Murder on the Danube

“Come Rifka, it will be a game. We will be able to swim to the bottom where there is a playground and lots of children playing.” Pauline held her daughters hand, as they walked in front of the SS militia to the river.

“But I can’t swim Mommy.” Rifka told her.  

“This is a magic river, where everyone can swim.”

The wind was blowing and Rifka pushed her blond curls out of her eyes, as a mist from the river moistened their faces. “Will we see Daddy there?”

“Oh yes, darling he has been waiting for us.”

The two walked in a long line of others making their way to the river, Rifka could see a few children she had gone to school with before there was no more school. The girls waved to each other. It made her feel better that there would be children she knew at the underwater playground.

When the Arrow Cross Party police had arrived at the Jewish Ghetto the residents could here their heavy footsteps going up the stairway and smashing in the doors of the buildings on Vadasz Street. The people weren’t sure what to do, some hid, others screamed and covered their children as Pauline had done. This had all been done from December 1944 to January 1945 when Hungary decided drowning might be a faster and cheaper way to get rid of the Jews without shipping them off to Poland’s Auschwitz. It would cost too much money and be too slow as the war was almost over and they wanted to purge them before the Russians came to free them.   

Pauline’s husband went before hoping this would satisfy them and not take the rest of his family, but he was wrong and now the family too was being marched to the Danube River, pushed along with guns and bayonets by unconcerned militiamen. They were from the new government in Hungary run by Ferenc Szalasi who was now trying to repel the Red Army coming in through Romania. He was hoping all the Jews would be gone by the time they came. So systematically they were drowning them in the Danube River.

All Hungarian male citizens between the ages of 12 to 70 were now under obligation to perform non-combat military service and those ages 17 to 37 to engage in active military duties, including drowning the Jews.

Pauline’s neighbor, from years ago, when Hungary was united before the transferring of Jews to Ghettos was one of the young men who would drown them. Endre had only been ten then, a tow headed rambunctious boy who played ball in the street with other boys in the building. Now he was going to kill them.

At first Endre acted as if he didn’t see them, but eight-year-old Rifka noticed him and waved. He gave a quick acknowledgment then continued on the march with the Militia to the River; his face like the others with no emotion.

It was estimated that 20,000 had been pushed, shot, or bayonetted in to the river, before the time the Red Army had a chance to save them.

Pauline heard someone on the line say, “believe me this is better than being a slave or having death hanging over our heads, now it will end all that. God will be with us.”

He was immediately hit on the head with a rifle butt and fell to the floor. “No talking the soldier told him.”

But he got up and asked, “What do I have to lose, my life, that will be gone soon enough and you will have to live with that.”

The soldier only laughed.    

The third line of Jews was now held back as the second group was sent to the river.  Pauline and Rifka were in the third group to go.   

Some of the waiting Jews began to sing songs.

“There is nothing to sing about here,” one of the soldiers told them.

“We are singing that soon we will be with God, it is making us happy.”

“Then sing all you want. Jews are fools!” and he wandered away.

“Mama what will be in the playground?” Rifka asked Pauline who was squeezing her hand so hard it was almost hurting her.

“Oh there will be monkey bars, and seesaws and we cannot forget swings. It will be so much fun and you will be able to play with Sima and Bernard, as you used to.”

Their group was now marched to the riverfront where they saw many shoes of those already gone. When they reached the Danube, it was blue, a brilliant cobalt blue, reflecting the white clouds above it on this beautiful sunny day. It was a cold day and that would make the river water seem warm compared to it. As they looked out over the river they saw black skullcaps floating on top of the water and moving with the currents flow.   

Now Endre told them all to take off their shoes, they would be needed for others. People were helping each other get their shoes off, as they all stood together ready to go to God.  They were told to face the river, that beautiful blue river with the sun glistening of it.  Some said prayers, some cried, some even begged, older couples held each other, but the children didn’t cry they were eagerly awaiting the watery playground, all holding their Mommies hands as they were lined up.

A tugboat went by with workmen, who beckoned to them not knowing why they were there, thinking they were probably on an outing. They pulled their horn to say hi as they went by.   

As soon as the boat was out of sight, one by one each Jew was shot, those who didn’t die was bayoneted. The soldiers stood on the shore watching them floating down and away with the Danube’s current. Rifka and her mommy were going down to the playground where Papa would be waiting.

Maybe he will be waiting for me on the swings, Rifka thought to herself as she entered a dream state still holding Mommies hand. Pushed and shoved by the river’s rhythm they went down and down and down. 

“Look Mommy, Sima is here already and there is Papa by the swings, she ran to him and he picked her up in his arms and twirled with her, then he put her down and hugged Pauline who had tears in her eyes that he wiped away.

“You are as beautiful as you always were my Pauline. Now come and let me show you where we will live in God arms and now he will protect us and there will be no more tears or sorrow, just laughter and joy, no pain, no agony and our little one will be forever happy.

* * *

Two soldiers were left at the riverfront to spray away the Jewish blood, all in the scheme to wipe them out.  But Endre looked out at the river, it was no longer a bright cobalt blue; it was now a dark greenish blue with red streaks. A few skullcaps, a few buttons glided along refusing to go down. One prayer shawl opened full length drifted slowly on, its white tassels appeared to be forming words of recrimination as it was turned and tossed upon the moving river.  Endre watched the remains of his neighbors and old friends as they slowly went under and a pang of guilt struck him, which lasted a lifetime, it would come back and haunt his nights even when he had turned old and tired. Even though he told himself he had no choice, he always felt that he did and there in laid the guilt. 

The Russians finally came through the border from Romania, but by then it was too late for the Jews murdered on the Danube. Now only a memorial of bronze shoes by the riverfront is left to remember, but it stays alive as long as someone tells the story.   

Judith Present is an actor, playwright and director who brings historical characters to the stage for Historical Societies, Museums, historical Mansions, Clubs and organizations for fundraiser. She has her own theatre company “Presentarts.” She was a resident playwright for the American Renaissance Theater Company, in NYC. This story is from a collection “Stories of the Jewish Experience,” and has been performed by actors.