During war time, how does a mother explain the impending doom enveloping the community to her ten-year-old daughter? She doesn’t. She bottles it up, keeps everyone quiet and focused. Erika Hecht’s memoir Don’t Ask My Name uncovers one family’s trail of exhausting sojourns-for-survival during one of the bleakest periods in our world’s history: the Holocaust. Hecht was that ten-year-old Jewish girl growing up in Budapest, Hungary. Her memoir reveals the heart-rending challenge of a mother suffering from mental illness striving to provide some sense of “normalcy” for her family.
In 1944, German soldiers targeted Jewish-Hungarian residences and businesses by placing yellow stars on doors. Jewish citizens, too, were required to wear a yellow star on their clothing or risk deportation, perhaps even death. Disassociation with non-Jewish neighbors and friends follows, along with policies for Jews only such as no radio ownership and mandated curfews—including a limit on time shopping and banning trips to the park. The Arrow Cross soldiers of Hungary monitored and enforced the laws. The grip tightens.
Ericka’s mother, hoping to slow the inevitable erosion of freedom, converts the family to Catholicism. Soon, however, a non-Jewish person must show proof of four non-Jewish grandparents. Authoritarianism wields a heavy ax.
For safety and cohesion, the family is joined by grandparents and an uncle. The house is packed. German soldiers can arrive at any time to inspect the apartment. Then Erika’s stepfather is sent to a labor camp, forced to dig ditches on the Russian front, leaving the others to fend for themselves. But her biological father manages to secure false documents, passports, birth certificates. Everyone takes a new name and history and memorizes the information carefully before escaping.
To chart the painful passage of years and places in her memoir, Hecht divides her memoir into two sections. Book One describes the family’s passage from Budapest in 1939 to a farm near Balatonkenese. Book Two chronicles the trip back to Budapest in 1945 through the author’s life after the war, ending with a sort of reflective serenity in Sag Harbor, New York.
Hecht’s unforgettable memoir, while serious in tone and horrific in truth, treads softly on the reader’s soul, for it reveals the unassailable potential for human resilience in the face of familial frailty as well as man’s inhumanity to man. Family pictures included are exquisite. This witness account simply must be read by people of all ages, and especially by scholars of World War II and the Holocaust.