The Ashtray, or How I wrote Louisa (page 2)
The Ashtray, or How I wrote Louisa
page 1, page 2
   I remember the first time I looked through the gate of that cemetery and tried to read the Hebrew inscription through a tangle of weeds. Later, I returned from a trip to find that the undergrowth had been cleared by a volunteer troop of youths from Israel. The stones looked less forlorn, but I couldn’t shake the sense that thee was something dishonest about weeding that cemetery. It seemed to deny a basic truth: once there were Jews in Veszprem; now there were none.

The Great Synagogue of Kecskemét
Click on the photo to go to "Famous Buildings of Kecskemét" and scroll down for larger photos and a brief history.
          When I traveled around Hungary, I made a point of searching for abandoned synagogues. They weren’t hard to find. Some of them were shells, filled with old tires, car parts, and wildflowers. Some of them had been cleaned up and turned into something else altogether — such as the Great Synagogue of Kecskemét, which is now a Technical Museum and Dance Club. I walked around that museum for a few minutes, searching for some sign of what it had been; and , then, without warning, I had to rush outside to the park across the road, where I sat on the grass and cried. Somehow, I had never felt as Jewish as I did in Hungary. It made me wonder how we define identity. Can we only know who we are when we know what we’ve lost?

Israel enters the story
My years in Europe allowed for a few trips to Israel, where I did some research at the Holocaust Memorial, Yad Vashem, and explored the Galilee where Nora’s cousin founded a kibbutz. I will admit to a long-time fascination with Kibbutzim and their founders. Even as I developed a critical ambivalence towards Israeli policy, I still loved those early pioneers. The first Jews who left Europe to make a home in Palestine believed that as they transformed the land, they would transform themselves. The Israel I found was still a land shaped by that spirit, what might be called “heroic optimism.” Logically, when I came to that country, I should have felt what all Jews are told they ought to feel in Israel: proud, secure, and completely at home. Yet somehow I didn’t. It might have been those years in Hungary, but the thought of transformation set my teeth on edge.
     At one point, I came across a deserted Arab quarter where an empty mosque had been turned into an artist’s studio. When I asked my Israeli companion how he felt about the way the building had been used, he shrugged. “It was a war. They were here. Now they’re gone.” I told him about the synagogue in Kechskemet and he nodded. “Same thing. Thee was a war and now they’re gone.” I felt a little sick. Admittedly, the analogy had been my own, but I’d never expected him to agree. Once he had, I almost wanted to start an argument, to insist that there was no equivalence between expulsion and extermination. Still, was that the question at hand? I had asked about some empty buildings. What did I want the Israelis and the Hungarians to do with their mosques and their synagogues? Turn them into museums of displaced persons? Re-populate their countries with the people they had dispossessed and shepherd them inside?
     I imagined Nora and the other survivors arriving in Israel in 1949. Some of those newcomers moved into emptied Arab villages. How did they fit into this society that did not believe in looking back? Nora, in any event, was neither heroic nor optimistic. In fact, her refusal to let go of the past, and to become a new woman, is an essential part of her character. Would she feel at home in Israel? Hardly. Yet she had no other home. And with her was her German daughter-in-law, Louisa, who, like the Biblical Ruth, was as flexible as mercury, a genius at transformation, in some ways the perfect Israeli. Nora responds with a cranky and ironic distance that rises like a wall of barbed wire. What does she protect behind that wall? The past.

The heart of the novel
Above all else, Nora drove the novel on. I let her voice shape the book’s structure, as memory gives way to memory, and she tries to reconcile what she has lost with where she had landed, in a country she cannot understand with a girl who will not let go. It was a matter of telling the story on her terms. It was also a matter of trying my first cigarette at the age of thirty. It was an unfiltered Chesterfield, and it smelled like a Fig Newton, and gave me a head rush that took me by surprise. For just one moment, I held the world at arm’s length, and everything made sense. Then, just as suddenly, it didn’t. No wonder Nora wanted another cigarette.
     Ultimately, it is not such an easy thing to write about an ashtray. When you have a certain kind of imagination, every object turns into a metaphor, and those metaphors have their own momentum. In the years it took me to figure out the best way to tell Nora’s story, I have always returned to the woman who put between herself and her circumstances a little smoke.

Simone Zelitch was born in Philadelphia. She attended Wesleyan University where she wrote an early draft of her first book, The Confession of Jack Straw (1991). The novel won a Hopwood Award, and was published by Black Heron Press. After the Peace Corps, a grant from the University of the Arts Venture Fund and a fellowship from the Pennsylvania Council for the Arts allowed her to completed Louisa. Currently she is an instructor at the Community College of Philadelphia. She is working on a novel about Blacks, Jews and the Civil Rights movement.
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