An extract from Frances Lord’s I kiss your hand kezét csökolom, a family memoir.
My mother Lali’s native tongue, Hungarian, is an extraordinary sounding language full of long words including many Zs and Ss, and notoriously difficult to learn. Comprising over 40 letters, Hungarian is based on the Latin alphabet and is linked linguistically only to Finno-Ugric. It is not a language that many people have reason to learn. Listening in to my mother and grandmother’s animated conversations as a child I could only identify a few words: Igen, nem and nem tudom, (pronounced eegaen, neam and neam-toodom) which translate from the Hungarian to ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘I don’t know’. Trying to pick up clues from their tone and body language I wondered if their raised voices signalled argument or mere disagreement. Serious content was interlaced with lighter exchanges, laughter and reference to familiar names and places; however how the words connected together, and what they meant, remained a mystery. Curiosity intermingled with admiration at their ability to communicate privately and confidentially; their connection through language allowing them to enter a world into which we children could not follow.
My knowledge of Hungarian, sadly, has never extended beyond a few words. After my grandfather Leo died in 1964 Illy spent the summer months with us in Cornwall and, as a way of bonding, aged about ten, I was engaged to offer guidance on vocabulary, grammar and pronunciation (Illy’s was always heavily accented). I would ascend the steep attic steps and knock on the door of her ‘granny flat’ to be admitted. For each ‘lesson’ I was paid a treasured faceted brass three-penny bit – the symbolism of the exchange valued as much as the actual value of the coin. Kezét csökolom (pronounced kez-et choc-olom), an expression of affection traditionally used by a child to an adult, meaning ‘I kiss your hand’, and köszönöm (pronounced kursurnurm), meaning ‘thank you’, were the words she passed onto me and signalled the end of the lesson. Illy took great pleasure in insisting that I acted kezét csökolom out by literally kissing her hand, and I took equal pleasure in obliging.
Alongside these pleasantries and endearments there were tales from her past, many of which as a young child, with a sketchy knowledge of history and politics, I struggled to understand or put into context. One story, which sounded romantic in the telling, was of her and Leo’s escape from the communist uprising in Hungary in 1919 to the safety of Austria. I now know that the revolutionary Communist leader Béla Kun had swept into Budapest in March 1919, making life increasingly precarious for Illy, Leo and other business owners (the bourgeoisie) in the city. Beatings, shootings and weapon searches were commonplace, as were food shortages.
The version I remember being told of their escape was of Illy taking a train from Budapest to a rural destination near the Austrian border. I could easily imagine Illy, who loved clothes and was always fashionably dressed, exchanging her city garb for a traditional dirndl dress of full skirt, bodice and lacy apron before walking the last few kilometres over mountain paths to reach the border. My grandfather Leo, family legend has it, travelled separately by train ostentatiously offering the border guards a cigarette from the case he had fashioned from white and yellow gold, bashed and discoloured to disguise the true value of the metal.
They stayed in Vienna for seven months with Leo’s elder brothers, Albert and Edmund, returning to their flat in central Budapest when the violence ended. In November 1919 Commander-in-Chief Miklós Horthy, in full military regalia, riding a white stallion, and brandishing the Hungarian flag, dramatically led the National Army into Budapest defeating Béla Kun’s revolutionary Communist Party. In 1920 Horthy became the Regent (Head of State) of the newly established Republic of Hungary and would remain in power until the Nazi invasion of 1944, by which time the Fenyves family had left Hungary.
Illy and Leo’s hurried departure from Budapest to the safety of Vienna was to be the first big disruption, but certainly not the last, to their married lives. Introduced by a matchmaking aunt of Illy’s, Leo and Illy married at the Dohány utca Synagogue, in the heart of the Jewish quarter in 1915. Their wedding must have been a rather grand affair. The Dohány utca Synagogue, designed by Ludwig Förster and built in the 1850s Byzantine-Moorish style from yellow, red and blue brick adorned with twin onion domed towers, was Europe’s largest synagogue. Today it contains the Jewish Museum and guided tours are offered of the building and the Jewish quarter that it forms part of.
The couple’s first home, above the family owned Denes & Friedmann factory and offices, was a second floor flat in Dessewffy utca in central Pest. A short walk took them to the famous Café Gerbaud in Vörösmarty Square, serving sweet delicacies such as Dobos Torte and Eszterházy Torte; or over the Danube via the Erzsébet Bridge to the green leafy hills and villas of Buda. My mother, sister and I visited Budapest in the 1990s and, in the plush, elegant chandeliered interior of Café Gerbaud, we treated ourselves to the finest Dobos Torte I have ever eaten: five alternate ultra-thin layers of sponge cake sandwiched together with rich chocolate and hazelnut buttercream, topped by a final layer of caramel and decorated with hazelnuts.
The youngest of nine my grandfather Leopold Ladislas Friedmann (Leo) was born in 1883 in Nagy Tajpolcany, a small town in the Nitra region of northern Slovakia where his parents owned an ironmongery shop. His brothers, Albert and Edmund, had settled in Vienna and in 1901 founded an engineering firm Denes & Friedmann, A.G. (DeFag) with their friend Wilhelm Denes. Ownership of DeFag was to become an important asset in the family’s fortunes in the years to come. His sisters had moved to Vienna and Budapest: then two of the most exciting, culturally vibrant and sophisticated cities in Europe, with opera houses, theatres, cafés and buoyant economies. Leo joined his siblings, leaving Slovakia for Budapest in 1910, one of many Jews flooding into the city from all over the Austro-Hungarian Empire; so much so that the city was often referred to as ‘Judapest’ due to the large and prosperous Jewish community that settled there. Before leaving he changed his name by deed poll: the Germanic Friedmann was magyarised to Fenyves (meaning a forest of firs) and Leopold became Lipot, the Hungarian version of Leopold.
My grandmother Ilona Szanto (Illy) was born in 1894 in the hamlet of Puszta Csasz, a few miles from the town of Heves in the flat sandy plains of central Hungary. In 1896 the family name was also magyarised: from Schwartz to Szanto. Magyarisation of names was fashionable around 1895-6 as this date celebrated the thousand-year occupation of modern day Hungary by nomadic tribes. Illy’s parents, Fulop and Amelia, kept horses, cattle and pigs and grew grapes, tobacco, wheat, watermelons and raspberries in the rich fertile land of the family farm.
Leo and Illy married during a period of great social, political and economic turbulence, the shapes of their lives determined by shifting European borders, territories, nationalities and language. On a state visit to the Bosnia capital Sarajevo, 28 June 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the all-powerful Austro-Hungarian Empire, and his wife Sophie, were assassinated by Serbian Nationalist Gavrilo Princip, triggering the First World War. After the armistice was signed in 1918 the Austro-Hungarian Empire dissolved and former territories and regions, including Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Austria, were established as independent states.
After the war entrepreneurial Leo set up a small enamelware business and, indulging his passion for new inventions, bought shares in a company that manufactured liquid-air – a new technology at the time. In 1929 he was offered the opportunity to manage the Berlin branch of Denes & Friedmann, A.G. (DeFag) in Berlin, with a considerable increase in salary. DeFag manufactured European motorcar and aviation parts and were agents and distributors for Bosch products in Germany and Austria. The family travelled by train – a one thousand mile journey – to Berlin when Lali was six and her elder sister Anna was nine. Reluctant to leave, before they caught the train, an emotional Illy presented Lali and Anna with a book of poems by Sándor Petöfi, Hungary’s national poet, ornately decorated in red and gold, so that they may remember their ’beautiful Hungarian homeland’.
The Berlin business prospered and the family quickly moved to a spacious villa on Wernerstrasse, in the fashionable Grunewald district of West Berlin set among lakes and surrounded by forest. The family surname was now Fenyves-Friedmann, and Leo’s first name changed – again – from Lipot to Leon. Lali and Anna played tennis, bicycled in the park, swam in the lake and improved their German with lessons from their governess Gerda. Illy was slower to adapt. Unlike multilingual Leo, who spoke English, French, German, Hungarian, Italian and Slovak, she was not a natural linguist. Missing her homeland Illy, who considered German cuisine inedible patiently taught her cook, Fraulein Lisa, how to prepare classic Hungarian dishes such as apple strudel filled with sultanas, cinnamon and walnuts and sauerkraut pungently flavoured with caraway.
In the 1940s the Grunewald became known for more sinister reasons. From 1941 the Berlin-Grunewald freight railway station served as a major transit point to deport Jews to concentration camps in Poland and Austria. The persecution of Jews in Germany had begun as early as 1933. Jewish shops were boycotted and Jews banned from professional jobs. In 1935 the Nuremberg Laws were introduced, depriving German Jews of their citizenship and political rights. The Friedmann-Fenyves family had kept Hungarian citizenship and passports, both of which protected them in the early years. Lali, the only Jewish pupil in her class at the Bismarck Lyceum, was obliged each morning to raise her arm in the Heil Hitler salute, a memory that disturbed her for the rest of her life.
By the late 1930s the Friedmann-Fenyves family could not ignore the political situation any longer. In 1936 Leo established a subsidiary branch of DeFag, Auto Aero Ltd, in Acton Vale, west London, which provided a potential route of escape. He did his research well. In the 1920s and 30s Acton Vale, five miles from the centre of London, was known as the ‘Motor Town’. From the early 1900s heavy industry had expanded and relocated to the outskirts of London where there was more space, fewer building restrictions and good transport links to raw materials, customers and a work force.
In 1938 the UK introduced a visa system enabling Jews who could demonstrate that they had a job or financial support to emigrate to the UK. Leo, Illy, Anna and Lali, together with almost 70,000 other Jews, emigrated to begin new lives in the UK. Lali, aged sixteen, and Anna, aged nineteen, travelled ahead of their parents in May 1939. Anna, through a business contact of Leo’s, become an office trainee at Aerography Limited in London and Lali a pupil at Milton Mount College, a girls’ boarding school in West Sussex.
Illy had started to take English lessons a couple of years before the move. Leo already spoke English (with a heavily German accent) and Anna was a fluent English speaker having spent eighteenth months, aged thirteen, at a boarding school in Sandwich, Kent. Lali, however, arrived at Milton Mount College with just a few words of English. Yet within a few months she was fluent. My siblings and I would later affectionately tease her about what we regarded as her selective knowledge of English vocabulary. She professed to know no English slang nor to understand English jokes or humour, however her gentle smile unintentionally gave her away. I like to think that quietly signalling linguistic and cultural difference was her way of preserving and protecting her Hungarian background and identity. Lali’s softly accented English, her third language after Hungarian and German, was impeccable and far more grammatically correct than anyone else in our family.
In June 1939, just two months before the outbreak of the Second World War and having completed the final arrangements, Illy and Leo followed Anna and Lali to London. The Friedmann was finally dropped and the family surname reverted to Fenyves. They left just in time. The Berlin subsidiary of DeFag had already been ‘aryanised’: the shares, split 49% and 51%, were sold on 13 March 1938 to two aryan buyers. In 1939 all assets of the parent organisation, DeFag Vienna, were ‘voluntarily’ liquidated; only the DeFag building in Vienna remained in Friedmann family ownership. Albert, the richest of the brothers, left his Baden bei Wein villa and its valuable furniture and tapestries to Anna and Lali. The court case to establish ownership took fifteen years to resolve. In 1961 the house, which had been requisitioned by the Nazis and later looted by the Russians, was sold and the sisters got, according to Anna, ‘a nice sum of money, no big fortune, but it helped’. The villa’s contents were never found.
In December 1938, before emigrating, the Fenyves family made one last trip back to Hungary to visit relatives. In Budapest they spent time with Leo’s three sisters before travelling by train to Miskolcz to visit the Szantos in the northeast province of Heves. While they were there Leo, Illy, Anna and Lali, along with other Szanto relatives, converted to Christianity and were baptised by a Lutheran minister, in the belief that this would offer protection. On their last day in Miskolcz they enjoyed a substantial midday meal with Illy’s older sister Irén, her husband Hugo, their daughter Margit (known as Maci) and Illy’s mother Amelia: a rich savoury course followed by Gesztenyepüreé made from pureed chestnuts, chocolate and whipped cream,
This meal, though they did not know it at the time, would be the last they shared together. Within six years Amelia Szanto; Irén, Hugo and Maci; Éva (Illy’s younger sister), her husband Armin and their daughter Judit; cousins Agnes, Bebi, Klara and Imre would all die in Auschwitz or in transport en route. My grandmother would never see her mother Amelia, nor her sisters Irén and Éva, again. Lali would be forever haunted by the knowledge that she and Anna survived, but that their cousins Marci, Judit and Agnes did not.
Lali, in her seventies, began to research her heritage and explore the Jewish faith. She learnt Hebrew and joined synagogues in London and Sussex. In the 1990s she returned to Berlin for the first time, funded by the German Reconciliation Programme set up to encourage refugees and survivors to revisit their former city of residence. At an emotional reunion, Lali reconnected with her former teacher, who had not known whether she had survived or perished. Sixty years after leaving Hungary Lali and Anna made a pilgrimage back to their home country. The two sisters visited relatives in Budapest, and travelled onto Heves to attend the opening of a newly built Memorial Hall containing stone tablets listing the names of all the Jewish families who had lived in the parish murdered during the war.
After Illy’s death in 1984 Lali found an envelope containing letters sent by her Szanto relatives from their home in Vörösmarty utca, Miskolcz and from the Miskolcz ghetto between 1943 and 1944. The letters are now deposited in the Yad Vashem Archives in Jerusalem. Illy never spoke about these letters, nor hinted at their existence.
 Jewish Museum London data.