Etelka Böhm waxed the wooden floor exasperatedly. That week it was her turn to clean up. “This is simply not possible,” she thought to herself, enraged. “It’s absurd to try to keep this place clean! Look at this apartment! Doesn’t matter what you do…, they litter, they bring in dirt…”
And she had a point. There were 36 people living in the three-bedroom apartment on the second floor of the yellow-star house on Hollán Street, women, the elderly, and children, in total seven different families consisting of several people each shared the mattresses spread out on the floors. The kids were rowdy, the women quarreled over pots and counter space in the kitchen, then returning to their little corners they would pray for news of their husbands or sons, who had been assigned to forced labor service.
“It’s not healthy, this cohabitation,” Etelka Böhm mumbled as she brushed an unruly curl of hair from her forehead with the back of her hand and continued to shine the floor. She was an attractive young woman, 32 years old. Her obsession with cleanliness and orderliness had begun to show itself in her childhood, though it’s possible that the workers’ housing project on Haller Street where she had grown up had proven even more hopeless than the Hollán Street apartment. She had shared the single room with her parents and her four adult siblings, sleeping on a narrow bed and two couches that completely filled the place. The only thing that was worse than the crowdedness of life in a one-room apartment was the bedbugs and cockroaches hiding on the gray floor of the kitchen and in the old couches, and the inextirpable stench of cabbage coming off the walls and even the sheets.
At 15 years of age, Etelka Böhm had once managed to drive her parents from the room. With her brothers’ help, she had pushed the furniture to the side and then set about scrubbing the wooden floor with a disinfectant and a scrubbing brush that she had bought with the little bits of money she had managed to set aside.
She did this sedulously for years, but she never gained the upper hand in the struggle against the cockroaches. But she did not give up.
As far back as she could remember, she had always longed to have a separate apartment with its own bathroom, the kind in which everything shimmers, the kind that even has, dear Lord, a foyer!
And she had even gotten one some five years earlier, when she had married András Fekete. Little Anna had been born in the little one-bedroom apartment, which had heating and plumbing, in Nürnberg Street, and this combination-wardrobe-chest-of-drawers bliss might well have lasted until the end of time, but the Germans came, then Szálasi and his men, and, confound it all, they had to move here, into the yellow-star house, though you could easily call it a crazy house too, into this chaos, and all the while… God knows where her husband is, she hasn’t gotten news of him for months either.
But you got word of some things. Allegedly an escaped forced labor inmate had told the people in the building next to ours that the Jews from the countryside who had been taken off in cattle cars in the summer had been taken not to work camps but to extermination camps, to Poland and Germany, and they had been killed in gas chambers, and their bodies had been incinerated. And Etelka Böhm had heard from Mór Schwarz, the butcher, that here in Budapest they were gathering the Jews together, driving them down to the Danube and shooting them into it one by one.
Etelka Böhm didn’t fall for these kinds of accounts. Of course all kinds of horrors take place in a time of war, and she herself had seen no small share, but that here, in the city of her birth, where there are movies in the movie theaters, everyone is slowly getting ready to buy Christmas presents, the trams and buses are running, the telephones in the telephone booths work, where you can still get food, even detergents, so where basically there is peace, that such a thing would happen, in full view of the pedestrians, innocent people, children shot in the back of the head on the banks of the Danube, it was simply inconceivable. “Nonsense, not possible, not even the Arrow Cross men are capable of that,” Etelka told the butcher, abiding no protest to the contrary. “Quite clearly brazen exaggerations or just hysteria.”
In general she did not handle nonsensical things well, she rejected them with her whole being. The yellow star she regarded as nonsensical, but you had to wear that, she wasn’t so foolish as not to wear it and in doing so to risk her very life! “This circus will come to an end eventually,” she kept repeating to her parents, whom she had brought with her to the Hollán Street apartment, of course, lest they end up among strangers in another yellow-star house. After having lived in Haller Street for 37 years, Igác and Regina Böhm, confused and stunned, bore the forced change of lodgings, which visibly strained them more than the whole war.
They had just taken Anna over to the neighbor’s place, so at least she had time to cook something. She took out the little hotplate, like hell she’s going to jostle and shove and quarrel in this kitchen, she can cook a meal for the four of them here, no need to make such a big fuss about it. “I’ll make pasta with flour and eggs today,” she thought, “I even have some onion and some fat and red paprika. We’ll just pretend there’s meat.”
Her heart sank. How she loved her husband. He adored her paprika dishes, her stews, everything she cooked. Where could he be now? Possibly in the Ukraine, or possibly… The smell of the onion browning in the fat began to fill the room. Etelka shook her head involuntarily. No, nothing bad could happen to her András. He will come back and until then she and little Anna would just have to wait patiently for him. Galvanized, she reached for the box of paprika.
Then she heard the noise. The rumbling sounds of footfalls, boots, on the stairs. The sounds grew stronger, there were shouts, commands, in German and Hungarian, then they burst into the apartment.
There must have been about ten of them, Nazi striplings, gendarmes, and they rounded up everyone in the building. In his alarm, Ignác Böhm threw on the wrong winter jacket. She quickly dressed Anna, then threw a warm scarf around her neck and they were already being driven down the stairs, everyone from every floor, out the gate, to the end of the street, to Saint István Park.
The people, who had been brought from every direction, were separated into groups. Then the waiting began.
It was cold, there was a light sleet. The people from their building who knew one another well, Igác Böhm among them, huddled together and shivered, awaiting their fate. Sometimes they thought they heard shots in the distance. Hours passed. In the afternoon it grew dark and wet, a thick fog covered the park. Anna was cold and frightened. She began to cry in her mother’s arms.
Etelka Böhm had never had a sense of danger or fear. Just as she had never had the ability to think through a dangerous plan methodically, weighing all the risks. Heroic bravery was also not part of her nature.
She simply saw, and very clearly at that, that this waiting in the cold had gone on too long and was utterly senseless.
“Excuse me,” she turned to the gendarme who was watching them from behind the trees, “we have been here since morning and nothing has happened. Look, my daughter is only two years old, she is crying, she has almost certainly caught a cold. And we have not had anything to eat since morning. Please take us home, we do not live far from here.”
“You fucking Jewish whore!” the gendarme shouted. “You want me to caress you too?” And with all his strength he swung the butt of his rifle at her, she was barely able to dodge the blow. She ran back to take refuge among the others. When she felt herself a safe distance from him, she looked back with alarm and noticed that in the increasingly thick fog and darkness she could not make him out, even from only a few meters away.
The idea came from her gut. With a single determined motion, she tore the yellow star from her chest and, quickly ordering her parents and some ten other familiar people from the building to line up behind her, she led the group back to Hollán Street in mute silence. They didn’t encounter anyone on the short trip back.
One hour later the others were shot into the Danube.
¹ Ferenc Szálasi was the leader of the fascist Arrow Cross Party. In 1938 he was imprisoned by the Hungarian police, and his party was later banned by Prime Minister Pál Teleki. However in the fall of 1944, following the abdication of Regent Mikilós Horthy, he was installed as Prime Minister.
Anna Lengyel Nagy is an Hungarian writer and a radio personality. She studied English and Hungarian at university and worked as an English instructor before obtaining a position at Magyar Rádió. She has traveled extensively and lived in the United States and Australia. In 2005 her novel Fehér ember a lyukban (“White Person in the Hole”) was published. The narrative included here of her mother’s defiant, life-saving act of sensible practicality was first published in Hungarian in Lányok, anyák: Elmeséletlen női történetek.
Translated from Hungarian, by Thomas Cooper