Sunday, February 14, 2010

Hungarian Condoms and Tea Sets (illustrated!)


The locale is Budapest: my mom and dad got married ca. 1937 (can’t remember exact year, I wasn’t there). My brother was born in 1938 (gasp how did he get that old!), and then my parents dutifully practiced birth control. They bought condoms at the neighborhood pharmacy which actually offered a free tea set to whoever turned in 100 empty condom wrappers. Well my parents did, and the pharmacist told them they were the only ones in the neighborhood brave enough to do so. I don’t know what happened to the tea set, though.

OK, how to visualize the setting? A quiet suburban dirt street, cars are few and they raise dust. The joke was that when a car went through, the dust took three months to settle. Was the sun out, brightly lighting a small storefront pharmacy? I see it all in miniature, almost like a toy set, probably because it has to fit in the limited space inside my head. Actually I would like to get a look at that infamous tea set and even more the impressive collection of condom wrappers ( I wish I had asked my mom where they had stored them --perhaps in a cookie jar?).....


No, the condoms didn’t fail. What happened is that my mom and dad were getting ready to go to Great Aunt Riza’s birthday party. They had to dress up and the time was short. In the process of undressing and dressing they got terribly horny and there was no time to mess with a condom –so --ta ta– here I am! They were late for the party anyway and had to come up with some lame excuse –so perhaps this explains why I’m always late and always have to invent some lame excuse of my own (The dog ran away and I had to catch him....etc)

So how to imagine that scene? Was it raining? Perhaps there was a wild storm like those shown to hint at great sexual passion in the Hollywood films of the time (how did we come down now in the twenty first century to allude to sex by showing two people in separate bathtubs side by side but not even touching –gasp!). Were electric undercurrents springing forth in the Danube in the form of foamy wild waves of .... (reader fill in the blanks, please). Yet I picture the scene in fuzzy slightly washed out pastels, a soft molecular dance between two pointillist shadows...(sheesh what did you expect? Am I supposed to actually visualize my dad putting his penis into my mom!)

Later, when my mother was pregnant, she swam and swam in the Danube... The river, she said, nurtured both of us. My mother was one heck of a swimmer! She had come very close to making the Hungarian swim team to the infamous 1936 Olympics in Germany. Tragically some pretty sad things also happened in that river just a couple of years after I was born (the web knows; just look up Danube Budapest Holocaust....).

There are no photographs of my parents’ wedding. My dad’s mother was dying and they got married at her bedside. Other pix didn’t make it, except one. It was a passport photo. By that time they were frantically trying to get out of Hungary because they were Jews (converted to Calvinism for protection but really agnostic by belief, but since your ID had to have your religion in it, and there was no slot for agnostics, let alone atheists, they had tried another route. But the minister who converted them kept a list of the converted Jews and turned it over to the Nazis)

So to make a long story short, my father didn’t make it. My mother did, escaped from prison, went underground, spied for the Allies and was part of a network that saved other people, a gypsy smuggled her kids out of Budapest, then we got smuggled back in.... etc etc etc but that will have to be for another post ‘cause remembering is pretty tiring, not to mention tiresome.

The Holocaust came late in Hungary and, as elsewhere, included Tsiganes (Romas a.k.a Gypsies) except for the musicians in Budapest who were spared so that the Nazi could keep on enjoying their amazing music. Gypsies haven’t talked much about their Holocaust but I heard it in person from the musicians who worked in my mother’s Hungarian restaurant in Brussels....

Warning! mega digression afoot: when the Congo was negotiating with Belgium for independence, the Congolese delegation used to regularly come to the restaurant, and, lo and behold, I actually made an order of fries ( Belgian fries of course: “French fries” are impostors) for Patrice Lumumba himself whom I still mourn as I read of the seemingly endless catastrophes the inhabitants of the Congo have endured since his assassination...

Oh well, I hope you didn’t all get lost in these zigzagging journeys between continents and centuries. There are no fixed boundaries in memory so it all gets jumbled together –there’s a theme though, but that’s for the reader to uncover....

Forthcoming: how my uncle Zoltan escaped from his work gang by running between bullets, was hidden by an enormously fat women and fell in love with her and all fat women thereafter (except for his future wife who’s also my father’s first cousin and shares his and my last name and is the last surviving members of this group of siblings and cousins), and later on became postmaster of the whole of Hungary for the brief happy moment in between the Nazis and the Communists regimes....


So here comes a tearjerker of a poem:

Father Lost (lament over a single photograph) (poem)
To my brother Paul, my childhood protector

Father hiding in the wordless memories
of a baby you held in your arm
brown eyes to brown eyes did I coo?
When I was two you were gone
where where, anyukam, asked my brother
six years old where is my apu?
So he left secret messages to his father
behind an enormous wardrobe
he moved back and forth from the wall
by the magic of his sorrow

And I?
Only one photograph left
passport photos side by side with my mother
black and grey shadows in an old frame
Bella and Laszlo were trying to get out
of Hungary just before

My mother’s face turned toward the photographer
only one ear showing but I know the other
sideways over her shoulder her eyes so light
so serious already did she know?
My father’s face turned to the right looking away
only one ear showing and I don’t know the other
his eyes so sad already did he know?

I stare and stare and I can see under the sad eyes
a song on the lips
and laughter and delight
my mother said there was so much music and dancing
and then

He was an engineer in a shoe factory
he thought of using old tires for the soles
because of the war
he sometimes or once made shoes from scratch at home
for the feel of it
he sang in the shower
he sang so well the neighbors asked
what radio station they were playing next door
in the morning such beautiful music
after the war my mother
went to the train station day
after day waiting for him to come out
of a train

The twenty first century already emulates the twentieth
but we’re good at information
So I’m trying to find out
what my father’s eyes saw
Google conjures up a map
of Müldorf
a town like any other
I see roads and streets in pastel colors
I find out my father died under the weight
of hundred pounds sacks of cement
and an empty stomach
my lost father
younger than my children
but I find him at the moment of death
at the moment of light
he knows Bella hid
and his children will live

Father oh father
for a moment a tenuous moment
I am your mother
holding your tears in my arms
shielding your eyes

The moment is lost as often as it is found
and still I ride the train
now far away from those tracks
yet linked to them in a straight line
I can see all the way
to the dark horizon where their beginning ends
in void
and so lost daughter still I reach
with an infant’s wordless clumsiness
towards my lost father’s photograph.

Poem copyright 2008 by Catherine Tihanyi

Top: Bella (aka Isabelle Vital) and Laszlo Tihanyi ca. 1939, 40?
Second: Kati, 1945, Switzerland (head had been shorn for lice
in order to enter Switzerland after weeks of waiting at Austrian border)
Third: Geza and Miklos at the restaurant in Brussels
Last: Paul and Kati in Zurich ca 1946/47


  1. Kati, thank you for that.

    My mother's family are Gipsies - not that you'd know it now or anything. One of my great-grandmothers married and moved to Canada when she was 16 or so - this would have been in the 1920s). She stayed in contact with her family through various people at farms where they did seasonal work.

    Until the late 30's that is. Hitler had a thing about Gypsies (as well as Catholics and "mental defectives"). My great-gran found out that everyone in her family had been slaughtered because one of the farmers had turned them in. No one knows where the grave site is - probably in a ditch somewhere.

    She lived into the 1970s, and I only vaguely remember her, since I was just a kid. My mother said she was the saddest soul in the world.

  2. Hi Messy, thanks for your comment. I'm sorry about your great grandmother's experience and the loss of her family. These sort of tragedies tend to leave an impact on many succeeding generations.

    I do have to point out one little thing. Hitler didn't have it for Catholics. There were many Catholics who supported him (and some who opposed him at the risk of their lives) and there are many German Catholics (if I remember right Bavaria is mostly Catholic?) and then he was allied with predominently Catholic countries....

    But he did have it in for Seventh Day Adventists --don't ask me why!

    ..and of course any person of color... (there are pictures of black children in concentration camps)

    He also had it in for Gays, they had to wear a pink star so as to be easily identified for deportation when the time came (my mother figured out the yellow star business and took her's off, figured there was no point in worrying about the penalties for taking your star off --she had gotten some info about what awaited them anyway....)

    And then he didn't just go after the mentally ill, he went after the disabled in general --but I understand the Nazis had to temper that policy in Germany proper but not in the occupied countries. Nazis in all countries still think that way, a couple of years ago a group of neo-Nazis in Germany beat up a little girl at a bus stop because they found out she was deaf... I assume this is just the tip of the iceberg....

    Oh well, this is all pretty depressing. Luckily there are some good human beings around....

  3. Your mother going to the train station every day...

    That's going to stay with me for a long time, Kati. Thank you for this.

    More, please! :)

  4. Ms. Kati,

    Thank you for sharing such a wonderful story - I was absolutely rapt. :)

    Mrs. Cat.

  5. You should write a book. Most families, I suspect, have a fairly boring history like mine. We have to go back several generations to get anything more exciting than an elopement.

  6. Scuyler and Ms. Cat, thank you for your comments, I'm particularly honored with Schyuler's Kitten's visit...

  7. Mermaid, thanks.
    My mother went to the train station everyday but her brother went through the lists of the dead everyday and so finally found out that Laszlo didn't make it...

  8. Cool One, the funny thing is that I'm always telling people to write their family's history and/or their autobiography!

    Give your family a chance. What appears to be ordinariness is often fascinating. You know what they say about still water running deep? I'm sure your folks experienced lots of adventures in a fast and drastically changing world. You just have to be the sort of interviewer who digs below the surface --in a nice way that is... Record as much as you can while people are still alive...

  9. CoolOne, perhaps you might be interested in Stud Terkel's oral history/journalism work? I'm particularly thinking of his book "Working" that came out in 74. But he wrote books of interviews about people's experience during the Great Depression and other times.

    He was a great influence on the several oral history projects around....

  10. You've gotta tell us - is that cutie with the glasses you?

  11. Kati, this is wonderful. Of course, I find all of your writing to be so.

    When I lived in Germany, I learned that my German instructor (Frau Heiß--what a wonderfully appropriate name, whom I was later allowed to refer to as Ula) had been shuffled from cottage to farmhouse to whatever the next hiding place was to be, all over the Belgium and Luxembourg and German countrysides. They did this to avoid the tragedies that befell the world daily during those days. And those stories are startling and poignant, as you can well imagine. But I was most struck by the revelation that she and her siblings and other friends in hiding (of various faiths and ethnicities) would sometimes use sticks and other found items to make forts by leaning these things against unexploded ordinance that had fallen to the ground. I'm not sure why? I guess because, to a child's eyes, it looked cool, you know, having been dropped from above and slung into the Earth, but now harmless (or so it appeared to those eyes). Kids, it seems, are amazingly optimistic. Too bad most of us lose this characteristic as we age.

    Thank you again for your wonderful writing, and for sharing. And, as MM implored, more please? :-)

  12. Dear Messy, of course it's me! Aren't my ears huge? I guess they grew before the rest of my face did!

  13. Smag, thanks for your kind comments. I'm glad your German friends made it through the war in hiding and didn't get blown up as they built their forts... yes, kids are optimistic, but in my experience if they witness catastrophic events they'll become traumatized for life.

    I'm thinking this because my brother was so traumatized by the war and still is in some ways... He still remembers vividly having to step over corpses in the street and being terrified along with all the adults by the sound of bombs falling and exploding. I don't remember any of this except that when I was a kid I developed a phobia of basements, perhaps because, like the rest of the population of Budapest, we were stuck in a basement for weeks on end while the city was being bombed and finally while there was a house to house fight between the Germans and the Russians...

  14. I'm just back for another read. Your parents were beautiful, Kati. Your mother's eyes! I can see why they were made late to the party. ;) Thank you again for this. It's a gift to us all.

  15. Greetings Kati. You're correct, of course, in that we all have breaking points beyond which return is usually not possible. It's why one of my favorite books of all time is "Slaughter House Five" and yet why, at the same time, I can barely bear to read it. Would that we humans not do these things to one another. :-(

    I had a relative come to visit while I lived in Germany. She's a first generation Italian American. We were visiting the wonderful town of Rothenberg ob der Tauber. It's a walled town, filled with wonderful red clay roofed homes and buildings and quite beautiful. Every person that I encountered there was wonderful, but, typically, I only encounter wonderful people in my life. Perhaps I'm just an optimist? Anyway, in visiting the very top of the town's tower, a plaque told of the bombings that took place there during the war, what was lost, what was not, and it invited us to look over the landscape and see and take in how the devastation would have affected the town.

    My relative was visibly angry at the German-perspective on the sense of loss--that the German's had the audacity to think of getting bombed as a bad thing for them. The relative seemed quite satisfied at the success of the bombings because, you know, those bastard Germans were the aggressors in the war!

    And that's true. They were. And I guess that, to some, it's important to keep on twisting those particular splinters of division such that none of us can ever see other humans simply as other humans, lest we forget that we're all of different colors, religions, nationalities, genders, sexual orientations... :-(

    Kurt Vonnegut got it. You get it, Kati, and that's why I love to read your gentle, wonderful, wise and insightful writing. Not to mention your overwhelming talent and way with words. Thank you, again. With genuine and sincere appreciation and admiration...

  16. Mermaid, thanks again, yes my mom was beautiful inside and out and even now, 11 years after her death I still miss her...

    Smaggy, you're making my head grow into the size of a pumpkin!

    I'm sorry your relative felt that way. No one deserves to be at the receiving end of bombs --I'm particularly horrified at the fire bombing of German cities which ultimately didn't help the war and were basically acts of revenge for the London blitz ("you killed our kids, now we'll kill yours and do an even better job" Churchill did oppose those bombings but he was overruled..)

    I did a lot of research on feuding practices --in Corsica of course!-- it's sometimes easier to see the dynamics in a small place and removed in time. I was looking at the 14th through the 16th century, a period when Corsicans were constantly trying to get rid of their Genoese occupants (they only succeded in the 18th and were independant for a brief 14 years before the French took over...). Looking at the reoccurring patterns, I noticed that internal feuds would flare up in the bloodiest way right after Genoese repression flared up following yet another attempt to get them out of the island. Normally feuds used to be mediated and some sort of payment would be accepted instead of killing yet another person. It appears that the aim of feuding was to maintain equality. But the system broke down regularly under outside influence which transformed it into fighting for power and resources --though the most tragic cases I studied seemed to have been powered only by desperate self destructiveness.

    You know the famous Hatfield-McCoy feud in the US started with the civil war and later flared up with strip mining in Apalachia... oops, now I'm really digressing! I just meant the old cliche that violence begets violence and ultimately harms everyone --but I'm no pacifist given how nasty so many members of our species are.

    There was a German flower salesman who used to come sell his flowers in the restaurant. We all made friends with him. He had spent the war in prison for opposing Hitler and was in pretty bad physical shape. He came to see me off at the airport when I had just turned 18 and on my way to the US. He gave me an orchid boutonniere which traveled with me and still does --and you know-- it turned out to be a magical gift that keeps me from thinking of people as ants rather than people... (of course the orchid didn't make it into the US --being an agricultural product and all that, but at that moment I had other concerns: like why did people burst out laughing when I said I was on my way to Kalamazoo...)

  17. PS: your first generation Italian American relative perhaps was protesting too much since Italy was allied with Germany?

  18. Smag the reason you find wonderful people everywhere is because you project your own friendliness and interest in people...

    I suspect that I might be a pessimistic optimist --or the other way around? Perhaps you're too?

  19. Greetings, Kati. I mentioned the heritage, of course, only to point out the irony (that you deftly caught), but, in the end, I guess that I blame only a very few for the atrocities visited upon the many. Do I hold the German people responsible for WWII? No more than I hold the American people responsible for Viet Nam, or the state of things today in Iraq or Afghanistan.

    So often, there are a few people in power who make decisions for the masses (on going to war, on getting themselves blown up, on blowing up others) and yet those making the decisions, and their families, are almost never directly affected (except usually in ways that benefit them).

    So, in that way, I suppose that I am a pacifist. One must be willing to be the first to drop his arms if one genuinely desires peace. That does not imply, however (and this may constitute some inconsistency in my philosophy), that we should disband or fail to train or equip our Army. I would no sooner leave us defenseless than I would strike first in war. But, the decision to deploy and engage that Army in combat should the hardest one a leader ever makes. And it should be one that always, always, always includes, on the front lines, members of his/her own family.