Peter Szabo, author of Finding Maria (Chickadee Prince Books, 2017), is a poet and writer.
Interviewed by his wife, Norah McVeigh.
Norah: Finding Maria is a memoir about your friendship with your grandmother, a Hungarian-Jewish immigrant, near the end of her life. Why did you choose to share the story of your family with the public, and what do you think makes it universal? What are you hoping they will learn from your experience and from this story?
Peter: I guess I didn’t really start out writing a book or thinking it was going to be for the public. I think I started writing as a way of capturing, as part of an exploration, a search on my part, and then later a way of coping with some of the difficult things that happened to Maria. But I believe there is something universal in the sense that the Hungarian Holocaust is a shocking story that is not as well-known as some of the other stories in Holocaust history, and so I thought it was important to surface that. And I think there’s something universal in connecting with and elder generation, of passing knowledge, of seeking knowledge around that. And also, I think every family has a story. You may not realize it, and it may seem simple. I hope this will encourage people to find and explore their own stories.
What did you learn from your grandmother that surprised you the most?
When she told me that there were sixty friends and family lost in the Holocaust. I think to that point maybe had been some intimations, but it really came out of the blue.
Why do you think you had never heard about these things before your friendship with Maria?
I don’t know why. There’s two kinds of Holocaust survivors, the kind that tell that story, and the many who shut themselves off from it. They emigrated, and the first husband, the love of her life, passed away, so I think she, and my father, they left a lot behind in Hungary, my father in particular, and they wanted to make new lives here, and didn’t want to really look to the past.
You were surprised to learn that your father had been raised Catholic back in Hungary. Why did your father return to Judaism? After all, he seemed to be rather happy as a Catholic boy!
I think my father returned to Judaism because of my mother. He met my mother, and she came from a Jewish family. Certainly acculturated, her father was very observant, but also had acculturated to America. My father, himself, said he was moving away from Catholicism, and marrying my mom was the final step in that.
I think he loved the Jewish way of questioning. He loved the power of the individual in Judaism to ask questions, to seek answers, and to make interpretations. On the other hand, he did find the pomp and circumstance and the smells of the Catholic service comforting, particularly after his father died. One way to look at it was that he joined the choir at our temple, and that was one way of living out those emotive aspects of religion that he did feel Catholicism fulfilled for him.
This kind of close grandmother/grandson friendship is unfortunately not the norm. What do you think made both you and Maria open to this?
For my part, there was a curiosity that was propelling part of it, and for her part, she had a grandson nearby. I’m not a grandfather yet, but I can imagine there was an appeal to that. And it built in specialness and intensity as our conversations got deeper.
Does your story have a message about the way we treat the elderly in society, and within families?
Yes. Look, it’s easy just because of the flow of life, and the way our society is, but we ignore the elderly. The hardest thing to do is to look at that person in your family and imagine them as a young person, and growing up, and facing the same life stages that you face, because they have. They’re just old now. It’s so important to reach out and try to forge a connection and learn about that person’s life and how they wrestled with some of the choices and difficulties, and joys, in their own lives. It really helps us shape and inform our own identity. It can help us with guideposts for the choices we make in our own lives. So we do, for the most part, leave this tremendous life resource untapped.
After you finished writing this story, were there any questions you wish you could ask her about her life, and about her feelings?
I would have been interested to know more about why she decided to leave Hungary. She talked about being on a blacklist and wanting freedom, but I would have liked a little more nuance around that. When she was here she had an abusive second husband, and the question in my mind is why didn’t she leave him, for good? And also, she had a wonderful store in downtown Budapest, and I always had this fantasy of why she couldn’t set up her own store here. And I know there were a lot of barriers to that, language and money being two large ones, but I’d want to understand more about that. And I would want to understand more about how they survived the Holocaust, and what happened to those family members who were killed. She said sixty friends and family, and if you assume thirty were family members, what happened? And how did she learn of it? How did she feel about it? How did she come to terms with it?
What do you miss most about her?
What I miss most about her is her laughter. She just had this great laugh that lit you up. And the other thing I miss is her life force. This generation is passing. The generation that experienced these great struggles and survived them. Many of them, you meet these people and their lives just burn bright somehow. I miss being around that.
Finding Maria by Peter Szabo will be published by Chickadee Prince Books on May 1, 2017 in trade paperback.