By Nicola Keller

Nicola Keller is the child of a Hungarian Holocaust survivor and a Romanian refugee. In 2021 she donated her family archive of photographs, letters and documents to The Wiener Holocaust Library. Like many children of Holocaust refugees who settled here, she was brought up only speaking English and, in this blog, she shares the frustration of trying to access her own family history in a language she does not speak. 

Copy and paste gives me this: We don’t drink the sunscreen. I try again, change a letter, but now it doesn’t recognise anything at all and just spits Hung-lish back at me. A mixture of words in source (Hungarian) and target (English) languages. Impenetrable. Useless.

Google Translate is a clever but imperfect tool I discover, when trying to decipher a handwritten letter from Hungarian. I don’t speak it but I know roughly what the letter is about, thanks to snatched minutes with my Hungarian uncle between family commitments. It’s definitely not about sunscreen, though I do learn that it’s been around since 1938, when a Swiss student got sunburnt on his way up Mount Piz Buin and was determined to do something about it.

A family group photo. The writer’s Grandfather, whose letters she is translating, is on the left. Courtesy of Nicola Keller

Interesting tangents aside, I can see the letter is dated 18th June 1944 and, with it, there is an official document from the day before; an order to leave their spacious flat and move to a single room in a Yellow Star House. This elegantly scripted letter is written by the grandfather I never knew, to my nineteen year old father, already on labour service (Munkaszolgálat) in Hangony, North East Hungary. He is telling his son about the move, some family news and their new address.

My cultured, intellectual father is, at this point, doing brutal physical labour repairing airfields damaged by allied bombing raids. He nearly dies there, in spite of the censored brown postcard telling everyone back home that ‘People are nicer to us than I thought they would be.

The writer’s Father’s photograph, used on his Red Cross documents. Courtesy of Nicola Keller

I have started learning Hungarian on Duolingo. Looking for someone, anyone, who can teach me is a challenge. I have a sense of letter groupings and some prefixes and suffixes. I’ve spent dozens of evenings hunched over my laptop and multiple open tabs: this letter, a Hungarian typewriter and two Google Translate windows, one for single words and one for sentences. Replacing a single letter, can radically change a sentence from sense to nonsense or vice versa. And then there’s the handwriting. Could that dome shape be; n, m, u, r or the sz combination? I discover that sometimes he puts a line through the z and sometimes he doesn’t. That doesn’t help. A sudden tweak, a hook of a memory from childhood, gives me a codebreaker – Rózsi néni Aunt Roszi. That shape is an n! Several other words fall into place after that. My sense of triumph is huge when I recognise a word I know; hogy, utazik, & otthon have all appeared in my Foundation stage Duolingo.

And then something happens; I translate the start of a new paragraph. ‘My sweet child…’ the translation gives me, ‘We try to write to you every day…’ and suddenly this letter is no longer a puzzle to be solved but a voice. My grandfather’s voice and I can hear it coming from his face in photographs I know by heart. He tells my father that the piano has had to be sold and they can’t take the books with them but will try to save his English Keats and Shelley. He talks about the practicalities of being ordered to make an inventory and how difficult it is to know what the future will hold. As I am reading this my heart breaks. I know exactly what the future holds for this kind, gentle man. Arrest, a month-long march from Budapest to Buchenwald and forced labour in a sub-camp of Colditz, where he dies less than a month before it is liberated.

A letter written by the writer’s Grandfather in Hungarian, in June 1944.

I thought I knew these family stories, in all their tragic detail. I thought I’d read and heard enough to be analytical, forensic even, in the dissection of my documents. But I wasn’t prepared to be spoken to from the past like this, so directly, so clearly that, drinking sunscreen aside, I feel a tiny bit closer to the grandparent I’ve never had a chance to know.

I haven’t got to the end of the letter yet, there are a few lines by my great-grandfather – his jagged handwriting looks even harder to unpick. Below those are some from my grandmother. I remember her as serious and sad, having survived a mass shooting and the loss of most of her family. Her writing looks easier, I’m saving it for last as a kind of treat, a home run. The last three words on the page are by my father’s eleven year old cousin whose parents had, days before, been deported to Auschwitz. Google tells me Sokszor csókol means ‘many kisses,’ but, if I leave out the accent, it becomes ‘often chocolate.’ It makes me doubt everything, but there are clear moments when I can hear a person speaking behind the technology and that feels incredible.

And that bit about sunscreen? Finally it unravelled into the sentence above, the one where my grandfather tells my father; We try to write to you every day…