|From Generation to Generation
My Mother's Silence
I have often imagined my mother as a little girl of nine or ten, standing in the snow in the courtyard of the building in Holló street where we used to live, being washed by grandmother with the greyish white snow, and she is screaming that it is cold and that the ice cold hand should let her go, should stop it. This image, of course, is wrong. That place was not actually Holló street. Not the far side of the courtyard of my childhood. The basement, from where they had come up is not the one from which we used to carry up the wood and coal, the one I can still smell. Not the basement I used to be scared to go down into. In the winter of 1944 and 1945 mother and grandmother lived a few blocks or streets away, in the ghetto. Back then the snow might have stayed white even in the city.
Grandmother insisted on the daily washing. If, nothing else, with snow. At the beginning they must have washed in warmed up, at least lukewarm snow-broth. Later they had only the ice-cold snow. But you have to wash, she said, because this is the only way to keep the lice away. And you have to eat one walnut a day, if there is any. Because that is enough to keep you alive. I don’t know for sure but I don’t believe that they had any walnuts left in the end. I don’t know if they had anything at all to eat in the last days of the siege. Somehow, though, they survived.
Mother never talked about her childhood. I was in my late twenties when she died. And she never talked and I never asked. What I know comes from grandmother. She did talk. They died more or less at the same time,
Grandmother six months earlier. As if giving mother permission. That now she is allowed to die too. That she doesn’t have to wait until she gets old. Because that was what she seemed to fear the most.
Grandmother did talk. She was not life-shy, in fact she enjoyed life, the present; but it was her old stories in which she truly lived.
Both, in her own childhood and in mother’s. She was like that when I was a child and also later when my son was the child in the house. She was at home with her parents somewhere in Transylvania, somewhere at the Kőrös rivers, and in Upper Hungary, in Nitra, spelled Nyitra in Hungarian, maybe, I have never learnt exactly where. I only know that they had been travelling throughout Greater Hungary, depending on where my great-grandfather had been called to build one of his vinegar factories.
She told me that my great-grandfather had been very religious but had still refused to grow a beard. Because he had thought a beard was only good for collecting dust. And that she had been afraid of falling over on ice. So that Móric, her elder brother, had gone to fetch her from school. And that Móric had been shot in the neck in the First World War. And he had never again been able to turn his head.
In 1939 Móric and his family left for Jamaica. Maybe they told grandmother and her family to go too but they refused. And when in 1944 they eventually decided to ask for the affidavit which in those days meant the permission to emigrate to America, it was no longer available. But this I don’t know from grandmother. I learnt it from papers I was going through once many years after her, and after mother’s, death.
I always pictured my great-grandmother, grandmother’s mother, as a frail, soft-spoken woman. Much more refined than her husband. I still can hear grandmother saying affectedly, pouting a little, that her mother had been a fine lady, a Bródy girl. Or maybe Bródi? And what did that mean? You couldn’t ask that question. Actually, the idea never even came to you to ask. It was evident that she had been refinement itself.
Her two younger siblings were always present in grandmother’s stories. Her younger sister, Margit, was a photographer in the early years of the last century. And Feri, her younger brother, he was a helpless person, maybe a little slow, of whom I only know that he had already moved to Pozsony when their parents were deported and that is how he was saved from being gassed in Auschwitz. Not so Margit,
who went to the gas chamber with their parents. But this, of course, I
don’t know for sure. It is just my guess that it could not have
While she was alive I was not interested. Or I was not aware of my interest. Of course I read those kinds of writings. Memoires. At least as much as was available in the seventies and eighties. And I always had the feeling that I would not have been capable of it. I would not have endured physically. That I certainly would have been shot and killed. I remember when I was pregnant with my son I had to wait in the corridor at the gynaecologist. I was reading Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved. And I was thinking about it. Whether I would have endured it. Whether I would have had the strength to go through it. Then the thought came that anyhow being pregnant meant immediately the gas chamber. Later, actually only quite recently, I’ve had the feeling that I am not sure I could have been as unselfish as some of my interviewees. And with it came the shame. Why I am not, or would not be capable of such a sacrifice in their situation. And I can say, it certainly sounds just so nice, it is so noble of me to think about it, about what I would have done then, in their situation, and to acknowledge that I am not sure of myself – but this is not enough to be excused.
A couple of months ago I was discussing something of this kind with my daughter. About mothers and daughters and also fathers and sons being together in the camp. That some took the little food from their children and ate it. And back at home, stole the bread ration card from their children. But there were also people who pretended not to be hungry or to have had enough when in reality they had eaten just a little bite, just to be able to give their food to their children; that the children, not knowing, or not admitting even to themselves that they knew, ate their parent’s portion, too. And she asked what I would do. What I would have done. And all I could say was that I could only hope that I would be or would have been, capable of giving. It was terribly painful. But I would have been ashamed to say I was sure I would have been able to make the sacrifice.
Mother never told these same stories of her childhood. Could she have forgotten? Did she suppress them so powerfully? But she never volunteered either that she was not allowed inside when they visited her father in Lipót, the big madhouse on the Buda side of the city, in 1944 and that after the bridges were bombed the Danube river actually completely separated him from them. That she had to wait in a corridor in which all the doors had knobs. And that she was scared of having to stay there forever. I know, though I forget from whom, that before her death, when she went crazy and went into psychotherapy, it came up. And now I cannot ask her psychotherapist because she is dead too. Maybe she would not answer even if she were alive. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. What does matter, that my mother never told me about it. Just as she never told me anything about her childhood.
Father has always said that he doesn’t have any childhood memories, yet I have heard much more about his childhood from him than about mother’s from herself. Hers just never came up. Not only her childhood. In fact, her whole life before marrying father, which she did young, when she was twenty. She kept mentioning only a scene or two from teacher training secondary school. But by that time she was already in her late teens, anyway.
She kept her childhood locked away. Because of her father, whom she lost at the age of ten? Whose loss might have been a relief for grandmother? Who probably had been aggressive already before a syphilis-induced madness plagued him, but afterwards he definitely was? A man so dapper that other women were envious of grandmother and made malign remarks aloud that he would have deserved someone better than this insignificant little woman, grandmother. He, who, certainly could have become an opera singer but for being a Jew? Who knows on any such event, but would I know? He left his job as a cantor in the spring of forty-four and moved from Mátyásföld to District Seven in Budapest? Or, is my father right that it was just my mother and my grandmother who moved? That by then my grandfather was not with them?
Anyway, if the two of us were
together – which was not too often in my memory – she could not really
loosen up. And even less if grandmother – her mother – was there as a
third person. She needed father for that. Or, perhaps someone else, an
”adult” with whom she could be safe, someone, who had his or her feet
on the ground who was free of anxiety. Or rather, in whose presence she
was not an anxious, lost, small child. Of course, I, who, with an
anxious mother could not have been anything other than an anxious
person, was not enough to help her.
I first went into
psychoanalysis some six months before her death. Besides her death,
what equally took its toll on me was that not much later I started to
feel I had come to the point of understanding enough of our
relationship to be able to accept her without major conflicts. I could
have accepted her if she were still alive. It is painful but I cannot
recall how I interpreted the events at that time.
Today, when I have spent some twenty years interviewing descendants of survivors and more recently also survivors, that is I have been pretending to do professional work for twenty years trying to understand my own Jewishness, my own Holocaust trauma (do I have it? Is it trauma at all? Or, are parents something to be worked through anyway?) I obviously have developed my full version of explanation. Today I would say that at the time I felt I could forgive her. I could forgive that she hadn’t allowed me to be the child of the two of us. Or at least that she was not an adult and that is why I could not be a child. That she could not make me, her child, feel safe. Not even when I was not only her child but still a child. That today, if I recall her face in my childhood, it is anxiety incarnate that looks back at me. Is it this that I felt then, there, in analysis? I don’t know.
A couple of years earlier, when we were in Germany, I as a teenager, she a little over forty, she broke down at the sight of the East German border guards. They looked like the SS. I felt that what she said was significant, but I think I only really understood what it meant much later. That she, her innermost self, was still living in those times.
In those times when grandmother and grandfather told her they were not going to speak Hitler’s language and switched over to Hungarian. In spite of the fact that, according to grandmother, mother spoke German earlier than Hungarian. Was it really Hitler’s language? Was it German? Maybe was it Yiddish? I don’t know. I would be surprised if it was really German. Why would they speak German in the family? It does not seem to fit into the picture. Nor that German, the language I like, should be Hitler’s language. But this may be another story.
Anyway, mother forgot this language while I know for sure that grandmother still spoke German later, too. Did she speak Yiddish too? I don’t know. Grandfather surely did. I have letters on parchment-paper written in pencil in Hebrew letters but in Yiddish. I remember someone telling me that he, grandfather, got them from his mother. I do not remember, who it was. I cannot read them. Is it possible that grandmother could not read them either? I don’t know. One day I should find someone who’d read them to me.
And yes, in Germany she, indeed both of them, had to speak Hitler’s language. She, my mother, who lived in Germany at that time. She, for whom German remained Hitler’s language. She, for whom German never became Goethe’s language. She, who was there at that time, when they broke with this language and when she was more or less protected by her mother, washing her in snow and feeding her one walnut a day and who knows what when they had run out of walnuts. But grandmother, her own mother, let mother’s beloved father, my grandfather disappear. For the ten-year old girl it didn’t matter what really happened in the Lipót hospital. Whether it was the SS, or the Arrow Cross who came for him or it really was his illness, a heart attack that killed him. In those days, long ago, you could not trust a mother who behaved like that. Such a mother doesn’t provide safety.
And someone, who is not given safety by his or her mother cannot give it as a mother. And what about me? Do I fool myself saying that my children are not anxious? Or is analysis a miracle drug? And should mother have gone into psychoanalysis in time so that everything could have been different? Is there any sense in asking what would have been if ...?
We argued throughout my teenage years. I always thought she was vexing me with senseless stupid things. That my neck is dirty. (Though this could have been earlier.) And that I am fat. (While she was much fatter when she had been my age. As for me, seeing myself in photos, I was not even fat. True, not thin either.) In psychoanalysis we found that what had bothered her was that from being a child I had been becoming a woman. She had not favoured this project at all. Why? I don’t know. Today my explanation is that my growing up (just as my birth and my son’s birth) reminded her of getting old. That she couldn’t make time stop.
she would have liked to stop it. Maybe this was why she failed to
inform me in time that girls would once start having periods. That the
blood exiting from one’s lower parts is neither something to be ashamed
of nor a sign of a terminal illness. I believe at that time I was not
angry with her for that. Nor at the time when my father remembered to
mention that seeing the blood stain on my pyjamas in the morning mother
panicked. This information plus the book given to me (an educational
piece by Hirschler, a well-known and by that time an old Jewish
gynaecologist, intended for people much more grown up than myself), at
least stopped my worries. I had to get into analysis to realize the
absurdity of the situation and start being angry. Actually I was angry
only with mother – unfairly, I think today. Probably just as unfairly
on many other occasions as well. Unfairly? It doesn’t make any sense.
Today, I know that the specific small wrongs I suffered from her were
unimportant. I should not have, maybe would not have, taken them to
heart but for my intense anxiety. Eternal horror and insecurity. That
there would be no real calm and peace in her, and thereby in me, until
father arrived. That was her guilt and that was why my own safety came
Strange, how clearly now I see all this. I don’t know how long I have known it. Analysis was needed, but was it enough? I don’t know, for it has been over ten years since I finished it. Since then I have become more grown up. More grown-up? I don’t like this word. For I still don’t feel as an adult. Maybe I never will. But many things have happened. I have gone through many things, especially losses. Some died, some I lost contact with.
Mother was my
first true bereavement. Grandmother’s death six months earlier did not
affect me deeply. She was ninety-one. That was the order of life. But
mother was only fifty-three. Only four years older than I am now. I was
aware that she was too young to die. Today her death seems an outright
absurdity. There are so many who are older than me. Not only one
generation older but two. Many of my interviewees are over ninety. They
survived not only the ghetto, like mother, but the camp too.
Nonetheless, they are also much fitter than I am.
one be so afraid of old age that one dies of that fear? What is a
person afraid of who fears old age? Becoming incapable? Dementia and
the resulting helplessness? Yes, all these are frightful. But none of
these were a threat to her then. Anyway, allegedly, (many, who
knew her then said so) she became mad because of my birth. I could see
how she became even madder because of the birth of my son. She could
not cope with the appearance of younger generations. Notwithstanding
that she loved both me and my son. But why, then? Did she really fear
that the end of old age is death? Did she feel the same thing my son
felt at the age of two and a half upon mother’s death? That “I don’t
want to go to kindergarten, I don’t want to grow up, I don’t want to
die”? Did she try to escape death by dying? It sounds paradoxical, but
seems to be right. As if there were no other explanation why she had to
go mad and develop a tumour simultaneously?
three years ago I was contacted by Judy, who created this web site, a
lady close to eighty, who was born in Debrecen and lives in Canada. She
said she wanted to put my essay, inspired by my interviews with the
survivors, on her homepage on the Holocaust. She said my writing moved,
upset and shocked her, and I replied that this was a little bit as if
mother had returned to tell me she liked what I was doing. Who was
called Judit too. And was not much younger than Judy when she was still
alive. Judy enthusiastically replied that she would be glad to be my
surrogate mother. For a short while we kept exchanging exhilarated
e-mails. Then our correspondence died away – my fault I think. There
was nothing wrong with Judy. Based on our short-lived but substantial
correspondence I can only say good things about her. But after
all, I may not really have wanted a surrogate mother. Today, I would
not want to resurrect my mother, either, over twenty years later. Where
could I put her in my very different life? And what could she do
herself in this changed world? But sometimes it still hurts very much,
though I don’t know exactly what it is that hurts. And now, re-reading
my text as I check the translation I feel that I should be careful not
to lose Judy too. I am allowed to love her even if I don’t make her my
Part of the
pain must come from my not asking. That I realized too late that I
should have asked. Why didn’t I ask? Because I didn’t know, I didn’t
understand yet, I was not mature enough to understand that I can only
build up my own past, and hence my present, from her past – and from
father’s, of course. And that I can only have access to her past by
going back to the past of her mother, my grandmother, and of my
grandfather and his father, too, that this is an endless chain. That I
want to see the small Ruthenian community – as I imagine it to
be – from where her father, my grandfather, had come, and the places
where my great-grandfather’s vinegar factories had been built, and the
places where her mother, my grandmother was a child. And pre-war Mátyásföld,
the village that today is part of Budapest, where they lived when
mother was a child and grandfather was a cantor. Where they had led an
orthodox, kosher household. At the time when father’s family a few
streets away did not observe even the High Holidays, what’s more, they
had a Christmas tree. It is exactly this that may have caused this
great void in my family’s history. Because I can imagine better the
other side, the assimilated Jews. The void, of course, is present here,
too: assimilation in the family of father’s father is not that evident.
And on the whole, I know little of them, too. But at least not less
than what I could learn because father has lived long enough for me to
realize what I should do. He has lived long enough for me to understand
that I have to ask. And I did start asking him, I still keep asking
him. But this story is not about him or his family.
didn’t ask mother. But what would have happened had I asked? Would she
have started talking? I don’t think so. Only those can ask
questions who are allowed to. Who are given permission. I believe, I
did not have that permission. The ten-year old little girl of whom
grandmother talked, who she called my mother, is not the same small
girl who grew up to be mother, as I knew her. As if that little girl
never existed. As if that little girl never grew up. As if only that
other little girl were present in mother, at least, only that one was
available for me, the one who the adult Judit, living with father,
became in fits of anxiety. When father wasn’t there, wasn’t with her,
or when even his presence was not enough to keep her safe.
little girl depicted by grandmother is as beautiful and harmonious with
her thick black hair, dark, typical Jewish eyes as the one in the few
photos that have survived, or have ever been made at all. This little
girl is happily swinging in the garden with her cousin, and when washed
with snow in the winter she protests but is not anxious. The other one,
on the other hand, is the embodiment of anxiety. Anxiety of losing the
person, probably a man, who made her safe. The face of this little girl
is rigid, her eyes are full of fear, terror, which makes her unable to
loosen up, to make contact with her environment.
She is totally alone.
I say today, both images are false. False inasmuch as the little girl
we could have seen in forty-four or forty-five, had we been around
then, who later became my mother in the biological, physical sense,
was, I don’t know how to put it, neither this one nor that one.
Probably she was both. But grandmother only talked about one of them
and I met only the other one. And today I try to find out how long had
the first one existed, if she existed at all, and I would like to
reconstruct the process of the other one’s birth, and I’d like to
imagine the intermediate one whom we could have met during the siege.
Or, was the harmonious face of the little girl just a piece of
grandmother’s memory? Had it gone altogether by that time? Or had the
little girl gone away, but later returned only to be the bearer
of anxiety in the adult woman?
not only failed to ask mother while she was alive. While I have been
listening to other peoples’ Holocaust stories for many years partly to
understand hers and theirs, and I have known for many years that Yad
Vashem keeps records of the deported, it was not until a few days ago
that I looked it up to see if grandmother’s parents, sister and maybe
the parents of grandfather are in the records. Of course, I did not
hope to find them. Nor did I know what I know now, that the list was
compiled based on reports by family members and friends rather than on
the lists accurately maintained by the Nazis in the death camps. (Why?
Were those lists destroyed or lost? Or has no one ever processed them?
Perhaps all three things played a part.) Does it mean that grandmother
never reported them? I don’t even know if she knew that she could have
reported. Wasn’t there anyone else to do it, anyone who could have done
it? Móric and his family were alive, even though far away. True, Feri died in forty-nine, but his widow? Who was the sister of Móric’s
wife so she belonged to grandmother’s family on two sides. How does it
come about that none of them thought to report? And how could I make up
for it? I don’t know if I could dig up some documents to be able to
give their precise birth dates.
When I was looking for interviewees for my project an old man contacted us, maybe in response to our letter sent out via the Claims Conference.
But when one of my students went to him it turned out that actually he
did not want to talk. He knew or believed, for some reason, that he was
a distant relative of mine. I called him. It turned out that we really
are related on the Bródy side. Someone in his family is a Bródy. Or, Bródi,
just like my great-grandmother was. We agreed that I would visit him. I
haven’t (in the past one and a half or two years). Why? I don’t
understand. I don’t want to know the past after all? Or am I shielding
Or, what I want is to
create this past myself, freely, on the basis of the crumbs of
information I know? Is that what this narrative is about? And
consequently, do I know if this narrative is for anyone except for me?
Is it interesting for anyone else? Does it make any sense for me to
Julia Vajda is a child of survivors. She was born and lives in Budapest. She studied math, sociology, psychology, psychoanalysis. She teaches at ELTE University, Faculty of Social Sciences, in the department of Sociology and is a senior researcher of the Institute of Sociology of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. She has two children.
This essay is published here with the permission of Julia Vajda.
Copyright Judy Cohen, 2008.
All rights reserved.