The Sad Hungarian
By Eric Maroney
“Where is Gunther? He’s supposed to be here.”
The old men looked at Shaul. Someone flicked his hand disdainfully.
“What? Are we Gunther’s keeper? And why have him on such a short leash, Shaul?”
“Mind your own business, Shapiro,” Shaul snapped. “Gunther and I have a deal.”
The old men murmured for a few seconds, and then turned their attention to the chess game. A great pepper tree shielded them from the summer sun. Shaul squinted into the distance. In the haze of the jogging path, he could see a man limping along in the sun, stumbling forward, appearing to lose his balance as he came into focus.
When he reached the shade of the pepper tree, the old man was bathed in sweat. He sat down heavily on a bench. The other men looked at him briefly, but he was such a familiar sight that he did not merit too much attention. Gunther held a loaf of bread in his hands.
“What took you so long?” Shaul asked, reaching out and taking the bread.
“The bakery was mobbed,” Gunther gasped, speaking Hebrew with a heavy German accent. “Then they ran out of rye when I was at the counter, and I had to wait.”
“Oh,” Shaul answered, aware that he was cradling the loaf like a child.
“Satisfied, Shaul?” one of the chess players quipped. “Your mistress has a good excuse.” The other men chuckled.
Shaul said nothing. He gestured to Gunther that they should leave, and together, the two old men shuffled out of the park.
Later in Shaul’s apartment, Gunther sat across from Shaul, sipping his coffee and dunking the rye to soften it, for his teeth were nearly gone. Shaul looked across at the gray man bent over his mug and a slice of bread the color of black coffee grounds.
“You forgot the paper,” Shaul snapped.
“I’m sorry,” Gunther answered, looking down at the bread as if it were far away. “That long line threw me off . . . After years in this country, I still can’t get over how rude everyone is.”
“You expect Israelis to stand in line?” Shaul chuckled. “You should know better.”
“How hard is it to stand in a line?” Gunther shook his head. “You wait a while, but it is better for everyone. That way there is no chaos.”
Shaul was going to say something, but let it pass. The apartment was hot. “Why is it so stuffy in here?” he asked.
“The air-conditioning is broken, and I can’t repair it until the end of the month, when I get my check from Germany.”
On hearing this, Shaul took out his wallet. He counted the bills and then tallied them on a piece of paper. “Here”—he slid the bills to Gunther—“you can pay me back at the end of the month. Sign this paper. It says you’ll pay me back.”
Gunther looked at the paper with his out-of-focus eyes. “Can’t read that,” he said. “All those squiggly Jewish letters.”
“Just sign it,” Shaul barked. “Sign it—or no money.”
Gunther sighed, and with a trembling hand, signed the bottom of the paper. Shaul examined it closely before folding it four times, placing it in his breast pocket, and closing the button.
“Come by my flat tonight,” Shaul told him.
“Do I have to tonight?” Gunther asked. “You know I’ve been sick.”
“That doesn’t matter. You have to keep your promise. You can never repay me. So you have to come.”
Gunther exhaled deeply. Shaul left without waiting for his answer, knowing that Gunther must come.
On the old record player Shaul played a Hungarian folk song. He danced across the room in uneven, jerky steps, as if he weren’t dancing at all, but shuffling toward a point on the horizon that only he could see. The music was fast, then slow, the singing plaintive, then joyful, and Shaul sang the Hungarian words—the only time he would allow himself this luxury. Passing the sounds of the language out of his mouth, over the tip of his tongue, and out into the air of his cramped apartment, felt like he was passing a stone through a narrow aperture.
But he insisted on playing the songs, and he sang the words even as tears moved down his cheeks. When Gunther arrived at the apartment, silent and resigned, Shaul did not stop. He continued to shuffle and move as if no one was there.
“You stupid Jew,” Gunther muttered. “When will you realize this no longer works for me?”
“Why come here then, if this means nothing?” Shaul sang out. “You pathetic German. What is the fucking point of your life, anymore?”
“What? What did you say? I don’t understand that language. You know that well.” Gunther did not understand Hungarian. Shaul stood still, the trance broken. He looked at the desiccated figure of a German opposite him, and spoke in German.
“I said you must have a reason to come here, even if you no longer have any fear.”
“I still have fear,” the German pronounced. “But I’m seventy-nine. Fear is everything now. What is the difference between the fear I have every day, and the fear you have dangled in front of my nose for decades?”
“We had a deal,” Shaul answered. “We had a deal and you must stick to it.”
“I’m here, right?” The German raised his palms. “My hands aren’t clean, but I come. I keep my promises.”
“Then you must sit,” Shaul answered in German, then switched to Hebrew. “And you must listen in Hebrew, as always.”
The German sat heavily on the couch. From across the room. he watched the Hungarian turn off the record player.
From across the camp, the German came toward the Hungarian. There was nothing that could be done.
“I tried,” the German told him. “This is a big place, there is little that I can do. I can save you because I can tell them that I need you for the work, but your son . . .”
The Hungarian said nothing. He realized how tenuous his grip on his own life was. How could he negotiate to save his son?
“The Americans are coming,” the Hungarian answered. “If you save both, then I can pull strings to save you. I can get papers that say you are a Jew. I knew people who got Jews to Palestine. All of this would disappear for you. Before the war I knew important people in Palestine. I can save you.”
The German raised his palms to the Hungarian, as if to signify defeat. “There is only so much I can do. I can only offer your life for my life, and only that.”
“This is old territory,” the German answered. “We’ve gone over this hundreds of times.”
“I know,” the Hungarian answered. “But I need to know. Was that all that you could do?”
“What can I tell you? My hands were tied. I followed orders. I had to do what I had to do. Just like you did. You could have died like the others, but you saved your skin. I followed you here, and I keep my promise to this day. But that doesn’t mean I can’t fight your half-assed Jewish notions.” Then there was a long pause.
“We can be done for tonight,” the Hungarian said softly.
“Really, that is it?” The German answered, surprised. “A weak remembrance of our deal is all we get?”
“I’m tired. I don’t feel well,” Shaul explained, sitting down heavily in a chair.
“Why don’t we stop this, Shaul?” The German came toward the Hungarian and stood beside him. He rested a hand on his shoulder. “We’re old men now. We need a little peace. Why go through this anymore?”
“For them,” Shaul answered weakly.
“They’re dead,” the German answered. “My people are dead, too. Do you think you are the only one to know this kind of sorrow? Sorrow is plentiful in this world.”
“You’re late,” Shaul looked toward Gunther, who was breathing heavily, his face as effaced as a piece of driftwood.
“I got sick, Shaul,” Gunther muttered. “I had to go to the doctor. He said I can’t walk around so much.”
Shaul studied Gunther, then screwed up his face and ignored this comment.
“Where is my bank stub? Did you deposit my money?”
“Yes, here.” Gunther handed over the papers. “And here is your receipt from the tax from that stupid French Jew. He can’t balance his own checkbook. Why do you have him handle your investments?”
“That’s none of your business,” Shaul answered, and then told him, anyway. “When I came here, his father did me favors. So I return the favor to the son by giving him some of my business.”
“So you owe people things, too.” Gunther smiled a bit, revealing his missing teeth.
“You really want to talk on a street corner about who owes what to whom? That is what you want?”
“No.” Gunther shook his head. “Just a joke.”
“No jokes.” Shaul coughed and shook his head. “Never joking. How can you joke?”
“Life is a joke, Shaul. You don’t think so? Look at us. Look at what we do.”
“We do what we arranged,” Shaul answered definitively. “We keep promises.”
“Fine,” Gunther answered. “But one of us will drop dead keeping this promise.”
“Then it happens,” Shaul answered. “Come over tonight.”
“Now? It’s been two weeks. I thought perhaps we’re done.”
“No, I was sick.”
“Then we should stop. We should rest. We’re old men.”
“Keep your promise,” Shaul whispered tightly. “Keep it, or I’ll yell out on this street corner what you did!”
“All right, all right.” Gunther took a step back from Shaul. He could see that the Hungarian was crying and that the Tel Aviv crowd was closing around them.
“I’ve told you already, a thousand times.” The German felt impatient, but he didn’t show it. He looked at the Hungarian lying in the bed, pale and thin. “I was forced to become SS. I had no choice. They told me to join—it was an order, and so I followed. Then they wanted me to get involved in the deportations in Warsaw, and I did that. Then I was transferred to the camp. I had no choice.”
“We all have choices,” the Hungarian answered, his voice as weak and fragile as an old china cup. “But we don’t always see it.”
The German shook his head. “There was no choice, Shaul. None. You know my family came from East Prussia. They’d been there since the Middle Ages. An old Junker family. I had to serve in the military, no matter who was in power, and no matter what I felt about them. Then the Russians invaded Königsberg. My family disappeared. Every one of them. My wife, daughter, son, probably in some hole in the ground in Kaliningrad. What did they do to deserve death? They were innocent of any harm. Me, we know what I did, but what did they do? I feel sad, too, Shaul, every day. I lost everything.”
The Hungarian was silent. The German could hear his shallow breathing.
“You lie,” the Hungarian mumbled.
“What? Say that again, Shaul.”
“You lie,” he repeated, louder.
“No, how can you say that? We’ve known each other for over sixty years. I tell you the same stories over and over again. There is never a contradiction.”
“You didn’t have to do what you did to my son. That was your choice.”
“No.” The German was emphatic. “I was ordered to have it done. When I told my commander that I wanted to save you, he insisted on it . . . ”
“No,” the Hungarian answered. “You wanted it done. You knew I would save you. You knew my connections. But you wanted to have a guarantee that would clinch it. You didn’t want me to take it back. So you had me do that . . . ”
“Stop it, Shaul,” the German snapped. “Stop it. How can you think that? My own son was killed, too, by dirty, raping Russians. Don’t be so stubbornly Jewish about this. That happened sixty years ago. We can die any day. Why bring this all up again, and why make an allegation that you know isn’t true?”
“You wanted it done,” Shaul mumbled. “You needed it. It was a way to further save your worthless life, and it worked. You did it so I could never lift a hand against you. Not without revealing my sin.”
“You must do it,” the German told the Hungarian. “I told you, it must be done by you.”
“But who said so?” the Hungarian pleaded. “Who? I understand my son can’t be saved, but why must I do it?”
“I don’t know,” the German told him. “I was ordered to have you do it. It must be done. Otherwise you go with the others in the line. The Americans will be here in two days. It must be done now or you will die, too.”
The German led the Hungarian behind a row of sheds. He took out his small black Mauser and handed it trustfully to the Hungarian. But he told him it had one bullet only, and that he trusted Shaul not to use it on him, because if he did, he would die as well as his son. No one would live. Not Gunther, or Shaul, or Avram, his boy. Shaul’s son was tied to a post used for flogging, his mouth gagged. His eyes were closed, as if he had fallen asleep. A thin, gray snow fell from the sky. The German commanded him. He told him there was no other way to do what needed to be done. And the Hungarian pulled the trigger.
The German shuffled toward the Hungarian. The Jew looked up at the German with tired, dim eyes. The German stroked the man’s chest and laid a hand on his forehead.
“You need to sleep, Shaul,” he told him. “You need to rest deeply. You need to rest your head. You are tormented. The strain is killing you. It will kill you. You need to rest. Don’t kill yourself. Don’t help death. Death comes by itself. We don’t need to prod it. One way or another, death comes. Here, let me help. I’ll make you more comfortable.”
“No, I don’t need it, no . . .” Shaul protested, but the German picked up the pillow, and brought it down slowly toward his face.
The old men were playing chess. Shapiro won to hisses and boos.
“Shut up, you ingrates,” Shapiro chided them. “A man can’t help it if he wins or loses, even in chess. It’s all laid out beforehand.” The men still hissed. No one liked Shapiro’s attitude about chess.
Someone yelled a line from the Mishnah. “Everything is foreseen, yet free will is given.”
“That makes no sense,” Shapiro responded. “It is one or the other. It’s Aristotle’s Law of the Excluded Middle . . . either ‘A’ or ‘not A’.”
“More like either bullshit or more bullshit,” someone sang out.
“If those are the choices, then I’ll take bullshit,” another responded. There was laughter. Shapiro sat down and squinted into the distance.
“Here comes the German before his girlfriend.”
Gunther was stumbling up the jogging path. Shapiro noted the man did not carry the paper, or a loaf of bread, or a stack of documents, or Shaul’s dry-cleaning. His hands were empty. His peak cap lay on his head. He walked slowly and without apparent worry, then stopped in front of the men. Before they could ask their inevitable question, he told them.
“Shaul is dead,” he said slowly. A peal of moans began, and the men began to lament Shaul in a sing-song litany.
“God gives and God takes away . . .
“ . . . and may God’s name be Blessed.”
“May he rest in peace.”
“May his memory be for a blessing,”
“He suffered so much.”
“A sad man who lost everything.”
“He came here with nothing.”
“But he built a new life.”
“He had to let everything go.”
“How else could he have survived?”
“He lost a son in that filthy camp!”
“He saved Gunther’s life.”
“Such a sad man!”
“When is the burial?” Shapiro asked.
“This afternoon. Three o’clock,” the German said. “Kiryat Shaul Cemetery.”
The men mumbled some more, adding to and subtracting from their knowledge of Shaul and his history and motivations, and as they did so, they raised the banner of his life of suffering for all to see. And it all but concealed Gunther’s departure.
Gunther was at the gravesite, standing in the hot sun, a black hat on his head, the collar of his shirt torn, tears rolling down his cheeks. He had to say Kaddish, since Shaul had no son or male relatives. But the German was so distraught that Shapiro had to help him find the place in the book, and he was so paralyzed by grief, Shapiro noticed, that he had to read the words in English script instead of Hebrew.
He said the words haltingly, with a strong German accent punctuated by rolling sobs. All the old men noted how hard Gunther took the loss of his old friend Shaul. This was to his credit, they agreed. He stammered and wailed and was unable to stand up by the graveside, and it finally took four men to bring the German home and put him to bed.
Copyright © Eric Maroney 2014
Eric Maroney is the author of two books of non-fiction, Religious Syncretism (2006) and The Other Zions (2010). His fiction has appeared in Our Stories, The MacGuffin, ARCH, Segue, The Literary Review, Eclectica, Pif, Forge, The Montreal Review, Superstition Review, and Stickman Review. His non-fiction has appeared in the Encyclopedia of Identity, and The Montreal Review. His story, “The Incorrupt Body of Carlo Busso,” was the runner up for the 2011 Million Writers Award. He has an MA from Boston University, and lives in Ithaca, NY with his wife and two children. More of his work can be found on his web page: www.arts.cornell.edu/econ/em75