Edit Kovacs

Edit Kovacs with her first husband, Vilmos Weisz, and their daughter, Maria Daragos

Edit Kovacs
Budapest
Hungary
Interviewer: Eszter Andor and Dora Sardi

Family background

Growing up

During the War

After the War

I was born on September 13, 1919, in Budapest, Hungary. My father, Arpad
Halasz, was born in 1889 in Kiskunfelegyhaza. That is a small town not far
from Kecskemet, which had a lively, progressive Jewish community at the
time. He was brought up by his grandparents after the death of his mother,
Gizella Klein. (His father remarried, and he had a half-brother, Ferenc,
and a half-sister, Sara. Sara married someone in Romania and they made
aliya in 1938-40.)


Family background

My father graduated from commercial high school and worked as chief
storeman in the state-owned local train company (HEV). He magyarized his
name from Fischer to Halasz in 1916. (Editor's note: state employees were
advised to "magyarize" their family names-change them to ones derived from
the Hungarian language. It was impossible to go beyond a certain position
in the hierarchy with a non-Hungarian name.) He married my mother, Katalin
Friedner, in 1917. Their wedding was in the famous Dohany Synagogue in
Budapest. He was not drafted during World War One because the HEV, a public
transportation company, could ask government exemptions for its employees.

In 1925, he was fired because of his Jewish origins and was unemployed for
two years. I remember how difficult these times were because he had been
quite well-paid as an employee of a state company, and we had led a
comfortable life. My father started to trade in clothes and underwear on
the market, and my mother helped him.

My mother, Katalin Friedner, was born in a derelict district of Budapest
densely populated with petty bourgeois Jews. She was quite uneducated,
having only gone to elementary school for three years. She later learned
the hat making trade. She worked in a hat maker's workshop as an assistant
until my sister was born. She was at home until my father was fired and set
up his clothes business at the market. They took on a servant girl who had
to sleep in the kitchen because we had only two rooms.

I remember my maternal grandparents quite well. My grandfather, Mor
Friedner, worked as a waiter in a cafe. He was somewhat happy-go-lucky,
spending a lot of money on billiards, while his wife, my grandmother, was
sick at home with tuberculosis. He had a brother who was a captain on the
police force, which was rather rare for Jews. My grandmother, Riza Krausz,
came down with tuberculosis after the birth of my mother's little sister,
Ibolya, but lived another 17 years with it, dying at the age of 59 in 1929.
They were very religious and I recall how my grandfather put on tefillin
every morning. They kept a kosher household until they became completely
impoverished and dependent on their children bringing them something to
eat. Mor lived to experience the Holocaust. He was hidden by some distant
relatives and was deported with them at the age of 84.

My mother had an older brother named Ignac Friedner, who disappeared in
1919, possibly during the Hungarian Soviet Republic or the White Terror;
and three sisters, Szeren, Aranka and Ibolya. Ibolya died at the age of 20
of tuberculosis. Szeren's husband, Ferenc Sarkadi, was a dealer in men's
clothing. They were immensely rich, living on Andrassy Avenue-which was one
of the fanciest areas of Budapest at the time-in a huge flat. They were
relatively religious; every Friday night, he sang in the synagogue. Szeren
was deported and witnessed the shooting of her husband. She died in
Auschwitz. Their daughter, Klara, hid in Budapest with false papers stating
that she was Christian. She left Hungary in 1956 for Australia. I have no
relationship with her because she "does not want to socialize with Jews."

Growing up

I attended a state elementary school and then a middle school (editor's
note: this type of school oriented the graduates towards commerce, crafts
and administrative jobs). I was a good student in school, but I was so
uninterested in religion that even though I attended religious instruction
in school, I never even learned the Hebrew letters. In the elementary
school, there were only two or three Jews in my class, so most of my
friends were Gentiles. This was not a problem in my family. In middle
school, I made friends mostly with Jews and every Friday we used to go to
the synagogue together. I had a very close friend, Zsofi Lieberman, whose
family was so observant that her father would not let me into the flat with
a salami sandwich. I had to eat it on the doorstep.

I started working after graduation in 1933 and worked in three needlework
shops until they had to close down because of the anti-Jewish laws. I was
first an assistant, then a salesgirl and finally a shop manager. In all
three shops, the proprietor was Jewish and half the employees were too. On
the high holidays, the Jewish employees did not have to work, but we did
not have to close the shop because our Christian colleagues were ready to
keep the business going.

Religion was not very strictly observed in my family either. Although we
celebrated the high holidays and my father would not smoke on Rosh Hashanah
or Yom Kippur, we did not go to synagogue regularly and we did not keep a
kosher kitchen. Still, when we were kids, they would light candles for us
on Friday night. This practice lasted until about 1926-27, that is, not
long after my father was dismissed and we experienced financial
difficulties. My father went to the market for half a day on Sabbath as
well, but at home, religion had to be strictly observed. We were not
allowed to work, write or light a fire. Even though my parents were not
strictly religious, when I came home with my first suitor, who was not
Jewish, my father did not allow him into the flat.

During the War

I married my first husband, Vilmos Weisz, an apprentice electrician, in
June 8, 1941. The marriage ceremony was held in the Neolog synagogue on
Pava Street. Vilmos was born in 1909 in Jaszbereny. This is a mid-size town
in northeast Hungary with a relatively large and traditionalist Jewish
community. He was drafted into a forced labor battalion in 1942. At first
he worked in the Weisz Manfred Steel Factory (which had also been Jewish
before its confiscation) in Budapest.

His parents were good Neolog Jews. They were rather religious as long as
they lived in the countryside, but when they moved up to Budapest around
1930, they became lax in their observance. The family was very poor because
they had three other siblings beside Vilmos. Vilmos's parents were the only
ones from the family who survived the Holocaust, and they made aliya
(emigrated to Israel) after the war. I regarded them almost as my parents
after my husband died, and I kept up correspondence with them until they
died in the mid-1950s.

Vilmos and I had one daughter, Maria. She was born in August 1942. My
husband had already been drafted into forced labor in June 1942, but he was
allowed to come home to see his newborn baby. He saw her only a few more
times before he was killed in 1945. He was beaten to death in a camp in
Balf, near Lake Ferto, in early 1945, because he stole one small potato.

During the war, in June 1944, my daughter and I, my mother and my sister,
and my sister's little son, who was the same age as Maria, were together in
a yellow-star house in Nepszinhaz Street. We were crammed into a three-room
flat with a dozen other people. The men were in forced labor battalions. In
July, the women and children were taken to a stadium from where we would
have been deported. A decent Arrow Cross (Hungarian Fascist) man-because
there existed such people as well-told me that everybody with a child under
the age of two should try to sneak away, while they would be looking the
other way. My family and I went back to the yellow-star house and we were
left in peace until the German occupation on October 15, 1944.

A week after that, the Arrow Cross people came again and collected all the
younger women and set them off on foot on a death march towards the
Austrian border. My sister and I managed to escape and arrived back in
Budapest in early November. In the meantime, my mother had been taken to
the ghetto together with the children, but we managed to find them when we
got back. My father also managed to escape from the Austrian border and he
found us in the ghetto. We pulled through the ghetto times somehow. On the
day before Liberation, in February 1945, I went out of the cellar where we
had been hiding during the bombing to get some food. I was injured by
shrapnel and I was left lying on the street for some days and got blood
poisoning, so my right leg had to be amputated below the knee (the
operation was done in the Jewish Hospital). This marked me for the rest of
my life.

After the War

After the war, we got back our flat, where we all lived together until my
sister Gizella left for Canada with her son Gyuri and her daughter Erzsi,
who was born in 1950. I bought a one-room flat in the same house where my
parents lived. We have kept up a very close connection with Gizella and I
visited them more than a dozen times. And my nephew Gyuri calls me once
every three weeks even today.

I married again in 1948. My second husband, Jozsef Schwarz, was born in
1911 in Nadar, Szatmar county (now in Romania). I know nothing about his
family and very little about his life before and during the war. I know
that he was in a forced labor battalion during the war in Poland. He was
not religious at all, but I think that he came from quite a religious
family, because when I asked him to come with me to synagogue on the high
holidays, he would always say: "I would do anything, absolutely anything
for you, but I am not going to the shul (synogogue) because I have been
through such horrible things that I have already expiated all the wrongs I
have done." He died four years after we got married in 1952, and I felt
that such a man should be buried in a kitl as any good observant Jew. I got
married a third time in 1984-I was not so young then-but he died three
years later. He was not Jewish.

My daughter did not know that Jozsef was not her real father. I asked him
to magyarize his surname to Varnai so that I could change my daughter's
name, Weisz (after her father, my first husband), to Varnai, and I could
allow her to believe that Jozsef was her father. Jozsef agreed to it
readily. But after his death a "friendly" neighbor told my daughter that
Jozsef was only her stepfather. When she asked me why I had never told her
this, I replied: "Jozsef loved you as if your were his own child, and
anyway, the last time you and your father saw each other was when you were
six months old. Even though you are his daughter inside, you needed, and
you received, a father for your life."

After the war, I could not work because of my leg injury. So I first
started working after Jozsef's death. I took up a position as a cashier in
a big state-owned dress making company and I was promoted to the position
of a shop manager after four years. My daughter graduated from an economic
high school and worked first in a ministry and later in social services.
She has two sons, Tibor and Zoltan. Tibor married a Gypsy girl and became a
peddler. They have one daughter, Anita, who is 10 years old. We do not
really keep in touch with them. Zoltan is now 36 years old and works as a
cook. He married a Bulgarian girl and they have a child, Sandor. They live
with me in my flat. I am painfully conscious of the fact that everybody in
my family married Gentiles, and I feel as if I were the only Jew left in
the family.

But I believe that it does not matter whether somebody is Jewish or
Christian, all that matters is that they should be good and kind-hearted.
Still, I feel proud to be a Jew, I would never deny it, and I used to go
regularly to the synagogue up to quite recently. Now I am too old and
frail.