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One Woman in the War

Alaine Polcz

A Refugee’s Idyll

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1We arrived in Budapest in September at the end of an air attack. The Shell Oil refineries were ablaze; we were traveling in their vicinity. The city, the streets, everything was black with smoke.

2Life in the city was in full swing. People ran to the air-raid shelters, laughing and joking. They danced as they cleaned up the ruins. Restaurants were jammed. Something sinewy, suitable for chewing, or a vegetable was served in the place of regular fare, but the waiters served it politely and cheerfully. What a tempered city this Budapest is! (I had occasion to admire it later on as well.) We found a place for ourselves at the Esterházy Palace on Castle Hill. Cleanliness, quiet, tranquility. If we descended to ever deeper and deeper levels in the system of cellars under Castle Hill, we could walk through the labyrinth on stairs and in passageways, and not hear the din of bombardments. It was as if we had wound up in an enchanted realm. The cellars were clean, properly tended, well-ventilated even at the depth of three levels, and fresh wells were available.

3It was here I saw a geyser gas water heater in a bathroom for the first time. (I was afraid of it). During our flight, wind and dust had so dishevelled my hair, I was barely able to comb it out when it was wet; I had to cut off some of it.

4I went down to the South Railway Station to inquire about a train. An air alert. I was so afraid of being caught in the railroad area that I tore across the Vérmező and up the stairs of Castle Hill. You were not permitted to stay out on the streets during an alert. Nobody was around to take note, only some German soldiers lying on their stomachs in the grass on a slope of the Vérmező (still a deep, grassy basin back then). They shouted at me to run into some building. Weren’t they permitted to? Or were there too many of them? They stayed put. Always disciplined, always silent.

5Then Bicske. We were heading for Csákvár, and we stayed with Marci Kerecsendi Kiss and his family. It was then we learned that Kolozsvár had fallen a few hours after our departure. Nothing else. Not a bit of additional news came until spring.

6János called up the Csákvár forestry office and asked them to inform his mother that we were alive and on our way. He stood beside a desk and made the call. I lay on a sofa and watched him.

7Marci and his mother were also in the room. We were quiet, so we would not disturb him. Finally he got through. Then he said, “This is so and so speaking. Forestry Counselor, please inform my mother I have arrived safe and sound; I am here in Bicske and will start for home tomorrow.” Then to a question at the other end of the line, he replied woodenly, “She is here, too.” That unknown man, who had never seen me, found it odd that János used the first person singular; evidently, that was why he inquired if I was with him.

8At first, such a strange sense of shame seized me at the possibility that Marci and her mother would also guess what was going on that my heart skipped a beat.

9Suddenly this became completely inconsequential to me, and those moments came to my mind when I had prayed for his life: for the bomb to fall on me and not him.

10Then it struck me that I had left Transylvania, and I was now in another, an unfamiliar world. I lost my footing. I had to pay heed to the fact that I was completely alone amid every horror. I wanted to flee to the deadly minutes in the bunker; I was hanging on to the fact that then we were together.

11Mami, János’s mother, was the head housekeeper at the Esterházy manor house in Csákvár. The year before, when I went there to introduce myself to Mami, Monika Esterházy and I became friends, and I was also a guest at the manor house in Majk. (Monika was a strange creature, as was the entire family; but more about this later.) We were now going to Mami’s; it was the natural thing to do.

12Mami was a short, buxom creature (how could she have given birth to such a tall son?) with childlike blue eyes, a loose German chignon; her chignon looked like a braided brioche; she never used face powder or cologne in her life. She had come from Vienna some time ago, but she still spoke in Hungarian a little uncomfortably, with an accent. The elderly mistress of Csákvár didn’t know any Hungarian at all; perhaps, that was why they engaged Mami as head housekeeper of the manor house after the death of her husband.

13Mami was the most decent person I ever met in my life. She was a bit deaf to ideas, so was her hearing. Her spirit was not deaf. But it was very difficult to communicate with her in everyday life. János spoke in a very low voice to begin with. If I tried to act as her interpreter by raising my voice, she was annoyed and gestured impatiently for me to desist. She did not understand at all the more complicated Hungarian words, the looser locutions, the allusions, nor the war, either. She had only the faintest ideas about Transylvania, and she had never spoken with anyone who had experienced an air raid.

14Csákvár was actually a village. Silence prevailed. Sirens and alerts never sounded. With its one hundred and sixty rooms, with its own theater and chapel, where the parish priest celebrated the mass, with its enormous, one hundred forty-two acre park that stretched into the forests of the Vértes mountain range, and with its immeasurable art treasures and wealth, the manor house knew nothing about the war. (Not so later on.)

15In any case, everyone there was getting ready for the arrival of the English. Until that occurred, they were under the protection of the Swiss. On the roof of the manor house was a red cross on a canvas twenty meters long, so that if planes should dive at the village, they could see that they were not allowed to target it. Countess Méri, the grand dame’s spinster daughter, was an organizer of Red Cross Hospitals. Just as in the previous war, everyone knitted for the soldiers, sweaters and other things.

  • 1 Indivisible and inseparable.

16Mama’s apartment was located in one of the side-wings of the manor house. It was a spacious room with an enormous, very beautiful tile stove that was heated from the outside, walls three-feet thick, and windows with green shutters; our room opened from it. It was a slightly longish room, János’s room when he was a student, stiffly and austerely furnished. In Mami’s room, the two conjugal beds still stood beside each other as in times long past. They were covered with a huge cream-colored flag made of wool fabric. In its center was the Austrian-Hungarian coat-of-arms, which was enclosed by these words: Indivisibiliter ac inseparabilite.1

17The large, marble-slabbed lavatory contained two recessed, small, hand-painted washbasins beside each other. It had an oval tub for washing the feet, also made of hand-painted porcelain. Shepherd boys and girls danced on its rim.

18The manor house had no bathrooms. (Maybe one, for Countess Méri.) Every morning, they delivered cold water in one can, hot in another. The toilets were the English type; a boy employed for this purpose filled their tanks with water from a water pot every morning. I remember, we had to tell him there were now three of us, and the water tank would have to be filled more frequently.

19Breakfast, tea, lunch, and dinner were brought to us, but nobody ever came in with them. They put them down outside in the entrance and knocked softly. We knew from the time of day that boiling water, lunch, or dinner had arrived. By the time I went out, nobody was in sight. Either this was the practice at the manor house, or Mami had conditioned them to do so.

20We set out the unwashed dishes on a tray; they were taken away and brought back without our ever knowing anyone had been there. In the little entrance we found the mail, laundered clothing, and messages on slips of paper. It was Mami’s responsibility to take care of the wild raspberries, mulberries, and strawberries wrapped in green leaves in little baskets for the ladies’ table. Occasionally, the Esterházys or the chef sent me gifts and daintier morsels.

21When I went for a walk, someone tidied up our place, or was it Mami and she just kept it from me? The tower clock was located directly above us. It struck the quarter hours in beautiful, sonorous tones; a little peal of bells preceded them. The clock and pealing bells sounded every fifteen minutes night and day,

22I had nothing to do. (The large library contained no Hungarian literature, absolutely none.) János was taciturn, Mami hard of hearing. It was very quiet, only the clock struck continuously. János did not come near me in bed.

23My, those evening meals the three of us consumed! Now and then, Mami glances at me, smiling; János reads the newspaper, and we turn in. Mami comes in and kisses me; she stands at the foot of my bed and looks at me, smiling, “You know what I’ve been thinking? I’ll get you a little kitty, I see you are bored here.” Then she leaves. She greets János; he mutters something in return. He continues to read, I wait endlessly. Then he turns off the light, does not say good night, and does not even look to see what I am doing. Whenever I try to say something, he interrupts. “What is your problem? People are dying and you want to be huffy about something. Aren’t you ashamed?”

24By that time I suspected I had caught the infection from him. Had I hurt his feelings, had he become disgusted with me? If he did not love me, why did he marry me? I did not want to get married; I always longed to go to the university and become a doctor. He had persuaded me to marry him with great difficulty. We were already engaged when I suggested to him several times that we not marry, that I become his mistress and attend the university. (I am still very proud of this; this is no big thing today, but back then, fifty years ago, it required great courage and inner freedom.)

25I brooded endlessly over János’s behavior; I don’t know how to express in writing how greatly I suffered.

26One time we went up to Budapest, and I met with my mother and my sister and brother, Irénke and Egon, who fled first to Kecskemét and then from there to Budapest. They did not know anything about our father, either. He went off somewhere; they did not find him and thought he was staying with us. (What did he do? He grew drowsy; he was bored with all the commotion, went to his former office girl’s place, and lay down to sleep. Then, shucks, well, he just stayed there conveniently, and selling the furnishings from two apartments and two offices, from which he also supported his former mistress, he lived a comfortable life. Oh yes, he did worry about us in the meantime, but he put his faith in God. But more about all these matters in due course.) It felt wonderful to be with my mother, sister, and brother. I also met with Pál Kovács.

27How happy we were when an air alert caught us on Museum Boulevard! Well, let’s go into the first cellar and have a good heart-to-heart talk! We did that, and we laughed a lot between distant explosions.

28Another time, I was walking with Pál and Irénke; we became very hungry. We went into a restaurant. They only had lecsó, nothing else. It burned so much we nearly went crazy; we pleaded in vain, each of us could have only one slice of bread. Drink a lot of water, the waiter advised us, putting a pitcher of water on the table. We laughed with the waiter and drank the water.

29I wanted to tell my mother I wished to remain with them, but I could not say anything, and I was still anxious about János’s safety. (He was by then considered to be a deserter.) Everyone envied us for having such a safe and good place.

30We were going back to Csákvár. We said good-bye to my mother. The poor dear’s heart was very heavy. She did not know what had become of father, Egon was a deserter, and Irénke was afraid of the Russians and wanted to go to the West on a hospital train. (She did leave the following day.) My mother hugged me, “I am so happy I don’t have to worry about you,” she said. She was grateful to János and pleased he had transported her precious darling to such a good place.

31These were the quiet, drowsy weeks in the very middle of the war: only the clock struck. I could barely hang on. I went on foot to the Fehérvár highway and stared and stared at the military vehicles passing by; now I will wave and climb aboard, I will leave. Nothing was more simple than that; everyone was fleeing to the West, and everybody found a place there. But I didn’t want to go to the West, and it wasn’t possible to return to Transylvania. I did know one thing: it was possible to give anything a try, but going back across the front was out of the question. If that was the case, then so be it, but I had to escape from here, no matter where. I boarded one of the vehicles, then got off after a few kilometers, and walked back, dragging my feet. I didn’t have a single article of underwear with me, and I wasn’t able to buy any clean linen for myself.

32I had to go to Székesfehérvár for an examination to see if the infection was gone. The dermatology and venereal disease section of the hospital was located quite some distance from the city. When I gave the particulars about myself, the doctor said, “So you come from Kolozsvár!” With that he ran and fetched Elli Kristóf (the daughter of a local professor), who had left Kolozsvár earlier. For heaven’s sake, give me news about Kolozsvár, is her family alive? I felt very ashamed of myself. I mumbled something about “GO” (this was the discrete abbreviation for the disease), but Elli paid no attention, she just kept hugging me and asking questions.

33I wanted to leave, but they would not let me—the hospital car would take me to the city. Anyway, the air alert would coincide with the departure time of the passenger bus. That was the rule; in case of an alert, the bus left a half hour after the alert ended. Only, the bus, knowing the time for the alert was approaching, left ahead of schedule, and for this reason, I would not be able to return to Csákvár. I did not consider that such a great tragedy: János and Mami would learn that the bus had departed earlier; they would realize I had missed it.

34I did not want to go back to the hospital, it was just too far away. I looked for a hotel. Nothing was available. I came across a young female teacher who was fleeing. We wandered about together. We laughed a lot. If the slightest opportunity presented itself to do so, I was immediately mirthful. (János could not stand it.) We had dinner somewhere, but we did not have a place to stay. Nothing was available, not in the entire town. We wanted to sleep in an easy chair in the lobby of one of the hotels, but the concierge would not let us.

35Outside, the cold, the mud, and the alert awaited us. Then a Hungarian army officer gave us his room. He slept in the easy chair, the two of us went up to the room. I felt the sink was so filthy, I didn’t even wash up; I lay down without removing my clothes, not wanting the slightly soiled bed linen to touch my skin. The young woman, however, washed and cleaned herself up happily, now that she had, at long last, some running water available and was sleeping in a real bed.

36See, I thought, every time I set out to leave Csákvár for good, fear held me back. How will I buy clean clothing? Where are the washrooms located? It wasn’t hunger I feared; it was dirt. What a laugh.

37We reckoned with the possibility that the officer who gave us his room would perhaps demand something in exchange. Laughing, we barricaded the door. But we never saw the young Hungarian again. We had only exchanged a few words in the lobby. When had he last slept in a real bed? And how many more times would he during his lifetime?

38The next day, just as we were having our breakfast, when I looked out, I saw János, unshaven, pale, and haggard, standing before the window that extended to the floor, looking at me. I choked.

39Our laughter froze. The three of us engaged in polite conversation for a while. Then we said good-bye.

40On the way, János said, “I thought you had run away. I went to your wardrobe right away. Your clothes were there. That meant nothing, of course. I counted your underwear, not one was missing (well, at least he knows how many undergarments I have). Then I thought something had come up, and you were unable to make it back. Mami cried all night, we stirred up the whole town on the telephone, nobody knew a thing about you.”

41“And what about you?” I asked pointedly, the world slowly turning around with me. “You could break your habit of asking stupid questions,” he said. I was amazed he knew I was unhappy. And he knew I would not leave without a change of underwear. I did not speak about this, or about anything, ever, to anyone. In those days, I still kept everything to myself.

42We went hunting in Csákvár occasionally. I enjoyed hunting immensely. I played Vicki dog. Clapping, jumping, clattering, I galloped along the base of thickets and precipices driving out the game. It was wonderful. János usually shot down some of the game I routed out. At the sound of the shot, I always stopped for an instant and shouted to him, “Did you hit it?” “A rabbit,” he replied precisely, objectively.

43He was an excellent shot. I don’t think he ever sensed I hoped that maybe now, now he had missed. But he almost always hit the target. We ate plenty of pheasant breast. If it was cold, I liked it, too.

44He looked down on me a bit for not being able to shoot game. He forced me to for a time; then he noticed that I would aim very carefully, but when I pulled the trigger, I would shut my eyes from fright, only to open them hoping that maybe I had missed. He was much amused and laughed more heartily than he ever had at any other time. Then he let the matter rest. He allowed I was a docile, faithful, and obedient hunting dog.

45I drove the game with pounding heart. I was so happy, it was such great fun; but one part of me watched uneasily.

46One time, I found a pheasant hen at the base of a thicket, poised very close. I clapped and shouted in vain; would not budge. I ran at it. It moved away a bit, but did not fly up. I shouted to János, maybe it was sick and unable to fly. He laughed jeeringly, saying I was not enough like a dog.

47I scared it once more, it was poised very close. The thought that maybe it didn’t want to die flashed through me, and in the lovely silence, I bent down and extended my hand toward her, “If you want to live, little bird, I shall let you.” At that moment she flew up. János shot her.

48We once went hunting with young Mátyás Esterházy, who was home on furlough for a few days. We came across him and went on together for hours. I did not drive the game; János never let me do so in the presence of strangers. I just pushed along with them the entire afternoon. We did not have a dog with us, however. They dropped in on a farmer. The going had become difficult for me because of the large mud boots clinging to our feet. I was already worn out, anyway. János told me to go back and wait for them at the mill; they would be doubling back in a minute.

49The Gurd mill was a long-abandoned mill with a waterwheel on the shore of a small, romantic lake and a large waterfall right next to it. The Esterházys had converted it into a summer place; now it was all locked up. I stood on the bridge, listening to the thundering waterfall. I grew tired of waiting for them. I turned around and saw them moving away on the road, leaving the mill. For a moment, it seemed unthinkable. Are they leaving me here? Can it be they have forgotten about me? But they must have seen me standing on the bridge when they approached the mill. The road they came and moved away on passed by at a distance of twenty meters from where I was standing

50At first I wanted to stay put; then the foggy autumn forest frightened me—there were no leaves, just bare trees; night was falling, and it was cold, I did not know the way home. I ran after them.

51Count Matyi said they had shouted but I had not heard them, certainly because of the noisy waterfall, and “János did not want us to go to you.” (What was it he didn’t want to do? And why not? Did he balk at the twenty meters? Or at expressing concern for me? What did he think I would do? Look for them? Or try to go home through the unfamiliar, darkening forest? I did not say anything to him; he would not reply, anyway.)

52On one of those interminable Sunday afternoons, Mami took me into the “Chamber of Treasures,” to experience some kind of pleasure, to entertain me. We stepped into the narrow room on the ground floor facing our part of the manor house. Here candelabra stood in rows, gold and silver candelabra. In the next room were gold and silver plates decorated with engravings or embossings, sets for travel, services for weddings, practical objects, jewel chests, mirrors, statues, and ciboria. We continued on and on until we reached the jewelry. This represented not just wealth, but beauty and art.

53I was about to drown when I happened upon a lifesaver. They turned the convent’s hospital for the poor into a military emergency hospital. Against every objection from János I arranged with Sister Franciska to report for work there every day.

54In the three higher forms of high school, I had worked as a nurse during summer and winter vacations. I had completed three months of training in surgery, and was myself serving as a nursing instructor. (When I had to undo a freshly amputated leg from its dressings for the first time, to hold it while the surgeon was cutting around the shredded flesh without having administered an anesthetic, and afterwards to bind it up again, my clothing became saturated with sweat, but I quickly got used to it.)

55In any case, I knew much more than the local personnel and the nuns, and had greater practical experience. But they handled me very gingerly, like someone from the manor house who was simply “bored”.

56I took temperatures, prepared sponges, and wrote reports on the patients. When Sister Franciska found out that I occasionally performed physical labor—for instance, that I tidied up the place—she strongly objected and ordered the others not to let me do it.

57The patients called me little nurse, the others madam. In short, I was a carefully handled “ornament”. In that village, just living in the shadow of the manor house was considered a very great thing.

58Of course, appearances also indicated this, I arrived at the hospital in my arctic-fox fur coat, fur cap, and top boots, like an elegant lady. But I took them off, and my clothes too, and slipped into a white smock and flat cap. Nuns and male doctors worked at the hospital exclusively; the cook was the only civilian woman besides myself.

59The patients were all very nice. One of them asked me to chat with him because I resembled his wife. Another to speak to him in Romanian.

60One time, the chief physician gave a patient from a forced labor camp, a young, swarthy man, a good tongue-lashing. He did not utter a single word in response, nor did any of the others. (It was a military hospital, but still...) When the doctor left the ward, a profound silence arose. I went over to the youth’s bed and sat down beside him for a few minutes. We talked about trivial things, but I felt that everyone considered it good; they knew why I did it.

61The weeks passed. The hospital was without bread. Much running, hurrying around went on. I told Countess Méri about it, and she had foodstuff sent to the hospital for a week. A hundred kilos of bread, fifty kilos of butter, four wagon loads of potatoes—this did not mean trouble for the manor house. They felt very grateful at the hospital, and they treated me even more gingerly.

62The front drew nearer. Casualties arrived in mounting numbers. We ran out of pharmaceuticals; we used paper for bandages; the wounded lay on straw mattresses on the floor, then on straw only, often alongside each other. Confusion was at its peak. The doctors tended the wounded only, to the point of complete exhaustion.

63They left internal medicine to me, all of it. We had no medicine, no x-ray, no space, no food, but we still had to do something. Desperately ill, unconscious patients were delivered incessantly. What a struggle it was! I was by then also working in the operating room; I became the chief surgeon’s right hand.

64I prepared two reports on each of the dead twice, and discharged in the place of each of them a living person who was ambulatory and had somewhere to flee to. Of course, someone like that needed civilian clothes and false documents. Shoes were the greatest worry. I had to account for the boots of the dead—where would I get hold of so many boots?—and fugitives had to wear something on their feet.

65Then a brilliant idea struck us, I mean the patients and me. I reported that during the night an unidentified thief had stolen the boots of all the patients in internal medicine. (We had stolen and hidden them as a reserve supply.) My, what a commotion erupted! For, while the doctors and nurses were perishing from work, administrative employees found plenty of time for everything. They investigated and investigated.

66I don’t think I was aware of the risk I was taking. After all, this was the military; such an act meant execution by firing squad. This never occurred to me.

67I did not speak to János about the matter.

68The soldiers apparently knew about it, but they kept silent to protect me. Even now my eyes fill with tears when I think of them. These sad, defenseless, sick bodies—what a gallows humor they had; how able they were to die silently, wordlessly; how grateful they were for the slightest bit of attention.

69Not one of them ever offended me with a single gesture, a word. I was the only woman among one hundred, then a hundred and fifty men, and they always treated me with affection and respect. If a new patient arrived and swore or used any rude words in my presence, the others instantly rebuked him. However, I never wanted them to restrain themselves because of me; they were suffering enough.

  • 2 Ferenc Szálasi (1897–1946) was prime minister under Admiral Horthy, the Regent of Hungary, and hea (...)

70I could relate many more things about this hospital and its patients. You can revile the Hungarians as much as you please, I will never believe you. These unfortunate soldiers could be so magnificent amid all that wretchedness, with death close by, abiding inside them, and threatening them from the outside. Meanwhile, the Russians were drawing closer; the Germans or Szálasi’s men2 were slaughtering whoever deserted (a bullet in the head immediately); they knew nothing about their families, their homes, not even what they were fighting for. I experienced one of the most dreadful days of my life at this hospital.

71Four little boys playing on the street found a hand grenade. They threw it against the side of a house and waited to see what would happen. One died instantly, the other three were brought in to us. We took them to the dressing station. The intestines of one of them hung out of his open abdominal wall; his teeth and cheekbone showed nakedly, both his eyes draining out. We laid two of them on the dressing table, one on the examining couch. Dr. Horváth, the internal specialist, administered first aid; I assisted him. Our surgeons were in Fehérvár. What could be done? Injections of painkillers and coagulants, sponging.

72I dashed to the telephone and asked for Fehérvár on a special line to have a surgeon come immediately. I could not locate ours anywhere; I pleaded for any military or private surgeon whatsoever. Interestingly, no one said you must be insane, you must be out of your mind. There is a war going on. (Would I have dared to call the military doctors back from Fehérvár or anywhere else for adults?)

73I assisted with the preparations for surgery and returned to the dressing station. We waited with the three children from nine in the morning until four in the afternoon.

74The frantic parents arrived about ten o’clock. They waited for two hours. Then they wanted to see their children. They were mistrustful, they wanted to know what was going on. They wanted to see them even if they were dying.

75How could we permit a mother to go to her mangled child when all we were doing was waiting and nothing was happening? (And when the children recognized their parents’ voices, if they recognized them, what did that gesture mean?) The mother of the child whose intestines hung out, an innkeeper’s wife, with a large behind and hips and big bosom, a known prostitute, began to pound on the door frantically about twelve o’clock; she wanted to break in and see her son.

76“Let’s give the child a large dose of morphine,” I begged Horváth. “I cannot, medical ethics prohibits it.” “Then I will do it,” I said, preparing the dose, but he did not let me. They cannot save him anyway, I whispered because I was afraid the child would understand me—and if they did, what kind of life would he have? Poor Horváth. He did not argue, he did not explain. “No.” He motioned for me to leave if I could not bear it any longer.

  • 3 “I met her once later, at the time of the famine. She had baked muffins and gave me some. Her boy (...)

77We did not know what to do with the parents. We wrestled them to the floor and stopped up their mouths—the innkeeper’s wife3 bellowed—we dragged her into the woodshed and anesthetized her. I returned to the children. (Dear God, are you looking down upon this?)

78Actually, was it my nerves that could not bear it, or did I want death for the sake of the children and their parents? And if I had the chance, would I have administered the morphine? Would I have killed the child?

79I don’t exactly know where I stand regarding death. The following happened two years ago. A young Gypsy was dying, and I felt very sorry for him. When I went on duty in the isolation ward in the morning, the night nurse said, “He died at four o’clock, don’t go in.” I went in, anyway, full of fear. I wanted to get used to it. I stood in the room for a moment and then looked at him. A feeling of soft serenity and pure tranquility came over me, even though he was a grinning, ugly corpse.

80It is possible that my nerves could not bear it.

81Before long, the hospital had to move on because Csákvár was being evacuated for some strategic reason. It turned out that I was considered to be a member of the hospital’s staff and had to go with them.

82Dr. Horváth asked me whether I was going or staying. I knew it was all over; I knew we had to lose the war, and we were anxiously waiting for the Russians or the English. I saw no point in escaping. On the other hand, I would have liked to get away from the manor house, chiefly from János. And I felt I could be helpful if I went with the staff. I liked to work. In short, I did not know what to do.

83Dr. Horváth told me softly, as always, that if I did not go with them, that would mean execution by a firing squad, that court martial was in force. Execution by a firing squad was the consequence of so many things that you did not even pay any attention to it. He added, just as softly, “I would like to come with us, but I think you should stay, it will be better for you that way.”

84I stayed.

85A long time before this crisis, I went to Székesfehérvár one late afternoon. By that time it was clear to us that the front was coming dangerously close. It could have been some kind of Catholic holiday (at the time I was still a Protestant); the church was crammed with flowers and packed with people; they were burning incense and singing in the warmth, over and over again, irresistibly:

Blessed Mother, our great ancient Patroness!
Alone in deep distress, our country hails thee thus:
Do not forget Hungary, our dear homeland,
Do not forget the poor Hungarians!

86They wept and sang, candles were burning; they pleaded with Mary to protect Hungary or, at least, Székesfehérvár. Could anyone resist such supplication, I thought, filled with anguish, and I began to feel frightened. I was still unacquainted with the horrors that were to come.

87Later, when Székesfehérvár changed hands several times, the Russians, after first raping them, cut off with knives the breasts of the women who had cohabited with the Germans.

88I had no idea of such horrors; still, there in the church, I felt an ominous fate hanging above the region, the place. This was the first moment that a dreadful terror seized me. I wept and prayed. Then I left the church, and I thought that the spell was caused by mass hypnosis, that I had become impressionable. We were expecting all this ultimately; somehow, we will make it through the period of the front and the war will be over.

89But still, I grew ever more afraid.

90Mami was deaf. She ran the household with complete meticulousness. János did not speak; above us, the clock chimed every quarter of an hour. The hospital moved out. The manor house lived a life of seemingly immutable orderliness and cleanliness.

91All bottlenecks and difficulties halted at the entrance of the manor house park. I played with the kitten and listened to the fear reverberating inside me. I was completely alone, as a wife of six months, loving and feeling out of place beside my own husband.

92I did not know anyone in the village. I did not even see anyone who lived in the manor house.

93Captives were being taken through the village. Not taken but herded. I gave my angora scarf to one of them. Mami shook her head, János reprimanded me for giving away that one instead of an old one. “Does it make any difference?” I replied. “We will never have any scarves again.” János said I was crazy.

94By now, I had to confine myself to home. Occasionally, I took a walk in the park. János no longer slept with me; he did not even speak to me. Mami was quiet, sweet. Once in a while, János grumbled that the food was awful. Only later did we find out how good it was. At the time, I already had a highly favorable opinion of it, though it was quite different from Transylvanian cooking. On the other hand, back home we had long lived on bread, sugar, and meat ration cards. We drank linden-blossom tea with saccharine, made a sandwich spread out of yeast and flour, and kept rabbits so there would be some meat. Mami struggled, but the moment we sat down at the dining room table, we cheerfully ate whatever was before us.

95Many guests showed up at the Esterházys. The cook was angry—too many guests, too much work for her. They sent us delicacies, both the mistress of the house and the chef. The chef cooked for the lord of the manor and his family, and a woman cooked for the indoor staff of thirty servants. The coachmen, gardeners, grooms, janitors, stableboys, the chauffeur, and various experts formed the outdoor staff; they did not live in the house. I don’t know where they took their meals. But I do know that every blessed day was prepared a very rich soup with meat, noodles or dumplings in a kettle, followed by pasta or leavened dough, so that in case some woman in the village fell ill, she and her family could have lunch, as well as every person in need who just happened to be passing through.

96The employees of the Esterházy family all bought houses and land for their old age (Mami did this, too), vineyards at an early age, with wine cellars. They could raise their children securely.

97The Esterházys had an ample supply of employees, a forestry office for their woods, a game preserve, a dairy farm with six hundred cows, and so on. The estate consisted of just over eight thousand five hundred acres, the entailed property of thirty-four thousand and eighty acres.

98The manorial cooking was, in my opinion, the very worst. Every soup was put through a sieve, and after that, it was strained through loosely woven, snow-white (diaper-like) cloths. It was barely seasoned, you could not even tell what you were eating. The meats were wonderfully decorated, like an embroidered tablecloth, but saltless, flat to the taste. The pies, the layer cakes, the pastries were so sweet I could not swallow them.

99It was a great privilege and very thoughtful on their part to share their food with us, but I could not enjoy it, even ate it reluctantly. What shall I do? Mami just stared at me, smiled, shook her head, removed my plate, and hid it somewhere.

100The chef had his own female cook at his home. He had food prepared separately for himself; he partook of that (I am not surprised). He, too, sent us snacks from time to time.

101The cooking for the staff was the best. Something always turned up. Sometimes they butchered a pig for the staff, and pig-killing lunches and suppers were served; sometimes we also butchered one for ourselves with Mami. (Only to have some to send to the family.) The forestry office sent us wild boar marinated, smoked, raw, frozen under rocks; its color was ruby red. It had to be eaten sliced paper-thin.

102If we went hunting, we would bring home so many rabbits and partridges that we could barely cope with cooking them. Mami larded the quail and pheasant breasts with bacon and then roasted them. Now and then, we longed for plainer fare, so we baked potatoes sprinkled with butter and caraway to crispness in the oven for ourselves. We cooked only for our own diversion.

103Nyunyuka, our Siamese cat whose original name was Zaime, was still living with us. She ate only pure, raw beef, and she could not stand dogs. She immediately attacked whenever she spotted a dog. Nyunyuka was a domesticated wild animal; Countess Méri had received her as a gift. They entrusted her to Mami’s care, then no one ever so much as took a look at her again.

104I remember, I once came across a curious-looking purse-like object at Mami’s. I opened it; it contained small, white, round plates. I took hold of one of them and asked Mami what it was. To which Mami said, laughing a little, “Oh, you must not touch it, you will defile it. It is the wafer that is given during Holy Communion; hands must not touch it.” With that, she put it back and closed the box.

105I got together with Monika Esterházy once in a while; we fooled around quite merrily. It was still possible to laugh with her when I went to Majk or she came over. Mami’s relative, Uncle Feri, was the chef at the manor house in Majk. But the gap between Monika’s way of life and mine was insurmountable. Not because Monika was a countess; it did not matter that I was a relative of the local housekeeper and their chef. A lively, democratic life was in full swing at the manor house in Majk. The count’s four offspring, Mátyás, Menyus, Marcell and Monika, grew up, played, and fought with the children of the staff. I came to know Monika in my childhood, and I once spent a few days at Majk while János was at the front. She pummeled, tickled, and hugged me.

106At Majk, the servants and part of the indoor staff lived in the former Camaldul monastery near the Gothic church. Each of these charming little empires was situated in a small courtyard enclosed by stone walls, in a house built of ashlar with a room to the right, one to the left and a narrow corridor in the middle. During my stay as a guest, I slept in the manor house, but I had lunch with my future relative, Uncle Feri, in one such house. It was terribly hot, a midday in August. We were getting ready to sit down to the table when my cousin said, “Móni, get a pitcher of water for the lunch.” She replied, “I’ll go crazy running to the well in this heat to haul water.” To this my cousin said, “Have you no shame at all? My father has been cooking for you since this morning, so a white-gloved valet can wait on you, and you won’t even bring us a pitcher of water?” Without a word, Monika took the pitcher and ran for the water. This was the atmosphere at the manor house in Majk.

107But what could we talk about together now? I quickly became bored with the fraternization.

108Uncle Feri, the former chef at Majk, once looked me up in Budapest at the time of the democracy. After the war, as he was sitting on a train, a piece of debris had hit the window and half of his arm had to be amputated. At the first moment, when I opened the door, I mistook him for a beggar, he was so shabby, with a satchel attached to his shoulder. He told me that when the Russians reached Majk, the mistress of the manor rolled up her sleeves and began cooking for two hundred men! She was an excellent cook. “Well, what do you say to that?” he said, “I am a chef, but I could not cook like that for an army corps. And she always gave them a good bawling-out if they kicked up a row in the manor house. Monika took care of the horses. There was no trouble for a time, because they drained out all the wine in anticipation, emptying it all into the creeks.”

109Monika—so I heard—became a wagon driver, then wound up in Vienna.

110Now, in 1989, she is the friend of a friend of mine, and helps her with true generosity of heart. (I must look her up in Vienna.)

111About ten years ago, Miklós and I and some German friends of ours went to Uncle Feri’s house—or one like it. Some old lady was living there. Rags on the sofa, poverty and dirt in the house, several dogs and cats with their smell. The old lady, who had seen much better days, looked like a beggar. But she did not complain or express any bitterness; she received us kindly and animatedly. She chatted as if we were seated in the drawing room of the manor house, as if we were at Majk.

112One time, before the front arrived, we came upon the young lady in the park; she was driving the horses. She stopped the wagon, showed interest, and kept asking questions. We also asked how she was. “Very well,” she replied sincerely, spiritedly. Her husband was a prisoner at Sopronkőhida, one of her sons had disappeared, and she did not know a thing about the others. This is what they were like, and this is what they remained.


1 Indivisible and inseparable.

2 Ferenc Szálasi (1897–1946) was prime minister under Admiral Horthy, the Regent of Hungary, and head of the Hungarian Arrow Cross Party (Nyilas Keresztes Párt). He was responsible for the massacre of thousands. In 1945 he fled to Germany, where he was captured by American forces. The Hungarian People’s Court condemned him to death as a major war criminal, and he was executed.

3 “I met her once later, at the time of the famine. She had baked muffins and gave me some. Her boy died. Of the three, only one survived” – author’s note.

© Central European University Press, 2002

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