Her name was Maria. She was quietly waiting in the Simontornya railway station for the train to Budapest. She sat on a bench in the station lobby passing the time with a Sudoku puzzle. She made nary a sound for over an hour, not noticing the comings and goings of prospective passengers. Just before the train’s arrival she slowly made her way out to the platform. That is when she asked my wife in Hungarian if I would help get her suitcase onto the train. She was elderly, but seemed to be energetic and in good health. I gladly obliged. The suitcase, though relatively small, was heavier than I expected. It felt as though it contained a couple of bowling balls. Once we got onto the train, stored her luggage and exchanged thank you’s, she took the seat directly behind us.
Do You Remember the War?
Maria soon began to converse with my wife in Hungarian. I noticed that she seemed to be acknowledging me and asking questions. My wife told me that she was asking where I was from. When she learned I was an American a wide smile broke across her face. In turn, I had my wife ask her where she was from. Maria said that she lived in Budapest now, but grew up in Simontornya. She seemed to be open and talkative. With my interest in Hungarian history I thought this might present an opportunity to learn about her experiences.
I took a chance and had my wife ask how old she was. Usually I would be reticent to ask such a question, but she was old enough that asking her age probably no longer mattered to her. I have observed that once a person gets into their seventies, their vanity literally vanishes. She smiled when the question was put to her, replying “How old do you think I am?” She was so lively that I guessed a lower rather than a higher age. Studying her weathered and wrinkled expression, I replied, “Seventy-five.” She grinned widely. “I am actually eighty-eight. I was born in 1926.” Immediately my interest was piqued.
This meant that Maria was nineteen years old in 1944, the year that the Second World War arrived in Hungary with a thunderous roar. I wondered if she had been in Budapest during the winter siege that had begun late that year? I studied the warmth in her eyes, considering for a moment what she might have seen and experienced. Her expression was the opposite of tragic. Perhaps she had been one of those lucky few who had emerged from the war unscathed. Maybe this was a front, perhaps she was hiding something. I wanted to know what she had seen, felt and heard. My wife related my inevitable questions, “Do you remember the war?” I could tell by the rise in her voice and the emotional monologue which followed, that Maria had experienced the war firsthand.
“I Know How To Survive”
I asked questions as my wife translated. What follows is a synopsis of my questions and Maria’s answers. This is what she told us:
Where were you during the war? “I was in Simontornya, living at home with my parents. My father was a pensioner by then. He had been a policeman. We knew the war was not going good, we had known that for a long time. We knew the Germans were losing, that we were losing. “
What were the Germans like? Simontornya was a sort of headquarters area. First the Germans were there. They were gentlemen. They treated us kindly. We began to hear though, that the Russians were coming. One night all the Germans suddenly disappeared. They retreated or ran away. Suddenly they were gone. We waited for the Russians, everyone was worried.
What were the Soviets like? When they showed up, they were wild, just wild men. They stole everything. They took everything from our house, robbed us and left us with nothing. They were in Simontornya for weeks. It was awful, we were scared. They raped a woman I knew, just took her and raped her. Sometimes I had to hide, even blackened my face to disguise my looks.
Did you see any shooting?
We heard guns being fired. The Russians took any guns they found. One Hungarian man turned a gun into them. They took the gun and shot him dead with it.
What did you do while they were in Simontornya?
We just waited and tried to survive. My father could communicate with them some. He was originally from close to Poszony (Bratislava) and could speak some Czech. (Russian and Czech are both Slavic languages) My father spoke very directly and was tough with them. He stood up to them as much as he could, but they still stole everything from our house. They did whatever they wanted. There were some ladies in town, upper class aristocrats who had never even gotten their hands wet. They were forced to live in barracks.
How did you survive?
It was hard. I really don’t know how we made it. The winter was brutal. There was snow everywhere. More snow than you can imagine and it was bitterly cold. When I hear young people today complain I just wish they had to live through one week of the war. Just one week, nothing more, just like we had to. They would never complain again. We had nothing. I learned from that. I have never lacked for money in my life. I have always had some money, because I learned to survive on nothing. Today my pension is only 100,000 forints ($450) a month. I live on that, I know how to survive. All my children have become successful and wealthy. I taught them how to get by on very little. Today they have nice houses and cars.
What happened after the Soviets left?
We still had nothing, but because we were in a village in the countryside, we always had food to eat. I remember people would come down from Budapest on the train to trade with us for food. They were riding on the tops of cargo trains. They had taken socks which had holes in them, sewed the holes back up and traded them for a potato. Everyone was poor. Anything else you can tell us about what happened? One time I was on a train to Budapest. When it made a stop a Russian officer got on. He got into our car and began trying to rape a woman. A Hungarian man threw him out of the car while it was flying down the tracks. I don’t know what happened to that Russian, but he went flying out of the train car.
Traveling To The End
Maria talked the entire hour and a half train trip. She told us about her life after the war. She worked as an estate agent for many years. Her husband was an alcoholic who died at the age of fifty-two. I thought to myself how tough it must have been for a single mom with several children in communist Hungary. Then again it was nothing compared to the war. I am sure she never complained. Maria was very proud of her children and grandchildren. She showed us photos of them. They travel outside of Hungary sometimes and send her photos. She said that’s how she travels, by getting to look at the pictures of where they have been.
Maria lived her adult life in Budapest, today she has a flat close to the city park. She is getting close to ninety years old, but is still full of energy, talking with verve and zeal, filled with life. When the train pulled into Kelenfold station we said our goodbyes. We got off, but Maria stayed on for the final stop. She was going to the end. How fitting. I took a photo of her smiling broadly. There was warmth in her eyes, a sense of engagement. It was enough to make me believe that nothing bad had ever really happened to her. Of course that was not true. She had seen horrible things, many of them were probably still left unsaid. Maybe her happiness and contentment came as a counter reaction to her experiences during the war. Perhaps the war had taught her to get on with life, appreciate the simple things, to not waste time complaining. Maria was happy with life, because as she so well knew, it could be – as it had been – so much worse.
Echoes of the Apocalypse
That evening back at our flat in Kispest I googled “Simontornya World War II.” Besides a few results about Operation Spring Awakening – the failed German Offensive in the area that led to Maria’s experiences – there was nothing specific. I decided to give the Google Books search a try. One of the top results led me to a book called “The Road to a Dictated Peace.” It was about the Treaty of Trianon which had led to the dismemberment of the Kingdom of Hungary following World War One. What could this book have to do with Simontornya in World War II? I soon found out in the preface. The author, Laszlo Botos, introduces himself by saying, “I was born in Simontornya in 1935. I have some vivid memories of World War II in my village. Simontornya was on the Russian Front and was occupied alternately by the Germans and Russians. I remember the bombing, the fear, the lack of food. I remember the German soldiers who, although they occupied our village, were always polite and treated us kindly. I remember the Russians coming to ‘liberate’ us from the Germans, demanding food and wine and raping women and girls.”
That’s all Botos had to say about the war in Simontornya. It sounded all too familiar.