Thursday, February 24, 2011

Magda's Book (A Children's Story)

1.

Here is a picture of our attic. All those books are ours. And that is Magda sewing my coat.

We have been here for about a month now. Magda has a husband but he had to go away to work.

She is my best friend. And I am her best friend. Though I am only thirteen, she tells me I act like her mother. I don't mind. Her real mother is gone, but I still have mine. And father too.

I got the idea for this book from Magda. I mean I found her memory book hidden on the shelves. She doesn't know I found it.

You can see how nice it is. People had time to make nice things then. Myself I have poor penmenship. But no one is going to complain. Like Magda's book, my book is a secret.

Did you see the tear in the pocket? In the last picture, I mean. On my coat. Magda and I were at Keleti Station. We weren't allowed to be there, obviously. But I had the pass my father gave me. Here is what it looked like.

And this is the station. They are going to resettlement. Magda and I stay here, safe in this house that belongs to Sweden.

Somewhere among all those people getting on the train was Gabi, Magda's favorite teacher.

The memory book was in my pocket, but I didn't have to take it out to know what Gabi wrote down. The date was 1941. Three years ago. Here it is:

"When childhood first awakes to consciousness,
When its faith first is being torn by destiny,
When you, heart and soul, cry out in pain,
Beware, that's when life begins."

2.

My father tells me that mother watches over him. And he watches over me. Always no matter what. And that I have to watch over Magda. Some people need more watching over, he says. I asked what I could possibly do for my friend Magda. She knows everything. Reads all night. She's married, she's a teacher, She's a tailor. She is kind. She is wise. And father said I was right. Still she needs to know someone is watching over her.

"In life you're cared for by these three:
God, parents, and good friends.
Worship the first, respect the second, and never forget the third."

I guess you are wondering about how we got here. Magda used to live with us. I mean our house, our big house, my father and mother and grandmother's house. We had plenty of company, because families from other parts of the city had to move out of their own houses, they were told to, and they came to live with us. Our house became school, dormatory, my father's law office, and political headquarters too, unfortunately, my father says.

Politicians. My father always said that word in a funny way. On our last day, before we came here, the politician guy came over in his big car. He saw me sitting outside on the steps, said to Magda beside me "may I?" and ruffled my hair. Pretty girl.

Are you a politician? I asked.
Are you going to shoot me?
Do you deserve it?
You're the daughter, I recognize you. Your father taught you to talk that way.

And he went up the steps and into the house. Five minutes later all the children, all of them, came stumbling over each other out into the street. Magda went inside and came back with the news: we all had to go. We were going to the Swedes. Father had arranged it. We have to hurry. They are coming. The politician came to warn us. And then she turned to go back inside. For the books.

I remembered what my father taught me. All these little kids needed someone to look after them. They looked to each other, and saw that every one of them was looking at the others for someone to look after them, they were scaring each other looking for help from each other. Mother, Father would say, is not here, but I know she looks after us. She demands we do good, she's watching to catch us out. So I thought, give the little kids something good to do. I said,

- Magda, tell them we're taking the books. We're taking the books! Get them to repeat it. Line them up, up the stairs, along the street. We'll pass on the books kid to kid, from our library to the Swedes house. We can see it from here. I took Magda's elbow and got her going. She was shocked like the rest at having to move again so soon.

And my father was right. The books arrived in our attic here, the kids came with them.

This is what Magda's book says:

"There are two beautiful things in life,
On which destiny has no power:
Diligence and morality,
On earth and in heaven we're blessed by them."

3.

In the picture of our house you can see the Swedish Flags and the sign above the door, "Svenska Bibliotek". Father said it was Mr. Wallenberg's idea to call the house a library. Now where the sign is really is a library!

It was through Per, the man who worked with Mr. Wallenberg, that Magda and I first met. Magda translated German and Hungarian for Per. Per and Mr. Wallenberg are Swedes who are helping us.

Father worked with the Politician, as he called him. And both of them often went to see the Swedes. Father always says he liked to keep me in his sight and out of everyone else's.

He took me with him to meetings, Per took Magda, so often Magda and I found ourselves waiting together, this time in the kitchen of a big house out in the Buda Hills that Per was renting.

We sat over the coffee the house maid prepared for us, listening to the murmur of voices coming from the dining room, the voices of the German Eichmann, Per, and Father. That reminds me. It's hard to describe Magda's voice. She doesn't like to talk much. She likes to sing, especially while she sews. I said to her in the kitchen,

- The men in the other room: they are deciding who lives and who dies.

Magda looked at me with her quiet eyes. I knew what she was thinking. She was thinking that I was too young to know.

But we both had been there at the train station. We saw the brave Mr. Wallenberg jump on the roof of the train, throw in his Shutz Passes, lead the people out of the train and station and into his cars with Swedish flags. The Germans shouted get down! stop! they shot their rifles into the air. He didn't go through that to save people from "resettlement". Even a 13 year old can figure that out.

We can at least know what they're saying, I urge Magda. Come with me.

We take off our shoes and tip toe to the closed double doors of the dining room.

4.

Crouched outside, in the hallway around the corner from the closed doors to the dining room, we can clearly hear three voices. Per, the Swedish Diplomat, Adolph Eichmann, the Nazi officer, Rudolph Katztner, the "Politician". Per is saying to Eichmann,

- You should worry about what will happen at the end of the war. About your future.

- You should be worried too. The Russians will get here first. They will be uncertain about who you work for. Sweden? America? Other countries?

- We receive financial support from the American Refugee Relief Board. It is a humanitarian organization.

- If you say so. You use American money to help the Jews stay, when it is my job to send them away.

- But you know Germany has lost the war.

- We can still complete the task we have set for ourselves.

- You are talking about killing people.

- Killing Jews.

- For the glorious future of Germany, when Germany has no future. You say so yourself.

- Watch yourself, my dear Per. We Germans still have our present, and presently we are here in Budapest.

- I'll ask you again. Why send people to their deaths for an idea you don't believe in? You say the killing will make the world a better place for your people, who might soon be killed to make the world a better place for their conquerors.

- And I'll say again, Watch yourself, Per. I believe in doing my job. I am well rewarded for it. I will do it as long as I can and will enjoy doing it up until the end.

What do you say, Herr Kasztner?

- I also believe in doing my job, and that is saving people. The future of nations, polite dinner table gossip I leave to the diplomats.

- Bravo. $1000 each transported. Train to Switzerland. That is true international language. You'll have your train, I promise you. Do your work, I'll do mine.

5.

Magda is surprised, me too, when Father appears standing before us, a quizzical expression on his face. I say,

- There you are.

- There you are. Clear out!

- Where have you been?

- Making a telephone call. What business is it of yours? Back to where you are supposed to be, you two!

In the kitchen Magda stands before the stove, her face turned away.

- Magda! Only God decides who lives and who dies.
- I have to trust Father will do what is right.
- What can he do alone?
- He can be a good man. Kata, come here. We will sit in this kitchen and drink another cup of coffee. We don't get it often. You want to think a way out for us, then go ahead and do it. I'll see that Father listens to you. Right now we'll try to be good to each other.

She puts her arms around me, rests her head on my shoulder. I'm big for my age, so it isn't too awkward.

"In life you're cared for by these three:
God, parents, and good friends.
Worship the first, respect the second, and never forget the third."

That's from the first page of the memory book.

6.

On the Sabbath Magda and I exercised our privilege, as Father would say, of leaving our house with the Swedish Flag driving in Per's car flying the Swedish flag.

The Pest Synagogue was full. Here is a picture. We looked down on the crowd from the women's balcony high above. I said to Magda,

- If I ran down there, climbed onto a chair and shouted, you all are going to die! what would happen? There are thousands. They'd tell their friends.

- The Germans would take you away. No one would believe you, man or woman.They'd say to each other that if it were true, the Rabbis would have told them.

Do you see that boy? Blond hair, blue eyes? That's Lantos.

- Your friend?

- You've seen him at home. He brings medicine to all the safe houses. He's coming tonight.

- He looking up at us.

- Don't look! Let's go to the car.

In Magda's book I read:

"To love many is a guilt,
To love two is a sin,
To love One is sweet,
Solely be faithful and warm."

7.

Magda has gathered all the children together for school. I don't have to attend because I take lessons all day living with her up in our attic. And anyway everyone keeps talking about how advanced I am.

The surprise I have for Magda is that Lontos is coming after class with Father. We are going to ambush Magda. We need her good sense.

By the way, he is not really her father. He's my father. He is father to her, he says, as she is mother to the children. As I am mother to her!

Father arrives just as the class ends. Lontos is with him. Father kisses Magda on the cheek, kisses me on the cheek. Lontos signals to me with a little wave of his hand. He says,

- I hope Kata was telling me the truth. She said that you would listen. She and I have agreed on this: we cannot choose between selecting some to be saved, and warning the rest the resettlement trains are death trains. We have to do both.

- How?

- If people are warned, they can try to escape, they can hide, they can defend themselves, they can join the resistance.

- Why would they believe you?

- We will choose the people who are ready to believe. We'll do it quietly. That's what we are doing now. We won't destroy Kastner's deal with Eichmann.

Take your house full of orphans on the Kastner train, if you can do it. But help us too. We'll find those who will believe. We'll do it quietly. They'll join us, save themselves and others. Will you help?

Kata, ask your father.

- Father?

- Magda, what do you think?

- Yes.

The Memory Book says:

"In the storm of life your clear inner-self is the best shelter."

8.

This is a picture of train station goodbyes. The memory book:

"It's hard to find a good friend,
And a true, whole-hearted partner.
But it's even harder to be separated
From the one you love,
When it's such a precious thing you can't find anything like it on the whole Earth."

Time passes quickly. I'm growing up fast. This is the last I will write for a while. Magda refuses to go with us. She won't take a chance from someone else. And there is work for her here. Lontos is staying too. He laughs: Kastner forgot to save him a place on his train! He promises to look after Magda.