| PERSONAL HISTORY |
MY FATHER'S DEVOTIONS
by Harvy Simkovits
The Montreal Review, January 2010
I was glad services were over. Now we could eat!
My stomach had made hunger noises all through another boring Sunday morning Latin Mass that nobody, except maybe the attending priest, could understand. Now that the dull part of the day was over, I was ready to feast on my mother's mid-day meal of meat soup, chicken paprikash and apple strudel. As usual, my father had taken my older brother and me to the local Roman Catholic Church in our Montreal West Island suburb while Mom had dutifully stayed home to prepare lunch for when we returned. To Dad's chagrin, we young teenage boys had been fidgeting again, poking and prodding each other during services. After several "shushes," Dad had finally placed himself between us in the pew.
When we arrived home, we immediately sat down in Mom's kitchen as she placed her hot meat and vegetable soup on the table. In between us slurping the vermicelli-noodle laden broth, with my father's forehead bent so low that he needed to put his forearm on the table behind his plate to keep his head from sinking into the bowl, Dad started to talk. In his deep, accented, Eastern European voice, and choosing his words carefully, he said, "Boys, you know my parents were very strict with me. I was expected to go to church every Sunday and behave during services. I was also an altar boy at St. Elisabeth Dom in Kosice, and the Father there would say something to my father anytime I misbehaved."
John Simkovits had been born into the newly formed Czechoslovakia, and raised in the faith of his Catholic-dominated Slovakia province. Kosice's St. Elisabeth's Dom, an over 600-year-old gothic cathedral towering over the heart and soul of the city, was the spiritual center for Eastern Slovakia. While traveling with my parents back to their Eastern European home town during our elementary school summer vacations, my brother and I visited Dad's grand house of Catholic worship. We passed through the cool structure full of massive stone columns that held up a central royal oratory. We walked by small chapels with massive stained glass windows that made up the sides of that enormous edifice. Rows of candles in small and large red jars were lit under every sculpture and holy figure. Under a statue of Mother Mary, we took holy water onto our fingers and made the sign of the cross. Below a figure of the Hungarian Empire's patron saint, St. Elisabeth, we dropped Czechoslovak koruna into collection slots, lit candles for departed relatives, and knelt and prayed silently with our hands clasped.
Dad continued, "As a child, I was never allowed to fool around in church. If I did, my step-mother would grab and shake me; and my father would later take me to our shed and spank me good."
My brother and I were now all eyes and ears for Dad, with little but soup-eating slurps emanating from us. Contrary to his own upbringing, Dad never laid a hand on me. He once raised a belt to my big brother for disobeying our mother; yet he later felt so badly that he never touched any one of us again-though I knew his capacity for a bellowing anger if he was ever crossed. Now having the attention of his two first-generation Canadian children, Dad moved on to recount how his Christian background determined his fate during the German Nazi takeover of his country.
"Like all young Czechoslovaks," he began, "I had to start my compulsory military service just after my 18th birthday." Taking another deep breath, he added, "However, six months after I joined the army, the 1938 Munich Agreement was signed by Germany, France, Britain and Italy."
Dad explained that the Munich accord was an act of appeasement of Adolf Hitler's expanding Nazi regime. With rage rising in his eyes, and with his left-hand clenched in a fist on the table, he added, "Nobody could believe it. Without our Czechoslovakian government having any say whatsoever, most of my country was divided up among its neighbors, Germany, Hungary and Poland."
Dad stopped eating for a moment, focusing his eyes on us to make sure we were still listening. He then went on. "Yet Hitler had a bigger plan. Eastern Europeans who survived the Nazi invasions were to become workers for the Third Reich, or deported east, further away from them." With another big breath, and sweeping his hand down towards the floor, he added, "They planned to enslave us, sterilize us, starve us and then discard us like we were nothing." Then with rising ire, Dad growled, "Those Nazis bastards wanted to use us up and kill us off for their master Aryan race and their new German world order."
Sitting frozen in my chair, I stopped moving my soup spoon until Dad calmed down. He then continued, "With the ink still wet on the 1938 Munich Agreement, Hitler immediately expanded Germany's empire by annexing the largely German-speaking Sudetenland that bordered Bohemia and Germany."
From previous conversations, I knew Dad felt sympathy for the Sudetenland Germans. Their land had been carved out from their German homeland after WWI in the formation of Czechoslovakia. Subsequently, the Czech police brutalized them by killing innocent Sudeten German women and children during peaceful demonstrations for independence. Nevertheless, Dad stood with his Czechoslovakia and its democracy, reminding us, "Between the Great Wars, Czechoslovakia was the first and longest-standing democratic republic in all of Europe. Our first President, Masaryk, worked to give all regions and minorities a voice in the government.
"The 1938 Munich Agreement then changed everything," Dad added. He explained that the agreement led to the largely Hungarian-speaking southern Slovakia being annexed to Hungary, a deal Hitler had made with Regent Horthy of Hungary to cement their alliance. Hungary had lost two-thirds of its territory and three million Hungarian citizens after WWI, so the country's government was anxious to regain its more prestigious size and population.
Dad now explained, "As a result of the Munich agreement, my comrades and I who were from the southern part of Slovakia now had to report back to our home towns to be transferred into the Hungarian military. My city, Kosice, was now renamed Kassa [as it had been during the Austrian-Hungarian Empire], and it was now again a part of Hungary.
"After the Czechoslovak army was disbanded; I had to prove to the Hungarian command that my Christian background went back ten generations. Without that, I could have been thrown out from service and ended up in a Hungarian forced-labor camp with other undesirables or enemies of our new regime."
Dad told us that he was able to confirm his Catholic credentials through baptismal records. Yet, I always wondered how he could prove that his Christianity went back for hundreds of years. Decades later, Mom's eldest Slovak-Hungarian nephew informed me that Hungarians at that time only had to prove that their Christian background went back a couple of generations in order to be treated as a non-Jew. I then wondered why Dad felt a need to exaggerate such an innocuous detail.
As we continued with Mom's dishing out her sweet paprikash with potato gnocchi, all covered with a thick tomato sauce, Dad added, "Some of my relatives were Nazi sympathizers, volunteers for the Slovak SS, or members of the Hungarian Arrow Cross fascist party. One of my uncles was even the Mayor of Kosice during the Nazi-supported Arrow Cross Party takeover of Hungary in 1944.
"I remember them in their green shirts," he continued as he pulled on his own shirt. "They had set of crossed arrows as their badge," he then showed us by crossing his two index fingers. "The thought of those people makes me sick. They hated Jews and they terrorized everyone with their police brutality. They executed military deserters, and sent Jews and escaped prisoners to their deaths. They even went so far as to hang these people on the lampposts of Kassa at the end of 1944 when the Russians were knocking on our door.
"Yet, my parents were not fascists," Dad added. "We were just swept up in the Nazi craziness and had to pretend we were not against them." Dad did not say more about what he meant by that, but I could imagine he, his father and mother had to show a blind eye to the atrocities carried out by the Nazis and their Hungarian allies-or might they have participated in some way? Their choices were hard and few: to put their own lives and families in danger as fascist resistors, or to acquiesce or even become a part of the brutality itself. I was glad Dad stated that his immediate family had not been devoted fascists, but who knows for sure-my father was off at war for years while his parents remained in Kosice. I might have been more proud of Dad and his family had they been a part of the Slovak resistance movement, but that choice could also have meant that I might not be here today.
"When the war broke out against the Russians in 1941," Dad continued, "I was redeployed to attend air force flight school."
Dad had received a "more distinguished" military role as a Hungarian reconnaissance pilot. After the Eastern Front was established, Dad flew recon missions over Russian territory. Of those times he told us, "I was lucky to get myself back to Hungarian territory after my plane was shot at and hit a couple of times over the Russian front." After a short pause, he added, "That is, until the war started to turn against the Germans."
* * * *
As I chewed on Mom's gnocchi, I could not help to think about my father's other "devout" habits that helped him to cope through the terrorizing war. Like many of his military comrades, Dad relished cigarettes. For as long as I could remember, he chain smoked up to five packs (an astonishing 100 cigarettes) a day, often lighting up the next one in his mouth with the last embers of the one he was finishing. In his business heyday, scattered burn-holes could be seen in his white shirts or professional suits. My father always got angry at himself when he did that, with an English or Hungarian obscenity emanating from under his breath; but it never curtailed his habit. A cigarette always burned somewhere around him, just like candles or incense continually burning in a church.
During his off hours in the war, my father also drank religiously with his buddies and played a variety of drinking games. While I was growing up, he often demonstrated his drinking prowess during birthday or Christmas celebrations with his Slovak- and Hungarian-Canadian friends. After they all had a few, Dad would take a 6 or 8 oz drinking glass and fill it to the brim with pure spirits, usually his favorite Stolichnaya vodka. Sometimes he tried to balance the filled glass on his head, crouch down, and dance like a Russian Cossack with his legs kicking out from under him. Other times, surrounded by his countrymen, Dad placed the bottom of the filled glass onto the flat backside of his hand held horizontally. As music or singing began, he placed the lip of the glass against his mouth. Without touching the glass with his other hand, he slowly drank its contents until the glass was completely empty. As he swallowed, he was spurred on by spirited Slovak chants from his comrades in rhythm with the musical lyrics, "Pij do dna! Pij do dna! Pij do dna!" (Drink until the bottom!). The chorus ended with loud applause and happy cheers as my dad polished off his drink, with the glass help proudly high and upside down, its rim held firmly between his smiling teeth. Spilling even a drop would have been a stain on my father's manhood. And, I never saw him spill.
Dad also could entertain others with his deep, Slovak-Hungarian voice. His favorite venue was sitting at a table surrounded by his colleagues or comrades, all with filled glasses at hand. One after another, his Eastern European buddies would chime in on a familiar tune, following Johnny's choral lead.
Over the years, my father taught his favorite songs to many an Eastern European musician, with the best performers picking up the tune on their guitar, violin or accordion within a few sung or hummed bars. Some of Dad's verses were also quite risqué. Slightly different pronunciations of words in different Eastern European tongues could significantly change the meaning of a song lyric. An "arm" or "leg" or "egg" could easily turn into some other unexpected body part. Even the simple Ukrainian greeting, "How are you doing?" with a change of a few vowels and consonants could be transformed into a "What are you screwing around?"
My father enjoyed these musical word plays, and it continually caused "woo's", "whoa's" or "ah's" of surprise and laughs of pleasure to come from his friends-and everyone was Johnny's friend when he was entertaining.
* * * *
Over Mom's filling lunch, she said little one way or another about what Dad told us about his war experiences-possibly because she had heard his stories before. In addition, Dad did not like to be interrupted when he had the floor. If any of us opened our mouths and said something other than a word of agreement or amazement, he would turn to us and gruffly say, "Who is supposed to be talking now, me or you?"
As we finished up Mom's main course, and she cleared away the dishes, Dad continued with his recollections. He explained that in late 1943, when the war was turning against the Germans on the Russian front, he decided to take his fate in his own hands and flee the Hungarian military. He told us, "Many of us Hungarians were getting sick of the war, and things were now turning against the Germans after they lost big battles in Russia. Also, those Nazi bastards treated us as second class, making us work like dogs for their precious Fuehrer, making us do extra shifts and any crappy jobs . So some of us took our lives into our own hands and decided to defect. I thought about it too, yet the German officers were telling us how the Russians were immediately killing any captured or surrendered troops; so I was afraid."
Clasping his thick hands, Dad continued, "Then one day in early '44, I and two Hungarian friends just got fed up with the Germans. So, we decided to stick together and take our chances with the Russians. On our next mission, we ditched our planes behind enemy lines and waited for the Russian patrol to spot us.
"When the patrol came to find us, I went out first with my hands up, waving a white handkerchief so I could talk to the Russian lieutenant in charge in Slovak and what Ukrainian I had learned in school. After the officer spoke to me, he asked me to call for my two friends. When I called them, they came out with their hands up from where they were hiding in the bushes."
Then with shock and disbelief in his voice, Dad added, "As those two guys stood behind me, the Russian officer tried to speak to them; but they could not answer his questions because they only spoke Hungarian. The Lieutenant then took his gun and shot and killed them on the spot-boom!-boom!" With those last words, Dad made the shape of a gun with his fingers and then pointed to each side of him, right where his two companions had been felled.
"The soldiers kept me alive because I spoke Ukrainian, which is a sister languages to Russian. They probably were afraid of Hungarian spies, so they killed my friends."
It was decades later that I found out that my father's language capacity was only the reason for his survival at the hands of the Russians. In 1943, the Russian Soviets were working on a pact with the exiled President Benes's British-based Czechoslovak resistance movement. Benes was now preparing to fight with Russia against the Germans. The Soviet lieutenant probably kept Dad alive because he was no longer an enemy, but had recently become an important ally.
With a sigh of relief, Dad resumed his story. "The Russians then took me to a POW camp in Odessa, near the Black Sea where many Czechoslovaks were being held." With a hint of a smile on his face, he added, "There was farmland all around that camp, and the place sometimes smelled stinky from animal manure; but you could see the Black Sea from there. In Odessa I thought the war was finally over for me.
"During the six months I was there, I learned to speak Russian. Because I could also speak other Slavic languages, the Soviet guards used me as a leader and go-between with the other POWs."
Other than that, Dad did not say more about his life as a POW. In my later research I discovered that Odessa was liberated by the Soviet army during the early spring of 1944. Dad's POW camp was located in the small town of Yuzhny: a suburb of Odessa, close to a major seaport, and right up against the sea. I could imagine the POWs working all hours to help construct that new camp, or being laborers at the nearby port, or cleaning up the bloody battle mess that had come through the area with the hard fist of Stalin.
With some astonishment in his face, remembering what had happened next to him and his countrymen, Dad went on. "But by the middle of '44, the Czechoslovak First Army was formed in Russian-occupied Poland under Czechoslovak General Svoboda," he said as he raised his thumb up to indicate the number of his regiment. "The Russians now pulled all us Czechoslovak citizens out of the POW camps where they had been collecting us, and made us join Svoboda's army and fight against the Nazis. The plan was for us to conduct an offensive with the Soviets to push back the German forces from Slovakia."
After a deep breath he added, "After we left camp, we got organized and ready for our first battle in eastern Slovakia. Yet the Russians were not giving our new Czechoslovak forces the military support they promised. So when my division passed close by to Kosice in the fall of '44, I escaped them too. I found my way back to my parent's home to hide for the remainder of the war. By then I was just sick and tired of the fighting, and I did not trust the Russians!"
Dad continued, "When I arrived home, my father was happy to see me; yet my step-mother was worried about harboring a deserter. My father then put down his foot and said I could stay. He could relate to my situation because, as a Hungarian artillery soldier in the First Great War, he had spent nearly all of WWI in a POW camp. My father arranged for me to sleep in a barn close by. There my little step-brother brought me food every day."
Dad now pinched his forearm as he concluded his story, saying, "During the war I was not fighting for any country or religion. I was just fighting for my own skin."
My father always seemed to be self-conscious about having fought for the Axis side during WWII. When asked by his native Canadian friends and colleagues as to what he did during the war, Dad usually told them that he was part of the Slovak resistance movement, sometimes also adding that he flew as a pilot for the exiled Czechoslovak President Benes. Dad liked being seen as one of the good guys and on the winning side, so his Axis connection usually stayed cloaked when he was in mixed company.
* * * *
Dad's luck in surviving dire straits began when he was just an infant. "When I was one year old," he often recollected, "I came down with pneumonia and was very sick with fever. My mother was very worried I would die.
"One day during my illness there was a knock on the front door. My mother rushed to open it, expecting to see my father coming home with some medicine. Instead, she saw an old gypsy with a bag over her shoulders, looking to sell some things.
"My mother right away said, 'Go away old woman! My baby is sick and I have no time for you.' However, the gypsy then pushed herself into the house saying, 'Your child is sick? Let me come in. I will cure him!'
"The gypsy then showed my mother how to cook a strong garlic soup, which she then carefully fed me. When I was older, my parents told me I survived my sickness because of that old woman, whom my mother never saw again after that day." With a boyish smile on his face, Dad added, "Since then, I've loved the smell and taste of garlic."
On many mornings before going to work, my father would rub raw garlic cloves onto slices of buttered rye bread toast that Mom prepared for him. He then dunked the pungent toast into his black coffee and washed it down with the remaining brew. He stood up the whole time while eating-with his foot up on a kitchen-table chair, and leaning with one arm on the propped-up knee-so he did not linger at the breakfast table. Dad told us his garlic toast and coffee routine got him going in the morning, and it calmed his stomach from a night of business entertaining-something he did weekly as an entrepreneur.
* * * *
After Czechoslovakian democracy was reinstated in 1945, my father (also a devout capitalist) started a home-town radio retail-and-repair business. However, the growing Czechoslovak communist party-supported by the occupying Soviets-seized the government in 1948 and took over all the private businesses, including my father's. Now a marked capitalist in his home country, Dad made another big decision in 1949 to escape his homeland. But he did not want to leave Czechoslovakia alone. So he quickly engaged and married his Jewish girlfriend, my mother, who had survived the holocaust with her family by hiding as Christians in Budapest. Over the next six months, they managed to flee to Austria, immigrate to Canada, and start a new life together. Some years after settling into their new city of Montreal, Dad gave birth to the Canadian console stereo manufacturing business, and Mom gave birth to my brother, and then to me a year later.
In 1959, our young family moved into our first suburban home. There, in line with his spiritual beliefs, Dad hung a crucifix on the wall behind his and Mom's bed. I was then almost 5 years old, and he told me and my brother, "Don't play in Mommy and Daddy's room." With the dyer-looking dying Jesus now looking down upon this space, my parent's room somehow felt sacred and never to be messed with, or else He might judge us poorly. However, many years later, my brother told me that Dad had also hidden a stack of Playboy magazines under his and Mom's bed, and that is probably why he did not want us to play in the vicinity.
During my suburban upbringing, our family did not go to church every Sunday. Yet, with my brother and me in tow, Dad never missed Mass on important Catholic holy days like Christmas, Palm Sunday and Easter. As dutiful Catholic boys, my brother and I were confirmed and had our First Communions. Yet Dad rarely talked to us about these Catholic ceremonies and their significance, or what being Catholic meant to him, except to say that we needed to pay attention to our religious studies in Catholic school. Mom, who-like many post-war Jews-resigned her Jewish religion when she married Dad, also did not talk much about Christian rituals. She just followed Dad's lead, or lack thereof.
Besides our spirituality, Dad was not very conversant about the other big adolescent issues: sexuality and illicit substances. He did occasionally repeat, "If I catch you smoking, I'll punch your nose!" He usually said this while showing us a closed left fist as he puffed away on a burning cigarette he was holding between the fingers of his other hand.
My father's idea of learning about sex was to take us, when we were in our mid-teens, to the shady St. Lawrence Street night-life section of downtown Montreal. As we were walking down the street on a rainy Saturday afternoon, he unexpectedly asked, "You guys know about sex, don't you?" My brother and I just nodded and said "yes" since saying anything else felt kind of awkward. But Dad then walked us up to an X-rated theatre, bought tickets, and we all went in to catch the show.
All though the performance I just squirmed in my seat as I watched men and women cavorting and contorting on the movie screen. Dad probably noticed my discomfort, and maybe my brother's too, because he took us out of the show early. Outside of the theatre he simply changed the subject, and never said another word about our sex education.
"Now, that was totally embarrassing!" I said to myself, and I was glad he never did that again.
Dad was not around much while my brother and I were growing up. Outside of his religion, his other big devotion was his electronics business. He was a major Canadian manufacturer of kids' record players ("lunch boxes" he used to call them) and adult console stereos (the kind that doubled as pieces of furniture). For most of our growing up years, Dad "made business" six long days per week, and he only rested on Sundays.
Much of Dad's weekend downtime was subsequently spent at home lying on the living-room couch snoring off a hard week's work. When the weather was warm enough, he played golf with his business friends and colleagues, leaving for a prompt 7 a.m. Sunday morning start time-his summer substitute for church service. When he came back home after lunch, he hugged the couch the rest of the afternoon and only got up for a snack of back bacon with rye bread and green peppers, or for Mom's usual dinner of paprika chicken, stuffed cabbage, stuffed peppers, or wiener schnitzel.
During our kid years, my brother and I did get the opportunity to go with our father to a local driving range on Saturday afternoons. There we played in an adjacent playground with Mom while Dad hit some balls, with him always swearing in sync with his duffs, slices and hooks. Later, as adolescents, we went out and caddied for him or to drive his golf cart as a part of learning his game. Like my father, I too found this ritual better than going to church, and I eventually could keep up with him on the course.
About his Catholic practices, I remember Dad once telling me, "When I could not make it to Mass for a while to our Slovak church in Montreal, Father Billy came to visit me at my factory office."
With a proud smile on his face, Dad continued, "I always invited the Father into my private office. There, we'd have a couple of scotches together, and I made my confession and took the sacrament. Then I'd put some money in his hand for his trouble. 'For the church,' I'd tell him."
Irrespective of his staunch upbringing in the Catholic faith, Dad did not carry the typical disdain towards the Jewish people. He told us that, as an entrepreneur after the war, he knew and made business with a number of Kosice Jews, one of which also introduced him to my mother.
On some Saturday mornings, when Dad took my brother and me to visit his factory office in Montreal, I would overhear his business conversations with some of his Jewish Canadian friends and business colleagues-those that did not strictly adhere to the Sabbath. Several of these folks were capital investors, material suppliers or key customers to Dad's company. My father enjoyed joking and debating with them-though sometimes crudely-regarding the inherent differences between rabbis, priests and reverends.
Dad also said to us, "Most Jews are smart, hard working and good business people." Yet he then added, "No two Jews think the same way about their religion; they are always debating. If you ask two Jews the same question, you'll get three opinions." He also said, "If Jews didn't have a common enemy in the Arabs, then they'd forever fight among themselves."
Dad never refused any man-of-the-cloth who came through his business door looking for contributions. About that he told us, "I give money to every religion. This way, when I die, I'm covered by all of them." As a shrewd futures investor (and following multitudes of Catholics since the Middle Ages), Dad wanted to make sure of his place in heaven.
* * * *
Mom's Sunday Hungarian lunch was now winding down. The last big crumbs of her apple strudel were sitting on my plate, with no room left in my stomach for them. Dad had passed on the strudel, and instead lit a cigarette for his dessert. As my father inhaled the tobacco, and raised his head and blew the smoke with energy towards the ceiling, I could see the pride and self-confidence in my father's eyes and breath.
Looking back upon that meal, I too aspired to be a "larger than life" man like my father, though with hopefully less trying experiences. Yet I wondered how I might have responded in seeing my extended family side with a fascist regime. I also considered whether I would have had the capacity to defect to the other side during a war, what I might have said or done in front of an enemy lieutenant, and if I would have the wherewithal to escape my country after a totalitarian takeover.
Would I have had to replicate my father's devotions to endure?
Harvy Simkovits is a Canadian living in the US. He is writing a memoir about his Eastern European family who immigrated to Canada after WWII. One of his stories is published in Canadian Stories Magazine.
More stories by Harvy Simkovits:
SWEET AND SOUR HUNGARIAN MEMORIES
HOLIDAY NOTES FROM AN OLD FRIEND