WAR AND ART – MEMOIRS OF A HUNGARIAN CHILDHOOD – PART IV

The widows of Kesztölc, guardians of faith and hope, may their true plain hearts in prayers and piety rest. Widows so alike, that none do slacken in piety, none can die without prayers and whispers of immortality.

My mother was no widow, but she prayed and hoped. For her, divine, saintly approval of an action was the essence of its rightness or goodness. She recognised no standard of moral behaviour independent of divine will. Her appeals to the divine will to settle human or moral issues took the form of consulting St Vendel, the patron saint of the village. His statue stood right across from our orchard.

For my mother, duty to God was inseparable from her duty to St Vendel. Our patron saint wore the mantle of green, the colour of hope. He was there to protect and save the village folks from being ground to dust by work, poverty and war. The duty to God and to the patron saint gave rise to strange sights by my mother. What product did she expect to achieve by giving money to the church protected by St Vendel? Through prayers, words, deeds and money, she gratified God and the patron saint. Those were the ones that for her meant piety. Such practices, she believed, were the salvation of individual families, along with the common good of the village.

Sacrifice is giving money to the church, while prayer is asking things of St Vendel. So then piety would be a sort of devotional act in mutual trading between St Vendel and mother. What benefits did she expect from the saint? For the money she donated to the church, she asked St Vendel to help her grandson pass his doctoral exams. What a sight it was. My mother standing in front of the statue of St Vendel and, crossing herself, makes a request on behalf of her grandson. Statues of saints do not move, but her faith doesn’t alter, for if it alters it is not faith. My mother, a solitary figure in the universe of hope, her lips moving, making the sound of a guessable soul in a seeable place. If language can pattern faith like that, it will outlive time, outlast the looming menace of war.

In the silent dialogue between my mother and the statue of St Vendel the hope is to persuade the saint to intercede and help. The green mantle of St Vendel had no inscription that said: “Abandon all hope, ye who stand here!” Hope is such a wonderful thing. And my mother had in her that Promethean capacity for gift. In Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound, the chained Titan is pitilessly questioned by the chorus. They want to know whether he gave human beings anything else besides the gift of fire and, with that, the capacity for craft, technological progress and what we are proud of calling civilisation.


Man’s destiny is to know, not to exterminate, if only because societies with knowledge and freedom actually dominate societies that lack them. We are talking here about the essence of humanity. Modern writers like Albert Camus often summon classical myth’s heroes to illustrate their view of the greatness and predicament of humankind. Share with me for a moment the original, Aeschylean Prometheus.

Asked if he perhaps went further than showing men how to make fire, Prometheus answers:

Yes, I gave them mind and reason. All my gifts were guided by goodwill. I invented for them letters, and how to set down words in writing – the all-remembering skill, mother of many arts. I taught them what colours please the gods.

The colour of green, like the mantle of St Vendel, pleases the gods. Prometheus’s gift to man was that he “stopped mortals from foreseeing doom”. How did you do that, they ask? His response is as revealing as the green mantle of St Vendel: “I sowed in them blind hopes.” Hope liberates man. Hitler’s Final Solution annihilates hope.

Memory wakes the thoughts of hope that bless; they rose the first in the winter of 1944 – they set for the last time as the Germans and Russians fought. But in Kesztölc there was no Euripides to place these words on the lips of young and old in the Erechtheus:

Let my spear lie idle for spiders to entangle in their webs; and may I dwell peacefully with grey old age, singing my songs, my grey head crowned with garlands, after hanging a Thracian shield upon Athena’s columned halls.1

In war, it is the order of things that life should be harvested like a crop that is ripe. Of corn we reap, when harvest time is come. One man must live, another man must die. For war is the one thing that makes otherwise good people do bad things. The power of art cuts paths through the fever swamps of human existence – wars. I take art to be the naming of the meaning of life. This is, beyond any religious specificity, a sacramental notion. This is why art has been at the centre of my focus about war. We are, in respect of art, human, all too human. “A work of art is a joy forever; its beauty increases; it will never fade into nothingness.” The truth, the reality behind Keats’s lyric line is immense. His artistic-aesthetic credo is essentially also my own, it embodies my own feelings writ large.

This makes me observe that in war the universe of death ascends the universe of art. To recast Horace’s famous ode Eheu fugaces: “The gloomy stream Styx that surely must be crossed by all of us in war who feed upon life’s bounty, be we princes or needy paupers.” The house of life has many windows, but in war only two doors: entry, birth; exit, death. We lived in fearful days and nights of blood and death.

The words that delight me are freighted with beauty and joy of a sleigh ride with Grandfather one winter morning. The air was laced and charged with the grandeur of creation, it gathered to light and greatness, like the rising sun. Look at the stars! Look, look at the skies and the waning moon. From the eaves icicles tinkled in the moonlight like chandeliers. From our neighbour, through the mist, crowed a cock, and others near him answered, and then from the village came intermingling cockcrows, finally joining into one. Everything else around, except the horses thumping in the barn, was quiet.

The words of sorrow that filled me came from what we saw on the road to Piliscsév. At the bend of the road in the vast open field the full moon illuminated something black and terrible. Grandfather pulled the reins, nudged me, go and see. I got off the sleigh. The frozen snow crunched but didn’t crack under my weight. I stopped, face to face with a jaw-dropping sight. A German soldier, frozen in the snow. He was half kneeling, his hands extended as if holding a rifle, aiming at enemy. There he was, frozen into a solid and spectral manikin. The pale moon, peacefully drifting up beneath a long, thin cloud, sent fresh gleams on the soldier’s helmet. This must be his hallow of immortality. The solitary, frozen figure in the cornfield seemed to be the warring century’s corpse. His tomb, ice and snow. The wind, his death lament. The moonlight, his shrouds. At once a crow, black and gaunt, in wind-ruffled plume, had chosen thus to caw-caw his soul upon the scene of death.

Grandfather approached and gazed silent at the soldier encased in snow and ice. Then his voice came as if out of sepulchre. “Merciful God. He too has a mother.” On the frozen face of the German soldier I saw no Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori written [Horace’s Odes, III.2.13: “It is sweet and right to die for your country”]. Death left the pages of books and came to reside in our village. As the sun edges over the Pilis hills, the frozen figure assumes hues of colour, and appears lonelier in death than Michelangelo’s hands could ever carve in marble. The rising sun is symbol of resurrection. No resurrection here. The sky is sad like some war memorial.

The vast landscape I share with the frozen German soldier is white, silent. The snowflakes began to flutter around me. Come away, O human child! To the art and love, for the world is more full of death than you can understand. An innocent boy, that lightly draws its breath, and feels surging life in every limb, what should he know of death? But I know what death is. I was there. I saw that life and war are distinct, diverse, and sheer opposites, antipodes. I saw the creative hand of winter in giving shape of beauty to death. I saw the mingled tragic contraries of war: that beauty, joy and life itself are transitory and can turn into their opposites. Beauty into death, death into beauty, joy into grief, and life into death.

Standing in awe before the frozen figure, I realised the forces of nature and the eternal laws of existence. Terror and death of a mundane kind entered so visibly and so tangibly in our everyday life. In a strange way, despite the horror of it, this also gave a certain richness to our lives. Who knows what happiness is? At age ten I knew not that happiness, the pursuit of happiness, in the American scheme of things, is a basic right, a fundamental constitutional element in a republic. Today I know that happiness has preoccupied Americans collectively and individually at least since Jefferson wrote The Declaration of Independence in 1776.

Generation after generation has found happiness a fascinating but complicated aim of life. In school in Cold War Hungary, I never heard of Jefferson or of his conviction that beneath all political and temporal diversity, beneath the superficial traits and talents that distinguish men and nations, human beings are equal in the possession of a common humanity. To the end that concord might prevail on the earth instead of strife, Jefferson invites men to promote in themselves the humanity which binds them to their fellows, and to shape their conduct and their institutions in harmony with it.

But when I recall my state of the mind at age ten, perhaps it is better to write in more concrete terms of the fullness or intensity of existence. In this sense there may have been something more deeply satisfying in our desperate will-to-life than what people generally strive for. Even in war, life broods with warm, throbbing breasts and with, ah, bright wings of black humour. One Sunday morning, grandfather took me to church. Sitting close to the altar in special pew reserved for members of the village council, grandfather pointed at the picture of the Passion, including the Crucifixion, the triumph of eternity over pain. It was a fine painting which showed three foolish, sinister faces watching Christ’s martyrdom. Grandfather, a non-believer and battle tested veteran of the First World War, whispered to me that the three faces there were accredited representatives of Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini.

As the days, months and years passed, I understood what Grandfather meant about Hitler and Stalin and their blood tide of criminality. How could a human being, conceived in a mother’s womb, born into humanity, with normal mind and any degree of free choice, accept and share in running Hitler’s Auschwitz or Stalin’s Gulag? Search not for the moral inwardness of the willing executioners whose inwardness is the size of a pinhead. What moral inwardness there, in a pinhead? How could human beings, who were once loved and cradled by their mothers, and sent birthday cards to their beloveds, plan and carry out the Final Solution?

Twenty-five million is the number of men, women and children that Stalin starved, imprisoned and tortured to death. We can say the number but can grasp nothing of its reality, of its concrete meaning. So let us focus on a single human being. In Stalin’s Russia they arrested a nun for espionage and sabotage in 1937.2

They transported her to Kolyma, to the Arctic Circle. In the hold that took prisoners from Vladivostok to the mines. On one of those hell barges, she begged and screamed for water. They pissed in her mouth, and asked her whether it was as tasty as communion wine, and raped her… The women there had only a kind of raw shift to wear. In the summer many went mad, literally mad, with mosquito bites and swamp fever. Sister Evgenia lived into the winter… She was beaten, on and off, for ten hours. When she passed out, they poured ice water over her and made her stand to attention in the puddle… First she said out loud [to her torturers]: “May God forgive you.” Over and over. Then she crooned prayers and begged the Holy Mother to intercede for those who had beaten her. That evening the other women in the labour-squad had to chop down her body with an axe. Her eyes were still open.

What caused the crimes of Stalin? Was it ideas? Or, rather, one particular idea? The answer is the mad certainty of Stalin who knew perfection and how it could be reached. I have in front of me the class notes from the gymnasium in Esztergom which my mother saved from oblivion. The notes transcribe our history teacher’s unbound adulation for the universal genius of Stalin. My soul freezes when I read the lecture notes I took on Marx, Lenin and Stalin. We were taught to praise and worship this secular trinity as gods, deities and heroes. They personified wisdom, courage, self-discipline, the titanic will to remake the world in their own image. Now we know that Marxism-Leninism-Stalinism has been the greatest and costliest fantasy of the twentieth century. The self-deification of absolute power, of an abstraction called mankind, and dictatorship of the proletariat revealed itself as the tragic and grotesque aspect of human bondage.

In the gymnasium I was never told that Marx, the idol of Stalin, admired the “father of tragedy” – Aeschylus. And the burden of Aeschylus’s Oresteia is that crimes beget crime, and violence leads to violence, until the first crime in the chain, the original Sin of the genus, is expiated through accumulated suffering. The hand of tyranny is long, it stretches from Moscow to Kesztölc. Few wish to argue which was the worst period of darkness in the twentieth century, Stalin’s Russia, or Hitler’s Reich. I bear witness to both.

I saw in our village, nay, in my family the savage absolutism of communism. In Kesztölc the mad-brained founders of communism announced the drive for the collectivisation of land and labour. My grandfather János Hertlik was a well-to-do peasant who, through hard work and good marriage, equated self-interest with the thirty-five acres he owned. From the winter of 1947–48 until Stalin’s death in March 1953, Rákosi’s minions in Kesztölc, who copied Stalin’s pattern of forceful collectivisation, ordered an unrelenting struggle against kulaks, peasants who owned at least thirty-five acres. As a rich peasant, grandfather exemplified that contemptible, hateful human type known as kulak. In the eye of communists, he was an enemy of the human race. He was an enemy because, for the communists, his refusal to join the collective was directed at his own personal benefit rather than at the common good.

Grandfather’s courage and defiance had fateful consequences. One winter afternoon in 1949, after leaving school, I was riding my bike from Esztergom to Kesztölc. The sun that rayed from the blue sky melted the snow on the road to slush. Pedalling uphill, head down, leaning heavily on the handlebars, I saw a bright red spot that appeared like poppies in snow. Following the red trail, I caught up with a figure, reeling as if drunk. It was my grandfather. He was near to total exhaustion. The chunks of snow glued to his boots were reddish-brown. He looked at me and, leaning on the bike for support, he said in half whisper, “I cannot walk. Please take me home.” I wrapped my jacket round the horizontal bar of the bicycle for grandfather to sit on. I pushed the bike with the shivering, half dead cargo up hill, downhill, all the way to home. We had to call the local shoemaker to cut off the boots from grandfather’s feet. They were swollen, bloody, and his soles raw flesh.

His story is perhaps no worse than anybody else’s in the grisly archives of the Hungarian secret police. Grandfather was summoned to the HQ of the secret police in Esztergom. At first the secret police agents were polite and offered him a seat. One of the agents, directing the interrogation, looked at grandfather with what could have been a faint smile and asked him if he was ready to admit everything he was accused of. Grandfather said he had nothing to admit for he was innocent of all the charges. “If so, why do you refuse to join the collective?” the agent asked. “Think of the trouble you make for yourself, your family, and for us as well.”

The “us” meant the members of the exterminating profession known as secret police agents. The exterminators had a little saying: “Give us a kulak, and we’ll make a case.” After grandfather was beaten, the secret agents dismissed him, laughing: “You can go home.” In school, I was told that Stalin and the Red Army brought us deliverance and renewal. But finding my grandfather half dead on the road I saw that the new era which began with the victory of the Red Army laid the foundation of tyranny.

Like Hitler’s Wehrmacht, Stalin’s Red Army had its share of half-beasts, violent, brutal and stupid. Even among the Russians billeted in our house I saw the dissolute condition of masterless men. They obey no authority, their life is indissolubly bound up with a perpetual and restless gratification of lust, a desire of pleasure after pleasure that ceases only in death. And one of the main causes for this is the desire for wine. What happened next is what always happens when a Russian soldier gets drunk.

One day a half-beast, a Russian soldier confronted grandfather and demanded wine. When he waved his hand saying he had no wine, the Russian kicked him and struck him in the face. Grandfather sank to his knees, quivering with each blow, not even daring to raise an arm in order to shield himself. This is what a human being had been reduced to, this was one man beating another.

The savage beating alerted the captain. He dashed out of the kitchen, grabbed the soldier by the throat, and aimed the revolver at his head. “If you do it once more,” he shouted in rage, “I will shoot you like a dog, you drunken stupid ass [ti mudok].” The soldier protested, “Comrade Captain, it is not me. It is the war and wine.” The captain exploded in fury. With the butt of his revolver he struck the face of the soldier. Bloodied, he staggered, scooped up snow and rubbed his face. Defiant, he looked at the captain, and unleashed a string of profanities: idi na khuy. Literally, “go to dick”, equivalent to the English “go f… yourself”.

War brought us a world where humanism ceased to be the ruling intellectual and moral force of the day. With the Red Army came lice, hunger, fear, and a life that was nasty, brutish and often short. Head lice infestation in our family was epidemic. I shall never forget the tickling feeling of something moving in my hair, the incessant scratching of sores on my head. My mother set up on tripods cauldrons in the yard and boiled our underwear for hours. Then she ironed the outer garments with a hot iron. To delouse our hairs, she made a special soap of animal fat and ashes. We had to wash our hair twice a week with the evil smelling soap. No sooner had we got rid of the head lice than we were infected with carbuncles, swollen, painful sores discharging pus. A carbuncle, associated with malnutrition, is contagious. It spreads not only to other areas of the body, but to other people living in the same residence. Our whole enlarged family had carbuncles. I had them on the back and the nape of the neck.

Occupied by the Germans and then the Russians, our world was interrupted and fragmented by the destructive frenzy of the war. It obliterated the achievements and memory of the past and condemned man to perpetual hope and fervent pray. I saw, I lived, and I felt the anguish of the discontinuities in human existence.

Nothing illustrates our discontinuity in history more dramatically than the decision of the Soviet high command in late December 1944 to evacuate Kesztölc and relocate its inhabitants in the nearby village Piliscsév. This wasn’t a flood, this wasn’t a river. No, it is a slow moving biblical Exodus. A man of blameless and upright life named János Hertlik, he had three daughters and two sons, and he owned three horses, two cows, and ploughed thirty-five acres, year after year. But when the order arrived for evacuation, groans and curses poured from grandfather in a torrent. He leaned hard against the house he had built in the 1900s. But it moved not. He was the one who had to move.

Yeah, God moves mountains. Soviet command moves a whole village. In my birthplace life had been carried forward from the womb to the grave for nearly a millennia. King Géza I in 1075 signed a royal document that donated to Kesztölc “seven vineyards, five vine-dressers, and 124 acres of land” […necnom in kestelci VII. uienaes et uinotores et terram ad duo aratra…]. As a settlement, Kesztölc, in Roman times, is Castellum. In the seventeenth century, when the Slovaks settled in the village, it is Kestuc. In the early eighteenth century when my grandfather’s German ancestors arrived, it is Kestenholc.

From 1075 to 1945, two hundred and sixty generations lived, worked, and died in Kestelci-Kestuc-Kestenholc-Kesztölc. This unbroken continuity through time and history is an affirmation of life, eternal life, the eternal recurrence of life. The future promised and consecrated. The triumphant Yes to life beyond death and change. I know of no more exalted symbolism for the continuity in Kesztölc than this. On the ancestral graves in the churchyard in Kesztölc, there are rosemaries, for remembrance. And there are pansies, for thought.

The Exodus begins. The joys of ordinary life with its rhythmed flow of time are taken from us. We can see how fateful these are for a human life. I saw early the once-for-allness of human existence, the fear we experience in our finitude, our limitations, our neediness and our vulnerability. The war, the evacuation would wrench us out of the human mould, so that certain human fulfilments in life, certain human goods and excellence would no longer be possible for us.

The practical primacy of life and living together in one place, in Kesztölc, had been uninterrupted for two hundred and sixty generations. Now, for the first time, the village is empty, silent and lifeless. But we are living beings, we sense and need the continuity. In the continuity which we share with generations gone before us, death is part of life. As living beings we live in the continuity, for intimacy with others. It draws us. Continuity through generations is the sacred in human life. It enriches, it fascinates and it attracts. The evacuation interrupts our timeless continuity and intimacy. It brings sadness, suffering and tears. The silent, empty village. Neither song, nor game, nor feast; no violin be touched, nor horn be blown; no dance, no motion, save alone the long line of Exodus.

The Exodus ends. In Piliscsév the home of grandfather’s sister is our refuge. Three families take shelter there. The place is overcrowded. Uprooted, our life is but a variation between Prometheus clamped to the rock, and the suffering of a Christian saint. Grateful as we are for shelter in the new place, we again face the same we left behind, the Red Army and its blood tide of looting, raping and violence.

War strips away our civilised adornments and reveals our nakedness. War is the hour of truth. War gives us the true measure and circumference of human nature. In the Red Army, the unconditional “thou shalt” is higher than the imperative of restraint – “thou shalt not”.

Take “not” away, unleash “thou shalt”, and see what discord, what inhumanity, and what criminality follow. When everything includes itself in “thou shalt”, power into will, will into rape, then will and power, so doubly seconded, must make women a universal prey.

A Russian poet who travelled with the Red Army through Eastern Europe, suggested in his memoir that Hungarian women had enjoyed being raped:

In Europe the women surrendered themselves and were unfaithful sooner than anyone else. Hungarian women loved the Russians in their turn, and along with the dark fear that parted the knees of matrons and mothers and families, there was also the effective nature of young women and the desperate tenderness of the women, who gave themselves to the men who killed their husbands.3


Really? Hungarian women enjoyed being raped by the Russians. What possessed comrade Slutsky to write this outrageous fiction? He provides the answer:

We must not forget that we were in a fairly flea-bitten part of Europe, her back and beyond, barefoot Romania and land-hungry Hungary. The extent to which Europe was uninformed about Russia was really offensive. This made us insulted and embittered.4

Are we to believe that the Russians, insulted and embittered, brought enlightenment and pleasure to backward, flea-bitten Hungary? But we should not be surprised. In the Red Army, Slutsky served in the front lines as a politruk, a political officer. He joined the Communist Party and remained a member to the end of his day. In Stalin’s Great Purges of the 1930s the ranks of leading intellectuals, writers and poets were thinned. It presented Slutsky with head turning opportunity. He had the choice to be “either a corpse or a colonel”. He chose the latter.

When Boris Pasternak was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature, Slutsky spoke against Pasternak and voted for his expulsion from the Union of Writers:

The poet has an obligation to seek recognition from his own nation, not from its enemies on his own native soil, and not from some rich uncle abroad… Pasternak’s prize has been given out of hatred for us… Pasternak is the Nobel Prize winner against Communism.

When death is at his doorstep, Slutsky invokes Shakespeare’s Sonnet No. 66. “Tir’d with all these, for restful death I cry.” It is famous among the Russians in the translation of Pasternak, thoroughly naturalised as an ideal expressing the predicament of the Russian writer, whose art, like that of Slutsky, is “tongue-tied by authority”.

Against this background I invite you to ponder the lie that Hungarian women loved to be raped by the Russians. How often I heard village women, mothers and maidens, speaking Slovak, beg: Ne strelij soldat [Soldier, don’t shoot]. Their eyes teary, hazy and bloodshot. They feared being raped. Not for the first and not for the last to lie prostrate, each in turn.

Let me counter Slutksy’s pitiable lie about rape with its reality. My aunt Leonora and I had to sleep in a small lumber-room at the far end of the house. One night, the door burst open. A half-beast with human face, reeking of alcohol, staggered in. In the dim light that flickered from the lamp overhead, I saw the barrel of a gun pointing at me. The Russian ordered me to get off the bed. Barefoot, in night shirt, I stood on the dirt floor. The Russian pulled off his boots for me to wear. He grabbed me by the shirt and pushed me out, slamming the door behind. O pitiless Heavens. Unhoused boy is no more but a poor shivering creature, standing, in night shirt and in Russian boots, under the star-lit sky, as I was. That night, on the knife edge of total solitude and full of fear of being sepulchred alive in the freezing night, that night I saw a man, a soldier, whose savage lust was a rope, tied between beast and hell, a rope over an abyss. What can be admired or loved in a man who is a bridge to hell and not an end. Such man justifies no future nor redeems past generations.

Values, thousand years old, are on these scales of good and evil. A rapist’s “thou shalt” tips the scale of evil. This world, eternally evil, the image of an eternal contradiction: an evil image – a drunken lust of the rapist: thus the world once appeared to me.

When I saw my aunt, her face was blank, ghostlike as marble in death. She pulled me toward the main house. Her strength gave way. She leaned against the wall. Sank to her knees and vomited. Such is the joy and pleasure of Hungarian women being raped by the Russians.

Marcel Proust noted that war provokes an almost “tropical flowering” of sexual activity, rape, behind the lines which is the counterpart of the carnage which takes place at the front. On the one hand, sanctioned mass murder. On the other, violent rapes. Dichotomy of harmony?

Dichotomy. Rape reveals something about the mind of the rapist. Evil is often the happiest when it operates in the autonomy of the gratuitous. By going beneath even the minimal standards of modern evil, the rapist shows contempt for us and our morality. He denies the slightest acknowledgment of our common humanity.

Rape is defilement. It is not just an injury or a crime. It is an indignity. It is a debasement of something sacred that should be inviolable. The human body is more than flesh and bones or a bunch of neurons and cells. The human body has a higher moral status than a sheep’s body or a piece of lettuce. We are repulsed by rape because the body has a moral essence.

1 Richard Kannicht,cTragicorum Graecorum Fragmenta, vol. 5: Euripides (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2004), 369.2.i.

2 George Steiner, Proofs and Three Parables (London: Granta Books, 1992), 37–38.

3 Boris Slutsky, Things That Happened, translated by G. S. Smith (Moscow, 1999), 147–48.

4 Ibid., 130.

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