My Father Is Dying

by David Merkler (Barcelona, Spain)

My father is dying and I don’t know how to handle it. My father is dying and I don’t believe in G-d. My father is dying and I’m having difficulty seeing justice in the world.

My father was born in Budapest on 6th January 1933. On the 30th January Hitler came to power. I was born on the outskirts of London, and raised in a very comfortable middle-class neighbourhood of London, but I am a Hungarian Jew. A Hungarian Jew who doesn’t speak Hungarian and has hardly visited the country, but my temperament and spirit are there in eastern Europe on the banks of the Danube. We grew up without knowing anything about the Holocaust. The only thing I knew was that my Uncle and Grandfather had died in the war. The details were sketchy, but I knew I was afraid of Germans. We had a beautiful house, a 3 storey detached house, but nothing in it. All my friends were surprised. When they came to visit us, our million pound house was furnished with sticks of furniture and second hand items. Even we children were clothed in second hand garments. Other memories stay with me. I marveled as my father would “weld” spent bars of soap onto new bars of freshly opened soap. How did he do it? What was the trick? The trick was not to waste anything. And food, of course. Nothing could be thrown away. I sat at the dinner table until my food was finished. I didn’t like the food. Hard luck. I sat at the table for half an hour or longer after dinner had finished until my plate was empty. Rules of the house.

And looking back on this regime, I finally began to understand what had been happening when I was well into my thirties. We were always in a ready state to move, to flee the country. What if the Hungarian Fascists (the Arrow Cross) took over the leafy Wimbledon suburbs of London? What if Eichmann marched in again on March 19 with a contingent of SS? You could never be too safe. If they came, we wouldn’t wait around this time. Sell the house and on to the next country, wherever that would take us.

My father is dying and I can’t understand why. If G-d exists, surely the survivors should be allowed to continue surviving. If virtually my entire father’s family was murdered, worked to death, died of starvation in the Budapest ghetto or committed suicide, then my father must have been a statistical mistake. (Correction: my father stated that, in fact, most of those who died in the ghetto died of thirst. Nuances of an agonizing death. What would you prefer? Starvation or dying of thirst?) Yes, by 1944 they knew where they were going. They weren’t going to be resettled in those exquisite cattle trucks or forcibly marched on a school excursion. So my great great uncle Sandor Feuermann and his wife Mitzi committed suicide. They chose to cheat the hangmen in their own way.

I have just read Suzanna Eibuszyc [http://tinyurl.com/3rl2ktf]. She states “that in every survivor’s family, one child is unconsciously chosen to be a ‘memorial candle,’ to carry on the mourning and to dedicate his or her life to the memory of the Shoah.” So now I understand why I was placed on this earth. My Argentinian born psychologist has told me to try to learn to “bear” the burden and not “suffer” the burden. Semantically it makes sense, but in practise? I walk down Barcelona’s sunny streets and I cry. I cry every week and sometimes every day for the 16 victims of my grandmother’s family (direct and in-laws) and for all the Merklers who were deported from Batya and Kalosca. All German speakers at some stage with German surnames. Feuermann, Haas, Merkler, Glück. My 8 year old son Alexander asks me: If we have a German surname, why did the Germans kill the Jews? Answers on postcard please addressed to Alexander Merkler, aged 8, Gelida, Barcelona, Spain.

My father is dying and probably the only person who cares is me. I am such an egoist. My link with the old country, the old language, with a witness to the atrocities of another age, is leaving me. My father’s memories are the memories of a child survivor. The shame of having to put on the star of David, the shame of being called a filthy Jew, the guilt of remembering stealing bread from a woman at night in the ghetto, the excitement of watching films though a crack in the wall at a cinema where Jews weren’t allowed to go. My father is dying. Hungary paid USD 50 to my father in compensation for the murder of his brother and USD 80 for the murder of his father. They recognized their collaboration with the Germans in the murder of the Jews. Post-communist Hungary didn’t have much money to pay out. Keep your money. It doesn’t help.

As I grow up, my father shares more and more information about what actually happened. When his mother dies, he delves back into the past, divorces my mother, marries a Hungarian woman with a large family and starts research work on his family. The work is gleaned into a book. A tribute to that lost lifestyle and those who lost their lives. I am educated in details of the Holocaust that most people will never know about. Hungary was the last country whose Jewish population was exterminated and Budapest the last city to be “cleansed,” but they didn’t have time to finish the job, not quite. They murdered my grandfather in March 1945, they murdered my uncle in April/May 1945, but they couldn’t destroy all the evidence this time, the personal possessions, the photos, the intervention of the neutral powers, the liberating forces. My father was liberated by the Soviets. My uncle? Did he pass away before or after Gunskirchen camp was liberated by US forces? Did he breathe a moment of freedom before passing away at 16? Peter murdered at the age of 16 far from home, far from his parents. G-d doesn’t exist. I am telling you G-d doesn’t exist. Stop praying. To put it in my grandmother’s words. “When you are dead, you are rotting meat.” And she knew what she was talking about.

My grandmother died in 1984 at the age of 80. We visited her house every Saturday until I went to University. I don’t know how she bore the burden. She lost her husband, her elder son, her sister, her nephew and her best friend, but she was unrelentingly tough. Her pain was everywhere, but she was so strong. When she finally decided the time had come to end it all, she decided to take an overdose of sleeping pills. We found her on the floor of her kitchen on several occasions still conscious. She was simply too physically tough. Her body wouldn’t obey her and give in. My father wants to be buried with his mother. She is his hero. She had escaped to Britain. She enlisted in the US Army, worked as a translator translating correspondence going into and out of Germany for the Americans in their efforts to catch Nazis at the end of the war. My grandmother went into communist occupied Hungary, found my father in an orphanage, bribed the Soviet border guards and took him out. Only 3000 DPs (the initials of that pleasant British euphemism stand for Displaced Persons) or Jewish survivors were allowed into Britain because the British were quite sick of the “Yids” at this stage blowing up their troops and the like in British Mandated Palestine.

So I discover I am a minority three times. I am a Jew. My father is an immigrant, whereas almost all the Yids I know in Britain are second generation, and, finally, I discover that my father Andrew (in fact András) had had the gall to cheat death and was placed in a Swiss safe house towards the end of the war. So what does that make me? My mother’s family were from the Russian empire and my father’s family from the Austro-Hungarian empire. Simple, but according to the new map of Europe I am a Hungarian, Slovakian, Polish, Bielorussian Jew with a German surname born in England living in Spain. My father told me more recently that we are ethnic Germans because the first Merklers came down the Danube from Germany to Hungary in the 17th century. Tracing back through my paternal grandmother’s line, we have changed mother tongue four times in five generations from German to Hungarian to English to Spanish/Catalan. Motke always said, “More Askenazi than David isn’t possible.”

My father is dying and doesn’t know where he wants to be buried. A very untypical dilemma. Should he be buried in Budapest’s Jewish cemetery where we have plots purchased for life or death (or until the next Holocaust when it is decided to dig up the remains of the Jews and burn their bones as there aren’t enough Jews alive to murder in Europe any more), or should he be buried with his mother on the outskirts of London? The only problem is that the London burial plot has to be renewed after 40 years, and will I take care of his grave if I am living in Spain? Or maybe he should be buried in Spain? So my father discusses the options over the phone coming to the conclusion that he should have his mother dug up and buried with him in Budapest or Barcelona. Sounds like a sight-seeing tour of Europe. Where shall we go–London, Budapest or Barcelona? But in this case it’s deadly serious.

My scars will never go away and I wasn’t even there, but I feel I was there. My family were murdered and I know all the details of their last moments because of testimonies, because of my father’s work, historical records, because I have their photos, even passports, even personal possessions. My father went to Kalosca. The main employer of Kalosca was Merkler Lajos, and his paprika mill was the biggest in Hungary. When they came to take him away, nobody cared that he had created more employment and wealth for everybody in that town or that he was married to a non-Jew. They took him away with the other Jews and they pillaged and stole everything. My father visited the town several years ago. When they discovered he was a Merkler, one of the old men returned to him an ivory letter opener without saying  a word. A symbol of opulence in the 1940s when not everybody could afford such an item. The guilt had got to him and he wanted to return the stolen goods 60 years later. I have the letter opener in my study. Another scar, but this time visible.

My father is dying and the doctors don’t know what he’s got. He’s been sweating at night for a year and has lost 10kg (22lbs). The symptoms are the same he had after the war when he contracted tuberculosis. Tuberculosis, the disease of the ghettos, thriving on overcrowded, unsanitary living conditions, attacking the undernourished whose defenses are weak. The virus stays dormant in your body and as your defenses get weaker it gets stronger. My grandmother died at 80. My father will be 79 next January 2012.

So you see Hitler will finally get what he wants. Another Jewish corpse will be added to the Jewish graveyard called Europe.

David Merkler wrote this piece in between managing two small businesses, one a language school, the other a remodeling business. He was born and grew up in London, England  and now lives in Gelida, outside Barcelona, Spain, with his partner, Valeria. He has two sons, Joel and Alexander, from his first marriage. You can reach him at davidmerkler@languagesbarcelona.com

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1 Comment

Filed under European Jewry, Jewish identity

One response to “My Father Is Dying

  1. Gail Weinstein Halverson

    Very meaningful to read. I am going to be in Kalosca for a day later this month. I always read up a bit on the current or vanished Jewish community where ever I travel. Thank you for educating me with your oral history.

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