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As the soldiers tramped by, people presented their papers. One man said he was the son of a Jewish World War I hero and showed his father’s gold medal. But the soldiers smacked him, cursed him, grabbed him by the neck, shoved him into a corner and killed him. Next, a man who had converted to Catholicism from Judaism and married a Catholic woman said that the pope said you’re not a Jew if you converted before marriage, but the soldiers dragged him into the corner and killed him, too.
Eva and Alice waited in a far corner. “Near us was an old woman and her middle-aged daughter who had a little dog, a corgi she adored. It was like her child,” Eva said. “They were looking for their papers when the soldiers reached them. The dog started barking furiously. ‘People are dying of hunger, and you are feeding this beast?’ one of the soldiers shouted. He kicked the dog to death with his boots.
“The daughter howled, and beat the soldier. She wanted to kill him! There was great tumult until both soldiers pushed her away and said, ‘Let’s go!’ The one who had been not as vicious turned to me and asked, ‘Did you legitimate yourselves?’ I knew he meant did Alice and I show him our papers. I was shaking, but I said, ‘Don’t you remember?’ He left, and the cyanide stayed in my hair. That dog saved us. To this day, I have a fondness for corgis.”
These stories and others kept spinning in my head as Ken and I stood in the silent lobby; so much had happened here, not that you could tell. But for us to be in this ordinary-looking building and know its personal history was to see Wallenberg stride across the tiled floor, to hear the stomping of soldiers’ boots and the gunfire in the basement below. We knew these things and more because Eva had told it all to us before dementia began to steal her memories.
The sisters fled Budapest in March 1945, when a sympathetic Soviet soldier secured passage for them on one of the last trains out of the city before the Iron Curtain shut the borders. The soldier had knocked forcefully on their door, Eva recalled, and said: “Hurry! The train is waiting for you now!” She sensed that he was a Jew, especially because “he kept looking at me, and looking at my mezuza by the door. He wanted me to see him doing this.”