I have no clue why any Jew would still be living in Hungary. Of course many have left, but many have also stayed. Perhaps because Hungary is their home. Do you know what we called this homebound attitude in the ‘30s? We called it the ‘credenza complex’, meaning you can’t leave because you’d have to leave the credenza, and all the belongings in it, behind.
I have terrible memories of Hungary. I don’t like going back. I do go back to Vienna though, where I did my university studies. Even though the Austrians were no more ethical than the Hungarians, the memories there are different. When I last visited Hungary not long ago, I couldn’t wait to leave…I almost fled. Nothing terrible happened. Everyone was nice, even those whom I didn’t expect to be. We made a short visit to Lovászpatona, a tiny village between Győr and Pápa, where we hid during the war. The
mayor greeted me warmly. He was kind, but I still felt the same fear I did as a child. I wanted to announce to everyone that I am a Jew, before they could comment on it themselves.
I was born in Paris in January 1939, nine months before the war broke out. My parents were Hungarian. My father came from Nagyvárad and my mother from Újpest. They met in Paris and married there. Like most Jews at that time, my father was a communist, and in 1941, when the Germans overran France, he had to go underground as they rounded up the communists first. My mother was arrested in a police raid one day, while she was shopping and I’d been left with the neighbors. So at the age of two-and-a-half, an aunt took me to Hungary, which was still safe at the time, to be with my mother’s family. I travelled as her son, on my cousin’s passport, as a little boy. As time passed, living with my aunts in Budapest, I forgot about my parents…
Until one day, two years later, when my mother suddenly appeared in the doorway. It turned out that after she’d been caught, she’d been taken to a weapons factory in Steirmark where she sabotaged the munitions, which was why she beaten and put on a deportation transport. She collapsed on the way. Usually people who collapsed were shot on the spot, but for some unknown reason they just left her on the road, perhaps because they thought she was dead. However, she regained consciousness and headed East. She walked for days, subsisting on snow and tree bark. Then one day, coming from the depths of a barn, she heard someone swearing in Hungarian, and knew that she had crossed the border. A peasant boy brought her to Budapest.
So in January, 1944 she appeared starving and weak on our doorstep. We were just celebrating my fifth birthday, it was already late and I was sup- posed to go to bed, but was arguing that I didn’t want to go when the door- bell rang. The doorbell ringing at a Jewish family’s door after dark was always terrifying. When we opened the door, we saw this tiny, skinny woman in a huge man’s overcoat that the peasant boy had put over her shoulders. I heard my aunts scream ‘Magda!’ I knew Magda was my real mother’s name, who by that time was like a person from a fairy tale to me. I realized that here she was, real, and it scared me and I started to cry.
This happened in January and the Germans marched into Hungary in March. We had to hide. We moved to Lovászpatona. Our nanny was from there. Then some wonderful Christian friends actually gave us their per- sonal identification papers and we became ‘them’: my mother’s name went from being Magda Weisz to being Emma Zrínyi, and since Emma Zrínyi had a son, my cousin Péter became her son, Janos Schmutzler, and I became her niece, Iluska Tóth. Imagine how it was possible to explain to a five-year- old that you’re not Evi anymore and can never use your own name again because we’ll all die if you do.
The atmosphere was absolutely frightening. We lived in constant fear, this is how we grew up. The farm where we were living was terrible, there was an enormous stove right where you entered the house and the animals wandered right in, even the pig. The peasant family lived in one room: the mother, father, four sons and the grandfather. The four of us had the only other room. I took photographs of it when we went back last year. This was my first and only visit back, it was a strange, creepy feeling and I just about fell to pieces when I saw it, thank God that my oldest granddaughter, Magda, was there with me. I recognized the place immediately. The stables were what frightened me the most because it was filled with these enor- mous black spiders. How strange—the adults were terrified of the Germans and Russians, but I was scared of those black spiders. The spiders came to be all interwoven with the war in my head.
Nobody in the village knew us, so we were suspicious. A gendarme came on the very first day. Luckily Péter hadn’t been circumcised because his father hadn’t allowed it, he’d foreseen what was lying ahead and this is actu- ally what kept us alive. The gendarme asked Peter his name and Peter couldn’t remember his new name, but he knew he couldn’t answer with his old name, either, so he just stayed silent. The gendarme started shaking him and shout- ing at him, so I jumped in and told him his name was Janos Schmutzler and to leave him alone and that my name was Iluska Toth. The gendarme asked me why Peter wouldn’t speak and I told him that he’d gone dumb because of the bombing raids in Budapest. I was a gutsy little girl. By age of five I’d already learned to lie, we knew we had to if we wanted to stay alive.
A calf was born in the barn and we were allowed to see it. The cow was licking its newborn all over and I was fascinated. I looked up at my mother, who was not supposed to be my mother, and innocently asked her if she had licked me all over like that when I was born. My mother immedi- ately answered that it hadn’t been her, but maybe my mother had. I imme- diately realized what a mistake I had made. The peasants were guffawing at the thought of these fancy city women licking their kids. They didn’t notice anything, my mother had been so quick. By the age of five I had also learned not to call her mama, but Aunt Emma.
Years earlier, as a small child, Péter had regularly visited the village with our nanny. He had a birthmark on his thigh, which looked like a coffee stain, and one day when he was wearing shorts a gendarme recognized the mark and yelled he was that goddamned little Jew who’d been here with that whore, now you’ll see who’s coming to get you. We ran home screaming to my mother that we’d have to run, we’d been recognized. But my mother took us by the hand and marched us down to the gendarmerie. She screamed at the gendarme and demanded to know who he was calling a filthy Jew and yelled about how he couldn’t tell the difference between a filthy Jew and this beautiful Christian boy, her husband was off fighting on the right side and he’d just see what would happen to him when he came back from the front! The gendarme just about crawled under the table, he was so intimidated. My mother was very brave, sometimes too brave.
Then something terrible happened. Péter had become friends with another boy. One day the two of them went out into the woods, near some kind of an army post. The gates suddenly opened, the kids ducked behind some bushes, and two soldiers came out leading a dozen young men. They made them dig a trench and then, one by one, the soldiers shot them. The two ten-year-olds saw every bit of it. By the time they got home Péter had a fever and didn’t speak for three days, while my mother nursed him the whole time. As long as he lived, Péter never forgot that day and he always said that was his very worst memory of the war.
A few days later, there was knock on the door. Two German officers were standing there. We thought this was it for us, they’d come to get us. They asked if anyone spoke German. One of my mother’s friends, Juliska, was with us, her entire family had already been executed, and she spoke German perfectly. They told her they knew there were two ladies here from Pest and they had come to visit for a bit of civilized company. The one man took me into his lap, they gave us candy and asked if they could come back again. One of them was a decent guy, the other a real Nazi. They spoke of their families back home. My mother asked if they were from that army base in the forest and what was going on there. They said that it was a work camp for young Jews. She suggested that they bring a couple over to work on the farm since it was harvest time. The next day they showed up with two young men, who saw right away that we were Jews, but they didn’t breathe a word. My mother gave them work to do, but meanwhile she naturally fed them till they were just about bursting. It must have been October by then, everybody knew that the war would be over soon, but Jews were still being killed, which is why the two young men asked my mother if she could help them escape. She managed to shove two sets of women’s peasant clothing under the army post’s fence and the boys put that on and that is what they ran away in. They managed to mingle in with the group of peasant women who came to the post to cook every day and get away. They immediately came to us at the farm. My mother told Péter and me we’d be sleeping with the two young men in the stables that night, in the hay. I objected because I was afraid of the spiders, but my mother said, yes, you will Iluka, she called me Iluka even then, and said I’d have to. Thinking was forbidden, feeling was forbidden, we had to do what we were told and this stayed with me for a long time afterward. So we really did go into the stables and sleep on top of the hay. The Germans came at night and they saw the two children sleeping on the hay—of course we weren’t sleeping at all, the two young men were sleeping beneath us, covered in the hay. The Germans went away, the two young men left the next day and we never heard from them again.
A few days later we heard shots. We were afraid to go out and then one night the door opened and three filthy men stepped inside, lighting their way with candles from the church. We’d never seen Soviet soldiers before, we all started shouting, we were shouting and so were they, until my mother finally yelled that these were the Russians, they were here to liberate us and there was nothing for us to be afraid of. The Russians pulled the women from the house, Juliska was hysterical with fear and one of the men hit her with the butt of his rifle. We heard shots, screams, someone being beaten and then my mother was yelling and Péter and I ran out. My mother and Juliska were standing there while the soldiers were going closer and closer to them with their guns pointed at them. My mother was yelling Jew, Jude, Yid, Juif, zsidó in every language she knew to try to make them understand that we were Jews. Lucky for us, a jeep suddenly pulled into the courtyard and an officer got out and walked up to my mother and told her to prove she was a Yid then, and my mother poor mother started saying a prayer in Hebrew, Shema Yisroel Adanoi elohenu…the officer finished the prayer with Boruch Shem Kevad, Malkusa because he was a Jew, too.
We left for Budapest. Five Jewish women were lying on the concrete of the railway station floor, they were in uniforms and trying to get home from some concentration camp. The other passengers didn’t want to help them onto the train and my mother said, Evi (I was suddenly Evi again), Péter, Juliska, come help. We lifted all five of them onto the train and three
of them died by the time we got to Budapest. One of the two who survived came home with us and she lived with us for a long time. We nicknamed her Depus, after the word ‘deported.’
My mother wanted to find my father, so we went back to France and the trip took three weeks. I celebrated my seventh birthday in Strasbourg, on a Red Cross truck. My mother couldn’t find my father; she’d become extremely weak and she was trying to put her life back together, but she couldn’t take care of me and I was temporarily put into a Jewish orphanage near Paris.
My mother didn’t want to stay in Paris and two years later she sold our little flat, but the money was stolen from her and we were left absolutely broke. We moved to England where she got a job at a hospital that came with living quarters. She left me with a friend of hers whom she’d once worked with in Hungary. We lived apart up until I was sixteen. When foreigners were finally allowed to buy homes in England, my mother needed some money, so she turned to Depus’s relatives who were well-off and living in London, and we’d gotten to know them and were friends. They refused to help. This was the first time I ever actually saw my mother cry. We eventually managed, together with the help of our friends, and we got a home.
I finished public school in England and then got a scholarship to the University in Vienna. After graduating I moved to Venezuela, to work for an uncle who needed me as an interpreter in his business. When the revolution broke out a year later, I was on my way back to England when my flight landed in New York. I had a couple of hours, so I thought I’d take a look around. I took a bus into the city with 500 dollars in my pocket I saw this gigantic sign for ‘Hebrew National Kosher Salami’ I couldn’t believe my eyes. They could really write ‘kosher’ here? Well, I said to myself, I’m staying here.
My mother died in England at age of 52. We eventually discovered that my father had been killed in Auschwitz on March 24, 1945, three days before the camp was liberated. She managed to receive compensation from Germany two years before she passed away, so at least she was living in rel- ative comfort for the first time in her life.
I taught myself how to read and write in Hungarian, but my children don’t speak the language unless they want to swear. I swear, but I only do it in Hungarian because it’s better that way.