Almost exactly 74 years ago, in 1943, a group of non-Jewish German women in Berlin staged a series of peaceful protests to demand that the Nazis release their Jewish husbands. The men had been arrested and were being held in a building on Rosenstrasse (Rose Street) waiting to be deported to Auschwitz. The women, only a handful at first, but eventually about a thousand, stood in the street in front of the building, in winter weather, and chanted over and over, “Give us back our men!” They refused orders to leave, even after SS troops set up machine gun nests. After their forceful stand had gone on for six days, in late February and early March, Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi Minister of Propaganda, ordered the release of the men.
I first read about this inspiring, and nearly forgotten bit of Holocaust era history in 1993 when, on its fiftieth anniversary, this amazing act of bravery was finally recognized and celebrated. (A large, multi-part stone sculpture by the German sculptor, Ingeborg Hunzinger, now stands near the site of the Rose Street protests.)
The story moved me deeply at the time, and it recently resurfaced in my memory when my wife and daughter decided to go to Washington for the Women’s March.
No—despite what Trump tweeted recently—we’re not living in Nazi Germany. (Although he has threatened to deport millions.) Nevertheless, there are now some clear threats to our democracy, and to the world, posed by this president and his administration. So I was, and am, proud beyond words of Brenda and Emily, who joined women, men, and children all over the US and the world to protest the words and actions of Trump and his cohort.
I fell in love with Brenda for a lot of reasons, but one of the main ones was her character – her honesty, loyalty, and sense of fair play. She would certainly have been one of the Rose Street Women. And Emily has also already clearly exhibited that she has inherited the same courageous genes.
I also remember my mother, who had an opportunity to hide out from the Nazis in a friend’s Budapest apartment during the war. However, she chose to stay by her sister's side and wound up in a cattle car to the Ravensbrück concentration camp, where she would help save her sister’s life several times. She too would have been on Rose Street.
It will take many, many of us, standing up, marching, and acting to counter Trump’s revolting and contemptible statements, his regressive executive orders, and the similarly regressive laws that some of his supporters will try to enact. But I am grateful and – based on my experiences with the women in my life – not surprised that women are leading and showing us the way.
I’ve played nearly thirty concerts since November 8th, for audiences that have ranged in age from babes in arms to nonagenarians. The results of the election, and the avalanche that has followed, of what I consider to be highly discouraging news—to put it very mildly—has occupied much of my thinking throughout that time. At each concert I’ve asked myself what, if anything, I should say from the stage about the statements and actions of the president elect and his cohort. At concerts for young children, the answer has been obvious—nothing. But with very few exceptions I’ve also chosen to say nothing at the rest of my concerts. Occasionally I slip. The other day, someone called out from the audience at a senior center, “Can I ask you a question?” My reply, “Of course. It’s a free country—so far, anyway.”
I’ve kept silent for a variety of reasons, but I’ve come to recognize that one of the most powerful ones is rooted in my childhood in Hungary. I have faint and incomplete, but nevertheless very real memories of the atmosphere of fear that permeated our lives in my native Budapest in the early 1950s. Our apartment building was just blocks from the headquarters of the AVO, the Hungarian Secret Police. (The acronym stands for Államvédelmi Hatóság, literally Nation Protection Authority, a very high-minded title for a band of brutal butchers and torturers who were universally feared and hated in Hungary. During the 1956 Revolution, that building was one of the first to become the target of the insurgents, and some AVO officers were lynched. Before it became the AVO’s headquarters, that building was the head office of the World War II era fascist Hungarian Arrow Cross (Nyilas) Party, and is now a museum appropriately named The House of Terror.) Even as a very young child I could not help but notice how my parents and relatives would always lower their voices to a whisper when they spoke about the authorities or the government. When my aunts wanted to scare my brother and me into good behavior, they would invoke the most terrifying bogeyman they could think of, and threaten to tell the AVO of our actions. They loved us dearly and we knew we didn’t need to take them seriously, but their threats were rooted in reality. Everyone knew that informants, occasionally even including family and friends, were everywhere, and that people could be jailed, or worse, for even the most minor forms of free speech or perceived dissent. Many years after we left Hungary my father told me that he narrowly escaped possible criminal prosecution in the early 1950s after he sang a Hebrew prayer to the melody of the Israeli national anthem on a radio program.
In short, I learned from a very early age that, when it comes to the government, the best policy is to keep your head down and your mouth shut. But of course we are now in America 2016, not 1950s Hungary. We do have freedoms here that were unimaginable in that place at that time. So, here’s what I have done since the election. I am a musician, not a political activist, so in every concert I include songs that have a history, an honorable pedigree if you will, of speaking up. We, Laz, Emily and I, have been singing The Hammer Song (with its resonances to the McCarthy era), Edelweiss (which in the Sound of Music was intended to remind Austrians of the beauty of their country, and to warn them of the horrors that awaited), Dona Dona (which reminds us that, “only those with wings like swallows will not ever be enslaved”), Violeta Parra’s Gracias a la Vida (with its resonances to Chile’s brutal dictatorship in her time) and This Land Is Your Land. (If you want some fascinating reading, check out the Wikipedia article about Irving Berlin’s God Bless America, which inspired Woody Guthrie’s retort.) I know that We Shall Overcome will make it into our sets too.
I hope that people on both sides of the political divide get the message of these songs, but I am under no illusion that our singing these songs will change any minds. Our country has become so polarized that I fear it has become very difficult to have respectful conversations with those with whom we disagree. And I feel that for me to state my views and positions from the stage would not be helpful. If I’m the only one with a microphone, it would not be a conversation but a speech, not a dialog, but a self-indulgent monologue. We have too many of those as it is. Nevertheless, despite the outcome and aftermath of the election, this is America 2016, (going on 17), not 1950s Hungary. I am grateful beyond words for the freedom and the right to sing out.
We have a small holiday gift for you. In 1981 we were invited to sing a few holiday songs with the sadly now defunct, but fondly remembered, Ars Musica, the local classical chamber orchestra that focused on Baroque music, played on period instruments. We had a wonderful time recording a short holiday season demo with them that got a fair amount of radio play on classical stations around the country that year. Here are a couple of songs—one for Hannukah, one for Christmas—from that recording. We hope you enjoy.
When my brother and I first began attending school in Budapest, in our native Hungary, our father applied for, and received, special permission from the government for two things; as religious Jews, my brother and I would be allowed to wear our yarmulkes, (skullcaps) in school; also, we’d be allowed to not attend school on Saturdays, (in Hungary then, schools were in session six days a week) so we could observe the Sabbath with our family. Our parents arranged that on Sunday afternoons we’d visit one or another of our classmates and catch up on what we’d missed in school the previous day. In the first year-and-a-half that we attended school in Budapest, I recall no problems with any of our teachers or classmates about either issue.
In the fall of 1956, we were in second grade. The Hungarian Revolution flared that November. Schools were closed for a time, and when they reopened, things were different. New people were in charge of the government and they were going to make some changes. One day a minor official visited our classroom and, making no attempt to lower his voice, or to hide his disgust, asked our teacher, “Who are the two little monkeys with the beanies back there?” One of our classmates, the girl who was our most frequent Sunday afternoon tutor, with courage well beyond her eight years, piped up, “They’re not monkeys. They’re our friends.” Emboldened, a small chorus of second graders began to echo her. The rest of the conversation between the man and our teacher was conducted in the hallway, outside the classroom. No one ordered us to remove our yarmulkes.
Our family emigrated from Hungary a few weeks later.
Since the election, there has been an ugly uptick of harassment, and even violence directed at people whose appearance or clothing—for example, Muslim women wearing hijabs—marks them as belonging to one or another of the groups that were disparaged by the president-elect and/or by vocal members of his followers.
From here on out we may all have opportunities to speak up and defend each other.
she was too old to be standing in a line that long
she knew she should have just voted early
when you’re my age she said sometimes you forget things
but there’s no way I was gonna forget to vote in this one
after 45 minutes her legs were starting to give out
and she was still a long way from the voting booths
or actually rather close from the way the line doubled back
on itself but still in the middle of the snake not at its head
and it was then that a young woman across from her
about to enter a booth looked over and said let’s switch
she didn’t ask do you want to switch she just understood
what was needed and walked over to the old woman
who was telling me this story the next day and you know
something said the old woman she was wearing a hijab
Throughout my adult life I have voted regularly, and have paid more than cursory, if less than exhaustive attention to candidates and issues. I have occasionally been elated, more often disappointed. But for the most part I have not attached too much importance to the outcome of elections. I’ve never felt—correctly or not—that the results significantly impacted my day-to-day concerns. My life has been mostly about my work and my family, and politics has seemed not to affect either one very directly.
This year has been different. I have found myself truly fearful at the prospect of a Trump presidency.
Both my parents lived through the Holocaust. Like many survivors, they rarely talked of what they had experienced. I did know from an early age that my mother spent months in the Ravensbruck concentration camp, and that her only brother and her fiancé both died in work lagers; that my father survived work lagers in Poland, but lost both his parents, three sisters and his only brother in Auschwitz. But it wasn’t till I was sixteen that my mother let slip one day that she was my father’s second wife, and that his first wife and three children were murdered in Auschwitz. And it wasn’t till I was fifty that I managed to finally get my father to speak of that first family.
Many years before that though, soon after I started to learn of my family’s history, I vowed never to allow what happened to my parents and their loved ones happen to me and mine. I swore to myself that I would keep a sharp eye out for the fires of vicious intolerance that engulfed my parents’ families; that if I saw the embers of those hatreds begin to glow again—for I knew they’d not been totally extinguished in Europe, our country, or anywhere else—I would not wait for them to burst into flames again before I acted. Early on in his candidacy, Trump tripped alarms to which I long ago vowed to listen.
The night after the third presidential debate, I went to see a production of Macbeth. No, I didn’t go because I wanted to see another power-crazed, deeply deluded, would-be tyrant strut about on a stage. Actually, I went because my daughter was in that production. But once there, I found it remarkable how often lines from the play spoke to my fears about the current campaign. How could I hear, “What’s the newest grief?” without thinking of the latest Trumpian outrage? And when I heard, “I think our country sinks beneath the yoke,/It weeps, it bleeds, and each new day a gash/Is added to her wounds,” I thought not of Macbeth’s ancient Scotland, but of our own nation, today. And when Malcolm says this of Macbeth? (The words in parentheses define the words they follow, what they meant in Shakespeare’s time.) “I grant him bloody,/Luxurious, (lecherous)/avaricious, false, deceitful,/Sudden, (violent) malicious, smacking of every sin /That has a name.” I didn’t hear Macbeth described, I heard slight hyperbole for Trump. OK, I grant him not bloody.
In the play, Macbeth and his henchmen murder Macduff’s wife and three children. In this production my daughter played the role of one of those children. Given that, and given my family’s history, it’s not surprising that the scene in Macbeth that affected me the most was Macduff grieving after he learns what happened. I thought of my father, after enduring four years in a work lager, returning home to find his wife and three children gone forever.
Early in the play, soon after he murders Duncan, Macbeth, pretending to speak only of the recent stormy weather, says, “’Twas a rough night.” I couldn’t help but hear that as a reference to the previous night, the night of the third debate—which was rough. But, it’s been months of rough nights, and days. And “Present fears/Are less than horrible imaginings.”
There were many other resonances in Macbeth to current events, but perhaps the one most apt was this, “If such a one be fit to govern, speak.” No, I don’t think our country—despite Trump and some of his followers—is now anywhere near where Germany was in 1933. And no, I can’t bring myself to believe, even should the unthinkable happen—Trump elected—that it would inevitably lead to an American Holocaust. But I do know that Trump, whose speeches are laced with distortions, wild exaggerations and outright lies, with racist, xenophobic, misogynist, and anti-Semitic innuendos, dog whistles, code words, and winks and nods, and who, despite all that—or sadly, in some cases because of all that—manages to inspire loyalty among millions, is a very dangerous man and one who needs to be soundly rejected. “Things bad begun make strong themselves by ill.” Because it’s worth noting that it took Hitler less than eight years—the length of two American presidential terms—to transform significant parts of the German population into perhaps the most brutally efficient mass murder machine the world has yet known. And that he somehow simultaneously managed to mute and muzzle much of the rest of Germany, and even the world, and prevent them from acting from their better, more human instincts. “Bleed, bleed poor country!/Great tyranny, lay thou thy basis sure,/For goodness dare not check thee.” It’s also worth noting that our country’s track record is not encouraging when it comes to the history of our treatment of Native Americans, Blacks, and many groups of new immigrants.
It-can’t-happen-here style complacency is not an option in this election. If you’re thinking of not voting, or planning to vote for a hopeless third party candidate, please think again. It’s the monstrous Lady Macbeth who says, “Things without all remedy/Should be without regard. What’s done is done.” There is a remedy, and no, it is not done.
Whether Trump is elected or not, there has been enormous damage done. “You have displaced the mirth, broke the good meeting/With most admired disorder.” Yes, I know, it was not by any means all “mirth” and “good meeting” before Trump. In fact, one can argue that too little “good meeting” is part of what led to Trump. After the election there will need to be a significant period of reflection and healing for our country. “Alas, poor country,/Almost afraid to know itself.” We will need to find ways of listening to and talking with each other to learn why and how it was that so many felt so unheard that they were willing to support such a candidate.
“Things at the worst will cease, or else climb upward/To what they were before.” I echo that. At the very least we need to “climb upward” to where we were before Trump and, I fervently hope, well past that.
At a concert earlier this year Laz and I sang “La Bamba.” Not unusual for us. We’ve been singing it for years, recorded it I don’t remember how long ago, and even put it on our compilation CD, The Best of Gemini, Volume II. Our audiences have always seemed to enjoy it. They respond to the iconic, instantly recognizable instrumental intro, and many adults of a certain age remember it from 1958 when it was a big hit for Richie Valens; younger adults remember Los Lobos’ 1987 version. We often see both generations singing along even on the verses, while their kids and grandkids get into the song’s lively rhythm and the repetition of the word Bamba in the chorus. No one has ever complained about our Spanish pronunciation—our audiences are uniformly kind—but, on the other hand, based on hearing us sing it, no one has ever assumed that we speak Spanish.
But at a concert a couple of months ago, someone did come up and made it a point to especially thank me for singing “La Bamba.” She did so in heavily Spanish-inflected English, and with so much warmth and intensity that I noticed it. She didn’t elaborate, just said, “Thank you very much for singing ‘La Bamba.’” And then said it several more times with a big smile as she kept shaking my hand.
I don’t know, and never will know, because I didn’t ask her, exactly why she thanked me so profusely. Did her mom or dad sing it to her when she was a little girl? Did she dance to it with a lover? Did it bring back memories of the Mexico she left behind? Or did she thank me because by singing that song we were letting her—and everyone else there—know that we didn’t agree with the views about Mexicans (or about anything else for that matter) held by he-who-shall-not-be-named, and some of his supporters.
I’ve always felt that family concerts are not the time or place to talk politics. But I’ve always also liked singing May There Always Be Sunshine and Zum Gali and saying that they’re Russian and Israeli respectively. Maybe a subliminal message gets through about not demonizing those two peoples—or any others.
Hemingway wrote somewhat cynically, “It’s pretty to think so.”
Today is the fourth anniversary of Helen’s death. Each year, leading up to this day, I have more-frequent-than-usual, significant experiences of her presence. And while the grief, of course, is less intense with the passing of each year, the sweetness of the memories, and my gratitude for all she gave me, continues to grow.
Recently I was singing at a Senior Center and someone asked for the Scottish song “Loch Lomond.” I launched into it without thinking about the upcoming words, but when I got to the last lines of the chorus, I got choked up. “But me and my true love will never meet again…” Of course, that line is very sadly true — and yet…
Last week I was travelling in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan and stopped by one of the little roadside beaches along Route 134 on the north shore of Lake Huron. After wading in the lake for a little while, I headed back towards the car, when the shadow of something flying crossed in front of me. I looked up and there was a huge butterfly overhead. I don’t know my butterflies well enough to be sure if it was a Monarch, but it was roughly that coloring and size. I looked all around and saw no other butterfly along the entire beach.
Butterflies, of course, are a classic symbol of radical metamorphosis, and are often used as an image for how the soul goes on living in a completely different state after the body dies. I’m enough of a “modern” man, (having heard “don’t be superstitious!” many times) and therefore conditioned not to think that Helen is visiting me whenever I see a butterfly. Still, what I felt in that moment— within me, as well as outwardly — was undeniably her presence. Helen loved being by rivers, lakes and oceans, and we had been along beaches like this in the UP a number of times. In that moment when the butterfly flew over, I felt her coming to me in such a comforting, reassuring way — “All is well.”
Just a few days ago I was walking in West Park near my home, and I started thinking how I’d like to make a CD of some of Helen’s songs that she hadn’t gotten to record. As soon as that thought came up, a Monarch butterfly flew in a circle around my head. (I’m pretty sure this was a Monarch, and there were some milkweed stalks — its main food — nearby.) Again, it was the only butterfly I saw. And again you could say it was just a coincidence, but to me Helen was saying, “Yeah! Great idea!”
These are two of the more recent and more dramatic of these meetings / visitations, but there have been many others. And much more numerous than these, have been instances of Helen’s continuing influence in both my life and that of Daniel. Two small stories.
This Spring, I was taking care of my brother’s cats while he and his wife were away. It was easy — they live two doors down. One late afternoon, as I was walking back from their house humming a tune, I saw a baby robin on the ground. Its mouth opened wide, as if hearing me humming meant someone might be coming to bring it food. Clearly it had fallen out of its nest, but when I looked up into the evergreen overhead I couldn’t see any sign of it. I asked a friend to help and she called the bird rescue center. They said we could bring it in, but that it’d be best to find the nest and put it back — that it was ok to handle the bird, its Mom would not reject it. By now it was getting dark and though we looked some more, and a neighbor also helped, we could not find the nest. My friend put the baby bird in a shoebox with tissue paper around it to keep it warm, and took it to the bird rescue center. They labeled it “Robin #54” and told her if we found the nest to come back for it.
The next morning, as I was walking over to my brother’s house to feed the cats, a robin with a worm in its beak, flew out of the bushes and into the evergreen under which I’d found the baby bird. From within the thick needles of the tree an open beak rose up, and the Mom pecked the worm into it. There was the nest! My friend went back to the bird rescue center and got Robin #54, I pulled my brother’s car under the evergreen, climbed up onto its roof, and put the bird back in its nest. Within moments the Mom came flying back, and there were two open beaks waiting for her.
If this had happened while Helen was still here, I would not have dared touch the bird. I would have called her and she would have taken care of it all, as she had a number of other times. But now, I felt like she was saying, “I’ve shown you how to do it. Now it’s your turn.”
One more bird story. Daniel and I have a Project Grow plot, rented from the city, where we, along with about 30 other people have a garden. The last few years, the deer have been coming out of the nearby woods and helping themselves to the produce. So, a couple years ago Daniel devised a deer fence which was so successful that nearby gardeners asked if it could be expanded to include their plots. The fence now encloses six plots, (and most of the other gardeners at the site have used it as a template to make their own) is nine and a half feet tall, with deer net most of the way up. A few weeks ago, Daniel found a small bird that had flown into the enclosure, and somehow gotten confused, thinking it couldn’t fly up and out, and was getting tangled in the deer net just a few feet off the ground. When Daniel came near to try to help it out, the bird got even more frightened and trapped itself at ground level in a corner of the enclosure. My contribution to the rescue effort was to sing a soft, soothing song to the bird, while Daniel dug away some dirt underneath it — and suddenly the bird realized it could fly away, and it did, heading straight for the gate we had left open in the fence, and out, and free!
Again, if Helen had been there, she would not have needed me to sing the song, she would have done that, as well as whatever else was needed to free the bird. But in a very real sense, she was there — and she is here, still helping, guiding and loving us. Thank you again, dear Helen.
I met Phyllis Weikart in the mid 1970s when, on a whim, I decided to take a folk dance class at the UofM. My only previous experience with dance lessons was about six or seven years earlier, when as a senior in high school, I asked a friend of mine if she would teach me a few basic steps so I’d be able to dance with my date at the senior prom. She kindly, patiently—and oh so slooowly—taught me the box step. Which proved utterly useless at the prom, in the somewhat inebriated bunny hop/conga line—the only dance it turned out that my date and I danced that evening. It was a night I’ve tried to erase from my mind, but have not yet managed to forget.
Point being that I didn’t have any good associations with dancing when I met Phyllis. But, at that time, I was only a few years out of college, had just recently moved to Ann Arbor, my brother Laz and I were at the start of our career playing music, I felt freer than I ever had in my life, I was relishing pushing at boundaries real and perceived. I don’t recall now how I found Phyllis, but I could not have made a better choice. Phyllis’ teaching philosophy was fully formed by then, and remained constant for the rest of her life. The way she saw it, her work as a teacher was to make sure that her students succeeded in learning what she taught. Vastly oversimplified, this meant that she was willing to break down complex dance steps and patterns into units small and simple enough that anyone, and everyone, could learn them. Then she gradually built up to the complete dance, never losing anyone in the process. It worked with me, and it worked with everyone I ever saw Phyllis teach. Of course, there was more to it than that. There was also Phyllis’ exuberance and irrepressible enthusiasm. She loved to dance and loved to teach. It was always evident on her face and in her voice. The combination was irresistible. In just a few months of classes I developed a love of dancing that is with me to this day.
Laz and I crossed paths with Phyllis’ a few years later when, in November of 1982, we released Good Mischief, our first recording for children. On the second side of that album, (remember this was in the pre-historic age of vinyl, the large black Frisbees...they had music on both sides), we recorded a number of traditional and international folk dance tunes. Phyllis and her husband, David (founder of the HighScope Educational Research Foundation), had been coming to our concerts for years and this new recording gave Phyllis an idea. She’d long been teaching international folk dances and using original recordings by musicians from those cultures in her dance classes and workshops. But many of those recordings were no longer available (so she couldn’t tell people where to find them for their own use) or they were recorded on poor quality equipment, or they were not quite the right tempo or length for her teaching purposes. After she heard our folk dances on Good Mischief, Phyllis asked if we’d be willing to re-record some of the pieces she’d been using so she could make them available to her students. That conversation led to one of the most exciting and engrossing projects of our career. Beginning in January of 1983 and continuing through 1988 we recorded twelve full-length albums, 172 tunes, of international folk dance music for Phyllis and HighScope. Because of Phyllis’ extensive work in training movement and dance teachers, those recordings and her accompanying books have since been used in countless school settings all over the US and even internationally.
When we first sat down to discuss the project, we only envisioned making one record. We also agreed that we’d discuss the tunes beforehand, but that it would not be necessary for Phyllis to actually be in the studio with us while we laid down the tracks. Still, it seemed like a good idea for her to be there on the first day of recording. We met at Ann Arbor’s Solid Sound, where Laz and I have done many of our albums over the years, and began working on the initial tracks. A couple of hours later several things were evident. One, this was going to be a lot of fun. Two, the three of us really enjoyed working together. Three, Phyllis’ input was essential and invaluable. After Laz and I recorded a basic track, Phyllis would move out of the control room and into the recording studio and begin dancing to the music to make certain that the tempo was exactly right. Her thorough knowledge of the dances, and her brilliant musical instincts helped shape many of the details of the arrangements we created for the dance tunes. Each album took over a month to create, which meant we spent countless hours together in the studio. (The opportunity to spend that much time in the studio was invaluable and something else for which we will always be grateful to both Phyllis and HighScope—in particular, to Chuck Wallgren who oversaw the entire project. Laz and I learned so much about recording and working in the studio, knowledge we were able to put to good use in later years as we continued making our own albums.) Phyllis’ enthusiasm, energy, kindness and supportive attitude never flagged. I am as proud of those records as of anything we’ve done in our career. In the years that followed, Laz and I got to collaborate with Phyllis regularly, playing at workshops and conferences all over the US, sometimes even forming bands to replicate the overdubbed sound of our recordings, so she and her students could dance to live music.
Phyllis died recently, on March 11, 2016, about a month shy of her 85th birthday. By happenstance, two days before, Laz and I sang at Brecon Village, the senior community in Saline where Phyllis had lived for a number of years, and where, at her invitation, Laz and I sang two or three times a year ever since she moved there. Phyllis wasn’t in the audience this time. She was already in the hospital and her prognosis was not good. That night we sang a song we’d sung every time we’d played there, and indeed every time over the years when Phyllis was on stage with us or in our audience.
Erev Shel Shoshanim is a gorgeous Israeli love song. Written in 1957, it has since replaced Here Comes the Bride at many Jewish weddings in Israel and elsewhere. It was special for Phyllis because it was the first piece of music to which she’d ever choreographed a dance. It was a circle dance so simple that she often taught it as the music was already playing. She almost always used it as the final dance of her programs and it was simply mesmerizing to dance or watch it.
If there’s a good place where good people go after they’re gone, then surely Phyllis is there now. And if there’s dancing there—and how good could that place be without dancing?—then surely Phyllis is dancing now. And if there are good people there who can’t dance, (Yes, you can be good and not know how to dance, but you’d be happier if you knew how), then surely Phyllis is teaching them to dance now. I’ll always be grateful I got to dance with her here.
It’s not often that Hungary makes international news. The last time it was in the headlines this much was nearly sixty years ago, in the aftermath of the Hungarian Revolution. I was eight years old then, and a very small part of that news. My family and I were among the more than 200,000 Hungarians who either escaped across the border to Vienna, and from there made their way to countries all over the world or, as we did, obtained legal visas (through semi-legal means) and emigrated to other countries, in our case to Israel.
I’ve lived in the United States for most of my life. I’m an American. I never think of myself as being Hungarian, but it is the country of my birth—and when I hear news of it, it draws my attention. And for me and for many others, despite the increasingly ugly current headlines, much of what we’re hearing about recent events in Hungary does not seem really new. We’ve seen it before. Of course I am speaking in the collective we, not the personal we. I, and most of us alive today, have never seen anything like this. But if I include in that we my parents, our relatives, and the other Holocaust survivors I’ve known, then yes, we have seen this before. We have seen crowds of people snaking through the streets of Budapest, accompanied by armed soldiers and police. Some of us were in those crowds. We have seen detention centers, overcrowded with mistreated, miserable people. Some of us were in those detention centers. We have seen trains stuffed with people, leaving Hungary and going to Austria and on to Germany. Some of us were on those trains. Many of us never made it back.
No, what is taking place now in Hungary is not what happened in 1944, but especially for us, there are sad resonances. My mother is gone now, but her tales of 1944 have been a part of my life for longer than I remember. They are a part of my family’s history and seem, like air, to have always been there. I breathed and inhaled them the same way I learned to speak my mother tongue. I have never forgotten them and I’ve not been able to see and hear the current news from Hungary without recalling them.
On December 2nd, 1944 my mother, along with thousands of other Jews, was herded through the streets of Budapest, to an abandoned brick factory on the outskirts of the city that was to serve as a temporary detention center. She recalled how people watched the procession from their apartment windows. “Some laughed, others shook their heads in sorrow.” On December 4, 1944, her twenty-sixth birthday, she was forced into an overcrowded cattle car on a train bound for Austria. When they got to the border she overheard an argument between the Austrian authorities and the Hungarian soldiers guarding the train. It turned out that the Austrians did not want to accept the transport. The Nazis had apparently decided they had enough slave labor and, as the American and Russian armies were advancing, the killing camps were winding down their gruesome operations. The Hungarians insisted they did not want to take the Jews back to Budapest and eventually the Austrians agreed, on condition that the Hungarians send no more transports. It was to be the last transport of Jews from Hungary. My mother recalled that the Austrians were more humane than the Hungarians. “They put us on passenger trains, not cattle cars, and gave us food.” The humane treatment ended as soon as they got to Ravensbrück, where she was to remain until April 15, 1945, when she escaped from a forced march.
Trains also played a prominent part in my father’s wartime experiences. Though he himself was mostly forced to march to Poland, where he spent much of the war in the munkaszolgálat, the forced labor camps, his parents, two of his sisters, his wife and three young children, and many other more distant relatives all were forced to ride a fatal one way train to Auschwitz.
After the war ended my mother wound up in a displaced persons camp near Dresden. Despite being offered an opportunity to emigrate to the United States, she decided to go home to Hungary, and to what remained of her family.
Making her way back to Budapest, again via trains, was also traumatic. She recalled how Russian soldiers commandeered some of the trains eastbound from Germany and shoved her and other passengers out the doors and windows onto the station platforms. Also how some of them, while standing on the roofs of the railroad cars, amused themselves by urinating down on the hapless refugees. (Like today’s refugees, my father mostly walked home from Poland, though he managed to hitch rides part of the way in ox carts.)
Like many of today’s refugees, I too left Hungary on a train. In the wake of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution, my parents and brother and I boarded a train and bid farewell to our homeland. The Hungarian government erected fences then too. Unlike today when they are erecting fences on the border with Serbia, designed to keep refugees out, in 1956 the fences were on the border with Austria, designed to keep Hungarians in. People walked across the border then too, both before the fences went up, and after. My aunt and uncle were among those who escaped over that border. They packed what they could fit on the sled that my brother and I used to slide down the snowy hills of Buda, and pulled it to Vienna. When our family left Hungary after the Revolution we did not head to Germany. We went in the opposite direction, to Italy and from there by boat to Israel, and two years later to New York.
Hungary has been center stage and in the world’s spotlight since August, a role to which it is unaccustomed, but it is playing a character that is not unfamiliar to some of us. Some of the news from Hungary has been good; a lot of it has been bad. Many Hungarian citizens have behaved admirably, helping the refugees in many ways. I am profoundly proud of them. I am also deeply ashamed of and furious at those in Hungary who elected and continue to support the Hungarian government. That administration, among the most repressive and right wing in all of Europe, has behaved despicably and, as I write this, is preparing to do worse. Viktor Orban’s tirades about keeping Hungary and Europe Christian sounds an awful lot—and I do mean awful—like Hitler’s rantings and the crazed pronouncements of white supremacists in the United States and elsewhere. And while there is little danger that Orban can build a power base like Hitler did, or that white supremacists in America can gain much power, he and they have created much miseryand I fear will continue to. As I am writing this, new laws have gone into effect in Hungary; laws hurriedly passed, as many other reactionary Hungarian laws have been enacted in recent years. These laws criminalize entering Hungary without a valid visa, and even worse, criminalize the act of helping refugees.
Soon it will be October, and with winter coming on the waters between Turkey and Greece will become even more dangerous to cross than they already are, and the flood of refugees may slow. And undoubtedly there will be other developments we cannot foresee that will affect the current crisis. I do not presume to have any solutions to the many different horrible conditions in the Middle East, Africa, Afghanistan and in other countries, that have forced so many people to risk so much as they try to make their way to safety. Nor do I presume to know the best way for Europe, and the rest of the world, to help care for all these refugees.
I do know that the Hungarian government’s response, besides being misguided and ineffectual, is flat out wrong and truly disgraceful.
Maybe the old saying—no news is good news—is true. It might be nice not to hear any news from Hungary for a while. But maybe the old saying is not true. Maybe the comparatively little attention that Hungary has gotten from international media over the years—the no news—has not been so good. Maybe that relative obscurity has helped allow the cancer of xenophobia and its contemptible siblings, racism, anti-Semitism, Islamaphobia, homophobia and intolerance of all “others”, to grow again in Hungary to levels we last saw in the 1930s and 1940s.
I am very grateful that my parents decided to leave Hungary.