E
Sep/Oct 1999 Fiction

Prisoners

by Martha Nemes Fried


Szerénke Toth was a seamstress in the employ of Madame Kertész, my mother’s couturičre in Budapest. I liked to accompany my mother when she selected a new wardrobe for the season or had a fitting. Unlike most adults who were patronizing and asked me silly questions when I was thirteen, Szerénke took me seriously and always showed interest in my mastery of the cello and any poem I might have written since she had last seen me.

Madame Kertész called my mother in February to inform her that the spring and summer designs were ready. They made an appointment for an afternoon the following week and I went along. The couturičre showed the book of fashion drawings from which my mother chose a lightweight wool spring coat and some wool costumes and dresses. She also ordered silk and linen summer dresses. I accompanied her when she went for her first fitting in March, which happened to be during spring recess in school.

Szerénke looked ashen and drawn. My mother noticed her pallor and inquired if there was something wrong. The young seamstress told us she got out of breath easily.

“I ran like the wind at your age. You had better have a doctor take a look at you,” my mother cautioned.

There were to be two more fittings. We went in late May, the beginning of the tourist season, to try on the summer clothes. Szerénke had roses in her cheeks and a big smile on her face. It was obvious her condition had improved and my mother asked if she had seen a doctor. She replied she had and thanked my mother for her good advice. I asked if the doctor had told her what was wrong. She said she had a faulty valve in her heart, but having seen the doctor, she felt much better. My mother commented on the special glow on Szerénke’s face and inquired if she had told us all there was to know, or if she had hidden something of a more personal nature.

Szerénke admitted she met an American doctor while she was in the waiting room, then confessed he asked her to dine at Gundel’s. I noticed she was blushing and asked her if she accepted his invitation. She replied she did and found him to be a wonderful man, unusually kind and generous. “I have never met a man like him in my life. He is very special.”

I jumped all over Szerénke. “Is he handsome? Is he rich? How old is he? What language do you two speak?”

“Yes, yes, 39, German. I had two years of it in high school and he learned it in college in America.”

Madame Kertész commented on the fifteen-year difference in their ages and warned Szerénke he might have a wife in the United states. He was a widower with two children, Szerénke informed her.

“Are you going to tell us his name?”

“Neil Davis. Dr. Neil Davis.”

“I hope he turns out to be as good a man as he seems,” Madame Kertész said with unmistakable envy in her voice.

The weather was pleasantly warm. On Sundays, when the servants were off, my mother and I went to see a matinée and ate at Gundel’s or some other garden restaurant, sometimes by crossing over to Buda on one of the seven bridges spanning the Danube. Once in a great while our lycée class was taken on a school excursion by a teacher. My favorite trip was the Cogwheel Railway across from the Chain Bridge in Buda, mostly because I felt that riding it was risky; a cable might snap.

I completely forgot Szerénke and her new admirer, until one Saturday afternoon.

My mother and I had seen a matinée and were on our way to Gerbaud’s for tea and cakes. We saw her walking on the arm of a tall black man. She smiled at us and made introductions. My mother and I greeted them courteously and wished them a good afternoon. We had seen black people in Hollywood movies playing the roles of servants to white families, tap dancers and African savages. The photographs of Josephine Baker filled the pages of glossy entertainment magazines and the photographs of other black entertainers who worked in the nightclub of the Hotel Royale were displayed in a glass case at the entrance. We had never met a black man or woman in person.

My mother was preparing to emigrate to America and in addition to her fluent French and German, she began to study English. She made a few friends in class, some in a more advanced group, who acquired knowledge about the United States by reading the works of American writers. The main topic of conversation at our dinner table had always been about politics and literature. I urged her to invite one or two of her schoolmates to dine with us. Perhaps they could enrich our literary and cultural répertoire with tales of a country and its people, a subject about which we could only plead ignorance.

A very nice couple, Mr. and Mrs. Rozsa, accepted her dinner invitation for Sunday following. They were avid readers of Mark Twain, Theodore Dreiser, Sinclair Lewis and William Faulkner. They discussed Dreiser’s realism and Faulkner’s feel for the relationships of disparate people. Mr. Rozsa commented that the American south was in many ways similar to Hungary. He explained we had the same rigid caste system, but the Hungary of 1936 was worse because there was no possibility of moving up in the world. He gleaned the horrors of racial prejudice in the United States from the stories and novels of his favorite American writers. We were concerned with Szerénke’s welfare because we liked her and mentioned her romance with the Negro doctor. Mrs. Rozsa was fearful the young girl would come to harm if she married him.

“Someone ought to speak with that young woman,” she said. “If this is only a summer romance, fine. But if she allows the association to become serious she is facing heartbreak.” Her husband was in complete agreement with her.

I tried to make sense of their remarks and what effect it might have on Szerénke’s and Dr. Davis’ budding romance. Madame Kertész called my mother within the week to tell her she had met Dr. Davis. He came to the salon, she related, to take Szerénke out to dinner and the theater. The couturičre was taken by surprise and wanted to know if we were aware of the fact that the doctor was a Negro. My mother told Madame Kertész that we had met him. The modiste also conveyed the news that Szerénke came to work the morning after her dinner with him wearing a large diamond engagement ring. She tried to explain to her that as the wife of a Negro she would live in isolation in America. She would be rejected by white people and by his family as well. Szerénke got so angry she ran out of the salon and had not returned to work in two days.

When my mother opened the Pesti Napló on the following Sunday, she was chagrined to find an article with photographs of Dr. Davis and Szerénke. It was a full page story about an incident on Saturday afternoon at the Szécsény Spa. Dr. Davis jumped off the highest board into the diving pool. His skill attracted immediate attention because he dove with the precision and grace of a professional athlete. Two of the guests who sat on the lawn complained to the front office. The manager came out with a guest who spoke English and he asked Dr. Davis to leave the pool. The dispute that followed was printed word for word in the paper.

“Why?” Dr. Davis asked. “You saw me when I came in and nobody objected. I stay at the Royale and dine there almost every day and nobody objects. I shop in your finest stores and nobody has refused my money. Why the pool? Do you think I don’t wash?”

“No,” the manager replied. “Nobody thinks you’re dirty.”

“Do I smell bad?”

“Nobody said anything like that,” the manager assured him through the interpreter. He was becoming increasingly nervous, the writer of the news story reported.

“Then why can’t I swim?”

“We have a rule about the pool.”

“Is this a private club?”

“It’s open to the public.”

“I got in by buying a ticket, so why can’t I swim in the pool?”

“We have a rule about the pool,” the manager replied, wiping the perspiration off his forehead with a handkerchief.

“You’re repeating yourself, but you still haven’t given me an answer.”

“Please,” another English speaking guest appealed to his better judgment, “just leave. You are causing the young lady you’ve escorted terrible embarrassment.”

Dr. Davis took Szerénke’s hand and stalked out of the spa in a rage. That was the end of the newspaper account, but it was not the end of Szerénke’s problems. My mother asked her to take tea with us. She arrived looking pale, her eyes red and swollen from crying. After my mother poured tea she attempted to discuss the difficulties facing Szerénke if she persisted in her unrealistic notion of life as Mrs. Davis in America. She told her the unfortunate scene at the spa was unconscionable, but this would be the least of Szerénke’s difficulties in America. She would be treated like someone with a highly communicable fatal disease or an untouchable in India. My mother told her she was much too lovely a girl to spend the rest of her life coping with overwhelming obstacles and daily challenges to her peace of mind and dignity. She deserved better.

“Neil is the best man I’ve ever known. He drove me to the village where I was born and filled the car with gifts for my family. My mother is a devoutly religious woman. She called him one of the Magi. Neil promised to take care of my health and to keep me in great comfort. He is so kind and generous it’s impossible not to love him.”

My mother made her promise that she would carefully think about all they had discussed. She warned her that this was the most important decision she would ever make in her life. She was quite distressed and discussed the matter with Mr. and Mrs. Rozsa in my presence. My mother mentioned Szerénke’s poor education, four years of elementary school in her village and public high school in a small town. She had no knowledge of anything beyond the borders of Hungary. Mr. Rozsa openly pitied her after my mother indicated she was an affable and intelligent girl imprisoned by her ignorance on subjects of international importance.

One week after Szerénke had tea with us my mother called to ask if she might speak with her again. She had persuaded her to return to work and was able to see her at Madame Kertész’s salon. I asked to go along. Szerénke inquired what made everyone so certain that Negroes were treated as an inferior people. Mother replied that her friends in her English class had read a good deal of American literature and newspaper as well as magazine articles. The information they passed on to her was proof of the shabby treatment of Negroes in America. She was only trying to keep her from making an irreversible mistake.

“I know the situation is unjust,” my mother added, “but everyone experiences injustice of some sort. We are Jews in a Catholic country. Our men have fought in wars and given their lives to protect Hungary, but we have to send our sons to foreign universities because of the quota system in ours. We resent something we cannot change, but we accept it.”

I asked my mother’s permission to stay and speak with Szerénke for a while. She was surprised, but agreed. I asked the seamstress if she and Dr. Davis could meet me for tea at Hauer’s pastry shop on Saturday. She said she would talk it over with him and call me. She did and the hour was arranged. I was fluent in German by then and we had a very pleasant conversation at Hauer’s on Erzsébet Boulevard on the Pest side. The specialty of the house was Russian Cream Cake and I suggested the doctor try it. It was a great success.

He spoke in a pleasant voice about his travels in Europe and enumerated all the things he liked about Budapest. He refrained from alluding to the unfortunate incident at the spa and only mentioned the beauty of the city and the countryside. His German was excellent. I could only stay an hour, but it was enough time for me to know that Szerénke should not listen to older people who had become stodgy and overly cautious. My mother suspected that my sentiments were on the side of romance and the good doctor. She called on Szerénke one more time to ask her to listen to her elders who had more experience in the cold, harsh world. For the first time in my life I was disappointed in my mother. She had crossed the line from being a sympathetic adviser to a meddler.

The realization that my mother and I would differ on things of major importance marked a turning point in my life. I had another opportunity to speak with Szerénke when we bumped into each other on Váci Street after school was out. I asked her how she felt. She told me Neil was extremely upset when she returned his ring. He was very disappointed in her and called her a coward. Mixed marriages in America were not easy, he admitted, but people who really loved each other could be happy. He tried for the last time to persuade her to marry him.

“My heart cried out yes but my head said no. I tried to explain to him that I was just a simple country girl but he refused to understand. I guess he was right. I am a coward.”

I knew I had no right to offer an opinion, much less a course of action. I was only a child, but mature beyond my thirteen years and always attracted to adventure. I gathered all my courage and spoke up. I urged her to take a chance. She was flushed with embarrassment and just looked at me with tearful eyes. Nothing more could be said.

After Dr. Davis left Budapest our attention turned to the Olympic games held in August in Berlin. Jesse Owens won the gold medal in four track events for the United States. Ferenc Csick, the Hungarian swimmer, and the Hungarian Women’s Fencing Team won three gold medals for Hungary. The athletes were greeted as honored heroes of a grateful nation. There were thousands of cheering people lined up on the sidewalks of the main boulevard as the flower bedecked limousines passed by. I made my way to the first row and reached into a car to get a flower. Csick reached out to me and gave me a rose I later pressed in my diary.

Shortly before Szerénke died of heart failure in early 1938 she spoke to me of Neil Davis and expressed deep regret over her lack of courage. She gave me his address in America. I wrote to him to relay the sad news of her passing and received a friendly reply. We continued to correspond after my mother and I settled in New York. Dr. Davis was an army surgeon attached to an all-black unit in France. His letters stopped abruptly at the time of the Battle of the Bulge.

I wrote to his children who were in their twenties by then. They informed me that he had given his life for his country. My diary with Csick’s rose was lost a long time ago, but memories outlast everything.

 

Previous Piece Next Piece