Agnes was born in Hungary and started school just at the outbreak of World War II. Many of her family were murdered in the Holocaust, together with half of million other Hungarian Jews. A series of fortunate coincidences allowed Agnes to survive the ghetto, the deportation and slave labour in Nazi concentration camps.
After the war Agnes’s native country fell under a tyrannical communist regime. The 1956 Hungarian revolution offered her the opportunity to escape, settle in Britain, and build a career, becoming a distinguished member of the engineering profession.
At the start of this year FOLIO Sutton Coldfield pledged to share Agnes’s testimony and work towards increasing community knowledge about the Holocaust through public events and library resources. We were recently able to purchase a selection of books relating to Holocaust eduction and donate them to Sutton Coldfield Library as part of our commitment to our pledge, and now we are starting a monthly series, sharing aspects of Agnes’s life, not only her experience as a Jew, but also what it was like to live under the communist regime in Hungary. Agnes writes with great warmth and wit, and her message of tolerance and respect needs to be heard.
This month’s window into Agnes’s life takes us back 69 years to July 1952 and is, in her own words, the tale of marriage, communist style.
Janos and I met a few months after the war, when I was 12 and he 16. We married seven years later, after my first year at university. This was Hungary in the darkest days of the Stalinist regime.We planned a late July wedding. We also thought that a marriage ceremony would involve exchange of rings. The Registry Office advised that gold was a controlled substance. We were lucky: the only shop selling gold in the country was but 10 miles away, and the only items on sale were 6-carat wedding rings.
On the first Saturday of July, Janos and I went along to the gold shop, arm in arm, clutching our hard-earned money. We asked for a couple of rings. The smiley man behind the counter congratulated us on our marriage, and asked for our marriage certificate. We said we were not married yet, we wanted the rings for the marriage ceremony. The man stopped smiling. He said gold was a controlled substance, people could only buy rings on production of their marriage certificate. The purchase would be recorded to prevent anyone buying two sets of rings, intending to commit bigamy to profiteer with the gold. The walls had ears, so we left without a word.
The Registry office only worked on weekdays. We were allocated an 11 am slot on Thursday, 31st July, our parents, friends and family – whoever could get away from work – to attend. There was to be a simple meal afterwards in a small restaurant. – And then, like so many times before and after, the roof fell in.
My undergraduate course in engineering included compulsory Military Studies. In the summer break after my first year, on the 24th July, the state authorities sprung one of their frequent surprises. All students received a hand-delivered ‘Notification of New Course Regulations’: call-up papers, specifying the military barracks and the date when to report, at 5am sharp, to complement our studies with practical military training. The date was the 31st July. The date set for our wedding.
The wedding was off. Everyone cancelled their leave. My mother cried. My grandmother packed a rucksack with essentials, including knickers, bras, and smoked sausage. My aunt Terka baked a delicious walnut pie that would keep for weeks.
On the supposed day of my wedding it was already hot at 5 am when I reported for military service in the nearby village of Rákospalota, wearing a red-checked sleeveless shirt, shorts and hiking boots. The duty sergeant checked me in, and I joined a mixed crowd of students and conscripts. We stood for hours on the exercise yard, with our sacks on our backs. Karcsi, a gallant bulky recruit, offered to swap his little rucksack for my great big one.
Then the Commanding Officer appeared before us and called my name, and said ‘You are excused.’ I thought I was hallucinating in the heat. No explanation. I asked what he meant. He said ‘You are not required for military service. Go home.’
I started to walk in the blazing sun through this unfamiliar village, in the general direction of our home in Újpest. Suddenly I realised that I was still carrying Karcsi’s rucksack. I wondered if he would enjoy Terka’s pie, wearing my bras and pink knickers. By the time I got back to the barracks, the novices had been formed into neat columns, preparing to march out. The Commanding Officer could not believe his eyes; he thought I came to plead for re-admittance. He almost smiled at my explanation, got a little soldier to root out poor Karcsi to exchange the sacks, and there I was once again, back on the dusty street, walking towards Újpest, carrying a full load.
What to do?
Everyone was at work in distant parts of town. I should phone someone. Zigzagging along the road from phone box to vandalised phone box, I finally found one that worked. Miraculously I got through to Janos, and told him that I was somewhere in Rákospalota, having been dismissed from the army. He was calm as always and asked if I still wanted to get married. I said what did he think. He said I should make my way to the Registry Office, and he would do the same – we might still make it by 11 am.
We arrived with minutes to spare. The Registrar said he had had notification that the marriage was off, but he was willing to ignore that; however, we needed two witnesses. My father’s friend Erdős Feri (back from the war with frostbitten and amputated toes) and our Auschwitz survivor friend Marika worked in shops nearby. I fetched one, Janos the other. They asked no questions, downed tools, and came along.
Marika had the presence of mind to buy a bunch of flowers from a booth on the corner. The flowers were wilted in the heat, as we all were. A mucky street child followed us. Those present, in addition to the Registrar, were the groom and the witnesses in work clothes, the bride in a sweaty sleeveless shirt, shorts, and hiking boots, carrying a rucksack and a bouquet of flowers, and a barefooted child. We were late, so the ceremony had to be a bit more hurried than usual. The scruffy piece of paper here is our marriage certificate. Our names and occupations, and our witnesses’ names, are clearly legible. The street child’s name is not recorded.
If you’d like to learn more about Agnes’s life and experience you can borrow her autobiography from the library or purchase your own copy. You can also watch the interview we made with Agnes in January on YouTube.