The twentieth century came and went, yet hardly any recordings for posterity took place on women’s living conditions, their extraordinary experiences and their multifaceted activities.
In addition, in the writings of Jewish women their Jewish identity was frequently elusive.
Why is ‘the woman’ absent in Hungarian Jewish literature?
Why is being Jewish absent from the writings of Jewish women – that is, discussing, describing and analyzing issues and themes in connection to Judaism?
Women are hardly even present in Hungarian Jewish literature. Before World War Two, Hungarian women writers of Jewish origin did not identify themselves as such, and since the Holocaust, new generations of women writers have again been unwilling to write about their Jewish and/or women’s identity. So the female side of the Jewish existence is absent from the general Jewish narrative. East of the Elbe gender is as problematic as ethnicity.
Why in Hungarian women’s writings, aside from a few memoirs, is the Holocaust a missing theme?
For too long the Holocaust has been seen in male terms, obscuring the nature of the specific roles, work, and suffering of women. Today it seems doubly difficult to grasp what Jewish women endured, both as Jews and as women, because we don’t have many memoirs or personal records written by women to draw upon.
Researchers of oral history on the Holocaust were the first ones to discover that in women’s remembrances there is a different viewpoint; a different emphasis and tone came to the fore than in men’s recollections. For this reason, the female perspective and narration of women’s Holocaust experiences enrich and enlighten us further, and differently, even though many opportunities were lost to deepen our collective knowledge.
A painful void exists to today: not knowing the stories of the mothers, the grandmothers, the friendships in the camps, the connections, the survivors’ difficult journeys home, an absence of literature and other pictorial representations, and the missing endeavors of the “second generation”, the children of survivors.
In 2002, as a member of Esztertáska, (Esther’s Bag), a Jewish cultural women’s group, I made a decision to undertake the task of collecting and sharing with interested individuals as many as possible hitherto untold women’s stories.
We began looking for subjective accounts of real-life stories, based on personal experiences, expressed sensitively and enhanced with details, about any and all varied aspects of their Jewish life: childhood, school, love, marriage, emigration, aliyah, resistance, hiding, assimilation and Jewish renewal after the profound political changes of 1989.
It seems we stumbled onto something that had already begun germinating. All we had to do was open the door, and suddenly we were flooded with personal histories.
It is not mere chance that these stories remained untold for so long, because as we all know it is extremely difficult to talk about life’s traumatic events. A trust had to grow between the storytellers and myself. Only then was each one able to share her experiences with me, with her peers and eventually with a wider audience.
Remarkable friendships formed in this process, nurtured by mutual trust and respect, continue on today. Some of them I came to view maternally, others have said they felt similarly about me. With all the “children of the Holocaust” I’ve met I feel a great affinity. It is an added pleasure that a few of our non-Jewish friends also told us their stories, particularly as they pertain to Jewish people and to their Jewish friends.
The testimonies were presented at a series of readings which took place in Budapest. The first reading of untold stories, organized by the Esztertáska group, was held on the closing day of an exhibit called “The Jewish Woman” at the Budapest Jewish Museum, in September 2002. It was a great success, ‘standing room’ only, and so we decided to organize other readings, too. In the recently opened Ráday Book Emporium; in the newly founded Women’s House; in the very popular Nyitott Műhely cultural center; in Szimpla Kert, an “alternative” café in the heart of what was the Jewish ghetto; and on two occasions in the Z’Art Galéria/*Retorta Kávéház* (which has since sadly closed down).
These readings had a profound effect, not only on me, but also on the audience, and likewise on the readers of our web site. In addition to organizing these readings, I became guardian of the written texts which has been an unforgettable experience, a gift in fact.
On these reading nights we usually listened to four or five authors telling their stories. In between, to ease the atmosphere and change the mood, we listened to live music: Jewish and non-Jewish folk music, world music and jazz. From one such event to the next the audience increased, by word of mouth and through personal connections. The snowball we began rolling had transformed itself into an avalanche.
Naturally, the majority of the writings are about Holocaust experiences, but well represented are also the younger, second and even third generation descendants of survivors. Among our storytellers are professional and lay writers – the latter in greater numbers. I’d rather not differentiate – these stories are not to be viewed as artistic endeavors, but rather as an honest documentation of worthy life stories.
We translated the oral stories into English and they are also now on the website in both languages. We also received several contributions from abroad: Germany, Australia, England, the US and Israel. In order not to overload this edition, a few of the stories were omitted. I trust that sooner or later they will find their proper place in a future edition.
The writings are organized thematically, which at the same time also meant that the stories more or less fell into chronological order. The stories generally begin with “happy, peaceful” times in history, followed by the fearful and threatening Holocaust era, which includes stories about ghetto life, the concentration camps, forced labor, hiding, the return and the homecoming.
The “second generation”, the children of Holocaust survivors, also speak out and find their voice. As well as their non-Jewish peers who, for a variety of reasons, feel a strong connection to their Jewish friends and gravitate toward Jewish culture.
I would like to express my thanks to every single member of the Esztertáska Women’s Group. They, with their good advice and sense of organization, helped to arrange readings, to apply for funding and to spread our good name and to pave the way for future “Untold Women’s Stories”.
I am grateful to those of our friends who came to the readings and found them meaningful, and encouraged one another to write and so inspired us to continue. This book would not exist without the generous assistance of friends – Judy Weissenberg Cohen in Toronto, and Nicole Katz in Budapest – and their job-like patience in undertaking the painstaking and meticulous work of proof-reading and editing each and every story in English.
The first edition – in Hungarian – was published in April 2007. During the long years devoted to collecting these stories, some of the women have passed away: Anna Kun, Anna Lázár, Edit Kemény and Ibolya Scheer. Still, I dare hope the news will reach them somehow that finally their stories can also be read in a book – in Hungarian and in English, as well.
This anthology of untold stories is for all those who believe that the puzzle we call history is comprised of the fragments of individuals and personal stories. We hope that these untold stories will also resonate with the next generation, and that they may one day be used as educational tools in schools and Holocaust studies programs, to teach and inspire tolerance and acceptance.
Why is ‘the woman’ absent in Hungarian Jewish literature? Why is being Jewish absent from the writings of Jewish women – that is, discussing, describing and analyzing issues and themes in connection to Judaism? We began looking for subjective accounts of real-life stories, based on personal experiences, expressed sensitively and enhanced with details, about any and all varied aspects of their Jewish life: childhood, school, love, marriage, emigration, aliyah, resistance, hiding, assimilation and Jewish renewal after the profound political changes of 1989. It seems we stumbled onto something that had already begun germinating. All we had to do was open the door, and suddenly we were flooded with personal histories. It is not mere chance that these stories remained untold for so long, because as we all know it is extremely difficult to talk about life’s traumatic events.
A woman’s story of the Holocaust is different from a man’s. Our terror of rape and our insistence to cling to family would propel us to unexpected acts of heroism, often leading to the crematoria, but an experience that served to fortify us, its rare survivors. May you gain strength from these exceptional stories.
Apart from some precious exceptions, most of what we call ‘world literature’ is written by men. Women’s lives are all but suffocated by ‘untold stories.’ When it comes to Jewish women, add to that general problem of untold stories that the trauma of the Holocaust is close to being ineffable. Only by the late 1970s and early 1980s had this issue become an object of psychological studies in Hungary.