Journey Into a Dark Past Land of My Ancestors
Budapest, Prague & Vienna
Norma Roth’s past is indeed dark, but her journey is one of enlightenment. Retracing the steps of her early 20th Century ancestors; her own parents included; she is able to come to terms with the muted secrets of her life into them as she takes us to the places in which they lived and allows us to experience some of the Central Europe they knew.
Seventy years after the horrors of Nazi occupation and genocide we, her readers, have yet to come to terms with the stark realities. Journey into a Dark Past is an important addition to post-Holocaust literature and, in its own way, helps each of us deal with our own ghosts.
- Review from Norman Benjamin
Norma Roth ends her Journey Into a Dark Past with a moving dedication to her sons, Steven and Michael. “To move this world towards the better goals of civilization and humanity demands that the present generation and future generations always be on guard, and never allow that this disintegration of civilization and its descent into hell that were the products of the Hitler regime,” she writes. As her sons were growing, Roth shielded them from that “descent into hell,” much as her own parents had tried to protect her. But her journeys to Budapest, Vienna and Prague, in 1979 and 1999, convinced her that only when you confront the past could you hope to build the future.
Roth is the daughter of Hungarian Jews who immigrated to New York before the Second World War. She grew up in an ethnic neighborhood in the Bronx. Like so many immigrants who yearned for their children to assimilate, Roth’s parents did not teach her their native language. Yet she absorbed some of the older culture through its food, traditional costumes, music and dance. So maybe the seeds were already planted when her parents took her on that first trip to their homeland in 1979. On their first trip, Roth was pretty much a tourist fortunate enough to be guided by two native speakers. Her parents were eager to show her all the pressing beauty and historical highlights of Budapest, yet beyond a few offhand remarks that hinted at a far darker history, no mention was made of the war years. So for Roth that first visit to her ancestral homeland was a light and joyful experience. By contrast, her second visit in 1999, after her parents were dead, was a pilgrimage with far darker discoveries and demands.
Toward the end of that pilgrimage, Roth recalls a day mineral baths in Budapest, relics of the Ottoman Empire. As Roth looks on, a lovely olive-skinned young woman, her perfect features framed by long jet-black hair, appears among the throng of fair-haired Europeans. Hanging from her neck, stark against her black bathing suit, is a huge Star of David. She is wearing that religious symbol as an emblem, Roth writes: it seems emblazoned on her chest. It is meant to be seen The young woman wears that star both as a challenge and a testimony to survival. Reading that passage, one cannot help but feel that what Roth is seeing is a younger version of herself. Journey Into a Dark Past is the star that she wears. That memory is but one poignant scene in a book brimming with them. Consider, for example, Roth's visit to the Pinchas Synagogue in Prague. On a wall memorializing the Jewish war dead, she finds the names of people from our own family. She hears a cantor and realizes that a service is in progress, and then she discovers that the service is recorded and never ceases. There is no congregation 1; only the dead victims looking on from the walls in silence. Totally beside herself now, she makes her way out of the synagogue and finds herself in the Old Jewish Cemetery. Suddenly a flock of raucous crows swarms overhead, blackening the sky and for Roth the crows become an apt metaphor a perpetual reminder of the darkness, the beast unleashed in man. She flees the cemetery, finds her traveling companion and collapses in tears:
For me, this moment in this synagogue, the light that is Prague comes crashing down, splintering into a thousand fragments, cutting and creating a wound so deep, I feel it can never heal: the light of Prague extinguished. I didn't know before as I know now that such light could be overwhelmed by darkness in a microsecond.
Earlier in Roth's journey, she goes to the Central Cemetery of Vienna, searching for grave sites of the Spitzer side of her family. With considerable difficulty, she finds the old Jewish section of the cemetery. There she feels at home among the Spitzer plots she finds. But she cannot find her grandfather's grave. She meets a lovely gentle lady who ends up consoling her, telling her not to despair in her search. Earlier, when Roth first saw her, the woman seemed to be of another time and place. She had an umbrella to shield her from the sun elements; she had a marvelous hat framing her sweet, approachable face. She was timeless as a Seurat painting. Now, after she has soothed Roth in her elegant and aristocratic manner, she takes her almost leisurely leave.
Shalom, she calls. Roth's reply is instinctive: Shalom. For Roth, in that place, at that time, the Hebrew word means so much more than a casual peace greeting. We have endured, it says. We are here. We will continue.
- Review by Tim McCarthy
Journey Into A Dark Past, Land of My Ancestors, Budapest, Prague Vienna by Norma Roth is a true story that will tug at heartstrings as individuals read personal information regarding the tragedy of the Holocaust. As the author searches a dark past, readers will be reminded of the Holocaust and the systematic extermination of millions of European Jews because of the thinking of Hitler; a ruthless maniac. The author also places blame on others who could have made a difference if only they had had the courage to hide many of these victims.
Norma Roth, the daughter of Frank and Irma Roth, was born in America, enjoying her American citizenship and accepting all the opportunities it brought to her. Surrounded by cultural influences while growing up in an immigrant neighborhood; mostly from different parts of Eastern Europe; the author knew America was her country, although she would sometimes mention to others that her parents were of Hungarian descent. This was done without thought as she went to Hungarian picnics, took Hungarian dance lessons, wore Hungarian costumes and enjoyed Hungarian food. In time she recognized that her parents lived in two different worlds, unable or unwilling to forget their beloved homeland.
Their past was a world in which she was not welcome; however, she would puzzle over household incidents that she didn't fully understand such as letters from a foreign country and a special carton kept in the kitchen where canned food was placed and then mailed to Europe. Her father had come to America around 1921 and her mother with her family sometime between 1922 and 1924.
They married in 1927, both having left family behind and friends who would never be able to join them. The war had come late to Hungary but Roth's parents knew they must flee their beloved homeland to escape the atrocities that would ultimately take place. In America they would physically separate themselves from the horrors across the ocean; however, emotionally, it was a different story. Their minds would never let them forget those left behind or stop searching for relatives who had survived.
Readers will live the journey with the author as she travels into the past, confronting that which she had hidden. Perhaps subconsciously her parents had allowed bits and pieces of their other world escape their lips. As the author grew older and researched historical happenings in Europe, she began to understand the true meaning of fear and persecution. She began to understand the sacrifices her parents had made for her in leaving the land of their ancestors; Budapest, Prague and Vienna.
In 1979 she made her first trip to Budapest with her parents. Her visit was rewarding as she enjoyed the architectural beauty and culture of Budapest; however, along with the gaiety, she sensed the heavy burdens forever embedded in the hearts of her parents. Their unconscious flashbacks to the war years, led to more slips of the tongue, and would forever stay within the recesses of their daughter's mind. For example, there was mention of the Blue Danube turning red as Hungarians were lined up and shot. But she had learned not to ask questions, though she knew that one day she would again visit the land of her ancestors.
This second visit took place in 1999 where events that had occurred fifty years earlier took her into the full reality as to what had happened to family members who had not escaped the reign of terror that engulfed them. She was searching for the darker side of her ancestry and describes places and happenings that will bring tears to the eyes of readers.
Unlike reading a history book, this well-written and educational book is very personal and told with total honesty. We must all believe that lessons learned from this dark past, will prevent a repeat of such atrocities. In the dedication to her sons, the author says on page 174; "Without a past there is only a blank slate upon which to write. This is one reason why she wrote this book; to give her sons background information that she felt would help them identify, with pride, their roots as they are reminded of the bravery and sacrifices of their ancestors.
It is with a sense of awe that I recommend this book, hoping and believing that it will have a significant and historical impact upon readers. Purchase a copy for yourself and give copies as gifts.
- Review by Bettie Corbin Tucker, an Independent Book Reviewer