My uncle Bandi and his father
(my grandfather) Jeno
Ten years ago in 1998, on the eve of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement for the Jewish people, my father was buried in the old Jewish cemetery in Mexico City. As it is customary in the Jewish tradition, a tombstone was placed on his grave before the eleventh month of his death.
Born in Hungary, he left home at a time when there was a climate of increasing anti-Semitism and few job opportunities for young and poor men like him. So, in 1933, at the age of nineteen, he emigrated to Palestine with the aid and support of one of the Zionist youth groups active in the city where he lived. At the request of his parents who feared for his safety, and two years after living in the midst of deadly fights between Arab and Jews, my father contacted a cousin who was already well established in Mexico and asked him to initiate a visa application to enter that country. In 1935, while he waited in Antwerp for his immigration papers for almost a year, he was unable to travel to see his family since entering Hungary meant being drafted into the army. And so, not knowing if he would never see them again, he arrived to the safe shores of Mexico in October, 1936 where he finally settled, married, raised my brother and me, and died at the age of 84.
During the years that followed his departure from home, letter writing became the sole means of communication with his parents and younger brother, until that too became more difficult after 1939 when the war broke out in Europe and the growing economic and social restrictions against the Jews intensified. Correspondence finally ceased after his loved ones were taken and murdered in the concentration camps. There are no graves for them, not even markers where their ashes lay. To honor their memory, I wanted to inscribe their Hebrew names on my fatherís tombstone as I have seen it done on the tombstones of others who had relatives murdered in the Holocaust. When I realized I didnít know my uncleís name, I tracked down Alex, the last surviving cousin of my father who was almost the same age as my uncle would have been. ďAndorĒ, ďIím almost certainĒ said Alex over the phone from his apartment in Los Angeles, ďYes, it was AndorĒ he repeated. Alex did not know the Hebrew name, so Andor is how my uncleís name, along with those of my grandparents Chana and Yermiahu, is inscribed on my fatherís tombstone.
In the years after my fatherís passing, I became interested in finding out more information about his family --- in particular about Andor, of whom I knew only that he had died in a concentration camp a few days before the Allies liberated the camp.
In different visits to my mother in Mexico City, I would take out the box of old photographs that I had looked over so many times when I was a child, and I would scrutinize each photograph, turn it over to see if there was a date or place or any indication of who the subjects of a particular photograph were. I only found one inscribed in Hungarian: Souvenir from your little brother Bandi, November 1933. ďBandi is a term of endearment in Hungarian for AndorĒ my mother said when I showed her the photograph. It was clear then that the childish handwriting on the reverse of the black and white picture that spelled Bandi was Andorís. I looked again at the black and white photograph of the smiling boy of about twelve years, or was he thirteen? He was standing by his father, a tall bold man with a short black moustache, his hands probably crossed behind his back, and his long legs slightly apart in resting position, as if the shoulders that slid down like a slope were divided by his neck. Andor or just Bandi as he signed and probably was known to all, was wearing short pants, long woolen stockings, a jacket below the waist tied with a fabric belt, a shirt and tie, and a head cap, all of which I supposed after long scrutiny of the photograph, must have been a Boy Scout uniform. 1933 was not only when my father left the country but ĖI found out by chance when doing a Google search about Boy Scoutsóthe year Hungary hosted the fourth World Boy Scout Jamboree. Hence the dedication on the back of the photograph and, it is now clear to me, why Bandi posed proudly in his Boy Scout uniform. But what happened to that boy who may have not yet become a bar mitzvah (coming of age according to Jewish Law) when he signed ďBandiĒ in November of 1933?
In one of those visits to my mother I found too, in the drawer by my fatherís night table, many of the letters he received from his family. These letters, to judge by the string that tied them in a little pile, had not been touched since my father first read them. I was eager to learn their contents. In spite of her failing eyesight, my mother offered to read aloud to me in Hungarian as many letters as she could, translating into Spanish what I didnít grasp in the original language. And so, I became acquainted with Bandi. He, I learned from one of the few letters in the pile written by him in 1938, was in his last year of secondary studies, concerned --- as any other adolescent be--- about his future, although not in the same way high school graduates today think about their plans after graduation. He was to graduate from high school in 1938, the same year the Hungarian government introduced several anti-Jewish laws in the country. I had read about those laws that deprived Jews of basic rights, that choked them economically, that reduced their participation in commerce and liberal professions; but it was now very different to hear about them almost directly from the writer. I listened to my motherís Hungarian. At times she paused to make out a word or a letter. The writer spoke about how the first law of 1938 and later on the others of 1939 and 1941 affected someone I was related to.
After 1938, young men like Bandi were looking for a way out of Europe. Bandiís choices were scant and the possibility of joining his brother without the money and connections needed to process immigration papers was null. I could sense the anguish in Bandiís words when he asked what he should do in terms of occupation after graduation. He had no hopes to enter an institution of higher learning due to the Jewish quota imposed in Hungary since 1920. His alternative was to study a trade or to leave the country, or to study a trade and leave Hungary before it was too late. But which trade --he wanted to know from my fatheró would be useful and in demand in a place outside of Hungary?
Although Bandi continued to write about the tightening restrictions against the Hungarian Jews, I did not sense bitterness in his words, nor was there a trace of envy towards his brother. If anything, at one time Bandi advised my father to remain in free Mexico and not even to think about returning to Hungary. I sat in silence, holding back tears, understanding not only the words that my mother repeated in a language somehow comprehensible to me, but feeling Bandiís worries. He had already started taking lessons in Spanish, for he still hoped to join his brother. But my father had arrived in Mexico barely one and a half years earlier and was hardly established. Bandi made no demands; he only wanted to know what kind of preparation to get, so he could be employable if he ever made it to Mexico or out of Hungary at all. But to get anywhere he needed a sponsor who would apply for his visa, pay for the voyage, and vouch for him economically, at least until he found work. My father was not yet in the position to help in that way. As a newcomer in a foreign country with a foreign language yet to learn, he had to take jobs that were underpaid while he waited for a work permit to come through. In the meantime, he still was poor, and he owed money to relatives for his ship fare and his visa. Besides, he was expected to send money he did not have, to help his family which was in a far worse situation than he was.
While I listened to Bandi through my motherís reading, I understood then why I never heard my father talk about his brother. It was painful, too painful for him to remember that Bandi had stayed behind because he, the older brother on whom all hopes were placed, did not have the means to arrange immigration papers for his brother, even when the borders were still open and it would have been time to leave Europe.
My uncle Bandi Grosz
Bandi graduated from high school sometime in April 1938. It was supposed to be a joyous occasion with great expectations for the future, but it became an event fraught with fear. Nevertheless, my mother continued, Bandi still mustered some enthusiasm to pose for a graduation portrait, which later my grandparents proudly enclosed in a letter to my father. I know that photo. For years I looked at it understanding only that it was a portrait of my fatherís brother ,without even knowing that he was only eighteen years old at the time he posed. He certainly looked older in his white shirt and tie and a well-fitted dark suit, adorned with a hanky folded in a triangle sticking half-way from the left upper pocket of his jacket. He posed with his torso slightly turned to the right, holding his head facing the camera. I look for a resemblance to my father, to me. Perhaps the clear eyes that seem to be looking at the person holding the picture and not at the camera; but are they blue eyes like my fatherís or green like mine? I notice, too, the well delineated and sensual lips that remain silent and somehow serious, and for a moment they make me wonder if they ever kissed with passion and desire. It is painful to look at Bandiís photograph, and yet I see it every day. It pops up on my laptopís screen when I am not writing about him and slowly slides away to resurface again after a round of relatives and landscapes come and go.
For some unknown reason, by 1939 only my grandparents wrote about Bandi. I can speculate a little about why this is. I have done it in other occasions where I needed to fill in the gaps for lack of information, whether written or oral. I can only imagine that Bandi spent most of the time looking for jobs or apprenticeships while continuing to study Spanish (did he take up English and Hebrew too?), for he probably had not lost hope of being able to leave Hungary. At dayís end, he must have had little desire to write letters. After all, what else could he add that he had not already said about the dreadful situation of the Jews and how it affected him and his parents?
Beween pauses for a drink of water or a comment about how poor my grandparents were and how much they suffered, my mother continued now reading from my grandmotherís letters. For a while, Bandi found an apprenticeship in a furniture store that allowed him to contribute to the meager family income, which, no doubt, brought some comfort to my grandparents. By that time, they were Ėmy mother readócomplaining bitterly about their little business losing sales to a young Christian who had opened a store near theirs and who, without being subject to food rationing like the Jews, had a better stocked inventory. There is no mention of Bandi joining one of the youth movements that arranged for young Jews to enter Palestine; but if he did or he didnít, he must have been informed of their activities and efforts to help young Jews out of the country. Why, then, didnít he leave? Was he a dutiful son who wouldnít go against his parentsí will? Or was he influenced by the fact that his brother had lived two years in Palestine under harsh conditions and after that time had chosen to leave for Mexico? My grandmother opposed Bandiís idea to go to Palestine; she didnít want to hear of it even if the Jewish Agency or another organization paid for the trip. She probably still remembered the anguish she felt during the two years my father spent in Palestine, and didnít want to go through it once more. Sadly, it was a fatal mistake. But who could have foreseen the deeper anguish and suffering that awaited all of them? By the time, I suppose, they awoke to the urgency of Bandi leaving even for Palestine in 1939, Germany had already invaded Poland, marking the beginning of World War II. The borders were closed and Bandi soon would have to serve in the Hungarian army. If there were any regrets about this --- Bandiís, or my grandmotherís, or both of them --- it is not possible to know.
Bandi must have turned 21 in 1941 --- the same year, I found out, regular mail to and from Hungary stopped. The only way letters could reach their destination was through the Red Cross, after and if they passed censorship. It is no coincidence that the last communication was dated October 1941, the same month and year Bandi was taken to a forced-labor camp.
I was not successful in finding out what happened to Bandi after he was taken into a forced-labor camp. I initiated a trace through the International Red Cross, which contacted me after several months with information about the whereabouts of a Bandi Grosz of about the same age as my uncleís, but who was listed as married. I knew this was not my Bandi. More recently, I was able to interview a man I knew had been together with Bandi during the last years of the war. Mr. R. and Bandi knew each other from their hometown, but were not close friends then. After the war Mr. R. emigrated to Mexico where he met my father and told him he was next to Bandi when he died in the concentration camp a day or two before liberation.
I visited Mr. R. and his wife in the assisted-living facility in New Jersey where they moved to be near their children. I wanted to hear first hand about Bandiís death. Mr. R. murmured rather than spoke and was difficult to understand. I had to lean close to his mouth in an effort to hear every word he enunciated in a very weak voice. He told me he and Bandi had been in the same unit in a forced labor camp and remained together after they were moved to a concentration camp, where Mr. R. was liberated and Bandi died of disease and weakness He added little or no information to what I already knew. However, Mr. R. confirmed on two different occasions something I had already sensed while I listened to my mother read the letters. He told me that Bandi was a very good and intelligent man. I cannot say I fully know Bandi in the sense that one gets to know peopleís character and personality traits; but it certainly brings me solace to know more about him than what my father offered to tell.
I donít know how different my fatherís life would have been without the sadness he carried after he gave up looking for Bandi on the lists of survivors, or after he stopped waiting for a letter with information about his brotherís whereabouts. Nevertheless, I am certain that he would have been pleased to see his parentsí and Bandiís names recorded on his tombstone together with his.
Credits: Text and photographs copyrighted © 2009 by Viviana Grosz-Gluckman. Page design copyrighted © 2009 by Helene Kenvin. Page created by Helene Kenvin. All rights reserved.