The Little Swimming Champion
Lucy hated PE. She also hated the line there, where she had to stand last in the line again, in spite of her Uncle Sali remarking how much this little girl had grown this summer, she will outgrow her mom one of these days .Not that it is such a big deal, for Lucy’s mom was tiny, and as things stood, Lucy didn’t seem to grow much taller than her. That’s why Daddy and uncle Sali insisted she goes to swim.
– She will get stronger there- they said. Lucy hoped they were right, the thought was consoling, and she was thinking of the funny smell of the pool, and how much she likes that smell, and the echoing large hall, but even better than that the outside pool, that was accessible through a little secret corridor, and where the water could only be seen when a sudden gust of wind has lifted the white cloud of mist from the pool .Yes I am strong. I am the best in my age group, and maybe this year I will be in the junior contest .I shall win, and on the top of the stand I will be the tallest. Then it won’t hurt anymore, that Zsuzsi Klein grew so much that she is now three places ahead of her in the line, so far, that even the teacher has heard when she whispered back to her comfortingly:
-Don’t cry, next year you will grow more too!
Of course she will grow more. And she will win all the races. And she will be a swim champ. And Daddy and uncle Sali will be proud of her. But this, like everything else these days has also turned out different.
She hasn’t seen Daddy and uncle Sali for months now, because they were drafted, and taken somewhere far, to work, to a nice place where they obviously liked to be, as they have written twice already, and both times they wrote the same, that they were healthy, and they were in a nice place, among the mountains with clear air. Lucy would have preferred them to be home, even if the air was not so clear. She has swiped one of the postcards, hiding it in her coat’s lining, so Daddy would be with her at all times. So she had Daddy with her when they had to move to the new place. She didn’t think Daddy would have liked the new place much, because they could not bring the books with them and a lot of other things had to be left behind too. Lucy managed to bring her doll , Piri with her, but the doll house made by uncle Sali , which had a real kitchen in it with a real cooking stove that could be heated up, well…it had to be left behind in the old flat, along with the books. There were a lot of people here, and they were not very nice to each other, and the little ones were crying, but the worst part was, that you could not go to the swimming pool from here, and how can you become a swim champ like this? Lucy didn’t much care about the school, but the swimming pool she really did miss.
That morning was very cold. It was cold when the arrowcross came, and it was cold when they started towards the Danube. The women were silent, and the children were cold too .Lucy was happy she had run back for her coat, not only because of the cold, but this way she had Daddy’s card with her too. She hugged the doll Piri to her, and hoped the doll was not too cold. Mommy had promised to knit a red pom- pom hat for Piri , but the needles and the yarn had been left behind in the old flat.
– Don’t cry Piri, I shall put you under my coat if you are cold…
Then everything happened so fast. They had to take their shoes off, and had to line up at the edge of the riverbank.
Turn to face the water!-commandeered a young boy
They did turn. Mommy held Lucy’s hand tightly, and asked her in a whisper:
-You still know how to swim don’t you? Underwater?
– Of course I do ! I can swim the farthest in my age group.
-All right- said Mommy- Show me!
In that moment the shots started to pop. The people fell into the icy water. But just before the shots reached them Mommy said –NOW!- and kicked her feet out from under Lucy.
Icy water. Among floating ice blocks and dead bodies she came up for a long breath, and dived down deep into the water, just like the trainer had taught her how. She just swam and swam as far as she only could. She came up to the surface far beyond the bridge. The water was freezing cold, and she was far from the embankment but she made it to the shore somehow. .
She never saw Mommy again. Or Daddy, or uncle Sali. She had nothing remaining from her old life, only the postcard washed empty, and the Piri doll. The doll somehow got entangled in the lining of her coat. A small miracle, a tiny piece of the old Lucy. The little girl whose biggest sorrow was that she was the last in the line, and who would have given anything to become a swim champ.
Find below the true story of my grandmothers’demise, as told to us countless times by my beloved mother, who is probably watching these literary trials of mine from the top of a white cloud, with an uderstanding smile on her face…
This particular trapdoor opened from the courtyard of the large six storey apartment-house in Csanády street, leading down to the cellar. In the fall, when the coal and firewood was brought by the brawny lads, this was the door through which it got thrown down. From the center of the cellar it was then taken into the individual cubicles and neatly arranged to be ready for the winter. It was a good little invention, serving well in peacetime. Only it wasn’t peacetime now. The tenants lived in constant fear, knowing only too well, that it might be their turn any day now, as more and more neighboring houses were emptied, the Jews taken away.
Everybody was trying to do something .For the hope of a possible escape, the hope of staying together, of hiding somewhere, of finding someone who could possibly obtain some documents, the hope of finding some shortcuts, some ways around the system, this hope was still alive. And as long as one is still around, one needs this. So everybody was constantly trying something.
Judit Hohenberg for instance, had been freezing in front of the Swiss embassy this morning, together with some five hundred others, in hope of maybe getting a chance to receive a schutzpass, for at this point it still amounted to something if a lucky yellow-starred Jew could produce such a paper at an identity check. This paper would prove the Jew was under the protection of the State of Switzerland, either as a real, or as a would be Swiss citizen, or possibly a person related to Swiss citizens. The multitudes of people were already all shivering with cold, but they wouldn’t give up. Hours passed ,hopes shriveled. Judit ‘s feet were half frozen, as she tapped them in the elegant high heels she put on figuring a pretty young woman is at an advantage anywhere, anytime.
She was miserably cold, so she tried to think of other things. She tried to console herself, thinking it is still better to have your feet cold, than to have to have them cut off .For maybe Grandma’s leg will have to be cut off. She has been suffering for weeks now, but her leg doesn’t seem to improve at all. As a matter of fact, medicines are unavailable too.
-I won’t have my leg amputated! I won’t, I simply won’t! It still can heal! And if it will not, I at least did not become a cripple- said Grandma with determination.
Uncle Karcsi, a dentist by his profession, agreed with her.
-Look-he started to explain to the family- If it has to be amputated, it can be done later! Five centimeters under the knee or over it, is not such a big difference, is it? Maybe the treatment will finally catch.
So they treated it as best they could. Her daughter Terka washed and dressed the purulent wound five times a day. She fomented it too. Uncle Karcsi had managed to get some medication sometimes. But Grandma could simply not stand on her leg at all. She had to use a bedpan.
Terka held the used bedpan in her hand, on her way to the bathroom, when it all started.
-Yellow star Jews are to gather in the court-yard at once! Get a move on! On the double! Hurry up!
Terka emptied the bedpan first, and then she turned to her mother.
-What should we do now Mom?
-Let’s stay up here daughter! I couldn’t go down there even if I wanted to.
– But they’ll come up for us if we are missing! Thank God Juditka is not at home. Oh my! What shall I do? I’ll go down anyway –decided Terka. If not everybody is missing from the fifth floor two, maybe they won’t come up .She kissed her mother’s hand , like she had been doing the last forty years, whenever she had left home, grabbed her coat, and started down.
The five floors had never seemed higher. It felt like a thin invisible thread was stretching between Terka and the immobile old woman.
The yard was full of noise, nobody knowing why they had to stand there, how long, or where the emaciated people were supposed to go. The little ones were crying, the arrowcross yelling. Terka stood terrified right next to the trapdoor, as it lifted a bit, and Mrs. Fördős, the janitress called to her in a whisper.
– Terka ! Terka! Come here come! And signed with her hand for Terka to slip through the door.
– But Terka just stood there, undecided,, trying to figure out whether the shivering people on the yard would be counted?
– They will count them for sure, they always count everybody, and if she also was not there they may even go up to the apartment. And Mom surely can’t stand up! Mom cannot be shoved into the line .Not Mom with her ailing leg!
– Come on blast you!- swore Mrs Fördős with an eye to the bustling pushing Nazis, who were luckily not noticing the half open trapdoor, or the angrily beckoning janitress.
– -But Terka did not dare it. She still saw Miki Dózsa and his little sister Julika jump in through the open strap- door, disappearing in its depth along with Mrs. Fördős and she saw it slowly closing .Oh my God what if they will be counted? If they go up to jostle Mom down , to push her into the line with her crippled leg, if they take her…
They did not count them. Why would they? They could not take out all the Jews, and the ones they could, were sheer bonus weren’t they?
So they were herded out to the Óbuda brick factory just like that, uncounted. Crammed all in uncounted. Marched toward the border of the country uncounted. Left the ones shot at the side of the roads where they fell , uncounted. Nobody counted the ones falling dead, or the ones shot into ditches on the roadside…
That’s why I shall never know when my grandmother Terézia Gartner, resident of Budapest citizen of Hungary , Jewish by religion, forty- four years of age, mother of two started to be missing from the inventory. Last time she was seen by a slight acquaintance, at Győr, she was still alive. My mother and the family waited for her for a long time to return, but she did not. Whenever we talked about this, my mother always said the same:
-She may have been lucky. Maybe she died on the way. Maybe she never made it to the camp.
My great grandmother, the beloved Mom of my grandmother Terka, by the way survived .Her leg healed finally, it did not have to be amputated. The trap-door survived too. It still does exist. My mother took me into the house once, and showed it to me. It was painted green, which is, as we know , the color of hope.