Personal Reflections - In Hiding

MIRIAM BEN-DAVID - "The Case of a Bizarre Dream"

September 1998. A sultry autumn day. We are meeting at the Ludd Airport. Ronnie, my oldest son, the father of four, Gila, my daughter, who committed her four children to the care of her husband, and Uriel Binyamin, who I used to call jokingly Benjamin Odipus when he was a child, now the father of three kids – all of them are waiting there for me.

"What a strange composition, to be traveling like this, as if we were children again,” Gila says.

I am very much upset. I am afraid that they are going to be disappointed. I feel guilty for separating these busy people from their families, their work, to accompany ME for this “root-finding excursion”, which is so fashionable now in Israel.

We are going to celebrate my birthday, here, where I was born, a place from which I was torn out without any preparation, and even luckily, considering the circumstances.

But what do they have to do with it? How can I compensate them for the losses they have to suffer because of this trip?

It is very important for me, of course, that they meet the Christian family that hid us, risking their lives. Even if it was not them who saved my life in the end, but our illegal flee across the border to Romania. But that does not detract from their merit, of course.

This is not the first time I am going to meet them. We haven’t lost touch throughout the last 54 years. I have visited Ági, the daughter who is of the same age as me, the only one of the children to whom her parents revealed the secret and told that I was a Jewish girl, not a relative of their aunt from the country, a few years ago, when I attended a professional conference in Budapest. We both became widowed in that year. I have also met Imre once. He read out parts of his diary later, and it turned out that he made every effort to cheer me up during those sad days of my staying with them. I met Zoló, who used to be a very attentive and naughty nine-year-old boy, in 1979, when their mother was still alive, and brought us all together in the old parental home. Zoló told then that he was wondering why I didn’t tell anything about my family. He noticed this, and found it very peculiar.

For me this “excursion” is staggering. This is the corner of my world to which only I myself may be able to find access. How could I know what my children feel? Shall I be able to communicate my past experiences to them? I would like my children to know the most significant events of my story, and the people whose family took the risk of saving my life. I would like to show them the places that filled my childhood with their colors, to watch the streets, the buildings and the shops with them, and to share with them the million associations I attach to these images. How can I make what is mine meaningful to them? Or how can I translate my childhood experiences, the horrors of the Shoah, and the moral consequences drawn from these, into an intelligible and sensible language, for others and myself?

Really, how long have I been dealing with questions related to the Shoah? I do not know. They were so far for 54 years. It’s true that I have been intrigued for a while, I am curious to know who were able to risk their lives to save Jewish people, and why. Relatively few researchers deal with this question. I could not find satisfying answers in the special literature, either. But I still feel that there must have been something, perhaps not even consciously, in the families that were able to do this, even if their actions were a matter of mere chance, as it sometimes happened. And another question also arose in me: what did their children know and feel, and what is their grandchildren’s view on the matter?

I thought I would be able to find some answers visiting “my family”.

I am here with them again. We arranged this birthday meeting through correspondence. Twenty of us are sitting around the table. The children of the family that saved us – my generation –, their grandchildren – my children’s generation –, my three children and myself. It is staggering for me, but at the same time there is something reassuring in it. I feel as I was moving in a new sphere, in which I haven’t been before. I am filled with curiosity. The air is intoxicated.

Everyone has arrived. Three of the four “children” (the fourth of them, Zoló’s twin sister has died recently), the grandchildren, good-looking young people, some of them with their partners, and I myself, are sitting around the table. Many of the grandchildren speak English very well, and my children also speak Hungarian, although somewhat broken Hungarian. The food is delicious, we all chat merrily, it is as if it was a family reunion.

After the dinner, I ask them to talk about their family, so that I can get to know them better, and I also ask what their grandparents told them about their heroic deeds during the times of the Shoah. But they remain silent. They never talked about this subject. Suddenly Ági stands up, she wants to say something. “You, Mirjam, were different from the others. You remembered us. You sent letters and Christmas gifts throughout all these years, while others just disappeared, and turned their back on those who had helped them, ungratefully.” I am shocked to hear this, and I feel that the vague feeling I became conscious of on the bank of the lake Kineret on a hot summer evening is getting clearer and clearer.

It had happened only a few moths before. I sat all day at a conference, where we were discussing dreams and their interpretations. When my turn came, I related how I had been throwing out huge pieces of frozen meat from a refrigerator during the first part of my dream, looking for a certain piece, while in the second part I was walking in Budapest with a childhood girlfriend. While we were discussing the dream, I realized that I was actually talking about the questions of my planned “root-finding” excursion. Something stirred inside me, and by the time the sun went down, I clearly felt that the planned “excursion” would not be without any significance. I was sitting quietly on the bank of the lake, in the darkness – only the moon was shimmering. I didn’t know what to do with this message yet, what kind of frozen flitch I was after, but I knew that I wanted to so something positive, something that would be a record of my memories of the Holocaust, and the conclusions that can be drawn from them. I thought that the best starting point could be the inclusion of those who saved lives into the historical events. I feel that it is important to show appreciation and gratitude to those who broke ranks with the indifferent, and I thought that their behavior, and the moral and social standpoints that stem from it, could be a rich soil for developing and promoting anti-racist ideas and projects.

During the time between the conference and our traveling I did my best to find things, partly in the Holocaust literature, about the subject of those who saved people: their roles, motivations; and I also renewed my knowledge about the psychosocial theory of group discussions. I was thinking of organizing discussion groups, bringing together survivors and people who saved others.

During my stay in Budapest the plans of “Dialogue for Tolerance” became clearer and clearer. I managed to realize my plans, and the program has kept me occupied for six years.

Since then, I spend a month in Hungary two times a year. I have obtained several interesting, good friends. I have relearned my mother tongue, and I revel in writing my lectures in Hungarian, even if they have many mistakes (which I am always kindly forgiven.)

I don’t know what the future brings, as the generation shaping the program will disappear, but for me and for all those who manage to deal with their Holocaust experiences through this, a circle is closing.

The program called “Dialogue for Tolerance” consists of two parts. We organize ongoing group discussions for first and second generation of survivors and rescuers, led by psychologists. Besides this, we organize conferences two times a year, at which experts clarify the history of the Holocaust and the social lessons drawn from it from different standpoints. One aim of the program is the expression and recording of appreciation and gratitude towards the rescuers. It deals with the traumas of survivors and rescuers: still many Jewish people have identity problems because of their experiences during the Holocaust. Most of the program concentrates on education, to use this historical example to direct the thinking of young people against social prejudices and racism.

Miriam Ben-David (Sternberg) took refuge in Romania in the summer of 1944, when she was 15 years old. She arrived at Palestine in August 1944. After finishing her studies, she began to work as a clinical psychologist. During the last years of her professional activities, she joined the working community of AMCHA, the National Israeli Center for Psychosocial Support of Survivors of the Holocaust and the Second Generation.

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

English editing: Judy Weiszenberg Cohen.

© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2007.
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