Mishpokhe and Ash19 min read
When Golem opened her eyes for the first time, she saw Magda.
“You are Golem,” Magda whispered, her oil-stained fingers prodding Golem’s metal joints.
“Golem,” the machine repeated, the rust along the two half-tin cans forming her jaw chipping onto Magda’s hands, adding scrap freckles to Magda’s tan skin.
“I built you,” Magda said proudly. “Horthy’s Nuremberg measures may limit the number of Jews at Eötvös Loránd University, but I will still be an engineer.”
Golem only understood that Magda had built her. She was Magda’s, and Golem would do anything for her.
“Tokhter!” a voice called from above. “What are you doing in the basement?”
A man hobbled down the stairs. He stopped when he saw Golem.
“Magda, what is that tangle of broken trash and split wire?” He pointed at Golem. “That gépezet looks better fit for the Pécs town scrapyard than our nice home.”
“I am Golem,” Golem replied. She wheeled forward unsteadily. She was a few inches shorter than the man.
“Foter.” Magda slunk beside her creation. “I made her. She will help the family while you search for a new job in Budapest.”
Magda’s father frowned but did not argue. Magda grinned, curled her fingers in Golem’s, and dragged Golem up the stairs. Golem clanked the whole way.
The upper level of the house was lighter than the basement and much larger. Magda pointed out the refrigerator (it was new) and the gas cooker (also new). She showed Golem the radio and taught her how to turn the dials. Magda must have assumed Golem was more interested in the household devices, machines like Golem, than the three other living people. Magda made no introductions before leading Golem outside.
But Golem didn’t mind. She only needed Magda.
The sun barely hovered above the hilltops between Pécs town and the capital, Budapest. Golem squinted. The world was so big.
“Come, Golem. Szakasits pays me three pengõ to deliver the daily Népszava to households in Pécs. My friend Endre will give us our bundle of newspapers at the bridge. We have to hurry to meet him on time.” Magda released Golem’s hand to lift her skirts. She jogged toward the town square.
Golem followed, ambling slowly. Her joints creaked, but she kept Magda in her sights until they reached the bridge.
“What is that?” Endre squeaked as Magda and Golem approached. His hands clutched the bicycle handles so tightly his knuckles were white.
“The newest member of the Catz family!” Magda announced cheerfully.
Endre eyed Golem warily. Golem didn’t feel imposing. She wasn’t any taller than Endre. But she hadn’t seen others like herself as she and Magda made their way through Pécs.
Endre rolled his bike out of Golem’s shadow. “I thought only the Gyorshadtest in the Royal Army were allowed war machines.”
“Good thing Golem is not a war machine then, Endre.” Magda plucked a thick package from the bike’s basket.
Endre’s cheeks colored. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you. I’ve only seen gépezet from a distance.” He wrung his hands. “Has your father found work yet?”
Magda frowned. “Uh no.” She turned to Golem. “My father was the greatest lawyer in Pécs, but … not anymore. That’s why I built you, Golem. You’ll take over my paper route, so I can help Muter cook dumplings for the bakeshop. Every member of our family has to do their part. That now includes you.”
Golem nodded, but she had no idea what Magda was talking about.
Magda sighed. “Endre, why do you ask anyway?”
“Magda.” Endre’s gaze fell to his feet. “Don’t be discouraged with today’s headlines. This will all pass.”
Magda frowned and ripped open her Népszava bundle.
“The Third Jewish Law passes,” Magda read aloud and paled.
“What does that mean?” Golem did not like how the text upset her Magda.
“Marriage between Jews and non-Jews is prohibited,” Endre said. He took both of Magda’s hands in his. “It will pass. We can …”
Magda leaned into Endre and kissed his forehead. She smiled. “Yes, it will pass.”
Endre nodded, checked his watch, nodded again, and left.
When the boy was long out of sight, Magda whispered, “Endre is wrong.”
Golem was confused. “Then why did you agree with him?”
Magda’s eyes were glassy. “I should not have. Lying is bad.”
Magda’s jaw clenched. She grabbed Golem’s hands like Endre had grabbed hers. “There are so many bad things, bad people, in the world. I don’t want you to be bad. You must be good. Rule eyns: you should never lie. Not ever.”
Golem would do anything Magda asked of her, but so much was new and unclear. “But Magda lies. Are you not good?”
“I try to be good. You will be better.”
“Eyns: I will not lie,” Golem repeated. She would be good for Magda. “I promise.”
Over the next few months, Golem learned how to deliver the newspapers and farm the garden. Magda taught her how to read basic words, Yiddish and Hungarian, and took Golem to the scrapyard outside of Pécs for better parts. While she tinkered, Magda told Golem stories of Budapest’s oldest university, Eötvös Loránd, and her aspirations to be an engineer when the Arrow Cross movement ended.
“When you go to the university, will I go with you?” Golem asked one winter day as Magda used springs to tie iron plates to Golem’s shoulders and chest. Golem was becoming much sturdier and much bigger.
“No. I do not think gépezets are allowed to study,” Magda said, chuckling.
“Then I hope you can’t go either. You will stay here with me.”
Magda froze. She looked up at Golem and smiled, but the expression seemed forced. “You might get your wish. For admissions, being a Jew is almost as bad as being a woman.”
Golem knew Magda was both those things. But why should the university care?
“Am I Jew?” Golem asked. She’d heard the term thrown around at home and in the streets of the city. The tone used was rarely a nice one.
“Then being a Jew and a woman cannot be bad. For I am both, and I am good.” Golem had not lied, not once.
Magda’s forced smile melted into a real grin. “Okay, future scholar, you’ve been upgraded enough for one day. Let’s return home.”
Magda and Golem ambled together through the quiet Pécs streets, past tall, Baroque buildings, the green copper dome of the Mosque of Pasha Qasim, now a church, and the nearby Romanesque cathedral. Golem liked the hot smoke that fumed from Zsolnay ceramics factory and the way Magda’s face lit up as she gawked at the cultural quarter’s steaming beef platters. Golem wanted to spend every day with just her and Magda.
But her happy mood was interrupted when they returned home. Shouting came from within.
“I do not want these Polacks in my house,” Magda’s mother growled, not registering Magda and Golem’s arrival.
“It is our duty to help the refugees. I am nothing but I must be everything,” Magda’s father barked back.
“Don’t quote Marx at me.”
The two kept arguing.
Magda pulled Golem aside. “Men and women are fleeing Poland. Rabbi Tyrnau says we must shelter those we can, but these refugees bring with them horrible stories. Foter and Muter are arguing over what we should do.”
“Is sheltering refugees good?” Golem whispered back.
“I … yes … maybe … I don’t know. We don’t have enough for ourselves. Foter still does not work.”
Noises from the backyard drew Magda’s attention. Golem followed her outside where Magda’s twin brothers played in the snow with three lanky, disheveled young men. They looked a little older than Magda. Each yelped when they saw Golem. Golem was now as tall as any man.
“I am Golem.” Golem curtsied as Magda had taught her.
“It is one of their potwór!” one man said in a mix of broken Yiddish and Polish. Then to Magda, “One of their monsters!”
“She is no one’s monster. Golem is herself.”
Golem nodded, agreeing emphatically.
Another of the men stepped forward. He was trembling. “If you can build a machine like that, why not build an army? Hurt the Nazis. Protect us.”
“Hurt? Like murder?” Magda looked aghast. “This will all pass. Besides, most armies already have machines like Golem except theirs were built for fighting. What could my sweet Golem even do?”
The three men huffed and called Magda a fool. Golem didn’t like that or the men. She didn’t care if she wasn’t the only machine in the world. She was Magda’s only machine, and that was all that mattered.
But Magda’s father won out. The three refugees moved into Golem and Magda’s basement. The trio barely spoke, especially of what had happened to them in Poland. They ate the family’s food, did little to help around the house, and, one of them, Pavel, watched Magda too closely. Golem refused to leave Magda alone with any of them, especially him, through spring or summer.
But life outside the house was not much better. Laws against Jews were tightening, and more businesses refused to serve Magda and her parents. The bakery stopped buying the family’s dumplings and Endre stopped meeting Golem at the bridge. Magda never smiled anymore, not even her fake ones, and now Golem was the one dragging her around Pécs.
“You can tinker with me, if you’d like?” Golem often suggested.
“Not today. I’ve already made you too tall to stand upright in our house.”
“I don’t mind crouching.” Golem grinned at Magda, showing tin foil Golem had cut and glued for pretend teeth.
But Magda didn’t laugh.
Golem wouldn’t give up. “Why don’t we go to the cultural quarter? We can sample sweets and bring macskanyelv back for the boys.”
Golem swung Magda onto her hulking shoulders before she could say no. Golem bounced, singing the popular Rezsõ Seress song as they headed to the markets.
“Dreaming, I was only dreaming. I wake and I find you asleep. In the deep of my heart here. Darling I hope that my dream never haunted you. My heart is tellin’ you how much I wanted you.”
“That song is so depressing,” Magda complained when Golem was finished.
Any response from Magda was better than nothing, so Golem started the song again and added the piano she’d recorded from their radio earlier that month. So few channels played music anymore.
The markets weren’t very bustling. Pécs’s townspeople stayed indoors more and more. Golem supposed she and Magda should take the hint, but Golem liked the sunlight and the mix of Turkish, Roman, and gothic architecture. She wanted to be a builder like the men and women who constructed Pécs. Like Magda. Golem hoped they would find a way to go to university together one day.
“We’ll take two boxes of macskanyelv,” Golem said in front of the chocolate stand.
The man running the booth stared up at Magda, still resting on Golem’s shoulders. Magda had a star patch sewn into her blouse. “She a Jew?”
Golem could feel Magda slump.
“Yes. And so am I,” Golem growled. She showed her foil teeth. They did not make the shopkeeper laugh either.
He backed away. “Sorry … I can’t …”
Golem grabbed the chocolates anyway and tucked them into a cavity in her chest. She handed the man the chocolates’ price in pengõ, but the shopkeeper waved the money away.
“I can’t take it. Not now. Have the macskanyelv, but don’t come back. I know you’re not military grade. You can’t bully me.” He flinched.
She hesitated but knew she could not force him to take her money. She wasn’t equipped for force. So Golem retreated with Magda and the chocolates.
“That was bad,” Magda whispered once they were back in their neighborhood.
“I was bad?” Golem asked, disappointed in herself but unsure why she should be.
“Yes. Stealing is bad.”
“But I wasn’t trying to … the man wouldn’t—”
“It doesn’t matter. You must be good, Golem. There is so little good left in the world. Rule tsvey: you cannot steal.”
“I don’t think I st—” Golem gently dropped Magda from her shoulders. Her Magda was close to tears. “Fine. Tsvey: I won’t steal. But I want to help you. I want you to be happy.”
Magda held Golem’s hand. “I would prefer you are good than I am happy.”
Magda was quiet the rest of the way. By the time they were home, Golem knew she disagreed with Magda’s choice. But she loved the girl too much to deny her what she wanted.
Golem was accustomed to arguments, but tonight’s tones were sharper than ever before. Golem woke Magda so they could listen together from the bedroom they shared with the sleeping twins.
“The munkaszolgálat is a death sentence!” one of the Polish men yelled. “We must grab as much as we can carry and run.”
“Where should we go?” Magda’s father shouted back.
“Anywhere else. Anywhere.”
“We are at war. Horthy and Bárdossy are calling on citizens to help in the effort. The munkaszolgálat is simply a labor service,” Magda’s mother whispered.
“You are all fools!” the Pole retorted.
Magda opened the bedroom door and stepped into the living room. Golem followed.
“Go back to bed, sweetheart,” Magda’s mother cooed.
Magda didn’t budge, and Golem wouldn’t leave her side.
“She and the twins should come with us,” Pavel, who had yet to speak, said. “And the potwór.”
Pavel dropped the bag he carried, one of the twins’ knapsacks, and approached Magda. He touched a loose lock of her hair.
Magda slapped his hand away. “We will not go with you. Foter has been looking for a job. The munkaszolgálat is work. This could help us. Hungary is not like Poland.”
Pavel didn’t step back. He was too close to Magda. Golem didn’t know what to do.
“You have no idea what they did to us,” Pavel whispered. “Hungarian soldiers, your soldiers, not Germany’s, killed a thousand of us in Újvidék. This munkaszolgálat is their way of organizing the massacres. Putting you to work before they murder you too.”
He grabbed more of Magda’s hair, forcefully this time. Magda winced, shrinking. Golem clenched her fists.
“You are so beautiful. I …”
“Don’t touch her!” Golem shoved Pavel away from Magda.
Pavel flopped back like a cloth doll, hitting the floor with a crack. Pavel screamed, his arm bent unnaturally.
The two other Poles went wide-eyed. They approached their moaning friend. The men hoisted Pavel to his feet and darted out the door with what they carried, stolen from what little Magda’s family owned.
Magda’s parents collapsed to their knees.
“What did you do?” Magda’s mother sobbed. “You are a monster.”
Magda was shaking.
Golem didn’t care for Magda’s parents or the Poles. She only cared for Magda.
“Was I bad?” Golem had only meant to get Pavel away from Magda.
Magda wouldn’t look at Golem. “Rule … rule dray … no hurting anyone. Not even for me. No … You must never hurt anyone …”
Golem growled. Magda was wrong, and Golem was sick of rules. “But I was trying to protect you! I would do it again!”
Golem raised her fists and brought them down hard on the dinner table. The wood snapped as easily as a dry twig underfoot.
“Out!” Magda’s father snapped, face red and fists shaking. He gestured to the door. “You are dangerous! Out!”
Golem stood as straight as she could in what was now a very small room. Then she drooped. Golem would agree to anything to stay with Magda, even if she disagreed with what she promised.
“I didn’t know it was a rule.” Golem tried to soften her tone. “Rule dray: no hurting. I understand now.” She didn’t understand. She’d never understand.
“Out!” Magda’s father yelled again.
Golem turned to Magda. Only Magda could order Golem around.
“Go … just go …” Magda whispered. “You were supposed to be good.”
Golem froze. Golem wasn’t good? No. Golem had made a mistake, but she was still good. And she’d never do a bad thing again.
“Go,” Magda said again.
Golem’s head fell. She slunk outside and waited by the window.
Golem waited patiently outside for months. Sometimes she would tend the garden when Magda’s mother wasn’t watching or send a twin to bring back scrap metal for an ad hoc repair, but mostly Golem stood still. Magda had not given her leave to come back inside.
Luckily, through the front window, Golem could still listen to and observe Magda. After her father was drafted into the munkaszolgálat, the Catz family had continued to struggle. Even with four fewer mouths to feed, the Poles and Magda’s father gone, Magda and her mother couldn’t make enough money to buy what they needed. No one would hire anyone from the family. No one in Pécs had money to spare for anyone else.
Endre and Magda had said these times would pass. All Golem could do was believe them and wait. She would wait until the war ended, until Magda’s father came home, until Endre and Magda could marry, until she and Magda could study engineering together at Eötvös Loránd. Golem would wait however long it took.
But as the radio blared stories of encroaching violence, as fewer non-Jews visited their neighborhood, and as Magda grew thinner and paler, Golem had a sickening feeling that the worse was yet to come.
One evening, so late Golem had thought every Catz would be asleep, Magda’s mother crept outside to meet with her. Magda’s mother was very frail.
“Golem, we need your help now.” She sounded broken.
Golem was ready. She would prove herself and Magda would accept her again. “I will be good.”
“Winter ruined the garden. There is no more money. We need to eat. I need you … will you help us?”
“I will be good,” Golem repeated.
“Can you …” Magda’s mother lowered her voice. “I need you to go into town, Zsolnay, the markets, and find us some food.”
“You want me to steal.”
“Please. One of the boys is sick and Magda wastes away …”
Golem knew what was becoming of Magda and wanted to help. Stealing wouldn’t be difficult. The shopkeepers all claimed to not fear Golem, or had before Golem’s punishment. But Golem saw the way their eyes bulged, the way they hesitated. She could steal for the Catz family. She could steal a lot.
Magda’s mother leaned closer. “It will make Magda very happy.”
“I will” Golem started, about to agree. But then she remembered what Magda had told her. Magda said she preferred Golem be good than she be happy. This was a test. And Golem had been about to fail.
“Rule tsvey.” Golem was ready. “I cannot steal.”
“Golem you must. We’ll starve,” Magda’s mother begged.
“I am good. I do not steal.” Golem crossed her arms, so eager to return to the house she started to shake.
“Ess drek und shtarbn,” Magda’s mother cursed. “Fuck your rules. Aren’t you supposed to protect Magda? Isn’t saving her life more important than your rules?”
It was a test. A tough one. But Golem would not fail it.
“No,” Golem said with all the finality she could muster.
Magda’s mother sagged. She cried in a curled ball beside Golem and, when the tears stopped, went back inside to her children.
Golem waited for Magda’s mother to tell Magda of how well she had done. She waited for Magda to come get her and bring her inside. Golem waited all night, but Magda never came.
By morning, Golem wasn’t sure Magda’s mother had been testing her. She might have made another mistake.
But it wasn’t too late. Golem could still go to the market, steal food, and bring it to Magda. She stood, about to do just that, when a frantic report shrieked from the Catz radio. Tanks were rolling into Budapest.
Golem scrambled to the front door and knocked.
Magda answered, her face ashen. She relaxed when she saw Golem.
“What will we do?” Golem asked. Budapest was less than two hours away by train.
Magda shook her head. “I don’t know. If we leave, we’ll be arrested. I thought we would stay in Hungary. I thought the Germans wouldn’t come as long as Horthy was an ally. We were supposed to be different than Poland.”
“What happens when they come?”
“They’ll take us like Foter.”
Golem knelt before Magda, still perched in the doorway. “Then we will go work with your father and make money for the family.”
Magda sobbed. “No, no that is not what will happen.”
“Let me inside. I’ve been good,” Golem tried.
Magda shook her head. “You need to leave. To run. My brothers are too weak. Muter too. I can’t abandon them. But you can run and hide and survive this.” Magda dropped to her knees. “I need to know you are good and in the world. It will help.”
“I am good,” Golem said, but she did not move. “I do not want to leave you. How will you find me again?”
“Can I please come inside?” Golem asked again.
Golem wouldn’t run, and Magda wouldn’t let her inside. Their standoff lasted until the roar of engines echoed down the main street. Magda yelped and shut the door in Golem’s face.
A car, one of many flooding the neighborhood, stopped in front of the Catz house.
A handsome boy who looked sweet like Endre leaped from the driver’s seat of his very normal Audi. It wasn’t a military vehicle, and the boy was Hungarian.
Golem heard whispers in the house behind her. Then the creaking steps of the basement stairs.
An older man followed the boy from the car. Along the street other soldiers in other normal cars were pulling women and children out of their homes. There was shouting and shooting. Huge trucks waited at the end of the block and families were being piled into their carriages.
The two men were more cautious than the other soldiers. They eyed Golem. She was as big as their car.
“Endre told me the Catz family had a gépezet. He said everyone knows you are harmless. Is that true?” the younger man asked.
Both men’s hands went to the guns on their belts.
“Are you a friend of Endre’s?” Golem asked. She hadn’t seen Endre in months, but he loved Magda almost as much as Golem.
“Yes,” the boy soldier said cheerfully.
Golem relaxed. They were friends of Endre.
“This is the Catz home.”
“And is the Catz family inside? They must have heard us arrive,” the other soldier said.
Golem was not supposed to lie. “Yes, they are home.”
“And you won’t attempt to stop us?”
“Stop you?” Golem didn’t understand. “Stop you from doing what?”
“You won’t hurt us?”
Golem’s eyes narrowed. “No, I won’t hurt you.”
“Good,” the older one said.
The two men rushed past Golem and kicked down the front door of the house. They shouted for the Catz’s to come out. They pulled free their guns.
Golem didn’t understand. She didn’t know what to do. This couldn’t be a test.
The soldiers stalked around the ground level then yanked on the basement door. It rattled in the frame, locked.
“Is the family in the basement?” one soldier asked.
Golem was not supposed to lie. Magda had told her to obey the rules above all else.
But Magda was in the basement, and these men were scary.
Golem stepped inside. “No. They are not in the basement.”
“Tsk tsk tsk. Such a lie. What a bad machine you are.”
Golem frowned. She had failed. She had failed again.
The soldiers shot the door’s lock until it broke. They descended into the basement, shouting. Magda screamed. A shot fired. Another.
“Golem!” Magda yelled.
Golem raced down the basement steps. The two men had their guns pointed at Magda, Magda’s mother, and her two brothers, one limp on the ground and bleeding.
“Get back!” a soldier shouted.
“Hurt them! Golem kill them!” Magda ordered.
The two soldiers spun to Golem. They raised their guns.
Rule dray: no hurting. No killing. Golem hesitated.
“Stand back monster!” the younger soldier barked. He fired. The bullet bounced off Golem’s iron shoulder. He fired again. This time the bullet snagged Golem’s jaw.
The two soldiers emptied their clips, peppering Golem with holes. She leaked oil, her parts split. She collapsed, broken, on the basement floor, exactly where she’d been born.
“Rats can’t build a proper weapon,” one of the soldiers laughed.
The soldiers grabbed Magda, her mother, the living twin and the dead one’s body. They dragged the family up the stairs. Magda gave Golem one final frightened, disappointed look, before disappearing into the house above.
Golem tried to stand but was too wrecked to follow. The door to the basement slammed, and Golem was left in darkness.
Golem waited for years. She tried to stand, to fix herself, to move, but she was ruined. Golem couldn’t leave the basement and search for Magda.
Sometimes Golem heard gunfire overhead. The sounds of planes and tanks and rockets, maybe real gépezet—the war machines, not like Golem. Thieves entered the house. A few even ventured into the basement. None would approach Golem or repair her, no matter how Golem begged. Those thieves stole the refrigerator (dented and leaking) and the gas cooker (twisted and burnt). One thief cheered loudly when he found the radio. Golem hadn’t cared for those devices. She hadn’t even really cared for the people in the house. Only Magda.
Golem refused to give up. She wasn’t dead and in her machine heart she knew Magda would come back for her.
So much time, probably years, passed before she heard the creak above, the front door opening carefully. It was unlike the looters, noisy and cavalier. When the new trespasser tiptoed gently above, slowly circling from room to room, maybe examining the mess, Golem hoped. When Golem heard the knock on the basement door and Golem’s name called, she knew Magda had finally returned.
“Magda,” Golem rasped, her broken jaw creaking.
“Golem, you’re still alive,” Magda whispered, but she didn’t sound happy, only surprised.
Magda carried a dim lamp with her down the stairs. She looked much older than she should have, waifish and scarred. Her expression was bleak. She wasn’t the Magda Golem had dreamed of every day.
“Where did you go?” Golem asked. “Eötvös Loránd?”
Magda shook her head and collapsed in a heap beside Golem.
“Where is your mother? Your brothers?”
Magda shook her head again.
“I’ve been good,” Golem said. She tried not to inflect as if asking a question. She knew she’d followed all of Magda’s rules. Well, mostly. She’d lied once to the soldiers, but Magda hadn’t heard. Other than that Golem was sure she had been good.
But Magda once again shook her head.
What had she gotten wrong? What had she missed?
Magda sobbed, pressing into Golem. “I wish I was dead too.”
No. Magda couldn’t give up. She wouldn’t let her. They were still alive. There was still time for Golem to fix whatever mistake she made.
“Don’t be upset with me,” Golem said. “From now on, I will be good. I will be better.”
It was a promise Golem had made before and again she meant to keep it.
Magda didn’t answer.
So Golem shook her until she blinked and scowled.
“As long as we are still alive, we can always be better. We’ll make new rules,” Golem said.
This time, Magda nodded.