Irene's Siege

By Land, Thomas | Contemporary Review, January 1995 | Go to article overview

Irene's Siege


Land, Thomas, Contemporary Review


We may as well begin with that single bed that became my home in the final winter of the war when communal affairs assumed a dismaying mask and the threat of panic was graver even than death. A cosy bed although without a headboard, its pillows piled against the freezing damp wall at the entrance of the air-raid shelter beneath the fascist Arrowcross Party's district office. I shared that bed through the siege of Budapest with Irene, my mother, and my two big brothers, one 11, the other 15 years of age, an orphaned, hunted family of Jews in hiding.

The bed stank: my dysentery was beyond control. Its stench polluted the cellar overcrowded all day, all night, by gun-toting Nazis held in constant hysterical fear by the unremitting advance of the Russian land armies, and forced underground by the waves of bombing raids of the Western allies. The law in the final phase of the siege prescribed the summary execution of any carrier of communicable disease. such as myself. Perhaps I owe my life to the cotton wool that I nightly stole from the nearby first-aid station: it blocked the single loo, that was blamed for the odour.

My mother had sought refuge from the trains and Auschwitz, with forged identity papers I still treasure, in that howling den of hatred. Posing as the wife of an officer serving at the front, she had claimed a vacant though comfortably furnished flat in the building cleared of decent folks by the fascists. Our sixth-floor flat, its windows blown with the blasts and devoid of food, had belonged to a banker's family. We had engaged in a calculated act of audacious gamble, deliberately seeking out the hunters in the hope that they would least expect to find the hunted within their pack.

Of course, even I knew the odds. But of course the only alternative would have been the certainty of terror and probable death in the ghetto exposed to hunger, disease and the fancy of uniformed bandits. Our plan for survival was tested countless times when we might have slipped up on the details of routine existence with the killers at such close quarters. We were observed all the time by a constant queue that stretched past the bed to the overflowing lavatory. There were questions asked about the persistent theft of first-aid supplies. One evening in a rare lull of the air-raids, Irene was arrested by the Gestapo.

At the foot of the bed stood Victor the wolf inspecting the waiting children huddled in fear and silence. The guardsman was dressed like a hero. His Hitler moustache was carefully sculpted, his uniform freshly pressed, and his three-quarter burgundy leather jacket glowed, his gunholster glittered in the paraffin light. The game is up, he announced, we know who you are. Your mother is off to the Danube, feeding the fish. If you are stupid you'll follow with the next batch. But if you are smart and admit to the truth while you may, you can live through the siege in a home we run for nice little Jewboys. You know you can trust me. What do you say?

But George the oldest mustered his dignity: How dare you slander the sons of an officer above your rank? How dare you insult his family as Jews? And Paul piled it on: You can only act brave with children behind the lines while our father is fighting the Russians ... Just wait until mother comes home.! For my part, I stared between his eyes very hard and tried not to blink. Did our ferocious insistence confuse the ambush? What else might explain why Victor failed to apply the Arrowcross test and look beneath the sheets for a proof of our race in a country where only Jews and foreigners had their male children circumcized?

And Irene? Half a century later, I reconstruct the drama from her old stories, probably accurate. She was small and strong. She was protected by passion. A butcher's daughter in love .with her gentleman husband, at 37 she must have been at her prime, entirely devoted to surviving the siege. Expressive, brown, widely set eyes, high cheekbones, arched brow, a firm and generous body tried by hunger. …

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