Archive for July 22nd, 2007

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I have agonized over this story for some months. The problem is that there is very little verifiable information about the details that I am about to relate. There is a recent massively researched book, Miracles on the Water, by Tom Nagorski, which disagrees on some points and omits some. It may have some credibility problems but so does some of my great uncle’s narrative. I have decided to simply set down Erno’s account as he told it (within the limits of my memory) and then to touch briefly on the disparities and my impression of where the truth most likely lies. I have relied on the book for dates and times and other documented details. 

Szekulesz Erno (pronounced Seck-oo-less Ehr-nur; Szekulesz is the patronymic, Erno the given name, the equivalent of Ernest; the Hungarians give the family name first but hereafter I’ll put the given name first) was my great uncle on both my mother’s and my father’s sides of the family. This tangle in my family tree came about in this way: my great grandfather Sandor (Shahn-dor, i.e. Alexander) Szekulesz married Johanna Lasicz (pronounced Lahsh-itz) and had a daughter with her named Jeni. Johanna died shortly thereafter from tuberculosis and stress of childbirth. Sandor then married Johanna’s sister, Berta, and had four children with her: Jozsef, Erno, Imre and Stella. So Jeni is both half sister and cousin to the other four, having a common father and common grandparents, the parents of the Lasicz sisters. Jeni married Peter Kovach (nee Kovacs Peter) and had five children. The eldest was Alexander Joseph Kovach, my father. Jozsef changed his last name to Szebenyei (which merely means from the district called Szeben) when he became a reporter to hide his Jewish ancestry in anti-Semitic Hungary (Sandor Kellner did the same thing for the same reason, becoming Sandor Korda). He married Rozsamarie Klein and had three daughters. The middle one, Agnes Szebenyei, was my mother. My parents were both cousins and second cousins, my sister is my second and third cousin and so on. My mother called her mother-in-law Aunt Jenny and my father called his father-in-law Joskabacsi (Yosh-ka-bah-chee), a hypocorism that means “dear uncle Joey” (Hungarians are often very flowery in their speech). 

Erno Szekulesz was one of the most urbane men I have ever met, a gentleman in the old continental manner. He was also resourceful, resilient and generally optimistic. He made a handsome living publishing books that we would call today public relations or promotional in character. After the first World War he put together a big expensive book promoting many cities in Europe for tourism. The cities were from most of Europe, including Germany and Austria. Just as the book was ready to print another book entitled Other People’s Money came out revealing, among other scandalous things, that much of the money being paid by the European governments for his book was from loans and forgiven debts provided by the United States. It created a big splash and a big stink. It was so famous it was merely called OPM. All the cities immediately canceled their contracts and Erno was ruined overnight. He said he was so crushed that he went to the Riviera and just sat there staring at the water for about a month. Then he said to himself, “you have to pull yourself together, you need money for George’s education.” He then started a whole new venture, which he was still running when I first met him in the early 1940s, medical Who’s Whos, which he did for each country in Europe and which was very successful and lucrative. 

About six years ago my nonagenarian mother was moved to a nursing home. While removing her possessions from her little apartment on Bush Street in San Francisco I emptied the contents of her desk, thirty year old canceled checks, various unidentifiable scraps of paper and this amazing postcard. 

szekulesz.jpg szekreverse.jpg 

The four men in the photograph are Istvan (pronounced Isht-von) Szekulesz, his father, Imre, Erno and Erno’s son Gyorgy (pronounced George). The text on the back identifies them: Pista (Pishta) is a nickname for Istvan (Stephen); I can’t quite make out the nickname for Gyorgy (followed by “dr” ). (Note added 3/15/2008: Zsuzsanna Biran a Hungarian and a pharmacist who owns and operates the West Marin Pharmacy in Point Reyes Station, California, told me the nickname for Gyorgy is Gyurka and that it is “Dr” following his name.)  By this time Gyorgy had finished medical school and his internship and residency in Vienna. I don’t have any collateral facts about Imre and Istvan. Notice that this card was never mailed, probably because Erno didn’t remember his brother’s address in New York (101 West 78th Street, at Amsterdam, across from the Museum of Natural History). He must have hand delivered it when he got to New York around 1942. I haven’t been able to locate this Abbazia in Savoia. Abbazia merely means abbey and there are a number of them in Italy. For some reason I have the feeling that it is not far from Venice and that that is the Adriatic running under the bar – but that is just a hunch – it could be on the other side of Italy near Genoa,  it could even be a lake. 

Note the ominous date, July 10, 1939. Two months later the roof fell in. Erno and Gyorgy would leave Austria for England. Five years later the Germans murdered Imre. Gyorgy had to do another year of internship in England to qualify for his medical license there. A little over a year later, Erno decided to visit his brother in New York. He booked passage on The City of Benares which was still a rather new ship, launched in 1936, departing from LiverpoolSeptember 13, 1940. On board were 406 people, ninety children being evacuated by the Children’s Overseas Reception Board to get away from the Blitz accompanied by ten adult escorts, ninety-one paying passengers and two hundred fifteen crew.


Four and a half days and about 600 miles later, in the midst of a fierce North Atlantic storm, Erno was feeling slightly agitated after dinner and went to the bar for a drink and some company. He was the only patron and he nursed a couple of drinks for quite awhile which was annoying the bartender (this could be the Jimmy Proudfoot mentioned in Nagorsky’s book), who wanted to close up. Erno used all his charm and powers of persuasion to get one last drink. As the bartender turned to the glass cabinet to get a bottle there was a loud noise, a violent juddering of the ship, and bottles and glasses cascaded down on the bartender. They had been torpedoed. 

There was only a half an hour from the torpedo striking to the sinking of the ship. The chaos, confusion and horror of that half hour are very well described in Nagorsky’s book. The ship had rolled to one side; the lifeboats on the high side became hung-up on the ship’s side; the ones on lower side swung out and away from the ship. Davits failed, sometimes dropping one end of the lifeboat and nearly emptying it of its passengers.  Erno said a large group of Lascars boiled up from the engine room and that some of them, in their panic, were pushing passengers away from their boats. He intervened and helped the passengers into his boat. Then he realized his boat was being lowered and that he was being left behind, so he jumped the eight or ten feet it was down. His feet hit the gunwale of the lifeboat and he “broke both of his legs.”  Once launched, the boat was half swamped, barely staying afloat.

People started dying, mainly from exposure but the ferocious storm was washing some overboard. When one of them died the others threw the body overboard because of the very precarious state of the boat. Erno was holding an infant whose mother and sibling were also in the boat. The baby died but Erno continued rocking and coddling it so that the mother would not know the baby had died, when one of the Lascars noticed and tried to take the baby to toss it overboard. When Erno resisted the seaman produced a knife and started stabbing him in the thighs. Erno staggered to his feet and fell against the sailor who was pushed into the sea. 

Exhausted, hypothermic and in great pain from his injuries, after many hours at sea, he decided he would try to remember the longest Jewish prayer from his childhood and when it was finished, he would fall asleep. He said if you went to sleep, you died, would be washed overboard. Just as he was recalling the last lines the British warship came on them (I think he said shone a light on their boat – but I may be “remembering” something not said – they were picked up around four-thirty in the afternoon which is close to sunset at that latitude at that time of year).  

When they landed he was taken to the hospital and soon thereafter Gyorgy came to his bedside. “Gyorgy, don’t let them take my legs. Let me die.” Erno was diabetic. His wounds were already infected and he was running a high fever, partly delusional. Gyorgy stayed with his father for a couple of weeks and Erno recovered without losing a leg. 


Now to assess the truth of the story, particularly where it diverges from Nagorsky’s account. I think the bit about conning the bartender and the bottles falling just as he turned could be Hollywood style window dressing – not that it matters.  

The statement that the engine room crew jostled passengers for access to the boats does not agree with Nagorsky’s account. He insists that the Indian crew behaved according to the highest standards of seamanship. Other accounts disagree. I think it is reasonable to guess that at least a few of the crew did some of that sort of thing. Nagorsky does not, and would not, use the term “Lascar” – it is not considered politically correct but, it should be pointed out, not all Lascars were Indian. He also says there was evidence of British racism in the accusations after the event and I think that is also quite evident. I also think Erno’s remark was tinged with racism. 

Nagorsky has Erno getting into lifeboat 6 when it was on the deck – nothing about jumping after the boat was being lowered. I doubt that there is any documented evidence either way. For Erno to help others, especially women and children, was perfectly consistent with his upbringing and culture. It would have been a minor contribution, nothing like the heroic effort and sacrifice of James Baldwin-Webb. If he did, in fact, jump and hit the gunwale, I don’t think he “broke” his legs in the way most of us would interpret that word. He may have sprained or even fractured one or both ankles or something of that sort.   

The business about the longest Jewish prayer strikes me as pure Hollywood hokum. No one in our family, going back three or even four generations, was the least bit religious. In fact, Erno made something of a point of that fact, saying it required reaching very deep into his memory. Somehow it all seems too pat. (While I am on the subject of Hollywood hokum, I have to say that Nagorsky spoils the factual flavor of his rich collection of objective reporting by putting not only words in the mouths but thoughts in the heads of people who died in the event. You can’t help thinking he had one eye on Hollywood and the classic disaster movie while writing.) 

Throughout the book Nagorsky keeps referring to Erno as “pessimistic”, “dour” and so forth. This is a complete misreading of character and culture. Erno, like many Hungarians, was fatalistic, not pessimistic. There is a difference. Many big-city Hungarians are also rather cynical – although I don’t think that applies in this case either. There is also a rather trite slur on the quality of his English. My grandfather Jozsef Szekulesz Szebenyei was born in 1881 and Erno in 1883. Sandor Szekulesz came to the United States and settled in Brooklyn in 1893. In 1896 Berta came to Brooklyn with the two boys and a sister who did not survive childhood. Imre and Stella were born in Brooklyn. When Sandor died a few years later Berta took the four children back to Hungary. My grandfather and Erno both spoke and wrote excellent English, with a moderate accent.  

Nagorsky makes no mention of throwing dead bodies out of the boats. It is not an uncommon practice in such circumstances and, I imagine, it is not something one would want to talk about afterwards. In his account the two children on the boat were a nine year old girl and her two year old brother and Erno was coddling the nine year old. From Erno’s account I came away with the feeling that it was an infant, less than two years old but that could be memory problems on my part. There is no way to resolve such discrepancies. 

Now for the most egregious, the most outlandish, not to say outrageous part of the story – the stabbing incident. I not only believe it but I believe it is proven fact. As I mentioned early in this account Erno finally made it to New York about two years later. He was an outgoing and entertaining guest. He came to our place in Flushing and introduced me to the wonders of palacsinta (pahl-a-chinta), Hungarian crepes. He walked in an unsteady fashion, taking rather small wobbly steps. At my grandparents place, he took his brother into a separate room, lowered his pants and showed his brother five or six discolored scars on his thighs. My grandfather told me of this in a tone that verged on awe.  

Erno lived for another twenty or more years. I don’t believe he ever set foot in an airplane – he liked ships. He died on a ship in the Indian Ocean returning from Sydney, where his son had a medical practice, to his beloved London. (Note added 3/15/2008: I received a Comment from Rhys Holden in New South Wales. He is Gyorgy Szekulesz’ grandson. He informed me that Gyorgy changed his name to George Sekuless, had two children, Peter and Barbara (Holden) and died quite recently.)

Appendix: A two minute tutorial on Hungarian spelling and pronunciation. 

We have already seen that Sz in Hungarian is pronounced like our voiceless S: sz > ss(It is Leo Silard, not Zilard; Joseph Sigeti, not Zigeti)

Plain S is pronounced like our voiceless Sh:  s> sh

Zs is like our voiced sh, sometimes indicated with the artificial zh:  zs > zh

Z is just z.

Gy is, as my father used to say, pronounced like the end of “judge”. (so it is Moholy-nahj and Magyar (meaning Hungarian) is Mahj-yar).

The O at the end of Erno’s name is printed and pronounced like a German umlaut O.   


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