Before I Was
(Excerpt from a Novel)
By Eva Izsak
Rural Transylvania, early 1930s
Before I was, you were alone. Before I was, you had to fend for yourself. You don’t talk about it. To translate those events into words would wake them from their stupor. You can’t take the risk. So, I have to rely on the tidbits you let drop while I was playing at your feet on the bare-tile floor. Almost absent-mindedly, to keep me from distracting you while sprinkling the right amount of paprika into a pot of goulash bubbling on the stove, you tossed a few shreds of memory my way. You regretted your half-hearted generosity as soon as the pungent vapors filled the air together with a stream of follow-up questions, bombarding you with childish curiosity. You tasted the slushy stew, pursed your lips, and replied with an impatient wave of your hand, as if chasing away a persistent fly. But a crack had already gaped in the crust of the earth, letting a faint scent of noxious magma escape, mixing with the fragrant odors of lunch being prepared. Your eyes glazed – within a split second, my warm Mommy transformed into someone I did not recognize. The beasts stirred in their deep caves and you were forcing them back, wielding your wooden spoon, flapping your arms, beating the air, piling up whatever came to hand – the cupboard, the kitchen table, the refrigerator – to block their exit. An inquisitive, stubborn redhead, I still knew better than to insist. Gagged, eager to reverse my gaffe, I joined my tiny hands to the effort and rolled dolls, toys, and childish hugs to cover up and bury your ghosts. To keep you safe from their fingers, stretched out to grab and pull you away. Decades later, I am left with nothing but those decaying morsels I managed to save from your sweeping broom to piece together a puzzle that is missing more than it holds.
I want to tell your story. I want to give you the voice you never had. There are a thousand ways a story can emerge from its cocoon. How do I find the right one? I dig for clues.
A little girl, you were entrusted to a local peasant, perched on the back of his horse-drawn cart, to take you to your grandparents’ farm. An airplane flying by was a rare and magical sight; a car drew hordes of kids running in its wake. The earth, saturated with the gallons of blood it had absorbed during the previous Great War, lay content, yielding abundant harvests – ignorant of the future not-so-great war, which would further fertilize its bottomless hunger with ashes. In the eastern provinces of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, yellowing blades of wheat continued their lazy dance to the rhythm of a soundless czardas, and men greeted their ladies with a gallant kezi csokolom, “I kiss your hand,” followed by a deep bow and a slight touch of lips to the naked skin. Once safely deposited in front of the isolated, wooden farmhouse, the adjacent, vast orchards became your sole kingdom, the cows and horses your subjects, for the remainder of the summer months. Until the autumn winds called to make the trip back to town and to the cramped two rooms shared with four siblings, all ranking higher than you in age or gender. The taste of those long ago apples must have lingered in your mouth half a century later on an apple-picking trip in upstate New York. Frolicking hand-in-hand with your own five-year-old granddaughter, your legs forgetting the thick layers of flesh draping them, you bit into every apple and ended up with a tummy ache. As if the recent pages had been erased from the history books only to allow you one more dreamlike afternoon.
“I hated my grandmother,” you recently confessed, whispering as if she could still hear you. “She was dark, skinny, and mean. She would lock me up at night in the barn as punishment. I was so scared.”
An offended child still resided in your wrinkled eyes.
“She was jealous because my grandfather loved me more!” you continued hissing, and stole a sideways look in case your nemesis came back from the dead.
Winters meant sleigh rides and skating. Growing up, you’d keep busy helping your mother and two older sisters with housekeeping and needlework. From time to time, your mother would take a moment to praise the tiny stitches on an embroidered napkin, caressing your cheek with a touch of her finger and calling you softly by your Hebrew name: Malka’leh. By then, the majority of the land, the vineyards and plum distilleries, had been sold or signed away, the money squandered by the spoiled heir. He was off to Paris to pursue some vague artistic aspirations, leaving his young family behind. His later pleas with your mother to join him in the city of lights were met with a firm refusal. She wouldn’t hear of uprooting her life, or the children, abandoning her own aging parents and the only place she’d ever called home, to follow her husband’s follies. That was where she drew the line. He returned – with nothing but some revolutionary ideas and Bohemian manners to show for his labors – and you all remained together in that bucolic, unsuspecting little Transylvanian town.
Strolling aimlessly through the Musée d’Orsay on an idle Sunday afternoon, I happen upon an exhibition dedicated to Hungarian artists of the early twentieth century who were part of the Fauvist movement. I learn that groups of Transylvanian musicians and painters – influenced by their experiences abroad, mainly in Paris – formed a new movement within the European avant-garde and, as the brochure explains, created their own distinctive idiom, a modernity imbued with the traditions of Hungary. This resonates with your account, and I canvas the names on the little plaques describing the pieces in an attempt to discover a trace of the blue-eyed grandfather I only know from your romanticized depictions of him. In vain.
The war drew closer, and in 1940, Northern Transylvania, often changing hands but under Romanian rule since 1919, reverted to Hungary under the Second Vienna Award. Recruits from the forced-labor battalions, which all young Jewish men were soon condemned to join, serenaded their sweethearts under their windows before being sent off to the east. Few would survive. But no one knew that back then. You offhandedly refused to light candles and place them at your windowsill, as was the custom, snubbing your admirers. Peter, an enthusiastic suitor, would later reminisce how he had endured the mines, hunger, slave labor, and torture with only the memory of your face to sustain him through those hardships. Your beauty, with your long black curls and radiant eyes, was legendary.
"Neither of you looks like me,” you would subsequently declare – referring to Monika and me – in triumphant disappointment.
By May of 1944, jammed with thousands of others into a local brick factory that served as an ad hoc ghetto, you were watching your mother strolling along the barbed wire fence, searching belatedly for an escape. She was still unaware of the coming horrors: the gas, the crematoria, the open fire pits that were only a couple of weeks into the future. Those were not yet imaginable. Only the brutality of the guards bode trouble and gave rise to an obscure unease. But the net had been cast and the strings firmly pulled around the hopelessly squirming community.
Crammed for days in cattle cars, transported to an unknown destination.
Your nine-year-old brother begged for, and your mother surrendered, an additional slice of bread.
“But that is supposed to be preserved for tomorrow . . .” Your voice betrayed your own hunger.
Your mother hushed you with a sigh. She already suspected there would not be many days left to his short life.
That exchange was one of the rare details you afterwards confided to my childish ears, perhaps in an attempt to be pardoned or belatedly acquitted with the excuse: “I didn’t know. I was only thinking of his well-being . . .”
There is no guilt more persistent than that of the victim.
As soon as I could talk, whatever I’d ask for – chocolate, a doll, a new dress – materialized before I had even finished my sentence. Unlike other parents, you never negotiated a “later” or “tomorrow.” For you, the future had become an uncertain, unreliable, questionable concept, no more than a chance to win the lottery, but with far slimmer odds. A whole tense was eliminated from our grammar, leaving us with a “past” we tried to chase away as if it had never been, and a “present” we didn’t trust to last.
“Selection” – one of many to come. You could hear your father, grouped with the men, shouting above the noise and confusion:
“Are you all together?”
No, you no longer were.
You were nineteen. Greeted by emaciated lunatics in striped rags, to become one of them. The one in ten who would survive.
You don’t talk about that year. But it creeps out at night, haunting you in your nightmares. As a child, I was habitually startled from my own dreams by a sudden scream. Then I silently listened as you gasped for air on the other side of the thin wall. I never gave an inkling of the fact that I heard. You tried to protect me from those images as if they were a contagious disease. As if that war had left a shameful virus in your blood, forever contaminated. And you were right. And wrong. I was already doomed. Born infected, and with the virus multiplying rapidly in my veins.
The war was over and your parents were ashes.
You were married off and gave birth to a baby girl your husband named Monika, after the child he had lost to the gas chambers. Scarred, unable to be either wife or mother, you played with your daughter as if she were a doll, dressing her in lace-embroidered clothes, curling her hair, and tying it in bows. An ugly divorce was followed by yet another unhappy marriage.
You were thirty-five. Drained from a life that contained more tragedies and disillusionments than a young woman could sustain on her own. You climbed up to the attic, a bottle of pills in your hand – only the maid noticed and followed you. To prolong your hollow existence.
And that’s when I joined you.
You feared for me, this late child of yours, in a neurotic and primal way. In the hysterical way of someone who had seen babies starved, suffocated, burnt alive, you were – more than loving – just fighting. When I failed to thrive on the nourishment your body was able to provide, there were hurried trips to the Romanian peasant woman who sold you her plentiful milk, with Monika and my father taking turns rushing home so that the precious substance did not spoil in the heat of the July sun. In an effort to fortify me with vitamin C, my father was sent looking for rare oranges you could not afford; this was, after all, Eastern Europe in the early 1960s. When at three months old I still failed to gain weight, you chewed chicken liver to a mush, putting tiny portions in my toothless mouth, washing it down with lots of sweetened tea. It worked.
And you no longer were alone.
You sank all your hopes and frustrations into this child conceived at what was, back then, an embarrassingly advanced age. All of a sudden you became a doting mother and I was a sponge, soaking up and reradiating your sometimes suffocating but always comforting love. You woke up at dawn to meticulously iron my only school uniform, pulled up my socks and dressed me while I was lying still half-asleep in bed, escorted me all the way to school carrying my bag, heavy with books. You waited for me at noon with my favorite meal, flew imaginary airplanes loaded with schnitzel and mashed potatoes into my unwilling mouth. You sat by my side every afternoon, your hands always industriously occupied, knitting or crocheting, while I practiced the piano. You made me perform at each of your card game soirées, while your guests dutifully applauded as if they were music connoisseurs and I the next Martha Argerich. You listened as, part of my homework, I recited poems by heart in a language you were deaf to (by then we had moved to Israel, a land where you were practically illiterate). You slept with me every night until I finally rebelled, without ever suspecting that I had been a convenient excuse to avoid sharing a bed with my father. You placed all your ambitions on my tender shoulders. I became your raison d’être, an innocent collaborator in providing a meaning to your otherwise wasted life.
Then, one day, in the most unselfish of gestures, you handed me a suitcase, opened the door and pushed me out, sending me away from you, away from the pain, to seek a better life. Only now, as a mother in my own right, can I imagine your heavy heart when, with your own hands, you condemned yourself, willingly, to the bleak loneliness that would be your main companion for all those years to come.
You freed me.
Or did you?
When I called you earlier today, you were in a good mood. The nausea had subsided; you were eating again. We found comfort in talking about food, one of the only subjects of mutual interest left between us. Recalling the old recipes, the hefty Hungarian dishes you used to make – chicken paprika with the hand-made nokedly noodles, cheese and plum dumplings, cold sour cherry soup, cinnamon pies – the staple foods of my childhood. On one of your previous brushes with death, when Monika’s long-distance phone call tried to prepare me for the possibility that you might have cancer (you didn’t – then), as I exited Grand Central Station and was crossing Madison Avenue on the way to my office, the thought that I might never again eat your stuffed cabbage brought a sudden flood of tears to my eyes.
I digress. I was telling your story and am about to end up with stuffed cabbage recipes. I try to stall, paralyzed. I was always afraid to ask beyond the embellished scenes you painted. I did not dare to unearth hidden ghosts from the depths of their oblivion into daylight. I wish I could honestly claim I wanted to spare you the pain. Truth is, I wanted to spare myself. I couldn’t listen to your story and be facing you. You did not want me to. And I did not insist.
My page is almost blank. There is so much to tell, yet I don’t know what. I can’t ask. It had been your life-long goal to shield me from this story, and it is too late to change the rules we thusfar carefully decreed and followed. Instead, I try to arrange and rearrange the few hints I have painstakingly collected, in the hopes that a picture, albeit a partial one, will eventually emerge.
However, unbeknown to us, a transfusion did occur. A wordless transmission of information. An epigenetic inheritance of memories that started in your womb, sending tiny, steady molecules of pain via the placenta. The echo of screams that resonated in your bloodstream was registered in my neural pathways, nails scratched, seeking outlet, leaving their mark on the walls of my forming organs, and an unspeakable, bottomless agony took permanent possession to be residing in me, spreading like a black-ink cloud and filling every opening. I became a vessel. A carrier. A holder. A container. A monument to prove that they had once existed. I am a vehicle. A transgenerational spaceship. I move in between then and now. I am there and here and there. I am a rope connecting the past to the present. I am their representative on this end. I am their tool. I am on duty. To remind. To accuse. To judge. To prevent healing.
Instead of the B.C./A.D. dating system, my timeline is divided by the deportation of the Hungarian Jews: Before May 1944 – and After. Those born Before are guilty. Buildings erected Before are guilty. Parks planted Before are guilty. Carousels swung Before are guilty. Anything that was Before, watched those atrocities and continued to exist, should die of shame.
It is now my turn to remember. I am your safekeeper. I am your witness. I’ll be your mouth and speak for you when you are no longer. I do not know the words. Yet I am your only witness. And even without names or photos, without ever having seen the faces, the places, I know the end. Of what was and is no more.
I am not a worthy witness but I am the only one left; who wasn’t there but still remembers. There was a place on the banks of a river, raspberries climbing on a fence, bread (not children) baking in the oven, serenades under your window playing to your vanity. A mother who never lived to know I’d be her granddaughter. There was a world. Shuttered without a trace.
I am their witness.