Maria Kalotai Eulogy
by Chris Burns (Grandson)
See the post-funeral photos at the bottom of this page
Everyone who ever visited or called Nagy Mama, especially her grandchildren, were implored to “GO TO CHURCH” every time we were walking out her door, or about to hang up the phone.
Well, Nagy Mama, we’re all in church. I think this was part of her master plan.
My nagy mama led a life of what I will call a great immensity. When you list out the events and situations she lived through, it feels surreal.
She was born during the Great Depression, and was 6 when World War 2 began, and 11 when it ended. She witnessed the holocaust first-hand. Her family’s property was seized during a communist takeover, she lived through a revolution in which her husband fought, and escaped as a refugee to the United States without speaking a word of English. She entered a United States with legalized segregation and witnessed the Civil Rights Movement, and the assassination of MLK, and JFK. Her grandfather was the first person in her village to install electric lights in his home, and she lived to see social networks allow her to connect via video-link to relatives back in Hungary that she hadn’t seen in 30 years. She survived a massive pandemic event, and told me multiple times she had already lived longer than she ever expected to. She was a tough lady who endured tough times, and made it out alright. She was a testament to our ability to adapt and change and accept that the world is not a static place.
There is an anecdote shared by Aunt Marieanne about cookies I’d like to share.
Aunt Mare once had a conversation with Nagy Mama in which Nagy Mama realized she had oatmeal, raisins, and all of the fixing to make her own oatmeal cookies.
Aunt Mare responded, saying: “It sounds like you’re rich, Mom.”
Nagy Mama agreed, saying “Yes, I am.”
Although Nagy Mama’s agreement, for many people, might have been a polite response. I think she really believed it.
She took everything in stride. I hope to emulate that in my life.
Since 2015, I’ve recorded almost every conversation I had with my Nagy Mama at her kitchen table, creating an oral history of her life experiences. I plan to transcribe these conversations so anyone can read about their friend, cousin, aunt, or grandmother, in her own words. I am extremely grateful for those conversations, and for the fact that they can be passed down to new generations. The rest of this eulogy is derived from those recordings.
I want to relay a few of the anecdotes she told me over the course of my life. These seemed to be among the most important stories to her, as she told me more than once.
As a young girl, she ran into the countryside hills of Koseg, Hungary — where she attended boarding school — when bombing raids targeted the city during World War 2. In her report cards from that time — which were filled with A’s (the same couldn’t be said about her husband) — there is an entire year missing. In place of grades, there was a single word: “War.”
She witnessed the Holocaust first-hand. There was a single Jewish family in her hometown, Und, before World War II. After the war, only one son returned.
A German officer was billeted in her parent’s house during the early part of the war, and Russian soldiers occupied it after the German army had been vanquished. She remembered her parents, aunts and uncles burying stock certificates, cash, and other goods under the dirt in their basement to prevent them from being stolen. When the Russians first arrived, she watched the town’s mayor go out to meet them in the street. The soldiers knocked him down and stole his watch. She remembered seeing some soldiers with 4 or 5 watches on their wrists
I realized as I was writing down these memories, that she very, very rarely told stories about the years directly after World War 2. I can only imagine those were very difficult times for everyone in her village. I wish I had been able to ask her about those times.
One story she did like to tell, was that after the war ended, some of the people in her village discovered an abandoned bunker filled with German weapons somewhere near the village. When times were tough and food was scarce, some of the men in the village would toss a German grenade into a pond or lake, and collect the fish that floated to the surface for food.
A few months after World War 2 ended, she was in church on Sunday, and as the congregation got ready to leave, they all noticed a familiar looking man standing outside, smiling. It was my Nagy Papa’s brother, Kalman. He had been missing for months, believed to be a POW at best, and dead at worst. With a friend, he had jumped off a prison train headed for Siberia, and over the course of months, made his way home. Such was the kind of once-in-a-lifetime event she seemed to witness on an annual basis during her childhood.
It wasn’t just war that made her childhood difficult. Her father was prone to bouts of irrational decisions. He once, in a fit of anger, destroyed an entire year’s supply of dried, smoked sausage. This might seem arbitrary, but during the late depression period, this was a gravely serious mistake. (Especially in Hungary). I’m sure this was not the only time his temper got the best of him.
Nonetheless, he was a good man, and she loved her mother and father, and her childhood experience, dearly. She would often remark that her life growing up in Und, surrounded by war, and revolution, was better than children’s experience in the modern world. She worried about the state of the world her grandchildren were living in. She worried they liked Bernie Sanders too much, and warned them he’d come to steal their land. But, she never let politics consume her. As my own mother noticed recently, Nagy Mama and her husband had lived through so much difficulty, that they had an especially broad sense of empathy. Although she could be pushy and difficult towards her family, she also recognized that everyone was struggling in one way or another. Listening to her stories for the last ten years helped me to realize that life is hard for everyone, regardless of the circumstances. We can stew in that suffering, or we can keep moving forward, and lend a hand when we are able.
She was, at the simplest level, a farm girl. She grew up surrounded by farms, farmers, livestock and everything else that comes with an agricultural life. Candy was a once-in-a-year treat, given out on Halloween.
As a young woman, she was sent by herself across Hungary by train as a purchaser for her family’s fruit business. When I say young woman, I really mean teenager. About 13 years old. She’d ride the train to an apple orchard, or a cherry orchard, and meet with a middle man. She’d discern his price, go to a telephone, and call her aunt or cousin. Her family would wire her a large sum of money, and she’d buy the fruit, ensuring it was placed on the correct train. She always told me she hated carrying so much money. It must have been a terrifying experience for a teenager in many ways. However, it always struck me that a young woman would be given so much independence and autonomy. She must have been a trustworthy young person.
She told two memorable stories about her experience as a fruit purchaser.
After World War 2, when strict price controls were initiated, farmers would soak their cherry crates in water. This added weight to the order, and the farmers would be paid the price control price on the heavy fruit. When the fruit made it to the market in Budapest, where Nagy Mama’s aunt was waiting, the water would have evaporated, and they would be significantly lighter. Whoops!
Perhaps an even funnier story lies in the way her family allowed her to act as an unwitting accomplice to economic crimes. Although she was only legally allowed to pay a certain amount of money for fruit in the time after World War 2, she was kept somewhat in the dark on this fact by her cousin. She would call to tell him the price the cherry farmers had requested — an amount unbeknownst to her to be above the price controls — and he would authorize the payment. She only learned she was violating the law when an official confronted her on her payments. She had no idea she was breaking the law, and instantly realized her cousin had kept her in the dark to make a little extra money.
Such were the challenges this family business had to navigate.
As an autocratic, Soviet-controlled government swept Hungary in the early 1950s, her family’s farm land and broader land holdings were taken over by the government. The business she had worked for her entire childhood was effectively taken away.
She was lucky to be well-educated and became a certified accountant. In Budapest, she worked for a government-owned company that was formerly-privately owned. They managed horses and deliveries for businesses in Budapest. (Maggie Kalotai remembers that she really loved those horses, and horses in general).
One year, as she was preparing to go home for a holiday, one of her uncles told her that Charlie Kalotai, a boy from her village, would be on the train home from Budapest, and that she should look for him. They sat together during that trip and would eventually become a couple.
I always thought that this was brave. He was a convict, having been imprisoned for trying to escape Soviet Hungary into Slovakia. He was a medical student at the time he tried to escape, and Nagy Mama once asked him why he gave up studying medicine to make the attempt. It turned out that his sister had been arrested for trafficking people trying to leave the country, and the government knew his brother Kalman was working as a smuggler for the American government in Austria. He knew he would be kicked out of medical school anyways due to his proximity to his rebellious family.
From 1952 or 53, he spent 3 years imprisoned at a work camp, mining coal. His main form of employment in Budapest was carrying heavy packages across the city for very little money. He was not exactly the hottest item on the market.
Yet, that would all be rendered moot in September 1956, when student organizations and labor unions joined together in Budapest to protest against the Soviet controlled government. By October, a full fledged revolution began, with her soon-to-be-husband taking up arms. It was during this time that war seemed to become real for her as an adult. She vividly remembered the site of the bodies of Russian soldiers, completely burned by molotov cocktails, caught like statues attempting to crawl out of destroyed tanks. Whenever a new war began in the world, she would reflect on this moment with me.
After the revolution failed, she made another brave choice. She chose to accompany my Nagy Papa over the border to Austria, where they hoped to make a new life in another country. My aunt Katherine, Uncle Rudy, Aunt Illi, and Uncle Frank all left that year with the same hope. Mrs. Koenig also shares a similar story.
Sometime in November, hiding in the back of a truck owned by the company one of her uncle’s worked for, she and Charlie made their way to their hometown, Und. There, they planned to cross over the border to Austria. They made one final stop to see their fathers, who risked arrest to come out and see them off. This would be the last time she would see her father, who would die before she could return to Hungary. It was almost 20 years, after they became American citizens, before they could return home. (My mom, aunts and uncles remember fondly driving around in a VW bus in Hungary and Austria). I cannot imagine making such a sacrifice.
They ran over the border, avoiding landmines. They took a route well-trodden by my grandfather, whose family were known for smuggling goods back and forth over the border. (Again, I said he was not exactly a catch LOL)
They stopped in Austria and were offered transportation and refuge to the United States. They took a small Polish boat from the Netherlands, enduring seasickness for two weeks, before they arrived in Philadelphia. They were married on the ship by the captain, and there is a wonderful photograph of the newlyweds coming down off the boat ramp when they arrived in Philadelphia. They did not speak English, and they had few connections in their new country. Luckily, one of Nagy Papa’s uncles, Uncle Streetcha, had been living in the United States since the 1920s. Although he had many years of medical school behind him, my Nagy Papa’s first job involved spreading asphalt roads and driveways. Though she was a certified accountant, she worked as a housekeeper for her entire career. (You should see how beautifully organized her checkbooks were)
It is fitting that one of her grandchildren, Kyle, recently passed the first major exam of his own Medical School. Once, at a party thrown by one of Nagy Mama’s employers — who was a doctor — Nagy Papa had a bit too much to drink. He was going up to all of the doctors at the party and, when they would introduce themselves as Dr. So-and-So, he would lightheartedly reply that he was “Almost-Dr. Kalotai.” I’m sure that she passed knowing there would soon be a Fully-Licensed-Dr.-Kalotai in the family.
In the United States, she raised four children, navigated becoming an American, and quit smoking. She would tell a funny story about how Nagy Papa quit smoking before her, aunt Katherine and Uncle Frank. All four of them took a roadtrip to Buffalo together, and all three smoked on the drive except for Nagy Papa. She said his hands were white-knuckled the entire ride, and he just stared out the front window.
Certain people in your life are touchstones. Relative presences to which you can refer for perspective. My Nagy Mama’s own Nagy Mama, who she knew well, was alive during the American Civil War. She was not only a wonderful grandparent, she was a window into my ancestors’ lives. Our relationship allowed my understanding, however narrowly, to expand across more than 150 years of time. 7 or 8 generations of family. It’s important to note that her childhood would have closely resembled the childhood lived by her grandparents, and — probably — her great-grandparents. Her own grandchildren’s lives could not be more different than her own. The world has sped up, it seems. It feels like we confront massive disruptions on an annual basis. It’s hard enough for me to expend the mental energy to come to terms with these changes, I can only imagine what that was like for a woman born on a farm during the Great Depression in Hungary, without running water or electricity. If she could stand up to those changes, and find a reason to laugh, and a reason to keep moving forward, I think I can as well.
I’ve never had to run away from school when bombing raids came over my town. I never had a family member taken prisoner for trying to immigrate. My family’s property has never been taken away, and I’ve been able to complete the highest level of education I wanted. Perhaps when someone gets up to give Nagy Mama’s grandchildren’s eulogies, they will find deep meaning in the experiences we have lived through, though they don’t seem all that special to us in the moment. I have a feeling that is how she felt about her life: These were experiences shared by many that were not exceptionally interesting.
Although every life is filled with suffering, my grandparents’ decisions led their grandchildren to lives that they can be thankful for. And, as we confront that suffering in our own lives, they gave us a model by which to move beyond adversity.
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