Sep 2007 Journal

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A Hungarian phrase book for the second generation

The time is right to return to Hungary. Clutching my Hungarian phrase book, we touch down in the country I was born in but fled from during the 1956 Revolution.

Our hotel desk advertises ‘Tours of Jewish Budapest’ and visits to the Great Synagogue. ‘Excuse me, sir, but did you not once try to eliminate all the Jews of Budapest? So why all the Jewish tourist sights now? Oh yes, I understand, it’s a way of feeling less guilty about it. OK, sorry I asked.’ But none of these phrases appears in my phrase book – so I keep silent.

I speak in English from the Jewish Agency offices in the narrow old streets of the former ghetto. The archive ledgers state the details of all brit milahs, barmitzvahs and Jewish weddings in pre-war Hungary. Look, my grandparents! And my father! It’s as if they have suddenly been restored to life. Will they invite us back for tea? Do they come alive when they are remembered? But we leave.

Does no one in these government offices speak English or German or French or any language apart from Hungarian, that most impenetrable of languages? But I have come with a translation from my good friend Eva. What are they saying? Perhaps they think: ‘Look, here comes another Jewish second-generation person from abroad searching for his roots – let’s have fun with him, like we do with the others, and pretend we don’t understand. Remember: no English now.’

Unfortunately my phrase book doesn’t contain such phrases as ‘I was born in this town. Do you have in your records anything which indicates where I used to live?’ Perhaps there’s an untapped market for a phrase book just for visiting second-generation people: ‘Buy now - available in Polish, Hungarian, German, and frighteningly many other languages.’ Forget the supermarket, café, hotel, train, and station phrases. Instead: ‘I am Jewish, what did your parents/grandparents do in the war?’ or ‘Are you/your compatriots still antisemitic?’ or ‘Do your schools today teach what happened to your Jews?’ When they become bored by their game of pretence, they inform me where I was born – it’s just five minutes away. But they don’t return to me the items left behind in that flat. That armchair over there – strangely familiar.

Off to the Jewish cemetery. A one-hour, bumpy tram-ride to the end of nowhere. The tram slowly empties out, and we are left alone. It pulls up at the cemetery gates. It’s massive. And it’s like a wonderful park, but with graves and headstones. Thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands. Overgrown with ivy and shrubs. Yet all those who died in Auschwitz have no resting place here. How enormous the community once was. I give grandfather’s name to the woman in the office. Not much for her to do here. Not much hope. Too many names. Perhaps it’s not even the right cemetery. But surprise! She’s printed off the reference number for his grave.

Off we go. Down that path. It must be somewhere here. But it’s all overgrown. Maybe over there. Who can we ask? Why is that shabbily-dressed woman watching us? I give her the paper with the grave number, she looks at it, and immediately walks to the grave. I give her a tip. Perhaps she seeks out lost second-generation visitors and lives off their tips. It’s overgrown. The writing is faint, but it’s them. My grandfather, my grandmother, and my uncle. I thought they’d gone to the camps. Why are they here? Who can tell me? And those sentences at the back of the headstone, what do they mean? Where’s that second-generation phrase book? I forgot, it hasn’t been published yet. The lettering is faded and needs to be restored.

Opposite the gates is a stone-mason’s. A lady in a ramshackle office with a phone and little else. Many stones outside. Speak English? Magyarul. OK, I might have guessed. Where’s that second-generation phrase book? Oh yes, there isn’t one. Here goes. Through mime I describe what I want, and agree a fee. I pay. But I’ve a feeling as I leave that she’ll do something completely different. Brilliant business idea: pretend you don’t understand, then don’t do the job (or do a different one) when the visitors are safely home - they’ll never know.

Who else comes to these vast, deserted grounds? Just the next second-generation visitors, and then the same sequence of events – tram, gate, office, lost, woman, headstone, stonemason, tram.

Next day, the train to Miskolc. It’s the town my mother lived in – until something happened in 1944, can’t remember what. ‘Don’t worry, the Germans are losing the war. They can’t last much longer. They won’t enter Hungary now. We don’t need to flee.’ Whoops, got that one a tiny bit wrong.

Anna is waiting at the station. She’s happy to see us. She’s the daughter of my mother’s best childhood friend. She takes us home. She introduces us to her husband Laszlo (no English) and adopted daughter Agnes (almost no English). Anna stayed with us in London in 1970, the last time I saw her. We talk, take photographs, say our goodbyes and take the train back to Budapest.

But Anna has cancer. Back in England we make plans to return. But then the emails from Anna stop coming. She has died.

So we return to Hungary. But now Budapest is different. We are tourists. We visit the sights, we eat in good restaurants, we enjoy the views. The Great Synagogue still stands proudly in the centre. The memorial to Wallenberg still hides in its quiet side-street. We cross the Danube. Where Jewish bodies once floated. When the Hungarian Nazis outdid even the German Nazis with their killing. Where my passport states I was born. The past is hidden away. I photograph the outside of the flat I was born in, and we return home. Budapest is now just another tourist city. Next year we’ll go somewhere else. We won’t need the phrase book any more.

A longer version of this article appeared in Voices, the magazine for the Second Generation, No. 25, January 2004.

David Wirth

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