This is a picture of my great-grandmother swimming across the river Drava carrying my Naganyja Ilona and my greatuncle Zoltan on her back. Behind her is my great-grandfather Shaffer. I have drawn him naked because he didn’t cross the river with his family and escape the pogrom, and all my great-grandmother had left was a photograph of him with no clothes on.
I made this image almost 30 years ago – a family story of loss and arrival that is fixed inside me. My father said they crossed from Serbia. This year I have been reading Simon Winder’s Danubia: A Personal History of Habsburg Europe, described in the accolades as ‘amusing’ and ‘entertaining’. The tone is light, and I think neccessarily so, but I am yet to reach the funny bits. I have wept and gagged over the centuries of indescribable brutality. I have understood a lot of the ebb and flow of peoples backward and forward across middle Europe; and about the construction of identity and nationalism; and how the history of Europe looks so different when you are standing in the middle of the continent; and how it is articulated differently depending upon the language which you speak; and how power lies in the choice between saying Großmutter or naganyja.
As the refugees have gathered again over these last weeks on the banks of the Drava, I have been looking at maps and experiencing the collapse of time over the last century. Questions have come to me that I never asked before: What date did my Nag-naganyja cross that Rubicon? And was it a Jewish pogrom? And the Drava doesn’t divide Serbia and Hungary, but Croatia and Hungary; and why did the family have a German surname?
I begin to wonder whether this is the answer to that question that is going around: What did your grandmother do in the First World War? The assassination of the archduke Ferdinand (a Habsburg) triggered the persecution and slaughter of thousands of Serb civilians in 1914, in what is now Croatia. But Pogrom/Rubicon is still the age-old story of loss and survival and maybe it marked the start of the ‘Great War for Civilization’. However it is not a story of real asylum, just a respite time to raise the two children and a grandson in Budapest. The European wars ended in 1945. On the day that peace was declared, Nag-naganyja was shot dead by a young soldier wearing a Hungarian fascist armband.