The Shadows We Inherit

THE SHADOWS WE INHERIT

The Danish television has recently broadcast a documentary film made by Suzanne Kovacs, a descendant of Hungarian Jews who survived the Holocaust.
Her grandmother always said that one could not describe the concentration camp. One can look at the camp's papers. One can photograph the camp. But the feeling of the camp lies deep inside her. She never wanted to say more.
It seems that the war for Suzanne's family has never ended, and her grandmother's experiences have affected her life and the life of the rest of the family. It was all woven into their lives as a family. But how it has affected them, was never discussed.
When Suzanne was a child, her grandparents were in a sense the most interesting people she knew. There was something noble about them. They talked to her like a small adult and did not treat her like a child. Still, she felt her grandmother did not love her. Rather, that she could not love her. That was simply impossible with her life baggage, and what Susanne reminded her of. Grandma was always ambivalent about her. One day she could be dismissive, and the other day she was warm and sweet.
The problem was that Suzanne's mother was German. And in grandma's eyes, she was German too.
For Suzanne, they all were victims of a story that has decided about their relationship and locked them in predetermined roles. As if, they were inscribed in this story without having any influence on it.
Suzanne as a child spent all her holidays with the grandparents. Her father always brought her to their house but never stayed there. Grandma took her on excursions. They went to museums. They ate grandma's delicious pancakes, rolled in sugar and cocoa. And they drove her little Saab. She was sweet to her. But sometimes it ended badly.
When she was at grandma and grandpa's home, they could also say: "Your other grandparents are murderers." And they meant her German Oma and her German Opa.
Grandma came with the old photo albums, and grandfather talked about the family members who ended in the gas chamber during the war. "They were of your age. Do you know what they felt then?"
Suzanne knew that such things should not be told to a child. But she didn't know what to say. She was starting to cry and Grandpa was getting even more angry. Often it ended up that she locked herself into the bathroom, and grandfather was screaming behind the door. Grandmother tugged from time to time the door handle and asked her to come out.
It has ended after a while, but the feeling remained.
When Suzanne looks at the old photos, her grandmother is usually smiling. But she remembers it in a completely different way.
The same smiling faces can be seen on the old photos of grandparents with her father and the photos of neighbors and friends, gathered on the grandparents' frequent parties.
Do the pictures lie? Is it what you see there just a thick lacquer, which covers filled up deep scratches and glued broken pieces?
As her father told her, the grandmother's experiences were a dominant factor in the whole family's life. Suzanne decided to clear this matter and tried to talk about it with her grandmother. The puncturing the wall behind which her grandmother was hidden was not easy and not entirely successful. These difficult conversations, along with no less difficult conversations with her father, together with the contact with the grandfather's only living cousin, gave Susanne some kind of picture of what has happened.
In 1944, within six weeks, the Germans murdered about 500,000 Hungarian Jews.
Grandma was 15 years old at the time, but she was very tall and therefore she survived. If you could pretend to be 16, you could be selected to work. If you were under 16, you were immediately sent to the gas chamber.
Grandmother was in the Ravensbrück and Venusberg camps. In the end, she was transferred to Mauthausen, where she was liberated. Grandpa never said what camp he was in. After liberation, grandfather returned to his village. And he found no one. The fate of the rest of the family was unknown. So he waited whether they would come home or not. After the war, some special offices were created, where one could get information about missing family members. People waited outside that building from morning to evening. With photos in the hand, asking if anyone has heard or met the person in the photo.
Grandfather's mother, Erzebet, and his father, Lajos, were murdered in Auschwitz. Together with his 18 relatives.
All those waiting for information people were terribly lonely. Maybe that is why grandpa married that sweet young girl who became Suzanne's grandmother? Because a normal life was to have a family.
In the 1950s, grandfather fled with his family from Hungary to Denmark. To start a new life there. Grandparents had a large circle of friends and close friendships that lasted their entire lives in Denmark. None of their Danish friends knew anything about their past. Nor about their Jewish identity.
There were neither candlesticks nor David's star in the house. It was never mentioned that they were Jews. The word "Jews" was forbidden. Like many others, they wanted to forget that they were Jews. They raised their children as non-Jews so that at least they would never be persecuted again.
At that time, no one was talking about self-analysis. The past was the past and you had to live a normal life. How did this affect somebody's psyche? This was not the topic that was being discussed.
Grandfather was often very violent and used an advanced form of hard to describe mental sadism.
For grandpa, her father had neither name nor number. Grandfather called him a dog "cuja", a pediculous dog, stinking carrion, "rohag", a cripple. And he continued it without interruption. Until he became completely exhausted, and sometimes longer. Until he got a breakdown, where he moaned helplessly: "Fa-fa-fa-fascists! Gy-gy-gy-gyilikos. Murderers". Then he went to the beating and with grandmother's help threw her father into the bathroom. Her father sat there locked up and had the impression that he would never escape from there. Grandmother only said:" Mincha bocsanate ", say "bocsanate", "sorry", and everything will be fine.
Shortly thereafter, grandfather gave him a brand-new red bicycle, but father felt only contempt for him. Grandmother never supported him. On the contrary. She functioned as grandpa's echo. It was a severely dysfunctional family. And according to father, what was going on had nothing to do with Nazism.
It was difficult for the father to describe his mother. Her moods were very unstable, not to say extremely unstable. At one time, she could be a spoiled daughter from a well-positioned family, to be suddenly turned into a concentration camp prisoner, or a loyal wife supporting her husband in everything, or an irresponsible little child.
It was difficult because her mood changes occurred very frequently. About a year after the family arrived in Denmark, Grandma had a regular nervous breakdown and ended up at the hospital.
Father has never learned the whole story from my grandmother. Only bits of shouted out fragments.
His relationship with his mother was not good. He always felt a certain distance. He was not even sure how important a role grandmother and grandfather's stay in the concentration camps has played in all this.
Father moved away from the family. He decided to build his own life. He joined the popular at that time flower-power hippies, where he met his future wife, Suzanne's mother. Father was enchanted by the girl. She had a kind of classic culture, and they could talk about anything. She had also a peculiar charm and looked pretty good. Half a year after they met each other, they decided to get married. For them, love was the most important thing, and nothing else mattered. They got married believing that they could be free from the past. It seemed easy and adventurous to my father. It started easily, and they did not think the family could mean that much. The most important thing was that they were happy with each other. The family history should not have affected their lives.
Suzanne's mother was born after the war in 1949. Therefore, although this German story has oppressed her, she did not think that it would obstruct her from belonging to the Jewish-Hungarian family.
Grandparents had received her with open hands. Grandma organized the wedding. The day before the wedding, grandparents talked seriously with her, because she had to be part of their family. The future parents-in-law told her that her and father's life in Germany, or the birth of their grandchildren there, is absolutely out of question. Therefore, she had to promise them that she and father would live in Denmark. When the mother got pregnant and informed grandma and grandpa about it, grandpa was completely shocked. He did not want his grandson to be born from a German. The only solution was an abortion!
Suzanne's mother has toned down her German part very much. She decided not to speak German to her daughter. And she adopted Danish citizenship as soon as it was possible.
But what about that German side? Suzanne has dug up the Iron Cross, which was awarded to her German grandfather's brother for "the fight for the freedom of Great Germany". Her grandfather himself was just a German soldier in Normandy for a short period and was captured by the Allied forces, so as a prisoner he could do nothing wrong. Nevertheless, although he was not a convinced Nazi, like his brothers, her grandfather participated in the war, thus making himself guilty.
And what about the problem of almost non-existent relations between father and grandmother?
How to deal with all this? Whom should she emotionally belong to?
What could she do with her identity dilemma?
How to deal with the pain of a torn apart heart?
Her father claimed that her pain was nothing compared to what he had experienced. Maybe her grandfather said the same to him? And probably they both were right.
Because all this pales to what her grandmother and grandfather experienced and to the cruel fate of her great grandparents, Erzebet and Lajos.
Can she feel connected to her Jewish part even though her grandparents refused to recognize it? In the last conversation, grandma expressed hope that this is the case.
Grandma died a few weeks later and was buried in an unmarked grave, as she wished. Her last call was to Suzanne's father. So maybe there was still some family warmth between them?
So what Susanne has got from all of this?
A consolation that the grandmother admitted that Suzanne belongs to the Jewish people and that she is a part of their family history. Also, of that awful and hard to swallow part.
And the confidence that the wounds will heal someday. Although it will be difficult.

Alex Wieseltier
January 2020