Fiction | Homecoming, 1945

Fiction | Homecoming, 1945

November 25, 2019 in 2019 November-December, Arts & Culture, Highlights
1 Comment

Smoke rises slowly from the locomotive’s chimney, hissing from the valves and swirling in clouds over the face of the train. The locomotive heaves once more, then stops.

With a cap pushed high on his head, the scruffy, perspiring conductor hops down from the carriage’s steps into the fresh air, hoping to find relief from the sweltering heat inside the train, but he hardly can tell the difference between inside and out. It’s over ninety degrees, high noon on a muggy July day, seven hours after the slow train left the capital at dawn.

Only one figure is waiting on the platform. No one else can be seen, no one is coming, and no one is traveling here these days. He’s only here because of his duty to fulfill a task. He expects clients recommended to him by the village notary.

The conductor can almost taste the pint of frothy beer that teases his mind. But according to the bill of transport, the freight has to be unloaded, and he’s not free to go until then. The shipper must arrange the unloading. He’s a conductor, not a porter! But he’ll stew for an hour if he doesn’t help, and on top of everything else, the two passengers who shipped the freight will think he has a grudge against them and that’s why he won’t lend a hand. They can think what they want! They’re all the same. Suckers. All the more so, considering what’s happened. But they aren’t budging from inside until someone unrolls the red carpet. Maybe they’re praying in there where it’s one hundred degrees and counting. In black suits and hats. Who on earth understands them?

It seems odd that what happened to them doesn’t seem to be quite enough. They’re coming back, back to where it happened. What an undeniably stubborn race, he concludes, and so pigheaded, too.

The conductor strolls towards the stationmaster’s office to borrow a handcart, imagining he’ll be free that much faster if he organizes the unloading in advance and doesn’t let them mess about. How they’d fussed as they loaded in Budapest—as if every last thing they were packing was glass. He’d asked if they were transporting crystal, because fragile goods require special shipping and handling, and an additional fee.

“Nothing fragile,” they’d said, “but handle with care.”

If they want to scrimp and save, let it be, the conductor thought. If something happens to the cargo, then they’ll be responsible for the damage. That’s how they are, always insisting on saving money. That’s why they play tricks rather than take risks.

Ten heavy, nailed boxes, plus a lighter one, had been loaded into the boxcar. They’d refused to have any other goods or packages transported in the same car and they’d paid the full fee.

The conductor had acknowledged their special demands with a shrug. It was none of his business. The transport certificate had been filled out and signed accurately, they’d paid in advance and from that point on they could transport anything they wanted the way they wanted. He’d labored on the railway for more than thirty years, seen everything, and endured plenty of demands and objections from bosses and crazy passengers, but he did have an opinion about these people here. About a year ago, he’d seen how they were herded into each boxcar, eighty or ninety at a time. He’d seen hands thrusting out through the windows’ barbed wire and heard shouts and pleas for water. He’d posted letters tossed out before the border, for good money, and he had even been compelled to feel sorry for these poor people who, in their despair, were trying to figure out where they were heading. He’d experienced a few sleepless nights after that. But given all that had happened, he now found it repugnant that, according to the newspapers, they were trading with Germans—with Germans of all people. They come and go through half of Europe with boxes sealed by the German Reich, proving once again that they’ll overcome any challenge and have no scruples when it comes to making a profit. He had no doubt that this shipment must promise great rewards, considering all their special precautions.

These folks have learned nothing, he concluded.

Although he’d love to depart for the village to drink that cold beer, he pulls the handcart over to the boxcar and then goes back to the stationmaster’s office.

A gray-bearded older man appears in the door of the passenger carriage wearing a black hat, a black suit and a white shirt. As he disembarks, a younger man of similar appearance follows. This one doesn’t have a beard, but his face is dashed with thick black whiskers. He’s in mourning; that’s why he doesn’t shave.

They both seem run-down and tired. They’re about to summon the conductor, when they register the man on the platform striding toward them. The old peasant is wearing boots, baggy felt trousers, a worn sun-washed shirt, a vest and a hat.

“Good afternoon,” he says.

“And to you.”

“Coming from Pest?”

They nod.

“I’m your driver.”

“Did you manage to prepare everything?” asks the older man.

“Just the way you asked in the telegram. The notary appointed me and my brother-in-law.”

“What do you mean, he appointed you?”

“Well, it’s harvest. Most people are working their land.”

“Everyone has land here?”

“Most.”

“No one wanted the job?”

“No. But we need the cash. So my brother-in-law and I said yes—if that’s okay with you?”

“What’s your name?”

“Suba, sir.” He tips his hat. “Mihály Suba.”

“Hermann Sámuel.” The older man holds out his hand, the younger only nods.

“Then let’s get started, Mr. Suba.”

The driver calls his brother-in-law from the other side of the stationmaster’s office. He’s waiting in the shade, next to their horse.

The conductor reappears from the stationmaster’s office and points toward the end of the ramp.

“It’ll be easier with the handcart. You only have to make a little detour, but it’s easier than unloading the boxes by hand. There’s a gate over there.”

“Thank you.” They nod.

“The documents should be signed that we’re done.”

“We’d rather wait until you unload.” The old man squints.

“Who cares?” the conductor says, offended. He regrets being helpful, but there’s nothing to be done: the transportation is incomplete until the boxes are unloaded. I’ll wait, he thinks. I’ll wait, if that’s what they want!

The driver comes back with his brother-in-law, who tips the brim of his hat, muttering a greeting. The conductor points to the handcart again, as if it wasn’t obvious that it would make the job easier. They go to the boxcar, the conductor breaks the seal, and they pull the door open.

The boxes are intact.

Mihály Suba climbs into the boxcar, pushes the cargo to the rolling door, jumps down, and, along with his brother-in-law, lifts the boxes one-by-one onto the handcart. One box tips during the rapid unloading. Hermann Sámuel and the younger man react together, their faces alarmed, but Mihály Suba regains his balance and the box falls into place atop the others.

“Gently, please!” the old man says. “There’s no need to hurry!” He clings to the younger man’s arm.

While they’re unloading, a messenger departs from the stationmaster’s office. He pedals his bicycle along a long row of poplars, silent and still, leading to the top of the village. His assignment is to inform the notary, István Szentes, that they’ve arrived, together with their cargo, and that all they’ve revealed is that the boxes contain cosmetics.

Ten heavy, nailed boxes, plus a lighter one, had been loaded into the boxcar.

“So they are coming,” the notary says. He sighs and loosens his tie. He steps to the window, opens it as if he were choking, but only the heat rolls into the damp-smelling office. He angrily pushes the window closed.

“Go and tell my son to be patient. I’ll look in on him. We’ll wait to see what they’re stirring up. Tell me, is anyone from the village among them?”

“No,” the scrawny boy says.

“How many are they, anyway?”

“Two.”

“Only two now, but the rest will come later. What are their names?”

“There’s only one name on the transport bill. Hermann Sámuel.”

“He’s not even from here. He had nothing to do with…,” he bites off the sentence.

He doesn’t understand. Pollák was the pharmacist. Is it possible he’d made a last bequest? Or sold his business well before? He couldn’t have. He’d have had to report it for the notary’s approval and pay the tax. And since there’s no valid contract, there cannot be a new owner.

István Szentes thinks about his son Árpád, who was an assistant in the pharmacy a few years ago. Then he was promoted to store manager, and later formally took ownership after Imre Pollák and his family left the village in the summer of 1944—the notary always puts it just so, if asked, but he’s almost never asked.

It would have been hard to find arguments against Pollák, who had always been so nice to Árpád. And he had no qualms about the others—none at all.

If the others are returning to claim Pollák’s share, it means that Pollák cannot come in person.

“Go tell my son to calm down. I need to stay at the office for now. They could be heading here.”

The messenger nods, jumps on his bicycle, and speeds along the main street to the pharmacy. He jumps off, rattles the door, but it’s locked. He knocks, scratches at the window. No reply. He doesn’t understand. Árpád never closes at noon and never ever takes a lunch break.

“Árpád! Árpád Szentes!”

No answer. It’s dark inside, but the “closed” sign is absent. He knocks at the window of the house opposite, and asks if they’ve seen the young pharmacist.

“He was here in the morning; he opened on time,” an old woman answers. “We haven’t seen him since then.”

The boy rides back to the notary’s office with the news.

“He’s not there?”

“Not a trace, sir.”

István Szentes can’t believe it. You can say plenty of bad things about Árpád, but he’s responsible and precise. It’s inconceivable that he’s not there. He knows very well that they’re arriving today.

The notary boards his buggy. He likes driving and no one else in the village has a buggy that handles so exceedingly well. It’s nimble, even with a single nag harnessed to it. If he hadn’t hidden the beast when the Russians marched through the village, they surely would have confiscated it, but he’d tucked the horse out of sight.

“Go about your business!” he says to the messenger, turning from the courtyard to the main street.

István Szentes drives fast, fans the animal with his whip, foaming with rage. Where could Árpád possibly be today, of all days, when he should be standing at his post? What could have happened on this cursed day that led him to simply abandon the shop? István had gone over his duties with him after receiving the letter in which they announced their impending arrival and asked for assistance. He could have refused, saying the notary office isn’t a cargo company, and they would have to arrange the transport alone. Even then the boy seemed scared.

He’s a mama’s boy, completely dependent. He doesn’t understand politics, money or horses. And women even less. If this wasn’t disgraceful enough, he was exempted from serving in the army, too. Growing up, books were all that interested him. Novels and poems. He was a bookworm, but he ran the shop fair and square. His heart was in the business, even if his mind wasn’t.

Goddamn! He cracks the whip. He’s thinking of that forsaken store as if it was over. But it’s not over and it won’t ever be over. They’re trying in vain, and we’re going to be lucky for once!

He jumps from the buggy in front of the pharmacy and knocks.

“Are you here, son? Árpád, answer if you’re here!” he says to the glass door, above which hangs the new company sign of his own design. He hears some noise from inside. “Goddamn, son! Open the door now!”

István Szentes knows that his son is sitting motionless on the other side. Ridiculous.

“Árpád! I swear, son, I’ll break this door down if you don’t open up,” he says. “Árpád! Act like a man. Just this once. Take on what you’ve done!”

Árpád Szentes despises his father now. “What you’ve done” rings in his ears for a long time. His father was the one who encouraged him to take on the business, to lend his name to the enterprise, and carry on the business as if it were his own. At the end of the day he did have a paper saying the pharmacy belonged to him. And it’s true, he could manage effectively: he knew his way around the store, it enabled a modest living, and his father stopped pestering him for being a loser. Árpád slowly rotates the key in the lock and, cracking the door open, he stands tall.

“You can go, father. I’ll take care of my own things,” Árpád says firmly.

If the strangers knocked, he was prepared to grab his linen jacket and straw hat from the coatrack, let them into the shop and say, “Dear Sirs, I’ve saved the pharmacy for you. I did what I promised. And now excuse me!” With that he would doff his hat and bow a little, tilting his head forward and to the side, and then he’d scurry away.

His father reads the thoughts lining his face. He jerks the door open and steps into the shop, blocking the exit. Father and son stare at each other fixedly.

“You’ll take care of a big fat nothing. You don’t think that we’ll just give up what we’re owed.”

“What are we owed, father?”

“A contract’s a contract. A paper says the store’s yours, right?”

“But what kind of paper was it? Father, you know.”

“A paper’s a paper. They can sue us if they’d like.”

“I won’t go to court.”

“What will you do then?”

“Who cares?” the conductor says, offended. He regrets being helpful, but there’s nothing to be done: the transportation is incomplete until the boxes are unloaded.

“I’ll walk out and leave it all behind.”

“Goddamn! You’re not leaving anything! Be a man for once in your life!”

Both of them suddenly are thinking about a girl from the neighboring village, Eszter Hórusz, whom Árpád courted over a year ago, and whom he still loves, even if she’s engaged to another boy. Árpád keeps sending her letters, and poems, too—this especially annoys his father—but they go unanswered. Since then Árpád hasn’t been his usual self. As long as he works mechanically, he can distract himself, but in the evenings he’s broken and buries himself in books.

Father and son glare at each other. The son turns away cautiously and arranges the supplies on the counter, while his father lowers himself into the chair next to the small table where older customers often rest in the pharmacy.

They wait together.

The unloading nears its conclusion at the railway station. Only once all 11 boxes are loaded onto the cart is Hermann Sámuel willing to sign the documents, and the conductor can go about his business. He has a good four and a half hours before the train departs again. He’ll go to the pub, he imagines, and meditate over a few beers.

He borrows the stationmaster’s bicycle and rides under the fiery sun toward the village. He already can picture the sparkling mug of beer with beads of sweat growing on the glass.

As the conductor steps into the dimmed bar, plops down at the table closest to the damp, cool counter, and lifts a foamy beer to his lips, the driver and his brother-in-law climb on the buggy, after offering places to the two strangers.

“It’s at least a half-hour walk from here to your village,” they say, but the gray-bearded old man just shoos them away.

“There’s room next to the boxes. Try sitting there,” they say. They urge the men, but there’s no reply, just a pressing wave indicating they should leave.

The sun shines at its zenith when Mihály Suba clucks his tongue and flicks his whip.

You can say a lot of bad things about them, thinks Suba, but you can’t say they don’t respect their dead. After being away for more than a year, their first order of business was the cemetery—and this gesture of respect means a lot to Suba. But the dead are dead, he thinks, and nobody helps the living with their challenges.

The cart moves slowly and they stride behind it, next to one another in their hats and black suits, unruffled by 100 degrees of July heat.

At the end of the poplar row they turn for the village road, which merges into its main street, just as the conductor finishes his first pint.

“They brought eleven,” he says in a moderate voice.

“Eleven?” the bartender asks. “Not much for goods, a lot for luggage.”

“Well, that’s how many they have. They had to be handled gently, like crystal.”

Seven other villagers occupy the pub, five of them feeling the pits of their stomachs sinking. They’ve an urge to dash home and warn their families about the trouble. Because if they’ve come back, then more might be coming. If the others are coming, there’ll be even more, and sooner or later they’ll reclaim what they know or suspect is with someone else—whatever was handed over for safekeeping, whatever disappeared.

But only one of them stands up: a farmer, now a disabled pensioner, whose right hand was removed by a faulty machine in the summer of 1943. He didn’t take anything from the homes abandoned last year, but like other people with big families, he requested a house. Considering his health, the state of his own crumbling home, five children, and a son who died a hero on the Eastern front, he was granted a house and moved in.

The farmer pays wordlessly, his face tense, and departs for home. There’s no justice on earth, he thinks, ashamed he’ll have to move away if the original owner returns. He has no issue with them, except the envy he always felt because of their prosperity, their easy lot, and the future they secured for their children. He never did anything to claim their possessions, but since fate willed that their houses remained empty, he felt little remorse for moving into a house with clean, whitewashed walls.

The villagers who remain in the pub know why he chooses to leave, and they’re also startled by a vague fear.

It’d be good to know who has come and who else might join—purely from a practical standpoint.

“The older man’s called Hermann Sámuel, but there’s also a younger man with him,” says the conductor.

What a relief. The name’s unfamiliar. At a loss, they stare at one another.

“Only two of them?” the bartender asks.

“Only two.” The conductor wipes the foam from his mustache.

“Maybe they’re from a neighboring village. But what are they up to here?” someone wonders aloud.

“Did they say anything? Why they came?”

“Yes, did they tell you anything?”

“They don’t say a thing, those people.” The conductor gives them a significant look, aware that he has become a central figure. “Unless the cargo’s a clue.”

He daubs the sweat along his forehead.

“Well, what’re they trans­porting?”

“Perfumery goods—in gross.”

“Perfumery goods?”

“In gross?”

“Yep, perfumery goods. You know what I mean: powder, cologne, hand cream, and the like. Whatnot for ladies.”

“Then the notary and his family can expect a very hot day.” The bartender cleans off the counter, smiling with malice and not a flicker of sympathy on his face.

No one replies. They’re all small fry here, apart from the bartender; more disabled veterans are among them, besides the one-armed thresher who went home. If they have opinions, they keep them to themselves. These are difficult things. Maybe it’s better not to speak about them. One thing they do sense: they won’t get into any serious trouble for some personal bits and bobs—so long as Árpád Szentes owns the pharmacy that once belonged to Pollák.

While they weigh the possibilities, the strange procession inexorably approaches. The driver and his assistant sit on the cart’s bench, with the cargo in back. The two male escorts follow the cart on foot, appearing like two ghosts in the eyes of the frightened women observing from the windows of the houses lining the street. If you could somehow pan through the village now, all you’d hear would be stillness, perfect silence.

No one is working in the fields in the interval after lunch. The farmers rest quietly in the shade of the oaks beside the plots of wheat, as if even speech was exhausting work in the oppressive heat.

The procession slowly approaches the pub. Those inside swarm to the window and door to follow the spectacle. “Like birds of death,” whispers one of the guests, gulping and repeatedly licking his chapped lips.

“These ones just can’t stay out of trouble,” the conductor says, trying to satisfy the attention directed toward him—as if, by simply having traveled on the same train as the newcomers, he would know more about their journey here, and hence could predict the events to come. Understandably, he wants to satisfy their expectations, but as soon as he utters what he thinks, he furtively looks around to see whether he has stirred any disagreement.

“They came back. So what? They came back.” The barkeep shrugs. He has nothing to be afraid of. He didn’t take anything from them. In fact, he bought his license and his business place for good money from one of them whose great-grandfather received his pub license in the middle of the last century.

The majority of those present keep silent. This isn’t so simple, they think with a tint of uncomfortable embarrassment, considering the furniture, carpets, linen and clothes that they bought at rock-bottom prices at the auction in the market square last summer. It dawns on them how it might feel if the previous owners, returning to the village, were to meet their possessions face-to-face. They’re ashamed, and this feeling angers them even as they proclaim their innocence.

The cart’s closer now. The horse’s shoes flatly and monotonously clop and stir dust along the road. The driver and his brother-in-law would prefer to vanish from the cart. They feel the eyes—how could they not—the searing gaze from the pub’s door; after all, they’d be watching the same way themselves, were they not sitting on the cart.

Mihály Suba drives his horse, his head lowered, looking neither right nor left. Those in the door of the pub watch mutely, petrified like statues. Only when the cart reaches the next corner do they start to stir. They step forward curiously to see what’s going on at the pharmacy nearby. They all feel that this will determine the events to come, the things to be done.

Inside the pharmacy, behind the closed shutters, the notary and his son avoid each other’s eyes, stealing only furtive glances. It seems that these few minutes, with only the two of them in the darkened shop, have seen a change in their relationship. Even if he did open the shop, Árpád Szentes knows that, although his father is a powerful man, he’s not infallible and has his own doubts. The son already knows that if he wants to grow up then he has to leave the village and leave behind everything he was given ready-made, to free himself from everything that now suffocates him. First, he has to go to the next village, knock at the Hórusz house and tell Eszter: “Here I am. I cannot do otherwise. Will you come with me?” And at this point it’s all the same what she replies, because by simply being able to do what he planned, what he dreamt, and then act out the role in reality projected from the film in his imagination, he has achieved what one must and can achieve in life. Because if he can meet Eszter, he’d at once be capable of meeting anyone else, even if Eszter should say no.

Árpád Szentes starts to laugh at this string of thoughts. He feels a relief he has never before experienced. The relief of one who has just wriggled out of a labyrinth he never realized he was in. He now knows that everything is possible on earth. What he tells his father next, when he gestures to the goods set out for the shop’s opening, is possible, too:

“Do what you want, Father. I’m leaving. I love and respect the two of you, but I have to live my own life. About the shop: the books are in the cabinet, the whole accounting. All I withdrew was my salary. The money’s marked in the account.”

He lifts his linen jacket and straw hat from the peg and steps into the bright midday sun. The trembling heat has settled heavily and thickly over the village, and yet he walks confidently, stepping lightly as if free from an enormous burden.

István Szentes is taken aback. He’d like to call to his son, and at the same time he wouldn’t. He stands in the doorway not quite knowing what to do. Besides his anger and incomprehension, he’s oddly proud of his son, who behaved like a man for the first time in his life. He does suspect that feelings towards Eszter Hórusz are behind it all, just as he suspects that his son will fail and come back sooner or later, but he, too, left everything behind for a girl and slammed his parents’ door. But whether it’s fatherly worry emanating from his own painful experience or his disappointment with his own fiasco, or the hidden, unmentioned, jealous envy of the possibility that his son might succeed where he himself failed, all of this is so completely entangled within his soul that it’s impossible to make sense of it and realize the depths of his own feelings.

He closes the door, confused. His son’s right: he has to stay here. He must. He was the one who wanted it this way, and be it as it may, he has to take responsibility.

Árpád Szentes sets out for the train station and soon encounters the cart. He greets those in the driving seat and tips his hat at the two strangers. They nod back, and that’s enough for him. He wanted to meet them and greet them as if he were repaying a debt. He’d imagined this for a while inside, behind the counter. Árpád Szentes feels happy for a moment. What could be bigger than imagining, dreaming, and doing by our own free will something we planned in our own minds?

The people grouped in front of the pub don’t know what to make of the strange behavior and departure of the Szentes boy, and they’re confused by the appearance of the father. They just stare, watching events unfold. Meanwhile, the cart reaches the pharmacy. Mihály Suba pulls on the reins; the horse stops. The shop’s about seventy meters from the pub; every important gesture will be visible, and if any loud words are exchanged, they’ll be overheard. They’re all tense, attentive, waiting silently and breathlessly for the moment when the newcomers step into the shop. But the cart hardly stops. It just lumbers on.

The people standing in front of the pub are utterly bewildered, but so is Mihály Suba. He nearly bursts from the tension. He doesn’t understand what’s going on and he’s afraid. He’s afraid of the notary, afraid of the villagers seventy meters away, and even more afraid of those two right behind him.

They still must have a lot of power if they dare to return on their own just like that, back to the places they were forced to leave in such disgrace, and they will seize in no time what was once theirs. Mihály Suba himself farms land that just a few years ago had a different owner. How could he not be worried? A year ago he thought it extreme that they were expelled from their houses and taken who knows where, even if he found it just to distribute their property among people like himself. It’s not right that they have everything and those whose great-grandfathers tilled the land suffer in penury.

And now they’re leaving? They didn’t even bother to glance at the pharmacy. Perhaps they hadn’t come for the shop.

Afraid and confused, he doesn’t understand anything, and the two strangers urge him to move on.

“Where are we going then?” he asks in surprise.

“Do you know where the house of worship was?” the younger one asks.

“Yours?”

“Yes, ours.”

“Of course. It still exists.”

“And how about the Yeshiva?”

“Where they studied?”

“Yes, yes.”

“I know of it.”

“Well then, let’s go.”

The driver still doesn’t get it, but at least he was told the next destination. He snaps his whip and the cart lurches forward.

István Szentes watches the scene and listens from behind the windows of the pharmacy. He doesn’t understand what he’s seeing. What on earth do these folks want? To march through the entire village? To haughtily display that they have returned loaded with goods to reoccupy what’s theirs?

He didn’t know them to be like this in the past. They were quiet and humble; they liked to do their business peacefully because they knew all too well that they were not highly regarded. But who knows, after all that allegedly happened, what they might feel or what they might want to do?

And now they’re leaving? They didn’t even bother to glance at the pharmacy. Perhaps they hadn’t come for the shop. István Szentes stands against the counter, and under his summer jacket his shirt’s wet with cold sweat. His legs are trembling and he has to sit. He pours a glass of water from the jug on the table. Having prepared for a confrontation, he suppressed his nervousness, his doubts, but now all the tension caused by the arrival of the newcomers, and the waiting, the tension that he finally didn’t have to turn against them, turns against himself. His heart is tight, he’s short of breath, his limbs weaken, and he feels hatred for them because they provoked everything by showing up, by returning, by existing at all.

The horse and cart turns into a narrow side street. Mihály Suba points to one of the houses that opens on the street and doesn’t have any windows.

“That’s where they prayed. They studied in the other building.”

They step to the fence, study the house of worship that has a trapdoor on its roof open to the sky and that was covered with reeds by its late owner to commemorate their temporary shelter during their wandering in the desert. Now someone had propped open the trapdoor, perhaps to allow the musty building, in disuse for more than a year, to air out and dry. They wave the driver to get moving.

“Now where?” he asks uncertainly.

“To the cemetery,” the whiskered one answers.

Mihály Suba nods, cracks the whip, and the cart jerks ahead.

The younger one with the hat turns questioningly to the older one. He nods and the other one starts humming quietly. The melody can only be heard by the old one. Anyone else would consider it, at best, a plaintive chanting, a mutter that can hardly be called a song.

The drivers don’t turn around. They feel that the scene happening behind them is none of their business and since the two strangers aren’t speaking their language, they feel left out. The singing fades at times, barely audible. and sometimes you can only conclude he’s speaking from the movement of his lips, murmuring incessantly what he must do.

The cemetery isn’t far. It’s the first plot at the end of the village beyond the houses to the east on an undulating strip of land, divided by a low stone fence from the dirt road. A vast space opens from the cemetery, bordered only by the sky. The best plot of land around. Mihály Suba never understood why their cemetery had to be put right here. The rest of the village’s dead don’t rest here. That’s odd, too, he thinks.

They stop in front of the rusty gate and push in the drooping arms.

“Take down the boxes and carry them next to the building.”

They gesture at the stone building used to wash the dead.

Mihály Suba automatically obeys, although he doesn’t understand anything.

He’s not asking, and he’s not curious anymore. He just wants to be done with the job and get rid of them as soon as possible. They work silently. The eleven boxes come down from the back of the cart.

“Do you have shovels?”

“You asked for them, so we brought them.”

“Dig a grave then. It should be two meters long, one meter wide and two meters deep. Let’s say there.” The bearded man points at the untouched clearing in front of the first row of gravestones.

Mihály Suba raises his head suddenly. He looks them in the eyes for the first time since they left the station. What do these people want? Who do they want to bury? He heard in his childhood that they take the blood of Christian children to flavor their Easter matzah bread but there’s no children here, it’s not Easter, and these people look least of all like somebody who’d drink anyone’s blood. He never understood the story, he was just afraid. It’s well known that they don’t drink blood. Blood is the spirit to them.

“A grave?” he asks in doubt.

“Yes.”

Suba and his brother-in-law look at one another. His brother-in-law doesn’t speak, not a single word. Suba can’t count on him. He only thinks of the amount of work required to dig such a large hole in the parching heat. If he had a choice, he wouldn’t be doing such work.

They remove the shovels from the cart and step to the indicated spot.

“Good here?” Mihály Suba asks, suppressing his emotions. He remembers that on the front some were made to dig their own graves and then were shot in them. At least these people don’t have guns.

“That’ll be good.” The strangers nod.

Suba and his brother-in-law start digging. They don’t take their shirts off, only their vests, although the sun stings their backs. The others leave their jackets and hats on, but they’re only opening the boxes.

While they’re excavating, a ragtag crowd turns up at the house closest to the cemetery’s street. The villagers are coming, led by the notary, about a dozen of them, but they halt at a respectful distance. They’re surprised to see that the strangers came to the cemetery.

Mihály Suba raises his head suddenly. He looks them in the eyes for the first time since they left the station. What do these people want? Who do they want to bury?

Mihály Suba stands waist-high in the hole he’s digging in turns with his brother-in-law when the strangers open the last box. They work silently, in coordination—as if this isn’t the first time. They unfold striped prayer shawls on the crisp dry grass near the boxes. A penknife clicks open in the hands of the younger man. Mihály Suba raises his head suddenly, and he can make out that he’s squatting by each talis, cutting into the material.

The locals have lined up on the other side of the cemetery’s low stone fence.

As if sensing they’re being observed, the two strangers glance up.

The notary greets them. “Good afternoon.”

They don’t reply, only nod, then look at each other and continue working. They pull the boxes one after another next to the outspread, sheet-size prayer shawls and start to unpack the load. They neatly set out palm-size, brick-shaped soaps in a row, their colors ranging from nuances of pink to gray. On the bars of soap can be read the letters RIF. The inscription is the official abbreviation for Reichstelle für Industrielle Fätte und Wachmittel, [1] but in their minds the meaning of the three letters could not be clearer: Reines Israelitisches Fett. [2]

Due to their quick work, a box is emptied in minutes, and they then fold up and tie the four corners of the talisses like bundles. By now their faces are red and sweat streams down their foreheads and the napes of their necks.

Only the top of Mihály Suba’s head is visible from the pit when they unpack the contents of the last box. Ten bundles side-by-side.

“Have we got them all?” the old man asks, wiping his forehead.

“Yes,” the younger one says, looking around to make sure. “One thousand four hundred seventeen pieces altogether. I counted them.”

They stand up, step to the edge of the grave, and help Mihály Suba scramble out. They take the bundles to the pit, and this time the unshaven one descends. He takes a handkerchief of Jerusalem earth from the pocket of his jacket, sprinkles it on the earth, and only then do they start handing down the tied-up talisses.

“Careful,” the old man says, worried.

After the ten bundles are handed down and the man arranges them, they help him out of the grave. Puzzled, he looks at the older man as if he should say something that would relieve him, but he doesn’t say anything.

The older man bends towards the mound of earth, grabs a handful and throws it into the grave. The younger one does likewise. The scene is followed silently from behind the fence.

Mihály Suba can’t bear it much longer. He asks, almost with a groan, “Just tell me, why exactly this many?”

“This is how many there were from the surrounding villages.” The one with the gray beard looks at him, attempting to restrain his feelings, but his eyes fade as he looks at the other man, as if for a second the hope for understanding and sympathy would bubble up in him, but he breaks up his tears with the back of his hand and clears his throat.

“Cover the grave!”

Suba and his brother-in-law work quickly, heaping and then smoothing the earth.

They load the tools onto the cart. The younger stranger steps forward, takes his wallet from the inner pocket of his jacket and pays. He goes back to the grave and stands silently by the older one for a while and then touches his shoulders.

“Mir muzn geyn, tate.” [3]

The old one turns without a word and leaves. The notary breaks away from the group standing outside the cemetery gate and walks up to him.

“As our village’s representative, please let me express my sympathy. We’ll take care that the memories of the victims remain alive with dignity.”

Wondering for a moment whether to accept the hand extended to him, Hermann Sámuel hesitates, then resigns himself, nods and shakes hands.

“We cannot take care of the whole cemetery, of course, but we will do our best, especially if we receive some assistance,” the notary says.

The brim of the young man’s hat and his whiskers conceal the muscles twitching in his face. The old man squints and yanks his hand out of the notary’s. He was disoriented before, but the tone is familiar. His eyes run across the faces of the men standing behind the notary and he says, “Thanks. I’ll take care of it.”

The two men with the black hats pass in front of the gauntlet of villagers lining the cemetery street, they then turn right and pass once more by the prayer house and the Yeshiva, then turn left onto the main street, and finally bear right again along the row of poplars, all the way to the station.

They never look back but feel the searing gaze of the villagers on their backs.

Footnotes

1. The Reich Office of Industrial Grease and Detergents (German)

2. Pure Israelite Fat (German)

3. We have to go, Papa. (Yiddish)

Author’s Note

During World War II, British propaganda spread the story that the Nazis cooked the remains of people killed in the death camps into soap. Historical research has provided no evidence for this hypothesis, but in spite of this, soap was buried symbolically as human remains in many places after 1945.

About the Author

Budapest-born novelist and screenwriter Gábor T. Szántó is the editor-in-chief of the Hungarian Jewish monthly Szombat. His writings include volumes of short stories and the novels Édeshármas (Threesome) and Kafka macskái (Kafka’s Cats). His short story 1945 Hazatérés (Homecoming, 1945) served as the basis of the film 1945 by director Ferenc Török (Katapult Film, 2017). The film won audience awards at the Berlin International Film Festival and at numerous Jewish film festivals in the United States.

About the Translator

TLR Bass lived and worked in Budapest for more than 20 years. He recently relocated to the UK.

Photos

Photographs from 1945, the 2017 film, directed by Ferenc Torök, that was based on this story.

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1Comment
  • Steve Elman 19:54h, 03 December Reply

    I did not see the film, so I followed the story very carefully. I had an idea that Hermann Samuel and the young man with him were going to the cemetery to bury something, but wasn’t sure what. I was taken aback at the number of bars of soap (although I probably shouldn’t have been), and after reading the translation for the German initials on the bars of soap, I cracked and started to cry. With the anti-Semitic graffiti found at Washington Hebrew Congregation (to which my family and I belong) and even more recently at the Historic Sixth and I Synagogue, the words of George Will in his November 24, 2019 column in the Washington Post that “Polls indicate that a majority of millennials do not know what Auschwitz was. The future might teach them by analogies.” are very frightening.

    Steve Elman
    Bethesda, MD

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