Several times in my life I felt history close down on me like a black shroud. This happened last month in Budapest. Before the opening of a feminist conference in that city I walk around its Jewish quarter. It is an eerie, almost deserted, dilapidated neighbourhood which once must have been teeming with life, kosher restaurants and coffee houses, workshops, ateliers and thousands of people going around their daily lives.
I walk slowly around the beautiful Great Synagogue, to the backyard which is open to the streets, searching for the Tree of Life. This Holocaust-memorial is built by Imre Varga, in the form of an immense metal willow tree. On each of its leaves the name is written of one of the hundreds of thousands of victims of German Nazism. Glistening, silent, bent branches; it is called the Tree of Life. The names seem to glide down into the earth, into endless silence, but are frozen in time upon the drooping boughs. Outside the gate a sign is pasted, 300 meters down the street one can enjoy a kosher piece of pie, Rachel’s favourite recipe. What better way to memorize the dead than by being nourished by a delicious cake?
So I find the tiny coffee house and settle in the small backyard with tea and Rachel’s treat. Heavenly recipe, with walnuts and plum jam. A blackbird sings from a tree in a nearby garden, a girl plays with a tricycle. I open my guide book to see whether it has any more news on this neighbourhood and it is then that the shroud descends.
Thousands of Jews were transported from this ghetto, I read, to camps such as Auschwitz. Some 600.000 Jews died. Transported? Died? Was it a pleasure trip? Did they catch an unfortunate diarrhea? I feel a cold rage rise in me, blocking out the blackbird and the girl. All my senses clenched in a black fury. A genocide like this pasted over by the bland marketing terms of present day mass tourism? I almost choke on the pie. After a few minutes I calm down. History must be respected, the dead honoured, murders acknowledged, the perpetrators named. How do we create a society in which human dignity is the guiding principle if indifference reigns?
I am surprised at these big words and beautiful principles that are still fully alive in me. Seven years of workplans and budgets have not drowned out my idealism and sense of justice. But I must carve out my own small task. And listen to the blackbird. And smile at a playing girl. And finish Rachel’s pie.
Saskia Wieringa is the last director of Aletta, institute of women’s history before it merged with E-Quality. In this series of blogs she writes about life after Aletta.