For York English Professor Julia Creet, delving into her mother’s secret past was like following a trail of clues to a discovery that would tear at her sense of self. A mother’s memoir, a news article about a Hungarian grandfather and a cache of letters, poems and manuscripts he’d written in a language Creet couldn’t understand, lay scattered along the path.
It wasn’t until her mother was dying that Creet, chair of York’s Department of English, Faculty of Arts, found out the truth, that her mother was Jewish and had lived through the Holocaust in Hungary. Her mother died without ever telling her children about her hidden history. In response, Creet embarked on a journey into her mother’s past, creating a 37-minute documentary, titled MUM, which is screening tonight at 5pm as part of the Toronto Jewish Film Festival (following a 48-minute film, titled Skate to Survive) at the Al Green Theatre, 750 Spadina Ave. at Bloor St. in Toronto. The TJFF runs from May 3 to 11.
Left: Creet’s mother Magda György (left) with her sister Agnes in 1935
It was a journey that would fracture what Creet knew about her mother and expose a rich history in the small Hungarian town of Székesfehérvár, where many residents still remembered the family. Creet and her three siblings, however, grew up as Christians under the benevolent gaze of the United Church of Canada in Kingston, Ont., with a Protestant mother and an atheist father.
"When my parents immigrated to Canada, in the late 1950s, they decided to forget their history," says Creet, who bears a remarkable resemblance to her mother. "It’s a very common story. What’s unusual is the archival material that we were able to use to recreate the story."
Her mother, Magda, let go of her Jewish heritage and converted to Christianity after immigrating to Canada. She tried desperately to forget the horrors of the Holocaust and thought Christianity would protect her children. "We grew up never knowing where she came from or what happened to everyone." That included a sister who died before Creet was born, a sibling she never knew existed.
It didn’t occur to the Creet children to question their mother’s religion even though their mother’s sister Agnes and her family in Montreal were Jewish. The two families would congregate regularly on Easter and Christmas, but it wasn’t until Creet’s older sister was in her mid-30s that she asked her cousin about the matter and the carefully hidden history began to unravel. At the same time, their mother was fighting breast cancer, a battle she would lose. "My cousin was quite astounded that we still didn’t know," says Creet, who was 25 at the time. "It surfaced almost as a rumour."
Right: Julia Creet
In the documentary, Creet and her siblings discuss their initial reaction to the news and its impact on their family. "I think the first thing I felt was I was quite angry with her for not telling us and confused. I’m not angry anymore. It certainly explained a good deal about her life. She suffered bouts of depression, and so did my aunt, and a kind of pervasive sorrow you couldn’t quite put your finger on."
Suddenly, her mother’s memoir –given to Creet five years before the revelation her mother was Jewish, but not returned to until after her death –began to make sense. Creet realized the child her mother refers to was Creet’s sister, and the man, her mother’s first husband. "When I first read it, it was clearly autobiographical, but I couldn’t make sense of it. There were no dates, no place names, no people names and it was about an unknown girl growing up in an unknown place in an unknown time. So I didn’t know how much was autobiographical and how much was fiction."
Her mother’s memoirs end in 1940, the year she gave birth to her first daughter. What the story doesn’t tell, is the suffering the Holocaust brought to Magda and her family in Hungary and how one act changed the course of her life forever. She lost three generations of her family to the Holocaust.
It is clear to Creet that by giving her the memoir, her mother had wanted her to stitch together the missing pieces of her life. After her mother died, Creet found an article about her grandfather, Oscar György, among her mother’s things that indicated the rest of his papers were stored in the county archives in Hungary. That was the impetus for Creet’s first trip to Hungary in 1994, but without knowing the language, Creet struggled to do the simplest things.
"We found the archive office, but our Hungarian was so bad we couldn’t even read the sign that said to ring the bell for help. We barged in setting off the alarm," says Creet. "We really couldn’t make ourselves understood, but I had this article and I kept holding it out to them and it had his picture on it." Eventually, they understood enough and brought out seven boxes of archival material.
What she discovered was that her grandfather was a poet and a literary translator – the first translator of Charles Pierre Baudelaire, a 19th-century poet and art critic. Her grandfather also taught French at the local school in Székesfehérvár, where a plaque commemorating him is still attached to the school’s exterior and his name is on every bus stop sign.
Armed with a York Faculty of Fine Arts Fellowship and a SSHRC grant, Creet returned to Hungary many times between 2001 and 2006 to film the documentary, which contains interviews with former students of her grandfather and friends of her mother. Creet’s family is still dealing with the news. The pact of silence between her mother and father was so pervasive that even the truth is insufficient at breaking through the quiet. Creet says her siblings are afraid the truth will alter their memories of their mother.
For Creet, making the film brought clarity and understanding. It explained the deep sorrow her mother carried like a constant companion and why she didn’t want to share the pain of her history with her children.
Creet has also written a book about her experiences – what she refers to as the long version – tentatively titled "Our Private Dead: A collaborative memoir about mothers, daughters, wartime and secrets". The book includes much of her mother’s original memoir along with the missing historical context and the path it took to find it. Creet is currently looking for a publisher.
It was after the film was complete that Creet realized the issue of her being gay never entered the picture, yet her mother’s words upon finding that out resonated with her daughter. "Be whatever you want to be, but for God’s sake shut up about it." Creet didn’t understand the meaning of those words until much later. Looking back, she realized those were the words Magda herself lived by, less by choice, than for survival.
For tickets to MUM, call 416-967-1528 or visit the TJFF Web site.
By Sandra McLean, YFile writer.