Several years ago my wife and I visited Budapest during a trip to Europe. The city is one of the many crossroads of history that dot the European landscape. It is a history of constant strife, from pre-Roman to modern times, sweeping back and forth across the region as rival powers rose and fell, the one constant being the suffering inflicted on the people caught in the middle, simply trying to live their lives
One of the worst conflicts to bruise Budapest was World War II, which left much of the city in ruins. On our visit we saw the memorial on the Pest bank of the Danube where Jews were shot and their bodies thrown into the river. Known as Shoes on the Danube, it is a memorable sight.
This was brought back to me recently by a New York Times story about Eva Fahidi, a 90-year-old resident of Budapest. In 1944, at age 18, she was sent to Auschwitz, a horror she survived due in part to the fact the Nazis were killing people so fast that the camp’s crematories couldn’t keep up, and because she was chosen for the hard labor detail. Fahidi lost 49 relatives to the Holocaust, including her father, mother and her 11-year-old sister, last glimpsed on the ramp where the arriving captives were unloaded from the trains and separated into those who would be gassed immediately, and those who could render some service before being gassed.
It occurred to me that during our visit to Budapest we might well have passed Fahidi on the street. It is a bustling, vibrant city, with sidewalks and open-air cafes filled with people. We would have not taken anymore notice of her than of the thousands of other city residents we passed, all of them more or less anonymous to us, never having met them before, and never to meet them again.
Or, perhaps we walked below her apartment, described as sitting high above the city’s main tourist street, where we no doubt passed. She might have been there in her apartment as we walked by, still dealing with the pain, 70 years after the camp was liberated. The Times article quoted her as saying, “Time does not help. It only deepens the feeling that something is missing. One simply learns to live with such trauma.”
And she has learned. Described as still lively at 90, she drank a glass of wine with the reporter, has written a memoir, revisited Auschwitz in 2003 and spoke at a Berlin ceremony in January, hosted by the chancellor of Germany, to commemorate the liberation of the camp, where 1.5 million people died.
As for me, I can’t help but wonder if, had I noticed her on a Budapest sidewalk, would I have seen anything that would have hinted at her past, about the role history pushed to her doorstep, or the burden she carries within herself every waking moment. Perhaps we did pass her; if so, everything that had happened to her remained hidden behind a face like all the others we passed that day. Call it the common face of humanity, which we all wear.