Jan Cremer – Odyssey. Wanderlust
When Rózsa finds herself in Enschede – soon disillusioned in a, to her eyes, small house in a small city with a secretive and suspicious population, whereas she was used to wide avenues, big department stores, chic restaurants, substantial properties, apartments with acres of space, domestic servants and a governess; what’s more, she does not speak the language, although she can make herself understood in German and French as well as Hungarian, she has little contact with the Dutch who label her ‘Gypsy, the grossest insult to her – her family showers her with requests to return to Budapest, while it’s still possible, anything better than being in Holland; but she does not follow up their request. Go back with her tail between her legs? This was the worst thing: never seeing her family again. She had boarded the train without thinking and on impulse, never to return. That never. Almost weekly, Rozina Magdolna sends cards and fat envelopes full of advice, newspaper articles and recipes. Her Christmas hamper with various pralines and chocolate bonbons wrapped in glistening silver and gold wrapping. Always with the red swastika stamps with ‘Obercommando der Wehrmacht’, with ‘Gepruft’, the envelopes, given the numerous stamps, have sometimes passed through as many as four or five censorship stations. But as the war progresses, postal traffic ceases.
She believed Cremer had lied to her. At the railway station in Cologne she had been shocked when she saw him again. During those two years he had aged a great deal. He was not forty-eight, as he had told her, but sixty-one. Cremer looked tired and not as full of spirits as in Budapest, when he courted her. He turned out to have been married before, had children and above all was not Catholic as he had claimed earlier. She had understood from him that he was a geologist and a professor, but now it emerged he was no more than an engineer. The shop-cum-home Cremer owned in the Emmastraat, a big store with electrical goods, an electrotechnical business in the city centre, was small and shabby in her view. Compared to Budapest, Enschede was a peasant village. Oppressive and cramped. They married on 26 May 1939 in Enschede Town Hall. The borders turned out to be closed; she could not go back. Gradually, in her writing, a deep-rooted hatred (which only increased the longer she lived) appears; a hatred against the man who had removed her from her protected world with his beautiful and optimistic stories, and who died after no more than two, not quite three years, following a long sickbed, at home and in hospital, and who would leave her in deep poverty.
When, to make matters worse, a message arrived from Budapest that her great love, Pista, to whom she had been more or less engaged, had died at the front, ushered in a period of intense grief and loneliness that could not be concealed. Cremer wanted to know why she was sad and she lied to him that Pista was a cousin. Cremer knew better and said that he had picked up instantly, in Budapest, that she and Pista were lovers.
I read on and discover that her Grandfather had a big beard like Franz Josef, and was a high-ranking officer. That he often stayed with them at their country estate in Szekszárd. That Grandpa and Grandma were two kind people. That after WW1, her father became an estate manager for Count Esterházy; had been Horthy’s adjutant, and remained friends with him once Horthy became Admiral. She continues: ‘When father was still alive…’ Grandfather was of noble birth. Immediately after WW1 – when he was involved in the Treaty of Trianon negotiations – she was brought up amidst a friendly relation of Officer Grandpa in Adelboden: on a farm in the Bernese Alps, by a farming family with six sons with whom she played and who adored her. As a five-year old toddler, sadly she had to return to Budapest on New Year 1923 in order to go to school. A dramatic goodbye; she was distraught, as she had begun to consider her Swiss foster family as her own, the farmer’s wife as her mother.
What follows in her writings is all drama. It is only now that I understand the strange German she used to speak: Schweizerdeutsch, Swiss German. An enormous hatred towards the Dutch, and especially towards Cremer, emanates from the dramatic account. Understandable, but she rants against everything and nothing. Yet humour shines through time and again. Her hatred towards Cremer went as far as her destroying the typescript of his only remaining manuscript. She had never wanted to give it to me. I knew where she kept it: in the bottom drawer of her wardrobe. During every visit I checked whether it was still there. I was not allowed to open it. When I finally decided to steal it – I had always maintained the principle that you do not steal from your mother – it had disappeared. She casually informed me she had burnt it. According to her, they were only stories about the womaniser and about the Lothario’s other women who had brought disaster on her; and who was interested in what textile barons got up to with the Nazis anyhow? That the National Socialist Movement in the Netherlands (NSB) had been set up by textile barons? That they collaborated with the Germans?
‘My journey through hell’, she repeatedly calls her descriptions of her past. And she also explains how she was paralysed in hospital by a hulk working a nightshift. Mentioned a Dr Pompe, who knows more about it. The male nurse ended up in tremendous difficulty, but she never regained the use of her arm.
She writes that she comes from a lineage of high-ranking officers, that Miklós was an architect and became a professor in Australia, and that Lásló was found in an Austrian internment camp in 1956 as one of the survivors of the Battle of Stalingrad. Their life was destroyed by communism. They were of noble birth, a distinguished, highly-educated family. From Enschede, she tried to stay in touch with them. Her mother died during an Allied bombardment on Budapest in 1944. Matuszka, my grandmother, was 56 at the time. The funeral of my grandmother Rozina Magdolna at the Kerépési Cemetery must have been an important event in Budapest. My mother was not able to attend. A gap in her life she often mentioned. She loved her mother, in everything a model to her, with heart and soul. A photograph shows an enormous cortège, a procession. A dozen nuns followed by altar boys, acolytes and priests holding up a monstrance underneath a baldachin, then nurses and an enormous line of people. The long file is flanked by decorated soldiers.
At the time Cremer had promised her – and in so doing had put her mind at rest – that he would make sure Matuszka and Babusz would make it to the Netherlands as well. The war made this impossible. This beautiful, spirited twenty-year old girl was stuck in the manufacturing city of Enschede. Disillusioned for her entire life.
In the Emmastraat, in the bathroom upstairs, my father had set up a darkroom. He made a serious study of photography, of light, and was intensively engaged in perfecting ‘photos in artificial light’, Blitzlicht (flashlight), with all kinds of electric devices. Some of his images were printed in German art magazines such as Photoblätter. During his many travels he took numerous shots of cityscapes, churches, mosques; of bridges and stations, ships and harbours; of caravans, and of nature: waterfalls, mountain views and rock masses. Portraits of farmers and their wives in traditional dress, of vagabonds and tramps, of gypsies and Bedouins, Moors and other desert people.
And of a great many women. All his African photographs have disappeared, even the negatives. Photos of half-naked women in the wild, which I had in my hands as a young boy, have vanished. According to Brusse, Enschede’s city photographer, my father would have no compunction in inviting women from the street to pose for him. In those days, this was unusual and difficult – women did not do such things, except for bad ones – but Cremer succeeded. Erotically innocent, carefully spot lit studies of naked or half-naked female bodies. From waitresses to factory girls, but also the wives of notables and daughters from well-to-do families from the manufacturing city. He had fixed appointments with young women who came to model for him. And, of course, became involved in arguments with husbands and fiancés, with the girls’ parents.
As he got older, his love for female beauty, especially young women, frequently landed my father in trouble. He was simply unable to resist them, even knowing full well that there is nothing more dangerous than a woman scorned. During the spring of 1936, the year before he met my mother, when he was briefly in the Netherlands to earn money, a short but intense romance blossomed with a young woman from Oldenzaal. Waltraud, the daughter of restaurant owner for whom my father designed the neon sign ‘Billiards Café & Lunchroom’. On account of his striking neon sign my father received numerous commissions for cinemas and restaurants in the region of Twente which, for the period, he designed in an ultramodern style. A graphology report from 1974 talks of ‘an artistic bent. And in addition to a creative urge, the presence of a fine design ability. He had good taste.’
As soon as they met, my father called at the restaurant with his sketches, and young Waltraud fell head over heels in love with him. She was completely captivated by this more senior man of the world. She did not let him out of her sight. Secret meetings followed, in cafés on the other side of the German border in Nordhorn, where they made plans to go to Spain together. An exciting enterprise which, to put it mildly, would not encounter much understanding from Waltraud’s family. The two were in touch almost daily by post. In a letter to Cremer, whom she was already calling ‘my darling husband’, Waltraud indicated that she was swinging back and forth between intense emotions. ‘I was so happy with your letter this morning and last night I was disappointed. Obviously slept badly last night. But even if Waltraud was thrown back and forth between intense emotions, she was determined to enter into an uncertain adventure with my father. ‘We must arrange everything in such a way, that we get out of here as soon as possible. Preferably before Easter. Nothing can stop me now. I told you once: If they put something in my way, I’d be ready to leave at once. Now, this ‘something’ has happened and I am ready. When you say to me; Be ready on Monday, I will be ready.’ At Waltraud’s home there was a kind of calm before the storm. It had come to Waltraud’s father attention that his daughter had lost her head over a charming electrotechnical engineer from Enschede. In a letter, Waltraud informed her ‘darling husband’ with restrained indignation and anger of the alarm within her family.
‘Someone has told Dad, I don’t know who and he didn’t want to say, that I’m seeing you. He didn’t know when exactly I had been at yours. And here comes the most ridiculous part of the entire business. He said that you were a suspicious person, would you believe. You had money and they did not know how you came by it. They (the police) have been following you for ages, but could not prove anything, they only had suspicions. And what did they suspect you of? Of so-called ‘girl-smuggling’. They think you’re going to take me to a brothel of some sort or God knows where and then abandon me. I thought I was going mad last night. That you would do something like that? Impossible. Everything you’ve said to me would be lies and deceit and play-acting.’
She then went on to write that she would not be able to meet him as her every move was being watched. ‘If I tried to meet you they would be capable of sending me to some kind of institution or other.’ Waltraud was put under house arrest but did not give up. In desperation she wrote another letter in which she asked him to get everything ready as soon as possible, so that they could both be off. ‘Rather today than tomorrow. But you need to get me a false passport. I can’t get an ordinary passport. Dad knew that there’d been an application for a passport for me. He thought you’d done it. Burn this letter and don’t tell anyone I’ve written all of these things to you. And don’t go to the police to protest against it, either, or we’ll be even worse off.’
The original ardour between the two dampened gradually; they were only able to meet each other in writing. In the end, Waltraud did not pursue the trip to Spain because her father threatened to throw her out of the business. My father drew his own conclusion that the ‘campaign of slander and defamation’ towards him had made Waltraud start to doubt him and made her lose ‘her courage, her daring, her willpower’. My father said he did not admit defeat and that he would hold out till the bitter end. ‘What do you want? That I would flee like a coward now that the hidden enemy advances from his dark zone? No, my little one, I will await them in the light of liberating freedom.’
Cremer could not wait to go back to Spain, and the relationship with Waltraud ended. She wrote him a furious valedictory letter: ‘I read your letter with amazement and I see that you call me some kind of liar. I won’t have that from anyone, and that includes you. From now on I will no longer read any of your letters. I hope you’ve understood me. I don’t want to have arguments at home any longer, either.
Translated by Suzanne Heukensfeldt Jansen