It is amazing, sometimes I can't remember what I had for dinner the previous evening, but my memory is crystal clear about Lindbergh landing in France after his historic flight seventy years ago. We were sitting in our dining room, listening to the radio broadcast. The radio set, a large brick shaped oakwood box sat on the buffet with a conical speaker placed next to it.
This was the first home I can remember, though it was my parents second since I was born. Coming from a middle class family we had a good sized apartment. Back in those days most families lived in large buildings rather than owning their home. Some of these apartment houses dated back a couple of hundred years. Budapest the capital of Hungary was my birth place and the city where I spent the first half of my life. A very lively city compared by some to Paris. A city of wine, women and song. Its architecture reflected some of the bygone eras as far back as the roman empire. Centurys of the turkish occupation and naturally the Austro-Hungarian rulers left their indelible mark all over not only in the sights but in the cuisine and habits of the people.
Until I reached the age of six I was a sickly little kid. Double pneumonia visited me 5 times, ear infection was an annual event. The only medication the doctor prescribed for it was quinine, a very bitter white powder that I had to swallow, packaged in a wet, thin wafer. My poor mother had a horrible time trying to force it down my throat. It usually ended up in a disaster, the packet torn open giving me the full effect of the bitter taste that lasted in my mouth for a long time. My brother, who was almost 4 years older enjoyed watching my suffering with great delight. He was very seldom sick denying me the pleasure to return the favor. Once I reached school age I became the healthiest human being on Earth. I enjoyed attending classes so much, there was no time to be ill. Oh don't misunderstand me, I did not like to study, but I loved to go to school. It was a ten minute walk from home, after the first year I was allowed to do it without my mother escorting me. I had a special place in class, for a couple of reasons. The teacher knew our family, my brother just leaving the school after 4 years, and I was reading fluently and new the multiplication table forward and back when I started school. On top of it having a good singing voice and some acting ability, made me the star of the annual musical show that our school was famous for. Grammar school was a snap. I never studied at home just had a good time. I paid for it later.
I also fell in love in my first year. She was a strawberry blond and the cutest little thing I ever laid eyes on. I stole the first kiss in the coat room. It was also the last. I don't think she cared for me, though I kept pursuing her all through the four years we spent in the class together.
Our school system was somewhat different from todays practice. The first four years, from age 6 to 10 was spent in an elementary school, unless you did not intend to seek higher education. In that case 2 more years in elementary followed by a 4 year trade school. Up to this point education was mandatory and was provided by the state. Now you were ready to sole shoes, become a plumber, a locksmith or whatever craft tickled your fancy. But if more knowledge was in your future, and your social standing allowed it, you entered gymnasium. It had very little to do with physical fitness though gym was part of the daily diet.
From here on it cost money to obtain an education and a lot of families with low income just could not afford it.
The next eight years included literature, math, history, latin, german and french languages, religion, chemistry, biology and a few other classes I can't even remember. The school year was ten month with two weeks off for Xmas and a week for Easter. If you failed a subject there were remedial classes during the summer holidays, if you still failed, then join the group who got an F in two or more classes and had the pleasure to repeat the entire year.
After eight years of serious studying and getting the final report card, the struggle for higher education was not over. The final exam that I know no english word for, in free translation would be Maturity test. Three days of written ordeal followed by an oral in front of a five member panel and no other students present. I was never a good student, as I said before, loved school hated studying. Turned in the necessary homeworks - usually with passing grades - but never studied at home, except the last two three weeks of the school year. It was time to cram. And cram I did. It worked for me, passed the final tests every year.
The dining room was a fun place. I liked it even better than the room I shared with my brother. A large oval shaped table with eight chairs around it, could accomodate even more when extended to its full length. I loved to run around it. I was very short until reached the age of fourteen. To a little kid this was an athletic field. Many world records were set here. One day while doing 25 laps the phone started to ring in the living room. The speed and the sudden change of direction pulled the ground out from under me. I ended up on my face with a bloody nose. I did not dare to cry. My mother told me many times not to run around the table. She was in the kitchen helping the cook, Maggie who tried to console me.
" Leave him alone" said my mother, " he got what has been coming to him."
" But he is bleeding all over the place."
" Go to the bathroom, wash up and put a piece of cotton in your nose."
She loved me and knew how to bring up a little moppet like me. Five minutes later she packed me up and took me to the doctors office. Now I cried. Doctors meant trouble in my book, syringes, pills, tongue depressors and all kind of cruel instruments, designed to to torture children.
" His nose is broken " was the verdict by the doctor after he took hold of me with the aid of a nurse.
" Not much to do about it, just keep him down and put an ice pack on it."
Yea, keep me down. I could hardly wait to get out of there, escaping without a shot in my you know what. The bleeding stopped, I was ready for some serious fooling around. There is so much playing to do before entering school.
One week later I was riding in my uncles car, sitting in the back between my parents. I was behaving myself for a change. I had to. My uncle was a professor of Geology and Director of the Royal Geological Institute. You did not misbehave in his presence. Uncle Lulu, called that by his friends and relatives was at the wheel. We were on a two lane village road lined by beautiful trees on both sides. Suddenly from between to houses a horse driven carriage pulled in front of us. Uncle Lulu to avoid hitting the horses, steered the car right into the biggest tree on the road side.
In those days cars had crystal vases for flowers in the passenger compartment, also a handle bar across the back of the front seat. Jump seats that unfolded from the floor in case there were too many passengers in the car. All kinds of conveniences but no seatbelts. That came about 45 years later. The impact tore me out of my snuggled in position and propelled me forward. The handle bar found my nose. It broke again.
My nose played an important part in my growing years.
I loved to take long walks by myself. Sometimes I was gone for hours. Walking gave me time to think. When you near your teens, there are many things to think about. Important things. Ideas start forming in that small brain and plans start brewing for the future. I am going to be a fireman, well no, maybe an architect. On the other hand if I became a grocery store owner I could smell and taste those delicious sausages, salami's and all the cheeses every day. Or a doctor.
Bang! - I just walked into a lamppost. That's the trouble with daydreaming you never know where it will lead you. In my youth it always led me into a hard object with my nose absorbing the impact. Why didn't I just become a prizefighter? My nose was ready for it.
The dining room brings up some other memories. Dinner was always at eight o'clock in our house. If you were late, tough, you went to bed on an empty stomach. My father came home just a few minutes earlier every day. He played bridge in his club every afternoon from four until it was time to leave for home. That night we were already sitting around the table but he has not shown yet. The clock on the buffet softly chimed eight times, Maggie put the soup tureen on the table. Still Papa was not home.
The doorbell rang, it cannot be him, he always used his key to let himself in. There was a commotion at the door. Three or four men carrying my father, heading for his bedroom. His face was ashen. They laid him down on his bed.
" He collapsed downstairs, next to the elevator" said one of the men.
My Mother, bless her heart, she was always calm and collected in those days, called the family doctor who also happened to be a very close friend. He grabbed a taxi cab and arrived in minutes. There was a slight blood stream showing from Papa's mouth as he still laid motionless.
" Children out of the room " said the doctor while unpacking his dark brown medical bag.
We were astonished and frightened. We never saw Papa in trouble, he always seemed so strong, powerful and imperturbable. He was managing a large manufacturing company owned by my grandfather. Now, laying on his back... helpless... I couldn't even kiss him on his cheek as I always did when he came home.
My fathers stomach ulcer just perforated! The good doctor prepared my Mother for the worst - " He may not survive the night."
In 1929 the medical profession was in its adolescence, compared to todays science. Surgery was out of the question, moving a patient in his condition was an absolute no-no. Soda bicarbonate was the medicine to reduce the pain in the stomach, caused by too much acid.
" If he asks for water, give him milk to drink. He will not have any appetite but just in case, the food should be without any spices and pressed through a food mill to make it into a puree".
I do not remember it anymore if we had dinner that evening, it did not matter, surely none of us had any appetite.
Papa survived. His recovery was slow and tedious. For many weeks he did not leave the bed and whatever time we were allowed to spend with him we shared in his bedroom. Our lives changed. Well actually it was the kitchen that went through a drastic transformation. All the Hungarian red pepper, black pepper and all other spices were discarded to make sure, nobody makes a mistake at the stove. Hungarian food without spices ?
From very early age on I loved to eat. I alone ate as much as my Father, Mother and Brother together were able to handle. There were no leftovers. I finished it all off. From mothers milk to beef steak I refused nothing, except pureed spinach. That green stuff and I disagreed violently. Those nights when it was served I went to bed hungry. My Mothers rule: " You eat everything that's on your plate. Think of the little starving children of Africa ".
I never understood what my dislike to spinach had to do with starving kids. Leave it to adults they can come up with the craziest ideas.
I also collected tin foils that chocolate bars were wrapped in. For a 5 kilogram ball of silver paper - I was told - I can buy one of those little naked brown kids. Marvelous how innocently a child believes the stupidest sayings that adults plant in their mind. The wrappers kept adding to the ball, fortunately we all liked chocolate. Never found out how many tons of the sweet stuff takes to come up with a big enough silver ball. After a few years I lost interest in little starving boys as my own appetite kept growing for more earthly delights.
Laci, my brother, came down with scarlet fever when I was nine. Complete isolation was ordered by the doctor. He also plastered a very official looking, very red, printed order on our front door, that forbade anybody who did not have the disease before, from entering our home.
I was immediately shipped to my grandparents house.
It was a family tradition to have lunch every Sunday in my grandparents home. The whole family was seated in the huge dining room for a weekly feast. At the head of the table my Grandmother was overseeing the proceedings. The room itself was overwhelming but her presence made it even more overpowering. On her left sat Ben, my grandfather, next to her my aunt Magda and her husband, uncle Lulu. On the other side of the table my father, my brother and myself. Opposite from Grandma at the other end my Mother. A bell button secreted under the table sent the signal to the maid to start serving lunch. The whole room was covered with heavy oak paneling. One of the panels opened silently and the maid entered with a sterling silver soup tureen. The feast began. The soup had to be piping hot, the aroma lingering in the air as the steam escaped from the bowl. Grandpa was always finished with his before we could even take the first spoon full. He loved his soup as hot as fire. Next came an appetizer, like goose liver in aspic or fish, but never a salad. That was served with main dish. I guess we call it entree nowadays. That was either poultry, venison or a large roast accompanied by potatoes, vegetables and all the trimmings. After that came desert, followed by ice-cream. To finish up we had cheese and fruits and at last the coffee was served. In the old country coffee was not the kind of black water we drink today. Either it was prepared espresso style or as turkish coffee or just the every day way on the stove in in a pot. It was always strong. Stuck a spoon in your cup and it stood up straight.
Grandpa evidently was a very astute businessman. His family moved from the southern parts, where he owned quite a bit of land, just before the first World War. Settling in Budapest, he started a factory, screws, clasps, all kind of metal gizmos that made him a lot of money. It became the second largest of it's kind in the country. They specialized in wood screws. Took me a long-time to understand why a metal object would be called wood screw. They made metal ones too, called Whitworth or something like that. Anyhow this all happened before I was born. Grandpa bought a piece of land in the best part of the city. There weren't too many homes built there yet. He designed a home fit for a king, at least in my mind. The first floor was about six feet above the ground. Down below, halfway underground was the kitchen, the cooks quarter, furnace room, laundry room and an apartment for the caretakers family. The window sills were even with the well manicured lawn outside.
Marble steps led to the first floor entrance. The entry hall was about forty feet long and ten feet wide. We hung our coats and hats there before entering a huge room, no furniture just a grand piano, dwarfed by the immense size of this auditorium where in the good old days many dance parties were held. At the opposite end, elevated one step, a fire place, large stuffed armchairs around coffee tables sitting on persian rugs. This one room took at least one half length or even more of the building. There were no windows because the rest of the rooms bordered on both sides this magnificent hall. On the front side of the house, a dining room large enough to seat forty people. It opened into a library that also doubled as a study. On the other end the salon. We kids were never allowed to enter this room. Our shoes were never clean enough, we were jumping around too much endangering the fragile art pieces scattered around on the tables and floor. All gold leaf covered white pastel furniture, crystal chandeliers and the floor covered with wall to wall snow white plush carpet. As I discovered later the paintings on the wall were all original oils of well known artists. No wonder we were told to stay out. There were plenty of other places for us to roam around. On the other side of the house were the six bedrooms and bathrooms and one more room that I admired so much. In the middle of the building in between these rooms a wondrous place protruding toward the backyard another twenty feet or so, an arboretum built like it was carved out of a cave. With a waterfall, goldfish swimming in the pool surrounded with exotic plants and flowers. You could spend hours admiring the beauty of this place.
There were two more floors above grandpas place. The second floor was rented to the Italian ambassador to Hungary and above him the owner of a large department store. Actually it was the only department store in the entire country.
This was the place I was relegated to spend the next six weeks.
The years flew by in a hurry until I reached the age of maturity. Like mosaic pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, little vignettes stick in my memory. A little incident here, an episode there, snapshots out of the past. I'll rewind the old silent movies and you turn them into talkies while you read these fond recollections.
We spent at least one month or more every summer in Austria. There is a small village northwest of Graz on the river Mur, called Frohnleiten. It was a town, with one main street less than a quarter mile long, with small houses skirting the highway on both sides. There were only two large buildings in the entire town. One was the Catholic church on the east end and the other the Sanatorium on the west. The later was actually a spa, owned and run by the Weiss family.
Dr. Weiss was in the family practice and had this place as a hotel for vacationers. No sick people, just visitors who enjoyed the beauty and tranquillity of the area. The place was always full, completely occupied. The same people coming back year after year. Reservations were made years ahead.
The building was four stories high, about fifteen rooms on each level. A spacious dining room, located on the ground floor where the meals were served. Each guest was assigned a specific time and table for each meal. Except Sunday nights. The kitchen was closed on Sundays and there was no other eatery in the entire village. We all ate in our rooms--a cold dinner. Usually we bought food on Saturday in the grocery store, which included a bottle of wine. It came from the Greek island of Samos. A golden yellow nectar, the taste unforgettable. Nobody was a real drinker in the family. I very seldom saw my parents having a drink at any other occasion. But for some reason, my brother and I were also served a small glass of this delectable potion.
One of the highlights every morning was the bath. A large community bathroom, with quite a few pine wood bathtubs and very firm benches on which to get a massage. I always enjoyed watching the tub getting filled and scented with a large pill that colored the water into a deep, rich green hue. A couple of burly attendants lathered your body and than let you languish in the water for a few minutes while they took care of the rest of the guests. When it was your turn again, they draped you in a warm sheet and laid you down on one of the wooden benches and gave you a massage that moved every muscle in your body. A ten minute respite followed and ended the session. A little kid like me, all skin and bone, had not much to be massaged on his body, but they treated everybody equally. During the short rest afterward I usually dozed off.
We took long walks everyday in the woods. Dressed in typical tourist attire. That meant short lederhosen, those leather pants you could only outgrow but never wear out. White cotton shirt, hiking boots and a green hat decorated with rooster's tail plumes. And all of us carried a walking cane with a sharp pointed metal tip to help us climb on the narrow curving paths. Sometimes we walked down to the lumber mill a good two miles away. It was fascinating to watch the freshly cut logs sliding down on wooden shoots from the top of the hill into the river. Cruising to the plant their voyage came to a halt where the logs were stacked up, waiting to be milled. The scent of the wood permeating the crystal clean Alpine air was unforgettable. Sure gave us a good appetite for our next meal. On occasions we took a small basket and gathered some wild strawberries. These miniature berries we ate with whipped cream. What a treat.
One day I was chasing my brother through a grassy knoll. I think I was about five. He unknowingly ran through an area laden with wild bees, exciting the little buggers. A second or two later when I reached the spot, they were out in full force and attacked. The rest of the story was told to me later because after a few more steps I collapsed and lost conscientiousness. They took me to Dr. Weiss. At thirty, he stopped counting the stingers he removed from my body. They also shook a lot of dead bees out of my pants and shirt. I was bedridden for a couple of days. I had met my first enemy and although tiny, I respected it from then on. Bees I do not tangle with. The good doctor assured my parents that in everything bad there's something good, I probably have enough venom in my system to prevent me from contracting rheumatism ever in my life.
After my recovery my Mother took me to church. She was a devout Catholic. We boys followed our father's religion and were Protestant. I always enjoyed visiting the different churches where she took me, adoring the rich ornamentation, icons, and colorful oil paintings covering every inch of the walls. It was very different from our plain house of worship at home. The church of this town had to be one of the richest in the entire county of Tyrol. The solid gold altar, surrounded by heavy silver candelabras and other sacred items were just a small portion of the visible wealth. On a few occasions, we were allowed to visit the church's treasury vault. A large room stacked from floor to ceiling with gold, silver, jewelry, paintings and statues which they could not display in the tabernacle. That a small village managed to collect such wealth is still unbelievable to me.
For entertainment there was a polo ground, doubling as a soccer field, and the movie house. I saw the original Ben Hur. Naturally it was a silent picture. I'm sure we went there other times but this was the only picture that stuck in my memory.
" Let's take a bus trip tomorrow and visit Insbruck," my father said.
A welcome change in activities. What a trip! The driver let me sit up front next to him giving me the best view of the landscape. From an early age, driving was on my mind. I longed to get behind the wheel. In theory I knew how to drive a car. I watched every move he made, just as I always watched my father driving the family car. Switching gears on those curvy roads was quite a job. In front of the gearshift was another lever that I was not familiar with. When we started going down hill he reached for it. He slowly eased it toward the floor, slowing the bus. It was an air brake control. I had never seen one of these before.
Insbruck was a beautiful city. The architecture of the old European towns makes one city stand out from all the others. One site stuck in my mind, the roof of a balcony on a building was covered with gold plates instead of ceramic tiles. When the sun shone on it in a certain angle, it turned into a golden reflector.
On another outing we visited St. Anton of Arlberg. A small ski resort near the Swiss border. A stone's throw away from the Simpson tunnel that connects the two countries. I don't remember how long that tunnel is but it took a lot of years to build it. At the time it was the longest railroad tunnel in Europe.
One day a touring cossack show entertained the town's people on the polo field. These russian emigrants were marvelous horse riders. It was the best live show I ever saw in my early years. Standing up erect on the saddle at full stride then seemingly loosing footing, they slid down one side of the horse and came up on the other doing a handstand. They did more riding tricks than Tom Mix in all of his movies together. Their colorful uniforms could have come right out of a Hollywood film studio's custom department. The grand finale was the singing of some old russian songs. It was a ending befitting the afternoon.
One summer we spent an extra week in Zell am See, a small resort on a lake. My huge appetite for food from a very early age never left me. Especially when something new appeared on the table. The first dinner delivered an exciting garnish with the main course--Italian capers. They were cured in olive oil. Completely unknown to my young taste buds. At home we always cooked with lard or butter, never with oil. I asked my Mother to load up my plate with a lot of those little green things. She obliged, the rest of them would not touch it on account of the oil. I gorged myself on the stuff till none was left on the plate.
Than suddenly the room started to sway. My face turned ashen and I took off toward the rest room at high speed. The whole dinner came back, my stomach was not trained to accept the oily capers. What a shame, because I really enjoyed the food. Returning to the table, like the old Romans, I finished the dessert and was off to bed. The last night of our stay the capers were served again.
"You not going to eat them" implored my Mother."
"Oh, yes, I will. They are delicious." I replied.
Same timing, same run, same result. But who is going to argue with a six year old gourmet?
A few years later I joined a group of schoolmates during the Christmas vacation for an Austrian ski trip. Now, mind you, I was never good in any sport. But to be on the go was the real fun. The chalet where we stayed was near the beginners slope. I mastered that one in no time. One day the group decided to go to a more advanced area that I did not fancy. Left all by myself for the afternoon, I opted for the more friendly, familiar beginners slope. At the bottom of the hill a frozen creek bissected the snow-packed landscape. I never paid much attention to it, I usually stopped before I reached the bank. This day I found a different angle to start my downward shuss. It gave me a little bit more speed, hence a little more distance.
As I was ready to take off, a group of local children on ski's, younger than myself were coming over the ridge. I started my run. It was great! Sliding down the hill faster than ever before, I reached the little creek. The tip of my ski caught the opposite side of the bank and flipped me over right smack on my head. I was stunned, probably even knocked out for a few seconds. The next thing I remembered, those little kids were making a sled out of my ski's, strapped me on top and hauled me in to the chalet like a felled wild bear, a real trophy. As fast as they appeared from nowhere, they disappeared, without waiting even for a thank you. I think those kids, born in the Alps, learn to ski before walking.
Austria is a lovely country with very friendly people. The extraordinarily beautiful capital was Wien, we say Vienna in English. With all its architectural treasures, churches, museums and the royal palace just outside the city it is a true pearl on the Danube river. The opera house in the shadow of St. Stephen cathedral was the home to one of the most celebrated orchestras in Europe. But you did not experience the true Viennese flavor until you visited at least one of the many coffee houses. Cafe Mozart just behind the Opera House is one of the most regaled. The coffee houses, as I found out later in life, were also the gathering places for the different political factions that laid the foundation for the Nazi takeover. The communist party also had a large following. After the demise of Chancellor Dolfuss there were small uprisings, but mainly in the countryside. The scars of the revolution were still visible in 1939 when my Boy Scout group decided to take a rowing boat trip down the Danube.
About 20 of us loaded two of our large six-oar boats onto a passenger ship and took a two day trip up the river from Budapest to Passau. This was a border city on the German side before the Anschluss in the north western part of Austria. Looking down from the hill, you could see three rivers converge in the middle of town. There was the Inn from the south, Ilz from the north, and the majestic Danube in the middle. Each had its own hue, and after they merged for a couple of miles you could see the distinctive colors of each of them slowly blending into one. We had a beautiful two-week long trip, but it was my last visit to Vienna.
A couple of weeks later Hitler invaded Poland. World War II had begun.
(There is a break here to be filled in later. The story continues at a point after the war had been raging for several years.)
This was our first Christmas without a tree or presents. We sat down to eat at the customary eight o'clock hour. The traditionally festive holiday dinner was reduced to a single course.
The sound of heavy artillery was getting closer by the minute. Pest side of the city, on the Danube east banks, was being evacuated by the German troops.
Suddenly a few heavy tremors interrupted our dinner chat. The last of the retreating units reaching Buda on the Danube's westside, blew up all the bridges. Our beautiful Chain bridge was not spared either. The first of its kind built in 1844 crumbled into the icy river.
This was a completely senseless destruction, the Russians all ready encircled the city a couple of days earlier. But Hitler's raging fury was insane. The previous months we watched helplessly as the Germans placed the explosives on this majestic, historic span and guarded them with their SS troops. The sparse underground had no chance of disabling these devices.
Our appetite was gone. For a long time we hoped that the war's end was near. But to watch our city, the pearl of the Danube laid to ruins was no solace. Even some of the Nazi sympathizers had second thoughts about their allegiance.
We were witnessing a mortally wounded, cornered animal going into a violent last-ditch assault in an attempt to take as many lives as possible before it finally died. In those last moments the Nazis were still hunting for the few Jews who escaped deportation, lined them up at the river bank and machine gunned them, bodies falling into the icy water.
Among the hunted was the father of a good friend and schoolmate. He cheated death. A split second before the bullets hit him, he dove into the Danube and swam out of harm's way. In the dark, his executioners never saw him escape. His son managed to assume the identity of a dead Hungarian officer and saved himself. After the war we had a good laugh, how he was able to masquerade with his huge hooked nose as an aryan army officer.
There was not much discussion while we ate, the sounds of war were too loud to enjoy any conversation. After dinner my father, mother and brother decided that it would be wiser to sleep in the cellar. We made preparations for this underground life weeks earlier, when it became apparent, the German army is not about to give up Budapest without a fight. Mattresses were laid on the concrete floor with extra bedding stored on them. Food supplies to last a few weeks were stored in makeshift cabinets. Lots of candles and battery powered flashlights were collected. As for me, to hell with the Germans and the Russians. I loved my comfort. I am sleeping in my bed. That was my Christmas present to myself.
It was the last time I spent the night in my room. On the next day the battle for the city began in all earnestness.
I have been in a few cellars before. Every house had one to store chopped wood and coal to heat the homes at winter time. And than there were the cellars of Castle Hill, connecting hundreds of homes. One of the architectural remnants of a century and half of Turkish domination. These chambers were used to store food and supplies, hide valuables from looters and the hunted from their hunters.
Some of these cellars were built one below the other - two three stories deep - connected by secret trap doors. You could travel long distances underground using these interconnected rooms. There were other kind of cellars also, cellars under prisons, used for interrogations involving third degree torture. Some of them still holding remains of instruments used in those torments. More enjoyable were the wine cellars.
The house we lived in 1944 was built on a hill side. The concrete floor of the cellar was sidewalk level as you entered the building. The opposite wall on the other hand was completely underground. Actually the caretaker's apartment was on the ground floor and the wash room and cellar was located behind his place.
On the second floor lived a family with two children, both of them younger than I, and the floor above them was our place. Both families had separate cellars with ample room to store whatever you wanted, out-of-sight, beside the wood and coal. There was some token partitioning between the two places. It was a dark but fairly dry place. Nobody planned to live down there, but we ended up doing just that on Christmas day.
The shelling by the Russian mortars became more and more threatening. I just got out of my bed that was between a window and a door to a balcony. From my room, I had a 180-degree vista of the hills, surrounding the city toward the west. It was a black Christmas, no snow on the ground yet.
I dressed in a hurry. While in the bathroom I heard a very loud noise. Ran back to my room and found a gaping hole just under the window, about three feet from the head of my bed. It was time to move.
My family had already spent the night in the cellar. We started to move our supplies and essentials days earlier. I grabbed my bedding and I was on my way to join them. My brother was running up the stairs, coming to check on me, after they discovered the hole in the wall. We packed up a few more things and hauled them downstairs. What to save, what to hang onto ? Forget about making a sensible assessment of your real needs. Some clothing, toiletries and beyond that, just leave everything else where it is. My favorite books? My father had a very extensive library. My love for reading was rooted there. Which one of the classics to save. Pictures, photographs, letters, gramophone records? Impossible! Let go of them! If we survive and the house is still standing by the end of the war, well, we can worry about our worldly goods then. Needless to say, we all made little trips upstairs for the next couple of days to pick up some knickknacks, without which our existence could not be conceivable.
Except for my father. From the minute that he moved into the cellar, he never left until we abandoned the place two month later. He never wanted to see anything or get anything from upstairs. It was as if he had a premonition of what was about to happen. Maybe it was the traumatic experience of seeing of his father's beautiful home taking a direct hit a few months earlier and leveled to the ground. It was unbelievable.
The American bombers were always very careful to unload over military targets and cause as little damage as possible to the civilian properties and lives. They used the carpet bombing techniques, all the time, in the industrial districts. This was one errant bomb doing a perfect job. That majestic building just disappeared from the face of the Earth. Nothing left, but concrete chunks and broken bricks in a huge heap of rubble.
Who or what did they aim for? Was it a bomb accidentally hang up in the bomb bay before finally getting loose? Questions that will never find an answer. But it ended the existence of my grandfather's palace.
The first few days of the siege were quite uneventful. The snow started falling the day after Christmas. We got accustomed to the sound of shelling, we knew when it would hit afar or in our own backyard. There was no aerial bombing at all until later on. The American bombers stopped their flights in October, when the legitimate Hungarian government declared an end to the hostilities against the Allied forces. That day the German army with it's Hungarian Nazi allies, arrested the Cabinet members, the head of the state, Governor Horthy and took over running the affairs of the State. The Russian troops were miles away.
My brother and I took daily trips to visit our friends, check up on the day to day situation in the neighborhood. He visited his friends and I looked up my chums. Most of the time we traveled separately. Every so often we managed to get to the only bakery still in operation. If you got there early enough - like four in the morning - and stood in line for a few hours, there was a good chance to buy a loaf of bread, . They ran out of supplies in two weeks.
Naturally no stores were open, whatever few edible supplies they had on the shelves vanished in the first few days. I don't believe that looting was on anybody's mind. Whatever you would steal would be a problem to store.
At this point there were more important things to think about. The Nazi sympathizers were wondering how to save themselves. The rest of the people were just trying to figure out a way to stay alive. It never occurred to me that anything could happen to us. I was 21, at that age everything is just on the up and up. Bad things happen only to others, not to me.
For a civilian, I knew more about incoming mortar shells than the average soldier who never experienced an attack on a city. The Russians worked it into pure artistry, how to aim those mortars, even from great distances, against the smallest targets. Such as a running human. It took me very little time to figure out when to drop to my belly as flat as possible, when to jump to the other side of a low brick or concrete fence or when to ignore the whole bombing. The sound told me the entire story. When the whistling came to an abrupt end, I knew the darn thing was about to explode within a few meters from me. When it just slowly trailed off, I was in the clear. It became a game. A survival game if you wanted to play it. I loved to be outside, on the go all the time instead of being cooped up in the cellar. I learned the rules in a hurry. Never suffered even a scratch.
After the siege began, electricity became nonexistent. The gas for cooking stayed on for a long time and the water kept flowing from the faucets without interruption. Without telephones and radios the only way to get some news was through personal contacts. Our next door neighbor an attorney, had a 1939 Packard coupe - a dream car - parked next to his house. He committed suicide the first day of the battle. Never found out why? I managed to scavenge the radio and battery from the vehicle, but there was no broadcast within a reasonable distance and I failed to pick up any stations. I think the battery was getting run down too.
Those daily visits to my friends were of vital importance. The retreating army abandoned a lot of horses in the city because they had nothing left to feed them. Some of those animals were just hanging around in the neighborhoods, scavenging for food and water. Many just dropped from hunger. It was an important event to find one just before it died. People shot or clubbed the poor thing to death and butchered the edible parts of the carcass. My brother and I got a whole hind leg one day, carried it home and fed everybody in the cellar for quite a few days. First time I ever ate horse meat. Sweet, pleasant tasting when cooked right. After the war I never wanted to eat horseflash again.
As the days went by the circle of our movements became more and more restricted. We lost touch with most of our friends, especially the ones living closer to the surrounding hills on the west side. They were the first to be overrun by the Russian army. Soon we just ventured outside to see how close the conquerors were.
One day during the second week in February the sound of heavy boots trampling in the entry hall and men shouting roused us. Hungarian Nazi henchmen were rounding up all able-bodied men, lined them up out on the street, including my brother and myself. We were very unceremoniously marched up to Castle Hill, that became the center of resistance and led into a building, where recruiters tried to enlist everyone in the rag tag army that remained in the city. One by one each had to step up to a table, manned by army officers. When it was my turn, I whispered to my brother " I will wait for you outside.".
We all had to think on our feet very fast how to answer the questions put to us.
" How come you are not in uniform? "
" I have a medical exemption, sir."
My brother had a stomach ulcer, so I new all the symptoms and medications prescribed for the ailment. I put on a good show, slightly bending over from the imagined pain, holding my hand over the stomach area, explaining to the men behind the desk why I was not out there fighting and getting killed.
At the next table two Swedish journalist argued for their exemptions as foreign citizens. The goon in authority tried to convince them that citizenship did not matter during these days, everybody should bear arms in saving the city from the Russian hordes. What they did not tell us was, that this was an effort, to stage a break out for the encircled army and few officials left behind, by fighting through the only route to the north.
" I have to take my medication soon, the pain is getting unbearable".
That seemed to end the argument between my interrogators and me. I was given a slip of paper to show my exemptions. My brother stepped up to the table as I made my exit. A long time passed as I waited outside. Nobody came out of the building. I did not dare to walk back in the lions den and was sickened by the thought that Laci was not going to be released. I was about to give up when the sound of running footsteps came from the entrance and there was my brother sprinting out of the building. He grabbed my arm and yelled at me to follow him. As soon we were at a safe distance he slowed down.
"What happened in there? " I asked.
"They asked me if the guy just left was related to me. I said , yes he is my brother. How come you both have the same ailment? I did not know you used my alibi."
" I could not think of anything else on the spot."
Well, they did not want to believe me. I told them that the malady runs in our family, our father suffers from duodenal ulcer just like the two of us. Finally I reached in my pocket and pulled out the Atropin vial showing my name on it, the doctors name and the instruction how to administer the injection. I was lucky to have it with me."
Running and walking toward home we started to laugh at how we outsmarted those idiot Nazis. As we learned later, very few people were as lucky as we two. They were given an arm band, designating them as soldiers and a rifle with a handful of ammunition and sent to units waiting near by. Their fate was sealed. These new recruits were used as protective shields for the German regular army. Very few of them survived the war.
From this day on we stayed in the cellar. There was no place to go anymore, the noose got tighter with every hour. Nothing to do, I slept most of the time until the fateful February 9 arrived.
" Wake up, wake up" my Mother was shaking me. It was pitch dark and I could hardly breathe. Suddenly a flickering flashlight was shining through a thick cloud of dust.
" What happened?"
" We have to get out of here, a bomb must have hit the house."
In recent days the Russians employed low flying bombers to destroy the remaining resistance in the city. We crawled toward the back of the building, and managed to get outside to the backyard. Gasping for fresh air, wiping our eyes, the sight was unbelievable. Just a few feet behind our house there was a deep bomb crater and our home was nothing but a heap of rubble. It was a miracle, nobody suffered as much as a scratch.
Two days later the battle for Budapest ended. On that last day in the early morning the rag-tag army staged a break out from the city, herding all the newly recruited, untrained civilians up front to pave the way for the escape. Some made it.
It was also the day, when our hook nosed friend, Andy showed up in an army officers uniform asking for some civilian clothing. He managed to assign himself to the tail end of the break-out, to assure that everybody was on his way out. As the army was marching out of the city, in one unguarded moment he escaped. Andy stayed with us for the next few days.
In everything bad, as the saying goes, there is something good. Nobody believed that there was life under the rubble. That worked to our benefit as we escaped the first few days of Russian occupation. Once the city was secured the Russian army was given 72 hours uninhibited looting, raping and killing. It lasted about ten days.
Posters were placed everywhere, informing the community, that this was just punishment for the hardship endured by the Russian people. The victors take the spoils. We were furiously trying to hide the few belongings we had left. A brown leather coat, that my brother cherished so much, ended up in the rubbles dug in as far as we could. Smaller items, like jewelry was easier to conceal. By this time our food supply was almost completely gone, we survived on flour and rice. My Mother's gold wrist watch was traded weeks earlier for a kilogram of sugar.
The first few days nobody bothered us. We were all very careful to emerge from the ruins, using every caution to make sure that nobody had seen us.
Then it happened. In a careless moment, from a distance, one of us was spotted among the ruins.
The shrill sound of air raid sirens interrupted life in the city. We were quite used to it by now. Most of the time the inconvenience was an exercise in futility. Never before was Budapest attacked from the air, but this was the spring of 1944. The noose was tightening around the Nazi troops. We had to be careful, the block captains were patrolling the streets looking for those not obeying the warning. You had to take cover. Not from the bombs, but from the patrols.
Traffic came to a halt . The streetcars and buses emptied their load, people scurried to any available shelter. All businesses, stores closed up and locked their doors. The normal city noises slowly gave way to an eerie silence. Even the birds stopped chirping. This time it was different. There was expectation in the air of . . . something. The hope for a change, hope for the end of the war. The hope of survival. The Sun was shining brightly from a nearly cloudless sky, dispensing a little warmth, breaking the cold of long winter. Until now, 10 in the morning it was a beautiful day.
Than a low murmur filled the air. This was new. I was about quarter-mile away from an industrial area and thought somebody started up a generator or some other kind of motor. Gradually the sound grew louder and louder. In the distance the black puffs of flak appeared on the horizon. Now it was obvious, this was no drill but the real thing. The sounds of war gained strength with every second. More and more artillery joined in the cacophony of noises. Like an orchestra tuning up before a concert.
Than I spotted a never before seen sight. Straining my eyes at the black smoke in the sky, I saw an armada of silvery cigars in formation approaching the city. The planes were so high in the sky that the anti aircraft guns could not reach them. The low murmur now became the unmistakable thunder of hundreds of airplane engines. Like a slow roll of timpany accentuating the quiet violins. Almost like Ravel's Bolero. It started with a stately snare drum roll growing into its full expression. The sounds and picture started to come together. The vapor trails betrayed the planes formation. I could see the four white lines behind each engine of every Flying Fortress. As the volume of the symphony matured a new instrument joined in. Starting on the lower registers, a mighty organ glissando slid higher and higher, building its intensity. Higher and higher. The whole orchestra was furiously keeping pace, coming to a crescendo just as the organ gave way to the percussion. Cymbals crashed, drums rolled as the falling bombs exploded on impact. Wave after wave, tremble after tremble the ground came alive as in the peak of an earthquake.
The flak wafting in the sky like strewn black cotton balls was overtaken by smoke rising from the ground. The earth shook as the carpet bombing erased whatever stood in its way. Buildings crumbled. Tall factory chimneys rained bricks to the ground. Previously immovable objects became projectiles in the series of explosions.
The last explosion escorted in a deafening silence for a few seconds as the planes departed the concert hall. The first movement of the symphony was over. Than the conductor raised his baton and the second movement elicited new sounds from these surreal instruments. Ambulance and fire engine sirens, police whistles, human cries of anguish, the creeking of still crumbling buildings on fire were all at last joined by the steady siren sound, signaling the end of the attack All clear.
Life was returning to normal. Normal? The many returning daily bombings created a new standard of life, so you could call it normal.
I spent only one air raid in a shelter. I had to. It was in a factory, near the Danube where the shelters were dug only a few feet below the surface. Any deeper and the ground water would have flooded the place. These concrete chambers were covered by mounds of soil and designated as air raid shelters. About fifty people to a chamber were shepherded in, sitting on long benches facing each other. As soon as the bombing began the electricity went out. The shelter swayed to the rhythm of nearby explosions. A new sound amplified in the air. The moaning, wailing and crying of frightened people. Groping at each other in the dark, dank cave for reassurance and help. That experience kept me out of shelters from than on. The noise of the terrified was yet another sound to join the disharmonic convergance of this weird Symphony of War.
My native land at time of my birth was a monarchy, except we had no King. The Head of State was an Admiral, but the country had no Oceans. The Admiral then became the Regent. His title was Governor. By the time I reached adulthood the Nazis took over and eliminated the monarchy.
After the end of WWII we had about 18 political parties represented in our parliament. They all had great ideas about how to create a free democracy. After two years of haggling, the communists, with less than 10% of the votes, took over. They eliminated most of the other party officials--some of them by hanging, their favorite practice. After that they purged their own party, getting rid off all party members who had ideas other than Stalinism. By now I had an excellent political education. Lesson learned: stay out of it.
In 1956 I had a chance to pack up my family and leave. I emigrated to the United States and caught the tail end of Capitalism. Those were happy years. Then, for some unexplained reason, the Republic started to turn toward Socialism. I watched in horror as citizens gave away their two centuries of freedom, piece by piece--doing it voluntarily, doing away with ideas that had made this land the greatest country on earth.
Now as I reach my waning years, I can only hope that our politicians read history. If not, we may face the same fate as the monarchists, nazis, and communists in the recent past.
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Another story by John: The Symphony Of War