I knew two kinds of survivors out of those people who’d been deported or shut up in the ghettos: there were the ones who always talked about it, and then the ones who kept mum. I’ve never met anyone who was in-between.
My father’s family never talked about it. Not one word. They’d been put in the ghetto in Budapest. My mother’s family talked about nothing else. They’d gone into hiding. In 1944 my mother was 18 and hiding in Budapest with her mother, who was barely 38 at the time. People were hiding them in cellars and attics for money, and for some miraculous reason they hadn’t been caught. My mother would constantly just say the year: ‘44. That’s all she had to say, everyone knew what she was talking about. Once I remember I’d had enough, I couldn’t take it anymore and I begged her to stop it already with the ‘44. At least for one day.
There’s this famous photo of the Holocaust: hundreds of people— mostly women—are holding their arms up as a few Arrow Cross militia march them through Budapest. My mother and grandmother were there, marching in this crowd, when a young man stepped up to her and told her to try to slip away at the next corner and follow him. My mother said fine, but my mother’s with me. The guy just grimaced and said that’ll make it tougher. My mother whispered what was going on to my grandmother, who was immediately afraid that the guy was trying to trap them. Ma, my mother answered, we’re being led away with our hands up, they don’t need a trap. They managed to slip out of the line. It turned out later that the young man had been sent to pick someone else out of the crowd, but hadn’t been able to find that person. Since my mother fit the description, he stepped up to my mother so the fake documents he had on him wouldn’t go to waste.
My mother wrote this all down. Even though I was sure I’d already heard it all, it was still a shock to read it. I heard an entirely new voice from her. Even though she’d had a gift for the fine arts, she gave up writing after my father, who was a journalist, made a few cutting remarks. These writings showed the kind of strength that was necessary to survive. She discovered things she never would have known if she hadn’t had to hide. For example, she learned that it’s better to starve than to freeze. What do we know about this kind of thing? We complain about the cold or the heat, but we haven’t got a clue! There is no way things like this can be imagined until they’re actually experienced.
The ones who survived the war gained an enormous strength. The flip side of this was that they had to keep on living with this terrible guilt because they had survived while the others hadn’t. This is why they didn’t draw atten- tion to their strength because that could have been taken as a sign that the others had been weak, even though that wasn’t the case at all.
I was born in ‘54, ten years after ‘44. I was an adult when I finally began to understand what a fresh memory the war must have been to them. To me, as a child, the war might as well have been as long ago as the Ancient Roman Empire, there was absolutely no difference between the two as far as I knew back then.
We lived in Budapest until ‘71, when my mother defected to Paris, taking me with her and leaving my father at the same time. We didn’t speak a word of French then, but we both learned it. Two years later I arrived in the USA to go to the university. My goal was to make my life as an American since I knew I wanted to live here. Ever since Columbus, it seems to me that every European has a bit of an American dream in them. Because of the isolation we lived in under communism, America shone even brighter in our eyes. Not to mention that I’d been learning English since I was six.
I had no desire to study in France, so I went to Israel first. I wanted to know what it means to be a Jew, I mean other than having gone through all those horrors, because I didn’t know anything else other than that. My mother believed that no one can have faith after Auschwitz. There, I got something of an inkling about what Judaism is, but in the end I basically found myself where my mother was. My sense of self-awareness didn’t grow any. I didn’t become religious either. There are so many things that define a person all at the same time. So what exactly am I? A Jew, a Hungarian or an American? This only matters when they’re there, pointing that finger at me. When I was filling out the immigration paperwork and came to the question asking what race I belong to, I wrote homo sapiens. Well, that little joke almost got me barred from getting into the country. But I refuse to choose. It’s ridiculous how society, politics, and even those of us who are discriminated against all force us to make the decision: are you a Hungarian, or are you a Jew? It’s total non- sense, yet what serious consequences it has.
I’ve lived in New York for 41 years, this is my home. I travel a lot to Europe, especially to Paris where my mother lived. I visited Paris the way you drop by home for the family meal on Sunday. I travel to Budapest, too, but not as my home. I don’t think of it as my home at all. I have a few pals left over from my childhood in Budapest, a couple of people I know from primary school. I usually meet up with them. They’re the group of friends who’ve stayed with me in my life.
The way I spent my childhood in Hungary was like how I only had one photo of my great-grandparents, a single photo that only showed them from the waist down. My grandmother pulled this photo out of a scrap-heap, when she went back to see her parents’ home in ‘45. The other half of the photo stayed somewhere in the rubbish. Later on I discovered some distant relatives on the Internet later. They sent me photos and I knew from these photos that all the stories I’d heard hadn’t just been some kind of a fairy tale: there really had been a family and they’d really had a dog, a Great Dane that was proba- bly deported before they were.
Back in ’36 my great-grandmother left home to visit her younger sister for a month. She stayed an entire eight months instead and spent the entire eight months begging her husband to sell everything and move the whole family to America because, first of all, life would be good here and, secondly, life was going to be bad there. She listened to the broadcasts of the Berlin Olympic Games and heard Hitler’s speeches, too, the same way they could be heard in Hungary, but somehow they sounded different here. She couldn’t con- vince my great- grandfather, so she went back. Two years later, following the Anschluss, my great grandfather hanged himself and committed suicide. My great-grandmother was deported to Strasshof together with her two daugh- ters and grandchild. Strasshof was a labor camp, not a death camp like the one in Burgerland. On the one hand, the mayor of Vienna needed labor to clean away the rubble and there were no men left. On the other hand, in the summer of ‘44 it was already obvious to Himmler that they’d lost the war and he was open to negotiation, so 20,000 Jews weren’t taken from Szeged and Debrecen to Auschwitz, but to Strasshof and other camps in Burgerland instead, where they received relatively humane care, in that families were taken together, for example.
Apart from my great-grandmother and her daughters, everyone else returned. One of them was feeling sickly and was allowed to stay in the bar- racks, with her sister, too, so there’d be someone to look after her. Everyone else went to work. The Allies bombed the barrack that very day. That’s how they died. Everyone else came back. The thought often come to me: what would have happened if they’d managed to come to New York after all? Maybe my great-grandmother wondered about this, too. She eventually died in the camp from a heart attack.
My father’s whole family was in the ghetto. My grandmother’s brother and his wife were able to survive the war thanks to the fact that his wife was the commanding dietician. In a place where there was no food! And her husband was in charge of the foreign currency. He even had a document about his position so they were not killed. Later on this was the same uncle who translated communist Soviet songs into Hungarian.
It was around the ‘60s when I was on holiday at a campsite in Balatonszéplak. These Eastern Germans were there singing Nazi songs next to the campfire, having a great time because they could do that there. They were having a ball and were fully aware of what and why they were singing. They made it plain that this was something they were allowed to do there. Until Jóska Román, my parents’ friend, stepped up to them and bellowed at them that Hungary is not an occupied territory anymore. They were so struck by fear that they stopped.
I learned that I was a Jew from our neighbors. Our next-door neigh- bours in Szív Street were an elderly couple who’d lost their first family in the war and they’d gotten together after the war. They were the same age as my grandparents; since they didn’t have a family, I became their adopted grand- son of sorts. It worked out great for me and for them, too. Auntie Molnár sub- scribed to this weekly magazine that was full of articles on the Eichmann trial back in ‘61. I was seven at the time and was looking at the magazine. I asked them what was in it. Aunt Molnár told me she’s not the only Jew, I‘m one, too. Then I went home and told my parents that Aunt Molnár had said I am a Jew, and what was the situation with this? My parents had been careful to talk about the topic—if they ever did—in a way that wouldn’t turn me into an anti-semite. That I was a Jew they hadn’t mentioned as they didn’t want me to be discriminated against in kindergarten. That was normal. Then and there. This was the natural consequence of an unnatural situation. But here, in America, even new-born babies are told that they are Jews.
On the whole, I am very grateful to my mother mostly for two things: she taught me to love and she taught me not to be a coward. And I could not have learned these two things from anybody else. This is important. I think it’s the most important thing of all.