CAFÉ BUDAPEST: CHAPTER ONE
On a humid August night in 1939, at the Hôtel de Metz—a flea-bag Parisian hotel near the Gare du Nord—an iron bed stood in the center of a top-floor room. The bed’s twisted frame and lumpy mattress barely supported the weight of three people—the Kohut family: Czechoslovak refugees who, three hours earlier, had arrived on a train from Germany. Brutalized and exhausted by their journey but confident that they were at last safe and free, they fell into a deep sleep.
Willy Kohut opened his eyes and reached for his battered spectacles. Early morning light filtered into the hotel room. He moved slowly off the bed, his chest throbbing unmercifully as he tried not to waken Sophie and Pavel who were still tangled together in sleep.
Naked and stiff, he arched his back and stretched his arms. With a grimace, he held his breath and struggled to put on his undershorts—the same pair he had worn for days. He noticed blood-stains on the bed linen where he had been lying. Damn. He clenched his teeth. I’ll have to explain this mess to the manager, get him to understand what we’ve been through.
Willy tiptoed to the open window and pulled aside the tattered curtain to let in the dawn. He frowned at the stained, peeling wallpaper. This room is disgusting. Flies clustered on the window glass buzzed into action, dancing around his head and shoulders, magnetized by his blood and dried sweat. He waved a futile hand.
Willy tugged at the silk encircling his chest—the long blue scarf Madame Panasse had given him on the train.
Delicately, he separated the blood-stiffened fabric from where it stuck to his skin. He inspected the cut, maybe three inches long and oozing pink fluid, that curved like a scimitar below his left nipple. He remembered the slicing pressure of Oberfűhrer Heizinger’s dagger and the agony that spread hot lava across his chest.
The flies buzzed closer. He took a deep breath and spread the wound’s edges with his fingertips. Thank God, it’s not so bad. Just flesh, no muscle. He re-tied the scarf. This would have to do for the time being.
Willy looked through the window at the landscape of clay and metal roofs touched here and there by the first rays of sunlight. Beyond the expanse of garret windows and ribbons of chimney smoke, he saw the white pediments of Porte St. Denis, one of the great entry gates to Paris and the neighborhood where he had once been student at L’École International de Commerce. He sighed at the irony of his present circumstances: Bienvenue à Paris, Willy le refugié.
He watched the buff-colored clouds slowly alter shape in the dawn light. Just like those clouds, he mused, nothing ever stayed the same. It was just how slow or fast the change occurred. For years, his career in Czechoslovakia had been a steady, comfortable climb into the business world of luxury fabrics, shared with a loving wife and a lively son. Then the Nazis came and his normal life disintegrated.
Now they were safe, thank God.
As for next steps, everything depended on contacting Sophie’s Tante Freda, who lived somewhere in Paris. They needed money and food. This miserable room and the few francs in his pocket would suffice for a few days—hopefully, until they headed for London to reunite with his parents. How and when, who knew?
Willy tried to bend his right little finger. It was stiff and painful. The smallest movement sent shocks into his hand and along his forearm. The tingling was a constant reminder of his interrogation in Prague—torture for information he never had. The vise that Altman’s Gestapo thugs had used to improve his memory had turned Willy’s finger into an unevenly curved digit—almost useless and covered with scar tissue. Later, as it healed, Sophie had fashioned a velvet finger stall to protect it during everyday activities.
Willy forced his finger to bend, wincing as he straightened it. Exercise it hard, five times a day, maybe for months Dr. Pflinz had advised in Prague. “If you ever want to play piano again,” the old doctor had said, “stretch that scar and mobilize the joints, whatever the pain.”
He glanced at the bed where he and Sophie had slept, with Pavel squeezed between them. It was their first real lying-down sleep in four days of traveling incognito from Budapest across Nazi Germany to Paris. They had arrived at the Gare de L’Est the previous night with a few German marks, counterfeit passports and family papers, a string bag of possessions and no change of clothes. He remembered his shame when, at the end of their train journey, kind old Monsieur Panasse, who shared their compartment, lent him the five hundred francs that bought supper, a room in this dismal hotel and just enough cash for two more days in Paris.
Willy heard a rasping cough outside in the hallway, a footfall and then a loud rap on the door.
He gritted his teeth and moved toward the door. “What do you want? Who are you?”
“The owner of course. Le patron, nom de dieu. Open up.”
Willy frowned. No point in keeping his voice low with this idiot yelling his head off. “What do you want? My wife and child are asleep. Leave us alone.”
Two thundering blows on the door. “Open up, I say.”
“For God’s sake, wait, can’t you.”
Awkwardly, Willy pulled on his trousers, afraid that the hotel owner had somehow discovered that their passports were counterfeit. Willy had obtained false Hungarian passports to hide their Jewishness and their Czechoslovak nationality as they fled across Europe. The ruse had worked until they reached the German-French border. There they had been strip-searched, humiliated and traumatized. That was when Oberfűhrer Heizinger forced him to perform fellatio and sliced his chest open; then, miraculously, allowed them back onto the train.
“Hurry up, damn you.”
Willy unlatched the door.
A muscular unshaven man in a sweat-stained undershirt stepped into the room. A silver cross hung from his neck. His eyes widened at sight of the blood-stained scarf tied around Willy’s naked chest. “Merde.” He wiped his nose with the back of a hairy hand and glanced at the rumpled bed. He lurched forward, eyes wide. “What’s all this blood? It’s fuckin’ everywhere.” He shook his head in disbelief. “Whatever’s goin’ on it’ll cost you a bundle.”
Willy raised both hands in surrender. This fellow was obnoxious, but he was right to be angry. “Many apologies, Monsieur. Yesterday at the German border, the guards were brutal. They hurt us ... I’m sorry … I … We …”
The patron sneered. “Refugees, hunh? From Germany you say?” He stepped close to Willy and thrust two passports under his nose. “Well, these are not German. What damned country are you from??”
Willy shrugged. “Hungary. Nous sommes Hongrois. What of it?” In his peripheral vision he was aware of movement on the bed. Sophie was sitting up.
“The only Hungarians arriving in Paris are Jews,” the man said, spitting the words out like melon pips as he moved forward. “Let’s be clear about one thing, little squirt. I’ll have no Jews in this hotel.” His face was inches away from Willy’s. “So get the fuck out.”
Stale garlic swamped Willy’s nostrils as he took a deep, stabbing breath. A wave of resentment swept through him. Here, in the safety of tolerant, democratic Paris, a French racist was cursing him … and on their first day of freedom. He heard the bed clothes rustle behind him and glanced back at Sophie.
Her face was taut and pale. She had pulled the sheet up to her neck. “Miláčku,” she whispered in Czech, her eyes flickering around the room as if searching for a way out. “Who is this man? He looks so mean. I don’t understand him. I’m embarrassed he sees us like this. Why did you let him in?”
Willy signaled her to be quiet. He squared his shoulders, thinking through the options, wondering how to get through this without violence. “What makes you think we’re Jews?” he said to the patron in French. He boiled inside, wanting to lash out. The patron was tall and heavy, but Willy was stocky and muscular. And though he might appear to be somewhat of a weakling, being small and wearing spectacles, he was strong and had learned hand-to-hand fighting in the Czechoslovak militia.
The hotel owner pointed triumphantly at Pavel, wide-eyed, sitting cross-legged and naked on the bed. “There, arsehole, look at your kid. The runt’s been circumcised.”
Pavel stared at the stranger and began to whimper. Tears trickled down his cheeks. He scuttled behind Sophie’s back.
“What does he want?” Sophie asked again, her voice quivering. She ran one hand through her uncombed hair. “Don’t be afraid, darling,” she whispered to Pavel.
Willy raised a calming hand. He spoke in Czech. “This bastard is the owner. Seems we chose the wrong hotel. He hates Jews.” He guessed that Sophie, who spoke only schoolgirl French, might not know exactly what was happening. He knew she could sense danger. She had learned a lot on their journey through Germany.
The tall man leered at her over Willy’s shoulder. “Get your Israelite whore out of here.”
Clenching his fists in silent fury, Willy shot what he hoped was a reassuring look at Sophie. He wanted to smash the Frenchman’s face into pulp. “Keep calm, sweetheart,” he said between his teeth.
“Oh, God, miláčku,” Sophie muttered her hands cupped to her face. Her elbows anchored the bed-sheet against her chest. “This is madness. How can France be as bad as Germany? Last night I was willing to stay in this awful room just to get settled. What will happen to us now?”
Ignoring her question, Willy stepped between the bed and the invader, ready to drive his knee into the man’s balls. “Monsieur,” he said, trying hard to appear polite and reasonable. “We will leave … but it’s too early. Check-out at ten, your receptionist said. We paid for the room.”
The big man sucked in a heavy breath and narrowed his eyes. He shoved Willy aside and rattled the iron bed frame. “Get out, slut,” he growled.
Sophie held the sheet under her chin and shook her head. Her lips trembled. “What does he say, Willy?”
Pavel clung to her. “Maminko,” he whimpered from behind her back.
Willy again inserted himself between the bed and the Frenchman. “Get the hell out of our room. I paid full price,” he hissed as he tried to push the man away from the bed.
For a few moments the two men locked arms, swaying back and forth, Willy grunting as excruciating pain shot through his chest and across his left shoulder blade. The hotel owner wrestled Willy away. “Get out of my hotel, you bald-headed piece of shit,” he yelled.
Supporting his chest with his left hand, Willy took a step forward and grabbed the passports out of the man’s hand. “Bastard.”
The patron raised a massive fist … and then froze, immobile, his mouth opening and closing as if he were gasping for air. His eyes bulged. “Merde, alors.”
Willy realized the man was staring at Sophie. He spun around, forgetting his pain.
Sophie had dropped the sheet on to her lap, exposing her breasts. Her eyes were on fire, lips tight together, defiance in her face. “Vypadni,” she screamed pointing to the door. “Vypadni.”
Willy grabbed a heavy glass ashtray from the bedside table. “I’ll smash your head in,” he screamed.
Pavel was sobbing.
The patron backed toward the door, his face contorted. “Your bitch has no fucking morals.” He turned on his heel and grabbed the door handle. “You won’t get away with this. I’ll be back—with reinforcements.” The door slammed shut.
Willy, suddenly aware of a sharp pain in his hand dropped the ashtray. There was blood on his palm. He looked up saw Sophie shudder, then tremble. He went to her and kissed her damp forehead. “What made you … show yourself like that?”
As she attempted to calm Pavel with kisses and hugs, Sophie glanced up at him and shrugged. “I was afraid he would hurt you. It … was the only thing I could think of to make him stop.” She gave him a weak smile. “Besides, milačku, isn’t Paris the home of striptease?”
Willy stared, and then burst out laughing. “Well, you saved us. What an inspired idea.” He grabbed at the left side of his chest. “Aagh, God … damn it. I shouldn’t have laughed. Feels like something ripped inside. I hope to God tussling with that bastard didn’t start me bleeding again.” He licked blood off his palm and gave her wry look. “Soon I will need a transfusion.”
Sophie didn’t laugh. She watched Willy untie the scarf from around his chest then frowned when she saw the beads of blood forming along the wound. She turned Pavel’s head against her chest so he could not see. “It looks bad. You need a doctor. You can’t walk around like this.”
He gave her a grim smile. “Maybe I do, but I have no idea where to go and we have no money. We can’t waste time on that. First things first—let’s get out of here, find a decent place to stay and get some breakfast. I’ll manage. Maybe see a doctor later, after you’ve found your Tante Freda.”
Willy re-bandaged his wound, dressed and scoured the room for a weapon he could use in case the hotel owner returned. He spotted a foot-long brass stay attached to the partly rotted window frame and twisted it off. With the stay at the ready, he escorted Sophie and Pavel to the downstairs bathroom where they washed. He discarded the scarf and with Sophie’s help, tied two of the hotel’s towels together to make a new dressing.
“I’m ashamed, Willy,” Sophie said as they dressed in their dirty clothes. “I’m ashamed of how we look, of what we’ve done and who we are. That’s our blood on the bed-sheets. Yours and mine. We’re like animals.”
“There’s nothing we can do, sweetheart. That bastard is coming back to do us harm. We have to leave. No-one is going to help us.”
“I’m hungry.” Pavel looked at his mother hopefully.
They packed their things, readying to leave. Sophie took Willy’s elbow, holding him back. She shook her head despondently. “Even though that disgusting man behaved so badly, I would have wanted to pay for cleaning up the mess we made—in the room and the bathroom.”
“You are too honorable, my dear.” Willy said as they started down the stairs. “We couldn’t afford it even if we wanted to. Forget about the room. Just be happy we slept well.”
They slunk out of the hotel carrying everything they owned in the string bag. Luckily, the reception desk was deserted. “That bastard was bluffing about coming back.” Willy forced a smile to reassure Sophie though he was afraid le patron and his anti-Semitic friends would return. They might even search the neighborhood. “We paid him. We owe nothing.”
He pulled a couple of French banknotes and some coins from the side pocket of his jacket and showed them to Pavel. “Are you hungry, my little frog? This is French money, enough for a nice breakfast. After that we’ll go find Tante Freda and cousin Feri.”
Pavel grinned waving his toy lion’s paws in the air. “Furry Lion say he wants a pastry. Me too.”
“A quick breakfast, then,” said Sophie with a faint smile.