GOLD BUTTONS: On being a child of the Holocaust
As a child I have a recurring nightmare: I am on a train, skittering through boxcars without windows. A large uniformed man is chasing me. He is gaining on me. Just as he grabs my arm, I wake up, my heart pounding. I know what this is: my Holocaust dream, an amalgam of images not from my life, but from my father’s. As his daughter, his ordeal is in many ways mine too.
When my parents were teenagers in Hungary — my mother in Budapest, my father in Debrecen — war came abruptly to their doorstep. Before March 19, 1944, Hungary had been allied with Germany, and while there had been mounting restrictions on Hungarian Jews’ freedoms, there had been none of the roundups and deportations to concentration camps that were common in neighboring countries like Poland and Czechoslovakia. But that changed overnight. When my parents were both 17 and oblivious to the danger that was about to stalk them, the Nazis marched into Hungary, determined to carry out their “final solution,” the extermination of every Jew in Europe.
My father was imprisoned in the Mauthausen concentration camp toward the end of the war, his life saved by the Allied victory. He’s from the “lest we forget” school of survivors. When I was growing up, my father would call me over to the TV whenever a documentary about the Holocaust was on. He wanted me to know what had happened to him in the belief that if we were vigilant, we could prevent another genocidal attack on the Jewish people.
As a child, I lay awake and wondered what it must have been like to have secret enemies, as my parents did, and to have my comfortable life suddenly upended. If I’d been born when they were, would I have been one of the lucky ones? I used to fantasize that I’d escape through the back door when the Nazis came to drag us away and that I’d find a hiding place. At 15, I read the novel Exodus about Jewish refugees fleeing to Palestine through tears. I had no one to talk to about how painful — and personal — their story was. It didn’t occur to me to turn to my parents, since how could my pain possibly compare to theirs?
All my life, I’ve known that my parents’ trauma shaped me and I’ve struggled to understand how. When I was young, they warned me to be wary of gentiles. Even those who were friendly, I was told, would eventually be revealed to be anti-Semites. I especially feared Catholics, who blamed us for killing Jesus, so on my way to school I used to avoid walking by the Catholic high school. Still, I was in awe of what my parents had gone through and felt guilty that my mundane life had none of the suffering they’d endured, that I hadn’t experienced the terror and despair of the Holocaust.
About a decade ago, I joined a support group for the adult children of survivors, the so-called Second Generation. Once a week, ten of us sat in a circle on uncomfortable folding chairs exchanging stories. Initially I talked about feeling guilty about my safe childhood and about how hard it was for me to trust people. Then others spoke: a woman whose parents had spent years in Auschwitz told us they had treated her like a camp inmate, barking orders and not letting her have any friends. The daughter of a woman whose first family — a husband and two children — had perished was told she should never have been born. The son of Polish camp inmates mentioned almost casually that he’d discovered his father hanging from a hook in their basement. My parents were flawed, certainly. They were judgmental and I had to work hard to please them. But once again, I found that my pain didn’t measure up. On the scale of second generation suffering, I was clearly outdone by others in the group.
I had many images of the Holocaust in my head, a reel of black-and-white scenes that I’d collected from my family and other accounts that I’d made my own. But I knew it wasn’t the whole story and I thought if I understood it better, I would glean some insight into my parents and myself. When my son Samuel was 11, I thought he — the third generation — should understand the horrors that had befallen his grandparents. (I’m from the “lest we forget” school too.) So I convinced them to travel to Hungary with us where my husband, son and I would record tales of their youth.
We started the trip in Budapest where my mother Judy grew up. Although my parents had refused to return to Hungary for a quarter century after the war, they had been back a few times after 1970, drawn by business associates and friends who wanted to enjoy the city’s legendary rich food, excellent wines, and low prices with former natives. We checked in to a modern hotel on the Pest side of the Danube River, which slices Budapest in two. For our first outing, my mother suggested the large Moorish-style Dohany Street Synagogue, also called the Great Synagogue of Budapest.
On our way, my father had steered us clear of the park where one of his cousins was murdered decades earlier. He told us that on his last trip to Budapest he’d had a hotel room overlooking the park and had been so disturbed by its proximity, he changed hotels after one night. As an only child, he loved his cousins like siblings and used to stay with them when he came to Budapest each summer to apprentice as a cap maker. One day in 1944, Hungarian Fascists, known as the Arrow Cross, rampaged through Budapest, hunting for Jews to slaughter. Dad’s relatives were discovered hiding in the basement of their apartment building. Adolph, the father, was murdered on the spot but his wife Pearl and her two children were herded at gunpoint to the nearby park. On the way, her son Robert was shot. His dying body fell into the Danube and was never recovered.
At the park, dozens of other Jews were massacred on what was otherwise an ordinary sunny Budapest afternoon. Pearl and her daughter Agi were wounded. As they lay on the ground, Pearl whispered to Agi to be silent. But she was in too much pain; she cried out in agony and was shot dead.
Aunt Pearl survived that horrendous day but lost the use of her left arm. Growing up, I adored Aunt Pearl, a small woman with a ready smile and a twisted arm that dangled at her side. She moved to the U. S. in the late 1940s and married a man as sweet and affectionate as she was. She never spoke about the tragic loss of her family. Her mantra was “no one likes a crying face,” but as she got close to her nineties, she lamented that she’d been cursed with a long life. Pearl died at 92.
When we reached the Great Synagogue, we found tour groups from all over Europe admiring its 140-foot-high starred ceilings, its balconies and engraved golden ark. My mother was clearly proud that her middle class family had prayed in such gilded surroundings. Adjoining the magnificent shul is a small shaded graveyard where my father’s cousin Agi is buried. After the war, Pearl had arranged to commemorate her children there. My father told me to look for their names but I searched in vain among the scores of scattered, weed-strewn stone markers. Then I looked up and spotted my father, wet-eyed, staring at inscriptions on a brick wall. There, on engraved in stone were “Adolf Farkas” and his children’s nicknames, Agika and Robika. I had known this trip would be an uneasy mix of nostalgia and searing memories but somehow I was startled to see tears welling up in my father’s brown eyes. I’d rarely seen him cry before and felt a tightening in my chest.
Next to the synagogue is a small Jewish museum. Come, my mother beckoned. “I want to show you something.” This was promising. My mother has never wanted to talk about her war experiences. She says she wants to forget those terrible times and I’ve always wondered whether you can suppress painful memories and make them go away. She pointed to an exhibit about Raoul Wallenberg, the diplomat who had issued Swedish passports to thousands of Hungarian Jews and sheltered as many as he could in buildings he designated as Swedish territory. He had saved tens of thousands of Jews and I was hearing for the first time that my mother had been one of them. “He kept us safe for a while,” she said. “Then there was a rumor that there were so many Wallenberg passports that you’d be killed if you were discovered with one. I got scared and threw mine away.”
Adjoining the Great Synagogue is a small piece of the wall that had enclosed the Budapest ghetto during the war. This was where all the city’s Jews were forced to live after the Nazis invaded. Mom had grown up just within the ghetto walls and she led us to the hulking, soot-covered apartment house built around a large courtyard lined with balconies. My mother once told me she was never scared during the war and I soon saw that couldn’t have been true. She talked about how disoriented and confused she felt when her brothers and father disappeared from home, taken away to forced labor camps, while her sister was sent into hiding in a Catholic charity. It all happened so fast, she said, and we didn’t see it coming.
The Arrow Cross regularly shot into the ghetto and my mother had seen people die and crumble onto the sidewalk at her feet. Somehow, my mother wanted to tell my son Samuel stories she’d never shared with me. She told him that German soldiers had once ordered everyone in her four-story apartment building to assemble in the shaded courtyard. They’d ordered them to start marching out of the city and had them sleep under any trees they could find. I’ve always thought of the Nazis as a hyper-efficient killing machine but on this trek, it became clear after a couple of weeks that no one had a clue where they were headed. My mother and grandmother were released in a rural area many miles from Budapest. In the ensuing chaos, they were abandoned, left to find their own way home.
Mom also told Samuel about the good times: her pride that as an attractive teenager, she was sometimes able to flirt her way past the ghetto guards to search for bread outside. She was proud that once they even gave her two jars of jam. She pointed to the site of a grocery where she and her siblings were often sent to buy the eggs, butter and rolls. She showed us the park where she had played ball games, the spot where her father’s jewelry shop had stood and the site of his favorite synagogue (more intimate than the Great Synagogue). I reveled in the mundane details of the ordinary girlhood I’d somehow never realized Mom had enjoyed. I felt a little less guilty about enjoying my placid life; this stroll made me realize she had enjoyed her teenage years — until they were cruelly cut short.
The next day, my father, husband, Samuel and I took a two-and-a-half hour train ride to Debrecen, a mid-sized city in the east of Hungary where my father was raised. He was one of about 12,000 Jews in Debrecen before the war; they constituted 10 percent of the population. We were now headed to the place where all of Dad’s assumptions about his world were shattered. My father said that despite the institutionalized anti-Semitism of his homeland, he had felt proud to be Hungarian and did not believe the horrors that had beset Jews in Hungary’s neighbors could ever happen in Hungary. Now, he rued the naiveté of Debrecen’s Jews, who, as late as 1944, believed their rabbi when he assured them that they would be safe.
The building where my father grew up is white and only three stories high and, like Mom’s, U-shaped around a courtyard. It reminded me of a Miami Beach motel, except that residents here entered their apartments from narrow balconies. Dad shared the two-bedroom apartment with his parents and his grandfather, a quiet bearded man who smoked a long pipe. (Dad slept in the living room.) He told us about the former landlord, a bearded Jew who lived on the ground floor, and about his first girlfriend, who lived across the street.
We have a decades-old photo outside his second-story apartment, showing his parents, posing with Roszi, their maid and a neighbor. We snapped a picture in the same spot just seconds before the apartment door cracked open and a disheveled man shooed us away.
Dad pointed out the building where he’d pick up his father every Sunday afternoon after his weekly card game with the town’s other Jewish merchants; the small cinema where he had seen a smattering of American movies; the park where he and his friends tried to meet girls; and the narrow street where his father’s “Farkas Hat” store had stood and where my father had learned to be a cap maker. When Samuel wasn’t listening, he showed us where, for his bar mitzvah, his father had treated him to the services of a prostitute.
We came upon the “gymnasium,” where Jewish high school students were segregated by law. Dad used to be a student here and a member of the wrestling team. It’s still an active school and we were invited inside. Today, with its grey linoleum tiles and green walls plastered with student artwork, it looks like any public school, anywhere. I could imagine my teenaged father running down these echoing halls and I thought that if things had been very different, I and perhaps Samuel could have been students here. Then Dad showed Samuel a memorial listing students and teachers who’d died during the Nazi occupation. Of course, Dad knew many of them. Samuel looked troubled. He was almost the age of these pupils and he told me later he couldn’t imagine his school friends dying so young.
Two blocks away, we looked for the bakery where my grandmother used to take cholent, a meat and bean casserole, to bake overnight on Friday evenings when the family observed the Sabbath and would not turn on their stove. The bakery was still there but the new baker was a surly man in a wife-beater t-shirt who rudely asked what we wanted. Dad’s face darkened with sickening memories as he backed out of the shop. Dad said the baker reminded him of the first time he walked down the streets of Debrecen wearing a yellow star. He saw his gentile friends and neighbors turn away and felt humiliated and betrayed. So that’s how fast it can happen, I thought. From one day to the next, through no fault of your own, you become a pariah.
As more and more anti-Jewish regulations were promulgated, Dad and his family accepted them. When the time came that Jews could no longer own businesses, his father asked a gentile friend to put his name on the Farkas Hat store and thought: Well, if this is the worst thing that happens to us, we can live with it.
Of course, that was not the worst thing. Within days of the Nazi invasion in March 1944, Dad’s father was deported to a forced labor camp. Before he left, he buried some jewelry in the courtyard of their apartment building. Then he covered five gold Napoleon coins with fabric and sewed them onto his son’s jacket as buttons. He told my father to sell them if he and his mother ever became desperate for food or shelter.
The Jews of Debrecen were commanded to live in a ghetto, a few blocks from the Jewish quarter. Three or four families of relatives moved into a small apartment with them but within a few weeks, they were all ordered to report to an abandoned brick factory next to the railroad tracks. Thousands of Jews were already there, each clinging to a backpack or small suitcase. Dad nervously wore his navy jacket with its precious buttons. There was no food or sanitation. Arrow Cross soldiers were barking orders and herding Jews onto freight cars. Communists, Zionists, and families with more than five children were to be on the first train out. People from Jewish organizations were scheduled to leave on the third transport and Dad’s uncle offered to use his connections to take him on that train which he was sure would get special treatment. But my father has always been an impatient man. He had no idea where any of the trains were headed but conditions at the factory were so miserable, he figured he, his mother and grandfather might as well hasten the next stage of this macabre journey. So he volunteered for the second transport. Dad’s always said you had to have luck, more than skill or guile, to survive and this time he and my grandmother and great-grandfather got lucky. Their train was destined for Auschwitz but was diverted to Vienna because the resistance had sabotaged the tracks to the camp and they were temporarily impassable. Once they were repaired, the third train carried Dad’s uncle, cousins and Debrecen’s prominent Jews to their deaths at Auschwitz, their expectations of salvation just a delusion.
My father has often told me how his impetuous decision saved his life and I’ve wondered what lesson to glean from his dramatic story. I understand his impulse to exert a bit of control over his destiny when he had so little. But it was chance that saved him. I realize how foolish those childhood fantasies of saving myself were. Random luck would have been my only hope.
If Budapest were scrubbed clean, it would look a bit like Vienna. We were here to tour its museums and palaces and visit an old family friend. I also wanted to see what was left of the nearby Mauthausen concentration camp where my father had spent the last few months of the war. Dad was willing to accompany me and my husband Richard there but we all agreed the visit would be too harrowing for Samuel, not yet a teenager. He stayed behind with my mother while we rented a car for the 100-mile trip to Mauthausen.
As we drove west from Vienna, my father recounted how, after several days of standing in a crammed, airless cattle car, he, his mother and grandfather were disgorged at a labor camp in Gross-Endzerdorf, then the 22nd district of Vienna. Nothing remains of the compound where my father and grandmother were assigned to pick vegetables. My father describes life here as tolerable. He made a close friend and at night, to entertain the other inmates, they recited Hungarian poems they’d memorized in school. He even had a girlfriend and always had enough food because he was able to steal extra potatoes from the field and share them with the camp cook, who rewarded him with extra rations. He also made a cap for the baker’s son in exchange for a couple of loaves of bread.
Inmates were allowed to go into Vienna unaccompanied if they needed medical care. My father developed a toothache and was given a streetcar pass and directions to the Jewish dentist. Although he was compelled to wear a yellow star and stand at the back of the streetcar, it was his first time seeing Vienna and, to my astonishment, Dad said he was as thrilled as could be. “But I never thought of escaping. I had no money — where would I go?”
In January 1945, the SS informed the labor camp’s inmates that they were leaving for parts unknown. My father put on his special jacket, his mother hid a few pieces of toast. With his gentle grandfather, they began walking west at rifle point, along the route we were now travelling to Mauthausen. They had no idea where they were going, just that they were following the Danube River. They trembled continually from hunger and cold and slept in people’s back yards. Their only food came from the few strangers who took pity on the scrawny prisoners. One night, the family slept in a butcher’s garden and was treated to delicious horsemeat for breakfast.
As the march continued, my father, his mother and her father tried lagging behind, hoping to escape and get back to Vienna, parts of which were already being liberated by Russian soldiers. They were found and ordered to run and catch up with the others. As their guards prodded Dad and his mother with rifle butts, they marched on but his grandfather couldn’t keep up. They heard him cry out to God — Adonai! — just as an SS rifle blast executed him.
In talking about the Holocaust, my father had never told me how his beloved grandfather had perished. I found out when he wrote a memoir. I asked him about it once and he said it was just too painful to discuss. My grandmother would live another fifty years but she and my father would never discuss the instant her father was murdered. It’s a moment I cannot forget, an almost cinematic scene that unspools when I think of our trip along that cursed road.
Two and a half hours west of Vienna, we saw a small sign for the Mauthausen Memorial and turned right, up a hill and over a bridge spanning the Danube. When, decades earlier, my 17-year-old father and the rest of the bedraggled caravan had approached this bridge, he heard the SS cock their rifles. He whispered to his mother, “If you hear a shot, jump into the river. We’ll try to escape.” But no shots were fired. They trudged on, through the town of Mauthausen to the enormous camp.
I was stunned that the concentration camp was basically in town. No one could say they didn’t know it was there. Guards probably walked home to the houses we drove by. Just as I was wondering whether anyone ever protested the slave labor and killing factory in their midst, my father said, “Many of the guards probably lived in some of these houses. After they worked from 8 to 5, or whatever, killing people, they must have gone home and played ball with their children or gone to movies.” Exactly what I was thinking. “The banality of evil,” in author Hannah Arendt’s famous phrase about Nazi Germany.
When Dad and his mother arrived at Mauthausen in early 1945, the camp housed more than 80,000 prisoners. The site was chosen because it was near a granite quarry where the original inmates had toiled before it became an extermination camp. More than 100,000 people — political prisoners, homosexuals, Gypsies, and Jews — had died here, some of starvation, disease, and exhaustion. Others were shot or gassed.
It was raining when we reached the camp. We passed through an archway in a brick wall about twenty-feet high, with round watchtowers at each corner, and got our free admission tickets at a kiosk inside. Under the metal grey sky, gloomy rows of low green barracks with white trim squat flanked a wide pavement. The grounds were tidy and freshly painted, much smaller than the original but the eerie feeling that ghosts walked among us was palpable.
My father’s face was grim as he recalled his first day in Mauthausen. He and his mother had to surrender all their belongings, including my father’s jacket with its precious buttons. Their heads were shaved. Men and women were separated and sent to the showers. Dad had never heard of showers that dispensed poison gas and did not know that there was a gas chamber here. Fortunately, these showers were for washing the filthy newcomers clean. My father was issued blue and white-striped fatigues and sent to a barrack.
We entered a barrack with immaculate stone floors and green walls. In the center stood a row of two-level wooden bunk beds. “When I was here,” Dad said, “the bunks were stacked three high. I was lucky — I got the top bunk.” The bunks were the width of an average cot but four men slept in each one. I thought of a well-known photo taken when Buchenwald was liberated. It shows several emaciated men, author Elie Wiesel among them, lying in their bunks, their dark eyes glistening as they stare directly at the lens. One man is grinning but several others look too weak to show any emotion. I’ve always felt that their collective gaze posed a mute question: “How could you let this happen?” I still feel angry that no army, no government, no individual ever intervened to save my teenaged father from these horrors.
My father was forbidden to leave the barrack except for an hour of exercise. One day, he found the fence that separated men from women and was excited when he spotted his mother. He called her over for a rare talk, buoyed to see her still alive. On another exercise outing, he spotted a pile of discarded clothes, rummaged through it and found his tattered jacket and happily retrieved it with its gold coin buttons intact. Indoors, he had to get used to the smell of sweat, urine, and feces as there were no more showers after the first day and no separate toilet, just a gutter along the wall where everyone relieved himself. A single tap is still there.
Everyone was infested with vermin. To break the boredom, the inmates played a game: they would grab as many lice from their armpits as they could, then guess who had an even or odd number. But sometimes the one-armed Jewish capo who was in charge of making sure inmates didn’t fight over food or try to escape punished them for this harmless diversion. My father hated him for the enjoyment he took in beating the men.
Dad told us matter-of-factly that his days would start with a survey of the barrack to count how many inmates had died during the night. The corpses were dragged outside and piled onto tall mounds. You see no trace of any of this in present-day Mauthausen. There are no pictures of stacked skeletons or frail men and women trying to live long enough for the Russians or Americans to rescue them, though these photos do exist. This is not a place that wants to shock and I was disgusted that it was so bland. I wanted visitors to know about the miseries that were perpetrated here. Otherwise, why have a memorial at all?
We left the barrack and walked past several more until we found the gas chamber — an empty white-tiled room about 10 feet by 10 feet with a series of faucets overhead and a sign “Gaskammer.” In the next building is the crematorium. It consists of two large dome-shaped brick ovens, their doors permanently flung open. My father commented, “I was lucky, I was strong enough to work so they kept me alive.” How odd, I thought, to consider yourself lucky even though you’re incarcerated in this house of horrors.
As we walked back out the camp gate, we saw a lush green field dotted with enormous monuments to those who had perished here. They memorialized the Jewish victims of Spain, Poland, Hungary and other European countries. Some were beautifully designed and evocative but I couldn’t help feeling bitter. A bunch of mute monuments would not absolve the guilt of these countries, each of which had actively assisted in the near-total slaughter of Europe’s Jews.
By May 5, 1945, the SS had abandoned Mauthausen. The German army had been defeated. As my father and his mother stood talking, she noticed three jeeps driving over a hill towards the camp and said, “They might be the Americans.” In fact, they were soldiers from the 11th Armored Division of the U.S. Army and representatives of the Red Cross. They had come to see if the rumors of a camp in these hills were true. My father says he will never forget the incredulous looks on their faces as they discovered tens of thousands of skeletal men and women hovering between life and death amid rotting corpses.
The next thing Dad remembers is a group of inmates beating the Jewish capo to death. Then the Americans sprayed DDT to disinfect the camp and its captives. It covered everything with white powder that looked like snow. Some of the more adventurous inmates left the camp and came back with food they’d begged from townspeople. The American soldiers confiscated and burned all of it in a bonfire. They knew too much food would be dangerous to the severely malnourished survivors so they fed them small portions of soup. That annoyed my father but a few weeks later, he and his mother were strong enough to travel back to Debrecen in search of Dad’s father.
On their way home, Dad and his mother had to fend off Russian soldiers who were determined to steal as much as they could and rape any woman they desired. It got so bad, they would leave the train after dark and spend the night in some of those same sheds and gardens they had passed months earlier on their way to Mauthausen. The irony was not lost on Dad: he and his mother forced to hide from their “liberators.” When they got to Budapest, they slept in the train station. My father was awakened by someone jerking his backpack from under his head. It was another Russian soldier, who got away with Dad’s meager belongings, except his gold-buttoned jacket.
They had been away from Debrecen for 15 months but everything had changed. Their apartment had been ransacked and occupied. Most of their friends and neighbors were gone. Seventy percent of Hungary’s Jews — 600,000 men, women and children — had been murdered. But a few hollow-eyed survivors straggled back, looking for shards of their former lives. Dad dug up a gold pocket watch and other valuables that his father had buried. With the proceeds and some money borrowed from his uncle in Budapest, he managed to open a small grocery and dry goods store. This, I thought, was the first hint of the entrepreneurial spirit he showed throughout his life.
Dad bought produce from surrounding farms to sell on the black market in the food-deprived capital city. The Budapest-bound trains were dangerous — Russian soldiers were pushing people onto the tracks if the cars got too crowded. Dad often had to ride on the train’s roof but he was pleased with the profits he could bring home to his mother.
Finally, as more Jews returned from the camps, Dad met a former neighbor who knew his father’s fate. To Dad’s surprise, his father had also been imprisoned in Mauthausen. A few days before liberation, he was transferred to a smaller camp in nearby Linz but the day after the Americans freed him, he died of diarrhea or malnutrition. He was buried in a mass grave.
To this day, my father feels responsible for his father’s death. On one of his trips from the work camp into Vienna, he mailed his father a post card telling him where he and his mother were. He’s convinced that his father went to Vienna in search of them and was caught by the Germans who were sweeping up Hungarian Jews and shipping them to Mauthausen. The shadow of his death lurked in my childhood home: every Friday, as my grandmother lit the Shabbos candles, she wept tears of grief for her late husband. Since I never knew my grandfather, I could not feel his loss. As a child, I was always somewhat mystified by my grandmother’s intense feelings and guilty that I couldn’t share them.
On our visit to the Mauthausen Memorial, my father had been grim but composed. But he cancelled our planned trip to his father’s grave and when we stopped for lunch along the Autobahn, he uncharacteristically ordered a scotch. I wondered whether my desire to dig into his painful history had been terribly selfish. Had I tormented my father by asking him to relive his most tragic memories? I asked him whether he regretted our trip. He reminded me that recounting the history of the Holocaust was his sacred duty, and mine. “You needed to see the camp, even though it’s been sanitized. When I — and the rest of the survivors — are gone, it will be up to you to make sure the world does not forget what happened here.”
* * *
When the war ended, Mom’s family, who had all survived in body if not in spirit, was also ducking Russian soldiers. One day, my mother’s father heard that Soviet soldiers were roaming the neighborhood. He thought fast and ordered her to bed. When a drunk uniformed Russian pushed his way into my mother’s bedroom, her father told him that she was highly contagious with TB. He retreated without raping her.
Mom’s parents urged her to abandon anti-Semitic Hungary. She, her brother and his wife had to bribe their way out of the country, which was slowly being shuttered behind the Soviet Iron Curtain. They headed for a Displaced Persons’ Camp in Bamberg, Germany, a former military compound. Set up by UNRRA, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, it was a refuge for people who preferred statelessness to their hostile homelands. From there, they would apply for visas from any country that would have them.
Once he discovered his father’s fate in the spring of 1946, Dad and his mother were also anxious to leave Hungary. A local Zionist group smuggled them out and they too made their way to the Bamberg DP camp. There my father spotted my mother one afternoon as she sat outside her barrack meticulously repairing the seams of an old coat. Drawing on his skills as a cap maker, he offered to help. According to family legend, he courted her assiduously over the next few weeks and had to foil several other suitors before she would agree to marry him. They would be among the 600 Jews accepted by Norway in 1947. On June 1, they became the first Jewish couple to marry in Norway after the war. Their wedding was front-page news in an Oslo newspaper.
* * *
My father decided our trip to Hungary would be his last. He is bitter at his countrymen’s betrayal and disgusted by news reports that anti-Semitism is flourishing in Hungary today. Since our trip, Dad has altered our annual Seder ceremony that commemorates the biblical exodus of Jewish slaves from Egypt. After dinner, he adds a lengthy prayer for the six million Jews murdered in Europe. It’s a mood-crushing moment that I actually dread. Despite all the Holocaust-themed films I’ve seen and books I’ve read, despite hearing Holocaust stories all my life, being reminded of the murderous hatred directed at my fellow Jews always feels like a punch in the gut. Fortunately the Seder ends with everyone singing of “Chad Gadya,” a peppy cumulative song about a goat, that never fails to lift everyone’s spirits.
Dad, now 88, is teaching students at the University of Miami about the Holocaust. He’ll leave his family a special gift. After the war, he used two of the gold Napoleon coins his father had lovingly sewed onto his jacket to buy bread. But he’s saved the other three, one each for Samuel and his two cousins.
After our trip to Hungary and Mauthausen, I realized how vivid my parents’ emotions about the Holocaust still are. The events that I once knew as stories have come into sharper focus and now feel even more like my memories too. Oddly, my recurring Holocaust nightmare about being in a cattle car stopped after the trip but another dream became more frequent. In this one, I am an adult, sometimes married, and I am startled to realize that I am still living in my parents’ house. Although I’m grown-up and working, I’ve somehow forgotten to pay rent or to move out! I need to leave their emotional house, which now feels more constricting than ever, but I cannot shake my powerful birthright.
Since the trip, my awe for my parents’ strength and resilience is stronger than ever. So is my pity for the young man who lost his beloved father and cousins and for the young woman who had to go into exile. But I’ve had to shed a lot of what they taught me — I can trust gentiles, my world won’t suddenly disintegrate, the course of my life will not be ruled by luck — but the dangers of complacency and the sacred duty to remember inhabit me. I will bequeath them to my son, the third generation, who will, no doubt, have to grapple with this thorny legacy in his own way.