John Safran Finds Pieces Missing in Eastern Europe

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May 25, 2017

On a trip to Eastern Europe, the author, broadcaster and documentary maker discovered some monumental gaps.

My 2009 comedy about cross-cultural love, John Safran’s Race Relations, had been programmed for an international television festival in Budapest. For a week I caught the bus from my hotel, passing brutal-looking housing estates built under the communists, then impossibly beautiful palaces, until pulling up at a convention centre that could have been anywhere in the world.

Little booths were set up with headphones to accommodate different languages. As my show played on a big screen, I went from booth to booth and heard myself dubbed in Hungarian, Japanese and French. I would have been happy to while away the hours in this narcissistic situation but an Australian producer, knowing that I was Jewish, told me I should see the city’s Jewish Quarter.

I caught a taxi there and found a tour group. I’d read that almost 70 per cent of Hungary’s Jewish population was killed during the Holocaust. Left behind are majestic but rarely used synagogues – one of them, The Great Synagogue in Dohány Street, is the largest in Europe. I found it weird that the tour guide used this synagogue as an example of Hungary’s beauty, like it was a hill or a river, but dodged the gloomy questions. Why was there a need to build Europe’s largest synagogue there at one point? And why isn’t there a need for such a large one now?

One evening I ended up threading through the streets, stumbling from bar to bar with two Polish filmmakers. The drinking dens were all over-the-top bohemian. One was a converted mansion, graffitied from floor to ceiling. Several rooms contained empty bathtubs, where young people dressed in black sipped their drinks.

We avoided the bathtubs and sat across from each other at a bench. “My grandparents were Polish Jews,” I told the filmmakers. 

“Where from?”

I knew the name of the small town. “Kałuszyn.”

Their eyes lit up and they started screeching. A good screech. They were from Kałuszyn, too! What a small world. They asked for my grandparents’ surname.

“Obronczka.”

They screeched again. Then laughed. 

“What? What?” I squeaked. 

“What was their real name?” one finally managed through her laughter. 

I told them Obronczka was their real name. They didn’t believe me. Obronczka, they said, means “ring”. As in wedding ring.

“Mr and Mrs Wedding Ring!” they cackled. They said no-one in Poland has that name; I must be making it up.

I remembered the stories I’d heard growing up – how my grandparents were the only ones from their large family to escape.

Yes, I thought to myself, there’s a reason no-one in Poland has that name. How could these two women not join the dots? Not only were they intelligent, they were also arty and small-l liberal. Isn’t the Holocaust famous? I pushed back a little bit, asking what they learned in school about the Jews of Poland. They still didn’t get why there are no “Wedding Rings” there. 

Travelling back to Australia, I thought about the synagogue and the Polish women and I connected some dots myself. Isn’t this what Aboriginal Australians put up with all the time? Other Australians who see a location as majestic without interrogating what lies in the shadows. Listening to baffling babble and biting their tongues... 

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