Friday, June 25, 2010

Sylvia Tota


A chance encounter with a stranger on a Vienna-bound Budapest train that I nearly missed, some two decades ago— literally landed me in the lap of a rather irate Hungarian lady. She was disgruntled. I had nearly fallen off the moving train, I had enough adrenalin to lift an elephant so we got off to a rocky start.

Sylvia Tota was returning home to Miami after a fruitless attempt to get two novels published, "Sárga Nárcisz," and "Különös Karnevál," by a famous Hungarian writer, Fedor Ágnes—a challenge as Jewish Holocaust writing was banned in Hungary for so long.

Sylvia told me harrowing stories of her escape from Hungary that made the hairs on my arms stand straight as soldiers. She was a literary agent—and friend of Isaac Bashievs Singer. I was on my way to Russia to marry a pop singer—who loved God more than me. She advised, No. Marriage is a business arrangement.

Then she rescinded once she saw the photo of Valera. She said If I waited I'd rationalize, and spoil it. It took a long while for her yenta advice to settle in—at the eleventh hour as I was about to board that final train from Amsterdam to Helsinki and Moscow. I never got a chance to tell her how it all came out.

We had become fast friends on that fateful train ride, she roundly kissed my goodbye on both cheeks—I felt as if I'd been adopted — and she pressed her address and phone number into my hands and admonished me to call her if I ever was in Miami. I never did. Guilt follows me.

I'm a terrible letter writer—not that I'm a terrible writer—it's just that I write many letters in my head. Some make it to paper—few ever get mailed. So email and the internet's been a godsend for keeping in touch. But in 1991 there was no internet—no email. Faxes were cutting edge technology.

I transcribed one of those letters I never sent—to my friend, poet, Celia Woloch—a piece about Sylvia Tota, called Budapest Nights. I later tried to find Sylvia on the internet as I had long since lost her contact information. I've been to Miami three times since then and still haven't kept my promise. But I think of her often.

When I visited the Holocaust Memorial in Miami Beach, it was as if Sylvia was by my side—a tour guide in spirit. Maybe it's because I had told her of working with Joe Rapoport and The Holocaust Oral History Project in Sonoma County, CA ("Joe Rapoport, The Life of a Jewish Radical", Temple University Press, 1981.) My friend, the late Marianne Ware, self-professed red-diaper baby, was instrumental in educating me. Whatever the connection, it all coalesced, and became part of my zeitgeist.



I'm quite active on Facebook—it's a great place for writers to keep in touch. I have my own private page and another open to the public "fan" page. Imagine my surprise when I found a note from Sylvia's daughter on my fan page.

Hi Maureen, you don't know me personally but you did meet my mother Sylvia Tota, on the way to Vienna on a train from Budapest! I just read your blog "Budapest Nights" and tears were down my face… Please link to me on facebook so we can chat! Regards.

A flurry of emails ensued and now we're connected and now I have her phone number. I guess Sylvia didn't want us to lose touch after all. I can't wait to find out the backstory. Did anyone ever record Sylvia's story?

Another how many degrees of separation gift from Facebook. The other one was long lost distant cousins from continents apart, finding me out of the blue. But that's another story I'm not ready to write.


To read the original story:
Budapest Nights

Journal fragments Travel re-entry is never easy.

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