Budapest Girl: An Immigrant Confronts the Past
Matai River Press, $35.00,
“Who wants to talk about the past anymore? And who wants to hear?” It’s a challenge to the author from a former Budapest schoolmate, one that haunts this memoir’s final pages. For Panni Palásti, though, it’s no deterrent; her friend’s reaction shows only the new cultural disconnect between them. “Vali’s 1944,” she writes, “is different from mine.”
The Nelson memoirist and poet, now in her 80s, fled her home in Budapest for the West in the 1956 uprising. Vali remained in Hungary, surviving six regime changes, and the “carcass of a war whose scent in Budapest still permeates the walls.” It’s a society bent on forgetting – even whitewashing – a tarnished past, Palásti writes. Whereas she lives “in the Pacific where I witness a drive for clarification, for a frank analysis of the past, coupled with attempts to rectify historic villainy.” In Budapest Girl, she exercises her “moral right” to scrutinise the childhood she recalls, “the one whose toxins I can feel embedded under my skin.” In particular, she wants to explore her long reluctance to acknowledge her Jewish roots:
I carried with me the compulsion to shed the past even to America, where I arrived at 23 as a refugee. And I carried it on to peaceful New Zealand where I landed in 1973 …. Yes, it took me many decades to sit down and write this memoir.
Once underway, the process of remembering and writing unleashes a flood. Memories hurtle at the author “in staggering disarray”; the shape of her book reflects the “peculiar flamboyance of memories as they surface, keeping to their own dynamic timetable.” Many small chapters, some of them no longer than a few lines, are punctuated with poignant family photographs and the writer’s own poetry. It’s a bumpy ride, and undeniably nostalgic; Palásti has to work hard to keep sentimentality in check. (“Am I a reliable teller of my story?” she asks early in the book. “Or am I sugar coating? Can I trust myself?”) The distinctively Eastern European voice of the prose, with its emphasis on sensory detail and physical impressions, provides a steadying anchor. The apron worn by Palásti’s adored Roman Catholic grandmother is “vaguely scented by onions and garlic, by the ashes she’s emptied from the potbelly stove and maybe a whiff of ammonia”; her Jewish grandmother, Omama, a seamstress, is remembered for the “tickle of the scissors as she widens the hole under my armpit … I am her model and pride.” And where sunny childhood memories are indulged, shadows are also present. New shoes are shiny, but uncomfortably big; adults are loving and sometimes inexplicably angry; bedbugs hide behind pictures on the walls. A happier between-wars Budapest gives way to a Budapest under siege, a world turned on its head.
In particular, the tricky issue of the author’s Jewishness – her mother was Roman Catholic, her journalist father a Jew – is deftly handled. Palásti, a child born in the year that Hitler came to power, struggles with the complexities of racial identity in her own household and beyond. Before the war, Omama doesn’t visit the family’s Catholic home; her granddaughter visits her at her apartment instead. In 1944, Omama is rescued from the Budapest ghetto and brought to live with the family for the first time. The author recalls how her ailing grandmother’s flannel pyjamas hang from her body, “releasing an odour that made me hold my breath … I felt sadness and repugnance.” When Omama dies, she finds herself unable to cry at the funeral, wishing only for the return of a grandmother untainted by Jewishness. “I want the old Omama back,” she writes, “the one before the ghetto.”
Omama dies; others simply disappear. The loss of innocence, like the onset of the war, is inevitable. But the process isn’t straightforward, and Palásti tackles it with candour. She recalls, for example, a family from her apartment building forced to move to a house designated for Jews, leaving a suitcase of precious belongings with her parents for safekeeping. In it, she finds a white linen dress worn by the young friend she once envied, and she convinces her mother to let her wear it, “just once”, to Sunday Mass. “Wearing Kitty’s fine dress with its big mother-of-pearl buttons shining on my breast raised that Sunday into a new dimension,” she recalls. “God will surely listen. He will see how beautiful I am.”
Even as the author becomes more aware of the very real dangers in the racism endured by her Jewish father – and as the war also takes its physical toll on the struggling family – she clings to the idea of her personal invulnerability. “How could the SS take me apart? I conclude that it is impossible, that I am safe, that my Aryan parts make me untouchable.” In one sense, this has proved to be true: Palásti appears to have had a secure and happy adult life living outside her troubled homeland. (Perhaps the story of the adult emigrant and refugee, one that is only touched on in this book, might be the subject of a future memoir.) But Budapest Girl is evidence that the writer’s part-Aryan heritage was never a guarantee of immunity. More than 70 years on, the remaining survivors of WWII are those who, like Palásti and her friend Vali, were children at the time. The scars remain and the stories must be told, even if no one wants to hear them. As American memoirist Patricia Hampl argues, memoirists write because what is remembered becomes reality – and “if we refuse … someone else will do it for us.” “The function of memory, while experienced as intensely personal, is surprisingly political,” Hampl concludes. “In the act of remembering, the personal environment expands, resonates beyond itself, beyond its ‘subject’, into the endless and tragic recollection that is history.”
Helena Wiśniewska Brow’s Give Us This Day: A Memoir of Family and Exile was reviewed in our Autumn 2015 issue, available on our online archive: www.nzbooks.org.nz.