Kertész Ákos

Ákos Kertész: Hi Irene!

Translation from the original Hungarian in Amerikai Népszava

My friends say: Real charity is anonymous. When the benefactor of charity is known, it is called advertisement.
To my friends’ request, I changed their names, or used their first names or initials, in this writing.

Hi Irene, hi Abbey!
Hello Vera and hi Gyuri!
Hi Judy and Tibor!
Hello Zsuzsi and Ákos!
Hi Tanja and Mark; Chris, Kevin and Anne!
Hi Margeaux and hello Bandi and Andris!
Hi Irwin and Tom; and hello Kati and Gyuri, and hi Zsuzsi!

*

This list was not made by comrade Kubatov or Maria “Nurse Ratched” Schmidt and certainly not of those of Jews gathered by Arrow Cross party member Gyöngyösi, though it is also a list of names. Such a list is unfathomable to these individuals, as they would not even dream about it. This is a list of love that would make those list makers of Hungary sick. This is a list about those who only knew about an old novelist, nota bene a Jew, who, with his wife from Hungary, was persecuted by his own country for he had the courage to express his opinion about government politics and social conditions.

He needed help.

And they came to help him; not expecting any thanks for it was obvious that one helps when there is a need.

That’s it.

In lieu of gratitude, such a love and mutual friendship was born that I could not believe existed, for I never before had experienced it.

There was nobody in Montreal who could have accommodated us. We knew some old friends, who they either stayed as snowbirds in Miami or were not in town for another reason. Irene and Abbey came to my mind then.

We were here as tourists in 2009 when we briefly met. I had no idea why but that nice couple was in our host’s circle. They were documentary filmmakers and I kept their business card but had not maintained contact since. When the cab arrived at their door only then Irene recognized us: There you are! Are you hungry, aren’t you? – was her second reaction.

What happened was that F. Tibor, one of our friends they did not know, called them few days before. He explained that there is a couple, fleeing Jews from Hungary, whom they – Irene and Abbey – met 3 years ago. The guy is a novelist and, being in opposition to the authorities. he had to flee; hence they need help, now.

They hardly remembered us.

Sure, they should come – naturally they answered. (It was a minor detail that they were living off their savings as filmmakers with no contract at the time.)

We arrived on February 29. Next day, there was a huge snowstorm, 10℃ with icy winds (that means Spring here, as in Winter the temperature often falls below 20-30℃.) It must be appreciated that under these circumstances, Irene and Abbey provided shelter and accommodation to two, almost total strangers; and we did not need to spend the night in a park or in a Metro station. Next day, Irene gave us a lift to the “Refugee Office”; as we had no clue where it was located, we could not make to the next street on our own.

Two days later, Irene found us a very elegant, fully equipped apartment for free for three weeks. Irene’s friend is Anne, who is a friend of Christophe, a linguist, who left for Europe for three weeks. His apartment was free and the fellow (he is not Jewish, neither Anne nor Margaux are – this is not an issue here) let his complete home with a full fridge to two stranger refugees; for his friend’s friend stated they are in need and are trustworthy, therefore, he would also trust them.

B. Gyuri and his wife Vera is another lifeline. Gyuri is 82 years old. He is a contemporary whom we have lots of acquaintances and memories from our youth. He flew (Hungary) in 1956, then revitalized and published the Irodalmi Újság (a review) in London, UK for many years. Vera, same age as of Éva, in any aspects is a very attractive, multitalented and wonderful woman, who had been our guardian angel until we lived as their neighbours in the mountain. She helped us even later until we could move into our first rented apartment. They live in Morin Heights, about 70 km North of Montreal. Their friend, Rick’s house next door was empty and we could move in and we would have stayed until the end of June. Rick stated that the friend of my friend is also my friend. Believe it or not, this is how things work here. At the beginning of May, However, Rick’s brother suddenly wanted to come up with his grandchildren and sure the grandchildren first! These 6 weeks and the fantastic beautiful scenery on the mountain were an extra gift of life provided by the couple, Vera and Gyuri. It was a special reward for us that we could meet them. They somewhat found out that we had already arrived here, and they located us in order to give help. They did not know us personally although they read one or two of my novels and that Open Letter in the “Amerikai Népszava”. Why? There is no explanation, for people here are just like that.

It was the best decision of my life to leave that Hungarian desert and choose Canada; I wouldn’t be alive if I had stayed in my homeland. I would have been either beaten up on the street or taken into custody without release until hearing and sentencing. Being 80, I would already be dead.

We were still in Morin Heights at Passover time. Vera and Gyuri left for town to spend Seder with their family; so we were to stay on our own in the mountain. But Irene did not forget us, and invited us as family members to spend both Seder nights with them. Gyuri gave us a lift and we again spent three days at Irene’s.

I have never felt that we Jews are indeed a free people and how far slavery is for us. Passover is the celebration of the deliverance from Egypt; “and tell your son” – the Torah says lest be never forgotten what happened; that G-d and Moses led the Jews out of slavery. We celebrate our freedom at that time and it is not accidental that I previously had never felt that so intensely. It was few weeks before when we just escaped from the land of our slavery. Here the fine food was only one thing. We were welcomed with true love and that was the real experience. The strangers escaping from a remote, fascist country, who hardly spoke the language, were welcomed based on fact that my friend’s friends are also our friends.

We met there Tanya and Mark, friends of Irene, and we became friends forever. Tanya helped a lot, took me in her car everywhere, spent half-days with me in the hospital when I got sick. What a feeling to get a call: “Are you home?” – and she dropped in 30 minutes later with a cake that she baked for as for she wanted us to enjoy it as well. These little things what make an unknown country, an unknown city like your home as if you had lived forever there. It is common to have non-Jewish friends on Seder Night, on that important Jewish Holiday. This is Canada. The festival of the freedom of the Jewish people is the festival of all people. This is clear.

The first Seder we celebrated at Irene’s. For the second Seder our hosts were invited by a Moroccan, Sephardic family. Our hosts took us there as family members as well. Mediterranean colors and flavours, beautiful women with dark skin then the reading of Haggadah in Hebrew. “It is beautiful as we were in the Garden of Eden” – said Éva. Indeed, as compared to the spiritual, mental and moral darkness in Hungary.

When we suddenly had to leave Morin Heights in order to give our place to Rick and his grandchildren, Gyuri was so devastated, as it would be his fault. They searched for an apartment and helped us move in in such intensity that I almost felt ashamed; but they said; “Your problem is our problem, too!” In the beginning of May, it was not easy to find and apartment for the big moving period falls in July, here. We still hadn’t had our dogs with us, but we knew that we would want them anyway. We needed a dog friendly place.

For days, the Gyuris took us throughout the city. Vera’s wise calmness and unbroken optimism boosted our spirit when we were about losing courage. We were driving up and down on Queen Mary Road for days; Vera called every phone number posted about apartments for rent and stopped at the 25th. This is it! I already gave up but the two women were optimistic. This was an old house but the apartment was clean, big and bright. Two young women were moving out. The flat was free around the 5th of May, the rent was reasonable, and the janitor, Lady Doreen, was an old, wrinkled, English speaking lady with no teeth but big voice that was hard to understand. Never mind! Indeed, we became tenants at 4810 Queen Mary Road.

We three stood in front of the house. Gyuri went for food when a man came out with two beautiful giant poodles. Kutya! (Dog!) – We all shouted in Hungarian and turned to the men: “Do you live in this house?” – He is surprised but answered: “Yes.” “And with these dogs? – “Of course.” – But the dialogue was broken as we all turned baffled to the dogs saying in English and Hungarian: “Sweet, lovely dog, doggy…” – The men probably thought that we were crazy, lost from the asylum and he ran away with his dogs towards the park. We started to laugh; the two women were roaring guffaws… as we imagined how that dog owner – a regular, good-looking guy in his mid-30s – may think about this experience and how he could tell about it to his friends.

He would know later, when our dogs will be arrived and we would meet at the door or during a walk, why we were so happy that such nice dogs lived in this house. Until then, though… the girls recalled that moment many times during the day and that ended up in laughing and laughing again. They laughed, screamed and pranced as two teenagers. Thanks to this dog story we ended the day in terrific mood eating Kentucky Fried Chicken somewhere on the road in the night.

As we became urban dwellers, commuting was a new experience. It is characteristic to a society how many people form a spontaneous line-up with no compulsion. In Hungary even 300 would not make it. When there the bus or the streetcar reaches the stop; everybody is for himself and the same time, whoever can make first, they scream calling names, wrestle and tell that the bus is already full the next comes soon! The next bus never arrives and half of the people are left at the stop. Here, three people already make a line. To gain without merit is unthinkable here. There is no need of polite gestures as nobody is in rush and all reach their destination. If somebody is lost, missed his stop or took the wrong line and needs guidance just asks the driver. Everybody is patient, nobody sulks or calls names; the conflicts are to be solved with friendly smiles. There are many strollers; paraplegics in wheelchairs, people with huge backpacks at rush hour who commute respecting the others and all issues are solved with no violence on a friendly basis. Youth give up their seats without hesitation to old men like me, so I can hardly refuse it saying that I get off at the next stop. Sometimes, when nobody offers their seat, the driver calls and that generates a dispute with smiles and friendly gestures. You feel good about it; me, the refugee, but everybody, because it might be unbelievable: it feels good to be kind.

I was sitting and waiting in the Emergency Department of the Jewish General Hospital, lately – it doesn’t matter why – and was observing the waiting patients, the staff and the doctors. I was enjoying the big cavalcade of people and races, the wonderful variety of mankind; patients and doctors from all over the world, they breath and live together, girls and sons of every nations: Chinese, Korean and Philippines, blacks from Jamaica, Haiti and Africa, and all the skin tone from Europe, from Scandinavia to the Balkan, the Jews: the orthodox with payots (side locks) and kippot (skull cap) and the seculars, Hindus and Sikhs and Arabs and Iranians; I felt all those are Canadians, this is Montreal and I am one of them; these are my compatriots and amongst them I am home with my very little English, and I feel accepted and respected as a human being just for being human.

I left behind a lot only for being here as one of the many in this environment. This was the best decision of my life to leave everything there, the gravel of a life; I only had my dogs brought after me and that exhausted all our savings.

Yet, I’m happy and thankful to Canada for harbouring me; together with my spouse of love and ally, that is a special gift for me.

I sat on a doorstep taking sunbath with Shlomo, my Labrador on rue Ponsard when a car parked in the garage on the other side of the street. A blond woman in her mid-forties got out, told me something – I didn’t get it but I waved smiling. Suddenly, that woman came out of the house, crossed the road with a big glass of ice water in her hand and water in a bowl for Shlomo. What? How? – “Well, it is hot and you need to drink even more if one is old.” – she said. Finally, I got it; she had asked if we were thirsty. And I had difficulty to understand why people are so kind here… this woman was a complete stranger, completely unknown, who might have seen me sunbathing during my afternoon walks, I usually took a break at that place, but no connection as we have never spoken… God bless Canada and the Canadians!!!

We had the (Immigration) Hearing on April 9th. The Boardman informed us about the decision right away that was uncommon: based on the 1951 Geneva Convention, Canada granted us political asylum.

The judge [the Boardman representing the (Immigration) Board] was very well prepared about Hungary, about me as well. He knew my file by heart. The “investigation” took more than three hours, nothing escaped his attention, and he was interested in everything. I had nothing else to do but give an honest answer to all his questions. Then the judge made a long summation. Today I know why; he had to support thoroughly his positive decision. It is extremely rare – so they say – that the status is granted right at the hearing. The judge then congratulated to Éva and me on behalf of Canada and added that he hopes that I would write good novels in peace and tranquility here.

It is too bad, that those racist thugs at home (in Hungary) did not see as the black Canadian judge shook hands with us. Nevertheless, this alone gave me gratification.

My wife called Irene first right away when we left the interview. Irene’s happy scream could be overheard on the phone. Without knowing the positive result, they already made arrangement together with Tanya, Anne and Christoph – we were nine – a little supper at Tanya’s house, so we wouldn’t need to cook at home. Irene and Anne came by car to pick us up. They parked the car on the other side of the road. While waiting at the corner they waved and shouted to us. A young, black couple nearby asked what happened, what is the reason of this joyfulness. Irene shouted that these are refugees who were just granted status, today. The young couple congratulated us with white teeth smiling as they passed by. There were at least ten people who overheard that we were just granted refugee status. Everybody smiled and waved and shared our joy. This was nothing extraordinary as this is the atmosphere of the city: This is Montreal. Can this city not to be loved?

In case Irene remember that couple, they may not recall that they are black. This is not noticed by white people here, here blacks and whites are mutually “colorblind”; I am the one who notices it, I, who arrived from a xenophobic, racist world.

This supper was organized to enjoy friends, as we would be tired from the stress of the interview; nobody thought that we would know the decision and that the supper would become a festive meal. This reflected the atmosphere of our small gang for the joy of success multiplies a thousand times when being amongst loving friends and supporters.

Later in the evening, when we were about to leave and saying good-bye, I hugged every one of them. I kissed the girls and the ladies and felt as if Irene’s face was wet. I realized it only when I touched her face. First, I did not even understand it. I could not believe it. Indeed, her eyes had tears, so I just hugged her more strong and could only say to her that I am happy to have a friend like you! Would I be able to speak better English I could not even continue as I had a lump in my throat and was almost crying, too. Or rather to say, I was indeed crying.

“Who am I for this girl? O.K. to this young woman… she could be my daughter… what kind of relationship is this that is deeper than any kinship? I am her protégé, an old chap who just got here and whom she helped… but this – I swear – she doesn’t even think about it… only that that Éva and Ákos succeeded here. They are going to live here with us, and we will be enriched by them and they will be enriched by us… Or she just became fond of me during the time in the way only a clean soul can love…”

These tears of joy from Irene are more important for me than any refugee status and any welcome statement of Canada. Even those were not only for me, but for both of us, Éva and me. These tears meant also the inner joy that makes it worthwhile to do something for others for there it is worth! Though the tears were on Irene’s face, and Irene was the medium, those tears represented the feelings of all our friends.

Those expressed the welcoming murmur of the maple leaves of a big, peaceful country.

This is my welcoming statement.

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