07. 22. 2014. 08:51

Legacy (excerpt from the novel)

In 2002 a Jewish man recalls the dying days of the Hungary’s Nazi occupation and how, as a fourteen-year-old, he and his family were to be sent to the death camps before coming under the protection of legendary Swiss Vice-Consul, Carl Lutz. – An excerpt from Iván Sándor’s haunting novel, newly translated into English.

The boy should not look over there. Father does not say to me, Don’t look over there, but instead speaks to Mother, as if it were her responsibility that I should not look over there – but where? I am walking between them. I can see them exchange looks; this is an unspoken agreement between them. It is Father’s task to recognize that the time has come for something unavoidable for all of us, and after that come Mother’s tiny tasks, but in this case she can do nothing as she is walking on my left and can do nothing to stop me looking over to the right.

There is a dead body lying in the gateway.

Pulled out of the column and just now being covered with newspapers.

The two booted feet and right hand are poking from underneath. The fingers stretched out. The palm of the hand rigid in shellfish-like fashion. The hand looks as if it were charred.

Heart attack, says someone in front.

Can a heart attack be like an electric shock? Flashing through one and charring the flesh?

We have to pick up our step.

Those who lag behind get beaten with rifle-butts.

It is possible that what I thought was charring was a threadbare black glove. Some of us gave a fleeting glance at the dead body.

A young man steps out of another gateway and turns up the collar of his winter overcoat, pulls the visor of his cap down over his eyes. He steps off the pavement when the BuMuT conductor with the Arrow Cross armband and the submachine-gun-toting Home Guard move away from each other. He slips an envelope into the hand of one of the men who is marching just ahead of us, says something to him, turns around and vanishes into another gateway.

So, at six in the morning Misi sees an armed detachment through the spyhole in their front door at 78 Amerikai Road, asks for time to get the keys, but he doesn’t bring them; instead he hurries out of the back door into the caretaker’s apartment and ten minutes later reappears with a few papers that belong to the caretaker’s absent son, watches his family’s Swiss Schutzbriefe being ripped up, hurries off to the Glass House at 29 Vadász Street (an annexe of the Swiss Legation and home to the local office of the Jewish Agency and where Schutzbriefe were produced) in Pest’s inner-city Vth District. He pushes his way through the crowd of several hundred who are pleading for such documents, acquires authenticated copies, heads across the city in search of our column, reaches it, hurries ahead, waits under a gateway on Bécsi Road, steps out at an appropriate moment, slips the documents into the hand of the man on the outside of the row, who immediately passes them on. Misi vanishes, and all that is what his sister tells me fifty-eight years later while we drink coffee. I, though, do not recall this, whereas she does not recall a dead body covered with newspaper.

Misi is average-sized. Wears spectacles. Not the sporting type. He goes to the opera, sings Verdi arias. His voice is none too good. The column leaves the dead body behind. Him, too.

On the stretch of the Millennium Underground, which runs from the city centre to Zugló, in one of the showcases recently installed at the Opera House station is a group photograph of the pupils at the Israelite Gymnasium who took their school-leaving examinations in 1944. Dark suits, white shirts, ties, regulation six-point stars on the breast pockets of the jackets. Misi is on the second row, fourth from the left.

Hung. Royal Government on the matter of decree 1240/1944 concerning the distinguishing marks for Jews. Outside the home, from the time the current decree comes into force onwards, all Jews regardless of gender who have completed their sixth year of life are obliged to wear on the left breast of the outer garment a readily visible canary-yellow star of 10 x 10 cm in diameter and made of silk or satin cloth.

M. is blinking in the photograph. He looks young for his age. Seven months later he would be breaking through detachments in the city. He does not his clean his steamed-up spectacles. He knows which gateway to wait in, when he should step out, how he should approach the column and in what direction he should disappear.

I would like to get there. I would like to put the knapsack down, change socks, dry my clothes.

Far in the distance, at the end of Bécsi Road, in the last few minutes before darkness falls, the chimney of a brick kiln pokes up into the sky.

On the left is the entrance to the St Margit’s Hospital, a sure point from which to get one’s bearings in the gloom.

By now the sheds full of drying bricks are visible in the arch of the hillside.

The space behind the enormous, wide-open gate swallows up the columns ahead of us.

The sound of gunfire in the distance. I am able to tell from the gunfire the difference between rifle shots and submachine-gun bursts. These are dull-sounding cracks from a north-easterly direction.

A bend in the road. The front of our column flashes in the light of pocket torches. Bayonets are fitted on to rifles; submachine-gun barrels are directed at us. The lieutenant, as if this were a dress parade, is marching four paces ahead of the first row with two deputies falling in behind him – one the gendarme NCO, the other a Party functionary. We march in step on command – women, old people and children younger than me as well – as if we were marching in the schoolyard past the dais at some festivity. Or rather, no, as if I were sleepwalking. Not that the column is a dream, but everything that has happened, both before and after. The truth is my path to the gateway. I am a fourteen-year-old boy, and I see the face of an elderly man as he watches me, trying to write down what he see as he bends over a sheet of paper.

The light of pocket torches on dead bodies lying in the mud. On both sides are lines of submachine guns. The lieutenant salutes. Identifies himself. The front of the procession has now passed beyond the gate. Our row is next.

 

This extract was published by arrangement with Peter Owen Publishers, London
First English language edition published in Great Britain 2014 by Peter Owen Publishers
© Iván Sándor 2006
English translation © Tim Wilkinson 2014
ISBNs
978-0-7206-1571-5 (PB)
978-0-7206-1572-2 (EPUB)
978-0-7206-1573-9 (KINDLE)
978-0-7206-1574-6 (PDF)
Cover design: James Nunn

Translated by: Tim Wilkinson

Tags: Iván Sándor