When the Danube Ran Red
(Syracuse)In Budapest, in late 1944, the Jews didn't have to fear the retreating Germans nor the incoming Russians as much as they had to watch out for the Hungarian "Arrow Cross Party." It was an independent splinter political party cum police operation intent on sending as many innocents east as they could manage in the days before the war ended.
Zsuzsanna Ozsváth and her mother, father and brother Ivá spent considerable time hiding from the "Nyilas." At one point, while she was hiding in a bombed-out building next to the Danube, Zsuzsanna watched as Jewish prisoners were tied up, shot ... then shoved in the water; thus, "the Danube Ran Red."
Her family was a typical cultured family of the pre-war era. Her favorite occupation was playing Bach's d-minor fugue on the piano; her favorite games were literary games. As Paul Celan wrote, "it was a place where people and books used to live."
But war has a way of getting in the way of culture and gentility and love and life, and, beginning in 1941, Zsuzsanna's family lived precariously under threat of transport to Auschwitz.
The story of living with the yellow star is a familiar one now, but the twist here is that no Jewish family knew where they stood under Miklós Horthy's Hungarian regime. In the late spring and early summer of 1944, thousands of families were shipped off and murdered, but in a rare case of tyrants actually listening to moderating voices --- letters from Roosevelt, from the king of Sweden and even (surprise) pleas from the Vatican --- made it possible on July 7th for Horthy to put a stop to deportations. (Recent Allied and Russian victories over the Germans may have had something to do with it.)That's when the Nyilas took over. As the Russians surrounded the city, the murders continued and Ozsváth and her family did not know until mid-January that they were free. Even so, two Russian soldiers stopped them as they were finally returning to their home. Their saviors stole their watches and all of their backpacks ... one of the latter containing two precious tins of tunafish.
All of this comes to us through the eyes of an innocent and cultured young girl. During a time the family was trapped in "the White Cross Hospital" --- a fake hospital with fake nurses, fake doctors, and several Jews disguised as Nyilas.
As the bombs fell all about them, Zsuzsanna played a game with her brother. "I had to play a little Jewish girl who was on the run from the Germans, whose brother joined the partisans and saved her in the end." Since they were hungry all the time, there was another game which "consisted of imagining different kinds of food:"
"Ppopppyseed cake," I said popping the consonants in the word.
"Cheesecake," he said, stretching the vowels as much as he could.
"Apple pie," I answered, "with lemon zest and cinnammmmmon."
"Hmmm," he said, thoughtfully, "Sachertorte," and he made a funny face, "big and dark brown, filled with STRAWBERRY preserves."
"Cherry strudel," I said, unable to continue. The game made me desperately hungry.--- Wendy Hoffmann, MA