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Swimming Across
 

My Third Birthday

Andy Grove
Time Warner Books;
Pages 304
Price: $15.36

he searchlights were like white lines being drawn on the cloudy evening sky. They moved back and forth, crossing, uncrossing, and crisscrossing again. People around me had their faces turned up to the sky, their eyes anxiously following the motion of the white lines. My mother said that they were practicing looking for planes.

I paid no attention to them. I was taking my new car out for its first drive

My car was a tiny version of a real sports car. I could sit in it and drive it around by pushing up and down on foot pedals and steering with a real steering wheel. It looked exactly like my uncle Jozsi's sports car, except that his was white and mine was red. Red was a lot more fun.

Jozsi and I had taken our sports cars to a promenade on the banks of the Danube River. I drove my car up and down, weaving between the legs of the people out for a stroll. It seemed more crowded than usual. Jozsi kept encouraging me to go faster and faster, then ran after me to keep me from bumping into people. Sometimes he succeeded. Sometimes he didn't. But people didn't seem to mind. They barely paid any attention to me. They were mesmerized by those white lines in the sky.

My parents had come along, too. We often walked along the promenade on summer evenings. It was a popular thing to do in Budapest. Summer was over, but it was a warm evening, so I wasn't surprised that we were celebrating my birthday by the Danube. I was now three. It was September 2, 1939.

My parents had moved to Budapest the year before. My father, George Grof, whom everyone called by his nickname, Gyurka, was a partner in a medium-size dairy business that he owned jointly with several friends. They bought raw milk from the farmers in the area, processed the milk into cottage cheese, yogurt, and especially butter (they were particularly proud of the quality of their butter), and sold the dairy products to stores in Budapest. My father was a pragmatic, down-to-earth businessman, energetic and quick. He knew how life worked.

My father had dropped out of school at age eleven. My mother, Maria, had finished gymnasium, the Hungarian equivalent of a college preparatory academy. It was an unusual accomplishment for a woman at that time and even more unusual for a Jewish woman. Her heart had been set on becoming a concert pianist, but because she was a Jew she was not admitted to the music academy. Instead, she went to work in her parents' small grocery store. That's how she met my father.

The dairy business was located in Bacsalmas, a small town about one hundred miles south of Budapest, near the Yugoslav border. My father often traveled to Budapest to call on customers, the butter, milk, and cottage cheese distributors.

One day, my father called on my mother's parents' store to peddle his dairy products. He introduced himself to my mother. When they were done with their business, they stood in the doorway and talked until it was time for my mother to close up shop. Then they went for a walk through the streets of Budapest and talked and talked and talked some more.

They were different, but their differences complemented each other. My mother was cultured without being snobbish. My father was smart and energetic, with a quick sense of humor. My mother tended to be shy and reserved with strangers, but somehow she was not at all like that with my father. His energy and inquisitiveness brought out the best in her. They liked each other a lot.

The fact that my father was also Jewish helped further their relationship. It gave them a common background and a common understanding. Neither of my parents was religious. They didn't attend synagogue, and although most of their friends were Jewish, they didn't consider themselves to be part of the Jewish community. Aside from the religious affiliation that identified them on official documents, there was nothing to differentiate them from other Hungarians. When they met, my mother was twenty-five and my father was twenty-seven, an age at which a man was expected to have found a way to make a living good enough to support a family. They married a year later and moved to Bacsalmas. It was 1932.

My mother hated Bacsalmas. She was a city girl, well educated, a would-be concert pianist, used to going to concerts and the theater. All of a sudden, she found herself in a small town out in the provinces. Not only was she living in a house with dirt floors and an outhouse, but she had to share the house with some of my father's relatives and partners. My mother was the newcomer and the outsider. She was a loner and very uncomfortable with communal living. She couldn't wait to get out of there, but she would not have a chance to do so for a while.

Shortly before I was born, my parents temporarily moved to Budapest so that my mother could give birth in a good hospital. My mother would have liked to stay, but she returned to Bacsalmas with my father and me.

She finally got her wish in 1938, when I was two years old. My father decided to set up a branch of the dairy in Budapest to service his growing number of city customers. We moved into an apartment on Kiraly Street, a few blocks from the dairy.

Budapest is a city of two parts, separated by the Danube. The Buda side was hilly and dotted with old churches and castles and ramparts and rich homes. Pest was the commercial side, with the apartment houses spreading out from the city center. The natural setting, with its combination of the hills and the river, was beautiful and the stylish apartment houses and wide avenues lined with trees made for a pleasant environment.

Kiraly Street was a busy thoroughfare connecting the central Ring Road on the Pest side to the big City Park farther out. A streetcar line ran down the middle, making the street even busier. It wasn't particularly noisy, but something interesting was always going on.

There was a Jewish quarter in Budapest. It was located about a mile or so from where we lived. It was a strange, foreign area, where the men wore black hats and dark coats and long side curls and smelled odd. We were Jewish, too, but they were part of a different world.

Our world was a typical middle-class neighborhood. Ours was a nice street but nothing fancy. Our apartment house, too, was like many others: a ground floor with shops facing the street, topped with two stories of apartments surrounding a central courtyard. A small one-story building in the courtyard housed a photo studio. An older couple who lived in one of the ground-floor apartments in the back of the courtyard provided basic caretaker services. The man doubled as a shoemaker as well as superintendent of the building, while his wife, a kindly old lady, picked up packages for tenants, let in tradesmen, and performed other ordinary chores.

In our building, most of the apartments faced inward, their doors and windows opening onto the courtyard. A narrow balcony, maybe three or four feet wide with a wrought-iron railing, ran around the courtyard to connect the apartments on each floor. There was a communal toilet near the back of the balcony on each floor. This was for the inside apartments, which did not have their own toilets. A stairway connected the floors at each end of the balcony. In front, the stairway was wide and respectable. The back stairway was narrow and dark.

The apartments that faced the street were the better apartments. They were bigger and had their own bathrooms. Our apartment was one story up from the ground floor. Two rooms faced the street, the Big Room and the Little Room. Both were equally deep, but the Big Room had two windows while the Little Room had just one. The windows were tall and narrow and opened in the center, like doors; the sill was waist-high, so you wouldn't fall out. During the summer, the windows were always open. You could look out at the apartment buildings across the street and watch the traffic and the streetcars and the people coming and going on Kiraly Street. Even when the windows were closed during the winter, the rooms were bright and airy.

My mother's parents lived in the Little Room, and my parents and I lived in the Big Room. It served as my parents' bedroom, my bedroom, and our living room. There was a sofa bed in one corner, where my parents slept, with my crib nearby. There was also a polished wood dining table and chairs and some other furniture. The hardwood floor was covered with Persian carpets and area rugs.

A door opened from the Big Room to the hallway, a long, dark passage that led to the staircase. You could get to our bathroom from this hallway and also from the Little Room. The bathroom had a sink, a bathtub with a wood-burning stove used to heat the water for baths, and a toilet. Just before you got to the stairs, the hallway opened on one side into the kitchen and on the other side to a very small room, where our maid, a heavyset woman named Gizi, lived. Gizi cooked, cleaned the house, did the shopping, and looked after me. She eventually married a man who went only by his surname, Sinko. After they got married, Gizi and Sinko both squeezed into that little room. Sinko worked elsewhere, but when he was home, he would carve wood sticks for me and take me to the park. In her spare time, Gizi would sit down and read me the crime stories in the newspaper. I was completely fascinated.

We had frequent visitors to the apartment. Almost no one had a telephone, so instead of people calling up, they would drop in. People would come by, unannounced, and sit and talk for hours. As they were saying good-bye, they would stand in the doorway and talk for what seemed like hours more. My mother's younger brother, my uncle Jozsi, was around a lot. He was strong, muscular, and balding, and he was a lot of fun. I have no idea what he did, although judging from comments that the rest of the family sometimes made, it couldn't have been very much. But that didn't seem to matter. There was always a warm and joyful feeling about Jozsi.

That wasn't the case with my mother's second brother, Miklos. Miklos and Jozsi were twins but were very different in appearance and personality. While Jozsi was friendly and fun, Miklos was surly and seemed to carry a dark cloud around him. People didn't like him; their voices changed tone when they talked about him. Miklos didn't get along with anyone in the family, including my grandmother, his own mother. Once he was so nasty to her that my father intervened and the two of them started shouting at each other. I was afraid that they would come to blows. I had never seen my father that way before. After that, we didn't see much of Miklos.

My father was a sociable guy, and many of our visitors were his friends and business associates. Jani was one of my father's best friends and a partner in the dairy. He was from Bacsalmas, and his parents still lived there. He had his own apartment in Budapest, but he camped out in our apartment all the time. Jani had been an officer in the Hungarian army, which impressed me. Tall and ramrod straight, he was a snappy dresser and something of a dandy, which also impressed me. He had a loud voice and a loud laugh and exuded self-confidence and energy. Jani was different in another way. He wasn't Jewish. Another friend of both my father and Jani went by his last name only: Romacz. Romacz was as skinny as a stick, and his face was all wrinkled, like a raisin. I liked him a lot because he always talked to me as if we were equals. He, too, was from Bacsalmas and was involved in the dairy business; he managed the Budapest branch. He wasn't Jewish, either.

My father's friends knew my mother from when they all lived in Bacsalmas. If my father wasn't home, they would hang around anyway. She would serve them something to drink, smoke with them, and talk. None of the men was married, so they would recount stories of their latest romances, confide in her, and ask her advice. She was a kind of sister to them. They were like uncles to me.

Religious identity played no part in my world then. Some of our visitors were Jews, others were not. Those who were not Jewish seemed no different from us. While many Jewish people had German names, like Fleischer, Schwartz, or Klein, our name was no different from non-Jewish names. The word grof is Hungarian for "count." Family legend has it that an ancestor was the estate manager for a Hungarian count and somehow people started to refer to him by association as "the Count." In more recent times, some Jews changed their names to Hungarian-sounding surnames. Our family already had one.

I was born Andras Grof, but everyone called me by the more familiar form, Andris.

Copyright © 2001 by Andrew S. Grove

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