Elegy: An Anti-Memoir. (Memoir)

Article excerpt

I prune my garden. The spirit of an unknown grandmother hovers. In my mind's eye I can see the hundred-year-old rose garden that surrounds the site where my father was born, the comfortable square house, long since replaced, with its red tile roof pictured in faded photos. She loved her garden, my father told me as we stood on the unpaved road in the village. Deported and gassed to death she was, in her eighty-fifth year.

(My other grandmother, across the border, was shot just outside Auschwitz. Her eyes and my cheekbones share the slant of the marauding cossack from the east.)

Thirty years ago, I eagerly traveled with my reluctant parents to eastern Hungary to visit the graves of my grandfather and a few cousins, the lucky ones. The Jewish cemetery in Szikszo is on a hillside overlooking the town. I gazed at the black marble slab, and as my father intoned the Kaddish, a deep satisfaction filled me. I was at the grave of my ancestor, a Jew who had died of old age, my Jew. Not far off, I saw the markers of two female relatives felled by influenza before they were twenty years old. These three stone markers of persons I never knew somewhat assuaged my longings for connection to my parents' past. But on the nearby twelve-foot-high tower, a memorial to the region's Holocaust victims, was a bare niche that had recently held a bronze plaque inscribed with the names of my murdered kin. Vandals had pried it out.

Grandmother, aunts and uncles, cousins--even their names were lost to me.

Grandfather's house was in a neighboring village--a couple of dozen square,

squat buildings facing each other across a dirt road, surrounded by fields of wheat stretching back to soft hills covered with vineyards. His home was one of the few with a flower garden. Near me, as I write this, is a carefully preserved photo of his large family taken in the summer of 1905 in the courtyard of that house. Uncle Zoltan, born in 1903, and my father, born in 1905, were the youngest of Mor Flesch's eleven children. On a wooden platform, on the day this picture was taken by a professional photographer, there will soon be dancing to the music of two bands to celebrate a wedding. The shaded porch shelters tables laden with fruit and nut strudels, egg-glazed poppy-seed cakes, moist white and dark breads, the finest products of the wheat for which Hungary is famous. Vats of homemade wine stand ready for the guests. A hairdresser, a barber, and a ritual slaughterer have been brought in for the three-day festivities. A special train has come from the provincial capital bringing his fellow council members to rejoice at the marriage of his oldest daughter, Rozsika, the first of his eleven children to wed. Gentleman-farmer, grain merchant, tavern keeper, Mor Flesch's signature on a document was security enough for any transaction in the county. For collateral? His eight sons. By the time he died in 1930, at the age of seventy-five, two of his children, including my father, had left for America.

In the photo, the four in white are the babies of his second wife. Two of them look steadily at the camera: my papa, not yet a year old, doesn't know any better, and blue-eyed Katherine, age six, imagines that she's the bride. …