12. 04. 2018. 22:38

Marianna D. Birnbaum: Untold Tales of Love and Shame (An Excerpt)

She kisses my forehead, lets herself down in the armchair next to me and takes my left hand, the one that still works after the stroke.  – We are pleased to bring you an excerpt from Marianna D. Birnbaum's novel, translated by the author herself and  Judith Flesch Rose.

Mici's Playbook


I glance at the clock on wall, straight across from my bed. Five to three. The elevator just stopped. I hear its door opening and closing. The sound of steps getting nearer. They'll soon reach my door that's always ajar. It's my daughter's visiting time. By now, she is standing in the doorway but doesn't come over to my bed right away. First she looks around like a general to see that everything is in its place. Then she proceeds to the wall on my right. It sports a large board with various information pinned on it, as well as notes visitors have left for her to read. She looks at those before she approaches me.

She kisses my forehead, lets herself down in the armchair next to me and takes my left hand, the one that still works after the stroke. Oprah is already on the TV screen. My daughter will sit with me like this for an hour, watching the program, holding my hand. At times she talks to me but knows that I don't understand anything, she says. Or, rather, thats what she believes. They all think that after the stroke I lost not just my speech but my brain functions as well. That's OK: It's fine with me. I see and hear everything but react to nothing. I just watch what's going on around me and listen to what they are saying.

I watch a lot of TV – it's on all the time. I always follow the tennis tournaments. I was a fair tennis player when young and as a matter of fact, when in '47 we had a big car accident, Manó wasn't driving, we were in a taxi on our way home from a dinner, and our cab collided with another car on the Körönd, and my right collarbone was fractured, I even learned how to play left-­handed. Well, that didn't last long, because soon came nationalization, and all the rest... But here in the hospital I keep watching the games. Once, a nurse noticed that I was following the ball with my eyes, and much fuss was made of it until one of the doctors declared that it had been an automatic movement of no consequence. Well, it makes no difference to me. Even better...

I have no idea why my daughter watches this idiocy; perhaps she feels, she is supposed to sit here but is too ashamed to read, although she always has a book with her. Perhaps it still looks as if we are doing something together. Meanwhile I watch her in secret. Each morning she spends twenty minutes here. She returns in the afternoon for an hour. Her husband appears towards the evening; he too spends about twenty minutes looking at me. He too looks at the screen, mutters something to me in German or in English without any expectation that I'd understand him or that he'd hear a response. When it comes to dealing with me, he is even less apt than my daughter. Four o'clock is approaching; my daughter's becoming restless, prancing like a colt, ready to bolt out of here. The program is over: The news she'll watch at home. But she gives it another try: she fishes out of her handbagshe goes around with gigantic handbags—a large sheet of paper with text in huge capital letters: I LOVE YOU, SQEEZE MY HAND IF YOU UNDERSTAND. She grabs my left hand; I let her, but do not react. Of course, I could squeeze itmy left hand works fine, but I remain motionless. She sighs, returns the sheet into her handbag and rises, ready to leave.

Barbara enters. She takes care of me between 12:000 noon and 1:00 when the other nurses are having their lunch break. My daughter is giving her money. That means that another week has gone by. I can't follow the passing of weeks and months very well, but I'm sure I was moved here a long time ago, at least that's what I can figure out from the remarks of my daughter's friends, who wonder aloud how long this would last.

Barbara doesn't bother me. She comes to my room, has her lunch here and afterwards takes a nap in the armchair. She never even looks at me. As she told my daughter, she doesn't enjoy eating in the common dining room because the nurses are Philippine and she doesn't understand their conversation. Perhaps she also feels unwanted because she's black. At 1:00, Barbara leaves the armchair and my room. Needless to say, she tells my daughter that she's been talking to me, has changed my gown and fixed my hair, etc. Therefore, in addition to her hourly rate, my daughter always gives her little extra gifts.

Changing nightgowns is a special performance. The staff has to change our gowns three times within 24 hours: morning, noon, and for the night. My daughter notes on the board, in Hungarian or in German, what I wore in the morning and adds the new information regarding the patternlight blue with checks, stripes or dots are the options—during her afternoon visit. Her husband and the other visitors write down their own observations. She has a Romanian colleague whose mother is here too. According to their agreement, whoever's visiting, leaves a message on the board of the 'other' mother. Since he doesn't speak Hungarian or German, he leaves a note in French. Neither of them uses English, therefore the staff doesn't know the topic, but they all see that they leave messages for each other, and that makes them more careful. It's a shame, but it seems to be necessary, because I'm fed through a feeder and have to be diapered. I hear the fellow whose mother is in the room next door, complaining to my daughter. He can only visit her once a week and his mother has developed bedsores.

There must be about twenty rooms on this floor: in almost all of them, there are two to a room. I'm alone in mine. Most patients have no visitors. I thought they were old and their relatives were dead too. But then came Mothers' Day and the rooms were bursting with visitors. At such times I think my daughter is at least better than that. Here and there I even feel sorry for her. She is always in a hurryshe never has time for anything. When I was still well, she called to find out what she should buy for me in the market. I told her that eggs are on sale at Ralph's she should get me a dozen but the roast chicken she should buy at Gelson because they do it much better. She began to scream that she has no time to run around because of ten cents: I should tell her what I needed and she'll bring it. I slammed down the phone, of course. Now, the woman who never had an extra ten minutes is spending hours at my bedside each day, smitten with remorse, I'm sure.

I often think of my own parents. They were so young when they were killed. My mother was 56, my father 66 when they were taken to Auschwitz. My mother was sent to the gas chamber right away. My father must have survived a bit longer; my daughter found his number in the register, and she also spotted his name on the wall of the museum. What did they feel during the last few minutes of their lives? I am sure they thought of us and of their only grandchild whom they adored. If I live to see my next birthday, I'll be 86 surviving even my father by 20 years, but in such a state.

I look at my daughter and ask myself: what kind of child was I to my parents? When I got married, I moved to another country, because after Trianon, Komárom and Szolnok were in different countries, Komárom having become a part of Czechoslovakia. We needed passports, we had to go through thorough checking at the bordereven telephoning was a problem. Often, we couldn't get a connection and they had us wait for no reason. Phoning was also very expensive; we seldom called, we wrote letters and those too were limited to the announcement of important events. But we were always together on the High Holidays. We were a large family; in addition to Komárom and Dunaszerdahely, we had relatives at Aranyos, Mocsa, and Györ. All were killed. When we moved from Szolnok to Budapest in '35, we saw my parents more often, because they came up to Budapest during each winter. My poor father adored the operetta and called Hanna Honthy, his favorite, 'Hante Honthy'. When he was in Budapest, he never missed her sing.

Last night, I dreamt of my parents and Józsi. He told them that he wanted to marry the girl from Léva (Edith who?I've forgotten her last name). My mother began to weep that he was in a forced labor camp, on what basis would he want to have a wife... I woke up right after that. Of course, neither my brother, nor poor little Edith has survived. Józsi barely had a few good years in his entire life: Perhaps before the war with the young girls and boys in Komárom. They used to row on the Danube, went out dancing, but they couldn't travel, saw nothing of the world...Then, as all young Jews, he was sent from one labor camp to another. I've been waiting for his return for years after '45. He was young and strong; I was hoping that he landed in a Russian POW camp. But it turned out that his group, too, was taken to Germany. Although he was shot before they reached the Hungarian border.

Of those living in the countryside, only Irma and her little girl survived. Irma's husband was Protestant, a public notary, a powerful man, but he wouldn't risk hiding his own wife. He took his little girl to a peasant family: They saved her. Irma was deported. She escaped from the train but didn't dare to return to her husband. However, she found somebody in Komárom to help her. Irma survived, and that insane woman didn't divorce her husband after the war, but went back to him and gave him another daughter! I only saw them once after the warthat is, the women: they came to Budapest from Slovakia and paid us a visit. When was thatperhaps at the end of the 40s? Who knows what has happened to them since?

It would help me to think of something nicer. I decided that today I am going to be in Venice, because I always enjoyed myself there. Right away the Lido and Sanyi Sas came to mind. We were vacationing there with Manó and another couple. How old was I in '38? 29! My God! Sanyi had just passed his matura: Venice was the graduation present from his parents. He lived in town, but he came out to swim to the Lido Beach, to the Hotel Hungaria that was always packed with Hungarians. He joined our little group and, I think, pretty soon, he fell in love with me. He never left my side and begged me to come to Venice where he would show me the town and needless to say the hotel where he was staying. That had never happened to me before, and it made me feel good, because I suspected that Manó was not always faithful to me, although I've never had anyone but him. Sanyi kept courting all week, praising my hair, my eyes, my legs, my taste in clothes, until I finally promised him to go to Venice the following afternoon and he could wait for me at the vaporetto station. That night I lay awake without a moment of sleep, because there was more at stake than being an adult, a married woman, and Sanyi practically a child, although with his bronzed face, he looked older than someone who had just graduated from high school, but even if I were not to go up to his roomI was convinced I would never do such a thingI'd still feel I was cheating on my husband. On the following day, 4:00 o'clock came, but I didn't leave. Next day Sanyi reproached me, practically in tears telling me that he stood at the station all afternoon and waited until nightfall for every vaporetto to arrive from the Lido. I promised him that the following year I would not disappoint him. But there was no following year: The war broke out and next time I got to see Venice was in 1973, arriving with Manó, from Los Angeles. There, in Venice, I thought of Sanyi a lot. I have no idea whether he had survived the war, or he too had been killed somewhere. Thinking of Venice, he is the first memory that comes to my mind, probably because I never had adventures and I missed out on this charming, enthusiastic boy. Although it makes no difference by now...

***

After years of analysing stories in a completely different light as a literary and cultural historian, now as a narrator, Birnbaum lays out unseen stories before the reader. through fictional diaries, letters, confessions, she reveals the personalities and defining moments of the lives of six Jewish women. Five more or less familiar names, such as Rigoletto's Gilda, or Ady's Léda, the most impressive being a monologue that pays remembrance to an entire era, Mici's screenplay. The story of a European Jewish woman in the twentieth century: persecution, survival, new beginnings anytime, anywhere, should history require as much. The characters of the unseen stories cover five hundred years and two continents. Though we may have read of their fates before, with Marianna D. Birnbaum's wry humour, her superbly written short stories read as though brand new.

Marianna D. Birnbaum