By Miriam Ben-Yoseph
Before my father died in 1957 in Romania, every evening around dinner time my mother would say: “Why don’t you eat your cookies and then go outside for a while. Stick around the front of the house and if you see someone coming toward our gate, you must run inside immediately and tell us. This way I can have coffee ready by the time the guest arrives.”
Hospitality was important in our home but there was something about this request that puzzled me even then. And I was only seven years old at that time.
I never had to announce an unexpected visitor but one night it started to rain and I went in before my mother had a chance to call me. I found my parents glued to the radio and just as I opened the door I heard a man’s voice declaring: “This is the Voice of America!” And then he said something about the Hungarian revolution. “Is someone coming,” my mother asked and closed the radio. When I said no, they continued to listen for a while and then my father said as if in response to what he was hearing: “Only America can rescue Hungary. That will put an end to this nightmare we call communism.
That was the beginning of my fascination with America.
A few years later, after I read the Diary of Anne Frank, I too decided to keep a diary. I named it Amerika—spelled like I learned it first in my native language Hungarian and later in German elementary school. My first entry read: “Dear Amerika, as of today I will write to you as frequently as I can. No matter what they tell us about you in school, I like you. I like your name and I like your voice. I hope I will get to see you one day.” When I asked my mother if she thought I would be able to go to America one day, she said that anything was possible but warned me not to speak to anyone about it. “Be careful, she said. Even the walls have ears.” She did not say anything about eyes in the sky or in the ceiling as she sometimes did but I remember hiding my journal, my Amerika, every night, just in case.
I was not allowed to take my journal out of Romania. Nothing written, they said, not even a photograph that has a dedication on the back. When my mother and I immigrated to Israel in 1965 we had to learn addresses and phone numbers of family members and friends by heart.
And now it is 1975, and I am walking on the streets of a large and cold city in America, looking for an apartment and longing for my Amerika. I can’t explain it, but after a while when I stop for a moment and turn my head I feel as if I am catching a glimpse of my Amerika — right there in Chicago near Wrightwood and Clark.
Originally from Romania, Miriam Ben-Yoseph teaches and researches in the areas of culture, gender, and work. More recently, she has focused her writing on the Holocaust and on place and identity issues. Her work has been published in the U.S. and abroad. She lives in Evanston, Illinois.