In the summer of 1943, the Jewish community in Hungary, close to a half million in size, was trapped in a virulently anti-Semitic nation surrounded by territories controlled by the Third Reich. In addition to myriad deprivations, their lives were darkened by horrific rumors of the fate of fellow European Jews.
In a Budapest army hospital, Béla, for three years an involuntary guest of Hungary’s forced labor camp system designed for “undesirables,” is being wheeled down the aisle of a fourth-floor ward dimly lit by strips of fluorescent light. Béla’s swollen nose is bandaged and compacted with gauze pads. Green-yellow discharge stains his work shirt. The attendant is Ozlem, petite with dark hair wrapped into a bun, who wears a periwinkle chambray cap that matches her nurse’s pinafore.
Along either side of the passageway are weathered wood beds, each surrounded by a worn side table and chair. The walls are coated with an off-white, grimy paint of varied sheens. On one side, a poster portrays a hook-nosed, bearded man with a Star of David on his shirt leering lasciviously at a blond, blue-eyed teenage girl.
They pass a patient, who looks to be no older than a teenager, tied to the bedposts and hooked to a red rubber catheter tube. He’s thrashing his head about and muttering incoherently. His mattress is wet. Ozlem stops to gently push the man’s shoulders down and wipe his brow.
“Jóska,” she assures him, “I’ll be back soon to take care of you.” Jóska’s response is a severe grunt of disapproval.
Diagonally across from Jóska lies a man with stumps for arms. “Nurse, scratch my back!” he pleads.
“Soon, Tibor, soon,” she calls to him softly without breaking stride.
Ozlem stops the wheelchair before a bed with a paper-thin mattress covered with white sheets streaked with brown and a frayed wool blanket. As she helps Béla onto it, Ozlem senses the sudden presence of Boglárka, a heavyset woman with thinning hair, cauliflower ears, and a perpetually scornful look. Ignoring Ozlem and Béla, the head nurse tapes across the headboard a sign that reads “Zsidó.”
As Boglárka shuffles away, Ozlem observes her with a frown and then turns back to Béla. “I’m surprised you were allowed in here.”
Béla studies Ozlem’s face, with its puffy lips, hooded eyes, and high cheekbones. “The hospital administrator owed the camp doctor a favor,” he whispers and quickly adds, “What’s your name?”
“What kind of name is that?”
“Turkish. There are lots of Turks in Budapest. We brought roses to your country centuries ago.”
Béla smiles in spite of the pain any facial movement causes him. “So you’re a Muslim. Never met one before.”
“Well, this is your lucky day.”
They hear the clip-clopping of oncoming footsteps on the white-tiled floor. Approaching is a lean, middle-aged man wearing a blood-stained lab jacket who appears haggard and sleep-deprived.
“You’re doubly lucky,” she continues. “Doctor Tóth is on duty today.”
The doctor, sporting an unkempt beard specked with touches of silver, reaches Béla’s bed. Forgoing pleasantries, he lifts Béla’s bandage and removes the gauze.
“Tilt your head back,” he orders.
As Ozlem holds a flashlight, Tóth probes Béla’s face and throat with his fingers, causing Béla to wince repeatedly. The doctor tsks loudly.
“What a stubborn idiot you are! This must have troubled you for months. Why didn’t you go to the camp doctor sooner?”
“I thought it would go away.”
“Your sinuses are swollen, blocking the openings of your nose. The mucus can’t drain out.” Tóth pulls a cigarette out of a jacket pocket but leaves it unlit and glued to his lower lip. “You need an operation. We’ll do it first thing tomorrow.”
Béla exhales deeply. “Can’t you just give me some medication?”
“I have none to treat you with,” Tóth says forcefully. “Nor would it help.”
“And if I don’t have the operation?”
“Soon you won’t be able to work. Or breathe. For you – ”
Tóth is interrupted by Jóska’s incoherent wailing, which startles Béla but not the doctor, who waits until Jóska calms down. “For you, either is fatal.”
Tóth hesitates, puckering his lips. “I can only reach the sinuses through your cheek. I’ll try to limit the scarring, but I can’t guarantee anything.”
Béla sighs. A scar is the least of his worries.
The doctor trudges away. Once he’s out of earshot, Ozlem peers at Béla. “You are very brave.”
“No, I’m very scared.”
“That’s why you’re brave.” She grasps the handles of the wheelchair. “You must be tired from your trip here.”
“Not at all. It was a lovely ride. Four hours lying in the back of a truck traveling on bumpy, winding roads. Being assured by my guards that no doctor would treat a Jew and that their next stop after dropping me off was to my family’s home to enjoy my sisters.”
“Try to nap.”
Ozlem heads back down the aisle. Béla watches her intensely until she’s out of sight, then sinks back on the bed. As Jóska’s moaning and wailing persist, Béla jams a pillow around his ears, both to block out noise and to absorb his tears.
After he falls asleep, an elderly woman soundlessly approaches. She wears a traditional tunic and scapular as well as rosary beads and a gold cross pendant on a chain around her neck. The woman places a soap-sized dish of chocolates on the semicircular table next to Béla’s bed. She gazes tenderly at him.
Béla dreams of being chased by a wolf with a rose dripping blood clenched in its teeth. When the flower’s thorns sting him, he awakens to the dawn. Soon, Ozlem wheels him to a table in a surgical room on the second floor. Nearby, Doctor Tóth, wearing rubber gloves and a gauze mask, is rummaging through an assortment of tempered steel lancets that lie amid a pile of tools resembling saws.
“You’re fortunate,” Tóth mumbles. “We have some Pentothal to spare.”
Ozlem tapes a strip of cotton under Béla’s potato nose. “To monitor your breathing,” she explains.
Tóth leans over Béla. “You’ll be unconscious for a while but may awaken before I finish. As the drug wears off, you’ll start to feel pain.”
Tóth points his index finger emphatically at Béla. “You must stay still. Otherwise, I won’t be able to continue. Understand?”
Béla nods, not in confirmation but in submission. Tóth grabs his arm and injects the anesthetic with a syringe whose length causes Béla to turn away. Ozlem presses Béla’s free hand within hers, their coldness nonetheless a warmth.
When Béla rouses, he finds himself back on the fourth floor. His nose and cheeks ache, yet he’s hungry. The nun, not much taller than the bedpost and a hundred pounds at best, is at his side. Béla sits up, banging an elbow against the adjustable railing.
Genuinely puzzled, she asks, “Why didn’t you eat the chocolates?”
Béla crosses his arms. “They’re not mine.”
“I put them there for you.” She points to the chair next to the bed. “May I?” Without waiting for an answer, the nun drags the chair to the edge of the bed and lowers herself onto it. “I’m Sister Zsuzsa. And your name?
“Ah, a distinguished name. Many Hungarian kings were named Béla.” She notices red dots on Béla’s bandage. “I see you’re still bleeding. I have fresh pads and bandages in my office. We’ll need to go there.”
Béla turns away. “Why are you helping me?”
She waits until he resumes direct eye contact. “I wouldn’t think better of you if you were born Catholic. What matters is that you are alone and in need.”
Béla stares at the crucifix hanging from her neck. “I’ve never talked to a nun before.”
“I’m just like you. A child of God. But I’m also His servant.”
Sister Zsuzsa grabs a chocolate, unwraps it, and offers the treat to Béla. After an initial hesitance, he eats it, although chewing and swallowing present some difficulty. Sister Zsuzsa leans toward him and whispers pointedly, “You must come with me immediately. You can’t stay on this floor tonight.”
Béla studies her with narrowed eyes.
“Please trust me,” she urges. Reluctantly, he slowly rises and staggers down the hallway after Sister Zsuzsa, his head tilted back. They pass Jóska, who raises his head. Béla notices a jagged bayonet scar on one reddened cheek.
Jóska scowls at Béla. “It’s you Jews who caused all this trouble!”
Exhibiting no reaction, Sister Zsuzsa and Béla move on, passing Tibor, who is being fed by Boglárka. His eyes on fire, Tibor bolts up, knocking over a spoonful of food.
“Jew,” he spits out, “take a pail and clean the floor!”
Boglárka rises and glowers at Béla. “Where are you going? Get back to your bed!”
Sister Zsuzsa calmly responds, “He needs to come with me for fresh pads and bandages.”
The red-faced Boglárka points a thick finger menacingly at Béla. “No one can leave the floor without my permission, which I don’t give! You should kiss the ground that we even let you in here.”
Sister Zsuzsa, her back erect and short neck stretched high, steps in between Béla and the nurse. She glares at Boglárka, their faces inches apart. “I’m taking responsibility for him!”
For seconds that are hours to Béla, Boglárka’s expression is frozen like a porcelain doll’s. Further words of objection remain stuck in her throat as she slumps back onto the chair. Sister Zsuzsa reaches out to Tibor and uses her thumb to trace a cross on his forehead. Then she and Béla hustle to the door.
On the third floor, which reeks of feces and vomit, rows of beds and gurneys are occupied by wounded soldiers, some maimed. Sister Zsuzsa’s shoebox corner office manages to hold a cot, a chipped wooden prie-dieu, a stool, and an urn. The wall space next to a shuttered window holds a painting of Jesus on the cross, the flesh, muscles, and veins of His body precisely depicted. In this portrait, He is alone, with no supporters for comfort.
Béla plops onto the cot, which creaks from his weight. Sister Zsuzsa squeezes two pillows under his head, then settles on the stool.
“Sister,” he whispers, “I don’t want to get you in trouble.”
She wags her finger at the floor above. Her tone is matter-of-factly, yet decisive. “The only ones in trouble are those who do not follow the teachings of Jesus. They have forsaken Him and dishonored His anguish.”
Faint voices permeate through the door, one of which is female. “The young nurse called me brave,” Béla says. “But it’s you who really are.”
“Belief frees one from fear.”
Béla surveys the cramped space. “You sleep here, Sister?”
“Most nights. There are so many to comfort.”
“To live among the dying must be difficult.”
She grasps Béla’s shoulder tenderly. “Everyone perishes. Death is only to fall asleep and be woken by His voice.”
Muffled sounds of men arguing now can be heard. Sister Zsuzsa’s head swivels and her eyes dart toward the door. She walks to it and peers out before closing it firmly. “Béla, you will stay here tonight. Do not step foot outside this office until I’ve returned.”
“Won’t we both get into trouble?”
“Trouble will find us no matter what we do. It will take longer for it to find you here.” She points to the urn. “Use that. Make no sounds. No one can know that you’re here.”
“But that nurse knows I’m here.”
“Boglárka also knows I have friends in high places. She won’t say a word. But there are others…”
Béla clasps her forearm. “Thank you, Sister.”
She reaches under the cot and pulls out a half-filled bottle of white wine along with a wineglass. Sister Zsuzsa pours and hands Béla the glass. “The tears of Christ will help you rest.”
The wine has a paint-thinner taste, but Béla nonetheless downs it. “Why do you call this ‘the tears of Christ’”?
“It is said that when Lucifer was cast out of heaven, as he fell towards earth, he grabbed a chunk of heaven and dropped it on Vesuvius mountain. When Jesus saw this, He wept. Those tears became streaks of lava flows that, when they reached the ground, grew into vineyards.”
She squeezes Béla’s hand. Her radiant strength soothes him. “We must,” she insists, “turn our tears into something good.”
Sister Zsuzsa rises and leaves, her space now occupied by a dim shaft of light trickling in from the corridor through the doorframe. With her faded presence tucking him in, and in spite of his nose’s rhythmic throbbing, Béla quickly falls into a bottomless slumber. Sometime later, while using the urn, he hears popping noises from above. Béla lies in the cot listening for further sounds until sleep again overcomes him.
Béla awakens to lavish sunlight pouring through the window, which brushes his eyes and ripens the room. On the prayer desk is a tray containing a decorative teapot with a hinged lid and matching cup and saucer. Next to that is a plate, depicting St. Stephen Basilica, which holds two slices of white bread layered with marmalade.
Béla’s face aches. He reflexively reaches out to feel it, but a soft hand firmly pushes his own back down. Sister Zsuzsa, sitting by his side, cheerfully announces, “Good morning.”
Still groggy, Béla focuses on her visage.
“You shouldn’t touch your face,” she instructs. “How is the pain?”
“I’ve felt worse,” he replies, recalling the routine physical punishment meted out in the labor camp. “Last night, I heard what sounded like gunshots. In the camp, that sound is common, but I didn’t think it would happen here.”
Sister Zsuzsa covers his hand with hers. “You are safe now. That’s all you need to know.”
“Undesirables are never safe.”
She curls her lips together. “God doesn’t see you as an undesirable.”
Béla exhales deeply. The moment triggers a bitter memory of the Rebbe of Munkacs proclaiming that the Jews had brought about Hitler’s persecutions because of their failure to follow God’s commandments. “I wish I could still believe in God.”
She waivers, ever so slightly, in her response. “I understand your doubts. You are young. True faith in His love is developed over a lifetime.”
Béla shrugs. “We were taught in Hebrew school that God is all-seeing and all-knowing. And passionately engaged in our lives. But I don’t see much evidence of that. Wherever I go – the camp, my hometown, this hospital – I see death and misery. I see those who call to Him left unheard.”
Sister Zsuzsa begins to run her thumb methodically over Béla’s knuckles. “I see only death and misery,” he goes on. “Is that what He wants for us?”
She tilts her chin up. “But God is here with us. He does hear us. If that weren’t the case, then you wouldn’t still be alive.”
Béla gently pulls his hand free and raises it, palm up. “Then why does God permit so much hatred?”
Sister Zsuzsa pauses before answering, carefully formulating her words. “To be human is to be allowed to make the choice between good and evil. God cannot dictate that for us. Those who have abandoned Him have made the wrong choice.”
An image forms in Béla’s mind of an elderly man, shrouded in an oversized tallis and white ankle-length robe, holding a siddur and rocking back and forth. “My father prays every day. He has never abandoned God. So I must believe that if God exists, He is truly bad.”
“No!” Sister Zsuzsa retorts emphatically before tempering her tone. “Please don’t say that.”
“Is it correct,” Béla asks cautiously, “that Christians believe sin is unavoidable?”
She shakes her head. “There’s truth to that. But the sin around us comes from those, like that nurse, who have closed their hearts to God’s love. They are faithless. You should pity them. And forgive them.”
After a silence thick enough to assume a physical dimension, Sister Zsuzsa pours tea into the cup and passes it to Béla. “Drink.”
Béla grasps the cup with both hands and gulps the tepid liquid.
“When will you next see your parents?” she asks.
“We’re not allowed to go home anymore, or receive letters. I don’t even know if they’re still alive.”
Sister Zsuzsa gazes at the painting of Jesus, studying the bent, contorted curve of body and arched back. “I wish I were wise enough to know why God allows such unbearable hurt. I believe in His wisdom, and seek to find the strength to remain faithful to Him.”
“Sister,” Béla says, his voice cracking, “I’m not strong like you are. I can’t accept that!”
She points at him. “You will. You must. There is no other way.”
Béla sets down the tea cup. “In the camp, some of us pray that the Messiah will appear soon to save his people.”
Sister Zsuzsa smiles broadly. “The Messiah has come. But so many still do not appreciate what it means to be a Christian. To live with the constant awareness that Jesus’s lessons impose a common morality. A morality that originates in your Torah. Love your neighbor as yourself.”
A scream of pain penetrates the closed door. Sister Zsuzsa rises. “I must tend to others now. I will ask Ozlem to come escort you back to the fourth floor.”
She rests her palm on Béla’s shoulder. They stare at each other intensely. Then Sister Zsuzsa, never fully turning her back to Béla, slips out of the office. Soon Béla notices that tucked under the plate is a note. Written in neat, penciled script is, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you. Matthew 5:44.”
Ozlem eases Béla onto a bed now covered by a clean sheet and pillowcase. The sign on the headboard is gone, as are Tibor and Jóska. Boglárka, her scowl replaced by a mournful expression, is wiping bedposts with ammonia, whose urine scent is the stench of death.
“You’re as kind as Sister Zsuzsa,” Béla blurts out to Ozlem, who beams.
“Béla,” she says coyly, “I’m curious. Do you have a girlfriend?”
“Yes. The most beautiful woman in Budapest.” Then he quickly adds, “After you, of course.”
Ozlem giggles. “What’s her name?”
“Marika. I intend to marry her after the war.” His eyebrows rise. “If we’re still alive.”
Ozlem winks. “A lucky woman she is.”
Doctor Tóth appears at the doorway. Seeing Béla, his jaw drops. As he hustles over. Ozlem turns to leave. With her back to Béla, she says, “Invite me to the wedding.”
Béla shouts back, “If you promise to bring roses.”
Tóth’s eyes glimmer with pleasure. “A happy surprise,” he exclaims. “Let’s see how you are.” The doctor removes Béla’s bandage and gauze pads and meticulously examines his cheek and nose. When he finishes, Tóth nods with an exaggerated bobbing of his head. “I performed your operation as well as I would on my own son.”
Béla clutches his forearm. “What happened to the two men who were here yesterday?”
Tóth snickers and points to the ceiling. “The Angel of Mercy came down and healed each of them. They are home now, busy delighting in their girlfriends.” Tóth reaches into a pants pocket for a handkerchief, which he thrusts at Béla. “Tilt your head back whenever possible. And when you need to, keep this pressed against your nose to absorb any bleeding.”
With an open hand, Béla sweeps the air in front of him in a semicircle. “Why did you bother to operate on me, knowing what goes on here?”
Tóth shrugs. “I’m only a doctor. I don’t play God.”
He peers around the floor. “Ordinarily, I’d want to keep you for a couple of days for observation. But it’s safest for you to leave now. I’ll issue discharge papers and request a jeep escort back to camp.”
Tóth shoves a cigarette into his mouth. This time, he lights it, blowing the smoke away from Béla. “Tell me, where did you stay last night?”
Béla points down. “Sister Zsuzsa’s office.” His tone turns plaintive. “Doctor, why did she choose me to save? Why not someone of her own faith?”
“She believes” Tóth say solemnly, “that the Jews must survive at all costs. One reason being to bear witness.”
The doctor taps his chest. His voice turns hushed. “That’s why she saved me as well.”
Béla considers this, then grabs the doctor’s hand and pumps it. “Thank you. For giving me back my life.”
“I only fixed your sinuses.”
The doctor grins and lowers his voice. “Ven me zol Got danken far guts, volt zein kain tseit tsu baklogen zich oif shlechts.” (If we thanked God for all the good things, there wouldn’t be time to weep over the bad.)
Tóth tousles Béla’s hair, turns, and triumphantly marches out.
In October 1965, Béla sits at the kitchen table in an apartment in Elmhurst, Queens, reading a newspaper article on the Second Vatican Council. Across from him, nursing a cup of coffee, is Marika.
“The Pope just put out a declaration on the relationship of Christianity to all other religions,” he says in an excited tone, “reminding Catholics that Jesus was born and died a Jew, and that Jews should be loved and not persecuted.”
Marika purses her lips. “Thirty years too late, nu?”
“True. I can’t help thinking how much this would have pleased Sister Zsuzsa.”
“You think she might still be alive? Or at least that doctor and young nurse?”
He shakes his head glumly. “Not likely. The next year, Allied bombs were accidentally dropped on the hospital, destroying it and killing everyone inside.”
Béla returns to his reading, until Marika leans toward him and places her palm over his glasses. “You should take her advice,” she commands.
“To forgive the bad people.”
“No! Nor will I ever.”
“You need to lose the anger, Béla.”
His brows furrow. “If I lose the anger, I lose my parents. And all the others I loved. I can’t do that.”
Seconds tick away. Marika crosses her arms. “Anger dissolves love. Including love of yourself. You can’t let that continue to happen.”
Béla closes the newspaper and tosses it aside. “So what do I do?”
She leans toward him again, this time to kiss his forehead. “Concentrate on all the blessings that came afterward. You survived. We found each other. Our kids. Our life here.”
A young child in an adjacent room cries for attention. Marika leaves to join him. Once she’s out of earshot, Béla takes from his wallet the frayed, yellowed piece of paper that reads, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you. Matthew 5:44.”
He smiles weakly and whispers to himself, “And I’ll also remember the angels sent to protect me in the midst of the horror.“
Jeff Ingber is the son of Hungarian Holocaust survivors and the author of books, short stories, and screenplays. His first screenplay was the basis for the 2019 film “Crypto,” starring Kurt Russell. One of his novels, entitled “Shattered Lives,” is being made into a documentary film by MacTavish Pictures. His books have won numerous awards, including Elit, New Apple, New York Book Festival, Next Generation Indie, North Street, and Readers’ Favorite. You can learn more about his works at jeffingber.com. Jeff and his wife Linda live in Cranford, New Jersey.