A whole week in Hungary. I couldn’t sleep. It was 5 a.m., and I was wide awake. From my room, I could hear my father snoring. How did Nicole put up with it?
The first few hours of our plane ride to Hungary had been fine. I found three empty seats and passed out. Then more passengers boarded the plane in Vienna, so I had to go back and sit with Dad and my stepmother. “Your hair looks nice long,” Nicole told me. “It looks much better than that awful haircut you had before,” my Dad added, and then proceeded to tell me how unfeminine I had looked with my hair so short. Didn’t he know that I cut it short because of him? That I no longer wanted to be Dad’s little girl?
After Dad’s comment on the plane I wanted immediately to chop my hair off again. But then I thought, “That’s stupid. I’m eighteen now. I can grow my hair long.”
I remember at the age of nine becoming really angry with my father. I found out then that he never changed my diapers when I was a baby, never fought to take custody over us. Always expected my mom to stay home and not pursue a career. It was at this point that I began to rebel. At twelve, I was fiery, calling my father a male chauvinist pig, trying to provoke some emotional response from him. But it never came. He always seemed cold and uncaring. I would scream, yell, cry; he would tell me that I was being too dramatic.
Years went by. I avoided my father as much as possible. I hardly saw him at all. I would go to his house and be a Sunday night dinner guest. After two hours I would leave and lead my life. I thought I didn’t need a father.
At seventeen, I stopped rebelling. He was not going to understand my work at the Washington D.C. rape crisis center, or the women’s group that I lead. I would never understand his views on women. I wanted to learn to accept our differences, to salvage what little sense we had left of being father and daughter.
Dad remarried, and I learned from my stepmother that, yes, my father did love me, and yes, he was proud of me. Nicole tried to explain him. “He had a very difficult childhood. He didn’t have the childhood you have.” At that point, I became willing to read up on the Holocaust. I wanted to learn about Hungary, too—about anything that would help me understand him.
So. . . seven days in Budapest. It’s 6 a.m. . . no one will be up for hours. I decide to take a walk and explore the Danube.
“Run away, turn away, run away…” Bronski Beat blares into the earphones of my Walkman. The breeze from the water chills me. No one around except a few construction workers and a few fishermen back from an early morning catch. I look at the Danube. Where so many Jews were sent to die. All lined up, their backs to the river. I picture my grandmother standing there. Perhaps she looked like me.
My father told me a story once, about how he and his mother were taken off a streetcar because their documents showed that they were Jewish. They were taken to this river to be shot. My dad was six. He remembers a German soldier beating an elderly Jewish man with a club. Dad saw the old man’s skull split open. My grandmother covered the man’s head with her handkerchief so that he wouldn’t be humiliated as he died.
How much more happened here to my Dad that I cannot fathom? How many bodies were there floating down this river in trails of blood?
My grandmother did not die that day at the Danube; a guard took pity on her. Nor did she die in the slave labor camp, nor, amazingly, during other tribulations.
Walking back to the flat, I saw that the apartment buildings still had bullet holes in them; no one had fixed the damage. Was it that people had no money? Or that they didn’t want to forget the past?
My Walkman blared on: “Mother will never understand why you have to leave, but the answers you seek will never be found at home….”
Was this song about Dad? He left everything here. On November 29, 1956, he escaped to Austria, then made it to America. He was eighteen; my age. He didn’t speak English. He didn’t know where he would go in America.
He must have been so scared. In the States he lived with a family that took in refugees, and he worked at a supermarket. He got a scholarship to Harvard, graduated in the top ten percent of his class in three years, then Harvard Law School. Perhaps that part sounds, to others, like the American dream.
I’m eighteen; could I leave home now and never look back? My eyes fill with tears as I stare at the pavement that leads me back to the flat. I want to run to my father as I did when I was a very little girl, full of love and admiration. I want to replace his pain….But so much has passed between Dad and me; a simple hug cannot bring back what has been lost between us.
A few days passed, and I saw more of Budapest. My cousin Anico took me all over the city and showed me the “modern” side. We saw breakdancers and musicians, huge contemporary stores, ambient sidewalk cafes where we drank Blue Curacao and orange juice. I forgot about the bloody Danube, the bullet holes all around.
One night Dad came home after visiting the apartment he’d been raised in. He told me about the day he was six when the Germans came and forced his family to leave. His parents were sent off to slave labor camps; a neighbor delivered him to his grandparents. He lived in a hospital bomb shelter, extremely sick with para-typhoid fever. One day bombs hit all around the shelter. He waited for his bomb, but it never came.
After the Russians liberated Budapest, my father returned home. Another family was eating off my dad’s family’s china; another child was playing with his toys. I wonder what my dad felt then. How much pain? I felt so sad for him.
My father and I walked down the street to get coffee at a little cafe. Dad ordered a special pastry full of sweetened poppy seeds. He said it was the kind his mother used to bake for him when he was a child. It was nice to know there had been happy times.
Suddenly I remembered happy times of my own with Dad. That when I was little he invited my brother and me over every week, cooked for us before he remarried, planned camping and ski vacations, chose special presents for us on every trip he took. He wasn’t just someone who forbade Mom to have a career, who never changed my diapers. Why did I never remember these nice things?
For the first time I wanted desperately to understand him. I told him that I was trying to piece together what had happened in his past, that I wanted things to be better for us, that I wanted to communicate more with him. To my surprise, he agreed.
He told me about the first time he returned to Hungary, in 1983. He walked around his childhood neighborhood; the park he used to play in was gone, his father’s store had been torn down and replaced with a warehouse.
My father told me he cried that day. That he had walked through the streets of Budapest crying because everything that he remembered was gone. I couldn’t imagine my father crying. Why didn’t I know this side of him?
Then we talked for two hours about the Holocaust, about being Jewish, about the Hungarian Revolution. He told me about the time his crying prevented some Russian soldiers from raping his mother. Dad said the soldiers couldn’t stomach it with a little child crying.
He told me about escaping to Austria in a Red Cross bus, but being told that the Russians would shoot them at the border. My Dad got off the bus and walked ten hours through the forest at night in order to sneak across.
I told my Dad about my emotional walk along the Danube with Bronski Beat blaring in my ears, about my work at the crisis center, about Paul, a boy I had been dating for over a year about whom we rarely spoke.
It was a start.
The rest of the day, I was elated.
That night I dream that I am sitting at the cafe with Dad, and suddenly a man grabs us, and tells us to follow him to a shelter.
Sitting in an underground shelter supplied with a week’s worth of food, I realize that it is all happening again. Because we are Jewish, we have to hide. My Dad is crouched like a little boy about twenty feet away from me, his hands covering his face as if in anguish. I have to explain everything to him, to verify for him that it is all happening again. But I know that he will not be able to take it a second time.
In the dream I feel so much love for him, so protective, so close. But when I wake up, a burning sensation fills my chest. There is still so much pain and distance. I feel cast back into an abyss. I will never feel in real life the way I felt in the dream, or felt briefly in a cafe over poppy-seed pastry.
I walk into the kitchen and mechanically pull out the tea pot, three plates and three saucers. I put the kettle on, and begin to set the table. I could prepare breakfast, but I decide not to. The screaming noise from the kettle startles me, and as I look up from the blue and white tiles that cover the kitchen floor, I see my father. He has turned the kettle off.
Estelle White, a pseudonym, is a senior at a college in Massachusetts.