Me: A Novel
(Excerpt of a Novel)
By George Jonas
When I gave Me: a novel to a friend in manuscript, she wanted to know if it was fact or fiction. I said, well, isn’t one man’s fact another man’s fiction? Facts can mask reality as easily as reveal it.
She said, okay, what about the facts in your book? Do they mask reality or reveal it?
Both, I said. That’s the point.
Did this story really happen? she asked.
I said, yes, it really happened, but I cannot say how much of it happened inside my head and how much outside.
She said, well, is Me: a novel a novel or is it a diary?
I said if it were a diary, I’d call it Me: a diary.
She said, okay, so why don’t you call it Me, plain and simple? I said because it isn’t me, plain and simple. It’s me, novelized. She said, is "novelized" similar to gilded? Retouched?
I said read it and see.
She said, well, let me try again. Is Me: a novel a true story?
I said, hey, I am a journalist. I don’t know the truth. I mark down dots. You connect them for yourself.
My friend said, okay. Keep your shirt on.
Sorry, said I.
The story that follows is my life as I remember it. Others may remember it differently. Who remembers it right? If you ask me, I do – but I may be the wrong person to ask.
The story is also other people’s lives as I remember them: friends, enemies, bit players, extras. They are almost certain to remember their lives differently. It would be uncanny if they did not. Who will be closer to the truth? I am content to leave that to the reader.
I call everyone in my story by his real name, though not necessarily her real name. I am a gentleman. At least I think I am. What others think is their business.
I’m telling tales out of school. That’s what writers do. People make friends with my kind at their peril. My kind is treacherous. Still, I don’t betray every trust or reveal every secret I know. What is holding me back? When it comes to others, many things: friendship, residual friendship, compassion, the milk of human kindness, libel lawyers, the lot. When it comes to my own secrets, it is self-interest, mainly. Sometimes it’s also a sense of shame.
No, I am not shameless. But thank you for asking.
The other day a novelist friend criticized a business journalist as a person who "exploits people he knows." It was a puzzling remark. Who else would a journalist exploit? He can’t very well exploit people he doesn’t know, not unless he wants to risk his journalistic credentials. Exploiting people they don’t know is what fiction writers do.
Some readers might believe Me: a novel too much; others too little. A believer will say: "Jonas calls his diary a novel so he won’t have to take heat from family and friends. When they go ‘George! How could you?’ he can say: ‘Relax, it’s just a novel. It says so on the title page.’"
A skeptic will counter: "The author calls his diary a novel so he can pass off his novel as a diary. It’s a clever way to reinvent his life. Nice try, Jonas, but we’re on to your tricks."
No, gentle reader. You are not.
I am a summer child. The chauffeur doesn’t need to keep the engine running for my father to keep warm as he waits for my arrival in the back seat, his car parked discreetly around the corner from the private sanatorium. My mother is married to someone else. Nobody wants to rock the boat. The nurse’s aide gets ten pengoes for dashing down and giving my father the news. It’s a boy – mother and child are doing fine.
My mother asks to see me. She is exhausted but curious. Apparently the creature they show her is long and red and she doesn’t like it.
"Ugh! Looks like an earthworm."
The obstetrician, a family friend, is grievously offended. "If you call a beautiful boy an earthworm, Magda," he says, "you don’t deserve it. Take him away."
They do. I debut to mixed reviews.
1935 itself is a disaster. Everyone sees it for the terrible year it is in retrospect, but at the time the word in my parents’ circles is: Relax. They don’t drink the soup as hot as they serve it. Sure, there are Il Duce and Der Führer and brown shirts and black shirts, but the economy is looking up and Budapest shimmers.
People go to movies. They really do. The Nuremberg laws are being promulgated, Italy has invaded Abyssinia, but people go to movies. The big hit of the year is Alfred Hitchcock’s 39 Steps, starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll.
Decades later I ask my father about it. Didn’t people see the handwriting on the wall? He chuckles wryly. What if people did see it?
"Do you know what the handwriting on the wall said to me?" he asks. "Let me tell you. It said F-I-F-T-Y T-W-O, in big letters. That was my age."
They name me George. My second name is Andrew. My parents probably have a reason for choosing those names, but it never occurs to me to ask them. That is one reason people know so little. The young are incurious and the old are late.
In the second year of my earthly cycle come the Summer Olympics in Berlin. Chancellor Adolf Hitler opens the games, in which 49 nations and almost 4000 athletes participate. Germany finishes in first place with 33 gold medals, followed by the United States with 24.
My native Hungary, with 10 gold medals, comes third.
I’m a lump, squirming. I know nothing, remember nothing. I’m in the Garden of Eden, reaching for the forbidden fruit. I spend most of my waking hours trying to kill myself. Being human, I’m clever enough to get into trouble and not clever enough to get out of it.
That’s how I fall on my head.
At least, my mother swears that I do. On her version of the story, it’s a hot summer day and we’re on the verandah. I’m asleep in a deep baby carriage. She looks away for a second, and by the time she turns back all she can see is my foot, about to vanish on the far side of the carriage. I must have got up, which I had never done before, clambered up and over the high side, then fell head-first to the flagstones below.
Still sitting, Mother reflexively reaches out for my foot and grabs it just as she hears my head go splat on the stones.
She lifts me by the foot, expecting to see me damaged, possibly beyond repair. The side of the carriage is two and a half feet high, designed to prevent babies from falling out. Of course, if a baby is athletic enough to climb over such an obstacle, he’ll fall from some height, as I apparently did.
Except I seem undamaged. Not a scratch. My mother can’t believe it. The doctor comes. He can’t believe it either – and he doesn’t.
"Magda, listen to me. George’s head never touched the floor."
"I heard it."
"You must have caught his foot just in time."
"I was a split second too late."
This convinces the doctor that he is dealing with a case of post-partum hysteria, complete with hallucinations. He no longer believes that I ever got up from the carriage and climbed over the side. My mother’s attention must have wondered for a second, and when she focused again, she was struck by guilt. Feeling guilty, she fancied seeing my foot vanish over the far side of the carriage. Well, it never happened.
"Magda, it never happened. I’m prescribing a sedative – here – and I’m ringing for the maid. Okay? You’re sending her to the pharmacy."
There’s no dissuading my pediatrician, a young man who studied with Ludwig von Bertalanffy in Vienna. People who study with Ludwig von Bertalanffy can be right or wrong like anyone else, but you can’t ever dissuade them.
Neither can you dissuade my mother.
"I’m sorry," she tells me sixty years later, "that I dropped you on your head. I was a split second too late."
We’re in an old age home for retired performers. The leitmotif is faded opulence. It clashes with the smell of caraway seed soup.
"Let it rest, Mother," I say to her. "You’re 91, I’m 61… Whatever you did, I must have got over it."
Mother is not to be deterred. "I heard it go splat on the stone," she says. "If I hadn’t dropped you on your head, who knows what you might have become…"
The Alsatian au pair who looks after me has wheat-colored hair. (Not that I remember it, but my mother does. She says she’ll never forget it.) She is an earnest, studious girl, struggling with the Hungarian language. Her stubborn attempt to master it comes close to giving my mother a heart attack. Shortly after coming to work for us, before Mother has a chance to get used to her ways, she bursts into her boudoir with a dramatic announcement:
"Madame! They cut off his head."
The Alsatian being in charge of me, her information causes Mother’s heart to skip a beat. Before doing anything drastic, though, she decides to double check.
"Please repeat this," she says to the hyperventilating girl, "in German."
In German, the news turns out to be less dire. The head in question belongs to some asparagus, not me. Our new kitchen maid is a country girl and asparagus isn’t normally on the menu in rural Hungary. Upon encountering the exotic plant for the first time, she makes up her mind that the stalk is the edible part and the root is to be discarded. Chop, chop; the expensive vegetable goes into the refuse bin. The barbaric destruction shocks the thrifty au pair from Alsace-Lorraine. While the result is only a decapitated asparagus, not a headless baby, she dashes to my mother – and here comes the twist: Hungarian having no gender, speakers must express the difference between "its" and "his" contextually rather than grammatically, which is beyond our au pair’s language skills. Hence: "Madame, they cut off his head."
"Misunderstandings arise," my father comments much later, "when people are ignorant of both language and legume."
My mother and her husband, Julius Jonas, the man who believes he is my father, celebrate my second birthday with a small dinner party. The fish appetizer – fogas with mayonnaise – is followed by roast duck and red cabbage. The table talk is about Wallis Simpson’s marriage to the ex-King of England. Someone mentions the Spanish Civil War and the torpedoing of the Ciudad de Barcelona, which turns the conversation to the recent loss of the airship Hindenburg in New Jersey. People don’t yet know that within two weeks Amelia Earhart will disappear over the Pacific, and in three weeks the Japanese will invade China at the Marco Polo Bridge – arguably starting World War II, even if Eurocentric journalists won’t realize it for another two years. It’s not true that what people don’t know can’t hurt them.
I’m not invited to my own birthday party – in my milieu, infants are second-class citizens – but between courses my mother excuses herself and retires to nurse me. Being a greedy infant, not completely weaned even at 24 months, I refuse to relinquish her nipple. Forcing me is futile; I’m hanging on like a leech, grimly determined to withstand spirited tugs by the combined forces of Mother and the Alsatian champion of asparagus. Worried that if they pull harder, my mouth may become detached from the rest of my insatiable face, my mother comes up with a cunning hold. She pinches my nostrils. Since I have to breathe, Mother wins our wrestling match by submission.
That’s how I learn life’s big lesson on my second birthday. To breathe freely, sometimes you have to give up eating.
I think of myself in the second person. It seems logical, since that’s how people address me. When they say "you" they clearly mean me, so I’m under the impression that I am a "you." When my parents ask "Do you want breakfast?" my reply is "You does."
I’m a willful boy. When I’m acting up, there’s no stopping me. My parents do stop me, eventually, being no less willful than I, and significantly bigger. Having me as a child would be inadvisable for anyone smaller than me.
We speak German at home. One day I’m acting up again and my uncle says "Ich hab’ eine Idee" (I have an idea.) This really sets me off. I envisage a nice, crisp idea in my uncle’s pocket and start yelling "Willst du haben Idee" (You wants an idea.) I have no idea what an "idea" is but I figure it may be something in aspic. I’m crazy about jellied savories, so I work myself up to a demand.
"Willst du haben Idee in Aspik!" (You wants jellied idea!)
To calm me down, my uncle hands me his fountain pen.
"Da ist eine Idee für dich, du blöder Kerl! (There’s an idea for you, nutcase!)"
That’s how I come to associate pens with ideas. I’m not yet three. At least, this is how my mother remembers it. I remember nothing.
I’m still a lump, asleep in my chrysalis, but beginning to dream. We visit my paternal Grandmother. I’ve no recollection of the trip, but there’s a vague image of a touring car climbing a serpentine, steering around a bus. The bus is halfway in the ditch. I see people removing something from it, wrapped in a checkered blanket. A voice is saying "accident." I don’t remember anything else, but this lone recollection, if that’s what it is, recurs occasionally even in my dreams. Sometimes the voice says "Umfall" in German, sometimes "baleset" in Hungarian. Many years later I ask my mother about it.
"Remember we went to see Grandmother Herminka when I was about three?"
"I didn’t think you remembered."
"Well, I’m not sure myself… Did we see an accident on the way?"
"Did we?" Mother seems a bit distracted.
"That’s what I’m asking you."
"Oh dear," Mother says. "It was so long ago. We saw so many things."
Mother is no help. If she confirmed seeing a bus in a ditch, it would be the earliest memory of my life. But she doesn’t.
There is another question. It doesn’t occur to me at the time, obviously, but it does in due course. My mother lives with her husband, Julius, in an outwardly happy marriage. (Inwardly, too, my mother insists years later when I ask her.) Officially, my father is just a family friend, the stepfather of one of my mother’s schoolmates. How did they manage to spend almost a month together, with me in tow, at my grandmother’s place in Czechoslovakia? I’ve no idea.
I ask my father about it shortly before he passes away. "I’m hazy on details. Ask your mother," he tells me.
I do. "Oh dear," she says. "It was so long ago."
That’s the party line, evidently. They got away with it, but how? It must have been quite a scam.
We visit Grandmother in the nick of time. A widow in her 80s, she lives with her unmarried daughters on a few acres astride a capricious mountain brook turning a sawmill in the Slovakian hills, near the Hungarian border. Her younger son, my uncle Ernst, is a successful cocaine addict in Vienna – I suppose I should say a successful Viennese businessman with a cocaine habit. Her older son is my father, "Doctor Mutzi," as his friends call him. He’s a former member of the Viennese Opera, now a lawyer and private banker in Budapest. He has no cocaine habit. As a titular government councilor, people call him "your Honour."
Only one of my grandmother’s two unmarried daughters is unmarried de facto as well as de jure. My other aunt does make it to the synagogue at the age of 19 shortly after the turn of the 20th century. She gets to stand under the canopy while her groom crushes the ceremonial glass under his heel. They exchange vows and uneventfully reach her wedding bower afterwards. It is about ten minutes into their marital experiment that something goes terribly wrong. My aunt rushes out of her honeymoon chamber, and has the coachman drive her straight home to her mother.
"Goodness, what happened?" she asks.
"I’ll never tell you what that monster tried to do to me," her daughter replies, and she never does. Family legend has her spend the next thirty years in her room, but my father says it isn’t true because she does come downstairs for meals. However, she and her husband neither reconcile nor divorce, and live alone for the rest of their lives without forming any subsequent attachments.
I meet the monster myself some years later, when I am nine and he is about 80. He’s my Zionist uncle, a retired lawyer by the name of Árpád Heller, and he doesn’t seem all that monstrous. He lives with his unmarried sister, Aunt Jenny, who has a short leg and wears an elevated orthopedic shoe. The conversation around my uncle’s bedside – he’s bedridden – is usually about the future Israel, but I’m dying to ask him about that night. To do so is, of course, unthinkable.
"What do you think happened?" I query my father after my uncle passes away, peacefully, in 1947. "An attempt at sexual congress, as likely as not," he replies. "My sister had a somewhat sheltered upbringing."
A snapshot from the time of my visit shows Grandmother Herminka as a wizened old lady, posing with my father, perhaps a little impatiently. My memory is only of the snapshot, not of her. At that time she still walks every day across the footbridge connecting the two sides of her property. This is the structure from which her husband, my grandfather, Dr. Adolph Hübsch, local politician, lawyer, member of the Order of Franz Joseph, fell into the capricious brook during the spring floods of 1900. He is buried in the local cemetery, as his widow expects to be. In 1938 Grandmother still thinks she is at home.
On March 12, Germany annexes neighboring Austria. Hitler is greeted with flowers. One little girl who hands him a bouquet is Eve Orpan, later to become a publisher in Canada. She is Jewish. There’s a photograph of a smiling Führer receiving flowers from her. Orpen has no idea what this is all about, of course, but most of her cheering countrymen do.
Since Der Führer himself is Austrian, some enthusiastic patriots who line the "Anschluss" route between Salzburg and Vienna mistake the loss of Austria to Germany for the acquisition of Germany for Austria. Not that it matters much either way, as long as it spells doom for the Jews. Austrians apparently can’t forgive Jews for giving the world some outstanding – Austrians.
As Uncle Ernst puts it, "Austrian Jews must be punished for Sigmund Freud, Stefan Zweig, and Hugo von Hofmannstahl. If our tribe gets away with producing such geniuses, how can other tribes compete?"
"Austrians could hold their own with Mozart alone," someone objects.
"Some Austrian Nazis are so dumb," my Viennese uncle replies, "they probably think Mozart is Jewish."
The Austrian domino falls in the spring. Six months later, on September 30, the British prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, returns to Britain from a meeting with Hitler in Munich and declares that by agreeing to the detachment of the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia, he has secured "peace in our time."
"Ist er ganz meshugeh?" (Is he totally crazy?) asks a Prague cousin in a postcard.
The answer is probably yes.
Let me take this back. The answer is probably no. If it were yes, it wouldn’t be a problem. A crazy person can take a pill and settle down. Or doctors can lock him up. Chamberlain is a problem for the world precisely because he is not crazy.
Before the year is out, my Viennese uncle commits suicide. The rest of us commit only Christianity. My mother, her husband and I become Lutheran, while my mother’s parents, younger sister and her husband submit to the Roman Catholic faith. My father, in addition to embracing Calvinism, also becomes my godfather.
Only my maternal great-grandfather, Adolf Klug, stays resolutely Jewish. His eldest son, my grandfather, believes it’s kinder to spare the old gentleman news about the conversion of his descendants. The truth, as my father muses later, is that he doesn’t dare. Great-grandfather Klug would take a dim view of his family leaving the ancestral faith no matter what, but by converting out of cowardice rather than conviction, we would also merit his contempt.
My grandfather, 63, is sales manager for a publisher called Atheneum. He is a man of our pragmatic age. My great-grandfather, 92, is a retired tobacconist. He isn’t. Or maybe age has nothing to do with it. Maybe one man’s pragmatic is another man’s unprincipled, that’s all.
Needless to say, I piece all this together afterwards. I have no memory of the year 1938 at all. It is as if I hadn’t existed. Which raises the question: Did I? In other words, when does life begin? It is an important question, but not one with which a wise author troubles the reader in the first few pages.
Germany invades Poland. World War II begins. Being only four, I’m not informed. People tell me about it later.
Actually, they don’t tell me about it. No one sits me down to say: listen, such and such happened. If they did, I probably wouldn’t listen. I’d be bored. At four I have a different way of finding out things.
Our gatekeeper’s daughter, a fellow four-year-old, is named Ilona. I play with her sometimes. She tells me her father, a reservist, has been called up for military service. I already know because at table there are a series of conversations, first about hiring a temporary gatekeeper, and a few weeks later about hiring a permanent one because Ilona’s father dies in a training accident.
"Oh, the poor man." That’s my mother speaking. "Hungary isn’t even at war. What happened, do you know?"
"Not really," says the company doctor who brings my mother the news. "I understand he was driving a car that collided with something and the steering column crushed his chest. Died instantly. Cardiac tamponade."
The doctor’s words have a certain ring to them. They stick in my mind. For a second I think of Ilona, too, and what it is like to have no father. It’s a bad thought and I don’t dwell on it.
The truth is, I don’t much dwell on anything. Like many children, I’m greedy, self-centered, and essentially incurious. I know and understand little about my own life and nothing about the lives of others. The historic times in which I live are wasted on me. It’s just as well that adults tell me nothing. If they did, it would go right over my head.
For instance, no one tells me that my father’s wife, Aranka, has committed suicide just before the outbreak of the war. True, at this point, I don’t even know that my father is my father. I still think my father is the man who thinks he is my father. Only my father knows better and maybe – maybe – my mother, but she won’t commit herself. In later years, she will smile like the Mona Lisa and say nothing.
I’m mentioning Aranka’s suicide here because I am recounting some events not as I learned about them, but as they happened. Apparently father walked into the bathroom one day and there she was in the tub, stone dead. Pills, razor, I don’t know – the tub would suggest razor, because suicides are often fastidious.
That’s all I can say about Aranka’s death. I’ll say more about her life, though, in due course.
The period that becomes known as the "phony war" illustrates Einstein’s time-space continuum – another thought, I hasten to add, that doesn’t occur to me until much later. The first months of World War II appear phony in London (where wits call it the Bore War) or in Paris (where it goes by the name of drôle de guerre) or even in Berlin, where wags dismiss Hitler’s Blitzkrieg as Sitzkrieg. The misperception is geographic rather than temporal. During the same six months, a few hundred miles east, or only a few inches on the atlas, war is not sitting down and it certainly does not bore anyone. On the contrary, it rages, enrages and outrages. War is brutal and total between September 1939, and May 1940, as the Nazis and the Soviets slice up Poland in a joint enterprise.
In retrospect, it is eerie. As Germans round up Jews and Russians gather Polish patriots for their eventual massacre in Katyn Forest, Westerners make quips about the tediousness of it all. Perhaps to demonstrate that all news is local, the world refuses to recognize that it is at war until the Battle of France begins next spring.
In Eastern Europe, those who can, emulate the West’s oblivion. Life in Budapest is idyllic. We see, hear, and speak no evil. Whatever is not happening on our street is not happening. Unlike the frightened Jewish boy my age, rounded up in Warsaw, marching with his hands in the air – real or fake, the photograph becomes famous – I’m busy trying to hitch a ride on a vehicular turnstile.
Built into the pavement of a dead-end street near the fashionable Danube promenade, the concrete disc is to save gentlemen drivers the trouble of having to make a three-point turn. Driving a car on it triggers a mechanism that rotates it 180 degrees until the car’s nose points in the opposite direction. In addition to being the pinnacle of urban sophistication, the disc becomes my carousel while Mother engages in what seems like an interminable conversation with a friend in a sidewalk café nearby.
As I’m going for my third ride, suddenly a gentleman picks me up and kisses me with gusto. He looks familiar, but not having seen my father for more than a year, I don’t recognize him. Consequently, I’m polite but noncommittal. It’s all very well to be petted, but I don’t want to miss my next ride. There’s a yellow coupe driving on to the turntable. The gentleman respects my priorities because he lets me go.
"A man kissed me," I tell my mother when I join her again at the sidewalk café. "He said he was Daddy."
"Oh, it must be your godfather," replies my mother, glancing at her friend, a woman named Matzko.
"God-daddy?" Matzko asks, raising her eyebrow, but my mother is too quick for her.
"No, Teddy," she says. "He used to buy George Teddy-bears, but George couldn’t say Teddy, so it came out as Daddy-bear, which is why George calls him Daddy."
She turns to me. "Last year we went with Teddy-Daddy to a nice old house in the hills to visit three nice old ladies, remember?"
"No," I reply truthfully. "Can I go back for another ride?"
"You’ll probably get a Teddy-bear from him," my mother says. "Tomorrow morning. I bet a courier will ring the bell with a Teddy-bear… Yes, go for one more ride, but that’s it."
I go around the disc one more time. Next morning a courier rings the bell. It’s not a Teddy-bear. The "boy" – that’s what couriers are called in Budapest – brings me a fire-truck. It is big, red, with a ladder and a siren. The magnificent toy does what the visit to my grandmother the year before did not: it fixes my father firmly in my mind.
Time out. Is it that we remember important things, or is it that they are important because we remember them? Are memories as arbitrary as dreams? Are our "memories" dreams of things that happened, and our "dreams" memories of things that did not? In short, am I dreaming my life or remembering it? I don’t know. Perhaps by the time I finish jotting down what I dream or remember, I will.
The phony war ends on May 10th with the invasion of France. Civilization comes close to ending on June 22nd with the fall of France. Hitler reaches his zenith as, in the same railway car as Germany surrendered to France 22 years earlier, he accepts France’s surrender.
I sit in my room. The furniture is white. The name of a stuffed dog on the shelf is Flockie. I’m looking at the cover of a movie magazine. The picture is of a smiling Shirley Temple. I can make out the date and read it aloud to myself: one-nine-four-oh, 1940. This, too, sticks in my mind for some reason. It occurs to me that I’m five years old. Along with the red fire truck and the words "cardiac tamponade," this realization is an independent memory.
When I say the cover photograph of the movie magazine is Shirley Temple, I should add "naturally." If there is a picture on the cover of a magazine, chances are it is of Shirley Temple. She is Goldilocks incarnate, the superstar of the period, in Eastern Europe no less than in North America. The little girl has taken by storm the heart of a world that is in the process of deporting, shooting, gassing, firebombing and nuking little girls, along with their Mommies, Daddies, and doggies. Mayhem and Shirley, the twin attractions of the silver screen.
Go figure, people will say some years later.
I read reasonably well by five, although only one book. It’s The Yellow Snake by Edgar Wallace, or rather Die Gelbe Schlange, because I’m reading Wallace in German. My mother pretends to be proud of me, but secretly she doubts if I can read anything else. I’m reading Wallace, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s half-forgotten rival, because Wallace happens to be Tante ("Aunt") Amanda’s favorite mystery writer. My new governess can’t get enough of him. Scotland Yard Inspector What’s-His-Name makes much more sense to her than the eccentric Sherlock Holmes. The reason I’m reading The Yellow Snake in German to her is that neither she nor I speak any other language. Unlike our earlier Alsatian au pair, Tante Amanda isn’t trying to learn Hungarian – much to everyone’s relief, I might add. My mother says it makes communication with her far easier.
Wallace is very boring in German. He doesn’t change much when I pick him up in English many years later.
My memory of Karolina is sharp and clear. Well, let me adjust this. My memory of Karolina’s breasts is sharp and clear. They seem ready to burst from her blouse. I stare at them with unabashed admiration. She notices and says something to me in Hungarian. I don’t understand her, but my mother does. She laughs and wags an admonitory finger at my future governess.
"Wash your mouth with soap! Better still, wash your mind."
"It’s okay, he doesn’t understand me," Karolina says cheerfully. "He will, though, by this time next year."
That indeed is the plan. Karolina is to replace the German governess who has replaced the Alsatian au pair. It is suddenly dawning on my mother that I’m due to go to school next September, without knowing the language of instruction. This is something that needs to be remedied.
Karolina is a matter-of-fact girl in her early 20s, big, blonde, freckled and practical. We walk and we talk. We spend as much time outdoors as we can, walking and talking in the rain, in sunshine, in the snow. Karolina hates to be "cooped up" as she calls it. "Books? Sure, I read a book once," she tells me. There’s no danger I have to go through The Yellow Snake again in Hungarian.
My new governess and I get on well, though in ways that makes my mother slightly uneasy. Mother is far from prudish, but Karolina’s response to my inquiring stare appears a little risqué even to her. As I find out later, seeing me ogling her breasts during our first meeting, practical Karolina responds in Hungarian: "Tetszenek? Hát ha jó fiú leszel, kés bb játszhatsz velük egy kicsit." (Like them? Be a good boy, and one day you can play with them a little.)
One can understand a mother’s unease with this. On the other hand, in less than a year, I’m fluent in Hungarian, a difficult language.
About 700 miles west of Karolina’s voluptuous breasts black smoke trails burning bits of aluminum as Messerschmitts and Stukas circle Hurricanes and Spitfires over England’s green and pleasant land. It’s an epic clash with a few men in their 20s settling the future of the world. I don’t recall hearing a word about it at home, but Britain’s new prime minister visits a Royal Air Force operations facility at the height of the Battle of Britain. A few days later he makes an observation. "Never in the field of human conflict," says Winston Churchill on August 20, "was so much owed by so many to so few."
I’m getting into a taxi with my mother. We’re going to the hospital. I don’t like it. There is no doubt in my mind that they are going to hurt me. I’m resolved to escape but I don’t know how. As we walk along the hallway inside the hospital, I come up with a fool-proof plan. As soon as we reach my room, I demand to go to the toilet.
I saw washrooms in the hallway. There are two alternatives. If they let me go to a washroom on my own, I’m out of there. And if they take me…
They take me. I lock myself in. I sit, responding to no entreaties. I give the impression of a boy who is going to sit there till Judgment Day. They plead and they cajole. There’s talk about post-operative ice cream. There’s talk about starving me out. Finally, my mother asks the key question.
"Doctor, does he really have to have his tonsils out?"
That does it. They break down the door, pick me up, and carry me straight into surgery. They win but I’m content. I did what I could.
So does Hungary’s Prime Minister, Pál Teleki. When the Regent gives Hitler’s Wehrmacht territorial access for its invasion of Yugoslavia, Count Teleki shoots himself. "For all the difference it makes, he needn’t have bothered," someone remarks at the dinner table that night.
This isn’t quite true. The former Chief Boy Scout’s suicide note contains a very accurate prediction. "We will become a nation of trash," the Prime Minister writes.
We live above a distillery. Our service apartment is big because the man who thinks he’s my father is the general manager. He really is – at least, he isn’t the only one who thinks so. Everybody does, including my mother. The chief chemist, Mr. Kellner, who lives in another service apartment across the hall from us, tips his hat to him. A general manager’s salary is a thousand pengoes a month, or slightly more money than there is in the world. I know this from Panni, a girl my age, who has blonde braids, braces, and is Mr. Kellner’s daughter.
The chief accountant, Mr. Erdélyi, also tips his hat to the man who thinks he’s my father. Mr. Erdélyi has a long black beard and his service apartment is further down the corridor. The last service apartment belongs to the yard boss, Mr. Nagy, a jolly bald man I call Uncle Lajos. He would probably tip his hat to my parents as well if he wore a hat, but he doesn’t. He wears a cap. When he sees my mother he touches the visor with his index finger.
The man who thinks he is my father tips his hat only to the Colonel – or El Colon, as my mother refers to him sometimes. Colonel Lamprecht is a thin, dapper gentleman, who wears checkered jackets and a monocle and has the big corner office at the distillery. He doesn’t live above the office, though. Some people may know where the Colonel lives, but they don’t tell me.
I remember one conversation – it sticks in my mind because of my mother’s anxiety, although I don’t understand what she is talking about. "El Colon protects Julius," she tells her parents who have come for tea, "in part because he is a decent sort, and in part because he couldn’t run the place without him and the Baron would have his head."
I know who the Baron is – at least, I’ve never laid eyes on him, but he’s a fixture in the art gallery of my mind. He is the Baron Fellner. I often hear conversations about the Fellners, Brauns and Leipzigers; the families of industrialists and aristocrats to which "our" Fellner belongs. They’re the families who own the distillery underneath our service apartment, along with dozens of other distilleries and breweries and sugar-refineries; mixed-ancestry families with Jewish branches and Gentile branches who also own banks and steel mills and bauxite-mines and shipyards. They’re families in the glittering world of haute bourgeoisie, in Hungary and abroad, the Chorins, Wodianers, Warburgs, Montefiores, Rothschilds, whose fairy-tale existence is as far removed from our thousand-pengo-a-month middle-class life as a two-pengo-a-day sharecropper’s life is from ours.
I don’t know exactly what it is that Colonel Lamprecht is protecting the man who thinks he is my father from. Is somebody chasing him? Anyway, I don’t quite see how a scrawny man with a monocle could protect anybody from anything. I’d have more faith in Uncle Lajos who yells at the drivers in the yard, or to Mr. Erdélyi with his scary black beard.
If I really needed protection, I think I would turn to Szuszi. A sandy bitch of indeterminate age and breed, she is the official dog for the distillery. A junkyard dog may be mean, but it wouldn’t be a patch on a distillery dog, and most distillery dogs wouldn’t be a patch on Szuszi. She exudes malice – literally, because she doesn’t bark or growl but expels her breath like a king cobra, which is why they call her Szuszi. She is so plainly vicious that when she fixes her red-rimmed eyes on the object of her displeasure and expels her breath with a hiss, no man or beast ever stands up to her.
My mother says that Szuszi maintains her foul mood by permanent pregnancy. The father is the other distillery dog, Mokus, Szuszi’s own offspring from her first litter. Mokus is as good-natured as his mother is mean. His Oedipus complex only makes him more outgoing. It’s a mystery why Szuszi tolerates him because she tolerates none of her pups after about 12 weeks. My mother thinks Mokus is too dumb to notice how menacing Szuszi is; he simply mounts her, as he mounts everything that moves and some things that no longer do. "I’ve known men like this," Mother says.
Sometimes Mokus tries to mount a certain Mecklenburgian, one of the huge brewery horses, and a gelding at that. Mokus pitches his woo to the equine’s hind leg, and when the Mecklenburgian kicks him, he tries the other leg. The contest between Hungarian ardour and Mecklenburgian modesty leads to a series of comedy routines in the yard. The Mecklenburgian’s driver usually takes a whip to Mokus, which the good-natured dog views as an amorous overture. He wags his tail, as if to say: "Okay, let me finish what I’m doing first; your turn is next." At this point the sight of her son-and- boyfriend being threatened makes Szuszi hopping mad and she chases the driver into an empty barrel. Once secure in his stronghold, the driver shouts imprecations at the reptilian canine, but not being able to see out of his bunker, he keeps it up long after Szuszi gets bored, curls up in front of the barrel, and goes to sleep. No day passes without some variation on the theme.
For some reason, Szuszi tolerates me. Maybe she senses a kindred spirit. Her new litter is about three weeks old when I crawl under the shed to play with the pups – not a good idea under any circumstances. Onlookers are horrified when Szuszi raises her head to cast a baleful eye at me, but then she lies back on the sack where she has whelped and pays no more attention. Later Uncle Lajos, the yard boss, swears he hears Szuszi say "Oh, it’s just that dumb Jonas-kid" under her breath.
The man who believes he is my father isn’t alone in this belief. I also believe it. What’s more, I believe he is the cat’s pajamas. What I can’t believe is my eyes. He comes out of the bathroom – and, by golly, he did it. He said he would, and he did. He shaved off his moustache.
Like all children, I’m deeply conservative. I hate change. I told him not to do it. I warned him I would go berserk if he did. I would stomp and bawl. He did it anyway.
Now he stands there, looking foolish. He doesn’t look like the man I think is my father but someone else. He looks naked and stupid.
I bawl. I stomp. I go into hysterics, just as I said I would. They should have listened to me. Why can’t people do what I tell them? We’d get along just fine if they did, but they don’t, so they only have themselves to blame.
While I’m having my tantrum it occurs to me that I’m not a nice boy. It crosses my mind that if I wasn’t me, I wouldn’t like myself. But the realization doesn’t settle me down. It makes me stomp and bawl even harder.
I’m going in a taxi with my mother. She carries a basket of food and a parcel with gloves and thermal underwear. It is for the man who believes he is my father. Colonel Lamprecht could protect him for only so long. After a certain number of deferments even "workers essential to industry" must go into the army if they are of military age, or into labor squadrons if they are of Jewish descent. The latter go to the front lines, unarmed, under a military escort. Their assignments include digging trenches, building pontoon bridges, constructing fortifications or temporary airfields, often under fire. That is when they are not making tank traps, clearing minefields, or climbing trees naked to imitate bird-sounds for the amusement of sadists among the escort.
There’s a difference between unconverted Jews and Christian converts, though. Jews must wear a yellow armband while digging ditches or poking the frozen ground for unexploded mines, while those who have embraced Jesus Christ as their savior get to wear a white armband. ("Judas at least got 30 pieces of silver for the Son; they sold the Father for a white armband," writes an observant Jew to his family from the front lines – or so the story goes.)
The labor squadron of my mother’s husband is currently stationed at the outskirts of Buda. The word is that their unit will be shipped to the Eastern Front soon, attached to the Second Hungarian Army that is still on the drawing board. The squadron commander permits families to visit for half an hour.
The men wear fatigues with white and yellow armbands but no other insignia. Everyone is clean-shaven. The military permits mustaches, but personal hygiene is difficult under field conditions, and facial hair is a natural habitat for lice.
I kiss the clean-shaven man I think is my father, and wander around a campsite of tin huts and tents with some of the other kids. The escort keep an eye on us but don’t interfere. They seem indifferent to the families. My mother and her husband talk until the escort orders everyone to say good-bye.
Reluctant to go, wives and children linger as the men in fatigues assemble by the railway tracks a few hundred yards distant. We hear words of command we can’t make out, but because the men start pushing selected flatcars and stock cars from various tracks past a switch unto a single track, it looks as if they’re trying to put together a train without the aid of a locomotive. Initially about ten or fifteen men strain to get a wagon rolling, but once it has momentum, three or four men can push it, leaving the rest to split off and start another wagon. A train is gradually being assembled.
I think I recognize my mother’s husband. He seems to be pushing a boxcar with a couple of other men. It is rolling at a fair clip. When I raise my hand to wave at him, he notices and waves back.
Those are my memories of Julius Jonas. A few minutes later we get into a taxi and go home. I never see him again.
Copyright © George Jonas 2011
George Jonas was born in Budapest, Hungary, and came to Canada at 21 in 1956. Since then he has published 15 books; contributed some 2000 articles and opinion pieces to newspapers and periodicals in Canada, the US, and the UK; worked as a staff producer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation between 1962 and 1985; and wrote, produced and/or directed about 200 dramas and docudramas for radio and television. His book Vengeance was filmed by Michael Anderson as Sword of Gideon, and by Steven Spielberg as Munich. Jonas’s media awards include an Edgar, two Nellys, a Gabriel, two Geminis, and three National Magazine Awards. He is a twice-weekly editorial columnist for the National Post.