Susan Kalev with Yours Truly
My good friend Susan Kalev, who apart from being a friend of animals, wrote for Satya once
, is also a licensed social worker
, and a deeply compassionate person, sent me the following piece about her life that bears directly on my recent blog post on the Inadmissible Comparisons conference
. Susan has allowed me to put this online, even though it is a first draft and it will be published in a forthcoming book. I'll let the story speak for itself:
Rooted in the Past
My mother used to recall with a sense of pride that people told her how foolish it was to be pregnant in 1944. She held on to some irrational sense of faith. She was able to survive—pregnant and with a three-year-old—in a Budapest ghetto for six months because a relative chose to include her on a special family Zionist list. Instead of being shipped off to Auschwitz from Papa she was transported first to a Budapest internment camp and then to a ghetto. My uncle was the Rosh Hakal of the Papa synagogue and was permitted to save his own family.
In the summer of 1944 I was born in the Budapest internment camp and now my mother had two little girls to care for. While she worked inside, I slept in a basket on the ground of the inner courtyard. When I was one week old, a German officer standing on the balcony above flipped his cigarette butt into the yard and I caught on fire. The flames quickly engulfed the pillow and the screams brought my mother running to the courtyard. The shock of seeing me on fire immediately stopped the flow of her milk. I was rushed back to the hospital where I was born with third-degree burns. There was nothing they could do for me. They smeared me with Vaseline and my mother was told to wait out the first critical twenty-four hours. She gave me transfusions of blood and spent her nights waking up every few hours to rotate my head from side to side so that the damaged skin on my neck would not harden into scar tissue. I survived the burn and because she could no longer nurse me she would chew on beans and peas and put the softly chewed food into my mouth. That first year I developed a huge pot belly with stick-thin arms and legs and a scar down my neck and shoulder. But I was strong; my older sister Mari succumbed to a childhood disease and died.
So it was that my mother and I alone remained. In January of '45, when the Russians entered Budapest, she was left to fend for herself and for her infant. She walked the streets of Budapest hungry and cold, all of twenty-seven years old, not knowing if any of her family would be coming home. She made her way back to Papa, my father's hometown, and lived in the house that she spent her marriage in. She would find out soon that noone would be coming back, not my father, not her sister or parents.
Later that year my mother was sitting on the balcony of her Papa house and a man from nearby Kapuvar walked by—an older man she and her family had known since her childhood. He was on his way to a Jewish wedding; they had not met in many years. It turned out that he had lost his wife and children to the war and was alone. They got to talking and he never made it to the wedding.
The following year they married and thus my earliest memories are from our big house in Kapuvar. Two years later a younger sister Marika was born. In the small town of Kapuvar I was the sole surviving Jewish child of school age. I recall rushing home from the one-room school one day and asking our nanny what that word "Jew" meant.
Till I was ten years old I believed that my stepfather was my biological parent; my parents almost never spoke of the war years or of the families they had lost. Once I found out I insisted on staying inside for the synagogue services when they recited the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead.
I knew my mother only as a Holocaust survivor and from glimpses over the years and from the tales of other cousins I began slowly to understand the enormity of the losses in her life—from a traditional Orthodox Jewish family, with sheltering loving parents and a talented sister, a family life rooted in stability, order, comfort and predictability, she was suddenly thrust into the world. A world of war, insanity and terror.
She once told me that she had returned to Sopron, her home town to search for some silverware that was left for safekeeping with Gentile neighbors. She would hear the rumblings of others in the town: "Those Jews, you can't get rid of them, more come back after Hitler, than lived here before Hitler."
My father was sent to a German labor camp and in uncharacteristic fashion my mother confided to me that he returned home only once to see her. During that one night she became pregnant with me. I have often imagined that one night of love when I began, as I have often visualized what my father would be like, how he would look down on me from heaven and be proud of me. In my regular trips back to Hungary I visit the homes of my parents and the grandparents I never knew and envision my life there with them. I walk the streets my mother grew up in. I touch the stones of her school building and breathe the same air into my lungs. I gaze at the women in town my own age now and think that could be me. This is what my life would have been. I sometimes want the life that had been taken away from me.
My mother never wanted to return to Hungary after we escaped in the 1956 Revolution. Ten years of my talking, finally something in her opened and she thought she could take on the memories. In 1992, after thirty-six years I took her back with me; in her parents' home in Sopron she stood in the garden her father had built and silent tears tore from her. The woman who now lived there, a simple peasant who remembered my parents and saw me as an infant, stood nearby and understood.
I have always been the repository of my mother's past, the live reminder and remainder of her first life. Since her death ten years ago I carry on the legacy of her life. I feel somehow more connected to the past than to my present life. It is very real for me.
And it keeps my mother alive within me.