Queen of the Hungarian Mafia
by Gaby Reich-Anderson
I think my grandmother was Queen of the Hungarian Mafia.
Her apartment in Montreal was Little Budapest, the place to be seen. She served espresso in delicate hand painted cups, and lovingly arranged sugary cakes and pastries on porcelain Herend platters. Ashtrays overflowed, as did information, gossip, and laughter. My sweet, spirited grandmother was the person to know in a large circle of immigrants who fled from hate, war, and political oppression in the 1950s.
These images from my youth remain with me. Beautifully dressed women, men in suits and ties, leaning into the conversation. I know it wasn’t the Mafia, but there was a silent, deafening pact.
At least for the adults. My brother, cousins and I came along in the sixties. We ran about, as kids often do, swept up in the embrace of doting friends and relatives. We were witnesses in these gatherings, future historians whose innocence kept us from comprehending the gratitude those in attendance must have felt for being there. For still being alive.
The chatter, the smell of cigarettes, and the sweetness of a sugar cube dipped in strong coffee on my tongue, colored my personality and saturated my mind with memories.
Their strength, humor and unimaginable pain were the building blocks of everything I am today, and their history sticks to my gut, existing like a layer of emotion under my skin. All of my family, most of them long gone, are forever with me.
As an author, this lovely and tragic past bleeds into my writing. I can’t stop it. I don’t want to. But I have a problem.
Earlier this year, I wrote a serious piece about the misery my mom lived through as a survivor of The Holocaust. The words spilled out of me. But then I hit a wall. One built from the guilt of exploiting or monetizing the misfortune of others. The shame was so overwhelming I deleted the entire work.
Was it the right thing to do? These stories are incredible, terrible. They’re of my grandmother negotiating with a rabbi about the list of women and children, her children, scheduled to be on the train to Auschwitz. About my great-uncle in a prison camp, surviving only because he used ice and snow to clean himself. And tales of my dad hiding in cellars, while the Nazis killed my grandfather for helping two elderly Jewish men walking too slowly in the back of a line.
So what to do? Tuck these tales away or share them by getting the word out and hoping like hell for humanity to bend toward kindness and tolerance instead of hate, power, and greed?
The anxious side of me says to leave it alone, because we’ve all heard so many of these accounts. Does any declaration exist to make the world a better place or cast more shade on how vile it is to discriminate and kill based on, well… anything?
The other side of me, the one fighting to be brave,
thinks back to when I was a kid. Listening, transfixed, as my relatives
recounted the horrors and triumphs they’d lived through. Were those stories for
my ears only, or were they telling me so I can make sure it doesn’t happen
again? So I can tell you.
* * * * *
Gaby Reich-Anderson is a first-generation Hungarian Canadian. At age twelve, she became a U.S. citizen, and a hybrid of the tight-knit immigrant community in Montreal, Quebec, and the American Dream. At The University of Denver, she studied business administration, creative writing, and business law. She currently lives in metro Atlanta, where she is employed as a practice consultant for behavioral health providers. Her hobbies are hanging out with her family, writing, and giving the dogs flea baths. She's been a member of The Atlanta Writers Club and Roswell Critique Group since 2011.