May 302010

Two generations ago, my paternal family was all Hungarian. Although both grandparents were technically born in small Czechoslovakian villages just North of the border, culturally and linguistically they belonged with their neighbors to the South.

Somewhere around age 16, my grandfather’s father (from whom I got my middle name – Alexander) walked from what is now Slovakia to within 20 miles of Budapest in hopes of finding work. He walked the whole way along the railroad tracks with his shoes hanging around his neck; they were his only pair. When he stopped at a railway station to ask what distance remained on his journey the stationmaster took pity and gave him a ticket to ride the train the rest of the way. Eventually, he found work as a waiter in a large hotel – though I never learned which.

I’m not exactly sure how or when my grandmother’s side made its way to Budapest, but I do know the exact address of the apartment in which she and her sisters hid out during the war. Eventually they were discovered; one sister was put to work building the old airport, and the other two (including my grandmother) were taken to Mauthausen, one of the largest labor camps in German-controlled Europe. On the day the war ended and Mauthausen was liberated, my grandmother had less than 24 hours remaining until her scheduled “termination.” Her sister wasn’t so lucky. If not for that tiny apartment in Budapest, and the time it bought her before she was discovered, she would never have survived – and I wouldn’t have been born.

Needless to say, I had to go for a visit.

So after a bit of wandering I found my way to the front entrance of the small, dilapidated building and pulled out my cellphone to compare it with a photo taken about ten years earlier, when the other surviving sister – my great aunt – had returned for a visit of her own. Although the address hanging above the door was the same, the facade didn’t quite match – and it was clear from the chipped paint and crumbling walls that the reason wasn’t a remodeling.

As I stood there fiddling with the map and trying to make sure I was in the right place, a man walked up and put his key in the door. I quickly pulled him aside and showed him the picture. He spoke virtually no English but confirmed through gestures that I was indeed in the right spot. Despite our communication difficulty he seemed very eager to help. Perhaps he was just curious what an American was doing staring at his dilapidated little apartment building in a small backstreet of a Budapest ghetto.

I continued to explain – mostly via photos – about my grandmother and why I was there, until suddenly his eyes brightened with recognition. He turned the key and led me inside, to the central courtyard.

Ah, so that’s where the photo was taken.

But there was still more – his real reason for inviting me in was to bring me upstairs to meet his mother, who had been living in the building for more than half a century. He assumed that if my descendants had also lived there, she must’ve known them.

His mother looked just like my Bubbi – a sweet, white-haired little Hungarian lady whom her son called Anyu (meaning “mom” in Hungarian – the name that almost everyone in my family used to call Bubbi).

Unfortunately she had no memory of my relatives, and as it turned out she didn’t move there until 1951, after the war had already ended. Still, it was an interesting experience, and a lucky opportunity to see what the inside of the actual apartment probably looked like; the man and his mother lived directly above where my grandmother and her sisters had waited out much of the war.

By the time I stepped back outside the sun was starting to set, so I strolled to the end of the block and through the small park which the Nazis had used as their staging area, and from which my descendants were ultimately shipped off. It now housed a few picnic tables and a jungle gym.

Credit goes to Aunt V and cousin Linda for the above family history; please let me know if I got anything wrong 🙂

  15 Responses to “Family Roots”

  1. Sad history. My paternal grandfather was in the same camp (his second). The story handed down to me is that he escaped with some others when the war ended and the SS were ‘cleaning up’. If you look at modern Europe (Central Europe in particular), pretty much anyone living there is a descendant of a WW2 survivor. The unlucky ones didn’t get to pass on their genes.

  2. Yeah…and what’s sad is that we’re finally reaching the point where the last remaining survivors are passing away from old age. I lost both my grandparents in the last two years. Just one sister left.

    (Incidentally, I’m at this very moment writing the post about Bled and the kremsnita 🙂 )

  3. nice. I’m happy to say you actually have 3 great-aunts: 1 Klein + 2 Starks. But your conclusion is right on — only a few “survivors” still survive. And one more correction from the Stark side: sister Freda went to Mauthausen with your Bubbi. She also survived. The oldest sister Charlotte however, was killed in Aushwitz with her 2 children before she could join the family in Budapest.

  4. wow. intense reading. love you

  5. Great pilgrimage and cool story about getting to see the inside of the building.

  6. @Linda: Yeah, I got that from Aunt V just a few moments ago 🙂 Thanks for the history though! Perhaps I should post an update, for “archival correctness”, hehe 🙂

    @Dad: Ditto.

    @Peder: Yeah, it was pretty lucky 🙂 Too bad my trip to my great grandpa’s grave didn’t go quite so well (story to come!)

  7. Put up these pics you speak of

  8. Which pics?

  9. Justin, I love reading of your adventures. So glad you’re sharing your stories for the rest of the family to read. I can vouch for the Klein side of the story about my grandfather, Alexander. It’s nice that you are carrying on his name. Safe travels. Kathy

  10. Cool story and a nice experience

  11. Justin, I agree with many, great that you are taking the time to trace your Eastern European roots. Amazing that you got into that building! Love to see the pictures for comparison – now and then – the one you had with you in order to locate the building – I think this/these are the photos that Nick is referring to. Onwards.

  12. @Kathy: Thanks – Glad to hear you’re reading! 🙂

    @Dan: It’s just a snapshot of my great aunt in front of the building when she visited awhile back, nothing all that special. I’ll add more photos to everything when I get home, but for the time being I’m far enough behind on just the posts… 😛

  13. Great story.

  14. Must be surreal to visit the place responsible for your existence. Great writing, as always.

    It’s ironic how my grandma would hit the ground in the farm fields when Japanese planes flew overhead, yet now I’m living in their country, rubbing elbows with the enemy. 😉

  15. And thus is war. One day an enemy, next day an ally. Stupid.

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