Chestnut Boulevard

by Judy Abrams

We were walking along Fasor, a broad avenue lined with wild chestnut trees near the city park. My mother and I walked hand in hand under the lush green trees decked out in their festive spring finery, white and pink blossom clusters that looked like miniature Christmas trees. It was a street I knew well. In a few weeks, the blossoms would drift to the sidewalk to create a soft pink carpet, which I loved to shuffle in. Later, the flowers would be replaced by round, spiky green pods that weighed down the branches until early fall, when they too dropped to the pavement and released shiny mahogany chestnuts. I collected them by the bagful to hoard in a deep drawer all winter. There, they’d gradually lose their sheen and begin to wrinkle, wizened faces of old men, discarded and eventually replaced by the new crop of the following spring. But there would be no wild chestnuts for me in the fall. It was April 1944 in Budapest. The German army had taken over Hungary on March 19. I was seven years old.

My mother held my hand tighter than necessary, although I was not likely to rush heedlessly into the road. To the few pedestrians who passed us, we must have seemed inconspicuous: a dark-haired woman in a tailored, grey tweed suit and a little girl in a pale-blue knitted dress. Two large matching bows attached my thick braids to each other, like twin butterflies’ wings propelling me onward. My mother and I both carried light coats draped over our arms. It was quite warm for April, not unusual to want to walk coatless in the sun. Those who saw us would not guess that this was a dangerous thing to do. The coats, so casually turned inside out, bore the compulsory yellow cloth Star of David sewn onto all our outer clothing, branding us Jews.

“Why should I hide the star? I’m proud to be Jewish,” I had announced, ignorant of the ominous implications of being seen in the street with the telltale star. Usually, I was obedient and my occasional bouts of verbal bravado simply reinforced the admiration of the adults around me. I was the precocious, much-cherished child of well-to-do parents.

How had my parents impressed upon me the importance of denying my identity, the need to maintain that I was a Christian girl called Ilona Papp, not the Jewish Judit Grünfeld? I had always liked to play make-believe, but somehow they made me understand that this game was real. I never gave away my secret. In fact, I wanted so desperately to believe that I was this other, more desirable child, that I don’t recall longing for my parents. Eventually I believed that they and the past we had shared were objectionable, shameful and even worse, a sin. Folding my coat inside out was just the first step down this road.

Excerpted from Tenuous Threads by Judy Abrams
The Azrieli Series of Holocaust Survivor Memoirs

Comments
  1. How wonderful to find your piece in Manhattan Linear, Judy. It makes one shiver, it’s probably painful to recollect. I can imagine you dredging up those memories and shaping them to make a coherent, telling description of such a complicated situation. Thank you, Judy.

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