Thursday, February 27, 2014

Toba's Tale -- Stories Aching to be Told

"Toba" in Budapest, 1946
Legacy. What stories do we leave our children and grandchildren and the generations we will never know? For as much as our genetics may play a role in their future, what about the courage and the spirit they have also inherited? What of battles fought and won by their ancestors? Loves lost or lasting? How do we make sure they know their family’s narrative?  

A book landed in the mail the other day that prodded me, that reminded me, that recording my family’s history, passing on the stories I heard as a child, is on my to-do list. It’s hard. I keep putting it off. Maybe because I don’t want to accept that some day I’ll be too feeble or senile to take on the task. But if not now, when?

The book sent to me last week by a federal judge –the story of her mother – is an emotional reminder of why, some day soon, I must start writing for my children.
Every single person I’ve ever met who survived the Holocaust –including my own parents -- has a miracle story to tell. That’s the only way anyone escaped. It wasn’t like you could just walk out of Europe. You needed luck. And you needed a determination to take action. As my father always said, “Opportunity is everywhere. You just have to grab it.”
The story of Terry Goldstein Herskovits is that kind of story. When opportunity arose, even in the midst of bad luck, she grabbed it.
 Once a flower, Always a Flower will never make the best seller list. It’s a read-in-a-night memoir. A legacy for her family. Importantly, though, it is yet another entry into the indisputable record of this unbelievable period of history. 

In brief: Terry, a 14-year-old Hungarian girl, from an impoverished rural family, makes her way to Budapest in 1939, with no job, no resources. On day two, she overhears a woman – Gizi --  in a market complaining of her need for a seamstress. Terry (then "Toba"), with virtually no sewing experience, convinces Gizi to take her on. By 1944, when the Nazis begin deporting Hungarian Jews, including Terry’s parents and siblings, the two have formed a mother-daughter relationship. They rip off their yellow stars and hide in a tiny farmhouse attic for six months. No bathroom. No activity. Excruciating heat. Food secretly passed up by the Christian farmer.
But then they are discovered and sent to the ghetto that has been built in Budapest, awaiting transport to death camps. And here comes luck: as Terry is herded onto a human cattle car, a Hungarian guard, struck by her beauty, “threw me down from the train, muttering something like ‘it’s a shame.’” Finding her way back to Budapest, she goes to the Swedish Embassy where Raoul Wallenberg is giving Jews the lifeline of papers. The line is long. “I had chutzpah!” Terry writes. “I maneuvered to the front of the line.” She gets papers for herself and Gizi to remain in a safe house.
After the Russians “liberate” Hungary, she miraculously escapes a group of drunken Russian soldiers intent on raping her; marries, has two children and tries, in 1950, to sneak out of Hungary but their transport guide betrays them to the Russians and her husband is shot to death; she is jailed in a cell shared by 28 others while her children are raised by Gizi; after three years, she is finally freed, remarries, and in the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 successfully gets across the border with her husband and children. They make a life for themselves in New Jersey.
It’s a movie script. Except it really happened. Telling the story with her mother is Judy Wizmur, the daughter who was only a year old when her mother was jailed and just seven when the family finally escaped Communist rule.
Now a federal bankruptcy judge, Judge Wizmur writes:
By sharing her stories with me from the time I was young, my mother gave me another very special gift. She gave me a unique perspective on life – the gift of understanding that the ups and downs of daily life are relatively inconsequential….I have tried to measure the difficulties I occasionally encounter against the courage, endurance, grit and determination shown by my mother as she experienced the extraordinary events of her life.”
Recently, at a meeting of our Project Renewment group, where women discuss their issues of transition out of careers, Judge Judy talked about her goals when she retires in May. Among them is spending more time with her mother, who turns 90 in December.
I now understand why.

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