By now, I had accomplished half of what I had set out to do. I had heard my fathers story and I had visited Poland. But there still remained the other half -- my mothers story.
This I approached with extreme caution, for what had happened to her, in my childish imagination, had always appeared to me the more horrific. She had been briefly in Auschwitz albeit briefly. The very name conjured up a picture of the worst that human life has to offer. It was as if there was some sort of academy of human suffering, and Auschwitz was at the top of the list. The inky-blue tattoo on her forearm, which she had never attempted to conceal, had been the frequent subject of our childhood musings. Yet, in the matter of human suffering, once my parents had decided to speak out, my mother often deferred to my father. You know, your father spent six years in different lagers, and this fact, seemingly canceled out her superiority at having been in Auschwitz.
There were certain effects on my mothers methods of parenting, too, which were all too apparent. Do not get the wrong impression. My mother was never, as you might imagine, the classic, possessive mother. She did not seek to protect us from an outer world projected as an inherently perilous place. She never said, Its too cold, too dark, dont go alone. She never waited transfixed in a certain position, for our homecomings from school. No, she taught us independence and self-reliance at a young age. She sent us alone to school and on errands. If there was fear of the vast unknown of the world as she had experienced it, as a darkly inhuman place, she never betrayed it. No, looking back, I think that if we felt effects they were, in fact, quite the opposite ones of what you might expect, not depressed, not pessimistic. On the contrary, she was cheerfully ambitious, hardworking, conscientious -- striving for excellence in every sphere of her life. This is something she instilled in us thoroughly. The way to win, to become a somebody, is through hard work. Make no mistake about it. By slacking, by shirking, you will never reach the top of the ladder. And to this end she pushed and cajoled us. She would ask us interminable questions about what we had learned in school that day. Were there any difficulties with our work? Take out your books -- I will help you. French? Yes, I will test you. Mathematics? Lets have a look ... I think your standard is dropping a little in such and such. I will speak to Father -- it may be necessary to hire a private tutor for a while.
Such methods continued throughout my youth, and if Mother argued with teachers, hired private tutors, cajoled me step by step onward, her aim was altogether something larger. She was vigilant, being on her guard constantly for any falling off, wanting us to shine like the brightest stars in the constellation. It was as if she were saying, Success equals security. Or, If you succeed, you are vindicating all that we lost, proving to Hitler that we are still around, and mean to climb to the top again. Each step of the way is hard, so hard, but we are determined. Yet,
sometimes we longed for a more relaxed attitude, a chance to be just ourselves, just children, not to have anything to prove, no axe to grind.
Dispossessed, humiliated, brutalized, outcast ... these were words it remained
difficult to associate with Mother. Yet, having said that, there were moments when we saw a passing flicker of fear. In those seconds her demeanor changed, she became again the suffering young girl she must have been. But had we imagined it? For as swiftly as clouds skittering across a graying sky, her expression changed. It was gone, evaporated like morning dew and all we saw was the bright, optimistic mother we knew so well.
I knew instinctively, before I heard one word of her story, that hers would be intrinsically different than Fathers. His was a mans way of looking at the war, facts and figures and a detached, almost philosophical stance. Mother talked much of faith as we were growing up. Go, my children, with the Amightys help, and come back safely. Had she felt this when in Auschwitz? It was an obvious question
-- and a dangerous one too.
Mother, before we begin, the first question I want to ask you is, did you not feel forsaken by G-d and man in Auschwitz?
You may think that this sounds strange, but no, we felt His presence so much more. He was, oh, how shall I explain it, with us at every step of the way. We never, G-d forbid, blamed G-d. No, we knew that this was a man-made evil, and that in a world where G-d gives people the choice to act as they will, it is always possible that they will create an Auschwitz. But we saw Him in so many ways, in a starving girl giving away her soup ration to a friend who was dying, in finding some moments to pray from a siddur which was freely circulated among the girls, in managing to fast on Yom Kippur. We were so close to death there (death could come at any second, it was our constant companion), that paradoxically, we saw G-d more clearly too. I know people say that there was no strength to think of anything beyond ones piece of bread, and there were those who, sadly, fell to the level of animals, but we tried so hard to rise above this. It was partly self-preservation, because we knew very well that if we would lose the tzelem Elokim (the G-dly image) we would have granted our enemies their victory, there and then, on a platter. It was so hard, harder than anything you can imagine. Everything there was hard -- even the simplest things we take for granted.
There was another part to the question -- did you feel forsaken by man?
By man! Yes, a very definite yes. We were taken away during the final phases of the war. You know that Hungarian Jewry was one of the last to be deported. We had very little introduction to the Nazis. Your father lived through years of hell in the ghetto -- so that by the time he got to the concentration camps, in a manner of speaking, he had already been initiated in their methods. The lager was just an extension of the ghetto -- the logical conclusion, if you like. But we, in Hungary? We were not exactly living in a fools paradise. We heard rumors, persistent rumors
-- and we were living in fear, a terrible fear that our turn would come. (You know that sometimes the fear of a certain situation is worse than actually facing it when it comes.)
As the war in Europe progressed, Hungary became a haven for Jews. Our regent, Miklos Horthy, was then a man in his 70s. When the Germans invaded Hungary in March,
1944, Horthy was restricted but not yet under house arrest. Several members of the Hungarian government, cooperating with Eichmann who had taken up residence in the Majestic Hotel in Budapest, began to implement a virulent anti-Jewish policy. Within a matter of weeks life for the Jews changed.
All the anti-Jewish laws, which in other countries they had had months, years to get used to, were slapped on us one after another.
And now -- to your story ...
Yes, I suppose the time has come. Did you know that I kept a diary of my experiences? I was a young girl, living at home, comfortable, protected, when the war started. I wrote down my feelings as things went from bad to worse. I wrote about my childhood, too, and how things, up to then, had been almost idyllic. When they came to take us away, I hid it, with some other valuables. After the war, I went back with a friend and searched my house for these things. The house had been completely ravaged by Russian and Romanian soldiers in transit. It was unrecognizable. There were heaps of rubbish everywhere in which I could identify old photographs and other familiar items. Incredibly, some of the objects in the hiding place were still there. One of these was my diary.
I have decided to keep this record, because I know that the things we are going through now are quite exceptional. One day, they may even be counted as history. Also, it helps me to get through each day better if I have someone in whom to confide. Let me introduce myself to you. My name is Edith Schattin, known to my friends as Ditta. We live in the town of Sarospotok, in Hungary. This is neither a village nor a big town. I would say that it is something in between. Sarospotok is situated in the Carpathian mountain region of Hungary. On all sides you can see snow-capped peaks, even in spring, and the vineyards creep up the side of the mountains. I imagine parts of Italy look like this. The famous Tohaly wine is producal here. Everything
is defined by the mountains. As soon as you step out of your house, it seems as though the mountains are rising from the bottom of your very street, though of course they are much farther away than one imagines.
Sarospotok, although small in population, is quite a prestigious place. It is known as a Kalturstadt, for the many colleges and centers of education there.
In fact, it possessed the only English boarding school in the region with house masters from England, and sons of the titled nobility as pupils.
Our family owns a wholesale and retail grocery store in Sarospotok. The store also has a hardware department, and meets the post-office requirements. We sell things having to do with the vineyards, like straw to bind the vines, spray for the grapes, and also drinks in barrels. The store was established by my great-grandfather. From my grandfather, it was passed down to my father, Gershon Eliezer Schattin. He is an excellent businessman, but we all think he is a little over-conscientious. For example, he opens the shop at 5:30 in the morning, and, as he acts as his own accountant, he is busy until late at night with his books. Our shop, so it is said, was the very first to open in our town -- and it is still in business. Father has a decidedly different way of doing business. He tells his employees to give overweight rather than underweight. He never buys shoddy goods, and is always prepared to pay a little extra for quality. Its funny, but he always knows what to buy, what will sell. All the other shopkeepers in town come to him to ask if he happens to have bought such and such an item. If he has, they take it for a sign, and then they go and buy it too. Well, thats my father.
Now to my mother, for I must introduce her, too. Mother comes from a bigger town, where they had a beautiful house with all the modern conveniences and labor-saving devices.She spent part of her youth in Hamburg and Vienna. She is intelligent, educated and talented. Sometimes, I catch a certain sadness in her eyes. Is it only my imagination? I feel she is not truly fulfilled in the small-town life and longs to return to the more sophisticated city life which she has known. Of course, I have never questioned her about this directly. It is just a feeling I get sometimes, but there again, I could be wrong. She is my best friend, and I have absolutely no secrets from her. Everyone in Sarospotok, even the gentile neighbors, nod sagely at me as I pass and say, Oh, we know your mother. She is a true lady.
Our house is quite a large building, situated at the corner of two intersecting
streets. We have five rooms and a kitchen (which is attached to the shop, on the other side of the yard). Then there are three more rooms, which are for the use of my grandparents. Besides these eight rooms we have eight storerooms for goods for the shop. In the storerooms we keep barrels full of drinks, and sackfuls of dry goods such as flour and sugar, which are sold wholesale.
My mother keeps busy overseeing the household. Her duties are many and various. For example, several days a week, she has to make trips to the market to buy vegetables, or to the butcher. On these trips, she is always accompanied by our maid or an employee of the shop, who helps to carry home the heavy baskets. You can imagine that this is quite a time-consuming and tiring business. Of course, she meets everyone there and stops to speak with Mrs. So and so, or Mrs. So and so. She is friendly with everyone and inquires about their welfare. They, in turn, recognize that she is a lady and that she would never stoop to engage in gossip. As for the housework, the maids do the washing, laundry and other tasks. Mother also has a Jewish cook, Mrs. Trotner, whom she oversees carefully, so that although the cooks responsibilities are weighty, most of the
hard physical work is carried out by others. She bakes bread, challos, and endless, fragrant yeast cakes.
Our house is always busy, with guests in constant supply. Usually these are bochurim from the local yeshivah. As for me, there have been times when I used to complain that I had no time to do my homework, because I was always helping in the shop. But this was in the good old days, when everything was still normal. (Why,
oh why did it all have to change?) In any case, I always managed to do well at school, and I say this without boasting. I had to study very intensely to do well; of the thirty-two girls in my class, only four were Jewish, and two of the four managed to graduate with top marks at the end of the year.
The state was not responsible for the marking of our examinations. It was the school itself which gave reports. They tried to spoil it for us Jewish girls, and play down how well we really did. But we learned to work even harder, and, in the end, they just had to be fair! Perhaps, even then, this was the start of the Jewish problem, these little day-to-day things. I dont know. We were always taught at home that things would get better, and that our troubles would dissipate with the wind. But you see, they didnt. In fact, they gradually became worse.
As I write now, when the war in Europe has already begun, I think back to how naïve we were then. Do you think that one day we will think that things, as they are now, are comparatively good? Is there nothing sure in the world anymore?
You remember the unpleasantness I mentioned at the end of my last entry? Well, I am sorry to have to report that it has not gone away. Once upon a time, life consisted of school, friends, helping in the shop, running errands for Mamma and Pappa, all pleasant things. Of course, we had our little worries, but they were just little worries. I can see that now. I discussed the situation with my two best friends, and they feel the same as I do. At school, the word Jew was often bandied about in some context
or other. We are constantly being picked on by the teachers, although we, two of the Jewish girls, always had top marks.
This year, part of Czechoslovakia was returned to Hungary, and many of my fathers
friends were called up to join the army. My father was renowned for having a first class-business brain, and he was chosen to distribute groceries to the whole county. Due to this service, he was never called up to be a soldier.
Still, about this army business, I remember hearing that my maternal grandfather had lost most of his money in government bonds. His only son spent the entire war in the army. And then they say that the Jews have never been patriots.
Grandfather was a remarkably honest man. After World War I, when the communists came, a delegation approached him to requisition all the wheat flour he used for making bread. Their leader had a high regard for grandfather and wanted to help him, so he said loudly, Your sons flat has nothing in it. Its a waste of time looking there.
My grandfather, however, replied, Yes, there is flour in my sons house.
Afterwards he told his family what he had said. They were all appalled. Grandfather calmly said, If you want to hide things, dont tell me, because I will NOT tell a lie. He also lost a court case in which a woman had owed a considerable sum of money. The case was nearly won, but after all the evidence was presented and he was asked to take the oath, he drew himself up to his full height and proclaimed, Never for money!
After that, the judge used to greet him on the street, bowing deeply and lifting
But this is all by the way, and I return to the more recent past and our troubles.
Well, a few weeks ago, things really seemed to come to a head.
day, two plain-clothed detectives came into the shop.
Who is in charge here? they asked me in clipped tones.
My father, I managed to stammer.
Well, go and get him, young lady, wed like a word with him.
Father came out of the back, where he had been hard at work on his books.
Sir, we must ask you whether you sell matches in this shop.
Yes, I do. Here they are, a whole shelf full. How many packets would you like?
Im afraid that we must requisition all these matches.
Father shrugged his shoulders. Strange things happened every day now. If they
wanted the matches, so be it, let them take them.
Two days later I was ill in bed with a high fever and my mother was watching over me. I fell into a feverish nightmare. I dreamed that Father had been arrested, by the very same plain-clothed detectives who had visited the shop the other day. I saw them putting a hand on his rounded, defeated shoulder and saying, You must come with us now to the police station for questioning! I saw the charcoal gray
of their raincoats and the rigid set of their unsmiling features.
I awoke drenched in sweat and trembling.
At that moment -- I am sure it was at that very moment -- I heard a disturbance,
which seemed to be issuing from the shop. (The shop was in fact an extension of the house itself, and consisted of two rooms, with two entrances from two different streets, one of which was the storehouse packed with items such as dry goods and drinks.)
A few minutes later, my mother tapped on my door. Her features were as white as the wall of my bedroom. Its your father. Hes been arrested.
The dream, I dreamed it, I whispered half to myself.
It seems that Father had again been visited by two detectives asking for matches.
When he said that he had none, they had simply arrested him.
By evening, the house was filled with friends and neighbors, and we were able to get a clearer picture of what had happened. It seems that all the well-to-do Jews of the town had been arrested on that day. Some were given a reason, others no reason at all. Later, they were told that their crime was that they had sent money to the Czechs. My feeling is that they didnt need a reason to arrest them. It was something that they had wanted to do for a long time. Some of them were beaten about, and then they were frog-marched through the streets to be taken to the next biggest town. Stones were thrown at them. Can you imagine the humiliation? All these loyal, good citizens ... The next day, still in bed, I was visited by a gentile school friend. She told me gleefully, You know, your daddy fainted on his march through the streets. But then, I had always had the feeling that she
was an anti-Semite. (This started happening all the time, by the way, the real anti-Semites coming out of the woodwork.)
Later, we found out that Father had been taken to Budapest along with the others.
There they had all been locked up. Can you believe me when I say that what followed were the worst weeks of my whole life? Well, Mother cried and cried. She would not touch food. She must have lost twenty pounds. After about three weeks, and a lot of string-pulling, the men were finally allowed home. Father arrived home one spring evening. He was pale and haggard and had aged about a hundred years. He sat down at our kitchen table and promptly burst into tears. Dear diary, I had never, ever seen my father cry!
Sorry for bringing you such sad stories, but there seems little else to tell