Good Reading : August 2016
BOOK BITE 1 The Germans would then make them kneel at the lip of the trench, and would shoot each person in the back of the head. This is what Mrs Graber witnessed. GOOD READING JULY 2016 41 the Netherlands, Czechoslovakia and half of Poland. In Italy, Hitler’s ally Mussolini was in power. In Spain, Franco, a great admirer of the man who bombed Guernica, supported Hitler without actually committing Spanish troops to fight alongside Ger man troops. The leaders of Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary took their orders from Hitler, while Prince Paul of Yugoslavia was prepared to do whatever he must to appease the Axis powers. We had seen the darkness grow. But we thought: ‘It will not come here.’ Even as we had such thoughts, we knew that we were deceiving ourselves. Jews were being deported from Hungary for lacking citizenship papers, and they departed in a wretched state. Other Jews arr ived from the Ger man-occupied countries around us, from Poland or Slovakia, and told us of the horrors they’d seen. A cousin came to Nyírbátor from Bratislava with a story of young Jewish women there who had been taken to the front to satisfy the lust of the German soldiers. We hoped Hitler would be defeated. But perhaps there was more to the unwillingness of my family, and of so many other Jewish families, to flee the danger. A type of inertia ties people to the soil on which they have stood for so long. When I was 14, a letter came from an address in the Slovakian terr itor ies (newly restored to Hungar ian rule by the generous Ger mans). The sender’s name was Mädy; she was my age and she wanted a pen-friend. To find a correspondent, she turned to her distant relative in my town, the spinster daughter of a Jewish teacher, who gave her my name. I was flattered, but also simply glad. A pen-friend – yes, I could enjoy that. I wrote back to Mädy and told her about myself, my town, my family. She replied, offering the same sort of infor mation. She lived in the town of Huszt, away to the north-east, bigger than Nyírbátor but by no means a thriving city. After a number of letters each way, we made plans to visit each other. Mädy came to Nyírbátor first, dur ing the school holidays. Later, I visited her in Huszt, and stayed for two weeks. She had two sisters; one wore a metal frame of the sort employed at that time for children recovering from polio. Mädy was a jolly girl, full of fun, fond of jokes, but we didn’t quite share the intellectual interest I had hoped we would. Mädy made a second visit to Nyírbátor the following year, but I declined a second visit to Huszt. It wasn’t that my family thought it too dangerous for me to leave Nyírbátor, but our sense of siege may have contributed to my reluctance to go north again. One of our neighbours was Mrs Graber, the mother of 10 children. Mrs Graber had come to Nyírbátor from Poland. She could not provide proof of Hungar ian citizenship and was deported by the state to Poland, leaving her 10 children behind with Mr Graber. By some miracle Mrs Graber managed to retur n, and she had seen things in Poland that would haunt her forever: Jews in their thousands digging deep trenches with shovels and picks. The Germans would then make them kneel at the lip of the trench, and would shoot each person in the back of the head. This is what Mrs Graber witnessed. Any war creates a graveyard of hopes and longings. My sister Erna, fair-haired and beautiful, met a young man by the name of Lajos, who came from Mátészalka. Lajos was tall and handsome, and he and Er na fell in love. Erna had been in Szoboszló running a small kiosk on behalf of my mother’s half-sister, Anna, who had fallen ill with what tur ned out to be tuberculosis. One fine day, along came Lajos, and one way or another a war m friendship developed. His family owned a hat factory, so it might be expected that he could make a good living, and he was only two or three years older than Er na, so he was accepted as a suitor. My sister was happy, of course – more than happy. The May Beetles by Baba Schwartz is published by Black Inc, rrp $34.99.