Excerpts adapted from Stephen Pogany’s Modern Times: The Biography of a Hungarian-Jewish Family.
‘You’re not a Jew!’ snaps my mother, with a sudden and unexpected rush of anger.
For an instant, I’m confused, uncertain of what to say or what to think. Was I adopted? Have I been the victim of an elaborate, well-intentioned deception, like the Hungarian poet Miklós Radnóti? Radnóti discovered at the age of twelve that the woman he had always known as his mother was actually his aunt and that his sister was a half-sister.
‘Only people who’ve lived through the things I’ve lived through can call themselves Jews!’ exclaims my mother, who turns out to have been my mother after all, even though she rejects the notion that we share a common identity. For my mother, history has erected an impenetrable barrier between us. The Holocaust has created an unbreachable wall between her and her only child. I was born seven years after the defeat of Nazi Germany. How can I possibly understand her or her life?
From a strictly theological perspective, my mother’s definition of Jewishness is seriously flawed. If widely adopted, her definition would lead to some bizarre results. Applying my mother’s narrow, Holocaust-centric characterization of Jewishness, Moses, King David, the Twelve Apostles, the mediaeval physician and Talmudic scholar Moshe ben Maimon, as well as a host of supposedly Jewish luminaries, including Baruch Spinoza, Benjamin Disraeli, Felix Mendelssohn, Gustav Mahler, Alfred Dreyfus, Osip Mandelstam, and the venerable founder of the international Zionist movement, Theodor Herzl, would no longer qualify as Jews. Unlike my mother, none of them lived through the Shoah. Of course, those of us born after May 1945, including most working rabbis and the overwhelming majority of the citizens of the state of Israel, would also have no right to call ourselves Jews. None of us went through those experiences that shaped my mother’s life and that so nearly caused her death.
There seems little point in arguing with my mother, or in reminding her of the conventional religious definition of Jewishness. According to the halakha or Jewish religious law, the child of a Jewish mother is a Jew. Under the halakha, even an atheist or a person raised as a Christian remains a Jew, provided that her mother was Jewish. But the halakha, which evolved over two and a half millennia, is silent on the Shoah and its relationship to Jewishness.
Despite the scriptural weakness of my mother’s thesis — that only a survivor or a victim of the Shoah can be considered a Jew — my mother is adamant. After all, unlike her, I have never endured persecution because of my Jewish ancestry. I have never had to wear a yellow star sewn onto my outer clothes. I have never had to live amongst strangers, with false identity papers, or experienced the visceral fear that someone might discover my real identity and betray me to the police or to Arrow Cross thugs. I have never had to spend several days and nights sleeping in rain-sodden clothes in a brickyard converted into a makeshift ghetto. I have never had to escape, under cover of darkness, from a column of frightened, weary women who are being escorted to Hungary’s border with the Reich by sullen, watchful gendarmes. I have never had to watch as my lame father was taken away by gun-toting teenagers wearing the insignia of Hungary’s Nazi movement, the Arrow Cross. I have never had to wait, with diminishing hope, for my father to return from a destination that was never revealed to him or to his family. Even though I am now in my late sixties, both of my parents are still alive.
‘Kis emberek,’ mutters my grandmother in Hungarian, ‘little people’. Despite Etelka’s disparaging remark, which thankfully our English hosts don’t understand, my grandmother is giving every appearance of enjoying herself. Etelka has been smiling fixedly for most of the day, nodding with apparent appreciation as a plate loaded with bland and unappetizing English foodstuffs is placed before her: pork sausages, slices of dry roast turkey, stuffing, roast potatoes, bread sauce, cranberry jelly, watery, over-cooked vegetables denied even fleeting contact with potentially contaminating foreign substances such as olive oil and garlic. In our hosts’ kitchen, reminiscent of the England of the 1950s, the only permitted condiments are pepper and salt.
When everyone is already alarmingly full my future mother-in-law brings in a Christmas pudding, accompanied by jugs brimming with white sauce and cream. ‘Kis emberek’ is my grandmother’s small, unnoticed act of revenge.
It’s December 1975, and Etelka, my parents, and I are spending Christmas Day with my gentile fiancée and her parents at their home in Croydon. My grandmother’s acerbic remark shows that she has lost none of the snobbishness and hauteur acquired during her bourgeois, upper-middle-class Jewish childhood in Budapest, despite the poverty she experienced as an adult in inter-war Hungary after marrying my invalid grandfather, Miklós. Although Etelka has never said anything to me directly, I’m well aware that she would have liked me to marry someone from an affluent, upper-middle-class British family, preferably Jewish, with a house in Hampstead or Putney, not the daughter of an insurance clerk whose home lay in Croydon.
Although my fiancée is completing an MA in English Language and Literature at Edinburgh University and although she’ll go on to qualify as a solicitor in England, it’s clear that Etelka is unimpressed by her family which is neither affluent nor highly educated. In my grandmother’s damning estimation, my fiancée’s parents are lower middle-class.
Given Etelka’s snobbishness how am I to make sense of the fact that she married Miklós? After all, Miklós, like my future father-in-law, had been an insurance clerk before he was conscripted into the armies of Austria-Hungary in World War One, suffering life-changing injuries while serving on the Italian front. Neither man seems to have been particularly ambitious or interested in making money. Like Cyril, my kindly future father-in-law, Miklós had modest tastes and limited expectations of life. Both men were essentially quiet, good-natured, and family-oriented. Of the two, my future father-in-law was the more cultured, with his deep love of classical music and German literature.
I suspect that Etelka’s willingness to marry Miklós may have had more to do with pragmatism and an overwhelming desire to start a family than notions of romantic love. My grandmother was thirty-one years old when she and Miklós were married at the Dohány utca synagogue in Budapest, in August 1924. By that point, the sound of the biological clock ticking in Etelka’s ears must have been deafening. Etelka and her parents would have known that, if she rejected Miklós’ proposal of marriage, she might be condemned to lonely and childless spinsterhood. Or, at best, she might hope to marry a hard-pressed widower who needed someone to run his household and to help him raise his children from a previous marriage. Well over half a million Hungarian soldiers had died in the War and an additional 1.4 million had been wounded. Women of Etelka’s generation had been left with a restricted choice of marriage partners, particularly if their parents were unable to provide them with a generous dowry. Etelka was thickset, bordering on plain and already thirty years old when she was introduced to Miklós by mutual acquaintances, while her father’s finances had come under increasing strain. She understood that she couldn’t afford to be unduly choosy. By this point, even marriage to a kis ember like Miklós — who possessed neither capital nor professional qualifications and who had convincingly demonstrated that he lacked the slightest aptitude for business — seemed like an attractive option.
Stephen Pogany’s Modern Times: The Biography of a Hungarian-Jewish Family is published by Brandram, priced at £10.