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The Uncounted

Scenes from a postwar childhood in Budapest

Susan Rubin Suleiman
July 09, 2020
Kurt Hoffman
Kurt Hoffman
Kurt Hoffman
Kurt Hoffman

I’m back with the family album again. It’s not really an album, just loose photos in a jumble. But some were clearly torn from an album, with bits of black paper stuck to the back. I can imagine Mother on that summer day in 1949 when we left Hungary. She has to pack a suitcase, not too big, not too heavy: We’re about to set out on foot across the border. What do you take with you in such an event? A few pieces of jewelry (there wasn’t much anyway), warm clothing (it’s August, but one never knows), and of course some photos. But the album is too heavy, the photos will have to go solo. “Just a few, when she was a baby, then a bit older, then from last year when we had the photographer come to the house—she wore the new dress I had had made for her.” The “she” here is me, her only child. She hurriedly tears out the photos and stuffs them into the suitcase.

And now here I am, looking at them laid out in a row, on my bed upstairs in a house near the sea. No guarded borders to cross here, it’s peaceful and green and quiet, a safe place.

In 1948, for important occasions, Budapest ladies still had their dresses made in a salon, and even their daughters’ if they could afford it. There were specialized dressmakers for children, where you went and picked out a model from among the books of colored drawings in the waiting room and then went again for several fittings, just like the grown-ups. We were flush that year, as Mother’s business was going well. She had opened a kosher butcher shop with a man who knew about meat—she took care of the cash register. Her earnings, added to my father’s salary at the Orthodox Community Bureau, allowed for luxuries. That was the year of the grand piano, of ballet lessons at the Opera school, of the Viennese lady who took me for walks and gave me French lessons.

In the fall, we ordered a dress from Madame Orbán, the children’s dressmaker. Made of pale blue wool, it fell in soft folds to a few inches above my knees. The sleeves were short and puffy, with tucks all around. But what really drew the eye was the large front flap in the shape of a V, from the shoulders to the waist, edged with a white hand-sewn ribbon that was made up of tiny white flowers. Inside the V were more white flowers, slightly larger than those on the edge, and in the center a much bigger one that could also have been a snowflake. On one side of the dress, at hip level, a small half-moon pocket was outlined in the same white flower-ribbon. A lot of hunched-over hours and eyestrain had gone into the making of that dress.

Mother had a photographer come to the house to take pictures, to send to my grandmother who had left for America a few months earlier. She braided my hair with special care that day, tying each braid with a white silk ribbon and leaving a few inches of unbraided hair to float freely at the ends. On top she rolled the hair into a sausage shape, as if it were on a large curler, held up by bobby pins. The Hungarian name of this confection, “tarék,” refers to a rooster’s crown. I’ve never seen it anywhere else, but it was quite popular among elementary school girls in Budapest after the war.

The author, in 1948
The author, in 1948Courtesy of Susan Suleiman

I find it hard to distinguish, now, the part of this that belongs to memory and the part that comes from simply staring at the photos. They’re black and white, yet I remember well the pale blue color of the dress; but I have no concrete memory of wearing it or seeing those white flowers from the inside, with my eyes as they were then, not today’s eyes, scrutinizing, weighing. And the little girl in the photos, Zsuzsanna, only child of Miklós and Lili Rubin, Zsuzsika as she was called by those who loved her? She was I and I am she, but she too is part memory, part reconstruction—guesswork. Past selves, like familiar strangers.

I am sitting at the piano, fingers on the keyboard, head turned toward the camera, smiling broadly; I am curled up on the daybed in my parents’ bedroom, leaning on one elbow with an illustrated book open before me, smiling; I am looking at myself in a mirror and seem to like what I see: My head is turned away from the camera, but my face is visible in the mirror and I’m smiling. The fourth photo is equally artificial, but more arresting. I sit at the edge of a wicker chair against a bare white wall illuminated by a halo of light from the photographer’s lamp, my legs crossed at the ankles, my body slightly turned, head tilted, lips open in a melancholy smile. The pose is almost too grown-up, like one of those “waif” photos of starlets where the seduction is in the wistfulness; but the white knee socks and the slightly scuffed, ankle-high, lace-up shoes are those of a child.

Finally, there is a close-up, no props: a round-faced little girl with deep-set dark eyes and big ears, her eyebrows tensed in a barely visible frown. She looks at the camera, but her eyes seem turned inward. And despite all her finery—the bows, the hand-sewn flowers, the gold necklace and heart-shaped locket resting on the front of her dress—she looks sad. Is the sad little face the true one, the smiles merely superficial posing for the camera? Maybe it was just a passing shadow on an otherwise unclouded childhood.

Unclouded childhood ... Mommy, where are you going? Mommy, don’t leave me! She had taken me to the farm, left me there—I was about to turn 5, summer 1944. A few months earlier, Hitler’s army had invaded Hungary. The farm was for my safety and it wouldn’t be for long, she said before she disappeared. The farmer’s kids made fun of me, silly city girl afraid of geese. If I don’t get used to this, I’ll die. By the time she came to get me again, a few weeks later, I looked like all the other kids, squatting barefoot in the dusty courtyard, playing. Don’t bother me now, I don’t need you, don’t kiss me. She hugged me and hugged me, yet I felt nothing. Or maybe I no longer knew how I felt.

After the farm, it was the good time: Fall and winter, we were all together, Mother, Daddy and I, behind thick walls. We no longer lived on the Pest side, but in a big house on a hill in Buda, with strangers. False papers, false names, everything was pretend—an exciting, real-life adventure. Your name is Mary, don’t ever say Zsuzsika. It’s a matter of life and death, darling, do you understand? These people are nice, but don’t trust them. You’re smart, you can understand this. Next week is Christmas, we’ll all be together in the salon and you’ll sing “Silent Night, Holy Night.” I’ll teach you the words, it’s important. I learned the song and sang it, admired the tree laden with tinsel and shiny globes. Nobody could guess who we were, I told myself. Maybe it would be better if we were really Christians.

Then, months later, the return home, across the river, walking between Mother and Daddy, the dead horses in the street, the bombed-out buildings, blackened holes where windows had once been. But we were safe, and when we climbed the stairs to our apartment, we found Granny—she had been in the ghetto, had survived. A few weeks later, Uncle Laci came back from forced labor. “I made it,” he announced with a broad grin, his face grimy above the tattered jacket. Laci, always smiling, the good-natured one. (His older brother, Izsó, the serious one, never came back.)

After that everything returned to normal, except that whole families had been wiped out: Daddy’s aunts and uncles and cousins in Poland, so close to the Belzec extermination camp that it was no problem at all to transport them there; Mother’s uncles and aunts and cousins in the provinces in Hungary, from where they had been deported to Auschwitz in the usual cattle cars. But I didn’t know about those people for many years—no one talked about them, at least not when I was around. (Every Jew in Europe who survived lost family members, sometimes their whole family; it may seem astonishing that they never talked about them, but if you think about what it means to “turn the page and go on living,” you begin to understand.) I was busy with school, happily learning to read. Mother would buy me books about a girl named Zsuzsi, who had many adventures. I too had had an adventure, with Mother and Daddy. We had escaped the Nazis, clever us! Hitler was dead, we had survived. Even Granny had survived, in the ghetto where many died. What was there to be sad about?

A few years ago, on a visit to Budapest, I was taken up to the top floor of the synagogue on Dohány Street by a young researcher on the Holocaust. This was the office where historical records were kept, full of bookcases that looked badly in need of dusting. A lone archivist sitting at a cluttered desk kept watch; my friend introduced me to her. When she heard that I had lived in Budapest after the war, she pulled down a thick volume and handed it to me. I opened it to the title page: Counted Remnant: Register of the Jewish Survivors in Budapest, Budapest, 1946. Below the date, the sponsors: “Published by the Hungarian Section of the World Jewish Congress and the Jewish Agency for Palestine Statistical and Search Department.” A brief introduction informs the reader that this book “is one of gladness and of pain”—gladness at publishing the names of survivors, pain at the many thousands who did not survive. Of the roughly 600,000 Jews living in Hungary in 1944, more than two-thirds had perished by the time the Soviet Army entered Budapest in January 1945. The Jews in the provinces were almost completely wiped out, most of them deported to Auschwitz; the survivors were almost all in Budapest. The introduction goes on to explain that the counting began on July 8 and involved door-to-door visits by 402 “conscriptors” to more than 35,000 houses in the capital: The surviving remnant was literally counted, one by one. There follows an alphabetical list of close to 1,400 pages, each page printed in two columns: Every survivor is listed by name (both married name and maiden name for women), place and year of birth, mother’s maiden name, and current address in Budapest.

Naturally, I turned to the R’s first. Many Rubins appeared there, including my grandparents Baruch and Esther, my favorite aunt—my father’s younger sister Rózsi, who had not yet married—and my own parents: Rubin I. Miklós, born in Gorlice in 1910, and his wife, Livia (she preferred it to her real name, Lili, though no one called her Livia), maiden name Stern, born in Nyiregyháza in 1910. Gorlice is in Galizia, southern Poland, which had been part of the Habsburg Empire until 1919. My father’s parents had settled in Budapest years before he was born, but his mother returned to her native town to give birth to her first child. Nyiregyháza, my mother’s birthplace, is in northeastern Hungary, where some of her uncles and their families lived until they were deported. Mother and her sister and brothers spent many summer vacations there, and evidently Granny was there the summer Lili was born—July 1908, not 1910. Mother put the wrong date on every official document she had a chance to—she didn’t want it to be known that she was two years older than her husband!

It took me a while to realize that my name was missing from the list. A Rubin Zsuzsa was listed, but she was born in 1924 and her mother’s name was no relation to me. I looked up and down the page several times, in case I appeared in a different place among the Rubins, after Pál or Tekla or Simon—but no, my absence from the counted remnant was definitive. How could the conscriptors have seen my parents and grandmother, and even my uncle, all of them listed at the same address (Granny and Laci appeared under the Sterns), and missed me? The introduction to the book had warned that mistakes were inevitable. OK, I was a mistake. But I couldn’t help wondering: What if my absence from the list had actually meant I had not survived? Only 11% of Jewish children alive at the outbreak of the war were still alive at its end, historians say. One out of nine. Statistically, I could have been—should have been, in terms of mere numbers—among the eight who didn’t make it, the unlucky ones.

It did feel a bit odd, however, to think that I had been alive but not counted. Did that small human error have a deeper significance? Some survivors of the Holocaust have called themselves “revenants,” ghosts, as if they had died and only their semblance returned to life. I have never thought of myself in that melodramatic way; in fact I hardly thought of myself as a survivor, with its connotations of trauma and suffering. I was just a small child during the war, and except for the time on the farm my little world had remained intact—that’s what I would have said, if anyone had asked me. But no one asked, and for a long time the idea of “child survivor” never entered my consciousness. Later, I wrote quite a lot about child survivors, only very rarely mentioning that I too could be counted as one. Maybe the conscriptors’ error foreshadowed that denial.

Granny Rézi, Mother’s mother, had lived with us ever since I could remember, and it was the same after the war. In her bedroom, on the wall above the bed, were two large photographs in twin frames: Rézi and her husband, Grandpa Stern, who had died many years before I was born. Stiff, unsmiling, dressed in their bourgeois best, the couple dominated the room. Rézi had brought up six children after her husband died, leaving her a young widow. By the time I knew her she was ageless, her whole person summed up in the role of grandmother. Small, round, vain, meddlesome, loving me to death, she would watch from the balcony every morning as I left for school and wait there for my return at 1 p.m. If I was late, dawdling with the other girls, she would get anxious, then angry. One day in first grade, in the autumn after the war, when I had dawdled with my friends longer than usual (we were talking about how babies are made), she scolded me loudly: She had been about to call the police when I showed up. I, big mouth, told her to stop acting like a policeman herself. Did she punish me for that freshness? No, she told the story of my clever repartee for years, as proof of my exceptional intelligence! That’s why I forgave her all her meddling, because she loved me so much.

In the spring of 1948, Granny left us. She and Uncle Laci were emigrating, leaving Hungary forever. I kept repeating that sentence, without really understanding what it meant. Did people just leave their homes, like that? Uncle Nick, Granny’s youngest son, had left Hungary as a teenager and now lived in America and was rich. He was the one who had told them to leave. A few months earlier he had sent all the necessary papers, and money for the trip. He also sent me a ballpoint pen, which was a big hit in school because none of the other girls had one. We still wrote with pens we dipped into the inkwells on our desks, and often made blotches on the page if we weren’t careful to let the ink drip off first. The ballpoint pen began to leak after a few days, and I had to throw it away. But Uncle Nick retained all his glamour, especially when he sent us a package of bananas! I had never seen a banana, and took one to school the next day. The teacher peeled it and carefuly sliced it into small circles, handing each of us a piece. It was hardly enough to get more than a taste, but we all agreed that bananas were good.

Granny and Uncle Laci left in March, when the weather was still blustery. Granny wore her good winter coat and black hat. We went to see them off at the Eastern station. She hugged me very close, crying, but I was too excited to respond in kind. I had never taken a big train, only the little subway under Andrássy Avenue and the cog railway up Sváb Mountain where we went hiking on Sundays. This one had a big black locomotive and would take them to Paris! My Aunt Magdi lived there, Mother’s sister, and her husband, Uncle Béla, and my cousin Agnes who was 13. I had never met them but they would soon be coming to visit us for the summer in Budapest. Granny and Uncle Laci planned to spend a few days with them in Paris, then take a big boat to New York, where Uncle Nick would be waiting for them.

Granny and Magdi in Paris
Granny and Magdi in ParisCourtesy of Susan Suleiman

Granny sent us a photo from Paris, standing on a bridge in front of the Eiffel Tower with Aunt Magdi, wearing her good coat and hat. I missed her. She had made all my favorite noodle dishes, and practiced the Shema with me every night until I knew the whole prayer by heart, not just the first sentence everybody knows. She and Mother often yelled at each other when Mother wasn’t yelling at Daddy, but I knew it wasn’t serious, just the way families are, always yelling and getting excited over things. Even over me—they would often have fights about me, and Uncle Laci joined in too. The child is too thin, she’s not eating enough. Leave her alone, she knows when she’s full. Give her cod liver oil, force it down if you have to. No, give her things she likes, chestnut puree with whipped cream. She reads too much, doesn’t get enough exercise. Give her ballet lessons, they’ll be good for her posture, she slumps too much. I felt as if they never took their eyes off me.

With Granny and Uncle Laci gone, there were no more fights like that; but I realized, obscurely, that I had enjoyed being the center of so much attention.

During the summer that followed Granny’s departure, I turned 9 and I fell in love—that was the only way to think of it, really. My cousin Agnes was blond, four years older than I, and she came from Paris. She and Aunt Magdi and Uncle Béla were with us for two months, sharing the house we rented in a resort near the city. They had left Budapest in 1935, shortly after Agnes was born. Magdi and Mother had been best friends as well as sisters, and their reunion was a thing of joy. I took to Magdi immediately: She was calm and funny, not excitable like Mother. Lili gets hysterical, but Magdi has a sense of humor. She would often talk about how she and Uncle Béla had hidden in the south of France during the war; she made it sound like a time of happiness and laughter, not fear. They and a few other refugees from Paris had formed a little society that met in the local café every night—but I may have imagined that, as part of my idea of a good time. Béla had fought in the French Army as a foreign volunteer, and after France’s defeat in 1940 he found himself in the southwest along with two other Hungarian Jews in his group. They bought a dilapidated farm, and Magdi and Agnes managed to join them from Paris. The government had demanded that all Jews register and get a big J stamped on their identity cards, but they knew better than to follow that order. There was no electricity or indoor plumbing at the farm, but they made it work somehow. Béla enjoyed talking with the local farmers about their crops, about the woods around the village, the river where they cast for trout. He had grown up in a small town in Transylvania where he had learned to fish and hunt as a child. None of the farmers had ever seen a Jew, and this Parisian who spoke French with an accent but was familiar with their ways didn’t correspond to their idea of one.

Béla and Magdi had sent Agnes to a nearby village to school, and since it was too far from the farm to go there every day, they arranged for her to spend the week with an old Mademoiselle, returning to the farm on weekends. Agnes lived that way for several years, shuttling between Mademoiselle and her parents. Mademoiselle was kind to her, she never pinched her. In Paris, after the war, Magdi often pinched her when she was angry, leaving black-and-blue marks on her arm. Agnes told me these stories during our long nights awake in the room we shared. My image of Magdi became a bit tarnished when I heard about her pinching, but I still liked her—and that summer she didn’t pinch at all.

The summer house was next to a large swimming club, which had three different pools and a shaded terrace where you could have lunch. Agnes and I took swimming lessons, and after a couple of weeks we felt like pros. We would jump into the deep end of the pool feet first, sink to the bottom, then slowly float to the surface, scramble out and start over. “Look at us, look at us!” we would yell to the grownups sitting on the terrace. Afterward, we would join them and play endless games of Monopoly, just the two of us. There were many other children there that summer, but we barely noticed them; it was like living in a cocoon for two. In the evenings, a live orchestra played fox trots and waltzes and tangos. The grown-ups sat at tables surrounding the dance floor, drinking colorful drinks and playing cards and gossiping. Occasionally, my father would get up and dance with us, but usually we danced with each other. Agnes led, I followed.

Toward the end of the summer, the club organized a dance recital: Any child who signed up could do a five-minute solo. It was a real performance, with rehearsals. Agnes did a waltz to the Blue Danube, I a mazurka to Chopin. A photo shows the two of us in our costumes, wearing lipstick for the occasion. Agnes has on a long, gauzy dress with a satin belt around her waist, one arm around my shoulder, the other holding up her skirt to show off its width. I am wearing a short white dress that ends at my thighs, with long, wide sleeves cinched at the wrists and a flouncy skirt outlined in red piping, a fantasy version of a Cossack outfit. (Did Cossacks do the mazurka? Never mind, it was Slavic.) On my head is a tall, white fur hat, set at an angle over dark curls that cascade down past my shoulder. To finish off the Cossack theme, I’m wearing knee-high white boots—in reality, slip-on tops made of oilcloth, cut to fit over my shoes. Mother and I had run all over town to get those booties made in time for the show. I still remember the frantic race to pick them up that afternoon, our fear that we’d be late getting back, the adrenaline rush, as if our life depended on it. Once before, I had felt that way—when Mother and I had left our house in Pest, after the Nazis came. Don’t look right or left, look straight ahead—walk fast, don’t run, act as if you had a right to be here. She had torn off her yellow star, holding my hand fast. When we got to the corner, we finally started to run. Did the panic come from that memory, or were we just overwrought females running after the perfect outfit?

A few days after the dance recital, we were awakened in the middle of the night. The ambulance was at the door and took Mother to the hospital, along with Daddy who accompanied her. I spent a couple of nights alone with Aunt Magdi and Uncle Béla and Agnes. It was a miscarriage, and not her first one. No one told me anything, even Agnes couldn’t say much. I had to guess it all. Being a woman was dangerous. Sometimes she was fat, sometimes thinner. Fat meant hospital, tears, and screaming. Wanting a baby, losing the baby. Wanting a boy. A boy had been born two years earlier, but he had died after one day. Many years later, her happiness when my own boys were born: “You did what I couldn’t do,” as if it was a question of talent. Why was it better to have a boy, to be a boy? She grew up in Freud’s world, Vienna-Budapest. What does a woman want?

When Mother came out of the hospital, we moved back to the city. A few days later, Agnes and her parents returned to Paris, and I took to my bed like a bereaved woman. The previous year, when I had had the measles, I had spent long days in bed reading and enjoying time off from school, basking in the special attentions of Mother and Granny as they brought me hot chocolate and candy and other little presents. This was different, a deadly sadness that made me unable to think of anything except the pain I was feeling. But it was not pain, exactly—rather, a kind of numbness. Granny, Laci, Agnes, Magdi, all gone. Suddenly, I felt the full weight of those departures, as if everyone I loved had disappeared without warning. Emptiness. If I don’t get used to this, I’ll die.

Freud speaks of mourning and melancholia, human reactions to loss. Mourning eventually comes to an end, while melancholy is endless. For the first few days, it felt as if I’d never get up, never leave my bed, lie forever curled up in a ball, staring at the wall. Mother tried to cheer me up, but I just lay there. Then, gradually, I began to revive. School was starting, there were books. Around that time, Mother took me to the children’s dressmaker and ordered the light blue wool dress.

Years later, whenever I saw Agnes in New York or Miami, I would remember that summer and the devastation that followed, and wonder how I could now feel only ordinary affection for her, when then I had missed her so much I thought I would die.

Susan Rubin Suleiman is professor emerita at Harvard University and the author, most recently, of The Némirovsky Question: The Life, Death, and Legacy of a Jewish Writer in Twentieth-Century France.