I am in central Hungary looking across the water of a man-made lake. It took me ages to find this place, poring over books in the library trying to piece together references and clues. In 1944 there was no lake here, just a snow covered field and a freshly dug trench. Now it is a flooded gravel pit that has a strange luminous beauty.
This anonymous lake lies on the site of the genocide of 118 Roma women and children. It is unmarked. There is no memorial. No record of this one small moment that is part of the ‘Pharrajimos’…The Roma Holocaust.
Pharrajimos: n. Romani, meaning the devouring or destruction.
After weeks in the British Library I had found a picture of the lake taken in 2004. The text is Hungarian and the heading is ‘Jeltelen sírok’. Boldi, my researcher tells me it translates literally as ‘Unmarked weep’. Later I type it into Google which gives me ‘Unmarked graves’. I like Boldi’s translation better.
Two women survived the massacre. This is the account of Angela Lakatos…
There is no memorial here, no visible sign of what took place. Not at the lake, or in the town. I scour the museum looking for a reference, any reference. Nothing.
I know the site used to be a mine, so I go to the mining museum hoping to find out when the lake was created, and the thing that I can hardly bear to ask…what happened to the bodies? But the mining museum is closed down.
I write to the Open Society Archive in Budapest, but they have no records either.
I’m back at the lake. For now it is all I have. I am drawn back to it again and again. The small island visible in the 2004 picture has become bigger and now there is a house on it. Someone’s summer house. A wooden boat sways in the breeze, banging against the jetty. The roar of cars from the road is constant, and backing on to the far side of the lake is a retail park. Tesco and Lidl. Life goes on. It seems peaceful and tranquil. Birds are singing and occasionally a fish plops, breaking the glass-like surface of the water. Jerry says ‘its a battle for life and death under the water’. He’s talking about the fish. I am thinking about the women and children.
What happened to them when they flooded the gravel pit? I know there was no lake here then, but Philomena Franz’s testimony from Auschwitz keeps coming into my head…’and we threw these human ashes into lorries with our bare hands, and the child helped us. It all looked like gravel and it still smelled of corpses. And I felt as if I was standing in water and had to hold back the river.’
The river…I am thinking of Lethe, the river of forgetting. Lethe translates from Classical Greek as oblivion, forgetfulness or concealment, but comes from the root aletheia meaning truth. In Greek mythology the dead were required to drink from the waters of the river Lethe to erase their memories of earthly life.
Here in Varpalota its all about forgetting.
Philomena Franz, Lethe, 118 Roma women and children…an image keeps coming into my head of the women and children plunging down though the water of this lake. Its a frenetic scene, totally at odds with the tranquil idyl above the surface.