Memoir — From the July 2013 issue

Other Types of Poison

Three legends

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In the bedroom of her Budapest apartment, using the stage makeup left over from her acting career, my grandmother painted young women’s faces old. Greasepaint doesn’t go stale, and when properly applied — when a skilled hand traces lines that are not yet lines but the faintest shadows on taut faces — it can achieve the most astonishing prophecies of the body’s eventual self-betrayal. My father, still very young, stood far from the blackout curtains with a candle, and in thanks for this illumination my grandmother called him her little acolyte. She handed out canes and shawls, taught the girls to walk with the weight of eighty years — and thus superannuated they would shuffle through the streets, even at night, without fear of predatory soldiers. And if they chose to carry things other than yarn in their knitting baskets, so be it. Who would suspect?

Another impossibility, yet by most accounts true: More than once she voluntarily strapped a yellow Star of David on her arm before walking into the ghettos to visit old theater friends, her papers in her pocket to prove, later, her right to leave. How this could ever have worked is unclear, but then the ghettos were slippery, temporary things, their borders well guarded but shifting, the soldiers bribable and perhaps susceptible to charm and beauty. There are stranger things true. There are simpler things not.

Impossible as well: When my mother was engaged to my father, in 1964, she traveled alone into communist Hungary, which her fiancé was not allowed to reenter and her future mother-in-law was not allowed to leave. She spent three days there, and at the end of that time my grandmother asked her to smuggle out of the country the particularly incriminating anticommunist novel she’d completed in the decade prior. My mother rode the train to Austria with three hundred onionskin pages in her girdle. A vádlott was published in 1999, twenty years after my grandmother’s death. It’s the only book I’ve read, in rough translation, of her thirty or forty. But her longest novel, I’ve just learned (reeling with the glee and fear of things I don’t even believe in), involves a man from the Romanian region of Moldavia shot by the fearsome Iron Guard. My first successful short story was about an American boy learning of someone shot by the Iron Guard in Moldavia. I’d chosen the region at random, then became deeply drawn to its history.

I’d love to take this confluence as an indicator of inherited memory, as evidence of further legacies — of empathy, artistry, guts. But to claim one ancestor would be to claim them all, even the ones on the wrong sides of those decisive moral battles of history. The slave owners, the anti-Semites, the Huns, the cowards. And furthermore: Wasn’t the presumption of a genetic morality the error at the core of Nazi ideology?

I’ve written the story of the painted faces twenty times, from every perspective, at every degree of remove from reality, but my meager descriptions of candles and shadows have never come close to resurrecting the commingled scents of greasepaint and melting wax and fear. Certain images I’ve copied over so many times they’ve come to feel like truth. (My grandmother drawing the bristles of the brush through her lips to flatten them, naming the creases of the face as she etches each girl’s future there — the lines called think-too-much, the lines called worry-too-much, and smoke-too-much, and know-too-much. The way she flips her tarot cards on the small table after the transformations are complete, telling one girl to beware tall men, another she’s surrounded by protectors.)

When I tell it from my father’s point of view, it is always a story of innocence. In the girls’ narration, it becomes gossipy: This writer, this former actress, painting their faces in the closet, was surviving the war by pawning the family silver, one spoon at a time. She hadn’t a penny to her name, but she had enough spoons to last five more years. She was said to be psychic even beyond her tarot skill. Strangest of all was the fact that, despite her liberal views, she’d been married to the member of parliament who had penned, revised, and passionately argued for the Second Jewish Law of 1939. The law reduced the quota of Jews in most employment sectors to 6 percent, put tens of thousands of them out of work, restricted them from editing and publishing newspapers, severely limited their land ownership, and defined Jewishness as a race rather than a religion. Even the theater was affected. If only 6 percent of any cast could be Jewish, then in a cast of fifteen, one actor was too many. No Jew could direct a play or own a theater. Sometime the same year the law passed, Rózsa Ignácz divorced János Makkai. They were first cousins, the young women whisper. And this boy with the candle, he is their son. As my grandmother seals their wrinkles with powder, they wonder about cause and effect. Did the political differences destroy the marriage? Or was the specific inclusion of theaters in the law a form of revenge against a woman who was already leaving him? Perhaps she’d had an affair with a Jewish director. Their questions are my own.

One of these times, if I get the words in the correct order, if I retrace more precisely the lines of history, I am convinced I will learn something I need to know. If not about my grandparents’ strange marriage or its dissolution, if not about bloodlines, then at least about courage in its quietest manifestations.

In any event, the faces were finished, the walking sticks distributed. The girls laughed at themselves in the mirror and headed into the night. What acts of sabotage or simple self-preservation they accomplished on the streets are not a matter of record.

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is the author of The Borrower, published by Penguin.

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