“She must have thought you were Hungarian,” Bori said to me, in Hungarian. “She must’ve just been confused.”
“Wait, but aren’t I Hungarian?” I replied. “If she’s confused, maybe I am, too.”
A firm breeze moved through the towering cypresses and up onto the roof deck, raising gooseflesh on our skin. We looked out onto the seemingly endless turquoise of Hungary’s Lake Balaton, where two-person dinghies and schooners bobbed over whitecaps below a cloudless sky. I had just finished with a sailing camp on this 230 square mile lake. I was the last person who should’ve been given command of a sailboat: fourteen years old, scrawny, no motor skills. Every day, I would capsize repeatedly and go back to camp praying that the next day’s lesson would be canceled by rain.
I was unathletic, and I was afraid. Unathletic, yellow-bellied, short, nerdy, awkward, desperate Adam.
“I mean, of course, you’re Hungarian,” Bori said, giving me a playful bump with her elbow. “But you’re not Hungarian in the way she thought you were. You’re not Hungarian Hungarian.”
“OK,” I said. “So I’m not double Hungarian? I’m just single Hungarian?”
I was being intentionally difficult—I knew she meant that I hadn’t grown up there—but she rewarded me with a laugh. Here in Hungary, unathletic, yellow-bellied, short, nerdy, awkward, desperate Adam was also funny. And that, it seemed, made all the difference with a girl like this. We were at her summer home, shoved together while our parents caught up on lost years over bottles of wine. I wasn’t complaining; not only was this a chance to flirt with a beautiful blonde ballerina, it was an opportunity to ask a local about the many mysteries of quotidian Hungarian life.
“You know what I mean,” Bori said. “She thought you were Hungarian the way we’re Hungarian.”
Earlier that afternoon, I’d crossed paths with an elderly woman whom I’d offended with an overly casual greeting.
“Szia,” I’d said. “Hello.”
“‘Szia?!” the woman repeated, aghast.
I’d failed to use the honorific. In Hungarian, when a 14-year-old boy addresses an older woman he doesn’t know, the correct greeting is “good day,” or, more formally still, “I kiss your hand, madam.” I’d never even heard of honorifics before giving this offense. The only people I regularly spoke Hungarian to were my parents, and they didn’t use them with me.
I looked at Bori: her hair drying in the sun to the color of straw, her blue eyes staring back at me—kind, unafraid. She was too innocent to be self-aware. She probably thought the same thing of me, given that I was the one accidentally offending old ladies and then asking her what I’d done wrong.
I could never get a girl like Bori in the States. Could never get a girl like Bori anywhere. I’d never even kissed a girl. We stuck our feet out over the balcony ledge and let them dangle.
“If our toes had personalities,” I told her. “I think my toes would be a lot meaner than yours.” I pointed with my foot at her dainty digits: bald of hair, nails healthy and unpainted. “Your toes seem like they just want everyone to get along.”
Bori laughed like quick hiccups.
“What do you think is the prettiest word in Hungarian?” she asked me later that night. “They did a survey in a magazine, and Hungarians all said it was love.” Szerelem.
“Love is OK,” I said. “I prefer shoelace.” Cipőfűző.
That night our two families danced in the living room to old Hungarian pop records until the early morning. I told Bori all the Hungarian words and phrases I adored: the alliterative rhyme in the question “How many times did you throw up?” (“Hányszor hánytál?”), the innocuous sounding name for the painful stinging nettles in her backyard (csalán)… and the word for popcorn, which amazingly enough sounded like corn itself, reaching its microwaved climax. Pattogatott kukorica.
Bori, even more unexposed to Americans than I was to Hungarians, laughed at almost all my jokes. If I landed one particularly well she would lean into me, shaking, her face buried in the nook of her elbow. And for a second, it would sound like sobbing.
I did not get the same kind of laugh from the National Book Award-nominee when I made my joke to her. But then, this joke wasn’t about Hungarian popcorn, it was about the Hungarian Holocaust.
She’d given a guest lecture at my graduate program which touched briefly on research done in Hungary, and afterward, I approached her to discuss it. That segued into a conversation about my Hungarian ancestry. I asked her if she’d ever visited.
“I haven’t,” she said. “I’ve heard it’s beautiful. But no, never been.” Then after a pause, she added: “I have been to Poland, though.”
“Oh yeah? I’ve never gone there,” I said. “But a lot of my family did.”
“Ah,” she said, and then we both went quiet.
It was rude of her, to not laugh at my joke, but then, a perfunctory chuckle would’ve been ruder still. This was a social zugzwang I’d created for her, a trap that with even a modicum of foresight, I could’ve avoided laying down. I imagine my decision to joke about the death of family members at Auschwitz was mostly about flexing my right to make such jokes in the first place. That, as a third-generation descendant of Holocaust survivors I was reclaiming some historical familial pain as my own, thus imbuing my family’s victim status with comedic power. Making someone else squirm was a celebration of that power.
Dark comedy has a rich history with the Jews. In Elie Wiesel’s memoir Night, he wrote about the sort of gallows humor that existed in concentration camps:
“In Treblinka, where a day’s food was some stale bread and a cup of rotting soup, one prisoner cautions a fellow inmate against gluttony. ‘Hey Moshe, don’t overeat. Think of us who will have to carry you.’”
But even if those at the camps did make such jokes, what gives me the right to make them? Unlike those Jews, I never endured a continental genocide. I grew up in America, a white man. To say I’m using humor to reclaim power for myself, as a Jew in the American northeast, is disingenuous; Jews here are safe, fully assimilated: There’s no power to reclaim. A Jew telling a Holocaust joke in New Jersey as a way to overcome oppression is mimicry, an inauthentic echo, like a small-scale Elvis Presley routine, only instead of appropriating rhythm and blues, I’m appropriating the rhetorical device of reappropriation—alluding to a pain of othering that I don’t actually experience.
Not that I was thinking about any of this when I made my joke. I wasn’t thinking at all. People who joke do so by connecting dots almost reflexively: That’s why so many funny people laugh at their own wisecracks; they too are hearing the jokes for the first time, same as the listener. So whether my Holocaust joke was right or wrong was tangential to its more core truth; that it had been a conversational tic, that I was taught how to make these kinds of jokes as a child.
Stony Brook, New York
We were up in our room with the door closed, while downstairs mom and dad were doing whatever it is grownups do when they leave their children’s sight.
I had just turned 5; my brother, Ben, was 6. After years of bouncing around—from Hungary to West Germany to England to Canada—my dad had gotten a visa for America and a decent job on Long Island, where we would stay for the next several years.
Ben wheeled my chair out from behind the desk to the middle of the room. There was no mirror here, but I didn’t need to watch him work. He was a big boy. I knew he’d give me a haircut that would make me proud.
My very first haircut: I was going to be a big boy, too. Ben sheared through my soft locks with speed and precision. My golden brown curls tumbled to the hardwood floor, where we swept them into the dustbin. That big pile of hair looked like a chocolate cake, I remember thinking, even then: It was my first memory and my first simile.
Downstairs, my mother suspected trouble. We were being far too quiet. She came up and entered the room just as we finished sweeping. She had a funny look on her face when she pulled me into the bathroom, where, over and over, she ran her fingers through my brother’s masterpiece while peering closely.
“Oh,” was all she offered. “Oh.”
Ben thought it looked great; according to Mom, it was a little uneven. The next day she took me to the barbershop, where the barber attempted to correct the problem using scorched-earth tactics, his electric clippers eviscerating my remaining locks and bringing my head to military trim. Despite his efforts, there were still bald patches in the places where Ben had cut down to the skin.
My mother didn’t like appearing in public with me that summer. With my coke-bottle thick eyeglasses, I hadn’t been the cutest kid even before the haircut. Now I was a walking display of parental negligence, my hair a neon “bad mother” sign. Even worse, this haircut fiasco had occurred a few weeks before my parents’ first trip back to Hungary with kids in tow. They’d wanted to show me off.
Hours after landing in Budapest, we walked into my grandmother’s apartment high in the Castle District, through the fecund courtyard and up the narrow white marble steps. The air in the building was cool; it carried that subtle scent all old buildings have, a sweet must seeping through the thick stone walls.
Mom knocked, and the heavy black wooden door at the top of the stairs opened. A slender middle-aged redhead with perfect teeth and a wide smile knelt down toward my face and touched my patchy head, where, eyes twinkling, she offered:
“You look just like a little Auschwitz boy!”
My mother buried her face in her hands. My grandmother, Magda, giggled. I didn’t know what the joke was, but I giggled, too.
Because the war so devastated my family, and because my family uses such irreverent humor, I’d always assumed a causal link—that the jokes were an imprint of the atrocities, like an arm tattoo. But when I interviewed my grandmother later, it was clear that my ancestors were laughing about hardship long before the rise of the Third Reich.
Take the story she once related to me about her grandmother, Irén Steiner, stealing from Magda’s grandpa.
They’d been shouting in German, so Magda couldn’t understand them.
They always argued in German when they didn’t want the 6-year-old to understand. There was no other way; in their single-story red-brick house, Mór and Irén only had two rooms: the kitchen and the all-purpose den, each of which was in earshot of the other.
In the golden light of an autumn afternoon, they stood in the kitchen, where Mór (tall, redheaded, attractive) always took his lunch. The shop where he fixed watches was a short walk away. Irén had made a hearty soup from mushrooms she’d foraged by the river. While they bickered, Magda’s hand trembled as she tried to lift her spoon. She’d been struggling to control the shaking in her right arm ever since her parents and brother had gone to Budapest to live in a one-room apartment two months prior, leaving her to the care of her grandparents in Leteye, a quiet village near Hungary’s southwestern border with Croatia. The trembling in her hand would grow more violent over time, making writing impossible and eventually bringing her school year to an end.
After finishing his soup, Mór drank a glass of red wine. Then he drank another. Drowsy with pleasure, he left the kitchen and entered the den, dragging his chair with him to the bedside. He hung his wool overcoat on the chair back and spread out atop the covers, putting his dirty feet onto the chair to avoid changing into his indoor-only clothing for the post-meal siesta.
When his breathing became steady. Irén crept up and slithered her hand into the jacket pocket, retrieving his wallet and removing the money she needed. She and her granddaughter looked at one another. With her brown hair tightly braided into a crown atop her head, Irén looked as beautiful as the Empress Elisabeth of Vienna. Magda giggled, and then covered her mouth with her steady hand. Irén burst into a broad smile, eyes laughing.
Later that fall, on Rosh Hashanah, Magda lit the candles and drew the curtains. She got to miss school that day, much to her classmates’ envy. Mór took the day off work as well, and the two walked together down the wide avenue that cut through the center of town. A gypsy who lived in the nearby tent city approached them with a basket of fresh grayling pressed under a protective canopy of leaves. Mór bought two and the pair headed home, where Irén cleaned and cooked their holiday meal.
Even after Magda reunited with her parents in Budapest, she would continue to return to Letenye for years every summer, even during the war: to see her grandparents, to feed the ducks, to pet the backyard rabbits that would tomorrow be served in stew. In the spring of 1944, it would all come to an end: Mór and Irén would be sent to a ghetto in the city of Nagykanizsa, then on to Auschwitz where—deemed too old to perform meaningful labor—they’d be gassed upon arrival. There was no official notice of their deaths. They just never came home. Later, when people learned of the concentration camps, Magda, a teenager, put two and two together.
That was Hungary in 1944: where the trains spelled death, where the roads spelled death. The cities were blackened with bombshells, the bridges of Budapest air-raided into the Danube. The land a prison, only the rivers offered promise: invigorating and cold and full of life, rushing to some far-off sea, away from the problems destroying Europe.
Friendly’s Family Restaurant (Belmont, Massachusetts)
“Can we have a look at the dessert menu?” the overweight American asked the waitress.
My father looked at the family of four at the table next to ours, then back to us.
“I don’t know if that’s such a good idea,” my father said, making no attempt to keep his voice down. “I mean, that family really doesn’t look like they need any dessert. I would say the last thing any of them need is dessert.” I choked back laughter by forcing my mouth down onto the straw of my soft drink. I knew that if I laughed I would give it away.
There were four of them at the table in question: ma, pa, son, and daughter: all jumbo-sized.
“They only make them like that in America, right, you guys?” my father asked.
“I mean, sure, there are fat people in other parts of the world … but American fat: Boy, that is something truly special.”
“What do you think?” he asked, shifting gears, directing his attention toward me and my brother. “Should they get dessert? Yes or no.”
“Oh, leave it alone,” my mother said. “You’re being so rude.”
“Vera,” my father said, my mom’s name a complete sentence. He looked at her, and she tried to give him a stern look back, for our benefit, but I knew she liked this game, too. This is one of the few privileges they as immigrants had: to be able to use their mother tongue to make fun of the native-born. Because when a Hungarian talks shit at a Friendly’s in Belmont, Massachusetts, no one understands a single word.
In Belmont (pop. 24,729), there were exactly four Hungarian speakers within municipal limits while I was growing up: my mother, Vera; my brother, Ben; my father, Joseph; and me.
Since we were the only Hungarians speakers in Belmont—my home from age 6 until college—I came to see Hungarian as a language that only existed within the four walls of my house. It was the language of love, of intimacy, of making fun of people in public. And for the most part, that’s how it remains for me: a complex code that, when spoken, rings the Pavlovian bell for family.
This creates cognitive dissonance when I visit Budapest. Or, as I told my parents my first time abroad: “I can’t believe it: here, even the taxi drivers speak Hungarian.”
It’s like sustained déjà vu, hearing the language on every street corner: as if I’ve always lived here, for centuries, across several past lives. There’s a version of me who memorized these street names, who knows all these customs, who never offends old ladies by failing to use the honorific.
There are other consequences to the mainstreaming of my mother tongue: less romantic ones, more straightforward … namely, that I can no longer comfortably talk shit in public.
There are several reasons for this. For one, I’m not as confident that Hungarians won’t understand me: A lot more Hungarians learn English than the other way around. But even if I knew for certain that the subject of my joke didn’t speak English, I still wouldn’t feel right reveling in their obliviousness. Because while I believe that it’s my right as a Hungarian in America to make fun of Americans in Hungarian, I don’t believe those rights are retained in reverse when I cross the Atlantic. For me to make such jokes about the dumb local Hungarians would be a betrayal, selling them out to the more powerful empire I’ve had the good fortune to become a citizen of. I’m not sure why I feel this strong sense of loyalty, given that it was actually the Hungarian people that betrayed me and mine, which is the reason I speak English in the first place.
August 11, 2016
“This isn’t a cabaret,” my father said to me over the phone. “It’s the Holocaust.”
Dad was frustrated. After a summer in Hungary, it was my last day before a flight back to the States, where my final year of graduate school awaited. My father had been in Hungary that summer as well, but he’d had to return to his home in New York City mere days before the season’s big event: a stumbling stone installation in the eastern Hungarian city of Debrecen.
The stumbling stone project is a Holocaust memorial created by German sculptor Gunter Demnig, who travels across Europe laying brass-plated concrete cubes into the sidewalk in front of the last freely chosen residences of Jews who were rounded up and killed. Each stumbling stone bears the birth and death data of an executed Jew.
It’s a decentralized memorial, meant to disrupt: Pedestrians across 22 European countries (and counting) are regularly stumbling across reminders of the continent’s worst genocide. Like all good Germans, Gunter works in bulk, installing the stones one city at a time, en masse. He would plant 19 stones that day in Debrecen. Our patrilineal line would receive six of them.
Dad was upset because his absence meant he had to relinquish control over the family speech, which would be made in front of his father’s childhood home. Speaking duties fell to his nephew, my cousin Gábor.
Gábor wanted to keep the tone of the memorial light: a little less Holocaust-y, out of a fatherly concern for his two young daughters. Plus, he’d always been a clown: When I’d been a college student studying abroad in Budapest, he’d assigned everyone in the family Christian aliases, which we used with one another at the bars, where we pretended to be proletarian goyim. Now, despite being 42 years old—with a head full of grey and an ample potbelly—he still retained his sense of mischief. Earlier in the summer, he’d suggested we take ecstasy and vandalize government buildings with slogans condemning the administration.
“You need to talk to him,” my father told me on the phone. “You’re a writer. He will listen to your feedback. He must be stopped.”
“I definitely will,” I told my father, knowing full well that I definitely wouldn’t.
I love my father, respect my father, but when it comes to the Holocaust, Gábor and I are of the same mind-set: Don’t be so heavy about it; it’s dramatic enough. On the morning of the installation, we even joked over breakfast about Gunter’s fee. The stones cost 150 euros each to install, and we marveled at the thought of a German artist charging the families of people that other Germans had executed.
Our conclusion: that it was hard, as Jews, to knock that kind of hustle.
The circular saw whined as it penetrated the pavement in front of the enormous black wooden gate at 14 Heart Street. Behind the gate stood three small wooden houses and a shared courtyard. Several dozen Jews milled about, a smattering of news outlets documenting the action, two police cars bookending the block to make sure neo-Nazi protestors couldn’t get too close.
It’s a pretty street, which is surprising, given how unsightly the rest of the city is. In WWII, 50 percent of Debrecen’s buildings were destroyed under artillery fire. Now there was nothing to remind Debrecen’s inhabitants of its former affluence save for a smattering of churches; the rest of the city is made up of concrete Soviet apartment buildings and cheap strip malls.
Gunter is a portly middle-aged man, with a trim white beard, a wide-brimmed cowboy hat, and a red bandana that he keeps choker-tight around his neck. He’s installed tens of thousands of stumbling stones since beginning the project 24 years ago, and he doesn’t appear to be slowing down, despite his advanced age of 69. Talk about German guilt.
After he finished with the saw, Gunter moved on to the hammer drill, its blunt metal spike that rips and removes the top layer of the sidewalk in a single motion, like a child pulling off a scab.
Debrecen’s Jewish history came and went in a blink. Jews were first allowed into the city in 1814 and within 10 years had the right to purchase property. By the beginning of the 20th century, they made up 10 percent of the city’s population.
My great-great grandparents, Simon Schön and Fani Kaiser, met in Debrecen. By 1872, they had three children: Hermin, Sándor, and my great-grandfather, Arthur. All three would be gassed at Auschwitz in their later years: glovers and glaziers forced into early retirement by the Jewish laws of 1938, then onto cattle cars and into the showers in July of 1944, three months before the Soviets liberated the city.
Arthur had married Terez Engländer (my great-grandmother, also killed at Auschwitz) and fathered two sons, György and János. Those two were conscripted into forced labor, digging trenches for the Nazis on the eastern front with Ukraine. János died from exhaustion. György survived, got married, and continued the family line.
With a trowel, Gunter scooped up the shattered pavement his drill had broken apart and inserted the three stumbling stones: Arthur, János, and Terez, all in a neat straight row, tight as sardines. He tapped at the stones with a rubber-headed mallet, forcing them deeper into place.
“The little boy in the middle,” he said to me, in English. “The child always in the middle. You know why?”
“For it to be like when he is walking with the parents.”
For most children, growing up means walking away from the protective familiarity of home. But my independence was an inverted narrative—freedom from parental supervision was at its most absolute when I went to their homeland without them. And so it was that nearly a decade after our parents had shoved us together to play in that lake house on the Balaton, Bori and I were together once again in a dorm room in Budapest, eyeing one another same as before, this time unchaperoned.
My brother and I had enrolled together at the Balassi Balint Institute in Budapest, for our respective junior years in college. When I told him that she was paying me a visit he courteously sexiled himself for the afternoon, and I’d kissed her—finally!—on my twin bed amongst the piles of stale stinky summer clothes, the corners full of dust bunnies, the candy bar wrappers and crummy plates littering the linoleum floor.
The BBI offers a tuition-free year for Hungarian citizens who grew up abroad. After intensively studying Hungarian language, Hungarian history, Hungarian literature, Hungarian everything, I’d passed my final exams and Bori and I were reuniting just in the nick of time, dispatching with our fidelity to our respective partners to indulge in some nostalgic last-minute snogging before my flight back to the States.
After making out we ambled through Buda’s leafy hills until it was time for Bori’s tram ride home. The trees were in bloom, and we found respite from the heat in the shade of a chestnut near the train station. I told her about a negative interaction I’d had with a gypsy, earlier in the semester at the very same tram stop. The gypsy had asked me for a cigarette; when I told him I didn’t have one to spare, he’d said, “Well, you should; I’m a gypsy and you’re a Jew.” Then he’d given me the finger.
“Oh, he just wanted a cigarette,” Bori said, her cadence slow, sweet, sensual. “You can’t take it too hard. It was just his way of trying to get what he wanted.”
“Maybe,” I said. “I don’t know.”
“I do. In my experience, that’s just the way gypsies are.”
Bori and I had never talked about the gypsies. We’d never talked about anything political.
“You can’t write off an entire group,” I said.
“I didn’t used to think so, either,” she replied, her voice petting me, smoothing my feathers even as her words continued to jar. “But then there was this one time when a gypsy woman stopped me in the street to read my fortune.”
She shared the anecdote, in which she was cheated out of a couple bucks.
‘That’s when I realized that, as a group of people, gypsies have structured their entire culture around cheating and stealing from us Hungarians.”
I should have told her then that gypsies were Hungarians, just like Jews were Hungarians, that these ethnic minorities had lived in the country for several centuries and that anyone who spoke this obscure little language was self-evidently Hungarian… but I was too shocked to think any of this at the time, much less say it.
Her words hung in the space between us. She stared at me, her eyes still so kind, comfortable in the silence, the gypsy comment suspended like fruit that I was welcome to pluck, examine, consume. I wanted to be outraged but was aroused instead; it was like her bigotry was a vulnerability, which itself is always an aphrodisiac. I kissed her.
Oh, my Bori, my innocent racist Bori, my forever summer love. To me, your casual Hungarian racism does not matter. When you say it in that voice, whatever you say, it will always be childlike and clean.
I kissed her one more time as the mustard yellow tram pulled up, then squeezed her hand and watched her slip away when the doors slid shut, carrying her off to Moscow Square and her happy healthy right-wing Catholic life.
I walked back into my dorm and headed up to the third floor and into the kitchen. Four Australian-Hungarians were decorating a cake. They’d already covered it in chocolate frosting and were now applying additional red icing, making a neat necklace of crimson beading around the cake’s edge. On its face, they’d drawn a swastika.
“To celebrate the end of the year,” one of the Australian students said to me. He was a big guy, gregarious. We’d always gotten along. He seemed to be searching my face for something. A challenge? Acquiescence? A laugh, to tell them I thought it was fine? I wasn’t sure if they knew I was Jewish. I was too exhausted to care.
“All right,” I offered dumbly, then headed back to my dorm room. Ben was at his desk, rolling a joint.
“Nazis,” I declared.
“Who?” he said. “Bori?”
“No,” I said. Then, after a moment: “Well, maybe. But I’m not worried about her.”
“Because she’s hot?” he asked.
“Well, partly. Also…”
“Because you think she might fuck you?”
“If I had to rank all the kinds of Nazis in order of evil, I think that’s probably the least offensive kind,” he said.
We walked to the Garden of Philosophy, a small green clearing up the hill from the school. It was a beautiful park, named for the bronze monument of five great thinkers—Abraham, Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tsu, and Akenaten—who stood in a circle around a small pool, their deep thoughts occasionally interrupted by Ben and me when we went their way to get high.
Ben sparked the joint, and as we smoked it we continued to joke: about the cake and casual racism, the arbitrary nature of it, the way baby-faced Ben could pass as a goy unless he went out in public with me: Then he would become one of “them,” his cover blown.
“My big Jew of a brother,” Ben said. “I can’t take you anywhere!”
There was a beautiful view from the Garden of Philosophy, one that reminded me of why I loved the city so much, with clear sightlines to the oxidized copper dome of the Royal Palace in Buda and across the river to the twin Neo-classical bell towers of St. Stephen’s Basilica in Pest. In a matter of weeks, the semester would be over and we’d be free to return to America, where this kind of thing didn’t ever happen to us. Meanwhile, here we were: making jokes, waiting for the time to run out, laughing, trying to acknowledge the horror without being buried by it. Given the circumstances, it was the best we could do.
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