently back. The silence in the class was so total, so all encompassing, that I was afraid that the master might hear the slight creak in the upper vertebrae, as I nodded my head. He sat erect on his chair with the class-register open in front of him. He was a squat man, wearing a dark grey discretely pinstriped, slightly crumpled suit, white shirt and tie. For the next eight years I would see him almost every day during term time and he would always look the same, wearing the same suit and same tie. He had a conspicuously high forehead, receding hairline with fine, thin greying hair, prominent cheekbones, with slight puffiness around them, a firm but not aggressive chin-line; slightly lopsided, thin, tight lips with a permanent, faint, Mona Lisa like smile in residence. The eyes had a mischievous glint, but with a warning that said: “You cannot hide anything from me” and were set under heavy lids and above very noticeable and permanent bags.
A pair of thin metal framed, half glass spectacles were perched on the tip of his nose, as he had his eyes firmly fixed on the register in front of him, yet I had that feeling that - at the same time - he was looking right inside my kidneys. It was an uncomfortable feeling. After reading out the register, to which every one he called had to reply with a shout of: “Present”, he called a couple of names from a notebook that he fished out from his inside jacket pocket. The two boys so summoned walked to the dais and stood to attention. For the next five minutes he fired question after question at them, to which they gave short and - what sounded like - precise answers. When the two finally returned to their seats, he stood up and with an open book in his hand he slowly walked between the rows of double school-benches, reading aloud. His voice was clear and his punctuation precise to a fault. I cannot, of course, remember what the text was, but it sounded like part of a chapter from a novel. He then proceeded to give an explanation of the text and grammar and carried on until the bell sounded the end of the lesson. At that point he stopped in his tracks, walked back briskly to the desk, picked up the class register, putting it under his arm, and faced the class. We all stood silently to attention whilst he turned and walked out of the class with a straight back.
Szávay climbed over to my side and looked me up and down.
- “Szia’”- he said in greeting – “how is your dongle dangling?”
I was not entirely certain at that point whether he talked in Latin, Ancient Greek, or Orthodox Hebrew. So I looked at him as one would look at a China man; with open curiosity...
- “Dumb bag ain’t you getting my drift?” - he looked back at me pulling a face. I did not quite latch onto the fact that this must have been the Fasor slang. I felt like the village idiot arriving to the big City. So I smiled back at him...
- “Gee God” - he screeched – “flush that idiotic grin down the plug-hole... come”... - and waved me to follow him, whilst he ran straight into the wall next to the door. He turned and looked back at me triumphantly, awaiting my approving smile. Somewhat puzzled, I slowly walked to him. He looked at me disapprovingly.
- “Nay, nay, not this way.” - he shook his head – “I’m Stan, you’re Pan... to the loo”... - and dashing across the corridor, he smashed into the wall next to the toilet door. Now I got it. He wanted me to play Laurel and Hardy with him.
- “Bloody fool!” - I thought, but dutifully followed him smashing into the wall to his delight and to my own discomfort.
- “Yea, yeah, yea”... - he screamed with pleasure – “that’s the drift arse-head... where’s the horse pr*^*?”
- “Up yours.” - I answered, realising - with some satisfaction – that, from this point onwards, my previous education in ‘Patona might hold me in good stead. If we were to use language that I could relate to, he might be in for a surprise.
- “And a double dose in your mouth and one in each hand, so that you don’t forget what’s up mine.” - he roared in triumph.
- “Goddamn” - I thought – “the Head was right, there is a lot to catch up with at this school,
they are way ahead of me.”
I could use the right words, but this was refinement beyond my wildest dreams... Now that I realised what education could do for you, I was all for it...
During the next few minutes, whilst standing at the long “trough” and he and another lad peed on my shoes, I found out that the teacher’s name in the first lesson was Dr Elek Remport. Apart from Hungarian Language and Literature, he also taught us Latin and Geography and was the acting form master. I also learned that Dr Renner was Head in waiting, as the actual Head, Dr Bélay, was too old and too ill to carry on. According to Szávay the school was all right and most of the teachers measured up to his exacting requirements. They were all arse-heads... Except perhaps Remport, who was just a bottie-head...
He also informed me that, just as long as I was nice to him and carried on playing Laurel and Hardy, he would be my friend... If, on the other hand, I was going to be a nasty arse-head, he would fart in my face and sit with someone else... He then asked me for a down payment on our future friendship... When I told him I had no pocket money, he called me an arse-head... but stayed anyway. My education had begun with a vengeance...
About the time I started my school at Fasor my cousin Évi also joined her first class in the Sziget utca Elementary School. This was her first step in, what turned out to be, a most extraordinary international education, that would eventually take her through various classrooms in France, England, Germany, Austria and beyond. It is, perhaps, just as well that one cannot see into the future. With her settling down into the Hungarian education system, the idea of eventual inevitable separation from her never crossed my mind, even when the war in Europe finally ended in that early May.
By the middle to the end of April the existence of the Nazi extermination camps was “official” knowledge. Not just stories, but vivid, gruesome pictures for all to see... Slowly the “living dead” started to arrive home in ever increasing numbers... Living skeletons with sunken eyes, still reflecting the unspeakable horrors they had just witnessed and survived... Numbers tattooed on their arms... A permanent mark to bear... An indelible stamp from hell... Place names... Auschwitz... Bergen-Belsen... Dachau... Buchenwald... Mauthausen... Sobibor... Maidanek... Theresienstadt... and horrors.... more unspeakable horrors... How could it have happened?... Why did it happen?... Oh why?!... Why?!
Miraculously, amongst the survivors there were children too... Children younger than I was and children older than I... Some of them had witnessed the murder of their mothers and fathers, their sisters and brothers... Weak, bewildered, forlorn, devastated, half dead... Silent shadows with hollow eye sockets and glazed eyes... Wrinkled, prematurely ageing faces that forgot how to smile... or cry... Expressionless, blank faces of little gnomes from hell... The nightmare just did not want to fade away...
Now that the full scale of the horror was slowly emerging from every direction, our anxiety for the missing members of our family was growing day by day... First just gripping fear, mixed with hope for a miracle, than the sobering, cold realisation of hopelessness... But who could cry now?... Who had tears left?... Who could comprehend what had happened?... The devastation was on a scale that was beyond human comprehension...
On a day-to-day basis our miserable existence was acted out on the surreal stage of a city landscape, devastated by the ravages of war. In that physically desolate landscape our constant companions were the ghost-like figures of the returned “un-dead”. These were striking enough images in their own right to grow up with, strong enough to scar the most hardened souls. The newspapers and newly emerging magazines started to bring out photographic images, freshly released direct from the archives of the Nazis. These photographs were revealing in vivid details all the atrocities committed by the “law abiding citizens” of the Third Reich. Law abiding... after all they only executed orders... not human beings...
It left little to the imagination to picture the hell in which members of my family perished... There were the chilling pictures of gas chambers, piled high with naked bodies, pictures of the crematoria where the funeral pyres were constantly fed with the deformed bodies of those who perished in those extermination camps...
... I thought of my grandmother, my darling Nagyi... a cuddly, warm-hearted, gentle old woman, who was last seen in a crowded cattle wagon rolling towards Auschwitz, by one of the survivors who returned... I thought of her... and I couldn’t even weep... I wanted to... but I couldn’t... My soul was filled with a bitter, angry scream... a scream that remained trapped behind my vocal chords... a scream that I am still unable to release...
For me the feeling of guilt for surviving was overwhelming... I realised that what I had experienced, what I had personally witnessed was so insignificant, compared to the hell the survivors of the death camps and death marches witnessed, that it almost did not matter at all... So why did I survive?... what for?... So many people, far better than I had perished... what was the purpose of my living?... As I learned more of the horrors, as I came to accept that many of those I loved dearly I would never see again, my spirit descended into its own little private hell... I cursed men and cursed God... I wished I was dead... At the age of eleven I wished I could end it all... but I was a born coward...
Instead... I had to contend with attending classes at the Lutheran school... which was as good as, if not worse than death... Not only that, but I also had to catch up with a year and a bit of not attending school and therefore for a couple of months I really had to buckle down to do some hard work. I spent every afternoon after school with Dr Sándor, who lived at Személynök utca by the Danube. I soon found out that Dr Sándor was as Lutheran as myself. He had survived forced labour in the Ukraine under the Nazis, returned to Hungary, only to find his wife, mother and child missing... all presumed dead...
He was a kind, gentle, caring soul and an excellent teacher. He was in his thirties. His main subject was Biology. To me he appeared to be an all-rounder, who covered all the topics of my first year in secondary school, which included Latin, Hungarian, Mathematics, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Geography, Music, Art and... Religious Studies... Lutheran of course... after all what other religion was there to be studied by a filthy little Jew, who dared to survive the Holocaust... and who better to coach such a student than another Jewtheran survivor... I reckon he could have made an excellent Rabbi... It seemed to me that preparations were already well in hand for the survival of another possible Holocaust... Why else were we still wearing the cloak of Lutheranism?... Perhaps just for shame... for a shame that we allowed it to happen... a shame that we survived... a shame for being alive... a shame for trying to hide...
Dr Sándor was a very nice, kind and gentle man... All through the couple of months I spent under his tutelage I never saw him smile once... He too was a Jewtheran just like me... and Jewtherans had nothing to smile about in the spring of 1945... Perhaps the entire world had nothing to smile about...
- “This great madness we had witnessed and survived, this nightmare that still hangs on inside us, will haunt us for the rest of our lives.” - he declared unexpectedly in a quiet, muted voice as we took a short break from the complexities of the “First Declination” of Latin grammar.
– “When new generations will learn the dates and statistics of the battles of this war, you and I and many others will still weep thinking about it. You and I and many others will share a guilt for surviving that will never fade away... We shall never be free... never... never... as long as we live... Those we survived will be forever with us, watching us... You and I may learn to smile again one day... but will they ever smile at us again?... Will they?”...
I was stunned... I thought that my feeling of guilt for surviving was somehow unique... I never thought that others might share that feeling with me... I looked at him. His eyes were moist, with a far away look in them... His soul was in torment... I was not alone...
He quietly stood up from the table and standing behind me he momentarily rested his hand on my head.
- “What we are doing here may seem to be a waste of time, an utter trivia... But remembering rules of the Latin grammar, or the first laws of thermodynamics, serves to sharpen your mind... You will probably never use any of what we learn here, but it will hopefully teach you to focus, to remember... And you must never forget... you owe it to those who are no longer with us... If you never remember me in the future, promise me that you will remember at least that much... Remember to remember...”
I remembered... I still remember... How could I ever forget... with or without the help of Latin grammar... and I remember this quiet, well mannered, gentle man... his short, dark, wavy hair... his unsmiling face, the faraway look in his eyes and his silent internal torment... I remember the involuntary empathy I felt in his company, the quiet tone of his voice and how, from time to time, he paused to re-live the agony, the torment he had lived through... Not once did he speak to me about his suffering or his family, the loved ones he had lost... It was later on that I found out the real tragedy of his war years from my mother... By then he was gone... He packed a few of his precious books in a little rucksack and joined the exodus to Palestine... After that summer I never saw him again and never heard of his fate. I miss him... despite the fact that he was a teacher of mine... I learned more from his silent pauses than I had ever learned from all the ramblings of all my other teachers put together... I learned humanity and humility from this man... and I am in his debt forever...
[i] Vilma Királynö = Queen Vilma
[ii] út = road, boulevard, avenue
[iii] Lövölde Tér = Shooters Square
[iv] Varosliget = City Park
[vi] Lasciate ogni speranza voi ch’entrate = All hope abandon Ye, who enter here. The inscription on the gate of hell in Dante’s Inferno in the Divina Comedia.
[vii] Depus = a nickname derived from the word: deportee.
© P. J. Oszmann (1999 – Edited and slightly revised 2005)
© Illustration created in Photoshop from 4 photographs. [Two taken by myself (school and church) and two from archives]
This story is from the last chapter of my book: Jew Be or not Jew Be, The Story of a Perpetual Alien.
Book 1 Under Hitler’s Shadow.
For the sake of clarity – in order for the story to be comprehensible as a stand-alone short story – it was recently re-edited and slightly altered, with an introductory passage added to it.