From Generation to Generation

Seashore, Deserted

By Zsofia Ban

Translated from the original Hungarian by Katalin Orban.

Some sentences are etched into one’s memory without immediately revealing their meaning. Though they fail to signify anything intelligible, they have a mysterious power that suggests they are significant nonetheless and therefore worth remembering. Naturally, remembering them is not a conscious affair. They record themselves, inescapably sticking to our memory’s flypaper only to reappear later—who knows when and how—with their meaning suddenly crystallized and clear, as if by magic.

My mother was twenty years old in 1944 and, by the testimony of her photos, one of the most beautiful women I have ever seen. She kept some of this beauty even later when I would have a chance to witness it, though, compared to her former glory, these were only the random, scattered pieces of a pearl necklace. My grandfather was a veterinarian and the family immigrated to Hungary from Transylvania in the early ‘40s. They lived in Túrkeve for a while, and one of my favorite photos dates from this period: my mother and grandmother are coming down a street, holding a basket between them, apparently on the way to the market, as the basket is still empty. Well, my mother, wearing a just-going-to-the-market dress, is coming towards the camera (whose camera, I wonder?) down that dusty village street, like a diva modeling the latest summer collection on a Paris catwalk. I would admire her figure, graceful long limbs, and impeccable taste and elegance in the years to come. My admiration and pride were occasionally colored by a touch of sadness, due to the early realization that I would never be able to live up to her in any of this. I mostly take after my father, both in physical type and personality; what I unquestionably inherited from my mother, however, was a love of languages and a talent for learning them: she spoke seven languages herself. It is beyond ironic, then, that the person who gave me not only my mother tongue, but also my gift for all other languages, was someone that I could not communicate with in any language, not in any real sense of the word. Needless to say, we did talk to each other, or in each other’s direction rather, but we didn’t tell much. She didn’t, because she couldn’t, and I suppose I must have reflected this. Mother tongues I had plenty (two, since in Brazil, where I was born, I quickly learned Portuguese from my black Brazilian nanny), but the mother’s language I was missing. From my point of view, my mother was essentially mute.


If I don’t offer details of the story of their deportation to Theresienstadt, this is due to the serious limitations of my knowledge in this regard. The four of them—my mother, her sister and my grandparents—were all taken together from the countryside some time around the end of ’44, I don’t know exactly when. Then all four of them returned somehow.


My mother never said a single word about this, and her silence was so heavy that it never once occurred to me to try and break it. It wouldn’t have worked.  Whenever a topic like this came up, she fell silent; when war movies were shown on television, she would conspicuously leave the room; something wasn’t clear to me in what I read on the topic, I would never think of asking her for an explanation.  And I did read a lot about this when I was in secondary school—it was something I couldn’t easily get out of my head. My recurring nightmares are evidence of this: I would often dream of the Gestapo coming to our school, telling the Jews to stand up and taking them away. In a strange or even morbid way, I sort of wanted this to happen. I guess I wanted to claim a sense of community with those who actually had this happen to them. And, of course, it also had an aura of heroism, something quite attractive in the Hungary of the comatose seventies (“at least something would happen”).


But my most abiding childhood memory about this is how we had to be considerate and spare my mothers’ “nerves.” If I were up to some mischief, my gentle father would scold me with “you know your mother must be spared these things.” Why this was the case I never found out; there were only vague hints. And there were probably few things I hated more than having to apologize to her every single time when I “committed” something. As for my father, best known and loved for his legendary sense of humor and inexhaustible storehouse of anecdotes, well, he didn’t tell any stories either—or at least not too many. Still, the little I do know I know from him. That he escaped from forced labor camp, for example, and got back home, following the Russian front. But I only found out much later that Uncle Dezső and his family—people we often visited as “relatives”—were actually relatives of my father’s first wife and that she had died in Auschwitz. This was my father’s turn to shroud himself in silence; it was only by detective work that I could at least find out what her name was. I made several futile attempts to learn a thing or two from my mother’s sister, who emigrated to Israel, but she would always reply with the question: “Didn’t Vica tell you about this?” No, Vica (the affectionate form of my mother’s name used in her family) didn’t tell me about this, or anything else ever. “What’s the point in mulling over these ancient stories anyway?” grumbled my aunt, effectively closing the discussion.


Consequently, my sources were limited to the remaining documents, photos, and official cv’s; all I could do was to pore over applications, forms, dates of birth and death, and letters, which only gave up a fragmented picture, if any picture at all.  Instead of their untold stories, let me offer a little untold story of my own. You can hardly call it a story; it’s more of a sign indicating a site of absence—a mark of the missing whole. Much like in Breughel’s painting - The Fall of Icarus - that tiny little leg peeking out from below the sea.


My father was sent to Brazil in the fifties as a foreign trade official for the Hungarian state, and I was born there. My mother did not become pregnant until the fourth year of their marriage and the second of their stay in Brazil, and even then I suppose it was due to the beneficial effects of the local conditions and the distance from home. At this time my mother was 33 and my father 49. Even this one time giving birth was so hazardous for her health that her doctors advised her not to attempt another pregnancy.  This is how I came to be an only child. My mother adored life in Brazil, loved the climate, the sea, the beauty of the fairytale city, the people, our affluence, and I suspect, last but not least, the distance that separated her from Europe.

Once she took me to the beach close to our apartment, a place we went to quite regularly. It might have been a weekend, because it was incredibly crowded, though the beaches of Rio are hardly deserted even on weekdays. She must have been distracted by something, because as I was wandering around I suddenly realized that I was completely lost: I couldn’t see my mother anywhere. Being about six or seven at the time, I duly fell into desperation and started to walk along the beach, wailing loudly, so I could find her. I must have spent quite some time looking for her, assisted by well-meaning adults who tried to help me and asked me what my mother looked like and where I’d seen her last.

Suddenly I caught sight of her; she was standing with her back towards me. Speechless with happiness and relief, I approached her without a word. She was crying loudly and before she saw me I could hear her saying “God, even here, even here?!” I was unable to interpret these words and didn’t even try that hard; instead, I happily fell into her arms. I was found, which was important, because this way the ocean could go on serving as a benevolent distancing power and not a new source of horror. And she was found, and this was important too, because if she was found, I was found, not lost any more. This is a strange talent mothers have, whether they speak or not. And when they are not found any more, what remains is the empty seashore.

The meaning of this sentence did not become clear to me until many years later, when triggered by a thought I can no longer recall, like some rare fish cast ashore, it suddenly jumped into my memory. By that time she was gone. After the end of his second term of official appointment, my father decided we would move back home to Hungary. (Why he did so is another story, and I dare say a complicated one, but I’m afraid my knowledge is bound to prove similarly limited on this one too.) Before long my mother became a menacingly proficient collector of illnesses, moving to progressively more serious ones. She finally died of cancer, at the age of sixty-one, fifteen years after our return to Hungary.

Zsofia Ban is professor of literature and a literary critique.  She pursues studies in the culture of visual art, analysis of the relationship between image and text and post-modern theories. Her essays, papers, and critical articles have regularly been published in Hungarian and International journals.  She is a docent at the American Studies Faculty, at the Eotvos Lorand University.  To date, she has published two books: Desire and De-Scription and Images of Postmodernism in the Late Poetry of William Carlos Williams (Amsterdam, Rodopi, 1000) and Amerikaner (Budapest, Magveto, 2000).

This story is published here with the permission of the author and that of Dr. Katalin Pecsi, editor of the Esztertaska Blog, where it also appeared in the original Hungarian. 

© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2007.
All rights reserved.