Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Some excerpts from the funeral of László Szirtes


The funeral took place on the 11th. Here are the four excerpts from his reminiscences - very much edited to take up about a minute and a half each. We were all working to a very tight timetable. The voice is not his, not really - the life is.

1. ANDREW (My younger brother)

I was born in Budapest in a small clinic in Ferencváros in 1917. Two and a half years later came my sister, Lili, and two and a half years after that, my little brother, Endre, who was to be killed in the sandpit accident in 1930.

At the time I was born my father was working in a leather and shoe factory in Újpest, on the outskirts of Budapest. He had to be in the factory by 7am, so he got up at 5 and left at 6. He was a cutter - that is to say he cut up the leather. This was skilled manual work. My mother did sewing at home to earn more money. She got jobs through friends, by word of mouth. She never advertised.

My grandparents on my father’s side, were old, gentle people. He was Gábor; she was Mária. He was a tailor and had a small shop very near to their flat. He worked there until he was 73 years old and could hardly see. He loved the family and his grandchildren - especially me for some reason, mainly because we were nearest to them.

His two daughters, Riza and Tini lived with them. Riza lost her only real love in the First World War. She never got over it, and sacrificed her life to looking after her parents. Tini was plain and resigned to doing the housework with my grandmother. I was really brought up by them.

2. TOM (our son)

The flat was in Eötvös utca and consisted of two rooms, a kitchen, a little hall, and an outside toilet. No bathroom. The rooms were pretty dark, on the first floor of a four storey house, looking down to the yard. My parents had a very small flat, which is why they were quite happy for me to stay with my grandparents.

I didn’t mind. I loved the arrangement. I usually slept in the same room as my aunts. The other room was the dining room and in it were the two single divans where my grandparents slept. All the walls were painted a light colour, a yellowish tone. There was very dark old brown furniture.

I was very pampered, the little bright chap of the family and they spoiled me. Every day my aunties would go down to the confectioner’s or the baker’s to get me a little bit of pastry or mignon to put on the table for when I got home from school about one o’clock.

I had friends in the same block with whom I played football in the corridors or with buttons on the table. Or we would go out to a small park nearby which was all earth, without any grass whatsoever. There were a couple of swings there. There were few such places in Budapest, usually poorly kept.

My parents had little social life. Sometimes on Sunday they’d go to the local cinema to see the silents, and, if they took me, I would sit on my father’s lap to watch. In summer we might go to an open air café in Varosliget where there was an orchestra playing.

3. HELEN (our daughter)

I finished high school when I was sixteen years old and the first thing was to find a job. Anti-Jewish laws meant I couldn’t go to university. At this stage I was qualified to work as a clerk in an office, and through my uncle I was introduced to a company that manufactured, sold and exported textiles. The factory was outside Budapest but the office was in town, near the basilica.

My name being Schwartz (meaning ‘black’) everybody called me Fekete úr (Mr Black in Hungarian). They didn’t want to call me the Jewish-sounding Schwartz in front of so may people. They asked me if I minded and I said no. Fekete, Schwartz - both were fine by me. Every day I had to walk the twenty-minutes to the office and whenever I passed the basilica I muttered to myself: EGO SUM VIA, VERITAS ET VITA – the text written at the top of the church.

After about two years, one chap in their export department, left the company and, as I had taken English at school – and because the company exported a lot of goods to British colonies, they asked me if I would like to move there. I had to write letters in English, which I enjoyed. I had a very good book of commercial English correspondence and learned a lot by reading it in the evenings.

At that time, every Sunday, I went hiking with the scouts, but in the summer of 1936 the original boy scout troop of which I was a part, the Toldi, was dissolved because of racial laws. It was Hitler’s rise to power that precipitated all this. The year I finished high school was the year Hitler came to power.

4. REUBEN (Andrew's younger son)

In November 1943 we got the order to clear out of Berdichev in The Ukraine, and the Germans, who by that time, had taken charge of us, told us to put all the Hungarian supply-unit ammunition onto one train, and twenty-five of us, including me, were ordered to go with the wagons. The rest were ordered to march back – many of them dying along the way.

We were told no destination except to go west. We had with us three Hungarian soldiers who spoke no German. After several hours of travelling we arrived at some large town where the place was buzzing with Germans. The Hungarian soldiers leapt off and tried to report to the Germans but were unable to make themselves understood, so one of our friends Gabi Karcag, who was fluent in German, jumped off and went to interpret. The German officer asked him where we were going. Karcag replied that we didn’t know because we hadn’t been told. The German asked him where we had come from and Karcag – interpreting the question as where had we originally come from, replied - quite truthfully, -that we came from Budapest.

‘In that case,’ replied the German, ‘that’s where you’ll go.’ And he had a piece of paper pasted on to the side of the wagon saying ‘Mach Budapest’. The officer - I think his name was Krank –wired through to various stations on the line that this was the train which had saved the ammunition of the Hungarian First Army from destruction by the Russians. And believe me, at every station we were greeted as heroes.

As soon as we arrived in Budapest we were placed under house arrest and sent back to Russia.

It is nothing much when it appears like this. Much more to come, now and then - later.

But I have had some lovely letters and cards remembering him:

'...I did meet him once, a long time ago, at your home and warmed to him immediately. It was just a brief meeting - but some people, actually only a few, are instantly memorable, and your father was one of them....'

'...But of course, with all its vicissitudes, an extraordinary life and a splendidly long one - we can hardly say we knew him, but our glimpses of his cavalryesque chic and charm were irresistible...'

'...I have such a vivid recollection from the one occasion when we met at the gallery. He represented that lost world of Budapest that I loved - civilised, cultured, worldly... what your father conveyed was warmth... so reminiscent of the old world of 'Mittel Europa' with his charm and genuine friendliness'

He must have made quite an impression. I had never once imagined my father in the cavalry; chic was not a term I would ever have used; nor could I ever quite know the impact of that charm. I had him all the time in my childhood after all - that's in so far as one ever has a father 'all the time'.

He was not an exotic flavour to me. If he was paprika, I was used to paprika and still am. But I love hearing others' impressions.

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