I met Edith more than ten years ago one Sunday morning in shopping centre of all places. There she was, sitting next to me as I had my coffee, this beautiful elderly woman, writing intently. As I left, I asked her if she was writing her story. And so began our friendship with its regular meetings in our coffee shop and over time, Edith entrusted me with her three blue exercise books, handwritten in Hungarian.
At that very first meeting, I asked her what she was writing about that day. She was recalling her father returning to Hungary from the WW1 and how on that day, her life as a six year old changed because her father, whom she could barely remember, moved into her mother’s bed and she was exiled forever from it. It took her years to reconcile with this stranger and her most intimate memory of her father was sharing a cigarette with him in the wagon on the way to Auschwitz.
When I asked her why she was writing her story, she replied so that she would not disappear without a trace and something would be left of what her life meant to her. Edith died on 18th April 2016 at 102 years of age. And she has left a trace of her remarkable life, a life that spanned almost the whole of the 20th century.
At the Sydney Jewish Museum, we decided we would publish Edith’s story Reminiscence and Peter Gyenes translated it. His commitment to her story was so extraordinary that he even bought a Hungarian keyboard so that he could type her story in the language in which it was written.
It is a story that reaches back into old Hungary and a girl growing up between the wars. She is intelligent and articulate, artistic and sophisticated. It is the story about the closing down of Jewish life and how that impacted on one individual girl, a girl for whom her Jewishness was not a defining feature of her life. Until it was the most important feature. Edith trained as a graphic designer and had some naively happy times designing dresses for fashion boutiques and ‘living as a respected member of society’. Suddenly the veil was torn away and she had to face the reality of German occupation of Hungary. She had fallen in love with Laszlo Rosenberg, a young composer and discovered a world of music through him. They were married in May 1944 and he was sent off to a labour camp together with her young brother Janos. At 90 she still remembered the pain she felt waving goodbye to him on the tram. He died at 32 years of age of typhoid.
During these recent years, when for some of them she was lost in the mists of time, she would look constantly at the photo on her wall of her parents, and she would retell the moment of anguish when she saw them and her extended family for the last time. That moment of separation was as they disembarked in Birkenau. It was her mother’s birthday, the 2nd July, 1944.
Her impeccable German and her drawing skills saved her and she was sent to a munitions factory in Haberstadt in what was then Germany. And perhaps it was her beauty too as one of the German officers was sweet on her. Liberated by the Russians in May 1945, she began the dangerous journey home to Budapest, hoping to regain her life. The only family members left were her old aunt Ilonka and miraculously her much younger brother, Janos. Thirteen years her junior , Janos had survived the labour battalions. But there was no one else.
Edith writes, ‘We lived in total uncertainty like savages for quite a while, but we were young and compared to past horrors, we were happy to be living at all…. The days passed with the joy of life, laughter, flippant carelessness. Single women and men looked for each other’s company, we wanted to forget the dreadful suffering and totally abandoned ourselves to the free world, devoid of fear. That was what we thought!’
Edith now re-met Istavn Szanto (Pista), who had been a witness at her first marriage. Pista had lost his wife and newborn daughter in Auschwitz. Miraculously they fell in love. ‘We had to forget our bitter torments if we wanted to live a normal life…. We became younger, our faces lit up , the sad wrinkles disappeared. We held each other’s hands which gave us strength and we believed in a better future.’ They were married on 4th June 1948.
Edith’s ensuing pregnancy was sadly ectopic and she was never able to ‘fulfil her biological destiny ‘as she would tell me. This was a cause of great regret to her in her long life.
Life under the Communist regime in Hungary became increasingly dangerous for them with Pista designated a ‘class enemy’, despite being reduced to‘ Dr Istvan Szanto, labourer’ on his identity papers because of his association with the Socialist Party. Edith was drawing propaganda posters for the Communist Party, with a good future ahead of her, but life was increasingly fraught. They lived with ‘bell fright’ and the daily fear of being deported. When the Russians troops invaded and her brother, who had been involved in student protests, was in danger of being deported to Russia, the decision was made to leave Hungary immediately. Leaving her little dog Kuksi behind continued to haunt Edith more than 60 years later.
Fleeing as a family group of five (Edith, Pista, her brother Janos and his wife and their three year old daughter, Suzi) they made their way across the border to Austria and then finally to Australia. Edith ends her memoir ten years ago with, ‘On 31st August I will be 92 years old! I’m still walking every day to drink strong coffee in Chatswood Chase, sitting at the same table, thinking about the past.’
Not quite. After the inevitable fall, her niece Suzi had to move Edith from the family home she had shared with her brother and his wife the whole time they lived in Sydney to a nursing home. Pista had died six years earlier and Edith could no longer manage the stairs and caring for herself. I tried to persuade her to move to Montefiore but she carried with her the fear of being identified as Jewish. When I took her matzah in her Uniting Church nursing home one Pesach, she had me hide it in the cupboard, fearful someone would know she was Jewish.
Our outings became more circumscribed but we still managed visits to the New South Wales Art Gallery coordinated by a friend who works there. We would begin with a coffee in the café and as always, it would not be up to scratch. No coffee was ever good enough to compare to Hungarian coffee. I loved wheeling her through the gallery and hearing her very forthright comments about the paintings. She was not diminished in her critical capacity. But when she saw something she loved, she delighted in its beauty. And then she would return to her room, surrounded by soft animal toys and photographs.
The last long years were very hard for Edith. Suzi was an attentive and caring niece, but Edith could no longer paint and she felt the burden of being ‘useless’ . This for a woman who had worked her whole life. Her hearing became harder and while she could read, one could communicate with a mixture of writing and talking. Her beloved brother was admitted to the same home with dementia and that was another great sadness for her. He was so much younger than she was but no longer knew her. So when she died on the 18th April 2016 I was very glad that she was buried next to Pista at Macquarie Park and despite the many years of no Jewish connection, that she finally has a Jewish resting place and that there is a place to leave a stone in remembrance.
Author: Lucy Chipkin
Note: Reminiscence is available for purchase at the Museum shop or on the Museum website.