March 19, 1944
“The Germans have arrived,” my father says.
I’m enjoying an unusually warm spring day with my family on an outdoor restaurant terrace in Széchenyi Square when my father, Endre Tausig, speaks. His words remain adrift in my mind, like clouds struggling to arrange themselves, a pleated pattern across the blue expanses, not yet noticed. I close my eyes and tilt my face toward the warm sun, the moment draped in the clinking of silverware against fine china and bubbly conversation floating above the restaurant’s outdoor dining area. The fresh air is infused with the smells of chicken paprikash, fisherman’s soup, and warm bread. This Sunday morning the restaurant is packed, like all the other cafés, beer gardens, and coffee houses in the city. Everyone in Budapest is ready to shrug off winter’s dark layers for the transformative embrace of spring.
“The Germans have arrived,” my father repeats, this time with more urgency.
Awash in faint scents of paint and turpentine, the telltale aromas of one who creates puppets as a hobby, he is a soft-spoken man. But the way he lays out these four words, cold and evenly placed like headstones in a cemetery, grabs my attention. That and the increasingly closer sound of drumbeats.
“They’re always here, Father.” I set down my flute of sparkling wine. Hungary remains a safe island in the middle of the world war thanks to our Regent, Miklós Horthy. By now, the third year into the war, Hungarians are used to seeing German military. They’ve been crossing through our country on their way to other fights they started. Recent rumors of British and American victories give us hope the three-year war between everyone else will end soon.
István, my older brother by four years, scoffs. “They’re doing what they always do.” He and his wife, Erzsébet, and their baby son have come into the city for this special luncheon.
“Showing off,” he continues. “Trying to discredit the rumors that they’re losing, pretending they’re soon-to-be victors.” He and my father stand and walk to the terrace railing, studying the Danube and the bridges leading from the west.
István refuses to say much about his time in the 2nd Hungarian Army that Russia crushed last year. His and his wife’s conversion to Catholicism two years ago probably saved him from a worse fate. At least he came home whole. Two months ago, My fiancé, Gellert, and five others escaped the forced labor battalion, solely made up of Jews. They made their way back to Budapest after the Germans turned and ran, leaving them all to fend for themselves against the Russians. Gellert is trained as a medic, one year shy of becoming a doctor, yet the Hungarian Army put the Jews at the front, creating a shield of unimportant flesh, with limited weapons and food as they tried to hold the Don River and take Stalingrad. Nothing but a complete failure. Forty thousand Hungarian soldiers dead with thousands missing. The Jewish laborers like Gellert fared even worse. They were given suicide duty, burying the dead on the front lines with no protection while bullets from both sides traced across the bloody scene. They wielded only wooden sticks to clear minefields ahead of the rest of the troops or risk a bullet in the back for disloyalty.
Gellert returned with the help of the resistance group and is confined to the Dániel Bíró Hospital until he recuperates from a serious head wound and a troubling darkness that seems to rule his sleep.
“Is that a band I hear?” Across the table, Erzsébet stops feeding two-year-old József, who is the reason for this name-day celebration. We have a long tradition of celebrating the day of the year that matches a family member’s first name and decided today should be no different. Father paid for the added pleasure of a champagne brunch founded by another József, Mr. József Törley, a local winemaker.
“It sounds like one,” my mother, Leichi, says. As always she’s elegantly dressed, today wearing a silky grey-and-pink-plaid dress bought in Paris when she and Father traveled there in ’38 to sell one of his specialty puppets in the Latin Quarter. She twists her wedding ring, a nervous habit. “Maybe it’s a celebration we didn’t know about.”
The ensemble is closer now. Drums and horns. We take the two daily Jewish newspapers that are still secretly published, so I doubt we wouldn’t be aware of a scheduled parade through the city. My mother is always the positive one and tries to share the light from a match not yet lit.
I didn’t inherit that kind of trust. The slightest breath can snuff a flame. I’m like my father in this regard—deal with whatever comes head-on, even if it means there’s nothing good about the situation.
“This isn’t any celebration,” Father says, turning his head toward our table. “At least not for us.”
I join my father and brother at the brass railing overlooking the streets. Budapest, the capital of The Kingdom of Hungary, was created in 1873 by the merger of three cities—Buda, Óbuda, and Pest. The town spreads along the banks of the river Danube and is divided into twenty-three districts, sixteen of which are located on the Pest side, six in Buda, and one on Csepel Island on the Danube. We live in Pest.
My gaze travels just north of the Chain Bridge along the Danube, stopping at The Parliament, known as one of the most beautiful government buildings in the world, inspired by the British Palace of Westminster. It’s described as resembling a long ornate cathedral, although a few blocks away sits the city’s largest church, St. Stephen’s Basilica, another architectural beauty.
But the Chain Bridge connecting our Pest side of the Danube to Buda and Castle Hill on the other is where the action is today. Of course, the Germans would cross into Pest on this bridge, the grandest of them all. Built in 1849, it became the first permanent span linking Buda and Pest and is a popular nighttime destination as couples and families stroll across its 375-meter-long suspension under hundreds of lights.
“Oh dear,” I say. “You’re right. This is something else.”
The troops—hundreds, perhaps thousands of them—walk six abreast behind a strutting band. The musicians play German military marches as the grey-green slither of officers and soldiers flows across the bridge and pours through the main streets, like sewer water overtaking our beautiful city. The hair on my arms rises. Why are they here now? The Germans have Parliament’s permission to take all our resources, and they’ve been doing that for years out in the bauxite mines and oil fields.
“Looks like they’ve sent their SS officers too,” István says. “This has to be bad news.”
Father often warns him about being too open with his disdain for the Germans. The enemy has friends in Parliament and throughout the Hungarian government, all eager to arrest and remove malcontents, and especially outspoken Jews or Fake Catholics, as some call any one of the seventeen thousand who converted in the last three years.
Four months ago, István came home from the war an exhausted, thinner version of himself after surviving two years embedded with the army. The winter of ’43 was particularly brutal. I asked, but he never saw Gellert when they both were out there. The front was massive, tens of thousands of workers spread thin. Erzsébet—pregnant when he was swept up in the war—has almost healed him since his return.
They live near Győr and run my mother’s ancestral sheep farm, famous for its thick Stark wool. My grandparents left it to my brother when he married four years earlier. My grandmother and grandfather Stark have since passed away, merely months apart. Pneumonia and a broken heart were the verdicts, with my mema leaving us first. My grandparents went by Mema and Bepa, based on what István first called them when he was learning to talk. The names stuck.
With István off fighting, Erzsébet struggled to run the estate alone with its fifty sheep, a dozen prize horses, and chickens while she suffered severe morning sickness. She hired some local men to help, and my parents and I took turns working there while my brother was away.
I still drive out. Last week, the hourlong trip was almost a religious journey, a soul-cleansing experience, washed by the scent of cold soil and green sprouts coaxed upward, ripening under the warm spring rays. A rebirth, especially this time of year. The bare trees have finished their winter self-reflection and are now brave enough again to push forth buds. If they can put trust in another year, that’s the only sign I need that nature knows best. Never quit living even after a bleak, cold stretch.
First, I worried for months that Gellert would never return after a letter saying he’d escaped the Labor Force and was making his way back. Then, I received the call that he was injured and hospitalized. A short-lived celebration.
His head injury is severe, but he’s improving, not as delirious now. But I still alternate between waves of happiness and despair. Unlike the trees this time of year, I’m afraid to push forth hopeful blooms, in case they find no sun and die.
We’ve been together three years and planned to marry next year. That would’ve marked the end of his residency, and I’d have my nursing degree. Now we wait for this war to end, and we’ll make new plans, maybe marry right away, skip the big wedding, and move to America. Gellert’s dream place would be where he could eat a hot dog loaded with sour cabbage while watching an American baseball game. I blame the cinema for showing American movies like Alibi Ike when Gellert was younger, planting these images in his head. But I’ll go wherever he goes, and my parents know a move across the ocean is a possibility. My mother encourages my impulsive ideas, and I think she would agree to a quick wedding, recognizing that tiny bit of herself in me.
Until Gellert is well enough to walk, or we figure out why he won’t try, all I can do on my visits is wrap him in a warm hug and whisper, “Szeretlek”—I love you. I keep those elopement thoughts to myself and stay focused on each centimeter of improvement he makes in his long kilometer of recovery.
It’s the hardest part of being unable to communicate in depth with him right now. He knows who I am. He knows we care for each other, but something he witnessed made his mind snap, and he’s in and out of reality. While memories and future plans circle inside my head, they have no exit since he can’t discuss them right now.
Before he was taken into the Labor Force, Gellert was the kind of guy who listened to understand, not to ready his next reply. And I know that man I love is still in there. He’s just temporarily stuck behind scrambled thoughts caused by his head injury.
“Times are about to get interesting,” my father says. “The war has arrived.”
A long motorcade of black vehicles crosses the Chain Bridge, Nazi flags flapping on the fenders of each vehicle. The Waffen-SS—Hitler’s elite force—immaculately dressed in grey and black, stand stiff, immobile in the open cars while locals wave and cheer.
I snort. None of the crowd celebrating the Germans really want them here, but the Nazis are less feared than the Russians. Unless you’re a Jew. Then you can’t trust anyone but family and friends. Although we Hungarian Jews have remained safe from what’s going on in the rest of Europe, so have people who’ve arrived in Budapest fleeing persecution. But tales circulate of massive roundups to help the German war effort, stories of crowded work camps, and long hours in warehouses.
Women and children too. Who needs mothers and babies in war production plants?
My heart aches imagining these poor families. They wake up each day and open their eyes to a world where they’re enslaved for another exhausting day. At least, that’s what we hear on Father’s secret radio. The BBC verifies information coming out of a dozen cities where the Germans imprisoned the Jewish population into areas called ghettos. They say it’s to protect them from the bombing, but the British report the ghettos have little food, no medical help, and disease runs rampant. Hundreds, perhaps thousands have died.
I turn to my father. “Have you heard any of this from your friends?”
He’d worked as a professor in the engineering department at the Budapest Technical University until all Jewish persons were let go two years ago. He still consults clandestinely with his colleagues on urban infrastructure projects, such as water supply, sewage systems, and gas works. He likes to say that while Budapest may be nicknamed the Queen of the Danube, under her throne, rats rule the connected cellars and tunnels beneath the city’s splendor.
“Ferenc said Regent Horthy was called to meet with Hitler.” My father’s forehead knits together. “A discussion about taking over the remaining bauxite mines.”
Ferenc Zambos is my father’s best friend from childhood. They attended lower school then university together. He is the city’s transportation supervisor, a deacon in his Lutheran church, and president of one of the local chess clubs. Most sunny days find him in our apartment’s courtyard with my father hunched over a Knubbel chessboard, shot glasses and a bottle of Unicum on a side table. Ferenc shares the latest news with Father as the two fight a micro battle with wooden carved figures.
“One of the drivers for Regent Horthy told Ferenc about the upcoming meeting in Vienna,” my father says. “Horthy didn’t want to meet with Hitler in Austria, but it’s for two days only. He’ll return Monday.”
I turn to my brother. “You might be right. This is bad. The Germans are here but Horthy isn’t.”
“Knowing them, he may not come back.” István leans closer to Father and me. He takes after my mother with his dark features and brown eyes. His hair lifts ever so slightly in the warm breeze. “I’ve seen what happens when a person opposes the Germans.”
One Jewish newspaper wrote of my brother’s army detail while he was in the thick of the fight. They were tasked with burying several dozen men taken from a small village near the Carpathian Mountains, all shot when they resisted the order to turn over their Jewish citizens. The Germans first stuffed pages from the Torah in their mouths, then further gagged them with cloth restraints and shot them.
I swallow hard. The shine on the day has dulled. Has the Regent made a secret deal with Hitler? Did he let the Germans swoop in while he was out of the country so he wouldn’t be blamed?
“Horthy will be back.” My father stands taller and gently touches my back. “We carry on as always.”
His touch is reassuring.
“Right now,” he continues, “we have this special occasion to celebrate. We’re not going to think about tomorrow just yet.” Father gives me a quick hug. He puts more affection into a simple embrace than a thousand kind words.
He’s right, of course. Although Horthy is anti-Semitic, he’s not turned over any Jews as Adolf Eichmann, one of Hitler’s top men, demanded. Horthy’s concession to Hitler and his henchman’s demands was the Jewish labor unit and the dozens of regulations limiting our businesses and cultural involvement. These regulations also satisfied most Parliament members that we Jews are kept in our place. There’s no pleasing the far-right government party, but they aren’t in the majority and remain trivial, really no more than background static. My family has discussed this before. We only need to hang on for a few more months until the Red Army arrives.
We return to the table set with fresh daffodils, and I sink into my leather seat. A young pianist plays muted Chopin on a Victorian baby grand, the notes mixing with laughter and talk, a goulash for my soul.
I pray nothing awful touches my family’s lives and that Gellert heals soon.
A long bar framed by mirrors runs along the far wall. Bartenders buzz around behind the counter, ambidextrous artists, pouring and garnishing many multicolored drinks at the same time.
The patrons don’t seem to have heard the commotion from the streets below, but my mother’s eyes search our faces, and she’s gone pale. Father calls her his Hedy Lamarr, with her large doe eyes and wavy dark hair. She blushes at the reference, but how could she not be pleased with the comparison to the Austrian-born actress?
“What’s happening, Endre?” My mother reaches for my father’s hand. “Shouldn’t we leave?” They are best friends after twenty-four years of marriage that has had its rough patches. They’ve shown that love is about dedication to each other’s happiness over and above oneself.
“No. We’ll stay and finish our celebration.” He forces a smile, one I’ve seen many times since the Jewish laws were enacted. “The Dobos cake and poppy seed strudel will be ready soon. Would anyone like coffee?” He raises his hand to signal the waiter. “And I have a riddle for all of you.”
My father is the master of these. For as long as I can remember, he’s shared a riddle every few days.
“What disappears the moment you say its name?” He looks to each of us as we ponder our answers. I can’t remember a riddle he has ever retold in all these years.
When it’s clear we have no guesses, he says, “Silence,” and smiles.
I nod and a small laugh escapes me. “Good one, Father.” But the light moment soon passes. Inside, my stomach quivers. Another flute or two of champagne may calm my nerves, but coffee is more practical. The rapid drumbeats from the street match my thumping heart, and the cheering sets my teeth on edge. Horthy has promised the Jewish people he will oppose our deportation to labor camps if we obey the new racial laws. We’re all defined as Jews due to race, not religion. Intermarriage between Jews and Christians is now forbidden, although thousands fit in to that mixed-marriage category.
I’ve stuffed away the anger from when my friends and I were forced out of university when the quotas for Jewish students were cut. I’ll finish nursing school later. These new laws pushed my father out of his job, my mother out of her riding club, and Gellert out of medical school.
We’ve been doing what’s demanded of us. We pray Horthy keeps his side of the bargain. With Germans swarming the city, we need more answers. Everyone in the family has gossip connections either in Pest or over on the Buda side where Castle Hill rises. The day is young, but each of us will reach out to friends and colleagues to test the rumors floating on the wind.
Hopefully, the Germans are here only for a respite from the fighting, to eat our food and drink the beer, and then blow back to wherever they came from.
But if their real purpose is more nefarious, all our people, about seven hundred thousand in the country, will be no more than a spindly fence trying to hold back a raging storm.
And if we’re not one step ahead of their plans, we’ll be swept up in a dark whirlwind, scattered helplessly about while they play out their evil war games.