Sunday, March 25, 2007

Seeking Something in Tzfat

Tzfat (Safed) is the seat of Jewish mysticism, a city that attracts seekers and also has a large population of highly observant Jews. I was drawn to Tzfat and I went there sensing that I should, but without expectation of what I might find there. I arrived without the usual Tzfat checklist (synagogues, cemeteries), and I had no specific plans other than to make a brief pilgrimage to the Memorial Museum of Hungarian Speaking Jewry, which I only learned about from my guidebook. My late father, born and raised in what is now Hungary/Ukraine, was the only member of his immediate family to survive the Holocaust.

The day I arrived the city was cloaked in a thick grey mist, completely obliterating any scenic views I might have enjoyed, and strong winds whipped up dust. After parking my car (it took two attempts), I tried to find the museum. The inadequate map in my guidebook had me going in circles and, after asking three people, I finally located it (they all said the same thing except that I had to hear it three times before I understood).

The weather was ideal for what turned out to be a very long visit. I rang the museum's bell just minutes ahead of a large group and, wanting some privacy for the tears I expected would come, quickly made the rounds, scanning the exhibits of religious objects, photographs and documents. As the child of a survivor, at times I'm aware of an unfathomable amount of grief and an implacable sense of loss, and while I often fantasize about having one massive sobbing session and getting it all out of my system, that is not quite how it has worked so far. On the rare occasions that I do go to such museums or visit memorial sites, my goal is not to acquire information or learn yet another detail, either horrific or heroic, about that period in history, but to trigger, release and express grief.

So there I was, wandering wet-eyed around this small museum, not quite ready to leave but not really having a particular reason to stay. The tour group was watching a film, so I still had some space to myself. To pass the time I flipped through a series of photo albums, with yellowing hand-numbered pages, in which images (drawings, photographs, postcards) of synagogues in Hungary had been arranged. These albums didn't offer much in the way of novelty - several of these synagogues I had already seen, entered and/or photographed when I lived in Hungary. Perhaps I simply wanted to make sure that the museum had, in fact, included photos of the shul in Kisvarda, where my father spent part of his childhood.

Yes, it was in the book.

I would have left then except that one of the caretakers, a man in his late 40s or early 50s, approached me and asked where I was from and the languages I speak. When I told him I speak Hungarian, he ushered me into the office of, as it turned out, his mother, Hava Lustig, a Budapest native who is one of the museum's founders. She must have assumed I was there to get documents, because within minutes of telling her where my father was from she produced a crumbling book, The Saturday Almanac, published in 1927/8, showing a list of Sabbath observant Jewish merchants and industrialists, listed by town and occupation, in Hungary. I don't know who exactly compiled this information, but since the Jewish date is shown in Hebrew I imagine that, perhaps, the Jews created their own version of the "Yellow Pages" to help members of the community.

It was only later that night, when reviewing the photocopy of the Kisvarda pages, that I noticed that my great uncle, whom I met when I was a child, was listed under what loosely translates as "General Merchants". I believe another relative, on my father's mother's side, was also listed, but I need to confirm. It was strangely reassuring to see their names in print, to know that some aspect of their lives is on record.

Mrs. Lustig also produced xeroxes of spreadsheets, from the Yad Vashem database, listing the names and, when known, dates of birth and death of Jews deported from Munkacs (now Munkacevo), where my father also lived. These lists were, unhelpfully, sorted by first name, and some letters of the alphabet (such as "Z", my father's first initial) were missing. Mrs. Lustig and I split the batch and starting scanning for all the names I could remember. She gave me slivers of post-it notes to mark the pages I wanted have copied. These pages have the names of, I believe, distant relatives, but not of my father's immediate family. Is this what I was seeking? I don't know, but I felt as if I had found "something", that maybe these black letters on white copy paper might bring a small measure of closure.

Meanwhile, her assistant produced a stapled stack of papers listing the items in the museum from Munkacs. Mrs. Lustig handed it to me and said, using the tone of a kindly drill sergeant, "Targil!" (Hebrew for an exercise). The catalogue, in table form, has dozens of pages with Hebrew descriptions in impossibly small letters. There are many photographs, and should I want to request to see any of them at another time, I'll need to figure out what they are first.

I was starting to get into the research and asked her if it would be possible for me to get a copy of the title page of The Saturday Almanac (she had already copied the relevant internal pages - a total of two). She snapped that I'd have to pay for the copies. Of course, I said (I was also planning to make a larger donation, but I think she had written me off). I wasn't quite sure why her mood had soured - Had I overstayed my welcome? Had I, in the hash of Hebrew and Hungarian that I was speaking, failed to properly lubricate my simple request with one of the many Hungarian equivalents of "Pretty please, with sugar on top?". When I lived in Budapest, the use of (to my American ears) excessively polite if not unctuous speech was required to inspire people to do the job that they were getting paid to do in the first place, especially if the task involved retrieving information. Perhaps decades of living in Israel had not altered her basic orientation.

Her English-speaking son, Ron, who grew up in Israel and attended Columbia University, treated me as a potential asset to the Museum rather than as a time-wasting liability. He introduced me to their film archive and suggested I watch Chasing Shadows, a documentary about life in the Carpathians before World War II, and afterward handed me some literature, his card and a form for making tax deductible donations via a New York organization. By this time the museum was closing for the day. He drove me to my car and then I followed him as he patiently led the way, through Tzfat's narrow, winding and mysteriously laid out streets, to a wonderful restaurant which I would not have found on my own.

After the intensity of the morning there was nothing to do but eat, eat a lot and eat well.

I did all three.


Art said...

What a profound afternoon this must have been for you, Ilona. Thanks for sharing. You write beautifully.

Your description calls to mind a visit I made several years ago to the Ann Frank museum in Amsterdam. It was/is impossible to be there on a purely informational, curiosity-satisfying basis (unless one is terribly cold and remote to begin with, I suppose). One feels compelled to linger and savor and weep and remember--even if the curators (who've seen it all before to the point of numbness) are drawing one back to the gritty present.

Keep writing!!

I-is-for-Israel said...

Thanks, Art, for your comment and for sharing your experience at the Ann Frank Museum; I was there last summer and felt what you described.

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