Lucia Laragione: A Piece of Faded Yellow Paper

Ignacio, my grandson, looks baffled at a yellow piece of paper, faded by time, that I have just put in his hands. I tell him that it is part of his birthday present and he smiles, thinking that I am kidding. Then I look into his eyes and I add that that aged piece of paper that seems worthless today, meant the difference between life and death when I was thirteen (it is my grandson’s thirteenth birthday today). I insist, saying that if it hadn’t been for that slip of paper probably neither of us would have been here today, celebrating.

Now Ignacio looks at the faded document again and sees a seal that he hadn’t noticed before.

”What ´s that?”, he asks.

”The Coat of Arms of the Swedish Royal House.”

My grandson understands that there is a story behind this and I begin to reminisce.

II

The sound of water is the music that accompanied my childhood. The most intense and distant memories of Budapest, the city of my birth, are associated with water. Not only because the two historical centers, Buda and Pest are devided by the Danube river, but also because the whole capital of Hungary abounds with fountains and thermal baths.

During the summer, my family and I used to go to Gellért, the most popular bath. I can still feel the excitement of sinking into the pool with artificial waves that would lift me up to the crest with ondulating movements. In those days I was only eight and my world was a safe place, sheltered by my parents’ love. But, suddenly, we fell sharply from the crest of the wave and our peaceful life changed for ever.

Soon, Janos, my father, and Bartha, my mother, understood that, apart from the calamities of war, there was for us a great additional menace: persecution because of our origin. One had only to see what had happened in Poland: as soon as the Nazis occupied it, the manhunt of Jews was unleashed.

From my child’s point of view, I could not grasp the danger.

”But if we Hungarians are friends of the Germans” I argued ”Why would they hurt us?. ” Perhaps in order to set my mind at rest, I thought that my parents were exaggerating. During the following years, in spite of the war, I continued going to school and leading a life which, even with fear and hardships of every kind, seemed normal. Then the fateful year of 1944 arrived.

That year, Germany and her allied countries (among which was Hungary) were definitively headed for defeat. The Russians, who, allied with England, France and the U.S.A., fought against the Germans, were advancing without stopping over Rumania and Bulgaria and threatened with arriving to my country. Commandant Horthy, head of the Hungarian government, asked the Russians for a truce. The Nazis considered this petition as treason. They feared that, through our territory, the enemies would finally penetrate Germany. To avoid it, they invaded Hungary.

A that time I was thirteen. I harshly had to learn how correct my parents’ fears had been. The invaders immediately put in practice against Hungarian Jews the policy of death that they had enforced in all the occupied countries.

My parents and I, together with thousands of others, were torn from our homes and confined to the enclosure of the ghetto (1). That winter was a harsh one and we were crowded in dark, miserable rooms under the constant menace that any gesture would cost us our lives. Once a day, we would manage to eat a piece of bread. I remember that, despite everything, I went on hearing the sound of water, the music of Budapest, and that kept my hope alive.

Finally, on a day when the April sun was beginning to show itself, we were violently driven from the ghetto and were dragged to the East Railway Station.

In more happy times, we used to leave from there to visit my grandparents who lived in the country, the country which in springtime is filled with flowers. Now, instead, from there we would leave in cattle trains towards death.

I Walked together with the others, striving to keep back my tears. I was so afraid! Beside me walked a woman with a baby in her arms. We were already in the station platform, when one of the huge dogs that an officer was holding threw itself against me. Terrified, I fell to the ground. The soldiers laughed at my panic. The dog’s enormous mouth was baring its sharp teeth centimeters from my head when I suddenly heard an unfamiliar voice exclaiming: ” Leave him! That boy is under the protection of the King of Sweden!

The man who held the menacing beast, pulled its leash and withheld it. I looked at the person who had spoken: he was a young man of about thirty, slim and elegant. He wore a long blue overcoat and his blonde straight hair was combed back form his forehead. With a determined gesture he extended before the officer a yellow paper that bore the coat of arms of the Royal House of Sweden. I never really found out why the Germans, who stopped at nothing, showed such respect for seals and documents.

That day Raoul Wallenberg (2) (I later learned that this was my savior’s name) managed to save dozens of Jews from the trains of death. During the following months, I worked by his side at the Embassy of Sweden, a neutral country during the war.

Employed as an office boy, I myself distributed among my brethren those yellow papers that meant the difference between living and dying. More than fifty years have passed and I cannot forget the image of that brave and caring man, climbing on the roofs of the cattle trains, giving out with full hands the saving documents. And I cannot but think of the irony of destiny.

In 1945, when the Nazis surrendered and the Russians finally entered Budapest, Wallenberg had succeeded in rescuing from the hands of the victimizers more than a hundred thousand Jews. However, he was not able to save himself. On January 17th 1945 he was seen for the last time when entering the Headquarters of what was then the Union Of Soviet Socialist Republics. The Russians, who made him a prisoner, maintain that the Swedish diplomat died in prison in 1947. But there is no proof of this being true. It is thought that those who captured him suspected that he was a spy in the service of the United States, or maybe they suspected him because of his contacts with the Germans.

”There wasn’t a saving paper for Raoul Wallenberg just as there isn’t a tomb to pay him homage (3),” I concluded my story.

Ignacio looks once more at the paper he is holding in his hands and tells me that he is going to keep it carefully and that when the son that he expects have is thirteen, he will bequeath it to him , together with my story. We hug each other and then, to my absolute surprise, he whispers in my ears the following words: ”Isten eltessen sokaig/a fuled erjen bokaig”.

”Who taught you that?” I ask, bewildered.

My Dad. Who else? But the truth is, I don’t know what it means. He told me to ask you.”

To surprise me, my son had taught his son the most enigmatic of my people’s greetings: ”May God give you a long life and may your ears reach your ankles”.

I translate the strange words for Ignacio. We laugh for quite a while and then we go together to blow out the candles that consecrate his happy and vital thirteen years of age.


(1) Ghetto: an enclosed neighborhood destined to isolate Jews.

(2) When in 1944, he was proposed with the chance to work in Budapest to help the Jewish community, he gave up a successful appointment in a private firm to undertake a mission of risk.

(3) In Buenos Aires, in the square situated in Figueroa Alcorta and Austria, there is a monument that commemorates Wallenberg.

Traducido por: María Lía Macchi