Tuesday, 25 December 2012
On God 1
More bells this morning. I was thinking of my parents while the bells were ringing and also of the photograph below of my father, my brother and I with the ruins of Budapest behind us. And also - at one remove, a kind of Christmas Day remove - about God.
Neither my mother nor father believed in God. I don't know very much of my mother's parents - she died in 1975 before I had much time to ask, and besides she might not have answered - but I suspect they were reform Jews, not particularly religious but probably keeping a few religious customs. Whatever she herself felt or thought the experience of the war with its two concentration camps will have driven God out of her.
My father's grandparents were residually Jewish, not orthodox but probably closer to the norms of orthodoxy than the following generation. The war - with its labour camps and escapes - had much the same effect on him as it did on her.
Having met during the war in a brief lull, they found each other again in the ruins of Budapest and got married on 2 February 1946 in a civil ceremony. They were both atheists by then. My father had joined the Social Democratic Party that was soon to be taken over by the Moscow-led Communist Workers' Party and my mother tried to join the Workers Party but was excluded because of her middle-class background (never mind that the entirely family was dead by then.) Dad was OK. His father (also dead) had worked on the shop floor of a shoe factory. Within a few years he was inside the Party and in one of the ministries, leading one of its departments.
There must have been considerable loss of belief among Jews even before the war: after it it would have been at an all-time low. My mother, being more passionate and angry than my father and, I suspect, worshipped by him, determined the life of the family. That meant not only no God and no religious practices but no cultural practices either. Nothing. Not only was God a nonsense - possibly worse, a shadowy supernatural mass murderer - but so was the entire paraphernalia associated with Him. Get out and get rid. Rid of the past too. She was henceforth of a Lutheran family, a Lutheran by Transylvanian upbringing. Not that that meant anything either. (I have written often enough before of her efforts to protect her children from knowledge of their Jewish background.) My father's German - hence Jewish sounding - family name, Schwartz, was gone too. We were now the Szirtes family, atheist radical Lutherans on my mother's side. That was our ready-to-serve, ready-wrapped past.
So it was we never entered a synagogue, never had Jewish family rituals and holidays, never talked religion and certainly not God, who was not even an absence. There was no space for God to be an absence from. I can't say I gave God a thought, though there must have been a moment the subject entered my head because I did once ask whether He existed. I was directed to my more religious great-aunt who was sitting in the other room. It is the first scene in the very first section of the long poem, Metro, where the memory of the incident is imagined, fleshing out a few bones of believable truth. But then that's memory for you.
So God was a secret my great-aunt harboured. Knowledge of Him lived inside her in that other room. The rest was guesswork based on snippets of adult conversation and my exhaustive childhood reading.
The Christian God came bounding through the door only once we arrived in England. More on that next time.