Chapter 3: The Ghetto
Everyone was very nervous and depressed. There was hardly any talk, just the intense waiting for the unknown, the constant listening to the radio announcements that sometimes came unexpectedly, and the news were never good, she read it on the grim face of her Aunt Hermina who seemed to have lost the ability to smile.
The house was cold regardless of the warming weather. Cold and lonely. She slept alone in the bed now, she was shivering in the cold bed, her mind too numb to let her acknowledge the absence of that other child; she could not bear the thought of Gyurika being lonely, too. She was miserable enough without letting herself forming conscious thoughts, she tried to keep her mind blank, but the feeling that she had let him down was always with her; she didn't even deserve to think of him. But she could not control the strong feeling she had, that he was there, somehow he was there inside her head as if she had become two people.
There is trouble in the air, more than they can cope with, - said the attitude of the adults. She didn't understand, nor did she care. There wasn't anything else she would be concerned of losing.
What was going on frightened Aunt Hermina and the girls more than anything that had happened before. They will have to move, all Jews will have to move, but they didn't know where.
She was taken to Aunt Serena's house.
Aunt Serena had a very large apartment. She lived there with her husband, just the two of them, their three daughters, Lilli, Klari and Bozsi were all married. It was clear that this had been the home of very well to do people. There were a lot of paintings in heavy gilded frames, some small, but most were large. Ladies in fine clothes with lots of lace trimmings stared down critically from the dark paintings. There were thick and colourful Persian carpets in each room, and the heavy draperies on the windows ensured the quiet inside. It also kept the place in an elegant semi-darkness which the child found more soothing, more in tune with her feelings, than the brightness of the sun.
Her Aunt Serena was a virtual stranger. Not only because she could not remember her, but because the only time she spoke to the child was to issue an order. She was famous of her fussiness and her cleanliness. Not having servants to clean the big house was an ordeal for her, even without all the other things to worry about. But Jews could no longer employ gentiles.
One of Gittle's chores was to dust the dining room. She didn't really mind doing it. The shiny, black wood had a special beauty, and every piece was hand carved. The legs of each chair was a black figure, as was the four legs of the table. The figures supported the tables with the carved basket on the top of their heads. Each face was just a little different from the other, and she enjoyed trying to find the difference as she was dusting them under the table. This quiet time of hiding came to an abrupt end when her Aunt's harsh voice suddenly broke into the quiet of her world. "How can you work with one hand? You don't have to support yourself with the other at your age. Use both hands!"
She was careful to do as she was told for as long as her Aunt was standing there above her. But as soon as she left she stopped dusting, and just bid her time pretending to be busy. She was no longer interested to get the dust out of the white ivory eyes and smiling teeth of the figures. (Ten years after the war relatives sold the dining room set. Ebony, it seemed, was very rare and expensive, also because it was such finely made furniture. The relatives were able to buy a condominium in the best part of Budapest, on the hills of Buda, and have enough money left to furnish it.)
The building had become one of those that were marked with an ugly, yellow Jewish Star. When strangers began moving into the other rooms, Aunt Serena became very depressed. There was a lot of activitiy in the building, people moving in and out with their belongings. But in spite of the unusual movements the voices were hushed; only the children could be heard crying, wanting to go home.
There were strange faces in the bomb shelter too, when the air raids came. No place to sit, even though some people brought their own chairs, but there were too many people for the small space. Strangely, the people didn't much talk to each other there was a strained silence most of the time, and only the little conversation when it couldn't be avoided. Their faces wore the same hopeless expression, their eyes reflected the same fear. There were no gentiles left in the building, except the janitor.
Then one night the house was hit during an air-raid. More precisely, the back of the building was hit, which was actually another address on another street. The brick wall, that had divided the shelters of the two houses, collapsed. Most people died in the shelter of the building that got hit and many in the shelter of the Aunt's building. A gas pipe cracked and, that, along with the torn pillows, caused the death of many. The feather from the pillows got stuck on the nostrils of the unconscious people and choked many to death. Gittle was one of the few people who had survived.
The relatives said she had been unconscious for a few days; but it didn't seem as if she had missed anything she should be sorry for. She kept having the feeling that being unconscious was a more pleasant state to be in. She had a sore throat for sometime after and the taste of mortar in her mouth. Her Uncle Samu died, though. Not right away, but shortly after the bomb had hit the shelter. He had a weak heart. There were no doctors, because the Jewish doctors were taken to unknown places, and Gentiles were forbidden to work for Jews. He was conscious to the end, and had asked for his family members. When they gathered around him, so the story went, he said his good-byes, closed his eyes and died. Gittle missed that event, but she always thought it must have been nice to be able to say good bye. She tried not to think of how her parents had left without a word.
Aunt Serena's daughter, Lilly, was there often, and one day she took Gittle to visit her daughter, Agi. Her daughter liked to play with other children. It was a long ride first on the street car, then on the bus. Gittle's stomach was heaving and she was breathing deeply to keep it down. By the time they alighted the last bus her head was also pounding; the result of apprehension of another unknown coupled with being in the hands of Cousin Lilly. When she finally stopped talking about the beauties and magnificence of Agi, she realized the child did not say a word all that time, she looked down and asked what was wrong with her. "I have a headache." said the child with effort. "Children do not have headaches." she was told. That should teach the child to complain. It did.
She had first laid eyes on Agi as the little girl laughingly greeted her mother. After being helped down from the swing by her grandmother. She was a pretty child with golden curls and blue eyes, and about four years old... just like that other one. But, as it became apparent within minutes, there the resemblance stopped. Agi was demanding her present from her mother, as her due, and she got it promptly. From the corner of her eyes she was watching if the older girl would claim any of the precious sweets. Disappointed, she ran back to the swings.
By the time they got back to Aunt Serena's house, Cousin Lilly had a plan. She told Aunt Serena that it must be too much trouble for anyone to comb and braid Gittle's long hair. It should be cut and she was going to do the cutting. "But my Father likes it long, he doesn't want my hair cut." declared the child. "Your father isn't here to help taking care of it." said the cousin who never had to trouble with the child's hair. So within minutes the two heavy braids were cut off. Cousin Lilly had some problems cutting through the thick hair, but she was determined and finally she succeeded. The first thick braid hit the floor with a thud, accompanied by Cousin Lilly's loud sounds of victory. Something on the child's rigid face made the two women make a great fuss about keeping the braids in a safe place for her father. Aunt Serena's wardrobe in her bedroom had a long drawer across its length at the bottom that was always locked. A habit she had from the time she had had help living in the house. She would, then, hide the keys and spend hours looking for them because she could never remember where she had hid them. Old habits die hard, so, they began looking for the keys to put the braids in the safety of the drawer, to keep them for her father. They even covered them with a white cloth.
(Gittle was looking for them after the war, and although the wardrobe was there, no longer locked, the braids were missing. She learned, later on, that good quality, young hair had the value of gold during the war years. Cousin Lilly knew a good thing when she saw one.)
After the initial shock of not having her long braids resting on her back, Gittle liked the feeling of weightlessness that she experienced without all that hair. She liked the airy freedom of movement, the breeze in her hair. But most of all she liked the privacy she could create by letting her hair fall in her face whenever she didn't want to be seen.
At times she fleetingly thought of what her Father's reaction might be, and she felt a satisfaction at the thought that he would not be pleased. It would serve him right, too, for leaving her.
x x x
She was back with Aunt Hermina and the girls. They had to move too. The new building had the big yellow star on the front, as had most of the others around there. It was apparent the move had not been their choice, but Aunt Hermina, grateful as ever for small miracles, was resigned to make the best of the new place and she was trying to keep their spirits up, because small as the place was, at least they did not have to share it with strangers.
Gittle, since she could not understand any of this, tried to shut out as much as was possible. Sometimes it was not possible.
Jews, now, had to wear the Star of David on their jackets. The weather wasn't always cold enough for a jacket, but it was easier to wear one than to sew the star on different clothing. They could go out to do their shopping only a given time of the day. But, because most people around there were Jews, the line-ups for food were very long during those hours, with some Gentiles, the janitors and the keepers of the Ghetto also having to line up.
One morning Aunt Hermina asked the child, to go and line up for bread at the corner bakery, and later one of the girls would follow and take her place if the line was too long. She wasn't wearing a star. Children under six were exempted and she was so skinny she would pass for a child under six, her Aunt had said. The line had grown around the corner from the bakery when she joined it, and within a short time it grew so it would go around another block. They were waiting for the next batch of fresh bread to bake. The line slowly began to move, then stop and move again. It was tiring standing there, and the strain began to show more and more as people yelled at one another if they thought someone tried to push ahead. Then, an unpleasant, loud voice began to curse the Jews; how there are too many of them, and how they are taking up the place in the line making the good, God fearing Christians wait all day to get their daily bread. Others joined in, and the dissatisfaction with the Jews grew louder, the voices grew more shrill. Something stirred in Gittle's hazy mind as she noticed more and more people wearing the yellow star quietly steal away, leaving the line. Perhaps it was an instinct of self-preservation that made her slowly pull back, also, and withdraw from the bread line.
She didn't know how to explain it to the Aunt, so she just said the bakery had ran out of flour. It wasn't the first time they wouldn't have bread, and Aunt Hermina quietly said they still had potatoes.
x x x
There was yelling from the outside, from the courtyard. They ran to the door. The apartment was on the first floor, behind the staircase, where normally the janitor's apartment would be. The upper part of the door was glass with a light curtain, where they could see through. In the courtyard people were herded in, carrying their belongings. They were all branded with the Jewish Star. Old people; men and women and children. The children were crying, the terrified adults were trying to keep them quiet, while the Nazis were yelling at all. They filled one side of the courtyard, and a young Nazi faced them from the other side.
The occupants of the building crowded behind their doors wondering if they would be next to line up down there.
The Nazi yelled his orders; everyone to put everything of value in the middle of the yard. They should not forget such things as razor blades, and anything that is made of whalebone or ivory.
"What about our razor blades? asked Gittle. It was most unusual that the child would volunteer to speak. "What razor blades?" asked her Aunt. "The ones in the girl's basket." was the answer. The Aunt looked at her older daughter with a look that mirrored her concern. The child had finally snapped. "We don't have a girl, we don't have a maid." she said. But Gittle turned and ran into the only room they had and pointed to a large porcelain statue of a girl carrying a basket. "In the basket." she said. The Aunt's relief was visible and her sigh of relief loud. The rusted, old razors in the basket of the porcelain figure should not get them into trouble.
When they got back to the window, the unfortunates outside were still gathering their valuables from the small cases they were allowed to pack in the first place. The Nazi occasionally yelled at them so they wouldn't forget who the boss was. When the activities of searching lessened he yelled, "Now remove your jewellery. Your wedding bands, too." Then, the young Nazi facing the group with his feet apart, began his victory speech. He seemed to grow in stature as he explained to the terrified people that he is in charge of their lives. He could do what he would please and no one would care. And he laughed. To illustrate his point he took a hand grenade and he began to swing it. There wasn't a sound to be heard, not a whimper from the numerous children, not a curtain moved on the windows of the apartments above whose occupants must have been watching the drama, holding their breaths as well. Time stood still. The quiet created a sound of its own as the listening people could hear their heart beat vibrate in their eardrums.
The young Nazi enjoyed himself with an ugly sneer on his face. He was looking from the swinging hand grenade in his hand to the terrorized faces. "But not just yet." he finished. Then, giving orders to the group to turn around, the other uniformed juveniles began collecting the loot into bags from the middle of the yard. The man who seemed to be in charge had been joined by others, and amidst more yelling they began pushing the people with their rifles towards the doors of the apartments.
The Aunt ordered the girls inside and waited for the pounding on the door before opening it. The strangers poured in, and when they could squeeze in no more, the door was closed behind them, and the crowd was directed to the next door.
The apartment consisted of one room, a kitchen, and a bathroom. The kitchen was soon filled with the strangers as was the short hallway. The Aunt opened the bedroom door Eva had closed, and motioned the people to come forward.
There wasn't enough place to sit, and Aunt Hermina was apologetic that she could not provide them. She behaved as a good hostess would who had invited people to a great party only to find that because of her carelessness she could not provide the best.
Gittle hated these helpless people. They were taking away the little space they had. She watched them as they tried to find unoccupied floor space to sit down. The children had begun to fuss, and the parents desperately tried to calm them. One woman was trying to cope with several unhappy children. No use. They were uncomfortable, crowded, and hungry. And they were everywhere. The very old ones were sitting on the beds, holding each other for comfort.
Aunt Hermina was offering the only thing she could; water. Stepping over and in between the legs as the people were sitting around the rooms with their backs to the walls for support, she offered the water, smiled and talked to the children, talked quietly to the mothers and her composed voice seemed to soothe them.
Gittle watched her in awe.
Aunt Hermina thought they all might be taken along with these unfortunate people. They each packed a small bag. She asked the girls to hope and pray. But when morning finally came, only the homeless were rounded up. For now.
The radio was constantly on because there were bulletins announced through the day. The volume was always on very low so one could only hear by sitting close to it, Gittle wasn't sure if it was against the law for Jews to listen to the radio.
They were looking out the windows waiting for something to happen, not knowing what. Eva suddenly called her mother. She pointed out two man, one wearing the Jewish Star, the other gesticulating wildly. Suddenly, he reached over and ripped the Jewish Star off the coat of the other and threw it to the ground. Then, the two strangers hugged.
The radio kept repeating the resignation of Horthy, the Regent of Hungary. Their hope soared. But, suddenly the announcements stopped, and by late afternoon they knew the bad news. The prearranged government of the radical right, Szalasi and his Nyilas, assumed power, and the radio station was their tool to tell the nation of their priority; to take care of the "Judeo-Bolshevic menace".
The Jews were not allowed to leave their buildings and the streets were empty of people. Hours went by without anyone passing under the window. The few gentiles living in the ghetto area could do their shopping now any time without having to line up. The Jews were incarcerated behind their doors, the main entrances locked and only the janitor had the keys. The quiet was heavy in the air, and people stood at the windows invisible behind their curtains, waiting.
The wind blew the garbage around on the streets. A lot of it came from the ruins, because there seemed more after an air raid.
Then, at times, the quiet was broken by shots and uncontrolled yelling. The shots could be heard long before the gang of Nyilas youth would come into their line of vision, and the family would retreat to the relative safety of the windowless kitchen. They could hear windows breaking as the men shot left and right at random. But the gang passed their building, and they felt relieved; until the next time.
Aunt Hermina worked wonders to get something to eat. She left the apartment carrying something of value hidden under her coat, and returned with a few slices of bread. The janitors of the Ghetto had a lucrative business going.
Their packed bags were in the hallway.
When the doors of the Jewish houses were reopened, they were opened only for a few hours a day, and, then, the people realized they had no place to go. The shelves in the stores were bare, and only few of the bakeries had bread. Those worked and opened at odd hours, whenever they were able to get the flour. So people walked around from one to another until they had to return behind locked doors, usually empty handed.
One day, unexpectedly, Gittle was told she had to go and stay on Kiraly Street, at her Aunt Serena's house. She wanted to ask why, but she could feel how tense the others were and she kept quiet. It was only a few minutes walk, but Eva carried her own belongings as well as Gittle's. The child thought it wouldn't be so bad there if Eva stayed too, but that didn't happen.
The door was opened by the grandmother Gittle had met when she had met Agi, Cousin Lilly's little girl. Eva said something, quietly, to the old woman and it was clear she didn't like it. Eva insisted, and finally she let the child in. Eva was gone before the door closed.
The large square hallway was dark and smelled strange. Gone was the shiny wood floor, the Persian carpet was covered with dried mud that crunched under their shoes, but most of all the smell; the smell of strangers, the smell of stale food and unwashed bodies. Gone was her aunt's elegant house.
The Grandmother, Aunt Blanka, headed to the room Gittle never seen before. The room was located to the right of the entrance, and as they went inside she could tell this was not how it was originally furnished.
The kitchen table stood in the middle of the carpetless square room with chairs around it. There was a double bed next to the window on the right wall. A small heating element, on the left wall, with a butane gas tank attached to it, was a very unusual sight. A cupboard with dishes, and some partially filled potato sacks in the corner. The eyes of the Grandmother kept looking towards that corner, as if she wanted to make a point of not having enough to feed another mouth. There was a large armchair in the corner to the right of the door on the other side of the window.
The small child was waking up from her afternoon nap, and her Grandmother rushed to her instantly, hugging and kissing the sleep out of the eyes of the child, while Agi began whining and complaining as many children would when they are awakened.
Gittle was standing awkwardly at the door, not knowing what to do, holding the small bag that contained her belongings. The Old Woman busied herself with the child, who looked curiously at the strange girl standing still. Then stopping her complains, and in the most normal voice, she demanded the girl to be gone from the room. The Old Woman, now, had to acknowledge the presence of the other girl, turned to her and motioned that she should sit down.
The Grandmother, without looking at Gittle, told the little girl that the unwelcome guest would have to stay, because she had no place to go, but it would not change anything because they would just play together as they did before. Agi was seated at the table, and Gittle sat down, too, putting her bag on the floor. Agi was given something to drink, Gittle couldn't tell what it was, and a piece of bread with some jam to sweeten it. The Grandmother explained to the child that the jam was very special and so was the bread, not having much of either.
Gittle understood the message, that she wasn't going to get any, and she also deducted that the Old Woman wasn't going to talk to her directly. She didn't, if she could help it. They had a little potato soup for supper. Agi got more than Gittle, because she was little and she had to grow. At night, Gittle got the armchair to sleep in, and there was a blanket to cover up with.
Strangers lived in all the other rooms of the apartment. Gittle was wondering where her Aunt Serena could be, she so treasured her house. There was a large family living in the beautiful dining room with the unusual, black furniture she had to carefully dust, what seemed like, ages ago.
There was no water, except in the bathtub, where it was stored. Once a day the water was running, and the tub had to be filled, and jars for drinking and cooking, pails for washing. Aunt Hermina already showed her how to wash herself with a wash cloth using only small amounts of water.
The bathroom, as it was the fashion of the times, had no toilet. The toilet was in a separate little room, the WC, which under normal circumstances worked out fine, one could always use it even when the bathroom was occupied. Having no water in the toilet tank to flush, with so many people living with one toilet, created a problem.
There was a bucket in the WC, which was to get water from the bathtub, before one used the facility, of course. However, some people left the room with the result of their activities abandoned in the bowl. By the time you went to get water to flush someone else's production, others were lining up, thinking you already had your turn. Especially, if you happened to be a young child. Luckily, with so little food and liquid to be had, the need to use the facilities had been greatly reduced.
Agi had a claim on every minute of her Grandmother's time. How the Old Woman could keep up with the spoiled child's demands on her, was a miracle. For she was old, with her grey hair constantly escaping from a carelessly made bun, she was the embodiment of patience. No matter how outrageous Agi would behave she would never raise her voice or reprimand the child. At first, Gittle thought she was sending her messages, never asking directly, that she should play with Agi. In her mind she firmly refused to have anything to do with her. She thought the child would just complain, and make the Old Woman even more mean to her.
Every day there was a ritual with the chocolate. After lunch Agi began asking for it, and the Grandmother would take the package from the cupboard. When Gittle first heard it, she was hopefully waiting at the table for her share. The Old Woman quickly dissolved her expectation by telling Agi how she needs the chocolate to help her grow, and she will get a little every day.
Gittle quickly returned to the window, that became her station in the room. She turned her back to them, hoping that her rapid swallowing didn't give away her craving for a piece of that chocolate.
There was one compensation, though. She had brought in her bag an old exercise book that had once belonged to Marika. There were pages missing but quite a few clean ones remaining, and she had a pencil. She took a chair to the window, where she spent most of her time, and drew pictures only she could recognize. She wrote words only she could read. A few months in grade one didn't make her a writer, but she was so full of anger towards the Old Woman, she convinced herself she was able to write; I hate her. I loathe her, and the likes.
She used up all the pages such way, pressing her pencil so hard that it finally broke. But each day made her harder, and she resolved not to care.
And now there was absolutely nothing to do and no one to talk to. The air raids came and went, but since the building was hit some time ago, and the shelter destroyed, there was no place to hide from the bombs.
From the window of that room there was no view except the entrance of two other apartments on the opposite side, and the railing of the third floor, above. People hardly ever went out, and if there were anything to see at all on the street, that could be seen only from other side of the apartment.
She developed a game. She would stare into the wall on the other side, and pretend to build her own wall, brick by brick, surrounding her. She would pretend that it was her fort, enclosing, protecting her. She could sit there for hours without a thought, her brain became lazy from sheer neglect, and it came a point when trying to follow the child's conversation behind her proved to be difficult.
She would sit at that window all day until the dark shades were put up for the black-out before the lamp was lit. The room was cold and the petrol from the lamp made her head dizzy, and that was for the better, because it made it easier to keep her mind blank.