Budapest Diary: In Search of the Motherbook

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Can you forget the place you once called home? What does it take to make you recapture it? In this moving memoir, Susan Rubin Suleiman describes her returns to the city of her birth—where she speaks the language like a native but with an accent. Suleiman left Budapest in 1949 as a young child with her parents, fleeing communism; thirty-five years later, she returned with her two sons from a brief vacation and began to remember her childhood. Her earliest memories, of Nazi persecution in the final year of World War II, came back to her in fragments, as did memories of her first school years after the war of the stormy marriage between her father, a brilliant Talmudic scholar, and her mother, a cosmopolitan woman from a more secular Jewish family.

In 1993, after the fall of communism and the death of her mother, Suleiman returned to Budapest for six-month stay. She recounts her ongoing quest for personal history, interweaving it with the stories of present-day Hungarians struggling to make sense of the changes in their individual and collective lives. Suleiman's search for documents relating to her childhood, the lives of her parents and their families, and the Jewish communities of Hungary and Poland takes her on a series of fascinating journeys within and outside Budapest.

Emerging from this eloquent, often suspenseful diary is the portrait of an intellectual who recaptures her past and comes into contact with the vital, troubling world of contemporary Eastern Europe. Suleiman's vivid descriptions of her encounters with a proud, old city and its people in a time of historical change remind us that every life story is at once unique and part of a larger history.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780803292611
  • Publisher: University of Nebraska Press
  • Publication date: 5/1/1999
  • Series: Texts and Contexts Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 244
  • Product dimensions: 8.50 (w) x 5.50 (h) x 0.51 (d)

Meet the Author

Susan Rubin Suleiman is C. Douglas Dillon Professor of the Civilization of France and a professor of comparative literature at Harvard University. The recipient of numerous honors in the U.S. and abroad, she is the author of Risking Who One Is: Encounters with Contemporary Art and Literature and many other works of literary criticism.
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Chapter One

In the taxi to our hotel, all I could think about was that Iwas in a city where even the cabdrivers spoke Hungarian.Once he found out I spoke the language and had lived inBudapest, our driver started firing questions: Where had Ilived, when had I left, how old was I then, did I still haverelatives here, how long were we staying? It made me uncomfortable,as if he were grilling me—I couldn't decidewhether he was unusually nosy or merely observing somerule of hospitality unknown to me. I answered him in briefphrases, trying at the same time to look at the road we weretraveling and to translate his questions for Michael andDaniel. The road from the airport, a stretch of ugly grayasphalt, could have been anywhere were it not for the occasionalbillboards in Hungarian. Michael and Daniel lookedout the window, indifferent. What were they thinking? Iwondered. Two weeks in Mom's old country—what abore? Or what an adventure? I desperately wanted thesesons of mine, to whom I had said so little about my childhood,to be interested in the city of my birth. Yet my ownfeelings were a jumble: excitement to be here, yes, butwhat else? I tried to muster up a feeling of nostalgia, withoutsuccess.

    As we got closer to the city, I could feel my heart beatfaster. What would I remember? I had just turned ten whenwe left, a chubby little girl with thick braids who read a lotand felt awkward at ballet lessons. It was a whole world Ihad left behind, sights and sounds and smells that hadblended long ago into a single multicolored block. Now Iwas back, a professor of French literature who could interpretintricate texts byProust or Balzac but could not tell thedifference, in Budapest, between friendly curiosity and invasivenosiness. It was as if a door had shut behind mewhen I left, sealing the first ten years of my life in an airtightroom. For thirty-five years I had managed not to givemuch thought to the room. What would happen now that Ihad turned the knob on the door?

    "Would you like me to stop at Akácfa utca, so you cansee the house where you lived?" It was the driver again,friendly, offering his contribution to my nostalgia. We hadreached the city center, strangely quiet since it was a Sundayafternoon and all the stores were closed. There were almostno cars in the streets, and hardly any people on thesidewalks. I saw dark, ornate buildings and trolley tracks: aturn-of-the-century European capital with claims to greatness.

    "It's not far out of our way," the driver said. All right, Itold him, please drive by Akácfa utca; I'll show it to mykids. He turned onto a broad avenue, reached a corner witha yellow church, and pointed to the right. "There it is,Akácfa utca." Utca means street, fa means tree: AcaciaStreet. I looked down the street; it seemed anonymous, unfamiliar.I had lived there for ten years, the first decade ofmy life, and I didn't recognize a thing. The church surprisedme, because I had always associated that neighborhoodwith Jewish things. "I lived at number 59," I told theboys.

    The driver swung the car around and headed toward theriver.

    I have always loved cities with rivers running throughthem. Budapest is like Rome or Paris, a great city definedby its river and bridges. We crossed a bridge above thegrayish-green Danube. On both sides of us we could seeother bridges in the distance. "They were all bombed duringthe war," the driver said. The one we were on wascalled Freedom Bridge; it had trolley tracks down themiddle.

    The Gellért Hotel rose before us, its stone terraces andtall windows facing the river. A grand hotel, the Gellért,from another day. My mother had told me about its swimmingpools, a place to go on fancy dates before the war.Now, like the whole city, it was slightly the worse for wear,but you couldn't tell that from the outside. "Tip generously,"my uncle Lester had told me before we left. "Whenyou get to the hotel, give something to the man at thedesk." My uncle knew the Gellért well—he had returned toBudapest almost every summer for more than thirty years."You'll never see better theater than in Budapest," he toldme each time I saw him. Feeling awkward and self-conscious,I slipped two bills into the registration clerk's hand.He took them with a practiced gesture, acknowledging thegift with a slight smile. Whether for that or some other reason,we ended up in a huge room with a large balcony directlyfacing the Freedom Bridge. Stepping out onto thebalcony, I noticed a grassy knoll next to the riverbank,with a statue on it: a monument to the Soviet army, a heroicsoldier with arms upraised.

The next morning we took a formal tour of the city, completewith tourist bus and bilingual guide. This was highlyunusual, since I never take such tours anywhere. Thinkingback on it, I speculate about why I chose the most impersonal,most ritualized way to introduce my sons to the cityof my birth. Did I want to affirm my own estrangement,confirm my feeling that I didn't remember anything? Orwas it a native pride that pushed me, as if I wanted my sonsto learn from an objective source the greatness of this capital,the beauty and variety of its sights? We trudged dutifullyafter our guide, an attractive woman in a red sundress,as she led us through the Church of King Mátyás,one of Hungary's great monarchs who reigned in the fifteenthcentury; after that she took us to the Basilica of SaintStephen (too big and new for my taste) on the other side ofthe river. From the basilica we drove up People's RepublicAvenue to Heroes' Square, in whose center is a processionof immense sculptures of men on horseback. Built in 1896in honor of Hungary's thousandth birthday, our guide toldus. Now the square was used for all the big parades; off toone side, barely visible, stood a massive statue of Lenin.

    Our guide pointed out other sights from the bus, instructingus to be sure to go on the tour of the Parliamentbuildings and to visit the museum up in the castle, fromwhose terrace one could get an excellent view of the Parliamentand the river and its bridges. The Chain Bridge inparticular, the very first bridge built between Pest andBuda in the mid-nineteenth century, looked splendid fromup there, she assured us. But Michael and Daniel said categorically,No more tour buses.

    In the afternoon we discovered the Gellért's open-airpools, set in terraced grounds on the hillside. That's wheremy mother must have gone on her fancy dates, amid theinlaid colored tiles and smiling statues and stone vases. Themain terrace was covered with deck chairs, almost all occupiedby people talking loudly to their neighbors in Hungarian.Looking at those voluble, gesticulating men andwomen enjoying themselves in the sun, I recalled the lazyafternoons of my last summer in Hungary. We spent Julyand most of August of that year at my aunt's summerhouse near Budapest, on the shore of the Danube. Thehouse was set in a large garden full of fruit trees and berrybushes: sour cherries that made your mouth pucker, thickclusters of gooseberries and red currants, sweet, fat apricotswhose pits I broke open to reveal an edible almondlikecenter—all those riches reminded me of the fairy tales Iloved, in which children in a magic forest find gingerbreadand candy on the trees.

    Every afternoon that summer, we went to the baths in anearby village whose name means Star Mountain. Thebaths were a fancy establishment boasting three swimmingpools and terraced lawns. Next to one of the poolswas a café shaded by tall trees and sun umbrellas, servingcold drinks and sandwiches. There my parents sat withtheir friends, discussing the day's news and playing ginrummy while we children swam and jumped off the divingboard feet first, noisily, over and over. Every once in awhile I would run and peek at my father's cards, drapinga wet arm around his neck and whispering to him self-importantlyabout the game. I loved hugging him. He wasthe handsomest man in that whole crowd, I told myself,with his high forehead and soft brown eyes, his rugged facetransformed by a smile.

    "Attention! The waves will start in three minutes. Attention,please! The waves will start in three minutes." Thevoice on the loudspeaker, imperious, broke into mythoughts and the conversations around us. Michael andDaniel immediately perked up, wanting to know what wasgoing on. I realized the large pool in front of us was a wavepool, something I had never seen outside Hungary. Workingin mysterious ways, a machine built into the poolchurns up artificial waves for several minutes at a time.One of the pools at Star Mountain had been a wave pool—theywould turn it on for fifteen minutes every hour, announcingit on the loudspeaker. No sooner had I explainedthis system to the boys than they were in the pool, delighted,standing immobile, waiting for the first wave tohit them. They jumped into it as if it were the ocean inWellfleet, then came up sputtering, their mouths full ofchlorinated water. Another try, successful this time, andthey were launched: in they jumped, up they bobbed, overand over. "Hey, Mom! Come on in!" Watching their facesas they called to me, I had the feeling that this was their firsttruly impressive experience since we arrived in Budapest. Iwent into the pool and let them drag me under the nextwave.

    After that we had our routine: mornings doing whatMom wanted, afternoons at the wave pool, preferably forthree or four sessions. One afternoon I left the boys by thepool and went shopping on my own. We had seen storesselling embroidered tablecloths and peasant blouses, butthey were not what I wanted. I headed for a bookstore nearPetöfi Sándor Street, named after the romantic poet wholost his life in the 1848 revolution. I bought a two-volumeedition of Petöfi's complete works ("On your feet, Magyar,the homeland is calling you!" was the only line ofHungarian poetry I remembered); but the book I was reallylooking for was a children's novel by Ferenc Molnár, TheBoys from Paul Street. When I first read that novel in Budapest,Molnár was a famous playwright living in NewYork, the author of the play the musical Carousel was basedon. But I knew nothing about him other than his name onthe cover of a book that made me cry and dream and imaginemyself a heroic young boy fighting battles over a playgroundnear a pond. The boys from Paul Street are a gangof adolescents warring with another gang over their turf.The story takes place around the turn of the century; theboys are not modern hoodlums with guns or knives, justold-fashioned schoolboys who fight with "bombs" madeof sand (no rocks allowed). Still, theirs is a true war in thepassions it arouses, and one of them even dies in heroic self-sacrifice:he spies on the opposing gang, jumps into thepond to avoid being seen, and stays in the cold water forseveral hours to help his friends—then dies of pneumonia.

    Maybe because it was one of the last books I read beforeleaving Hungary, maybe also because its story had somuch to do with home, and war, and death and loss, thisnovel stayed in my mind long after I had forgotten almosteverything else I had read in Hungarian. Never mind thatall the main characters were boys, I identified with themmore memorably than I had ever done with a heroine. I hadsometimes wondered, over the years, whether that bookcould still be bought in Budapest. Or was it no more than afragment of the past, unreachable? Now I held it in myhand, a cheap paperback edition with a colorful cover, achildren's classic. On the back of the title page, the originalcopyright date: 1907.

    Over the next few afternoons by the wave pool, I succeededin reading the book. It felt strange struggling overpages I had read with ease as a child. Curious existence, Itold myself—professor in Boston, fourth-grader in Budapest.I tried to relive the emotions I had felt as a nine-year-old.It didn't work; no Time Recaptured here. But I didmake one discovery: although I had cried over the death ofthe young sacrificial hero, it was not him I had identifiedwith as a child. He was small and frail and caught cold easily.I took pride in being sturdy, in excellent health. I hadidentified with the leader of the gang, a tall, intelligent boywho survives.

    As I was growing up, I often heard about my uncle Izsó,one of my mother's two bachelor brothers who were sentinto forced labor in Ukraine around 1943. They had livedwith us, and were both very fond of me. The younger one,Lester, showed up on the doorstep one morning in thespring of 1945 after our own return home, wearing a tatteredarmy jacket and a week's beard, smiling broadly.Izsó, the older one, never came back. For years afterwardmy grandmother cried over her lost son. The one who hadsurvived would shake his head and sigh: "Poor Izsó, heprobably starved to death. He was too good. If only he hadbeen with me, I could have saved him." Before, I had hadthree uncles (one in America). Now I had only two. Whatwas the connection, I wondered, between goodness andsurvival?

After a few days of sightseeing, I decided it was time tovisit my old neighborhood. The boys loaded their cameras.We got on the streetcar in front of the Gellért, crossedthe Freedom Bridge, and stayed on until the last stop.Walking for a while up People's Republic Avenue, wereached a busy intersection next to a leafy square named inhonor of the composer Franz Liszt (Liszt Ferenc to Hungarians—lastname first is the rule). A large, ornate buildingat the other end of the square turned out to be the MusicAcademy. It pleased me to have lived near music andgreenery.

    A short block away, we found Acacia Street and startedour walk toward number 59. Everything looked alien onthat gray, narrow, painfully run-down street. When wereached the house, we crossed to the other side to get a betterview of it. The street level looked terrible: a heavy cementfacing marred the facade, clashing with the stuccoblocks above it. A large photography business occupiedthe whole width of the building and part of the next buildingas well. Above the front door, a large black-and-whitesign proclaimed FOTO OPTIKA.

    "This is not how it used to be," I told the boys, though Icouldn't say just what had been there before. Looking up, Irecognized the balcony next to our dining room, with itswrought iron railings. The house had only three balconies,arranged in a triangle; they stood out on the facade likesigns of privilege. I had always felt a bit smug about ourbalcony. I pointed it out to my sons: that's where I had oftenplayed, looking down through the spaces between therailings at the people on the sidewalk. That's where we hadset up the sukkah every year, the wooden hut used on Sukkoth,the Feast of Tabernacles, hanging homemade garlandsof shiny colored paper and dried fruits and flowers onits walls in honor of the harvest.

    Inside the building, the oblong courtyard looked familiar.How many games of tag I had played there after school!Its ground was cobblestoned, and there were bits of grassgrowing in the cracks. Standing in the center, surroundedby the wrought iron railings of the floors above, I had thefeeling of being in an intricate cage. The wide stone staircasenear the entrance also evoked memories. When I wasin first grade, coming home from school I once saw a manon the landing who waited for me to approach, then quickas a flash opened his pants and pulled out something fleshyand pink. I ran past him, suffocating. By the time mymother and I returned to look for him, he was gone.

    "No flasher here today," said Michael as we climbed upthe three flights. We took a moment to catch our breath,and then I knocked on the door of the corner apartment.The door looked strangely out of place, but this was theright apartment. My heart was beating fast as we waited;after a few minutes, an elderly couple appeared. I explainedwho I was and asked if they would let me show the apartmentto my children. "Come in," they said. We steppedinto what used to be a large vestibule, with the kitchen offto the right. Now it was smaller, and to the right there wasa wall. They had divided the apartment, the couple explained,giving part of it to their married daughter. Thataccounted for the strange shift in the front door—therewere now two front doors, one to their apartment and oneto hers.

    We crossed the vestibule and entered the dining room,with its french doors leading to the balcony. There hadbeen a large, heavy square table in the middle, which couldseat more than twelve people for a seder. Now that spacewas empty. The grand piano had stood off to the right, andin the corner had been the green ceramic fireplace rising tothe ceiling. Now there was a metal stove there. I askedabout the green fireplace. "Yes, it was there at one time,but we had it replaced. This one heats better." They hadbeen living in the apartment about twenty-five years. Ithought of asking them to let us step out on the balcony butdecided against it. Somehow, despite their friendliness, Ifelt we were intruders. Besides, there was nothing there ofthe home I had known. I thanked them with all the politephrases I could muster as we left. Then my sons took picturesof me leaning over the railing opposite the front door,looking down into the courtyard.

    Should I say I felt disappointed by this visit? No, I feltdetached, like a tourist. I could not connect, in that moment,with the person I had been or with the meaning thathome had once possessed for me.

    Outside, we continued our walk. I tried to orient myselfamong that web of streets, where most of my daily life forten years had unfolded: Dob Street, Klauzal Street, KisDiófa Street, Kazinczy Street. The names sounded familiar,like a song learned in childhood, but the visual memorywas gone. I remembered the synagogue on KazinczyStreet, in whose courtyard stood the chupah, the prescribedwedding canopy for Orthodox weddings that I had passedon my way to school every day. On ordinary days theframework of wrought iron remained uncovered, but forweddings it was covered with a roof of some silky material.In 1946 my second-grade teacher, a tall young woman withlong brown hair, got married, and I was one of the pupilsshe chose as bridesmaids. I recently found a picture of thewedding in a box of old photos from my mother. I'mwrapped in a white fur coat that's too big for me, obviouslyborrowed. My hair is loose, as on festive occasions, with alarge sausage curl on top and a white ribbon. The bride isalso wearing a fur coat, open over her dark dress. Shestands next to the groom under the canopy, surrounded bya crowd of men in black hats. The scene now strikes me asforlorn and poor, marked by the aftermath of war. Yet inthe photo I look proud and happy, like someone starring ina grand event.

    I turned six the summer after the war, just in time to startfirst grade at the normal age—as if all that had happened theprevious year had been no more than a vivid nightmare, orone of the scary movies I loved and dreaded. My grandmother—small,round, vain, meddlesome, hovering—watchedme leave for school every morning from the balconyabove the street and waited there for my return at1:00. If I was late, dawdling with the other girls, she wouldget anxious, then angry. One day when I had dawdledlonger than usual (we were talking about sex), she scoldedme loudly: she had been about to call the police when Ishowed up. I, big mouth, told her to stop acting like a policemanherself. Did she punish me for that freshness? No,she told the story of my clever repartee for years, to friendsand family, anyone who would listen. "Clearly the child's agenius." That's how legends are born. That's why I forgaveher all her meddling, because she loved me so much.

    Each day after lunch, I would retire to the small desk inmy room and open my primer. Learning to read was evenbetter than noodles with plum jam, the most exciting,most deeply satisfying food I had ever tasted. The primerhad a shiny hard cover. Inside, every page featured a particularletter or combination, in alphabetical order. The "star"letter was centered at the top of the page, very big, in color;below it a line of syllables, then a few lines of short words,then increasingly longer words down to the bottom.Throughout, the star letter was printed in color, so you alwaysknew what you were learning. C (like the ts in "fits"),a big purple letter: ci, ca; cica, cat. Cs (like the ch in "macho"),in bright yellow: csi, csa; csak, only, kicsi, small,csillag, star. Sz (like the s in "sing"), a fiery red: szó, word,szólni, to speak to, szótár, dictionary. S (like sh), applegreen: sok, much, soha, never, mese, story. Zs (like the j inFrench "je"), royal blue: zsu, zsa, zsi; Zsuzsi, my name,Zsuzsika, its diminutive, a term of endearment, what mymother and grandmother called me.

    I would spend hours at my desk, feeling happy as the afternoonwore on and I had to light the lamp. I've oftenheard people say Hungarian is an impossible language, toodifficult for anyone to master who was not born into it.True, I was born into it, but Hungarian seemed to me themost wonderful, logical tongue in the world. Every consonant,alone or in combination with another, every vowelwith or without an accent, has one sound only, no matterwhere it occurs. To learn to read, all you have to do is learnthe sounds and put them together; after that you can readanything. But English, oh, English! Bough, ought, rough,though. So, sow, sew. Same letters, different sounds, samesound, different letters. How does any child here learn toread?

From the synagogue we went to visit Zsazsa Néni, mymother's aunt by marriage, who lived in the neighborhood.I had never heard of her until I began preparing forour trip—she was the widow of my mother's uncle, mygrandfather's brother. My uncle Lester had given me somemoney to take to her; I had called her in the morning to saywe were coming.

    The woman who opened the door for us was tiny, spry,neatly dressed in a skirt and blouse, her dyed brown haircarefully combed. She was eighty-three but looked twentyyears younger. "Zsuzsika! I've heard so much about youand your boys. Welcome!" she exclaimed. Only familycalled me Zsuzsika. I hugged her thin body, and so did theboys. We had wondered to ourselves how we should greether, but now it seemed obvious. She led us into her livingroom, small and dark but very clean, furnished in whatlooked like art deco furniture from the time of her marriage.We sat on stiff chairs while she served us cold drinksand cookies. "Tell the boys to eat more," she urged me. Itranslated; the boys ate more.


Excerpted from BUDAPEST DIARY by SUSAN RUBIN SULEIMAN. Copyright © 1996 by Susan Rubin Suleiman. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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Table of Contents

Prologue: Forgetting Budapest 1
Through a Stranger's Eyes 53
The Center of Europe 96
Quiet Days on the Danube 128
Enormous Changes at the Last Minute 159
Acknowledgments 231
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