“Is this the one Nagyanya?”
“Is he the one Nagyanya?
Deli Fehér must have asked his grandmother the question a thousand times, while showing her a thousand photographs.
“Is this the man Nagyanya?”
The answer never varied.
They often discussed other subjects when Deli Fehér visited her small apartment. He’d ask if she’d seen any good movies, or read any good books lately.
She knew that her grandson loved her very much, but she knew that he was there to ask about the men in the photographs. And then one day she didn’t know Deli at all.
“Hello young man. My name is Dorika.” The doctor had warned him that her long-term memory was almost completely lost, but Deli was hurt nonetheless.
“My name is Deli,” he replied, struggling to control his emotions.
“Are you here to change my sheets?”
“No. I’m here to ask you a question.”
“Well, what is it?”
Deli paused for a moment and asked, “Have you seen this man before?
Deli Fehér stepped out into the cool Budapest night, and tried to shake off the nagging sensation that he was wasting his time. His whole life Deli’s grandmother had told him “never forget.”
“Never forget what happened to our people Deli,” she’d explain, “never forget or it will happen again.” Now that his grandmother could no longer remember for herself, he’d have to remember for the both of them.
Deli glanced at his watch. It was nearly midnight in Los Angeles, far too late to call his contact at the Wiesenthal Center. Not that there was anything to tell. They’d given him another list of names, another set of photographs, another dead end. Time to walk.
Deli let the river Danube guide him through his city, the “City of Baths,” the “Paris of the East.” It was once two villages—-Buda and Pest—-now joined by a bridge. Fehér often felt like two men—a detective and a grandson—joined by a common task that united his two duties: Find the man who hurt his family. Find the man that got away. Find Dr. Dezso Siralomház.
The clunky name bounced around in his head like a bar of soap banging around an empty bathtub. Who was he? A soldier? A doctor? A monster? From the terrifying stories that his family had long whispered about him in hushed tones, it seemed he was all of those things. And he was still out there, somewhere.
The War had been over in Hungary for over half a century. Its Fascist “Arrow Cross” party, happy co-conspirators in the plot to exterminate European Jewry, had long ago been put on trial for its laundry list of war crimes. This had been a small tent in the loud circus that had taken Fascism to the stock and pillory, but most believed justice had been served in Hungary. The country’s police was therefore uninterested in spending resources or manpower hunting down pathetic old men whom time had most likely punished enough. But Deli Fehér believed there was no statute of limitations when it came to crimes against humanity. The Simon Wiesenthal Center, named for the world’s most renowned Nazi hunter and himself a Holocaust survivor, wholeheartedly agreed
A tenuous partnership was struck between the lone crusading detective and the powerful philanthropic agency. The Center provided Fehér with leads, files on low-ranking Arrow Cross party members believed to still be living in Hungary. The hope was that Fehér’s grandmother could identify one of them, who in turn could tip them off to Siralomház’s whereabouts. The Center would have liked to work directly with Dorika Fehér and avoid using her grandson as a middleman, but Deli insisted on being the conduit for information. He didn’t like the idea of some operator from Los Angeles serving as his Nagyanya’s “handler.” She wasn’t just a contact or some intelligence “asset.” She was his grandmother, and if this wasn’t a personal crusade it wasn’t anything at all.
Now that Dorika Fehér had lost most of her memory, the gambit seemed all the more hopeless. But the words “almost completely lost” stuck in Deli Fehér’s thoughts. The secret clue that could lead them to the whereabouts of Dezso Siralomház might still be locked away in her troubled, ailing mind.
“Deli?” began the relaxed voice of Bud Schwartz over the speakerphone, “Deli buddy we’ve got a new lead for you.”
Deli Fehér barely looked up from the ominous pile of rap sheets he was diving through to respond to his contact from the Wiesenthal Center with a distracted, “Oh yeah?”
“Deli, can you hear me?” continued Schwartz, “I can barely make you out.”
This wasn’t surprising, Fehér’s desk was pitifully placed in the center of the cramped station office, next to many more like it. He had put Schwartz on speakerphone to give him the idea that this wasn’t the best time to talk. The plucky Los Angelen didn’t seem to be thwarted.
“Deli listen,” continued his contact a bit more gravely, “we’ve got a fix on someone who may have known your guy. He’s living, now, in Budapest.”
Deli Fehér dropped his pencil and picked up the phone. “Yeah?” he replied excitedly, his silence indicating a voracious appetite for more information.
“Name’s Lipót Bakos. Boyhood friends of your guy Dezso Siralomház, grew up in Budapest together. See action together in Dubya Dubya One. 1925, Siralomház goes to Frankfurt University in Germany to study medicine. When National Socialism begins its rise, Siralomház likes what he sees and decides to stay in Der Fatherland. Eventually becomes a physician for high-ranking SS, and in gratitude Eichmann gives him an officer’s commission. That’s how he ends up in Dachau, where your grandmother and her—”
“—I know about Siralomház,” interrupted Fehér , “where does this Bakos come back in?”
“Okay, so….” Schwartz began again, “Lipót Bakos gets a commission himself in the Arrow Cross Guard where he works very closely with the SS in Budapest rounding up and processing Jews for transport to the camps. Because Siralomház and Bakos are such chums, the good Doctor makes special “requests.”
“Requests?” inquired Fehér.
“For specific types of subjects to use in the various experiments and unnecessary surgeries Dr. Siralomház reportedly conducted.”
“Not reportedly,” Deli Fehér corrected sharply, “I’ve heard the stories.”
“Anyway,” Schwartz continued grimly, “one of those requests was for twins.”
“Hello young man, my name is Dorika.”
“Hello. My name is Deli.”
“Have you come to change my sheets?”
“No. I have a question.”
Deli Fehér pulled out a photo of Lipót Bakos and showed it to his grandmother. “Is this the one Nagyanya?”
Her face went white. She reached a frail finger out towards the picture. “Him,” she whispered, “him.”
“Yes, Nagyanya? You know him?”
“A train. He took us to a train. Me and, my…sister.”
“Oh Deli, Deli, Deli.” The old woman fell into her grandson’s arms, and for a moment many memories she couldn’t understand—some wonderful, some horrifying—came flooding through her heart.
The Castle Hill Funicular, or Budavári Sikló is a ramped trolley, which connects river-level Budapest to the old Castle Buda above. Lipót Bakos rode it up and down all day every day, for lack of anything to do with his old, empty life. The last day he engaged in this mindless ritual was the day he met Detective Deli Fehér.
The Funicular car stopped at the bottom of its tracks to let its passengers on and off. When only Bakos remained, Deli stepped onto the car. The engine powering the steep-climbing rail car roared to life, and the trolley lurched upward.
“Lipót Bakos?” Deli inquired as he stepped towards the rather droopy looking old man in the tattered grey pea coat and absurdly frayed cap.
The man grunted some reply that must have been an attempt to say, “That’s not my name.” His eyes were even worse liars than his words, and Deli could see his fear.
Fehér pulled out an old photograph of two dark-haired young girls. One was Deli’s grandmother; the other could have been her exact double. “Do you remember these girls Lipót?” Deli asked coldly.
“No, I…” Bakos stammered.
“Your friend Siralomház wanted twins, didn’t he?”
A look of fearful realization crept into the old man’s eyes. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Bakos pleaded.
“He wanted twins. And you happened to know two of them in Budapest didn’t you? You sent two of them away on a train, didn’t you? Well one of them didn’t come back. The other is my grandmother.”
“Where is he Lipót? Where is Dezso Siralomház?”
“He, he,” the old man began sobbing, “I didn’t see or hear from him for many years. I thought he was dead. And then about ten years after the war I got a postcard for my birthday. It wasn’t signed, but I know it was him.”
“And?” Fehér inquired further.
“I started getting one every year.” Lipót Bakos took a deep breath he could barely turn back into words, “and then two birthdays ago the postcards stopped. I just assumed Deszo finally died.”
“Where did they come from?”
“It was…it was…Melbourne…Melbourne, Australia.”
“Australia,” Fehér mused to himself.
The Funicular car halted abruptly, and they were at the top. Bakos turned away from Deli Fehér and looked down the tracks. With the boldest leap his withered body could muster, Lipót Bakos descended Castle Hill for the last time. And for once, the rail car didn’t follow.
When Deli Fehér rapped on the wooden door of Dezso Siralomház’s sunbleached farmhouse, it was a young woman who answered. Slim but busty, with hair as blond as the thirsty grass waving in the fields around her, she looked as though she had been drawn with the straight edges and bold earth tones of wartime poster art. She looked like a true daughter of the Fatherland.
“I’m looking for the doctor,” Deli began without introduction.
The girl was a bit taken aback. “The Doctor? He hasn’t practiced for years.”
“But he’s here?”
“—show me to him,” Fehér demanded.
“This way,” she agreed. The young woman turned coldly from Fehér and briskly led him through the house and into a pleasant den bathed in natural light. There sat Siralomház in an overstuffed maroon chair, gaunt and pale, but unmistakably the same man.
“Papa Deszo, a man to see you,” the young woman said warmly.
“Oh, thank you young lady,” Siralomház’s voice crackled.
The girl nodded and walked out of the room.
The old man smiled at Deli’s young face. “Who are you, young man?”
“Deli Fehér.” Before the pleasantries could continue, Fehér abruptly pulled out the photograph of his grandmother and her sister. “Do you remember? Tell me Doctor, do you remember?”
Siralomház’s face remained emotionless.
“Do you remember these girls? You made one pregnant.”
Deli pulled out Deszo Siralomház’s file from the Wiesenthal Center. It was filled with photos he had never shown his grandmother. He handed it to Siralomház.
“My god,” the old man gagged, disgusted.
“You put monsters in her belly,” Deli continued, “then you tied her legs together and killed mother monster and all.”
The old man stared at Deli.
“And then there was the other,” Deli began again, “you did nothing to her but make her watch, and let her live. She was the control subject.”
The old man was whimpering softly.
“Think about it,” Deli Fehér declared, “and decide if you want to continue with this bullshit. I’ll be back tomorrow.” Fehér snatched his photographs and stormed out.
Deli Fehér gave Deszo Siralomház that day to contemplate his crimes, and accept that he was caught. When Fehér returned the following afternoon, the girl’s eyes pierced him with disgust. If only she knew who the real villain was. Deli figured she’d find out soon enough, and there was no need to waste his time with her.
Without a word the young woman led Deli back to Siralomház’s den. The old man was sitting in the same spot from the day before. When Siralomház turned to look at Deli, his look was not of anger, regret, or even fear. Instead, he gave Deli the same broad smile as the first time they’d met.
“Who are you, young man?” the old man asked warmly.
“Deli…Deli Fehér,” he stammered, confused. Deli turned to the girl, who was standing in the doorway, and looked for answers.
“The doctors say his long-term memory is almost completely lost. He doesn’t even remember me after a day.”
“Who are you?”
“I’m his granddaughter, Cili. Now tell me what this all about.”
Deli stepped out of the den and into the hallway. The old man turned to the window, which was far more interesting than Deli and Cili.
“Listen,” Deli wasn’t sure what his tone should be, “Your grandfather is a very bad man.”
“Excuse me?” she interjected indignantly.
“I mean, he’s done very bad things.”
“To many people. To my…to my family.” Deli let his back rest against the wall and his body slide down to the floor. There he sat and began to weep for the first time since he learned what Deszo Siralomház had done to his grandmother.
Cili sighed and came down with him. “What is your name?”
“Deli,” he began through tears, “Deli Fehér.”
“You’re from Hungary?”
“We are too, originally. Grandpapa married a German girl, but she died giving birth to my mama. After the war Grandpapa moved us all here. I don’t know why.”
“I do,” Deli said, and he handed her the file.
As she looked at the photos, Cili Siralomház began to cry as well. “My…my Grandpapa did this?”
“And you’re here to arrest him?”
“But why? He’s just an old man. An old man who doesn’t even know he’s guilty. Is it worth trying a man who cannot remember his own crimes?”
“I remember. My grandmother remembered.”
“Please, don’t take him away. He’s too weak.”
Deli Fehér wiped away his tears and stood up. He outstretched his hand to Cili and pulled her up to his level. There they stood for almost a minute, while Deli searched his soul and hers. Finally, he pointed to the file still in her hand.
“You show him that file every day,” Deli ordered.
“What?” Cili asked.
“You say he forgets every day? You remind him every day who he is. You remind him every day until he dies, do you hear me?”
Cili nodded through more tears and let out a meek, “Yes.”
“Never let him forget what he has done, do you hear me?”
“Where’s your phone?” Deli demanded.
“Bud? It’s me, Deli.”
“Deli! Hey. Mission successful?”
“I’m here, at the house.”
“Is he there?”
“No. But he was.”
“I see. Dead end?”
As Deli hung up, he glanced out the window and spotted two men across the road from the farmhouse wearing dark suits, and standing next to a rented car. Fehér immediately knew they were from the Wiesenthal Center. Schwartz had had him tailed. Sneaky bastard.
So it didn’t matter now. They knew where Siralomház was, and Deli had led them right to him. It gave Fehér some measure of comfort to know that the doctor would be brought to justice, but that Deli’s hands would remain clean. By the time Cili walked into the room to ask him if he was hungry for dinner, the two men and their car were already gone. Deli accepted the invitation
The two grandchildren talked long into the night, lost in the complexity of the bizarre and tragic way their two families had become intertwined. Lost they were too in each other’s eyes, hers steely blue as the skies above the Fatherland, and his as dark and mysterious as the cool nights of his two cities now one.
When the old man had gone to bed and quiet was needed in the house, Cili took Deli outside to rest under a canopy of stars. They sat for a long time on the front porch with nothing more to say, until she quietly rested her head on his shoulder and placed his hand on her breast. They remained frozen like this in front of Dezso Siralomház’s house for what seemed as long as time as Deli had been searching for it, until she stood without a word, took his hand and led him towards the old barn.
For every family involved in a war, the war ends at a different time. For those who leave none behind it may end on the battlefield, their cold face lifeless in the mud. For some families a war ends when victory or defeat is declared. For many others it will not end until years later. For Deli Fehér, the war ended that night in a hayloft above a barn in Australia.