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My Uncle the Soccer Star

During the summer of 1938, as part of British Prime Monster Chamberlain's appeasement of Hitler, the south eastern part of Czechoslovakia was ceded to Hungary. This area of "Slovakia" was predominately Hungarian speaking. Prior to the realignment of Europe at the Versailles by well meaning idiots like Woodrow Wilson, our region was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And Hungarian the predominant language. My grandfather even fought for the Austro-Hungarian army during the first world war.

My uncle Ferdinand was almost twenty-one years old when the borders were adjusted. He was at the time a star of the local Hungarian football team. Back then, as today, no-one knew him as Ferdinand; friends and family used his Hungarian name, Laci. Now you may ask why the name change? The two names are not even similar.

Family legend has it that my grandparents indeed decided to call their new offspring, a first son after three girls, Laci (Eliezer in Hebrew). My grandmother sent grandpa off to the registry to record their newborn's birth. Children were born at home in those days, with only the assistance of a midwife and perhaps a good neighbour -- no maternity hospitals yet.

I presume grandpa was out on leave from the trench war which adversely affected his health for the rest of his life -- Laci was born a full year before that Great War ended.

Grandpa returned home with the papers, and Laci had suddenly transformed into a Ferdinand. I can only try and imagine grandma's retort to her husband. No-one knows for sure what transpired in that government office. I imagine some antisemitic bureaucrat insisted on assigning the name of the former emperor or the Archduke, whose assassination sparked that war, to my young uncle. Or perhaps it was the clerk's own name?

Fast forward: a family wedding was taking place in Budapest towards the end of 1938. My grandparents were unable to attend, so they sent young Laci as their representative. It was the first time Laci had visited that city. He remarked to me how the yeshiva boys there conversed and even learned together in Hungarian. This was very strange to him. Back at home in Kosice, Yiddish was the language of the synagogue and yeshiva, the vernacular in the world of Jewish learning. It was an eyeopener for him as to the present state of Hungarian Jewry.

The wedding was a joyous affair, with music, dancing, good food and the requisite badlun, what today we call a standup comedian. Along with the music, the jester was a standard part of a Jewish wedding. His comic monologue was sprinkled with references and innuendos to Jewish sources, coloured with common Hebrew and Yiddish words and expressions. Though basically in Hungarian, a non-Jew would have difficulty understanding the punchlines.

One "Hebrew" word, repeated in many gags, was tayku. This is the word with which the Talmud informs us that the current argument remains unresolved. In the typical Hungarian mispronunciation of Hebrew, the word is articulated teyki.

Towards the end of the wedding reception, a band of Hungarian police bursts into the hall and carts off all of the males. The first antisemitic Jewish Laws had just been passed by the Hungarian parliament, so there was no need for the police to justify this mass arrest.

Each arrested Jew was individually interrogated at the police station, meaning each received a beating by the officers. Uncle Laci was one of the last to be thus interviewed. By this time the police were getting exhausted from their evening's entertainment. This, coupled with the fact that Laci played soccer for the Hungarian football team in Hungary's "newly" acquired territory, toned down the punches.

It appears that the police had spies at wedding. Pál Teleki was a former prime minister, and as history would have it, also the next prime minister. However at the time of our wedding, he was considered aligned with the opposition. Together with the informants' lack of knowledge of Jewish subjects and the poor pronunciation of Hebrew by the comedian, the police believed that our cousin's wedding was a front for a political meeting -- hence the large-scale arrest.

Laci returned home from the Hungarian capital with a new worldview. He had learned on this trip to Budapest that the old world order was crumbling and the future for Jews in this part of the world was no longer rosy. You must understand that this was quite an amazing, and rare, thought for its time. Many members of Hungarian governments between the wars had been Jewish, and Czechoslovakia probably had been the most liberal country in Europe. Jews were involved in all aspects of life. For example, Laci's uncle Willie, a prominent businessman, was involved in the highest levels of the Czech Democratic Party.

But Laci wanted out. The party was over. He (correctly) informed his mother that it was over for the Jews in Europe and he was out of there. Needless to say, his mother wasn't thrilled.

One of Laci's older sisters, Etus, had recently married a man from Presov. This city was located in different part of (the former) Czechoslovakia, in a region which, though a mere sixty kilometres away, was now in a different country, governed by its very own puppet regime. The newlywed couple had been ordered to leave town, to cross the now international boundary, into the newly created Slovak state. So they too suddenly needed a quick exit.

Laci, Etus and her husband, Armin, found someone prepared to lead them across the Carpathian Mountains, out of Slovakia, out of Hungary, out of their old familiar world, to smuggle them out of the yet unmaterialised and yet unknown hell awaiting their families and their people. Over the frontier to Poland and from there to freedom.

On the appointed night, each carrying the required, not small, sum of money, my three kinsmen, together with a few other enlightened people (and perhaps known criminals), clandestinely met their guide. Etus was petit girl, maybe reaching four foot ten if she stretched. On seeing her the guide freaked out. "Not only a woman, but a short one to boot", and he refused to start the journey. Little did he know that my aunt was an experienced mountainclimber and bushwalker, someone who spent nearly all of her spare time outdoors in the mountains. Somehow she was able to convince him of her agility and the journey commenced. She actually made the crossing more easily than the men.

They were snuck into Poland.

On reaching Warsaw, our relatives made their way to the British Embassy. Here they were given papers for entry into England, on condition that within six months they would relocate to one of the Empire's colonies, Australia or Canada, a condition to which they readily agreed. Within the specified period however, war broke and Mother England was happy for all able-bodied men to remain, as troops were dispatched to Europe.

And Uncle Laci (now called Leslie, but still officially Ferdinand) remains there until this day.

Just one more anecdote my uncle told me about settling in England. He found work in a Jewish hotel in resort town of Bourmouth. He worked his was up to headwaiter. At that time (1940) it was still possible to send mail to the "enemy side" via the Red Cross. My uncle was able to communicate with his family back "home" in Kosice. On hearing of his new profession, his father wrote back, very upset, that his son was doing such demeaning work, a job considered so lowly that no-one in our family had ever stooped to there. But Laci told me that his father's attitude changed when he told him what he was earning -- in grandfather's words, "that's more than double the salary of the prime minister of Hungary!"


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