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The Immigration Story of George Ferenczi (Hungarian Immigrant)

The Museum reviews and accepts donated personal or family memories and histories into its collection. As a learning institution, the accounts help us understand how individuals recollect, interpret, or construct meaning from lived experiences. The stories are not modified by Museum staff. The point of view expressed is that of the author and not that of the Museum.

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February 1, 1952

Bremen, West Germany. I have a photo of the Genovese passenger ship M.S. Fairsea, but I don’t have one of our family all together, even though this was one of the rare occasions that we were. I can imagine Father talking to mother’s confidante Mr. Adler about Montreal’s freezing winters, the upholstery business and their future prospects. Mr. Adler had a friend already living there. Mother was nervously beaming while holding me her wrapped up fat-faced baby. Like Sara, wife of Abraham, she had given birth no longer young to a second child. She had turned thirty-nine three months ago, already in the Lager, in Displaced Persons Camp Hallein and filled with disbelief. American GIs had called the DP Camp, « Camp Hell ». I must’ve felt like a package to be delivered, being all bundled up like that. Near her was Leslie brooding, dark and serious.
« Bye, bye », Mothers were telling their children, « and wave ».
Mother kept smiling at me and to anyone on the ship who looked her way and smiled at me, besides why wave to strangers.
« Magyarorszag vege, kesz, » Father said, « Hungary was finished, over.»

There was a seemingly eternal storm raging on the Atlantic Ocean, and out of the porthole of Cabin 2. Berth 902, Deck E, Mother would take time out from being the ecstatic Mother to a woman being seized with panic and fear and stare out on the horizon. There was nothing but water, choppy waves. Mother kept imagining what she had not seen with her own eyes because she had eloped with Lajos and not been there when her mother and sister were taken away. She would dig her fingers into my stomach and sides, searching for signs of pain, to see what was wrong.

The ship kept rocking and both the adults and children vomiting, frightened to death.
« Stay in your cabins », the Captain and the crew ordered.
But Father didn’t listen, and insisted on going out to smoke a cigarette and for some air.
Les threw up and Mother wanted to clean up the mess. I was passed from one arm to another.
« Minyen gyönyüru vagy », a woman said, smiling at me, « Minyen gyönyüru kiss yerek »,
« How gorgeous you are ! What a lovely little boy ! »
Mother was often busy cleaning something or the other. She was far too nervous to relax.
One moment she’d be smiling, shaking with joy, the next, scared to death and searching for something.
« Weiss, » Mother was trying to remember the other women’s names. « Urbanyi, Linderer, and who else ? »
The women called out to their children in umpteen languages.
« Gyerekek ! Kinder ! Jungen ! »
In the Lager, Father, a meister tapeziezer, taught the art of upholstering at the ORT, which was Russian for the Association of the Promotion of Skilled Trades, and which provided occupational and vocational training to refugees. At the Training center, Father taught, how to do the tufting of French, Italian and Spanish provincials, how to strip an armchair, how to bend a frame. Mother could have worked at the ORT, but she had me her baby to look after. She was a dressmaker and a seamstress by trade. In Kanada, she thought, she could sew, do needlepont and petit point tapestries. Make dresses. She could work with Father. She also liked putting tapestries on foot stools and on wall hangings. But unlike Father and Leslie, she wouldn’t or couldn’t take English lessons.
I started crying. « Ne sher yal », she insisted.
« Everything’s fine », someone said, though Mother was exhausted. I found myself in another woman’s arms.
Twelve and a half thousand Hungarians immigrated to Canada from the end of the war to the 1956 Hungarian Uprising. It was an odd mix of former aristocrats, Catholics, Protestants, many among them former Arrow Cross and fascists. Then there were us the Jews. Among us some Marxist-Leninists, who were more Communist than Moscow’s Communists, who could have wound up in forced labor camps or disappear in the gulag. There was talk of Montreal and Toronto, the major cities of eastern Canada. Some mentioned Vancouver in the far west of the country. The ship was lit up like a birthday cake.
« Everything’s going to be fine », Mr. Adler said, winking at me in Mother’s arms. « For you life will be better. »
But Mother was shivering, frozen in fear. She knew that nothing was for sure, except the ship’s rocking on the choppy waves.
Les had taken off his gloves and his hand was stuck to the railing. Father unstuck it. Mother screamed, « Pisti, a keset ». « Steve, your hands ! »
« It burns me », he complained, waving his hand in the air as if by abracadabra and some magic, his hand’d cool down. I could imagine the steam rising from his hand, like from the ship’s smoke stack.
Father grabbed him and rushed him inside to put his hand in a sink under the warm water tap or was it better under the cold ? « Better hot or very cold », Father said. Mother said something about « there must be some cream or some butter, but maybe, the butter wasn’t a good idea ». Father told Les in Hungarian, « leave it undere the tap a few minutes. Alternate, go from cold to warm. »
« He should see the doctor ! » Mother cried. « How do we get a doctor ? »
« I’ll go look », Father said. « ‘n try to find a doctor. »
The ship was supposed to go down the St Lawrence Seaway to Québec City, and then down the Saint Lawrence River to Montréal. But the ice breakers weren’t working or weren’t powerful enough to cut through the glaciers, the huge blocks of frozen ice. So, we arrived and docked in Halifax, Nova Scotia. « From here », Father said, « ve’re taking a train to Montreal. Dere’s no udder vay. »
It was freezing cold and snowing hard, and there were the gusts and blasts of Atlantic Ocean wind.
Two rabbis came to greet us. One was Orthodox, the other Ultra-Orthodox, a Hassid wearing a top hat, with pejes sidelocks and a long dark beard. Other Hassidim, members of his Ultra-Orthodox congregation greeted us. « Welcome to Canada ! », the rabbi said, and added, « We’d like to explain « the situation » to you in Montreal. How and what’s going to happen. »
While waiting, there were Immigration Canada and Health and Welfare forms to fill.
The woman with the big nose introduced herself, « I’m from the Hebrew International Aid Service. The HIAS », she said, « has prepaid your bus and tramway tickets, made the other necessary arrangements including housing for you. You’ll be living with a Russian family for a while. Mister, you don’t speak any Russian, by any chance, do you ? »
« We have to wait », a man said, « a couple of hours for the train to arrive. It’s always late, especially when we have blizzards like this one and snow and ice all over the tracks.
« But don’t worry », he added, checking his wrist watch. « If everything goes alright, we should arrive in Montreal, in, oh, about fourteen hours. »

« Take care of your sister », Mrs Urbanyi ordered her eldest. « Don’t you see that she’s crying ? »
« OK, OK ! », Mrs Linderer told her boy who couldn’t stop fidgeting. « Gabor, go play. Just not far away. »
« Stay here », Mrs Weiss told her children. « I don’t care what his mother said, I don’t care. I said, stay here ! »

Father’s and Les’ English lessons served them little good at first. Immigration Canada officers complained, « Les deux, même chose, tous les deux parlent juste anglais. »
Another Immigration Canada officer spoke to Father in English. « So, you know where you’re supposed to go ? », he asked.
They gave us maps, papers, directions, directing us the Government of Canada reception center on rue Saint-Antoine.
Father found the long line-ups impossibly frustrating. The questioning worse.
« Quoi ? Quoi ? Quoi ? » did make the simple question of « what » sound like it was being asked by a duck.
« Ferenci », Father said.
« Is that with an S or a Zed ? »

First, we lived on rue Saint-Denis with this Russian family, the Miroivski’s.


You see Mrs… », Mother said, pointing at the floor, « How clean I keep. I scrubbed and scrubbed the tiles so clean that you can eat off the floor now. »
« I don’t want to eat off the floor », Mrs Mirovski replied, feigning satisfaction and mocking Mother « or on the floor. ». Which didn’t stop that old crow from standing there checking to make sure that everything was as spotless as Mother said it was.
« Thank you very much », she repeated.
« I wish that my sister », Mother said, « who is as clean as I am, were here. »

I was with Father and Mr. Adler and we were in a good mood. We were walking down rue Prince Arthur, a street off The Main, dotted with its Hungarian and Polish restaurants. A French-Canadian wearing a lumberjack, a plaid, red and black woolen coat and walking our way suddenly went and spat in front of Father. Not really in front of him but… It was too late. Father leapt on him and started smashing his face, his nose, his mouth and his teeth in. Mr. Adler struggled to get Father off the man, while not wanting to get punched in the face too. I, like the others there on the street watching, couldn’t believe my eyes.
« Vat do dey dink ven dey spit in frond a you » Father demanded. « You know, vat dey say or vat rawten dings they do ? »

It was mid-May and still freezing. Then, like Nescafé, it was instant spring and much warmer weather with most everyone taking off their winter coats although Mother insisted that Les wear a hat and I remain bundled up with a thick woolen sweater under my duffle coat.
« You can catch a cold », Mother said. « Be sick ».
Father had stolen much of the « emergency money » in Mother’s purse, but he hadn’t paid the rent yet. He’d go out nights with Szurka, who was working at the same furniture factory.
Somebody called Szurka Paul Anka, somebody else, Perry Como, but scruffy. Father always called him by his surname, Szurka.
Before moving east to Montreal, Szurka said that he had been a farmhand out in Saskatchewan, out on the prairies.
« The flattest land you ever did see », he said, « vorst dan da puszta, and vit a howling vind that could pick you up and drow you and your house a mile avay. »
« Ach ! », Szurka added, « Ach ! It vas back-breaking vork, and not enough money, dough dey’d paid cash, in dol-lars. »
Father wanted to take the tram down rue Saint Denis, but trams, Szurka reminded him, cost money and you need a ticket.
« Well, I have my hat », Father said, « I hate valking. But, it‘s not far, only a few blocks avay, right ? »
They arrived at a building with a big green roof in the form of a mushroom. The tiles on the roof were rotten and needed to be repaired.
« I’m sweating like a pig », Szurka said, « and need to change my shirt. Won menute. »
He had a room up on the third floor. The building faced Carré Saint Louis, a sweet six-block urban park surrounded by Victorian townhouses, some of them with steeples, and lined with trees. High-ranking French-Canadian muncipal civil servants had owned the houses. Montreal’s City Hall was only a few blocks away on rue Saint Denis.
The square had a huge fountain in the middle of it, Drunken bums and on occasion piss- drunk Indians were asleep on the benches. Otherwise, reserved for couples and lovers who lived in the neighborhood. Mother’s eyes were on the children all-excited on the swings.
The chip man was ringing the bell on his bicycle wagon filled with gas-cooked hot dog steamies. He had jars full of mustard, pickled relish and Heinz Ketchup.
« Besides, she doesn’t ave to know natink », Father told Szurka.

Father was a chain-smoker, smoking two-three packs of Export Player’s cigarettes a day.
« It stinks », Mother said in Hungarian, « I don’t want you stinking up the house with the baby and Leslie here. »
Father went into Pellatt’s to buy two packs. Mrs. Pellatt was an old white-haired Yiddish yentl. Quite a busy-body she was.
« You new around here ? » she asked Father.
« No, my friend… »
« Which house he live in ? »
« The one vit the green top. »
« Oh, that one there ! », she said pointing at the building. « Where Mrs. Brunelle lives on the second floor. »
« I don’t know… ».
« My friend Freddie delivered one of our Cornucopia Specials to her last week. What a staircase ! Whoo ! »


Father walked past a three foot high sign with red and gold lettering : YOUNG CHINESE MEN’S CHRISTIAN ASSOCIATION. Then he went back into the Hungarian village on Prince Arthur Street with its line-up of Hungarian restaurants, the Budapest with its toltött kaposta, stuffed cabbage with mostly pickled beef and pork, the Tisza, with the greasiest meals, the Elizabeth, and the Gul Baba, chirke paprikas with the best nokedlin dumplings, and Margo’s, with under-the-counter whiskey and a back-room brothel. Margo, who had straw white hair and rouge splattered lips, was Croatian, but Father said that she spoke like a primitive, street and horse’s ass Hungarian. One mean bitch, not even the MUC could make her close the curtains, lower the shades and the blinds and close at 1 a.m. Her kurva were kurvaing all night. Her backroom whores cost three dollars during the week, five bucks on weekends. Sometimes, for good form, the police would raid the joint, throw her out on the street and she’d go right back to business.
Father never mentioned being a Jew on Prince Arthur Street.
« It vasn’t vorth da druble », he said, « to ave druble again ».
From Kemeny, he said pointing to a store, « the grocer here, you get good prices for fruits and vegetables. » Upstairs was Pollack Hall and the Police War Veterans Association. They give weekly dances and parties, even hold weddings. Sometimes, Erdi Transylvanians and gypsies play there too.
A laundromat was downstairs. Father thought he recognized a man washing his clothes and poked his bald head in the door. The janitor, shaking the handle of the mop in his hand, was badmouthing the man Father thought he knew.
« We don’t want your germs in here » the janitor yelled, « If you stay here, I’ll have to put you in one of the machines. »
Then he laughed, started howling with laughter, enjoying his own sick joke.
« I don’t know him da man », Father said. « If I did… »
« Let’s go », he said.
And we kept walking. Around the corner was the newly built Balfour Building with ten floors of sweat shops and garment and textile factories. One of them had been hit by a strike, and the strikers were out on the street in front of the building waving signs and as if chanting.
« Zsidok ! » Szurka cursed, « Jews ! »
Father grimaced but thought, « Dey only know one ding. »
« A kurva ! « Szurka swore. « Da fuckin’ whores ! »
Montreal was a city of two solitudes, of English against French, les maudits anglais ! the goddamned English and the Frogs and the Pepsis ! with St. Lawrence as the east-west borderline. Later, I thought there were another two solitudes : Christians and Jews, the Jewish and non-Jewish immigrants : the paraszt peasant and working-class Hungarians like Szurka on the one hand, and on the other hand, Father, tradesmen and the merchants but there were also the professionals, the doctors, the lawyers, engineers and architects, Many of the shopowners were selling schmutas, with the jobbers and peddlars who went walking through working-class or jobless eastend Montreal selling to poor French-Canadians. Les habitants bought often on credit, on the instalment plan, le plan mise à côté. Little stores with rafters lined The Main, most chaotically packed to the high ceilings with boxes of dry goods and cheap junk.
« What’s to explain ? » Szurka told Father, « A zsidot fizedet, You pay the Jew. You pay a little each month until you die. vit the interest dey charge, dose who buy on credit – dose out of work living on UIC or on velfare cheques -, vind up paying with da interest in the end double or triple vat the ding cost, wich vas no bargain in da first place. »
There were Hungarians all the way up Saint Lawrence Street from Sherbrooke Street to Mount-Royal Street. Five butcher shops Hoffner’s and Corvin’s on this the south side of Pine, while going north were Hungarian-German, Fairmount and the Erdi-Transylvanian. Below rue Prince Arthur there were at least three Hungarian restaurants, the Hungaria Klub, St Etienne’s and the Csardas, while above was the Takacs Diningroom and on the corner Skéky’s upstairs pool room, where the Magyarok were also throwing dice and playing poker, gin rummy or Ulti at the card tables. Women were not welcome in taverns or in these places.
« You remember », I told Alain, « when the health inspector caught Hoffner’s or was Corvin’s, or both of them selling painted rats ? Yeah, it’s true. And it’s funny, because I always thought their steaks and take-out sandwiches tasted so good. »
On the way up, you could smell the spilt beer, the piss, the Depression and war-torn men, many of them worn-out workers, lost souls, broken hearts, stinking clothes, foul and stale cigarette smoke.
« Players Export », Father was holding the strong cigarette up between his fingers, as if savoring it, but shook his head, said, « you know, it’s not so strong. Not compared to da Symphonia I used to smoke in Budapeste. »

« Menyel a picsa hoz ! » someone at a card table swore. « Go on, Go lick and drink her pussy ! »
Cheats were thrown down the stairs and out onto the street. Sometimes, the owner, old red-faced Mr. Miklos, his black horn-rimmed glasses flying off his nose, would handle the matter himself. Trouble makers often came back to apologize, begging Mr. Miklos for forgiveness, promising and swearing never to make trouble again.
There was a story of this guy who was half-Jewish, half-Christian. His mother was Jewish. So, so was he.
« My father’s a goy », he said, « Egy gaszember ! A goy like you. That’s right ! While my mother, a Jewish saint. A saint, I tell you, she was. So, I’m asking you what does that make me ? I’ll tell you, a Jew, egy zsido. That’s what ? And what are you going to do about it ? Throw me out out on the street ? Throw me out of here ? Send me to Auschwitz ? You’re going to shoot me ? Put a bullet in my head ? Anh ? Well, go ahead. Shoot me. Kill me ! »
They looked at him as if he was crazy. Probably, he was or he’d just had too much to drink.
« What are you going to do ? » he kept asking and yelling, « Throw me into a gaz chamber ? »
He kept provoking them, playing the same broken record over and over again. Then big beefy Rudi, who installs air-conditioners, got up and went downstairs to lock the front door. When he came back, he had a big, mean, fat smile on his face. He picked up a bunch of billiard cues. He looked at each tip and rolled the cue on the table to see if it was alright. He finally picked one and started waving it around like a cowboy testing his lasso.
« So, you’re Jewish », Rudi said, making fun of him ; « a little kike, are you ? Egy budos kissi zsido ? A fucking little stinking Jew, right ? Budos … Well, well. You have a choice. You can stay here and fight or … ?
« Or what ? », the man asked.
« Or », Rudi said and smiled this terrible smile, « Or you can jump out of da vindow. Anh ? So, what’s it going to be Jew ? Choose. »
The man was so scared that he pissed in his pants. You could see the pee, a stream of it, running down his pant leg.
Rudi waited a while, then he swung his cue and cracked him on the ribs, then over his head.
« Hey ! What are you doing ? » the man asked.
« Here’s what I’m doing. » Rudi kept swinging the cue and cracking it and then another, after the first cracked in two, on the man’s head and ribs and tried to poke out an eye. He did that three-four times. The man managed to scramble and make it over to the second storey window. He looked around and saw Rudi. And Rudi put that terrible smile on his face back on. Then Rudi started walking slowly towards him. The man turned around and jumped out of the window. He didn’t go up on the ledge. He just jumped out. A free fall. The side of his head hit the sidewalk hard. Like some of the other men, Father got up off his chair and went over to the window. Looking down, the man’s head looked like an egg that had been cracked open, blood streaming from the side of his head and face. There he lay on public display on the sidewalk. Shards and pieces of broken glass surrounded him. No one had even pulled out a knife or flicked open a switchblade this time.
It doesn’t matter. I don’t mean that it doesn’t matter that the man died and that way, with no one trying to intervene and stop Rudi. Not even Father. Then again, it happened so fast. It was so unexpected. What I meant to say is that it doesn’t matter if the story’s true or not. It was simply told to serve as a warning.
But Father went back to his table for two and ordered the bob leves, a bean soup followed by fott marhahus, boiled beef with boiled potatoes.
« No », he said, « not the boiled beef tongue ».
He preferred the Special, the Wienerschnitzel, but it was stuffed with pork not veal. They put the marinated, vinegar-drenched cucumber salad in a plastic bowl. The basket of day-old Levine Brothers rye bread, which tasted like Ajax, was stale. Father regretted having ordered the boiled beef.
« At least », he told another man, who’d seen him make a grimace, « vit da roasted or boiled chicken, you can see vat you’re eating. »
« Ha nem tetzik, uhrnak ! », someone shouted, « Mister, if you don’t like it, you can shove it up your ass ! ».
« Vat ! » Father demanded, angrily looking around for who had said that, but it wasn’t worth it.
Father went over to the card table to watch the game. But the players hid their cards and stared hard at him, fixing him in their sights. He became annoyed, got fed up and decided to leave. Then on the way out, he missed a step going down, almost hit the back of his bald head against the concrete wall. Father slammed the front door. Mr. Miklos shouted down at him, « Tudod hova mehetz ! Menj ki innen! Czak men yel! »
“You know where you can go! Just get the fuck out of here!”
“Czak gyere ide!” Father shouted back. “Come dow here!”
“Es ne gyere vissza!” Mr Miklos shouted down, “And don’t come back!”
“Gyere ide te rohadek! Come down here, you bastard!”

The Hungarian Klub was downstairs, the Czardas, which resembled what could’ve been Dracula’s livingroom, upstairs. Its once plush red velour carpeting and cork-and-cream-colored walls were now filthy. Mirrors covered the ceilings and pillars for the ultimate in bad taste. “The mirrors make the place seem bigger”, some said. Others thought it used to be a brothel and orgies had once taken place here. Perhaps, nothing had changed or not that long ago. A gypsy trio serenaded romantic-minded couples drunk on Egri Bikaver, Bull’s blood red wine. A dyed blonde waitress came over to take Father’s order.
“You English?” she asked him.
“Na?” Father said, “So, you dink I’m English?”
“You French?”
“Na.” “So, now you dink I’m French?”
“Vat den?”
“You’re Hungarian?” she asked, although their accents were almost identical.
It might have been a Peter Sellars sketch at a Paris hotel. You know the one in The Pink Panther where Inspector Clouseau says, “I’d like a roo-om for the night.”
“A what?”
“A roo-om.”
“Ah, you’d like a roo-om! Why didn’t you say so!”
“So, you don’t speak English?”
“I speak English.”
“Are you crazy?”
“Saw-ry, you’re Hun-gar-i-an?”
“A drink”, she said handing him a bottle of Coca-Cola, “Just don’t tell the boss, OK?
Father was dumbfounded. “Egy Coca-Cola?” he asked her. “Te szolgalsz nekem egy Coca Cola-t?”
“You’re handing me a bottle of Coke?”
“Trust Roszika.”
Fed up, he guzzled it down so fast it came back up out of his mouth
“Palinka?”, he asked her amazed.
“Na?” she said, laughing, pleased with her little joke. “So, but please don’t tell no one, OK?”
“Here, gimme your mout”, Father said, and kissed her hard on the lips.
“Magyar vajd? You’re Hungarian?”
“Kitalaltad. You guessed it.”


Snow was piling up on the street like ice in the freezer. It was hard to see out of the window.
« Nothing to see », Mother said.
When rain or hail hits the window, it goes ping, ping ! Like the sound b.b gun bullets and pellets make. Frosted over, the window gets stuck, making it nearly impossible or a battle to loosen and get unstuck. All anyone could see were dépanneur and Coca-Cola neon signs and car headlights all hazy and blurry from the frosted over window.
Father’d have to go outside, scrape the ice off his windshield, revv the motor and the engine from ten to who knows how many minutes, often longer, before the Chevrolet parked on the street would heat up and he could drive away. Meanwhile, the Kovars’s two boys were out in front of the building making a snowman with a carrot in his nose.
The radiators in the apartment, trying to give off heat, leaked, sputtered and spritzed. We had to keep moving the beds so we and the beds wouldn’t get spat at and soaked. Mother cleaned the puddles on the floor, using my pail and Mrs Kovars’ larger bucket, and set another bucket to catch the dripping water.
Father borrowed a space heater from Mrs Kovars too.