'I always felt Richie was still alive'

'We were married and eventually moved to America. I wasn't happy and simply functioned as a wife and mother'
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The Independent Culture

Hungarian childhood sweethearts Betty Markowitz and Richie Kovacs planned to marry when the Second World War ended. But when they failed to find one another, Betty married compatriot Otto Schimmel, now 73. She moved with him to America on the condition that she would leave him if Richie ever turned up. Thirty-one years later, he did. But could she leave Otto after so long? Now Betty tells her story in a new book due to be published in September.

Hungarian childhood sweethearts Betty Markowitz and Richie Kovacs planned to marry when the Second World War ended. But when they failed to find one another, Betty married compatriot Otto Schimmel, now 73. She moved with him to America on the condition that she would leave him if Richie ever turned up. Thirty-one years later, he did. But could she leave Otto after so long? Now Betty tells her story in a new book due to be published in September.

Betty

I met Richie at school when I was 10. He was my gymnastics partner. We became the best of friends, and eventually fell in love. One day, in 1944, he carved a heart into a wall and we agreed to get married when the war was over. I was 15 and he was 17. When I got back home that evening the Hungarian Nazis had lined my mother up on the street with the other Jews in our apartment block.

Around 5,000 of us were marched to Austria. Some women gave birth on the road; the Hungarian Nazis shot them dead. When we arrived at the concentration camp in Mauthausen, one of the first things I saw was a pile of corpses. It was all the more nauseating because they were naked, as if even in death they could be offered no respect, only humiliation.

I spent most of the time in the camp hospital. I shared my straw mattress with five other people, and every night there was someone different because as one died they put another one in. Whenever I woke up they would ask me who Richie was, because I would call for him in my sleep and tell him I loved him.

After five months we were liberated and I travelled around Germany working as an interpreter for an American army major. At each town and camp I would ask to see the Red Cross's list of the dead. In the summer of 1946, I found Richie's name. I was terribly sad, but in my heart I didn't feel he was dead.

I met Otto several months later, through a friend. He was 19, I was almost 17. He was very handsome, but I had no interest in him. I told him I was in love with someone else. I saw him about 10 times in four months, and he then asked me to marry him. I said "no" and told him to leave. My mother said I had chased away the most wonderful person in the world, and told me to apologise. I ran after him and said I would marry him, but that I would leave if I ever found Richie. We were married shortly afterwards, in 1947. I don't know to this day why I did it.

We eventually moved to America and had three children. I wasn't happy and simply functioned as a wife and mother. I could not return Otto's love, which I found suffocating, and looked through the Hungarian newspaper for any mention of Richie.

Then, in 1975, the first time after the war I returned to Budapest, with my daughter. I couldn't leave my hotel room for three days because of the terrible memories of the war. On the last night a couple took us out to dinner. The restaurant turned out to be the place where Richie and I were to have celebrated on our wedding day.

During the meal I suddenly froze. I felt as if I had died that second and everything had stopped. Richie was there. He had his back to me, but I had sat behind him in gym lessons every day for years, and would have recognised the back of his neck anywhere. I was shaking and went over to his table. He froze for a second and then jumped up and hugged me so close I thought my body would merge with his. Neither of us could do more than touch each other's face for a few minutes.

We went for a walk and he said that he had looked for me for 15 years in Europe and America, and that once, in 1950, he had come to our apartment in Manhattan during a celebration to mark my first son's circumcision, which had been announced in the paper. He said a man had turned him away. I thought I was going to be physically sick from the pain. Otto, who was supposed to have been my protector, had tormented me all these years by keeping such as secret.

Richie took out a photograph from his wallet - it was of me when I was 15. He kissed me the way he used to, a soul-shattering kiss that told me who and what I was and all that was important in my life. I never wanted the kiss to end because in it I found all the answers: no more questions, no more hurt, no more anger.

Richie wanted us to make a life together. I told him that I loved him, but needed time to think. We arranged to meet the next morning at the spot in the wall where he had carved the heart. I telephoned Otto, who was back home in America. I was very angry and told Otto that he had ruined his life and my life - because for 25 years we could have been happy. If he had told me that Richie was alive I would have had closure, and could have loved Otto properly.

Then I wrote a note to Richie telling him that I couldn't go with him. I had committed myself to another man, and had three children whom I loved dearly. They were grown up, so I could have gone, but who was I going to? I only knew Richie as a boy. He was also married and had three children. I am a committed person, no matter what. I stuck the note in the wall, by the heart he had carved all those years ago.

I haven't spoken to Richie since. I do still think of him sometimes, but not all the time like I did before. And not only did I forgive Otto, but our marriage improved so much. We live a very good life now. Romantic love doesn't come close to mature love.

Otto

When I first met Betty I was very, very impressed. She was beautiful, well-educated and very self-assured. I pretty much fell in love with her immediately.

When you meet somebody who is really special and out-of-this-world, it's very difficult to take on board the fact that they're in love with somebody else because your own selfish interest kicks in. I was an orphan after the war and had felt very much alone before meeting her and her family. Betty was annoyed because I was very persistent - but if you want something in your life you have to be persistent.

I was worried about Richie, but also worried about anyone else for that matter, because when you're in love, and you don't receive the same feeling in return, you tend to be jealous. I was fighting against a ghost. Nobody knew whether he was alive. I felt that eventually, after having spent time together, I could win her over, or she could learn to like me.

I was in a lobby of an apartment block in Manhattan, waiting to greet guests at our first son's circumcision, when Richie turned up. He just said his first name, and who he was looking for. I knew instantly who he was. I was extremely surprised. A ghost had come out of nowhere. I thought at the very least this would create a tremendous commotion. I didn't know how Betty would cope, having just had a baby, and I wanted to protect my marriage. I said that there was no such person living here, and that I didn't know what he was talking about.

As far as my conscience was concerned I justified it to myself that what I did, I did for myself, my family and their happiness. As the years went by, and the family grew, I was less and less concerned about telling her what had happened.

When Betty rang me from Budapest that time I was very shocked. It wasn't something I ever thought would happen. I was worried sick that she was going to leave me and I couldn't sleep. I caught a plane to Paris, where I was to meet her. I was very apologetic. I explained that what I did was out of love for her and for my family. Keeping my family happy was the most important thing in my life. When you go through the Holocaust whatever you have left is very valuable.

I think basically she decided to come back to me to save the family, and for the children, but I mattered too. I was very relieved by her decision. At times I have felt second-best, especially because I have been fighting an unknown quantity. I don't anymore. Our marriage has really improved. I regard Richie as someone in the past who doesn't interfere in my or her life. If he ever gets back in touch I'd definitely be less concerned than I was in 1975. I would meet him if the occasion arose - but he's not on the top of my list.

'To See You Again' by Betty Schimmel is published by Pocket Books on 4 September, at £6.99

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