Authors: Joseph Kertes
Tags: #Historical - General, #War stories, #Jewish families - Hungary, #Jews, #Jewish, #1939-1945 - Hungary, #Holocaust, #Holocaust Survivors, #Fiction, #1939-1945, #Jewish families, #General, #Jews - Hungary, #Historical, #Historical Fiction, #Fiction - General, #Hungary, #World War, #History
Also by Joseph Kertes
The Red Corduroy Shirt
Published by the Penguin Group
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Copyright © Joseph Kertes, 2008
All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this
publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or
transmitted in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording
or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the
above publisher of this book.
Publisher’s note: This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either
are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to
actual persons living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA CATALOGUING IN PUBLICATION
Kertes, Joseph, 1951–
Gratitude / Joseph Kertes
PS8571.E766G73 2008 C813'.54 C2007-906672-0
This book is dedicated
to the memory of
to the memory of my parents, Hilda and Paul,
to my brothers, Bill and Peter,
and to my wife and daughters, Helen, Angela and Natalie,
Above me, rushing time is rummaging through my poems
As I sink ever deeper into the ground.
All this I know,
But tell me:
Did my work survive?
—Miklos Radnoti (1909–1944)
Tolgy, Hungary – March 19, 1944
behind a wardrobe, dressed in a wedding gown. She was in her parents’ bedroom and, despite her position, could still clearly see the dove-blue sky out of the window. It was the custom of her village that, when a girl turned sixteen, her mother would present her with a bridal dress she had made or worn herself. Helen had sewn this white dress out of a bolt of Egyptian cotton, adding some French lace her husband, David, had brought from Budapest.
A birthday cake was baking in the stone oven downstairs. Whipped vanilla cream sat heaped in a bowl by the window. It was to be folded over the warm yellow cake once it cooled a little.
The cake was just about done, but Lili couldn’t leave her hiding place to check on it, because her mother had told her to stay put. And no one else was home. Helen, Lili’s mother, had taken the four youngest kids out back beyond the town. David, her father, had left with her eldest brother, Ferenc, to show the new authorities the family’s papers.
So Lili would wait behind the wardrobe—she couldn’t say for how long. The big wardrobe had been made for Helen and David by Ervin Gottlieb, the town’s ancient but skilled carpenter. It had been painted white to commemorate their wedding day, the same cream white as Lili’s dress.
And now Lili felt a chill in the warm house. She did not know what her mother had been thinking. Wouldn’t it have made more sense for her to go off with Tildy and Benjamin to the pond, where Helen had sent them, or with Helen and Mendi and Hanna to the woods? She could have helped them. What good was she in the house, squatting behind a wardrobe? Lili heard shuffling just outside the house, now, and thought it might be her father or her mother. Maybe someone had forgotten something. She considered stepping out, but decided not to until she heard a familiar voice. Instead, outside the window, what she heard was machine-gun fire, a scream—a woman’s scream—then a German voice over a megaphone. She knew exactly what they were saying. She knew from her Yiddish. They were asking people to meet in the square in front of the synagogue. A Hungarian voice repeated the command.
“Everyone bring a small parcel of belongings,” the German said, “and meet at the temple within thirty minutes of this order.”
The Hungarian said, “Everyone out now. Now.” People understood his Hungarian as well as their own Yiddish. Tolgy was a border town in the southeast, where people spoke Yiddish first, Hungarian second. It was a town of a thousand Jews, an enclave. Hungarian was the language of school.
Had the Hungarians joined ranks with the invading Germans? Lili’s father had fought for the Hungarians in the Great War, had worn the uniform with pride.
Lili felt a spring in her legs, set to catapult her out of her hiding place, but she held her post. She smelled the cake in the oven. Certainly by now it was done. Warm and ready. She ran her hands over the soft lap of her dress, steadying herself.
And then someone slammed into the house, several men, as many as four, Lili thought, or even five. Lili heard a German voice, then the shout of a Hungarian. The soldiers stomped through the house, pulling at things, turning over chairs. They stormed upstairs. She held her breath as they worked their way through the children’s bedrooms, pulling drawers to the floor.
Just as they banged out into the corridor, just as Lili expected them to rush into the room in which she crouched, breathless, they flew down the stairs instead. All but one. One stepped in. Lili could feel the net of his eyes falling over the room. The photographs of her grandparents, all four of them, above the bed. The dresser with the silver hairbrush and comb David had brought from Prague. The cedar blanket box. And then he ran after his comrades. Just like that. A moment later, they rushed out of the house.
Lili heard them bursting into Tzipi’s place next door. She could hear the same crashes and slams. Far away, the popping of gunfire, muffled, like caps.
She could smell smoke, burning. Could it be? Could it? She would roast. She would stay behind her wardrobe and burn. She could smell it now, but there was sweetness at the edge of the smell. She would burn sweetly as cake. It was the cake.
Lili waited patiently for another half-hour, her ears open like cockleshells, waiting to hear the troops, the megaphones. She thought she heard the crack of distant gunfire again—machine-gun fire—and then a burning silence. Lili’s heart beat against the prison of her ribs.
And then the telephone rang downstairs. Who could it possibly be? Was it her father? Was it Ferenc? Someone needing medical help? Someone hurting, wanting Lili’s father to attend to them? The phone continued to ring for what seemed like several minutes, but Lili didn’t answer, and then it stopped.
The cake burned gloriously now, its sunny sweetness melting into a lava flow in the thick chamber of the oven. None of these alarms could lure Lili out of her hiding place. Not the telephone, not the burning cake, not the soldiers who’d come and gone, who’d checked the Bandel house, then checked it off their list.
And not Dobo. Lili heard his voice, now. Dobo—his name was Artur Dobo, but everyone called him by his surname only, or sometimes even Captain Dobo. He was the town’s crazy beggar, who got his meals at a different house each night, many nights at the Bandels’ house, where not only did Helen feed him, but David calmed him down with a sip of brandy and gave him a cot to settle down on. They would even have the Captain for the Sabbath, and he prayed with them. Each child who was able had to recite a passage by heart from the Torah, the older ones longer passages, and after that the Bandels prayed. Her father and brother also prayed each morning with their tefillin. Lili would sometimes watch the ritual, as each placed a small box containing a hand-written biblical passage on his arm, wound a leather strap around the arm and also around the head, where another small square box containing another biblical passage was placed against the forehead.
Lili had forgotten altogether about Captain Dobo until she heard his mad voice, suddenly, next door. Where had he been all this time? What hole had he crawled out of? He must have been standing now under the crabapple tree, which had bloomed then withered inexplicably very early that spring. Where Dobo had come from, and how he’d escaped the notice of the invaders, she couldn’t even guess.
Dobo was determined to attract notice. “Hey!” he was yelling. “Hey! Hey! Hey!” Lili did not dare move at first. “Get back up there!” Dobo shouted. “What are you doing?”
It sounded for a moment as though Dobo were addressing Lili, standing below her window and calling out to her. She had to look—she had to peek at least. “What’s going on!” he bellowed. “Get back up there!”
From where she crouched, Lili looked out of the corner of her window at the sky’s blue insistence. She crept out far enough to peer into Tzipi’s yard, where Dobo stood, hurling dry leaves up at the branches which had released them. “Hey! What are you doing!” he said. He threw armfuls of leaves up and then stood tall, his arms open to the heavens, pleading with the crabapple tree to hang on. “Hey!” His voice was dying down. “Hey.” The call was melodic almost, like the song of an oversized bird. “What?” he asked the tree. He held out his arms. The geese in the pen behind him honked. A single dog barked from down the street.
Then shots rang out. Lili hadn’t seen anyone approach. She darted back behind the wardrobe and covered her ears. But the shots sounded again. And then Lili heard men’s laughter, the language that travels. Then still more laughter, right below her window. Minutes later, departing footsteps.
Lili spent the night behind the wardrobe. She heard German voices outside in the dark, then drunk Hungarian ones. But not a single Yiddish voice. For long hours, she feared someone would come tripping into her house again, help himself to some food, tumble on a bed. But night passed quietly into morning. Lili did not sleep. She waited dutifully for someone to come get her, tell her it was all right to come out, come and eat, rest. Where had everyone got to? Surely, the soldiers had not scoured the fields and woods far from the village. Surely, her brothers and sisters were staying put, waiting, like Lili, for the alien noises to be carried off over the Carpathian Mountains with the moon.
The images of the previous morning wheeled through her head. Her sister Tildy had wanted to try on the white dress in the worst way. Lili was the second oldest after Ferenc, who was seventeen, and then came the four younger ones, ranging in age from fourteen years to eight months.
The dress came wrapped in exotic frosted tissue paper, which itself felt as rich as cloth. Tucked inside the dress was a blue silk shawl to bring out Lili’s eyes and complement her buttery hair. When Lili opened the precious package, her father had already been called away by the regional authorities under the new provisional government and asked to present papers verifying his Hungarian nationality and that of his family. Hungary was allied with Germany.
“It’s a formality, for sure,” David had said as he put on his shoes that morning. “How can it be anything more? I was an officer in the Hungarian army. The Germans will see the papers, and they’ll send us on our way. The Germans live by papers and documents.”
“And what about the Hungarians?” Helen asked. “If it’s a formality, I can’t understand why they would summon you.”
“Because they want us to know who’s in charge.” David held up the papers. “We’re Hungarian. That’s all they’re asking us to prove. They’re asking everybody, I’m sure. They
to. It’s probably in their rule book.” He was grinning now as he spoke.
Ferenc insisted on going along. But the other children stayed home with their mother and cackled as Lili sashayed around the kitchen, wearing the shawl over her shoulders and holding the beautiful dress up over her faded beige one.
Lili’s fourteen-year-old sister, Tildy, took a spin with the dress pinned to her front, the blue shawl gracing her head. She was batting her eyes like a temptress, letting the dress sail, then flow, over her younger brother Mendi’s head.
The telephone rang. Its shrill novelty stopped everyone. The baby was the least startled. Of course, to her, everything was novel. Sometimes the Bandels stared at the telephone the way people looked at a radio, waiting for it to say something. The Bandels were one of only seven Tolgy households to own a telephone. Their phone number was 4. The one whose number was 1, of course, was the mayor. Number 2 was Rabbi Lichtman. Number 3 belonged to the Appels, Tolgy’s most upstanding family, owners of the mill, the bakery and the small distillery just outside of town. The final three belonged to Colonel Sam Bilko, one-time officer in the Great War, now the town’s police officer; the veterinarian, Samuel Katz; and the last one went to the temple itself, where people could stop (except on Sabbath) to call the other six numbers if they urgently needed to.
The call this morning came from this last phone. It was Frieda Weisz. Lili noticed the strained smile on her mother’s face. Tildy stopped dancing with the dress. To amuse the children, Lili retrieved the dress and shawl, ran up to the girls’ bedroom, pulled on the dress in a flash and returned to dance in the kitchen.
It was eerily quiet. Even the geese were still, as was Tzipi’s mule next door. Helen listened with one ear to the phone, the other to the door, the window, the street. Several shots rang out, popping. It sounded like the beginnings of a hailstorm. Lili turned toward the door, too.
“What’s going on?” Helen asked into the phone. “Frieda, what’s going on? Are you there?” Her mouth hung open as she waited, looked at the receiver. A flurry of voices outside excited the animals. She hung up. Lili embraced her mother, but her mother’s body was stiff and unyielding. She was holding back panic.
“Mendi,” Helen said calmly, “you head out to the almond trees and see how they’re doing. Take a rest there. Tend to the trees. Don’t come back until nightfall, even if you have to duck into the woods. I’ll come after you with Hanna, but stay put, no matter what. Do you understand?” He nodded. His eyes were blue like his mother’s, but his blond curls had already begun to darken.
“Tildy,” Helen said. She spoke without hesitation. “Take your brother Benjamin out toward the pond and spend the day there.”
“May we swim?” Benjamin asked.
“No, the water’s too cold. But if you can gather berries, I’ll bake a cake.”
“They’re not out yet,” Tildy said. She pulled the rays of her hair back so that she could bind them behind. Her eyes were even lighter than Mendi’s. She was a perfect child of the Carpathian sun and sky. Helen was relieved to note that she was also wearing green, like the pastures around the pond.
“So I’ll take the baby with me, naturally,” Helen said calmly, “and you stay, Lili.”
“Stay in the house and wait for your father and brother to get back. Everything will be fine. Go upstairs to our bedroom and wait behind the wardrobe, and don’t come out until it’s safe.” Lili’s mother picked up the baby and leaned closer to her eldest daughter as the others rushed about. They could hear people running outside, but oddly only the voices of children. “You wear that dress in the best of health,” Helen said. “We’ll be fine, don’t worry.” She looked her daughter directly in the eyes. “And you’ll be fine. Don’t be afraid.” Helen caressed Lili’s cheek. Then she followed the children out.
Lili waited through the day and another night behind the white wardrobe, waited for the muffled sound of gunfire in the distance to pass, for the bark of Hungarian and German soldiers to cease, the running feet to recede. Only once did Lili dart out to take a dress of her mother’s from the wardrobe, then rush back to relieve herself in the soft and generous cotton folds. She even imagined the trouble she’d be in when her mother returned, but would have given anything now for the trouble. The telephone didn’t ring again. The oven had consumed her cake and cooled. Her stomach gurgled and churned, but it, too, rested now.
Lili thought of Mrs. Wasserstein, her teacher for the past three years. She wondered whether Mrs. Wasserstein, with all her knowledge of battles and strategies and the outcomes of war, had managed to elude these latest invaders.