Wednesday, January 04, 2017

In the Dark Room by Susan Faludi



In the summer of 2004 I set out to investigate someone I scarcely knew, my father.


"Haaallo?" my father said, with the protracted enunciation I'd heard so infrequently in recent years, that Magyar cadence that seemed to border on camp. Hallo. As my father liked to note, that telephone salutation was the coinage of Thomas Edison's assistant, Tivadar Puskás, the inventor of the phone exchange, who, as it happened, was Hungarian. "Hallom!" Puskás had shouted when he first picked up the receiver in 1877, Magyar for "I hear you!" Would she?


My sense of who I am, to the degree that I can locate its coordinates, seems to derive from a quality of resistance, a refusal to back down. If it's threatened, I'll assert it. My "identity" has quickened in those very places where it has been most under siege.


In March 1939, more than two years before Hungary even entered the war, the Hungarian government declared Jewish men unfit for military action. . . . Instead, the Hungarian Labor Service System, unique to Hungary, conscripted all male Jews between the ages of twenty and forty-eight (and later, eighteen and forty-eight) into forced work units. . . . Conscripts were deprived of army boots and uniforms (other than yellow armbands identifying them as Jews; white for Jews who were Christian coverts). . . .these men provided the slave labor. . . .marched ahead of the regular troops through mine fields. . . .the laborers died in epidemic numbers, forty-two thousand before the German occupation.

Jewish men, no matter how convincing their false identity papers, risked what was euphemistically known as "trouser inspection" every time they ventured out.


I thought often of Nobel laureate Imre Kertész's assessment of his former home: "Nothing has been worked through, everything is painted over with pretty colors. Budapest is a city without a memory."

In 2003, Hungarian legislators, intent on making their country one of the first post-Communist bloc nations to join the EU, hurried into law the Equal Treatment Act. . . . And, remarkably, "gender identity," which two human-rights NGOs managed to slip into the the legislation. Hungary became the first nation in the world to guarantee equal protection to transgender people. 
      On paper. On the street, any urge to celebrate Hungary's declared tolerance was undercut by fear.


With Trianon, Hungary shed not only landmass but ethnic diversity. A vast portion of the country's minorities--those restive Romanians, Slovaks, Croatians, Ruthenians, Slovenians--now belonged to other nations carved from its borders. . . .With the exception of ethnic Germans, strongly assimilated yet in their own way outliers, the populace had gone from a roiling rainbow quilt to black and white: Magyar and Jew. One way to read the collapse of the Golden Age--it's what happens when a fluid system becomes binary. Magyars now represented 90 percent of the population. There were no longer the only slightly-less-than-half demographic who needed the Jews to be Magyars in order to construct their majority. The Jews of Hungary now served another purpose, as scapegoats for the "amputation" of the nation, the "mutilated motherland."

I can't bear to type some of the passages I have underlined. This chapter is extremely powerful and important for readers.


"The power of editing!" she said. "Waaall, I have to edit everything I do."


"Identity is" -- she deliberated--"it's what society accepts for you. You have to behave in a way that people accept, otherwise you have enemies. That's what I do--and I have no problems." 


I studied my father's face, averted as it so often had been in life. All the years she was alive, she'd sought to settle the question of who she was. Jew or Christian? Hungarian or American? Woman or man? So many oppositions. But as I gazed upon her still body, I thought: there is in the universe only one true divide, one real binary, life and death. Either you are living or you are not. Everything else is molten, malleable.

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