Read My Canary Yellow Star Online

Authors: Eva Wiseman

My Canary Yellow Star

BOOK: My Canary Yellow Star
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For my parents


I want to thank my husband and my family for their encouragement, support, and belief in me. I would also like to acknowledge the assistance of the Manitoba Arts Council. The advice of Rabbi Yaacov Benamou about religious issues and James Manishen about music in the 1940s was invaluable. I would also like to thank my editor, Kathy Lowinger, for inspiring me to do my best, and Janice Weaver for her copy-edit.

I feel fortunate to have met the people who shared their stories with me. My special gratitude goes to Judith and Erwin Weiszmann of Winnipeg, Canada. The other people I would like to thank are Alfred Dukes and Frank Weinfeld in Winnipeg; Zsuzsi Weissberger in Montreal; Erica Leon in Los Angeles; and György Vámos, Benedek István Gábor, Márta Hegyi, Károly Landor, Zsuzsa Dobos, István Hollai, and Marietta Weissberger in Budapest, Hungary.

To destroy one life is as if you have destroyed the world.

– The Talmud


The Occupation

The Canary Yellow Star

The Theft

The Yellow-Star House

Shabbos Dinner

The Schutz-Pass


The New Year


Ten Long Days

Mr. Wallenberg

Rose Hill

Death March


The Ghetto



Historical Note


he room was silent except for the scratching of Professor Feldman’s chalk. We tried to ignore the sunbeams dancing on our desktops – our new teacher did not take kindly to signs of inattention from his students. Until recently, he had lectured in mathematics at the university, and he had high expectations of us. We were lucky to be taught by such a distinguished scholar – at least that was what my parents told me whenever I complained about him. My friend Judit groaned beside me and we exchanged sympathetic glances before we dove into Professor Feldman’s exasperating world of equations.

I had lost track of time grappling with angles and line segments, and the sudden noise of distant thunder startled me. It rolled louder and louder. We raised our eyes to the window. There was no sign of a cloud, yet the thunder
outside intensified. Even Professor Feldman seemed puzzled.

“How strange! I wonder what –”

The classroom door burst open and Principal Kohn rushed into the room. Although he was usually immaculately dressed, today his tie was askew and his waistcoat unbuttoned. His pale face was covered with a sheen of sweat.

“What is the matter? What is going on?” Professor Feldman asked.

Principal Kohn held up his hands for silence.

“Girls, always remember March 19, 1944. This is a day of infamy in our country. The thunder outside these windows is the noise made by the approaching German army. The Germans have invaded our beloved country, and they are entering Budapest even as we speak.” His face crumpled. “This is the beginning of very cruel times for the Jews of Hungary. I don’t have to tell you how bitterly the Germans hate us.” His voice cracked.

At the back of the room, Lina Weiszmann began to weep.

“As of now, the school is officially closed,” Principal Kohn continued. “Your report cards will be mailed to you. I want you to go home singly or in pairs. If you go in groups, you may call attention to yourselves. Now I must dismiss the other classes.” Principal Kohn turned at the door. “We can’t do much about your uniforms, but please take the school crest from your berets before you leave,” he added, closing the door behind him.

We were all dressed in identical dark blue pleated skirts and striped white-and-blue blouses with embroidered sailor collars. A dark blue beret with our school crest completed our uniform. The crest bore three metal letters – IGG – for the words “Israelite Girls Gimnazium.” A safety pin held the metal letters in place, but it was easy to undo. Professor Feldman picked up a metal garbage can from beside his desk and passed it around the room. The crests dropped into it with a harsh clank.

After hasty hugs and quick goodbyes, I stopped in the doorway and looked at the scarred desks and chalky blackboard. How I would miss them! When would I see them again? I loved my school. I knew how lucky I was to be going to a high school that offered the chance of university. The entrance exams were so difficult that most of my friends had failed and had to attend technical school. I passed on my second try. There was also a Jewish boys’ high school with equally high standards. These schools were our only chance: the regular state schools took very few Jewish students. You had to be a genius like my younger brother, Ervin, to be accepted into a state run school. He was one of only two Jewish students in the fourth form of Kossuth Lajos high school, which was around the corner from our apartment.

Once we had descended the steep staircase to the street, Judit and I linked arms.

“What do you think will happen?” she asked.

I shrugged my shoulders. I was as frightened and confused as she was. We walked as fast as we dared. As we approached the Oktogon, at the crossing of Andrassy Street and Terez Ring, we were swallowed up by an excited crowd rushing in the same direction.

The perimeter of the gigantic plaza was ringed by rows and rows of cheering Hungarians. They were throwing flowers – daisies, lilacs, geraniums – at a long column of goose-stepping German soldiers in dark gray uniforms, long shiny boots, and peaked caps. The soldiers on foot were followed by hundreds more on gray motorcycles with sidecars. A long line of massive tanks brought up the rear. The conquering army circled the Oktogon over and over again. The onlookers were becoming more excited with each passing moment. They clapped, they laughed, and they showered the Germans with more flowers until they had covered the tanks in a rainbow of bright colors. Judit and I stood as if hypnotized while young women rushed up to the marching soldiers and hugged and kissed them. A man in a beret proudly lifted his toddler and passed him into the extended arms of a tank commander. I felt Judit tug on my own arm.

“Let’s get out of here while we still can,” she whispered.

Ten minutes later, Judit had turned down her street. Once I was on my own, I couldn’t help myself – I ran until I arrived at our corner. For as long as I could remember, we’d lived in one of the old and elegant apartment buildings facing the Danube River, which separated Buda from Pest.

Papa’s office was at the front of the building and our living quarters were right behind it, taking up the remainder of the first floor. Right across from our apartment house, on the wide rampart that separated the Danube from the road, I saw another long line of German soldiers, tanks, and motorcycles slithering alongside the river like a gigantic dark gray snake.

“Quite a sight, isn’t it?” somebody said quietly at my elbow. It was Mr. Toth, the mailman. “The country is going to the dogs. To the dogs!” He spat with great precision in the direction of the conquering army. He handed me a large brown envelope with an official seal on it. “Would you please give this letter to your father, Marta?” he asked. “It’s not something I relish giving him myself.”

I ran up the worn stone steps. Mama flung open the front door before I even had time to take my key out of my pocket. She pulled me into her arms.

“They closed the school, Mama.”

“Closed it? What do you mean? When will it open again?”

“I don’t know. Principal Kohn told us they’ll be mailing our report cards. Oh, I almost forgot. I saw the mailman outside. He gave me this letter for Papa.”

When Mama saw the large, official seal on the envelope, her expression turned to ice.

“We must give this to your father immediately. I hope it’s not …” Her voice trailed off.

“Where is Papa?”

“He is in his surgery, as usual,” Mama said.

She knocked on the door of Papa’s office. I had never seen her disturb him while he was with a patient. I followed her into the consultation room and recognized the patient immediately. Her name was Madam Emoke von Apponyi, but everybody always addressed her as Madam. She was the most famous dressmaker in all of Hungary. My mother was one of her clients before the war. Every year, Madam used to design an elegant new suit for Mama to wear to synagogue on the High Holidays.

My father tore open the envelope Mama had given him, read its contents, and without a word, handed it back to her. She read it, then crumpled the paper into a little ball that she clutched tightly in her fist. Tears filled her eyes. “Oh, Aron,” she said.

Papa patted Mama’s hand reassuringly, then squared his shoulders and gave a dry little laugh. “Well, my dear lady,” he said to Madam, “you’ll have to find yourself a new physician. It seems that I am needed in the capacity of a ditch digger in Yugoslavia.”

I had feared that this moment would come. For weeks, we’d been hearing news of family friends who had been conscripted into forced labor regiments of Jewish men. My uncle Laci had been transported to the east. I had hoped that by some miracle, Papa wouldn’t be called up. But miracles rarely happen.

“Oh, Papa! What will they do to you? When will you come home?”

He kissed my cheek but did not answer.

“I am sorry you’ve had bad news, Dr. Weisz,” Madam said. Even though her features were set in their usual firm expression, I sensed that she was speaking from the heart. “Is there anything I can do to help?”

Mama cleared her throat. “Yes, you could help, Madam. I am an excellent bookkeeper. Perhaps…?

“I’m afraid I do my own books,” replied Madam. “However, I can always use a fine seamstress.”

Mama’s face fell. “I can’t sew.”

can,” I said to Madam. “My grandmother taught me to sew beautifully. See?” With my heart hammering in my throat, I pointed to the intricately embroidered collar of my uniform. “I did that myself!”

Papa’s face was an alarming shade of crimson. “Enough now, Marta. You must continue with your schooling!”

“The school has closed, Papa. What will happen to us while you are gone? And to Grandmama?”

“Don’t be foolish, Marta,” Mama said. “I’ll get a job, even if I have to scrub toilets. We’ll be fine.”

Madam rose from her chair. The black silk dress she was wearing whispered formally as she smoothed it down with work-worn hands. She walked over to the door and stood for a moment with her hand on the doorknob. Then she tucked away an invisible lock of hair that had
escaped the stranglehold of her chignon and stepped back into the room. She came up to me and touched the collar of my uniform.

“Fine work, Marta,” she said. “You
an excellent seamstress.”

She looked at Mama severely. “I hate to interfere in a family quarrel, Mrs. Weisz, but I am quite certain that you will have a great deal of difficulty finding a job in these times. It would be better for the child to work for me than for a stranger. At least I will be there to look out for her.” She rested her fingers, rough with calluses, on my hair for a fleeting moment and gave me an encouraging nod. This was the first time she had shown me any affection in all the years I had known her.

BOOK: My Canary Yellow Star
7.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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