To Be Honest
Apart and Together
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Matild settled down to her millinery business when József returned to the Polish front, "and pretty soon I was doing real good in it, and trying to save some money for our future." József sent her part of her military pay to add to their nest egg. In her spare time Matild worked on her hand-embroidered trousseau, all cutwork linens, and tried to keep her fiancé's morale from flagging. On one occasion she baked "fancy cookies" and sent them to the front, but their delivery was delayed so long they arrived moldy and József was terribly disappointed.
"We wrote quite often, especially me," Matild would recall. "I had the time, and he needed encouragement."
By now, the spring of 1916, the war was going quite well for the Central Powers, despite their having been blockaded by the British navy for almost two years. Meat and bread were inadequately rationed in Hungary, food queues were growing longer, and inflation had sent real income plummeting to half its prewar level. Add to this the tremendous losses in dead and wounded, and Hungary—enthusiastically bellicose at first—was beginning to succumb to war-weariness.
What happened that summer did nothing to cheer Hungary up.
The Empire had taken the offensive against Italy, who appealed to Russia for help. The regrouped Russians attacked Galicia, intending simply to divert the Austro-Hungarians, but caught them completely by surprise and sent them into full retreat. Russian General Brusilov continued the onslaught and made a spectacular advance, taking 200,000 prisoners in the first three weeks and another 200,000 by summer's end. Among those captured were Matild's brothers Dezső and Márton; while József Ehrlich was wounded again, this time by a nearly-spent bullet in his side.
Russia's tremendous breakthrough had been entirely unexpected—not least by the Russians, who had enjoyed so little success in the war up to now, and were unsure how to exploit their triumph. Germany, though fully occupied "bleeding France white" at Verdun and anticipating a major Allied offensive on the Somme, quickly collected fifteen divisions and sent them east to reinforce the staggering Austro-Hungarians, partly by putting their army under the command of German officers.
Encouraged by the Brusilov offensive, Romania (neutral till now) took the plunge when the Allies guaranteed Romanian takeover of long-coveted Transylvania. France was eager for Romania to begin an offensive immediately, hoping this would be a mortal blow to Austria-Hungary; but the Romanians delayed making their move till the end of August—and only made it then because of a threatening ultimatum from Russia.
So Transylvania, defended by no more than a few gendarmes, was invaded by the Romanian army of half a million "sturdy peasants." They proceeded fifty miles, but lack of leadership and stiffened Hungarian resistance brought them to a standstill in mid-September.
Berta Kun had never given up the search for Náthán, her firstborn, and József tried to help: "He used to ask around wherever he was, looking for someone who might know him or something about him, but never found anybody." And it was not long before the months of worry and grief took their toll on Berta.
"Mother became very ill, and her heart gave up. At the age of 52 she died of a massive stroke, leaving our two-year-old baby sister Ili behind, not to mention all of us, and my poor Dad. It was terrible, even now it makes me cry to think of that, and the war was still going on."
József's mother Sarolta came to Kolozsvár for the funeral. By this time she had lost a leg in a streetcar accident, but she cooked and cared for the Kuns during their shivah, the seven days following the funeral when mourners were to remain at home, doing no work. "Our house was sad," Matild would say. "Our dear Mother was gone, and our Dad tried his best to keep the family together."
Romania, forced into retreat and driven out of Transylvania, was itself invaded by the Central Powers and largely vanquished by December. Its demoralized government fled from Bucharest and was given shelter by the Russians—after a fashion: one general sneered that if Tsar Nicholas ordered him to send fifteen wounded soldiers to Romania's aid, he would on no account send a sixteenth.
But Russia itself was nearly burned out. Brusilov's brilliant offensive had exhausted its supplies and ammunition by the end of September, and men were not only fighting without weapons but having to tear down barbed wire with their bare hands. Over a million Russians had been lost since June, then another million (mostly deserters) by wintertime; Hungarian POWs had to be put to work to keep the Russian economy creaking along.
1916 was a year of hideous slaughter on every front. In the west, huge armies had squandered each other's lives fighting for bits of bloody ground at Verdun and the Somme—fighting and dying in vain, since victory seemed impossibly far from anyone's grasp. No one seemed to have an idea how to bring the war to any kind of conclusion; so they all kept on losing.
As 1916 ended so did Franz Josef, Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary, who at the age of 86 died thoroughly disillusioned with life. At the same time, the power behind the Russian throne—Grigori Rasputin of notorious legend—was thoroughly murdered, but that did not save the throne from toppling: revolution followed in March 1917 and Tsar Nicholas was forced to abdicate. Kerensky's provisional government pledged to carry on the Russian war effort and General Brusilov tried launching another offensive, but his motley army would not fight; when Germany counterattacked, they threw down their arms and quit. In November the Bolsheviks swept Kerensky aside and established a Soviet government, suspending hostilities with the Central Powers. Hungarian POWs were repatriated, including Dezső and Márton Kun; but fear of the ex-prisoners spreading Bolshevik propaganda led to their being quarantined for weeks and "re-educated" by the clergy. Most did not return home even then, but were shipped back to the front.
Starting in November 1917, all available German divisions were shifted from east to west for what was planned as the decisive offensive, one that would overwhelm the French and British before their new American allies could arrive in strength. As the spring of 1918 approached, the Germans outnumbered the Entente on the front line; but they had next to nothing in reserves, and little to hope for in the way of reinforcements.
Franz Josef's successor as Emperor-King of the Dual Monarchy was his great-nephew Karl, no friend to Germany. He refused to send any Austro-Hungarians to the spring offensive, other than a few divisions (not of the most sparkling morale) and some heavy batteries (which he requested that the Germans pay for).
Which is where, in a minor yet fateful way, József Ehrlich came in.
Since he could speak German, he was made a liaison officer aiding the transport of Hungarian troops to France. The Hungarians, accustomed to the wider-open spaces of the east, were confronted by a densely bewildering mass of trenches on the western front; and many would later panic at their first sight of those metallic behemoths known as "tanks."
While in France, József acquired a cherished possession: an embroidered lithograph of what appears to be a woman and her bubble-blowing child. "Time went by and he started to get more impatient with each month," Matild would sat. "The war was fierce and he was in the thick of it all."
Beginning in March, three massive German attacks pushed the front line west through Picardy and Flanders; by the end of May the Germans had reached the Marne and were less than forty miles from Paris. They had also reached the limit of their impetus, and opposing them now were the Americans—"ice cream soldiers" as the Hungarians called them, but unlike friend and foe they were fresh, confident, and eager to make their mark. They prevented the Germans from crossing the Marne; and the Yanks kept coming.
During the spring of 1918 there was a mild worldwide epidemic of influenza—"mild" in comparison with the dreadful pandemic later that same year. But it afflicted more than a few on the western front, and among them was József Ehrlich.
"I was notified that he was very ill with the very first influenza we'd ever heard of," Matild was to recall. "He was in a hospital where I couldn't go, near the fighting, and the orderly who was assigned to him and was looking after him kept me posted. It took several weeks before he himself could write to tell me about it. He'd been left with a bad cough, and was sent from hospital to hospital until he was sent back to Kolozsvár to get well."
This was a lucky break for József. Many wounded Hungarian soldiers, even invalids, were being recycled straight from the hospital. Getting leave home was a precious thing, not least because "it seemed the war would last forever."
At this time Matild's sister Margit married her childhood sweetheart Imre Ladner, whom József had met on the eastern front. József "kept saying, soon as he feels well, he doesn't want to wait any longer either. So we decided to get married, and set the date."
On July 21, 1918, József Ehrlich and Matild Kun were married in Kolozsvár "in the lovely large back yard of the Temple," under the traditional canopy.
"Mine was a real fairytale wedding. I had six bridesmaids, three of my sisters dressed in pale blue dresses, and three girlfriends in pink. After the ceremony and dinner for a large company and friends, [József] and I took the train to Budapest for our honeymoon and to visit his mother who couldn't come to our wedding. Only one older brother of his was there, his name was Sándor. But he traveled with us back to Budapest on the same train. [József] and I had a room reserved in Budapest at the Royal Hotel, an elegant new place, and very nice."
In their wedding picture Matild wears her white gown and gloves and veil, her bouquet displayed on a stand nearby. József is in dress uniform, complete with flower in his buttonhole and sabre by his side; he would later take the gold tassel from Matild's bridal outfit and sport it on the handle of his sabre.
József also sported a new moustache on his upper lip. "He raised that moustache while he was in the service," Matild would sniff, as though referring to a pet ferret. "But I didn't like it, so then he shaved it off."
Six days before the Ehrlichs's wedding, Germany made a supreme effort to win the war. For a couple of weeks beforehand this had been the subject of extravagant gossip—so extravagant that the Allies had gotten word of it, and made certain that it stalled after three days. Then the Allied counteroffensive was launched, led by hundreds of tanks. By August the Central Powers were ready to seek peace—mostly at each other's expense—but their feelers were ignored as the Allies kept pushing onward, throwing the Germans back, breaking through the Hindenburg line in late September.
Order and discipline vanished. The Hungarian army began deserting en masse, every man for himself; most wanted only to make it home as quickly as possible, crowding the roads and packing the trains. "Soldiers were coming back one by one or in groups," Matild would recall, "bringing their guns and thousands of ammunition with them. A complete chaos. But no one knew what to do or where they should go. It was unbelievable what was going on."
József, still in Kolozsvár, felt it his duty to return to the front. Matild said no, and he agreed when the Hungarian soldiers began to mutiny and shoot their officers, killing anyone they held responsible for the war. So József bade farewell to arms, removing his lieutenant's insignia and hiding his sabre in the cellar.
The Empire began to disintegrate as its defiant ethnic minorities seceded: the Czechs and Slovaks declaring united independence, the Croats and Slovenes joining Serbia in a new nation of southern Slavs. Romania plunged back into the war so as to get its crack at the Imperial spoils. "The whole country was in a torment," Matild would say. "Every small national started to grab some part of the country that used to be one great place under King Ferenc József. Now there started to be Yugoslavia, or Czechoslovakia, or whatever."
A virtually bloodless revolution swept Budapest, with the jubilant city cheering as idealistic Count Károlyi and his "bourgeois radicals" proclaimed the Republic of Hungary. To show off their new sovereignty, they insisted (despite Károlyi's misgivings) on a separate armistice with the Allies.
All of a sudden, the war was over.
Or so it seemed.
November 11, 1918 saw Matild being photographed out in the garden, with her brother Dezső—in civilian life a bon vivant singer-dancer-actor á la Maurice Chevalier—crouched behind her, peeking out from behind flower pots.
Around the same time, Romanian troops began reentering Transylvania. They were authorized to go only so far as the River Maros, but by the end of the month they had crossed that river and come to Kolozsvár—or, as they called it, Cluj.
"The loveliest part of all Transylvania became [part of] Romania," Matild was to say, "and we all hated that. Seeing those raggedy Romanian soldiers walking or marching into our lovely city, guns in hand, and we the people just looked and couldn't do or say a word. The next day they went from house to house confiscating all firearms our soldiers brought back with them from the war, even for keepsakes like a sword." (Thus the sabre-with-the-gold-tassel was lost.) "Well, they managed to make our life miserable at all times."
The Allies informed Hungary that, despite its protests and pending the final border settlement, they had decided to authorize Romanian occupation of Transylvania. Romania had already occupied Bukovina and Russian Bessarabia, and was faced with uniting these annexed provinces into the dreamed-of Greater Romania. In attempting this, the government (now back in Bucharest) was hardly inclined to accommodate non-Romanians—particularly such "resident aliens" as the Jews.
Not even Tsarist Russia had matched Romania in virulent anti-Semitism. For forty years the issue of Jewish emancipation and citizenship had been haggled over, and in December 1918 the Jews were holding out (despite government threats) for naturalization en bloc where everyone would declare that he or she had been born in Romania and held no foreign citizenship.
Under no circumstances would this have included the Győr-born József Ehrlich; but he at any rate had no plans to live in Transylvania. József's intention was to take Matild back to Budapest and there resume his teaching career—after things settled down a bit, and it seemed safe to travel. Until then the Ehrlichs remained in Kolozsvár and stayed with the Fruchters, Fáni and Jani. "Paychecks still came, but we didn't know where from, so we took and cashed them to live on."
The world had fought a war intended to end all war, but in early 1919 the question of establishing peace with Germany was hardly discussed at the Paris Peace Conference. Instead, the Great Powers had to deal with the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and all its resulting problems and quarrels. Among these was a possible new war over Transylvania.
In March Count Károlyi was handed an Allied ultimatum: his troops were to be withdrawn west of a neutral zone entirely in Magyar territory, intended to separate Hungarian and Romanian forces and so keep order. Károlyi's government opposed this ultimatum but lacked the power to defy it; so they took another way out by resigning. Power was handed over to the Communists.
"There was a shooting uprising and Communism started already," Matild would say. "The revolution started in Budapest and we couldn't go back, and wouldn't have wanted to even if we could go there, and we didn't know what to do. But we were happy when I found we were going to have a baby, and a few weeks later my sister Margit and her husband Imre had the same news to tell to our family."
Now that a child was expected, it seemed the wisest thing for the Ehrlichs to simply stay put, sit tight, and see what would happen. Here at least they had family and friends and a means of supporting themselves. Matild taught József millinery work: "We had no choice but for me to teach him how to use the machines, and to sew straw hats, and how to press and block them. He was a good student, and learned quickly, but the damp steam and fumes of the hat pressing made his coughing worse, and it was pretty bad for him for awhile."
The Ehrlichs got a place of their own in the Belváros district downtown. "Our new ladies's hat shop [was] right next to the very ancient birthplace and museum of an early king, Mátyás who made history for us interesting through the years." The hat shop's address was Number 5 King Matthias Lane, and Number 3 next door was indeed the house where Matthias Corvinus had been born. It was now a "charming little museum" featuring Hungarian pottery, embroidery, and woodcarving. [See Appendix B below]
Behind their store József and Matild had an apartment. On its walls they hung an enlarged and tinted reproduction of their engagement picture, and József's French lithograph of the woman with her bubble-blowing baby.
The leader of Soviet Hungary was named Béla Kun. Any connection with Matild's family was unlikely, and certainly would not have been acknowledged by Matild. But Béla Kun was also Transylvanian-born and of Jewish background; he had even attended the University of Kolozsvár for a semester in 1904. During the Brusilov offensive he had been taken prisoner, and in Russia he became acquainted with Lenin. After Kun took over Hungary, he established secret telegraph communications direct to Moscow—often asking Lenin for money but seldom listening to his advice.
When Kun demanded that the Romanians withdraw back to the Maros, boasting he could get the Russian Red Army to come to Hungary's aid, Lenin was alarmed and warned the overconfident Kun not to indulge in "leftist deviation." Kun replied that Hungary was already so far to the left it couldn't deviate further.
In May 1919 a scraped-together Hungarian Red Army went on the offensive—not against Romania, but the weaker Czechs to the north—and by June it invaded Slovakia. The exasperated Great Powers ordered Kun to cease and withdraw to the new Hungarian borders, promising that Romania would then withdraw from occupied Magyar territory. The Hungarians reluctantly retreated, but the Romanians refused to budge; they were determined to keep hold of Transylvania.
Soviet Hungary's position was now desperate. Béla Kun, always rigidly doctrinaire, launched a Red Terror campaign to "suffocate counterrevolution in blood." He only further alienated his people, including the peasants and even the industrial workers. Kun decided he could only restore his regime with military victory, and ordered the Red Army to force Romanian withdrawal.
The Great Powers sat on their hands. No one was proud of this, but they lacked the mobilized manpower to do more than urge the Hungarian people to overthrow their repressive government. The Romanians, for their part, were only too eager to march further into Hungary. Béla Kun made a last-ditch appeal to Lenin, who replied that no help could be expected from Russia; a day later, Soviet Hungary collapsed. Three days after that, on August 4, the Romanians occupied Budapest.
And the unsuffocated Hungarian counterrevolution began. Some of the old Imperial officers, led by Admiral Miklós Horthy, had formed a White Army to oppose the Red; and "officers's detachments" started persecuting those they accused of being Communists—the peasants, the industrial workers, and especially the Jews. Kun and his comrades had escaped, so the White Terror targeted the Jews who remained behind. These were mostly middle-class and had overwhelmingly opposed Kun. "All around us sprang up Communism and we did not like it," Matild was to say. "Boys were drafted or put in prison for no reason at all."
Vainly did the Jews of Hungary point to their long record of fervent patriotism, the many times they had sided uncritically and even chauvinistically with the Magyars. Now they were considered alien and disloyal, accused of war profiteering and revolutionary agitation. The prewar Interessengemeinschaft had evaporated. The Great Powers were told that the White Terror was "restoring order," and since Horthy's officers were Christians determined to purge Hungary of Communism, the Allies bought their explanation.
In Kolozsvár, amidst all the rumors and
counter-rumors and fearful speculation, never too sure what was actually
going on around them, József and Matild stayed put—sat tight—and awaited
the birth of their child.
Proceed to Chapter 4 of To Be Honest
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Appendix A: Berta's Death and Resting Place
In the 1970s, Matild/Mathilda would state firmly that [a] her mother was fifty years old when youngest child Ili was born; [b] Berta died "at the age of 52... leaving our two-year-old baby sister Ili behind"; and [c] Ili was six years older than her niece, Mathilda's daughter Martha. Since Martha was born in 1919, we could calculate Berta's vitals as 1863-1915—except that Berta was still alive when József first visited Kolozsvár, circa March 1916. When I wrote To Be Honest I tentatively placed Berta's death in mid-1916, where it appears in the chapter above. But my brother Matthew turned up new evidence during his May 2009 trip to Kolozsvár/Cluj:
"Rares Beuran, a professor at the local university... was kind enough to link me to friends of his, a videographer and a television producer, who had ties to the local Jewish center. I was told that the Jewish community in Cluj has dwindled to a few hundred with an average age of 70. The center had no records of those lost in the Holocaust, but they did have an old record book that apparently survived World War II in a cellar; it listed deaths in the Jewish community from roughly 1915-1935. For a small fee, a center official searched for records of my great-grandfather and great-grandmother Kohn. A fair number of listings by that name turned up (each marked by a dramatic exclamation of "KOHN!" by the gentleman doing the searching), but nothing corresponded to my ancestors. Finally, though, we made a discovery.
"Record #361 listed my great-grandmother Berta, listed as Mrs. Móric Kohn... According to the record, she died September 8, 1917 at age 50, and was buried two days later. An address also was listed, #7 Rózsa Street in Kolozsvár... And there was a number for her grave marker in the Neolog Jewish cemetery in Cluj: #962. That in turn prompted a trip to the cemetery with Rares and his friend to see if we could locate the marker. The Neolog Jewish cemetery turned out to be padlocked, but my hosts knocked on the gate and we were admitted inside... The cemetery contains graves of those buried as recently as 1990, but nevertheless is marked by disrepair and overgrowth despite the caretaker’s efforts. (When I asked why, one of my hosts replied by rubbing his thumb together with his index and middle fingers.) That is regrettable, particularly given the excellent condition of the main city cemetery next door. However, it does give the place a certain lyrical and haunted quality. Wild cherries overhang the graves, which in places bear testimony to the calamity that befell Cluj’s Jews when the Nazis executed their Final Solution in Hungary in 1944." [See Chapter 14] "Other graves—including presumably that of my great-grandmother—are marked not by headstones but by simple numbered markers, in accordance with custom. One had to get down on hands and knees with brushes to scrape dirt off and uncover the numbers, which unfortunately did not seem to be in any sort of logical order. I gave up quickly, but my steadfast hosts persisted until I finally persuaded them to stop. The only payment they accepted was a lemonade afterward, bought and drunk at the local shopping mall outside the city center."
Given that Móric (Morris) Kohn is not the most uncommon name to be found in a Jewish community, the lady who died aged fifty on September 8, 1917 might have been someone other than Berta. But the address on Rózsa Street shares a "7" with Matild/Mathilda's address on her 1922 wedding certificate confirmation. The street by then had been renamed after Romanian theologist Samuil Micu; and its close proximity to Casa Matei Corvin ("it's just west of the main city square whereas Casa is just north") leaves little doubt that we do indeed have a record of Berta's death and burial. Assuming there was no bureaucratic error in age or date, we can only conclude that Mathilda's firmly-stated recollections were slightly awry.
Appendix B: Casa Matei Corvin—and the House Next Door
During his May 2009 visit to Kolozsvár/Cluj, Matthew Ehrlich explored Matei Corvin Street "just north of the city square in the oldest part of Cluj. The street is named for the house where the Hungarian king is said to have been born in 1443. That house is at the end of the street and is marked by a plaque the Romanians put up after they assumed control of Transylvania from Hungary. Some have interpreted the plaque as a dig at the Hungarians."
according to historical tradition
this is the house where
the son of the great voivode of transylvania
iancu of hunedoara
the romanian matthias corvinus is considered
the greatest of all hungarian kings
due to his achievements during his reign
"My real interest, however, was in the house next door—where my grandparents lived and had a millinery business in the years just after World War I, and where my father’s sister Martha was born. As it turns out, this house is now home to a bar catering to the local college crowd. It’s called the King Club, with the regicidal-sounding website www.clubtheking.ro. The club is in the basement and features regular live bands... One shouldn’t get the idea that the area has become seedy. Looking back up Matei Corvin toward the city center, one sees shops and restaurants, and in the middle of the day, the streets are full of people. The king’s birthplace is now home to an arts school and has a small sculpture garden in back. The building next door where my grandparents once lived now seems to host a variety of apartments and offices in addition to the bar. There’s an outside stairway accessing some of the apartments. From the top is a good view of the Franciscan Church in nearby Museum Square; it dates back to the 13th century."
Matthew's reflections at the close of his tour: "My grandparents never returned to Cluj or the old country. I was the first family member to visit in 86 years. Everything my grandparents had known here—their language, culture, and religious tradition—was utterly foreign to me. Had they been able to accompany me on my trip, they too would have found much that was foreign and probably not to their liking, including their home turned into a bar. But to me, it all feels appropriate. My grandparents, like other immigrants to America, went in search of a better life for themselves and especially for their children. Despite bumps in the road, they found it. They left behind a city where because of their religion and my grandfather’s 'alien' (i.e., non-Transylvanian) status, they were not allowed to live in tranquility. After they left, the city saw pogroms, warfare, and genocide followed by more than 40 years of Stalinism. Now young people fill the streets and drink and dance in the clubs, and Cluj—apart from the revelry—is at peace. And that, at least, would please my grandparents immensely."
Last updated August 22, 2009
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