As part of The Budapest Times’ coverage of Holocaust Memorial Year 2014, we are publishing a four-part series of works of historical recollection from 1944 called “Children are the Light” by László Petrovics, documenting one family’s experiences.
Forethoughts: In 1988 I received a letter from Mikhail Gorbachev when he was visiting New York and had addressed the UN, announcing reduction in the arms race. The world sensed great changes with gratitude at that time as Gorbachev sought an end to the Cold War. He had taken the time to thank my own letter in which I had addressed him in The New York Times. I had written that although I had lost my family to the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, the cause had been due to Soviet ideology, not to the Russians as a people. He expressed gratitude that I had combed through my first novel, “Broken Places”, a history of my family from 1938 to 1956, and asked my publisher, Morgan Entrekin of Grove/Atlantic, to ensure that the political term “Soviet” be differentiated from the human reference to Russians as peoples.
For many years after that great flood, Apu, as we called your great-grandfather, Petrovics, was known to argue with himself, “A foreign Jew? What the heck is that?” Side-walking through time, as though tottering near the edge of the curb, he debated loudly and with vigour, sometimes with little more of an adversary than the crack in the wall. Compensating for lost opportunity to make his winning point in a rational argument, he sought to set things right by the roosters painted on the kitchen wall. “Absolutely no such thing,” I say. “Whoever heard of such a phrase: ‘Pablo is a foreign Catholic… does that make sense?’” He slapped the table for emphasis, as though to set the roosters to flight. “Shameful, I say! And there is danger in shame.”
“When do we ever say, ’Toth is a foreign Protestant?’” He again slapped the table but the roosters stood their ground.
Your great-grandfather Apu, Petrovics István László, became a physician in 1938 just before he married your great-grandmother, Ofner Zsuzsanna. They were parents to your own grandmother, Susan, who was born in April 1942. It was at that time, while great-grandmother Ofner was still pregnant with your own grandmother, after Hungary had entered WWII on the side of the Germans that they started saving lives.
We do not know what drove great-grandfather in that direction, because it surely put him in danger. But we can conjecture. Just months prior, as a medical officer, great-grandfather had been assigned to tend to the veterans of the 3rd Army who had returned from the Russian front. The army had suffered defeat at the River Don with enormous losses. He talked about that, how so few had returned, hardly an able-bodied man to be seen on the streets, but mostly women dressed in black for mourning, or wearing black armbands. Many of the veterans he treated had lost a limb, some several, and he spoke of quadriplegics who were transported not on stretchers but brought home in a basket.
So the expectation of the birth of Susan was very special, something far more than a personal joy to the family. Very few couples chose to have children during the war, and Zsuzsanna’s pregnancy became a public affirmation of sorts that life matters. She had gained a glow of health, her cheeks radiant and filled out, and Apu told of when they walked in the park people actually commenting, and gesturing, “Look there, that woman is in the Blessed Way.”
At that time, more and more foreign Jewry from Russia, Poland, Germany took refuge in Budapest, as an island of safety from persecution elsewhere. Apu was reassigned as medical officer to care for them. It was during this time that Zsuzsanna conceived with your grandmother, Susan. She was very much a wanted child, and they have many pictures of her as an infant. Such young parents often accomplish unusual undertakings. In the celebration of their parenthood, they often feel heroic of sorts and brave. But perhaps because it was during a time of war, and they quickly gained the admiration of even strangers, they felt especially important and very special. There is a folk saying about expectant and young parents. “Those who can wait can move mountains. But parents-in- waiting have already moved Gibraltar.”
It seemed to run in the family, being a life saver. You smile now, I know. You have not yet heard of people being life savers. It brings to mind athletic young people, as life guards, walking the beach with a whistle hanging by a lace from their necks. They, too, are life savers. Or perhaps what comes to mind is the life saver you know as a sucking candy in different flavours with a hole in it – and which got its name from the round, wooden life preservers on boats. Of course, it makes you laugh. Your great-grandfather as a sucking candy? Makes me laugh, too. Has the makings of someone dressed for Halloween.
But it is true about our family, as though life saving were a family mania. Going back now for four generations everyone in the family enlisted in the army as doctors or nurses. Is that not unusual? They chose to serve their country by healing the soldiers who had served as warriors and had gotten injured in the process. It was as though our family were put on this Earth to struggle against an unstoppable flood, and this flood also came to have a name – man’s inhumanity to man.
Now, let’s pause here again. There is another word you do not know, inhuman. It means that people treat other human beings as though they were less than human, perhaps less than dogs. Well, not exactly like your Sasha, your wonderful water dog whom you love, and walk along the beach, until he breaks away to the imaginary flock of geese near the shoreline. Nor are they like my own Buksi, who is a herding dog and runs around the house as though chasing unseen flocks of sheep in the yard. The dogs I have in mind are called strays. It is inhuman to treat other people as though they were filthy, sickly stray dogs with no owners to care for them. Look at them when you are with your Mom and she drives past one on the highway. They are thin and their ribs show and people sometimes kick at them, and these dogs hurry and run along the sides of the road looking for more than just food. They are high-strung and nervous, and scurry about. Some people are treated as though they had the life of a dog, and these unfortunates back in WWII were mostly Jews. These were the people whose lives your great-grandparents rescued.
How can people become so unfortunate, you ask? How can someone who was a judge just months back, a professor, an artist or journalist, a musician become so unfortunate? It is not hard to understand when you know what happened. First, the fascists – for this is what the Nazi rulers were called back then during WWII – made laws which made it hard for Jews to work, to keep up their businesses and provide for their families. Then they made it very hard for them to go to college. This happened to your great-uncle Les. He was a top student and wanted to be a doctor. The officials at the medical school valued him, and they said, “You are a sharp student with fine grades. You would make a fine doctor.”They added, “You don’t even look like a Jew. Just change your name, Ofner, and you can get in.” But your great-uncle Les chose to move away and studied medicine in Italy in Padua.
And then after such humiliation, forbidden to study in the land of one’s birth,, as quick as a flood which has broken over the banks of a river, many new laws were passed by the fascist rulers which restricted the Jew. Jews were defined as a genetic race. This was the First Anti-Jewish Law. They could only marry other Jews. Other laws quickly took away the radio of the Jew, then their newspapers. Jews could not know then what was happening in the world around them. Laws took away their telephones. Jews then could not communicate. Then they took away their cars. And the Jews were stuck where they were. If they had reserved seats for the Opera, that, too, was taken away. When they bought bread, they were given the left-over from days before.
When people are treated like this by their own neighbors, they sicken. They feel something less than human, becoming fearful and depressed. They feel worthless, and many also become helpless. They become something less than a dignified judge, a respected journalist, or valued musician. These were the people your Great grandfather and grandmother rescued.
Later, Great grandfather and grandmother came to be known by that title, Rescuers. In Israel they had a special name, Righteous Among the Nations. It is the highest Civil Honour in Israel a citizen can get. But why Righteous? It meant that they had done the right thing, making a correct moral choice, to help the persecuted. What does this mean, you might ask. Moral choice? Persecuted? They chose to save persecuted Jewry who were in danger because of one neighbor’s inhumanity to another neighbor.
Great Grandfather, Apu, was a young general practitioner back then, a fresh doctor who dealt with families. He was trained to heal –not to destroy –and when people were endangered by sickness, he gave them the correct medicine which healed them. Often he saved their lives. But almost none of the people he saved as Righteous were ill. They faced another great, fatal danger, the hatred of the Nazi, who wanted to kill every one of them for no other reason that they were Jewish. This was a world-wide policy for the Nazi, and this is what makes the Holocaust unique. “Holo” means to destroy entirely, completely, to wipe away from the face of the earth. The policy even had a name, called the Final Solution.
As a doctor, Apu was assigned to groups for those forced into heavy work in 1941. That they were forced labourers meant that they had to work for no pay. Most of them were Jews who had fled to Hungary from foreign regions such as Poland. Those under Apu’s charge who worked in the Melocco Cement Factory had to carry big sacks of cement, even if they were old, and their backs could not bear the heavy weight. Forced labor for the County Flour Mill was also under his charge, and here too, sacks of flour were as heavy as the cement at the factory. Their backs may have bent, and their legs may have been too weak, and they carried the sacks as heavy weight and staggered about when they carried them. They slept in a dormitory by night in the Evangelical High School and if they became ill, Apu would be as lenient as he could. When they got better, they had to go back to work. But soon most of them got sick again from the hard work. This made no sense to Apu. „I am a doctor, and I heal these workers who get sick from such work. Why? So they can go back to do the same things that made them sick.“ This made no sense to a young doctor. Then he made a decision. For many in his group, Apu decided to help them escape. But for this he eventually got in big trouble. This was in 1941. Very few people, almost no one, saved Jews in Hungary so early as 1941.
He did not see them as Jews. He saw them as his patients. Only later that autumn, when his group started to be called to the collection centre at Rumbach synagogue to be deported did he come to see them as Jews. It was then that Great Grandfather got in trouble because he broke the laws which forbade this.
He was a very short man, a good 10 inches shorter than your father, Alex. And he was not very muscular. So when the police came to question him, what they thought they saw was a tiny, meek man. „You are helping Jews,‘“ they yelled at him.
„True. I am a doctor for Forced Labor,“ he said.
„But we know that you do more than that!“ the police continued.
„I treat the ill,“ Apu went on.
The police pulled out documents. „Here is the medical records for Slomo Bricht, 34, whom you sent to Janos Hospital with pneumonia. He had been called up to Rumbach Collection Center. This was two days prior to this foreign Jew from Poland being deported by train to the Ukraine. Why did you do that?“
“Hold it…” Apu broke in. ‘What is a foreign Jew?’ But he did not continue his thoughts. “Bricht was sick, even spitting up blood,“ Apu answered.
„The doctors at the hospital examined him,” the gendarme retorted. That is what the police, or ‘guards of silence’ were called back then. “And he writes here that Bricht had no problems at all.“
It was at this point that Apu started to raise his voice. „Are you a doctor? Bricht was spitting up blood and had a high fever. Even the shirt he slept in was soaked through.“
„Not so,” retorted the gendarme. The feather in his cap was shaking as he shook his head. .“He was in good health. And he fled from the hospital unit that very night.“
„What the heck are you saying!“
„Why did you place him in the hospital? Bricht was part of the foreign Jews who are to be deported as undesirable aliens.”
And again, Apu’s thought swirled as leaves in the wind of autumn are swept about. “What the… Undesirable…What are you saying?”
“They are swarming here as strays, from Poland, Russia. The order is back to Galacia for them. Foreign hearted, and vagrant, what the hell do they mean to you?”
“They are my patients!”
“They will be happier where they are wanted. Galicianers to Galicia, to tend their plots,” the gendarme continued. “Even our patriotic Jewry despise these caftan-headed foreigners. So let’s back to Bricht.”
„May God damn your wretched soul,” Apu was livid. “I am the personal physician for the Kozma family, and I will report you,“ At this Apu started kicking at the floor. „What the hell are you saying? They do not go by 3rd class rail, the entire wagon with which he was to be transported would have sickened by the time they crossed the county line. Maybe much of the convoy. He had either TB or pneumonia,“
„But the records from the hospital…“ It came as surprise to the police that such a small-framed man could be so outraged.
„What the hell are your names?“ And Apu searched for a paper and pen. „Today, today, I will make it a point of reporting you. What the hell do you want, the entire convoy to sicken before they even reach the Ukraine?“
And so, because they had grown frightened, the gendarme usually left by the time Apu was pounding the table with his fist.
The German Nazi soldiers came to Hungary years later, in 1944. But the German Nazi were different. The worst part was that they knew no Hungarian and so could not be threatened.
Soon Great grandfather and grandmother eventually were forced to flee by train with Susan, who was only 2 years old at the time. It happened this way in August 1944. One evening when Apu, Zsuzsanna, and Susan were coming home, the coordinator of the building where they lived, Rozsi, had waited outside the building. She spotted them when they turned the corner off the Boulevard, she ran the full three blocks to meet them. Panting, she blurted, “Doctor. Doctor. The Gestapo are in your apartment. They are waiting there with machine guns.“
Without a word, the family turned the corner toward the Eastern Rail Station. They were afraid to be spotted, as Apu was well known in that part of the city. But they had no money, and all they had of value was what they had on them –two gold rings, a watch, a gold necklace, and Susan’s gold earrings. They hurried down a street called Akácfa, and turned on the next. Then the turned on street Hársfa, and once again they walked for a while, and then they turned onto the next street, the next, and the next, and they hastened in this manner, zigzagging their way until they got to the train station.
They had no ticket, nor did they have money. So at the train they paid with what they had on them, a watch, ear rings, and necklace. What did these things mean, compared to saving their own lives? All they kept of any worth was Apu’s medical bag filled with medicine and medical equipment such as a stethoscope, and needles, and scalpels. They got off at a small village called Dombovár. That is as far as the train could go because it was near the front, where the fighting with the Russian troops was raging. „Do you need a doctor?“ Great grandfather called out to the villagers at the train station. He lifted his doctor’s bag. Ooo, the people of Dombovár were happy. They shouted and some threw their hats into the air, “What great luck.” Others declared, “A gift from heaven.” They yelled, Isten hozot, God has brought you. Why were they so happy? All the doctors in the village had fled much earlier, some to Switzerland, some to Sweden. These countries were not at war. They were safe there. The people of Dombovár gave Great grandfather a house with a big office, and asked how he wanted to be paid. „Give us good food,“ he said. So they filled his pantry with grains, eggs, and jam, and brought smoked meat, and fresh chicken. They brought fruit in season, which were, at that time, apples, pears, and grapes as it was autumn.
And so for some few months, the Petrovics family was safe and happy.
To be happy, they knew, it is important to feel safe. It can lead to trust. And once trusting, it is easier to love. But this can change quickly, and after their short spell of happiness for a few months this all changed within a few days.
The little village of Dombovár was located in southern Hungary. It was close to where the German army was fighting against the Russian forces pushing up from the South. When the Soviet broke through the German defenses, they captured Dombovár. That night the soldiers celebrated, got drunk, and many rampaged through the village doing whatever they wanted. They broke into shops and took what they could from the stores. They even chased people from their homes and took them over for their lodging. They took the watches from people on the street, and put them on. Some of the drunken soldiers had six or seven watches on each arm like bracelets. Great grandfather and Great grandmother knew they would also come to their house. And they were worried not just for themselves but also for Susan. She was only two years old.
“What do you think, Zsuzsanna? They will come tonight, for sure.”
“We cannot just flee, Apu” she answered. “All we have is the ox-drawn wagon. And where would we go? They will just take over the house.”
“The house is the least of it. I am worried for you,” Apu replied.
Her eyes were riveted at the floor. “So what do you think?”
They knew that the Russians loved children, especially little girls. “What single phrase do you recall from all of Dostoyevski’s great books? Apu asked.
“Children are the light of the world,” Zsuzsanna answered. “Detisvet mira.”
“Correct, my dear. Detisvet mira. From the post-script to Crime and Punishment. What else really matters now but our little daughter.”
Apu had also learned during times of danger in Budapest that the element of surprise proved helpful. Police who came out to the houses threatening someone would be taken aback if they themselves were then threatened.
“It is a paradoxical effect,” Apu explained the medical terminology. “Not unlike with troubled couples, as Professor Popper taught us at Semmelweis University. He would tell them, and make them promise, ‘Now tonight when you go home, promise me, that you will lie down and hug each other, BUT you must promise you will do only that. That is a doctor’s order, I say. You must only hug each other, and no more. Do you understand?”
How Apu laughed and plucked up Zsuzsanna onto his lap. “Fat chance, Popper would tell us.” He mussed Zsuzsanna’s hair. “The couple had not been intimate for months, and here comes this little doctor who forbids them to have sex.” Zsuzsanna slowly kissed his ears, “You old sly fox,” she whispered.
None of the big-bodies police, who were called Gendarme, and wore a feathered hat, and came with pistol and sword, expected Apu to yell and threaten to report them. As police, they were used to house visits where people being questioned were nervous, and obedient to answering their questions. They would be quite surprised at Apu yelling and threatening to report them.
“We should do just the opposite of what the Russians expect,” Apu said. “They will be drunk, as it is. And they might even laugh at the surprise.”
“What do you mean?”
“They are coming as conquerors, but we must welcome them as liberators.”
Well, this sure took Great grandmother by surprise, and at once she doubled over laughing. When she did this, she would clasp each of her knees so as not to fall over. She laughed and laughed, until her eyes were tearing.
“You mean…,” she was gasping between her laughter. “We should welcome them?” There she went again, doubled over, and laughing.
Her laughter was infectious, and Apu eyes narrowing into slits, he also started into laughing. “After all…” he too doubled over. “It is nearing Christmas…” he rubbed his eyes. “Might as well make a celebration of it.”
And this is what they did. But any modern day reader such as you must know that Christmas celebration was very different back then, not at all like how you might know the High Holidays season now. They could not decorate the house with strings of lights, and could not put a reindeer or shimmering snowman on the lawn all lit up. All they had was three or four candles. But that was enough, and Apu felt sure that the Russians would be drawn to the welcoming candle light. He knew of the Russian folk song,
“It is dark outside, sweet love, so dark. I cannot see O darling, light a candle just for me.”
And he chuckled to himself, picturing when the soldiers would see Susan in her holiday dress, all pink and full of lace, with a big red ribbon.
In this manner, by showing welcome to the Soviet soldiers, the family set in place the plan to save themselves.
They divided the work of their preparation. Apu chortled again as he placed the candles onto little saucers out on the window sill. Great grandmother set to her plan of baking holiday cookies, called almond crescents. Susan sat on the kitchen floor, hitting the almonds with a hammer until they cracked, and Zsuzsanna collected them into a bowl to make more than a cup.
Needing no baking powder, no eggs, no salt, this traditional cookie is a basic shortbread mixture of one part sugar, two parts butter, and three parts flour. It is famous throughout Eastern Europe. The Poles call them rogaliki, or little horns, in Hungary they are called patko, little horseshoes, in the Czech Republic, mandlové půlměsíc, almond crescents. But in Austria their name is kipferl, and it is said to derive from the crescent moon of the Turkish flag when in 1683 the siege of Vienna by the Ottoman Empire was repelled by Christian forces. To this day, pastries in the crescent shape, including the French croissant, are banned by Islamic Fundamentalists. “Those darned western Christians,” these fundamentalists complain to this day. “Always wanted to have their cake and eat it, too.”
When half the almonds are pulverised, and mixed into the batter, and the other half is left as little chunks and browned in the butter before being mixed in, the cookie becomes unique. It looses its shortbread plainness and the sweet almond aroma of the cookies lingers heavily in the room for hours.
This was just the effect which Great grandmother had hoped for. “Big deal, Children as light, children as light. Big deal,” she muttered. “Those wild hordes in the village will be lonely as heck, and hungry as horses.” She smacked her mouth, and licked her lips, “Children be light. Heck with it. With braying soldiers like them, only one bit of wisdom will do: The quickest way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.” She set to kneading the dough, and to smacking her lips. And as suddenly, the stress of the day shattered, she marvelled at the ridiculousness of her thoughts, “Good thing that Apu is not a surgeon at that, and he was not taught such tricks in medical school.” She chortled as she kneaded the dough, “Quickest way to a man’s stomach.”
She baked over 6 dozen cookies and the sweet smells of Christmas baking permeated the home. She placed the cookies strategically by the doorway and hallway, and one small plateful she placed among the burning candles in the window sill.
They stayed up and made a nice fire in the fireplace. The room had a warm, friendly glow from the hearth. Great grandfather sat in a couch reading the newspaper, calmly puffing tobacco on a pipe. Great Grandmother sat in a rocking chair and held Susan on her lap. She sang lullabies to her daughter.
They sat for some time like that. A calm family mood glowed, and was all the warmer from the fire in the hearth.
Then they heard noise at the front door of the house. „Keep calm, and just sing,“ Great grandfather said. They heard a loud crash, and scurrying outside the hallway. The soldiers had kicked down the door. „Keep on with the song,“ Great Grandfather said again. Then Great grandmother started Susan to singing, balancing her on her knees.
„O stork, stork, African stork, Flapping your wings on the rooftop.
The Russians outside the door of their living room heard Susan’s tiny voice. “Molchi, Proslushat,” he said. “Stop. Listen to that.” They quieted at once. Susan kept singing.. He soft, child’s voice came as a caress. The soldiers whispered to each other in Russian.
Susan continued singing her children’s song about the Black African stork. „O love comes, love goes… Stork, stork clapping your wings on the rooftop…
A soldier opened the door slowly. He saw the warm light of the room, and a tiny girl, your own Grandmother, Susan, in the lap of her own her mother, your Great grandmother, Zsuzsanna. She was singing. The soldiers quieted. Two more soldiers peeked through the doorway.
“Druz’ya iz Rossii. Our good Russian friends.” Father took the opportunity of surprise to approach them with a plate of cookies. “Vy nashi osvoboditeli . You are our liberators.” They had big fur hats on, which is what Russian soldiers wore. Perhaps they wanted to be wild, to take the watch which he had received for a small operation from Great grandfather. But they could just not bring themselves to do so.
Sensing their paralysis, Apu continued, “Ochen’ schastlivogo Rozhdestva. Please enjoy this Christmas with us.” And he offered them the plate of cookies.
They just stood in the doorway. It was wide open, and the three huge men, as helpless shadows, hung in the frame of bright light of the doorway. One of them lifted his hat. He wiped his brow with a sleeve.
„Poidem, “ he said in Russian. „Let’s go. Poidem, Poidem,“ he was repeating. His hair was matted by perspiration. Another of his colleagues had accepted the cookies. Poidem.
They closed the door quietly and left peacefully.
Susan kept singing until she dozed off. “Gólya madár, sej haj, szépen kelepel a háztetőn,,,, And that night they all slept like that, deeply, and the fire died down, snapping and cracking and spitting up cinders. Great grandmother in the rocking chair, clutching her child, Great grandfather dozing in the lounge, the sheets of newspaper, Free Peoples, Népszabdság, fallen in scatters around his feet.