When I was growing up, I felt as if a golden age had existed just before my time. As a young child I caught glimpses of it before the war. I lived in a large apartment in Budapest, Hungary, with my parents, my little brother, and my grandmother and her sister, my great-aunt. The beautiful city, with its river, bridges, and hills, lay all around us. Many of the houses were painted yellow. It now seems to me that there was a golden light everywhere. My grandfather, who died in 1940, had a thoughtful face and a gold-white mustache. I remember him singing a Hungarian folk song to me “There is only one little girl in the whole wide world / And that little girl is my dear turtledove. / The Good Lord must have had me dearly in his heart / When he created you just for me.”
I still love that song. Although we were of Jewish origin, it symbolizes how Hungarian we felt, part of the culture of that flat land. My family was middle class, not wealthy, and they were disillusioned by how little the country had changed after the efforts of my grandparents’ generation early in the 20th century to bring about greater justice and equality. But my parents enjoyed their friends and the lively cultural activities of Budapest. All that changed in the early years of World War II. Jews became non-persons, non-Hungarians. They had to wear yellow stars, couldn’t attend public schools or public events. My parents lost their jobs. They had to train non-Jews to take over their livelihood.
But I didn’t know all this. I only noticed that my parents spent more time at home, that we no longer had servants or a governess, that my grandmother cooked the meals and my great-aunt played with me.
In March of 1944, the Germans invaded Hungary, and deportations of Jews started. My parents told me that I, aged six and a half, and my little brother, aged three and a half, would have to leave home and pretend that we were Christian children, with false names. I had a cross on a silver chain around my neck and memorized the Lord’s Prayer. What really shocked me was that my father had tears in his eyes. I had never seen him cry. I knew that everything had changed.
I was old enough to know the danger, but I experienced that time as one of intense homesickness rather than of fear. The only time I remember crying was when I caught a snatch of classical music on the radio that reminded me of home. The people who hid my brother and me were not unkind. They were running risks by sheltering Jewish children while they themselves were subject to the privations of war shortages and increasing danger from bombs and shelling. But I hated them for burning the paprika potatoes we ate and for only providing toilet paper made of newspaper in the cellar, where we hid during the terrible siege of the city. Most of all, I hated them for not being my parents. Finally, the bombing stopped, and our cellar doors opened. We went out to find a city in rubble and Russian soldiers who gave candy to children. Then my father came to see us. He and my mother had survived, but my grandmother and great-aunt had perished, “unfortunately,” he said, with that inadequacy of words to feelings that we all experience in the great tragedies of our lives. I knew that I could never go home again.
Slowly, my parents rebuilt their lives. We emigrated first to Western Europe, then to the United States. When we finally had our own home in New York, I lived surrounded by furniture from Budapest that my mother had brought out with great difficulty, by antique clocks and china, and by lots of stories. It took me a long time, however, to find out exactly what had happened to my grandmother and to my great-aunt.
I grew up, still longing for that old life that had disappeared long ago. I studied, married, then had my own children. Finally, I decided to try to reconstruct that way of life before my own and of some of the people I never knew. I went to the Library of Congress, did research, and asked my mother to check out the details that I imagined.
I discovered that many of the books I enjoyed stemmed from the same longing I experienced for a lost childhood world. Late in life, Willa Cather wrote about West Virginia, the place her parents left for the Middle West when she was little, as well as about her slave-owning forebears. Paul Gauguin as a child lived in Latin America but grew up in France. I’m sure the bright colors he put into his paintings were intended to reconstruct some of his memories of a lost paradise. Even sadness can haunt. Charles Dickens, who spent a short time in a workhouse as a child, wrote about poor children all his life. I think that the feelings that haunted me were the conflict between gratitude towards the people who made it possible for me to survive and despair about the world that didn’t allow others to do so.
I was particularly intrigued by the friendship between my grandmother and a woman from the countryside who worked for her, two women of different backgrounds and temperaments. Their relationship symbolized the way in which people can transcend their circumstances and the limits that events impose on the best of intentions. I knew that my grandmother’s friend had tried to save her during the war but failed.
In this novel, the character of Elizabeth is based on my grandmother, whom I remember. Anna’s character is based on several women from a small village who worked for my grandmother and became her friends. I knew the last of these women and still correspond with her descendants. My grandmother’s friend wrote me beautiful letters for many years, always starting with the ritual good wishes for health and prosperity and expressing hope that there would never be another war, “which eats up the livelihood of the whole world.” Although I had these real-life models, I invented all of the characters, including Anna and Elizabeth, their husbands and children, not to mention their thoughts and words. The historical events are real. World War I and the revolution in Hungary in 1918 can be found in history books. And many of the details are real, such as the embroidery Anna would have been proud of or the noodle cutter that used to belong to my family, an early precursor of the Cuisinart.
When I finished, the past and the people still eluded me. But some of their stories came to life for me, and I hope, for readers. Because there were sad and difficult moments in people’s lives, the past seemed even more interesting, although less idyllic than I first thought. The present isn’t that different from the past, it’s just that we find it hard to look at our current lives as a whole as we live them.
By writing this book, some of my longing for the past was stilled. I now live in the present in a new golden age. This world is not perfect, but my family and friends lead productive, peaceful lives, with their own struggles, achievements, and disappointments, like the people in this book. Some day, this world will also disappear and present a new generation with stories they will want to remember.