Recently, I participated in a wonderful event called Women of Letters, which began in Melbourne, Australia, and has been gathering women (and some men) together at various venues around the world to celebrate the art of letter writing. The theme of the evening was “A letter to someone who told you the truth.” I chose to write to one of the amazing people I encountered while researching Love and Treasure.
Dear Mr. X,
We met one rainy winter afternoon a number of years ago, in your small shop on a side street in Budapest. I was researching a novel in which a piece of jewelry would feature prominently, and a friend had recommended that I sift through the offerings in your shop to see if anything triggered my imagination.
I must confess, when we first walked into the dim and dusty space, I was not anticipating much success. I was looking for an antique piece, something from the Hungarian art nouveau - the Jugenstil and your window displays featured bulbous modern silver pendants and bracelets, the kind favored by women like my mother, who carried copies of the New York Review of Books and complicated knitting projects in their Channel 13 tote bags as they stood in line for half-price tickets to Broadway matinees.
My friend and I waited for you to finish taking care of an elaborately coiffed Russian lady, the mistress of an oligarch, I decided, based on nothing more than her fantastically expensive wardrobe and equally costly and well-constructed breasts. You were a tiny man, no more than five foot 2 or 3, but dapper and beautiful dressed. Your manners were courtly as you patiently handing her piece after piece. I was relieved when she rewarded your elegant manners with a large purchase, especially since I doubted I would do the same.
Then you turned your attention to us. Your smile was small, though welcoming, but your eyes seemed sad to me. Or perhaps that is a detail my memory is imposing because of what you revealed to me in our conversation afterwards. My friend stepped forward to explain our errand. I was an American novelist, doing research, seeking information about antique jewelry. We had heard that you were an expert on the Art Nouveau. She glanced around the room doubtfully. Was our information correct? You assured us that you did have a certain knowledge of that period, though you modestly refused to accept the designation of expert. My friend, sick of waiting for me to screw up my courage, stepped forward. Would you allow us to buy you a cup of coffee, she asked. And to ask you a few questions?
Though I am by nature a nosy person, all too willing to sift through the contents of someone’s medicine cabinet, and though my husband says I am able to discover more about a person while standing in line for the restroom than he is after a decade of friendship, I am not comfortable doing formal interviews. I feel awkward and false, as though I am pretending to possess a journalist’s skill and experience. Had I been alone, I would never have asked to speak to you. My friend, however, is far more confident than I. Moreover, she was in Budapest as the Ambassador of the United States government and was comfortable with having such invitations accepted.
You locked the door of your now empty shop, and repaired with us to one of Budapest’s lavishly decorated coffee houses. I ordered first, unable as usual to resist the allure of the cream-filled Dobos Torte. You asked only for an espresso, and I immediately regretted my gluttony. I feared I’d be asking you questions with powdered sugar spraying from my lips, dusting the lapels of your impeccable dark suit.
You sipped, I gobbled, and we talked. I leafed through the pages of my notebook, scrambling to ask questions about the designs of the period, about enamel work, and the colors preferred by certain artists. You answered all my questions, no matter how ignorant, with a patient thoroughness. When I’d finally exhausted my notes, there were still a few sips in the bottom of your cup, and so I found myself babbling to fill time to allow you to finish. Though you didn’t ask, I told you about the novel I was writing, set in part during the aftermath of the Holocaust, during which the Jews of Hungary were so thoroughly decimated, 90% of those in the countryside being turned into ash at Auschwitz over the course of just a couple of months.
You lifted your cup to your lips, drained it, set it down with a small click, and said softly, “Are you a Jew?”
My visit to Budapest coincided with the rise of an ugly anti-Semite nationalist political party who had garnered a not-insubstantial number of votes in the previous election, and Budapest had come to seem, again, like an uncomfortable place to be a Jew. Still, I ignored the anxious twist in my belly and, firmly and no doubt defensively, said, “Yes.” And then something in your eyes prompted me to ask the question.
“Yes,” you said.
For a moment we were both silent. I wanted so much to know, but feared prying into memories of pain and horror. I forced myself to say, “Were you here in the war?” As if this 75 year old Hungarian gentleman might have spent the war years lounging on the beaches of Mozambique or hiking in the Dolomites.
“Yes,” you said.
“How did you…”
“Survive?” you asked.
And then you told me a remarkable story of having been living as a small child in Paris with your parents, your father a student precluded by the Hungarian Jewish quotas from studying in their native Budapest. When the war broke out your father joined the French foreign legion, leaving you and your mother alone to face the Nazi invasion of Paris. Sheer chance and a lucky viral infection kept the two of you from being swept up in the arrests and deportations of foreign-born Jews. You had developed whooping cough, and your mother took you to the countryside to rest and recuperate. When you returned to the city, your apartment building, once filled with German, Russian, Polish and Hungarian Jewish refugees, had been emptied, the inhabitants carted off to the Vélodrome d'Hiver, and then eventually to Auschwitz.
Your mother, a resourceful and tenacious woman, managed to organize false papers for the two of you, documents correctly listing your Hungarian nationality, but without the religious designation that would have doomed you. You left for Hungary, a Catholic mother and child returning home.
Once in Budapest, your mother took a small apartment in a run-down Catholic neighborhood, and carefully avoided any location where she might bump into someone she had known in her previous life. She changed her accent and her family history, but there was one sure indicator of your race that she could not change, the one you, her beloved only son, bore on his body. Sending you to school would be too much of a risk, she decided. As would allowing you to play outside with the other boys. Who knows what games the little ruffians might get up to. Inspired by the remnants of your hacking cough, your mother deemed you a cripple, tucked you into bed in 1941, and did not allow you to get up until February 13, 1945, when the Russians liberated Budapest after a long and brutal siege.
By the time she peeled back the covers, you had all but forgotten that you’d ever once walked. Always small for your age, you were now tiny, wizened as though your body had come to believe your mother’s desperate lie. Yet you were alive. Through your mother’s fierce will, you had both survived, alone of your once large extended family.
When you finished your story I sat back, overwhelmed and near tears. You smiled gently and said, “I have not told that story in many years.”
Why not, I wanted to know.
You explained to me that in Hungary, people preferred not to hear the stories of the particular suffering of the Jews. Everyone had suffered during the war, they said. It was a terrible time for all, Christian and Jew alike.
But Christian children and grandmothers were not rounded up and sent to be burned in the ovens at Auschwitz. The fascist Hungarian Arrow Cross storm-troopers did not burst into the homes if Christian families, force march them to the banks of the Danube, shoot them in the back and send them tumbling into the river, the women clutching their babies in the arms. So, yes. A terrible time for everyone. But a lot worse for some.
“In Hungary,” you said, “It is not comfortable to tell these stories.” And then you thanked me. You, who had opened your heart and your life to a stranger, one who didn’t even buy one of your silver necklaces, expressed gratitude for the opportunity to tell your story to a willing listener.
I returned your thanks, but now I thank you again, and more fulsomely. I thank you for your generosity, for your kindness, for your words that inspired a character and a novel. I thank you for spending your childhood confined to a bed and in fear of your life. I thank you and your mother for your courage and tenacity, for your love in the face of evil. I thank you for surviving, and for sharing your astonishing story with me.