(VOLUME XLV * No. 176 * Winter 2004)
“If There Is Still A God.”
I used to drop in on a barber's in the Seventh District, though never to have my hair cut. No catch there, just the stuff of life. I'm not one of those young men whose photos appear now and then in a barbers' windows. All my born days I have cropped my hair with paper scissors, to the point that the resultant mophead has become my sole distinguishing feature, and I'm also fond of scarecrows (poor old farmers, they have no idea that birds are our mutual friends).
I went to the barber's shop to play chess or more simply, to live, and let me say in my defence that there were others who went there for much the same reasons. After a while, I got used to Mr Szlatki.
During the first few years Auntie Ilonka was still alive and a low-ceilinged gallery upstairs served as a women's hairdressing salon. They fitted in up there because the womenfolk round our way aren't so tall, easy to look over. At the time when beehives were all the rage no beanpoles went to Auntie Ilonka's, if they did, their stiffly lacquered bouffants would have been flattened.
Since 1926 the barber had worked in the heart of a tenement block with the longest through-passageway in Budapest. He had been the apprentice there but in time had inherited this mini gold mine. And a mini gold mine is what it was, yielding roughly as much gold as could be recovered at the end of each year from the leather aprons of the goldsmith apprentices in the neighbouring street. Scrap gold, as the masters were on the watch for ways even the tiniest filings might go astray. They soon caught on to the fact that sly apprentices would frequently brush back the unruly locks that fell over their brows, thus leaving substantial amounts of gold dust sticking to their sweaty hair. Gold, though, is dead heavy, so the first thing those wastrels would do of an evening, on getting home, is wash their hair. They would bend over the wash basin and thoroughly rinse their hair, then wait till all that lovely gold had settled to the bottom of the rusty tin basin. Well then! Before leaving the workplace the goldsmiths were required to wash not just hands but their hair as well. Well, it was scraps like these that Mr Szlatki made from his customers.
Barbering is an easy-going profession. After all, one can't position a traffic cop to direct in customers, can one? Hair may grow, proliferate, if you will, but each to his own taste. Sometimes the shop is full of gentleman clients, at other times the autumn afternoons just drag by, with only those taking the dog for a walk dropping by for a word and, say, one of the cantors like Abrahamson on his way to the synagogue in Tobacco Street: “Good day, Mr Szlatki! And what's new in the big wide world?”
The real drift of that question becomes crystal clear when one knows that diminutive as the barber was-just like his wife, Auntie Ilonka-the two of them were great globe-trotters. Of an evening, on closing up the small shop, we would shuffle across the slippery, rain-slicked clinker paving of the passage to make our way between the two soaring poplars and through the rusty little cast-iron gate into the Raven Street block, the residence straight out of an Andersen fairy-tale, into the ground-floor flat, and there the barber would project slides to a spirited running commentary from himself and his wife about their bygone travels.
“We would go somewhere every year. Seven times to various places in Yugoslavia, Dubrovnik and the Bay of Kotor-before the earthquake, thank God. Greece-Athens, that is to say. Rome, Barcelona, Sochi, Moscow and, most interesting of all, modern Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn. So I have some idea of the political lie of the land and where places are, what is situated where, and what the people there are like. I've got stacks of slides, even two Super 8 films. Then we were also in Bulgaria, but I've not yet made it to America, not been to skyscraper heaven.”
All in all, they might have stepped right out of the Arabian Nights with the pearls of wisdom they reeled off to me of an evening.
“Oh yes, the notebook, the pearls of wisdom, that's in the shop right now, but I'll bring it over in a flash, if needs be, it's just a step away. Whenever anything interesting crops up somewhere I write it down for myself. No gate stays shut before an ass laden with gold, for instance. It doesn't matter what kind of an ass it is, the gate will open. This one's not bad either: it says that God merely dictated how the universe should be, he didn't sign for it. Nor this one: A person stays young only till he begins to envy the young. And here: Respect old age, it will be your future too-that's from the writer Miksa Fenyoý, if I'm not mistaken. Or this one, a Middle Eastern saying which goes: Even men with clean hands can have dirty thoughts. There you are! I said that in court to the judge: a statement was issued that with due consideration to my age-I was eighty-two at the time, you see-I was tax-exempt, but then I wasn't tax-exempt the moment they came out with that twenty-five per cent VAT. Well, I said to the judge, that's rather like something Mark Twain said: A banker is a fellow who lends you his umbrella when the sun is shining and wants it back the minute it begins to rain. In other words, I was tax-exempt as long as there was no taxation, but the second they dreamed a tax up that was the end of my tax exemption.
”Wealth is like salt water, it says here: the more one drinks, the thirstier one gets. Every one all too true. Then again: We have thousands of chances to spend money but only two ways to acquire it: either we work for our money or money works for us. Or how about this: Don't spit in the well, you may have to drink from it yourself. A poor man who strikes it rich keeps the heating going even in summer. Those are the things I read. Here's another, superb: There's one thing even worse than illness, and that's having a useless doctor. This one is something Churchill said, I think, because the English statesman wrote that there's no such thing as abiding friends or allies, only abiding interests.
Anyway, I pictured how Auntie Ilonka would wake up, with the sun not shining into the flat but just a bluish-tinged semi-gloom, and she creeps by the dark mass of the wardrobe out into the kitchen, switches on the light and puts on the coffee, by which time there may also be a light in Mr Barcsa's window. Uncle Bandi then saunters across into the next courtyard along the passageway, unlocks the door of his barber's shop, turns the heating on, tidies up the table, and when the newspapers have been delivered, spreads them out on the chess table to read as he waits for customers and anyone who might drop in for a chat. At one fixed point in the week-Tuesday afternoon, to be absolutely precise-he used to go off to pick mushrooms.
“It's a pity, but I don't dare go picking mushrooms any more on account of my age. I'm in my eighty-fourth year, so I now feel a bit of a twinge around the heart if I try to walk faster. Not to mention that if you want to go to the woods these days you have to put on really shabby clothes so people are more likely to give you things rather than strip them off you. But I used to be very fond of it, going off with the wife, carrying the kids on my shoulders all through the wood, that's when they were still small of course.”
Meanwhile every afternoon, getting on for dusk, I would sit there in the shop. And indeed there were many who'd drop by just to exchange a few words or make a ‘phone call. Back then there were still plenty of people in this block who didn’t have a telephone. They would make their call and leave a couple of forints by the ‘phone to pay for it. Any messages they would get free of charge; he was happy to do that free of charge, any time.
“That’s why I had no quarrels with anyone. I was even on good terms with Ozorocki here in the house. A very good friend he was-an engraver; dead now. Then there was a married couple, very good friends of ours. The four of us'd make trips together, so wherever we went our company was sorted; no one plonks themselves down at a table where four people are seated. Genuinely honest, decent people, they were. Sadly, they've passed on, both of them, but we have pictures, there's a film of us too; we'd go around together. As for the woods, I'd go picking mushrooms with the Romanian priest, my wife, the kids, my brother-in-law.
”I can tell you that all sorts slip off to a barber like myself. All sorts have turned up here, I'll have you know, from road sweepers to a high court judge, even a general staff captain, though admittedly that staff captain and the judge were working as caretakers by the time they turned up at my place. They'd been dismissed and had had their pensions stopped, so they became caretakers. But any advice they gave was excellent.
One thing that happened was when the ghetto was set up here, you know.
Part of my clientele was. well anyway, there was this ‘If there’s still a God, Bandi, save us from here', because there were thirty or forty of them packed together on the upstairs floors, children, the sick and whatnot. Something like a rolled-up cigarette they dropped as I came out of the shop, so I picked it up and that's what it said: ‘If there’s still a God.' Well, I said to myself: Save? I can't save anyone. I went into the shop, and there's the telephone, so I put in a call to the ambulance service to say: Sorry to trouble you, but we've some sick people here locked up together with children. Anything you can do to help, please. Blow me down if, just a bit later, a double ambulance doesn't draw up to take them away. Lumme! When I saw that I pulled the blinds down smartish, what with me being the only one in the whole house then with a telephone. By the time the authorities realised they were being taken away they were no longer there, so a search was made. Who had it been? Where had they been taken, and so on. A search. Yes, indeed, there were searches too.
“Then another of those stories, here, through the gate. One of my customers was Uncle Ungár, and once I had half a loaf of bread to hand over to him. There was a police post up at the front, by the ghetto entrance, and they spotted that someone had come up to the ghetto fence. My word, they didn't half skate back here! Meantime I made myself scarce. I was wearing a cap, so I quickly snatched that off and slipped into the shop. They tried to find out who it had been, but they didn't find out, no, never found out. They went over the other side too and made a real stink about who had it been, what had been passed over, even grabbed the old chap. But he never let on who had passed the bread across. They beat him with their rifle butts and all, with him having to hold his arms in the air, but he never squealed. So anyway, when that section of the ghetto was eventually liberated and everyone could get out, Uncle Ungár comes across. Thanks for not squealing, I said to him, because I heard there was a bit of a
to-do. Otherwise if you had let on, they would have slung me too into the ghetto-that's to say, if they hadn't shot me on the spot. ‘Look here, Bandi,’ he says, ‘I couldn’t have cared less. What I wanted was for them to shoot me.
I couldn't have cared less, so why would I have dropped you in it?'
”To say nothing of the time that pro-Nazi General Beregffy announced that all army deserters and all Jews on forced labour service were to report for duty, otherwise they'd be strung up-well, I didn't report, did I? People came along to tell me: At least come down to the cellar and hide, Bandi. Don't take this the wrong way, I said, the only way I'm budging out of my flat is if they carry me out in a coffin. I kept my head down and waited there. Whilst I was there, no kidding, I thought over my entire life. Word eventually came that they'd left. So I said: That's all right then, so they've gone. Well, let me tell you, two labour service men and an army deserter were lying here, shot through the head, at the corner of Raven Street and King Street for three whole days-it was winter at the time-and if I'd been in the cellar, then I'd have been shot as well. Not going was a real break for me, sheer luck. People ask why I don't put these things down in writing. Well, as I say, they were just things that happened.
This was one of the entrance gates to the ghetto. There was another nice bit of business there-a chap who had my marriage certificate and my daughter's certificate of baptism. A married man, he was, and called up for labour service. Well, I gave him the papers so he could use them to go underground. Fair enough, I said. When they eventually returned, he was profuse in his thanks. That was right after the siege was over, when I was in hiding too but my brothers were bringing me food. I happened to be eating jam dumplings when he turned up. I could see how hungry he was. Don't mind me,
I said, offering him one: Would you care for a bite, because I've eaten already? So he tastes one and says: No offence, but I'd rather like to take some for my daughter. So I said. I say. why not, just take them.
“In the end he emigrated to Canada. About three years ago, who should open the door to the shop? Well I never! You still here? And who are you? Oh yes! You're the one who has my marriage certificate. He broke down in tears and went away.
”I served my apprentice time under Mátyás Slechter, back in Tokodaltáró, at the colliery. He paid no attention to business, none at all: it was me who took care of that. He played cards and the gee-gees, which is when I learned about horse-racing. I went to the races, the flat races, that is. After I set up on my own, one of the work-out jockeys used to come to my place. Well, they're the ones who prepare the horses for races, so they always know which ones are on form, right? So he would say something like: Look here, Bandi, old pal, we'll win the Nursery Stakes with this one. I'd go to the track and put money on the Nursery Stakes, and win what's more. But then there would be ten other races, so if I had won fifty pengoý at ten to one, I'd lose all my money on the other ten races."
(translated by Tim Wilkinson)
Endre Lábass is a painter, author and photographer, who has been photographing Budapest for decades.
The above is a shortened version of a piece from his book Vándorparadicsom (A Wanderer's Paradise).
The lost old barbers of the ghetto - Budapest VII. Erzsébetváros - 2007.X.7. - Szlatky mester fodrászműhelyének hűlt helye a Holló utcai átjáróházban (+írás)