Monday, 15 December 2008

Domain 5

My mother with George, shortly after her recovery from Ravensbruck/Penig

There are far too many things we don't know and never bother to ask. Sometimes I think there should exist a vast dump of accessible common memory, something like the internet where things chase themselves around the cosmos for ever and ever, ready to be summoned by accession date and password.

In 1940, under pressure from Hitler, Romania returned some parts of the Transylvania that had been sliced off Hungary following Austria-Hungary's defeat in 1918. That slicing isolated some five million Hungarians, leaving them as aliens in new countries without ever having left the town they were born and grew up in. So maps roll this way and that and the whirligig of time, as Feste put it to Malvolio, brings in its revenges. Briefly then, between 1940 and 1945, my mother's home town of Cluj, known to Hungarians as Kolozsvár, was returned to Hungary and this gave her the opportunity to go to Budapest to work with the marvellous documentary photographer, Károly Escher, whom I have mentioned before. I can't imagine her parents would have been too pleased about her being alone in a distant capital regarded by some as a kind of Sin City, but she was always headstrong and remained so. They must have been assured by Escher's reputation. Besides, her father himself had gone to America after the great crash of 1929 to work, I think, on the railroad, and to send money home. There is nothing new about Polish plumbers in England.

Escher was in fact so good I want to put up some of his photographs here for their own sake. It must have felt like a great privilege to be working with him and learning from him. She was only sixteen, beautiful, confident and full of life. She took on all kinds of other jobs, including modelling in a jeweller's window. She had very long and graceful fingers that she could bend right back without using the other hand and the jeweller draped those hands with jewels. There she sat for hours at a time. This much I know from her.

Budapest must have been an enormous thrill for her. She had recovered from almost two years of confinement with rheumatic fever and now here she was, independent, ambitious, on the loose. What was domain for her then? The whole city perhaps, and the imagined future of working in documentary photography. Hungary was under the control of Admiral Horthy who had been in power since 1920. Horthy was a right wing authoritarian figure in the Franco and Salazar mould. His governments banned the Communists and many on the left had to go abroad to find work. Nevertheless, despite having anti-Jewish laws in place since the early twenties, Hungary was not yet rounding Jews up and deporting them for extermination. That was not to happen until March 1944 once Horthy had gone. So she had something over three years of freedom.

In that time she met my father and his family, but that's a story I am putting aside for now, because I want to concentrate on the subject of domain.

That domain tightened in 1944. She actually moved in with my father's mother and sister and was deeply unhappy there. She later claimed that they deliberately starved her. I doubt it. The starvation would have been primarily emotional. She binged on love. She got little there and was possibly begrudged her food. It must have felt like being strangled.

Then she was arrested (details in the poem Metro) and taken to Ravensbruck, later to Penig. Humiliation, exhaustion and death owned that domain. She was almost dead when the Americans reached Penig. I will write more on this later, but among the troops who did the rescuing and looking after her in a military hospital was one George, the man in the picture above, who wanted her to go to the US with him. They are standing in the doorway of the military hospital, right there. He gave me one of my names though I am, clearly, not his son. I was born a year too late for that and have much of my father in me.


Gwil W said...

George, I have to say that your mother is very pretty. It's a wonder that the American George, or another American, didn't sweep her off her feet.
Thousands of women found the way to States after the war; nylons, Lucky Strikes, bubble gum and promises...turned their heads. Mind you, it wasn't all a bundle of laughs; quite a few women ended up with patresfamilias religious farmers in places like Oklahoma, never to be heard from again.

Anonymous said...

I agree with PiR, your mother was indeed pretty. Very pretty. She looks very happy there too. I am enjoying reading your 'Domain' series, George.

You touch on a 'dump of common accessible memory' in this piece. Although not in the same context, I saw on the BBC news this evening that vast archives of Hitler's Reich, including meticulous details of the Jews and their fate, have been open in Germany now for two years. Two researchers, one from the UK and one from Germany, were searching a common ancestor and discovered they were brothers. The youngest was 67. Each didn't know the other existed until they were joined by this search. There must be some soul-rending discoveries still to be unearthed in that repository.