When the Hotel Astoria in Budapest opened in 1914, it imparted an aura of old-world style and tradition. Even today, the hotel evokes elegance and decorum, until you think about its more recent past.
On March 14, 1944, “large groups of German officers” were gathered in the lobby in mid-afternoon, “moving about … talking … laughing,” writes Zsuzsanna Ozsvath in her gripping memoir, “When the Danube Ran Red” (Syracuse University Press). As her father subsequently explained, his sister Lulu had checked out of the Astoria that morning, left her suitcase by the reception area, and met him at a café. A few hours later, they came back for the suitcase, and were terrified to see all the officers. What they didn’t know was that the Nazi occupation of Budapest had begun, and the hotel had been commandeered as Gestapo headquarters. Not surprisingly, her father “had been frozen over, his heart beating in his throat.”
“Even today, just thinking about that hotel makes me catch my breath,” Ozsvath writes.
Me, too. I felt the same way when I approached the Astoria in 2006 because I knew that my cousins, Eva and Alice, had been summoned there by the Gestapo in June 1944, and spared only because Swedish authorities intervened at the last minute and granted them life-saving Swedish citizenship.
Ozsvath, a professor of literature and the history of ideas, and chair of Holocaust studies at University of Texas at Dallas, has recorded harrowing memories from her Jewish childhood more than 65 years ago. I was drawn to her story partly because I’m always interested in child’s-eye views of the world, and also because many of young “Zsuzsi’s” recollections are amazingly similar to those told to me by Eva, who had been a resistance fighter in Budapest.
The Oszvaths survived the first six months of the occupation mainly because of the selfless devotion of their former nursemaid, “Erzsi” (Erzebet) Fajo, who supplied them with food and clothing. They scraped by until October 1944, when the nefarious Niylas (Hungarian Nazis) seized control of the city.
Erzsi began moving 13-year-old Zsuzsi from one safe place to another. In late December, as the Russians advanced on the beleaguered capital, she brought Zsuzsi to a riverfront apartment where a smiling woman promised to safeguard her in exchange for a gold-and-sapphire bracelet.
The next morning, bombs and artillery explosions awakened Zsuzsi, who soon realized that the woman had fled before dawn, taking the jewelry and last bits of food with her. Hearing gunfire, Zsuzsi crawled to a window and peeked through broken panes to see “a bunch of children, men, and women …
standing on the bank of the Danube, on their chests the palm-sized yellow star. They were bound together by ropes. At least four or five Nyilas aimed their guns at them, shooting them into the river, which flowed red like blood. Nobody screamed, nobody cried. … Nothing … but the splash of the bodies falling into the red foam.”
Remembering Erzsi’s warnings not to seek shelter in the basement lest inquisitive tenants determine that she was a Jew-in-hiding, Zsuzsi hid inside a closet. It took Erzsi three days to rescue her.
By war’s end, virtually all of Zsuzsi’s friends and most of her extended family had been shot into mass graves or killed at Auschwitz. In 1946, Zsuzsi’s parents adopted Erzsi as their own, and eventually she was named Righteous Among the Nations at Yad Vashem.
Not all Holocaust survivors have sufficient strength to record their memories, but those who do consign us stories of immeasurable power. We listen, and we read, and if the stories are good and true, we incorporate them into our own views of the world. What I’ve learned from Eva and Zszusi has affected my life ever since.
Five years ago, my husband and I entered the lobby of the Astoria. We eyed the ornate lounge and café, and were chilled by how much we knew. It was easy to imagine black-booted brutes guzzling schnapps and devouring cream cakes while singing schmaltzy tunes. Long before I concluded that the “blue” Danube was a river of death, I always felt that the lively melodies of that famous waltz smacked too much of Teutonic cheer.
In April 2005, a memorial called “Shoes on the Danube Bank” was erected beside the river in Budapest. In remembrance of Jews murdered during the winter of 1944-‘45, 60 cast-iron replicas of men’s, women’s and children’s shoes are anchored along a stone promenade. Some shoes are placed neatly in pairs, others as if they were kicked off in haste. Wall plaques describe how the wearers were tied together in threes, the middle victim was shot and the bodies tumbled into the icy water. Zsuzsanna Ozsvath had witnessed the horrors, and recorded the stories for all of us.
Susan J. Gordon, who lives in Westchester County, is a regular contributor to this space.