By Agnes Vadas
Excerpt: The Child Prodigy
I had an aunt who was a violin teacher and, according to family legend, when I was two or three, I’d watch her teaching and then pick up two pieces of wood and “play.” When I was five, she gave me my first lessons, and quickly became excited about my talent. A few months later, my aunt had the good sense to take me to a great teacher, Dezso Rados who, after hearing me, took me on, free of charge. My parents were very poor and couldn’t afford to pay.
Mr. Rados was an eccentric who addressed me, a five-year-old, in the formal way. It was very unusual and kind of ludicrous. When asked why, he said that when I grew up it would be embarrassing for me to be addressed in the familiar way.
He provided all the necessary “equipment” such as strings and sheet music and, when I grew out of my quarter and half size instrument, he lent me a violin. He also declared I shouldn’t waste my time going to school and he paid a tutor who came twice a week for two hours. So throughout my life, I never went to school but once a year to take exams.
I did something better. Between the ages of ten and fifteen, I read passionately, as though obsessed. I devoured a huge chunk of the best literature. I was in love with Schiller’s “Don Carlos” and with Prince Mishkin in Dostoyevsky’s “The Idiot.” I loved poetry, too. I knew all the great Hungarian poets and read translations of many famous foreign ones. At one point I read all the Shakespeare plays. I loved many, liked some, didn’t care for a few, and downright hated one or two of them.
At six I did my first public appearance as a violinist. I was very small, even for my age, and had a famous, excellent accompanist who was a tall, lean man. It probably looked quite hilarious the two of us coming on stage. I didn’t have any stage fever or anxiety at that blessed age and was quite confident and professional. I played a student concerto written in the first position; I still remember the tune.
When I finished playing, there was a big cheer and people threw sweets on the stage. One round box of candy rolled under the piano and I promptly got on all fours to get it, to the thunderous applause of the audience.
Excerpt: At the Music Academy
The Music Academy, founded by Franz (Ferenc) Liszt, is an imposing building in secession style, with a sitting statue of Liszt above the main entrance. It is the highest institute for music in Hungary, and my teacher was the best. He was the complete opposite of my first teacher, with whom I never had a moment of personal contact and who addressed me, the five-year-old, in the formal way.
Now, being sixteen, my new teacher was informal with me right at the beginning, as he was with all of us, while we were formal with him, calling him Maestro.
Classes were exciting and challenging. At each lesson a whole group of students played together in performance. We were asked to make comments about each other’s playing. We had to memorize everything, including the etudes and there was always a piano accompanist. This atmosphere and the way he taught provided me with the musical inspiration I needed.
An example of his way: one day, when he wasn’t satisfied with a particular passage, he made me play it over and over and over. Finally, he said to me, “These notes are drops of tears.” And the magic happened; the passage came alive.
Excerpt: In Nazi Budapest
The Hungarian Nazi party, the Arrow-Cross, created two walled-in ghettos in Budapest, in which lived 97,000 Jews. In January, 1945, Raoul Wallenberg learned that Eichmann planned a total massacre in our ghetto which was home to 65,000 people. Wallenberg prevented it by talking to the officer who was in charge of the massacre. If it proceeded, Wallenberg told him, he would see to it that the officer was hanged as a war criminal; the war was just about over, and it was clear the Nazis were losing. So the officer didn’t carry out the massacre. Wallenberg saved all those lives, among them, mine.
Before I was relocated to the ghetto, I spent two or three months in one of Wallenberg’s “Swedish” houses. Twenty-seven of us living in a two-bedroom apartment. There were only two or three beds, which were taken by the elderly and the sick. We, the young ones, slept on the floor, lucky if we had a blanket. There was only one bathroom. We wore several layers of clothes, and were always hoping to take a bath, otherwise we would stink. In spite of everything, we were still trying to be civilized.
A month earlier, on Christmas Eve, 1944, the siege of Budapest had started. On New Year’s Eve, we, the young people of the house, had a party with candlelight. We eagerly awaited and greeted the New Year, knowing it would be our liberation – if we lived that long. We never knew when the Arrow Cross would burst in and drive us to the Danube to shoot us.
Weeks later, when the Russians were advancing in the city, we were taken to the ghetto. The Arrow Cross escorted us with machine guns. We marched by the Music Academy – I was looking at the building asking myself if I would ever see it again. One guy went berserk and started to run away; a moment later he was shot dead. We continued as if nothing happened, leaving the corpse on the side-walk.
Fifty of us ended up in a cellar—a big concrete space lit by one naked bulb hanging from the ceiling. There was straw scattered around which the lucky ones grabbed right away. My mother and I ended up sleeping on chicken-wire and waking up checkered. This was another deeper circle of hell.
We had nothing to eat. After a couple of days we got a so-called soup – it was not much more than warm water, with some poor pieces of onions or carrots swimming in it.
I developed a bladder infection from lying so close to the cold floor. I had to pee every half hour – there were open latrines, no privacy, which was the utter nightmare and humiliation for me, the bottom of my misery.
Days and nights in the cellar were not very different; there was one small, dirty window through which we could hardly discern daylight. There was nothing to do but sit around and talk. Nights were disturbed by wailing, sobbing, quarreling.
Looking back, I know we were lucky. It was nothing to compare with the unspeakable horror of the death camps. We escaped the worst crimes humans ever committed.
My brother, Tomi, did not. He was deported in 1944 and taken in a cattle wagon with eighty people locked in without food or water, in the stench of the “bathroom” bucket for three days. He was great—encouraging people, talking to them, consoling them. We heard about him later from one survivor who was on the same train. During the next six months Tomi went through different camps, living in barracks where there was not enough room to lie down; people were thrown in like junk, one on the top of other. They were beaten by the guards, just for fun.
You can’t say they were treated like animals, because animals are much better treated, even in the worst cases. Much later, I heard details of what Tomi – and millions of others – went through. After hearing about the death camps, you doubt if there is any hope for mankind. How could any human being sink to that level? How could those guards who lived next to this horror have ever had a good night’s sleep? How could they beat those living skeletons? And how could they assist in the annihilation of millions? How could they see and not do anything against it when naked people walked into the gas chambers?
Tomi escaped the gas chambers and survived. After being liberated he was on his way home when he was hit by typhoid fever. He was in the first Hungarian city near the border. They needed one shot to save him. The hospital, in that chaotic time, didn’t have it, but they sent an ambulance to Budapest for it. But it was too late for my brother.
Besides Tomi, my father, several uncles and aunts, and many of my cousins were killed. My first love, Zoli, who might have become a great poet, never came back from the Russian front.
Excerpt: Dirty Love in Paris
One night I was invited to a party at Janika’s. He was a big, fat, ugly guy, intelligent, with a good sense of humor. He pretended to be cynical, but had a good heart. I had known him way back in Hungary, he was a friend and school-mate of my brother and, when we met in Paris, it was a surprise and a friendly recollection of times gone by.
There was a colorful bunch of friends in Janika’s loft that evening: painters, poets, musicians, and journalists. There were about ten or twelve of us at the party – we were eating, drinking and having lively discussions about a wide variety of subjects. I was sitting in a corner on the floor with a poet, solving the world’s greatest problems, when a tall American fellow walked in. He was dead drunk, went straight to a couch without greeting anybody, and slept soundly for the rest of the evening.
I didn’t give much thought about him, but a few weeks later the same bunch met in a restaurant and I knew in advance he would be there; meanwhile I heard he was a promising poet and playwright. I went with the intention of flirting with this guy. Something must have attracted me to him: some boyish charm, some melancholy on his face.
I wasn’t much of a flirt, it was unusual for me. But I was lonely and unhappy, wanted a light distraction to escape thinking for a moment about my problems. And maybe I wanted to test my power as a woman.
Well, I was successful. When people started to disperse he asked me to have another drink with him. We went to a charming little pub, very “left-bankish,” with a guitarist singing French chansons. We were gently flirting and I enjoyed that—it was exactly what I wished for. So I was rather dismayed when after a short time he wanted to leave. We stepped out, he put his arm around my shoulder, and guided me across the street to the entrance of a dirty little hotel which he was about to enter. Then I realized he lived there and took it for granted that I was going to sleep with him. It was so utterly unexpected and funny that I started to laugh. I laughed and laughed, so hard that tears were running down my cheek. He watched me, feeling awkward and embarrassed and finally said “Would you rather sleep with your violin?”
That’s how our first encounter ended. But it wasn’t the end. He kept calling and I kept falling in love and one day I ended up in his incredibly dirty room.
Our affair went on for a while. We went around on his motorcycle, I desperately grabbing him when we crossed the Place de l’Etoile where traffic comes from twelve directions; we slept in his dirty hotel room where I tried to do some cleaning.
I learned that he came from a wealthy family in the South of the U.S. His father was an Episcopalian minister and professor of theology, his mother a baroness. They lived in a kind of mansion with thirty-nine rooms. He was the seventh of eight children. There was lots of shining silver and strict discipline—they had to stand behind their chairs before meals, waiting for their father.
After finishing high-school and getting a degree in English literature, he was in the Navy for a year, then a merchant seaman for another before he went to Cambridge where he got a degree in anthropology. There he became part of a group of young poets and writers, which included Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath. Ted became a life-long friend.
Now he was kicking around in Paris, teaching English to support himself. He was enjoying freedom for the first time in his life and I realized he was reacting to shining silver and discipline by living in the dirtiest left-bank hotel, drinking, having bohemian friends and writing absurdist plays. Judging by the way he first behaved, he must have had plenty of women, too. That first encounter indicated also that he wasn’t a very keen psychologist, which a writer should be. He didn’t see more in me than in any woman he might have had affairs with.
So I told myself to take it lightly, enjoy the moment and don’t expect anything more than seeing him two or three times a week. At that I was a bad psychologist myself; I should have known I couldn’t take any love affair lightly.
Copyright 2007 Agnes Vadas