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One Woman in the War

Alaine Polcz


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1Somehow we dragged ourselves to our feet and started off to Kolozsvár. The day warmed up slowly; I remember we settled down on a flat, open, sideless carriage at the West Railroad Station, my mother, Márta, Egon, and I.

2Night came and we were very cold. We stood on the tracks, freezing.

3Next to us was a Russian military train; a soldier was guarding bales of compressed hay. Since I knew Russian, I called over to him and asked him to give us some. He stood up without saying a word, picked up a bale, and wanted to hurl it over. I held out my arms to catch it, he waved for me to stand to the side. He threw it. I now know that one of these bales of compressed hay weighs about a hundred or two hundred pounds. I must have looked silly wanting to catch it. As he threw it over, the powerful and easy movement was graceful. Bang, it fell among us. We made a huge stack with it and crawled into it. This way we were able to make it through the night easily.

4The journey took about five days. One time, we found ourselves in a closed cattle car; we were waking up just as day was breaking. The train was at a standstill. There were about ten of us in one half of the car, another ten to fifteen in the other half. Everyone was packing up when the car started up. Bump, it started up with a jerk; we all fell headlong in one direction. We struggled to our feet, happy to be underway. Then, bump, a collision at that moment, and we all fell over, this time to the far side. Egon sat up and said it would be better for us just to stay put.

5Switching was going on. When the switching engine bumped our car, we fell for the first time; when we struck the other car, we fell for the second time. We departed five or six hours later.

6We were always happy while the train was moving. We were quite exhausted by the time we reached Várad. I was also running a fever.

7I had secured a book on graphology in Budapest, the “Haynal and Balázs”; I read it and studied graphology during the journey. I had decided that I would earn money with this until I could obtain some kind of employment, because no matter how sick I was, how feverish, I would be able to carry on this line of work. And I did for a time. (I later came to know both of the authors personally; indeed, Dr. Haynal became my training analyst.)

8We arrived in Várad. My mother had already become very fatigued by then, or at least that was what I told the Russians in the office there, and asked them to permit us to board a passenger train that was taking soldiers across Romania. They gave me a document and allowed us to go aboard. I made good use of my knowledge of Russian.

9It was already a regular passenger train. We stood in the passageway, of course. Beside me was a Russian soldier’s bride with silk stockings on her legs. The package I was holding in my hand grazed her and she cautioned me in Romanian, “Dudue, vai ciorapi, aveti grija,” which means, approximately, “Oh missy, look out for my stockings, they will get a run!” It was one of my biggest surprises, after all that had happened, that someone could be concerned about her stockings, but, at the same time, it was obvious that such a world as this did exist. I just hadn’t thought that this world was close and would exist again and that I would be living in it once again. To me, it was, meanwhile, the world that had hied to the past, one that was gone, one that had vanished, and I couldn’t possibly comprehend that stockings could also be a problem for anyone. I had many more problems of the hour, more immediate problems to contend with. I wasn’t able yet to leave the atmosphere of death, famine, and filth.

10Arriving in Kolozsvár, we got off the train, and since we were not aware that hansoms and taxis were already operating in the city, my mother hired a wagon. It was the kind of wagon used to transport logs, huge logs in Romania; it had an axle with two wheels in front and an axle with two wheels in back and it was pulled by oxen. We got up on the pieces of timber and loaded our bundles on top, and hanging our legs, we headed for Unió Street, hoping that my father was still alive, that something still remained of the office and the building next to it. People looked at us in astonishment. In Kolozsvár, we encountered peace, quietness, tranquility, and well-dressed people; there was no trace of the war at all. And, most astounding after a starving Budapest, ham, sugar, rice, and flour were on display in the shop windows—peacetime shop windows. A picture still persists in the mind’s eye: an enormous smoked ham rises from a mound of rice, rings of sausage arranged below. Wonder-struck, I gazed at it. At first I thought I was seeing a painting or a poster. We arrived in front of the apartment building. Egon ran up into the apartment.

11My father came down, and the daughter of his lover at the time, Éva. Now, what was the name of this woman, her mother? Yes, it was Mac. She later committed suicide by cutting her wrists. Well, Éva kissed me, and my father did, too. His mustache gave off the same scent of cologne that Éva wore. And Éva’s mother, too. For an instant a shiver ran down my back. Was my father having relations with the both of them?

12We quickly learned that my father still had his office and the front part of the apartment. His other lover lived in the back part, his former office girl, Bici, Éva’s half-sister. Was my father having relations with every woman in this family? One time he said, yes, they had “come across each other.” But I don’t know anything definite about Éva; I never asked him about her.

13So my father had remained there. When he parted from us at the rail-road station, he went into a snack bar to have something to eat. Since the bridge had not been blown up—the word that reached us was untrue—he calmly strolled to his office and remained there in tranquility. Kolozsvár was under fire for only one day, and then, too, the railroad station was targeted again to prevent anyone from escaping.

14Before the war, my family lived on Bercsényi Street in a four-room apartment, in a family apartment building with a garden, opposite my own apartment. My father had an office on Unió Street, consisting of a room, a vestibule, and a small, nicely furnished office; it was located in an old ground-floor apartment of a vaulted building. During the war, my father acquired lawyer Fischer’s office, two buildings away, which took up all the rooms on the second floor. A separate stairway led up to it from the street. It had, I remember, tinted glass windows, and maybe it was heated in the wintertime. From it opened a beautiful vestibule with tinted windows, built-in cupboards of encarved oak, an enormous dining room, also with tinted windows and built-in furniture, and two rooms on the streetside, each with a leafed door that opened onto a large balcony. Each room had a two-stepped ledge on the left and right side of the balcony; my father called them “look-outs.” Fischer furnished one of the streetside rooms as his office; his daughter lived in the other, and they shared the dining room. Fischer and his wife occupied the two-room apartment in the back wing completely furnished with all amenities; it looked out upon the garden, and a stairway led up to it in the back. When they were taken away, it was down this stairway that Vera, his typist, escaped. Also passed on to my father was Irénke’s school, consisting of two or three rooms, completely equipped, and also the two-room apartment with all conveniences that belonged to his lover named Margit. (She fled, too.) My father sold off the apartments on Bercsényi Street, kept his office, and moved the furniture to the front part of the Fischers’ apartment.

15This was the apartment where we arrived with Mami. Egon and Márta Prammer had stayed behind at Várad, but they soon showed up. I don’t remember where Márta lived during those first days; I think she stayed with her mother, but they did not get along and squabbled constantly with their joint tenants. For some reason or other, Márta was having dinner at our place. My mother, I recall, served us a bay-leaf potato dish topped with cream; Márta jumped up and spooned the cream onto a platter placed in the middle of the table. I asked if she didn’t like cream. “I certainly do!” she said, “but only if it is fresh.” “How do you know it isn’t?” “By looking at it,” Márta replied. I looked at my mother; she didn’t say a word.

16In the beginning, I lived in one of the streetside rooms, among my own remaining pieces of furniture. I no longer remember how they got there. I settled in comfortably, and I would have felt good if I could have. My mother and Egon lived in the adjoining large room, my father two buildings away in his office. We had become used to his living separately all the time.

17Somehow we found ourselves without a kitchen; this was why my mother converted the servant’s room into one, so we wouldn’t have to share it with Bici and her family. My mother was able to cook even in impossible places.

18On one occasion, water overflowed from one kitchen to the other, and Bici did not want to sweep it up, saying it was my mother’s fault. Then she took a little broom and swept the dirty water. Some of it splashed into her face. Though she was gentle and good, I recollect that she quarreled relatively rudely, petulantly. I watched the two of them in amazement; the scene very painful.

19We wanted to resume our lives, to get settled somehow. I wanted to enroll in the medical school, but I had to wait until fall. Until then, I tried to make a living with graphology.

20Perhaps I still have somewhere a shingle on which was printed, “Alaine V. Polcz, psychodiagnosist and graphologist. Receives at such and such a time.” I posted it on the gate. Then Márta related how one time a Sekler man stopped, leaned on his cane, and said, “What does the ‘V’ stand for? Valiant knight? Man or woman? And what do psychodiagnosist and graphologist mean?”

21But my fevers had started up again by then, even though we obtained some Uliron with much difficulty, my mother giving some gold for it.

22This reminds me that my gold pieces and my jewelry survived, maybe precisely because I did not hang on to them or stand guard over them. In short, I obtained Uliron for gold pieces, and I kept taking it, but the fevers did not abate, and Dr. Mátyás treated me, who had removed my appendix years before.

23He ran a private sanitarium; he was a surgeon, internist, and gynecologist, a brilliant professional. He somehow weathered the Jewish period; he was highly esteemed and admired. I remember, a woman stood at a table in his reception room, a pulled-out drawer in front of her containing a stack of money; everyone paid whatever they wanted to. He issued no bills or anything. Mátyás earned a lot this way. Those who did not have any money did not pay anything. Peasant women came who paid ten or twenty pengős or whatever. The pengő was in circulation in Transylvania at the time. (Because of inflation, it was worth less than ten or twenty forints are today.)

24Mátyás applied formaline to try to kill the bacteria, but I grew increasingly worse; my fever rose, and my abdomen distended gradually.

25I woke up one rainy night. I looked at the furniture; it seemed so familiar; I knew it belonged to me. I looked out the window. Somehow the city was poorly lighted; I did not know I was in Kolozsvár. I sat and pondered where I was, how my furniture had wound up there. I had had “six homes” in this year’s time, all of which I, fleeing, left suddenly, within hours with small parcels or suitcases. Even today the feeling haunts me. I wake up in the night and touch the wall and wonder where I am.

26Egon got on his own two feet most adroitly. He opened a lawyer’s office before long. Márta lived with us all the time; she sunbathed on the terrace in the nude, I remember. The columns above the terrace supported the roof. They were made of marble, or they were painted marbly. She was sunbathing there, and we were conversing. She said the war was over now. (I think the war ended officially in May, after the fall of Berlin.) And what would we do now?

27After peace was concluded, the Soviet forces held a big parade in Kolozsvár, too. The parade passed in front of us. The crowd was standing and applauding right and left, Hungarians with greater jubilation, Romanians with less. A soldier wearing ski gloves in the great heat received especially loud applause. The days at the end of May in Transylvania are very hot sometimes, or maybe it could have been early June already. He had turned down the upper part of their furry lining; it showed white. This made him feel classy. He was happy, he was smiling; he did not realize why he was being applauded. It was a wonderful day for us, too.

28At the time, it was not yet decided whether Transylvania belonged to Romania or Hungary. We stubbornly and desperately hoped that it would be Hungary. The Soviet command was maintaining order; if the Romanians used violence against the Hungarians, it immediately extended protection. The command was truly making an effort for equality and democracy. It always offered assistance. The Soviet forces represented safety to us in Transylvania.

  • 1 The massacre of Székelys by Austrian troops at Mádfalva in 1764 when they refused to be inducted i (...)

29Despite this, Romanians did chop off the heads of some young Sekler men with an axe. But we could, we believed, thank chiefly the Soviet forces that even greater excesses and atrocities did not occur. (The Siculicidium1 has always been in fashion during every era. Like the Jews, the Seklers defied their fate with their toughness, with their bravery.) Of course, when the Russians marched into Kolozsvár, horrid events did take place. The Óvári family episode was mentioned repeatedly. The family lived on Monostor Street; they were a well-known ancient aristocratic family in Kolozsvár. They were entertaining some Soviet officers. It isn’t possible to know exactly happened. The fact—this was related by an older woman living in the neighborhood, in whose kitchen a Russian soldier was soaking his feet—is that an officer rushed in and spoke to the soldier, who, while still wet, jumped into his boots and dashed out. On the second or third day, when they entered the Óvári house, they found nine bodies. All the dinner participants, the entire family and one or two guests—every one of them had been shot. Supposedly, the officers had wanted to violate the women, and the men tried to protect them. This roused a very special reaction in me. Horrified, people recounted this occurrence for months. Yet, dear God, the bullet in the head takes a second! A quick, certain, merciful death.

30As for what had happened to me, I hardly spoke about it to anyone. This was a different world, people were not very afraid of the Soviet soldiers. I think the tragedy of the Óvári family could well have been an accident.

31I would have liked to go and search for János, but I was feeble, feverish. No one would hear of it. It wasn’t really possible to communicate with others. But that certain letter and what the Cselkós related had really embittered me. After all that had happened to me, a benumbed terror dwelled within, and only one thing was missing, the consciousness that János had wanted someone else during our honeymoon, that he had infected me.

32Márta took to scheming; she asserted that the apartment would be taken from us, and that soldiers had appeared one night, wanting to requisition it; she had rescued our possessions, informing them that she was a doctor and that this was her reception room. I heard their conversation in the stairwell, but only Márta’s voice, the soldiers’ barely. She persisted until she, with Egon’s help, induced my mother to give her my room—of course, with a part of the terrace, the vestibule in front of it, and a kind of sideroom that was also there. Then she settled down and lived in the room with her mother. During consulting hours, Auntie Lina sat out on the “ledge” without making a sound. The outside room, which was formerly the room of Fischer’s young typist, served as the reception room, a tiny section adjacent to it as the kitchen. It should not have been a particular problem; after all, this combination reception room and vestibule opened from the stairwell. But it didn’t have its own lavatory; there was only one, and that was in the back, for all of us. So Márta and her mother could only go to the lavatory through the vestibule or my room. As to why Márta always chose to walk through my room—without knocking, of course— and her mother likewise, and why I did not speak up, why I put up with it, I don’t know.

33I didn’t have money for medical treatment. Márta recommended a doctor who, at a very great cost and after a long delay, gave me calcium injections. This is what I went to him for, greatly upset. I obtained the money for it from Egon. One time Márta said, “But she is an independent woman, lots of her things are left, she should sell them.” I immediately sold one or two items and paid the doctor—the one she had recommended—and gave Egon what I owed him. He felt embarrassed, but Márta came in just then, and, well, he remained silent.

34What was left? I began to rummage about among my belongings for one or two objects that were especially nice. The enormous lilac-colored, pure-silk shawl with its wonderful hand embroidery and wide fringe and the ashtray made of special crystal, also lilac-colored, that I had received as wedding gifts from Mamika; then those very nice flower pots János gave me; a dark-blue, heart-shaped inkwell and two vases I put in Bici’s care at the time. When I asked her to return them, she claimed she knew nothing about them. All the same, they quickly turned up. At that time, a bunch of things remained in my apartment that the Fodors had deposited with me. I did not find any of those objects, either. One time, I asked Éva, “You helped to move my belongings from the apartment. Tell me frankly, what became of them?” She replied, “Papa Radó put me in charge of selling whatever I could at the flea market.”

35Well, so my father had sold off all the possessions in our apartment belonging to my mother, him, and his lover named Margit, or given them as gifts to Bici, Éva, and Mac. He had other lovers as well; I believe he gave things to them, too. The apartment also contained many jars of fruit, I remember. It may have been the best year of my father’s life. Right in the middle of the widespread hardships after the war, he had three or four apartments to prey upon; he and his lover lived quite merrily. Naturally, he must have worried about us, but that was not particularly his habit. Even at the age of ninety-four he preserved his complete optimism, affability, humor, and irresponsibility.

36My condition did not improve; my abdomen grew ever larger; I could no longer fit into my clothes. Regarding this, I had only two dresses, the one I lived in at the front and the one the Soviet soldier presented to me. It was a very pretty dress, and I accepted it: a flowery cotton dress with buttons shaped like daisies. I wore it, but then I gradually could not fit into it; I looked as if I were pregnant. Acquaintances would, I remember, speak to me on the street and ask whether I was pregnant. “No,” I would say and be surprised.

37Someone related to me that she saw me, as I walked on the street a bit sideways and clinging to the wall, stop before a corner, look to the right and left, and then suddenly dash across to the other side. I believe I brought this way of moving from the front. I couldn’t get accustomed to the fact that peace had arrived. To the degree that peace existed in Kolozsvár... Yes, at first it seemed that peace did exist.

38I went to Dr. Mátyás. I was lying on the examining table, he flicked my abdomen from the side, it rocked back and forth, “exudative peritonitis.” I broke out in a sweat, sat up, and asked, “Why wasn’t I told sooner?” He looked at me and said, “What could we have done about it? There is no medicine for it. It is not possible to help. It is probably tubercular.”

39I looked up an internist. It was established that I also had pleurisy. So I was going for calcium injections while suffering peritonitis and pleurisy, and meanwhile, Márta, the doctor, was living in the room adjoining mine and going through my room to the lavatory.

40I resented this as medical negligence. Weeks passed. I was ever less able to walk, I was full of fluid. When I became a bed patient, Márta went to the lavatory, not through my room but through the vestibule. She never came in, never asked how I was feeling.

41One time, Ilona Káli Nagy, an old childhood friend paid me a visit and asked me why I was so full of despair. After everything that had happened, illness completely crushed me. Weakness and fever supplanted reality. I remember, I came home from the doctor, and my mother greeted me so happily that she prepared a place for me to rest on the terrace, but I was depressed and unable to find any pleasure in it. (This hurts me today, I should have displayed some pleasure.)

42Poor mother, she did so many things for me. She tried cooking choice morsels for me and put the compresses on my abdomen. She tried to furnish my room lovingly and gently; she wanted to chat, to beguile the time away, but somehow, I was unable to respond to any of it.

43But I still attempted something. A cram-course in pedagogy was advertised; I believe, candidates were sent off to employment after an examination in the six-week course. I sailed through the six weeks and had five days to prepare for the examination. I took it. It was not easy. They asked a question like this, for example: What is methodology? I did not even know what the word meant.

44I had to pass an examination on the subject of the analysis and practice of music. I was asked what instrument I played. “None.” “But you have a good voice?” “I don’t.” “You do have a good ear, don’t you?” “I am tone-deaf.” “But you are familiar with scores?” I did not know how to read scores. Despite this, they passed me, perhaps because a work force was needed. Also, my specialized treatise and teaching demonstration were very successful. I had to complete the latter in a Romanian school, an experimental school. The students were amply aware that a teaching demonstration was going on, that we would not give them grades, that we could not discipline them. They were examining us. They were Romanians, we were Hungarians. The committee sat to the side on four or five chairs in a circle. I knew Romanian quite well, but the fever, the illness had greatly debilitated me.

45I faced the class and wanted to say something, but nothing in Romanian came into my mind. That a person was looking the class in the eye and not beginning to speak so surprised the students that they quieted down. When the stillness was perfect, it was, by then, easy for me to begin. It should have been. According to the proper development of the hour, I should have started with a talk, thus ask one of the children what his father’s occupation was.

46Zidar,” he replied. I asked the second.

47Zidar,” he said. The third, too.

48Zidar. The fourth, the fifth, the sixth-all said this—bricklayer. Probably they were being impudent. Somehow I kept my presence of mind, and said that anyone whose father had a different occupation should come forward. Not one of them did. At this, I said: It is strange that in this class there are only the children of bricklayers; in other classes, it is like this and that and so on.

49The teaching demonstration was successful, and I received my appointment to Magyarvalkó. I became a teacher in the national elementary school there.

50Magyarvalkó was a small village; it was without train or bus service and could be reached only by wagon. I would have had to teach four classes. There was no electricity, and I wanted to take a crystal radio and a few books with me. I thought I would dissolve my marriage to János and live quietly there with a clear aim: the preservation of Hungarians and the education of children. After the war, this quietness and tranquility seemed enticing and the responsibility enough for a lifetime: to transport culture, happiness, and entertainment to the end of the world, to a Hungarian village enclosed by mountains.

51I still needed one more clearance: the decision of the “purifying political screening committee,” that my conduct during and after the war was above reproach or not disputable. I received this, too, and I preserve to this day the appointment and the confirmation document. The appointment is typed on a small piece of worn, coarse paper made of wood fiber; on it are a seal and the signature “Bérczy”. The letter ‘B’ is a bit old-fashioned and fancy.

52But I never saw Magyarvalkó. Twenty years later, I saw a picture of it in Paris on the wall of a room of an old friend from Transylvania. It showed a small village, with a shingled church with a wood steeple in the center—it lies in the middle of a valley—and flowering trees in the green grass on the hillsides around it. It was a small watercolor.

53I did not get there because my illness worsened, and I was told that even if I regained my health, I must stay near the doctor. Then I again thought that if I must remain in Kolozsvár, I would fulfill my old desire to enter the medical university. This stimulated me a little and gave me a certain joy...

54My condition continually declined, and I no longer know how, but suddenly I was lying in the Haynal Clinic. It still had an entirely Hungarian medical staff under Haynal’s direction. With tubercular inflammation of the peritoneum and the pleura, both with exudation, and probably with socially transmitted gonorrhea.

55At first I lay in a general ward. I shivered with cold every day; I had a fever of thirty-nine, forty, forty-one degrees Centigrade; then by morning I suffered exhaustion, subnormal temperatures, and complete prostration. I was suddenly transferred to a private ward. I distinctly remember this, and have written it down elsewhere (somewhere). The room had two beds and loads of flowers. A young woman had died of some throat ailment in the other bed. Her fiancé was taking the flowers away. He looked at me with hatred: I was alive, she had died. “I am also grievously ill,” I wanted to say to him; “it is not likely I am going to live.” I said nothing. He gathered the flowers up, he left without saying good-bye.

56Difficult days followed. I had to cope with my life with the Russians up to that time and the possibility that Transylvania would end up in Romania—this was as awful as all the other things put together. The information about János...

57My illness thwarted me in very many things. I struggled with the fever, with indispositions. I was drowning in accumulated fluid.

58I never had any visitors, with the exception of my mother. Later on, Gabi Kiss, my former classmate, visited me and said, “Listen, I have been here twice before, but there is always a sign hanging outside on the door: ‘Do not disturb, the patient is asleep.’ Are you really sleeping so much?”

59I was unable to sleep night or day. During the night fever tortured me, during the day the hustle and bustle of the hospital. I dozed in a strange half-sleep. I endured this half-wakeful state with difficulty. My temperature was normal for a short time after lunch, for an hour or two, and my mother came in regularly and talked with me before the shivers and high fever returned.

60As I remember, my father visited me once or twice. I did not feel hurt; he did not like hospitals. Still, the hospital was very near his office and our apartment. Márta never stopped in.

61I was lying in the isolation room, and I well knew why. A peasant woman entered, “I want to tell you to ask them to move you out of here because those who are put in this room, they all die.”

62I found this amusing at the time, and I said, “People do not die because they are put in this room; instead, they are put in this room because they are going to die.” Her eyes widened; she looked at me in horror and backed out of the room without saying good-bye.

63I immediately regretted saying what I did. Why did I have to say this to her? I learned I wasn’t permitted to speak about this. I was not permitted to state that I knew I was probably going to die. (Hereafter I violated this rule only once, in front of Miklós in 1949, again when near death.)

64The doctors fought for my life, of course. They tapped fluid by the liters, and they prescribed cardiac restoratives and salicylates in numberless quantities—nothing else was available. Antibiotics did not yet exist. The salicylates made me nauseous, and I was unable to eat. Then they gave me some kind of appetite stimulant; finally they obtained a different medicine to reduce my fever.

65A woman doctor sat down on the edge of my bed and persuaded me at some length that I had to eat. I pulled myself together. My mother brought me some paprika chicken; I ate a wing and a couple of dumplings. Then I vomited everything up. I noticed in amazement that the end of the wing remained almost whole as when I bit it off, the dumplings, too. It was as if I had not ingested anything.

66I began my “worm” exercises. I shuddered at the thought that if they bury me, worms would feed on me. What strange trivia comprise the components of the fear of death. I did the worm exercises morning, noon and night, and I concentrated intensely on the thought that they were chewing me and that I had to get used to it. Much later, I learned there are no worms in the depths of the grave. (Or are there after all?)

67Otherwise, I had such “small” concerns as the following. When János returns home, he won’t have a suit of clothes to wear. I thought I would write my last will and testament on a little piece of paper and instruct my family to sell this and that and buy one for him. I also was worried that there would be nothing to bury me in, and I thought I would set down in writing that they should wrap me in a sheet and arrange around me my bridal gown that had survived; then they would not have to worry about what to squeeze me into (my abdomen was so large my clothing no longer fit me). It was complicated, almost impossible to have clothing made after the war. And why should they even take the trouble to do that?

68I didn’t talk about any of this, I just considered it. I brooded over what had happened, every detail over and over again—the war, the Russians, János, János, János... why did he do this to me? About love, that he was my first... Then the Russians again. Then what would happen to Transylvania. I gradually became angry at God. Within me was a wild rebellion against God, against János. I had never flirted, I didn’t love anyone else, only him, and yet he was capable of doing this. Next the Russians, and the war, the deportation of the Jews, the dying soldiers—all this seemed unjust. Inhuman and ungodly. I smile about this today. What kind of justice?

69I didn’t speak to anyone during these fever-ridden nights and days— and, of course, I didn’t speak, I couldn’t tell anyone about anything up to that time either. Some kind of seed had developed from my silence that I could not break open. I did not even want to.

70It was at this time that a picture postcard from János arrived. He sent it from captivity, just a few words, something to this effect, “Dear little A, I heard you are sick. Come on, get well, because this is unbecoming behavior. Mercy and sausage. [Sic.]”

71When I finished reading it, I was overcome by faintness; I almost lost consciousness. Your heart, your system of blood vessels, your entire being worn out by forty-degree fevers and giddied by subnormal temperatures—you lie there with dazed eyes in the morning and receive a card like this—well, what little strength remains would abandon someone else, too. It abandoned me. I tried not to think about it, but I had to think about it constantly.

72Then, I remember, my mother was at my side one night; I became violently ill, my temperature rose to forty-one degrees, the shivers came, the coldness shook my whole body and my teeth chattered, and while my fever soared, my pulse plummeted. Then suddenly my temperature fell to subnormal, and my pulse shot up.

73This is called Totenkreuz, the cross of death.

74It was a magnificent experience; I look back on it with joy ever since, because the following occurred: Everything that hurt so much and seemed so burdensome and beyond all bearing suddenly became distant, weightless, and natural. I have tried frequently to formulate this state of mind and write it down: it was as if until then I had been looking at life through a telescope that brings every single detail close. When I was a child, we would turn the telescope around and even things up close would then suddenly become small and distant. This is what had happened; the telescope had turned around.

75I found it meant absolutely nothing that the Russians had dragged me away, that János did not love me, that he had deceived me, that I had hardly lived, that I could not become a doctor. All that meant absolutely nothing; things of this world were not important. This was not despair, not apathy; it was a perception of a different dimension of time. I saw them leading my weeping mother out of the room, I heard the doctors speaking to me. I thought I could reply but did not only because I considered it unnecessary. They gave me injections, massaged me, forced me to breathe—I no longer remember everything they did. I do remember I did not feel the sting, but knew exactly what was happening without taking a look. This liberating, weightless feeling, this perception that it made no difference whether I lived for twenty or eighty years filled me with a extraordinary joy and tranquility. (How unfortunate that this phenomenon is losing its power.)

76I almost regretted that the doctors brought me back. It would have been better to die. The next day they said the following, “Well, we were able to bring you back from the other shore this time, but be very careful from now on. We are not likely to be able to do it again.”

77What idiotic things doctors can say! How can you protect yourself from dying? And why should you not die?

78One time, they sent the clergyman to me. I was a Protestant then, so they sent a minister. He stopped in front of my bed with his unctuous text, “My sister, we must always be prepared for the Lord to call on us, and the hour of our death can draw near.” I remember I felt highly amused and thought to myself: I know this better than you do. He expressed many more sanctimonious notions and patted me on the shoulder, and I felt he was going to slip his hand to my neck and touch it, caressingly, so to say, and then go lower in the direction of my breast. I felt distinctly that the movement was that of a male. Under the pretext that he was attending to the needs of someone who is sick, in effect gratifying her stifled desires. I had little strength left, but I sat up and declared, “I would like to be alone, I do not want to receive the sacrament, please leave me alone.” He continued to talk, and he embraced me to lay me down. I rebuked him, “If you do not leave immediately, I will ring and have the nurse show you out.” He looked at me and said, “God does not love an angry person. Blessed and peaceful are the meek. Let us pray together.” I let him say the prayer, I thanked him, I asked him not to touch me, and leave.

79This experience deepened my loathing of clergymen to the utmost.

80And somehow I wound up ever more distant from God. Atheism was approaching. True, but at the time, I was still facing the past and the brutal and painful present in complete loneliness.

81There was a Sekler nurse at the Clinic. Her name began with an ‘E’. Was it “Etelka”? Maybe. (Her decent, dark-complexioned face and graceful movements are before me even now. She was the same age as I, a nineteen or twenty-year-old woman, a nurse with all her heart. Her sister was also a nurse on the staff, but ill-mannered, dispirited, and peevish.) Etelka told me that whenever I would ring, the other nurses and her sister would remark, “The favorite in the isolation room is ringing.” (My room number was one.) Why was the number one in the isolation room a favorite? Because Etelka and I were able to laugh together, even though her life was also bitter. She said little in few words; it is the practice of the Seklers to touch the essential only quite playfully, not to declare something, only to hint at it. I think her fiancé had deserted her, her mother was dead, her father sick. She applied the compresses and assisted when the fluid was being tapped. I remember how well it flowed as she put her arms around me and held me because the water had to be released slowly during the tapping; the fluid shifted my heart toward the middle, and if they had drained it fast, my system would not have been able to bear the drastic change. I lacked the strength to keep myself together, I broke into a sweat, and my entire body shook; then she would kneel before me and hold me until the four or five liters of water drained out of me. After that, I would fill up with fluid again.

82I was particularly tormented by the fact that I was not allowed to drink a single drop of water or any kind of liquid. This caused special suffering during thirty-nine or forty degree fevers; I breathed in gasps with chapped lips and cracked tongue. The doctors were unable to come up with anything else. They sent me for radiation treatment to eliminate the abdominal infection. They thought that the gonorrhea was exacerbating the course of the tuberculosis. They put me under the x-ray apparatus on a stretcher, turned the rays on to my abdomen, and left me there. Then they took me back on the stretcher and laid me down in my bed. I did not protest or ask any questions... After the third treatment I became suspicious, and asked what was going on. They said, it was deep radiation therapy. “But won’t I become sterile?” I asked Dr. Haynal. “I will not be able to have children because I am sterile?” He replied, “You will never have children, it is not possible to give birth with an abdomen in such a condition.”

83This filled me with despair. I no longer wanted to live. “But the patient’s permission must be obtained for deep radiation, for sterilization,” I said. “I do not consent to it.” Haynal became extremely irritated; he began to shout, “Be glad we were able to save your life. You are a child, you don’t know what you are saying.” I sat up, though I wasn’t allowed to, and shouted back, losing my patience, “I know medical ethics states that the doctor will do no harm to a patient. My defending my rights did not entitle you to shout at me.” He shouted back, “I will not visit you any more!” He left and did not come back. This is what Imre Haynal was like, a wonderful diagnostician and human being. This is what we were like. I became desperate. I would not permit radiation even if I were to die, I told Nurse Etelka. My attending physician recommended that we call in a gynecologist for consultation. They summoned one. He was a very self-possessed individual. He said the following, “This inflammation of the ovaries will keep breaking out; you are not likely to give birth after the tubercular peritonitis and the second case of gonorrheal infection. The professor is right, but speaking humanly, it is not possible to predict anything. The chance is very, very slight, but if you consider giving birth more important than your life, you can refuse to accept radiation.”

84I refused it.

85Haynal did not visit me for a while. The argument and my indignation at their almost making me sterile—or had done so!—somehow roused me. I asked for my case history and looked at the medication I was receiving. I saw it was salicylate, Kalmopyrin, and some kind of appetite stimulant. I called Nurse Etelka and proposed that we now agree to the following on our word of honor. If the salicylate has not helped to this point, it will not help hereafter, either. (It can not help with the peritonitis and the pleurisy.) And evidently because of it, I had no appetite and was throwing up. I wouldn’t take any more salicylate. The appetite stimulant didn’t improve my appetite; I wouldn’t take that, either. We would nicely pour the dosages into the bedpan every day; we would make the tablets disappear somehow.

86Nurse Etelka looked at me and asked whether I realized she was risking her job. “And I my life,” I replied. We both laughed. Then very secretly, we poured the morning, noon, and afternoon dosages into the bedpan; Etelka ran out with it and then recorded I had taken them on my chart.

87One time, my father brought me a bottle of wine and Egon a little canned meat, and my mother made some potato salad for me. I said it was a bit sour and they should pour a little water on it. A little water at long last I sipped some wine, too. I began eating, and I wanted to live again.

88Though I was, of course, still sick and confined to bed, I began to recover my health. I remember the following: I was once given a diuretic injection without being informed. I had to urinate uncontrollably. I rang but the nurse tarried. I somehow crawled from my bed, grabbed up the bedpan, and began to pee. At that moment the door opened, the “entourage” entered, and I could not stop. One of the doctors, despairing, shouted at me, “How did you get up?” He grabbed my wrist, pulled me up, and put me back into bed. I covered my face and asked them to relent, I had to pee. “Here in bed,” said the doctor.” You are not permitted to get up. Not even to sit up.” I felt extremely ashamed of myself; I don’t know how it could be that after the Russians, I still was capable of so much modesty.

89I asked them to leave the room. They laughed and went out. I lay in bed and it poured out of me desperately; I could not stop it. The nurse entered, Etelka, and examined me, “The diuretic injection is the cause.” She cleaned me up; the doctors came in and said that no matter what happened, even if I released number two in bed, I was not to get up, because who knew what would happen to me then.

90Etelka and I looked at each other and smiled. They didn’t know that sometimes I would ask her to take me by the shoulders, sit me up, and hold me in that position for a couple of minutes. Then she would lay me back slowly; I would feel better and no problems would appear.

91They massaged the bed sores, scrubbed my back, heels and so on with laundry soap. This way I never developed any bed sores.

92When I got better, I was given a roommate, a granny. She was grievously ill with pneumonia; she gasped for breath.

93I remember that one time they wanted to aspirate me again; I asked them why, when I was so much better. “Didn’t you notice you are choking?” the doctor asked. I had not.

94During staff visits, the granny was warned to move around a lot, and not lie so motionless. I was delighted at this and spoke up, “Then I have to move around, too, so I won’t get bed sores! Why do you keep telling me to lie motionless?” Then Nándor Hun (he has died), whom I have known ever since then (he recently treated Emese, my sister-in-law) said, smiling, “If we tell you to lie without moving, you would still move around too much. If we tell her ‘Make sure you move around, dear Granny,’ even then she moves very little.”

95Somehow I regained my strength. My father got hold of a medicine called Rubrofen. It was a red liquid which was supposedly good for peritonitis and pleurisy.

96Then they let me go home. I remember, they carried me on a stretcher; no other form of transportation was available. I asked them to cover my face with a diaper or something, but they didn’t, and as they carried me on the street—the hospital wasn’t far from our apartment, but with a stretcher it still took thirty-minutes—two young Sekler men carried me, they were the stretcher bearers, they put me down time and again so that they could rest. Pedestrians observed me, commented, and felt sorry for me.

97They carried me up to our floor. I was home at last.

98Of course, I continued to require the compresses, and a woman doctor came to administer the Rubrofen. Occasionally she injected it beside a vein; whenever she did that, she would quickly run away because she had caused me sharp pain. It seemed as if it were ablaze, and I was being cut up with a knife at the same time. Why was it so easy to inject it to the side? Because the red could not be controlled in the red. This pain, however, didn’t last more than fifteen minutes. It was so severe that I licked it and bit my arm though I was inured to pain otherwise. This doctor also had to be paid to come and administer the injection; it never occurred to Márta to do it herself, though she was living in the room next to mine, which she had taken away from me.

99A beautiful china dinner set of mine had survived; the doctor and I agreed I would give her the set with service for twelve.

100I had to be tapped. Dear Etelka came to do that, and she again held me while the doctors drew and tapped the water from my lungs. My mother brought in a canning jar, then another, and then a pickle jar. They removed several liters then, too. Afterwards I lay exhausted to death; my legs became so numb I thought circulation would never return to them.

101I lay in compresses during nights. Bedbugs collected at the edges of the cloth compresses and bit me. My mother fought them fiercely. Márta never came in to see me during that time. My father came up once in a while to chat; he was charming and sweet and asked whether I was feeling better, “You are better, you are looking better!” he pressed me. This annoyed me because I felt I was getting better slowly. You are ill, you are struggling with an illness, you are weary of it, but when others say you are better, you are looking better, you know they are lying, and that is infuriating. (Now that I am occupied with the dying, I make extensive use of these experiences. Of course, sometimes you have to smile at a patient and say, “Come now, you are getting better,” but only in rare moments and with a rare smile.)

102The summer passed slowly. I began to recover, and since I was no longer allowed to go to Magyarvalkó, I prepared myself to pursue medical studies. Then Nándor Hun came to our apartment and talked me out of it. He said that it was not right to go into medical studies in such a deteriorated condition, that I would not be able to hold up under the strain. He exasperated me—I registered in psychology.

103I decided to look up János before the academic year began. My mother and family gave way to despair. Nándor Hun and the other doctors said this was flying in the face of providence. It wasn’t easy for them to talk me out of my decision.

104The little black cat sitting on my shoulder in an old photograph (the photograph is on the bookshelf next to Miklós’s writing table) was called Tilet. I did not know with whom to leave this cat at the time of my flight, and in the very last minute I entrusted her to the janitor of the building next door, giving him a sizable sum to look after her and to feed her. Eventually she wound up with Bici and her family. Tilet, the precious, sweet Tilet, who was so wonderful—Miklós wrote about her in one of his short stories—knew what time at noon I would finish at school, and she would wait for me on top of the gate. She knew I would be arriving at twelve noon on Saturdays and that there was no school on Sunday. She knew when I had physical training and would be staying on. In short, Tilet sat on top of the gate, and when I entered, she jumped onto my shoulder. You could even play hide-and-seek with her. She and I played in the tree branches. Either she would hide and I would look for her, or the both of us would, or I would hide and she would look for me. Likewise in the apartment. How playful she was!

105When Erzsi, our Sekler servant, wanted to quit—she always had conflicts with my mother—my father promised her higher wages. She said, “Keep your money, I don’t want it. I’ll stay just because of the young lady and the cat.”

106Twenty years later, Erzsi visited my mother in Kolozsvár and was looking at the china. “I say, you still have some of these? I thought I had broken them all.”

107Later, she called on us in Budapest. She wept. She told my mother that the happiest years of her life were those she spent with us. We used to have a garden with some plum trees and a weekend house on the bank of the Szamos. I was standing under the trees in my blue dress with white embroidery and János approached, and I stood and smiled and waited— he would never forget that picture.

108I do not remember whether I was standing there waiting for János, but it’s possible that this was where we met for the first time. Irénke, Erzsi, and I were often outdoors, planting potatoes. During the war, edible vegetables had to be planted in flower gardens everywhere. In the end, however, we dug up fewer potatoes than we had planted. Erzsi and I were hoeing potatoes there.

109Erzsi had a loyal nature, I did, too. Probably this was why we liked each other. She received word that her fiancé had died. She went out to the promenade on Sunday, returned home, and, weeping, told me about it. But she added, “I do not believe it, I do not believe it! They say they saw him die, but I do not believe it.” The young man actually came home, much later. He married her; he beat her constantly. He was given to drinking. He suffered a stroke, and Erzsi diapered and bathed him, then mourned him. She is living with a daughter. She treats Erzsi badly, became an alcoholic, and gave birth to a cardiac child.

110“It was never so good for me anywhere as at your place. But I did not know it at the time,” Erzsi said. “The war was on, but the front was far away, and we were girls in love.”

111I have a small, square tablecloth, woven from smaller squares with an embroidered flower in each smooth square. Erzsi did the embroidery. I still have it. This tablecloth made it through the war, her marriage, and mine with János. Only the good Lord knows what I used it for. Did I spread it out for afternoon teas? Or did I wrap bread in it?

  • 2 István Benedek (1915–1993), writer and son of Marcel Benedek (see note 45).

112I registered at the university in the end. Before the term began, while it was summer, I met Zimra Harsányi. She had come from some death camp, with her hair closely cropped. Her hair was just then beginning to grow. She lived somewhere out on the bank of the Szamos with two boys, who also came from a death camp. I visited them once. Then something happened and they split up. I went to the university with Zimra. István Benedek2 was our teacher. Zimra wanted to become a writer and submitted her writings to Benedek. He read them and told us that Zimra was without talent and that he would tell her so. He called her to his room, conferred with her at great length, then came out, asked for a clean handkerchief, and took it in. Ten minutes later he came out again, asked for a handkerchief, and took it in. Zimra came out with her eyes red from crying, returned the handkerchiefs, and stopped writing for a while.

113She later established herself in Bucharest; she became a famous playwright—with party-line pieces—but then she flopped and developed a loathing for what she was doing, or maybe just the reverse. She came over to Hungary, then went to the West, and I lost track of her. Before leaving, she said, “I was born in Romania as a woman and a Hungarian Jew. No misfortune greater than this can ever happen to me.”

114On Lajos Kossuth Street I recognized the woman who had taken in one of Zimra’s two young friends, to take the place of a deceased son and take care of. He was sick, a diabetic, and he required nursing care. She heard that I had to go somewhere, to a spa, to quietness, to rest after my illness but did not have the money for it. She tossed a letter with my name written on it that contained two hundred thousand leis into the mailbox. Inflation existed, but even so, this was an enormous amount. I do not know why it occurred to me that she was the one who had sent it to me, but it later turned out that she had. I knew her superficially; I think she once asked for a graphological opinion of the boys. That she whose son had died in camp would give so much—to a Christian woman who, compared to her, was protected—enabled the horror which even then petrified me to ease somewhat for first time.

115With this money I went down to Vizakna near the end of summer. I rested and regained my strength. I then registered at the university. At Bolyai University, which sprang up then. That is, the Romanians took over the Franz Joseph University that year.

  • 3 Marcel Benedek (1885–1996) – renowned writer, translator, and professor of literature; Pál Harkai (...)

116Bolyai University opened in a building on Fürdő Street, behind the promenade, that formerly served as a secondary school for girls. At first we sat on packing cases, then we received some benches. Sixteen of us attended psychology for the first year. István Benedek came down, and we also heard lectures by Marcel Benedek and Pál Harkai Schiller.3 No one had anything. I remember lending a pastry board and dish cloth to the István Benedeks, and a china tea service, and a special, beautiful pot for boiling milk, which I had received as a wedding gift from my Aunt Rózsika (it was like a little bucket, silver on the outside and white enamel on the inside) to Schiller, who later went to America, ran into a tree while skiing and shattered his skull into fragments. This was how we gathered together odds and ends for our university professors, so they could make their lives easier.

117Transylvania was awarded to Romania. For us this was such a blow that people were depressed for days, their heads ached, they felt faint; they had nausea, they could not eat; some lost their voices and could not talk; others suffered from diarrhea or constipation. It was such a blow that we could hardly bear it. But then we tried to recover, we tried to carry on...


1 The massacre of Székelys by Austrian troops at Mádfalva in 1764 when they refused to be inducted into the army.

2 István Benedek (1915–1993), writer and son of Marcel Benedek (see note 45).

3 Marcel Benedek (1885–1996) – renowned writer, translator, and professor of literature; Pál Harkai Schiller (1908–1949) – a major contributor to studies in psychology in Hungary. He organized many psychology institutes and established the Applied Psychology Section of the Hungarian Psychological Association. He edited the series Lélektani tanulmányok (Studies in Psychology) and contributed several books to the field of psychology. He settled in the United States in 1947, where he died two years later.

© Central European University Press, 2002

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