Thursday, 15 April 2010

From the Memoirs of László Szirtes 3: First job

My father, with his scout friends. Almost all the men were to be killed in the war. Not sure about the women, but I'd be very surprised if they all survived. My father is the 2nd from the right.

So it continues...

I finished high school when I was sixteen years old, and the first thing was to find a job. I was qualified enough to work as a clerk in an office and, through my uncle, I was introduced to a company, Ruszt Dávid, that manufactured, sold, and exported textiles. The factory was outside Budapest but the office was in town, near the basilica.

I worked in the invoice department and it was deadly boring. It had a big wholesale counter where people came in from different shops to buy socks or stockings by the dozen and I had to do the invoices.

This was 1933, the year that Hitler came to power in Germany, and fascism was already on the advance in Hungary. My name being Schwartz (meaning black) everybody called me Fekete úr (Mr 'Black' in Hungarian). They asked me if I minded at first and I said No: Fekete, Schwartz, it was all the same to me. The fact was they didn't want to call me Schwartz in front of too many people, since Germanicised names were associated with Jews. When I was called over to the shop I had to go with the invoice book. The man read off the items and I had to get on with entering them and writing out the invoices, morning, noon and evening. Every day I walked to the office and whenever I passed the basilica I muttered to myself the Latin tag written on the facade of the building: ego sum via, veritas, et vita. I am the way, the truth and the life.

After about two years, one chap in the export department left the company and, as I had taken English as a school subject - they asked if I'd like to move there. The department consisted of three or four people under a director and dealt with exports to British colonies such as Singapore and Hong Kong. I was delighted to accept the offer and spent another two years 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. They were pretty happy with me there.

But I didn't really like the company. It was a family business of sorts: there were two brothers who were chairman and managing director respectively, and both were unfriendly. The chairman brother was elderly - a real pig. One day I saw him walking along with his chauffeur about two steps behind him when he suddenly spat on the floor, turned back to the chauffeur, and told him to step on the spit. I had never liked him but from that moment I hated him.

I had a great surprise on my twentieth birthday in 1937. My cousin was married to quite a rich man who had been running the Hungarian branch of HMV and had recently been transferred to Vienna. He seemed to get on with me and asked if I fancied going to Austria for a holiday. My mother's sister had a little sweetshop in the Kaiserstrasse. I had a little money myself so I wrote to him to say I'd like to do a little hiking in the Austrian Alps. He wrote back to suggest I called on him in Vienna and that he would contribute to the costs. I mentioned this to a friend in the boy scouts, who spoke very good German and he said he would like to come too.

The scouts are another story.

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