Holocaust and identity: A video interview with my father’s cousin in Israel

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.

4 Comments

  1. Pierre Divenyi says:

    Although not as colorful as Endre’s story/stories, some of us have our own that should be told to younger generations. My younger daughter, finally, is coming to town with the intent to force me talk (not my favorite activity) in a microphone about my family, my experiences, and history as I saw and see it. Good for you, Adam, to have captured this chunk of memory And thank you for sharing it.

  2. http://users.ecs.soton.ac.uk/harnad/skywritings/index.php?/archives/91-Miert-engedtetek.html
    Appeared in:
    Képes Figyelő 1945 November 17 (originally June 1945)

    Why Did You Let Them?

    by Nelly Kotányi

    It was six years ago that I saw her first, on a warm summer afternoon in a flowering schoolyard in Szekszard. The municipal music school had invited me to serve as an outside examiner that year. We were hearing the well-prepared pupils in the auditorium of the renowned Garay Gimnazium. A diminutive little girl was announced: seven years old, but hardly looking even that.

    She began to play music. And it was indeed music she was playing, not just piano — music immemorial, her miniature fingers sculpting Bach and Mozart out of that oversize keyboard. She even played us a few little pieces she herself had written. A great gift, first spreading its wings. No one was surprised to hear that we awarded her the prize book. In the fullness of her 7 years she was already well-known in that town; many were predicting she would one day be the pride of Szekszard.

    Four years pass. Now eleven, she plays Beethoven’s C-minor piano concerto in the student concert. By now everyone recognizes that hers is no ordinary talent. She is brought up to Budapest. The Music Academy Director receives her with tokens of his admiration and respect: He “would admit her immediately to the Academy, but the Jewish-Laws forbid it.” He adds that he hopes the regime will soon fall; till then he would still like to follow her development closely. The little girl is happy. A radiantly bright autumn day. Anny can come up to Budapest two more times, so the Music Academy’s celebrated piano maestro can hear her. Then comes March 19, 1944, and the maelstrom of deportation.

    After the siege’s end, I hear nothing about them. Just two weeks ago, I learned from the deathlist of the Muhldorf Camp, that Anny’s father had perished there. Last week I met some people from Szekszard. My first question is about Anny. They tell me. It was in Auschwitz on a December day that they saw her last. The executioners came for Anny, to separate her from her mother. The little child with the God-given gift had been found unable to labour hard enough. Her mother, Rozsi, would not leave her, so she was taken to the gas chamber too. Never seen again.

    Little Anny Engel! This is the first article about you, and it will have no successors, because the little artist is no more.

    Yet what an endless joy it would have been for me, if you had played the first movement of the C-Minor concerto once again. You know, that last trill, at the end of the cadenza, the one for which you need bigger hands — I would leave it as you played it for the time being.

    Women, mothers, you whom the star of fortune spared from the horror and who are happily embracing your children now: don’t you hear them sometimes, on calm nights, the muted moans?

    Why did you let them?

    (Translated May 20 2000)
    Anny Engel was my cousin; her mother, Rozsika, from Kalocsa, my mother’s sister. Nelly Kotanyi was Anny’s piano teacher.

    My mother learned what became of them in June 1945, the month of my birth, from a slightly earlier and longer (but suppressed and apparently lost) version of this article.

    This version was retrieved for me after some searching (at my request) by a friend in Hungary in May 2000.

    During my mother’s pregnancy my parents had been hiding under false identities in Rimaszécs helplessly witnessing the brutal deportation and destruction of the local Jewry by the local gendarmerie. (Rimaszécs is now in Slovakia, partly by my father’s doing when he was consulted by the commanding officer of the Russian liberating army (who happened to also be a Jew) as to whether it should be accorded to Hungary or Czechoslovakia; he was also able to dispatch the head of the local gendarmerie to Siberia with a pofon.)

    There are no Jews left in Kalocsa.

    —————————–

    Miert engedtetek?

    Kotányi Nelly

    Hat ev elott lattam eloszor, meleg nyari delelotton a szekszardi gimnazium viragos udvaran. Abban az evben vizsgabiztosnak hivott meg az ottani varosi zeneiskola. A nagyhiru Garay-gimnazium tantermeben hallgattuk a novendekek szepen betanult jatekat. Beszolitottak egy pottomnyi kisleanyt. Het eves volt de annyinak sem latszott.

    Muzsikalni kezdett! Nem zongorazott mert muzsika volt, ahitatos zene, ahogy kicsiny ujjai Bachot es Mozartot megszolaltattak! Meghallgattuk nehany apro darabjat amit o komponalt! Egy nagy tehetseg elso szarnyprobalgatasa. Senki sem csodalkozott, hogy o nyerte meg a jutalomkonyvet. A varosban ismertek mar 7 eves koraban es sokan mondogattak, hogy egyszer meg buszkesege lesz Szekszardnak.

    Elmulik negy ev. A 11 eves gyermek Beethoven C-moll koncertjet jatsza a novendekhangversenyen. Most mar mindenki elismeri, hogy nem mindennapi tehetseg. Felhozzak Pestre. A Zenemuveszeti Foiskola muvesztanara elragadtatassal es a legnagyobb elismeressel fogadja. Azonnal felvenne a foiskolara, de a zsidotorveny nem engedi. Remeli azonban, hogy a rendszer megbukik hamarosan. Addig is figyelemmel akaja kiserni a gyermek fejlodeset. A kisleany boldog. Verofenyes oszi nap. Anny meg ketszer feljohet Pestre, hogy a Zenemuveszeti Foiskola kivallo tanara meghallgassa. Aztan jon 1944 marcius 19.es jon a deportalas infernoja.

    Az ostrom utan sokaig nem tudok roluk semmit. Most ket het elott olvastam a muhldorfi tabor halallistajan, hogy Anny edesapja szivbenulasban elhalt. Mult heten szekszardiakkal talalkoztam. Elso kerdesem, mi hir Annyrol. Elmondjak. Auschwitzban egy decemberi napon lattak utoljara. A gyilkos pribekek jottek Annyert, hogy szetvalasszak edesanyjatol. Az istenaldotta kis muzsikustehetseg nem tudott eleget dolgozni. Vittek a gazkamraba. Edesanyja nem hagyta, vele ment. Azota nem lattak oket.

    Kicsi Engel Anny! Ez az elso cikk rolad, melyet nem fog mas kovetni, mert a kis muveszno – halott…

    Pedig milyen vegtelen orom lett volna nekem, ha meg egyszer eljatszanad a C-moll koncert elso tetelet. Azt az utolso trillat tudod, ott a kadencia vegen, amihez nagyobb kez kell, meg egyenlore elengednem!…

    Asszonyok, anyak, kiket szerencsecsillagotok megvedett a borzalmaktol es boldogan olelitek gyermekeiteket, nem halljatok neha csendes ejjeleken a halk sohajtasokat: Miert engedtetek?

    • Pierre Divenyi says:

      Heart wrenching story. Those in Budapest were relatively more lucky: the “nyilas” Nazi takeover happened only in October 1944 allowing Wallenberg and the many unsung local heroes (including my mother) to hide thousands of Jews. By then my Jewish father was dead and my mother had managed to save my 7-year-old self — I still don’t know how.

      All these stories make me scratch my head: how come that all those Eastern European countries keep electing right-wing mostly racist governments? Can you, Stevan, an excellent cognitive psychologist, give an answer?

  3. I have no answer (though the relevant discipline is not cognitive psychology but history and anthropology, with a touch of psychiatry). All I can say is that a familiar (and foul) mind-set — familiar in the US in the form of rednecks/white-trash/tea-partisans/trumpsters remains, mercifully, minoritarian, held in check by democracy, a free press and the rule of law, in Orban’s Hungary it has metastasized into a mainstream odium.

    About Kalocsa, Gabor Kalman will be screening his moving film in Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto the week of November 9 — http://www.therewasoncefilm.com/filmmakers.html — but I will not be attending, even though my mother is in the film, because it is being screened under the auspices of the Hungarian Embassy, and although Gabi doesn’t realize it (or admit it to himself), he is being cynically used by Orban (and his slick Ottawa Ambassador, Odor) in a demagogic PR campaign to try to portray his vile regime as the opposite of what it really is. (Even the US ambassador has been lured by the theme to attend.) But Orban’s dirty tricks are just piling shame upon shame, compounded daily.

    It will take decades or longer for Hungary to cleanse itself of the stain — and it won’t work to just try to rewrite its history, as Orban and Maria Schmidt are trying to do now. That just works for domestic consumption…

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