On the edge of Sag Harbor Village, Erika Hecht lives in a modest home surrounded by what she loves — books and art, colorful rugs, an eclectic mix of modern and antique furniture, a lovely backyard with towering trees.
“Wherever I am is my home,” she mused on Saturday morning. “It seems to me I’m carrying my home with me.”
It does not escape Hecht that this practice is a product of her childhood — rooted in a residual fear of loss, the danger and pain associated with forming attachments, only to have them ripped away in a moment.
And so, a collection of artifacts from her youth does not exist, the 87 year old explained, her voice still laced with a thick Hungarian accent. She was a “Hidden Child,” one of thousands of Jewish children who converted to Christianity in an attempt to survive World War II and skirt the Holocaust.
The lies she was forced to tell, starting as soon as she could speak, have sent her on a lifelong search for identity — and she has finally shared her gripping true story in her memoir, “Don’t Ask My Name” (East End Press) which she will sign on Thursday, June 24, at Julie Keyes Gallery in Sag Harbor.
“No more secrets,” Hecht said. “I think the thing that was most important to me, and is most important to me, ever since I started to deal with this, is the fact that I no longer have any secrets — these kinds of secrets, I mean.”
She interrupted herself with a laugh. “I still might not admit how much I spent on a pair of shoes,” she said, “but that’s a different kind of secret. I don’t have any substantial secret parts of my life, and that’s very important. It’s a relief, it’s freeing. Life can put any question to me and I can answer it honestly, or I don’t have to! Because I’m not in danger. It’s very liberating.”
The year her life changed was 1937. Hecht, then 3½ years old, stumbled up the steps of the church — her mother’s grip on her hand firm, dragging her along. Out of frustration, she scooped up the toddler and carried her the rest of the way, until they entered the dark chapel.
There, the young girl watched as her mother knelt in front of the priest and took communion, her frightened cries escalating to a wail by the time they left the church. Outside, her mother picked her up again and Hecht could see that she, too, was crying.
“We are Christians now,” she said to her daughter, as much as to herself. “We are Catholics. We are safe. The bastards cannot hurt us. Nobody can hurt us. We are Christians.”
Those words would prove to be wishful thinking. By 1942, the laws in Hungary had changed and their conversion no longer exempted them from being Jewish, nor protected them from the rising tide of antisemitism. Unable to document four non-Jewish grandparents, the family fled under assumed names, with false papers and invented histories, to a small farming village where no one knew their true background.
One small mistake could have meant deportation and death.
“I don’t think I expected anything to be straight-forward,” Hecht said. “I went from place to place, and navigated what the difficulties were, and I started to circumnavigate them — and I do remember that. I was quite aware of that. It was normal for me, natural for me, and it was not going to be straight-forward — and it wasn’t.”
Before long, the clashing German and Russian armies landed at the homestead, which erupted into a fierce war zone. Hecht and her family fled once again, as refugees, enduring a harrowing struggle that will forever leave its mark on her — memories riddled with the sound of bombs hitting the ground and her neighbors getting shot, the smell of decay and bodies piled high, the pull of starvation and toeing the line of death herself.
“It’s not just the Jewish experience that was so traumatic. Some of the war experiences that I had, that we all had at that time, it was the scariest things you could imagine,” Hecht said. “I’m hoping that people will understand that, anything like that, how it can hurt — how it can hurt adults, children and everybody else, to go through the war, to go through persecution, and have your circumstances be so screwed up.”
The struggles that followed the war — straddling two religions and a pair of identities, and the confusion that came from it — have infiltrated every aspect of Hecht’s life, she said, as she attended eight different schools in three languages, in three countries, careful to only show curated parts of herself depending on her company, keeping her secrets intact.
“You had to manipulate everything to a certain point,” she said. “Looking back, it seems to me I always knew that the reality was under us. I don’t think I took it as complete reality. The complete honesty laid elsewhere. My complete self was hidden somewhere else. And I was quite aware of that by the age of 16 or so. I didn’t give that up to anybody.”
Today, Hecht proudly says that she is living as her true self — embracing the “good and the bad,” she said, while actively finding her place in the world, now as an author, and continuing to explore the importance of identity.
“I am not religious, I’m anti-religious,” she said. “The Catholics did a number on me, the Jews did a number on me — and not just on me, but generally speaking. I am not keen on religion, and I can say that with absolute certainty. I am not actively anti-religious, I respect the right of people — mostly fairly stupid people who believe in it, but I don’t.”
Rebuffed by members of both her former faiths, Hecht has found community in other places, like the Ashawagh Hall Writers’ Group, a tradition started in 1983 by author Marijane Meaker, who wrote under the pen name ME Kerr.
“She gave us a lot of wonderful remarks and advice,” Hecht said, “and she used to say, ‘Don’t tell me you’re writing for yourself. That is not true. Nobody writes for themselves. When you write, you want it to be read.’ That’s how I feel about it. I feel very good about being read.”
With her memoir out in the world — written to honor the memory of the children who did not survive the Holocaust, and dedicated to those who did and “had the courage to confront the trauma of their survival” — Hecht said she misses the ritual of writing and, from her home in Sag Harbor, is planning a collection of short stories, while basking in the glow of being a published author.
And deservedly so.
“Here I am now — and it’s a beautiful day, the sun is shining,” she said. “And I am of a ripe old age, and I’m kind of thinking, ‘My, my. Somebody’s really reading my book. That’s wonderful.’ I am really, very happy about it.”
As published in the Sag Harbor Express and the Southampton Press