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[Page 368]

The church bells of Oradea

by Simon Magda

Translated by Susan Geroe

“My love, my only one!

I'm writing this letter in the attic of someone else's house. Somebody promised me to smuggle it out and mail it to the given address.

I'm very disturbed, I don't even know how to start. One of the reasons I came up here is to gather my thoughts a bit. Downstairs, the house which has been my hell and shelter for nearly four weeks, now seems like a stirred up beehive. The panic is complete; the despair is indescribable since we found out that they're shipping us out tomorrow.

Where? In what direction? Why? And for what? This is what they're trying to guess, this is what they're discussing in the backyard, all these serious, intelligent, well -informed men: doctors, lawyers, engineers, journalists. They pretend as if sober reasoning and strict logic could still serve as a compass. Even though they know only as well as I do that a compass serves no purpose whatsoever on a sinking ship.

I can't join them; I can no longer ponder the pros and cons. What for? The time for self -deceit is over. If that could happen, which still a few weeks ago - in spite of the numerous and ominous precedents - we thought of as unthinkable, that decent citizens will be chased out of their homes and with a fifty kilo baggage be enclosed in ghettos reminiscent of the dark middle ages - what else can we expect? The circle has closed, there is no escape. A few people did try to escape through the sewer system, but they were discovered. Only one way out presents itself: to step over voluntarily into the world of the dead.

I am describing all this with a very heavy heart, as I promised you that for our own sake and for the hope of a better and more humane world I will carry through to the end. You told me earlier and when we said our farewell, you reiterated that “one should not meet death with open arms.” Only five weeks have passed since then. I can hardly believe that only five weeks ago you were home on leave, that we could have still run, escape, get even under the Earth, alive - five weeks ago, and now everything came to an end. Death came to meet us, and it is already standing on the threshold…

We should have known that events could have not followed any other way. Think of the years that rolled on, of my suspension, the numerous humiliations, constant fright and finally the yellow star… You did not allow me to sew it on. Every time the doorbell shrieked, white as the wall, we looked at each other. Who could it be? And why is he coming? To what catastrophe will opening the door lead?

Now we can admit to ourselves and to one another that this was no life for a long time. That actually, one could not and should not live at these levels of humiliation.

Consciously, this feeling has been gaining strength in me now for the past two years. Since I've been sending you the parcels. I have been brooding a great deal every time, anxiously weighing it, since these parcels could not be over one kilo in weight, including box, string, wrapping paper and stamp. I've been rebelling and lamenting, why do they allow only one kilo and even that at such long intervals. Yet, at the post office, standing in long queues among the soldiers' wives, these small packages felt heavy as a rock.

Comparatively, gathering the allowable fifty kilos went rather easily. At that time, a long pondered upon concept took a more solidified shape within me… Yet still, I believed that I will not be able to do without certain things.

Why were we not brought up that we could not do without only one thing: freedom?

After all, if the weight limit be one kilo or fifty and if it be called package or bundle, it makes no difference. If terms are fixed, limits imposed, ratified and controlled - it is irrelevant how many kilos are in question. According to today's orders, we cannot take anything, except what fits in the fifty by forty centimeter satchel. This was made known to us by the sergeant when he informed us that we should prepare for tomorrow's departure.

And all these miserable people, the mad, the good, the smart, the stupid, the naive are preparing. Down on the patio, there is the endless humming sound of the sewing machine: they are cutting out and sewing the forty by fifty centimeter bags from drapes, bedcovers, sheets. There is also great bustle in the kitchen. The women have made biscuit dough from the gathered remnants of flour and the little bit of oil. Before I came up here, they have already figured out that the ratio will be five biscuits for each inhabitant.

The whole thing sounds like a fairy tale, doesn't it? The youngest son, who starts out on his long journey once upon a time with his satchel and biscuits baked in ashes. Indeed, it does sound like a fairy tale. With the difference that in this fairy tale, the biscuits are not baked in ashes and at the end of the story the good will not win, but rather the evil will come out as the victor. In this fairy tale everything will happen vice-versa.

“While there is life, there is hope!” That's what you said, my dearest. But there is no longer any hope, and so life also has ceased. Only the bag and the five biscuits are real. Oh, how I would take off even with this much, on foot and unclad, if I could go where I feel like going. And I'd keep walking until my feet wore off to my knees, should I just know that a place exists where one can live with human dignity.

I wonder if such a place still exists? Even Vorosmarthy would not ask today, in the book -burning era, “ Has the world advanced by reading?” I have pondered a long while in front of our beloved books until I chose only one to bring away from our house - the little parchment Ady book with the black cover. But when the gendarme drove us into the courtyard of the synagogue with the rest of the crowd, he tossed it out of my baggage: “The SOBs (strong Hungarian curse), even here they want to read!”

The book flew, the little black Ady volume printed on Bible paper, it flew on the top of the already high book tower. Its pages opened, then closed, like the wounded wings of a white seagull. It only took a second, as I watched its path and realized: all was lost…

There is a hook here, in the corner of the attic. A hook, a hooked cross. What could be more stylish? Although “in the hands of Christ from Bethlehem the cross was not yet hooked”… (poem by Laszlo Hajnal). You see, poetry haunts me even here.

It sounds as if someone is on the way up here. I stop breathing and I hide with the letter behind the stack of mattresses. All I need is that they find me here, ask me questions, make a scandal… No, it became silent once again. What would they be looking for here, among the strewn mattresses, boxes, baskets, luggage and millions of rags? Nothing really can be taken along from here. At any rate, I must hurry, because it is probably around noon…

Somewhere we went wrong with our life - that's what is running constantly through my head. We should have lived differently, we should have done something. But what and how, I do not know. I torment myself in vain.

Farewell, my goodness, my everything. Think of what I am thinking now: having met one another is an even greater miracle than having been born. Our life was complete even as such, because we were happy, as only few people can be…

Slowly, a church bell starts ringing with dignity.

I shudder. The bell sounds so closely, as if it were at arm's length.

It is noontime. The bells are tolling. Obviously, in the church of the Capuchins, which is the closest to this place. But already another bell started ringing. Then a third, a fourth, a fifth, all of them. Oradea's bells are ringing, all that exist in this town of many churches.

Stoned, I stand on feet that took root. It seems unbelievable that all this is so close: the city, the church bells, the churches, the well known streets, squares - and yet, this last message seems to come from a world lost for us.

Yes! This is a message!

In no way can this noisy, lengthy, never ending clamor, with the dignified, deep pain of mourning be ranked as a common daily noontime church bell ringing. The bells are now tolling for us…

This is how Oradea, the ancestral town, is bewailing us. Crying for her children about to start on their journey to death…

And I am just standing, standing in the midst of this clean, grand painful tolling, bathing my soul in the sadly beautiful sounds of the church bells, mellowed and somehow numbed.

God be with you, Oradea! Your farewell gives me strength for the big journey.

Live happily, dear city, is my whole- hearted wish for you. And forget us, those who were loyal to you until death.

Live happily, if you can - and if you can, may God curse you!

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