Everybody knows you can’t choose your place of birth, any more than you can select your parents. My birthplace is located on a body of water; human hands have altered and straightened the banks so many times that these waters are no longer referred to as a river, but rather a canal. This canal empties into the Tisza, and the Tisza flows into the Danube.
My memories of the Danube begin in the summer of 1941. My parents, who had been so inept as to be Jews, were already under arrest by then. An aunt of mine, who had the good sense to be a German, had taken me with her to the city of Novi Sad. My hometown in the Banat was occupied by German troops, but Novi Sad was occupied by Hungarian troops, and that seemed advantageous. Novi Sad is located on the Danube.
The beach there is one of the prettiest anywhere. It is many kilometers long, and it has these oddly constructed bathing huts of wood, some of which are fitted out with superfluous little spires on top. It has very fine, white sand. The current is so strong that you can barely swim upstream. What you do is stroll up the river, and then drift comfortably back on the surging flow. Or you play in the sand. I was twelve years old at the time.
My uncle had given me a pocket calendar. It was from the year before, and it had a section of traffic signs printed in color. I pasted the multicolored page onto cardboard and carefully cut out the signs telling drivers what to do and what not to do. Then I attached them to wooden matchsticks.
After that I made mountains out of sand, put in roads with a lot of curves and bridges, and furnished this landscape with my signs. On the side of the road I planted twigs as trees. Now toy cars could have traveled this area risk-free. And, actually, I harbored the hope every evening that I would find my work still in one piece the next morning, but it was always getting destroyed by careless feet. At any rate, I always brought in the traffic signs at the end of the day, to be on the safe side. I could reconstruct the world of sand, but if the signs had turned up missing, I would have been hard-pressed to replace them.
Sometimes I simply lay in the hot sand and watched the sky. And the trees. To this day the beach at Novi Sad is still guarded by large numbers of tall and wonderful poplars. Thank God they were not cut down during the war. They are trees that grow very rapidly, but of course I didn’t care about that. I never counted them either. There must have been hundreds of them, several kilometers of multiple rows of poplars.
Later in my life, I read a short essay by the German author Kurt Tucholsky entitled “A Word Escapes Me.”1 That exact same word escapes me now. Back then, admittedly, I did not need it yet; I only saw what I saw, without feeling any urge to express it. And at that time I knew nothing yet about Tucholsky. I did not know that he had chosen to take his own life because of the people who were wearing swastikas on their sleeves. In my own defense, I would like to add that I had just as little knowledge of where my parents were and of how they were perhaps being tortured at that very moment and would soon be killed. I was just idly keeping an eye on the poplars, mostly without thinking. Tucholsky was actually writing about birches, but how big a difference is that, really?
“I will be lowered into my grave,” goes the essay, “without knowing what it is that the birch leaves are doing. I know what it is, but I cannot express it. The wind blows through the young birches; their leaves vibrate so fast, back and forth, that they–what, then? One can always say: the leaves shimmer . . . but that’s not it. It’s some kind of nervous movement, but what? That which cannot be said remains unredeemed. Is the word ‘leaf-misting’ found in Goethe? I don’t want to rise to look it up; those volumes are at such a remove, four meters and a hundred years. . . . What do the birch leaves do?
“As I write this,” continues Tucholsky, “I get up after every four lines and look to see what they are doing. They are doing it. I will die and will not have said it.” I lay in the sand and looked up in the air. Occasionally white clouds scudded across the blue. The poplar leaves were doing that thing that Tucholsky referred to. I remember it and would love to describe it. In those hours I certainly was not thinking of my birthplace or my parents. Back then–not a chance! And I was not afraid. What was really going through my head–that I would be only too happy to know today. As a child one is so lighthearted.
A half year later, in January 1942, six thousand people were killed right on this beach on the Danube. I can remember the date so precisely because I turned thirteen the next day. I was not raised Jewish and did not celebrate my bar mitzvah; it only occurs to me now that, according to the faith of my ancestors, I became a man on that day.
Partisans were said to be encamped near the city. For that reason a “roundup” was organized. As part of this measure, approximately four thousand Serbs and two thousand Jews were escorted to the beach by the Hungarian police. The river was iced over; it was a very cold winter. The stronger men among the detainees had to knock great holes in the ice. But there weren’t too many powerful men, because they were off at war, after all. The majority of the prisoners were old men, women, and children. Next, they were all led to these holes, and were butchered with knives or slain with hatchets (one had to be thrifty with bullets in those days), and stuffed under the ice. All those beautiful bathing huts were standing there, mute. The same with the poplars. Their branches were bare. It was winter, you know. I’m sure there were crows hovering in the air. Six thousand people may have cast a final glance up at the bare branches and the cold sky. I don’t think the others, the ones wearing Hungarian police uniforms and holding hatchets and knives, had time to study the sky. Many times I have reflected on people who murder and I can only say this: I do not understand them. That’s why it is so difficult for me to describe them. But they existed. And they exist today, especially in my former homeland.
My street in Novi Sad was spared. Over the course of three days, the police showed up twice at our place, checked our papers, and searched through several cabinets looking for concealed weapons. They were not very thorough and not even especially rude. My uncle was married to a German, after all. For us it really was just a raid. And I was glad that I didn’t have to go to school. We only learned of the mass murder later, although it had begun just a few blocks from our house.
Even rivers as big as the Danube are not permanent. Where the current has been tumbling through Hungary and Yugoslavia for thousands of years, there were once curious fish that swam through the depths of the Pannonian Sea. This was an immeasurably long time ago for us, but in terms of the history of the world, it represents just the blink of an eye. Now that I am old, I find myself thinking over and over what an insignificant speck of dust we truly are in the face of history. And what a mere nothing humanity is, when compared to the age of our planet . . . . This is every bit as indescribable as what those leaves do, the birch and poplar leaves, or what people do when they murder other people. One cannot say it, and we know: what cannot be said remains unredeemed.
The next summer, and the one after that, found me at this Danube beach again. The poplars behaved as if nothing had happened; they were very discreet. The leaves continued doing the indescribable. The Danube flowed by, sluggish but strong. You really couldn’t swim against the current, but the beach, as I said, was plenty long: you could walk upstream and then allow yourself to be borne back down by the waters. There were no traces of blood to be seen in the sand, and the Danube, too, had long since forgotten the corpses.
Unfortunately, during the summers of 1944 and 1945, I could not make it to the beach. I was prevented from being there. In 1944, I was in Auschwitz and Buchenwald. In 1945, I was waiting on the banks of another river, one called the Elbe, for transportation home. The Russians and the Americans had met at this river and I had to cool my heels until they agreed on who would bring me back. That lasted till autumn.
But in the summer of 1946, I was swimming again in the Danube there at Novi Sad. And I wasn’t thinking of mass murder, or poplar leaves, or–I must confess–even my dead parents. I was getting ready for more gratifying things. Young girls in really skimpy bathing suits lay in the sand. Surely they had lain there like that earlier, but I had not noticed them. Now there they lay, motionless, but very full of life.
The translator would like to thank Dr. David Hammond for his insightful comments on this manuscript.
1This essay by Kurt Tucholsky (1890-1935) can be found in Panther, Tiger, & Co., ed. Mary Gerold-Tucholsky (Hamburg: Rowohlt, 1954), pp. 106-7. It was originally published in 1929. The version cited by Ivanji differs slightly from the one in the Gerold-Tucholsky collection. The English version in this story was translated by John K. Cox from the version quoted by Ivanji.
Translation of “Spiele am Donaustrand” from Ivan Ivanji, Die andere Seite der Ewigkeit: Zwanzig Geschichten vom Tod (Vienna: Picus, 1993), pp. 58-62. By arrangement with the publisher.