70 Hungarian postcards to the 70-year-old Israel

From smiles to tragedy
Zita Gábor

By Ági Freireich and Zsuzsa Shiri - 2018-03-26

Translated from the Hungarian original: Bea Sara Goll

Zita Gábor was born on August 20, 1972 in Budapest; the first child of an educator couple. In 1990 she graduated from one of the strongest high schools in the country, the ELTE Radnóti Miklós Teacher Training Secondary School. Immediately after graduation she went to Israel, and in 1997 she received a diploma in comparative world literature and pedagogy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. She soon started working as a team leader at Yad Vashem when the first groups of teachers were arriving. Later she was also responsible for organizing the content of the programs.

 

She was dealing with people, researching and teaching the worldwide tragedy of WWII, and developing methodological programs for education. It was her idea to invite Holocaust survivors to talk about their experience in person to those to whom WWII is “just” history.

 

She was responsible for the training of Eastern and Central European teachers. In recognition of her work, the Hungarian government granted her a high state award: in 2005 she received the Knight Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Hungary.

The Hungarian government gives this prize to educators and researchers for their lifelong work disseminating information of every detail of the Holocaust so that we could do everything in our power to ensure that such and similar events could never happen again.

 

On April 23, 2006, at age 33, her life ended under tragic circumstances. She is mourned in the whole world.

 

From the homepage of the Zita Gábor Foundation.

***

 

Ági Freireich:

We had been sitting side by side for four years at school

 

With Zita Gábor we were classmates at the Radnóti Secondary School between 1985 and 1989. And not just classmates, but bench mates and girlfriends, both taking English and Russian. Fourth C class language geniuses. Zizi was a happy, optimistic, lively girl, easy to “fall in love” with. Whenever her mouth was smiling, a small dimple appeared on her face. She was the favorite of Auntie Kati, the literature teacher, because she had it in her blood when it came to the art of analyzing poems, and she was able to talk about the most abstract lines of any of the poets and writers and construe some profound meaning into it. I admit I quite envied her for this.

 

Then, in the fourth grade Zizi came to school with her hand broken and in a cast, when we were preparing for the finals. I still see the picture of us on the roof terrace of our house in Zugló, where we were studying the history topics together.

Girls’ night with former classmates

I also remember when, after having finished with the final exams we went for ice cream with our fathers, stopping at the corner of the Thököly and Dózsa György Roads at the patisserie, and enjoyed the peace after the feverish weeks of studying. Of course, the university has come up in conversation. There I told Zizi and her father, Miki, that I planned to continue studying in Israel in a program recommended by Sochnut [Jewish Agency of Israel]. Miki really liked the idea, and so it came about that we both traveled to Israel.

 

To this day my throat is tightened when I am at that patisserie, which still exists and looks almost the same after nearly 30 years of waiting for its guests. I do not dare go in again. Something has stopped me when I tried ...

 

In Israel, unfortunately, we were far apart; Zizi ended up in Jerusalem, and I attended the University of Haifa. We chose different subjects; Zizi studied international relations, and I focused on economics. But during the breaks between the semesters, and on weekends, we visited each other at the residence, gossiped about the guys and went to parties. We traveled together, went abroad; I remember our adventure when we took a bus from Budapest to Piraeus (above) to board a ship there that would take us to Haifa. We have been to wonderful places and slept on the deck, together with hundreds of young people.

My other lifetime memory is our one week military training with Zita, in the Gadna [Gdudei No'ar – “youth battalions”, Israeli military training program for youth] in January 1992. It was very cold, it even snowed, which is very rare here, but we did not complain, Zizi was just laughing making her dimples appear. We had a great soldierly time and enjoyed the tasks and lessons we were entrusted with.

In 1995, we got separated further when Zita got married in Jerusalem, and I worked at Sochnut for a year and a half in Budapest. I went to the Maccabiah games in the summer of 1997, when I also visited her and held Tom in my arms, just one month old. She was the first of our group to emigrate, to found a family and give birth in Israel.

In the fall of 1997 I returned to Israel, this time to Be’er Sheva, to study for my MBA. By then Zizi became an indigenous resident of Jerusalem and started working at Yad Vashem.

 

Our paths crossed again a few years later, in 2003, when we established an Israeli-Hungarian nursery school for the local families with small children and of course for our own children to learn Hungarian.

The project was a great success, for three years we worked on our own, at first taking turns using a participant's apartment and then renting a real space. We organized, wrote correspondence and curricula, created, wrote fairy tale plays, reworked them, ran a contest of hurdles, organized a numbers war and so on ... Zizi exuded ideas, the love of children, of action and unbridled enthusiasm. She was just like that at work, at Yad Vashem, as we learn from the achievements of her career, sadly cut so short. Of course Zizi's little ones, Tom and Sophie were also active Hungarian nursery kids.

 

Last time we met in the spring of 2006, we ran into each other accidentally, where else, but at the Pest-side Danube promenade, admiring the flood. Zizi was with Tom, and I with my two sons.

 

Not long afterwards, my dad called me from Pest in my home in Israel that Miki, Zita's dad couldn’t understand his grandson's call from Jerusalem on the phone: he was shouting that I should call Zizi right away ... It was too late, there was no one to call. A family tragedy happened; I turned on the TV and immediately understood what had happened ...

Then we said goodbye to Zita with the local Hungarian group in Tel Aviv's Judit patisserie. We talked about her, sharing memories, and afterwards we were tortured by guilt, for we might have been able to help if we had noticed Zizi's inwardness in time ... We burned candles in her memory and we listened to Zsuzsa Koncz' song “A királyé nem leszek” [I will not belong to the king]. Since then, I always remember Zizi when I hear this song.

 

Losing Zizi is a huge tragedy to me, to this day it's hard to talk about it; I can’t accept that such a valuable, happy-go-lucky lover of life is no longer among us. We all have suffered a huge loss.

 

***
 

Zsuzsa Shiri:

For years I could not tell the twins

 

We have known each other for many years; we both came with the first aliyah-wave after the regime change. But it was only during the Hungarian nursery era that our paths began to cross when we two became the special forces of the mums’ team in Jerusalem. Since we usually had to travel far for the meetings, we took turns: One day I took her children too, then she took my twins, same age as Sophie. Our daughters soon became friends; this turned out to be one of the greatest attractions of the Hungarian nursery: “Sophie will be there too, get dressed already.”

Then, when the youngest one had grown very big in my belly, she offered me to stay at home, she would take the girls, since she would go with Sophie anyway, and the three of them in the back of the car would love to travel together. So in the last couple of months I just opened the door, twins down, and after a few hours back - thanks to her taking care of them, I could relax a little.

Before her last trip to Pest, my little one was born. She came by, brought gifts, and we talked an unusually long time. She told us she would move to our neighborhood next year. I called her, praised the school, encouraged her that as of grade two, Sophie would be in the same class with one of my twins, she would not be alone, and we even discussed how good it would be for the girls at the children's camps of the Israel Museum. We have worked out all the details including the rental rates and the shops of the neighborhood.

 

I did not ask why she had planned to move from the other end of town. Today, I know for sure that we have been organizing her post-divorce life, but I did not dare to ask about it back then, and she had never talked about it. But in the last Hungarian nursery years I visited her often, and I knew there was trouble, but I only knew that her husband found it difficult to find himself. He was unemployed more and more, and couldn’t find or keep any job. Zita soared in her workplace, getting more and more tasks, more and more people saw her abilities, and she was given ever-increasing recognition. But whatever was bad, you could not get it out of her; she bit her lips, and told no one about her home trouble. I never heard her boasting either, she did not need it. When she smiled at you, when she spoke with you just once, you knew she was exceptionally intelligent, sensitive, empathetic, and on top of all this, a modest and kind creature who captivated you immediately with her personality and twisted you around her fingers.

 

She was very young and inexperienced when she had married the tall, handsome boy she saw as the knight of her dreams. On that fateful night, she tried to put an end to that phase of her life in a peaceful way; it was not her fault that it did not work.

 

In the morning news, they were still talking in riddles, but when they announced the name of the residential area, I felt I knew. I tried to make a phone call to hear her voice reassuring me, “they are in the neighboring house, they are not murdering; they are plundering.” But after letting it ring a long time, the answering machine turned on.

Then we went to the Hungarian nursery again. I took Sophie from the relatives, but it was terrible. I did not know what to say to the girls, I did not say anything, and Sophie did not say anything either and they were asking all sorts of things, as always. Until that time, it did not occur to me how much children were talking about their parents. Sophie just listened and mumbled, pulling her hat in her eyes. We did not go ever again there, and only after many years I could tell a light version of it at home.

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