As a teenager I was fascinated by Upton Sinclair’s World’s End, translated into Hungarian under the title Letűnt világ (“A World That Disappeared”). It was published in 1940, when Hungary was still a “non-belligerent”, hoping to protect its traditional political and social system both from Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. The majority of the middle and the upper class was strongly Anglophile,like my father (who owned the Sinclair book) and like the family of Charles Farkas, whose Vanished by the Danube(2) describes with great detail and authenticity the world of Hungary (and other Central European countries), badly damaged by the First World War but completely destroyed by Hitler and Stalin.
The family story of so many of my American friends exemplifies the American dream: coming from modest or poor (often immigrant) families they became affluent and esteemed American citizens, with substantial achievements to their name. The story told by the typical Hungarian immigrant to the US, who arrived after the Second World War or the crushed 1956 Uprising is almost the opposite: they lost everything (in Hungary), except their (Hungarian) accent.
Charles (in Hungarian Károly) Farkas was born into a family with an interesting ancestry, although not unusual for Central Europe. His great-grandmother on his father’s side was Malvina Tarnóczy, born in a castle in what is today Slovakia. In 1849 she helped the Hungarian Army fighting the Habsburgs, and in 1870, after her first husband’s death, married Count Henrik O’Donnell, obviously of Irish stock, who was an officer of the Austro-Hungarian Army. Their daughter, Eveline, married Miklós Farkas, the author’s grandfather, whose father, Károly, was a member of Hungary’s first popularly elected Parliament in 1848–49 and served in the Ministry of Finance under the famous leader, Kossuth. On the maternal side his great-grandfather, Károly Ecker, owned a small store in Kőszeg, western Hungary, where most people were German-speaking Hungarian patriots. The O’Donnells bought land at Veresegyház, an hour’s train ride northeast of Budapest, and set up a manor, producing and selling mostly wine. The author’s father as a young officer survived the First World War and the Hungarian Soviet Republic (against which he mutinied), becoming the editor of Rádió Élet, the official organ of the Hungarian Radio Broadcasting Corporation, and the author of several books, which could not be published after the war. His mother, Rózsi Dabis, was a painter and a graphic artist, the daughter of the Head of Hungary’s Supreme Court. So Károly and his family can comfortably be called upper middle-class.
The great merit of the first half of the book is the magnificent, detailed description of the houses and lifestyle of the forebears. The memory of the author is all the more incredible as he did not keep a diary, and many family documents must have perished during and even more after the war – thanks to the Russian soldiers. It is a small miracle that a large number of photos has survived and many are reproduced in the book. Social and agricultural historians will find a trove of treasure in the book. It also shows that most of the landowners were excellent farmers, ran their holding profitably, and were not cruel exploiters of labourers – as Marxist historiography imputed. The American reader will find it more interesting to learn how popular the US, its music and films were in Hungary in the 1930s. Young Charles and his friends were cowboys and Indians at the same time, and they listened and danced to the great singers of the time. (It is not mentioned but it is also telling that the most popular nightclub of Budapest was called Arizona.) This popularity was so strong that neither the war nor communism could curb it. My generation, about 15 years younger than Charles’s, still knew and liked those songs – and of course the later ones of the Fifties and Sixties, Louis Armstrong, Elvis Presley, Connie Francis and their contemporaries. During communism the US was by far the most popular foreign country beyond the Iron Curtain!
When reading about school life, pastimes, and book-titles Charles grew up with, a non-Hungarian can only be impressed by the quality of Hungarian schools, by the well-deserved popularity of the Boy Scouts Movement, and in general by the discipline and conduct of the students. For younger readers it must be surprising how innocent were the relations between boys and girls. Perhaps that is why those romances, crushes and flirtations remained so vivid in the memory of Charles. Sports, primarily outdoor sports, like swimming, rowing and skiing, also played an important part in the life of young people back then. At the age of 17 Charles and his best friend joined a scout-camp in the easternmost Szekler region of the country (in Transylvania) by riding their bike all the one thousand kilometres!
The secondary school years of Charles coincided with Hungary entering the war on the side of Germany – to the regret of the Farkas family and their friends. The alternative would have been German occupation and a puppet government, the extermination of all the Jewish Hungarians, and the persecution of the Anglophile elements. The fate of Poland, brought home by the stories of the hundred thousand refugees, was a warning. But for long ordinary people in Hungary were not much affected by the war, unless someone or a close relative was a soldier and was sent to the Russian front. It was relatively easy to avoid being called up: Charles’s entering the university (to study law) was enough to get an exemption. When finally during a summer break he and his fellow-students were called up for labour service, they were assigned to building fortifications in the eastern Carpathians in what was then Hungarian Transylvania. That was hard work but amid beautiful scenery and safely away from the fighting.
It happened in the summer of 1944, when Hungary had already been occupied by Nazi Germany. Then the situation of the Jews became critical, they were rounded up and transported to Germany to what turned out to be death factories. Few if any Hungarians suspected what fate awaited them. The deportation of the Jews living in Budapest was halted in July by the order of Regent Horthy. (He received serious warnings from the Pope, FDR and the King of Sweden, and also from his own son and daughter-in-law.) The Farkas family and many of their friends did their best to help their Jewish acquaintances to escape. Later, after Horthy’s attempt at an armistice was foiled by the Germans and their Hungarian collaborators, the Arrow-Cross rabble (Hungarian Nazis) took over the government, and life in Budapest became a nightmare for the anti-Nazis, especially for the Jews. Young Charles and some of his friends put up a type of resistance, organising an unauthorised auxiliary military unit (Kisegítő Karhatalom, KISKA), which forged documents and saved individuals. But no one could escape being hit by the war. From March 1944, the Allies started bombing runs, then in September the Soviet Red Army crossed the borders, and Hungary became a war theatre until April 1945.
The extremely complicated and rather miserable history of Hungary in the 20th century was brought closer to many Hungarians two years ago when a popular TV personality, András Kepes(2), published a novel which was rightly advertised as the quintessence of that period. It is the intertwined history of three, rather typical Hungarians and their offspring. They come from Tövispuszta, a fictional community somewhere in Transdanubia. Isti Veres is a poor peasant boy. Pali, the son of Baron Szentágostony, the local landlord, lives in a castle on the hill above the village. Dávid Goldstein’s father, the village Jew, owns a small shop. The political dramas have a direct impact on the lives of these friends, as on all their fellow Hungarians. The roots of the fatal polarisation of present-day Hungarian society go back to the 1919 Bolshevik revolution. In its 133 days it employed “Red Terror” against the “class enemies”, including the Jewish bourgeoisie. It was followed by “White Terror”, punishing perpetrators as well as innocents, mainly Jews and poor villagers, who were attracted by the utopian promises. Both factions had their representatives in the villages. The peace treaty meted out to Hungary in 1920, transferring 3.5 million Hungarians to intolerant neighbours, drove the country towards anyone who held out the hope of territorial readjustments.
The recovery of some of the lost territories (with the help of Nazi Germany) was welcomed practically by all Hungarians, from Communists to the Right Radicals. The price, however, was enormous: joining the war against the Soviet Union, sending an Army to the eastern front, where much of it was destroyed. The cautious attempts to leave the Axis powers led to occupation by Germany and its concomitant, the deportation and death of half a million Jewish Hungarians. That was followed by more than half a year of war on the territory of Hungary, ending in the imposition of Communism.
The three boys grow up during these trying years. At the height of the Great Depression Isti’s family is saved from hunger by a cartful of food sent from the castle by the Baron. The boy has a gift for the violin and is also a promising football player. For a while he is attracted by the Radical Right, with its promises of social justice, land reform, restoring the borders of pre-war Hungary with the help of Hitler, and the expropriation of the mostly Jewish bourgeoisie. Eventually he marries the daughter of a well-to-do lawyer from the smaller nobility, who believes that Hungary cannot expect fair treatment from the western democracies, so has to march with Germany. The kind-hearted Jewish shopkeeper’s brother emigrates to the United States and becomes rich – by dubious means. His other brother sets up a successful car-repair shop, but with the new anti-Jewish laws he is forced to turn it over to one of his Gentile assistants. He and his family are then faced with being shot into the Danube by pro-Nazi Arrow-Cross thugs, but are saved by that very assistant, who wears the uniform of the Arrow-Cross and convinces the captors that he has a personal account to settle with the captive Goldsteins – and thus manages to save them. The son of the Baron studies in Oxford, where he works with Arnold Toynbee, then moves to Paris and becomes friends with young Hungarian artists. He falls in love with one of them, Sári, a very attractive Jewish dancer. His family despises anti-Semitism and deplores the anti-Jewish laws, but abhors the idea of him marrying a Jewess. After the war he finds out that the Germans deported Sári and her mother from Paris, and that they must have perished.
The details and many characters are described by Kepes with deep human understanding, interspersed with sarcastic humour. The conversations and the episodes are ingenious and telling. Only a Hungarian, well-versed in the history of those years, can appreciate how accurately and honestly the history of that period is told. Thanks to this book Hungarian or foreign readers who know little or nothing at all about those times, can gain more insight than from scholarly works into what went on in Hungary before Communism engulfed the country.
Charles Farkas and his family left their country house and the manor before the advancing Red Army encircled Budapest. They had a wall erected in their winecellar and put the big barrels full of wine as well as the wine-making equipment behind it. They hid their valuables in the garden or distributed them between relatives and friends. The family survived the two-month siege of the capital in their flat just under Castle Hill, where fighting was the heaviest and lasted the longest. The building and its shelter, though badly damaged, miraculously did not collapse, alone among the surrounding houses. No picture or film can describe life during those weeks as authentically and as punctually as these recollections. It might be surprising for the reader that the months following the “liberation” by the Soviets were even more trying than when the fighting went on. The Red Army, “with the soldiers’ diverse uniforms, faces and races, gave the impression of a gigantic Persian market-place, minus the market. Watching these descendants of Genghis Khan… we began to wonder how it was possible that they could have destroyed the most disciplined and formidable army in the world” (p. 266). Their conduct only proved the point. As it is put, “artillery fire and aerial bombardment were more bearable than this violence against women. Then, at least a person’s dignity was not involved” (p. 270).
It also became evident that the Russians, too, were anti-Semitic, and the returning survivors of the Nazi camps could also become victims, even being snatched off the streets and sent to a mine in the Soviet Union. “An estimated four hundred thousand Hungarians were transported at this time to Russia, only half of whom returned” (p. 276). Plunder and often wanton destruction was the order of the day. When in the spring the author ventured out to see what happened to their country home, his “first impression was that of a place where a giant vacuum cleaner had sucked up most everything except for the dirt. The walls were completely bare; not one painting, portrait, or etching remained”. The description of what was left of the manor is unforgettable (pp. 284–287). We are also told how the Russians found what was hidden: “they would pour water on the ground. If it ran freely into the soil they began to dig”. Only the peasants knew how to hide their valuables (p. 288).
It was not only the world of the Farkas family that vanished in 1944–45. Hungary of old, “the thousand-year-old kingdom”, its social and political order, its morals, its outmoded customs, its merits and demerits were all gone. All the bridges on the Danube were blown up, no building in the historical Castle district of Buda was left without serious damage. Infrastructure was in ruins, and one tenths of the whole nation, more than a million people were murdered by the Nazis, fell on the battlefield or died in Soviet captivity. But despite the destruction and the huge war reparations Hungary had to pay to the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia (a country Hungary was not actually at war with), and despite Soviet military occupation, recovery started very quickly. The peasants sowed, buildings were renovated, businesses resumed and free elections were held in November 1945. With record turnout the Communists received less than 17 per cent, while 57 per cent went to the centre-left Smallholders’ Party, who represented also the middle class. The Farkas family moved to their country home, and after some harassment from the occupying forces stationed nearby, they somehow managed to make the buildings liveable, and lived off what the land could produce. In 1947, as political control by the Communists grew, Charles’s father was sent into retirement (at the age of 51 without any pension being paid to him), and his mother, the painter, began working like a farmer’s wife. By the time the farm was put back into order and Charles finished law school the Cold War was underway and the Soviets had fully installed the Communists to run the country.
Many of Charles’s friends managed to slip through the descending Iron Curtain, but many innocent people were imprisoned on trumped-up charges. A close family friend, the director of the Hungarian Shipping Company, who helped many Jews to escape from Nazism, was arrested in mid-1949 never to be seen or even heard of again. Charles was lucky to get various, mostly manual jobs, while his family was declared “kulák”, i.e. well-to-do farmers, which meant continuous harassment and demands to meet impossibly huge compulsory deliveries of their produce. Many genuine farmers shared this fate, not a few of them were arrested, some were even executed. Charles’s father’s death at the age of 51 must have been occasioned by those trials. For a while he made a precarious and tiring living as a bicycle-rickshaw transporter of goods. His mother was then served an order to give up her home and be re-settled in a distant village near the Soviet border. She simply ignored the order and by a miracle was let go. An unknown benefactor removed her documents from the village register.
But tens of thousands of Hungarians considered undesirables, including wealthier peasants, were evicted from their homes with 24 hours’ notice. That was the fate of the family of Charles’s would-be wife, as described on pp. 368–370. What was most sad about the Stalinist epoch in Hungary (1948–1953, with an extension up to the 1956 uprising) was that many weak characters (including former pro-Nazis) became willing, even enthusiastic tools of the regime. This is of course a general phenomenon in all dictatorships – not only in Hungary. Although the political history of this period is rather well-known, little has been written on how the average Hungarian (who was not imprisoned) lived during those years. The struggles of Charles Farkas and his friends and relatives are an important testimony. The hardship and brutality of the first phase of Communism in Hungary explains why on 23 October 1956 the people of Budapest, mainly students and workers, demanded the end of dictatorship, why the Communist system collapsed in 24 hours, and why people resisted heroically the intervention of the Soviet army stationed in Hungary.
Thirteen pages of the book describe Charles’s active participation in and observations on the 1956 Revolution. The acts of violence perpetrated by the Communists in front of the building of the Radio has been described by many authors and eyewitnesses, but here we learn also what happened inside, as Charles was one of those who entered the building when the revolutionaries took it over. That was enough to fear arrest and even execution when the second Soviet invasion managed to suppress the Hungarian people and brutal reprisals followed. It seemed the logical thing for him to do was to leave behind his beloved mother, friends and the country home, and to escape, ending up at Camp Kilmer in New Jersey, together with thousands of Hungarian refugees.
Reading the Farkas memoirs and the true fiction of Kepes, one becomes more understanding both of human failure and human uprightness.
The sixty odd years following 1945, “Year Zero” (the title of a fine book by John Lukacs), is told in less detail by Kepes, but his shorter account is nevertheless illuminating. The story of the three main characters and their children and grandchildren follow typical career paths. Isti, whose goal-scoring leg and musician’s fingers were broken by his pro-Nazi fellow-villagers temporarily in command, as vengeance for a minor incident, is hired by the new, democratic police force, but soon finds himself in the dreaded and brutal ÁVO, the political police, – as an officer, not as a victim. He barely escapes death in the 1956 siege of the Communist Party headquarters. After the system change of 1989 his son becomes a highly successful agricultural entrepreneur. Two versions of his CV summarise the atmosphere before and after 1989. The old story: István Veres, Jr came from a family of poor peasants, his mother was a housewife, his father an officer in the Ministry of the Interior, who fought in 1956 defending the Party Headquarters. In his new bio he comes to use his second name, Hunor [an ancient hero of Hungarian mythology], he tells to have come from a bourgeois family expropriated by the Communists; his grandfather was imprisoned and later deported to a remote village. Both versions are true.
Pál, the son of Baron Szentágostony, served at the London Embassy of Hungary until 1948, when he was recalled and imprisoned as a spy of the imperialists. Just released from prison he did not take up arms during the 1956 revolution as he was certain that the Soviet Union would not let Hungary escape from the bloc, but was again imprisoned as the supporter of the general strike following the re-imposition of Communism. His son, born during his first prison term, and taken away from his mother, was brought up in an orphans’ home under a different name, and although his mother found him (if he really was the baby the mother last saw), he could never fully accept the father he first met at the age of five.
Dávid, the surviving son of Samu Goldstein, flees to the US and becomes a successful businessman, although his rich uncle is rather mean towards him. When things become better in Hungary he pays frequent visits with his two children. His daughter, Kati, meets a young student at a folkdance concert, who takes her to the Hungarian-inhabited mountains of Transylvania, now part of Romania. She finds the land, the houses and people there much more like the Hungary of her imagination than what she sees in Hungary proper. No wonder that she marries Gyuri, the student. Her brother remains in the US. Their father summarises the situation: “It seems that being Hungarian and being Jewish are like malaria, they get into your blood and you’re never cured! I brought my children up as Americans and Christians, and now look – my daughter’s become a Hungarian and my son’s Jewish!”
Although perfunctory, the last chapters by Kepes with its sketches of post- Communist Hungary are perfect hits. People are disillusioned, their main concern is to make money by any, even illegal means. Former Communist apparatchiks become rich capitalists, some even join the Radical Right. The new Left is composed of former “dissidents”, members of the “democratic opposition”, but also their former persecutors, joined by inveterate members of the Communist “workers’ militia”. Somebody explains why he voted for a given party: “Because they only make me sick, while I actually dread the others”. Today many Hungarians would agree with the summary comment of one of the protagonists of the outcome of 1989: “That wasn’t a change of regime, it was one regime rotting nicely into another”. But I’m sure neither Kepes nor Charles Farkas would think so. Pre-war Hungary wasn’t an ideal place, Stalinist Hungary was hell, Kádár’s Hungary was immoral, but today Hungarians are the masters of their own fate. That is not an unhappy ending.
1 Charles Farkas: Vanished by the Danube. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2013.
2 András Kepes: The Inflatable Buddha. Translated from the Hungarian by Bernard Adams. London: Armadillo Central, 2013.