This year marks the 60th Anniversary of the Hungarian Revolution. It erupted October 23, 1956 and was brutally suppressed by Soviet troops on November 4th. I escaped with my family to Austria a few weeks later. Within three months, 200,000 Hungarians from a country of 10 million had fled to the West. Many did not make it, shot on the spot or imprisoned.
After months spent in refugee camps and ten treacherous, nauseous days on the high seas, we spotted the Statue of Liberty through the dense fog. We had arrived safely to America. It was February 15, 1957.
Despite what happened during the Second World War, when the Hungarian Jews were deported to death camps from which few returned, my survivor parents were not embittered and did not reject their Hungarian heritage. Upon liberation in 1945, they returned to their hometown of Tokaj, restarted their lives, got married, had my brother Henry and me. I had a joyful childhood, started piano at age 4, learned to read Hebrew, then Hungarian. Our garden was filled with beautiful flowers, fruits and vegetables, and dozens of plum trees.
I turned seven a few months after we arrived in America. We were processed at Camp Kilmer, New Jersey, and lived in Linden then Rahway before moving to California the following year. We quickly learned English and continued to speak Hungarian at home, continued our observant Jewish life, and as before, enjoyed delicious mákos and dios sütemény, the mouth watering poppy seed and walnut pastries my mother always baked. Traditionally embroidered pillows graced our couch and white crocheted lace covered our dining room table. I continued studying classical piano and played nostalgic Hungarian folk songs,accompanying my father and brother on violin while my mother sang the lyrics, always noting that hers was not the beautiful voice of her mother’s.
With this year’s 60th Anniversary of the Revolution, I find myself thinking just how Hungarian I feel. My house is adorned with embroidered pillows and all things lace, and I crochet and embroider colorful Kalocsa patterns. I love speaking the language, and come alive when I hear Hungarian, joining right in. Though I certainly express myself better in English, I feel more authentic speaking Hungarian. Not having experienced Hungarian anti-Semitism or the oppressive Communist regime, I have the luxury to enjoy the best of my Hungarian legacy.
But most of all, with this Anniversary comes an overwhelming feeling of gratitude for the loving and wise Irénke néni who set the foundation for my life.
Everyone in my hometown of Tokaj, now a World Heritage site for its centuries old distinctive viticulture tradition, loved Irénke néni. Born Irén Újházi in Tokaj in 1903, she married and was known formally as Mrs. Béla Reményfi. Irénke néni was everyone’s beloved music teacher. In retrospect, she was the beloved grandmother I never had. My maternal grandparents were sent directly to the gas chambers of Auschwitz by the notorious Dr. Mengele, who deemed them too old for work at 64. My paternal grandparents died before the Holocaust. I’m grateful they had a chance to live and die according to the natural circle of life.
I think about Irénke néni when I play each day, the piano central to my life, not a professional pursuit, but at my very core. Irénke néni made me feel special, took such loving interest in me, told me how talented I was. At my first concert at age 5, my brother remembers Irénke néni introducing me with, “Little Mártika proves that you don’t have to be reading yet to play the piano so well.” I imagine she gave her gift of attention and encouragement to all her students. None of us had a piano at home and we sat on her wooden
living room floor listening to each other’s lessons with rapt attention.
She was already in her late 80s and vibrant as ever when on a visit in 1991 she had a special request for my brother Henry and me. “I want you to get Veracini’s Largo for Violin and Piano and record it on audiotape so that it can be played at my funeral.” My heart stopped. What an honor she bestowed on us. I found the music, started practicing, taped the piano track multiple times, and sent the audiotape to my brother across the country to practice with.
“Have you recorded the Veracini yet?” she asked at our next visit a few years later. “No! We’re still practicing, so you can’t die yet!” I exclaimed. She laughed and knew how much we loved her. My brother received a private lesson six months later when he was next in Tokaj. By then she was living in the Old Age Home, and in her green robe animatedly made musical suggestions as my brother played. The video ends with the tape running out mid-phrase, foreshadowing what was to come.
A year later, just before leaving for the airport for our next visit, I grabbed my brother while our kids finished packing in the next room. “We’re pushing our luck. She’s not getting any younger. Let’s record it now.” We did one take and gave her the tape.
Later that year in 1996, the call came. Tokaj’s retired school superintendent and my brother were on the line. “Irénke néni has died. Her funeral will be tomorrow,” he told us. “Do you know about the tape?” I asked softly, hoping Irénke néni’s wish would come true. “Yes, it will play at 10 tomorrow morning to begin the funeral. She had given it to me a while ago. “ We were sorry there was no time for us to be there, but relieved and grateful our playing she so patiently fostered would be.
My brother has Irénke néni’s old violin. She told him it was her own teacher’s violin from many years ago.Dad said that the man had been a primas (lead violinist) in Tokaj with his own little gypsy band. Irénke néni’s violin sounds exquisite when Henry and I play Hungarian folks songs together.
I have the two beautifully illustrated pedagogical books she created to teach her students. “I won’t be taking on beginners now,” she said years prior. “I want you to have them.” Later she would give me some of her classical piano scores that had more tape than notes holding the pages together, used for decades to bring music and love into the lives of many.
We escaped from Hungary in the middle of that cold December night in 1956 telling no one in order to protect them. I had a piano lesson that Friday morning, the last time I would see Irénke néni for 17 years.The minute I walked into her house again in the summer of 1973, a wave of recognition hit me and pulled me to that wooden floor I knew so well. I had come home, Tokaj and Irénke néni always central in my heart.
Marta Fuchs, MLS, MFT is the author of Legacy of Rescue: A Daughter’s Tribute. She is a Professional Speaker and Psychotherapist. Her website is www.MartaFuchs.com.
cMarta Fuchs 2016