To Be Honest
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Extracts from Márta's Diary, translated from the original Hungarian:
1922 April 19. It is a long time since I wrote last, but this was a very hard winter for us all. You were sick so much with bad colds, running high temperatures most of the time. Nothing definite, just colds one after another with coughing spells. We and the doctor too think it's whooping cough, that's why it lingers on so long. You didn't change, though, except you grew a lot, and if it is possible you are more mischievous than ever before. Especially if you are in the mood we have lots of fun with you, singing the songs you learn from the maids, and army songs too. For a few days we noticed your eyes get cross sometimes, so I am taking you to the eye doctor today, maybe he can help do something to correct it. I told you you will have to wear glasses, which pleased you a lot, because you will look like your Grandpa, he too has to use glasses. [József]
During the spring of 1922 Sándor Ehrlich came to visit Kolozsvár. Sándor, a teacher, "turned up his nose" at brother József's making hats in a ladies's tailoring shop; according to Matild, this was not "arrogant enough" a line of work in Sándor's opinion. "But we have fun otherwise too," as he wrote in Márta's Diary:
1922 April 19. "Márta, come here, you little imp." You would not come, but if I say "Don't you come near me," then you quietly get around my back and hug me. Then the sport starts, trying to find out if my feelings are hurt or not? or if we still love one another or not? Did you sleep well? What did you dream? And, bashfully, is your sheet dry? For the last question we almost always get the right answer, and we all are very happy about that...
Last night your Mommy was mending and Dad was ripping up straw hats. You pulled up your little chair next to me and we started on discussions of different things, but mostly of the value of money, and in the end you decided you will buy clothes for yourself when you have money, instead of candy, although you do like to eat candy a lot. You love to be outdoors, and when I take you to the park to see the swans glide on the lake you are happy. But you always want to go on a rowboat too, which we can't take you on, my sweet, you are too young for that kind of sport yet.
You embarrassed me once very much: while we were in the park you got friendly with a general and were talking to him nicely. But all of a sudden you asked him if he had a horse and when he said yes, you wanted to know if he fell off of it sometimes?... [Sándor]
1922 [May?] Sorry to say you were sickly again these last few weeks. Sometimes we had to call the doctor to see you. First thing you started to bargain with him that you would open your mouth, but he didn't need to look into your throat with a spoon, and you both stuck to this bargain, although you kept your eyes on his hand, to be sure he wouldn't use a spoon. But my dearest the days are not always going this smoothly; sometimes I find you crying when I come home and you tell me you got spanked because you were naughty. You quarrel a lot with Uncle Forgacs,* and when you can't do a thing with him because you are too little, then you tell him, "My Uncle Sándor will fix you." You think I am the strongest man, and can do anything to protect you... [Sándor]
[Two formal photos of Márta]
1922 May 12. Don't get vain, my dear, but you had a very good portrait picture made by a good photographer. You tried to make all sorts of faces in between, but even so, you look darling in them. We noticed in it you look a bit cross-eyed, but the doctor said you will outgrow it and we think it is getting less noticeable already...
Something interesting to jot down: we are sitting in the yard together, and you see a cat walking on the roof. You watch it for awhile, then ask, "Daddy, is it permitted for a cat to walk on the roof? Won't it fall down? Can children do that too?" Which I promptly denied. Well, you just sit for awhile thinking over what you heard, and all of a sudden you say, "Daddy, I like to be a cat so I could too walk on the housetops. Yesterday when Mommy and you were out walking, you saw a donkey pulling a cart, and you said you'd like to be a donkey too. In that we are the same, because when I was a boy I too wanted to ride on a donkey, but never did.
We watch you very closely always for fear something might happen to you. I myself grew up on the streets and other children in our neighborhood are always out alone. But not you my baby, we don't let you out alone. Although sometimes I think maybe it would be better if we don't watch out so much for you, but to let you learn to take care of yourself alone. But you are too precious for us, and we can't bear the thought of something happening to you. [József]
[Seven photos of Márta and friends]
1922 June 11. I was extravagant again, and tried to do something I don't know much about. But I am glad I did get seven snapshots of you, which were taken at home in the yard. These are more natural than the first bunch was. We got you a wagon of clean sand to play in; you have lots of toys, but let everything lay, you just want to be in the sandpile every minute of the day and without shoes too. You were pouring it on your legs and playing store and selling it by the pint, for eight cents a pint.† Since you have it, you don't even want to put on shoes to go for a walk. So that is why we had to make the pictures barefoot, but we had to coax you to pose even that way, and your Mommy had to hold you tight so you couldn't run back to play in the sandpile instead. One of the snapshots is with the two maids whom you like so well, but even so, sometimes you quarrel with them and call them names, and we have to spank you for it. But sometimes you are real good and tell the girls, "You are very lovely," or "You are beautiful, my girl." Naturally they get a kick out of whatever you tell them, and laugh at your sayings. They love you, and teach you lots of nice folksongs which you learn quickly.
The other pictures are with your Aunt Fáni and Uncle Jani... I get into lots of differences with [Jani] because of you, honey. He can't see me be strict with you; no matter how bad a thing you do, he always says, "Oh, she's only a baby." But you are smart, and I know you understand what is good or bad. But he thinks whatever you do, we are to be blamed. He is already complaining what will he do without you next month when the three of us will go on our vacation and leave him at home. The snapshot with him is the best, but it has the point to that.
You see, dear, you like to pick your fingernails which you are not allowed to do, and sometimes you hide behind things so we don't see you do it. When we don't see or hear you for awhile, then we know what's happening; if we are quiet we look and catch you picking at your fingers. So while we took the pictures I let you do just that, which kept you so quiet it was easy. We try to correct your cross eyes, the doctor gave us instructions to tie one eye up [in a patch] and to change it next to the other eye. But if it doesn't get better, he'll have to give you glasses next year...
Then one more picture which isn't so clear, showing you and your little cousins and your Aunt Ili who is eight years old. It's hard to take pictures of four little children, but I wanted to have them for you, so when you are older you could see what you all looked like [when you were] three years old. [József]
1922 July 10. My darling little girl, it is quite a time since I chatted with you here. But I am always tired lately and when I come home late have no ambition for anything, just looking how fast I could go to bed and to sleep. Seems as though I always have to argue with you, because since we bought the sandpile you never want to go for a walk anymore with me, just want to stay home in the sand to play. I am glad you like it, it is healthy to play in it, but sometimes I like to go to the Park with you at least. Daddy doesn't like walking much,‡ and so I have to stay home also, or go all by myself, which isn't fun at all. Now you are so used to us going every day to the shop that you never cry anymore when we leave. Sometimes Dad tells you, "Take care of the house, kitten," and when we get back at night you run to greet us, and happily say "I did take care of the house all day." You like very much if we give you some work to do... You are a bright child, pay attention to things told to you to do, and do them well. The other day the girl brought you to the shop and right away you asked for work; when the people asked you why do you want to work, you answered to have a lot of money; and why do you want money? "So I can buy some chocolate and pretty clothes." So my dear baby you learn early enough in your life to appreciate work and money, and to understand you can't have it without working first, so you can have money to buy whatever you need.
Sometimes I feel heartsick about you, my sweet, to be so little with you at home. You see, darling, our shop is away from our house and we both go away early to work each day, and we can't help it yet. But we can appreciate you even more when we come home evenings. You are so happy to see us, and start to talk a mile a minute and tell everything you did all day, and which child came to play with you in the sandpile. Dad and I have such fun with you every night, it is a pleasure to watch you perform for us. You sure are a darling, and we both love you very much. Last week you got ill on a Saturday when we both were home with you. We got frightened when you threw up everything you ate. Thank heaven it didn't last long.
The next morning your little friend Erzsi came and as soon as you saw her you started to make funny faces and started laughing together. After that you ate breakfast and kept it down and all was well again. You like to eat carrots, every day you eat a couple but just raw. Vegetables are only eaten by you when the doctor tells you to eat them. But if I cook some vegetable the doctor forgot to mention, you have the best excuse not to eat it: "The doctor didn't tell you must eat that one." That's the kind of a girl you are, but just as sweet as can be just the same. Everybody loves you, but best of all your Grandpa loves you. If we don't take you over one day, the next he comes to see why, and gets peeved at us over it. [Matild]
1922 July 22. Now, my pal, I've got you again and I will gossip about you. You are standing right next to me with your little cousin Bébi, and so sweetly impish but also intelligent. You are improving your mind greatly, you learn lots of things to brighten up your future life. The things you learn and do are fascinating to watch. So in singing, screaming, climbing, and even in fighting you are a wonder. The highest record would be in fighting, but in all you sure are an imp, my pal. There are several songs you ask me to sing with you, they are the silliest sounding things, but we do it together and have a whale of a good time all the while we sing. You wouldn't mind if I would do it all day; we are very good friends, and it sure hurts to think we soon have to part...
Anyway you love quite a few new language twisters. Probably a new Webster is lost in you. But, my dear, life isn't always this simple, there are lots of things beside fun and play. One thing is you always want to go visiting the neighbors at all hours of the day, and we can't make you understand that they are busy and have no time for you. Once your Daddy tied you to the table with a long thread just to make you stay at home. I think it helped in a way. My heart was bleeding to watch you sit there, but even so, I was glad you understood what it was all about. You did learn to go visiting only when they ask you.
Mártuka, I am going away tomorrow, I feel sad to leave you behind because I love you very much. You reminded me of lots of things, and gave me lots of pleasure with your sunny smiles when we played together. Lead a happy life my dear, and after many years, when we meet again, you will be a young lady already. I will always love you, and I am taking a photograph of you with me, and when you will write to me, then I will feel the happiest. [Sándor]
1922 August 3. My dearest little girl, your Daddy is away for the last ten days. He is in Pest to see your Grandma and also on business. This is the first time since you were born that we have been left alone, just the two of us, for such a long time. Two or three days were all he ever went away before. You miss him very much and always talk about him. You sometimes get mad and say, "Why does he stay so long? I want him." But he promised to bring you a small violin, and when I remind you of that, then you are all right again for awhile. Since he is away you lavish all your love on me and I am happy with you. Hope you will always stay as you are now, very sweet and good. Since we are alone without Daddy, I am taking you everywhere with me, even to the market, because I am afraid to trust anybody to take care of you. Yesterday you got tired walking the markets, and got cranky. I tried to amuse you every way, but you were not interested at all, so I got sore and told you, "This is the last time I ever will take you." But today again very sweetly you asked me to take you. I was very firm and sounded gruff, "If you will whine I'll spank you." But you promised you wouldn't cry, just take you along too.
But my sweet you did get tired again and started to cry a bit. So I told you like I was mad at you, "What did I tell you I'd do to you if you started crying?" Then my dear baby you were such a darling, through your tears you started to smile and said, "Mommy, I am not crying, see, I am smiling, it was just a little bit." I had to stop right there on the street to hug you and assure you there would be no spanking needed. Tonight we had supper at Grandpa's, and coming home they all were walking back with us for company. We were talking and you were bargaining with me to change beds. You wanted me to sleep in your little bed and you in my big one. So I said OK. You were talking about how it will be when you grow up and I will be a baby. You can't imagine that we both could be grown up sometime. Then you said, "I will do all the work, cook dinner, and you will ask me to feed you." You were so cute that the whole family was handing you from hand to hand, kissing you and loving you, how smart you are. And your Mommy was very happy and proud of you.
When I put you to bed, you could not fall asleep, as your Uncle Jani was having a loud discussion with his nephew Forgacs. You were turning and tossing for awhile till you got tired of it all, then asked me to tell them to keep quiet so you could go to sleep. I said, "Sorry, darling, but I can't do that, I can't tell them what to do." Then you were so sweet again and told me, "All right, Mommy, then I will stop up my ears so I won't hear anything." You have lots of good sayings like that, especially daytimes, but I have so much on my mind and have no time to jot them down, and by the time I have a chance to sit and write in your book I have forgotten most of it.
One more thing, since Daddy is away you love and respect me more, and you try to obey and do what I tell you to. I'm very proud of my little girl and happy to see you can mind me too if necessary. But I want you to love me rather than be afraid of me, and hope that's the way it will be, my darling. [Matild]
1922 September 17. Nothing happened till now that was worth writing about, but last week we enrolled you at a nursery school close by in a convent. When I took you there first, you liked it and you liked your teachers; they were nuns and you thought it was fun and said they were "brides" because they had veils on their heads. The first day was fine in school, but second day you started to cry before we started out to go and didn't want to go at all. But we took you anyway because we know it is good for you to be with children there. The sisters were very nice to you, they gave you a doll right away to play with, a little crib and lots of doll clothes to dress the doll up. So you forgot by then that you didn't want to go, and played happily with your cousin Bébi who goes to the same school with you. Sometimes don't even want to come home, except when I tell you we will take the bus home, you like to ride on it very much. [Matild]
1922 September 27. I just noticed it is three months since I wrote last in your book. But today is a day we can't forget, my darling. You are three years old today, it is a long time, and I can't even think back to the time before you were born. It seems we always had you for our own baby. Don't even surprise us when you say or do something new and smart. It is very natural t hear you sing and tell poems or even stories. I even forget to jot down your bright sayings, because we are so used to hearing them all the time and you are a big girl, already three years old. But with all your smartness we couldn't talk you into continuing with the nursery school. You put up such fuss every time that we all were nervous by the time you were dressed. So after two days, we had to let the money we paid for a week for you there be wasted, and keep you at home again. After that when I wanted to scare you into doing something you didn't want to do, I just told you I'd send you to school. That was enough and you behaved for the time being.
I noticed you don't like a lot of children together, you can play the best if you only have one child to play with, then all is fine. But when several kids come to our yard to play, you stand away and just watch them. You probably inherited this from me, it might be a good thing in later life if you could stand aside and choose your friends carefully. I had lots of disappointments in so-called friends; now your Mommy and I live for each other and for you. Your smiling face and chatter are all we want, you are our whole life and we will try to see you grow up as happy as possible. I want to show you a goal for your future life, and hope you will keep it in your mind and keep that goal for yourself, to make a nice future that will make you happy and satisfied. I will try to teach you that a good book or a good play is worth more than silly friends or a dance.
I see already that you are a serious little girl and hope you grow up that way. I can just look at you and you know what I like you to do, and do it. Maybe, my dear baby, sometimes you will think I am terrible, but believe me I would do anything to make your later life free of unhappiness when it really will mean something to you. When I took you to touch the hot stove, I didn't do it for fun, I did it to teach you to know that is something to be afraid of, and to be able to remember when I won't be close by, to avoid anything that could hurt you. I hope a year from now I could still write just nice things in this book of yours. Now I will leave some room for our first family portrait at the time you are three years old.
[Photo: Márta, Matild, and József]
You can see how pretty you are in it, but looking older than your age. I think you even are going to be glad to see how your parents looked when you were three...
I am going to jot down a few things you have said lately. For instance, "Mommy, you are an anti-Semite." Or "Mrs. Ehrlich, you sure have a big girl." Then you're telling me you go to school, and I say don't be silly, you never even saw a school yet. Your answer is, "Yes I did, in the funny papers." You think you are not pretty because your eyes get crossed sometimes. Once a lady talked to you on the street and was telling you she has two pretty daughters, and you wanted to know if they too have cross eyes?
You like money already; in my work I use a starch that smells bad and you come to the shop and tell me it stinks. But if I promise to give you a dollar§ if you smell it closely, then for the money you do it, and happy that you get so much money. That's the kind of a little imp you are, you Harám-basa. This word caught your fancy and makes you laugh very hard. [József]
[Photo: Márta in nightgown]
1922 November 18. I have to tell you, my dear, you've got eyeglasses which you wear all day long and every day we have to put a dark patch on one eye for exercise. Hope it will help to correct it in time. As your picture shows with you in your nightie, your eyes aren't bad, you even look cute with it, but even so we hope it won't show when you grow older, and glasses will help it. The doctor took a long time examining your eyes and made you count dots over and over. You counted a couple of times up to seven or eight very nicely, but when she started again and showed you two more dots. you got sore and said thirty. With the prescription I had to go to the place to get the glasses for you, which cost a lot of money, and I told the man that's too much. So he said to go home with your little sister and ask your father if it is all right. He couldn't believe I was your father, he thought I looked too young for that. How do you like that, my pet? They even think I am your Mother's younger brother, although I am almost two years older than she is. I hope they won't think you are my Mama now that you have to wear glasses.
But you take everything in your stride, happy and enjoying every day as it comes along, doing everything you want, washing dishes and clothes with the maid, and being as mischievous as possible. You have a pet, a little chicken which you call Janka, you feed her from your hand and give her a drink of water too. She even flew up into your lap to be played with, but when you get mad you throw her down. You like to keep her in the kitchen, but that's hard because she isn't housebroken. When she does something on the floor you grab her up, scold her and put her on the potty and are disappointed when nothing happens and scold her some more. You are so cute when you do these things, we could hardly keep a straight face.
[A page of Márta's scribbles]
You think your drawings are good and represent dolls, Teddy bears, and dogs. They all have eyes, noses, ears, hands and legs, and it takes you only seconds to draw them. When you saw a donkey on the street you wanted to draw a picture of it when we got home. You told me, "Daddy, I am going to draw a great big donkey just as big as you are."
Mártuka, it seems you will be an American little girl by next summer. [József]
Life for the Jews in Romania was not on the upswing. During the past three years there had been a constant increase in vituperative anti-Semitism, flaring particularly at high schools and universities in Bucharest and Jassy; in December 1922 the numerus clausus was proclaimed, and there were Jew-baiting student riots.
"We had no choice but go somewhere, but where could we go?" Matild was to say. "How long could a decent person go on like this? We had to do something drastic and we tried."
After Matild's uncle and aunt, Samu and Jeni Kohn, had left Europe to live with Jeni's aunt in Chicago, they remained in touch with the family in Kolozsvár. Jeni and Matild's mother Berta had corresponded, and the energetic Jeni had come back to visit almost every year before the war. She was always encouraging her relatives to join the Kohns in the United States.
With this connection in mind, the Ehrlichs were "debating and seriously thinking" they might kivándorol Amerikába—emigrate to America. They wrote to the Kohns in 1922, "asking them please help us by sending us an affidavit so we could come to America, promising that we never would be a burden to them if they would just help us with this paper.
"We waited a long time before we heard that they'd try. But finally Aunt Jenny and Uncle Sam sent us the papers to start our long journey on its way to America. While we waited and hoped, we still kept up our shop at my folks's house and went to work daily, but it was hard to get the permit to emigrate just the same..."
Realizing that Ellis Island was jammed with newcomers, Congress in February 1921 had rushed into law an emergency measure intended to restrict immigration. Each European country was assigned a quota based on 3% of its nationals residing in the United States in 1910. This cut immigration back from over 800,000 a year to under 260,000, and—more significantly—it reduced the number of incoming Russians, Italians, and Austro-Hungarians from two-thirds of the total to less than half. And the 1921 Immigration Act was only a temporary stopgap, unsatisfactory to restriction-advocates but allowing them time to draw up a more permanent policy that would freeze out eastern, southern, and central Europeans altogether.
Caught half-aware in this historical pinch, the Ehrlichs were "waiting endlessly to hear from the American Consulate in Bucharest... and it was very hard on us."
1923 January 21. Here is another picture of us all, but this one had to be made for our passport... It will take quite a few months before we will be able to really leave for the States, but we made our minds up already and, my dear, you will be an American miss after all. You can see from this picture your hair is cut short again, it was so thin and was falling out in bunches so we had to cut it. Your face is so small and your tiny ears look big, but it will grow back again and we are hoping it will be real nice this time. You are sturdy and healthy and that's the main thing for us. Also, even though you are not a genius, you are quite smart for your age. Hope by the next time I write in this book for you, I could tell you the date of our trip to the new country of ours. [József]
Proceed to Chapter 7 of To Be Honest
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* Nephew of Uncle János
† "Cents" and "pint" in the English translation
‡ Some toes on József's wounded left foot had fused and become rigid, and he was hampered by a slight limp
§ "Dollar" in the English translation
Last updated August 22, 2009
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