Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Diana Chambers: Searching the Streets of Time

It gives me great pleasure to introduce Diana Chambers, a lovely friend and writer who as she says "was born with a book in one hand and a passport in the other.” She’s been in the Asian importing business, in Hollywood costume design, then scriptwriting—until her characters as Diana says “demanded their own novels." And so her character, Nick Daley shows up in Stinger, somewhere near the Khyber Pass, a romantic spy thriller which is a recent Audible release, with the sequel in production. 

Diana lives in a small Northern California town. Her bag is always packed. A few months ago I read about her summer travels - treat yourself and visit her blog - and found her moving post on Budapest. For Diana, this wasn’t a tourist trip but a journey back to find out about family. To see where her relatives had lived. And to find memories and traces of those who didn’t survive the death camps. They say to understand the macrocosm you must comprehend the microcosm. This is a time of being with family and thank you Diana for joining our ‘family’ today and sharing this poignant journey.  Cara  
Last summer, my brother’s big birthday bash launched our travels through Europe By Train. http://dianarchambers.blogspot.com/2014/09/revisiting-europe-by-train.html. Cara Black was struck by my post from Budapest and asked me to recount it now, a story of family, a lost home, and murder.

We often think of the road not taken in a symbolic sense, but sometimes there is a very specific road, one that can lead to death—or life. We came to Budapest to ask: Merre va Margit Hid? Where is Margaret Bridge? And Merre va Deak Ferencz utca 21? Where is the old home of my nieces’ grandmother?

We arrived from Prague after a six-hour train journey. On the Pest side of the Danube, Keleti Railway Terminal is vast and old, witness to the sweep of history, armies of many nations, peoples on the move.

Across the river, Buda is even older, dominated by Castle Hill, a citadel against the 13C Mongol hordes.

There have been other invaders over the years, but the Nazi regime evokes particular shivers of fear and hate. Past is present in Europe and every street, every bridge are landmarks of a life.

My nieces’ grandmother, Ann, and younger sister, Vali, had lived with their widowed mother, Rose Gabor, at Deak Ferencz utca 21 in the center of Pest. Then in 1944, the first Jewish deportees were sent to Auschwitz—in freight trains that may have left from Keleti Station. The family was torn apart, forced to hide in three Christian homes on the Buda hillsides. On the day of their road not taken, a bitter reunion took place when they were arrested by Hungarian Arrow Cross fascists and marched toward Margit Bridge.

Rose, seeing a work unit walking along the river, pulled her girls into that line—in the blink of an eye changing their fates, and that of my family itself. Without her quick thinking, my two wonderful nieces would have never been born.

We stood on that bridge corner imagining those horrific days, the soldiers, the fear. Unable to return to their home, Rose turned to a Christian friend, Lily, who sheltered them through the war. Despite heavy bombing, the old stone building at Deak Ferencz utca 21 endured. Here is its courtyard.

Rose ran her couture business below their apartment, its front balcony now overlooking a busy pedestrian mall. 

The apartment is not far from Parliament with Margit Bridge in the distance.

Just south of Parliament is the memorial to Jews shot into the Danube by Arrow Cross thugs, impatient as the Russians closed in.

It was like a punch in the gut to see these shoes lined up along the quay. Delicate button-ups and high-heels, work-boots, all facing the river.

The cold black water below...the silence...and then the bullets, and cries as family and friends fall into the river. Shot in the back.

The cruel scene evoked in mute simplicity, the shoes old and worn, a child’s beside her mother’s.

If not for Rose’s quick wits, this would have been their fate—or the trains.

It is impossible to walk the streets of Europe without the visceral experience of history. The passage of time, regimes, lives, deaths. The statue or plaque of a famous person now unknown. An ordinary street corner where a mother made a life-changing decision. 

In 1941, 725,000 Jews lived in Hungary. 600,000 of them died during WW2.

Monday, December 29, 2014

ROMA2000: Celebrating the Millennium

Fifteen years ago, I was on my way to Rome.

But this story started much earlier—when I was nine years old and in the fourth grade of Our Lady of Lourdes School in Paterson, New Jersey.   That was the year we began studying ancient history and learned for the first time the difference between BC and AD.  I was transfixed by the notion of the long flow of time.  I gazed out the window and wondered.  It was 1950.  In fifty years the digit that began the year would change from a “1” to a “2.”  How momentous!  Could it be that I would be alive when such an enormous thing happened?  If I lived that long, I would be about to turn fifty-nine.  My grandmother was nearly that old.  It could happen; I might live to see the year 2000.

As time went on, life brought a lot of other things to think about.  But every once in a while, the notion came to me again, mostly when another year ended.

Page one of the original communiqué.

Then, as we approached the New Year of 1995, I decided it was time to start planning a really great party.  David agreed.  That following January, I sent out a questionnaire to my entire Christmas card list.  It suggested a few possible venues.  Italy was one of them.  Lots of people liked the idea of the party.  A few suggested we all go hiking somewhere far from civilization, not one of my choices.  A number thought it would have to be a tropical place.  My suggestion that it be somewhere beautiful and Italian got the most votes.

Rosanne and me during the week in Rome

The event had a logo and stationery.
Best of all, that letter drew a very enthusiastic response from my dear friend Rosanne Martorella.  “Rome,” she said.  “Nowhere but the Eternal City will do.”   And she wanted to share the work.  It became our joint project over the next five years.  The tasks came in dribs and drabs at first.  Rounding up interested people.  Looking at possibilities.  But then the to-do lists intensified.  Through our contacts in Italy, we were able to reserve the Palazzo Lancelotti, a gorgeous private residence, aristocratic and perfectly situated between the Piazza Navona and Ponte S. Angelo.

The location.

The facade.

The Piano Nobile of the Palazzo Lancellotti.  The walls are painted to look this way.

Soon we were up to our necks in elaborate budgets, travel arrangements, opening Italian bank accounts, corresponding with all the potential guests.  In the end, 104 people signed up and attended, almost all Americans, but some English, French, and Italian friends as well.  Many of them also joined in a week of activities arranged by a friend who was a travel agent.  It included a swanky hotel stay, an audience with the Pope, lots of sight-seeing, and delicious meals.

Here is how we all looked on the big night:

The souvenir program and menu

I arrived early and inspected the premises.  They could not have been more lovely.

The Clark/King/Steen contingent.

The food was spectacular.
Lots of dancing to a band of Sicilian musicians who could play anything!

Two of my schoolmates were among the guests.


This is my favorite photo of the event.  My granddaughter Emma was 17 months old.
I love to imagine her thoughts when she looks at this image in the years to come.

Some events have lifetime significance.  This one occupied my imagination for decades before it happened.   The realization of that dream stands out for me and always will. 

Annamaria -  the Monday before 2015.  Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Weather Outside Is Frightful …

The greetings of the season to all of you! Well, the snow arrived yesterday to the UK with predictable chaotic results.

Normally I’d be absolutely delighted, because I’m a sucker for snow and like nothing better than to get out there and build weird snowmen. In past years I’ve done an Easter Island head, a giant teddy bear, a great white shark and something that was supposed to be a Chinese lion dog but went somewhere awry along the way. I also attempted an actual-size horse, but the snow turned powdery halfway through and I couldn’t get its legs to stay on.

However, this year I attempt to fly out of the country tomorrow (December 29th) so I can’t help but wish the roads had remained dry and clear until after I go wheels-up from Stansted.

One place they don’t have trouble with the cold weather is Harbin, which is the capital of Heilongjiang province in northern China. The reason for this is that for the past thirty years they’ve been holding the annual International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival, so they not only cope well with the freezing conditions, but they positively relish them. And one day I’ll go there to see these magnificent sculptures for myself.

Some are carved out of snow, others built from blocks of ice which allows coloured lighting to be place inside. Either way, it looks fascinating and an experience not to be missed.

Maybe I should add going to the 2016 festival - the 2015 one is almost upon us - to my bucket list. Instead this year I’m off to foreign climes to get my head down and concentrate on some serious scribbling. Can’t think of a better way to kick off the New Year.

So, every good wish for Health, Luck and Happiness to everyone in 2015.

This week’s Word of the Week, my last of 2014, is chionophobia, meaning an extreme dislike or fear of snow. The word originates from Greek chion meaning snow and phobos meaning fear, aversion or dread.