Decades of delay
A stranger can ask a question that changes the way you see your life.
“Why did you wait for six decades to write this memoir?”
I wanted to forget the war.
“Why don’t you mention until page 74 that your father was Jewish?”
Why? Maybe because as a child I was afraid of being branded a Jew.
The questions of this casual visitor from London unsettled me enough to look at my life from a new angle, to recognise my excuses and to step over them.
I was born in 1933, the year Hitler rose to power.
It was not an auspicious year to be the newborn of a Roman Catholic mother and a Jewish father in Hungary, a country that was still nursing its wounds after a lost war, a failed Communist dictatorship and the impact of the Great Depression. Anti-Semitism was on the rise. As a small child I remained unaware of the workings of the wider world. My parents tried to hide their worries and keep me sheltered in a cocoon of care.
Only in 1940 did I start to notice the perils they faced.
And only now, in my 80s can I see that most of my life I tried hard to evade being thought of as a part Jew. I carried with me the compulsion to shed the past even to America, where I arrived at 23 as a refugee. And I carried it on to peaceful New Zealand where I landed in 1973.
It only happened in 2014 that in the Internet I stumbled upon the right word for my lasting unease.
It is a German word: Mischling.
It means mongrel, crossbreed, hybrid, half-caste.
Yes, it took me many decades to deal with this fear that originated in my childhood, the fear that I refused to acknowledge, the urge to swim in the mainstream, to seek a cloudless life.
Only today can I look with calm and rational disdain at the black and white figurines of the Nazi Racial Chart drawn of people with mixed parentage. A white Aryan silhouette next to a blackened Jew: their marriage Verboten!
My parents? Not permitted!
My birth? Prohibited!
Their child, a mischling “of the first degree”, is to be sterilised.
The grey figure of a mongrel next to a white Aryan: my own happy marriage, Verboten! Yes, it took me many decades to sit down and write this memoir.
The Press of Other Lives
Like a leaf of grass
in a dense pasture
I am entwined in the tendrils
of other lives.
My roots tangle
with their roots.
My need for light
shares their need.
My reach for food
meets with their hunger.
I dream their dreams
and drink their tears.
Their face may fade
their cries subside
but they echo,
claim and touch me,
make me swallow
more than I can hold.
Moonlight means danger when you are trying to creep across a border.
You want to disappear, merge with the earth, blend into the sky when you feel searching eyes on your back, eyes turning guns in your direction.
The patrols are vigilant. They don’t speak your language, and their orders are clear: nobody is to cross.
This is the last stretch.
The border is straight ahead, that’s what the tall man said when he brought us through the trees, before he turned back at the edge of the forest. “You only paid me to bring you this far”, he whispered. “Keep going. But when they send up flares, lie down in the snow. Be silent. Don’t move. Don’t lift your head until the flares go out and it’s dark again.”
We are left facing a bare stretch of flat land patrolled by a line of Russian tanks. A few days ago twenty of us left Budapest in the back of a truck pretending to be potatoes covered with tattered old potato sacks. We are now diminished to a motley dozen, young and old, men, women and children. Eight have chickened out on the way. It was not easy to huddle on top of each other whenever a roadside patrol stopped the truck and lifted the tarpaulin to see inside. I can still smell the sacks and the bodies on top of me, a smell no soap can remove.
We trudge on, hoping to reach Austria.
It is a cold December day. Our revolution is crushed. We are on the move.
Looking back at that December day six decades later, I notice a pattern, the pattern of flight.
Could it be passed on through generations? This constant movement away from danger, from war, poverty, hunger or persecution is fed by the hope of finding better pastures, of finding a safe place to raise the next generation.
When my parents fled from Berlin in 1933 to Budapest, did my mother’s fears affect me just a few weeks before I was born?
And did my father’s ancestors fleeing across Europe and ending up in America like so many in the 19th and 20th centuries, did they follow the same pattern of flight? Further back, the restless tribes of prehistory, later called Hungarians, moving from east towards west and ending up in Europe, did they carry the same hunger in their genes?
Now we can find and date the bones to prove that millions of years ago our earliest ancestors left their birthplace in Africa and crossed seas and continents. We are learning so much, but changing so little.
Yes, I am a migrant. I am not alone.
Gene mixers and gene adapters.
On restless nights I am still heading for borders.
It took seven years for my parents to get married. Only much later did I understand the difficulties they faced.
As a child, I looked at them as if they had started to exist on the day I was born. In my eyes, they had no previous life and no other function than to look after me as my preordained father (Apu) and mother (Anyu).
How could I know that forming a family needed courage at that time?
Apu’s devotion to a Roman Catholic girl of peasant stock was not welcomed by his relations. For him, choosing Anyu was not only a choice of love; it was also an assertion of his independence.
Anyu’s family was equally set against her choosing a Jew, and even worse, a “bohemian journalist” without reliable income at a time when the Great Depression was still in full bloom, when unemployed professionals stood in line for soup and shoveled snow for a crust.
After my arrival, the vocal objections seemed to die away and were replaced by mute disapproval.
I was delivered by the leading Budapest gynaecologist, József Frigyesi, in his clinic. That set a pattern. Throughout my childhood Apu insisted that even with trivial problems I had to see the best specialists he managed to find.
Anyu said it was an easy birth.
She was smiling on the photo taken by Apu’s Rolleiflex, her hair still in wet disarray on a pillow next to her newborn.
My first home was a rented room in a tenement house on the Pest side, and I was still breastfed when my mother found her first job after Berlin. Apu’s income having become more and more unreliable, it was Anyu’s pay that kept us going. She had to call upon her Roman Catholic mother to look after me. I was christened in Grandma’s faith and raised by her to become a devout girl according to the tenets of her religion.
How many lives?
At times I am convinced that I have lived more than one life.
It was another me who was a child before the war. It was an entirely different person who went to university during the Communist era, comfortable in complicity, a self-centred teen, inward looking until 1955.
When all dreams were dashed in 1956 and I arrived in America, I was again a different person, ready to assimilate into a continent offering seemingly limitless possibilities. While I waitressed in Maine, Florida and California, while I studied at Columbia, San Francisco State and UCLA, while I dated various men: Brooklyn lawyer, Baltimore medical student, English mathematician, Japanese student, I gradually opened my mind to the world.
When I worked as a teacher and journalist in California and married and became a mother, I was busy writing and nesting, trying to be useful and at the same time getting absorbed into California’s complex society.
And when my husband built a yacht to turn his back on competitive consumerism, to get away from complexity, our son and I joined him to sail to New Zealand at the age of 40.
I became a different person again, going as far away as possible from Budapest in body and in mind.
In New Zealand, distant from crowded continents, we settled in the small village of Russell by the sea.
I learned to become another woman again. I slowed down and was mindful of local lore, of the power of the indigenous population, of Maori culture, of local history and ecology.
Now, in my 80s when I have more time to think, I am a different person with a different life again, a life seemingly disconnected from the previous ones.
The word seemingly is determinantal here.
The more I compare my many lives, the more I find the same child lurking in the background. She has been present in the emotions that tipped, and still tip the scales of the choices I make.
I am the bearer
I am the bearer of unspeakable secrets. I am the teller of unbearable truths. I am a grower of redder than red roses. I am a pusher of stolen goods in pubs. I am a father who abuses his sons. I am a joker who never wins a laugh. I am the woman who does it for a price. I am the blind man who dreams about the stars. I am a fanatic in a bulletproof vest. I am the general who stamps out unrest. I am a professor stifled by stiff taboos. I am the priest who prays to lift the clouds. I am a child who thumbs his nose. To be a writer I must be all of those.
Annyi baj legyen!
“Annyi baj legyen!”
This sentence, almost a slogan, has become our family motto.
It is impossible to translate it in three words. “Let’s have only that many troubles!” makes little sense. What Apu meant when he was saying it over and over was closer to: “Don’t worry. If that is all, it’s a trifle, it is no trouble at all.”
Because in our collective life major and minor setbacks happened regularly, it was his way of stepping over them, forever upholding the possibility that things could get much worse and asserting that as long as we managed to stay alive, there was a way to overcome anything.
Let’s say that I had dropped a glass that shattered on the stone floor of the kitchen. “All right, don’t cry”, Anyu would say and reach for the broom to help me sweep up the shards.
Grandma would shake her head and say, “Don’t step on it. Go away!” and I would feel her disapproval of my clumsiness.
Apu would shout the three magic words from the safety of the room, because he almost never entered the kitchen. “Annyi baj legyen!” His words gave me permission to be free of guilt. I could sigh with relief and go back to the room to sit down beside him.
When there was not enough money and he couldn’t find buyers for his latest books, when someone important or powerful was rude to him, he would open his palms and look up with a smile, “Annyi baj legyen”.
A defiant motto, a mantra, a prayer.
Years later these three words popped up in New York on the day when a smiling man sitting behind his fancy desk in his formal office under the portrait of Joseph Pulitzer at the Columbia School of Journalism told me that my English was not good enough to become a journalist. “I advise you to choose a career in fashion”, he said. “There your accent wouldn’t matter. It even could be an asset.”
As I walked away and descended the steps of the impressive school founded by Pulitzer, another immigrant with a Hungarian accent, I felt angry and humiliated. I swore that I’d show him, that smiling man. Yes, I’ll show him! And by the time I was back in Johnson Hall in my dorm room, I said it aloud, “Annyi baj legyen!”
In praise of distance
You have to go far away
from where you were born
in order to see
the contours of hills
of valleys and peaks
the true size and bias
of church spires
the narrow alleys
of pinched perspectives
and the topography
of self-referential graffiti
etched on each lurching heart.
Insight gets its start
on an indifferent
Don’t go, Apu!
When Apu got his call-up paper, it caused chaos in our household. Anyu helped him finish the preparations for his departure.
Our beautifully veneered wardrobe with its curved doors was wide open with our things jumbled up inside. Apu’s clothes were scattered on the bed, on the table, on every chair.
He was going.
I asked him where? “Who knows?” he said.
“We don’t want to pack this.” Anyu held up a brown scarf. “You will wear it. Put it on now.”
“I like the white one better”, he said.
“Not practical. Will get dirty right away”, Anyu snatched it out of his hand. She was impatient. He started stuffing shirts into a rucksack. Anyu took them out and folded them properly. “How many?” she asked.
“There is no room for six. You have to take more underwear. Jacket. Raincoat. A hat. Gloves. Warm gloves. Warm socks. Soap. Shaving things…” “Paper. Pen. Books”, Apu added.
“No room for books. Too heavy. Maybe one book. You have to take something to eat. That’s more important.”
“They must feed us.”
“Maybe. But how often? A loaf of bread. Jam. I’ve packed half a kilo of bacon. A pocket knife. Scissors. A bag of sugar.”
Apu sighed and sat down starting to put on a pair of brand new hobnail boots.
“Get used to it.”
He put on the rucksack that made him lean forward. Anyu straightened the armband on his coat. It was a white armband, not yellow like those that Jews had to wear. That much I knew. He had to wear white, meaning that he had converted to the Catholic faith, studied the Catechism for weeks with Anyu and with a priest. Grandma washed and ironed his armband, but Anyu sewed it.
“Let’s go”, he said.
Going down the stairwell, his boots made a lot of noise. It was obvious that he was not happy going on this trip.
“Where are the mountains you will climb?”
I asked again standing at the gate, looking at his boots. He reached out to hug me.
“Why can’t I go with you?”
“They only want men. You stay home. Be a good girl.”
He turned and held Anyu longer than he held me.
The power of documents
In the summer of 1944, I finished my fourth year in elementary school with a report card of straight “A”s. I had a clean slate to enter a gymnasium, a prep school for university. I was proud of my results.
When I handed my report card to Anyu, I expected praise and a big hug.
I was taken aback when my mother shook her head looking at the first page of the report. There, under my name, a school administrator had crossed out Rk, Roman Catholic in the rubric of religion and replaced it with Izr, an abbreviation meaning Izraelita.
Anyu said that this was a malicious mistake and meant trouble.
Undaunted, she made an appointment to meet the head of Ráskay Lea Gimnázium. She took time off from work and went there to ask for my enrolment. When she came home she was upset and stayed quiet until I pressed her to explain what happened.
“We must hide your report card”, she said. “It can get us in trouble.” “Why? Was he mean to you?”
“No, he is a decent man. He said that he would be happy to have you as a student, but because of your religion he was prohibited to enrol you. There was no way. He couldn’t break a new law and enrol a Jew.”
Soon after this encounter, Anyu packed us up and took Grandma and me to the village of her birth. Everybody knew there that I was a confirmed Roman Catholic, and we were safe, not only from the bombs.
While we were packing, deciding what to take and what to leave, we were witnessing another kind of packing, the preparations of our Jewish neighbours to move out of the house.
News from the Russian front
My great-grandma Ekker bore seven healthy children starting in 1882. Grandma was the oldest of them. Her youngest sister was christened Ilonka, whom I knew well. She was three years younger than my mother, her niece.
Anyu’s young aunt lived in Moson, in a big house built by war prisoners captured during the First World War. It was a squat one-storey house that to me looked like a stone monument to hardship. Half of it served as the laundry for the surrounding housing estate of similarly grim bigger houses, and the other half was Auntie Ilonka’s one-room-plus-kitchen flat. In there she was raising three children with her husband, Uncle Józsi, a muscular electrician who liked to whistle the latest tunes and to make us children laugh.[…] When the war started, Uncle Józsi was conscripted and shipped to the Russian front. My aunt was left to raise their three children alone. Just like Grandma, she started washing and ironing for money. When we visited her in 1944, we huddled in her kitchen during air raids.
“I have no proper cellar under this house”, she said. “We’d have to run far, across the lawn to a two-storey house for shelter. It’s of no use.” She looked tired and gaunt, her goitrous neck stood out more under her chin.
The next day, before we went on to Püski, Anyu asked her, “When did you hear it?”
These were Aunt Ilonka’s words, the way I remember them:
I was in the kitchen when the man knocked on the door.
I opened the door, and he handed me a piece of paper.
The paper read: “We are sorry to inform you that your husband is missing in action.”
“Is he dead?” I asked.
“We don’t know”, said the man. “I wish I had an answer. Some are dead. Some we never find. Never know.”
“He may be alive. He may be a prisoner of war.”
The man left. I closed the door and cried.
I cried and cried. Now we were left on our own.
What could I say to the children?
Your father is missing in action?
Your father may not come home?
Your father may be dead? Or he may not?
When they came home from school and we sat down to eat, I said: “Your father is lost.”
We all started crying.
Jenő, the youngest, came to me and hugged me. Then he said: “Why are we crying, Mother?”
I understood that he didn’t understand.
Several years passed before another man arrived at her door.
Auntie told us the story of this man repeatedly after the war as we sat around the table in her quiet house. The story of this second man stayed with me for years. I must have added words to it, and it grew into a more and more vivid picture, a more and more emotional tangle. “Missing in action” is a phrase afloat in my head with incessant echoes.
Only a poem can do justice to my aunt:
Missing in action
his crutches leave dents in the snow either side of dragging boot prints two boots on two wooden feet that replaced two lost in retreat in the ravenous Russian frost he is years late but his news is as raw and fresh as today’s I was with him he says we walked side by side no food left nor bullets for guns carved up and ate our horses in the relentless icy blizzard Siberia’s revenge
I harassed him you are lagging behind tanks are right at our heels must move on don’t slow down think of home gave him half the crust I found in my pocket he said nothing sank into the snow closed his eyes above his frozen nose his fingers black and swollen I swear there was nothing else I could do
I shook him tried to turn up his collar but it was stiff with ice saw what could be called a smile I knew he was about to die take my boots he whispered yours are torn take them then he said your name Ilona Ilona Ilona then his head fell back I changed boots and kept going
that smile and your name seen it countless times calling mother calling the names of women delirium and that smile they say the pain stops they feel warm in the lap of mothers and lovers they are at rest coming home crippled is harder
Ilona feeds him makes him a warm bed he stays for a week telling and retelling stories of guns and mud and blood soaks the stumps what’s left of his legs and the last day he hands her a ring he says he got from her husband who ripped it off his frozen finger
Ilona thanks him for telling and bringing the news and the ring through miles of snow storms enemy lines camps hospitals on protheses for finding the house of his dead friend although she knows at first glance that the ring is the wrong ring that it came off another hand
While I was feeding chickens and Anyu and Aunt Tera were squatting behind bushes by the road and scanning the faces of the doomed for my father, he was engaged in various ways of escape.
What I heard about his escapes during the cold days when we were hiding him at home made me tense and fearful.
I became confused by the conflicting expectations of adults. Why was Mr Bauer, my best friend Vica’s father, so dangerous for Apu? Why did he want the Germans to win the war?
And if what I had heard was true, and they punished those Aryans who hid Jews, why did Apu choose mother and me to hide him?
One of the stories he told Anyu, the one I overheard one night when they thought I was asleep, the one I could never forget, was about a couple like them, arrested and tortured. For years in my nightmares I saw them being ordered to strip naked and copulate in front of the men who surrounded them laughing. I had no clear idea of what copulate meant, but I knew that it had to be an extreme act of violence. Sometimes I wanted to hug Apu, to ask him to talk to me and not only to Anyu when he thought that I was asleep. To tell me all the details he knew, say those words that I missed when he whispered into her ear. I wanted to know every twist and turn of his many escapes.
I never got around to ask him. Instead, I made up a continuous narrative based on the little that I had heard. In my eyes, he turned into a reincarnation of Baron Münchhausen dodging danger with invincible wit, a shining “John the Valiant”, a knight in tennis whites.
The way he crawled in Cservenka from brick kiln to kiln on a dark night while machineguns rattled by the ditches, slaughtering his mates, made me bury my face in my pillow.
When he described the march from Cservenka to Baja, he said that he could keep going when others fell by the wayside, were shot and kicked into roadside ditches, only because he had played tennis for years, while the others, weak city dwellers who sat all day at a desk, did not keep fit enough.
He said that he tried to stay away from the edges of the five-man rows, because those on the edges were often beaten, and that he stayed at the front, not in the back of the battalion, because the stragglers were shot.
What about me? I asked myself. Could I keep up, could I stay in the middle? When they arrived at Pandúr Island, Hungarian soldiers and the good citizens of Baja brought them food, and they could drink water and bathe at last in the Danube. He managed to send a message to a bank president he knew in the city, having interviewed him in his old reporter days. He asked for a change of clothes because he wore dirty rags by then. The bank president borrowed the uniform of the bank’s doorman, a bright blue suit covered with gold braid and buttons together with a cap befitting a general and a pair of shoes so big, he said, they could have been props for a Charlie Chaplin movie.
Apu told me how he changed into this spectacular outfit behind a bush and, his head held high, how he walked across the bridge leading into town, smiling on the way and saluting the guards, who smiled back and waved as he passed.
Could I keep calm and collected? Or would I break into a run?
When he arrived in the bank, he was offered more fitting and less conspicuous clothes, “…clean underwear… and I was questioned by the bankers and remember the shocked faces when I told them about Cservenka”, he said.
Bathed, shaved and relatively elegant, he boarded a train to Budapest.
On a street in Buda, he was stopped for an identity check by two teenagers wearing the dreaded Arrow Cross armbands and carrying machine guns. They arrested him.
He ended up in the Little Majestic Hotel, a newly designated prison, on the Sváb Mountain. About 40 prisoners were crammed into one room, waiting for interrogations that entailed beatings. He could hear the screams as he sat on the floor waiting for his turn, he said.
Someone came in and asked for a volunteer to work in the cellar. Nobody else volunteered, but he put up his hand.
He was led away to shovel coal in the basement, and felt relieved to get out of that crowded room. After a while, when the workman in charge of feeding the furnace stepped outside, he took one of the overalls covered with coal dust hanging on a nail, put it on, grabbed a shovel, climbed through a window and calmly walked away, waving to the guards outside. Don’t ever run, he said. Walk at a leisurely pace.
He was looking for Ómama, and found her in a “Jewish house” on Szent István Boulevard. She fed him, and wanted to know everything. They talked into the night and fell asleep only to wake to a loud banging on the door. They tracked him down. This time they took him to the Mirabelle, a Gestapo prison.
His next stop was a cell at the Mária Terézia Barracks equipped with comfortable straw pallets, he said, and after five days, Christians were separated and sent to the front and Jews were taken to the Aréna Street Synagogue. Soldiers guarded the entrance and the crowd inside was desperate.
“I have decided to escape again”, he said. He asked some of the others to go with him, but they were afraid to move and get shot by the guards. Seeing a small door in the back that seemed unguarded, he sneaked out into the night, climbed a fence and took off towards Fóti Road when the guards on the street were lighting a cigarette and looked the other way.
Where to go?
As he ran through a list of uncertain possibilities, he remembered an old friend. He was Dr Baron Attila Schroeder.
“A shy philosopher, author of The Epistemological Importance of Dreams, the baron was a man of meagre means whose only source of income was piano playing in bars ”, Apu wrote later in his half-finished memoir. “His ancestors’ castle was somewhere near Hannover. He was an old friend of mine. I respected his humanism and I knew that he often helped the persecuted.”
The baron hid him in a neighbour’s empty apartment, where he was told not to walk around on the creaky parquet floor, not to use the toilet or go to the window in order to avoid detection by other neighbours. After a week there, the owner, an army officer, wrote to the baron that he was soon due to leave the Russian front. Apu had to move. He asked the baron to send a coded telegram to us in Püski saying: “Urgently find the Epistemology of Dreams”.
Mother understood that he was with the baron and that he needed her urgently.
She decided to leave Püski. Grandma insisted on going with her and so did I. We packed up to get on the last train to enter from the west into besieged Budapest ringed by the Red Army.
It was not an easy voyage.
Aunt Tera had loaded us down with food to take: bags of flour, a sack of dried peas, a big blue bin filled with bits of fried goose buried in goose fat. She wrapped the bin in a thick towel and stuffed it in a backpack I had to carry. Anyu and Grandma carried the rest. If I bent forward far enough, the bin stayed on without much trouble.
Until it was time to board the train.
By the time we got to the station, sitting on a slow cart pulled by an old horse, the train was full and ready to leave. People hung on the steps and perched on the roofs of the carriages. Grandma and Anyu frantically looked around for a space, and I tried to keep up with them in the milling crowd. As I passed a puffing locomotive, I stumbled and, pulled back by the weight, sat down. I closed my eyes and started to feel hot.
A man yelled at me and lifted me up before my coat started to burn. I was sitting on a pile of hot ashes dumped on the side, but hung onto the bin. The man, whose name I never heard, carried me to an open window filled with people leaning out and handed me to another man who grabbed me and dragged me inside. Anyu and Grandma who saw this pushed themselves onto the steps of the same carriage and wormed themselves inside. Anyu was sobbing by the time she reached me.
We were standing all the way to Budapest, but I could lean on my bin held up by bodies pressing against me.
As soon as we arrived at home and put down our bags, Anyu was off in search of Apu and the baron.
Dodging German and Hungarian soldiers during a citywide curfew, she picked up Apu in the night. She had talked to Mr Kelemen before, who promised to leave the gate open for her on condition that he knew nothing.
Father was skin and bone and exhausted. He had to stay away from windows again, and couldn’t flush the toilet during air raids while we were down in the shelter, but by then he was used to being a fugitive.
With much of our furniture left in Püski, Anyu managed to borrow beds, and we settled into the routine of air raids at night and hours of lull during the day, when the noise of cannons coming closer made us think that one day all this must be over.
Lessons learned from my father
he showed mother
the hole in his hip
said it was made
with the butt of a gun
I heard him talk
about ditches dug
about sliding over bodies
in squelching mud
of clay and blood
while up-up above
a lethal line
of smoking guns
was loaded again
by cursing men
he talked about
tangles of trampled grass
and how his breath
melted the ice
on frozen windows
in abandoned rooms
he taught me
how to stay alive
how to lie
and above all
to wait until
the Devil’s fall.
In 1944, I thought that being afraid was natural. I sensed that my fear was shared by everyone all around me. It was the unacknowledged mindset of the world. Fear was the air we breathed, and we didn’t talk about it.
In the bomb shelter I tried to be brave, not to show naked terror like Aunt Zita. I didn’t want to be slapped. Even in the worst moments I tried not to scream, not to disgrace myself.
But nightmares don’t lie. They let us know what we don’t want to know. One of my recurring nightmares to this day involves a crippling hesitation. Which door should I choose? Which gate should I bang on? Which staircase should I run down when the bombs start to fall?
I find myself close to a railroad station, or an army barracks, an anti-aircraft battery, or anything else considered a target. Terrified, I start my dream run to get as far as possible from the approaching planes. I keep trying to duck down into solidly built apartment houses seeking shelter in well-sandbagged cellars.
In my dream all gates are locked in front of me. They do this as protection against thieves who could use an air raid to loot empty apartments. The reinforced doors of the shelters are also shut to keep out air blasts as well as casual passers-by from the street. Too many extra bodies could use up the limited oxygen too fast in a sealed cellar.
The sirens keep wailing in my head in waves of rising and falling notes. I panic in neighbourhoods I don’t recognise. As in a film noir, the streets are gritty grey, the sky dark, the planes throb, the pavement trembles, and I keep running.
Who are they?
Our district turned into a battleground. Tanks and cannons joined the bombers to keep us in the cellar praying for silence and life. We stopped talking. We were waiting. Vica and I continued gathering the remnants of candles, but her mother had no more matches and we had to borrow her father’s lighter to melt the wax. Mr Bauer soon ran out of patience and told us to sit still and stop wasting the lighter fluid on our games. No more candle making.
I went back to sit between Anyu and Grandma and put a pillow over my head because the plaster was falling after each detonation. Anyu hugged me and whispered into my hair, “I hope Apu’s all right”. I leaned on her and fell asleep in her lap, only waking when Mr Kelemen entered the shelter in the early morning. Anyu’s watch showed a phosphorescent five o’clock. Many of the others were still asleep. Beside the last lonely candle flickering by the makeshift lavatory entrance, there was no light, no way of telling that the night was over. Our shelter was like a tomb.
That was the day when everything changed.
Old Kelemen shuffled to his armchair and coughed before he spoke. Then he said it as loud as he could manage, “They are here”. He said it twice.
I sat up and saw Mr Bauer get up, take off his armband and put his truncheon under the mattress of his wife, Vica’s mother. Everybody was suddenly awake, shuffling things, straightening jackets and scarves, folding blankets.
Nobody asked, “Who are they?”
A wave of muted grumbling mingled with sibilant whispers. Mrs Kelemen pulled off her wedding ring and stuffed it into her bra stretching her pullover over it. Vica’s mother rubbed her fingers against the wick of a cold candle and started to smear the soot on Vica’s face.
Grandma did the same. I tried to pull my head away from her fingers, but she grabbed the back of my head and whispered: “Sit still. You must look old.” She pulled off her kerchief, letting her white hair fall over her face, and tied it on my head pulling it down to shade my face. “You must look old like me”, she said. “They look for the young.”
I didn’t ask her why.
The radio had told us so many times, we all knew. “To peel potatoes”, they called it. But they said it was worse.
It had to be much worse. Even Anyu smeared soot under her eyes, and Mrs Kelemen, who looked old anyway, was doing the same. The few men seemed restless and stared at the floor as if they were ashamed of something.
Then we sat frozen. Rigid. Silence spread, the silence of apprehension.
It was a long wait until a noisy clumping on the steps broke through the chill followed by loud words we couldn’t understand. I leaned on Grandma, who pulled me closer. Anyu sat bundled in a black shawl, motionless behind us. I lowered my head and hunched my shoulders to look old.
Four soldiers appeared in the door. They held their guns pointing at us, ready to shoot. They were dusty and muddy and they had darting eyes. Two of them looked Chinese, with high cheekbones, short and stocky. Their hats had fur flaps dangling over their ears, and they were alert and moved fast, scanning our faces and talking briskly.
They poked at Vica’s grandfather who stood up and they looked under his chair, lifted a mattress or two, but moved too fast to search carefully. Their uniforms were loose and warm with thick quilted jackets, much warmer looking than the German uniforms, which were tidier and tighter with clean, shiny boots, more like they looked in the war movies.
Then they disappeared.
Everyone started talking at once. We rearranged our waiting, knowing that there was more to come.
Next, an even faster stamping noise on the stairs made us fall silent again. Two taller soldiers came through the shelter door in neater uniforms and with stuff sewn on their sleeves. They were obviously officers. The taller of them asked in German if anybody spoke German. One of the new neighbours who took over the Kendes’ place answered him. He slowly stood up leaning on his stick with one hand and holding a dark blanket wrapped around his shoulders with the other. He was old and shaky. I only knew him slightly because he was too new in the house to matter. His wife looked as old as he. I think their name was Bolla. Or Barna. His German was not as good as Apu’s; he stumbled a lot as he translated the officer’s words very slowly.
“He says we can’t keep guns. If we have one, we should hand it over. Right now. He asks, anyone has a weapon?”
Heads shook. “Nem!”
Somebody said, “Nyet”. Then we all cottoned on and said “nyet.” And “nein”, but not very loud, more in a mumbling way.
“He says that we are not to hide soldiers either.” “Nyet. Nein. Nem.”
“He says he’s a captain. He says we are free now. He says they came to free us from German oppression. And from the rule of the Hungarian lackeys of the Germans. He says that if we have a problem or complaint, we can go and report it to the local headquarters of the Soviet Army. He says, he wishes us well.”
The taller officer stopped talking. He rearranged the glasses on his nose and patted old Bolla on the shoulder, who swayed under the weight of his hand. The other, shorter officer, who was pale and skinny, didn’t seem interested in anything his comrade had said, but kept a sharp eye on all of us and his hand on his gun as he started towards the exit.
They both left in a hurry.
Somebody piped up asking Bolla, “Where is their headquarters?” “How should I know?” said the old man as he sat down beside his wife.
For a while there was what seemed like a procession of soldiers. We sat stiffly, like stone statues on our chairs and mattresses, afraid to make a move. Vica’s father left the shelter door open, and we could hear sporadic gunfire and tanks hurtling by. The sirens were silent.
Next four Russians arrived, all of them short and squat in their quilted pufajkas, with guns slung over their shoulders, hand grenades stuck in their belts. They held up a wristwatch and motioned us to show ours. When nobody moved, they poked Mr Kelemen, who stood up and lifted his arms over his head signalling surrender. They pulled up his sleeves and saw that he had no watches on either of his wrists and pushed him to sit down. Then Mrs Kelemen handed over her watch and a few of the new tenants in the old Jewish apartments, whose names I didn’t know yet, also volunteered to hand over theirs. The soldiers gathered the loot, arguing about a few bits that looked like gold, and left.
The next three soldiers were taller and staggering drunk. They came looking for women to peel potatoes. Nobody volunteered. They looked us over, but were too inebriated to see much with their unsteady torches. When it was Grandma’s turn to be spotlighted, she lifted her face and opened her toothless mouth wide, stuck out her tongue and shook her head in contempt.
They burst out laughing, and one of them shouted something like starya babushka.
Then they made some awkward moves, which Anyu explained later were obscene, and climbed up the steps holding onto each other.
After that we decided that it was not safer below than upstairs. Anyu talked with Vica’s mother and offered our air shaft as a safe place to hide for her and Vica. Everybody scattered, and we all moved in a hurry carrying our bedding with us. When we entered our apartment, Apu was there greeting us with a hug. He didn’t have to hide any more.
Mrs Bauer turned to me, “And you told Vica that he was somewhere in Russia”. I said nothing. How could I tell her that we were afraid of her husband?
“Let’s practise”, said Anyu and she led her and Vica to the bathroom window.
When the guns fell silent in Budapest in 1945, people emerged from their underground holes slowly at first, then in a rush.
A rush to find food, firewood, medicine, to find relatives, to clear the rubble, to start bartering, a rush to find out who had died, where and how. And a rush to talk, to recount near misses, to tell their survival stories.
from the Don
the year of 1945
was the year of coming home
from battlefields and death camps
from copper mines
bomb craters and air raid shelters
crossing ice-clad rivers
snow-clad hills and
churned up plains
coming home on foot
on crowded trains
begging rides on trucks
dragging sleds or
the call of home never faded
it grew louder
took to the road
fed by the hope
of a warm heart
a table set
with forks and knives
a hot tub
a chunk of soap
on a soft bed
to be had
Who owns the past?
An old friend in Budapest tells me that I know nothing and understand nothing about my birthplace because I left and did not share decades of suffering. Only those who share the pain have the vision and the moral right to talk.
Emigrants! Shut up!
He is not alone. Others also think that emigrants and immigrants are dismally ignorant about the place they leave and the place where they land. In between two stools we are supposed to land on the floor. You cannot sit on two at once, they say, and sitting with half a butt on each, you upset the balance and tip over, ending up concussed and confused.
You spout useless opinions. You are a bore. Irrelevant.
You come back to visit the “old country” that in the meantime has changed out of recognition, filled in with new houses, new subway lines, new teenagers and newly abandoned factories. You use your sentimental reunions to show off how well you have done abroad, how you can come and go with ease, how much better off you are than your hosts still stuck where they were born.
How can I answer? What can I say?
After a prolonged throat clearing, I can say that I go back to my birthplace to pay homage to the land that is rife with memories. To visit the people and walk the places that are dear to me.
And I say that having lived in various places, I have had a chance to compare the various ways of messing up a country and the various ways of distorting history with self-serving falsifications. Hungary, the land I encountered in my early childhood was a single sample. It was the one I absorbed, breathed in, imbibed in school, the one whose toxins I still can feel embedded under my skin.
I say that the genuine memories of those early years are my own. I see them now more clearly and in context, having learned to teeter on a lot of stools.
I say that I have as much moral right as anyone to scrutinise any place at any time on this small planet.
As a small child, I loved to stare at white clouds floating above me, small tufts of wool carried by puffs of wind crossing slowly overhead. Their silence, their determination to follow each other in one direction without straying out of line, spoke to me of order in the world, of summers arriving at regular intervals, of the strength of predictable continuity.
Then came the war. Tanks. German soldiers.
Then different tanks. Russian soldiers. 1945.
Then there was a pause. The tanks disappeared behind fences.
People made speeches about peace.
Then came a revolution and with it the tanks again.
When the tanks come, the walls tremble. They come one after another with their guns pointing ahead, following so close that they are nose to tail, and they thunder, make the earth quiver and make people move away from their windows, just in case.
There were 11 years between the siege of Budapest and the second siege in November 1956.
When I opened my eyes that cold winter morning and looked out of the window to discover what made my bed tremble, when I saw an endless dark column rumbling along the road, it made me think that tanks mean normality, that peace is only an interval between battles, an aberration, a mere lull, a temporary cease-fire.
War stays crouching in the shadows. Ready to leap.
(The present edited excerpts have been selected from Panni Palásti, Budapest Girl. An Immigrant
Confronts the Past. New Zealand: Maitai River Press, 2015.)