“It’s in your blood. All of you.” He looks at me. Right in the eye. All I can read is resentment. But there is sadness, too. “All of you, Hungarians, are anti-Semites. It’s just in your blood.”
I’m standing there frozen. But also somewhat in a shock. There are twenty pairs of eyes staring at me, and I know that anything I say will be a judgment on me. Not on him. Whatever I say will make me the woman from Hungary who said this or that. To him, a Holocaust survivor.
“I’m so sorry for what some of my people did to you. I will never be able to understand what you went through. But, I assure you we aren’t all anti-Semites.”
“Well, young lady, you can say whatever you want, just look at your government today.”
If up until this point I tried to stand up for my nation, my people, and myself, once he started to talk about my government, I understood, I have nothing else to do here. It is just not the place, time, and audience I need to prove that my blood is anything but anti-Semitic. Not today at least; definitely not today.
I wasn’t angry at him. After all, how would I have the moral grounds to be angry at a Holocaust survivor? How would I dare? Could I be?
I wasn’t angry, but I cried until home.
Since then, I met four other Holocaust survivors in person and read three other’s memoir. And I realized something that is true for anyone and everyone who went through a trauma in life. There are those who come out stronger, find a way to thrive, and share their stories to help others (and to heal themselves a little more). And there are those, who face life with resentment, wish for revenge, and still share their stories. The main difference, I’ve learned, is that while the former group considers the Holocaust as only part of their stories, the latter group never left the concentration camps; the Holocaust is their full story.
I was standing in the big auditorium, the only non-Jew; a non-Jew from Hungary. And as those twenty pairs of eyes stared at me, I understood that I was looking at a victim whose body survived, but whose soul is still surviving. I genuinely wished him to find peace.
On the way home, with tears behind my sunglasses, I was thinking what was I really expecting of him to do? Why did I even feel the need to go to him and say sorry? Why was I so surprised that he would not get touched by my intention?
Not that day, but later that week, I realized that I always had an imagined, utopistic vision about Holocaust survivors. I thought that by surviving hell, today, they are one of those people who enjoy life carelessly knowing that if they survived that, they survive everything life can put in front of them. I imagined them kind and caring, never wanting to hurt anyone because they were hurt so badly. I imagined that they share their stories not only to make sure we never forget but also to show us that we always have a choice in life; and, thus, they chose to survive, they chose to thrive. I imagined them as superheroes. What I never considered is that while they are superheroes, they are also humans, and that makes everything so much more complex.
It took me a good few months to understand that that Holocaust survivor who put me on a stand as a Hungarian, also put me on a whole different journey. A journey that goes beyond the naïve imagination that surviving the concertation camps was the hardest part. Today, I think surviving freedom, waking up the day after liberation, or taking the first step after the DP camps is where the real hard work started. The decision whether to start the second act, or never to close the first act, is where the real choice comes to play.
He wasn’t the only one telling me that it is in our blood. That the Hungarian blood is anti-Semite. There was another survivor, whom I haven’t met, but whose daughter told me: “My mom never ever will go back to Hungary, she forbids us to visit Hungary.” Once again, I am sitting there frozen. A little bit less frozen as before; you know, the surprise isn’t as intense for the second time. But once again, I am puzzled over what is the right reaction while trying to balance between my patriotic heart and my love towards Jews and Israel.
How much can I give up from me to be accepted by you? How far can we go in this mandate that you can say whatever you want about me, the non-Jew, the Hungarian non-Jew, while day after night I fight for you? When are you going to care if you hurt me and not only take for granted that I know you were hurt. When will I feel confident enough to say and write about you something you might not like hearing or reading, without being labeled as an anti-Semite?
When I embarked on this journey and tagged myself as the Almost Jewish, I never anticipated stepping into such complexities, facing so many crossroads, needing to grow such a thick skin. But I also never expected to grow so much, learn about a different kind of tolerance, and let my naïve imagination grow into such curiosity and knowledge that I enjoy today.
When he said: “It’s in your blood,” I understood that such as he is facing a choice each day to let his soul get out of his concertation camp, I also faced a choice. I could get upset and hurt, and turn my back to this whole Jewish world and stop investing so much time into something that isn’t always rewarding. Or, I can accept that he is one survivor who feels this way, accept that he is on a journey and ‘take my revenge’ to show that we aren’t all anti-Semitic by keep on standing with the Jews and Israel; keep on standing with him.
For the Holocaust survivors, the revenge on Hitler is often the ability to cuddle their grandchildren. For me, my revenge against the frequently expressed hatred towards my nation is to stand with you in spite of everything.
Because what good it will bring if we stare at each other in resentment? We’d just freeze history in a moment that should never have happened.