Like Vienna, Budapest is an amazingly beautiful city. Stunning architecture, castles and churches stand strong along the banks of the Danube, glistening in the low light of the afternoon.
At sunset every evening, the chain bridge – the most spectacular of the city’s nine bridges, connecting the once independent cities of Buda and Pest, and the Buda castle — towering above the skyline, are both warmly lit, casting a dramatic glow across the waters beneath.
The first night we arrived, we dined at the Spoon Café – a boat/restaurant on the Danube that allows you to dine on the water, while taking in the majestic glory of the scene. It is truly reminiscent of a world long past.
However, in contrast to Vienna’s seeming perfection, there is something a little edgy about Budapest. It’s a little tougher. A little stronger. A little more honest, perhaps? You can feel the stories lying just beneath the surface of the city’s glowing beauty. While I had learned a bit about Budapest’s history prior to our trip, I wasn’t expecting the story I would later tell that weekend to have such a profound impact. On me, or my son.
The next night we ate at Spinoza — a well-known eatery in the Jewish section of the city. Dining on traditional Hungarian goulash, I don’t know if it was the blood red walls, the smoke-worn paintings, the old, gray man sitting wistfully and knowingly at the bar, but I felt myself transported to another place and time. Far away from the picturesque castles, the lighted bridge, the awe-inspiring architecture, here we were – tucked into this tiny bistro, located in a winding, dark alleyway. It had rained most of the day, and the grim street curved unknowingly along untouched buildings, one hanging on to the next, together drifting off into a foggy mist. I heard a little girl’s laugh, which sounded a million miles away. My feeling of fullness and warmth dissipated, as I began to picture the people, and children, who had once lived, and dined, and walked, and laughed in these very same streets. That is, until they were no longer allowed to do so.
Hand-in-hand with my older son, we crossed the alley, planning a gelato stop at the central square. Along the way, we passed a small monument of a man kneeling down, head hung low. I paused.
”What does it say, mommy?” he asked. I didn’t need to go closer. I knew it was a monument to the hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews killed during WWII. I walked forward anyway. For some inexplicable reason, I wanted to touch the statue.
To be honest, I was not prepared – or necessarily wanted – to discuss either WWII or the Holocaust with my just turned 7-year old. But now, both history and a curious little boy stared me directly in the eye. The little boy expected answers; history expected I wouldn’t let her down.
Unlike America, in Europe, there are thousands of years of history staring you in the face, everywhere you look. Refusing to be ignored, and absolutely unapologetic about how, when, and where you may encounter her. And just like a 7 year old, she demands explanation. As a parent, at your best, you can feel caught off-guard. At your worst, you are confused and torn about how to explain what (in this case) is an absolute atrocity. Either way, the situation is present. So you must be as well.
I have read many history books on WWII and the Holocaust. I was aware that nearly a half a million Hungarian Jews were sent to concentration camps, in less than two months. Most were sent to Auschwitz, only a couple hours away. The majority were killed. After our move to Vienna, I became more interested in the uprising, or supposed reasoning behind the war. I knew all about the reparations demanded by the Allies after WWI, seen by many as a chief catalyst for the second war, as people starved financially, physically, and emotionally. I could have a long (and probably boring) discussion about the various peace agreements. All of that said, I was still at a loss for real answers about how such evil could catch such fervent fire. I knew my son would have the same question. I had been moved to tears by some of the stories of the Holocaust survivors. I feared my son would shed the same tears. I knew I was capable of having an adult conversation about the war, and the Holocaust. But, a conversation with a child – who like most children – would be sure to ask the plain, basic facts, the hardest truths. I didn’t know if I was prepared for that.
And so the conversation began.
What was WWII? How did it start? Who started it? What was the Holocaust? Why did they kill Jews? Where did they go? What happened to their toys? What is a ghetto? What is a concentration camp? How many were there? Young and old people? What’s a dictator? Where was Hitler born? Why didn’t people just pretend they weren’t Jewish? Would you hide Jewish families? Could they sleep in my room? Was Anne Frank’s family nice? Did the family that hid her get in trouble? Why didn’t people say killing Jews was wrong? Whose side was America on? Who else was against them? Why didn’t America get involved sooner? Has America ever done anything like that?
I answered every question as best I could. While my reading and knowledge provided me – and thus my son – with a good amount of information, I knew I would never have what he was really looking for. A rational reason. An answer why. I didn’t have it for myself. And as the saying goes, I don’t think one can ever really know what is in someone else’s mind, or heart, when it comes to love, or war.
My son was quiet for a minute. I watched him eyeing his 3-year old brother – who was busy jumping from puddle to puddle.
“Did brothers stay together?” he quivered.
I felt the tears well up in my eyes, and a pit grow deep in my stomach. I swallowed hard, and summoned my courage. Honestly, I thought about shielding him with a little white lie. But as I looked into his eyes, I knew they wouldn’t let me.
“No, buddy. Not always.”
His eyes started to fill as well, before the silence ballooned between us. Still walking hand-in-hand, I’m not sure who held on tighter. Nothing much else was said that night. It didn’t need to be. We walked home, while his ice cream cone dripped down his hand. I didn’t tell him to wipe it up.
We finally reached the hotel and I tucked both boys into bed. I checked on them no less than four times that night, worried my older son would have nightmares. Instead, each time I found him sleeping soundly. I, on the other hand, tossed and turned for hours.
The night falls heavy on a mother unsure of herself. Had I told him too much? Did I do the right thing? Why didn’t I know more? I wondered how I could be a better parent? More prepared? A better person? The mom that my boys expected of me? Mostly, I lay awake with thoughts about the hundreds of thousands of Hungarian mothers who had to have much harder conversations with their sons than I ever would. How could a mother go on, after watching her son being taken away simply because of her family’s faith in and respect toward a God? The sheer agony was incomprehensible to me. I was the one who had the nightmares.
As we boarded the train the next day, on our way to see the Buda castle, my son’s questions started again. This time, they expanded well beyond WWII and the Holocaust. Instead of exploring the beauty that lay just above us, we sat on a stone wall, eating peanuts, completely absorbed in a discussion about America, George Bush, Obama, Ukraine, Austria, and Lego rocket fighters.
Then I watched him throw peanuts to the pigeons. And that’s the moment I fell in love with Budapest. The moment I realized that — through our conversations — he and I had both become a little tougher. A little stronger. And perhaps, a little more honest.