WeWriWa—An unlikely celebration

Copyright Jüdischen Museum Im Stadtmuseum, Berlin
Yad Vashem Photo Archives 5409/3094


Welcome back to Weekend Writing Warriors and Snippet Sunday, weekly Sunday hops where writers share 8–10 sentences from a book or WIP. For my last Chanukah-themed snippet this year, I’m sharing something from Chapter 17, “Evacuated Westward,” of my hiatused WIP The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees.

It’s December 1944, and a group of nine young women from Abony, Hungary, along with two non-Jewish friends, have recently been moved from the privileged Kanadakommando sorting detail at Auschwitz to the all-female Breslau–Hundsfeld factory. Because this factory was run by the Wehrmacht, not the SS, prisoners had rather good treatment, including the chance to clandestinely celebrate Chanukah.

This has been slightly tweaked to fit ten lines.

Copyright Posner Family Estate, courtesy of Shulamit Mansbach, Haifa, Israel

A week before the holiday, one of the women had organized some leftover cotton and thread from the factory and hidden them under the mattresses. She had also gotten hold of some precious potatoes, cut them in half, created indents for oil, and twisted wicks. Since the prisoners had relative freedom in their living quarters, they were able to gather to light candles, sing holiday songs, and bless one another. As always, they talked about food too.

“My mother always made noodles and cabbage with poppy seeds,” Hajnalka said on the fifth night, rubbing her stomach. “My favorite was chicken paprikash.”

“I wish we had lots of latkes to fill our stomachs,“ Klaudia said. “I’d dunk mine in an ocean of applesauce, sour cream, lecsó, quark, you name it. Next Chanukah, I’m going to stuff myself silly with sufganiyot. My favorite filling was blueberry, but I’d take any filling after this crummy diet, since I’ve got to build my voluptuous figure back up.”

PonyFest 2013

Rebecca Enzor is hosting PonyFest again, and I’m entering on the final day. I had planned to enter earlier, but forgot about the time with grad school and the current roommate drama.

Here are three of the girls from The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees.

Csilla's Pony

Csilla Bergman, the third-oldest character and oldest of the nine teen characters. Very sturdy, businesslike, professional, serious, not very girly, devoted to her two friends Aranka and Klaudia, whom she survived the camps with. She’s got dark blonde hair and is a bit on the tall side for a girl.

Klaudia Pony

Klaudia Buchsbaum, whom I imagine looking a bit like a moviestar of the Forties, with a bit of a Persian/Middle Eastern look to her. She’s got a curvy, womanly body, and was so proud when she started getting her womanly body back after the liberation. Of all the girls in the cast, she’s the first to start having sex, with her complex fiancé Kálmán Rein.

Marie's Pony

Sweet little Marie Zénobie Sternglass, the token French girl. Marie’s main character trait is how sweet, innocent, and naïve she is, even after everything she’s survived. She has a rather childlike mentality, but not so much so she’s afraid to eventually make the first move with Artur Sklar, the guy who’s in love with her but afraid to confess his feelings.

One-line description of The Strongest Branches of Uprooted Trees:

During the early postliberation years, nine teens and two twentysomethings travel across Germany, Hungary, Italy, and France, as they relearn how to be a part of the human race and adjust to normal life, all while feeling pulled in competing directions for America and Israel.

An Unexpected Warm Welcome

Csilla steeled herself as she knocked on the Lakatoses’ door.  Now that they’d had some time to get settled back into Abony, she felt it was time to try to reclaim whatever possessions they could.  Surely at least a few people would give them a decent welcome and return their belongings.

“Who’s there?” a female voice called.

“This is Csilla Bergman with four friends.  We’ve come back to Hungary, and we thought we’d visit some old friends.”

Mrs. Lakatos gasped. “Csilla Bergman, the daughter of Olivia Veksler and Miklós Bergman?  Come right in, my dear child!”

Csilla turned the knob and walked in with the others.  They were greeted by the sight of Mr. Lakatos shaking in a chair, as Mrs. Lakatos dabbed her eyes.

Mrs. Lakatos held out her arms to them in turn. “Thank God any of you returned.  My husband just barely escaped death himself.  As you can see, he’s still very shaken up by his close call.  Have you come back with any others?”

Csilla cast her eyes to the ground after Mrs. Lakatos had hugged her. “We are all that’s left.  All the others are gone.  The only people who might be alive are two friends who were arrested a long time before us, Eszter Kovács and Jákob Gerber.  Four of Eszti’s sisters might also still be alive.  Other than that, there is no one.”

“No one?  You have no mother or sisters anymore?  I knew most of your men had died in that vile labor brigade, but I thought women and children would be treated better.”

“No one,” Csilla repeated. “Xéncsi might’ve been here with me, but she lost her mind in the train.  My mother and I were screaming at her to go with me, but she couldn’t understand anything that was happening.  I last saw her dancing off with my mother and Beatrix.  It’s too much to hope that she snapped out of it before it was too late.”

“Don’t ask how they died,” Kálmán said, clenching his fists. “It’s enough to know they’re no more.”

“What happened to you, Mr. Lakatos?” Aranka asked. “Were you arrested?”

He nodded, still shaking. “In October, I was arrested for my anti-Nazi and anti-Arrow Cross activities.  I was put on a list of so-called criminals waiting for execution.  The Soviets liberated us just in the nick of time.  I was this close to facing the executioner.” He buried his head in his hands.

Mrs. Lakatos motioned to the kitchen table. “Are you hungry?  I can’t imagine you’ve been eating very well without parents to cook for you.”

“Yes, please.” Klaudia’s eyes lit up. “I can’t wait to get my shape back.” She’d always been proud of developing early, and still didn’t feel like a real young woman without her full curves and bustline.  At least she was finally menstruating again and had her body hair back.

Aranka entered the kitchen first and looked curiously at one of the embroidered runners on the table. “Mrs. Lakatos, is this by any chance one of the bureau runners my family gave you for safekeeping?”

Mrs. Lakatos hurried in after them and inspected it. “Yes, it sure is.  I have all the bureau runners your family gave me, and your silver serving platter.  When you take your leave, you can take them all with you.”

“How about my mother’s rosebush?” Kálmán asked. “Is it outside?”

“Yes, we have that too.  Unlike certain other people in this town, we’re glad to give back our friends’ belongings.”

Csilla felt an icy knot growing in her stomach. “You mean some of our other neighbors might not give back our things?”

Mrs. Lakatos shook her head. “I never realized how rare my family was.  A lot of these other people are glad you were deported, and haven’t been giving back your houses and possessions.  I’m sure you’ve already experienced a little of that.  Have many people been glad to see you’re back?”

Kálmán laughed sarcastically. “We’ve either been greeted with indifference or shock.  A few people have been angry to see some of us came back.”

“Thanks for being so nice to us,” Móric said as Mrs. Lakatos put a platter of smoked fish, bread, and goat cheese on the table. “I wish my family had had time to leave our things with you.”

“It’s nothing doing.” Mrs. Lakatos winced a bit at how small fourteen-year-old Móric looked for his age. “You can have extra portions if you still feel hungry.  Don’t worry, I’m sure you’ll catch up your growth eventually.  Even some boys your age who haven’t spent the past year under God knows what circumstances are short or small.  You could be two meters tall in five years, just as some boys who start out tall end up barely over a meter and a half.”

“Will you go with us to stake our claims at the other houses?” Csilla asked. “We have a lot of things we need to claim, and I know they’re probably all still there.”

“Of course.  But for now, all you need to concern yourselves with is lunch.  I have a chocolate pudding for you after this.”

“May we have tea?” Klaudia asked.

“Whatever you want, my dear child.  Guests always get whatever they want here.”

Csilla nudged Klaudia. “You haven’t told Mrs. Lakatos your happy news.  While we’re here, she ought to congratulate you.”

Klaudia blushed. “Kálmán and I are engaged.  We’re getting married at the end of next year, after we’re seventeen.”

Mrs. Lakatos smiled a big smile. “Is that so?  Normally I’d think fifteen is far too young to make that kind of serious commitment, but after what you must’ve lived through, I suppose you’re not really a normal fifteen-year-old.  You’ll be a beautiful bride.  By the end of next year, your hair will be nice and long again.”

“Thank you.” Klaudia reached for a piece of fish.

“And remember, you’ve always got a place here.  Maybe my family isn’t so common in our attitudes, but we’d rather do the right thing than go along with an immoral crowd.  As bleak as things must seem, you must remember that decent people still exist.”

Up on the Roof

Some proposals are casual and matter-of-fact, in spite of the popular depiction of elaborate, emotional proposals.

Klaudia lay on her stomach on a wooden deck chair, savoring the sun and fresh air at the top of the building.  She was glad they’d found a building with a flat roof.  As a girl, she’d often daydreamt about someday having a house with a flat roof and having picnics and swimming pools and things up there.  And even if this flat roof belonged to an apartment converted into a refugee way station, it was nice to have a bird’s eye view of Abony.

“I bet the cityscape is even nicer in Jerusalem.” She sent Kálmán a look when he started pulling a cigarette out of his shirt pocket. “You know I hate the smell.  If you want to kiss me today, you’d better not foul up your breath with that filthy thing.  I still can’t believe you took up smoking.”

“You do what you have to do when you’re bored and starving.” He put the cigarette back. “I never planned to start underage.  It wasn’t even my idea.  But I smoke now, so you’d better get used to it.  I won’t look down on you if you give it a try.  A modern girl has as much right to smoke as a man.”

She rolled over onto her back. “Do you have any special city you’d like to live in, or do you just want a big city?  It might be exciting to start our own new town, like all the great kibbutz pioneers did.  Maybe we could settle in the Negev.  There still aren’t many towns there.  It’s ripe for the picking.  I’d feel so much accomplishment if I personally helped make the desert bloom.”

“Wherever you’d like to live, of course.  We could try out several cities and towns to see what we like most.  Each area has a different appeal.  But we’ll eventually have to pick just one.”

Klaudia reached into her pocket for a piece of hard candy. “How long do you think we’ll be here?  There are a couple of people who might be coming back, and I’d hate to miss them if they’re still alive.”

“Who the hell could still be alive?  I know how the guys died, and you know how the girls died.  At most, Koba and Eszti might be coming back.  They weren’t in our group, so who knows where they were taken and what happened to them.”

“Eszti’s sisters Mirjam and Sára.  We were separated from them.  Miri was left behind in the hospital when we were evacuated from our second camp, and then Sári was left behind when we were evacuated from the third camp a short time later.  Wouldn’t that be nice if all three of them are alive?  What a miracle, three sisters from the same family.”

Kálmán grunted. “Maybe Miri, since she was an adult, but Sára was so young.  She only passed the arrival selection because she was maneuvered out of the death line.  Even if she was tall and mature-looking for her age, she was still only twelve.  I’m more concerned with building my future family, not dreaming of reunions between people we know are dead.  I can’t believe how many people are talking about all these friends and relatives like they’re going to come home any minute.  Everyone who survived has been repatriated.  Everyone else is gone.”

“Aren’t you optimistic.”

“I’m realistic.  No one in his right mind could be an optimist after what we survived.  Our only future lies in our real homeland, and you know it just as well as I do.” He reached over and gently stroked her short crown of hair. “Would you like to help me build my future?”

“Of course, I’ll help you with anything.  I’ll fight right next to you when we get to Palestine.  Those stupid British probably won’t surrender without a fight.”

“I can’t wait to have a gun in my hands, so I can start blasting away British and Arab soldiers.  But I wasn’t talking about that.  I meant, I want you to marry me as soon as we’re old enough.  Is seventeen old enough for you?”

“I don’t see why not.  At least you don’t want to marry me as soon as we’re sixteen.  So that’s what, a year and a half from now?”

“Yeah, at the end of next year.  I hope you’re not one of those girls who expects a fancy ring or some dowry.  I can’t afford any of that.”

“I don’t need some status symbol, and I don’t want to be symbolically bought and sold.  Sure I’ll marry you.  It doesn’t make any sense to just continue courting till we’re in university after what happened.  But don’t expect me to immediately have babies.  I’ll be a seventeen-year-old bride, but I don’t want to have babies till I’m at least twenty.”

“Whatever you want.  I don’t want kids so young either.  But I do want more than a few.  How does five or six sound?”

“Perfect.” She sat in his lap and kissed him. “I wonder what my parents would’ve thought of me getting engaged at fifteen.”

“The same thing my parents would’ve thought.  We’re the strongest branches of uprooted trees.  There’s only one way to plant a new tree.”

Reunion in Abony

Though the Abony that greeted them looked like a ghost town, it was unmistakably the same place they’d grown up in and lived in till last June.  As familiar houses and landmarks rolled past them, they knew their journey was creeping closer to the end, second by agonizing second.

“Look, the Harkányi Castle survived the war.” Csilla pointed. “If an old landmark like that could survive, maybe our houses are unscathed too.  Of course, we’ll have to live together and not separately.  Do you remember which of us had the biggest house?”

“How should I know how big it really was?” Klaudia asked. “When there are six kids in your family, the house always feels small.”

“There were six in my family too,” Aranka nodded. “How strange to think we’re all only children now.”

“Can you not drop us off in front of the synagogue?” Csilla called to Silas. “We don’t want to relive certain memories.”

“Sure thing, ladies.  Where would you like me to drop you off?”

“Anywhere but there.  Center of town might be best.”

“This looks like a nice town, even if the war took its toll.  Hungary must’ve been a beautiful country.”

“In some ways,” Aranka admitted. “Some of the people aren’t so beautiful, and our last memories of Hungary are rather ugly.”

When the truck came to a stop, the girls picked up their suitcases and handbags and slowly debarked from the ramp Silas put up.  They looked around, trying to find their bearings, as they adjusted to being on the ground and no longer constantly on the road.

“You ladies have a place to stay tonight?” Silas asked. “I’d hate to have driven you all the way here if you had no safe lodgings guaranteed.  I’m sure you know what can happen if you aren’t careful.”

“Oh, I’m sure there’s some kind of communal housing for displaced people,” Csilla said. “May we hug you goodbye?”

“Of course.” Their truck driver held out his arms and they hugged him in turn.

“We’re going to tell all our friends, if we still have any, that we met a real American Indian,” Klaudia said. “I bet they’ll never believe you wear normal clothes and not feathers and war paint.”

“Good luck.  I hope you’re able to go to your ancestral homeland as soon as possible.”

“Thank you,” Csilla said. “And we’re very sorry your people had your land stolen.  We never heard about that when we read about America in school.”

As they were walking down the street, trying to keep out of sight of the Soviet soldiers, their eyes caught on two boys heading towards them.  Klaudia’s breath caught in her throat as her heart recognized one of them before her eyes did.

“Girls, do you see what I see?  That’s my Kálcsi!  Oh, thank you, God, I still have my sweetheart!” She clasped her hands together, tears welling up in her eyes.

“Are you sure?” Aranka asked. “Maybe you just want to believe it’s your boyfriend.  Kálmán isn’t the only guy with black hair and eyes.”

Csilla inspected the boys, who were coming closer into view. “Yes, that is Kálmán Rein.  And I can’t believe who’s with him.  Móric Heyman, one of the least likely boys I’d expect to survive.  Móric was younger than anyone, and not as strong or tall as someone like Gusztáv or Aladár.”

“God works in mysterious ways,” Aranka said. “Some people are stronger than you give them credit for.”

“Oh, I hope there are more boys where they came from!” Klaudia said, wiping her eyes. “There can’t be only two left.”

Across the way, the boys paused in their tracks and stared at the girls ahead of them.  The taller one broke into a run, heading straight for Klaudia, and threw his arms around her, tears flowing down his face.  Klaudia hugged him back tightly.

“Liat, ahuvati sheli,” he whispered. “I can’t believe I got you back.  Of all the girls in town, my sweetheart came back.” He frantically kissed her face, her neck, her mouth. “Liat, liat, liat.  Please say you’ll be mine forever.”

“Right now I just want to get settled into some kind of house.” Klaudia squeezed his hands and kissed him. “Where are you staying?”

“We’re in an apartment across the street from a makeshift refugee center.  Some other people live with us, but we don’t know them.” Kálmán cast his eyes up to the sky. “We’re the only ones left.  Twenty became two.”

“You don’t have to say anything more.” Klaudia hugged Móric, then stepped back for the others to hug him and Kálmán.

“Will we have separate rooms?” Csilla asked. “I’m very happy you’re alive, and I understand you’re glad to find each other again, but that doesn’t mean you’re married.  Understand one thing, Kálmán Rein.  Klaudia and Ari are my sisters now.  I’ve been protecting them and taking care of them as though they were my Xéncsi and Beatrix.  If I catch you trying anything funny with my sister, you’ll regret it.”

“Oh, we’ll be good.” Klaudia picked up her suitcase and slipped her other hand into Kálmán’s. “Apparently we won’t have much privacy anyway.”

“And just what does that mean?”

“Relax,” Aranka said. “We’re home.  Everything will be fine now.”