diary of a single father ; At the back of the smoky room, beyond the gypsy violinists and the plump singer, I noticed a menorah standing upon a side-board, symbol of who- knows-what secret history
Saturday 14 December 1996
"Even so, " I say, "don't you find something distasteful in this colonisation of public spaces? Don't you find this mania for display unhealthy? Doesn't it turn mourning into a cliche?" "So what?" says my travelling companion. "the purpose is to express feeling, not impress a passing critic."
"Did you have a good time?" asks Seth. "Junior Wells was great," I say, "even though he wore a toupee and kept forgetting the words. In fact, it didn't matter. The man obviously knows how to deal with pain." Seth and I tend to go our own ways on Saturday nights, though he is still happy to accompany me on my occasional jaunts abroad. So when an invitation arrived from our friend, Professor Kenez, we both caught the next available flight to Budapest.
Peter and Penny Kenez live in California, Seth's birthplace, but were briefly resident in Hungary, Peter's native land. Their temporary home was a few yards from the Danube, where we promenaded as the sun descended. Later we celebrated our arrival at a posh restaurant, called Poski, which served a piquant stew of paprika and catfish. At the back of the smoky room, beyond the gypsy violinists and the plump singer, I noticed a menorah standing upon a side-board, symbol of who-knows-what secret history.
After scoffing an order of strudel and sundaes at the Cafe Mozart on Erzebet korut we strolled the short distance to No 26. Peter led us through a passageway that opened upon the interior courtyard of a five-storey building, housing some 40 apartments. It was cream-coloured, with colonnaded balconies and classical ornamentation, the natural habitat of the middle class. Peter pointed to rooms on the fourth floor. "That's where my grandparents lived," he said, "that's where I spent the last years of the war with my mother." Being a shy man he added little more. I can only fill in the details because I have read his brilliant memoir, Varieties of Fear.
By 1944 there were 42 people crammed into the apartment, and a yellow star above the gate. The children were not allowed out, so they ran along the balconies, and up and down the stairs, shouting their heads off. Could Peter still hear the cries, echoing through the silent afternoon? Or was he remembering a melancholy anniversary, that of October 1944 (after Germany had invaded its erstwhile ally), when home-grown Nazis, given the green- light by the invading Germans,had herded the residents of No 26 into this very courtyard and marched them to the nearby synagogue (still the largest in Europe) where they awaited their fate. In fact they were returned, without explanation, several days later. During the subsequent winter the army converted part of the building to a hospital. Since it was no longer possible to bury corpses, bodies and severed limbs accumulated where we were presently standing. Luckily it was a cold winter. Peter lived to tell the tale. How to commemorate those who didn't, without turning Budapest into Kitsch City?
Although Seth and I go our separate ways on Saturday nights, we spend the morning together. I drive him to the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St John's Wood (picking up my father en route), where he attends Religion School. And so we are able to check out Anish Kapoor's newly erected monolith. "Does the world really need another Holocaust memorial?" asks my innocent boy. "Certainly," I reply, "they make people feel better. A man visits one of them. Okay, he thinks, I shouldn't have screwed my wife's best friend, but compared to what those bastards did to us it was a good deed. I call this Dr Sinclair's Law of Relativity."
I see at once that this is different. Here you are not faced with evidence of depravity, but with your own image. The looking glass is a jet black concavity, scooped from a massive block of grey limestone, and polished till it shines. This rectangular void, framed by the indifferent rock, inverts the image, turns the viewer into a denizen of a world turned upside- down. The memorial is an invitation to remember, but it refuses to impose a collective act of remembrance. It requires the participation of the visitor. There is more. A window in the synagogue wall reveals that the memorial has been mounted opposite the ark, the holy of holies, as though the latter were being reflected in a darkened glass. Whereas the ark is filled with scrolls containing divine revelation, the memorial is as empty as a cenotaph. Thus the worshippers stand balanced between two polarities; between the positive word of God, and the negative deeds of man. On the other hand, it offers a generous niche, perfect for a vase of lilies
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