Looking for Lessons In Magdalena's Chapters

Started April 6, 2020

Dear Family, Friends, and Diary,

On Sunday, Day 22 of stay-at-home, I melted down. An early morning grocery shopping trip, my first in three weeks, was surprisingly stressful, cutting short my sleep and filled with unnecessary anxiety. Somehow, a normally-benign, and even welcome, chore felt life-threatening. The harvest from the trip did not get rave home reviews, as I substituted available for desired. I went back to bed, to try to start all over again.

I did no diary as I felt I had already over-worked any story options. It was cool and rainy, so there were no neighborhood walks. I read a mystery about a grisly murder, engaging, but not fun. No calls to or from family or friends. No TV because all I watch is news and it is overwhelming.

My mind wandered out into the will-we-ever-again world. Will we ever again travel? Will we ever see the National Parks in Utah that we had planned for? The rest of America? Will we see distant kids and grandkids and friends? Will we see friends in Germany and France? I could not imagine ever using our United Airlines Lifetime Gold status and the hundreds of thousands of associated flight miles. We have seen a lot in the last decades, so maybe that's it. We have a thousand or so of these diary pages to reminisce with, and we're old, so what's the point of more memories?

Like I said, it was a dark Sunday, and Monday was still cloudy, although I would endeavor to be "mindful", not too far in the future nor in the past, unless that helps the now. I went back to writing on trotter.ws, for therapy.

My theme was a look back for lessons and experience in "getting through". I planned to stick to family lessons, primarily from Marianne's mother's stories, "Magdalena's Chapters".

I had originally thought I would add a few instances of where Marianne and I had succeeded in getting through, but after I reviewed the first parts of Magdalena's Chapters, I realized we had nothing that could compete. Reviewing our own stories will have to wait.

That's the plan, but with anything new or different, what happens may or may not follow the plan.

Magdalena's Chapters, Chapter One, A Depression Schoolgirl (1919-1934)

Magdalena was born in 1919 in a small city in western Hungary where her father was a successful businessman. The end of WWI saw the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and, presumably, a need for the family to move from the small town to the capital Budapest for better business opportunities. There, life was prosperous enough to rent a large four or five bedroom apartment on the stylish Pest side of Budapest.

Magdalena recalls that, "for reasons I never knew, it happened we got poor" (7:30 in Ch 1). The family moved to a smaller apartment in Buda. Her father had to sell ersatz coffee door-to-door and her mother prepared lunch for neighborhood workers and businessmen. Despite the financial change, little Magdalena's memories were all positive, with walks through town and trips with her older sister to the local public swimming pool. (A lesson: kids may not even note financial calamity, given a steady, warm, family.)

27-28 classMost of Chapter 1 is a description of life in boarding school. For reasons she never fully understood, Magdalena was sent off to school to live all but a couple of days a month. Family lore has it that this was, in part, supported by an uncle, and by the generosity of school itself, one of the first Waldorf Schools outside of Germany. (Classes were in German.) She sometimes felt that she was sent from home because she had done something bad, but no one really believes THAT bit of lore. The liberal, "whole-child" education would stand up to modern standards. (Lesson: a caring school environment can add positive memories, even if it diminishes family time.)

The Budapest Waldorf school was closed in the mid 1930s when the German regime made it difficult for citizens to get permission to teach in Hungary, specifically at a school that taught with an international, non-traditional viewpoint.

Here is Chapter One.

Chapter Two - A Young Woman: Work, Romance, War, and Wedding

Chapter Two of Magdalena's story covers the the mid 1930s to November, 1944. This was a period in Hungary and the world filled with turmoil and, eventually, war, but Magdalena's young memories are of her business school, her first job, sports, romance, and a church wedding.

Her dialog contains snippets of life in a Nazi-allied regime that had mixed support, even in the Amon family. She has memories of people with yellow stars, and a Jewish friend, Kati, who "had to go away" and of her own family's effort to prove generations of Christianity. But, life went on. (A lesson: evil can happen, surrounded by good people.)

Magdalena enjoyed her final schooling and her first job, as a bookkeeper in a government agriculture bureau. She had a full life, living with her working brother, sister, father, uncle and her mother, who could now cook for just the family. It was a solid, middle-class life, but war crept in, complete with bombings that threatened everyone in their daily routine. (Lesson: with family and friends and work, even bombing can become a "new normal".)

Romance came to the 20-something Magdalena via soldier-brothers Ödön and Louis. Once interested in the older brother, she shifted to the reportedly more-reliable Louis. As a hospital orderly, he could court Magdalena, with no mention of being called to the front lines. In 1944, however, the front lines came to them and the hospital Louis worked in was slated for evacuation to Vienna.

On few days notice, the couple married with both a civil ceremony and, at the last minute, a church wedding. They walked the 15 or 20 minutes from home to the church since no taxis were running due to the wailing air raid sirens and falling bombs - on the far side of the Danube River. Family and a few friends managed to get to the church and all enjoyed a reception meal at a nearby restaurant. (Lesson: A young girl's dream wedding can happen despite hardship and danger. And YOU were worried the flowers might be wilted?)

Here is Chapter Two

Chapter Three, Evacuation and Escape (November 1944 - April 1945)

Days after the wedding, Magdalena and Louis left Budapest on the hospital train, her mother crying at the station. That would be the last Magdalena ever saw of her family. (Lesson: life can change completely in a moment.)

Minutes after pulling from the station, loaded Allied bombers were coming and the hospital staff and ambulatory patients scrambled off the train to lay down beside the track until the danger passed. Because of these interruptions, the trip took days instead of hours. (Lesson: getting through can be dangerous)

In Vienna, the hospital was transferred to the Hotel Huebner, and Magdalena and Louis started five months of helping with the care of the wounded. Despite the daytime horrors, including more bombing, there were still times to go out to restaurants with new friends. (Lesson: take care of yourself, while caring for others.)

In early April, 1945, the hospital was disbanded and the staff and walking wounded were told to "head west". At the last minute, the doctor Magdalena had been working with remarked that he thought she was pregnant and apologized for not having had the time to give her a proper examination. Louis and pregnant Magdalena walked west, into Germany. (Lesson: pre-natal care? only exercise)

The 400 kilometer journey from Vienna, by foot, car, and train, was harrowing. Food was rare, sleep was rough, soldiers and Nazi bureaucrats threatening. The trip ended with Louis reporting back to duty at a Hungarian army hospital in the garrison town of Ingolstadt, outside of Munich. (Lesson: getting through can be done.)

Days later, on April 27th, the American Army took Ingolstadt, including the hospital. In broken English, a US sergeant drafted Louis to organize a musical band to entertain the troops and, with no preparation whatsoever, that became Louis' new job. (Lesson: sometimes luck, and the ability to recognize it, matters more than training)

Chapter Three ends with Magdalena telling the story of a patient in the hospital, who leaned out the window to see what was going on, only to be shot by a nervous American soldier. "That was just not right." (Lesson: luck cuts both ways.)

Here is Chapter Three

Chapter Four, A New Life, A New Baby, Family

Within the first days of "captivity", the young Hidas couple needs to decide if they will get on board a train returning to Budapest. Magdalena wants to go, but Louis does not want to go live under Soviet rule (and possible Siberian exile, like many German and Hungarian ex-soldiers.) Magdalena reluctantly agrees, because Louis is the husband, who's word matters, according to guidance given her by the priest in the wedding. (Lesson: sometimes husbands' decisions are correct, but the era of blind obedience is behind us.)

Louis finds a room for the couple and he starts his job managing a band for entertaining at the US Army clubs. One night, he does not return. Alone and pregnant, Magdalena worries he has left her "because she is fat", but the story was more serious. The occupation army was searching through Hungarian soldier-refugees to find traces of past antisemitism and Louis was held for 36 hours. He was grilled by an American who said he "just wanted to get you". Found faultless, Louis was released. (Lesson: honesty sometimes is the answer, to very consequential questions.)

Late in October, Magdalena went to the Wasserburg am Inn hospital for a pregnancy check-up, her first. Hours later, little Yolan was born. A week later, she walks the baby home along icy streets, pushing the baby buggy that would be both transport and bed for the months to come. Family lore has it that a German neighbor struggled with the Hungarian name "Yolan" and said the baby should be called "Marianne", and so it has been ever since. (Lesson: a healthy birth is a miracle, and miracles do happen.)

Life went on. Louis transitioned from band manager to an administration position with the U.S. Army and the couple settled into one-room of an apartment near his office. Weeks later, a knock and Magdalena opens the door to find Ödön, Louis's brother, his wife, and their little girl. The six then filled the single-room and started rebuilding family. (Lesson: be nice to them because family will track you down.)

Soon, Magdalena, Louis, and Marianne move to a room in another building, the home of Frau Leindecker, where they would stay for three or four years.

Here is Chapter Four.

Chapter Five, Start of Refugee Life

After a year of escape through war and landing in Bavaria into the employ and care of the US Army, Magdalena, Louis, and Marianne started life as Displaced Persons (DPs), the term for non-German refugees at the time. Magdalena finally has a moment to look for diapers and a coat for Marianne, supplemented by hand-me-downs from generous German mothers. She also adds to the single black dress she has worn since leaving Budapest. (Lesson: We are six weeks into the disturbance caused by COVID-19 with another six weeks before some normalcy returns -versus a year of a far harsher life.)

Food was limited immediately after the war, and the winter of 1947 was called "hunger-winter" in Germany. Louis' job with the US Army provided a salary in German marks and US script, but also cigarettes, useful for Magdalena and the other young mothers to use as barter with the local Bavarian farmers for eggs and butter and cheese. (Lesson: DPs "got through" far harder shopping than we are with store shelves emptied of toilet paper).

Marianne was baptized and the family celebrated with a restaurant meal sponsored by the husband of her godmother, a Hungarian royal now no more prosperous than the rest of the refugees. The meal took much of their money and a month's worth of meat ration cards. (Lesson: Poverty is an equalizer, but need not destroy pride.)

The family moved into a single room in Frau Leindecker's apartment. They added a kitchen (one hot plate) and remodeled the bath room with a carpenter-carved wooden tub. Mrs. Leindecker removed the bathroom window and toilet seat because she felt the family was not keeping the place clean enough. This was good enough for three or four years. (Lesson: Magdalena had happy memories from that austere time. Would we?)

Eventually, Louis got the chance at a job with the American YMCA in Munich and the family left Frau Leindecker and Wasserburg Am Inn. The landlady was sad to see them go because, as she would finally admit, Magdalena kept the place spic and span. Now she had to worry about other, less-disciplined, refugees. (Lesson: Frau Leindecker never replaced the toilet seat. Her good renters moved on.)

Here is Chapter Five

Chapter Six, Munich Life and Moves Toward Emigration

In Munch, Louis got a job with the YMCA and the family settled into a small apartment in Pasing. Their life became comfortable and ordinary with Thursday Bingo at the Officers' Club and weekend excursions. A soldier-friend offered Louis and the family a ride to Augsburg in his new car, where he treated Magdalena to a box of Hershey's chocolate, her first chocolate since Budapest, years before. (Lesson: Chocolate may be the best sign of normalcy.)

The Hidas family also made friends with Germans, including the Meyers, who introduced them to skiing in the Alpen village of Reit im Winkl. Louis wore his coat and tie, because he had little else. Magdalena and Marianne borrowed warm coats. (Lesson: Generous friends make the best memories.)

Magdalena and Louis also went to Oktoberfest and 70 years later she could still see the beer, food, eating, drinking, and dancing. Her eyes sparkled as she told the story of the youthful adventure. (Lesson: One of our own regrets is that, in 11 years living in Germany, we never made Oktoberfest. It was always "next year". Now?)

Eventually, the job in Munich ended and Louis was transferred by the YMCA to work in other Bavarian towns. The decision was made to leave Germany for America, to Dallas Texas, although Magdalena left Germany reluctantly. She did, however, shop enough in Stuttgart to fill their two new suitcases with good German goods. (Lesson: Don't forget to shop.)

In Bremen, they waited to board the USNS Harry Taylor, for their trip to Dallas, Texas. That will be Chapter Seven, tomorrow.

Here is Chapter Six

Chapter Seven, Boat to New Orleans and Train to Dallas

Almost exactly, 69 years ago, the family boarded the USNS Harry Taylor, bound for New Orleans. Magdalena and Marianne were assigned one room and Louis went to a large, men-only, bunk compartment. Each of the parents had shipboard duties, Magdalena minding children on deck and Louis taking care of them below, including at lunchtime. (Lesson: Even with free passage, there is work.)

The 16-day voyage across the Atlantic was largely uneventful with meals "some we liked and some we didn't ... but we had to eat, we had to survive." (Lesson: Without choices, there was no opportunity for food fussiness.)

The boat first docked in Venezuela and Magdalena was glad they were not among the 500 refugees who were off-loaded there. The Taylor continued to New Orleans, where it arrived on May 5, 1951. The family was met by people from Church World Service, given $16 (half to be repaid in three weeks), and train tickets to Dallas, Texas. (Lesson: Support Church World Service.)

In Dallas, the family was greeted by YMCA sponsors and a newspaper reporter. After a lunch at a YMCA campground nearby, the family was shown their home at 2640 Bachman Boulevard, where they would live for four years. Louis was assigned a $200-a-month job in the YMCA locker room and took on a paper route to bring in enough money for the young family. (Lesson: Support YMCA and think of hard-working immigrants.)

Locals "poured" clothes and household goods on the small family and Magdalena remained grateful decades later. (Lesson: Generosity creates long-lasting memories. Be generous.)

Chapter Eight, Life in Texas

"Life went on". Louis bought a small black & white television so he could watch boxing and, after initial doubts about the cost, Magdalena embraces the technology to help her learn English, from I Love Lucy and other favorites. (Lesson: Use technology appropriately.)

Louis also buys a used Studebaker for $55 per month and the family tours locally. Magdalena, too, went to work, earning 79 cents per hour at the Taylor Publishing Company, pasting type into high school yearbooks. She used her earnings to buy a $500 spinet piano for Marianne, paying $22 per month. (Lesson: Studebakers come and go, but Marianne stills enjoys the piano.)

The used Studebaker was replaced with a new one and Magdalena saved for a year to finance a big road trip to New York City and the Statue of Liberty. The family also visited Louis' brother and cousins in New Jersey, before returning to Texas.

Louis continued working at the YMCA, delivering papers, and attending classes at Southern Methodist University. Magdalena thought he could get an engineering job with an Hungarian friend in San Francisco. For the next summer road trip, the family drove to the west coast to check the possibilities. Unfortunately, the friend said he already had the only draftsman he could afford, but suggested a trip down to the Army Language School in Monterey. There, the Hungarian language department said they probably could use Louis, but he would need to wait at least one year. (Lesson: California was worth waiting for.)

The next spring, a letter from Monterey offered a position and the family made moving arrangements. Magdalena had to borrow $400 from friends to pay for the moving truck and had to get agreement from the piano store that she could take the instrument far away. They said "Mrs. Hidas, you can take the piano to the end of the earth, I trust you." (Lesson: Keep up your credit worthiness.)

And, with that, Magdalena, Louis, Marianne, and baby Katinka left for yet another new life.

Unfortunately, production of Magdalena's Chapters stopped with this milestone, before much could be said about Katinka or California overall. By the time we considered how to continue, 99-year-old Magdalena had become too weak to proceed. She would pass away in December, days after her 100th birthday. It was a shame we did not do more, but a gift that we were able to do these eight Chapters.

Reviewing these stories for lessons during the COVID-19 epidemic served its purpose for me. If the family could make it through the spring and summer of 1945, we can make it through our own spring and summer, isolated or not.

Now I will shift back to our own stories, probably not daily, but frequent enough to have our own record for how we handled the current stress. Stress, but not war. Not bombs. Not hunger. Not poverty. Not forever distant from family. Not arriving in a new country with $16.

Stay tuned,

John and Marianne, still getting through.