Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Since When Chapter 1

How is this possible? We lost Fran a year ago. I thought she would like it if I posted the Introduction and first chapter of her book, "Since When". I may find a later version...if so, I'll update this post. But it gives you a quick look into the magnum opus that she worked on for the last five years of her life. Think good thoughts today about Frannie and the life she led. And enjoy "Since When."

In September 1989, I sat in the coach section on an Austrian Airlines flight headed for Vienna. I was to meet my mother, Erna, at our hotel there. I was traveling alone, because Mom had spent the last week in Israel visiting family.

I had spent the ride to the airport in tears. It had been a horrible day at the office and I was more than a little overtired, but it was still a strange reaction considering that I was on my way for the first long vacation I’d had in five years. And this trip was a special one. Mom and I were traveling alone together for the first time. We were going to see Vienna and Salzburg in Austria. From there, we were going to take the train to Budapest. From Budapest, we were scheduled to take a train roughly six hours across Hungary to the region of Subcarpathia, where my mother had been born. Subcarpathia- as the name suggests- is located just below the Carpathian Mountains that stretch from Poland all the way to Romania. After World War II, Subcarpathia had become part of the Ukraine, and now, with our Soviet visas in hand (arranged months in advance), our two-day visit there was set. For years, the Soviets had not let foreigners into Subcarpathia purportedly for reasons of national security. Recently, they had changed their minds, so Mom and I decided to make the trip.

Perhaps I was worried about how Mom and I would get along being alone together for two whole weeks. We know exactly which buttons to push and often can’t restrain ourselves from pushing them. We are always convinced that the other is the one who is off the wall. But there was more to my tears than that. This was going to be a bittersweet trip. Mom had not seen Kaszony, the town where she was born and where she lived until she was six and a half years old, since she had left it back in 1929. She had never been able to bring herself to visit Hungary. We were going to meet family in Budapest whom we had never met, and Mom would see cousins she had not seen since she was a little girl. My brothers and I had been hearing about Kaszony from our mother and grandmother, Fanny, for as long as we could remember. It was a place we felt we knew intimately- we knew all the stories by heart- but, at the same time, we really didn’t know anything at all. To us, Kaszony and our Hungarian family seemed to be lifetimes and worlds away from us. But it really wasn’t, and we knew it.  Now I would see this mysterious village for myself. Perhaps, sitting on that airplane heading for Vienna, this was all a little too much for me to comprehend.


At the Forum Hotel in Budapest, Mom and I made a six a.m. train reservation to the town of Csap which was situated just across the border from Hungary in the Ukraine. When we made the reservation with the concierge, he looked at us strangely and asked, why would you want to go there? Clearly, we were not heading towards any popular tourist spot.

We went to the Keleti train station very early that September morning. We brought with us box lunches from the hotel, which were to sustain us for the long train ride. We arrived in Csap on schedule a little past midday and were greeted by the Soviet representative, a young Hungarian man, who was to take us to our hotel in the nearby city of Uzhgorod- known in Hungarian as Ungvár. As we headed for the car parked right outside the station, we began to absorb our surroundings. We both felt like we’d stepped out of the 1980s into some strange time warp or at the very least, a studio back-lot. The place looked like it hadn’t changed in about a hundred years. And it probably hadn’t. As we got into the waiting automobile, I felt there was something peculiar about it. I realized that the car resembled those of my early childhood- the early 1960s. The car seats ended at the shoulders- headrests had not yet found their way here, and the car upholstery was the pre-naugahide fabric that I seemed to remember was ubiquitous in vintage 1962 automobiles.

We arrived at our hotel, the Zakarpatya, about a half-hour later. It was a drab, slightly seedy, quintessential Soviet-style concrete box of a building. The hotel’s Soviet Russian representative who spoke perfect, though slightly-accented, English checked us in. Unlike the man who picked us up at the train station, she was brusque and officious. It was clear that she was there to make sure that we were to stay out of trouble.  When we checked in we noticed cheaply-printed travel posters for Moscow pinned to the walls. This was all was very, very strange.

Our room was dreary and musty and smelled of strong disinfectant. It was already late afternoon by the time we were settled in.  It was two hours later here in the Ukraine than in Budapest. But we didn’t cross two time zones on our trip. Rather, the Soviet government preferred that the area adhere to Moscow time, so, incredibly, when we crossed the Ukrainian border, it’s suddenly two hours later than it was a moment before.

Mom and I took a walk in the area around the hotel. By late afternoon, the small city seemed to be deserted of its residents, and it felt like we were walking through a ghost town or possibly a De Chirico painting. We passed a plaza with tables covered with what were meant to be gaily-colored umbrellas. But the tables and the umbrellas, bolted permanently into the plaza, were grotesque in their cheap, decrepit gaiety. We went into a food store to find only a few cans on mostly bare shelves. Compared to the plenty we saw in Hungary, and knowing how rich and bountiful Subcarpathia had been, we found this both sad and disturbing.

Our meal at the hotel that night was abominable. It consisted of a slab of nondescript tasteless gray meat that lay next to a forlorn pile of cold peas that had clearly just come out of a can and dumped onto our plates. But, there was nowhere else for us or any of the other travelers at the hotel to go for food. And certainly, our Soviet hosts were not going to direct us to alternative eating establishments. That night, we went to bed hungry and in poor spirits.

Early the next morning we were met by a Jewish-Hungarian man from Beregovo- (Beregszász in Hungarian). He had survived World War II, and had lived in Subcarpathia all his life. A fellow Kaszonyer in the United States gave us his name and number. In Budapest, we called Rudy and asked if would be able to pick us up at our hotel in Ungvár and take us to Kaszony. He was delighted to do it, and we were greeted that morning by a sweet gray-haired man who whisked us away in his ancient automobile for the hour or so drive to from Ungvár to Kaszony.

As Rudy chattered away with my mother in Hungarian, my eyes opened wider and wider as I stared at the land whizzing past me. The countryside mostly was flat with rolling hills off in the distance. The morning light was soft and gentle as if it had been filtered through a filmy curtain. The horizon had faded away into a fuzzy green haze. It’s hard to explain, but this place felt different from anywhere I’d ever been before. And it felt different from first-time visits to other countries. Viscerally, I think I understood that I wasn’t just a tourist here and that there was some deeper recognition that I was actually connected to this strange place.

The roads were in terrible shape. And we were constantly jostled by the huge potholes and cracks on the paved roads and holes and ruts on the unpaved ones. We drove past tiny villages so small that you’re already through them by the time you realize you’d been in them. Rudy deftly avoided chickens and geese and cattle that wandered into the road and passed the occasional horse and wagon that was in our path. We bounced along the roads as Mom and Rudy occasionally spoke to one another. I remained silent in the back seat. 

I was abruptly awakened from my reverie. Rudy spoke excitedly. As we drove up a small hill, I could see through the morning mists a sign that read “Kaszony.” We had arrived. Rudy suggested that we stop at the Jewish cemetery that was just off the main road before we reached town. There, we hoped to find Mom’s grandmother Róza’s grave. But the cemetery was in terrible shape and had been horribly neglected. There were simply no longer any Jewish people in the town and so very few in the entire region to take care of it and clearly, the non-Jews living there had no interest in the place. The burial ground was overgrown with weeds and the headstones had either fallen down on their accord or had been knocked over by vandals. Mom, Rudy, and I spent close to an hour searching in vain for my great grandmother’s headstone. We were sad and frustrated as we headed into town in Rudy’s automobile.

Moments later, Mom and I were getting out of the car in the middle of the main square in Kaszony. By now, the sun had risen higher in the sky and it bathed the little square in sunlight. I had heard about this square my whole life. Somewhere on it, was the house where not only my grandmother grew up but my mother was born and spent the first six and a half years of her life. My mother was quiet as she slowly looked around the square as I pulled out my camera and started taking pictures. Finally, after moments of silence, my mother raised her hand to her mouth and murmured to herself, “The square is so small!”

As we stood in the middle of the square, as if on cue, townspeople emerged from their homes to see who these strange visitors might be. They knew Rudy, and he explained that we had come from America to see the house where our family had lived. He introduced my mother to them, and they began chatting with her. She told them her family name.  And these middle-aged men nodded in recognition! Suddenly I heard one of these men say my mother’s uncle’s name, “Ah, Schwartz Jenö,” and pointed to a house just up the street. And then he mentioned another uncle, “Oh yes, and Elu the watchmaker.”  I was shocked. This was incredible. Almost forty-five years after their deaths, their names were casually mentioned as if they were still living there. The people in this town knew the dead- who they were, where they lived, what they did. I had been correct, albeit unwittingly, there was a real time warp here- not in Csap but in Kaszony.

I asked my mother if she knew which house had been hers. She kept looking about and almost in disbelief pointed to a little one just feet from where we stood and said, “Oh my god, that’s it…” The house was one-story high and attached to the front of it was a store that had once been run by my mother’s family. Rudy told us that the store was now being rented by a Russian, and the store’s signage was in both Russian and Hungarian. As we looked at the house, one of the townspeople hurried to find the woman who now owned the house, so she could unlock it for us. As we waited for the woman to arrive, a taciturn older man who had come out to see what all the commotion was about asked my mother if she were here to make a claim. She assured him that we had no intentions of making a claim to retrieve the lost property and that we were just there to see it. This query made me more than a little uncomfortable.

At that moment, a heavy-set middle-aged woman with dyed rust-colored hair stepped out of a house across from us carrying a large ring of old-fashioned keys. She was the current owner of the house. Rudy introduced her to my mother, and the woman said that she would be happy to show us inside. She explained that no one was living in the house at this time and that she had only made a few changes to the house since her family bought it from the government after World War II.

As the store was attached to the front of the house itself, the entrance to the house was located in the side alley to its left. The woman used one of the big keys on the ring to unlock a high gate that closed off the alley between this house and the one next to it. We walked a few feet down the alley, and the woman opened the door to the house. We stepped inside.

We entered into a very small kitchen. The house was laid out like a railroad flat with the kitchen as the middle room. In front of the kitchen was a comparatively large living space, though it was by no means large in the usual sense of the word. Behind it was a small second room. That was it. The woman explained that the house had been a little bit larger than it was now because several years back she had foreshortened the back room to build a shed behind it. Mom was still very quiet, and as she looked about the tiny house, she finally said to me, “They must have made the kitchen smaller! I remember the kitchen as being so large- this couldn’t possibly be it.”

In silence, we left the house and walked out to see the property in the back. Behind the house was the endless green and rich countryside that had affected me so on the ride over with Rudy earlier that morning. The land in back that belonged to the house was as narrow as the house itself but went on as far as the eye could see. Right behind the house, were the remains of an overgrown vegetable garden and the leftover rows of dying corn plants that had not yet been cleared after the corn was harvested. But behind the rows of corn and the vegetable patch were wonderful ripe grapes just ready for picking. The woman insisted on giving us bunches and bunches of grapes to take with us on for our long trip back to Budapest. 

Mom and I looked at our watches. It was time to go back. We didn’t even have time to drive the few miles or so from Kaszony to see the town of Jánosi where my grandfather was born. We had to catch a two p.m. train from Csap where we arrived- incredibly- only the day before. Our visa specified that we had to leave that very day, so there was no choice in the matter. So Mom and I climbed back to Rudy’s car for the hour-long trip back to Ungvár.

After a few minutes of silence, Mom finally began to speak to me about Kaszony. She said very softly that the kitchen probably wasn’t any smaller than when she had lived there. There was another pause. But what had she thought of Kaszony and was it anything like she had remembered it? She said, when she was a child, “…the square had seemed so big…but it’s really so small and mean, isn’t it?” I disagreed with her vehemently. I argued that while the town is certainly small- and poor-, it’s still charming and pretty. And the countryside is so lovely…But she couldn’t see that. This visit had been very unsettling for her. While she wasn’t sure what she had expected, it certainly wasn’t this. The Kaszony we saw this day was the town Mom had remembered. Yet, it wasn’t. Everything was in the right place. But to her, it was more like a shoddy, scaled-down replica of her beloved town. When she was a little girl, Kaszony had been her whole world, and Mom simply couldn’t reconcile her happy childhood memories with this little town she saw sixty years later.

We told Rudy to take us back to our hotel, and he was disappointed. He had wanted to take us back to Beregszász for lunch with him and his wife. But Rudy insisted that since we didn’t have time for lunch that we stop at a bakery on the way back to Ungvár to pick up bread to take with us on the train. We picked up a loaf or two and then continued on our way to Ungvár. We drove and drove through the pretty land, which was now washed in bright sunlight.

We arrived at our ugly hotel with plenty of time to spare, and Mom and I reluctantly said goodbye to Rudy who had taken such good care of us. We gave him $50 for being our tour guide. And when we did so, Rudy gasped and threw his arms around both of us. He was frantic to convey his thanks, but clearly this $50 was worth a lot more to him than it was to us. He finally found something he could give us, and he opened the trunk of his car and pulled out two sets of wooden spoons- one for each of us from a large bag full of packages of wooden spoons. We were so touched by his gift, and teary-eyed, after more hugs, we said our final good-byes.

Mom and I had a hellish trip back to Budapest, which was made slightly less so by the bag full of grapes from Kaszony. They were absolutely delicious, and made me smile.  The bread was less good- its texture rough and with little flavor. And given the little that Mom and I had learned about Soviet products, this was not a surprise. It was so sad that in a land that was so rich, the people living there had such a difficult time making ends meet and had to suffer with such poor-quality goods.

We had two lovely days in Budapest before we headed for home. Mom and I were treated to a delicious farewell dinner by our cousins living there- Rizus, her daughter Eva, and Eva’s husband, Lali. As I dined with my family on traditional Hungarian dishes, I knew that something had changed in me. My mother and grandmother’s Hungary had become a living, breathing place for me. Not the Hungary that exists today, but their Hungary. What I knew I needed to do was to transform the dead- these people who I’d heard about all my life and who were little more to me than names on a page- into flesh and blood or something close to it- and try to bring back the land of my mother’s memories.

I also realized how little I actually knew about my mother’s life. When my brothers and I were little, we were upset when we learned that she hadn’t been born in America. At that time, it was inconceivable that our mother could be so different from us- so foreign- especially when she seemed to be as wholly American as we were. When we recovered from this shock, we concluded that Mom’s being born elsewhere was actually a pretty cool thing. But I’d never stopped to really think what her immigration to America actually had meant to her and how it transformed her life. I made Mom promise that she’d let me tape her, so she could tell me about her life in Kaszony and her adjustment to life in America. And ten years after this trip, I’ve tried to fulfill my end of the bargain to make Mom’s Kaszony come to life once more.