The taxi was screaming though the streets of Vienna on August 12, 1982. I sat plastered against the back seat with a smile of child-like joy covering my face. “Yes, this is really happening. It has now come to this. I am in the beautiful capital of Austria on a mad dash ride down to the Danube River to try to get a place on a hovercraft for which I have no ticket. Once on this boat I will travel three hours east and south on this river to Budapest, Hungary. From there my destination is Nyiregyhaza, the city of my father’s birth. I do not know a single soul in this country whose name, history and culture have been an ever present but ill-defined part of my 32 years on this earth. Will I somehow, some way find someone who knew my father?”
My father was Tibor “Theodore” “Teddy” “Ted” Klafter. Of his life there are some things that I do know, many things that I do not. Much of what I am about to tell you I found out before his death and much of it only since then. For instance, was he born in 1919 or 1921? Various documents vacillate between the two dates. Either way he was born in Nyiregyhaza. Of his boyhood and growing up in this town of 100,000 in northeast Hungary my main memory is that he liked horses and loved to play soccer. His parents were Moritz and Ilonka, his older brother Lazlo. Life was simple and undisturbed until World War II and the Nazi regime. Germany and Hungary were allies, and this provided some cover and protection for the Jews for a time. But 1944 brought one of the architects of the Nazi Final Solution, Adolph Eichmann, to a now German occupied Hungary. Lazlo was sent off to labor camp in the Ukraine, never to be heard from again. My father and his parents were taken from Nyiregyhaza to Budapest, forced to live in a building where they were being held prior to eventual deportation to a concentration camp. One day in June 1944 Tibor stepped outside the building to smoke a cigarette. He had the cigarette in his mouth; he lit the match and then cupped his hands to protect it from blowing out. He was drawing the match closer to the end of the cigarette when the unthinkable happened. The building that still held his parents was blown up by bombs dropped by American or British planes making runs against German held territory. His parents were instantly killed and he survived because he was outside trying to smoke. Somehow he was able to have his parents buried in a Jewish cemetery in Budapest. Suddenly, in his early 20’s he was on his own. He went mad for a time from the shock of it all, being nursed back to health by a Jewish woman named Margaret. Gentiles who risked their lives for hunted Jews assisted my father in his survival, feeding and housing him.
A year later in 1945 the war ended and the Russians were the largest force in the country. My father could emerge out of his “hole” to the surface. He hated everything German and wanted revenge. He got the Russians to appoint him commandant of a German POW camp in Budapest. He occasionally used a different last name from the Jewish German sounding “Klafter” to the more Gentile Hungarian “Koltai.” He married Margaret after he had found an apartment for her and discovered that they would only rent to a married couple. Tibor also liked card games and horses, and gambled away all of his money. He could also see that the Russians were going to exert an influence on Hungary that was not going to foster Hungarian independence. He told Margaret in 1947 that he was going to sneak out of the country and make his way to America where once he was established he would send for her.
Leaving Hungary he made his way across Europe and ended up in Portugal. From there he somehow got on a merchant marine ship headed to Brazil. Once there he lived by his wits and on bananas for a few months in that country and Venezuela. He went from there to Cuba and from Cuba to Florida, U.S.A. However, that was not his stopping point. He had a Hungarian aunt living in New York City. He met up with her and of course she started introducing her handsome nephew to other Hungarian Jewish women who had unmarried daughters. This is how Harriet Zeif, my mother, daughter of Hungarian immigrants, met Tibor and later married him on May 9, 1948. Meanwhile, Margaret had some Hungarians that she knew in New York tracking my father’s activities. She knew him too well. She knew of my father’s roving eye. On the day she heard that Tibor was in a serious relationship with Harriet she started writing up the divorce papers. She told me this herself in Budapest on September 30, 1986, in the same apartment she shared with my father forty years earlier. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Back to the summer of 1982 and the end of a wild taxi ride in Vienna. With twenty five minutes to go my traveling companion, Mike Considine and I, rush to the office on the Danube selling tickets for the daily trip to Budapest. We find out that we are fourth and fifth on a waiting list to get on the boat. “What? We have got to get on this boat today, now,” we tell ourselves. We realize what we have to do. We start fervently praying and immediately sense that it has been done in heaven. We are told with a few minutes to spare that “yes, we have two tickets for you.” We giddily climb aboard. The hovercraft starts pulling away from the dock. Tears erupt and stream down my face as the full weight and import of what is happening starts to hit me. Soon I am going to be in Hungary. My parents never made it back in their life together. My father died in 1972 and my mother in 1977. They are not here but they are with me, inside of me. I am going back for them, not just myself. There is a collective pain and triumph involved in this. They did not survive to this day but I have, and as I see the Czechoslovakian countryside flashing by me and as we pass barges with Russian and Romanian flags on them and as I feel the wind blowing against my face and through my soul I feel fully alive, and the sense of roots, of representing and of getting in touch with something so dear and precious in my past is beyond description.
As twilight approaches we pull into this city of two, yet one, split cleanly by the Danube River, Buda to the west and Pest to the east. We get off the boat and are not sure what to do. So Mike takes out his guitar, starts playing a Bob Dylan song and I accompany him on flute. Soon we are approached by a Hungarian man speaking fine English, by the name of Geza Nemeth, “you know,” he says, “like Joe Namath.” He told us he had lived and worked in Texas for an oil company and recognized the music. We told him of our situation and he immediately offered to help us find lodging for the night and then invited us for dinner with his family the next night. We were so thankful for the Hand providing for us.
Two days later we got on a train heading to Nyirgyhaza. As the train was making its way out of Budapest Mike asked this fellow sitting next to him if he spoke English, thinking that maybe he was from Western Europe or America. “Yes,” he said, “I speak English, but I am a Hungarian who is a university student in Budapest, and I just got back from a holiday in England where I went to hear the Rolling Stones and The Police, and I am heading to my home town of Nyiregyhaza.” Mike explained to him that he was traveling with a Jewish guy named Mark Klafter who was on a quest to explore Nyiregyhaza to try and find anyone who may have known his father Tibor from his days growing up there in the 1920’s to 1940’s. Mike brought Gyorgy “George” Ignacz over to meet me and he uttered these sublime words of comfort and hospitality, “Oh, you must stay with me and my mudder.” Stunned again. Here I am, not even outside the city limits of Budapest and the Lord has provided not only a place to stay in Nyiregyhaza but someone who is totally willing to be a translator for me. The goodness of God endures continually.
The next day we awoke in the comfortable apartment of George’s mother, who is a judge in the Hungarian court system. I ask George if there is a specific Jewish section of town. He says he is not sure. I ask him if there is a synagogue and he says yes, an old one that he is not sure is in use anymore. I said we will start our search right there. We walk over to the synagogue and knock on the first door of the first residence next to the synagogue. A man in his 30-40’s answers and George explains to him what we were searching for and the man says, “No, I have not lived here long enough to know your father or his family but I do know where the oldest living Jewish people in this city live. If they don’t know your father or his family no one will.” We thanked him for his advice and made our way to the home of a brother and sister named Ferenc and Zsenka Simkovics, ages 80 and 86. We knocked on their door and they both came out. George carefully told them that “This is Mark Klafter and he is the son of Tibor Klafter who was born and lived with his family in Nyiregyhaza before and during the war. Did you know Tibor and the Klafter family?” I will never forget watching this dear, small, old lady scrunch her face and move her hand near her head as she earnestly put all her memory cells to work for what seemed like a long time until she lit up like the brightest bulb and pointed her finger up in the air in discovery and amazement and grabbed my arm and said with joy and disbelief “THIS is the son of Tibor Klafter? Yes, I knew him and his whole family.” Continuing to hold me by the arm and almost dragging me into her home we both wept over our shared discovery.
Several hours were spent in the warmth and hospitality of this home. In the midst of our conversation George translated a reply from Zsenka that included the phrase “Tibor’s Hungarian wife.” I shouted “Tibor’s Hungarian what??!!! George calmly explained to me that “yes, your father had a Hungarian wife after the war. Not only that but Zsenka knows this woman personally because Zsenka’s daughter is a personal friend to this woman who was your father’s wife. She knows her phone number and where she lives in Budapest. Would you like to get in touch with her?” Shocked I said “sure, I would like to meet her.” It did not happen on that trip but it did happen as I previously mentioned four years later on a return trip to the land of my ancestors.
The circle was now complete. I not only met someone who knew my father during his life in Hungary, in many ways I met my father for the first time.