Fourteen years after my mother’s passing we arrived at Mezőcsát, a place today considered part of Hungary but which historically has been ruled by any number of lesser European princelings and powers. The town, for those with an interest in matters of geography, lies in Hungary’s northeast, specifically in county Borsod-Abaúj-Zemplén, the capital of which is Miskolc.
Mezőcsát, along with innumerable other places like it, are marginalia at best: dots on a map, footnotes in even the most detailed historical monograph. One could argue that such flecks—and by extension the Jews who considered them home, living out entirely unnotable, unheroic lives—merit no more than a mention in the histories of the period, however comprehensive such studies profess to be.
It was here in Mezőcsát that my mother was born in 1920 and lived up until 1924, when the family moved to Szikszó, a similarly small speck, 59 kilometers to the north, in the county of Torna.
Needless to say there are no longer any living Jews in Mezőcsát—although throughout our visit to Eastern Europe we found no shortage of what might best be called the “ahistorical Jew”: a minor cultural figure, typically a poet or a playwright but occasionally a thinker, who had contributed to the prevailing culture in a marginal way. Indeed, such ahistorical Jews are to be found everywhere: boulevards, avenues, plazas—even pavements—are named for them. This is particularly true of Poland, where the effort to preserve the memory of its Jews has become an art form in and unto itself and where the limited number of roads and squares to name after some Jew may lead to chaos someday.
But I digress.
Even at its height, the Jewish community of Mezőcsát numbered well under a thousand. But as is the case with so many of the smaller, insignificant Hungarian towns and cities where Jews once lived, a cemetery remains—and a synagogue, too. That this is so is simply an accident of history: The speed with which the Jews of Hungary were spirited off to Auschwitz-Birkenau was so sudden, so swift, according to a Hungarian woman I once interviewed, that when she returned home 12 months later—nokh Birkenau und Bergen Belsen und di bafrayung—and entered the strange house she once called home, she found the dough her mother had placed in the oven still there, unleavened, having turned somehow into matzo. (This story is now many years old but that bit of apocrypha has stayed with me, along with the image of that woman seated on a sofa covered with plastic, in a house somewhere in Borough Park, tugging on her sheitel and daring me to doubt her, as if her account was proof of the existence of God and the Exodus.)
The Mezőcsát synagogue, to be truthful, is no big deal: Set in the center of town, in a plaza across from the municipal hall, it is a plain, simple, ordinary structure, one that in all likelihood was never regarded by its congregants to be anything but ordinary. It reminded me of the synagogue my parents belonged to, which, though called officially Chevreh Linath Tzedek, was known simply as the Clara Street shul. Nothing on the front of the building distinguished it as a synagogue other than the tall, half-circle windows that at one time must have held stained glass; but in the back, high in one of the gables, there remained a small circular window and within the circle, a Star of David.
Restored and maintained by the municipality, the synagogue has been repurposed as an experimental artistic/cultural center. On the pavement was a placard: A nagy magyar költő (The great Hungarian poet!), Minden hétköznap (Every weekday!), A belépés díjtalan (Entry is free!).
In the vestibule, there was a plaque to “Kiss, József, GREAT HUNGARIAN POET, 1843-1921.” The poet Kiss (formerly Klein, József) had been born in Mezőcsát, and inside the synagogue is a small, permanent exhibit commemorating his life. I knew nothing about Kiss—indeed, until that moment I’d never heard of him. Little did I foresee the place that Kiss (né Klein) would come to occupy in my consciousness (and, yes, in the writing of this piece)—to the extent that I sometimes feel I know everything about Mezőcsát’s native son (and, strangely, he of me), and that if I were to bump into him on the street we would recognize one another instantly.
But enough for now of Kiss.
Seated at a card table near the synagogue entrance was a teenage girl, an oversize volume resembling Kaplan’s SAT prep book (in Hungarian) open before her. I signed the guest book: The last visitors, a German couple from Ratingen, had signed the ledger a few months before, adding: “Sehr interessant!”
I wandered in while my wife lingered, explaining to the girl stationed at the entrance that we were from America, from New York, and that we were traveling. And the girl in a shaky English said: Here? Ide? From America? New York?
Inside, the synagogue had been transformed into a shrine for Kiss: a facsimile of his birth certificate, slim volumes of his poetry, journals he’d founded and edited, a copy of a letter from him, reviews of his work. Meanwhile, the benches where Jews once gathered were gone—reduced to firewood or else repurposed as materiel—replaced by banquet seating, arranged in neat rows. Empty space in a vacuous cultural center where, in answer to my wife’s question concerning the kinds of events presented, the girl answered that to date there had been none.
I overheard my wife again providing a rationale for our trip to Eastern Europe (“It’s a ‘roots’ journey”). By now, of course, I’d lost count of how many times I’d listened to her version of what had brought us here, an account that sounded somehow even more ridiculous standing in the entrance of the onetime synagogue yet was no more absurd than my own explanation: that a Europe where anti-Semitism was in vogue again was a place where I could feel secure again.
That said, I still could not fully grasp what we were doing here. I found it incomprehensible to be in a part of the world where preserving and touring the remains of Jews has become an industry unto itself, a place I’d once promised myself never to set foot in.
Some 18 months beforehand, an email addressed to me from my brother’s brother-in-law appeared suddenly in my inbox. This brother-in-law is someone I know only slightly: He’d moved to Israel long ago and had been living there for many years. To my mind he is the modern-day counterpart to those figures who appear in the Talmud and are referred to as nekhutei: travelers who would descend from Palestine to Bavel, passing along various textual questions and answers, arguments and clarifications between the study halls of Bavel and Palestine in the centuries following the expulsion of the Jews from Judea in the second century. Having said that, I do not mean to suggest that my brother’s brother-in-law literally serves as a messenger or that he even sees himself playing such a role—only that he, like so many others who have made aliyah, serve as go-betweens and intermediaries between today’s centers of Jewish life.
His email had been sent to both my brother and me. In it, he wrote about the owner of the makolet in his neighborhood who was seeking to preserve the Jewish legacy of a city in Moldova where his grandparents and their parents and their parents’ parents had lived for generations leading up to the Second World War. He was writing to ask if we would be willing to support the makolet owner’s effort.
A few years before, he added, he’d paid a visit to the “hometown” of our late mother, to Szikszó, a place where there are no Jews any longer but where, he said, he had found the Jewish cemetery to be well tended, with a wall surrounding it and the grass mowed. He planned on writing about the makoletman in his newsletter and asked what I thought about the condition of the cemetery in Szikszó: Was I grateful for it being maintained, would I be disturbed if it were to go to ruin, would I contribute for its maintenance? And finally, what did I think of the makoletman’s project?
Soon after receiving it I mentioned the email to my wife, who neither reads nor speaks Hebrew and who asked, what’s a makolet? I explained that a makolet is a small supermarket or convenience store, somewhere between a full-fledged supermarket and a bodega. So, she continued, is there a connection between being a makolet owner and this project of his? There is no connection, I said. In other words, she said, it’s a detail. Yes, I said, it’s merely a detail. Then it has no real relevance to the underlying issue, she said. Correct, I said. None whatsoever.
Yet even as the words left my lips, I regretted them. I had conveniently seized on a small, seemingly irrelevant detail, when the implied narrative was much more complex and “thicker” than so minimalist an approach can hope to reveal (the words belong to Peter Schäfer). More importantly, I had missed the point: that somewhere in the Jewish state a makoletman woke up at dawn each day, unlocked the gates, punched in a security code; each day he checked the store shelves, rearranged items, worked the register, talked to customers, fought with distributors and competitors—even as another man bearing a striking resemblance to him awakened in an alternate Jewish state, one filled with ghosts of ghosts, memories of memories.
The email from my brother’s brother-in-law arrived in autumn, coinciding with our move to Princeton from New York.
Although the move, necessitated by my wife’s job, had been planned and was temporary, it had proved disruptive: I, like my father and my mother before me, am a creature of habit—to the degree that I sometimes wonder whether our staying alive is more a habit than an expression of will. It had taken some time for me to come up with a new set of routines, such as my daily walk to the public library. A route that took me from the house we’d rented on Jefferson Road, onto Wiggins, past Madison and Vanderventer, and alongside the Princeton Cemetery, which stood across from the public library where I spent mornings/afternoons working. The cranberry walnut roll I purchased each morning at the bakery across from the library. The coffee I bought from the shop just up the street.
So, it was a while before I got around to replying to the email—though it would be a lie to place the blame for the delay on our move. I found myself fixating (perseverating would be more apt) over the fact that he—a brother-in-law, no less—had visited the city of Szikszó, where no one else in the family had set foot, that he had been to the cemetery, a detail so random and so puzzling that I kept coming back to it, unable to get past it.
My mother herself had never returned to Szikszó—despite the many occasions over the years when she might have done so. I am thinking now of the decade when she and my father went every other year to Trenčianske Teplice, a spa town in Slovakia specializing in post-traumatic stress disorders. Those trips were an extension of the postwar compensation act, known colloquially as Wiedergutmachung—literally “making good again”—but officially as Bundesentschädigungsgesetz, or BEG.
Under Wiedergutmachung, those able to show a correlation between their war experience and present health were entitled to treatment at various spas in Europe or the United States. In the case of my father, his experiences left him 24% impaired and he was awarded a small lump sum, later supplemented by a lifetime annuity for his labor in the IG Farben plant in Buna. Subsequently, other sweeteners were added, including the trip he and my mother made every other year to Trenčianske Teplice, which had established a reputation for itself of treating the effects of the camps. Those treatments involved dipping in heated pools, drinking sulfur mineral waters, and receiving mild electrical shock therapy. Yet despite the fact that my parents were fewer than 300 kilometers from Szikszó, a mere four-hour drive, they never went.
How would my mother have reacted to learning that my brother’s brother-in-law had stopped in Szikszó, a place she kept alive in the tales she told? Over and over, she would repeat its stories, ones filled with every human foible—love and heartbreak, pride and envy, regret and shame. That, I believe, was what had drawn the brother-in-law to Szikszó—seeking the source of those stories.
What he did not know—and couldn’t have known, since not even my own brother was aware of it—was that, despite her never-ceasing chatter about Szikszó, my mother had not actually been born in that small city. She arrived there at the age of 4, after her father was offered the position of chazan of the Szikszó synagogue, a structure built just before the start of the First World War, in 1914, 10 years prior to the family’s arrival. By the time they relocated to Szikszó, the family, which then numbered 10, was essentially complete: father, mother, two older sisters, two older brothers, my mother, two younger sisters and one younger brother. The final family member, a boy, would be born seven years later, a change-of-life child.
Left behind in Mezőcsát: the first fruits of her mother’s womb—twin girls, dead within months of birth, a loss that left my mother’s mother—at 18, herself little more than a child—bereft. And my mother’s father—an 18-year-old rabbinical student hired to tutor her younger brothers and who had fallen in love with her and she with him, mismatched though they were (he, short/she, towering; he, thin, wiry/she bounteous, plentiful; he, fiery/she, gentle)—offered her consolation. How? In my mother’s words: Er hat zi gebentsht—though answering in this way she meant not to imply he had literally blessed her mother, only that he had comforted and assured her she would find favor in the eye of God, who would bless and open her womb 10 times over with sons and daughters she would raise on her knee and who would live to see the sun.
This, it turned out, was an exaggeration on his part, for she was to give birth only nine more times, eight of them in Mezőcsát and the last in Szikszó. And as he promised her, she—the mother of my mother—watched her nine grow from childhood into adulthood, sorrowing in their sufferings, sadness, setbacks, and delighting in their dreams, loves, moments of transcendence. And in her death she would be spared the knowledge that of the nine only one—the fifth and middle child, flanked on the one side by two older sisters and two older brothers and on the other side by two younger sisters and two younger brothers—would outlive Hitler who would finish off the rest.
You may wonder: Why go into such detail on matters that are of no consequence—and arguably irrelevant—to the matter at hand? In part it was to help my brother’s brother-in-law grasp that while my mother may have been from Szikszó, she had never been of Szikszó: A part of her would always remain an outsider and a stranger, her love a love only an outsider and stranger can bring, a deep and tender and unrequited love which lent poignancy to her stories, as if she were recording and processing images and stories that were disappearing before her eyes.
But it was also to let him know that in all likelihood she would not have reacted kindly to learning he’d been to Szikszó. I say that because in the 1980s and 1990s and the early 2000s, as the handful of remaining Szikszóers began venturing back there on visits, she saw and grasped the town’s transformation even more clearly than they did, as if she, not they, had gone back. And when I raised the idea with her of returning for a visit, she answered: Szikszó? Vhat is there, for me? Her reply took me aback, not her words but the tone, a tone that said: Emetser darf nemen a shtekn tsi dihr—Someone ought to take a stick to you—and hit you over the head.
And so I said to my brother’s brother-in-law who had been to Szikszó and beheld its well-kept cemetery, which found favor in his eyes: “Is there not something incongruous about the presence of a well-tended cemetery in a place where there are no longer any Jews? It is as if one had come upon the ruins of Stonehenge—who lived there, what lives did they lead, what became of them and their descendants?” So, yes, I was prepared to contribute a symbolic amount to the upkeep of the Szikszó cemetery, and any other cemetery for that matter. Not however because I planned to visit those well-maintained graveyards—in fact, it was unlikely I would ever set foot in Poland or in Hungary: Those lands were too filled with blood and the thought of spending money and time there was incongruous to me.
Yet here I was, 18 months later, in Hungary, in Mezőcsát, in the onetime synagogue rebranded a cultural center, looking for two tiny headstones that I had turned into symbols of a time before all that which then happened, happened—when small, minor, passing tragedies were still marked by stone.
My wife had asked the young woman to direct us to the Jewish graveyard but she just shook her head and suggested we try the town hall, which was closed for the day—it being 1 o’clock—but would reopen tomorrow morning.
We went back to the rental car and I told my wife: If we just drive a bit and give the car its head, it will bring us to the cemetery. I was being half-facetious: On previous visits to Europe—whatever the city, be it London, Paris, Athens, Rome, Stockholm, Copenhagen—we invariably wound up by the entrance to the Jewish cemetery.
We crawled along in first gear, turning here and there, without design. My wife humored me: You have a good feeling about this particular road, do you? Yes, I nodded, I did, adding: You understand, yes? And she said: Of course—and we’re here anyway, right?
So I let the car direct itself, as if it was a divining rod that would lead us there. And it did. Rising up to the left on a hill, a cemetery suddenly came into view.
I stopped across from it and turned off the ignition. Tombstones bearing crosses, the Virgin Mary and angels were visible through the gates. Perhaps, my wife offered tentatively, not believing it herself, the Jewish cemetery is inside, within the Catholic one.
Unlikely, I said and left the car while she got out and took shelter from the blazing sun underneath a tree. I headed toward a one-story administrative building near the entrance to the cemetery, hoping to find someone there to direct me to the Jewish one.
But the offices were closed. I went outside and wandered about the graveyard. Besides the girl we’d encountered at the entrance to the synagogue, the graves, decked in ribbons, flowers, crucifixes, beads, candles, and photographs, were the first signs of life I had come across in Mezőcsát. I knew for certain that the Jewish cemetery was not to be found anywhere within the vicinity of the Hungarian one, and yet I walked the perimeter of the cemetery all the same, if only to be able to say I’d looked.
Some will object: Enough. The whole point of this exercise—the pshat, in a word—is this: A Jew journeyed to Mezőcsát with the thought of finding the graves belonging to twin girls whose deaths, heartbreaking in a conventional sense, spared them the horror of what was to come—he does so knowing all the while how unlikely it is he’ll find their graves. Time erases everything, much less the small, thin stones marking their lives. And so, to repeat, the pshat, the plain unadorned point: The Jew is chasing ghosts.
Others will take issue: No, not ghosts, but ghosts of ghosts! Because to whom does the story belong? Not to “his” grandmother but to his mother’s mother (to make reference to the clumsy, self-conscious construction of his “brother’s brother-in-law”): A grandmother after all is someone you’ve known, whose scent is on your clothes, whose touch is on your skin.
Still others go even further: No—this is no longer in the realm of ghosts, nor even ghosts of a ghost’s ghost: For his mother, having given up the ghost, is nothing but a word. These then are just words of a word.
And lastly it might be left to someone to say: The pshat here is that there is no pshat, no point at all. What we have here instead is just a pusheter meiseh, a simple story. A story that is familiar to us, a story we’ve heard time and again. Because for a Jew, what is it to step on European soil but to walk on graves. Yet, what choice is there when one is chasing ghosts?
As our sojourn in Princeton neared its end, I found myself telling people that we were headed to Eastern Europe, a place I thought I’d never set foot in—but with the resurgence there of anti-Semitism, I could once again feel myself at home. A joke that was better suited to the community I grew up in, a neighborhood that had no name while I was growing up but that has since has come to be dubbed Kensington. Back then, however, it was simply known as “outside Borough Park”: an area wedged between Church Avenue and Green-Wood Cemetery and 36th Street and Dahill Road that once belonged to a farmer called Chester, with four daughters named Minna, Tehama, Clara and Louisa.
Let me take you there.
In the early 1970s, a period that was to prove devastating to my father’s business, my mother found work as a part-time companion to a woman who lived in one of the four-story walkups that bordered 36th Street, just up from where 13th Avenue comes to an abrupt end. The woman was incapacitated, the result of a stroke, and though there was a full-time home aide who saw to her basic needs—feeding, washing, bathing—her husband wanted someone who could watch over her, read to her from the Yiddish newspaper and ensure she not go neglected.
The man, a shaliach, served as the envoy of a host of minor charities said to support orphaned Jewish girls, work that took him to Jewish communities scattered to the corners of the earth—Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, South Africa—going to various synagogues and Jewish homes, and collecting the contents of the metal pushkehs that once adorned all Jewish households.
Months would often go by before the shaliach returned once again to the dark four-room apartment at the corner of 36th and Minna that he shared with his wife and unmarried son, who had a city job. For the sake of economy let’s give the shaliach a name—not his real one, but a name all the same—and call him, Mordechai, saying it in the manner of my mother: Reb Mord’cheh.
One time, upon his return from a trip to London, my mother asked: Reb Mord’cheh, vi zenen die mentschen in London? He looked at her and sighed, brushing aside the question of how people were making out in London. Mrs. Rozenb—, he said, frege nisht voos machen der mentschen in London—frege voos machen der Yiden in London. His answer—“Ask not how the people are making out in London—ask how the Jews are making out there”—left a lasting impression, one that would remain long afterward and that she would repeat again and again, until nothing remained but the punchline: Der shyeleh iz, voos machen der Yiden in London?
In Princeton I did occasional work for a university-affiliated economic policy group, writing up the proceedings of symposiums that were held in the fall and spring. At my last conference, I was seated as usual with undergraduate economics majors and a group of elderly alumni. Introducing myself to the undergraduates, one asked whether I lived in town. And I answered: I am a stranger and a sojourner among you.
The words caught the ear of an older man seated across the table. This gentleman—I use the term deliberately, with no irony intended, as Princeton prides itself on turning out gentlemen—was part of a group of alumni in their 90s who I had come to know by face if not name. He happened to be a minister, a fact I was aware of, having overheard a conversation between him and a parish member at a previous conference. But even had I not been privy to that exchange, one had only to look at him to know that was so: His cheeks smiled, well-formed lips made doubly precious the sweetness of his words. His brow was white, translucent wax, well-rounded hands with tapering fingers made it a delight to receive a gift from him. His voice was fulsome, not harsh, nor was it lacking in manly vigor (the words are taken from Peter Brown’s description of Epiphanius of Pavia).
He looked at me. You are a Jew, he said in a voice that was fulsome, not harsh. Tell me: Do you identify as a Jew?
The words—I do, yes—rushed out of my mouth without pause, without hesitation, as if any stop—even a momentary one to dwell on the question—would serve to undermine the answer.
But no sooner had they left my lips than I was filled with despair. How shvach had been my rejoinder, a weakness underscored by its speed. It was as if in my rush to answer in the affirmative, I had doomed myself. For what did his question mean? And was it even a question?
I was just leaving the Hungarian cemetery when I caught sight of a giant of a man on the road, a cloud of dust moving in unison with him, so that it was impossible to tell if dust was coming off the road or being emitted from the pores of his body.
I shouted out to him and he stopped, waiting for me to catch up.
United State? Jewish cemetere? I said, as if lopping off a letter or cutting a syllable would make my questions more intelligible. America?
With eyes the color of cornflowers he stared at me, as if before him there stood a rare specimen he had heard of but had never encountered. Csak magyarul tudok, he spoke only Hungarian. Angolul nem tudok.
Nem tudok, I repeated, the phrase resonating with me somehow despite my having no idea what it meant.
We stood there, looking at each other. He, covered with the dirt of a fresh grave, regarded me questioningly—who are you? what are you? what are you doing here?— while I stared back at him, my mind a blank.
Then, pointing to myself, I said, Jew. We are Jews, and placed a hand on my heart. Zsido, Zsido, I repeated for him again and again, pounding my chest. Zsido cemetere—hol van, I said, turning and pointing to the Catholic cemetery.
His face suddenly came to life. Zsido, igen? Ah, a temető? Igen, a Zsidó temetőt keresi?, he said, excited.
Igen, Zsido. A temető. Yes, yes, Jew, cemetery, I nodded, parroting him.
Értem!Megértem, hogy mire gondol, he shook his head to show he understood. Then he took me by the arm to tell me of his grandmother who remembered the days when there still were Jews in Mezőcsát: A nagymamám emlékszik a Zsidókra—mindent elmondott nekem, mi történt az itt élő Zsidókkal.
Directions? I asked, and pantomimed a steering wheel.
Így lehet elmenni a Zsidó temetőbe, he shouted, becoming more and more animated as he tried to explain how to get to the cemetery: chopping at the air with a giant paw and pointing and indicating to the right, at the fork in the road.
Köszönöm, I said, thanking him.
Barát. A nagymamám mondta, he repeated, telling me of his grandmother again. Hitler, a nácik és a fasiszták megölték a Zsidókat.
I rushed back to my wife who asked: Did you get directions? I nodded, starting the car up.
I drove slowly, haltingly, trying to channel his movements, motions and body language to the steering wheel. But it was no use. We were nowhere, encircled in dust, nothing to be seen. I had lost all hope of finding it when suddenly my wife pointed: Here it is. You found it.
I looked to the right and there, materialized out of nothing, stood the cemetery, a Star of David at the entrance. I pulled over to the side of the road and left the car and went to the gate, which was locked. Through the bars, there stood a small hut, the windows dark. On the gate was a sign with the days and hours of operation. And over the gate was barbed wire to keep out intruders.
My wife looked at me: What do we do? Then suggested: Perhaps there’s an attendant or someone with a key that can open it? Or do you want to see if there’s another entrance?
I looked through the gate at the sad and pathetic stones and then at the barbed wire and shards of glass running along the top of the masonry wall. Of course, of course, I thought, shaking my head. What have you bought yourself in all this but failure?
I walked, following the wall, which continued for some 20 meters or so before a high fence topped by barbed wire picked up where the masonry left off. Through the fence were the headstones, many of them marked by numbers, reminiscent of archaeological sites where each specimen, each shard is cataloged, numbered. Farther down stood a tall, stately beech, its lush, plump branches casting ripe shadows.
I walked along the barrier, filled with a fatalism and indolence, which mocks our every effort. How absurd—to have come so far, and all for nothing, I thought, looking through the fence at the graveyard. Yet, one had to admit, there was something fitting to such an ending.
But this is Hungary, a nation where self-mockery is an art unto itself. And, as if to say this journey will end when and where it is fitting to come to an end, the fence itself came to an abrupt end, as if the workers had suddenly grown tired or bored or else inexplicably filled with a melancholy that made them drop everything, leaving it undone—because this after all is Hungary, where things are left unfinished and incomplete and where sad-faced mockery is the national pastime.
I slipped into the gap made by the tree and the fence and barbed wire and entered the cemetery, soon joined by my wife. We walked back toward the entrance, to the monument with the list of names of deportees who had not returned. The remains of a yahrzeit glass lay at the base of the stone and a visitors’ book with names of those who had come to Mezőcsát before us. My wife wrote in our names while I looked through the window of the locked hut. Inside were tables and a desk with prayer books along with a basket of yarmulkes.
My wife came upon a headstone bearing my mother’s maiden name and asked if it could possibly be a relative. No, I said, shrugging. I didn’t know, but I doubted it. It was a fairly common name—you could fill up an entire train with people bearing that name. In the meantime my wife went searching for the section set aside for infants, looking for headstones with my mother’s maiden surname.
I wandered aimlessly among the graves and headstones, weighed down by a sense of overwhelming melancholia and futility. It was only the sound of my wife calling my name that broke through the torpor enveloping me.
She was in a corner of the cemetery, bent down over a patch of headstones—tiny wafers barely visible in the tall grass that had grown unchecked around them. I can’t make out any names, she said. Can you? I shook my head, no: But it wouldn’t surprise me to find out they’ve always been blank, given the high infant mortality. My father’s parents didn’t even bother to register his birth until he was a year old.
Then I bent down beside her and stared at the small, insignificant stones, some of them bearing faint, illegible markings, but most of them thin blank slates.
Hungarian—the language—is considered a sealed book, at least for English speakers. And also a sticky tongue, attaching itself to one like flypaper or like hair caught in the throat: a language difficult to acquire but impossible to escape, steeped in melancholy and mockery.
One might argue such feelings are specific to me, given my mother’s extraction—an objection well taken were both my parents Hungarian, in which event the language would have wrapped itself around me and the stickiness would have been imbibed, along with my mother’s milk.
But let’s not persist in speculation. Allow me to illustrate my point.
Among the tightknit group of friends that enveloped my mother after the Second World War when she arrived in Borås, a lesser city on Sweden’s southwest coast, was a man by the name of Kitschy. Growing up, I knew little about Kitschy other than the fact that he was a Polish Jew, although that was true of most of those who reached Borås after the war. And he also happened to be bigger than most other Boråsers, although that is not really relevant to this story. What concerns us here is his name.
And so it was only by chance that I learned that Kitschy was not his real name. Kicsi, Hungarian for small, was the nickname given to him by the Hungarians when he entered Auschwitz in the fall of 1944, then but a boy. Yet the name stuck with him all his life, long after outgrowing the small runt he had once been.
I mention this by way of explanation for what happened after coming back to America.
In the months following our return, I found myself taking the train to Princeton once a week to audit a course—even though the easier and more reasonable thing to do would have been to take classes in the city. But I am a creature of habit, as I noted, just like my father before me. Despite a workday that began at 5 in the morning and went until 7 at night, he would take out the trash after supper—and disappear for an hour or so. Where he went, no one knew. But having inherited his disposition my guess is he wandered about, following a route that took him past the first apartment he and my mother rented at Ninth Avenue, the building on 42nd Street and 14th Avenue where his sons were born, before coming full circle and returning to our house at the corner of 12th Avenue and Chester Avenue. I say this because I, too, would wander off when my children were still young. And when I returned, and my sons asked where I had been, I’d say: Down the chute. Similarly, my father disappeared down a chute.
During one particularly slow train ride back from Princeton, I began going through some pictures on my phone and came upon a shot of the Mezőcsát synagogue and the sign for József Kiss (né Klein). It turned out that I’d taken only a single blurry photograph of the exhibit on Kiss. I had been so narrowly focused on what had seemed to me to be the most telling details (the young girl studying for her entrance exams, the shape and color of the bricks leading to the synagogue, the pattern they made, the empty streets and public benches, the church)—the so-called objective correlatives meant to tell a story—that I had lost sight completely of Mezőcsát’s native son. And the short video I’d shot revealed little more: a plaque with an inscription from a poem, a photograph, the frontispiece from a book of poems, some old Hungarian publications.
Increasingly, though, my thoughts turned toward Kiss. Who had he been? Where did he stand in the pantheon of the ahistorical Jew? Google turned up a YIVO entry and some brief pieces in Beit Hatfutsot and Encyclopedia Judaica. And over the weekend, I checked with the bookstore to see if they carried anything of his. But despite the efforts of an earnest saleswoman, it came to naught: Not a single volume of the ballads of the famed and celebrated poet could be found.
By this point it’s fair to say I was obsessed with Kiss.
The Beit Hatfutsot article had mentioned the Hungarian title of one ballad and a search brought me to a website where that poem and others appeared in the original Hungarian for a split second before being rendered into nonsense English. I decided to translate the poem despite my knowing no Hungarian. First, however, I needed to transcribe it line-by-line, before the site’s translation function turned it into gibberish—a process that involved repeating it again and again until I was able to copy it in its entirety. At the same time, the procedure I found was like glimpsing some other reality for a split second—or having a word or phrase on the tip of the tongue—only to watch it vanish.
The work—the effort to transcribe, to translate, to render the original intelligible, along with the discovery that the poet’s change in name from Klein to Kiss had not been haphazard, that just as klein was German/Yiddish for “small,” so too was kis in Hungarian (something that should have occurred to me instantly, given the example of Kitschy)—all of it had a profound effect on me. And I found my feelings toward Kiss in particular and ahistorical Jews in general—their role in the drama of European Jewry—undergoing a shift. In them I saw the nekhutei of the Talmud: a special group of sages that has been esteemed (and sometimes blamed) for the transmission of rabbinic traditions between Palestine and Babylon from the late third to early-/mid-fourth centuries CE (the words belong to James Redfield).
To assert a resemblance is a stretch, admittedly. Indeed, the whole business with the nekhutei may be reflexive. But in some strange way, I did see a likeness, albeit slight, between the wandering nekhutei whose role was to bring reports to and from the so-called Jerusalemites to the Babylonians and the ahistorical figure of Kiss (né Klein) who in journeying forth from his birthplace and changing his name would spend the rest of his life caught between Mezőcsát and Budapest, trying to turn his childhood into a poem that would speak to Hungary and the broader culture.
And what I found, crazy though it may sound, is that a dialogue sprang up between us: that in the effort to understand and translate his work a discourse began between us, despite the distance in time separating us—one that went on in his mind as well as mine. I understood how Kiss, like the other ahistorical Jews I came upon in my own aimless wanderings, was the product of a generation that inhaled death. And under his breath I heard the melancholia, the indolence and contempt that is native to Hungary, a land where things are left unfinished and undone, whose soil cultivates in the poet self-mockery and disdain—leaving him in the end with, if not the last word, then, at a minimum, a parting laugh at the living and the dead.
MEGHOLT KÖLTŐNEK (To a Dead Poet)
It is good to be a dead poet,
Fortune smiles down upon you –
Home is a quiet, cool, shady place
Where you sleep, at peace.
Underneath your head an enchanted pillow
That takes away the cares
And calms the passions
That pursued you while you lived, struggled, hoped.
Dead poet… oh, happy state!...
The fire inside your head,
Gone like a rainbow, leaving behind no trace
On a bridge you crossed barefoot.
Onetime rivals surrender to you,
None so reckless as to compete with the dead.
So swallow your critical bile
For fashion courts and worships him.
Oh, dead poet, asleep below,
Pray for us, we who are poor and pathetic,
We who chew on dead laurels
We who struggle with silence
We who chase imaginary phantoms
Looking down on ordinary people, on shackled titans,
And on homeless vagabonds.
Robert Rosenberg, a writer, is at work on a book.