The Difficult Path of Dealing with the Past

Who have we chosen at the last living library event? We are ready, excited and already prepared ourselves to learn a lot about a topic we don’t deal with on a daily basis.

In our previous article we gave an insight to the living library concept itself and the Kazinczy Living Library held in the most popular ruin pub of Budapest, Szimpla Kert. Now we turn the page, and go on with the first story.


Photo: Mátyás Szöllősi

We choose Anna, “the Jewish girl” who is the daughter of two Holocaust survivors as our first book. After the introduction, we go to the artistic designed backyard in which the reading area is located. We sit down together with Anna and Eszter, who will be the translator for this session. Usually, the first question the book asks the readers is whether they should start with their story or the readers already have any questions based on the summary. And most of the times it turns out that the books start telling their stories first – the readers usually like to ask within the conversation.

Anna’s parents were very young when the Shoah (the Hebrew expression for Holocaust) happened during the Second World War. Anna’s grandparents partly survived it. I asked her how her parents dealt with this horrible experience and whether they tried to talk with her about it. I cannot even imagine how hard it must be to share such an experience even with your closest relatives. She told that her father never opened up to her, but he told his feelings to her mother.

Anna grew up in Budapest and experienced the time in the Communist era after WWII. In this era the freedom of religion was massively suppressed and it was not really possible to openly practice most of the religions and religious traditions. Because the religion was such a taboo, she did not have to face anti-Jewish hostility whatsoever. Between 1984-88 she attended the only Jewish secondary school, named after Anne Frank.

During the Communist time, there weren’t a lot of spare time activities in which young people could express what they feel and have fun. That’s the reason Anna decided to go to a Hungarian folk dance house with a guy she fell in love with. While the feelings for the man faded, her love for the folk dance flourished. “I lost one love, but gained another”.


Photo: Mátyás Szöllősi

In school she started to wear traditional Hungarian clothes and was seen as the Hungarian girl while in the dance houses she always remained the “Jewish girl”. Anna is really open towards cultural differences and likes to practice what she loves no matter the obstacles. She also celebrates Christmas and Easter even though she is not a Christian, for her it is more about the act of being together and sharing traditions with friends. “I tried to be a religious Jew in my childhood, but it didn’t work out.” Now she doesn’t believe in God, she is somewhat a person between atheist and agnostic. But even though she is not religious, she still considers herself as a Jewish person – not in the religious, but more in the cultural way. She respects all religions and she is married to a Christian. Her youngest child got baptized because her husband wanted it and now her mother-in-law tries to influence the child to raise up like a Christian. Anna doesn’t like this approach, and thinks that the best would be if the child chooses alone.

When it comes to the acceptance of Jews after the communism it was a two- edged sword for herself with the freedom of religion there was also a rise in anti-Jewish paroles in the daily life. And especially nowadays, sometimes she has some bad feelings about people not willing to accept others.

After sharing and discussing all those interesting topics with us, we came to an important question concerning all those bad decisions and horrible things your ancestors might have done. How do you deal with the past individually and as a society?


Photo: Mátyás Szöllősi

Coping with the past is the key word for which Anna also has her own personal story to share. Once in a living library she shared her story including the past of her parents and a visitor started crying out loud. He could not understand, why people want him to think of his grandparents in a bad way. He felt responsible for their actions in some way and just wanted to see them as normal, good people. But not as the ones who were involved in the Arrow Cross Party or were also responsible for the Holocaust.

Anna reacted in a way you might not expect. She told him, he should not feel guilty for the sins of his grandparents. “Those are not your sins, I offer you my shoulder you can talk about it with me and cry, but you should not feel guilty.” She stated that her family has also not always done things right and her ancestors have probably fought in some war and murdered for the wrong side.

Hungary still didn’t catch up with this part of the history. The fact that many people don’t want to lose the beautiful happy picture of their grandparents is one reason why the Second World War never got dealt with accordingly. This example shows that the coping with the past has to take place on two levels mainly: the personal level and in the bigger picture, in the society. Only if you don’t close your eyes of the truth you will eventually find peace, but if you always look back with closed eyes you will be shocked when you start opening them just a little bit.


Photo: Mátyás Szöllősi

Impressed and touched we left the table, said goodbye and thanked Anna, who could get her well-deserved coffee now. We all moved away with more knowledge about the Jewish culture and astonished minds about the approach of Anna towards life in general. We grabbed a drink and were patiently waiting for our next and last book for today.

What did you think about Anna’s story and whom would you have chosen? We will flip to the next page very soon.

Felix Müller
EVS volunteer, Hungarian Charity Service of the Order of Malta