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PINBALL GAMESArts of Survival in the Nazi and Communist Eras
By George F. Eber
Trafford PublishingCopyright © 2010 Estate of George F. Eber
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Siege of Budapest
As soon as she understood that the siege of Budapest was about to start, Eta, my future step-mother, a supremely cool and practical person of immense girth, sailed off with her housekeeper in tow along Molnar utca. This was the first street in from the Danube embankment and for about a mile ran parallel to the river from the Elizabeth Bridge to the Francis Joseph Bridge. Near the entrance to Elizabeth Bridge was the Matyas Pinkes restaurant, close to which was the local headquarters of the Arrowcross, and leading to Francis Joseph Bridge was Custom House square. Eta's target was next to the Custom House, the Eiffel-designed, cast-iron structure which was the main market hall of Budapest. Although because of the advance of the Russian armies, the hinterland of rich farms was cut away from the market, there were still some stalls operating on the first day of the siege. Eta bought up what she could find: six scrawny chickens, all sorts of vegetables, and then, from the last of the fishermen still lingering on the riverbank with their catch, six big live Danube carp.
She brought all these dazed creatures home, filled up the bathtub, and released the carp. The chickens found their new home in the kitchen. Based on my father's advice, she also bought gallons of vegetable oil and rolls of wick. Every vessel in the house, vases, bowls, pitchers, was filled with water. A huge sack of dried beans, lard, and some Globus cans of goose liver purchased earlier from some SS soldiers were in the larder. Thus, right through the siege, in this town where women fought over the cadavers of fallen horses for a piece of frozen horse meat, we had fresh fish or chicken, occasionally goose-liver pate, and from time to time a thick bean soup decorated with sautéed onions.
Thanks to Eta's prompt action, food was not to be our problem during the siege. But no sooner had we filled all possible containers with water than the flow of water from the taps stopped. The Russians had cut off the water supply, and during the first night of the siege, the electricity was cut off, too. The lights went on and off for half an hour, then died completely. By that time we had made improvised oil lamps out of sturdy drinking glasses with wicks floating in the oil. After dinner, we sat down at the table in the bay window and played poker for pretty high stakes. We could just make out the cards. Artillery fire could be heard in the distance and also the rapid hammering of machine-gun fire. It was still some distance away.
At the beginning of December 1944, the Russian armies had begun advancing on the great Hungarian plain between the Tisza and Duna rivers. A huge tank trap in the form of a giant ditch had been frantically dug on the outskirts of Budapest by the forces of the Hungarian Arrowcross government, and its propaganda machine began insisting that this ditch would stem the tide of the "eastern hordes" and reverse the fortunes of the Nazi empire. But at night, in some of the eastern suburbs, the distant murmur of artillery battles could be heard, and nobody except the most extreme Nazis believed that any magic could stave off collapse.
Besides my father and myself, Eta's apartment also housed her cousin and nephew. The cousin, Meszelenyi Laci, was a police officer from Ungvar in the Carpathian Mountains. When the advancing Russian armies caused the evacuation of Ungvar, Laci, with military orders to proceed with the retreating units to Austria, had advanced as far as Budapest, where he decided to abandon the war effort and abscond to Eta's apartment. Her nephew, Guszti, in the army engineering corps, had already reached Austria with his unit, but was sent on a detail back to Budapest, where he also decided to decamp and take refuge with Eta. Laci and Guszti were by law deserters, punishable by summary execution. I myself was equipped with false papers. According to these, I belonged to the ranks of the Hungarian Army's 502 mobile motor repair unit and was on temporary sick leave due to a minor leg wound. My documents had been obtained from an underground resistance group with the help of my cousin Pista Salusinszky, who worked at the Swedish Embassy as secretary to Raoul Wallenberg, the Swede who saved many hundreds of Jews from extermination. Between my father, Laci, the police officer Guszti, and myself, we had two pistols, two Schmeisser submachine guns, and a very dangerous situation.
Every day, as the Russians approached, the Arrowcross patrols went through all buildings looking for illegal elements, Jews, and deserting soldiers. Any young man had to be able to prove why he was not with his military unit. As soon as a patrol approached the building, Guszti and I disappeared under a pile of rubble in a light well in the kitchen, taking with us all the weaponry, while my father and Laci in his police officer's uniform were left to cope with the patrol. During air raids, everybody retreated to the basement shelter, and Guszti and I stayed in the flat. During air raids, the likelihood of visits by the Arrowcross thugs increased, because they knew that everybody would be in the shelters.
Oddly enough, in these pre-siege days, time passed quickly. We were young and cocky. At night, we listened to the illegal BBC German-language broadcasts and worried about the German offensive in the Ardennes, commanded by General Rundstaedt, the best of the remaining German generals. My father, a retired officer of the Austro-Hungarian Army, worried less; he had decided that the Germans would run out of steam. In the evenings during the blackout, Laci, Guszti, and I left the house and walked around in Pest, sometimes walking side by side with armed Arrowcross thugs. We were becoming a little careless because we believed that very soon our war would end.
One night Laci and I walked to Magyar utca, only a few blocks away, and called at Madame Frieda's emporium. We could barely find it in the pitch dark. Inside, it was well-lit and friendly, almost as it was before the war. Madame Frieda and the girls must have suspected our illegal status, but they showed no interest. There were very few guests, and when we retreated upstairs, we got the best rooms. But no sooner did we make ourselves comfortable than we heard noises and heavy banging on the solid oak front door. The door bell rang insistently, and the brass knocker crashed against the wood. Almost immediately a maid was knocking at our doors to tell us to leave: a combined Arrowcross-SS patrol was combing the area. We could hear the raiding party being received by Madame Freida in the lobby. The girls opened the windows, and we jumped down into the darkened street. It had been a close call, and for a few days after, we were more careful.
On Christmas Day 1944, we learned that the approaching Russian armies had formed two gigantic prongs and, instead of attacking frontally, had crossed the Danube north and south of Budapest. During the night, they had succeeded in completely surrounding the city and were attacking from all sides. A German SS army of 200,000 motorised troops and a Hungarian Arrowcross army of about the same strength were caught inside this Russian ring of iron. The sounds of the artillery were booming from east and north and west. The siege of Budapest had begun in earnest.
On this first night of the siege, when we finally went to bed and the oil lamps were blown out, we drew the blackout curtains aside. The street was pitch black; across from us on the other side, four-storey apartment buildings loomed dark, shoulder to shoulder. I could just see indistinctly at the end of the street the little square park on its rise at the bridgehead and behind it the dark shape of the Custom House. There was no traffic. The streetcars which ran between the park and the Custom House had no electricity, and the buses and taxis were hiding somewhere. Occasionally, far away to the east and south, flares went up in the night, followed by rapid shooting. We went fitfully to sleep; all night long, we could hear the Russian bombers over the city, dropping their bombs randomly here and there. Not a real bombing raid: just the odd bomber to keep everyone awake. The sirens did not sound any more; they were silent now for good-there was no electricity to power them.
Next day, the siege intensified; the artillery duels grew fiercer. Long-range guns poured their projectiles towards the centre of the city where Eta's apartment house stood. I could hear the whistle of the shells; my father explained that the ones you heard were harmless-they flew overhead. He could also tell the calibre by the sound. Soon odd shells began exploding above us, spewing deadly shrapnel which rattled like hail on the tile roofs above. Soon everyone in the house except Guszti and myself had moved down into the air-raid shelter, taking food with them. My father commuted up and down, checking on us. The rubble in the light well had grown from the debris coming down from the roof, and we formed quite a little cave behind it for Guszti and me. The Arrowcross still patrolled the buildings, and as soon as we saw them from the window, we jumped into our hole like crabs on the beach, pulling the debris behind us on a piece of plywood to close the opening. Holding our guns, determined to use them if they should find us, we listened to the tramp of their heavy footsteps in the apartment as they sometimes approached quite close. We did not move until my father came up to announce the all clear.
In the evening, as soon as it got dark, everybody came up from the shelter. Dinner was cooked, and the card game started. (Very soon I had lost thousands of pengos, and my father, a very cool poker hand, held most of my markers.) This became the routine of our days and nights. It was late in December; the artillery went on all day and night, the heavy machine guns were closer. The bombers now were flying all the time. In the lulls, some people went from street to street, bringing the news.
Basically Budapest is built on both sides of the Danube, with five major bridges connecting Buda and Pest. On the right bank in Buda, between the Elizabeth Bridge to the south and well above the Chain Bridge upriver, rises the Palace Mountain, a veritable fortress city. Here was the German command. The Russians had surrounded Buda, but were attacking on the Pest front. The plan of Pest consists of concentric half-circle boulevards with their bases on the Danube. Radial roads, like spokes of a wheel, cross the boulevards. At first, the Russians came down the spokes; these were heavily defended, as were the boulevards. But the Russians were used to siege warfare, and their troops spread out when their direct progress was impeded. They went block by block around the obstacles, breaking through basement walls, climbing roofs to get from one building to the next, thus infiltrating behind the defending lines. By the end of December, after fierce fighting, they reached the main circular boulevard, a heavily defended six-lane thoroughfare.
Every building in the city had been hit by many artillery shells, and the streets by now were full of the rubble of bricks and stones, sometimes a floor high. Through these rubble hills, pedestrians had made snow-covered footpaths, criss-crossing at the most convenient locations.
The bridges across the river were visibly mined-all except St. Margaret's Bridge which had been accidentally blown up in mid-day traffic by the Germans two months before. I saw it happen from a vantage point on Saint Gellert's Mountain, the streetcars and buses slowly gliding into the lead-coloured Danube from the slopes of the collapsed arches; then shortly the small ferry boats, propeller-driven, swarming like ducks in a pond when food is thrown in, plucking as many people as possible from the torrent.
Now on the streets, mixed with the rubble, carcasses of all kinds of vehicles began to collect, their burned-out hulks contrasting with the snow. The Arrowcross thugs speeded up their work raiding and collecting people at night, then marching them to the lower embankment and shooting them into the fast-flowing river. As the Russians tightened the noose on the centre of the city, the forces defending Pest retreated within and had less and less room to move around.
Purest chance now determined all life. One day, while I looked down at the street from behind the window curtains, I heard the droning of a heavy Ilyushin bomber flying low. Looking up, I saw it cross the sky diagonally above us. It flew so low that I could see the pilot for a split-second before it disappeared over the roof of the opposite building. In this brief moment, as my father and I watched, a cluster of bombs of the small 100-kg size tied together with chains was released and, clearly visible for an instant, disappeared into the roof of the four-floor-high building diagonally across from us. As we watched, frozen, nothing happened for an eternity; then there was a dull boom. In slow motion, the outside walls of the building with its beautiful old stonework, windows, and balconies ballooned out and collapsed in a gigantic dust storm. When the dust settled, the collapsed building lay in a heap on top of its basement. The bombs had been set to explode in the cellar after penetrating all floors. There was now a 100-foot gap in place of the old patrician residence. People ran from all around, but there seemed to be nothing that could be done. The Arrowcross arrived also from their local headquarters up the street near the Restaurant Matyas Pinkes, but when they saw there was no way to loot in the rubble, they drifted away.
It must have been the same night, at the end of December, that the noose was drawn so tight in Pest that a German SS motorised infantry battalion rumbled into our street, there to make its last stand with its back towards the Danube. All night we could hear the vehicles moving in through the rubble. Looking down in the morning light, I could see two large personnel carriers with tank treads pulled up on the sidewalk, tight against the walls of the buildings opposite. A few horses were tethered to these personnel carriers, a gasoline tank truck stood next to them, and a mobile field kitchen behind. In the middle of the street, soldiers in grey uniforms were in the process of setting up a light infantry-type gun, its business end facing the Customs House. All the vehicles were heavily battle-scarred. They must have started their retreat months ago in the Don basin, and they showed every mile of the road. The soldiers were fit enough, but pale and thin. They set up their command post in a command vehicle bristling with radio antennae in the courtyard of one of the buildings.
At the end of Molnar utca on the little Custom House square, many more SS soldiers were busy ripping up the cobblestones and building a barricade. Others were lifting up the streetcar rails to make tank traps, digging them in, wall high, beyond the barricades in a zigzag pattern. By the time it grew dark, the barricade was breast-high, and apart from a few guards in the archways of the buildings, the Germans were not visible.
We sat down after dinner for our usual card game. Light machine-gun fire flared up periodically, and the artillery shells were whistling overhead, but the next couple of days went by relatively uneventfully except for the occasional burst of shells. By now all our windows were blown in, and we had heavy horse blankets hung over the openings.
Then on December 30, as I peeked out the window, I saw the first of the Russian tanks. They were patrolling beyond the barricade in front of the Customs House. One of them tumbled down to the other side of the tank trap, and its turret began slowly traversing, lowering its sights. I did not wait for the shooting to start, but withdrew from the window hastily. Several bursts were fired from the tank, and the Germans returned the fire furiously. Then all was quiet. When I looked again, the tanks were gone.
Excerpted from PINBALL GAMES by George F. Eber Copyright © 2010 by Estate of George F. Eber. Excerpted by permission.
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