Saturday, April 7, 2018

An Ode to Margit Beke Görög


A new person has appeared in my life. She is no stranger to me, but like the cashier at the supermarket or the bus driver that you greet every day but never really pay attention to, she was there, but not there. Now, suddenly, she has appeared on my doorstep and revealed herself to be so fascinating, that I can hardly contain myself.

I am talking about my maternal grandmother, Margit Beke. How, you may ask can someone who has been dead for 30 years, suddenly appear in someone’s life? This requires some explanation.

Margit and her husband Imre Görög lived in Budapest, Hungary, where I was born. After the end of the Second World War, my parents left with us, their 3 children, to go back to Paris, where they had worked and lived when the war broke out.

I remember my grandmother, not from memories of before we left, but from the few times that she and my grandfather managed to visit us in the West, which was not often since getting a tourist visa during the Communist regime, was difficult and rare.

They were 2 interesting older folk that a young child too busy discovering life, does not spend much time paying attention to, although details about their physical presence remain etched in my mind to this day. The immediate and palpable was what made an impression in my young life and my grandmother’s habit of frequently shrugging her right shoulder as if to adjust her bra-strap is as real today as all these years ago. I remember my grandfather’s gentle, intelligent eyes and his huge mustache, making me wonder about the shape of his invisible mouth. Above all, I remember the way they spoke French to us, with a singsong intonation typical of the Hungarian language. They were both mysterious, friendly strangers that came and then disappeared again. Not staying long enough for us to get attached to, but leaving behind a sense of unsatisfied curiosity.

So you see, we grew up without really knowing our grandparents, neither paternal nor maternal. As millions of other political refugees, we left our country and left extended family behind. Thanks to youth’s resilience, we were no worse for wear, although now, at this late stage in my life, I realize that we missed out on an opportunity to benefit from their formidable intellectual wealth.

Together they wrote, translated and published hundreds of literary works. They spoke more languages than I can count and their knowledge of the Russian classics and of Scandinavian, German, French and English literature is mindboggling.

But this essay is about rediscovering my grandmother Margit, not because she was resurrected from her grave or because I went to an ‘audience’ with a psychic, but because my own mother Ata Kando, had the good sense to have Margit’s latest book ‘Our Story is History’ translated into English.(available soon on Amazon).

It was written in 1982, when Margit was 92 years old and is a memoir of her experiences during the First World War. Whether it is due to a brilliant translation or my grandmother’s incredible literary talent, or a combination of both, it is a fascinating read, impossible to put down.

She masterfully weaves her personal experiences from the perspective of a woman (when women’s suffrage did not exist), as a wife whose husband was captured and sent to a POW camp in Siberia and as a young mother of a 3-year-old daughter who is learning how to walk and talk. The horrors of the ‘War of all Wars’ give her narrative the backbone it deserves.

Every word she writes exhumes passion and truth. For someone who has not lived through 2 world wars, whose youngest daughter did not step on a mine and blew herself up, whose husband was not hungry and freezing 8,000 miles away from home, who, in 1944 was not sent to one of the thousands of Yellow Star Houses, just because she was Jewish, in other words, someone like me, this is a better read than Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago.

I went back and forth between reading this marvelous historical account and Wikipedia to look up names of places and people that are etched in history for all to see. The Russian Revolution, which created the Soviet Union, was in full swing as my grandfather, who had taught himself Russian in the camp, was teaching Russian to fellow-prisoners in exchange for food. There were thousands of POW camps, most of them in Siberia. **

The book contains 3 letters written by my grandfather from the camp. They are written in German since they were not allowed to write in Hungarian. It occurs to me how strange it is that a prisoner of war in the middle of Siberia would write about the philosophies of Trotsky and Rolland. Didn’t he have more pressing things on his mind? Like finding enough food to eat or keeping his toes warm? Granted, he was an officer, but how can even someone with privileges be concerned about writers, no matter how great they are, at a time like that? But then I realized that it is especially at the most horrible moments in one’s life that the world of ideas, the world of the mind serves as a life preserver. As you are in danger of drowning, you cling onto it to keep your sanity. You cling on to an ideal, something you believe in, including your faith. Later in the book, as Margit describes her experience in the ‘House of the Yellow Star’, one of the thousands of ‘ghetto houses’ where Jews were herded like cattle as the first step to being packed off to a concentration camp, she explains:

‘There were a lot of us. We were standing in a line on the stairs, from the doorway up to the first floor, but I didn’t mind. I was glad I could be there. My heart was beating happily and I was thinking of the parable of the Prodigal Son... My dear mother, the Catholic Church, whom I had perfidiously abandoned and for whom I cared not a whit as long as I got along well... yet here she was now, forgiving me and taking me back, welcoming me with a kiss, giving me shoes to wear... I was filled with gratitude, febrile and pulsating... Lord, I was chased by wild beasts of the forest thirsting for my blood... And I found a haven here at Thy altar... For the first time in my life I can understand what the sanctuary of the altar meant in the Middle Ages. I can see a young man, his garments rent, bleeding from multiple wounds, sinking to the ground before a forest chapel's altar and embracing the stone structure with both arms ... Here he is safe! From here he cannot be taken away! ... I felt ashamed in the name of those who belittle the truth of Christ. And I was ashamed of myself.’

My grandfather Imre was a staunch pacifist, who later would submit a manuscript to the United Nations with a lengthy proposal for World Peace. History placed him in the trenches on the Russian front, which put him in a difficult situation. This is how Margit describes his dilemma in one of her letters:

One of your men came to see us in the spring. His story was: "Ah, yes, the lieutenant! He was so calm, even in the trenches he'd be reading his book. Then, ten minutes before the charge, he'd put down his book and weapon, and take his baton, that's how he led the charge." You were not prepared to kill... Heavens above, how deaf I was to your words, when you tried to tell me your thoughts! But perhaps that was more than the Stoics knew. And more distinctive!..

Margit’s account of my grandfather’s imprisonment, her agony over not knowing whether she would every see her husband again and especially her description of him as a the tall, handsome, young man he must have been, in his dashing officer’s uniform is a revelation. Is it the same person as the hunched over person that I remember, shuffling down the hallway of our house in Amsterdam, trying not to wake anyone by opening the bathroom door very very slowly, but shutting it with a bang because he was deaf?

Both my grandparents came from upper class Jewish families with servants and a tip-top education. Margit was homeschooled for the first 3 years of her life and when she finally went to school they asked her what religion she was. This is how she describes her experience:

‘I recalled that when I was eight years old I didn’t know what my religion was. I was home-schooled for the first three years and my father enrolled me in the fourth year of elementary school only in 1888 or 1889. ... What’s your name? they wanted to know and I told them. But then I couldn’t answer their next question, as I couldn't even understand it. What's your religion? Just a minute, I said, I’ll ask my father. And off I ran to him. The issue came up at home as well, and I could tell from my father's voice that he was, in his modest way, very proud of the liberal education he had given us. His generation was struggling with all its might and in any way it could to break down the walls that divided people: by speaking out, by writing, preaching, or teaching by example. And denominational differences were one of those walls. Indeed! Perhaps their humanistic worldview and their faith in science were enough for him and others like him to ensure they were mentally strong and well-balanced.’

Wonderful man, her father… let’s see. Wait a minute! That must be the famous mathematician Beke Mano, MY great grandfather.

My grandparents were soul mates, both in writing and in life, although family lore has it that they were so fiercely stubborn that they managed to fight daily. Whether it was about Dostoevsky or because they disagreed on how their eggs should be cooked, no one knows.

There are passages that reveal how different my grandmother’s time was. Ata (my mother and Margit’s daughter) had a severe ear infection, which did not heal. So it was deemed necessary to have her skull drilled into. It was called ‘trepanning’. Would that not be something that people did in the Middle Ages?

Margit also describes nonchalantly how she caught the Spanish flu, after visiting her mother-in-law who died a week later.

Whoever said that humans are getting smarter got it all wrong. This new person in my life has so much knowledge paired with wisdom that I, her granddaughter seem like an ignorant little pebble in comparison.


In 1944, my grandparents and their parents were sent to one of the thousands of Yellow Star Houses strewn about throughout Budapest. These were marked with a large yellow star on the front door to denote that they were holding Jews. She wrote a series of letters to my brother Tom, who was 3 years old at the time, assuming that she would be sent to a concentration camp and never be able to see him again.

Margit describes how the seed of a dandelion is floating by her window on its way to the courtyard below:

‘And just as I am leaning on that iron balustrade wrestling with these horrific images, what do I suddenly see? From up above, from that little square patch of sky, a small white flake comes floating down. At first it twinkles, because the sun is still shining, then it fades away as it reaches the walls. But it seems to know very well what it wants, as it descends almost straight down, from floor to floor, between the balustrades. Now I can see that it’s not a flake, but a winged seed, you know my dear, with the open “parachute,” like those I showed you in Bogár Street on our walk there not so long ago. This one happened to be on its own. It flitted and fluttered down, and kept disappearing between the grey walls, but I caught sight of it now and again. Where did it come from? How could it have strayed here? From a big tree on the bank of the Danube, or from a dandelion, which we sometimes call a puffball? Should it land on the flagstones it won't be able to lodge itself in the ground and will never turn into a flower. It will be trampled on when we fetch water, or drown at once in the puddle by the standpipe. But the flower from which it came had lots of little seeds, this one’s little brothers and sisters. And one of them may land in the grass in the park, and its tip will drill into soft and fertile soil, and it will grow. Nor should this lonely one be pitied. It had a good life before it strayed into the courtyard of this block. It swelled and ripened, dandled in a dandelion's lap, and then off it flew, fluttering and floating, dancing and twinkling in the sunlight under the blue sky. And it knows, it must know, that many little dandelions will grow and blossom next spring, even if she is trampled to death here in this courtyard of puddles and cobblestones...’

This passage makes me choke. As do many others. Has any mother’s love for her child been better described than ‘The meaning of life is walking alongside me on two tiny legs.’

Margit lived in a world of ideas, that is clear as day. She often compared her life to the books she read and translated. But in those times, taking refuge in the world of the mind was possibly her salvation. Am I now emulating her by taking refuge in her writing, in the past, which I can mold to my liking, since it no longer exists? It is surely different than trying to mold a real life business so it can survive. I can bury my face in her words and not worry about life’s expectations.

She was a master at interweaving her ideas and deep philosophical thoughts into her narrative. In the ‘Letters from the House of the Yellow Star’, she is talking to my 3 year old brother Tom, and through him, she speaks to me and everyone else who will read her words. Her words transform themselves into a long string that binds me to her.

It is true that the past makes the present more complete: it gives it more significance and depth. I wish I could tell my grandmother that she is here, in my living room, chatting with me as I make my morning coffee. Margit, my mother Ata, my daughter Aniko and my grandson Marshall, together we are like stepping-stones in a turbulent river.

I hope that Marshall will read my grandmother's words one day and be as amazed as I am. leave comment here

** Many more prisoners were taken on the Eastern Front than on the Western Front, mostly because many of the soldiers spoke Russian (Serbs and Croats) and were reluctant to kill their enemies, whom they really considered as their brothers.