I first saw the bullet holes in 1978, when I was 15 years old. They were dotted around the wall, at knee height, just inside the main entrance of 59, Népszinház Street, a large three-storey block of flats in Budapest’s poorer Eighth District. This was where my father had lived as a child. He and my mother, like 200,000 others, had escaped Hungary in 1956 as invading Soviet tanks crushed the revolution. But the bullet holes had been made before then, in 1944, and not by Soviet soldiers, whether liberating or invading.
That summer was my first trip to Hungary, and it was also my father’s first return to the country from which he had fled as a political refugee. He had wanted to visit the building at the end of Népszinház Street not simply because it had been his childhood home. He had another, specific, reason. He wanted to thank someone. On a very hot afternoon, I remember him speaking to an old woman in the shadowy courtyard. I remember him pointing to a cellar. I remember him mentioning the noises. I remember him speaking of blood. And I remember him pointing out the bullet holes. Seventy years after the holes were made, and a few years after my father’s death in 2010, I published a family history. While researching the lives of my Hungarian Jewish ancestors over two centuries, I realised that the event that had led to the bullet holes had never been written about, let alone officially recorded. Today, I know as much it’s possible to know. But it was on that first trip to Budapest that I heard the bare bones of the story. Then, like with so many stories told to a child by a parent, I forgot about it. This year is Holocaust Memorial Year in Hungary. It is also a commemoration of the Yellow Star Houses of Budapest, a non-governmental project undertaken by the Open Society Archive in conjunction with the Central European University. My father’s childhood home was one such house, established for the purpose of concentrating Jews prior to their intended deportation. Although Hungary had been a Nazi ally, its leader, Admiral Horthy, had attempted in 1944 to get out of the war by making overtures to the Allies. This was the principal trigger for the German invasion on 19 March. Not many Germans turned up. In fact, SS Lieutenant Colonel Adolf Eichmann only brought with him around 200 ‘Sonderkommando’. The rest was left to the Hungarian state, which was naturally complicit, willing and able to facilitate the Holocaust’s fastest and most efficient deportation of Jews. Some 437,000 were taken to Auschwitz between 15 May and 9 July 1944, and most of the Jews murdered in Auschwitz were from Hungary, including many of my provincial Hungarian ancestors.
Budapest’s Jews generally had a different fate. Despite being concentrated in 2,600 designated houses marked with yellow stars, having their movements severely curtailed, and being made to wear personal yellow stars, the capital’s Jews would, for the most part, escape deportation. Their situation changed for the worse after the installation of the Hungarian Fascist Arrow Cross government on 15 October 1944. Only two days later, on 17 October, the bullets struck the wall just inside the main entrance of 59, Népszinház Street. The holes they left behind were at knee height because they had been fired downwards by standing men into the heads, the napes to be precise, of around twenty kneeling victims. My father, István, as he was then known, and my cousins’ father, Tomi, were best friends, both aged 14. They could easily have been among the dead. Almost all the victims were male, and either too young or too old to be taken on forced labour. The rest of the men, including both boys’ fathers, had already been taken away. In fact, both boys’ fathers had been taken to serve in the same forced labour unit, eventually to die close together, probably of starvation or disease or beating, on the Eastern Front. Their mothers, too, were best friends, and when the network of Yellow Star Houses was initiated shortly after the German invasion, it was natural for family and friends to try to remain together. Whatever their efforts came to, the Yellow Star Houses were always overcrowded. The concierge of a Budapest block was usually the one to oversee domestic business but, after the creation of Yellow Star Houses, a ‘house commander’ was appointed, a non-Jew, possibly an existing resident, but one with Arrow Cross sympathies or membership.
In my grandmother’s top-floor flat, at least 11 people were forced to live together, including her aging grandparents. In the neighbouring flat lived the appointed house commander. After my grandmother’s death in 1985, we found among her papers a potted life history, two brief pages of key dates, births, addresses, deaths, and the ‘ending of her happiness’ when her husband was taken. There is also an entry for 17 October 1944. It was here that she wrote the name of the house commander, and stamped on him an identity with a single word: gyilkos. Murderer. Over the years of research for the book, I managed to find corroborating evidence from independent witnesses, the archives of the Ambulance Service, photographs taken in the area by Wehrmacht soldiers, and the graves of some of the victims among the hopelessly overgrown plot of the Kozma Street Jewish cemetery. Finally, it has been possible to piece together the sequence of events before and after my father’s childhood memories. On 16 October, the Arrow Cross had plans for the Eighth District. They would seal the neighbourhood in the early hours of 17 October, for what was initially a trial deportation. For some local residents, it would be an actual deportation. For others, especially the older ones, the prospect alone was so frightening that they committed suicide. What would single out Number 59 for different treatment was that, on the night of the 16th, the building’s house commander fired a shot. He probably used his old service revolver from a preceding war. The shot he fired out of the window was aimed nowhere in particular. His intention was simply to report a shot being fired, and to blame it on a resident Jew. He knew this would attract immediate Arrow Cross attention and violent retribution. The outcome would be at least one vacant flat, a flat of which he could then take charge.
His cynical motive included some sentiment. My grandmother, Lili, and her best friend, Panci, were, according to my grandmother, his ‘exceptional Jews’. He must have warned them of what was to take place. With his knowledge, and with the direct help of the concierge and his wife, the two boys, István and Tomi, were taken down to the cellar and hidden. At dawn on 17 October, the Arrow Cross arrived. The residents of Népszinház Street were herded onto the street at dawn by armed Arrow Cross squads, some in uniform, some in civilian clothes with Arrow Cross armbands. My grandmother, according to my father, said that one of those who came to Népszinház Street was dressed in his postman’s uniform. Along the street’s mile and a half, from the tram terminus at one end to Teleki Square at the other, residents had to line up, ready to be marched to the nearby Tattersaal racetrack. This is exactly what happened to my grandmother and her parents, who were, according to my grandmother, ‘driven like sheep with lots of beatings’ until they reached the racetrack. In the meantime, the Arrow Cross selected around twenty male residents. These were then taken to the wall by the main entrance and executed with a tarkó lövés, literally a ‘nape shot’. The boys could hear the shouts and the shots, and would later see and smell the blood when it was safe to come out almost two days later. A day after that, on 19 October, my grandmother, and most of the other residents of Népszinház Street, were allowed home. By then, the corpses had been removed, most likely in ambulances commandeered by the Arrow Cross.
The woman my father returned to thank in 1978 was the wife of the concierge of the block. Mrs. Farkas, along with her husband who by then had died, had regularly brought the boys soup and bread during their two days in hiding. Family history creaks under the weight of things left unacknowledged, unrecorded and unwritten. The absences are always the greater part. By the 21st Century, the bullet holes in 59, Népszinház Street had been filled in. The graves in Kozma Street cemetery, however, have become a little more accessible. A few people, including me, have contributed to the clearing of Plot 5C. Now, after 70 years, Budapest’s Yellow Star Houses will be commemorated, and at least some of the absences of wartime history will be acknowledged by a country that has yet to come to terms with its past. ____________________________________________________
Nick Barlay’s ‘Scattered Ghosts’ is published by I.B.Tauris.
For details of this and his other works, see Nick Barlay’s website at www.nickbarlay.com