The History of My Family via My Grandmother's Candlesticks
I loved my Aunt Etus*. She was my mother's second oldest sister. Their oldest sister (accompanied by the youngest) was murdered and cremated in Auschwitz by the Accursed in 1944. So to me, Etus was always my senior aunt.
Etus married her husband, Armin, in 1937. Armin grew up in the Slovak heartland. After their wedding the young couple lived in Kosice, where Etus had grown up. They were a fun loving couple, spending much time in the outdoors, especially hiking in the nearby Tatra Mountains. At that time having children was one of the last things on their minds. Life was good. Czechoslovakia was a free liberal society and the Jews were an integral part of it.
Things changed quickly and suddenly. Bungling British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, met with the German Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler, in Berlin, in 1938. To appease Hitler's aggressive position, Chamberlain agreed to dismember Czechoslovakia. The south eastern region, including Kosice, was annexed to Hungary. All citizens from other areas of Czechoslovakia had to return to the region from which they originated. Uncle Armin was forced to leave Kosice. Pre-empting his deportation, Armin and Etus, together with my Uncle Laci, fled over the international boundary into Poland. In Warsaw, the British Embassy granted them laissez-passées allowing them travel to London, on the condition that they leave for one of the colonies, Canada or Australia, within six months. The British just didn't get it yet -- they just could not image Hitler again moving beyond the German frontier.
War broke out within their six month London probation. Now all able-bodied men (and women) were welcomed to stay and contribute to the war effort. My three relatives remained in England as British citizens; Armin became Allan, Laci became Leslie and Etus, Marceline.
The years go by. Europe is ravaged by war; half of the Jews remaining in continental Europe are massacred, murdered, including my grandparents, three of my aunts and uncles, and many other members of my extended family. Miraculously five sisters survive, remaining together throughout the war, in concentration camp, in Auschwitz, finally ending the war as slave labourers in a Junkers aeroplane factory.
Agi, the youngest surviving sister, was fourteen at the termination of hostilities. The family decided to send her to London to live with her older sister, allowing her to finish her interrupted education. Of the other four sisters, Magda, the oldest, married and moved to Romania, Bozsi moved to Montreal, Canada, and Rozsi and my mother to Sydney, Australia.
Before my grandmother went into hiding from the Nazis in 1944, she hid all her valuables in a secret close under her house. Her brother-in-law arrived back to Kosice before my mother and her sisters. He helped himself to the treasure-trove. The girls managed to retrieve some of the valuables from their uncle, including their mother's shabbat candle sticks. They sent these with Agi for Etus to use.
Etus and Armin tried, unsuccessfully, to have children. Etus was in her forties and her barrenness was now unbearable. She visited many London doctors and quacks, but in those days there was little help. One doctor suggested the climate in Australia may be conducive to conception. So in 1951, grasping at straws, my aunt and uncle decided to make the move. Agi emigrated with them.
Etus and Armin were less successful in Sydney than they had been in London. For many years they rented a small flat in a run down old building** very close to Bondi Beach. They ran a millinery factory -- and a couple of hat shops -- but life was hard. Eventually they saved enough money and purchased an old house in a lovely location, with a magnificent view, in upper Rose Bay.
Growing up I have fond memories of the two of them. They came over often, and we visited them. My father got on very well with his older brother-in-law. However my mother subsequently told me that there was some jealousy between Etus and her sisters, each who had two children. She would sometimes call to check if the children were in bed before coming over to visit. I never felt anything of this.
Sadly, in 1971, Uncle Armin suddenly died. He was in his Imperial Arcade shop when he suffered a heart attack. He was pronounced dead when the ambulance arrived. It was a very sad time for our entire family. He was well loved. I had become very close to my uncle since my father's sudden death five and half years earlier. He was my surrogate father. We would take turns in leading the Pesach seder each year after my father's passing, one night at our house and the second at his. If I needed to go to the doctor, it was Uncle Armin who took me, as my mother had no free time, a sole provider, working hard to keep her family fed. I spent the holidays helping in their factory. We went out together often.
I supposed I felt betrayed, losing my father and them Armin in such a short space of time. But of course for Etus this was a real tragedy. No husband, no children, a business in debt and a new house to pay off.
She eventually sold the Rose Bay house and moved into a home unit in Ocean Street, Bondi. I visited her often, both when I was still living in Australia and later, whenever I returned to Sydney. Each time I came by, she was occupied with her bookkeeping. She always told me how bad her business was. I asked her why she didn't walk away from it. The answer, as it often is with these small businesses was, "I can't afford to". Eventually she did get away from it, and when I think about my subsequent visits after that, I usually found her very sad, melancholy. She once told me she was going to move "back to London" -- that was the place, she related, in which she was really happy. She never took on Australian citizenship. She saw Sydney merely as a temporary sojourn; London was home.
Her siblings felt sorry for her and, from the time of her husband's death, some of them provided her with quite substantial financial gifts. Unbeknown to me, and to most of us at the time, she received a considerable amount of money from her family over the years.
In 1988, my brother was finishing off a two year post-doctoral stint at Harvard. His wife gave birth to a son and they very graciously honoured me as the sandak, godfather, for their son's circumcision. I flew over to Boston for the event, and decided to also visit my Aunt Bozsi, up the road in Montreal, while I was in the Americas.
She told me that seventy-five year old Etus had just met a man, with whom she was madly in love. "I told her this is crazy. You're 75. The man is only 70. What does he want from you? What do you want to get married for?"
Etus answered in Hungarian, "He's kissing my fingernails." As repulsive as that sounds, Bozsi assured me that in Hungarian this is a very high expression of one's affection for a woman.
There was more to the story. The man was a widower without a penny to his name. He worked as the part-time caretaker of one of Sydney's eastern suburbs synagogues. He had nowhere to live, usually sleeping in a small room behind the shul. He had had some type of cancer and was missing part of his lower face. He wasn't pretty to look at, but he knew how to charm the girls.
All of Etus's relatives and friends tried to talk her out of the marriage, but she was floating on cloud nine. She stopped talking to one of my uncles who became so frustrated with her non-understanding of the situation, at least as he saw it, that he ended up yelling at her.
They did get married. I must admit, when I was in Australia a couple of months later, my reaction was positive. I was in the family room at the back of my mother's house when the doorbell rang. My mother answered the door . . . and in floated George and Etus. I swear that their feet did not touch the floor for the whole hour they were there. She had a big smile on her face. She was joking around, lots of fun. This was nothing like the morose woman I visited six months earlier in Ocean Street.
Not long after my visit, the loving couple went on a whirlwind, around the world, holiday -- at my uncles' expense. They visited Hungary, England and the U.S., and some other locations too. George, it seems was quite good at spending other people's money. He never took Etus out to the theatre or opera, things she really liked to do. He would save her money but spend other's.
I again visited Sydney a few months later. Nothing had changed. The loving couple danced in, around and out of my mother's house. They came by to say hello to me the day I arrived. Again, I'm certain their feet never even scraped the floor.
I was saddened to hear that Etus passed away not long after. She took sick in shul, on the second day of Rosh haShana. She was taken to St Vincent's, which is my brother's hospital. He's a cardiologist there and she had had a heart-attack. She was doing well, recovering nicely. George was continuously by her side. My brother had to go away for a couple of days. It seems she took a bad turn, died before my brother's return, during Thursday night, erev Yom Kippur.
The funeral was held very early in the morning. George arranged it all without informing Etus's sisters, who only found out on the grapevine. The family only just made it to the requiem.
A tombstone was erected in record time. On reading it you would think she spent her life with this man George. No mention of the man next to whom she is buried, her husband of over thirty years. "Sadly missed by her husband George and family", it says. And then "her sisters, brother . . . ."
Etus had eleven nieces and nephews. She intended to leave everything to them, but of course, she didn't have very much.
That's what we thought. It turns out she was worth more than a million dollars! She was far shrewder than we all thought. She was a far better businesswoman than any of us realised. The money she received from her family was wisely invested, in property. She was earning a nice rental income and property prices were on the rise.
But the biggest surprise of all . . . just a couple of months before her demise, she had written a new will, prepared by George's solicitor. Yes, you guessed it, she left everything she owned to her loving husband of eighteen months, George.
My mother had a different take on the situation. "George murdered my sister!"
"Oh come on . . . you can't be serious. How did he kill her?"
"In the hospital. She was recovering nicely. He was there all the time. He mixed up her drugs and killed her."
"That's easy," I say. "I'll be in Sydney next week. We'll get a court order to dig her up. This is an easy forensic test. We'll know straight away. They'll lock him up and throw away the key!"
"No, let her rest in peace. She suffered enough."
"If you won't come to the police with me then stop saying he killed her". We had variations of this conversation a number of time over the years.
"But he did kill her," she insists. "When you come next, you're going to see George."
I arrive in Sydney. "I'm off to George's."
"Not on your own. Take your cousin, for a witness." What is she expecting me to do there?
My cousin and I visit George in Etus's apartment. He knows his wife's sisters have him in their sights. He doesn't understand why.
"We want her personal belongings, please."
He won't budge. It's still all too painful for him he moans. He says, with a straight, "You can take her underwear". He shows us her photo albums. It's obvious he's never looked at them. They full of photographs of our family, us as kids, growing up, at celebrations. Armin was an avid photographer and movie maker. He gave me my first camera. There were many photographs in the albums. He wouldn't give them to us. I'm sure he just threw them away.
He seems to have recovered from his mourning quite quickly. He was seen over the next few months with eligible, and rich, elderly Jewish widows. I suppose his charm overcame his ugly looks and his rotten reputation. He died and left all my aunt's wealth to his two daughters.
I have just one message to them, with which I end this long yarn:
Menachem Kuchar, 1st November, 2010
P.S. My insurance agent asked me to pass her regards to a friend, whom she assumes I see when this friend comes to Israel or I to Australia. I smiled politely; I didn't tell her I would not and do not speak to this woman.
That conversation, however, germinated the above story. I want the world to know that there are conmen moving unsuspectingly amongst us. I have no wish to socialise with their progeny, who, contrary to their claims otherwise, live well from the benefits.
* Etus pronounced Etush, a single 's' in Hungarian is pronounce 'sh'. The 's' sound is achieved in writing as 'sz'.
** Ironically this street has been gentrified and the decrepit old buildings renovated into beautiful, and expensive, holiday apartments.
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