The core of this story is from my published autobiographical novel: Jew be or not Jew be; The Story of a Perpetual Alien; Book1: Under Hitler’s Shadow. To save re-writing the entire story - and for the sake of clarity - I am adding a short preamble here to put the story in proper historical context and also add a few explanatory comments in brackets within the story where appropriate.
The time: Early autumn of 1941. The place: Budapest, Hungary.
Hungary was just swept into the war as Hitler’s ally. Although the Jews of Hungary were in no imminent danger as yet, anti-Semitism was rife. I was seven years of age and just started my second year in a state elementary (primary) school. I was born into an assimilated, middle class, secular Jewish family and was totally oblivious of my Jewish origins. At school I received religious instructions as a Lutheran. As far as I was aware I was a Hungarian Lutheran and – up to that time and to the best of my knowledge - I never met a single Jew yet.
My father passed away the previous year and mother and I moved in with my mother’s elder sister –my aunt Kati – who took us under her wing. She was married, but had no children of her own. By that time my younger cousin Évi was also living with us. She was born in Paris shortly before the war started and shortly after the Germans occupied Paris her parents were caught in a Gestapo dragnet and deported into concentration camps. She was smuggled by another aunt to “safety” to join us in Budapest. Apart from black outs and practice air raid sirens at noon of every Saturday and anti Jewish and anti Soviet propaganda, life was still reasonably normal in Budapest at that time.
The rest of the story below (without the explanatory words in brackets) is straight from Chapter 3 of my book.
“…Peter Kemény*... (*the meaning of this word in Hungarian is “hard”) Well, I never... Finally I met the first little Jew boy in my life... At first I did not know that he was Jewish. Unlike his family name indicated he was a real softy, so he was nicknamed Peter Puha (puha means soft in Hungarian) by the others. He had curly auburn hair; he was freckled in the face and spoke softly with a slight lisp. He seemed to be a nice enough boy, so at first I played with him and talked to him. He even came to visit us at Kati’s with his mother. It turned out that Kati and his mother knew each other. Then somehow one day in school it came out that he was a Jew... I was shocked... I never expected it... I found out when in one of the ten-minute intervals a group of boys and girls surrounded him in the playground, pushing, shoving, tearing at his clothing... and yelling abuses at him.
- ‘Filthy Jew, rotten Jew, stinking vermin!’ - they all yelled – ‘traitor, Bolshevik beast!’…
He looked frightened, helpless and he was in tears. This looked like fun... the mood of the mob gripped me... it was catching... Here was a defenceless little softy, crying like a little baby, just because they were all calling him names!
- ‘Filthy Jew’ - I joined the choir with excitement – ‘traitor... traitor... stinking Jew’... - and I too tugged at his jacket.
I decided I was not going to be his friend any more. He was a dirty little Jew and I was a true Hungarian Lutheran. Jutka Szegö, Peter Upor, and Jancsi Urbán (class mates) kept out of the affray. The bell ended the fun as we all settled back to class. Mrs Páva (our teacher) had not witnessed the events. After school, just round the corner on the street, the fun continued. I joined in... it was exciting, stimulating fun... He was a filthy Jew after all...
- ‘Filthy Jew, stinking Jew, traitor... traitor’... - and we spat at him, tugged at him, pushed him.
His clothes got torn, a fist landed on his nose drawing blood and we all got wilder... Eventually he managed to run away crying and we laughed with great satisfaction. The street was full of people witnessing the events, not one single adult intervened. We all felt satisfied and proud that we fulfilled a patriotic duty, pillorying an enemy.
Later that afternoon I was playing with Évi on the balcony. I heard the doorbell and heard some agitated, raised voices from the hall, but I did not pay much attention. Then Kati stormed into the room and yelled at me:
- ‘Peter, come here this minute!’ - her face angry red, one index finger pointing to the floor directly at her feet in a commanding fashion.
I had never seen her this distraught. I knew I was in trouble, though I could not figure why. My mother was hovering in the background, red in the face, looking anxious. I advanced to the spot Kati was pointing at and no sooner did I stop than her palm slammed down on my face with such force I nearly fell back. I was shocked... what was that for?... what had I done?...
- ‘This is to teach you, and you had better remember this for the rest of your life, that you too are a filthy little Jew!’ - she yelled at me with anger as her other palm slammed down on my other cheek.
The pain in my cheeks was nothing compared to the torment that ripped through my mind and soul that moment. Incredulity, disbelief, anger, humiliation, shame and a sense of guilt larger than the hills of Buda gripped me and whirled around inside me like a tornado. To this day - almost a lifetime after the events - I cannot compare my shame and feeling of guilt and sorrow with anything that has happened since. I was devastated. If they had told me that I was doomed to die within the next few minutes, I could not have been more demoralised and stunned than I was then. This was a pain I can never forget, a shame I wish I never had to experience, a demoralising blow that is hard to describe. It was the worst lesson that life ever taught me. I have wished many times since that the events leading up to that moment never happened. I wish I never participated in mocking a little Jew. But I did! and the agony of it has stayed with me forever... There is nothing that could take the shame, the guilt, and the pain away... ever...This was the hardest way that anybody could have been brought to the realisation of his Jewish origins. Like a stupid fool, up to that moment I had no idea. I could expect nothing like that. To a degree the shame is perhaps not just entirely mine. I was ignorant, because “they” kept me in ignorance. By “they” I mean the adults... This was not just I not paying attention; this was a situation of ignorantly stepping out of a shelter right into a cataclysm. I do not feel bitter towards my family for not informing me earlier - perhaps they meant well - I just wish that they sheltered me not from my Jewishness, but from the experience of finding out about it the way it happened... But events of the past cannot be wished away and the consequences linger on...
-‘Please God! I did not wish to be chosen... definitely not this way’…
A day or so after the event my mother - visibly upset by the consequences of my action and the punishment dished out to me - drew me aside for a quiet chat. Perhaps she felt guilty, who knows. During this chat she asked me:
- ‘Why did you join in with the others? You liked Peter; he was your friend. Why hurt a friend?’
I found it hard to answer. I knew by then that I had no excuse.
- ‘Every one was doing it.’ - I mumbled finally.
She shook her head.
- ‘If everyone jumped off the fifth floor, would you have followed?’ - she asked.
I stayed quiet; I could hardly have answered with a yes to her question. But of course she was right; I did not have to do what everyone else was doing. I learned another valuable lesson... and of all of my mother’s words ever uttered to me, above all that question stuck in my mind forever. God is my witness; my mother is not a wise woman. I wish she was, but in reality - and I have to state this with deep regret - my mother never really grew up, she only grew old. Perhaps it is not her fault; she is not an intelligent woman. She made a mess of her own life, she seemingly never learned from anything that she experienced. But that question was a question out of a sage’s mouth and if she had never uttered another word of any significance, that question was spoken in eternal wisdom. Nothing and nobody can take that away from her. “
© Peter J. Oszmann
Site: Jew be or not Jew be
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"A lesson from my mother"
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|Reviewed by J. Allen Wilson
|"Every one was doing it.’ - I mumbled finally"
Sir, this is most profound, and from what little I know in this world, I find this to be one of the most indicting statements about man. Everyone was doing it has been the escape mechanism for many. No matter the circumstance, everyone was doing it, be it deemed right or wrong, does not make it right. I find this story to be a wonderful tale of finding the truth within. You sir, from what I have read, have a most miraculous and remarkable life. Courage wears many faces. Thank you for sharing one of those faces with me.
J. Allen Wilson
|Reviewed by Nickolaus Pacione
|this is a strong write and one that paints a picture in an infamous part of history to say the least. My step-grandfather was a medic during World War II, and this is one that takes the reader right there.|
Peter J. Oszmann