To Be Honest



“Wait a minute, children,” the grandfather said after thinking long.  “Wait a minute.  I’ll tell you the story of my own life.  It’s not as fancy as those fairy stories, but maybe it will be more interesting because it is true and you haven’t heard it yet.”

                                                                         —Sándor Petőfi, "The Grandfather"*

Return to Introduction              Proceed to Part Two: Chicago

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 1    “Józsi”

József Ehrlich is born in 1894 in Győr, Hungary, the son of a Neolog rabbi.  After his father’s death Józsi is sent to Budapest, where he puts himself through school by tutoring other students.  Excelling at mathematics and deciding religion is a crutch not needed by educated people, he stops going to temple.  Attending teacher’s college when the First World War breaks out, Józsi is soon called up, shipped to the front—and shot through the foot.  While recuperating in Budapest he calls on relatives and finds them being visited by an elegant young lady: a visitor from Transylvania.

 2    “Matyu”

Matild Kohn is born in 1895 in Kolozsvár, the capital of Transylvania, which at this time is a Hungarian province.  Her father is a well-to-do appraiser of goods, but the Kohn children are taught respectable trades to fall back on if necessary.  In 1915 Matyu is trained as a milliner in Budapest; there she meets József Ehrlich, who falls in love with her at first sight.  After a year of correspondence Józsi comes to Kolozsvár on furlough; he charms Matild’s family and Matyu herself.  They are engaged to be married as soon as the war is over.

 3    “Apart and Together”

The war drags on; Matyu’s mother, searching for an MIA son, dies of heart failure.  József, aiding the transport of Hungarian troops to the western front in 1918, comes down with influenza and is sent back to Kolozsvár to convalesce.  Fearing the war might last forever, he and Matild marry.  A few months later the Allies are victorious: Romanian troops occupy Transylvania, marching into Cluj (as they call Kolozsvár).  The Ehrlichs want to return to Budapest, but Communists take over Hungary and are overthrown in turn by reactionaries.  So the Ehrlichs stay put in Cluj; Matild teaches József hatmaking and they await the birth of their child.

 4    “Mártuka”

Márta Ehrlich is born in 1919.  Her parents begin keeping a diary to record her progress, anticipating “when years later you grow up and want to know what kind of baby you were.”  The Ehrlichs are harassed by the Romanian police: József is declared an alien and has to hand over much of the family income to blackmailing city officials.  Losing their millinery shop, the Ehrlichs have to move in with Matild’s sister and work at the family tailoring salon.  But little Mártuka helps them forget their troubles.

 5    “Episodes and Happenings”

Extracts from Márta’s Diary for 1921:

    We will try to give you a picture of what kind of a child you were: in this book we will try to write down as close as we can,
    episodes and happenings we think will interest you when you are older and can read it for yourself.

 6    “Kivándorol Amerikába”

Extracts from Márta’s Diary for 1922.  The Ehrlichs debate whether they should emigrate to America.  Matild’s relatives in Chicago try to help them get the permit, but the United States has begun to clamp down on immigration.  Caught half-aware in this historical pinch, the Ehrlichs wait to hear from the American Consulate:

    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 … 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.

Proceed to Part Two of To Be Honest

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* Translation by Anton N. Nyerges; Copyright © 1973 by Anton N. Nyerges

Last updated August 22, 2009

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