To Be Honest
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Transylvania, "the Land Beyond the Forest," was a very real place and not the invention of Bram Stoker, who based his novel Dracula on extensive and thoroughly conducted research. It is seldom remembered that Stoker's character Jonathan Harker described the Transylvanian countryside as being "full of beauty of every kind ... Before us lay a green sloping land full of forests and woods, with here and there steep hills, crowned with clumps of trees or with farmhouses ... There was everywhere a bewildering mass of fruit blossoms—apple, plum, pear, cherry; and as we drove by I could see the green grass under the trees spangled with the fallen petals."*
Of course the Borgo Pass was a different story.
The thriving city of Kolozsvár (Klausenburg in German) was capital of Transylvania and heart of the country. Here in 1440 had been born Matthias Corvinus, Hungary's most celebrated king: a renowned warrior against the Turks and one of the foremost patrons of Renaissance art and learning†. A bronze equestrian statue of Matthias sat atop a castellated pedestal in front of the Church of St. Michael in Kolozsvár's great public square.
Transylvania was a Hungarian province at the turn of the 20th Century, and Kolozsvár's people were described as the most charming in Europe. Strolling through the streets, you might encounter not only cosmopolitan folk dressed in the latest continental modes, but "shaggy peasants" from the surrounding mountains, and colorful groups of Gypsies.
Matild Kohn was born in Kolozsvár on September 2, 1895. Her father Móric Kohn had come here as a young man and become a well-to-do árverési becsűs, an appraiser of goods‡; he often dealt with antiques, and the Kohn home was full of period china and furniture.
It was also full of children, for Móric had twelve: Fáni, Hermina, Dezső, and Márton by his first wife; and Náthán, Margit, Milli, Matild (or "Matyu"), Jenő, Rózsa, Elza, and Ilona (always called Ili) by his second, Berta Schwartz.
"We were a large and very happy family," Matild would recall, "eight girls and four boys, I was smack in the middle of them." Despite their vast age-range, the children were so close that Matild was almost grown up before she realized they had not all been born of the same mother.
Matyu enjoyed a loving childhood, proving to be an apt pupil not only at school but in the fine arts of sewing and baking and cooking. She learned how to prepare Hungarian dishes such as cholent, the beans-and-barley Sabbath meal; traditional Transylvanian fruit soups, served cold in summertime; and "fancy cookies," cakes and pastries like díos kalács and mákos kalács: walnut rolls and poppyseed rolls.
The Kohn home was near a teachers college±, and Matyu watched its students going to and from the dormitory "around the corner from us and over the bridge" across the River Szamos. She learned to ice skate on this river, and all the Kohn children were taught to swim there—except Matyu, who "always sank."
And her mother Berta taught her to be a lady. In this too she took her lessons to heart; all her life she would try to live as ladies were supposed to live, and act as ladies were supposed to act. From quite an early age she certainly expected to be treated like one.
In Hungary there was a May Day custom that a sixteen-year-old girl's beau was to serenade her late at night. In 1912 Matyu's sweetheart came to the Kohn home with a group of musicians and duly serenaded her. She was not allowed to show herself at the window, but her father appeared and lit matches to acknowledge that the young man's efforts were heard and appreciated.
Matyu's beau later left for America in search of work, corresponding with her while he got himself settled and established. He then asked Matyu to come to America and marry him, but she considered this a most unladylike course of action; her beau should return to Kolozsvár and marry her there, after which they could go to America together. Her young man lacked the money to return, and against his wishes their engagement was broken. Eventually Matyu lost all track of him.
As it happened, the Kohns already had relatives in America. In 1907 Móric's brother Samu and his family had left the city of Temesvár, southwest of Kolozsvár, and emigrated to Chicago. Before departing, they had come to visit Móric's family, and Matyu had been introduced to her Samu bácsi and Jenka néni (Uncle Sam and Aunt Jenny) and their three children: lively Rózsa, milder-mannered Margit, and their taciturn little brother László§.
Fascinating as faraway America might be, it still could not compare with Transylvania "where the countrysides were dotted with the old ruins of a thousand years's story we'd learned at school," as Matild would say. "Wars and Turkey's occupation, which were just stories to us, and didn't interest anyone but us youngsters. It was very picturesque and we loved to show it off to visitors, and we used to get together picnicking with friends there."
Idyllic it might have been; for this was the Golden Age for Hungarian Jews. It was a time of Interessengemeinschaft, a friendly cooperative "commonality of interest" between the Christian gentry and the Jewish middle class who helped them run Hungary, and were accepted—almost—as equals. A month after Matild was born, the government had declared Judaism a legally recognized religion, and in the 1910 census the Jews were officially counted as Zsidóvallású Magyarok: "Hungarians (Magyars) of the Israelite faith."
Transylvania outdid the rest of Hungary in religious toleration, but anti-Semitism was not unknown here. The Jewish response was to emphasize their having overwhelmingly and wholeheartedly identified themselves as Hungarians, adopting the Magyar language and customs with "spontaneous eagerness." It was not at all uncommon for people with German or Slavic surnames to change them to Hungarian ones, saying "Now I am Magyar!" with a tremendous feeling of nobility.
One of Matild's brothers changed his name from the German Kohn to the Hungarian Kun, and Berta then had all the family's names altered to match.
"We were all doing what came naturally," Matild would remark, "until the war started and dumped us all in a sad situation."
At first it seemed anything but sad: the Dual Monarchy was going to teach the Serbs and Russians a proper Imperial lesson, and the crowds cheered and threw flowers and waved flags and played jolly martial music as Hungary's young men marched off to the front.
Dezső, Márton, and Náthán Kun were called up and sent to be trained, while their sisters and girlfriends began their share of war work at home, sewing shirts and socks and comforters for the soldiers. But the war was brought home, all too quickly and in all its reality, when Náthán went missing in action during his first week in Galicia.
As the Austro-Hungarian army was hurled back from Russian Poland and started to retreat, autumn rains turned a hundred miles of heavily-trodden Galician roads to mud. Laden with weighty backpacks, the troops slogged back till they reached the slopes of the Carpathian Mountains, fording the swollen Rivers San and Wisloka. Náthán was an excellent swimmer, but he disappeared during the river-crossing and was never seen again, nor was any trace of him found afterward.
"We all felt heartbroken," Matild would say, "but Mother couldn't accept that and wouldn't give up the search as long as she lived."
That the war was not going to end by Christmas became painfully evident. "Eventually life quieted down and we all hoped our men would come back home, but it took a long time. So we tried to live as best we possibly could."
Berta wanted all her girls to have a respectable trade to fall back on if necessary, and she suggested that Matild, now nineteen, might earn her living as a kalaposnő or milliner. In January 1915 Matyu was sent to stay with Berta's brother Áron Schwartz in Budapest, and there "learn at a famous place how to make ladies's hats, and to be a good business lady as well." Márton Kun's wife Sára ("we called her Serena") remembered that she had cousins in Budapest, and asked Matyu to take them a letter when she got there.
"It was winter, after the New Year and very cold, and soon I was enrolled to learn the business. It was interesting and I enjoyed it while it lasted." Matild spent a month at her uncle's and had a wonderful time, but for several weeks she hesitated to intrude upon her sister-in-law's relatives. "I dreaded the thought, and carried the letter in the my purse until the last week before it was time to go home. But time was nearly over for me in Pest and about a week before my return I had to go and take Sára's letter to her cousins.
"I still remember so well, it was a Saturday afternoon when I went up to the third floor walkup after an appointment was made to meet them and to give the letter, which was to get me acquainted with the family sooner. Well, I found the two girls lovely and their mother very nice too. I was there just a short time when a young cadet walked in on a pair of crutches and one leg in a cast. The family jumped up and greeted him as a long-lost brother, telling me they haven't seen him for several years, and he is a cousin who used to live with them as a young boy going to school in Pest."
His name was József Ehrlich.
"Later in the afternoon his mother also unexpectedly stopped in for a visit, and she and her son fell in love with me at first sight. Later on I found out she told her son she'd be very happy to have me for a daughter.
"When the time came for me to leave, he offered to escort me home and I said OK. We walked downstairs and I wondered how could he walk with crutches in the snow-covered grounds? First he stopped nearby at a candy stall, to buy some mixed chocolate bonbons for me, also hot roasted chestnuts. Then he hailed a horsedrawn carriage with rubber-covered wheels.
"My young escort was nice, and lots of fun, but very soon we were home. He took me to the door, as it was too late to come in, and watched until I got in the house—but not before he would ask me if he could see me again. I told my relatives about it and they were happy to know I didn't have to come home alone at night, and we all thought that was the end of that. I'd had a good time with him and his cousins, but didn't expect to see any of them anymore."
Two or three days later Matild received a large box of candy, mailed by József with a polite note enclosed. On this note his brother Sándor scribbled "Greetings from your brother-in-law." Matild, ever the proper young lady, took this as an insult: "I got angry and hurt, I thought they were just making fun of me, and told my aunt I'm not going to see that cadet if he comes."
That cadet, no doubt, had raved to Sándor about having met the girl of his dreams—beautiful and well-bred—and how Fate must have brought about their encounter. Sándor's mischief-making now threatened to jostle Fate's hand.
"Sure enough he came to the house, but my aunt, amused by it all, told him I didn't want to see him and why. He begged to see me, and when he did he assured me he didn't know about the note, and please to forgive it. He would tell his brother off for writing it, and that Sándor was teasing him, not me."
Matild left Budapest at the end of the week, having forgiven József but not expecting to encounter him again. Her parents, however, heard from József just before Easter: he wrote to say he was back in the war, on the Polish front, and would they have any objection to his writing their daughter?
"My father answered him, saying he had no objection at all. So my young soldier started to write to me, and my mother made me answer each letter. The more letters I got, the more I started to enjoy them, and soon the letters were coming and going, and we both started hoping he could come to see us.
"I was surprised at my mother, as I was the third daughter from the oldest at home. The two oldest sisters were married, but I had two sisters older than me still single. At that time in Europe, the younger sisters had to stay in the background until the older ones got married, or at least engaged to be married. I guess the war and man shortage had to change that custom too."
Even before customs changed, Matyu had been doing pretty well for herself; when she first met József, she already had "three other boyfriends at the same time." And she was definitely not being kept in the background; when she returned to Kolozsvár, her parents "fixed up for me a beautiful salon all furnished with period French furniture with a floor-to-ceiling mirror, and I just had to go in and start my new millinery business."
The fashionable hats of the day were deep-brimmed and trimmed with ribbons and flowers. They were worn along with matching gloves and parasols, lace collars and cameos pinned to one's dress: all the accoutrements of a lady.
During the winter of 1915 the Cossacks continually threatened to force their way through the Carpathian passes; but the Austro-Hungarian army, broken and humiliated though it was, managed to withstand the Russians and prevent invasion. Then in May the Germans spearheaded an offensive that smashed through the Russian line, driving the enemy east and north; by September Galicia was recovered and all of Russian Poland taken as well. Following this victory the Central Powers swarmed over Serbia, knocking it out of the war for the duration. All things considered, 1915 ended much more promisingly for Hungary than it had begun.
And for József Ehrlich, 1916 held even more promise. Around March, after nearly a year of correspondence, he wrote Matild that he was now a lieutenant, due for a furlough and wanting to come visit Kolozsvár.
"He got his first leave from the trenches and instead of going home to his mother he came to see me and to meet my family. He had a month's leave and decided to come spend two weeks with us and get acquainted. Well, when he got there, it was mutual love at first sight—the whole family liked him very much, and fell in love with his charm before I did."
Matild's oldest sister Fáni and her husband, upholsterer János Fruchter, invited József to stay with them "as they had an extra bedroom and lived within walking distance of our home, and so he didn't have to stay in a hotel. But he spent the days at our house."
"He was full of life, and my mother loved him. He used to read out loud to us. He was the one to introduce The Three Musketeers to us, and Dostoyevsky, and several classics, and we loved him for it, and loved to listen to him. He bought for us season tickets to our theaters, and we went every week to see everything shown. We all had a beautiful time together."
József must have been delighted with Kolozsvár. There were the theaters, the opera, and museums among the city's arches and battlements and ancient palaces of the Transylvanian nobility. Kolozsvár boasted an enlightened university whose foundation had largely been due to the labor of another József, Baron József Eötvös, who had done as much to improve Hungarian public education as he had toward achieving emancipation and equal civil rights for the Jews.
The banks of the Szamos were bordered by gardens pleasant to walk through, in which military bands and Gypsy musicians often played. Matild always greatly enjoyed going out for strolls, and with József "wherever we went, we were going together, visiting relatives and friends, and having a good time.
"He marveled at how large the family was—several aunts, uncles, dozens of cousins, and not one who didn't get to like him. Already it was taken for granted by all that he belonged to our family, and was treated as one of us. He received two more weeks's extension of furlough, and in that time we got to know each other well, and we fell very much in love.
"But as usual everything has to come to an end. The time flew and he had to go back to the war, but first he went home to see his mother in Budapest. I was afraid she'd be angry or hurt for his spending his time with us, but later on she wrote to me and the family thanking us for giving her son such a nice time."
József went to Budapest not simply to see Sarolta, but also to get a ring from her. Though most of her jewelry had been sold, she did have a ring to give him, and this József offered to Matild as her engagement ring.
"He asked me to wait for him until the war was over. He had a definite idea about one thing: if he got shot or crippled, he didn't want to hold me to my promise to marry him out of loyalty. Naturally I promised him whatever he asked me to, just to put his mind at rest. When the time came for him to leave, we parted sadly, but promised we'd write to each other faithfully, and kept the promise. But we got engaged officially too."
formal photograph was taken of the newly-betrothed couple. József,
wearing his officer's uniform, sits in a plush chair, on one arm of which
Matild gracefully perches, wearing her ring and smiling slightly. Her
dark eyes are fixed on an imaginary point a little to the photographer's
left; but József is looking directly at the camera, with an expression of
mingled pride and wonderment.
Proceed to Chapter 3 of To Be Honest
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Westminster: Archibald Constable & Co., 1897
† It might be noted that Matthias imprisoned the original Dracula, Vlad the Impaler, in 1462; but by 1474 Vlad had become Matthias's brother-in-law.
‡ Known in Victorian England as a "broker"—e.g. in The Hunting of the Snark; also Mr. Brogley in Dombey and Son—and often the subject of Jew-baiting caricature. (Lewis Carroll objected to the first illustration of his Broker as too "aggressive.")
± Actually Franz Joseph (Ferenc József) University, as it was known 1881-1919. Today it is the Babeş-Bolyai University, largest in Romania, with more than 45,000 students.
§ Four of the Kohns arrived in New York on November 6, 1907, aboard the President Grant out of Cuxhaven, Hamburg: "Jenni" aged 38, "Roza" aged 9, Margit aged 8, and the unaccented Laszlo aged 3. Whether Samu preceded or followed them there has not been determined.
Appendix: The Kohns/Kuns in Kolozsvár
In May 2009, József and Matild's youngest grandchild Matthew Ehrlich (Journalism Professor at the University of Illinois) visited Kolozsvár, or Cluj as it is known today. Its streets and other features now have Romanian names, and nearly a century has passed since Matyu and Józsi got engaged; but Matthew found the city center still built around a public square: "the Piata Unirii with St. Michael's Church in the middle. The square also features the famous statue of the 15th Century Hungarian King Matei Corvin astride his horse... The statue is a popular meeting place for locals who supposedly agree to rendezvous at 'the horse's tail.' Unfortunately, the square and the horse's tail were closed for renovations...
"Cluj's Central Park is a short walk away, featuring a pavilion popular for weddings and a lake fronted by what now is a casino. According to a guidebook, 'The centennial shady trees of the park cast their crowns in a vault over the heads of the passersby, be they calm or melancholic adults, dreamy lovers or restless youngsters'... Bordering the park on the north is the Someşul Mic River"—formerly known as the (Kis-)Szamos. "Just across the river is Fortress Hill, which affords a fine view of the city; my grandmother spoke of playing and picnicking with her friends among the historic locales outside the city center, and this seems likely to have been one of them... North of the river not far from Fortress Hill is the Neolog Synagogue. It dates back to the 1880s, but was destroyed by an anti-Semitic mob in 1927 and then, after being rebuilt, severely damaged by an Allied air raid against the nearby rail depot in 1944. Rebuilt once more, it now stands as a memorial to the 16,000 or so Jews of Cluj who were deported and killed at Auschwitz. Before all that, however, this may well have been where my grandparents were married. There was a different synagogue closer to where they lived (it's now been redeveloped as a university arts center), but my grandma spoke of being married in her temple's large back yard, which the other synagogue seems less likely to have had (it was smaller and built right against the river). Much of the grounds behind the Neolog temple are now taken up by a music school, but there's a small garden that may be right about at the spot where the Ehrlichs took their vows in 1918.
"My great-grandmother’s death record" [see Chapter 3's Appendix A] "had listed her address (and that of the house where my grandma had grown up) as 7 Rózsa Street. The problem was that Cluj streets had changed their names frequently over the years as control of the city shifted back and forth between Hungary and Romania and then from Communism to post-Communism. I was told that Rózsa Street had become Fulicea Street, which was just around the corner from Casa Matei Corvin. Number 7 on that street turned out to be abandoned and in disrepair. That wasn’t what bothered me, though: it simply didn’t look big enough to accommodate my grandmother’s large family plus their business.
"I closely examined my grandparents’ wedding certificate, which hadn’t been prepared until 1922—after the Romanians had taken over from the Hungarians and presumably renamed certain streets after their national heroes. It gave the pre-nuptials address of my grandmother as 7 Samuil Micu Street, a different street altogether that was a few blocks away near the university. I could find no clearly marked #7 on that street, but there is a house that seems to correspond to that address. Unfortunately, it’s not much more prepossessing than the abandoned house on Fulicea Street. But this house is much larger and appears far more likely to have been my grandma’s actual family residence. It also looks as though it might have been a handsome home in its time, with a floral motif above the windows that possibly was in keeping with the original name of the street (Rose)."
Last updated August 22, 2009
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