Cradle and grave. This is my country to me, according to a romantic poet. We had to memorize his lines, and ever since and well before us, all children in Hungary memorized them.
This particular line, this cradle-and-grave idea I have always hated. With a frantic, angry hatred. I never told anyone about this, though. Even now, when friends refer to our national anthem as an abomination and the first intoxicatingly depressive experience of their lives, I tell them not that it is the other poem, the one that did not end up as our national anthem, although, so to say, it was shortlisted and earned the honorary title of an almost-anthem, that it is this one that I really hate, without mocking irony, just plain, red hate. I hate it because it’s true, sooo true, so literally true.
I certainly should tell you more about these national symbols of ours but I won’t. Go find out. My hate is too much for me. How could I expose myself so, in a foreign tongue.
Often, I picture my forefathers. A retired general, my forefather, beats the shit out of a well-dressed wholesale merchant. Another forefather. The general is an aristocrat, though without land, fortune or, now, even a career or a wife. The wife, she left, the bitch, she left a catholic marriage, the marriage with a baron, although one that is a heavy drinker. Nowadays barons are heavy drinkers, what else is left for them?
My forefather, it is 1920, walks into the most luxurious hotel in Pest, Britannia, with some good ol’ pals. The reds are out, the monarch is still waiting for a final word about his deposition, and he, this forefather, is, well, used to be His Majesty’s officer. As well as a respected member of the Geographic Society with quite a few new South-American insect species to his credit. Those golden days in Peru and Guatemala, perhaps he could go back there, without the wife this time, he could be the welcome addition to a gentlemanly class, so few in numbers. In the meantime, while things return to normal, it seems like a good idea to look for some money. Gold, jewelry. Whatever counts as money nowadays.
Officers kill Bolsheviks and Jews in this meantime, in retaliation for the officers that the Bolsheviks killed and also for the sake of Bolsheviki-killing which is both necessary and fun. They also kill Jews, because it’s always a good idea to kill Jews even if they are not Bolsheviks. Jews tend to be moneyhoarders, they were the ones getting rich while our best men bled to death in the trenches.
My forefather, this one, is an elegant, tall man, abnormally thin, with gauging blue eyes. He would not kill, he would not let his men kill, he simply beats the shit out of them, the Jews. And under no circumstances would he as much as touch a Jewess or a Jewish child. He is a gentleman, of course.
My other forefather barely escapes. He returns home and tells his wife of ten years, widow of a goldsmith, to pack and hide the jewelry. This other forefather is an elegant man, too. He had one of the first automobiles in town. He had one of the few carry-on cameras. No one, no one could foresee such indignities, not even an officer could slap him without consequences, in those good old days, only ten years before.
My forefather has semitic features but he is a gentleman through and through, the best ware, the best clientele, the best location for his warehouse and his home, in the royal appartment building, only a few blocks away from the spectacular new hotel called Britannia.
A rather proud man, this forefather, although not without the unpleasant pushiness of his class and origin, he omits a short laugh when my grandmother, now 13, says she would rather keep those bracelets as those had come all the way, beyond the grave, from her real father. Sure this kid has an attitude. These are not the times to have an attitude.
Even these most necessary events, historical yet
unavoidable, that led up to my birth, could have resulted in a somewhat different configuration. For instance, they, the forefathers, could have changed places: my aristocratic forefather leaving me the features, my semitic forefather leaving me the name.
Instead, what happened two generations later, sealed my fate indeed. You have a name that has a meaning with subtly different overtones to different ears. You have a firm, anguished certainty that you are, indeed, Jewish. Your grandmother tells you you are a murderer of sorts, the blood shows, yet leaves you the bracelet that survived new (at least three more) waves of greedy violence. Your grandmother, the other one, tells you you should escape the fate of a marriage with yet another alkoholic aristocrat because you are one. Her chosen means to communicate this is to give you, with a sudden and quite heavy gesture, heavy for such a tiny woman, B. S. Aldrich’s novel, A Lantern in Her Hand.
Less distinguished, other forefathers, are much better protected from historical memories. Yet, they are not undistinguished enough, either.
Calamity comes a generation later when the potential to be evil or at least grab your chance was radically democratized. Bombed out from your appartement? Get a nice Jewish one, still warm and cosy! Got the fortune to survive forced labour and ghetto and Nazis and all (well, how exactly did you manage that?), you are welcome in our great communist party of forgetting and fabricating. You can pretend we deliver all people from their historical identity, not only the ones that used to be Jews.
Now, with all these cradles and graves, come the appropriate shameful memories. Shame engendered silence and silence engendered shame and shame engendered silence and thus it was shame that was left to the fifth generation and thus it was silence that was left to the fathers of the fifth. Complications arise if you happen to be fourth on your mother’s and fifth on your father’s side.
This one life, the one I live, from cradle to grave, is not one life. This is two lives and quite possibly four lives. At times, brooding over past symptoms of my personality disorders and other ailments, I calculate the matrix of lives, eight times eight in all. I don’t want all this meaning. I don’t want all the awkward silence of family gatherings, from when there had been any such gatherings, of course. Since the fall of communism, well, this new free speech era, this untabooized era did not help family relations. In this family, at least.
I don’t want such a deep, deep motherland (nor fatherland) under my feet. I want to go to America where names are transcribed, abbreviated and totally confused, where Americans believe they certainly have fun with family history, all that cute ancestry or what. What a bliss it would be, to stop repeating the murders in my maiden bossom upon getting a historical interpretation of my name, or features, in a glance.
Thanks God, at least I am not Black or a Muslim on top of all this.