Now and then, I find a puddle on the sidewalk and stare at its reflection. The images are startling in their precision: the outlines of trees, the building facades, the cloud shapes. I feel like I’m observing a photograph, except that the images quiver in the breeze and start to look alive. I stand there mesmerized until the wind picks up speed and the picture blurs. Then I keep walking.
The puddle metaphor is the best I can conjure to describe my time thinking and writing about the Holocaust in Budapest. My grandmother survived the Nazi occupation of the city in 1944, and I traveled to Budapest this summer hoping to make sense of her memories and explore her experience through writing. Since my arrival in Hungary, my efforts to make contact with the past have cycled through clarity and confusion. I am sharpening my perception of my grandmother’s old life, but I am also finding that my most precious (and poetic) discoveries are the hazier ones: those traces of myself I see lingering in the Holocaust’s reflection.
Generational memory is a concept that applies to many post-generation survivors. The idea is that children and grandchildren of survivors are still affected by memories of the original trauma. Survivors pass on the legacy of trauma to their descendants not only through stories and recollections, but also through fears, beliefs, and behaviors very finely integrated into the survivors’ personalities. My grandmother’s severe aversion to cold and hunger, her stern warnings not to trust people, even her love of watching happy children on television shows like The Waltons, are tendencies that I think grew from the distortions of her youth.
As I wander through the sites of my grandmother’s memories, I am beginning to grasp how her identity as a Holocaust survivor has shaded my own fears, beliefs, and behaviors. As I watched the House of Terror Museum’s footage on the Nazi invasion and Russian siege of Budapest—soldiers encircling the city, slowly closing in—I was able to place my visceral fear of feeling trapped. When I visited the convent that sheltered my grandmother during the war, and when the sisters opened their doors to me with the warmth and compassion they had once shown my grandmother, I reaffirmed why empathy is my highest value.
Writing about the Holocaust, I have realized that generational memory is an important access point to the subject matter. The writing techniques I’ve adopted follow the same principle as generational memory: that, while the Holocaust itself is hard to approach, its ripple effects are tangible. As a creative writer, I am hesitant to narrate Holocaust atrocities that I did not experience—events so loaded they can easily feel compromised, capitalized, or dramatized when turned into art. I have come to realize, however, that I can make truthful observations about exploring the Holocaust’s post-generation after-haze.
Prominent Holocaust writers Paul Celan and W.G. Sebald are masters at capturing the Holocaust’s echoes. Paul Celan, a survivor himself, refers to the Holocaust in his poetry with surreal and slanted images: his mother’s hair that never grew white, vicious dice thrown around by a predatory neighbor. W.G. Sebald, the German fiction writer famous for Austerlitz, evokes the Holocaust via a series of implicit metaphors. The author tells the story of a man uncovering his pre-war childhood as a Czech Jew, but Sebald first enters Holocaust territory by describing birds staring from aviaries and classifications of moth species. His tactic allows readers to comprehend the refracted presence of Holocaust in the everyday world.
Guided by these writers, I find my own poetry filling up with images of glass and stars and water: materials onto which other things are reflected; bodies of such vast expanse they become cosmic, even supernatural; substances moving at incomprehensible speeds and threatening to upturn our physical landscape. I rely on these images to describe associations that form like shadows around everyday events: Hungarian schoolchildren lining up outside buildings, policemen clustering near busy streets, yellow trams rattling into the distance.
Of course, for every shadow there is a new reality. Budapest is a 21st century city trying to embrace the present. WiFi cafes have cropped up in the old Jewish ghetto, and the Dohány Street Synagogue welcomes travelers into its ornate, lavender interior. Nazi atrocities are confined to the exhibits of the House of Terror Museum and Holocaust Center, while the city landscape that formed the backdrop of those atrocities lends itself as the setting for happier times.
In the afternoons, I find myself walking alongside other Hungarians at the banks of the Danube. I wander up far enough to see the monument of metal shoes built into the riverside. The sculpture commemorates my grandmother’s friends and neighbors who were shot into the river during the war. I think about these victims: one man’s expression just before the gunshots, another woman’s clothes growing heavy and wet as her body sinks down below the surface. It’s an astonishingly sad thought. I keep looking at the river and trying to imagine, trying to reach back. But then, like the images in the puddle, the connections break, and water is just water, and it keeps flowing.