A fictionalised account of a childhood in Budapest Hungary during WWII. Inspired by a seminar given by a holocaust survivor.
My first punch bloodied György’s nose. My second, as he stared at the bright red liquid staining his hands caught him square on the jaw. For a moment his eyes rolled as he reeled and stumbled before his legs folded beneath him and he crumpled to the ground. He lay curled in a ball. He cradled his face as the blood oozed between his fingers. From his bleeding mouth came a bubbling noise that sounded like the pathetic quiet mewling of a drowning kitten.
‘You are a dirty stinking Jew.’ György had taunted me for the first and last time ‘My father says you are all going to get what’s coming to you and a good thing too.’
At eight year’s old, I was not sure what a Jew was but I knew I certainly did not stink. I stood with my body braced and tensed ready for the attacking reply, my fists balled tight under my chin just as my father had taught me. I waited for György to stand and face me. I felt nothing but anger and hatred for the boy who had professed to be my best friend only a few weeks earlier.
There were often playground spats, particularly between the boys. Usually over who would find and return with the ball that had sailed out of sight over the school walls. Boys would fight with fists and feet; their battles invariably ended up in a tangle of flailing arms and legs as they tussled in the dirt, accompanied by guttural grunts of exertion as each tried to prove their point. Girls would pull hair and scratch at each other with high-pitched squeals and name-calling. This time there was a palpable silence, a sense that this argument was different. Fingers had been pointed and conspiratorial whispering in groups had started to happen whenever I was near. Any other time the children would encircle the fighters and chant encouragement for their chosen champion. Nobody moved, they just stared at me.
Slowly György got to his feet, wiping the blood from his lips as it ran from his nose and dripped down onto his sweater. I signalled my intention to him by flexing my fingers and curling them back into fists. The skin on my knuckles was stretched taut and white and I could feel the rewarding, aching, dull throb that had resulted from my hands making contact with the bone of his jaw. I bounced lightly on my toes, trotting from one foot to the other. I must have looked more confident than I felt but father had taught me well. György looked me right in the eyes as he considered his next move. His tongue moved across his teeth and he made a hissing sound as he gathered saliva and blood in his mouth then viciously spat his contempt into my face. I did not react to this new insult but instead I allowed the spittle to travel down my cheek onto my chin. My best friend had, in one instant become a stranger to me. I held my ground and stared right back at him.
‘Jew boy.’ he whispered under his breath as he staggered away wiping furiously at his wounds with the sleeve of his sweater.
‘Jew boy.’ another boy spat at me, his shoulder connected painfully with mine, almost knocking me off my feet as he tugged at the yellow star on my shirt. He began to whistle a song I had never heard before as he sauntered away.
‘Jew boy.’ muttered Elizabet, the girl who lived in the apartment block opposite us. When we younger, our mothers’ had held us up to the windows and we had giggled shyly as we had waved happily to each other. We had continued to greet each other every morning in that way for years. Shortly before the day of the fight, I noticed that Elizabet never appeared at the window anymore and the curtains always seemed to be closed. Something was happening to people and I did not know why. I told myself that we were just getting too old for baby games. She is only a girl and any self-respecting boy of my age knew that girls are best avoided.
One by one the children left, some quietly with their heads bowed, others glared at me and muttered their contempt for me under their breath. After a while, I was alone, my body still tense and ready to defend myself against anyone who dared or cared enough to defend György’s honour. I found myself threatening nothing but the empty air with a light warm autumn breeze ruffling through my hair. I was hot and sweating, burying my face into the cool white fabric of my shirt I took a deep sniff. György was wrong. I definitely did not smell of anything other than the fresh clean soap that my mother had used to wash my shirt.