Wrapping the intangible

There’s something in the air that smells remarkably like goodwill mixed with the heady fumes of mulled wine and grog. I’ve noticed a subtle change in the general level of niceness floating around as people jostle good-naturedly through the Christmas markets without complaint. I’d nearly go so far as to say that we’re all a little bit better disposed towards our fellow man.


It’s a time for reminiscing, remembering those who have gone before us and others who won’t make it home this year. A Hungarian friend recently told me a story that both saddened me and restored my faith in love and life.

christ3She has a friend in his early nineties who survived the concentration camps of WWII. He returned to Budapest after the war to find strangers living in his house. His family were dead. He had nothing, no one. He spent some time in the States before eventually moving back to Hungary. Today, he’s in hospital, where he has been for a month now; when he does get out it will be to a sanatorium. He’s fortunate that, as a Holocaust survivor, he has the support of a Jewish foundation that ensures he has a nurse visit him twice daily. Without her visits, and those of my friend, it is doubtful that he would have survived his time in hospital where things are bleak at best; food is left on bedside lockers untouched if the patient hasn’t the wherewithal to feed themselves, or hasn’t a friend or relative to do it for them.

His wife of 48 years would be there if she could, but she can’t. She is at home, bedridden, in a full-leg cast, with a broken knee. She is in her sixties, far younger than him. They have no family. This is the longest they have been apart. When they married, she was just 19. People thought her mad – he’d soon be old and then where would she be? She said that if she had ten good years with the man she loved, it would be worth it. They’ve had much more.

They communicate by phone, separated as they are by circumstance and their respective disabilities. They miss each other terribly. They are the light of each others life and want nothing more than to be together. And they’re not.

In the coming weeks, our skies and roads will be full of people travelling home for the holidays – some because they want to, others because of familial duty and obligation. Families will be reunited. Grandchildren will be hugged for the first time. Lovers, separated by economic necessity, will cram a month of living into a few days. Children will split their time between divorced and separated parents. Many will spend the holidays in hospital or at home alone. The fortunate amongst us – those with friends and family we can be with – are in danger of taking it all for granted, forgetting to count our blessings and give thanks, instead losing ourselves in the commercial mania that is Christmas.

We will be scavenging christthe shops and markets in an effort to fulfill other people’s expectations of want. I’m no exception. But as is my wont at this time of year, I am revisiting the list made by novelist Oren Arnold (1900–1980) when asked for suggestions as to what to give for Christmas:

To your enemy, forgiveness.
To an opponent, tolerance.
To a friend, your heart.
To a customer, service.
To all, charity.
To every child, a good example.
To yourself, respect.

Now if only I could figure out how I might wrap them …

Wherever you are this Christmas, my wish for you is that you are at peace with yourself. Nollaig shona daoibh go léir.

First published in the Budapest Times 12 December 2014

Forgive? Forget?

Sometimes when we least expect it, the universe conspires to remind us of stuff that should never be forgotten. I can see the merits of forgiving and forgetting – and perhaps nine times out of ten, I would be all for it. But there are times that, whatever about forgiving, forgetting is simply wrong.

I’ve read a lot about the Holocaust. I’ve visited the sites of many WWII camps. Some might say I have a morbid fascination with the subject. And perhaps I do. But there’s a part of me that thinks it could all happen again if people simply forget. The signs are there.

IMG_2224 (800x600)I come across reminders of what went on in the most unexpected places. In Győr the other week, VO took us to see the old synagogue. The site on which it is built was purchased in 1866 for just 6000 forint.  The cornerstone was laid in 1868 and the building was dedicated in 1870. Built in neo-Romanesque style, it has an octagonal plan which served as pattern for a number of significant European synagogues around that time – apparently  Károly Benkö’s design is the first realization of the movement of neological synagogues.

IMG_2194 (800x600)IMG_2198 (800x600)In 1910, the Jewish community numbered 5583 people. Of the 5700 people deported in the 1940s, only around 780 returned. And for them, it was far too big.  Hungary bought the synagogue from the Jewish community in 1969. It subsequently housed a grain company’s offices, was a furniture storage for a while, and then the Ferenc Liszt conservatory was tasked with converting space to a concert hall.  It’s now a cultural centre, operated by the University of István Széchenyi, and mainly used by the university and the municipal art museum. It also houses the collection of János Vasilescu’s twentieth century art.

IMG_2212 (800x600)IMG_2210 (800x596)The detail is amazing; the restoration simply beautiful. One has to be thankful that it wasn’t left to go to rack and ruin but instead has found a new life that the whole community can enjoy. But the building itself, beautiful as it is, is not what was the most significant for me.

IMG_2178 (600x800)In the courtyard out front stands a memorial on which are etched the names of the children who were deported. The youngest, Péter Feldmar,  was only 2 weeks old.  Over 1.5 million children perished in the Holocaust. It’s too big a number to get my head around. The numbers from Győr were all too manageable, made even more real by names and years, months, and days of life. Today, they provide food for thought and ample reason for reflection. They should not be forgotten.



A chandelier made from 7144 individual Swarovski crystal beads strung on strands falling from the ceiling would be at home in a ballroom in just about any part of the world. To see it hanging through three floors of a museum though is quite something. My illicit photo certainly doesn’t do it justice.

20140509_102354_resized-1I was in the Holocaust Memorial Centre in Skopje. Signs everywhere said no cameras. There was only me and the security guard. The centre opened in March 2011, some 68 years after 7144 Jews were deported from Skopje to Treblinka by the occupying Bulgarian forces. Fewer than 100 survived.

IMG_2005 (800x600)Shepherded in the Monopol building (a tobacco factory) before deportation, conditions, while horrendous, were nothing like what was in store.

We were in a terrible mood. The youngsters tried to sing every so often, but the adults and the elderly people were in deep depression. We did not know what awaited us, but the dreadful treatment we received from the Bulgarians showed the value of the promises given us that we would only be taken to a Bulgarian work camp. Here and there youngsters whispered of the possibility of an uprising and a mass escape, but they never materialized. There was no prospect of it succeeding. The yard was surrounded by a wooden fence and behind that a barbed wire fence. At each of the four corners there was a sentry with a machine gun and other armed guards would patrol the yard. Also, the belief that the worst possible fate did not await us prevented such suicidal acts from taking place.

When I stopped to photograph the building that housed Skopje’s Jews before they were deported, the security guard was none too impressed. When we told him that it was a memorial, an important building, he said he didn’t know.

And that’s what frightens me most. That we’ll forget. That we’ll forget that 11 million died in the holocaust, 6 million of them Jews. Places like the Monopol building should be recognised. And remembered. On 21 June 1944, all Jews in Budapest were required to move into one of 2000 special houses – the yellow star houses. This year, on 21 June, people will stand in vigil outside each of these houses – to be sure that we don’t forget.



The other five million

Of the 11 million said to have perished in the Holocaust, five million were not Jewish: they were Roma, Jehovah’s Witnesses, university professors from the Polish city of Lviv, the disabled, the mentally ill, homosexual, political prisoners, artists, 500 teenagers of mixed African and German parentage (the offspring of French colonial troops stationed in the Rhineland in the early 1920s) – in short anyone who wasn’t deemed fit to be part of Hitler’s Germany.

Walking past the House of Terror museum on Andrassy út on Sunday, I noticed a small crowd and stopped to see what was going on. A stage had been  set up outside, underneath the framed photographs of Arrow Cross victims that line the walls of the building. Two groups of musicians sat side by side.

IMG_1676 (800x600)IMG_1670 (600x800)On the left was a group of Romani musicians, running through a sound check. One played what looked like a milk churn, another what looked like a small wooden bath. I was struck immediately by the venue – the street outside the building where many of their predecessors met their end. An estimated 28,000 Hungarian Roma were killed as part of the Porajmos (Romani Holocaust) which is said to have claimed the lives of as many as 500 000.

IMG_1664 (800x600)IMG_1660 (800x600)To their right was a larger group, all wearing sweatshirts emblazoned with the words Párafónia Zenekar. The band was set up about ten years ago and now has twelve members who collectively play thirteen different instruments, and most of them have their own musical assistant. They play at home and abroad – Germany, the Netherlands , Austria, Belgium , Poland, Vojvodina, and Transylvania – and are truly amazing to watch and listen to.  Involved with FECO – the First European Colour Orchestraan orchestra of people with intellectual and physical disabilities founded in January 2002 – Párafónia Zenekar is living testimony to what might have been lost, had Hitler had his way.

The mass sterilisation programmes that were a prelude to Hitler’s T-4 Euthanasia programme saw the deaths of thousands mentally ill and disabled people. Institutions were emptied as their patients were gassed. Adults and children alike.

On July 14, 1933, the German government instituted the “Law for the Prevention of Progeny with Hereditary Diseases.” This law called for the sterilization of all persons who suffered from diseases considered hereditary, including mental illness, learning disabilities, physical deformity, epilepsy, blindness, deafness, and severe alcoholism.

The mind boggles.

Later that afternoon, I joined thousands of others who took to the streets to mark Holocaust Remembrance Day and yet it was those few minutes of music by those two particular groups in that particular setting that drove home to me what was done 70 years ago and what might have been lost.




The benefits of nosey neighbours

As events in Cleveland Ohio unfold and take centre stage on the world news platform, I’m left wondering what my neighbours are up to.

For more than ten years, Ariel Castro, 52, registered owner of 2207 Seymour Ave., Cleveland, allegedly held three women captive in full view of his neighbours and friends and family. His is not a secluded country cottage at the end of a laneway, or a manor house set on ten acres with a mile-long avenue from gate to front door, or a remote mountain residence in the middle of nowhere. It’s an ordinary house on an ordinary street in ordinary America.

That he might have kidnapped Michelle Knight, then 21, in August 2002 and held her captive until last week boggles the mind. That he might have abducted Amanda Berry, then 17, in April 2003, beggars belief. That he might have spirited away his daughter’s friend Gina DeJesus, then 14, in April 2004, is beyond comprehension. But that he might have held them all, in his house, for more than ten years without anyone suspecting a thing … that’s the stuff movies are made of.

Call first

Castro has nine siblings, an extended family, and a love for classic cars. Friends and relatives have variously described him as ‘smart and funny’ and ‘quiet and private’. Yes, he had some strange habits, like only entering and leaving his house by the back door and not encouraging people to stop by for a coffee. But that’s America.

In the ten years I was Stateside, my ingrained Irish habit of popping in for a cuppa unannounced was quickly replaced by the need to ‘call ahead’. I soon learned that while the Statue of Liberty might have welcomed the world’s tired, poor, huddled masses who were yearning to breathe free, suburban America was a little more guarded about whom it let in its front door. But to each their own. I took it simply as a way of living and soon adapted.

In Ireland, by noon, the village knows what you’ve had for breakfast. The churchyards and corner shops are the nexus of the gossip mill. Any strange or peculiar behaviour is noted in the Captain’s log to be trotted out and appended to the next entry when it is made.

Of course, this is changing. The influx of global immigrants has shifted the balance and this neighbourly nosiness is waning. Yet, for the life of me, I can’t see how Castro could get away with it for so long.

Business as usual

The victims were reportedly kept in chains in the basement and then later moved upstairs to live behind secure doors. Fed through holes in the doors, they report being subjected to beatings and sexual assault.  Surely some family member would have noticed the new décor? Can it be that none of his kids ever stopped by? Did no one have a spare set of keys?IMG_2342

Neighbours are now claiming that they did, in fact, call the police over the years to report unusual sightings such as a naked woman on a leash in the backyard or a child at the window in a house with no children. And yet until Amanda Berry escaped last week and famously ran into the arms of Charles Ramsey, no one other than the girls and Castro apparently knew what was going on.

Drawing parallels

Are we so wrapped up in what’s going on in our own lives that we fail to notice something’s amiss? Are we so self-centred that anything which doesn’t revolve around us is not deserving of attention? Fed as we are by a constant diet of social media updates, have we lost our powers of observation, our ability to spot something out of the ordinary? Have we lost our ability to think? To reason? To deduce? Have we lost whatever innate curiosity we might have been born with? Has it been replaced with an unquestioning acceptance of what is?

Admittedly, I’ve been pretty wrapped up in the Holocaust lately with visits to the camps at Terezin and Salaspils and I’m more than slightly worried at the apparent lack of indigenous concern about what I see as a visible increase in overt anti-Semitism in Budapest, so I can’t help but draw a parallel, however much it might be a figment of my imagination.

Back then, some people also claimed not to have been aware of what was going on in nearby camps. They said they didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. And what they did notice could be plausibly explained. The odd comment here, a throwaway remark there – there’s a fine line between quiet castigation and blatant defiance. If our neighbours and friends are behaving oddly, do we not owe it to them and to ourselves, to ask why?

I can’t help but wonder what might have happened in Cleveland had one of Casto’s neighbours or friends or even one of his extended family members been a little more curious, a little nosier … perhaps Michelle, Amanda, and Gina might have seen the light of day a little earlier.

Last week, I might have bemoaned the fact that my neighbours could report chapter and verse on my comings and goings. This week, I’m strangely secure in the knowledge that at least they’re paying attention.

First published in the Budapest Times 17 May 2013

Hotel on the corner of bitter and sweet

I’m not quite sure what is happening in my head these days. I seem to have developed an irrational fear of a collective forgetting, a fear that once the aging survivors of national and international atrocities die off, the rest of us will stop remembering, or worse still, start denying. Perhaps I’ve been spending too much time in camps like Terezin and Salaspils. Or perhaps it goes back even earlier to the realisation that things have happened in my lifetime that I simply wasn’t aware of. Like the last partisan in Lithuania emerging from the woods when I was sixteen.

HotelAnd then I think of books and authors, and the role they play in keeping this collective memory alive. I’ve just finished Jamie Ford’s debut novel Hotel on the corner of bitter and sweet and yes, I realise that the operative word here is ‘novel’ – it is a work of fiction but one that is based on real life events in Seattle, after the bombing of Pearl Harbour.

This   heart-rending account of how Japanese Nisei (second-generation) and Issei (first generation) and Sensei (immigrants) were treated as spies, collaborators, saboteurs, and threats to national security under the guise of protecting them from the nationals is beautifully written. That much of the West Coast was declared a military zone; that the Japanese themselves built many of the camps they were housed in; that huge numbers of those interned were second-generation American and didn’t even speak Japanese shows just how far we can be carried along by the tide of mass hysteria and collective frenzy.

On February 19th 1942 Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. Under the terms of the Order, some 120,000 people of Japanese descent living in the US were removed from their homes and placed in internment camps. The US justified their action by claiming that there was a danger of those of Japanese descent spying for the Japanese. However more than two thirds of those interned were American citizens and half of them were children. None had ever shown disloyalty to the nation. In some cases family members were separated and put in different camps. During the entire war only ten people were convicted of spying for Japan and these were all Caucasian.

hotel 2Harrowing accounts of people burning wedding photos and kimonos and anything that might tie them to being Japanese show the lengths we will go to belong. Stories of some Chinese putting their safety on the line to store precious belongings for their Japanese friends or even hide them, as Jews were being hidden in Europe, testify to the ability of friendship to break through bigoted boundaries. These passages resonated all the more given the title of this blog – unpacking my bottom drawer – and the collection that I have amassed over the years that is very much a mirror of my life.Would I willingly destroy it all?

The novel revolves around the friendship between a Chinese boy and a Japanese girl, their love of jazz, and a discovery at the Panama Hotel. Henry (the Chinese lad) has to wear a badge saying ‘I am Chinese’ in case someone might mistake him for being Japanese. Imagine. Through the reactions of the various random characters that pop up during the days they spend trying to assimilate, man’s inhumanity to man comes to the fore. It doesn’t elbow its way to the front row as happened with, say, the Holocaust, but rather edges its way forward until it is just as pervasive if not nearly as violent. Boycotting of Japanese businesses, refusal to sell to Japanese consumers, general maligning and debasing of their culture and traditions might seem light enough if placed side by side the trainloads of Jews that were being ferried to their death on the far side of the Atlantic. If we are speaking in terms of the numbers affected, the sheer magnitude of the atrocities committed, and the far-reaching effects that are still with us today, there is no comparison. But neither should have happened.

To my shame, I’ve only just gotten an inkling of what went on. When I was doing History at school we alternated between European and American and my year was on the European roster. While I am growing increasingly cynical about the ovine-like minds of the human race, it was a shock to read about the mass hysteria that cost so many people so much. Yet we saw the same in the 1960s in the UK where every Irish accent heralded a potential terrorist.  We see the same now with Muslims where every hijab masks a potential suicide bomber. I’m just back from Ireland, sickened by accounts from black taxi drivers of how the Irish (my people) openly scorn them and refuse to get into their cabs. This blanket painting of peoples as one collective image is keeping me awake at night. Literally.

The subtle treatment of the Japanese love of swing jazz is woven into the reaction of Black America to what was going on. Whether or not jazz legend Oscar Holden was in fact blacklisted from Jazz Clubs in Seattle for his outspoken protest against what was happening is something I can’t verify. I’d like to think it was true, though. It would go some part way to restoring my faith in human nature.

The Panama Hotel in Seattle is now on my list of places to visit (to think that I lived in  the vicinity for the bones of a year and didn’t know of any of this is disheartening). Jamie Ford is on my list of authors to watch. And the victims of this hysteria have been added to my list of those not to be forgotten.