CHAPTER 1 The Four Questions
If I could distill my entire life into one moment, into one still image, it is this: three women in dark wool coats wait, arms linked, in a barren yard. They are exhausted. They’ve got dust on their shoes. They stand in a long line.
The three women are my mother, my sister Magda, and me. This is our last moment together. We don’t know that. We refuse to consider it. Or we are too weary even to speculate about what is ahead. It is a moment of severing—mother from daughters, life as it has been from all that will come after. And yet only hindsight can give it this meaning.
I see the three of us from behind, as though I am next in line. Why does memory give me the back of my mother’s head but not her face? Her long hair is intricately braided and clipped on top of her head. Magda’s light brown waves touch her shoulders. My dark hair is tucked under a scarf. My mother stands in the middle and Magda and I both lean inward. It is impossible to discern if we are the ones who keep our mother upright, or if it is the other way around, her strength the pillar that supports Magda and me.
This moment is a threshold into the major losses of my life. For seven decades I have returned again and again to this image of the three of us. I have studied it as though with enough scrutiny I can recover something precious. As though I can regain the life that precedes this moment, the life that precedes loss. As if there is such a thing.
I have returned so that I can rest a little longer in this time when our arms are joined and we belong to one another. I see our sloped shoulders. The dust holding to the bottoms of our coats. My mother. My sister. Me.
* * *
Our childhood memories are often fragments, brief moments or encounters, which together form the scrapbook of our life. They are all we have left to understand the story we have come to tell ourselves about who we are.
Even before the moment of our separation, my most intimate memory of my mother, though I treasure it, is full of sorrow and loss. We’re alone in the kitchen, where she is wrapping up the leftover strudel that she made with dough I watched her cut by hand and drape like heavy linen over the dining room table. “Read to me,” she says, and I fetch the worn copy of Gone with the Wind from her bedside table. We have read it through once before. Now we have begun again. I pause over the mysterious inscription, written in English, on the title page of the translated book. It’s in a man’s handwriting, but not my father’s. All that my mother will say is that the book was a gift from a man she met when she worked at the Foreign Ministry before she knew my father.
We sit in straight-backed chairs near the woodstove. I read this grown-up novel fluently despite the fact that I am only nine. “I’m glad you have brains because you have no looks,” she has told me more than once, a compliment and a criticism intertwined. She can be hard on me. But I savor this time. When we read together, I don’t have to share her with anyone else. I sink into the words and the story and the feeling of being alone in a world with her. Scarlett returns to Tara at the end of the war to learn her mother is dead and her father is far gone in grief. “As God is my witness,” Scarlett says, “I’m never going to be hungry again.” My mother has closed her eyes and leans her head against the back of the chair. I want to climb into her lap. I want to rest my head against her chest. I want her to touch her lips to my hair.
“Tara …” she says. “America, now that would be a place to see.” I wish she would say my name with the same softness she reserves for a country where she’s never been. All the smells of my mother’s kitchen are mixed up for me with the drama of hunger and feast—always, even in the feast, that longing. I don’t know if the longing is hers or mine or something we share.
We sit with the fire between us.
“When I was your age …” she begins.
Now that she is talking, I am afraid to move, afraid she won’t continue if I do.
“When I was your age, the babies slept together and my mother and I shared a bed. One morning I woke up because my father was calling to me, ‘Ilonka, wake up your mother, she hasn’t made breakfast yet or laid out my clothes.’ I turned to my mother next to me under the covers. But she wasn’t moving. She was dead.”
She has never told me this before. I want to know every detail about this moment when a daughter woke beside a mother she had already lost. I also want to look away. It is too terrifying to think about.
“When they buried her that afternoon, I thought they had put her in the ground alive. That night, Father told me to make the family supper. So that’s what I did.”
I wait for the rest of the story. I wait for the lesson at the end, or the reassurance.
“Bedtime,” is all my mother says. She bends to sweep the ash under the stove.
Footsteps thump down the hall outside our door. I can smell my father’s tobacco even before I hear the jangle of his keys.
“Ladies,” he calls, “are you still awake?” He comes into the kitchen in his shiny shoes and dapper suit, his big grin, a little sack in his hand that he gives me with a loud kiss to the forehead. “I won again,” he boasts. Whenever he plays cards or billiards with his friends, he shares the spoils with me. Tonight he’s brought a petit four laced in pink icing. If I were my sister Magda, my mother, always concerned about Magda’s weight, would snatch the treat away, but she nods at me, giving me permission to eat it.
She is standing now, on her way from the fire to the sink. My father intercepts her, lifts her hand so he can twirl her around the room, which she does, stiffly, without a smile. He pulls her in for an embrace, one hand on her back, one teasing at her breast. My mother shrugs him away.
“I’m a disappointment to your mother,” my father half whispers to me as we leave the kitchen. Does he intend for her to overhear, or is this a secret meant only for me? Either way, it is something I store away to mull over later. Yet the bitterness in his voice scares me. “She wants to go to the opera every night, live some fancy cosmopolitan life. I’m just a tailor. A tailor and a billiards player.”
My father’s defeated tone confuses me. He is well known in our
town, and well liked. Playful, smiling, he always seems comfortable and alive. He’s fun to be around. He goes out with his many friends. He loves food (especially the ham he sometimes smuggles into our kosher household, eating it over the newspaper it was wrapped in, pushing bites of forbidden pork into my mouth, enduring my mother’s accusations that he is a poor role model). His tailor shop has won two gold medals. He isn’t just a maker of even seams and straight hems. He is a master of couture. That’s how he met my mother—she came into his shop because she needed a dress and his work came so highly recommended. But he had wanted to be a doctor, not a tailor, a dream his father had discouraged, and every once in a while his disappointment in himself surfaces.
“You’re not just a tailor, Papa,” I reassure him. “You’re the best tailor!”
“And you’re going to be the best-dressed lady in Košice,” he tells me, patting my head. “You have the perfect figure for couture.”
He seems to have remembered himself. He’s pushed his disappointment back into the shadows. We reach the door to the bedroom I share with Magda and our middle sister, Klara, where I can picture Magda pretending to do homework and Klara wiping rosin dust off her violin. My father and I stand in the doorway a moment longer, neither one of us quite ready to break away.
“I wanted you to be a boy, you know,” my father says. “I slammed the door when you were born, I was that mad at having another girl. But now you’re the only one I can talk to.” He kisses my forehead.
I love my father’s attention. Like my mother’s, it is precious … and precarious. As though my worthiness of their love has less to do with me and more to do with their loneliness. As though my identity isn’t about anything that I am or have and only a measure of what each of my parents is missing.
“Good night, Dicuka,” my father says at last. He uses the pet name my mother invented for me. Ditzu-ka. These nonsense syllables are warmth to me. “Tell your sisters it’s time for lights out.”
As I come into the bedroom, Magda and Klara greet me with the song they have invented for me. They made it up when I was three and one of my eyes became crossed in a botched medical procedure. “You’re so ugly, you’re so puny,” they sing. “You’ll never find a husband.” Since the accident I turn my head toward the ground when I
walk so that I don’t have to see anyone looking at my lopsided face. I haven’t yet learned that the problem isn’t that my sisters taunt me with a mean song; the problem is that I believe them. I am so convinced of my inferiority that I never introduce myself by name. I never tell people, “I am Edie.” Klara is a violin prodigy. She mastered the Mendelssohn violin concerto when she was five. “I am Klara’s sister,” I say.
But tonight I have special knowledge. “Mama’s mom died when she was exactly my age,” I tell them. I am so certain of the privileged nature of this information that it doesn’t occur to me that for my sisters this is old news, that I am the last and not the first to know.
“You’re kidding,” Magda says, her voice full of sarcasm so obvious that even I can recognize it. She is fifteen, busty, with sensual lips, wavy hair. She is the jokester in our family. When we were younger, she showed me how to drop grapes out of our bedroom window into the coffee cups of the patrons sitting on the patio below. Inspired by her, I will soon invent my own games; but by then, the stakes will have changed. My girlfriend and I will sashay up to boys at school or on the street. “Meet me at four o’clock by the clock on the square,” we will trill, batting our eyelashes. They will come, they will always come, sometimes giddy, sometimes shy, sometimes swaggering with expectation. From the safety of my bedroom, my friend and I will stand at the window and watch the boys arrive.
“Don’t tease so much,” Klara snaps at Magda now. She is younger than Magda, but she jumps in to protect me. “You know that picture above the piano?” she says to me. “The one that Mama’s always talking to? That’s her mother.” I know the picture she’s talking about. I’ve looked at it every day of my life. “Help me, help me,” our mother moans up at the portrait as she dusts the piano, sweeps the floor. I feel embarrassed that I have never asked my mother—or anyone—who was in that picture. And I’m disappointed that my information gives me no special status with my sisters.
I am used to being the silent sister, the invisible one. It doesn’t occur to me that Magda might tire of being the clown, that Klara might resent being the prodigy. She can’t stop being extraordinary, not for a second, or everything might be taken from her—the adoration she’s accustomed to, her very sense of self. Magda and I have to work at getting something we are certain there will never be enough of; Klara has to worry that at
any moment she might make a fatal mistake and lose it all. Klara has been playing violin all my life, since she was three. It’s not until much later that I realize the cost of her extraordinary talent: she gave up being a child. I never saw her play with dolls. Instead she stood in front of an open window to practice violin, not able to enjoy her creative genius unless she could summon an audience of passersby to witness it.
“Does Mama love Papa?” I ask my sisters now. The distance between our parents, the sad things they have each confessed to me, remind me that I have never seen them dressed up to go out together.
“What a question,” Klara says. Though she denies my concern, I think I see a recognition in her eyes. We will never discuss it again, though I will try. It will take me years to learn what my sisters must already know, that what we call love is often something more conditional—the reward for a performance, what you settle for.
As we put on our nightgowns and get into bed, I erase my worry for my parents and think instead of my ballet master and his wife, of the feeling I get when I take the steps up to the studio two or three at a time and kick off my school clothes, pull on my leotard and tights. I have been studying ballet since I was five years old, since my mother intuited that I wasn’t a musician, that I had other gifts. Just today we practiced the splits. Our ballet master reminded us that strength and flexibility are inseparable—for one muscle to flex, another must open; to achieve length and limberness, we have to hold our cores strong.
I hold his instructions in my mind like a prayer. Down I go, spine straight, abdominal muscles tight, legs stretching apart. I know to breathe, especially when I feel stuck. I picture my body expanding like the strings on my sister’s violin, finding the exact place of tautness that makes the whole instrument ring. And I am down. I am here. In the full splits. “Brava!” My ballet master claps. “Stay right as you are.” He lifts me off the ground and over his head. It’s hard to keep my legs fully extended without the floor to push against, but for a moment I feel like an offering. I feel like pure light. “Editke,” my teacher says, “all your ecstasy in life is going to come from the inside.” It will take me years to really understand what he means. For now all I know is that I can breathe and spin and kick and bend. As my muscles stretch and strengthen, every movement, every pose seems to call out: I am, I am, I am. I am me. I am somebody.
* * *
Memory is sacred ground. But it’s haunted too. It’s the place where my rage and guilt and grief go circling like hungry birds scavenging the same old bones. It’s the place where I go searching for the answer to the unanswerable question: Why did I survive?
I am seven years old, and my parents are hosting a dinner party. They send me out of the room to refill a pitcher of water. From the kitchen I hear them joke, “We could have saved that one.” I think they mean that before I came along they were already a complete family. They had a daughter who played piano and a daughter who played violin. I am unnecessary, I am not good enough, there is no room for me, I think. This is the way we misinterpret the facts of our lives, the way we assume and don’t check it out, the way we invent a story to tell ourselves, reinforcing the very thing in us we already believe.
One day when I am eight, I decide to run away. I will test the theory that I am dispensable, invisible. I will see if my parents even know that I am gone. Instead of going to school, I take the trolley to my grandparents’ house. I trust my grandparents—my mother’s father and stepmother—to cover for me. They engage in a continuous war with my mother on Magda’s behalf, hiding cookies in my sister’s dresser drawer. They are safety to me, and yet they sanction the forbidden. They hold hands, something my own parents never do. There’s no performing for their love, no pretending for their approval. They are comfort—the smell of brisket and baked beans, of sweet bread, of cholent, a rich stew that my grandmother brings to the bakery to cook on Sabbath, when Orthodox practice does not permit her to use her own oven.
My grandparents are happy to see me. It is a wonderful morning. I sit in the kitchen, eating nut rolls. But then the doorbell rings. My grandfather goes to answer it. A moment later he rushes into the kitchen. He is hard of hearing, and he speaks his warning too loudly. “Hide, Dicuka!” he yells. “Your mother’s here!” In trying to protect me, he gives me away.
What bothers me the most is the look on my mother’s face when she sees me in my grandparents’ kitchen. It’s not just that she is surprised to see me here—it is as though the very fact of my existence has taken her by surprise. As though I am not who she wants or expects me to be.
I won’t ever be beautiful—this my mother has made clear—but the
year I turn ten she assures me that I won’t have to hide my face anymore. Dr. Klein, in Budapest, will fix my crossed eye. On the train to Budapest I eat chocolate and enjoy my mother’s exclusive attention. Dr. Klein is a celebrity, my mother says, the first to perform eye surgery without anesthetic. I am too caught up in the romance of the journey, the privilege of having my mother all to myself, to realize she is warning me. It has never occurred to me that the surgery will hurt. Not until the pain consumes me. My mother and her relatives, who have connected us to the celebrated Dr. Klein, hold my thrashing body against the table. Worse than the pain, which is huge and limitless, is the feeling of the people who love me restraining me so that I cannot move. Only later, long after the surgery has proved successful, can I see the scene from my mother’s point of view, how she must have suffered at my suffering.
I am happiest when I am alone, when I can retreat into my inner world. One morning when I am thirteen, on the way to school, in a private gymnasium, I practice the steps to the “Blue Danube” routine my ballet class will perform at a festival on the river. Then invention takes hold, and I am off and away in a new dance of my own, one in which I imagine my parents meeting. I dance both of their parts. My father does a slapstick double take when he sees my mother walk into the room. My mother spins faster, leaps higher. I make my whole body arc into a joyful laugh. I have never seen my mother rejoice, never heard her laugh from the belly, but in my body I feel the untapped well of her happiness.
When I get to school, the tuition money my father gave me to cover an entire quarter of school is gone. Somehow, in the flurry of dancing, I have lost it. I check every pocket and crease of my clothing, but it is gone. All day the dread of telling my father burns like ice in my gut. At home he can’t look at me as he raises his fists. This is the first time he has ever hit me, or any of us. He doesn’t say a word to me when he is done. In bed that night I wish to die so that my father will suffer for what he did to me. And then I wish my father dead.
Do these memories give me an image of my strength? Or of my damage? Maybe every childhood is the terrain on which we try to pinpoint how much we matter and how much we don’t, a map where we study the dimensions and the borders of our worth.
Maybe every life is a study of the things we don’t have but wish we did, and the things we have but wish we didn’t.
It took me many decades to discover that I could come at my life with a different question. Not: Why did I live? But: What is mine to do with the life I’ve been given?
* * *
My family’s ordinary human dramas were complicated by borders, by wars. Before World War I, the Slovakian region where I was born and raised was part of Austro-Hungary, but in 1918, a decade before my birth, the Treaty of Versailles redrew the map of Europe and created a new state. Czechoslovakia was cobbled together from agrarian Slovakia, my family’s region, which was ethnically Hungarian and Slovak; the more industrial regions of Moravia and Bohemia, which were ethnically Czech; and Subcarpathian Rus’, a region that is now part of Ukraine. With the creation of Czechoslovakia, my hometown—Kassa, Hungary—became Košice, Czechoslovakia. And my family became double minorities. We were ethnic Hungarians living in a predominately Czech country, and we were Jewish.
Though Jews had lived in Slovakia since the eleventh century, it wasn’t until 1840 that Jews were permitted to settle in Kassa. Even then, city officials, backed by Christian trade guilds, made it difficult for Jewish families who wanted to live there. Yet by the turn of the century, Kassa had become one of Europe’s largest Jewish communities. Unlike in other Eastern European countries, such as Poland, Hungarian Jews weren’t ghettoized (which is why my family spoke Hungarian exclusively and not Yiddish). We weren’t segregated, and we enjoyed plenty of educational, professional, and cultural opportunities. But we still encountered prejudice, subtle and explicit. Anti-Semitism wasn’t a Nazi invention. Growing up, I internalized a sense of inferiority and the belief that it was safer not to admit that I was Jewish, that it was safer to assimilate, to blend in, to never stand out. It was difficult to find a sense of identity and belonging. Then, in November 1938, Hungary annexed Košice again, and it felt like home had become home.
My mother stands on our balcony at Andrássy Palace, an old building that has been carved into single-family apartments. She has draped an Oriental rug across the railing. She’s not cleaning; she’s celebrating. Admiral Miklós Horthy, His Serene Highness the Regent of the
Kingdom of Hungary, arrives today to formally welcome our town into Hungary. I understand my parents’ excitement and pride. We belong! Today I, too, welcome Horthy. I perform a dance. I wear a Hungarian costume: bold floral embroidery on a bright wool vest and skirt, billowing white-sleeved blouse, ribbons, lace, red boots. When I do the high kick by the river, Horthy applauds. He embraces the dancers. He embraces me.
“Dicuka, I wish we were blond like Klara,” Magda whispers at bedtime.
We are still years away from curfews and discriminatory laws, but Horthy’s parade is the starting point of all that will come. Hungarian citizenship has brought belonging in one sense but exclusion in another. We are so happy to speak our native tongue, to be accepted as Hungarians—but that acceptance depends on our assimilation. Neighbors argue that only ethnic Hungarians who are not Jewish should be allowed to wear the traditional garments.
“It’s best not to let on you’re Jewish,” my sister Magda warns me. “It will just make other people want to take away your beautiful things.”
Magda is the firstborn; she reports the world to me. She brings me details, often troubling things, to study and ponder. In 1939, the year that Nazi Germany invades Poland, the Hungarian Nazis—the nyilas—occupy the apartment below ours in Andrássy Palace. They spit at Magda. They evict us. We move to a new apartment, at Kossuth Lajos Utca #6, on a side street instead of the main road, less convenient for my father’s business. The apartment is available because its former occupants, another Jewish family, have left for South America. We know of other Jewish families leaving Hungary. My father’s sister Matilda has been gone for years already. She lives in New York, in a place called the Bronx, in a Jewish immigrant neighborhood. Her life in America seems more circumscribed than ours. We don’t talk about leaving.
Even in 1940, when I’m thirteen, and the nyilas begin to round up the Jewish men of Kassa and send them to a forced labor camp, the war feels far away from us. My father isn’t taken. Not at first. We use denial as protection. If we don’t pay attention, then we can continue our lives unnoticed. We can make the world safe in our minds. We can make ourselves invisible to harm.
But one day in June 1941, Magda is out on her bicycle when the sirens roar. She dashes three blocks to the safety of our grandparents’ house, only to find half of it gone. They survived, thank God. But their landlady didn’t. It was a singular attack, one neighborhood razed by one bombing. We’re told the Russians are responsible for the rubble and death. No one believes it, and yet no one can refute it. We are lucky and vulnerable in the same instant. The only solid truth is the pile of smashed brick in the spot where a house used to be. Destruction and absence—these become facts. Hungary joins Germany in Operation Barbarossa. We invade Russia.
Around this time we are made to wear the yellow star. The trick is to hide the star, to let your coat cover it. But even with my star out of sight, I feel like I have done something bad, something punishable. What is my unpardonable sin? My mother is always near the radio. When we picnic by the river, my father tells stories about being a prisoner of war in Russia during World War I. I know that his POW experience—his trauma, though I don’t know to call it that—has something to do with his eating pork, with his distance from religion. I know that war is at the root of his distress. But the war, this war, is still elsewhere. I can ignore it, and I do.
After school, I spend five hours at the ballet studio, and I begin to study gymnastics too. Though it begins as a complementary practice to the ballet, gymnastics soon grows to be an equal passion, an equal art. I join a book club, a group made up of girls from my private gymnasium and students from a nearby private boys’ school. We read Stefan Zweig’s Marie Antoinette: The Portrait of an Average Woman. We talk about Zweig’s way of writing about history from the inside, from the mind of one person. In the book club, there’s a boy named Eric, who notices me one day. I see him looking closely at me every time I speak. He’s tall, with freckles and reddish hair. I imagine Versailles. I imagine Marie Antoinette’s boudoir. I imagine meeting Eric there. I know nothing about sex, but I am romantic. I see him notice me, and I wonder, What would our children look like? Would they have freckles too? Eric approaches me after the discussion. He smells so good—like fresh air, like the grass on the banks of the Hornád River where we will soon take walks.
Our relationship holds weight and substance from the start.
We talk about literature. We talk about Palestine (he is a devoted Zionist). This isn’t a time of carefree dating, our bond isn’t a casual crush, a puppy love. This is love in the face of war. A curfew has been imposed on Jews, but we sneak out one night without wearing our yellow stars. We stand in line at the cinema. We find our seats in the dark. It’s an American film, starring Bette Davis. Now, Voyager, I later learn, is its American name, but in Hungary it’s called Utazás a múltból, Journey to the Past. Bette Davis plays an unmarried daughter tyrannized by her controlling mother. She tries to find herself and her freedom but is constantly knocked down by her mother’s criticisms. Eric sees it as a political metaphor about self-determination and self-worth. I see shades of my mother and Magda—my mother, who adores Eric but chastises Magda for her casual dating; who begs me to eat more but refuses to fill Magda’s plate; who is often silent and introspective but rages at Magda; whose anger, though it is never directed at me, terrifies me all the same.
The battles in my family, the front with Russia closing in—we never know what is coming next. In the darkness and chaos of uncertainty, Eric and I provide our own light. Each day, as our freedom and choices become more and more restricted, we plan our future. Our relationship is like a bridge we can cross from present worries to future joys. Plans, passion, promise. Maybe the turmoil around us gives us the opportunity for more commitment, less questioning. No one else knows what will come to pass, but we do. We have each other and the future, a life together we can see as clearly as we can see our hands when we join them. We go to the river one August day in 1943. He brings a camera and photographs me in my bathing suit, doing the splits in the grass. I imagine showing our children the picture one day. Telling them how we held our love and our commitment bright.
When I come home that day, my father is gone. He has been taken to the forced labor camp. He is a tailor, he is apolitical. How is he a threat to anyone? Why has he been targeted? Does he have an enemy? There are lots of things my mother won’t tell me. Is it simply because she doesn’t know? Or is she protecting me? Or herself? She doesn’t talk openly about her worries, but in the long months that my father is away, I can feel how sad and scared she is. I see her trying to make several meals out of one chicken. She gets migraines. We take in a boarder
to make up for the loss of income. He owns a store across the street from our apartment, and I sit long hours in his store just to be near his comforting presence.
Magda, who is essentially an adult now, who is no longer in school, finds out somehow where our father is and visits him. She watches him stagger under the weight of a table he has to heft from place to place. This is the only detail she tells me of her visit. I don’t know what this image means. I don’t know what work it is that my father is forced to do in his captivity, I don’t know how long he will be a prisoner. I have two images of my father: one, as I have known him my entire life, cigarette hanging out of his mouth, tape measure around his neck, chalk in his hand for marking a pattern onto expensive cloth, his eyes twinkling, ready to burst into song, about to tell a joke. And this new one: lifting a table that is too heavy, in a no-name place, a no-man’s-land.
On my sixteenth birthday, I stay home from school with a cold, and Eric comes to our apartment to deliver sixteen roses and my first sweet kiss. I am happy, but I am sad too. What can I hold on to? What lasts? I give the picture Eric took of me on the riverbank to a friend. I can’t remember why. For safekeeping? I had no premonition that I would be gone soon, well before my next birthday. Yet somehow I must have known that I would need someone to preserve evidence of my life, that I would need to plant proof of my self around me like seeds.
Sometime in early spring, after seven or eight months at the work camp, my father returns. It is a grace—he has been released in time for Passover, which is just a week or two away. That’s what we think. He takes up his tape measure and chalk again. He doesn’t talk about where he has been.
I sit on the blue mat in the gymnastics studio one day, a few weeks after his return, warming up with a floor routine, pointing my toes, flexing my feet, lengthening my legs and arms and neck and back. I feel like myself again. I’m not the little cross-eyed runt afraid to speak her name. I’m not the daughter afraid for her family. I am an artist and an athlete, my body strong and limber. I don’t have Magda’s looks, or Klara’s fame, but I have my lithe and expressive body, the budding existence of which is the only one true thing I need. My training, my skill—my life brims with possibility. The best of us in my gymnastics class have formed an Olympic training team. The 1944 Olympics have
been canceled due to the war, but that just gives us more time to prepare to compete.
I close my eyes and stretch my arms and torso forward across my legs. My friend nudges me with her toe and I lift my head to see our coach walking straight toward me. We are half in love with her. It’s not a sexual crush. It’s hero worship. Sometimes we take the long way home so we can pass her house, where we go as slowly as possible along the sidewalk, hoping to catch a glimpse of her through the window. We are jealous of what we don’t know of her life. With the promise of the Olympics when the war finally ends, much of my sense of purpose rests within the scope of my coach’s support and faith in me. If I can manage to absorb all she has to teach me, and if I can fulfill her trust in me, then great things lie in store.
“Editke,” she says as she approaches my mat, using my formal name, Edith, but adding a diminutive. “A word, please.” Her fingers glide once over my back as she ushers me into the hall.
I look at her expectantly. Maybe she has noticed my improvements on the vault. Maybe she would like me to lead the team in more stretching exercises at the end of practice today. Maybe she wants to invite me over for supper. I’m ready to say yes before she has even asked.
“I don’t know how to tell you this,” she begins. She studies my face and then looks away toward the window where the dropping sun blazes in.
“Is it my sister?” I ask, before I even realize the terrible picture forming in my mind. Klara studies at the conservatory in Budapest now. Our mother has gone to Budapest to see Klara’s concert and fetch her home for Passover, and as my coach stands awkwardly beside me in the hall, unable to meet my eyes, I worry that their train has derailed. It’s too early in the week for them to be traveling home, but that is the only tragedy I can think of. Even in a time of war, the first disaster to cross my mind is a mechanical one, a tragedy of human error, not of human design, although I am aware that some of Klara’s teachers, including some of the gentile ones, have already fled Europe because they fear what is to come.
“Your family is fine.” Her tone doesn’t reassure me. “Edith. This isn’t my choice. But I must be the one to tell you that your place on the Olympic training team will go to someone else.”
I think I might vomit. I feel foreign in my own skin. “What did I do?” I comb over the rigorous months of training for the thing I’ve done wrong. “I don’t understand.”
“My child,” she says, and now she looks me full in the face, which is worse, because I can see that she is crying, and at this moment when my dreams are being shredded like newspaper at the butcher shop I do not want to feel pity for her. “The simple truth is that because of your background, you are no longer qualified.”
I think of the kids who’ve spit at me and called me dirty Jew, of Jewish friends who have stopped going to school to avoid harassment and now get their courses over the radio. “If someone spits at you, spit back,” my father has instructed me. “That’s what you do.” I consider spitting on my coach. But to fight back would be to accept her devastating news. I won’t accept it.
“I’m not Jewish,” I say.
“I’m sorry, Editke,” she says. “I’m so sorry. I still want you at the studio. I would like to ask you to train the girl who will replace you on the team.” Again, her fingers on my back. In another year, my back will be broken in exactly the spot she now caresses. Within weeks, my very life will be on the line. But here in the hallway of my cherished studio, my life feels like it is already over.
* * *
In the days that follow my expulsion from the Olympic training team, I plot my revenge. It won’t be the revenge of hate; it will be the revenge of perfection. I will show my coach that I am the best. The most accomplished athlete. The best trainer. I will train my replacement so meticulously that I will prove what a mistake has been made by cutting me from the team. On the day that my mother and Klara are due back from Budapest, I cartwheel my way down the red-carpeted hall toward our apartment, imagining my replacement as my understudy, myself the headlining star.
My mother and Magda are in the kitchen. Magda’s chopping apples for the charoset. Mother’s mixing matzo meal. They glower over their work, barely registering my arrival. This is their relationship now. They fight all the time, and when they’re not fighting they treat each other as though they are already in a face-off. Their arguments used to be about food, Mother always concerned about Magda’s weight, but now
the conflict has grown to a general and chronic hostility. “Where’s Klarie?” I ask, swiping chopped walnuts from a bowl.
“Budapest,” Magda says. My mother slams her bowl onto the counter. I want to ask why my sister isn’t with us for the holiday. Has she really chosen music over us? Or was she not allowed to miss class for a holiday that none of her fellow students celebrates? But I don’t ask. I am afraid my questions will bring my mother’s obviously simmering anger to a boil. I retreat to the bedroom that we all share, my parents and Magda and me.
On any other evening, especially a holiday, we would gather around the piano, the instrument Magda had been playing and studying since she was young, where Magda and my father would take turns leading us in songs. Magda and I weren’t prodigies like Klara, but we still had creative passions that our parents recognized and nurtured. After Magda played, it would be my turn to perform. “Dance, Dicuka!” my mother would say. And even though it was more a demand than an invitation, I’d savor my parents’ attention and praise. Then Klara, the star attraction, would play her violin and my mother would look transformed. But there is no music in our house tonight. Before the meal, Magda tries to cheer me up by reminding me of seders past when I would stuff socks in my bra to impress Klara, wanting to show her that I’d become a woman while she was away. “Now you’ve got your own womanhood to flaunt around,” Magda says. At the seder table she continues the antics, splashing her fingers around in the glass of wine we’ve set for Prophet Elijah, as is the custom. Elijah, who saves Jews from peril. On any other night our father might laugh, despite himself. On any other night our mother would end the silliness with a stern rebuke. But tonight our father is too distracted to notice, and our mother is too distraught by Klara’s absence to chastise Magda. When we open the apartment door to let the prophet in, I feel a chill that has nothing to do with the cool evening. In some deep part of myself I know how badly we need protection now.
“You tried the consulate?” my father asks. He isn’t even pretending to lead the seder anymore. No one but Magda can eat. “Ilona?”
“I tried the consulate,” my mother says. It is as though she conducts her part in the conversation from another room.
“Tell me again what Klara said.”
“Again?” my mother protests.
She tells it blankly, her fingers fidgeting with her napkin. Klara had called her hotel at four that morning. Klara’s professor had just told her that a former professor at the conservatory, Béla Bartók, now a famous composer, had called from America with a warning: The Germans in Czechoslovakia and Hungary were going to start closing their fist; Jews would be taken away come morning. Klara’s professor forbade her to return home to Kassa. He wanted her to urge my mother to stay in Budapest as well and send for the rest of the family.
“Ilona, why did you come home?” my father moans.
My mother stabs her eyes at him. “What about all that we’ve worked for here? We should just leave it? And if you three couldn’t make it to Budapest? You want me to live with that?”
I don’t realize that they are terrified. I hear only the blame and disappointment that my parents routinely pass between them like the mindless shuttle on a loom. Here’s what you did. Here’s what you didn’t do. Here’s what you did. Here’s what you didn’t do. Later I’ll learn that this isn’t just their usual quarreling, that there’s a history and a weight to the dispute they are having now. There are the tickets to America my father turned away. There is the Hungarian official who approached my mother with fake papers for the whole family, urging us to flee. Later we learn that they both had a chance to choose differently. Now they suffer with their regret, and they cover their regret in blame.
“Can we do the four questions?” I ask to disrupt my parents’ gloom. That is my job in the family. To play peacemaker between my parents, between Magda and my mother. Whatever plans are being made outside our door I can’t control. But inside our home, I have a role to fill. It is my job as the youngest child to ask the four questions. I don’t even have to open my Haggadah. I know the text by heart. “Why is this night different from all other nights?” I begin.
At the end of the meal, my father circles the table, kissing each of us on the head. He’s crying. Why is this night different from all other nights? Before dawn breaks, we’ll know.