My family comes from a little village in Ukraine called Dneperpetrovsk. It used to be called Ekatrinaslav when we lived in the neighborhood. That was before they murdered the last Czar and his family there. I've often thought of going to visit,but I've never gone.
On the other hand, I have once again come back to Budapest and if no one else wonders about what connects me here and has brought me back so often, I wonder a lot.
My first trip to Hungary was in 1973 with 2 year old twins. Not the ideal travel companions that one could hope for, but there was a great grandmother waiting to see her progeny so we traveled that summer so long ago.
I knew about shtetl life in Eastern Europe. I had heard about it all my life. I knew how another cup of water in the Borsht would stretch to make it feed another 10 kids. I knew about lox wing soup because lox fligels were throw aways and with a little milk and a piece of potato....well you get the idea.I had seen Fiddler On The Roof and read Shalom Aleichem but there was no one who would ever mistake Budapest for Bialystok!! This little Jewish farm girl had arrived in Oz.
My husband at the time was not known for reliable reporting on almost any subject and so I had always taken the stories, of his ancestral homestead being as big as a Fifth Avenue Astor or Rockfeller mansion, with a hugh tablespoon of salt. Well color me astonished when I saw that it was true. Even though it had been taken over by the commie bastards and broken into small dull flats for the workers paradise, the building was still known as the VARGA House. And it was a building. A full square city block earned through the hard work and success of the family hemp business with factories all over Hungary.
When my family back in Russia were stacking themselves like cordwood in bed to keep warm, wearing every bit of clothing they owned, my Hungarian mishpocha were stepping out in top hots and furs with modern cameras and luxury automobiles in the early 20s, complete with movie cameras to record and preserve their definitely NOT shtetl lifestyle.
At the same time, they were definitely and proudly Jewish. After emigrating from Holland 6 centuries before, Mikhail and Karolina Varga were founding members of the beautiful synagogue in the city of Szeged with their names carved in the handrail to the Bima and Mikhail's portrait on the wall as the first President of the congregation.
This was a Jewish I could understand. I could not only relate to this lifestyle but even aspire to it, while my own heritage was so far removed from my reality or anything I had ever known, that I began to feel closer to this urban, urbane community of city dwelling Jews than to the residents of the far away and mythical poor little village from which I could only claim roots but not an understanding or any insights into the life that would nourish those
roots into a flower.
As soon as I began to regard myself as one of These not one of Those, the looming shadow of the question of the slaughter of European Jews, mid- 20th century, that has haunted me since I
was a little girl and first knew of Anna Frank, began to become so much more personal for me.After all I was one of these guys. It's easy to understand, ( or try to understand) how poor hungry farmers, were able to be duped into walking into the gas chambers with songs of praise for the God who was turning his face away, on their lips. But me and my Hungarian solidly bourgeois role models? NO WAY. So my journey continues here and now to bring some clarity to the darkness and some understanding of the unimaginable.
Let's move ahead together to take the road ahead so we can have a better foothold from which to look back.