Holding up my glass, I made eye contact with the other volunteers. The protocol was to then say “Egeszegetekre”— “To your health,” the traditional Hungarian toast — and take a sip, inviting the others to follow. We had performed this ritual every night for two weeks. I continued to hold up my glass, but I hesitated before saying egeszegetekre.
I was volunteering with Habitat for Humanity, a charitable organization that has built safe, decent, and affordable housing for 10 million needy families in 1,400 communities across the U.S. and in 70 countries around the world. Even though Habitat for Humanity is a Christian organization, it has a non-proselytizing policy and people of all faiths are encouraged to volunteer.
My group deployed to Csurgo, Hungary, and we worked together with a Romani family that would eventually move into the house. Most of the volunteers had no building experience, but we got on-the-job training putting up a foundation, plastering walls, painting, gardening, and more. Working hours were long, and at the end of the day we would descend into a wine cellar to eat cheese, sip wine, and take turns making toasts.
On the last day of the deployment, I asked one of the Hungarian workers whether there had ever been a Jewish presence in Csurgo. He pointed up the road; to my surprise, there was a Jewish cemetery within sight of where we had been working!
Within the hour, the mayor of Csurgo came to the construction site, having heard that there was a volunteer who was interested in knowing the history of the Jews of Csurgo. He wanted to arrange for me to be excused from work and givena tour of the cemetery. I told the mayor I did not want preferential treatment, but he insisted.
The mayor’s wife gave me the tour. She translated information from the tombstones, including the professions of those buried there. The graves were all pre-Holocaust, and I asked the mayor’s wife what happened to the Jewish community. She explained that there had not been Jews in Csurgo since 1944, when the Nazis entered the town and deported all the Jews to the concentration camps.
She then began to cry, and I didn’t pursue the matter.
Instead, I began to think about Paul Lefkowitz, my grandfather and namesake. Paul was born in Hungary but came to America as a teenager, leaving his family behind. He served as a doughboy during WWI, married and had children, and was a successful businessman. He died while my mother was still young, and I know very little about his side of the family. Standing in front of these tombstones, I had a shocking realization that, perhaps, some of the people buried in this cemetery could be my own relatives.
And so it was, I held up my glass and prepared to make a toast that evening, that I felt a need to share my thoughts with the other volunteers.
“Today I visited the Jewish cemetery. My grandfather was born in Hungary and, perhaps, I was even visiting my own relatives! Reading the tombstones, I could see that the Jews who lived here were rabbis, doctors, lawyers, farmers, teachers, and butchers. Some were also builders. I know that there was terrible anti-Semitism in Hungary; yet I also have no doubt that the Jews worked hard at their jobs and contributed to making Csurgo a better place to live.”
“There have been no Jews here since the Holocaust, but these past two weeks I have also tried to make Csurgo a better place to live. I have done so as a Jew, performing the mitzvah of tikkun olam, repairing the world. In doing so, I became part of a Jewish legacy that helped to make Csurgo a better place to live.”
I spoke without preparation but the words continued to flow. At times I felt as if I were making a confession and revealing a secret Jewish identity; I had also never felt more connected or proud to be Jewish. It was ironic that this happened while I was volunteering with a Christian organization. Still, there was something very beautiful and poetic about it all.
As I finished my remarks, I made eye contact with the other volunteers who were nodding in approval. However, even in their politeness, I knew they were waiting for me to say one more thing. Still holding up my glass, I was happy to oblige:
(P.S. To my readers: In just a few days we will also be raising our glasses and making toasts to usher in the new year. My best wishes for a happy and healthy 2018.)
By Paul J. Blank