January 4, 2017

ANNI HORRIBILI (profanity alert):

Champagne in the Cellar (John Temple, Jul. 13th, 2016, The Atlantic)

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.

Posted by at January 4, 2017 8:55 AM


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