At night I fight back. But the Nazis are again more numerous, and once more I am a child on the run--with forged papers, another identity. Capture is a matter of time. Death is a release --what else can they do to me? Besides, after nearly 40 years, the nightmare is familiar. But will it ever go away? Am I stuck with the memory for the rest of my life?
When will I overcome my anger with my children for leaving food on their plates? Will I stop resenting people who never knew real hunger-- that dull nonstop toothache in the stomach? And, damn it, must a wisp of smoke from the far end of a lovely meadow remind me of the crematoria?
I must not react to individuals I dislike with conjectures about how they might behave if ordered to shoot people. Even for a moment it's ridiculous to think of my best Gentile friends as the kind of people who, if such a need ever arose, would surely hide my family in their attics. I didn't choose them as friends because of that. Or maybe I did. I prefer heroes and other crazies to sober bookkeepers.
As a reporter, 75 percent of my job is listening. Patiently, objectively. Writing a story on the Pentagon shipping back Nazi war art to Bonn is just another assignment. The war is over. I don't wince when crowds of demonstrators shout "Hitler" or "Sieg Heil" at Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon or Ronald Reagan. This is another continent, another generation-- a new world. The swastika is recycled as a punk button; Auschwitz is a metaphor. And Holocaust is a series on TV.
I am as courteous as my colleague, a southern gentleman, when at 9 in the evening, a stranger insists on reading on the telephone long excerpts from her epic poem on Auschwitz. It is in Hungarian, my mother language and hers. In one neat couplet after the other, she mourns her twin babies. I ask about her son who is alive, here and now. She cites her duty to remember--and mine.
I repress an urge to shout, "Shut up, already" in the White House press room when Menachem Begin toasts an American president with a 15- minute lecture on the meaning of the Holocaust. Can the slaughter in Europe of 6 million men, women and children be the factor in deciding policy on the West Bank of the Jordan River? Must every thought of compromise conjure up the ghost of appeasement in Munich?
We all strike our own bargains. In the spring of 1944, in the provincial Hungarian town of Debrecen, my mother offered God a deal: she would keep the Jewish law only if her mother came back alive. My grandmother didn't return from Auschwitz, and my mother stopped saying her prayers and declared the dietary laws null and void. When ordered to wear the six-pointed star of shame, my father, never before much of a Jew, took me for a walk through the neighborhood to parade our pride in the Star of David, made of the finest, brightest golden velvet.
The trick is to remember and to forget, to continue and to start anew. I come from a particular family; I exult in our resemblances. Who would I be without calling the roll of relatives burned, hanged, shot? Each time my wife gave birth, I heard them whisper, "Everything will be all right." I kept thinking that my grandmother prompted my son at his bar mitzvah.
The Talmud rules that if a funeral procession runs into a wedding party, the wedding party has the right of way. I am in both assemblies.