For Christmas, my mother presented me with a faded children’s Bible. Inside, inscribed with pale blue ink, was the dedication: “For B.E., the studious pupil at the Talmud Torah of Bethlen Square – for hard work and good behaviour. 1955. Chief Rabbi Benjamin Schwartz.” And a round seal.
As I said, the book was given to me for Christmas and not Chanukah, which pretty well sums up the way a Hungarian liberal Jewish family lives, lived and thought.
1955 was a year of the Stalinist era. Children would attend religious classes only in secret and many a Communist Jewish family would keep their origins hidden from their children. As we were not Communist, we observed our religious customs, albeit superficially. My father, who came from Poland, was a religious man. Although he would pray in his talith every morning, candles were never lit on Fridays. We only observed Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, and on those days we would stay at home. My mother would defiantly write a note to the teacher: “It is our holiday…” (I always had a high grade in art and physical education so I could curry some favour with the teachers.)
Perhaps because we only observed these special holidays I always thought of the Jewish faith as a terribly sad one, as I never received any presents. Father Christmas always arrived, but no one came for Purim or Chanukah. We celebrated these holidays together at the Talmud Torah. In the 1950s, some twenty children attended religious classes in an area where several thousand Jews lived. We never mentioned the word “Jew” at home; instead we
used to say unseren or bibsi. Antisemites we called roshe. The rabbi appreciated our parents’ courage, the fact that they made us go to classes, so much so that he turned a blind eye when straight after classes I organized my own atheist club in the same room.
This was a small room used for prayers during the week. In the middle, there was a tiny ark with a Torah and long tables along either side of it. At the end of the lesson, myself and my two atheist friends would haughtily move to the other table to continue with our world- saving prattle. Our other teacher, apart from the rabbi, was Aunt Klari: a bent and withered small lady, perhaps thirty years old, but then again perhaps seventy. We did not know. How old was she? Or was she just an Auschwitz survivor?
Despite the sadness, I loved the big holidays: the hustle and bustle at home, the community spirit in the street. When I used to see an old lady walking in the street clutching a book wrapped in tissue paper or a man walking in bright sunlight with a hat on his head, I knew immediately they were one of us-on their way to the synagogue. There, the organ was booming and the notes just before the Kol Nidre always gave me goosepimples. I knew the prayers only in Hebrew, without knowing their meaning. It used to be a great disgrace not to be able to read the unvocalized text. I remember singing “Hatikvah”, voicelessly, noiselessly, with my mouth shut tight because Zionism was a punishable offence. Of the State of Israel I knew nothing, only the ancient city of David and Solomon was a reality to me. The lessons of the stories of the Bible catapulted me into another time altogether, the morals of the stories crept up on me without my realizing that I was learning morality. It was good like this. Perhaps we cut a strange figure, we the liberal Jews of Pest. My grandparents could still speak Yiddish, our parents could speak German and English; but as children we were made to learn Russian at school. Only once did my schoolmates throw stones at me because of my Jewish faith but, then again, perhaps they were just jealous because I skipped school for my belief. It never struck them that, at Christmas time, the whole country was allowed to stay at home. I used to be dreadfully jealous at Christmas. I simply longed for a Christmas tree – I desired one in my room with an almost erotic fervour, its perfume in my nostrils. I wanted to decorate it with multi-coloured titbits and lots and lots of boiled sweets. But the tree was taboo – strictly forbidden. Once, I smuggled home a tiny branch saying that it was not at all a Christmas tree but a small green plant – they threw me out with it. Later, when I got married and moved away from home, I bought a tree every year, up to this day. A tall one, touching the ceiling, crowned with the Star of David. But now I’m going too fast.
A t the end of the 1950s, after my bat mitzvah, my religious education came to an end. I attended one of the most prestigious secondary schools in Budapest which belonged to the Jews before the war and was later nationalized. The walls however still preserved some of the Jewish spirituality. We knew that the assembly hall used to be the synagogue. The headmasters of the school were largely Jewish, even after the war, and the Jewish intelligentsia, which at the time were zealously Communist, were not altogether averse to sending their children there. During the four years I spent at the school, not once did we discuss matters of religion. I did not even know who was or was not Jewish among my schoolmates. Later on I learned that my form mistress and three of my closest girlfriends were Jewish.
But we never talked about it; we were atheists. We were humanists, drawn towards university education, sometimes with left-wing tendencies. What was Moses to us if Marx and Mozart were around the corner, to mention only the letter M? Fundamentally, we were Hungarians, proud members of a highly-regarded culture although it was with pleasure that we read Hamlet in the original, or Tamas Celanoi for that matter. We knew our way around the British Museum without ever having set foot in it because we read copiously – the average Hungarian not being allowed to travel.
Our horizons, however, were not restricted as culture was paramount in our school. There were no rich and poor, we did not ask where anyone came from; all we wanted to know was where they were heading. We looked down on fools, cultural morons and the tone-deaf, and quoted Sartre and Camus with a pleasant frisson of snobbish certainty. Those four years were a big intellectual adventure.
Although I made great progress with my Hebrew reading, the Hebrew of my childhood was soon replaced by Latin, English and Russian. Once, as a reward, I received a menorah from the Israeli embassy – that is to say, from the old embassy. I must explain: up until 1967 there was an embassy, not far from our home on Gorky Avenue, located in a pleasant one-story villa. After the Six Days’ War, diplomatic relations with Israel abruptly ceased and the embassy was closed down. To be precise, they closed it first and demolished it later – but only half of it. The ruins still remained, the small Wailing Wall of Pest. A few years later, they carted away the sad relics and, in its place, they built a Russian kindergarten. Now there is a new embassy, quite near me again, although more than twenty years have gone by since then and I am now married and have moved to Buda – to the other side of the Danube. My husband is not a Jew but my daughter has become one. Spiritually, my husband Andras has converted and has even been beaten up twice just because of his looks. Sartre says that he who is thought to be Jewish is indeed Jewish. So why deny it? We are the aristocrats of religion. Nobles from birth.
Of course I could say that during the past few years, years that have seen the timely ethnic rebirth of Judaism, I have played an active part in its varied functions. But I find it much more important to say that democracy has left me vulnerably defenceless, naked and paralyzed because of renewed antisemitism.
My friends who live in the West say that this is happening everywhere. But history is not the same everywhere. The English Jew has not had the same personal experience. Their grandfathers and grandmothers were not shot and thrown into the Thames. The Hungarian Jew knows that during the winter of 1944 the blue Danube turned red from the blood of the slaughtered Jews. I grew up with that knowledge. And yet, I grew up with the Danube too. It was there that I first learned to swim and it was there, on her banks, that I exchanged my first kiss. I loved dining in small restaurants along her shores. Forty years have I lived with her. And now, when I look at the swastika graffiti on the walls and sometimes listen to the parliamentary debates, I cannot quite make my mind up as to the colour of the Danube.
It is no use going to Israel. It is no use seeing that beautiful country, a country that one can only be proud of. I shall remain a diaspora Jew, Hungarian-speaking and dreaming. In this country I felt at home. I can only use the past tense but I do not want to flee. I often feel guilty. Is this a Jewish malady? Is it a fantasy? Is it a nightmare? And what is the right way? Should we keep quiet or cry wolf? But who will listen to us when the wolf arrives?
Life is strange. I have many Christian friends whom I love and respect. No resentment, no angry words between us. I feel at peace inside Catholic churches and feel proud of this captivating Jew-loving fanatic, known as Jesus.
I love graveyards, the independent cities of the dead, the society within a society. But I could not rest in peace in a cemetery where the graves are marked with crosses. I do not believe in the hereafter but there I would not be in peace. Before I die, I want to go to Auschwitz, if I can face it. I am Polish on my father’s side but, until now, I could not bring myself to set foot in the country where the hell of the twentieth century revealed its unknown face. Auschwitz is the black sun that lights up the sky, says Janos Pilinsky, one of Hungary’s most noted post-war poets, himself a Catholic inmate of Auschwitz. Auschwitz shines like a black sun on my pores despite the protective ointments of democracy that I apply to my skin.
I began with my mother and let me also finish with her – at the Jewish Philanthropical Hospital. My mother’s roommate, an eighty seven-year-old lady, suffered a heart attack. There was no bell on the ward to call the nurse. I brought a small ceramic bell for my mother, should she want to use it. Her neighbour, a religious Jew, asked me to buy her one too. To call the nurse? No. To ring for her children after she recovered, to gather round the Christmas tree. This is how we live here in Pannonia.