My mother, Margaret Jager, was born on October 10, 1914 in the small town of Matyovce, Czechoslovakia, a mainly Hungarian speaking community close the Russian border. Her mother, Johanna Weitzen, had just returned from America shortly before her marriage to Jehuda Jager, a well to-do local businessman. By the time she found herself pregnant with their first child, the cloud of war had flown over Europe and her young husband had to join the Austro-Hungarian army. When my Mother was born my grandfather was fighting on the front and had to wait 4 years to meet little Margaret. At first she was scared of this man who one day just walked into their house and called himself her father. Every two years after that they had another girl: Bella, Edith and Hanna. The family had a comfortable life together until one day, at age 42, their mother died of pneumonia and Margaret, barely a teenager, had to step into the role of the mother – cooking, washing and cleaning for the family. They all rode the train daily to a nearby town called Ushgorod to attend school.
When her sisters became old enough to take care of themselves Margaret moved to the capital of Hungary, Budapest, to find a better life for herself and her family. By the time World War II broke out, only the youngest of the girls, Hanna, was staying with their father, and sadly they were taken from there to Auschwitz with many of their relatives and friends. Only a few of them survived.
During this time Margaret was hiding while working as the cook for Baroness Jozsika. Many Nazi officers enjoyed my mother’s cooking at the Baroness’ house. When the trajectory of the war indicated that Germany might lose, the Baroness packed up and left Budapest for Berlin, asking my mother to join them. She declined, saying she was waiting for her sisters to show up. By this time she had met a man, Eugen, my father, whom she had married in 1942.
After the Baroness left, Margaret was taken to the Nagybatonyi Ujlaki brick factory, a forced labour camp for woman, to work under inhuman conditions. One of the guards used to work for my father at his moving company before the war and, remembering how well my father treated him, treated my mother a bit better, letting her visit their apartment and meet her husband who was in another forced labour camp. Sometime around then, my mother became pregnant but lost the babies, twin boys. My mother was heartbroken.
When the bombing started in Budapest, my parents were in a bomb shelter. As they exited the cellar, a devastating view awaited them; their whole apartment building was leveled to the ground like a house of cards. Everything they owned was destroyed except the clothing on their backs. Debris and destruction were everywhere, and in the midst of the dead people and dead animals my mother noticed the ornate cast iron legs of her mother’s Singer sewing machine. It became their only possession. This machine not only survived the bomb attack, but remained in good working order with some scratches and bruises, and we used it for many years until we left Hungary in 1966. My mother taught me how to sew on this machine.
My parents found a new place to live next to the Budapest Ghetto, across the street from the Dohany Synagogue, one of the largest temples in the world.
One day my mother made it home to find their apartment full of squatters who did not want to let her in. My mother insisted that this was her place, and with the help of some neighbours the refugees finally gave up and moved on taking with them anything they found useful.
When my mother discovered she was pregnant with me, my father encouraged her to be brave, reassuring her that the war couldn’t go on much longer, and either they would all perish or the baby would be born into a new world.
My father was right. On the early morning of May 7th 1945, the day Germany capitulated, my mother went into labour, walking all the way to the Poly-clinic on Szovetseg Street stopping every few minutes for the pain. She made it to the hospital and gave birth to me just before noon. I was a scrawny little thing, a kilogram and half from a severely malnourished mother, who had spent many months working hard days in the labour camp and huddling in bomb shelters at night, never to undress for days in fear that the sirens would signal an incoming bomber. Her feet were so swollen she could not have removed her shoes even if she wanted to.
When they brought me home from the hospital, my father filled the apartment with bouquets of peonies and a sign: Welcome home “Peace Angel”. This was my distinction for my whole life and so far as I can say, I did it.
My parents worked very hard. My father left for work before I woke up and frequently came home after I fell asleep. We celebrated Christmas like other Hungarians, by going for a big walk or to a movie while my mother decorated a tree in my room, telling me the angels brought it while we were out. It was sparkly with live candles and angel hair, glass fibers pulled around the tree, which sparkled in the candle-light and made me itch when it fell on my bed. The big event was my favourite meal, served from a blue enameled cast iron pot filled with stuffed cabbage, followed by beigly, a Hungarian sweet yeast pastry rolled up with poppy seed or walnut filling. My gifts were usually books, chocolates, dolls or construction toys.
My mother was very community minded eventually becoming the president of the PTA. She participated in the growing women’s movement and was sent as a delegate to the Hungarian parliament where her table mate was the famous sports commentator, George Szepesi.
She would walk me to nursery school and later waited for my arrival home from elementary school with fresh food every day. She sewed most of our dresses on her mother’s Singer sewing machine and taught me to sew. I had so many extracurricular activities that every moment of the day was accounted for: piano lessons, ballet classes, English class, etc. My parents gave me everything they were deprived of during their formative years.
We had season tickets to the opera, the ballet, and the National Theatre and, since babysitting was not widespread, I participated in everything from an early age. My mother even took me when she donated blood and we shared her cookie at the end. She taught me to write letters to her sisters and to keep in touch with other relatives at times when phone calls were either too expensive or non-existent.
I remember the day when we got our first television set, which was still a novelty in our neighbourhood. It was set up in my bedroom and mother invited our neighbours in to watch this new modern miracle. The neighbours brought little stools and stayed until the end of the transmission of the day.
Our beautiful life came to a halt on an April night in 1958 when my father passed away. We were shattered, not just by losing him, but on discovering a few days after the funeral that we were almost destitute. My mother had to find a job.
Someone recommended a job at a recycling center, which was a novelty in those years – a storefront where people brought paper, newsprint and all kinds of metal with different price structures. An interview was arranged but Margaret worried that her math skills were rusty. We spent a whole night recapitulating additions, subtractions and multiplications – the 13 year old grade 7 student with a broken heart, and a woman who had endured the horrors of war and with only a few years of formal education, who had just lost the love of her life, but had to fend for herself and her child. We did it and next day she aced her interview and got the job. She was placed in a depot in Buda, and for the first time in my life I prepared dinner for us and lit a fire in the fireplace as well as shopping and a whole bunch of other grown up things.
With my Father’s passing, I missed the high-school registration deadline but one day my mother took a few hours off work and went to the best high school in town, had a talk with the principal and I was accepted for the next academic year. During the long, hot summer I visited her in the recycling depot, in a rather affluent area of Buda where people brought in a lot of fancy magazines to recycle, like Life, Paris Match, Look, etc. I just loved to read those publications about a lifestyle we only heard about or saw on films.
During that summer I met people who influenced my life a great deal; I discovered a club which had its own youth theatre group, dance school and a lot of fun activities but only for members. My mother found the money to join so I could partake in the events.
As we lived in the middle of downtown, our apartment was always a hub of activities. During high school, we always had my friends sleeping over for days, as they lived further outside of the city. My mother liked people to visit, she welcomed friends or relatives, and everybody had a good meal and a good time.
In 1967, at age 22, I decided to move to Canada. I went to the embassy, filled out the papers and because I was young, spoke English and had a profession, within a year I got my visa. Six months after my arrival I sponsored my mother to join me. Those six months were the only time in my life we lived apart. I was lucky, getting a job at RCA Victor in Montréal just a few days after I arrived, after a long list of rejections for “not having Canadian Experience”. As a young woman in a male oriented profession, my prospective employers worried about me getting married and leaving them to have babies. I am proud of the fact that Canada did not have to spend a penny on me, that everything I accomplished I did on my own, and I am grateful to our country providing us this opportunity.
My mother arrived in November, at age 53, and loved everything – even the cold winter did not phase her. In 1971 I married George, the love of my life, had 2 children and lived happily ever after. I managed to keep on working as my mother took care of Paul and Gena and they adored each other. Eventually we moved to Ottawa, bought a big house where my mother could have her own quarters and still live with us. While the children were young, I started to make pottery as a hobby and my Mother joined me. She had an amazing imagination and a natural talent for everything artistic.
In 1999 we celebrated her 85th birthday in Los Angeles where Gena, my daughter, was attending graduate school. My mother was very happy that her dreams were realized and both of her grandchildren became doctors. To my mother neither I, nor Paul or Gena could do wrong; we loved each other unconditionally.
Paul was with her the night before she passed away in 2003 while George and I were in Las Vegas at Gena’s conference.
I was very shy my whole life, but at her funeral, after the eulogy of the Rabbi and my children, I stood up to talk about her in front of hundreds of people, telling everyone how great a wife, mother, grandmother and human being Margaret Jager Kovacs was.