From ......... NEWSWEEK
February 17, 1997
Making Peace With the Past
Like Madeleine Albright, I learned of my Jewish origins later in life. Accepting personal history is difficult—but essential. BY KATI MARTON
MADELEINE ALBRIGHT EXPECTED TO SPEND LAST WEEK settling into her new job as secretary of state. Then came an extraordinary piece of personal news: her Czech grandparents were not Roman Catholics but Jews — and two of them, as well as an aunt, died in the Holocaust. This late-in-life revelation (Albright is 59) of Jewish roots is not unique. Across Central Europe and the United States, people have been having similar experiences for the last decade or so. The Holocaust continues to produce unexpected debris.
Fifteen years ago I made a discovery much like the one Albright is now confronting. On my first trip back to my native Hungary since our family fled after the 1956 revolution, I was interviewing a Holocaust survivor. As we talked she said — in a flat, matter-of-fact tone — "Of course, you know your grandparents were in one of the first transports to Auschwitz." As a matter of fact, I did not know. I had no idea. My parents — like Albright's — had not told me.
I spoke with my friend Madeleine at length last week. I felt great sympathy for the emotional upheaval she was experiencing. "Tell me," she said, "how did you deal with this? What did you tell your children?" I replied that my children now regard this history as theirs. But, then, the decision I made to tell my own kids was much simpler than the one my parents faced. We, the children of the brave people who survived, have to be mindful that survival came at a price. Our parents brought us here and gave us an unlimited future. The past was theirs. They had a right to make the choices they made at the time. But now there is no further need for subterfuge — there is no more reason to withhold, no more cause to fear and no danger in revealing the truths that could have once sent Hitler's victims to their deaths.
This is my story. I was raised as a devout Roman Catholic and was told that my grandparents had died during the siege of Budapest in 1945. Although religion was officially illegal in communist Hungary, my parents, who were Hungarian reporters for American wire services, kept me to a firm schedule: I never missed mass on Sundays. I was tutored in catechism by nuns who were no longer allowed to wear their habits. After my parents were arrested in early 1955 on (false) charges of spying for the United States, I prayed to the Virgin Mary six times a day for their release. When they were finally freed, I was certain it was due to my fervent prayers.
When we reached the United States as political refugees in 1957, a new religion supplanted the old: Americanization. Learn the language. Adapt to the new culture. Work hard. We came here for you. Those were the messages transmitted by my loving parents. Above all: Do Not Look Back. This was my new catechism. I learned to speak and act like an all-American girl, but the facade was shattered that day in Budapest in 1978. I was shocked, not because I minded being Jewish — I did not really know what that meant — but because I was stunned that something so essential had been kept from me.
Refugees like Albright and me do not have normal relationships with our parents. We don't simply love them; we revere them. We know that they have been through great and terrible things, that they risked everything to bring us to this strange and wonderful country with its strange and wonderful ways. I had seen my parents' courage in the face of the communists. Now I learned that there were things about these heroic people — and about me — that I knew nothing about.
Why? They had trouble explaining. We did this for you, so you would never have to live through the things we did. To protect you. I could understand the denial while in Hungary, where anti-Semitism was still a real problem in the communist era in which I grew up. But in America, I replied, you cannot seriously imagine we would be persecuted for our religion. I was young and perhaps a bit naive. There were things I simply did not understand about what life had been like under the Nazis — and how deeply that experience scarred those who survived.
When we came to America, they made the decision never to look back. Our family's history would begin here. As my parents saw it, there was danger in looking back. There were problems enough in being a refugee; why compound them by adding "Jewish" to the list of things we had to overcome? They had too much history. I did not have enough. They felt that to be American meant not having a past, or at least having the freedom to choose what to remember. I felt the opposite. To me, America means the freedom to unabashedly embrace your heritage, whatever it might be. People who survived the Holocaust and the cold war will never believe their heritage might not be dangerous again.
Even now the subject remains emotionally fraught within my family; it is very difficult for us to discuss it with one another. So I turned to writing. First, a biography of Raoul Wallenberg, which I dedicated "to those Hungarians for whom Wallenberg arrived too late," intending it as a small memorial to the grandparents I never knew. Then I wrote a novel about a Hungarian American journalist who discovers she is Jewish. My history had become an obsession — in part because it was withheld for so long. My hope for all those who make similar discoveries is that they too can one day come to peace with their past.
[picture caption] - Family matters: The author with her mother, Ilona Marton
MARTON is an author and the chair of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
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