At sunset every evening, the chain bridge – the most spectacular of the city’s nine bridges, connecting the once independent cities of Buda and Pest, and the Buda castle — towering above the skyline, are both warmly lit, casting a dramatic glow across the waters beneath.
The first night we arrived, we dined at the Spoon Café – a boat/restaurant on the Danube that allows you to dine on the water, while taking in the majestic glory of the scene. It is truly reminiscent of a world long past.
However, in contrast to Vienna’s seeming perfection, there is something a little edgy about Budapest. It’s a little tougher. A little stronger. A little more honest, perhaps? You can feel the stories lying just beneath the surface of the city’s glowing beauty. While I had learned a bit about Budapest’s history prior to our trip, I wasn’t expecting the story I would later tell that weekend to have such a profound impact. On me, or my son.
Hand-in-hand with my older son, we crossed the alley, planning a gelato stop at the central square. Along the way, we passed a small monument of a man kneeling down, head hung low. I paused.
”What does it say, mommy?” he asked. I didn’t need to go closer. I knew it was a monument to the hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews killed during WWII. I walked forward anyway. For some inexplicable reason, I wanted to touch the statue.
To be honest, I was not prepared – or necessarily wanted – to discuss either WWII or the Holocaust with my just turned 7-year old. But now, both history and a curious little boy stared me directly in the eye. The little boy expected answers; history expected I wouldn’t let her down.
I have read many history books on WWII and the Holocaust. I was aware that nearly a half a million Hungarian Jews were sent to concentration camps, in less than two months. Most were sent to Auschwitz, only a couple hours away. The majority were killed. After our move to Vienna, I became more interested in the uprising, or supposed reasoning behind the war. I knew all about the reparations demanded by the Allies after WWI, seen by many as a chief catalyst for the second war, as people starved financially, physically, and emotionally. I could have a long (and probably boring) discussion about the various peace agreements. All of that said, I was still at a loss for real answers about how such evil could catch such fervent fire. I knew my son would have the same question. I had been moved to tears by some of the stories of the Holocaust survivors. I feared my son would shed the same tears. I knew I was capable of having an adult conversation about the war, and the Holocaust. But, a conversation with a child – who like most children – would be sure to ask the plain, basic facts, the hardest truths. I didn’t know if I was prepared for that.
And so the conversation began.
What was WWII? How did it start? Who started it? What was the Holocaust? Why did they kill Jews? Where did they go? What happened to their toys? What is a ghetto? What is a concentration camp? How many were there? Young and old people? What’s a dictator? Where was Hitler born? Why didn’t people just pretend they weren’t Jewish? Would you hide Jewish families? Could they sleep in my room? Was Anne Frank’s family nice? Did the family that hid her get in trouble? Why didn’t people say killing Jews was wrong? Whose side was America on? Who else was against them? Why didn’t America get involved sooner? Has America ever done anything like that?
I answered every question as best I could. While my reading and knowledge provided me – and thus my son – with a good amount of information, I knew I would never have what he was really looking for. A rational reason. An answer why. I didn’t have it for myself. And as the saying goes, I don’t think one can ever really know what is in someone else’s mind, or heart, when it comes to love, or war.
My son was quiet for a minute. I watched him eyeing his 3-year-old brother – who was busy jumping from puddle to puddle.
“Did brothers stay together?” he quivered.
I felt the tears well up in my eyes, and a pit grow deep in my stomach. I swallowed hard, and summoned my courage. Honestly, I thought about shielding him with a little white lie. But as I looked into his eyes, I knew they wouldn’t let me.
“No, buddy. Not always.”
His eyes started to fill as well, before the silence ballooned between us. Still walking hand-in-hand, I’m not sure who held on tighter. Nothing much else was said that night. It didn’t need to be. We walked home, while his ice cream cone dripped down his hand. I didn’t tell him to wipe it up.
We finally reached the hotel and I tucked both boys into bed. I checked on them no less than four times that night, worried my older son would have nightmares. Instead, each time I found him sleeping soundly. I, on the other hand, tossed and turned for hours.
The night falls heavy on a mother unsure of herself. Had I told him too much? Did I do the right thing? Why didn’t I know more? I wondered how I could be a better parent? More prepared? A better person? The mom my boys expected of me? Mostly, I lay awake with thoughts about the hundreds of thousands of Hungarian mothers who had much harder conversations with their sons than I ever would. How could a mother go on after her son was taken away, simply because of her family’s faith in a God? The sheer agony was incomprehensible to me. It was me who had the nightmares.
Then I watched him throw peanuts to the pigeons. And that’s the moment I fell in love with Budapest. The moment I realized that — through our conversations — he and I had both become a little tougher. A little stronger. And perhaps, a little more honest.
Patty McDonough Kennedy is a writer, speaker, trainer and entrepreneur. She has lived and worked in a number of countries, and mostly writes about life, motherhood, business, sisterhood, and the fabulous mess that can be. When she has other general musings and observations - she'll throw those in there too. In addition to her own writing, her ((Laugh Lines)) blog also features guest posts written by men to bring different perspectives. Contact her at pkennedy@humanworks. guru