By David Merkler (Barcelona, Spain)
When I was 14 years old, I wrote my O-level English language project entitled: “My father’s experiences during the war.” At that time, I was extremely unsure about what had happened. I knew my grandfather and uncle had died in the war, but little else. I sat down in my father’s study, asked him some questions, and he told me a few sketchy details. Either he didn’t want to remember or simply had drawn a veil over everything. Either way I can remember the opening lines of my project: “My father was born in Budapest on the 6th January 1933 and twenty-four days later Hitler came to power (on the 30th January 1933).” Call it bad timing. Born Jewish at the wrong time in the wrong place.
The suffering of Hungarian Jewry was the longest and, in some ways, the cruelest of all of European Jewry. Hungary beat even Nazi Germany in passing the first anti-Semitic law in 20th century Europe in 1920. The Numerus Clausus limited the number of university places available to Hungarian Jewish students. In the 1930s neo-Nazi politicians in countries allied to Nazi Germany, including Hungary and Rumania, passed anti-Semitic legislation mirroring what had been passed in Germany limiting their individual rights to work, circulate, own property etc. More significantly, they collaborated with the Nazis, deporting Jews to lands controlled directly by the Germans where they were exterminated and their armies participated in the massacre of Jews. In their madness these countries sent poorly equipped troops to fight alongside Nazi Germany against the Soviets who killed and imprisoned them in massive numbers. Exploiting their weakness to encircle the German troops besieging Stalingrad in 1942, the Soviets broke out of Stalingrad, inflicted the first defeat on the Nazis, and initiated the beginning of the end of the murderous Nazi machine.
My father’s parents, Valeria and Istvan, were working in Germany in the early 1930’s. Valeria, like anybody who had any sense, knew that things were only going to get worse. They returned to Hungary, and Valeria did what any normal person would do—she had her children baptized, converted to Catholicism, and sent to Catholic boarding schools. The war started. The war raged on. And until 19th March 1944 most of Hungary’s Jews—more than 600,000—were still alive.
Finally, as Hungary tried to change sides in 1944 knowing that the Nazis were going to be defeated, a contingent of the German Army and SS led by Adolf Eichmann entered Hungary, took control, established their headquarters in Budapest’s largest synagogue, installed an even more extreme neo-Nazi anti-Semitic government, and initiated the deportation of Hungary’s provincial Jewry, mostly to Auschwitz. The deportation of the capital’s Jewish population began but was not completed.
My father’s childhood memories in that last year were, amongst others, of peeking through a hole in a wall to watch a film where Jews were not allowed to go, of the guilt he felt later at stealing bread from a woman at night in the ghetto, and the shame he felt when boys who he had gone to school with saw him wearing the Star of David, which marked him out as a pariah. He would suffer starving conditions (many died of hunger and thirst in the ghetto), tuberculosis, and would finally be liberated by Soviet forces in January 1945 after the city had been besieged and bombarded for weeks. His father, Istvan, and brother, Peter, were deported and later murdered in the last few weeks of the war. We know that Istvan’s remains lie in a mass grave in Brück-an-der-Leite. We don’t know where Peter fell or was murdered. He was marched to a sub-camp of Mauthausen called Gunskirchen He has no grave. My grandmother Valeria told me he had been liberated by the Americans at Gunskirchen, but was too weak to survive. My father said we simply don’t know. He retraced the route of the final march with a Hungarian Jewish survivor. I think my grandmother wanted to believe that her son had tasted freedom, if only briefly, at the age of 15 before his murderous end. Valeria’s sister, Elsa, was amongst the first to be deported from Budapest. We know nothing of her fate. My father always believed she had been deported to Ravensbruck.
At the end of the war my father was placed in an orphanage. My grandmother, Valeria, who had made her way to England in 1938, enlisted in the American army where she worked translating correspondence from German to English to help the Americans capture Nazi war criminals. (I hope her work contributed to the capture of some.) She was based in Germany and travelled to Hungary (which was under the control of the Soviets), found András, and bribed Soviet border guards with American cigarettes so she could take him out of Hungary, first to Germany and later England. So now you see why my father wanted to be buried with his mother in England, where we laid him to rest a month ago.
We are only here as Jews because of those who came before us and made the decision to be Jews, sometimes against all odds. That was my father’s case. He decided to be Jewish against all the odds, to venerate those who were murdered, and pay respect to past generations who had lived peacefully as non-religious Jews.
The day of death is the marker of who we actually became. My father chose to be Jewish. He chose to bring up a Jewish family. And he chose to remember and venerate the past when he wrote his book on the history of his family. His last words to me were “G-d bless.” When I saw him on his deathbed, I told him that he should go to heaven and say hello to Istvan, Valeria, and Peter, and not worry. The Merklers and our Jewish identity would continue here on Earth. I asked him to squeeze my hand if he understood. He squeezed my hand.
I make the same decision as my father to be Jewish and venerate those past generations.
David Merkler was born and grew up in London, England and now lives in Gelida, outside Barcelona, Spain. You can reach him at email@example.com
If you’d like to learn more about David’s father, you can read ”My Father Is Dying” (https://jewishwritingproject.wordpress.com/2011/08/08/my-father-is-dying/) which he shared on The Jewish Writing Project in 2011.