Yet, I couldn’t shake the sadness that I couldn’t share the news with my parents. The doctor hadn’t died in the chaos of war. He had made it home, just as they had made it out of Hungary. His widow was still alive. They had had three sons. And four grandchildren. My parents had had two sons and six grandchildren.
When the book arrived from Europe, for the first time I saw my parents’ lives from the outside. It was like watching a movie, in French, without subtitles. A very dramatic, frightening movie co-starring my mother and father. I had heard snippets from them about living beneath German troops. But I had never heard it as a coherent story, with a beginning and an end. I had struggled to picture it, and couldn’t imagine how my parents survived. And then I read:
We heard a noise above our heads. It was the sound of boots, and then the sound of many boots. We didn’t have time to ask ourselves whether they were German, Russian or Hungarian boots before we heard footsteps in the stairway to our cellar. A German soldier burst in, machine gun in hand, just as surprised to see all of us with our hands up as we were to see him.*
I was there, with my parents, nearly 10 years before my own birth. It was terrifying.
Their admiration for Dr. Lanussé became more understandable. He had saved their lives that day. He told the German officer in charge of the troops at the house that if he harmed the refugees he was with, he would not help the officer’s injured soldiers. In her book, Bozsi wrote of her husband: “He wasn’t one for hatred; healing the wounded was a true vocation, and he had a very humanistic ideal of his responsibility as a doctor. On top of that, under those circumstances, our survival depended on his exercising that responsibility.”
She described the conditions they lived under: “We found ourselves trapped under the constant gunfire of our Germans and the Russians, in a confusion of whistles followed by explosions and vibrations. A hail of machine gun fire railed against our house; no one dared predict how long it would remain standing.”
She also painted in the personalities and character of my parents. I saw how they were seen, not just how they saw themselves:
Paul [the pseudonym she used for my father], a deserter from the Hungarian army like all others who refused to fight alongside the Nazis, was hiding in his house with Kati [the pseudonym she used for my mother], his Jewish fiancé, a lovely young girl with brown hair and bright eyes two years my senior. She was amiable, intelligent and vivacious, completely in love with Paul, and though she had come out of the same social world that I had, she was infinitely less afraid than I was and never complained.
It was funny to read about my father’s apparent obsession, even then, with properly taking care of things he cared about. I had experienced the same thing when I was a child. He always wanted the evening newspaper folded in a certain way when he got home from work.
Paul courageously crept up to the first floor to gather all the candles he could find. He also brought a magnificent silver candleholder, and our dark hole now shimmered with its reflections. Paul was very attached to his furniture, and would have loved to bring down an antique armchair signed by its maker of which he was particularly fond. He had to go without it, since we could not find any space for it.
Her book also gave me a better sense of my grandparents, and why they had fled Budapest.
Paul’s parents, who had taken French lessons with my husband before their departure, had taken refuge in Switzerland. They were rich, Catholic and Aryan, and like many others, they had fled the arrival of the Russians, after having put their house under the protection of the French legation. Most Hungarians had such terrible memories of the year spent under Béla Kun’s communist regime after the 1914-1918 war that they feared the Russians’ occupation even more than the Germans’.
I had heard from my parents that my grandfather had tried to aid the French in Hungary. It made sense. His own mother was French, from Colmar. On his grave in Vienna, the text is in French. I hadn’t heard about putting his house under the protection of French diplomats, and didn’t know what that even meant. But there was much I didn’t know about what he had done, especially to protect his wife.