It all started with a question, one my parents had been unable to answer for 70 years.
What happened to the French doctor they had taken in during the Russian siege of Budapest? He was an escaped prisoner of war. They were just trying to hang on. Together, they hid in a cellar, beneath the feet of German soldiers who had made the home their headquarters.
My parents’ recollections of those times surfaced only rarely. But when they talked about the winter of 1944–1945, everything seemed more vivid. It was like their memories of the flare of the bombs lit up their lives. As a couple, that time was their beginning. When my father, who had deserted from the Hungarian Army, and my mother, who had refused to move to the ghetto and wear the yellow star, cast their lot together.
Whenever I heard about that winter—it was usually on a snowy night that reminded them of the bitter cold they experienced all those years ago—one name would always come up: Dr. Lanusse, a man my parents admired without reservation, a courageous doctor who had lived up to his oath and treated anyone in need. After the war, my parents never reconnected with him. It’s not uncommon to lose touch with people who’ve been important in our lives. We all move on. But for a reason I couldn’t entirely explain, after my parents died, I found myself swept back into the eddies of their past.
It wasn’t the first time. My parents had left me many unanswered questions. This one, unlike the question of what happened to my mother’s brother in World War II, didn’t seem so essential. After all, Dr. Lanusse hadn’t been a family member. My parents told me they had tried to determine the fate of her brother many times after the war, and had always come up empty. When I finally discovered records of his death three years ago, shortly before my mother’s own death, it hurt her. She told me it made her mourn a second time. She never wanted to see the documentary proof I had dug up, his file from Buchenwald.
Yet the story of my parents’ time with the doctor seemed so incredible—that they could have hidden in the cellar of my grandparents’ house, directly underneath German soldiers, and lived to tell about it—that I thought there must be more to it.
So I began to search for a person I had never met, with a name I did not know how to spell. A name from my childhood.
What I ended up discovering was remarkable, beyond what I ever could have imagined. And though I’ve often wished I had begun this quest sooner, it may not have been possible at all without the internet.
* * *
It was the fall of 2015. I was working at my desk in San Francisco, looking out over the branches of plum trees as I scanned Google. I searched until a book appeared with the name I was looking for: Dr. Lanusse. It had to be him, I thought, because a single sentence in a 248-page manuscript about the history of World War II in Hungary described his rank as “medical-ft. Int.” I wasn’t sure what that was, but it sure seemed like the person was a doctor. And how many Dr. Lanusses could there be? (It turned out that Lanusse is a rare French name.)
I thought the logical next step would be to approach the French Defense Ministry and find his file. One could do something like that in the United States, after all. They should be able to tell me what happened to him. But a friend with connections in the French government dissuaded me from taking that route, at least right away. Too cumbersome. Too time consuming. I was disappointed.
But what, then? He put me in touch with an American friend with a Ph.D. in French history, who had a number of suggestions. But she, too, cautioned me against directly approaching the French military. She believed that a journalist in France might be more readily able to help me find the records I needed.
I approached my friend Frederic, a French journalist who lives in Paris, and told him my story. How my parents had spoken of a French doctor, an aviator as I recalled, who hid with them in the cellar of my father’s parents’ house in Budapest in the winter of 1944–1945. How, after the Russians drove out the Germans and occupied the city, my parents parted ways with the doctor, never to speak again. How they had told me about the bodies of dead horses frozen in the street. How dangerous it still was for them in the spring of 1945. How my father believed that the doctor had likely been killed trying to make it home. And how I thought his home was Bordeaux.
That was the story. From the lips of my parents. But there was one new fact, I told him. I had been able to find a reference to the doctor in a book that described how Hungary, which had imposed its own anti-Jewish laws and sided with the Nazis, had been a haven for escaped French prisoners, well into 1944.
Could he help me find out what happened to the doctor? If I were to go to France, I would love to be able to meet his descendants or visit his grave.
Frederic had a few suggestions. A friend of his was a Navy reservist and might know how to look in military records. Local prefectures might have useful documents. In his email reply, he included his wife, Nathalie, whom he said “might have some ideas.” Nathalie, a former journalist, comes from one of France’s oldest families and has an interest in history, he told me. His words lifted me up. I had been stuck, but now I had crossed the ocean and was in touch with real people in the world I wanted to explore.
Nathalie jumped in and began researching before we even talked for the first time. My French is crude. Searching French documents without a guide felt beyond me. But it was only a matter of days before she unearthed a story on a French website dedicated to a notorious prison camp in Poland where the Germans had held French soldiers: Rawa-Ruska.
She wrote me: “I found a Docteur Henri Lanussé (e with an accent). He escaped from Rawa-Ruska Camp August 9th 1942, arrived in Budapest Easter 1943 and stood there until the Russians came. He came back to France and wrote a text where he seems to have the same qualities your parents liked in the Henri Lanusse they met and is very grateful to the Budapest people. His first name is not mentioned in this text but he is named Dr Henri Lanussé in another French text I can send you.”
But, she cautioned me, there were two problems:
• “his name is spelt with an accent (both names do exist in French, Lanusse and Lanussé)
• “he is not an aviator but served in the land forces.”
The latter problem didn’t seem serious. I was all of a sudden not so sure what branch of the military he had been in. I did know that Dr. Lanusse had escaped from a German prison camp and found his way to Hungary. I vaguely recalled my parents saying he had escaped more than once. And Rawa-Ruska was a camp where the Germans were said to have sent repeat escapees, a place with deplorable conditions. So maybe that was him.
But the account Nathalie found was of the war years of a “Docteur Lanussé.” Note the accent on the final “e.” Was that the same man as the Dr. Lanusse in the history of World War II in Hungary that I had found?
I would probably not have even noticed the spelling difference. Lanusse or Lanussé seem so close. But an accent is no small thing to a native French speaker. And Nathalie was concerned. Not only that, I hadn’t realized that Lanusse has a very specific meaning in French. A French genealogical site she found said the name Lanusse is from the southwest region of France, so that was a good sign. Dr. Lanusse, my parents had told me, was from Bordeaux, in the southwest region of France. The site said the name is derived from the term for a certain topography, “a meager heath” in the high Pyrenees. But at least in contemporary speech, it also has a much more embarrassing meaning, one that kids could use to tease other children. Anus. Or Asshole. That’s hard to imagine bearing as a last name. We would discover, later, what had happened. But for now there was confusion. Was it Lanusse or Lanussé?
What clinched it for me was that the tersely written history of Dr. Lanussé’s war experiences contained four paragraphs that I recognized, however he spelled his name. He described being in a cellar with German soldiers overhead. How many times could that have happened? I never understood how someone could have lived to tell about it even once. There must have been something else my parents hadn’t told me, I thought.
Those four key paragraphs unfolded for me somewhat slowly, with the help of Google Translate. By the end, it was unmistakable. I told Nathalie that a portion of the document she sent me seemed almost identical to what my parents described.
In October or November , the government of Admiral Horthy was overthrown and replaced by another, the “Arrow Cross” (a kind of militia), which began to hunt for all elements of the Hungarian population who were anti-German and in particular the Jewish population and escaped prisoners of war.
And here, allow me to thank once again the Hungarians, the majority of whom sided with the Allies and gave us outlaws all the help they could, helping us in our clandestine life to escape the Nazis.
The Germans were occupied more by the battle than by our situation and didn’t try to too hard to verify our status, especially as in the cellar where we were refugees, I was treating the wounded of various nationalities. Although unaccustomed to this kind of intervention, I prepared to deliver the baby of a pregnant woman with us in the cellar but we were able to evacuate her in time to a Budapest hospital, which deprived me of the pleasure of a frontline delivery. The battle lasted about fifteen days, then the German troops withdrew leaving room for the Russian troops.
When the Russians arrived, I left the cellar alone carrying a white flag (note the similarity of the facts with those of June 1940. In fact our villa was pierced with shell holes as my aid post had been in 1940). Another difficult moment, but it ended well despite the Russian machine gun on my gut … Not nice but normal since the Germans had been firing on them from our villa.
I was exhilarated by what I’d read. I emailed Nathalie: “I am 99.9 percent certain that the first Lanussé (the e with an accent) is the man who hid with my parents in the cellar of the villa where the Germans were firing on the Russians and which the Russians took over when they pushed back the Germans.”
The question was what to do next.
I again suggested the obvious, approaching the defense ministry. But Nathalie said she thought she had a better way. If the doctor had children, it’s possible one of them became a medical professional, too. That’s quite common. I was pretty certain the doctor was from Bordeaux. That was one thing my parents seemed sure about. They had tried to find him on their lone visit to the city by looking in the telephone book.
Nathalie found the mailing addresses of four medical professionals with a variation of the Lanusse name—accent and no accent—in the Bordeaux region, and a fifth with just an email address. She suggested I write a personal letter to each explaining my search. “It is a pragmatic approach that could speed up the investigation,” she told me. So that’s what I did. In halting French, assisted by Nathalie—not to make my French fluent, but to make it clear. I quoted the article by Dr. Lanussé and asked for their help. I put the letters in plain white envelopes and walked them to a nearby private post and parcel office before Christmas.
Then I waited.
* * *
The first response I received was an email expressing regret that the person couldn’t help me. But the second, an email from a physical therapist, was a direct hit.
It began, in French: “Dear Madam, I am one of the sons of Henri Lanussé and of Bozsi, who were with your parents during the siege of Budapest.” He went on to tell me that his father had died in 1989, a couple of weeks after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The news was a blow. Although I had known it was unlikely that I’d find him alive, I had still held out hope. Yet I had answered the question of what had happened to Dr. Lanussé. And I had found someone alive. A new door had opened. Even so, I couldn’t feel satisfied. I kicked myself. If only I had done this research earlier, I thought, I could have found him alive. My parents would still have been alive. They could have seen him again. I had been in France in the late 1970s. It would have been possible for me to find him. If only…
I was also confused. I didn’t remember hearing about a Bozsi being in the cellar. Who was that? And why did he think I was a woman? Was my French that bad?
The doctor’s son, Pierre, said his 93-year-old mother would contact me, that she still used the internet despite problems with her eyesight. Right away, she lived up to his word.
“Cher Monsieur Temple,” she wrote, “oui, vous etes bien arrivé au bon endroit.” (Dear Mr. Temple. Yes, you’ve arrived at the right place.)
She signed her brief email, Bozsi. And she offered to Skype with me. She said she was touched by my search for memories of my parents. That was on January 6, 2016. Three months later I would be in France. My wife Judith and I would be on our way to meet Bozsi, in person, joined by Nathalie and our oldest daughter, Hannah. As the oldest of my parents’ grandchildren and the first girl in our family, Hannah had been especially close to my mother. She had visited Budapest and already had met friends of my mother on her own, but no one who had known my mother as a young woman. There were more surprises to come in the meantime.
Our first Skype session lasted almost two hours. There was so much to say, and we were slow to say it. I struggled. Bozsi struggled. We both had so many questions. Just getting the three of us—Bozsi, Nathalie and I—connected was no mean feat. At first we couldn’t see each other. I had to explain to Bozsi in French how to turn the camera on. Then I saw her for the first time, elegant, dressed in a white sweater I would come to know well. Put together, just the way my mom always was until the day she died. Bozsi spoke French slowly and clearly, in a way that was easy for me to understand. Nathalie could hear her Hungarian accent, but as the son of parents who both spoke English with heavy accents, it was something I didn’t notice.
In that first conversation, she told me something I’d never heard before: “You look just like your father, only older.” I had never met anybody whose image of my parents was frozen in their 20s. Time seemed to be bending. I was older than my father. In her mind’s eye, even though she herself knew well the aches and pains of being in her nineties, my father was still a young man. And my mother was still a young woman. My parents were young again.
Nathalie, Judith, and I laughed about how odd her perspective seemed. Bozsi had been 22 in the cellar. My mother 24. My father almost 26. And Dr. Lanussé, he had been the old man in the bunch. He was 31.
Bozsi told me she had been shaken by my email. It brought back memories not so deeply buried. I thought my parents would have been happy that I had reconnected. Judith thought the opposite; that they would have been troubled by stirring up the past, by the issues it raised.
When I first met Bozsi, I had no idea how similar her story was to my mother’s. They had both grown up in the same social milieu, in educated, prosperous homes, the daughters of successful fathers. They were both Jewish women who had married Catholics. Bozsi had left her faith in the hope that doing so would help her stay alive. (It turned out she was right; it was her ability to recite a Jewish prayer that saved her.) She later met Henri, a Catholic she fell madly in love with. My mother hadn’t identified as Jewish; she had gone to a Protestant school. But the war years had put her on the run. While her parents were confined in the Jewish ghetto in Budapest, and her brother had been taken away, she joined an underground cell and lived with false papers. She too had fallen in love with a Catholic man. She didn’t know, then, she told me, that my father’s mother was actually Jewish, and that the reason my father’s parents had moved from Vienna to Hungary in the first place was to protect my grandmother after the Nazis were welcomed into Austria. That my mother didn’t know the truth seemed hard to believe, but so much of their story—surviving hidden beneath German troops—seemed unbelievable. It was just one more question mark, albeit a big one.
Life hadn’t been easy for Bozsi. Loss was the first thing she ever experienced, although she didn’t know it at the time. Her mother died giving birth to her. She only learned the truth years later, because her father remarried quickly and his new wife had treated Bozsi as her own. Her father committed suicide after his factory was taken from him because of anti-Jewish laws. Her stepmother died of typhus after being liberated from the Mauthausen concentration camp. Her brother had been sent into forced labor in the salt mines of Yugoslavia, where he died.
She had outlived one of her sons. She had lost two grandsons. And, of course, she had lost Henri. She had seen him suffer after the war.
My mother had had her own struggles. She had lost friends and family. She had many health problems and was almost always in physical pain.
There was one significant difference between the two women, though. In the end, Bozsi—after the death of a grandson who had always wanted her to tell him how, as a Frenchman, he could have a Hungarian grandmother—felt she had to share her story of the war. In 2002, when both my parents were still alive, she started writing a book about her wartime experiences and her time in the cellar.
My mother had made the opposite choice. While some friends had encouraged her to write her own book, my mother had decided to keep her story largely to herself. I think my father, like Dr. Lanussé, would have wanted it that way. As Pierre had told me, his father had been very close-mouthed about the period between his escape from Rawa-Ruska and his return to France. Things were best left unsaid.
Bozsi, I would come to find out, was not one to leave things unsaid. She seemed to love to preface a revelation by saying, “I’m going to tell you something indiscreet.” Then she would giggle, girlishly, and launch into a description of jokes about the sounds of the night in the cellar, where the two young couples couldn’t help but make love, or advances a wealthy man had made toward her after she had settled in France.
Two of Bozsi’s sons opposed her writing a book. They shared their father’s view that the past was best buried. But one son—a son who died not long after it was published—encouraged her. He waited downstairs in her house for her to bring him pages of the manuscript as she wrote it. When the first draft was finished, Bozsi showed it to a neighbor, who put her in touch with a childhood friend, a skilled writer and filmmaker who dedicated a year to the project and ultimately brought it to a respected publisher, Mercure de France. The book, Le dernier bateau d’Odessa, was published in French in 2006 and later translated into German and Polish. The title, The Last Boat from Odessa, refers to how Bozsi and Henri finally made it to France.
Read it, she told me, at the end of the first call. It will tell you about that time. Then we can talk more.
Afterward, my brain was exhausted. Two hours trying to think in French had worn me out. I was embarrassed that I couldn’t tell Bozsi anything that my parents had said about her. If they had said something, I couldn’t remember. I hadn’t even understood that the doctor had been with a woman when he was in the cellar. But I didn’t have the heart to tell her. I knew, just meeting her, how close they must have been, and I didn’t want to hurt her. I was astounded by what had just happened. Not only had I found someone who had been with my parents in the cellar. She had written a book about it. I couldn’t believe my good fortune.
Yet, I couldn’t shake the sadness that I couldn’t share the news with my parents. The doctor hadn’t died in the chaos of war. He had made it home, just as they had made it out of Hungary. His widow was still alive. They had had three sons. And four grandchildren. My parents had had two sons and six grandchildren.
When the book arrived from Europe, for the first time I saw my parents’ lives from the outside. It was like watching a movie, in French, without subtitles. A very dramatic, frightening movie co-starring my mother and father. I had heard snippets from them about living beneath German troops. But I had never heard it as a coherent story, with a beginning and an end. I had struggled to picture it, and couldn’t imagine how my parents survived. And then I read:
We heard a noise above our heads. It was the sound of boots, and then the sound of many boots. We didn’t have time to ask ourselves whether they were German, Russian or Hungarian boots before we heard footsteps in the stairway to our cellar. A German soldier burst in, machine gun in hand, just as surprised to see all of us with our hands up as we were to see him.*
I was there, with my parents, nearly 10 years before my own birth. It was terrifying.
Their admiration for Dr. Lanussé became more understandable. He had saved their lives that day. He told the German officer in charge of the troops at the house that if he harmed the refugees he was with, he would not help the officer’s injured soldiers. In her book, Bozsi wrote of her husband: “He wasn’t one for hatred; healing the wounded was a true vocation, and he had a very humanistic ideal of his responsibility as a doctor. On top of that, under those circumstances, our survival depended on his exercising that responsibility.”
She described the conditions they lived under: “We found ourselves trapped under the constant gunfire of our Germans and the Russians, in a confusion of whistles followed by explosions and vibrations. A hail of machine gun fire railed against our house; no one dared predict how long it would remain standing.”
She also painted in the personalities and character of my parents. I saw how they were seen, not just how they saw themselves:
Paul [the pseudonym she used for my father], a deserter from the Hungarian army like all others who refused to fight alongside the Nazis, was hiding in his house with Kati [the pseudonym she used for my mother], his Jewish fiancé, a lovely young girl with brown hair and bright eyes two years my senior. She was amiable, intelligent and vivacious, completely in love with Paul, and though she had come out of the same social world that I had, she was infinitely less afraid than I was and never complained.
It was funny to read about my father’s apparent obsession, even then, with properly taking care of things he cared about. I had experienced the same thing when I was a child. He always wanted the evening newspaper folded in a certain way when he got home from work.
Paul courageously crept up to the first floor to gather all the candles he could find. He also brought a magnificent silver candleholder, and our dark hole now shimmered with its reflections. Paul was very attached to his furniture, and would have loved to bring down an antique armchair signed by its maker of which he was particularly fond. He had to go without it, since we could not find any space for it.
Her book also gave me a better sense of my grandparents, and why they had fled Budapest.
Paul’s parents, who had taken French lessons with my husband before their departure, had taken refuge in Switzerland. They were rich, Catholic and Aryan, and like many others, they had fled the arrival of the Russians, after having put their house under the protection of the French legation. Most Hungarians had such terrible memories of the year spent under Béla Kun’s communist regime after the 1914-1918 war that they feared the Russians’ occupation even more than the Germans’.
I had heard from my parents that my grandfather had tried to aid the French in Hungary. It made sense. His own mother was French, from Colmar. On his grave in Vienna, the text is in French. I hadn’t heard about putting his house under the protection of French diplomats, and didn’t know what that even meant. But there was much I didn’t know about what he had done, especially to protect his wife.
It didn’t surprise me that Bozsi had described my grandparents as rich. She hadn’t met them. But she had lived in their house. I still don’t know how they could have built a villa in Budapest during the war. But it did surprise me that she didn’t know my grandmother was Jewish. Both my grandmother’s parents were Jewish, although my great grandmother formally left the religion a few years after her daughter, my grandmother, was born. My grandmother’s birth certificate, which I found online, came from the Jewish community in Vienna.
The book and our Skype conversations brought the dramatic end of my parents’ war years to life. First the days in late fall before the bombs started to fall, living upstairs in the house and drinking the champagne my grandparents had left. Eating foie gras and potatoes from the reserves my grandparents had stocked up in the cellar. A grand piano in the living room. Comforts hard to imagine at a time when a Hungarian Fascist party had taken power and was shooting Jews on the banks of the Danube. Then Dr. Lanussé and Bozsi, my father and mother, a cook, a gardener who had also deserted the Hungarian Army and his pregnant wife—all hiding in a 10-square-meter cellar, with Germans overhead and Russians firing on them. No water except from melted snow. Food running out. Cold. And finally, their frightening encounter with Russian troops and the imprisonment of my father and Dr. Lanussé by the Russians.
I learned that my father repaid Dr. Lanussé’s courage, that he may have saved his life, too. After the Russians released my father, he returned to Bozsi and my mother, and then went back and found a way to free his friend, the doctor, from Russian custody. The danger the Russian troops represented made much more understandable what surely was a precious document to my father, a single page typed in Russian, folded into quarters and taped together many times. I found it when I went through his papers after my mother’s death. He had never showed it to me. It was signed in an illegible signature by a French officer from the de Gaulle French Military Committee in Budapest and sealed on Feb. 19, 1945, six days after the siege of Budapest ended. It stated that my father had “performed a great service for the French POWs from Germany to Hungary, particularly during searches conducted by the Hungarian fascists.” The author commended my father and asked that he be permitted “freedom of movement.”
Over skype Bozsi told me about saying goodbye to my parents.
She, her husband, and three other French escapees intended to cross the Danube, to walk over the ice from Buda to Pest, where she said a Hungarian industrialist friend of her father’s had organized what he called General de Gaulle’s Gathering Committee out of his home. All the bridges across the river had been destroyed. The ice was questionable. It felt unsteady. Night was falling. My father, she said, didn’t want to risk the journey. He was afraid. They headed onto the frozen river and my parents refused to follow. They stayed on the shore and turned back toward the destroyed home of my father’s parents, to see what they could salvage from the rubble. The couples would never see each other again.
After a pontoon bridge was erected, my father and mother would follow their friends across the river that divided the city. They pulled a cart over the bridge loaded with the few things they could recover from his parents’ home. I remember my father telling me that they moved into his father’s former office, where there was a partial bathroom that still had running water. A single room there was to be their home until early 1946 when they escaped the country hidden in empty oil barrels. They had paid a Russian truck driver to drop them in Vienna. They were uncertain of their fate—afraid he would turn them over to Russian authorities in Hungary, fearful that the conversations they were overhearing in Russian, a language they couldn’t understand, would spell their demise—until he dropped them in my father’s native city. Free.
Bozsi and Henri thought my parents had perished. They hadn’t dreamed to look for them on the west coast of Canada. My parents thought Henri and Bozsi had been killed, too. Not finding them in Bordeaux only reinforced their belief that it was too late.
But it wasn’t too late for me. Over a period of a few months, Bozsi and I would meet over Skype on Sunday mornings in San Francisco (late afternoons in France).
I needed to ask her about what, for me, was the most disturbing event in the book, something my parents hadn’t told me about, something Bozsi discussed with a drawn face. My mother had been raped. It happened after they had been taken from the cellar to a house the Russians were using as a base. Bozsi wrote:
In the middle of the afternoon, three Russians in uniform—one of whom was an officer—burst into the house and dragged poor Kati away with them … She came back several hours later, haggard, her clothes torn. Dazed, she couldn’t say where, how many, or how. She could only remember the cold barrel of a gun against her belly as she struggled against them. The two of us locked ourselves in the bathroom, and I helped her wash herself with snow.
That was not what my mother had told me. Her account was that Russian soldiers had made her dance with them, and plied her with alcohol, a macabre scene. She said she had forced herself to vomit to drive them away, and the soldiers had backed off. She had saved herself. That was what I had heard, the few times we talked about it.
Could Bozsi be wrong? Could she have thought that my mother had been raped based on her terrible appearance and distraught demeanor? The situation my mother had described was awful enough. But it was hard to believe that Bozsi could be mistaken, given the amount of time they spent just the two of them and how intimate they were. They survived together.
I couldn’t convince myself that she was wrong. Over Skype, she told me how my father and her husband reacted to the news of what happened. How weak and powerless they felt. She had gone so far as to change my mother’s name in the book because she didn’t know what had happened to her, whether she could still be alive, and she didn’t want her to be hurt by the revelation.
I wish my mother had felt she could be honest about the rape with me. I wonder how it would have changed our relationship if my parents hadn’t had so many secrets. In our house it was the norm to bury dark events. Buried so they could cause no further harm. Or disturb the carefully crafted present. The rape was my parents’ secret, a bond and common sorrow.
Bozsi’s book became the spine of our Skype sessions. But she had many questions for me, too. She would ask me more than once why I didn’t speak Hungarian or German. The answer was simple, if difficult to comprehend. German was a very unpopular language in Canada in the early 1950s, the language of the enemy. Hungarian, that was my parents’ secret language, one they could use to talk just among themselves. What they wanted for my brother and me was that we become real Canadians. That meant speaking English.
I would ask her how she met my parents. What did she remember about them?
For our biweekly meetings, I would prepare answers to questions I thought she might have about my parents and their lives in Canada and our family in advance. I would print them out to have them ready for her. Bozsi suffers from macular degeneration so it’s difficult for her to read text on a screen. So I recorded a brief history of our family post 1945 and sent her the audio file.
When we spoke, I’d have the Skype video screen on my laptop and a Google translate window open on a separate monitor so I could quickly tap out something I wanted to explain.
As a child growing up in Vancouver, my parents hadn’t told me anything about our Jewish history. I learned that Bozsi hadn’t told her own three sons about hers, either. Just as my father wanted to keep that history buried—he said to spare his sons the suffering previous generations had experienced—Dr. Lanussé had insisted that Bozsi also conceal her Jewish past.
It was only when one son came home and told her he’d prefer to sit next to a black boy at school than a Jew that she told her husband that he had to tell them. She was appalled by both the racism and the anti-Semitism, daggers from her own son that underscored attitudes she found so troubling as she tried to make a new life in France. “If you don’t tell them now that I am Jewish myself, I am going away, back to my family in Switzerland,” she told him. Bozsi had cousins in Switzerland who had helped her after the war. I asked her how the boys had responded. She looked at me blankly, and said it turned out that they had already guessed the truth.
Something similar had happened in my own family, where my father, too, didn’t want to talk about our Jewish ancestry. One day my brother came home from school and used a slur in talking about a Jewish student. My mother was upset and felt she had to tell him that what he had said wasn’t acceptable. It was then that she told my brother for the first time that members of his own family were Jewish. I don’t remember that happening. I don’t even remember hearing about it when it happened. My brother doesn’t recall it. My parents told me about it later, after I had confronted them with my own discovery as a teenager that, as I put it to them then, I was Jewish. Even though my mother’s parents were named Stein and ran a delicatessen after immigrating from Hungary in 1955, I hadn’t clued into my family’s ancestry until someone outside the family told me about it. My words upset my parents. They didn’t want us to be anti-Semites. But they also didn’t want us to be Jews.
“It’s incredible,” Bozsi told me. “It’s the same.”
She described how difficult it had been to immigrate to France, and wanted to know about my parents’ experience immigrating to Canada. She hadn’t felt accepted. She was someone who felt she wasn’t French or Hungarian, not Catholic or Jew. That seemed so familiar. While my parents felt proudly Canadian, they weren’t like my friends’ parents. Whenever we crossed the border into the United States or returned home to Canada, even when they handed over their Canadian IDs, they were asked, “Where are you really from?”
They were Canadian and yet still had Austrian and Hungarian accents. Of course I was born in Canada, but in elementary school teachers felt the need to have me taken out of class to work with a speech pathologist because I had picked up my parents’ pronunciation. Vancouver was the end of the line in Canada, and unlike the larger cities of Montreal and Toronto, not a place with a flood of post-war immigrants. My parents were sensitive to not standing out. When they added a bathroom to accommodate my mother’s parents in our house on a tree-lined city street, a Canadian family across the street complained to authorities, raising questions about whether we were going to change the character of the neighborhood and turn our home into a rooming house.
Despite the hatred they had experienced in Hungary, both Bozsi and my mother still held an affection for their native country. Bozsi surrounded herself in her house with small things from Hungary, just as my mother had. She told me she rooted for the Hungarian soccer team when it played the French. She lived in between worlds, a concept that became the theme of her book. Her initial title had been, “Tu seras une chauve souris, ma fille,” what her rabbi in Budapest had cautioned her when she came to tell him she wanted to convert to Catholicism. He meant that she would be like a bat, neither a bird nor a mouse, or in her case, neither a Catholic nor a Jew.
The more we talked, the more certain it seemed that I had to go and meet Bozsi in person. But I was apprehensive. What am I doing? What am I expecting from visiting someone who is 93 years old? Could we really have anything in common after 70 years without any contact with my family? Would it really help me understand more fully what it took for my parents to survive and begin again? Would it really help me know them better? I didn’t know. But I wanted to find out.
So we went.
* * *
You can’t be sure where any search will lead. But in this case it brought Judith and me 5,600 miles across the ocean, a nearly 11-hour flight, from San Francisco to Paris. And then a few days later, with Nathalie joining us, 375 miles by train, a more than 3-hour ride, from Paris to Bordeaux. And finally, after meeting our daughter Hannah in the Bordeaux train station, a nearly 90-mile drive to the Atlantic Coast resort town of Royan. The four of us found ourselves cruising down the highway past scrub forest and vineyards, and then along a narrow French country road, past the stone buildings and medieval churches of small French villages, dead quiet on a Saturday evening.
As we drove, I thought about how a search, or seeking an answer to a question, can open doors in unexpected ways. I never imagined trying to find what happened to Dr. Lanussé would lead to anything but something straightforward: He returned home or he didn’t. But the search had taken on a life of its own. I couldn’t stop.
Royan, strategically located at the mouth of the Gironde estuary, is a white city. White buildings. White stones. White walls. It was destroyed by British bombers in January 1945 and rebuilt, in modern style, after the war. This year, in early April, its beachfront hotels and restaurants felt half-abandoned. At that time of year, one can only imagine the town that must come to life in the summer. Our Airbnb apartment was across the street from a French arcade, games whirring away with nobody to play them. A town where the French go to play. Vast outdoor cafes, empty now. Sand and sea.
We would learn later that the reason Dr. Lanussé landed there was that a friend, a fellow doctor, had encouraged him to join him in the rebuilding city, where he was then the only doctor. There was opportunity. The thought had been that Dr. Lanussé and his Hungarian bride would return to Bordeaux. But they never left Royan, not after hiring an architect to design them a modern house full of light on what was becoming doctors’ row. Near the center of the town, not far from a tennis club and the beach, with a view of the ocean from their bedroom, they moved in in 1951. Bozsi is still there in that bedroom today.
Bozsi had invited us and her children for aperitifs the next day, Sunday around six o’clock. But that felt too long to wait, and too formal an occasion to meet for the first time. So I suggested that I come earlier on Sunday, just with Hannah, to say hello. Bozsi embraced the idea. The next morning the city was thriving, with a flourishing Sunday market. Cafes were open. Families were shopping. The market hall was surrounded by vendors outside, with flowers, fruit, vegetables, cheese, and huge trays of paella. We found white parrot tulips for Bozsi from a farmer who gave us strict instructions about how little water to put them in. Hannah and I went on our way, leaving Judith and Nathalie behind, flowers in hand, to meet Bozsi in-person for the first time.
There, waiting at the door of her white house, she stood, beaming, erect, without a cane or any aid. She was put together just as my mother would have been. But she was more chic, French, in a white blouse and beige sweater, with two silver necklaces, one a heart and the other a swirling design. Her face, framed by gold and pearl earrings, was perfectly made up, brown hair just so. She stood smaller than I had imagined in our Skype calls, but her gaze was the gaze I already knew, warm and tough, sad and twinkling.
We kissed French style, once on each side of the face. And then we did it again, and went inside the house where Dr. Lanussé had also had his medical practice, with its own separate entrance. Where they had raised their three sons. Where she had been on her own for more than 25 years. It felt uncannily familiar. Like my parents could have spent their lives there. The living room was filled with soft light, filtered by wispy curtains along a wall of windows, floor to ceiling. The round wood dining table was just like the one in my parents’ house. The Persian carpets, the framed engravings on the wall, the objets spread about, all reminded us of my parents’ home.
Bozsi sat in her high-back chair, and Hannah and I sat on a low couch. We had so much to say, the words came pouring out. We had thought we’d come for just 30 minutes, to break the ice. We ended up staying two hours.
Bozsi was excited. She had been digging through her photographs to see if she had one of my grandparents’ house. It was hard to imagine she could find anything given the state of her eyesight, so poor that she can’t even read a word of the large print edition of her own book. Yet in the stacks of her old pictures she thought she found something I might want to have. She presented me with a small brown leather folder with black and white pictures the size of credit cards in plastic sleeves. The pictures were from late 1944, of her and Henri standing outside my grandparents’ house. In one there was a third person, a thin man she thought might be my father. “Could it be?” she asked me. I took the photo in my hands and knew right away. It was my father. There was no mistaking him. The way he stood. His face. It was astonishing that a photo of my father could turn up this many years later in a house in France where no one in my family had ever been, that it could tie two strangers together 70 years later. Bozsi wanted me to have it. It was not to be the last gift of a memory from that era.
That night, her two sons—the brother who had emailed me that he was the son of Henri Lanussé, and the brother whom I had not yet met—would show us the Kodak camera Bozsi and Henri had received when they married. The camera that had been used to take the picture of my father. A fine specimen, with a leather case. A camera had been a dangerous thing to have in one’s possession, she told us. She had taken photos of the Russians, and when she and Henri tried to make their way to France, he had told her she had to throw out the film. He was afraid they would be seen as spies. But they held on to the camera, and somehow through their arduous journey they held on to those few photos of themselves—and my father.
Before we left, we asked if we could take her picture. We walked outside, to her small yard where she sat in the sun against the wall of her kitchen. Her face told me she had seen so much. She was beautiful. And sad. Funny. Brave. And strong. It was there, on what she called the Temple grounds, that she and Henri had their outdoor dining table. They had built it that way, she told us, to remind them of the one at my grandparents’ house. They had liked it so much they wanted one of their own. They didn’t have a picture of my grandparents’ house, but they had remembered it, in stone.
That evening Hannah and I returned with Judith and Nathalie, this time to celebrate our reunion. For Bozsi, it was a chance to repay the kindness of my grandparents, who had left them so much champagne when they offered them shelter at their home. There were eight of us, one more than had been in the cellar. We drank to the occasion and ate foie gras, a reminder of something memorable they had been able to eat in my grandparents’ house. They had a special Hungarian cheese, just like my mother’s, only this one was made with French cheese and ours at home had been made with Canadian. They cut up spicy Hungarian sausage. We ate so much that we forgot altogether the special French cream puffs they had set aside for dessert.
Bozsi has told me that when she talks of the past she often sees in her mind’s eye the people she’s remembering. Her husband. My father. My mother. All there, as we laughed and shared stories about the camera and the cheese, the foie gras and the champagne. We took pictures, to remember the occasion. Seventy years later, the survivor and descendants of the cellar.
Bozsi told us that she and my parents had talked in the cellar about staying together after the war. She said my mother had always swore that they would get out of the cellar together, that they would make it together. When Russian soldiers finally marched them out single file at gunpoint, one of them joked, “See, we did get out together.”
The next day it was our turn to take Bozsi for a local speciality, oysters. It wasn’t long though, before she felt weak and ill and asked us to take her home. It was difficult for her to move. She was in pain. She needed to lie down. The sudden turn in Bozsi’s condition was jarring. Her health was far more precarious than I had imagined. My parents had been at her side when her life had hung in the balance. Today the enemy was old age.
We took Bozsi home to rest and went to the city’s museum, which had a timely exhibit about the war years in Royan. I was struck by the extensive list of rules the Nazis had imposed on the residents. Among the activities that were forbidden: holding bicycle handlebars with one hand and wearing makeup at college. Our conversations with Bozsi had centered around the war years in Budapest. But the exhibit showed a different side of her life, that the city where she had come to live with her husband had also suffered, that she hadn’t found a fresh start the way my parents had in Canada. That she still had to live with the scars of the war.
Bozsi introduced us over Skype to her granddaughter, who lives in India with her Sikh husband. Now Bozsi’s French granddaughter was having to make her way in a new country just the way Bozsi had. The man’s family were refugees, migrants from what became Pakistan. He told us that his wife is more Indian than he is, something I don’t believe Henri would ever have said about Bozsi and France. We remained in the bedroom where she has her computer. Sitting on a guest bed, holding hands with Hannah, Bozsi spoke of her memories of her early years in Royan.
She described how she had no decent clothes and told us she had looked like a vagabond. How troubled she had been by the “USA Go Home” graffiti she had seen. How she had taken the opposite tack and encouraged an American family to move in on their street. How she felt like she didn’t have anything to do. How Henri didn’t want her to have a piano. How he was going out every night with his friends. How it wasn’t the life she wanted, alone at home. How, before her boys were born, she had left Henri, and run away to Switzerland, where she had cousins. And finally, how Henri came after her, promising things would be different and brought her home.
Hannah had noticed right away that Bozsi’s house felt like the home of her grandmother. Formal, but lived in. Full of colorful glass and ceramics that seemed to contain memories. Wood bookshelves, flowers, framed family photos and ornate table lamps. Our conversations with Bozsi revealed how similar in so many ways the lives of my parents and the lives of Henri and Bozsi had been after the war, even though they never saw each other or spoke again.
The biggest similarity may have been something that you couldn’t see. Both couples lived in a space in between. Their identity was never straightforward, as individuals or as families. As a boy, I felt I lived in a different world from my parents. I would hide clothes I wanted to wear to school in a paper bag in our garage. I would change from the collared shirt and sweater my mother liked to see me in to a sweatshirt or t-shirt with cut off sleeves, hacked with scissors in my room. I adored baseball. But my mother would tell me how much she hated the game. It bothered her that GIs had played catch after the war in Budapest squares. She thought it was undignified, disrespectful. Then she saw her own son put on his baseball uniform and jump on his bike for the ballpark, a place they never visited, even for the biggest game.
The life of an immigrant is a life of two places, two identities. And maybe that’s especially so for those who feel they have no choice but to leave their native land. In my parents’ youth, identity was a matter of life or death. In the world they sought for their children, they hoped it could be a choice.
That night, after Bozsi had rested, we returned to her house so Hannah and Nathalie could say goodbye. It was painful for Bozsi. She called Hannah “adorable,” and said she didn’t want to lose her. I hadn’t imagined what it would mean to have one of my children with me as I met an old, old friend of my parents. We had experienced a family bond together, and I could imagine how even after I’m gone my daughter would be able to tell her own family about the friend of her grandmother, how the story could live on, connecting generations.
When I arrived the next night to pick up Bozsi to take her for aperitifs at her son’s house, she had a gift ready for me. A bottle of champagne that she had sent her aide out to buy after learning at lunch that it was my birthday. I told Bozsi that one thing I wanted to do was make a video of her speaking so I could share it with the rest of my family. My parents had never been open with me about their past the way Bozsi had. Through her, I had come to know them on the terrain of their youth. Through her, I had seen the layers of their lives peeled away. I admired the courage and resilience of the people she revealed them to be. But I also felt their desire not to let me become a victim had deprived me of something intangible.
As a child, I had felt my family was alone. That I was alone. Now I saw that her family and ours, survivors of the cellar, had an invisible bond. My daughter Hannah had seen the same, and I hoped my video could do the same for the rest of my family. Before we sat down, Bozsi went over to a table in her living room covered in carved elephants. On the table was an elephant so small you almost couldn’t see it. Bozsi picked it up and said she wanted to give it to me.
She explained that she had collected elephants as a young girl. Back then she had only had three or four. Now she has dozens. People give them to her as gifts. Before she and Henri moved to my grandparents’ house, she had slipped the smallest of her elephants into her pocket. It has been with her the rest of her life. She told me she had it with her in her pocket in the cellar when she was with my parents. She carried it as they crossed the frozen Danube. It sat at the heart of her collection today. She pressed it into my hand and said she wanted me to have it. It was her birthday present to me.
It was the smallest gift and the biggest gift. I didn’t know what to do. Tears pushed at my eyes. Bozsi insisted. I took it. And put it into my pocket. Where it sits still today.
Before leaving for her son and daughter-in-law’s house, Bozsi and I sat in her dining room, bathed in evening light. She spoke directly to the camera and told me she didn’t want to lose us. “I want to know the rest of the family, too,” she said.
We didn’t want to say goodbye that night. So later, we said goodnight and came back the next morning. It’s up to us not to separate again, she told me then.
When we returned home to San Francisco, we began to Skype again. In our first session, she told me she had an idea for a new project: The Last Boat from Odessa, 70 years later.
* Translation of excerpts of Le dernier bateau d’Odessa by Eva Boodman.