I grew up knowing two things about Hungarians: they speak a language so different from the world’s other languages that they have great difficulty learning a second language, and they are all paranoid.
In the French detention camp where my father was a prisoner, there were two Hungarians. Soon after my father’s arrival at the camp, Hungarian #1 pulled my father aside, and speaking in a low voice, all the while scanning the area to make sure that they were not overheard, warned my father against Hungarian #2.
“He is a spy!” Hungarian #1 assured my father. “Be careful what you tell him!”
A few days later, Hungarian #2 approached my father. Equally worried about being overheard, he solemnly warned my father against Hungarian #1.
“He’s a spy” #2 declared, “Don’t trust him!”
Later, in New York, there was a Hungarian born man among the Viennese refugees in my parents’ circle. Koren was a prime example of both Hungarian traits. He was a writer who had managed to learn just enough German to continue his writing career, but he adamantly refused to learn English. He wrote for an Austrian-refugee newspaper called the Austro-American Tribune. When the group assembled to work on the paper, Koren refused to acknowledge anything said in English. His standard response was “I don’t speak Chinese either.”
During the McCarthy era all the refugees were justifiably worried about deportation. It had happened to one couple, and the others were taking what measures they could in case they became targets. Sure enough, Koren got a notice to appear before the immigration authorities.
My father advised Koren to consult with an attorney, and gave him information about a young woman who was providing pro bono services to refugees. Koren’s first reaction was, predictably, “How do you know she isn’t a spy?”
Reassured by my father, Koren agreed to meet with the lawyer, but he insisted that they meet outside on the street where they could avoid any bugs that might have been planted in his apartment.
At the first meeting, he still wasn’t quite convinced that the lawyer wasn’t a spy, so he was very evasive about the facts in his case. It took several more pep-talks from his friends to convince Koren that he could trust the woman.
With these stories as evidence, it’s no wonder that we often joked about Hungarian paranoia in my family. A person had only to show the slightest evidence of feeling under attack without any proof, and one of us would claim that the person must be Hungarian. However amusing this was, I didn’t really believe that all Hungarians are paranoid—until I went to work in the chemistry lab at Montefiore Hospital.
One of the first people I met as a trainee in the lab was Julia, who introduced herself as coming from “Hungary country.”
Julia’s battles with the English language were epic, and often led to strange pronouncements. One day she came to me with a gauze pad in her hand.
“Evika, this is a gooze, and the big bird is a gooze, so which is the really one gooze?”
I pronounced “gauze” and “goose” for her, but no matter how I tried, she couldn’t hear the difference, and went off shaking her head muttering about the “really one gooze.”
Hungarians often have trouble with the correct usage of pronouns. Julia might speak of a woman as he, or a piece of equipment as she. Once Julia came to tell me that our department head had fixed a machine by tightening some connections in the back of the unit.
“Evika,” Julia said, “My machine was broken, but George is screwed her in the behind and now she is working fine!”
I worked with Julia for several years without seeing any evidence of latent paranoia. Then one day a Hospital administrator came to our department with an artist. He explained that the artist had a job involving drawing hands using a pipette; she would therefore be spending time observing and sketching us at work.
Julia came to me looking very disturbed.
“I am sure that woman is a spy!”
“But Julia, she’s only drawing our hands,” I replied.
“Do not be stupid Evika, she is an artist, she is looking at us and secretly drawing our faces.”
“Even if she is, what difference does it make, how is she being a spy and who is she spying for?”
Julia walked away shaking her head at my naiveté. “That woman is a spy,” she repeated. So there you have it—underneath even the sanest-appearing Hungarian lurks a streak of paranoia.
The dismantling of my parents’ apartment began on the morning after my father’s death when I called the medical equipment rental company to take back the wheel chair and hospital bed. Next I asked the weekend aid, who had brought her native Guyanese food from home to tempt my father’s appetite, to choose something as a remembrance. She cried when she came, and left with a small keepsake brought back from one of my parents’ trips abroad. The cleaning lady who had worked for my parents for several years was about my mother’s size, so she got her pick of my mother’s clothes. Then my friend Bernice, who had known my parents since our teen years, selected a framed print that she had long admired.
I collected cartons at work and packed up my parents’ books. My mother often said that she had built up three libraries during her lifetime: one in Vienna that had to be abandoned when she fled, one in England that she had to leave behind when we came to the States, and this third one that she had collected since our arrival and swore never to lose. The books were precious to both my parents, so after letting some of my coworkers take their pick from among them, I took the rest to my apartment, where the cartons sat in my living room until I moved.
My mother had too many house plants for me to keep all of them, so I chose three on the basis of sentiment rather than beauty: a very large snake plant that had belonged to my grandmother, an ugly hanging cactus that had been a cutting from my parent’s Czech friends, and a Christmas cactus that had been a cutting from another, now deceased, friend.
Dishes and a set of cutlery went to my son, while I kept two of my favorite cooking pots and some knives from the kitchen, as well as some towels and bed linens that would replace some of my older ones. I took the rest of the pictures from the walls, and all the family photographs and papers.
Lastly, I turned to my father’s night aid, and paid him to clean out the apartment. Joe had been the kindest, most helpful person during my father’s last days. He called my father “Grandpa,” and treated him with all the affection that he would have shown to his own grandfather. Naturally I told Joe that he could have whatever he wanted from the apartment, and he said that he knew people who could use some of the furnishings.
Now I sat in the empty space that had once been my parents’ home, a home that had felt like a haven for so many years, and truly felt like an orphan. Joe had come to me that morning proudly announcing “I didn’t throw out any of Grandpa’s things, I found a place for everything!” He had indeed done a wonderful job. The apartment was clean and ready to be handed over to the landlord.
I must have looked surprised, because he went on to say “Yes, cats can become diabetic. I can tell you how to care for him, then it’s up to you. Some people find it too difficult and have me put the cat to sleep.”
For a second my mind wandered off into contemplating the wonderful way that we avoid saying “kill” when we talk about “putting an animal to sleep,” or “putting him down.” But the vet was waiting for my reply.
I looked down at the big orange cat lying on the examination table, and over to my son who kept a carefully neutral face. His very lack of expression told me “It’s your cat, you’ll have the work, you decide!”
O.J. wasn’t as handsome as my Abyssinian cat Pippin, nor did he have the personality of my coal-black cat Woody. His pale orange coat had random blotches of white, and a spot of grey fur on his forehead gave him a perpetual Ash Wednesday look. O.J. was afraid of most people and most things, so that he spent a great deal of time hiding in a closet. He favored sleeping tucked into a corner of the couch, lying on his back, white tummy exposed, front paws dangling over his chest and hind paws stretched out. O.J.’s idea of play was to run to any proffered toy and plop down on top of it, much to the disgust of the other cats who wanted to bat it around, or to play fetch. Silly old cat, I thought on numerous occasions. Still, I wouldn’t want him dead if he wasn’t actually suffering.
“I have to at least try to care for him,” I said. There followed a long list of how-to instructions, along with a demonstration of giving a cat an injection as the vet gave O.J. his first insulin shot. I knew that it wouldn’t be nearly as easy for me. Not only did I lack experience, but O.J. wouldn’t hold still for me the way he did at the vet’s, where he was too terrified to move a muscle.
Armed with the instructions and the prescriptions needed to get the insulin, needles, and urine test-strips, we put the unresisting cat into his carrier for the trip home. While he meowed loudly all the way to the vet’s office, as usual he was quiet on the way back. The only peep out of him was when we stopped for the inevitable red light at the corner of Jerome and Bainbridge Avenues, where his protest clearly said “We’re on our way home at last, why are you stopping?”
Over the next weeks O.J. perfected the vanishing-cat act that all cats are born knowing. No sooner had I gathered together the trappings for his daily insulin shot, than he absolutely evaporated. After running from room to room, poking into every likely, and a few unlikely, hiding places, I usually found him in some corner I’d already checked. Compared to finding him, the actual injection was easy.
Testing his urine was even more difficult than giving him the injection. If there is anything that ruffles the dignity of even the most easy going cat, it’s being disturbed while in the litter box. Now here I was, not only watching him, but shoving this odd object under him as he went about what should have been the private act of urinating. It often took two or three attempts before I got the test done.
O.J. turned out to be one of the unfortunate victims of diabetes whose urine didn’t properly reflect his blood sugar. There were numerous emergency trips to the vet’s office when his lethargic behavior indicated a problem. No matter how sick he felt, he always managed to put up a fight when I tried to get him into the cat carrier. All four legs splayed out stiffly so that he wouldn’t fit through the door of the carrier. Although I always got him in eventually, he never stopped trying to fight off the inevitable.
But I’ve digressed. When I was in my teens I discovered that my body was not the one intended for me. Not the wrong sex, mind you, but definitely the wrong female body. In the first place, I was too thin. This was the 1940’s. The day of thin-as-a-rail models was far off; Twiggy hadn’t arrived on the scene (she probably hadn’t been born yet), and my idea of a proper figure was one with generous curves. I wanted to have a figure like that of the models who sat for us at the Art Students League. I clung to hope for a while, but by fourteen I realized that I wasn’t going to become any more curvaceous…those small ripples of flesh here and there over my boney self was the best my body intended to do for me.
It wasn’t only the question of having the kind of body that boys would like; I read enough novels to know that the character I wanted didn’t belong in a thin body. All the women who were kind, generous, sweet, and open-hearted had beautiful womanly bodies to match their beautiful womanly characters. The thin women in books were invariably graceless, shrewish, parsimonious spinsters, sticking their pointy elbows and pointy noses into other people’s affairs.
Then there was my coloring. Not quite blond, not quite brunet, mousy-colored baby-fine straight hair, and the detested grey eyes…really! What kind of raw-material is that for a femme fatale? Or even for a woman to attract the eye of a hero who would carry me off to the modern New York equivalent of a castle?
I knew that if I had a more flamboyant body, preferably one with curly red hair, green eyes and lots of curves, I would have exactly the personality I wanted. No more shyness, no more awkwardness, no more being a wallflower at the dance of life…if only!
When my parents fled Austria in 1938, they had to leave me behind with her. One autumn day, a few months after German soldiers had marched into Vienna, the doorbell rang. A long hallway extended from the front door to our rooms. My grandmother, being slightly hard of hearing, didn't hear the bell.
"Oma," I called out, "somebody is at the door." I had to tell her twice before she heard me and went to open the door.
From my seat on my grandmother's bed in the living room, I could hear male voices, then loud footsteps coming down the long hall. My grandmother silently led two men in German uniforms past me through the French doors between the living room and the dining room. As they passed me, one of the men patted my head and said something to me. I was too afraid of him to take in what he said. I sat with bent head, seeing only his tall black polished boots. The door closed after them, and for a few minutes all I could hear was a murmur of voices. Then the door opened and my grandmother led the men to the front door and saw them out.
"We have to leave our apartment," she told me. "No Jews are allowed to live in this neighborhood now." I could see that she was crying, the tears running down her face.
Soon afterward, we went to the police station near our apartment house. While my grandmother spoke to the man behind the desk, I looked around me at the German flags with their swastikas and the large portrait of Hitler behind the desk. I thought it was a frightening place, but there was relief in my grandmother's voice when we left and she told me that we wouldn't have to move for a while. The postponement lasted until after I left Vienna on a Kindertransport.
On the days that followed I saw fewer of my playmates in the park. My best friend Ditta and her parents, who lived across the street from me, fled to Holland. She was half Jewish. Other children and their families had also fled abroad. Some children no longer came to the park, because their families had been moved to the Jewish section of the city.
It was not long after this that my grandmother found out about the Kinder-transports leaving Vienna for England. How she managed it I don't know, but she got me a place on one of the earliest trains.
"You're going to England where your mother is," she told me. "She'll meet you when you arrive."
The night that she took me to the train station was the last time that I ever saw her. I have no photographs of her, no mementos of her, and, although I can remember things that we did, I can't remember her face at all. All that I know about her are the few childhood memories that remain and the stories that my mother told me, stories that sounded like fairy tales to me.
My grandmother was born Bertha Jellinek in the late nineteenth century to a wealthy Czech family. She was strikingly attractive, with very dark brown hair and deep-blue eyes. When she was a young woman she loved to dance, especially the Viennese waltz which was sweeping the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Sometimes she danced holes right through the thin soles of her elegant dancing shoes in only one evening. She and her sister spent time in the fashionable spa at Marienbad, where one year at a ball they danced with the Prince of Wales who later became King Edward VII of Great Britain. The prince's equerry gave each of his dancing partners a gold watch pin.
She married a young man of her own class, a man originally from the Croatian part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Wilhelm Obersohn was vice-president of a large furniture manufacturing company. As befitted a woman of wealth, Bertha brought with her a fine dowry. There was a custom designed china service for twenty-four, crystal glassware and a set of heavy solid-silver eating utensils for the same number of diners, and heavy linen tablecloths and napkins. The life of the young couple was lived on a scale that went with that level of entertaining. In time a son, Franz, was born to them, followed by a daughter, Leonie, who became my mother.
Wilhelm Obersohn was an important figure in his time; he was a leader of the Free Thinkers Association of Vienna, and a leading member of the Social Democratic Party. Because of his position, he didn't follow his own advice to a family friend to invest in Swiss or British bonds when World War I broke out: he was convinced that the German side would lose, but he felt that he would be branded as unpatriotic and a traitor if he invested in anything other than Austrian bonds. Consequently, when he died of throat cancer during the war years, his widow was left with only his pension and the Austrian bonds that he had bought. That should have been more than enough to live on, but the bonds were wiped out when Austria was defeated, and the enormous inflation after the war made his pension worthless. At one point, the monthly pension check would not even have bought a postage stamp, and the mailman asked if it was worth bringing the check up the stairs to her, or should he just throw it out?
Bertha, who had been used to a life of wealth and leisure, now struggled to support her family. Food became scarce as the war dragged on. Sawdust was mixed into the bread to stretch the flour. A coffee substitute was made from roasted acorns.
After the war ended, Bertha earned money by making beaded purses which were sold to an American company. During the worst post-war food shortages, the children got lunch at school, provided by the American Relief Administration; Bertha had to do the best she could to provide other food.
Life was never the same, even when the worst ravages of the war were over. Bertha was never again a woman of means. Times had drastically changed, and the values that prevailed before the first world war no longer held. Short skirts and shingled hair replaced the elegant gowns and high-piled hair of the pre-war days; the Charleston replaced the waltz. My mother never wanted the ball gowns and dancing shoes that had been her mother's joy. Instead, she went skiing and hiking in the Austrian and Swiss Alps. Franz was also a skier; he was in his twenties when he skied headfirst into a tree and died. Bertha was left with only her daughter, and the two of them didn't get along very well.
Perhaps the worst thing for Bertha was my mother's marriage to Ernst Steiner, who came from a shopkeeper's family and had radical political ideas. My parents met on a hike in Switzerland. When they wanted to marry, Bertha wouldn't give her permission. Since my mother wasn't yet twenty-one, she needed a parent's signature to marry. They decided to live together for the few months until my mother's twenty-first birthday; five days after her birthday they married. By then, I was on the way. All of this shocked Bertha, who was never really reconciled to the marriage and often quarreled with my father.
Matters only got worse when my father lost his job shortly after my birth. It was the depths of the depression; he couldn't find another job that would support us, so he jumped at the opportunity to work temporarily in another country and send money home. My mother and I moved back in with my grandmother, who cared for me while my mother worked as a secretary.
It was my grandmother who took me to and from kindergarten and to the park to play. I went with her to the stores and I sat with her while she cooked and while she worked around the house. I watched her dusting in the dining room where the china, crystal, linens and silverware that had been her dowry were kept. She would tell me, "This will all be yours when you grow up and get married."
Fortunately, she couldn't foresee the fate of her beautiful possessions. They were confiscated by a Nazi, probably by Resi, the woman who rented the bedroom in the apartment. I remember the smugness in Resi's voice when she gave me a coin for my sixth birthday, and told me "Soon we'll have new coins with Hitler's picture on them!"
How did Bertha feel when I was taken, screaming, from her arms on the night I left Vienna? She was now alone in a hostile world. Did she retreat to the memories of her storybook youth? Did the ghosts of waltzes fill the empty house? My mother claimed that Bertha refused to leave Vienna, but I wonder if it was not so much her refusing to go, as that there was no way out for her. At first my mother got letters from her at the old address. Later, there was another address, then - nothing. Bertha died either on the way to, or in, the concentration camp at Theresianstadt.
For many years I thought that her death was my fault. I thought that if only I hadn't told my grandmother that the doorbell was ringing, the German soldiers would have gone away. If they had gone away, they wouldn't have sent her to the Jewish ghetto from which they took her away to her death.
Copyright © 2007, 2010 by Eva Yachnes