Nagyi

Nagyi

About ten years ago, there was an episode of Australian Story about my grandfather. He was a master tailor, who made suits for some of the most respected men in the country, and he was also a Holocaust survivor and an immigrant. They touched on the fact that he learned how to speak English primarily by listening to the radio.

I remember watching that part of the story once and asking my Dad, “how did Nagyi learn English?” Nagyi was my grandmother. And, according to my dad, she learned from the radio too.

My grandparents’ story sometimes reminds me of that old cliché about Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers; everything my grandfather had do to, Nagyi had to do backwards, in heels, whilst raising four sons and cooking dinner. It feels like telling her story too often involves the word also. She also worked hard at her own business. She also struggled with the trials of being an immigrant. She also picked herself up and moved from country to country after the war.

As a young girl, she lost nearly all of the family she had ever known. By the time the war ended, Nagyi was fifteen. Of her family in the town of Balassagyarmat, in northern Hungary, which stretched to around a hundred people, only three survived. Nagyi, her mother, and her brother. The story my family often tells of the Holocaust is that of my grandfather, nursing a broken arm in secret in a concentration camp, trading sewing jobs for favours, eating the grass to the roots to survive – as we should. But the world that Nagyi grew up in also disappeared when she was too young. She also lost nearly everyone she held dear. She also survived.

The feminist in me is probably too attached to this idea that we overlooked Nagyi’s story, that we valued my grandfather’s story in a way that we never did hers. It’s most certainly not that simple. I think we mythologised Popi in a way that we never did to Nagyi. We treated Popi as though he was a larger than life figure, in no small part because that’s exactly what he was.

Nagyi was the one I told stories to. With Popi I smiled wide, played up my wit, let myself laugh just that little bit too hard. Every time we saw each other, Nagyi would ask me, “Joshy, how is school?” The same inflection in the words, the same cadence. And something about it put me at ease. Something about her put me at ease. Eating Friday night dinner at her house, there was a sense that she had put care into ensuring that there was always something on the table that I would enjoy. (This was probably in no small part because I was a fussy eater, and so a point had to be made that there was something specific that was intended expressly for my consumption.)

Or perhaps I’m desperately seeking a frame to remember her by. We’ve had a few deaths in the family recently, and after each one, I sat down to either write some kind of speech, or eulogy, even a poem or two. Something that captured the essence of not just the loved one I lost, but the relationship that we shared. I’ve tended to linger more on personal anecdotes than big existential questions. This time it seems that finding those anecdotes is harder than usual.

Nagyi began to develop dementia six years ago. In that time, I slowly lost another person that I loved. This time was different. There were smaller losses along the road to today. I lost the feeling of seeing her in the home she and Popi built, the world they created together, when they had to move somewhere with care facilities. I lost the fond way that the two of them bickered, when she became a widow. I lost the feeling of communicating with her, as English slipped from her grasp – and then sentences, the thread of conversation entirely. I lost our Friday night dinners, and then our Sunday night dinners. I lost her. Somewhere along the way, there was a moment like all the other moments I’ve had, where there was enough to remember to set it all down. But in amongst hoping beyond hope that we could settle into a status quo where she was lucid, finishing high school, starting university, and losing so many other relatives, I forgot to notice it.

I lost my grandmother. My grandmother died. For me, the two are not the same. I can tell you the exact moment that my grandmother died, but it was a long time ago that I lost my grandmother, and I could not point to exactly when. It is a curious feeling to know that you are now supposed to miss a person you have already missed for years.

It could be that this is the source of my confusion. It could be that this is why I feel like we forgot to tell Nagyi’s story; because I forgot to make note of when it ended, forgot to give it definition. It could also be that we made Popi’s story so mythic that Nagyi’s was relegated to the sidelines, the alsos. Something tells me that it’s a little of both.

Whatever the case, my Nagyi was elegant, loving, wise, beautiful, stubborn, tenacious, gentle, giving, cried at the drop of a hat, and laughed like there was nothing she would rather be doing. And whilst as a girl she lost almost all of the family she had known, as a young woman she built a family – by blood and by the steadfastness of her friendship – that is just as loud, loving and hardworking as she was. She leaves behind not just four sons, not just nine grandchildren, but also four great-grandchildren.

Our story is sometimes the life that we lead. Our story is sometimes the world that we helped build. My Nagyi’s is both. I am proud to be a line in that story.

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Speech at Auschwitz

Today I had the solemn duty of visiting Auschwitz and Birkenau, in Poland. At the end of my visit, I spoke to the gathered crowd about what the Holocaust means to me.

Here is that speech.


I’d like to tell you a story about a young girl before I start. Her name was Roszi. When Roszi was about our age, maybe a little older, she was taken from her home with her older sister Lenke. When they reached this place, this awful awful place, Roszi was put in a queue with one of her cousins, and Lenke another. When her cousin noticed this she suggested that the sisters stay together and cousins stay together – and so they swapped. That young girl, Roszi, was my great aunt, and because of that momentary decision, I am blessed to have known her, her son, her two granddaughters and her two great grandsons.

As we’ve visited sites I’ve inevitably thought about the people in my family who weren’t as fortunate as my grandparents and the handful of relatives they had left after the Second World War. About my grandmother’s father, aunts, uncles, cousins. About my grandfather’s sisters, parents, aunts, uncles, cousins. And I wonder sometimes about how would be best to remember them.

My grandfather survived the Holocaust by the skin of his teeth. He pulled through with more strength and more sheer life than I’ve seen in any other individual ever before. His smile is what carries me through this place, because even though he saw bodies thrown into a pit he could laugh and he could smile with me in the decades after. And when I see places like this, places where it happened, I’m angry.

But I’ve found on this trip that my anger has worked in mysterious ways. I’m angry at the curtains in my bedroom that don’t fit my windows, at the volume of the movies on the bus that block out my music, at the sheer incessant nonsense that builds up around me. I have nothing to do in this miserable place but hate everything and anything, and to be perfectly honest I just don’t want to hate anymore.

When we left the children’s forest on Thursday, I felt nothing but sheer anger. Anger at the whole entire world – but I realized, not after long, that even though I want to destroy something like a visceral panther I can’t. I can’t help anything by being angry, but I can do a world of good by living.

I wanted to take my own form of revenge.

My grandfather once said, “A man is a man. Whether he is a Jew or a Christian or a Muslim, if he is a good man, he is a good man.” With that in mind, I urge you to understand that the survivors of the Holocaust didn’t just survive for us to live our lives Jewishly, though I can’t help but agree that they would have loved us to do so. The message I have taken from this journey is not just for us to live as good Jewish boys and girls – but for us to live as bright and shining human beings.

Be resplendent in your existence. Be as disgustingly individual and good and kind as you can muster in your hearts because if anything, the Holocaust has taught us that nobody, Nazi or otherwise, can tell us that there is a perfect way to live and anyone who doesn’t is condemned to death.

Grow up and eat what you want and live where you want and sing how you want and believe what you want and marry who you want and have how ever many children you want and raise them however you damn well choose because Hitler’s Germany and Hitler’s Poland and Hitler’s Hungary and Czechoslovakia said that people couldn’t, and that makes me sick.

My grandfather always wanted to be an industrial engineer, just like his father was. But because war broke out, he had to train to become a tailor. He couldn’t live the life he wanted because other people made that life impossible. He was forced into a cattle car among some 10,000 other people with no food and water and was lucky to be one of the sixty Jews who survived. He was reduced to eating the roots of grass to live. They made him afraid to seek medical attention for a broken arm because if he had he knew they’d shoot him.

Don’t live your life how someone else tells you to – do what you think is right, because at the end of the day, when they’re marching you into a gas chamber before they burn your body like they’re roasting an animal all you can say is that you didn’t let them take what you were, that you were as kind and as loving and as caring and as good as you could find it within your heart to be, and you’ll go with a conscience as light as a feather.

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