My Uncle the Soccer Star
During the summer of 1938, as part of British Prime Monster Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler, the south-eastern portion of Czechoslovakia was ceded to Hungary. This area of Slovakia, which had never been an independent entity, was predominately Hungarian speaking, while German was more common in western Slovakia. Prior to the realignment of Europe at the Versailles summit in 1919 by well-meaning idiots like Woodrow Wilson, our locale had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. My grandfather even fought in the Austro-Hungarian army against Great Britain and the allies during the first world war.
My uncle, Ferdinand, was almost twenty-one years old when the borders were adjusted. He was at the time a star of the local Košice Hungarian semi-professional football team. Back then, as today, no-one knew him as Ferdinand. Friends and family used his Hungarian name, Laci. Now you may ask why the name change? The two names are not even slightly similar.
Family legend has it that my grandparents indeed decided to call their new offspring, a first son after three girls, Laci (אליעזר, Eliezer in Hebrew). My grandmother sent grandpa off to the registry to record their newborn's birth. Children were born at home in those days, with only the assistance of a midwife and perhaps a good neighbour — no maternity hospitals yet.
I assume grandpa at that time was home on army leave from the trench war, an experience which adversely affected his health for the rest of his life. He suffered from terrible arthritis, visiting the local natural hot springs of Piešťany and Karlovy Vary (Karlsbad) twice a year to ease his pain. And one can also imagine, to get out of a house with ten children and get some peace and quiet for a couple of weeks each time. Laci was born on Simḥath Tora a full year before that Great War ended.
Grandpa returned from the registry office, official papers in hand. Our Laci had suddenly been transformed into a Ferdinand. I can only try to imagine grandma's retort to her husband. No-one knows for sure what transpired in that government office. I imagine some antisemitic bureaucrat insisted on assigning the name of the former emperor or the Archduke, whose assassination sparked that war, to my young uncle. Or perhaps it was the clerk's own name?
Fast forward: a family wedding in Budapest towards the end of 1938. My grandparents were unable to attend, so they sent young Laci as the family representative. It was the first time Laci had visited that city. He remarked to me how the yeshiva boys there conversed and even studied talmud together in Hungarian. This was very strange to him. Back at home in Košice, Yiddish was the language of the synagogue, Tora study and yeshiva, the vernacular in the world of Jewish learning. It was an eye-opener for him as to the contemporary state of Hungarian Jewry.
The wedding was a joyous affair, with music, dancing, good food and the requisite badlun, what today we call a standup comedian. Along with the music, this jester was a standard part of a Jewish wedding. His comic monologue was sprinkled with references and innuendos to Jewish sources, coloured with common Hebrew and Yiddish words and expressions. Though he basically performed in Hungarian, a non-Jew would have difficulty understanding the punchlines.
One Hebrew word, repeated in many gags, was tayku. This is the word with which the Talmud informs us that the current argument remains unresolved. In the typical Hungarian mispronunciation of Hebrew, the word is articulated teyki.
Towards the end of the wedding reception, a band of Hungarian police bursts into the hall and carts off all of the males. The first antisemitic Jewish Laws had just been passed by the Hungarian parliament, so there was no need for the police to justify this mass arrest.
Each arrested Jew was individually interrogated at the police station, meaning each received a beating by the officers. Uncle Laci was one of the last to be thus interviewed. By this time the police were becoming exhausted from their evening's entertainment. This, coupled with the fact that Laci played soccer for the Hungarian football team in Hungary's newly acquired territory, in Kassa, as Košice was known in Hungarian, toned down the punches.
It appears that the police had spies at wedding. Pál Teleki was a former prime minister, the first of the new post Great War Hungary, and as history would have it, also the next prime minister. However at the time of our wedding, he was considered aligned with the opposition, though he did rejoin the government soon after. Together with the informants' lack of knowledge of Jewish subjects and the poor pronunciation of Hebrew by the comedian, the police believed that our cousin's wedding was a front for a political gathering — hence the large-scale arrest.
Laci returned home from the Hungarian capital with a new weltanschauung. He had learnt on this trip to Budapest that the old world order was crumbling and moreover that the future for Jews in this part of the world was no longer rosy. You must understand that this was an unfortunately quite amazing and rare thought for its time. After all, some members of Hungarian governments between the wars had been Jewish. And Czechoslovakia probably had been the most liberal country in Europe. Jews were involved in all aspects of life. For example, Laci's uncle Willie, a prominent businessman, was involved at the highest levels of the Czechoslovak Democratic Party.
Now Laci wanted an exit. The party had ended. He (correctly) informed his mother that it was over for the Jews in Europe and he was out of there. Needless to say, his mother was not thrilled.
One of Laci's older sisters, Etus, had recently married a man from Presov. That city was located in a different part of (the former) Czechoslovakia, in a region which, though a mere sixty kilometres away, was now in a different country, governed by its very own puppet regime. The newlywed couple had been ordered to leave town, to cross the now international boundary, into the newly created Slovak state. So they too suddenly wanted a quick alternate exit.
Laci, Etus and her husband, Armin, found a guide prepared to lead them across the Carpathian Mountains, out of Slovakia, out of Hungary, out of their old familiar world, away from their family, to smuggle them out of the yet unmaterialised and yet unknown hell awaiting their relatives and their people. Over the frontier to Poland and from there, hopefully, to freedom.
On the appointed night, each carrying the required, not small, sum of money, my three kinsmen, together with a few other enlightened people (and perhaps some known criminals), clandestinely met their guide. Etus was petit girl, maybe reaching four foot ten if she stretched. On seeing her, the guide freaked out. "Not only a woman, but a short one to boot". He refused to start the journey. Little did he know that my aunt was an experienced mountain-climber and bushwalker, someone who spent nearly all of her spare time outdoors in the mountains. Somehow they were able to convince him of her agility and the journey commenced. She made the crossing more easily than the men.
They were snuck into Poland.
On reaching Warsaw, our relatives made their way to the British Embassy. Here they were given papers for entry into England, on condition that within six months they relocate to one of the Empire's colonies, Australia or Canada, a condition to which they readily agreed. Within that specified period however, war broke out and Mother England was happy for all able-bodied men and women to remain and aid the war effort, to fill the void created by troops who were being dispatched to Europe.
So my aunt and uncles settled in London. They had to find jobs. Laci only managed to procure employment waiting at a Jewish hotel in the beach resort town of Bournemouth. He worked his way up to headwaiter. At that time (1940) it was still possible to send mail to the enemy side via the Red Cross. So my uncles were able to communicate with family back home. On hearing of Laci's new profession, his father retorted, very distraught, that his son was doing such demeaning work, a job considered so inferior that no-one in our family, let alone in the Košice Jewish community, had ever stooped so low. But Laci told me his father's attitude quickly changed when he told him how much he was earning. In grandfather's words, "that's more than double the salary of the prime minister of Hungary!"
And Uncle Laci (now known as Leslie, but still officially Ferdinand) remains in London until this day*.
* My uncle passed away in 2018 in his 101st year and is buried in London.
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