My father’s cousin is a retired engineer who moved to Israel with his wife, Lory, over four decades ago. Endre Borsai now lives in a retirement home in Haifa, with his wife. On December 31st, 1999, as the twentieth century drew to a close, he wrote a lengthy letter–a very personal testimony–of our family’s experiences during World War II and, in particular, during the Holocaust. Nobody in my father’s family spoke a word about this experience, or even about their Jewish background and when the type-written letter went out, it caused much consternation within my father’s generation, which saw itself as culturally Hungarian, with strong roots in Transylvania, and in terms of denomination, as Protestants. At the time, I did not have a chance to read Endre’s letter, but after both my father and aunt died, I exchanged many emails with him and he was always open to sharing his experiences and to answering my questions.
I wanted to meet with him again in person and to record a video interview with him, where he speaks to my generation. But the 70 minute interview was about much more than just one family’s personal history during the War, but also about the nature of multiple identities and constructed identities. Benedict Anderson would be quite pleased. My father’s cousin spoke about how his three Jewish grandparents made him a Jew in the eyes of Hungarian authorities during the War, but a Christian in the eyes of Israel, when he immigrated in the seventies. In the interview, he tells me that he has now decided that nobody, but himself will determine his identity any longer and that if the identities he chooses for himself are problematic for some, then that’s tough luck for them.
Endre spoke about how as a teenager during the Holocaust, he wore the yellow star on his boy scout uniform, next to the Hungarian national crest, as a form of protest. He spoke about how he has found himself at home, to varying degrees, in four cultures: Hungarian, Romanian, Jewish and Russian and that today, he is attached first-and-foremost to his Hungarian and Jewish identities, and also feels lots of solidarity with Romanian culture. But he was quick to add that being Jewish, for him, is most certainly an identity based on culture and heritage, and not on religion. Outside of work, Endre was a dedicated activist in Israel’s leftist Meretz party, so being a liberal and a social democrat is yet another identity that forms an integral part of who he is, as a citizen of Israel and as a human.
I wonder what my father would say if he could watch this interview with Endre and hear my questions. I wish that he would have taken any number of opportunities when I was growing up, or as a young adult, to share with me what happened to him, how his father died and our family’s experiences in the Budapest ghetto. When he took me to see Schindler’s List at an old movie theatre in Budapest, on a cool, rainly evening in 1993, mere blocks from where he lived as a child in Pest, he spoke about the experience of growing up during the War and about the siege, but not a word about the Holocaust. Yet as another of my father’s surviving cousins reminded me, his generation–as survivors of the Shoah–has the right to forget or to simply allow for some family narratives to vanish with them.
The 85 year old Endre, however, sees things differently.
“I would like your generation to know about this, just in case I end up disappearing one day,” he told me.
Hopefully, he’s won’t be going anywhere for some time to come.