Why do so many middle-class Hungarians – even those who are known for their pride in a kingdom a thousand years old – leave for another continent, struggle to learn another language, and adjust to living in a very different culture? Each of my family members had his or her own reasons and explanations.
1. DRAWN TO THE HOLY LAND
In the early 1930s my Uncle Bédi (birth name Béla), the youngest of his parents’ seven children, left Debrecen for the Holy Land at the tender age of 16. How he handled his family’s unanimous objections is not known. Although there were lots of tears, there was neither anger nor recriminations.
There were plenty of other obstacles however for Bédi to start a new life. To begin with, he did not have a passport, and curiously did not want one for a reason he no longer remembered when I asked him. But on his way through Transylvania, then as now under Romanian rule, to board a Haifa-bound ship in a Romanian port, a rather rude policeman arrested him. Bédi, who was not used to being treated like a criminal, got lucky. The ranking officer in charge of the police station knew his late father from the time when Hungarian was a shared language. Or maybe he just simply felt sorry for a respected landowner who lost his property in the chaos of the First World War. Whichever, the thankfully friendly police officer took pity on the penniless young orphan, and let Bédi go.
While still in Debrecen, a local Zionist group had insisted that every immigrant to the Holy Land must acquire a skill to earn a living and recommended that Bédi learn how to make corsets for fashion-conscious women who wanted to look slim. His well-intentioned supporters were seemingly unaware of the fact that no one in the Jewish or Arab community wore such garments in semi-tropical Palestine, then a British Mandate where few believed that an independent Jewish state was coming along any day soon.
The young Bédi had anyway little interest in working indoors or getting a job in what he called a “bourgeois” business. He was determined instead to apply his youthful strength as an agricultural labourer building a Jewish state. So he signed up to a kibbutz, a Hebrew word for an egalitarian communal village. It was called Maabarot – meaning “temporary encampment” – a name it has kept down through the years.
When registering to join the kibbutz, Bédi replaced his family name Schwarcz with Sade – which means “field” in Hebrew, a sign of his attachment to agriculture.
He was not alone. He was accompanied by a girlfriend named Ruth, commonly known as Rutka, who hailed from Budapest. As a parting gift Rutka’s mother gave her a ring with a precious stone but she threw it into the Black Sea as a gesture of divesting herself of her bourgeois past.
Rutka was smart, pretty, enthusiastic, and the same age as Bédi, perhaps even a little younger. They had a daughter together who they chose to name Era, which means “lively” and “alert”, rather than a name referring to a biblical person.
For Bédi and Rutka it was a first love, that happened suddenly and ended abruptly. They did not get married but remained close friends for the rest of their lives.
The two had met on the ship, both sharing a common language – Hungarian – as well as suffering from relentless seasickness. During the journey they decided that to live in a Jewish land they must learn Hebrew, the language of the Bible and spoken only by rabbis for centuries. However, they avoided rabbis and synagogues.
Later, Bédi teamed up with another sympathetic newcomer in Maabarot called Vika (birth name Viktoria Abramov), who by that time already had an infant son called Gideon. Like all other children in the kibbutz, he was taken care of in the kibbutz nursery. Vika preferred to spend her days out in the fields or in the communal kitchen. She already knew a little Hebrew, in addition to the languages used in her old home: Bulgarian and Ladino, a language spoken by Jews in the Iberian Peninsula that was based on an old version of Spanish blended with Hebrew. Four centuries earlier, her ancestors were expelled from Christian Spain under its policy of Inquisition and fled to Ottoman Turkey, Muslim but usually more tolerant depending on the sultan’s whim.
Vika and Bédi had three sons in quick succession – Ilan, David and Yoav – who in turn produced more than a dozen children by the end of the 20th century. David became renowned for his agricultural skills, planting a vineyard that was famed for its beauty and the excellence of its fruits.
Bédi was a successful farmer and popular in Israel’s Department of Agriculture because he was ready to plant as yet little known rare products such as avocadoes and artichokes. Shortly after arriving in the Holy Land, he also learned some Arabic. Later, he picked up a little Amharic when Ethiopian Jews had their exodus in the 1970s and settled in the town of Kiriat Gat, close to Bédi’s village called Sade Moshe. He and Vika volunteered to help them learn about agriculture.
Besides fruit and other foodstuffs, Bédi and Vika raised cattle and chickens. They earned a decent income and they spent their money travelling abroad. In the 1970s they went to Spain and France, as well as India and other parts of southeast Asia.
One day Era met a tall, handsome stranger who had just enrolled in Maabarot’s Hebrew language course. His name was Lenny Fritsch and his parents and extended family lived in New York. Theirs was love at first sight. Era introduced Lenny to her father Bédi who discovered that the Fritsch parents were immigrants from northeast Hungary, the same Szabolcs County where the Schwarcz ancestors settled many centuries earlier. Lenny knew a few words of Hungarian, most of them the names of his favourite dishes such as töltött káposzta. He pronounced flawlessly the words for desserts such as Rigó Jancsi, krémes and Tátra csúcs. In a few months Lenny’s Hebrew was exemplary and he began teaching the language within a year. Lenny died two years ago and is buried in the Maabarot cemetery.
Era was later elected one of the leaders of the kibbutz. She also authored an autobiography that revealed intimate details of her love life, praised by some members of the kibbutz but criticised by others for its openness. She also disclosed details of how she became estranged from her father Bédi who had disagreements over Maabarot’s financial and personnel policies. Era explained how Bédi and Vika moved to a new, non-socialist agricultural village called Sade Moshe at the edge of the Negev desert. Furious with how the kibbutz was managed, they vowed never to visit Maabarot again. Never!
However, Bédi and Vika soon made peace with the kibbutz, whose community accepted them as founders, and were both buried in Maabarot’s cemetery.
To this day, Era is a respected matriarch in an essentially patriarchal society where she is recognised as a hardworking, enthusiastic founding member. She is a mother of three grown children who all inherited Lenny’s good looks. She is now a grandmother of seven though not as yet a great-grandmother, and has even become the village expert in computers!
Most of my Israeli cousins have visited Hungary and made friends with their cousins there despite the absence of a shared language other than basic English. No Schwarcz descendant has chosen repatriation, though it was fairly common in other families. Surprisingly, no Schwarcz ever returned to Orthodoxy that was so entrenched until to two generations back.
2. SEEKING HIGH ADVENTURE IN MEXICO
Why would Hungarians emigrate to Mexico whose native inhabitants have been escaping poverty and unemployment for generations and think of the United States as a safe haven? Is Mexico not a bloody theatre for banditry, murders, robberies and revolutions? Or could it be that Mexico is rather the land of the fabulous?
In the late 1920s my father Aladár Fenyvesi insisted to his older brother Menyhért that they must flee from the ruins of the Hungarian economy ravaged by the First World War and a brief but bloody Communist upheaval.
It helped that the Mexican Embassy in Budapest was staffed by officers who emphasised that their country needed educated Europeans and that they were welcome to start a new life across the Atlantic Ocean. Sophisticated and ambitious, the Fenyvesi brothers spoke good German that they inherited from their Austrian mother, which impressed the Mexican diplomats who described Mexico as a land of great business opportunities. “Mexico needs educated Europeans like you”, they said to the two brothers in broken German. “Mexico offers special opportunities that are simply unavailable elsewhere in the world. And Spanish is an easy language to learn and Hungarians already studied Latin in grammar school. Latin is very close to Spanish.”
At about the same time that my uncle Bédi left Hungary for the Holy Land, my father Aladár and his older brother were busy discussing emigration across the Atlantic Ocean. They were worried by the impending world economic crisis and feared the collapse of the stock market on Wall Street. Aladár was in the business of finding and selling abrasive stones for sharpening tools. He had elaborate plans to expand in the North American market.
Dentist Menyhért, who had his own clinic in Budapest, chose Mexico rather than the United States. However, for reasons I have not been able to decipher, my father leaned in favour of the United States though he kept postponing emigration there. Both brothers were married and each had two small children. But in the last minute there was a serious quarrel over some issue I have never understood. They never spoke to each other again.
As the world economy crashed, Menyhért and wife Ilona packed up and left for Mexico. It turned out that in the early 1930s Aladár’s business did go formally and absolutely bankrupt.
Aladár wrote a letter or two but Menyhért did not respond. One family rumour had it that Aladár was attracted to his lovely sister-in-law Ilona and Menyhért did not want competition.
Once in Mexico, the older brother used his middle name Melchior instead of the strange and unfamiliar Menyhért. His daughter Kati thought that he broke relations with Aladár because Aladár refused to lend Melchior the money he needed for settling in Mexico.
But Melchior did well financially as soon as he started working in Mexico. Upon arrival in the city of Monterrey, he hired mules to carry his dental equipment to remote villages in the high mountains where the natives had never seen a dentist before. He liked riding the mules and the infamous robbers avoided his caravan, Ilona told me. He returned home with bags of silver and gold coins as the villagers did not like using paper money, and Melchior loved precious metals.
According to family consensus, Melchior’s Spanish was never really good, but he had a reputation as an excellent dentist and the villagers needed him while he was fond of the villagers. I gathered from his family that he preferred the German language and was upset that his children and grandchildren did not want to study German.
At least twice Ilona visited Hungary in the 1930s and rekindled her friendship with the famously beautiful and intelligent Elza, my maternal grandparents’ eldest child. They were classmates in a boarding school. Elza invited Ilona to stay in the Schwarcz family household in Debrecen.
My grandmother Róza discovered that the two women were in fact close cousins and the two families were in touch for generations.
When the Second World War was over, Ilona asked the Mexican Embassy in Budapest to look for our family. The Embassy did find us and my mother Anna Schwarcz promptly responded to Ilona. My mother called Ilona her cousin rather than sister-in-law. She wrote about the sad news about her mother and her oldest sister. But Anna also reported on the siblings who survived. Ilona wrote back to her long letters. For years to come, Ilona’s son Jorge and daughter Kati also sent us packages that included clothing and coffee beans. We needed the gifts.
Years later, after Melchior died and I finished college in the United States in the 1960s, Ilona wrote to me that I should visit her family in Mexico City. She was very kind to my wife and me – and our two small sons – on the one trip I made to Mexico. We exchanged tearful stories about my Aunt Elza – whom Ilona called her “very best friend” and she remembered lovingly my grandmother Róza. They both ended up in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
Ilona apologised profusely for her husband who would not speak to me or respond to my letters. But she and her daughter Kati were wonderful hosts. We had a happy time talking about our lives and tried to imagine the lives of our Fenyvesi ancestors, and sampled the best Hungarian dishes, Mexican style.
My second son Daniel, a fluent Spanish speaker and a registered dietician, has written a lively, well-documented book on the history of Nicaraguan food titled Food Sobriety. He enjoyed his Fulbright fellowship and has chosen Latin America as his area of interest. Danny made friends with two Mexican cousins, Anna Kati and Maria Cecilia. They were lovely and thoughtful.
3. JOINING THE REVOLUTION OF 1956
I was almost 18 years old and enrolled as a first year student in the University of Debrecen when the Revolution swept Hungary and shook the world. After hundreds of Soviet tanks entered the country and restored the Communist system, I did not think that I would be forgiven for my activities however minor in support of the Revolution, nor that I would be allowed to return to study at any Hungarian university. So I joined the close to 200,000 Hungarians who crossed the border to Austria – another exodus from a dictatorship. In Salzburg I filed an application for US residence. I flew to Baltimore on a Second World War military transport plane crowded with other refugees. Soon I won a scholarship to Harvard. I have worked for various publications – as editor of The National Jewish Monthly, Washington correspondent for the Tel Aviv daily newspaper Ha’aretz, and staff writer for The Washington Post. I have never regretted leaving the country of my birth.