From Generation to Generation

Left On Our Own

Julia Vajda

For quite a while now, it occurred to me, time and again, what will become of us when they are all gone. What will become of us without them? We shall be left all alone. I remember that feeling from my childhood. Just like being the last child left in a kindergarten, whose parents have not yet arrived. Actually, this didn’t happen to me. The worst that would happen that I wasn’t among the first ones to be picked up by my parents. But, as fewer and fewer children would remain, I began to worry: what if they are not coming for me this time? It wasn’t even that: it was an inexplicable feeling of uncertainty. A lump in the throat. A knot in the pit of the stomach. Nausea. It was getting stronger and stronger. I am going to throw up. I am not doing anything, just staring at the window. I can’t see out, it’s high up, and it is walled up with glass bricks. An utter uncertainty of existence.

Yes, it is the same feeling. What is going to happen to us, to me, if they, who lived through the Shoah, will not be with us any more? I was anxious. At times, I woke up in the middle of the night, overwhelmed with this ominous feeling. Was it only a dream? I don’t know. Perhaps it was. I broke out in a sweat. One cannot just outgrow this feeling. Yes, it is a childish feeling. Implying that we are only children. Only those who lived through that are adults. And when they cease to exist, we will all be children, at least those of us who understand this feeling. The others, for whom the Shoah doesn’t matter, or at least not in this way, or who, God forbid, even deny it, will perhaps grow up – but they do not matter.

Then one day my friend, Éva Kovács called me (she knew about my anxiety), and told me that we were going to interview people who had been deported and survived. Both of us had been chosen for the crew of the Mauthausen Holocaust Archives.

We became the "Hungarian unit". The task of finding and interviewing Hungarian survivors had been assigned to us. It sounds absurd, but I was elated. Yes, however morbid it may sound, I was happy. After all, we can at least question them before they all leave us.

Of course, later I realized that I wasn’t the only one who felt this way – they too were more than willing to talk about their experiences, for the simple reason that they will not take to the grave, their, as of yet, untold stories.

A few days after we undertook this "work", I met Ágnes Heller and asked her to help me find people who were „thus identified.” Of course, there was an uneasy feeling about "the others, who did not seem to matter at this time", that we could not deal with those who had "only" been in Auschwitz or in Theresienstadt. But at least we found them. Ágnes was just preparing to hold a lecture in the old people’s home, located on Páva Street. She called me the very next day, enthusiastically: she found two people.

I felt a surge of anxiety when I called Frigyes A. He asked me to postpone the interview, because his brother had died not long ago. He promised to call me later. The conversation with him left me exhausted, so I called Mrs. Sándor A. only the next day. She consented to an interview immediately, but she told me, while we were talking on the phone, that she had been interviewed also by the Shoah Foundation. This time, she agreed, yet to another interview, so that she could tell somebody about her experiences before she had to leave this world. But she stipulated one condition: that we could only meet once – because the previous interview upset her too much.

I visited her on a Sunday morning in the spring, in her small Tömő Street apartment. I was appalled by her living conditions. Her place was small, sparse – I could also say, miserable.

She was nice and offered me coffee. Then told me again that she had felt overwrought by the interview conducted by the Shoah Foundation and she wouldn’t like me to come for a second time. And then we immediately started to record what she wanted to say. She was impatient. She wanted the whole thing to get over with and I was anxious. Partly, because I was afraid of what I was going to hear, and partly I worried about my interviewee – by this time I was calling her by her first name, Márta, at her request. This way, it was easier for her to talk and bear the recounting of her story in one sitting. On the other hand, I wondered, will I be able to ask everything I would like to according to the rules of my profession? To follow the dictate of those rules I have chosen for the questions I intended to ask, during this one time? Then, I felt ashamed thinking this way. What does it matter, anyway? Márta is the one who really matters.

Indeed, but it is also important that she should tell everything, for our sake and perhaps for herself, too. Yes, I was reassuring myself, telling our stories, talking about things is often a balm for a wounded person. But is it also true in this case? Can it still matter, be of use, even now, when sixty years have passed? How will I dare to ask questions? I teach my students to be courageous and ask everything: the interviewee will draw the line. She or he will indicate: this far and no further! This, of course is true but they are not survivors of the Shoah.

Hopefully, it must be better to talk about the horrors of the Shoah than carrying the burden silently, for decades. My grandmother, who was "only" – at least seeing from this perspective, "only" – in the Budapest ghetto, kept telling us her stories until she died. I was bored by them as a child, and also as a young adult. I felt, I knew them all by heart. So I didn’t ask her anything. I never made further inquiries beyond what she told us. I regret that now. However, now I must ask Márta.

I must trust that if other traumas are alleviated by talking about them, it will also help her. The least I should worry about is that I will not be able to bear what I hear. Or, that I won’t know what to do. After all I know, and I have experienced it many times as an interviewer and as a psychologist, that it is beneficial to cry. It is the best thing to do. It brings a sense of relief.

Márta is talking calmly, she is really collected. She talks about her life in chronological order, starting with memories of a happy childhood. A happy childhood that was soon overshadowed by anti-Semitism, which reached her village too – meaning a gradual exclusion from the friends of the family, the elite of the village. "There was a wealthy Jewish family living in Jászjákóhalma, and they had a radio that could get broadcasts from all over the world. They had electricity, too, while we didn’t. We only had a battery radio, and these people told us, despairingly, that the Jews are transported to be taken to the gas chambers in Poland. And we said that it was nonsense, it could not be true. So, we were so… stupid, we were uninformed and childish."

Yesterday my young colleague, Máté, went to talk to an elderly survivor who told him it was not true that they had gone to the slaughterhouse like sheep. After all, nobody could imagine that something like this could or would ever happen.

It doesn’t matter who is right but I am still preoccupied with it. As if I was replaying in my mind this film, again and again, hoping that at least once, it will end in a different way, and not with that. Perhaps, this once everything will take a turn for the better. I cannot stop reading those memoirs. Not only the ones written by Imre Kertész, Primo Levi or the other "major" writers. I read the ones that are poorly written, too - with the same enthusiasm.  Or, with the perverse desire to relive it again and again, everything that I didn’t go through at that time. Because in my heart of hearts, I feel ashamed that I did not.

It doesn’t count to be born afterwards. It simply means cheating. Because this question always emerges: what would I have done there and then? Of course, I have a more preferred position: as I am a Jew, this question is not difficult but it is there. It came up first when I was pregnant. I had to stand and wait in the hallway of my gynecologist for about an hour. I was holding Primo Levi’s The Drowned and the Saved in my hands. It was strenuous to be standing there. And then this question occurred to me: how would I have endured THERE and THEN? This question has come back to me many times since then. Especially since I have been ill, and I can hardly walk even a hundred meters. Would they have shot me because I wouldn’t have been able to keep the pace? Or, would I have been sent straight to be gassed? Or, would I have recovered, since we all know that certain ailments are pushed into the background in extreme situations?

Márta keeps on talking. Now come the more and more dreadful details. We are on the ramp in Auschwitz – she is separated from her father. Then her younger sister gets the scarlet fever, and she is separated from her and their mother. Marta too contracts the disease. She meets her younger sister in the barracks where people with scarlet fever are housed but they are separated from their mother. We already know that they were separated forever. They both recover from the disease. They are sent back to their old barracks. There’s a selection. Her sister was sent to the left, she to the right – from Mengele’s point of view. But opposite, from their own points of view. This is important. Because this way she doesn’t have to go into talking about her sister’s death. Instead, she can talk about the unbelievable representations of the Shoah. This helps. She has had pangs of conscience ever since, because she did not go with her. Although she remembers her sister beckoning, indicating to her to go with her.

But what kind of thing is this, beckoning her to go that way –to die? And this is not the end yet. The next story is coming:

When they pulled her out of a gas chamber. "I wouldn’t like to forget to mention that approximately 25 years ago, I know the date because I still had the black and white television set, there was a program on the TV in which they talked about the conviction of the murderers in Auschwitz, and the Obersturmbannführer who had dragged five of us out of the gas chamber, was shown in a close-up, and the news was that he was acquitted, without comment. And then everything went dark." Even this is not enough. Here comes the baby who was murdered. The baby who was killed before it could have cried out and it was Márta who had to take the body out to the latrine. Just then, Mengele was coming towards her from the opposite direction but she managed to get away. Now, this is too much for me, too. Tears came to my eyes, I have to cry.

Márta is just talking, talking. The battlefront reaches Auschwitz, and the camp inmates are "moved"– to Mauthausen, and later to Lenzing, to a factory where she has to work.

"Let’s have a rest!" We pause only for a few minutes - to go to the toilet, and then we continue. They were marching in rows of five towards the trains. A Swabian peasant boy who speaks Hungarian is nice to her at first, but then he beats her within an inch of her life with his gunstock. She says that if you mix with brutes, you become a brute.

Can I keep on listening to this? And how long can Márta keep on? She is so calm and composed. This discipline, which she forces upon herself, is what enables her to tell the whole story. But several hours have passed. Will there be time for me to ask questions? Will she last? We are resting again. It feels good, but I am afraid of having to finish before we get to the end. I offer that I’ll come back another time. But no, she wouldn’t like that. She would like to finish it today, as far as we can get to. I agree, although I can hardly bear it any more. This story with the newborn baby was too much for me. But how can I tell her that? Márta can endure; after all, she endured it all, then too.

She comes to the point of what happened after she got home, and the stories of the aftermath. That her uncle stole whatever small things had been left to her. The Anikó Szenes Home for Orphan Girls, where similar girls (I wanted to say small girls) lived. Well, they were small girls as for their age, but with all these behind them? If there is a forced growing up, then this is it. I am thinking of my mother. When I was a child, I didn’t understand what the trouble was, or that there was a trouble, but I kept feeling anxious, like in the kindergarten. Now I know, I think I know, that my mother was anxious all the time throughout her short life of 53 years. Yes, she also had to grow up fast when she was ten. Of course, compared to Márta, she was lucky.

The ghetto in Budapest was not Auschwitz or Mauthausen. Her mother stayed alive. True, she adored her father. At least I think so. Of course, I never asked her to tell me her life story either. It’s not only that I didn’t tape-record it, but also I didn’t even ask. It was always my grandmother who talked about the ghetto and I didn’t ask anything. I didn’t know that I should have, at that point. Today, I do ask. But now, of all my family, I can only ask my father. He replies that he doesn’t have any memories of his childhood, only since the Germans came in. When the tanks appeared on Nádor Street.

But now it’s Márta’s turn. Is it perverse that I enjoy the horror stories? That I enjoy the opportunity of listening to them? That at least I make her tell me what I never could hear from my family? Perhaps it is. Of course, my grandmother’s family, her younger sister and her parents had also departed through the chimneys in Auschwitz. Oh, I hate that I am protecting myself by also using these morbid expressions.

Finally, I have the chance to ask questions. Márta has finished her own story. She did it skillfully; she came back to the present. She is reprimanding Viktor Orbán and the neighbours, who avert their gaze every time they meet, ever since Orbán and his gang inciting people. This is hell – that she has to experience this at the age of eighty, and alone. She has no family, either husband neither children, no other relatives. All her friends have passed away… What’s left is the ’daycare center’ for the elderly on Páva Street. Her sight is also failing, she can hardly see. I am unable to say anything when she remarks, „it has been enough.” Although, I’d like her to live forever. It’s not very nice of me but I would like that not so much for her sake but mainly for mine, even though I understand that she has really had enough.

I take photos of the few pictures she has and of her, too. That, she doesn’t want, saying she has become rather ugly. I am glad that I managed to persuade her. No, for me she is not at all ugly. The way she holds herself up, after all she went through, she is beautiful.

I say goodbye. I am worried though, for I don’t know what state she is in. She sees me out. I don’t know whether we shall ever meet again, because she said she wouldn’t like to continue the interview. We almost worked ourselves into the ground, really, both of us. She promised to copy a map for me, a map that shows where Lenzing is, which was a sub-camp of Mauthausen, where she had to work in a factory and she would call me.

That’s good. I will have a chance to see that she has managed to survive this interview too. Perhaps she is only exhausted, just like I am.

On my way home, I am staggering in the street. Details of Márta’s story are whirling through my brain. As if I craved for to be where she was - to experience the horror of horrors. I also feel like I am a weakling, and totally useless. But I also feel bad because of my whining about it all - this must be the real "Jewish nurse" role.

I get home. My children are waiting for me. My daughter is 11, my son is 17. I tell them what I heard. But not the newborn baby. I feel that my daughter shouldn’t hear that. Even though I always dare to tell them everything. I do believe that the biggest burden is silence. But not this, not this time. The rest is too much, although they want me to tell them everything. As if this feeling, the feeling of ’we-have-to-listen-to-all-of-these-stories’ was in them, at least in my daughter, too.

I keep telling everyone what I heard, for days, for weeks. Perhaps, until I’ll do the next interview. From then on, I will tell both stories.

In the meantime, Márta obtained the copy of the map, so I go and visit her in the Páva Street Center for the elderly. She is happy to see me, takes me around, and shows where they held the Seder not long ago, even though they didn’t really observe it when she was a child. But now this is the only community she belongs to. This visit reassures me. Márta is fine. And she is happy to see me again. This means that it was good for her to tell me about all those experiences of hers.

Weeks pass by; we are working on other interviews. I am immersed in them. My phone rings suddenly – it is Márta. She calls only to thank me for the interview. Because this was the first time she felt relieved since then. Because my "system" was very good. That I let her talk. And I only asked questions about the things I didn’t understand. She was always disturbed, disrupted by the questions the Shoah-interviewers asked. Even though they were nice. And she says she hopes I would go on working with this "system.”

I was ecstatic. Márta was definitely relieved after telling me her story – I can hardly believe she said that. It meant a lot to me both personally and as a professional. I feel vindicated when I say that this interviewing technique works very well.

Almost two years have passed since then: we talk from time to time, I visit her. Her sight is failing; she can hardly see anything now. She walks with a white stick. She called me the other day – when I had already started to write this text. She told me that she went to the Páva Street Museum to deposit "the stuff" - ours and the other one, which had been made by the Shoah Foundation. Because she doesn’t know what the future brings and she had enough, anyway. This way, her neighbours will not be able to laugh at her.

My heart sinks. We begin to talk about this, that the "young lady" in the Páva Street Museum asked her: why would they laugh at her? How come, even someone from Budapest, someone who survived the ghetto, cannot understand her, so what could she expect from "a little youngster" like this one, however well intentioned she was. That she spent her whole life this way, not being understood. I am trying to understand her – while I know that it is almost impossible. I don’t want to say clever things; I am not trying to calm her down, while I may not agree that her neighbours would laugh at her. But I leave that to her. I am also a bit afraid when I tell her that I have been writing about the third generation, that they also have their problems. She doesn’t really hear it. And perhaps it is better that way. She doesn’t need to know that.

Not only because it is obvious that suffering in the camps cannot be compared to anything. Not just because she was sterilized, ’never-to-be-mentioned’ for her – and as a result she couldn't find a real companion but because she doesn’t really have, and never had, anyone.

The liberation found her thrown upon a heap of dead bodies. She was so weak that she couldn’t move. Then she was nourished and "saved" for the American liberators to come and try to rape her, and for her only surviving relative to take away what she had left – and still, all this does not matter compared to the fact that she has been living with these thoughts for sixty years; the feeling of guilt; that she murdered her sister because she did not go to the gas with her.

And of course, unconsciously, she is also angry with her sister, who was fifteen at the time and remained fifteen forever. Truly, after all this, it is really impossible to feel that life is beautiful.

Yes, I can enter this world of horrors, mediated by Márta, for a while, but even there I am surrounded by some kind of security. Since Márta is there with me, I can lean on her – and I also have a way out. I, unlike she, have also another world. 


Márta died in May, a few months after I finished this writing. She did not live to see it. But would she have been happy to see it? I am not sure. I don’t know whether she would have consented to my mentioning her real name.

Her miserable, small apartment on the Tompa Street is empty now. The local government is putting ads in newspapers to look for her nonexistent inheritors. Her "wealth" that was left to her from her state compensation will revert to the state, as she did not leave a will. The Páva Street Day Centre for the elderly cannot inherit it – even though this could have saved it from its fate: the religious community liquidated it, because it wasn’t profitable.

While Márta did buy her tombstone at the Kozma Street cemetery, she had taken her interviews to the Páva Street Museum two months before she died – "so that those neighbours would not laugh at her" – but she did not make out a will.

Julia Vajda is a child of survivors. She was born in Budapest. She studied math, sociology, psychology and psychoanalysis. She teaches at ELTE University, Faculty of Social Sciences, in the department of Sociology. She has two children.


1. Victor Orban – (Right-wing Hungarian politician)

2. Auschwitz (Death camp in Nazi occupied Poland)

3. Mauthausen (Concentration camp in Nazi occupied Austria)

4. Lenzing (Slave-labour camp in Austria)

5. Imre Kertesz (Jewish-Hungarian, Noble Prize writer, survivor.)

6. Primo Levy (Auschwitz survivor, well known Italian writer.)

This article is published here with the permissions of the author, Dr. Julia Vajda and that of Dr. Katalin Pecsi, Editor of the Esztertaska blog where this story is published in Hungarian also.

English editing: Judy Weiszenberg Cohen

© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2007.
All rights reserved.