of the Prodigal Father and Son
They say you really get to know someone when you travel together.
I guess I never really understood my own father, until the vacation we took
together to Eastern Europe, climaxing with a trip to Hungary, to Budapest, to
the very building in which he was born. He was returning home, for the first
time, sixty-four years later.
Upon entering the country, my father seemed strangely unexcited. But I
reminded myself where the man had come from--a Hungary besieged by the
virulently anti-Semitic, nationalist movement the Nyilas (nee-loash) or Arrow
Cross. His father, a wine merchant, had to become an Orthodox rabbi to get an
entry visa from the U.S. State department, so as not to be a burden to the
And my father and the rest of his family arrived on Christmas Eve, 1929, just
in time for the Depression. Yet the colorful holiday lights of New York harbor
provided such a thrill, he turned to his mother and seriously remarked, in his
native tongue, "I'm impressed. Look at all the trouble they went to for
Now, I'm the one who is impressed by the man who, as a boy, had to use his
soccer skills to kick his way out of attacks by anti-Semitic Hungarian toughs.
My father is a man grounded in accomplishment, from getting into the prestigious
Art Students League at City College of New York in his teens, to winding up in
"Who's Who in the World," having started the Special Education program
for schools in the state of California.
But a previously unseen awe came over my father as we first entered Budapest
from its southern border. He took immediate note of my comment that the district
was most ironically named Rubin. It was the maiden name of my dear mother, to
whom he had been married for thirty-five years, until lung cancer took her in
It seemed everything about being in his birthplace was laden with meaning.
The minute I turned on the t.v. in the Hotel Helia, MTV was playing a song by
the group The Jesus and Mary Chain, "Sometimes Always," containing the
lyrics: "You are a lucky son...You went away but you came back."
And that feeling of luck--or fate or really a collision of
feelings--overwhelmed my father as we stood in front of 43 Acacia Street, in the
ruined inner city of Budapest. We sadly surveyed the crumbling facade of his
former residence, the exposed wires, chunks of missing sidewalk, the "czarnok"
or market where he and his best friend Sandor ran from the bullies who meant to
break open their heads. I asked if he wanted to go up to the third floor, to
ring the bell of the apartment where he'd lived.
"If I go in there," he shook his head, "It'll break my
I gently guided him to a restaurant across the street, where we composed
ourselves over some tea. But on the walk back to the Elizabeth Street Metro
station, he ruminated on the graffiti, the abandoned buildings and the certainty
that most of his childhood acquaintances must have perished in the Holocaust.
Even stopping by the New York Kavehaz, its elegant, dark-wood, fin de
siecle interior still used as a period film location, did not sway my father
from his own conscience, his own doubts.
"How is it," he asked me with totally uncharacteristic
vulnerability, surprising me with the tears in his eyes, "that I survived?
Why was my father the one in our neighborhood who decided to go to America? I
don't understand why I wasn't one of the ones who died."
"You can't question fate, Dad." I put my arm around his strong but
now bowed shoulders. "You can only be thankful." I smiled at the
gentle joke that came to mind. "And believe me, I sure
Wisely, we saved something positive for the end: a side trip of our own to
the quaint, artists' colony of Szentendre, or Saint Andrew, on the outskirts of
Andor was not only Dad's Hungarian name, it was the name of the cabbie who
drove us in search of the summer home in which my father had lived. There were
no street names in those days, and all Dad had as a guidepost was the memory of
the Catholic church that had been down the street. He'd created an oil painting
of it as a boy.
Andor said there were three churches in town, but only one was Catholic and,
sure enough, after walking up the road from the house of worship, my father
stopped in front of a little white cottage with green trim and a chicken coop.
Someone had stenciled a heart on one of its stucco walls.
"Brad, this is it. This is my house."
As I took pictures, a wizened old man emerged from the house and I told Dad
to talk to him in Hungarian. He refused, but I was adamant. "We've found
your home and the guy who lives here is staring at us. How many chances are we
going to get to do this?"
They traded stories and information with gusto for a half hour. There was
elation on the part of my father when kindly Bela Panisz confirmed there used to
be a walnut tree on the ridge above the house.
As Andor drove us back to the village to shop and dine, I immediately asked
my father about the walnut tree.
"Gypsies camped out under that tree." His eyes were happy, distant.
"I'd sit outside at night and watch them sing and dance and play violins
around their campfire."
The positive memories of his youth came back with my prodding--starting with
that missing tree, those gypsies, the artesian well with Roman inscriptions, the
cherry, apple and peach trees, Liska, the family goat. And as we sat in an
outdoor cafe, on a charming, curved, cobblestone street in Szentendre, listening
to church bells chime in the distance, my father whisked away, with one
sentence, the lack of sleep, the hills he couldn't walk, his devastated Acacia
Street, the guilt of surviving.
"I wouldn't trade this experience for anything I have."
I think my father went with me to his birthplace, not so much as a vacation,
but as a reconciliation with his past. And we wound up attaining something
considerably more than both of those ends.
I am a lucky son.