I was born in ’37, in Pest, at the hospital on Korong Street. During the war we lived at Madách Square. It’s strange, but wherever I live, whether in Hungary or New York, I always live on the sixth floor. When I lived on Margit Boulevard, at Madách Square, here, where I am living now, and even before I got married, on 49th street: it was always on the sixth floor.
I absolutely can’t fathom how people who know anything about history can still say that they don’t believe the Holocaust really happened. I just can’t wrap my head around that.
We hid in cellars during the war. My parents were divorced, which was horrible because my mother and I were hiding out in one cellar while my father was in another one. My father was Christian, my mother was Jewish.
From the time I knew that my uncle had died in Auschwitz, I’ve felt that I’m a Jew. Not to mention that both of my husbands were Jewish and most of my girlfriends were, too. I’m not religious; even though my mother still kept the bigger holidays, she never took me with her to the synagogue.
My mother was dragged out of the cellar, but she escaped and a German car brought her back. They told her they were sorry there was a war going on and that all Germans are not alike. I was sitting next to the concierge when she came back and she was so covered in filth that I didn’t recognize her, even though she’d only been away from us for a couple of weeks.
Only a few, dim memories remain of the war, like when a horse was shot and everybody rushed out with these big knives to cut it up into pieces and make it into goulash. Or when my grandmother took lingerie to a village and traded it for food because money had become absolutely worthless. I clearly remember how my parents fought constantly and were always shout- ing. Everybody was pulling together except for them. Maybe that was why they handed me over to the nuns at the age of eight after the war. They only visited me every once in a while. The nuns were terribly strict. I was always getting into trouble for some stupid thing or another. When the communists took over the nuns were sent back to Paris and all the religious institutions were closed. By the age of fourteen I’d already gone to four different schools.
When I finished primary school, I wasn’t accepted anywhere because my parents were capitalists, so I had to go to work. I became an industrial trainee at the Hungarian Optical Works where I became a certified opti- cian at the age of seventeen. When I came to America I polished lenses at a German factory and studied fashion on Saturdays and evenings. After one-and-a-half years, I quit the factory and ever since then I’ve worked as a fashion designer. As of ’82 I’ve run my own business and I sell my designs to smaller boutiques for about 600 to 1,000 dollars.
Leaving the country never even crossed my mind, especially not leaving it to go to America. On my nineteenth birthday my fiancé’s father, who was this really degenerate jerk, told us, guys, there’s no future for you here, go to Vienna. He gave us a present of some diamonds sewed into shoulder pads so we could sell them. We left on November 1st in ’56. My father-in-law, by the way, hated everything that had anything to do with America. Years later lo and behold, he showed up here, too, and after three months was already saying what a shithole it was and running to the Hungarian store for Caola soap and Odol toothpaste. After his second wife left him he went back to Hungary where I heard he was supposedly living together with some hump- backed woman who did nails until he went back to 39 Mártírok Street and jumped out of a window. I’m telling you, the guy was not normal.
But enough about my father-in-law. For some reason or another we listened to him and left for Vienna. I spoke German because I’d had a frau- lein ever since childhood. Three weeks later a relative sent word that we should come to America. We arrived as refugees and were the very first couple to get married at the camp in New Jersey. It was really funny, they gave us each a glass of wine and then took us to a hotel. There was no wedding night, let me tell you, we were bone tired and just happy to be sleeping in a normal bed for a change.
There’s something else I have to say: I believe and yet I don’t when it comes to fortune tellers. I knew this old woman in Hungary who told fortunes in her spare time. One of my mother’s friends visited her and the old lady told her to tell her everything, all the good and all the bad. Sure, she says, I will. Afterward the fortune teller comes out with this prediction that her husband would be operated on within six months and it’ll go fine, but there’d be com- plications later and he’d die two days afterward. And this is what really hap- pened. He was operated on, then he started to bleed and drowned in his own blood. Well, I thought, I’ll just go and ask the fortune teller for her opinion if she is so good at her job. My mother didn’t want me to go at all because she thought I was too young, but finally in May, ’56, my fiancé and I were there, ringing this lady’s doorbell. She looked over the cards and said, well, by the end of this year there’ll be a marriage and it’ll be overseas. No, I answered, my fiancé is finishing university first, so we’re only getting married in four years. This woman is not normal, I thought, we can’t even get to the border, how could we go overseas? We arrived in America on December 7th and were married on the 13th. It’s hard to believe, but she was right.
The first time they took us to New York I was so scared and could only think, good God, this city is way too big for me, how can I ever live here? Back in Hungary I’d seen these beautiful postcards of Miami with palm trees and everything, so I said, let’s move there, a refugee is free to go wherever he wants. So, we went there. In Miami, after first living with this anti-Semitic couple, a nice Hungarian couple took us in. My first job was at a bakery where I earned one dollar an hour.
There was no kind of culture at all back then in Miami, which was really pretty awful. Black people were being treated the way gypsies were in Hungary. There were even signs on the buses saying that they had to sit in the back. In the movie theaters some of the lavatories could only be used by whites. After five months we went back to New York since my mother had a cousin here and she managed to find us an apartment. I got a job working twelve hours a day as an optician, but I left it after one-and-a-half years because I wanted to be a fashion designer. I’ve always liked drawing dresses and my mother had a lingerie shop on Pilvax Lane, so I was already designing by the age of ten. I slowly climbed my way up the ladder and by the time I’d opened my own shop in ’82, I was already selling my own brand and I am still selling it today. I’m a one-woman business. I have others do the sewing now, but everything else is done by me. I work eight to ten hours a day, but I go out dancing in the evenings because I do ballroom dancing. I used to compete in it twenty-five years ago, but now it’s just for fun.
I remember when I went home my mother was always moaning, oh no, oh no. I asked her what’s the matter and she just said nothing’s the matter. Within three days I was already moaning oh no, oh no, too. Everybody back home is just so old and always griping about something, why go back to all those old hags who just totter about? It’s good for me here.