“Those who suffered the most put all their energy into covering it up,” the Germans and Czechs who had managed to escape the clutches of the Nazis early in the war said to each other, out of earshot of the handful of Hungarians, the “Real Survivors.”
In short order the only woman among them married the best looking of the three men, leaving the other two to keep each other company. As the years went by, Ronczi and Uboul became a kind of couple – two lone bachelors on a kibbutz filled with couples desperate to repopulate the world with children, stand-ins for all those they had lost. The two Hungarians became the heads of the Bachelors’ Table in the dining room, holding forth at breakfast, lunch, and dinner about national politics, kibbutz controversies and, most importantly, soccer.
For all of those topics, Ronczi had two definitive responses, either: “They don’t know what they are doing,” or: “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” Often he was dismissed with a wave of the hand or a toss of the head. On occasion Uboul matched him with “And you don’t know what you are talking about.”
Ronczi became emphatic when, at the end of the 1950s, Israel’s fledgling national soccer team began to play internationally, hopelessly inadequate against the European teams. “In Hungary they wouldn’t make it out of a village’s regional league,” he announced.
In the summer of 1956, when Hungary was making modest overtures towards moderation and democratization, the kibbutz scraped together the money to send Ronczi on a visit back. Esther and Uboul had no desire to go. “There is no one left,” they each said. Ronczi was not very specific about his reasons for wanting to go. All he said was, “The country is still there.”
“But, Ronczi,” one particularly combative member of the Bachelors’ Table said, “like Uboul said, there’s no one left. It’s only goyim, blast their bones. Stole your houses, everything you owned. Not to mention aiding the Nazis.”
“Don’t say that!” Ronczi shot back.
“But it’s true!”
Ronczi got up without a word, picked up his plate, cutlery, and water glass and headed off to deposit them in the large tubs of steaming soapy water where those on dishwashing duty would scrub them. Everyone exchanged puzzled glances. Ronczi was always the last one to get up from the table.
It was very rare for any kibbutz member to travel abroad in those days, so when Ronczi returned after a month, people kept asking him for stories.
“What was it like, back there?”
“Did you find anyone who…”
“Did you go back to your house?”
“Back there, back there” seemed to pull each person who asked somewhere far away, perhaps to the Prague or Berlin of their youth, even though it was Hungary he had visited. Ronczi talked about the still beautiful forests, the still tasty food, and the crumbling buildings, destruction wrought during the war and by the Communists. He said nothing about people. No word about finding anyone. No one pried.
The Bachelors’ Table resumed its usual fare. Hungary faded away except during the heated discussions of the previous Shabbat’s soccer matches. Ronczi returned to his motto, “You don’t know what you are talking about,” and everyone else went back to actively disregarding his opinions.
The dramatic overthrow of Communism in Eastern Europe came well after the gradual, no-fanfare fading away of the ironclad collectivism of the kibbutz. By now everyone had enough money in their personal accounts to shop in the cities for whatever they wanted and travel abroad on their own dime. Most people went to Europe first – Paris, London, Rome. No one went to Germany. But soon people ventured further – trekking in the Far East, African safaris, driving across North America. But not Ronczi; he went only to Hungary, every summer. His stays grew longer and longer – three weeks, a month, eventually nearly the whole summer.
The gossips in the kibbutz began to speculate that he had a woman back there.
“A woman? Ronczi?” Uboul laughed when they tried their theory on him, as the Hungarian expert.
“What? Are you suggesting a man?” a particularly daring bachelor asked. “Ppfff,” Uboul chortled. “Now all I can do is quote him: ‘You don’t know what you are talking about.’”
When, after his summer trip in 2010, Ronczi’s liver began to fail and he was hospitalized, his seat at the Bachelors’ Table was left empty.
“Let‘s hope he comes back soon,” everyone said.
“Maybe there’s hope.”
“He’s not coming back,” Uboul said in a definitive tone, projecting across the table so everyone could hear.
“But there are all these new treatments… “
“You don’t know what you are talking about,” Uboul said, softly this time. He shook his head.
Many wondered about terminal liver disease in a man who had seemed so healthy. Jews, after all, did not suffer from alcoholism, were not prone to cirrhosis of the liver. Maybe he did drink? When he was there, in Hungary? What else was there for him to do there all summer? Slivovitz? Vodka? And why assume it was only in Hungary? The speculations swelled. Uboul did not say anything, but his enigmatic nods suggested he knew more.
Esther, the lone Hungarian woman of the original group, went to the hospital in Afula twice a week and sat by Ronczi’s bedside from morning until afternoon, then headed back to the kibbutz on the 404, the 4 p.m. bus. Ronczi was unable to eat and an IV kept him hydrated.
The day before Yom Kippur Esther tried to joke with him, lift his darkened spirits just a tad. “So, Ronczi, finally you’ll fast on Yom Kippur!”
Hardly anyone on the then militantly secular kibbutz fasted. Yom Kippur was an ordinary workday.
“Well,” Ronczi said, “that would be a first in my family!”
“Really?” Esther asked, “even back in Hungary when you were a child? Your parents, or at least grandparents – nobody fasted?”
Ronczi closed his eyes and let his breathing fill the silence for a long while. Finally he opened them and scooted up a little in his hospital bed.
“All these years, Esther… You didn’t know? You didn’t suspect?”
“What are you talking about, Ronczi?”
“I am not . . . not Jewish.”
Esther opened her mouth to respond but Ronczi stopped her with his open palm. She leaned in closer to his face, seeing how he strained to speak up.
“At the end of the war . . . I was seven, maybe eight. Living on the streets in Budapest with a gang of older boys. We survived by stealing. Somehow in the course of the first years of the war my family disappeared. I don’t know how. I was too young to remember.”
He rested for a moment.
“Water,” he whispered.
Esther brought the cup close to Ronczi’s face and pushed the end of the bendable straw into his mouth. It seemed to take a great effort for him to suck up a teaspoonful of water. “Drink more,” Esther urged, but Ronczi shook his head.
He spoke again. “The guys from the Jewish Agency found me on the street one day. A bigger boy had beaten me up and stole the half-rotted apple I had filched from a peddler. I think they had seen me – us boys – before. They cleaned me up and gave me a square of chocolate.
“‘Listen,’ the tall one among them who spoke good Hungarian said, bending down, close up to my face, ‘before you get big enough to fight back, these boys will kill you. Why don’t you go back to your parents?’
“Dead,” I said.
“‘Grandparents? Uncles? Any family at all?’
Esther put her hand on Ronczi’s arm. “Why don’t you rest a bit,” she said.
Ronczi shook his head.
“I have to tell it. Now.”
“Of course,” Esther said and raised the cup towards his mouth again. “But at least take another drink.” Ronczi nodded and she pressed the edge of the straw between his cracked lips. He sucked slowly, several times, bringing up a thimbleful each time. Then he pushed the straw out with his tongue and started talking, pushing the words out with small puffs of air.
“The Agency man stood up and whispered to his friend for a minute, then bent back down towards me.
“‘Listen now, really carefully. We are organizing a group. Jewish boys who have been in hiding. We are going to Palestine, to a kibbutz. You don’t know what it is but they’ll take care of you there. You’ll have food, clothes, showers, a clean bed, everything. And you know, it’s always sunny and warm there and oranges grow everywhere.‘
“It sounded good. What other choice did I have?
“‘What’s your name?’ he asked.
“‘Just tell them you name is Aharon.’
“A-ha-ron, A-ha-ron” I repeated.
“‘Good boy,’ he said. ‘A smart one,’ he told his friend.
“‘And one more thing,’ he whispered in my ear now, ‘never let them see your pipi. Always go to the bathroom and the shower by yourself. Later, when you see the doctor, show it to him. They’ll take care of it.’
“So . . . after a few years in the Youth Aliyah school I came to the kibbutz.”
“I remember when you arrived,” Esther said.
Ronczi’s head sank into the pillow, as if it suddenly weighed twice as much as before. Esther sat by the bed and after a while, for the first time in their lives, they held each other’s hands.
Two days later Ronczi was at the very end. Esther came to the hospital with the kibbutz nurse, for what she knew would be the last time. They sat by the bed. Ronczi opened his eyes part way, the slits showing only thin slivers of his blue pupils. He tried to speak but his voice was so weak Esther had to bend over him and put her ear within an inch of his lips.
“I know… what is happening,” Ronczi whispered.
“We are here,” Esther whispered back.
“What . . .” Ronczi pushed the words out with great effort, “What . . . do . . . you . . . do now?”
“What we do?” Esther was puzzled.
“You,” Ronczi repeated. “Jews.”
“Ah,” Esther understood. “We say the Shma Yisrael. We’ll help you.”
“Shma Yisrael,” Esther and the nurse began to recite very slowly. Ronczi’s lips moved but his voice could no longer be heard. With great effort he raised his right hand and touched his fingers to his forehead.
“Adonai Eloheinu,” they continued.
Ronczi’s hand flitted down, landing for an instant in the middle of his chest.
Ronczi’s fingers grazed his left shoulder.
Ronczi let his hand come to a final rest on his right shoulder, where it stayed until he let out his last breath.
Author’s Comment: I wrote this piece as part of a collection of interlinked very short stories and vignettes about my childhood on a kibbutz, tentatively titled Growing Up Below Sea Level. Our kibbutz, situated on the banks of the Jordan River is 238 meters below sea level, a source of great pride. Most of the stories focus on my experiences growing up in the Children’s House, as part of the collective education championed on kibbutzim. It was mostly a happy, carefree childhood but this story captures, I hope, one of the dark shadows – stories of the Holocaust – hovering over our seemingly sunny utopia.