Global Jewish Reflections | When Communist Budapest Was Shushan: My Hungarian Jewish Purim

Global Jewish Reflections | When Communist Budapest Was Shushan: My Hungarian Jewish Purim

Zsuza, far right, knew as a child in 1970s Budapest that there were certain things it was better not to discuss with her family.

Zsuza, far right, knew as a child in 1970s Budapest that there were certain things it was better not to discuss with her family.

By: Zsuzsa Fritz - Director, JCC Budapest Jewish Knowledge Center

Global Jewish Reflections: Wisdom from Around the JDC World

Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the spiritual wisdom of rabbis, Jewish educators, and others from around the JDC world.

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Don’t tell them who you are!
Why? Who am I?

PERSIA, A LONG, LONG TIME AGO

Here in Persia, the colors and scents are familiar, and the noise of the shuk (marketplace) is known to me. I got used to having a ruler with unlimited power who uses wealth to rule and divide, got used to having my uncle sit in silence at home. When I mention my parents, he says with tears in his eyes, “May their memory be a blessing. Bless G-d the eternal.” It’s strange that he never mentions which god like everyone else, and I find his little digs more and more awkward and the jokes he makes about this huge empire stranger and stranger.

I begin to worry his sense of humor may cause some problems. Of course, though, he’s not alone in his opinions, and so I relax and hope it will be all right. People who visit us make similar quiet remarks, lowering their voices and whispering behind me when I go out to the kitchen. They say things I am not allowed to hear. I am a young girl, an orphan. It is obvious. They are adults. And men.

Zsusza Fritz

So I live in happy ignorance. I remember what I remember but mostly I have gut feelings — weird, quiet fears, and restless nights.

“This is the road to adulthood,” my uncle says. “Don’t worry. It will pass.” He always calms me and sometimes annoys me. I would ask what he means but I dare not, even if I had any idea what to ask. When I do something wrong, he calls me Ishtar, and then I know I am in trouble. I tried to call him Marduk once as revenge, but he looked at me with such a look I didn’t dare do it again.

BUDAPEST, 1970s

I am walking on Váci utca. Colors? There are none. The scents are familiar, and the noise is something I’ve grown used to. I’ve become used to living under socialism, which we call communism at home. I am used to having party secretaries lead our country and used to them having unlimited power.

Well, I am used to it as well as my family is. I know the jokes my parents and grandparents make about the regime — “the system,” as they call what we live in. Usually they are joyful, making some joke about [Hungarian communist leader János] Kadar or the Soviets every day, but sometimes when I leave the room, the adults lower their voice and whisper about things I am not allowed to hear. Sometimes when we watch TV in my grandparents’ room, everybody goes quiet. When that happens I am quiet, too. Afraid to utter a word, I feel in my guts that I should not ask questions because I might touch on something that ends the infinite cheerfulness.

I don’t even know what those questions might be, and I don’t know why the cheerfulness might end — I just know it could, and I don’t want to spoil the fun.

It’s important to me that my family is happy, and I take this task seriously, even if I’m only a child — the “adolescent,” as they sometimes call me with a playful tone.

***

The above represents what Queen Esther, the hero of the Purim story, might have written in her diary in the huge Persian empire, and then what I might have written in mine if I’d had the perseverance to keep a journal back in the ‘70s.

Zsuzsa Fritz poses for a photo at Camp Szarvas, the JDC-Ronald S. Lauder Foundation international Jewish summer camp in Hungary.

Truth be told, Esther probably always knew she was Jewish — and at least she didn’t have to lower her voice in that colorful, multicultural empire when saying the word. In her past, there was the trauma of exile; in mine, there was the trauma of the Holocaust.

But Esther didn’t ask any questions either. I’m sure of that. Her information about the inner feelings of those around her came from her gut, her intuition, and her heightened sense of empathy. She made it her utmost responsibility to not make those close to her sad. When Mordechai was down, she cheered him up without asking any questions. Her task, like mine, was to make people happy — to be fun, to be free.

When my parents and grandparents whispered behind my back, I pretended not to hear them. But did I? The untold command was, “Be happy and joyful,” so I was — happy and joyful always, without end, to make it so my parents and my grandparents didn’t have to speak about why they are actually unhappy inside.

Purim is as much a festival of memory as it is of happiness and joy. It’s a holiday that says, “Be happy and joyful, as long as you can. And if you can, you have to, because it all can end in the blink of an eye.” Suddenly, like so many times before, it can turn to destruction, exile, persecution, and murder. When it’s different, you have to enjoy it while you can and be silent about the times you can’t summon the joy.

So many generations have found comfort in this holiday of “let your hair down,” savoring the times they didn’t have to be what they really were, when they could hide behind a costume or a mask and breathe freely. As a second-generation Holocaust survivor, I can tell you that it is not the bad you need a breath from; it’s the conscious “not knowing” of the bad. Purim is a chance to take a break from the secret, the silence, the burden of the tasks we were unconsciously given by our parents and grandparents.

Zsuzsa Fritz leads an event at the JDC-supported JCC Budapest – Bálint Ház.

Strangely enough, this duality is a traditional part of Purim. While we are commanded to feast, to eat and drink, and to joyfully lose control, we are also once a year commanded to “forgettingly remember.”

We read in Deuteronomy 25: “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt — how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the march, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, … you shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!”

If I am to forget … what exactly? If I blot out someone’s memory, how will I remember them?

Well, I know exactly how. My whole generation knows how. We know the silence, the uncried tears, the “don’t say that,” the whispers, the “this should stay here between us, here within our house, our family, our walls.” We blot out the trauma’s memory. We push “delete,” but it’s still there in the virtual garbage bin in our subconscious, where it can always be retrieved, forever impacting everything we do and think.

Purim, this miraculous holiday where G-d hides his face, is as much about hiding as it is about the miracle.

Purim, this miraculous holiday where G-d hides his face, is as much about hiding as it is about the miracle.

I love games and masks and theater, and for us Jews, Purim is our big theater festival. All the actors wear their masks, hiding something and covering up, as they play out this drama of twists and turns and good and evil. It’s a big political drama, with power plays, law and order, wars and fights, kings and kingsmen, a privileged majority and a hated minority standing up and wanting more. It’s a story of imperial universalism and a small tribe struggling to survive.

We can learn from the Purim story that behind every unexpected turn of events, there is G-d, who once again makes a miracle and saves us. We can also learn that good defeats evil and that accepting who we are, like Esther does when she goes public with her Jewishness, can lead us to redemption and victory.

I learned something different this time — that behind the holiday’s mask of cheerfulness, you find a message about the imperative to survive, and how it’s possible to forget through remembering. So many of us have carried the burden of not-quite-forgetting for far too long.

For me, this doesn’t spoil the fun of Purim; on the contrary, it enhances it. The holiday shows us that our parents, in their own way, helped us survive and retain our Jewishness even in the most difficult circumstances — just like they learned from the Scroll of Esther.

The former director of the JDC-supported JCC Budapest – Bálint Ház, Zsuzsa Fritz now leads the JCC’s Jewish Knowledge Center.