In late November 1944, the Soviet army intensified its heavy military attack against Budapest. At this point in history, the German army and the Hungarian Nationalists ruled Hungary. Our family was hiding under false names, hoping to survive by avoiding discovery, identification, and execution by the men of the Arrow Cross.
At the same time, we and everyone else in Budapest were being exposed to the Soviet attack against the city. By Christmas 1944, the bombing and shelling was going on day and night. The battle for Pest ended three weeks later, with the arrival of the advancing Russian troops.
On January 17, 1945, the Hungarian and German armies collapsed, and in Pest, the Russians took over. (The battle for Buda lasted another four weeks.) At this point, my parents, my brother, and I were hiding in the bunker of a so-called White Cross Hospital, together with some eighty Jews. We survived. On this day of liberation, around 10 a.m., the shelling and bombing stopped. After a while, twelve Russian soldiers arrived in the shelters, searching for ammunition. While they didn’t find the arms they were looking for, they started to chase after people for their watches. “We are Jews, we are Jews,” several tried to tell them. But this statement made no great impression on the newly arrived soldiers, who took whatever they could from the Jews who had been hiding there. After robbing them all, they opened the doors of the bunker, which had been closed for some six weeks.
“Let’s go home!” cried the people of the bunker. “Let’s go home!” said my brother, Ivan. This cry was echoed by everyone. We came out of the shelter, gazing at the daylight, which we had not seen for weeks. Unbelievable! We were free. We started to walk. The snow was falling slowly, turning into rain, then mud under our feet. On the street, we saw dead horses, garbage, and mountains of corpses lying everywhere. As we walked, we stared at the ruins of the demolished city, and could scarcely believe what we saw: the houses had no windows, and most had no walls at all.
As we were walking, Ivan suddenly cried, “My God!” He was staring at our chests. “We are still wearing the yellow star.” This was the emblem we had had to sew on our clothes and wear ever since April 5, 1944, the sign which differentiated us all, newborn and aged alike, from the rest of the population. Still walking along the street, I grabbed my yellow star, as did Ivan and my father. We tore them off our winter coats, and threw them into the snow-covered, dirty puddles under our feet. As we walked away, I turned back and saw the yellow stars moving slowly in the water.
Looking at my mother, I noticed that she still had hers in her hand. “Why don’t you throw it away?” I asked.
“Why? Because I want to keep it, so that we remember,” she said, putting the star into her pocket.
We walked across Budapest, seeing corpses everywhere. In fact, the city had been destroyed; almost every house had turned into dust. Once home, I fell ill with typhus. It took several weeks before I recovered, at which point, my parents decided to move to the countryside, rather than stay and starve in Budapest, the city where thousands of people had already died of hunger. We left, and only returned several months later.
A few years went by. One day-- it was fall, I remember--as we were preparing for the holidays, I saw that my mother had taken down her prayer book from a shelf in her closet. I took it from her and turned the pages. Something yellow fell out onto the floor. I bent down to pick it up. It was the yellow star.
“For heaven’s sake! Why do you keep that?” I stammered.
“I’ll keep it forever,” she said.
“To let your grandchildren know what happened to us!”
Years went by. Whenever I saw the prayer book, I would open it and look at the yellow star, remembering the horror and fear I had felt during the German occupation.
More years passed. *
I fled Hungary after the Revolution in 1956. Living in a Russian-occupied country, meant, however, that my parents could not get passports to visit us in America. After seven years, they finally obtained them. Coming to Dallas, Texas, they planned to stay nine months. As I helped them unpack, I noticed my mother’s prayer book. Opening it, I saw the yellow star.
“You still have it?” I asked, moved to the core.
“Of course,” she said. “And when I die, you will have it.”
Unfortunately, three weeks after their arrival, my father suffered a fatal heart attack. My mother wanted to go back to Hungary. She stayed for six months with us, but in the summer of 1965, we took her back to Vienna. When she died in 1971, my brother gave me her prayer book, and with it, the yellow star.
Since then I have kept the prayer book in my closet, and in it the yellow star. But I am at a loss to know what to do now. Should I leave it to my daughter, who would leave it to her daughter? Should I leave it to my son? And what about his four daughters? Should I give it to Yad Vashem? To the Holocaust Museum in Washington? To the Holocaust Museum in Dallas? Who will keep it for the next generations? Who will understand that it was my mother’s? Can it survive several generations? Will it mean as much to others as it means to me? Does it tell about the horrific humiliation of those who wore it? Does it tell of the shame and debasement of the Jews? How will they react who do not know the fear of separation from parents, a fear I have never forgotten, but have had to live with for the rest of my life? The fear I felt when I was ten years old and still feel today? Who should have my yellow star? And what would it mean to others?
These are the questions I ask myself when I open the door of my closet and look up to the shelf where my mother’s prayer book lies.