The yellow star

Everyone to their own trauma.* Because I can’t deny this experience is traumatic to us all. And we can’t even begin to imagine the trauma of those who put their lives on the line for us every day (see John Krasinski’s latest Some Good News video). Please spend a minute or two and think of them before you read on.

To help with a school assignment (again), over the weekend, I have reread Fateless (Sorstalanság) by Imre Kertész. This is the story of Gyurka, a 14-year-old Jewish boy from Budapest, who is taken to concentration camp in early 1944, and liberated in early 1945. A heart-wrenching and haunting read, the story is told from Gyurka’s perspective, in a very factual manner, keeping emotions to the minimum.

Disclaimer: I do not recommend this book as quarantine reading. (It’s one of the best books out there, and it earned its author the Nobel prize.)

At the end of the book, when Gyurka gets home, people keep asking him how he endured all the terrible things he’d been through. But he didn’t experience them as terrible: things got bad gradually, one step at a time: the next day was only slightly worse than the previous one. That is something a human being can cope with without noticing much. To an extent, at least.**

Far be it from me to compare this Corona crisis with the Jews’ predicament in the 1940s. At the same time, I can’t help but make comparisons: this is the trauma that runs in my veins,*** and my mind is tirelessly trying to make sense of what is happening, trying to connect it to everything that was before.

And there are some similarities: from the 1920s, Jews in Hungary had been gradually losing their liberties. They couldn’t go to the school they wanted, couldn’t run the business they wanted, had to wear a yellow star, couldn’t go to a lot of shops and public places, couldn’t sit just anywhere on public transit. Most people are law-abiding. With very few exceptions, the Jews did what they were told, even in the camps.

Now it’s happening to every one of us: because of the Corona, some of our liberties are taken away. We gave them up voluntarily, in fact. What you need to understand is that – people with my kind of trauma are actually afraid it won’t stop here. For what it’s worth, it may be all in our heads. But if we’re not wrong, we’ll need to work to get our freedom back once Corona leaves the building. I wrote about this the other day.

I’m not trying to instigate panic or rebellion: I’m not more afraid than you are. But I may be afraid of a different thing. Because my past trauma is different. I’m not even trying to analyze you: I’m no mental health expert. My mind trying to make sense of what is happening, and its conclusions may be entirely wrong.

I guess I’m saying that it’s OK to feel anxiety, to stay up at night, to imagine symptoms, to sit in the corner and cry. It may not be OK but still understandable if you snap at your colleagues or your loved ones. But if that happens (it happened to me), you must remember that they need support as much as you do.

So today, after I got really annoyed with my son – because he can be really annoying –, at one point, when I cooled off, I could walk up to him and give him a hug. He needed that more than he needed my angry outburst earlier.

* The original dictionary form is ‘every man to his own’, I took the liberty to apply a 21st century upgrade.
** There’s a scene where Gyurka, having spent several months in the camp, notices how ‘beautiful’ the new arrivals are – but he slowly realizes that they are the ones that look ‘normal’, and he has changed, inside and outside.
*** As a Jew, my grandfather (on my father’s side) was taken to forced labor in 1942, and died on the battlefield near Voronezh (Russia) in early 1943.

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