To Be Honest
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Márta Ehrlich was born on September 27, 1919, but since her birth was not recorded till the following day, her birthday would eventually be celebrated on the 28th.
It was József's idea that he and Matild should keep a diary for Márta, and they got a hardbound quadrille book to do their recording in. On the title page József wrote, in carefully-drawn block letters, the eloquent if uncharacteristic-for-him sentiment ISTEN NEVÉBEN KEZDEM MEG: In God's Name I Begin This.
For the first three months of Márta's life virtually nothing got recorded; during the next three months, though József and Matild would each make many Diary entries, their observations were in no way unusual or extraordinary for happy new parents with a firstborn child.
"Tomorrow you will be six months old," József might remark. "Let's see how much you developed since last I wrote in this book," and he would go on to describe what Márta ate for lunch, or how much she enjoyed rocking herself back and forth on all fours. Matild might mention taking the baby in her buggy out for a walk every day, and how Márta loved going out just like her mother: "Now all day long you say 'bye-bye, go bye-bye.'"
"Márta was our whole life at that time," Matild would one day add. "We loved her very much, and watched her grow and develop beautifully."
In November 1919 the Romanians withdrew from thoroughly-plundered Budapest, and Admiral Horthy led in his army, telling the Lord Mayor that "we shall forgive this criminal city."
The Budapest Spirit was the White Hungarians's whipping boy: Bolsheviks, organized labor, Freemasons, and Jews were all prominent on their hit list. Miklós Horthy, admiral in a country that now lacked both navy and seaport, was named Regent for the King who remained in exile—and Karl was forcibly kept there too, even being shot at by Horthy's troops when he tried to reclaim the Hungarian throne.
For awhile, ironically, the situation in Romania was different. Rather than agree to the Peace Treaty's minorities clause, which explicitly obligated Romania to recognize its Jews as citizens, Prime Minister Bratianu resigned; but a conciliatory coalition then took power, signed the treaty and agreed to observe its provisions.
However much the Transylvanian Jews might despise Romania and long to be reunited with Hungary, it must have seemed (could it be possible?) that things might actually be working out, after all, for the best.
Then in March 1920 King Ferdinand dismissed the coalition and had it replaced by a strong authoritarian government, one which rejected social reform and denounced the opposition as "Jewish-dominated leftists," alien and pro-Communist. In Transylvania there was no immediate change in Jewish status, though the government and bureaucracy had undergone wholesale Romanization. But the Transylvanian Jews, with their historic and cultural ties to the hated Magyars, were suspected of "irredentism," and their lives and activities were very soon to be restricted.
Extracts from Márta's Diary, translated from the original Hungarian:
1920 April 5. Last week for one day you ran a temperature and we were worried, but thank heaven nothing worse developed. You have a habit, my little girl, the only way you can sleep in your little bed is if you lay on your tummy with your face buried in the little pillow. Sometimes we try to turn you over on your back, but you put up a fight and start to holler, so we have to let it go. I think, my sweet, that's why you never had a stomach ache.... [József]
1920 April 10. Yesterday you were a naughty little girl. Sorry I have to say such a thing of you my dear. We went for a long walk, the three of us, and by late afternoon we got home. As soon as we stepped into the house, you started to scream and cried as hard as you could. Mommy picked you up and took all your clothes off to see what's wrong, found nothing. She tried to feed you, but you wouldn't take anything, so back you went in the buggy and we had coffee and cake, and you just hollered while we ate. So out we went for another stroll in the park, and lo and behold our daughter stopped crying and started to laugh and be happy. Well, wasn't that naughty?
Tonight you put your toes in your mouth. We put you to bed, it was time to go to sleep, but you promptly sat up and started to cry and with your eyes full of tears looked up at me wanting to be picked up. I am so sorry for you my little girl, you are so much alone, but we are busy all day making a living. We have a millinery store and small shop in front, and the apartment is in the back. But sometimes we even forget we have a baby, you are so good. Sometimes I see you look so sad sitting in the corner in your little bed playing. I wish times will get better to your Mommy could stay with you all day. [József]
1920 May 16. It's a long time my darling baby since we played together. But at last I got away today so I could record your progress. It is over a week since you started to hold onto your crib and walk around in it. You are such a sweetheart my baby, and you perform like that and catch us watching, you start calling "Mama—Mama." Your teeth started to show, but we have to look real hard to see them. But when you eat we hear it on the spoon. Hardly can wait to see how pretty you will look with teeth. You are a fighter all right, fight with everyone. Today you were at your cousin Bébi's house, and you slapped her face.* She really loved you, but after that she didn't even want to look at you anymore. Lots of time you hit Dad and me, but you think it's just playing, because you clap hands and laugh. So we haven't punished you yet for it, but are trying to correct it some other way. [Matild]
1920 June 6. Your only tooth is out good, so we can see it, and you can pull your bread to pieces with it. You eat everything now except meat, and love it. You can crawl on the floor very fast and when you reach a chair you grab hold of it and stand up without any help from us, and can walk around it holding on. And if we put your back to the wall you can stand alone. It will be fun when we could take your hand and go walking. You can say a few words already: Mama, Papa, bye-bye, dolly, and a few others. When years later you grow up and want to know what kind of baby you were, well, my sweet, you are just the loveliest and most perfect little girl. You are for us, but everyone who sees you tells the same to us...
Your hair is brown; your eyes? I can't tell really, some time it is blue, some time green, and at other times grey. There is a novel by a famous Hungarian, Mór Jokai, the name is The Lady with the Ocean-Blue Eyes.† That's you, baby. You have a lovely cream-and-peach complexion, and you are very well developed for your age. I am pretty sure you will be a smart girl. It is 10 PM and you are fast asleep. Funny how you are always sleeping on your tummy, whenever we turn you to lay on your back, in an instant you are back face down and fast asleep again. Good night my Mártuka, sleep well. [József]
1920 July[?] This week we got your first spanking from your Mother. For why? I can't tell in this book, maybe your husband-to-be will read this some time... Day by day you are more darling, but more spoiled too. You slap everybody, playfully that's true, but just the same it is a slap. [József]
1920 August 11. We came home from the country resort,‡ its name is Kolozs and it has a natural salty lake for bathing. You are one kilo heavier, but it seems you grew rather than gained. You are tall for your age, and developed a lot while in the country. You understand every word spoken to you. You are a little timid, not afraid of people but of things. For instance you are afraid of shoes. It happened in the country yet, you were sitting on the floor and glanced down at your feet, when you saw the shoes on them you started crawling just as fast as you could, then stopped to take another look and got startled again and tried to run away from them.
There was another instance, your Mommy and I were reading and you were playing all by yourself. All of a sudden we heard you holler "Mama, Mama" and when we looked up, we saw you holding in your hand far away from you a small paintbrush, you got scared of it. You couldn't throw it away, but started to crawl as fast as you could holding it away. You were so comical my dear that we both laughed at you... You can walk now for short times, as long as you can touch objects you even try to run. I think it won't be long now before you really could walk. [József]
1920 August 21. Yes, my little daughter, now you know how to use your legs, you really can walk. Naturally you fall a lot yet, but get up again and start out anew. You even can manage the stairway, only four steps up, but it is enough for a start. When you fall down, you always sit up and spank the floor saying "da, da,"§ at least you speak some words too. [József]
"We did very well," Matild would say of their millinery business next door to Matthias Corvinus's birthplace, "but the Romanian city officials who were officiating this part of Hungary were a mean lot and couldn't let us alone. They though no one who wasn't born in Transylvania belonged there, and the police started to come to let us know it, hounding us until [József] started to give them money which seemed endless blackmailing. A large part of our earnings went to the blackmailers, for bribing several of them just to let us live, until [József] was seeing we couldn't live this way much longer."
In later years it would always be said that the Ehrlich millinery had been "lost."
1920 September 27. This is a very pleasant date for us Mártuka, today is your first birthday. All that happened with you in a year we tried to record here for us all. We are very satisfied with your progress. You are tall and very pretty, and mostly very bright. Once somebody asked if you were at least two years old? although you were not even one year old at that time.
We hope we can give you the upbringing we both wish to. It is very hard my dear, lots of difficulty lies before us. You will think it was impossible when you are old enough to read this book. Hope you never will have to know the terrible things that are going on in this world today. We had to move in with your Aunt Fáni and Uncle János, and all we have is a bedroom, and we have to use the kitchen together. But we are not discouraged, we know it will be different and better some time. Mártuka, you keep us going, and we are hoping we can keep you protected always from unpleasant things.
I can only say nice things about you. You are sweet and good and you understand every word we speak to you, although you can't talk much yet. You are taking your afternoon nap now, you talk a lot in your sleep. After you wake up we will take you to have your birthday picture taken at a very good photographer. [József]
The Fruchters, Fáni and Jani, were a childless couple and treated Márta very much as their own. "They both worship you," József would write a couple of years later,
but especially Jani. He is a very nervous man, when he is in a bad humor no one dares speak to him, not even his wife Aunt Fáni. But you don't understand things like that, and you go to him and he just melts away, and does your bidding. Even goes on all fours and takes you for a ride on his back and forgets he ever was mad for some reason... It's every day that he sits down to play dolls with you and does whatever you tell him to do...
Both of the Fruchters made entries in Márta's Diary: "I must add to your nice remembrance," Fáni wrote, "so when you are old enough to read all this I am remembered also." And Jani hoped that "when you are grown years later, and you will read this book, you will remember your old Uncle Jani, if not personally, then from hearing your Dad and Mommy talk of me to you."
Domestic help was inexpensive and the Ehrlichs hired a nursemaid to look after Márta while Matild and József were at work. Matild's younger brother Jenő and at least one sister (probably Margit, a dressmaker) had a "big ladies's tailoring shop and salon" at the Kun house, with twenty people working there—now including the Ehrlichs, doing millinery.
József's job prospects were otherwise bleak. "He couldn't find work because he wasn't born in Transylvania," Matild would recall. "He was declared an alien and eventually would have to leave the country where I was born." But even were they to return to Budapest, things were not likely to be any better. Five days before Márta's first birthday, the first major anti-Semitic law in postwar Europe was adopted in Hungary: a numerus clausus, restricting Jewish enrollment at institutions of higher education.
[Photo: Márta in a playsuit, standing on a bench]
1920 October 12. Hope you like your picture? It isn't a bit posed, just as you stood he took it, very natural. There isn't much news to tell, you talk very little yet, but the things you do are more grown up, and there isn't a word you don't understand. When you see fresh fruit, you offer to kiss anyone, that means you want some if it too. You love to play, especially ring-around-the-rosy, with other children. And you can, and like to, fight. Especially with your young Aunt Ili. She is only six years older than you and loves you very much. You like to pat her, then when she stoops down to kiss you, you hit her and say "da, da."
You like best to eat, and ask for food several times a day. You love very much to play hide-and-seek, you think if you close your eyes no one can see you either, then open them and say "kukucs"** which means we find you. When you get something new you say "pretty?" You have a new white fur coat which you love to pat, but when you see a dog you are afraid to touch it. You like very much to listen to stories for hours at a time, and when I tell you the girl spanked the Teddy Bear, you too say "da, da." You are walking fine now. I had to buy the third pair of shoes already. You never cry when you fall, just reach out and spank the floor or ground saying "da, da." And that seems to satisfy you for the bumps. [József]
1920 November 25. Today you got a dish from your Uncle János and a small spoon, so now you eat all by yourself. It seems you know too what progress you are making, you are just as happy as can be. Aunt Fáni is teaching you to dance and you seem to be a very good pupil. Fourteen months old, and you get hold of your skirts with both hands and just start to dance. Naturally you fall, but that doesn't seem to bother you, you start all over again. But you don't want to start talking yet, just a few words that you said a month ago. [József]
1920 December 5. The last few days you spoke new words: Daddy, Baby, Mommy, apple, and milk. I think this is the time you'll start talking a blue streak. If you are not behaving, we put you in a corner which makes you a very sad little girl. You respect me very much, I have to tell you only once to do something and you do it promptly. If your Mommy puts you to bed at night, you stand right up and start to cry. But if I just look at you, you lay down and put your little face in the pillow and I hear you are crying your little heart out. I feel like crying with you my dear, I am so sorry for you. But one of us has to be strict even if it hurts us both. Today your little cousin Bébi was here, but she was naughty and cried. You teased her and imitated her crying. [József]
1920 December 24. My darling little daughter, you are getting sweeter every day and smarter too. Understand everything and can make conversation with me or anyone else. Your Aunt Fáni went to the Market and I asked her to bring us some apples, and all morning you were trying to tell me "Aunty bye-bye, bring baby apple." Yes, my sweet, we could chat together now and we both have a lovely time together. You still like to play hide-and-seek, and when the children say "I find you," you say it too...
While I'm writing this you sit in Daddy's lap, he is telling you a story about a frog who fell into a deep well. You like stories the best and sometimes you say something in between too. I wonder my darling what will you say when you will first read this book. Will you like it? [Matild]
1920 December 28. Three new words again, your Aunt Fáni taught you how to say them, you are so happy when you learn new things, and always smiling when you say them. Christmas Eve the neighbors asked you to go in and see their Christmas tree, which you liked a lot, saying "Pretty," and you wanted to touch things on it, but I didn't let you because there were real candles on it and I was afraid you'd get burned by it. They offered you some bonbons from a dish but you wanted them all. When you dipped into the dish and saw the dark chocolate, you didn't want it, shaking your head and saying "dirty" and putting it back too. You love sweets and the neighbors always bring you cookies just to see how glad you are when you see them. Lots of times my little girl embarrasses me, because anyone who comes to the house to see us, you are asking for food or something to eat. [Matild]
1920 December 29. It's over three weeks since I wrote to your book, always waiting for something important to happen. Your vocabulary is large, every day some new words. Today it was "raining outside." Most of the words only Mom and I can understand, you talk so funny. Only when you want something to eat, or when you are mad for some reason you talk quite plain. But still you like to fight and hit people. You can slap real hard, your Mommy thinks it's amusing, but you never do it to me. Once you were crying and I imitated the way you cried. You got mad at me and lifted your little hand to hit me, but when you saw me looking at you, you came to kiss me instead. Otherwise you seldom cry, when you fall and hurt yourself you just ask us to kiss wherever is hurting, and won't do anything else, just a kiss, then everything is all right again.
Still love to hide, right now you are playing with Mommy and you are under the table waiting to be found. Next best is ring-around-the-rosy, anybody in the room has to play it with you, if there isn't enough people then you take your teddy bear too. You love your teddy bear, go to sleep with it, feed it, and even put it on the potty. Mártuka, you are a very dear little girl, you give us lots of pleasure and help us to forget our troubles with your sweetness and laughter. Sometimes you do things you shouldn't, then I try to be serious and correct you, but in the middle as I look at you, I start to laugh, and have to hide my face so you can't see it. You think I am crying and you say "Daddy, no, no."
I would love to make lots of pictures of you, but it is very expensive. But next spring we will have a family picture for you. I lift you up in my arms in front of the mirror, Mommy stands next to you, that's how we practice, and that is lots of fun for you too. You dark-eyed little monkey, now your eyes have changed to dark brown. Right now I hear you are spanking someone, saying "da, da." I see it is your teddy bear, it probably hurt you someway, that's why. Now you talk all the time, saying "naughty doll" and running all over the house all day. [József]
Proceed to Chapter 5 of To Be Honest
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* Bébi ("her real name is
Violet"), six weeks younger than Márta, was the daughter of Matild's sister
Margit and her husband Imre Ladner.
† A téngerzemü hölgy (Eyes Like the Sea), which won the Academy prize in 1890.
‡ Where they had gone for a month's vacation.
§ Interpreted as "bad, bad"—possibly derived from daci, Hungarian slang for a bad mark in school.
Last updated September 20, 2012
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