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Two Great Men
In a matter of hours, she had to choose between them.
By Joyce Gabriel. Parade July 30 '00 711 Third Ave., New York, NY 10017

 

"When I first met Richie, I was nine," Betty Schimel told me. "Richie Kovacs and I were in the same school. He loved science and music. He would walk me home, and we would talk about everything."

Betty's family had fled Czechoslovakia in 1938 - just ahead of Hitler's invasion - for Budapest, where Richie's family live. As the two children became teenagers, their friendship turned to love.

Even after the Nazis stormed into Hungary in the spring of 1944, the young couple held on to their dreams of a future together. "We planned our wedding," Betty said. "We always said we would have the reception at the Hotel Royal in Budapest where, before the Nazis came, Richie used to play drums in a dance band."

Then, in the late fall of 1944, the Nazis rounded up Betty, her mother, sister and brother, and herded them along with 5000 other Hungarian Jews into a muddy brick factory. They sat there for days in the cold and the rain, many of them dying or going mad, before they were forced to march across Hungary in the snow of winter.

After six brutal weeks the survivors of the march 500 - out of the original 5000 - found themselves in Mauthausen, a concentration camp high on a hill overlooking a quaint Austrain town. The camp smelled of death and suffering. For the first couple of months Betty was delirious, struggling to survive the typhoid fever that was ravaging her weakened body.

The Americans saved her when they liberated the camp in May of 1945. "I was happy to be alive," Betty said, "But I was desolated because I had no idea where Richie was or even whether he was alive." She was just 16 years old.

For the next year, as she was transferred from camp to camp, she looked for him. The only thing she found was a list that said he was dead. Her mother, who worried for her future, encouraged Betty to go out and meet other people. Eventually a young man that her mother admired and respected, Otto Schimmel, fell in love with Betty. But Betty rebuffed him several times. Otto, who had his entire family at Auschwitz, loved her and wanted her anyway. Finally, she agreed to marry him, although she still loved Richie, and told Otto so. In his devotion Otto promised to let her go if Richie ever appeared.

They came to America, where Otto worked first as a busboy, and then as a waiter. He found menial jobs manufacturing leather goods, the trade he had learned in Hungary, gruadually improving his skills and English. Betty bore him three children - two boys and a girl.

As Otto rose in his profession, eventualy running a factory, the family moved to Pennsylvania and then Arizona. Betty found herself in her dream house, with what should have been her dream husband and family.

Butt Otto's responsibilities often took him on the road, and Betty was still carrying the emotional losses of the war years. She had a nervous breakdown. "Because still I wasn't happy." Betty said. "I felt that I had left my heart behind in Europe."

Time went by in 1975, Betty's mother was longing to see Hungary again. She asked Betty to take her and they began to make plans. but then tragically her mother died. Mourning her loss, Betty decided to carry out her mother's wish and go.

The first week in Budapest she could barely bring herself to leave her hotel - the memories were so strong. Friends persuaded her to go out to dinner and by chance took her to the Hotel Royal - the very place where she and Richie had onced planned to marry.

Toward the end of dinner, she happened to glance across the room. "I knew from the back of his head, it was Richie. I walked up to him and touched his arm. 'I think we know each other,' I said. He turned around, and when he saw me he jumped up and embraced me, tears streaming down his face. When he hugged me, it was as if time stood still.

But it was my last night in Budapest, and during the communist regime you couldn't extend your visa. It was his first night there. He had become a scientist and was speaking at a conference, which he could not leave. In a matter of hours, we had to catch up on our past and decided our future.

Richie told her his story. He'd been captured by the Nazis and sent to a forced-labour camp in Hungary. When he was liberated, he began searching for her across Europe - in Germany, Austria, France. Eventually, he and his mother emigrated to Canada. Where he continued to search for her.

In fact, Richie had already found her.

Years before, Richie told her, he had traced her to New York and come to her apartment. She and Otto had just had their first child. It was Otto, who had once promised to step aside if Richie ever reappeared, turned him away and had never told her.

Now Richie - living in the United States and married with three children of his own - begged Betty to leave her family and stay with him.

It was raining that night in Budapest, as Betty walked with Richie. "I looked up into his beautiful blue eyes, and I saw reflected there our boat trips on the Danube and all the love we'd shared.

"I told Richie I would give him my answer the next morning, at our favorite meeting spot"

And then Betty called Otto and confronted him with his deception "He cried and begged my forgiveness," she said. "I was so hurt and angry. I hung up on him."

"But I also heard my mother's voice reminding me of the importance of family. And I saw Otto working 18 hours a day, out of love for us."

Pacing in her hotel room, Betty finally mad her choice. "I left Richie a note that was good-bye. I cried all the way to Paris."

"In Paris, Otto was waiting for me. He looked so lost and awful. I told him I was coming him with him, and for the first time, I allowed myself to love him for himself."

"After celebrating 54 years of marriage and enjoying all our children and grandchildren, I know I made the right decision. I had once a young love that lasted from the age of nine to the age of fifteen, and that was my love for Richie. Then I was fortunate engouh to have a mature love, and that was my love for Otto."

A true story