The Unworn Shroud

WHEN I FIRST STARTED ASKING MY FATHER QUESTIONS about my grandparents, I knew very little about them. What I knew mostly had to do with their religiousness, particularly that of my grandmother, of which much was made by my father. “One of the sages of the region once said to my beloved late mother,” he would remark in his orotund Hungarian, an indulgent smile on his face, “'Dear lady, just send me any of your throw-away dishs, the ones you think traif They'll certainly be kosher enough for me!'"

My father would add with a small chuckle, “That was just his way of making a little joke, because of the lengths to which your grandmother Ilonka carried the dietary laws. She didn't just have separate dishes and pots and pans for meat and dairy, she had two completely separate kitchens! She worried, you see, that if she prepared fleishig and milchig foods at the same time, in one kitchen, they might mingle to make an unkosher cloud." And he would laugh a sad laugh.

I grew up eating pork cracklings, blood sausage and head cheese first in Budapest, then in Montreal, where my father purchased these delectables at Hoffner’s, a Hungarian delicatessen on the Main. Despite all that had happened to him-the loss of parents, brothers, his first wife and their little daughter-he continued to believe in God, but couldn't believe it made any difference to Him what we put in our bellies. At night he sliced rye bread for the sandwiches he would take to work and I to school the following day. He spread butter on the slices, then filled his slabs with cream cheese and mine with ham.

“Ilushka is entirely old enough to make her own sandwiches,” my mother observed tartly, watching him as she nibbled on a Cadbury's chocolate finger while waiting for the kettle to boil. "Whoever heard of a father making sandwiches for a girl her age? You're always coddling her, more like her grandmother than a father!"

I was Ilushka, at eighteen already in my third year at McGill, precocious in school, lazy in the kitchen-wafting back to my room quickly to avoid being implicated in these discussions. My father's mild reply trailed softly behind me. “She works too hard ... I don't mind making two sets of sandwiches, it's no more trouble than one.”

“You work too hard," my mother retorted, taking her tea down to the basement TV-room. My father gave a small sigh, but continued methodically with his evening chores. He tore off two baggies from the boxed roll on the counter and stuffed the sandwiches into them . Shuffling over to the pantry for a couple of apples (he had just turned sixty and it was beginning to show), he bent stiff-kneed to choose from a stack of used brown bags. As he attended to his roster of self-imposed tasks, you would never have suspected that he had grown up on a large estate where cooks, parlour maids, nightwatchmen, coachmen and some hundred farm labourers stood at his beck and call. In the east Montreal suburb of Ville d'Anjou, he waited on the three of us, my mother, my sister and me, with understated devotion. He woke at dawn, whispering the prescribed prayers in reflexive Hebrew as he set the family breakfast table. When he emerged from the shower, he knocked on my door, then bent over me in bed, his hand on my shoulder to shake me awake. A weather warning, more than likely, in winter: “Wear your snuggies, it’s cold today."

Across the street a half hour later, we stood waiting together for the suburban bus to rumble us down to Sherbrooke East and connect us to the greater Montreal transport system. At seven in the morning in winter, it was frigid. The wind stung my bare thighs beneath my skirt, for on principle I hadn't put on the eminently sensible wool snuggies that would have shielded the expanse of skin left bare between panties and nylons. We sat side by side on the three buses it took in those days-the Metro was still a year from opening-to get from east Montreal to downtown. While I reviewed my lecture notes and he worked his way through the Gazette, small shopping centres, a couple of red brick hospitals, the Aiello grave- stone plant, and the municipal golf course could vaguely be discerned through patches of white-frosted glass thawed by an ungloved palm. In fits and starts we laboured through morning traffic towards the centre of town, changing from the 185 to the number 4 at the Botanical Gardens. A stop before St. Laurent and Sherbrooke, my father folded up his paper and zipped it away in his brown duffle bag. He grazed my cheek with a kiss that smelled of Williams Lectric Shave; from the sidewalk, he turned to wave before trudging off, a short, bulky man, muffled in a dark three- quarter-length coat, his visored cap with the furred earflaps just allowing a glimpse of square glasses and a jutting nose.

There were four or five more stops to go before University, but I also shut my notebook and zipped up my briefcase.

I was a studious girl, with a scholar’s respect for research. As methodical as my father going about his evening chores, I had plotted out the bibliography for my honours thesis and knew just which spool of microfilmed colonial newspaper I ought to unreel that morning at the Redpath Library. What I didn't know was whether I would give in to the temptation of veering away from the conservative theories of Lieutenant-Governor Thomas Hutchinson of eighteenth century Massachusetts. Whether in fact I would address the appropriate reel of the Boston Evening-Post waiting for me on interlibrary loan, or head yet again to the section of the sociology stacks devoted to mixed marriage.

My boyfriend and I had begun to date three years earlier in high school, a babes-in-the-wood relationship that showed no signs of going away. My parents were hung up on his family: they were nice people, but not Jewish. Still, they muted their objections out of a hopeful belief that, if allowed to run its course, the romance would die quietly.

To me and my boyfriend, differences in background and religion till now had seemed entirely irrelevant. What mattered was our shared love for Portrait of the Artist, and Juliet of the Spirits, and "The Times They Are a-Changin'." What mattered most was the power we wielded over each other with a finger tip on a nape, or a tongue in an ear.

In the sociology stacks devoted to mixed marriage to which I succumbed every day that winter I found volume after volume of lugubrious case studies. The experts didn't hold with mixed marriage. They cautioned that two religions in one family were a recipe for, if not disaster exactly, vicious power struggle for spouses and debilitating identity crises for their children.

The experts were slightly more sanguine about intermarriage. A slim chance for the success of such unions rested on the willingness of one of the partners to give up her faith, thereby ensuring family harmony and stability. “Her," because in all the examples trotted out, it appeared to be the woman who converted.

The women who opted for this course were somehow all Christians. It seemed unheard of in these North American studies published in the 1950s to find either a Jewish female prepared to marry out of her faith, or a Gentile man disposed to become a Jew.

I gave myself over daily to the idea of converting to Christianity. Having gone to schools in Montreal's east end where I was invariably the only Jew, I could belt out “Onward Christian Soldiers” with the best, adored “Silent Night" and was far more familiar with the Lord's Prayer than with any Hebrew liturgy.

Sociology books continued to pile up at my work station in a deserted comer of the stacks and the microfilm reader went unclaimed as I wrestled with myself.

The weight of family precedent as much as personal inclination tilted the scales towards my conversion. My aunt and uncle had both “turned out," as we put it in Hungarian, when they arrived in Montreal a few years before us. In heated arguments with my parents, they maintained that conversion was a matter of safety and logic for survivors who had truly learned the lessons of the Holocaust. It was a delusion, they said, to believe that the recent past might not repeat itself. The seeds of Hitlerism might sprout again one day. Their children weren't going to be fodder for another Auschwitz.

And so my aunt and uncle, both originally reared in Jewish orthodoxy, had settled in east end Montreal among a sea of French Catholics to raise a Christian family.

It was to be near them that we, too, had struck root in Ville d'Anjou. My parents remained impervious to my uncle's arguments, but the cord of family love-while strained by this fundamental difference-still bound us together.

We remained Jewish, but my aunt’s Christian habits were contagious. Or perhaps it was the neighbourly surround of Italians and French and Poles and assorted WASPS in the neat bungalows, split-levels and duplexes of this new suburb that infected my parents.

At the beginning of December, taking their cue from our neighbours, my parents strung blinking lights in our front windows. They mounted a Christmas tree in the living room, bought Christmas cake, a turkey, the works.

When in Rome, my father implied, although he never said so. What he did say, out of the blue, one morning on the bus, as if he could read my mind, even though I had not said a word to him, nor to anyone else, not even to my boyfriend, about what was eating at me: what he did say in Hungarian, zippering away his newspaper a stop earlier than usual, was, “I left Hungary so as you and your sister could marry Jewish men when the time came. There were no Jews left to pick and choose from at home. But Christians you could have had galore there, too."

All sorts of hot retorts rose to my lips, but I didn't say anything. I averted my face when he bent to kiss me as he got off.

At the library that morning, I looked at the mound of sociology texts on my desk with distaste. Flipping pages, I felt repelled by the smell of mold, of the reek of stale received wisdom which at the same moment I was also certain held the key to my happiness. With the shove of one finger, I could topple that mountain of knowledge, then stomp on it on the floor.

Instead I lay my head on the desk, the stack of books a pillow, and squeezed my eyes shut against tears that were stronger than my will.

And against my pressed eyelids all that-in answer to my questions about his parents-my father had recently told me of my grandparents began to unspool like a movie.

When she had married, Grandmother Ilonka had not shaved off her hair in the manner of the ultra-orthodox. My grandfather had been overjoyed to discover this on their wedding night, for his own mother and sisters were all bald beneath the wigs they wore in public. But then, as she became progressively more and more religious, Ilonka had a change of heart and threatened to take the razor to her hair. My grandfather first reasoned with her and, when that failed, begged her to change her mind.

In the end, she heeded him. She didn't shave her hair after all, but designed a special headdress, a bit like a wimple that came down low over her forehead and hid every scrap of hair on her scalp. That's how she appears in the albums in her later years, a moon-faced Jewish matron in the guise of a nun.

Her household was a byword for hospitality and for abundance. But while she pressed food on everyone else, she herself was an ascetic, eating sparingly. During World War I, when four of her brothers were in the army, she fasted two days a week as a prayer offering for their welfare.

On the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, the feast of fasts, when it is customary to wear white to signify a state of purity, my grandmother would put on a white silk kimono richly embroidered in white thread. On her head she wore her trademark wimple low on her brow but this garment, too, was fashioned of silk for the holiday rather than the usual batiste. She pulled on white stockings and white slippers. During Yom Kippur prayers, she draped her shoulders with an additional white-fringed shawl similar to the prayershawl worn by men.

These ceremonial clothes she intended one day to wear before her Maker as her shroud.

"It's a mitzvah, a good deed, to eat heartily before Yom Kippur,” my grandfather, himself dressed in an impeccable dark suit, urged the family gathered around the table.

It groaned with a variety of rich food-cracklings and liver, roast goose, tomato sauce-all guaranteed to bring on enormous thirst the next day, when not even a sip of water was allowed to cross one’s lips.

When the meal had been cleared away, the women lit candles in memory of the dead, before kindling the holiday candles. And then good wishes for an easy fast were exchanged before men and women adjourned separately to pray to be inscribed that year, as all years, in the book of life.

When the German army occupied Hungary in March 1944, Hungarian Jews, until then relatively sheltered compared to the others under German hegemony, received their death sentence. A month later, my grandparents were taken by force from the family estate to a hastily-erected ghetto in a nearby town.

They spent slightly over a month there squeezed into a squalid attic room with the rest of their relatives. The howling of those being tortured to reveal the whereabouts of their valuables punctuated the night. In the morning, bloodied men slunk back to their quarters. After a couple of weeks, food ran out. Conditions were so deplorable, a couple of Ilonka's cousins committed suicide.

But to dispel rumours in Budapest that the Jews in the countryside were being badly treated, the State Secretary for Jewish Affairs embarked on a public relations tour of the ghettos. That is how the virulent Jew-hater László Endre came to face off with my grandmother.

Ever since the beginning of the German occupation, Ilonka had been writing upbeat bulletins to my father who was away from home, a conscript in forced labour. Her letters spoke of her absolute conviction that God would yet reunite them in this life. After the war, a surviving cousin would tell my father that, in the ghetto and on the train to Auschwitz, his mother's optimism had bolstered the faith of all those around her.

This ostensible optimist had nevertheless packed in her baggage allowance of life's necessities the outfit of white clothing she wore every year on Yom Kippur. The outfit that she had destined for her shroud.

László Endre, Eichmann's Hungarian henchman, the embodiment of evil and terror for every Jew in the country, chose to give minute inspection to the attic that housed my grandparents. Flanked by gendarmes, he pointed to this and that item, demanding explanation and justification. Rifling through Ilonka's burlap sack, he yanked out first the white kimono, then the heavily fringed white shawl that she always wore on the Day of Days.

“And what are those things?"

The short, dumpy old woman drew back her shoulders.

“Those are clothes to die in.”

In the Redpath Library, I dried my eyes. I hauled the sociology texts away to be reshelved and determined to put thoughts of the Hungarian past behind me. There were safer histories one could study if one had a taste for history: Loyalism in North America, for instance, contained in boxed microfilm, tame and sane. I wrote my thesis and graduated with distinction.

Two years later I married my boyfriend. Bemused by my adamancy that he change his faith, he turned a token convert. But, in the event, it was I who became a Jew.

Little by little I began to take after my grandmother. No, I didn't shave my head or wear a wimple, but, almost without noticing, eccentricities began overtaking me in the kitchen. First pork got pitched, then shellfish, as I gradually reconstructed my kitchen into a semblance of kosher.

Not because I believe, any more than my father did, that God cares a jot whether we butter our bread or not when we eat roast beef. But today when I set my table for a holiday repast, I like to pretend that the grandparents I never had the chance to know preside over it in spirit. And that perhaps in some small comer of eternity, my grandmother knows that what mattered so much to her is not irrelevant to me.

"The Unworn Shroud"

This essay was published in

Fall 1996


1996 - Finalist, Tilden Prize

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