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  • Writer's pictureGiacomino Nicolazzo

Silent Death...

Updated: Oct 11, 2023


1 August 2019

“Vaat I remember most vaas how coldst da vaater vaas!” she began.

I had to listen closely to what she was saying, watching the movement of her lips to grasp it all. The English she spoke, through her thick Hungarian accent, was difficult for me to understand…

“Und my sister…she vaas ulter than me,” she continued, “by tree years. Und so much braver dan me too.”

It was 1994 and I’d flown from Philadelphia into Tampa Florida earlier in the week for business. I had promised a client of mine in Philadelphia to deliver a very special birthday present to her mother…in the oddly named little town of Homosassa Springs, about an hour north of Tampa, after my business was done. Her mother worked in a retirement home there.

I concluded my negotiations on a shopping center purchase by Thursday afternoon and so, bright and early on Friday I rented a car and drove up along the Gulf coast, taking my time and enjoying the scenery.

I stopped for lunch in a Greek restaurant in Tarpon Springs, and while I was eating, I made small talk with my waitress, Natalie. She asked me where I was heading, so I told her and why. She thought it was very generous of me to drive all the way from Tampa to Homosassa Springs to deliver a birthday present to a person I did not know and had never met.

“My client pays me a lot of money for my advice and consultation,” I answered. “This is a unique way that I can really say thank you to her. Besides that, it is a beautiful drive up along the Gulf.”

Then she told me about a small art festival that was taking place in Citrus County and in of all places, Homosassa Springs. I finished my lunch, paid my tab and thanked her for her service and her suggestions.

“It’s about another 30 minutes north,” she said, looking at the clock on the wall over the cash register. “I get off in about 15 minutes. If you can wait, I can come along. If you want company. I’m an expert guide!”

And as tempting as that was...

“Thank you,” I said, “But it’s better if I travel alone.”

And that was that…

I decided to stop at the art show before delivering my birthday wishes. And I am glad I did. The art show was indeed amazing…hundreds of Florida artists, mostly from the Keys, exhibiting their work in any number of mediums. I strolled along the marina piers for more than an hour. I even bought a few pieces…without thinking how I would get them back to Philadelphia!

But what is most amazing about my trip was that one day, just a few months later, I would find myself sitting at the bedside of an amazing old Hungarian woman in a nursing home that was, coincidentally, in that same oddly named little Florida town of Homosassa Springs. I would be listening to her tell a story of long ago…one that to this very day brings goose bumps to my skin.

Now I prefer to keep private the circumstances behind how and why I met this woman…but suffice it to say our paths crossed at a most fortuitous time...for each of us.

We became fast and close friends. We were quite a few years different in age and we came from two completely different worlds, yet we seemed to click from the first moment we met. Her face will forever remain in my memory and her love of life will forever warm my heart.

Our first meeting lasted a mere 20 minutes. I was delivering the birthday gift to my client’s mother at the nursing home when a nurse was coming down the long and wide hallway from the cafeteria, pushing an old, bent-over and lonely looking woman in a wheelchair.

Something happened when we passed each other…

“Stephen!” she said in a thick, obviously Eastern European accent. Her sad expression instantly changed into a smile when she saw me. I could not help but notice immediately that her teeth were broken and discolored. She wore thick glasses that were smudged and crooked. On the white sweatshirt that she was wearing, inside out and on backwards as a matter of fact, I could see the tag. It was right beneath her chin.

In black magic marker, someone had written a name…H. Gorta.

“Stephen,” she said again. “Istvàn Bognàr? Ees dat you?”

She was looking right at me. I turned around to see if there was someone else in the hallway that she might have been talking to, but there wasn’t. It was just me, her, the nurse and the gift I was carrying.

“No ma’am,” I said politely, shaking my head. “My name is not Stephen. You must have me confused with someone else.”

Her expression just as quickly returned to that of a lonely woman, and she put her head back down. The nurse pushed the wheelchair past me, and I made my way to the nurse’s station to inquire where I might find the recipient of the gift I was holding.

It was on my way back out the front door that the old woman and I met again. She was sitting alone now, in a folding chair, in front of a small koi pond beneath three palm trees…

“Stephen,” she called out again, obviously forgetting our chat in the hall.

This time I smiled though…and walked over to sit in the empty chair beside her. I didn’t take the time to tell her again that I was not who she thought I was. It didn’t matter. I sensed that she just wanted to talk. So, we talked...

“And how are you today H. Gorta?”

For the next 30 minutes she talked non-stop, answering my question!

Her name was Helen…Heléna Gorta to be exact. Gorta was her married name. She was born in 1938 in Budapest, the second child of Jòzsef and Katalinka Czinke. Her older sister’s name was Irén. Helen’s parents and her sister were all killed during the Nazi occupation of Hungary. Of her entire family…uncles and aunts and cousins, she was the only one fortunate enough to survive and get out...

to go on to have a life and a family.

She married Làzàr Gorta…the local man who took care of the horses for the Budapest police after the war ended. Ten years and three children later, Làzàr took his family to America. They settled in the city of Cleveland in Ohio.

The details of how my friendship grew with her are again quite private and I choose not to share them, but over the next several months we met again…several times.

I would fly down to Tampa on a Tuesday morning and drive north to Homosassa Springs in time to have lunch with Helen in the cafeteria. She loved the grilled cheese sandwich that she could dunk in her tomato soup. I usually had either the chicken or tuna salad.

You are probably finding my story today a bit odd…asking yourself why a grown man, a total stranger would go to the time and expense to fly a thousand miles and then drive another hour to see an old woman he did not know. I don’t blame you for thinking this way…it is indeed a bit odd on the surface.

But I sensed…no, I knew, she had some very important stories within her. Stories that she needed to tell someone…anyone who might listen. And I knew this...

If that someone was not me, she may well die with those untold stories still on her heart.

“I don’t talk vit mien children much no more,” she confessed. “They vaant nothing to do vit dare uld mudder.”

She went on to explain why, even without me asking…

Once Làzàr and Helen Gorta were living in Cleveland, he took a job doing what he knew best…taking care of horses and running a stable. He went to work for the Cleveland Police Department in an area known as The Flats. He took care of their mounts.

A few years before he was ready to retire, he was standing in the back of a manure wagon when the horse that was hitched to it lunged forward. Làzàr was thrown out, landing on his back and hitting his head horribly hard on the pavement.

He fractured his skull and broke that little point of bone just behind the ear…it is called the mastoid process. Don’t ask me why or how I know the name of it…I just do.

His injury kept him from returning to work and he was forced to take an early retirement. With a good pension. The broken bone affected his breathing and his sleep. The doctor he was seeing recommended Làzàr move to a humid climate…someplace like Florida. So, he went home and told all this to Helen.

They had no idea where Florida was, let alone know where to move once they got there.

So Làzàr tied a neckerchief around his wife’s eyes, as a blindfold, and put a hat pin in her hand. He told her he was going to close his eyes too and move her hand around in circles over the top of a map of Florida...

“Ven ve stop,” he told her. “Shtick da pin in da map! Ve vill moove dare”

And so, she did.

One, two, three spins around with her hand and then she stuck the hat pin right in the oddly named little town of Homosassa Springs along the Gulf Coast!

Now what I am going to tell you is a true and honest story to the best of my knowledge...if I can trust Helen Gorta and I am sure I could!

Làzàr and Helen packed up all their belongings and moved to Homosassa Springs. They bought an old mobile home in a trailer park, just a few miles from the Gulf of Mexico. He found himself a small, flat bottomed fishing boat and an old truck to pull it.

He’d spend the afternoons of the next three years fishing at the mouth of the Homosassa River where it emptied into the Gulf of Mexico. She spent those years enjoying every moment of being warm and making new friends.

Then the unthinkable happened. Làzàr had a heart attack one afternoon while he was fishing. He slumped over in his boat and died quickly. Helen had his body sent back to Cleveland to be buried but she chose to stay in Florida with the sun and her friends.

This is what came between her and her children.

You see, over the years, Làzàr had made some good investments…bought some real estate in Florida and was able to put together quite a bit of money. He did not believe in giving his money to his children...

“Dey should make dare own vay!” he said, “As did I!”

He had purposely arranged for Helen to be the only heir and so she held on to all the money…money the children thought should be divided among them...

But she didn’t see it that way...she saw it her husband’s way.

Helen had a minor stroke in December of 1992 and by February of the next year it was obvious she could no longer live on her own. Her sons insisted she move back to Cleveland and move in with the family of one of her daughters. But Helen stood her ground.

She hired an attorney to keep her children from the money, her trailer and all her husband’s things. The attorney saw to it she was moved to the nursing home. And that is how she and I ended up having our chance meeting in the hallway that day!

As I said, Helen needed to talk to someone. She had stories within her that she needed to tell. Those stories were filled with emotion and pain. I am going to tell one of her more powerful stories now...

the story of silent death

In early March of 1944, the German army showed up at the Hungarian borders and began marching on Budapest. Once they were within the city, they started taking the citizens…especially the Jews, by surprise.

Winter was stubborn to leave that year. Snow remained on the ground…ice on the rivers and streams, and temperatures that wouldn’t budge much above freezing during the day. She remembered it all so well, though she was just a child of six years at the time.

The interesting thing about Helen was that she could barely remember what she’d eaten for breakfast earlier in the day, yet she could recall with crystal-clear imagery what had happened nearly a half century before.

“Irèn und I ver on our vay to skool one morning,” she said. “It vaas very cold. Dare vaas snow evryvare. I sheever da whole vay.”

About three blocks from the schoolhouse was a stone bridge that crossed a small stream…maybe five meters or so wide. The closer they got to the bridge, the louder they could hear a sound they’d never heard before. It was, as Helen described it...

“Da sound of metal clanking tagedder.

Und, ve heard vat sounded like da hooves of a tousand horses.”

As Helen and her sister made the last turn in the street and were just a few meters from the bridge, they saw what it was that sounded like the horses…only they were soldiers, their uniforms white with snow and ice…

the first of the Nazis that would be a part of their lives for yet another year.

Behind them were huge machines. Helen did not know what they were at the time but now she knows they were Panzer tanks.

Her sister quickly grabbed her by the hand and the two young girls ran down over the bank to hide beneath the bridge. As the boots of the soldiers stomped above them, and the tracks of the heavy tanks made the bridge shake and crack, they stood on the frozen stream and waited until it was safe. But before it was safe, the ice cracked beneath their feet, and they found themselves standing in knee-deep frigid water.

Helen cried out in fright. Thinking quickly, Irén pulled her woolen mitten from her hand and pushed it into Helen’s mouth…to keep her from making any more sounds. Surely, she believed, if the soldiers found them, they would be killed.

It took a full ten minutes or more for the soldiers and the tanks to cross over the bridge. Slowly the two girls stepped from the water and climbed the bank of the stream…just far enough to see down the street. What Helen witnessed she did not understand at first. But once she did, it would be a memory that would haunt her for years to come…

“Vee saw da soldiers rush eento da shops of da Jews,” she told me. “All of a sudden, vee see a flash of light in da vindows. Vee dunt know vaat eet vas. Da next moments da soldiers kum out und rush into da next shop. Again, dare ees a flash of light. Vee hear nothing. Only see da flashes of light. Dis vent on in shop after shop.”

When the SS troops had moved far enough down the street, Irén thought it was safe for them to run. She did not know if she should take Helen to school or run back home to their mother. The soldiers had disappeared out of view and since the school was closer, she decided that was where they should go.

Irén hurried her sister along. Their boots were filled with water and by now their toes were horribly numb. Her curiosity became too much, and Helen broke away from her sister’s hand and stood in the doorway of the clockmaker’s shop. The clockmaker and his wife were lying on the floor surrounded by puddles of something dark, dark red.

When they looked into the music shop it was the same scene…and the accountant and the rag man…

all on the floor…

all in the strangest positions…

all in puddles of red.

“Dey kilt dem all,” Helen said to me. “I know now dat da flashes vaas from da rifles of da soldiers. Irén called it silent death. I vill never forget it.”

I will never forget Helen’s story either. It will forever haunt me.

She died the next year. But in the four months I knew her and spent time visiting with her, she told me many stories, just as shocking and just as poignant as the one I have just told you. I found them heartbreaking to say the least. And, I thought they needed to be shared.

So, I went out and bought a camcorder and a tripod just for my chats with her. She was nervous at first, not understanding why I wanted to film her. But in just a mere few minutes she was lost in whatever story she was telling me. I just let the camera run.

I made four tapes of my visits with her, constituting about seven hours of filming. I took them to a shop in Philadelphia and had them edited, adding music and a few comments of my own...of my own recollections of her. I sent each of her children in Cleveland a copy of the tape, thinking they would cherish them.

Sadly, not a single one of them ever acknowledged receiving them or has said a single word about their mother’s incredible life.

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