Gratitude - By Joseph Kertes


Tolgy, Hungary – March 19, 1944

LILI CROUCHED behind a wardrobe, dressed in a wedding gown. She was in her parents’ bedroom and, despite her position, could still clearly see the dove-blue sky out of the window. It was the custom of her village that, when a girl turned sixteen, her mother would present her with a bridal dress she had made or worn herself. Helen had sewn this white dress out of a bolt of Egyptian cotton, adding some French lace her husband, David, had brought from Budapest.

A birthday cake was baking in the stone oven downstairs. Whipped vanilla cream sat heaped in a bowl by the window. It was to be folded over the warm yellow cake once it cooled a little.

The cake was just about done, but Lili couldn’t leave her hiding place to check on it, because her mother had told her to stay put. And no one else was home. Helen, Lili’s mother, had taken the four youngest kids out back beyond the town. David, her father, had left with her eldest brother, Ferenc, to show the new authorities the family’s papers.

So Lili would wait behind the wardrobe—she couldn’t say for how long. The big wardrobe had been made for Helen and David by Ervin Gottlieb, the town’s ancient but skilled carpenter. It had been painted white to commemorate their wedding day, the same cream white as Lili’s dress.

And now Lili felt a chill in the warm house. She did not know what her mother had been thinking. Wouldn’t it have made more sense for her to go off with Tildy and Benjamin to the pond, where Helen had sent them, or with Helen and Mendi and Hanna to the woods? She could have helped them. What good was she in the house, squatting behind a wardrobe? Lili heard shuffling just outside the house, now, and thought it might be her father or her mother. Maybe someone had forgotten something. She considered stepping out, but decided not to until she heard a familiar voice. Instead, outside the window, what she heard was machine-gun fire, a scream—a woman’s scream—then a German voice over a megaphone. She knew exactly what they were saying. She knew from her Yiddish. They were asking people to meet in the square in front of the synagogue. A Hungarian voice repeated the command.

“Everyone bring a small parcel of belongings,” the German said, “and meet at the temple within thirty minutes of this order.”

The Hungarian said, “Everyone out now. Now.” People understood his Hungarian as well as their own Yiddish. Tolgy was a border town in the southeast, where people spoke Yiddish first, Hungarian second. It was a town of a thousand Jews, an enclave. Hungarian was the language of school.

Had the Hungarians joined ranks with the invading Germans? Lili’s father had fought for the Hungarians in the Great War, had worn the uniform with pride.

Lili felt a spring in her legs, set to catapult her out of her hiding place, but she held her post. She smelled the cake in the oven. Certainly by now it was done. Warm and ready. She ran her hands over the soft lap of her dress, steadying herself.

And then someone slammed into the house, several men, as many as four, Lili thought, or even five. Lili heard a German voice, then the shout of a Hungarian. The soldiers stomped through the house, pulling at things, turning over chairs. They stormed upstairs. She held her breath as they worked their way through the children’s bedrooms, pulling drawers to the floor.

Just as they banged out into the corridor, just as Lili expected them to rush into the room in which she crouched, breathless, they flew down the stairs instead. All but one. One stepped in. Lili could feel the net of his eyes falling over the room. The photographs of her grandparents, all four of them, above the bed. The dresser with the silver hairbrush and comb David had brought from Prague. The cedar blanket box. And then he ran after his comrades. Just like that. A moment later, they rushed out of the house.

Lili heard them bursting into Tzipi’s place next door. She could hear the same crashes and slams. Far away, the popping of gunfire, muffled, like caps.

She could smell smoke, burning. Could it be? Could it? She would roast. She would stay behind her wardrobe and burn. She could smell it now, but there was sweetness at the edge of the smell. She would burn sweetly as