As American Jews we often don’t realize how isolated we are from our Jewish history. The stories of our grandparents (and now great-grandparents) are just that, stories. One of the things I have come to understand as more and more years pass is how very little I really know.
When I left home three weeks ago for a riverboat cruise in Eastern Europe with my cousin, I wasn’t even sure what countries actually comprise Eastern Europe. Now I know that the reason for my confusion is that there are actually two definitions, one geographic, the other political. To fully understand both, along with the historical backdrop, you’d need an amazing memory, a raft of maps, and several college-level courses in European history. I have none of these, but fortunately Grand Circle Tours, with whom we traveled, hires very knowledgeable, patient, and caring guides. Ours was Stefan, a vast repository of information on an incredible array of topics.
We began our journey in Prague, in the Czech Republic, which was part of Czechoslovakia before World War II. Then we sailed down the Danube from Budapest, Hungary, to Constantia, on the Black Sea, with stops in Slovenia, Slovakia, Croatia, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Romania. We briefly visited cities and villages, castles, fortresses, and one concentration camp, and finished with an excursion to Transylvania where our grandfathers were born, but never returned to, after they immigrated to the United States.
My grandfather, Nathan, for whom my son is named, arrived alone in New York City in 1902 at the age of 14. He was the youngest and the last of six brothers to arrive in New York, and his two sisters remained in Hungary with his parents. Gramps, whom I adored, never spoke of his childhood except to say that his family was very poor, had little food, and “whoever had the longest arms got the most to eat.” He never saw his parents or sisters after leaving Transylvania.
When I was young, I asked my grandfather, who though he had just a fourth-grade education had several thriving businesses, including a winery, a trucking company, and real estate holdings, why he never went home to visit. He said, simply, “America is my home. America is my country. Everything I have I got here.” I didn’t understand his answer, but I kept it with me, word for word, until now.
My family is Jewish and, as such, was always marginalized in Europe, hanging by a thread at the whim of the decision-makers. Where we lived, how we lived, and what we could do was determined by laws enacted specifically for Jews. This wasn’t just during World War II, but about as far back as Jews go. Start with the Pharaohs and move forward through the ages to ghettos, expulsions, and pogroms. Even today it is too dangerous for Jews to live in some countries.
Nazism came relatively late to Hungary — it arrived with Adolf Eichmann in 1944 — but the Hungarians made up for lost time. In addition to Eichmann, the Iron Cross, a militant Hungarian political faction, was glad to help solve “the Jewish Problem.”
There are conflicting statistics about the death count, but the bronze shoe memorial on the bank of the Danube in Budapest tells the story. Jews were lined up three deep (so as not to waste bullets), shot, and pushed into the Danube, dead or alive. Today the numerous lights shining on the limestone of the Hungarian Parliament and one of the bridges can be seen in the distance creating the same beautiful effect that we see at night on the limestone walls of Jerusalem. The pain of that scene is relentless. It is as if the message is “We got rid of the Jews and look at us now.”
Gramps, I finally understand.