My Aunt Illa, a woman capable of great charm and vast intrigues,was hated by both my mother and father.
By Father, because he believed that Illa was so jealous of thelove between his brother Zoltan and himself that she prevented herhusband from the frequent contact the brothers wanted. And my mother– well, because of the usual animus she held against the women inFather’s family.
The final angry incident between them (and these two had beensisters-in-law for 30 years) had to do with a fine embroderedtablecloth my mother gave Illa as a gift. Two weeks later, Illareturned the cloth to my mother, saying she owned enough tablecloths.As far as Mother was concerned, this would be the last insult. Forthe next two years, she refused to visit the by-now widowed Illa andcontinually railed against Illa’s nastiness and jealousy.
But one evening just before Rosh Hashanah, during a phoneconversation, Illa asked me, “How are your parents?”
“They’re fine. My mother misses you,” I replied.
“Well, I miss her too.”
As soon as we hung up, I called my mother and told her that Illahad asked after her and that she missed her. Without her usualreference to her pained feelings, Mother said that she thought aboutIlla and missed her. I told Mother that Illa would appreciate hearingfrom her. “You ought to phone Illa and wish her a happy new year.”Mother immediately ended our conversation and phoned hersister-in-law. From then on, until Illa’s death two and a half yearslater, my parents visited Illa at least once a week, finding comfortin each others’ company. When Illa died, three days after suffering amassive heart attack, Mother cried bitterly.
In the several years before Uncle Zoltan’s death, though theylived nearby, I rarely saw them. Yet during the painful months of mydivorce, terribly needy and at a loss, I visited them often; theywere attentive and sympathetic. One evening during that bleak time,Uncle Zoltan came alone to my parents’ home when he knew I would bethere: his intention, to encourage me and cheer me up.
I wish I could remember his jokes that evening and details of hisstories, of how he survived the hard times in his life, the loss ofhis first wife to cancer, his struggle for economic survival inAmerica.
He sat with me on the sofa, holding my hand, his kind eyesencouraging me to take in his message, to put to rest, for awhile atleast, my angry tirades. He also offered me an interest-free loan ofseveral thousand dollars which I gratefully accepted. As I think backon that evening, I know that it wasn’t the exemplary tales themselvesbut these kind acts of my uncle’s which reminded me that hope andlove exist in the world. That I should not despair.
What my Uncle Zoltan did not recount that evening were storiesabout his life in Auschwitz. But I already knew them. When Zoltan andhis first wife immigrated to America in 1947, they lived with myfamily for a few weeks in our New York apartment. My mother hadbanished me from the living room, where night after night, thenewcomers told and retold their stories to relatives and friends, wewho had been safe in America. I say “we” — for actually I was there,hidden from view by the hanging edges of the red silk shawl drapingthe grand piano beneath which I crouched. And though I spokeHungarian fluently, I was too young to understand what they weretalking about. I didn’t understand grown-up words; I simply knew thatwhat I was hearing was important and would change me.
In the ensuing years, Uncle Zoltan never spoke to me about thewar. What I know I learned, piecemeal, from my father.
Zoltan and his wife were separated in the camps; neither knew thatthe other had survived. I don’t know if they found shelter with theRed Cross or were helped by the soldiers. They discovered each otheralive only after they had made their ways separately to their home ina remote village in eastern Hungary. When Zoltan was released fromcaptivity, he weighed 98 pounds fully dressed in his striped rags andropey sandals. With a companion, he started walking back to Hungary,so famished that when they broke into a deserted farm house, they atethe only food they could find, a jar of mustard, and becamewretchedly ill.
One can imagine my uncle and his wife when they saw each otheragain, their words of greeting, their mingled emotions of elation andgrief; only a handful of their relatives eventually joined them.Uncle Zoltan’s mother, all his siblings except sister Jolan, hisaunts and his uncles had perished. Three years after their reunion,once again victims of government persecution, this time for belongingto the propertied class (and I suspect also for being Jews), Zoltanand his wife left for America. They brought my father a pair ofsilver candlesticks that had belonged to his mother, a wedding giftwhich Grandmother had asked Zoltan to bury in the flower garden ofher home when they realized they would soon be deported. These lovelyheirlooms from a destroyed world, objects that had once been handledreverently by a grandmother whom I never knew, stand on the diningtable in my home.
Another story my father told me about Zoltan. In the early 1920’s,when they were barely in their twenties, they visited Budapesttogether for the first time. They were both lean, tall, strong,dapperly dressed. And afraid. They knew that bands of thugs roamedthe capital’s streets after dark, looking for Jews to beat up. Whenthey had to traverse dark, sparsely peopled streets away from themain thoroughfares of the city, Zoltan and my father walked back toback, one wielding a blackjack, the other armed with brass knuckles.They were never asssaulted.
Uncle Zoltan died less than a year after his generous gestures tome. In the years that followed, I often visited Aunt Illa. She fed mepoppy seed cakes and we drank tea; I listened to stories of herchildhood and early marriage, of her terrible losses during the war.She relished telling me what she thought about my numerous cousinsand, a little sharply, how they sought advice in decorating theirhomes. Her own childlessness didn’ t prevent her from counseling mewisely on raising my children. Nor did she hesitate to tell me howshe thought I should conduct my life. When I remarried, she thoughthard about an appropriate gift. She bent her head, avoided my eyes,and giggled as she told me that her gift was a set of sheets andpillow cases.
“Think of me when you use these,” she tittered. I loved talkingwith her. We never spoke of my parents.
Her apartment was lovely: light-filled and spacious. Whenever Ivisited, although I had no expertise and even less interest, sheinsisted on involving me in her decorating plans What did I think ofthe gray fabric to recover the sofa? Didn’ t I think the bed needed anew spread?
I didn’t fully understand the deeper implications of what she wasabout until now, as I write this. Aunt Illa surprised me, after shedied, leaving me most of her furniture, beautiful objects whosesymbolic value extends beyond mementos of our loving friendship. Theyhave become heirlooms. And such tangible heirlooms have always beenin short supply among us survivors brutally cut off from ourancestors.
What else is left? After his brother’s death, my father woreZoltan’s wedding band for many years, until it could no longerencircle any of his swollen fingers. Illa and Zoltan lie buried in aniche in a wall, Mother in the ground near by, the cemetery in sightof the freeway. This Rosh Hashanah, as I have for the past 16 yearssince Zoltan died, I will drive Father to the cemetery, help him ashe walks. slowly up the slope to say kaddish for his wife andbrother, and continue to recall the dead who, when they were alive,loved me and taught me the meaning of generosity.
From top: (left to right), the author’s father, Ernest Flesch,his sister, Aunt Jolan, and Uncle Zoltan in 1975; Aunt Illa in theearly 1980s; author Judith Rose with her brother Ronald, last year;and Ernest Flesch at the time of his visit to Budapest in the early1920s.