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Anyuka

That’s not what you call a grandmother in Hungarian – the word is “nagymama”. Anyuka means something like “mummy” though now it’s mostly used by older Hungarians. But we called my mother’s mother “Anyuka” because of course that’s what my mother called her in Hungarian. Apuka means “daddy”.
She was small, quite bent, with birdlike bones. As a young woman she was pretty, with brown hair and eyes. When I knew her she kept her hair short by cutting off any bit that grew too long. Her face was no longer pretty, partly from age, partly because she was full of rage and bitterness and depression – some of it entirely understandable, some… not.
Her name was Lilla Veszy-Wagner. She knew seven langages including Hungarian (German, English, French, Latin and Ancient Greek). She had been the wealthy novelist wife of a successful Hungarian lawyer, living in a lovely house in Svabhegy, Budapest. Although both she and her husband were Protestants, all four of my mother’s grandparents were Jewish. Anyuka had converted during WWI and according to my mother, it was a genuine conversion and stemmed from a real faith. My grandfather’s was less heartfelt because he converted so he could marry Lilla – and also perhaps because it simplified his professional life. He certainly kept kosher for his whole life although my grandmother didn’t: he wouldn’t eat pork and claimed to be allergic to shellfish. Anyuka told me a very elaborate Freudian psycho-analytical tale about why he wouldn’t eat szekely gulyash which features pork, sauerkraut and sour cream. I’m not sure whether she believed it herself or whether she just didn’t want any of us to discover our Jewish heritage. By that time my grandfather had died of heart disease so we only heard one version of events. My mother was quite anti-semitic herself, in the unthinking way of children. She was 7 when she learnt of her Jewish ancestry from the servants – and 1940 was not a good time to discover something like that anyway.
Of course from March 1944 Anyuka, Apuka and my then 11 year old mother were in deadly danger. The Jews in the countryside were swept up and “deported” to the camps by the Nazis, where they died. The Jews in Budapest were luckier and sometimes recipients of extradordinary generosity and kindness. That great hero Raoul Wallenberg was working in Budapest at this exact time. Long before anyone else had heard of him, my mother told us we always had to remember him because he was a brave and good man. Did she know him or of him? I don’t know. There’s much much more to her story and that’s one reason why I’m in Hungary – to research and write a book about it.
Eventually Anyuka and Apuka came as penniless exiles to England in c 1950. My grandfather never really learned English but my grandmother retrained as a librarian while simultaneously studying to be a psycho-analyst. She already had a PhD in Psychology & Anthropology which helped. Just as she started to earn real money as a psycho-analyst, my grandfather died in 1959 – which basically broke her. She was always depressed after that and kept a scary looking death mask, a terrible portrait in oils and also a bronze sculpture of Apuka in her flat. For part of the story is the love affair between my grandparents, who married a scandalous three months after they met, but not, as my mother carefully explained, because they had to. It was a coup de foudre, a stroke of lightning, love at first sight.
Anyuka started writing an account of what she and Apuka were doing that dangerous autumn 1944 in Budapest, but then abandoned it because of her depression. She was so angry, manipulative and had at least a black belt in emotional blackmail. My father couldn’t stand her and every Christmas Eve, when she came to us for Hungarian Christmas, there would be an argument – or so it seemed to me. Once she asked him in her heavy Hungarian accent, “Vy do you hate me because I am old?” There’s no answer to that, as my father pointed out.
Yet she taught me how to write on those Tuesdays in school holidays. I got used to someone taking what I had written seriously enough to give me a written critique and her taste was excellent. Even in her third language she had an unerring nose for a cliché and never let me get away with anything. She died around the time my second book was published and although she had been suffering from Alzheimer’s and vascular dementia just as my mother is now, I was devastated. It took me nine years after that to write anything but journalism.

3 Comments

  1. Kier Salmon says:

    It’s amazing how little we find out we know when we try to re-create the narritives that formed out childhoods.

    THank you for this story and these memories.

  2. Gereg says:

    Damn, but family is complex. Took me forever to find time to read this, but I’m glad I kept it tagged until I did.

    1. patricia says:

      Just a tad. Glad you’re interested – and I haven’t even started on the Irish side of the family.

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