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International Woman of Mystery

The author as a child (bottom right) with her parents, brother, uncle, and her great-grandmother, Mami.

Family lore says my great-grandmother Margaret — we called her Mami — survived the Holocaust by hiding under a pile of bodies. She was known not for her pleasant demeanor but for her steeliness. 

In 1947, she left her longtime home in Budapest for Oradea (then part of Hungary) with her 17-year-old son, Ossi — my grandfather -— in search of her brother, Miklos. She never found Miklos, and when the rest of Northern Transylvania was given to Romania, the borders closed and they got stuck in Oradea. Mami found work as a dentist in a mountain resort, a skill she picked up from her deceased husband, and for which she had no license.

During May Day parades, Mami waved the Party flag hardest and sang the Communist anthem loudest. But as the Romanian government cracked down on underground economies, and as she ran into trouble for practicing dentistry without a license, her support of the Party waned. In 1965, Ossi, who by then had two children, including my father, was killed in a car accident. That same year, the U.S. passed the Immigration and Nationality Act, making emigration possible. In 1968, Mami and her second husband, my Papi, who had relatives in New York, left.

By 1970, it became clear to the rest of the family that there wasn’t a future for Jews in Romania. Ossi’s widow, my grandmother Eva, reluctantly applied to immigrate with her children to Israel, the only legal destination for Jews leaving Romania at the time. Israel paid Romania for each immigrant. But when Eva was called into the immigration office, all emigration was on hiatus. Oddly, a police officer stopped her in the lobby and said she was approved to go to the United States.

Stunned, Eva told a close friend, who warned her not to accept the suspicious offer. He advised her to go to the American consulate. With my father and uncle in tow, Eva went. The consul seemed equally dubious of Eva’s permission to emigrate but showed her how to do the paperwork anyway. Remarkably, they were approved. Eva, her mother, my father, and uncle headed to Rome to wait for their American visas.

From New York, Mami got in touch with the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society to help with the transition from Bucharest to Rome to New York. Mami was 65 when she settled in Brooklyn. While setting up a yarn and art-framing store with Papi, she practiced dentistry on acquaintances out of her apartment (still) without a license. Though I doubt this is true, it is said her patients never knew when she’d yanked a tooth.

Mami is long gone, and the mystery around her life pervades my imagination. She was the reason we landed in New York. She was gutsy. And feisty. And a little slippery. Whereas in the 1950s and ’60s Mami belted out “The Internationale,” by the 1970s and ’80s she hosted parties for new arrivals, garnishing deviled eggs with tiny American flag toothpicks. Who was she? What were her prewar aspirations?

Living in Seattle, I keep thinking about dark knots in tightly guarded histories. I try to untangle them in my mind and in discussions with family, try to understand the choices that led to survival. Sometimes these discussions prove illuminating. Sometimes the only possibility is to find some hole in the knot and burrow into it as in a work of fiction, and ask myself, if I had been Eva in Bucharest in 1970, or Margaret in Budapest in 1944, what would I have done? Who would I have become? I keep tying and untying knots, hoping to expand the tapestry and not let it fade.

Anca L. Szilágyi was recently awarded the inaugural Artist Trust/Gar LaSalle Storyteller Award. Her work has been published in Gastronomica, Electric Literature, and Kirkus.
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