Refugee images summon painful memories
April 13, 1999
Web posted at: 5:27 p.m. EDT (2127 GMT)
By Correspondent Jack Hamann
Note to readers: While this column appears in the Nature section, the events in Kosovo that have so understandably dominated the news, have caused me to reflect on a little girl who knew first hand what it meant to be torn from her home.
(CNN) -- She was 6 years old ... a refugee ... adrift in war-torn Europe, a few steps ahead of a madman bent on ethnic cleansing.
She is my mother.
She traveled with her mother and brother through a landscape littered with desperation and brutality. They told anyone wearing a uniform that my grandfather had abandoned the family. He had, in fact, escaped the Nazi infiltration of Hungary in the mid-1930s, and had now arranged for mom, Uncle Johnny and Nagymama (Hungarian for grandmother) to make the frightful trip across Europe and the Atlantic to Ellis Island.
When I see the images of refugees from Kosovo, I often see single mothers with young children. The women wear the same shapeless dresses and colorful bandanas that I recognize from mom's childhood photos in the town of Tokay, in northern Hungary. When I see those images, I think of my mother.
When mom sees those same images, she looks away.
When I was child, mom often proudly talked of her Hungarian heritage. She shared countless details about growing up poor in New York, amid Jews, Italians, Greeks and Hungarians who shared the fate now feared by tens of thousands of Albanians: they would likely never see their childhood homes again.
But as much as mom willingly talked about the time before and after her emigration, she almost never revealed her memories of the actual trek to America.
Now, with prodding, she haltingly tells me of trains crammed with fellow refugees, of bunks in the wretched bowels of a giant ocean steamer, of the constant waves of nausea as the ship lurched toward America. Not unlike the film "Life is Beautiful," she remembers her mother slipping out hunks of bread from a hiding place in her apron. At night, Nagymama embraced mom and Uncle Johnny on their fetid bunk, with whispers in Hungarian that everything would be all right.
Even when my grandmother had no idea if that were true.
My friend and fellow journalist, Karin Williams, reminds me how tough it is to get Vietnam combat veterans to talk of their memories of war. They aren't being coy, she reminds me, they just want to bury the pain.
In mom's case, the pain included the death of her father when she was 11, and the eventual violent death of her grandmother at the hands of Soviet soldiers during the Hungarian revolt of 1956. Her mother scrubbed floors at Manhattan's Bellevue Hospital for 40 years, only to be beaten and left for dead at age 90 by a petty thug who stole her TV.
But mom learned English, excelled at school, became a teacher and mother, earned her Ph.D. and -- with my dad -- now spends much of her frenetic retirement volunteering to help children and seniors. She buried much of her pain by giving back to others, particularly those who seemed, in some way, to be refugees from normal life.
She survived ... and prospered ... by not dwelling on that which she could not change.
Unlike mom, I can't turn away from the carnage in the Balkans. When I scan the faces of those frightened weary faces in Macedonia and Albania, my eyes often stop at the young girls. I quietly hope they will soon return to their homes. If they never do, I secretly wish ... they could meet my mom.
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