Searching memory

Peter Szabo reconnects with his grandmother and learns of a family history in the Holocaust.

Family (photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
(photo credit: ING IMAGE/ASAP)
Can we really learn about ourselves by looking at our parents, grandparents and other family members from previous generations? That is the premise of Finding Maria: A Young Man’s Search for His Grandmother, and Himself, by Peter Szabo.
Szabo discovers much about his relatives and their lives in this beautiful book – and, even better, so do his readers. Like many young people, the author apparently believed that older people should neither be seen nor heard, but his father urged him to contact his grandmother. When he called the 87-year-old woman, he found himself hooked into a date at the opera with her, before he could come up with a plausible excuse for not going.
At that meeting, he began to confide in his grandmother, opening up to her in a way he hadn’t thought he would. And she started to tell him about herself and her family, subjects about which he had been ignorant.
For example, he learned that some members of his grandfather’s family had converted to Christianity and many had changed their name from Gansel to the c o m m o n Hungarian surname Szabo.
On one occasion, as his grandmother was telling him stories about life under the Nazis and later the Communists, their precarious situation during World War II suddenly clicked in.
“Holocaust. The word floated into my mind like a thin cloud on a soft breeze, and I searched my memory for a time she or my father had uttered it,” Szabo writes. “No, never. But they had been Jews in Budapest. The Germans had taken over.”
His grandmother told him that some 60 of her friends and family were murdered by the Germans.
Hungarian Jews’ problems did not end with the defeat of the Nazis, who were replaced by Soviet soldiers. First came the dangers of rape and theft by the soldiers, followed by tyrannical rule by Hungarian communists from which the family made an illegal – and nerve-wracking – escape.
The time spent with his grandmother paid personal dividends to the author. “I had come to appreciate the calming effect of her life force, the strength I drew from her steady, unflinching character, how her stories illuminated absences within me,” he writes.
The book ricochets between his outings with his grandmother and scenes of his father, his aunt and Szabo cleaning out his grandmother’s home after she had suffered a stroke and was living in a nursing home.
His father had been uncommunicative about his experiences as a boy, but as they go through his grandmother’s possessions and come across photos and paintings, he opens up and Szabo gets to know him better.
For his protection, his father had been placed in a Jesuit school, disguised as a Catholic, for a time during the war. His father told him that he had been an altar boy and had “never been so deeply, so religiously in love with God as I was during that period. I never captured that same feeling as a Jew. Never.” But then his father said that “Catholic doctrine damaged me, my outlook.”
“The Catholic attitude toward life is you take all the crap and the dessert comes later. It is false,” he declared. The priest is an intermediary between God and man, he explained, “interpreting things for you and you’re not supposed to think for yourself.”
Things are vastly different at his temple’s study group, where they read the text and commentary together, “questioning, thinking, arguing. It is so meaningful, so human.”
His father always ate too much, but now that he had learned something about his experiences living in Nazi-controlled Hungary, Szabo believes he understands why – and why his father previously had never spoken to him about his childhood.
Once, his father told him, his mother had left him in a basement while she went out to look for food. Maybe he had been starving as he waited for his mother to return, the author speculated. Perhaps, he had been hungry often. Could childhood fear and hunger explain his overeating as an adult?
He must have been confused, the author writes, “pulled from a Jesuit school and told he was Jewish, a yellow star of David pinned to his chest.... A Catholic by upbringing, a Jew by blood and edict, pretending to be Catholic. There without his mother, without a father. It made sense, his impulse to numb. Not an absence of feeling but a suppression of feeling, a buffering of memory, of pain, and of anger as a final defense when this failed. Yes, it made sense.”
This well-written memoir provides a glimpse of a Jewish family’s life during and after World War II in Budapest and later as Americans. It is insightful in all its settings.
Aaron Leibel is a former editor at The Jerusalem Post and Washington Jewish Week. His novel, Generations: The Story of a Jewish Family, which spans 1,500 years and three continents, is available online.