From Generation to Generation

The Two Annas

Mária Herczog

Dr. Maria Herczog was born in Budapest in 1954. She has a Ph.D. in Sociology
She is a senior researcher at the Institute of Criminology and in the National Institute of Family and Social Policy. Her area of research is the welfare and protection of children. She is a visiting lecturer, at the ELTE University, Budapest. Since 1993 she has been Editor-in-Chief of the bi-monthly journal Family, Child, Youth- published by the association of the same name. In this NGO she engages in research, organizes conferences, but also works as mediator and consultant.

This story is dedicated to my mother’s memory.

I wrote it in memory of her and about her, who did not live to see that I have become mature and accepting enough to tell her that now I understand and can appreciate many things I resisted and used to be angry about when I was a child, and even later.

It is a small consolation for both the child and the mother that someone was unable to become the kind of mother, an emotionally supporting person, a child needs, because of the circumstances, the injuries caused by history - because of unprocessed traumas – or traumas that cannot be processed at all. It is partly for this reason, or in spite of it, that we must tell our stories, which might help other people to understand theirs and the difficulties others have.

For the parents and their children, above of all, those who often live with unresolved conflicts; inflict wounds that never heal; keep blaming themselves; live damaged, dreary lives; keep repeating and causing others to have the same fate, not of their own choosing.

My mother did not want to talk about the concentration camp – neither to me, nor to others. My grandmother, however, used to tell stories about those times, in our common room, after switching off the light: she talked about moving into the house marked by a yellow Star of David; how they lost everything; how my mother was taken away; about the siege; and about the times the Russians liberated them but still, did not get back anything of their possessions they left at “secure” places; or their apartment; and finally how my mother came back.

I had enough reasons to be anxious anyway, but these stories were extremely upsetting. It is no wonder that even 15 years after the war I kept playing “bunker” with my dolls: I spread the ironing blanket over the table in the dining-room, and hid there with my dolls, equipping myself with lamps and food. Food, hiding and escaping played a central role in my games. My mother was truly flabbergasted once, when she was cleaning under my bed and found a small suitcase packed with underwear, a pullover she thought had been lost and canned food under my bed. These were the necessary preparations for being able to leave immediately in case the German and Hungarian Nazis came back. My mother, like so many other people thought that if she did not share her experiences with me, then, that part of her past did not exist any more, and the experiences were not “passed on”. She always waved her hand, quite airily: it cannot happen any more, there’s nothing to be afraid of, to play “bunker” is a silly thing to do. Because of this attitude, I have only sporadic information about her story and her demons, of which I learned much later. But the fundamental experience explains a lot about the reasons for her refusal to deal with these problems. After the establishment of the Hungarian Jewish Cultural Association, when Teréz Virág gave lectures about processing traumas and the difficulties of the ‘second generation’, I asked her to come with me, but she was reluctant. I still think that it would have helped her a lot, and perhaps she would not have died at such a young age if she had come.

Nothing happens by coincidence especially, when coincidences are brought about intentionally, by a number of people. Still, it is often chance that influences what happens to whom, and how. The consequences turn people into victims of these ‘non-accidents’ and the events that will follow them till the end of their days.

A few weeks after March 19, 1944, (the day the German Nazis occupied Hungary) two teenage Annas moved into the same house. Special circumstances played a minor role here: both families had to leave their original apartments, and had to move into a house marked by a yellow Star of David. They didn’t have much time to think: they were given 24 hours to pack their belongings and leave their homes.

My seventeen-year-old mother and my widowed grandmother moved into one of the houses on the Visegradi Street with very few items of their belonging, as some of their relatives had already been living there. One day in October, the people living there heard shouting from the ground floor: “all the women between 16 and 40 years of age, should come down, to be recruited for work.” My mother knew what was awaiting her. They had information: she always thought that whoever did not close his or her ears knew what the facts were. However, most of the “adults” did not want to acknowledge that people were deported to concentration camps where they had barely any chance to survive. My grandmother packed the most necessary things into a neat little fiber suitcase, and let my mother leave properly attired: wearing a suit and trotteur shoes that was proper for a young lady. She equipped her with a woolen blanket and food, too – as if she had been going on an excursion or vacation. They had to walk a lot, and then they were deported, by train, to Spandau, a labor camp set up in a suburb of Berlin.

The Russians liberated this camp at the end of the war. My mother contracted typhoid fever. As a result, being sick, she had to spend three months somewhere, during her homebound journey. Nobody knew what had happened to her in the camp. We could only guess. She was not willing to talk about it. I only know scraps of stories: about too much work; humiliating treatment; abuses; being cold and hungry; and about frightening Alsatian (German Sheppard) dogs. She told that the girls had often talked about their tea parties (Birthday parties) in their former homes, and “ate” the delicacies of those times. On the other hand, she experienced that the young women with similar backgrounds to hers, showed very little solidarity, and she was deeply disappointed, while she appreciated the way Soviet partisan girls, prostitutes and Roma women behaved in the neighboring camp: this shaped her view of the world and her affiliations later. She got home in August 1945, weighing 35 kilograms and bald. She went to visit relatives, as she didn’t find my grandmother at home, and they did not recognize her.

Her later life was shadowed not only by the war and the concentration camp experience but also by my grandmother’s behaviour. She wanted to “follow the law”, but my mother also felt that she had not loved her and that’ why let her go.

My mother didn’t manage to have what she wanted; to reach her goal, in spite of her outstanding abilities, her level of education and sensibility: her ambition of becoming a stage director or a dramatic advisor remained only a dream as she was sacked in 1951 from the University. The Ratkó-era turned her into a mother and that didn’t make life easier for any of us. My father left the country in 1956. This created additional hardships and our subsequent years were not like soap operas either.

The other Anna, who was exactly my mother’s age, lived on the second floor with her parents, in the same building. They were relatives of the owner of the house, so they moved into his family’s apartment. Her family hid her in the apartment, and wouldn’t let her leave when, the already confused Hungarian Nazis, were quickly directing the young women to come out and go down – it was hoped that the Nazis would not discover Anna in hiding.

At the time of the liberation she was still hiding in the apartment. Anna didn’t dare go down into the cellar, lest the concierge of the building would report the whole family to the police.

The liberating Russian soldiers found her while she was on the lookout for German Nazis and Hungarian Arrow Cross Fascists. As fate would have it, some of the Russian soldiers raped her, several times. She contracted syphilis, never could have children and became a bitter, joyless, tough woman whose marriages didn’t work out either. I spent a lot of time with them when I was a child, without knowing her harrowing story. Nobody ever mentioned what happened. I know about this episode in Anna’s life from other people.

There isn’t really a good answer to all this. No one knows what should have been done and what should have been avoided in those days - what would help or what causes even more trouble. People did what they could, under those uncertain circumstances and what they thought was the right thing to do, at the time.

It is pointless now to pass judgment and we are definitely not the ones to do so. But we should discuss more the ideas that could give us solace; or, how to heal the wounds; and about how we can possibly let go of these visceral experiences, that became our heritage.

Translation by Bea Sandor

English editing by Judy Weiszenberg Cohen

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

© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2007.
All rights reserved.