There are windows of freedom in life whose light one must not hesitate to take advantage of, for their shutters close again, slam shut, quickly. He often thought, smiled, and dreamt about a trip with his brother Miklós, retracing their steps that led into exile, revisiting all the stations on that road. Making this come true had always seemed unlikely for an untoward reason, and that was [his brother’s wife] Marilynn’s concept of a proper American husband. “Nick,” she would admonish his brother, “forget the past. This is your home now, here where your family is. Don’t even think (or dream) of ever going back there again.”
This shuttered mindset of hers, of course, was by no means a typical attitude for a college-educated woman to take, and it had a long, sad history. The workings of Karma again. He did not know how she managed to emerge from the multitude of tens of thousands of eligible young women that lived in Omaha at the time to make herself indispensable to his brother, for he was jumping out of airplanes at Fort Campbell while it happened. But when he came “home” on leave, he met her, and the only thing that both he and his father could do was to shake their heads sadly. There was a wall between them and her that they could not and she would not climb. And they felt that that was the way she probably wanted it to be. I know, I know, de mortuis nihil nisi bonum, but I cannot help it, that was the way they felt.
Why was that wall there? Who knows what it is that opens you up to relate well to the reality of another human being! Maybe it is nothing more than this mysterious, sixth-sense organ, the nervus terminalis in the nose, that has nothing to do with smell but that determines whether that proverbial first sight is propitious or not. More likely, though, Marilynn built that wall to protect herself. Not consciously, on devious purpose, rather it could have arisen as an outgrowth of her loveless childhood as an adopted orphan that made her both jealous of her husband’s past with its ties to a world unknown to her and fearful of its claims on him.
He and his father were parts of this past and therefore part of the feeling of unease that surrounded this menacing alien world like storm clouds on the horizon. Not that she ever projected distance by design; she never did. Instead, she distanced herself effectively by overgenerous recourse to the conventional chatter that may go on in American college sororities, that was, in turn, alien enough to them to keep them away. Her chief weapon was the irresistible strength of weakness. As a child who grew up under the cold eyes and hands of a hateful, fairy-tale stepmother, she made sure that his brother did not ever forget all her sufferings. Being genetically designed to be chivalrous, the guy felt obliged to stand by her, and even more so upon sensing the distance between her and his father and brother.
And this otherwise laudable attitude of solidarity then led, apparently, to acquiescence to her lead in matters of family, finances and career. Military doctors, being a rare and precious commodity, have a greater say about their assignments than the general run of soldiers. He could have been sent to Europe, and he would have liked to, but the mere suggestion of it made Marilynn panicky. And that made her dread the thought that her house-broken husband could catch a breath of the air of freedom, even if only for a couple of weeks. She must have feared that once on his own, he would never return, though the way he was configured, he had no choice but to come back. Miklós was bound by Kant’s old moralisches Gesetz in him. To his credit. Maybe.
Nevertheless, permission was finally granted. Miklós asked Marina to plead his case with his wife, and she undertook the mission. She explained to her sister-in-law that it was important for both brothers to make this journey into the past together. That when you are cut off from your roots, it is more likely to haunt you than if you can go back and revisit them and in some way complete the Gestalt that was interrupted when the brothers, still in their teens, set off for the New World. And Marilynn listened. Maybe she also realised that at his age, pushing sixty, he could now be trusted not to escape.
At any rate, she said okay to his going home to Magyarország, and the trip was on. For him, trips to Europe had been frequent enough that he had lost count of his crossings of the Atlantic. But for his brother, this was the first real time in forty years, not counting one professional meeting that coincided with a class reunion. This was az élmény, das Erlebnis, the experience of a lifetime, something unreal and elusive that Miklós had been hoping and waiting for so long. A thing hard to imagine in today’s unfettered world of globetrotters. The first stop was the house in Irschenhausen, that of his brother’s mother-in-law.
There they travelled together the forest paths of old, many of which had disappeared but some that were still there. And the backcountry dirt roads, to Dorfen, Bachhausen and Aufkirchen, which were now all paved to accommodate big, elegant cars. At one time, Miklós saw a large, purplish brown vehicle approaching. “If I did not know that we are in the Ickinger hinterland, I’d think I see a UPS truck”, he marvelled. And that is what it was, for the spread of free-market globalisation is irresistible.
They wandered over the hills to the Stamberger See and took the ferryboat to Stamberg. “How are we ever going to get home?” his brother wondered and was amazed how the S-Bahn whisked them back to Icking with only one change of trains at the Ostbahnhof. Nothing like that had existed back in their school days, but miraculously, the old building of the Schulerheim still stood there on top of the Walchstatter Hohe, although it was now uninhabited, waiting to be torn down to make place for some fancy Wirtschaftswunder villa. Then Chris, that prince of a brother-in-law, lent him his car again, and off they were in that little red Saab to rediscover the past.
They took the Autobahn to Vienna where he had business with a colleague from Australia who worked there with the Atomic Energy Agency in charge of the nitrogen isotopes used to quantify N uptake by plants via the bacterial fixation process. But on the way they searched for traces of their tracks at Mauthausen. The first sign that he was on the right path was that road sign with the bullet holes in it: Pyburg. The one that he had glimpsed in passing more than forty years ago, shivering with the cold wind and with the fear of an unknown world lying ahead. By now, he had seen countless thousands of road signs in his life and had forgotten this one like all the others. Yet seeing this one again in passing, released cascades of memories.
But such is the nature and the force of habituation that the images of the past were now mixed in the strangest of ways with a pondering about the molecular nature of the phenomenon of memory. How did the controller fix that Pyburg sign into his circuitry? How did it get buried? How was it released and revealed in the process of recognition? Why it and not any number of other totally insignificant details? And his brother had not even noticed it! Not being able to share a memory is like a pang of pain, of regret. Les souvenirs et les regrets aussi…
From the Pyburg sign, it was not far to the railroad crossing. It was unchanged. The open spaces around it were not developed, and that grouping of houses in the distance was exactly like it was back then when he saw it first. Only now it was a pleasant summer afternoon without snow flurries, and they were well-heeled tourists secure in a well-known world. His brother was not sure about the exact identity of the place. Once you had seen one railroad crossing, you had seen them all, to paraphrase a famous saying by a former governor of California. But he certainly remembered the train that stopped there to pick them out of the cold, and that was helpful, as sharing always is.
To recover from the stresses of the past, they stopped at a Konditorei for a cup of coffee with Schlagsahne and a slice of Linzertorte before going on. They did not find the hotel described and recommended by the colleague. Instead, they got so thoroughly lost in Vienna that no longer showed any signs of ever having been in a war that it was late at night until they finally found a place to stay. It was fiendishly expensive, but it was too late and they were too tired to do any more searching.
They spent the day in Vienna (it was not Bécs for them anymore [the Hungarian word for Vienna]) and, the next morning, found the border crossing to Pozsony, the Magyar city, that according to the redrawn borders is now part of Slovakia and goes by the Slovak name of Bratislava. That place was for them the official opening in that Curtain, whose iron mesh was already rusting terminally. For him, his last visit in Magyarország dispelled somewhat the mystique of that no longer impenetrable shroud whose shreds still darkened the lands on the other side.
The way the people had talked there, it was clear that the Evil Empire was about to collapse any minute now, and everybody knew it except the CIA. Who knows, maybe the CIA knew it also, but they felt duty-bound to keep it a secret from the Great Communicator, perhaps for the sake of the defence budget’s inviolable continuity. A little later, after history had run its inexorable course, the Great Communicator was then duly given credit for victory over the rival Superpower.
That reminds me of that black-and-white movie about the black dragon that stands for the dark and evil past and the white-robed sorcerer and his apprentice, who represent the bright promise of a better future. Well, the struggle between the forces of darkness and light is always fierce. So it is in that story also. It also involves a king, the commander-in-chief, and his courtiers, all shadowy nonentities compared with the sorcerer but who are still empowered to do harm and make mischief. At the climax, in a pitched aerial battle, the sorcerer succeeds in bringing the dragon to a fall at the price of his own life. The enormous carcass of the dragon then lies on the ground, clearly dead now. Finding the fiend there, the courtiers drag that figurehead of a king to the scene, put a sword in his hand, and declare with great pathos, “Behold the great king! The Dragonslayer.”
And that reminds me further of that oft-cited historical dictum: “Mr Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” declared by the Dragonslayer from a secure place of safety. About the same time, another historic but obscure figure (Miklós Németh, Prime Minister of Hungary in 1989), unsung, unknown and forgotten now, facing great personal peril under the guns of Russian tanks and under the hostile opposition of his own Communist Party stalwarts, ordered the barbed wire on the border between Hungary and Austria cut. That was an act of real courage and conviction, and it was the one that set the Soviet East Block’s disintegration in motion. That was what in the end brought down the Berlin Wall, not the Dragonslayer’s well-meaning but empty bravado.
But for his brother, the mystique was still intact with all its disturbing possible implications, and so he ended up going through a whole pack of cigarettes while pacing the floor of the border-post waiting room, waiting for the guards to finish with their passport ritual. Then it was on to Pozsony. That is a fine city on the Danube with a great castle fortress dominating its skyline. It had been the seat of the king when the city was the capital of Hungary for a while in the Middle Ages. They had explored it quite thoroughly during their ten weeks there in the winter of 1945, while watching those hornets of liberation fly past overhead. But now they did not find their way in its changed, modern streets and squares anymore. What they were looking for, whatever that may have been, was not there. “Let’s scoot”, his brother decided. So they did not linger and drove on to Szenc [Senec in Slovak] that same day.
The resort and its lake were new; they had not been there forty years before. And the check-in could be accomplished in Hungarian, to their great relief. They could not find that other gravel-pit lake that had that fish solidly frozen into the ice crust. At the church, the evening service was in Hungarian and they went in to participate. All the people were old like them. Later at dinner, seated with others at a long common table while listening to the news on Radio Budapest, they were told that all the young people had left. Under the pressure of heavy discrimination by the Slovak authorities, they had to move to Hungary to make a living. The old village of Szenc gave him the eerie feeling of standing on a flat island surrounded by a rising sea. Ugly, gray, socialist housing blocks full of newcomers surrounded the island now, commuters to Bratislava outnumbering its dwindling people many times. And the newcomers did not speak Hungarian.
In Léva at last, they first drove to the new hotel, and to their delight, the management, or at least the receptionist was Hungarian. They were welcomed heartily instead of being sent off to Nyitra like he was the last time. By this time, the destruction of the town that he was already prepared for had accelerated significantly. His brother was therefore spared the sight of the ruins of his grandfather’s house. In fact, its entire street, the Petőfi utca, had disappeared to make way to a bypass road that was being constructed just then. So Miklós just stood there in silent consternation and disbelief, even though his brother had done his best to prepare him for what was awaiting him.
It would have been easier, perhaps, if everything had vanished, but there were still those few leftover reminders of the past, the mill, the church, the school, the hospital, the villas of the Kákasor, they all stood there amid all that ruin, like forgotten gravestones in an abandoned cemetery. They made it back to the scenes of their childhood just in time to see the beacons of the past in their final state of decay. The Rákóczi fa at the end of the row of those old willow trees (remember the hornets?) was cut down with its stump still there next to the memorial chapel that was in ruins, and the surrounding open spaces, fields and vineyards were being built up with a disorderly sprawl of urban growth.
This is not an uplifting account; I admit it. Perhaps it is even a bit pathetic: what is the big deal? Changes occur everywhere. Houses, even landmarks, are torn down, cities get firebombed, mountaintops are levelled, forests are clear-cut, whitewater is dammed, and species of life are hunted to extinction. But you can face all that with more detachment if it is not your own childhood memories that are buried. It is also easier to take when everything gets wrecked, but that was not the case here. It was their town that had been singled out, perhaps because it was a focal point of Hungarian culture and ethnicity in the area.
“Let’s scoot”, his brother said as they were sitting in that public-sector eating place, looking with distrust at that socialist menu written in a language they could not read and brought on by a waiter whom they could not understand. “Scoot where?” he asked. “This is what we waited for forty years to come and see and experience together.” But to tell the truth, that was the way he felt also. It was a full-blown flight reflex.
The window of the restaurant looked out on the old main square, on the városháza, the city hall, on the opposite side, where their father’s office had been on the third floor. But now a foreign flag was waving from the flagpole in front. And from what I hear today, having become members of the European Union did not help any, as far as the treatment of the surviving Hungarian minority there is concerned now. But that came later, at the moment they ordered the only two things they could decipher on that menu: sztrapacska and lecsó.
Just north of Léva the foothills of the Northern Carpathians begin rising to the first one of several mountain ranges, the Selmeci-hegység. That is where Slovak country began back then; it was a region of transition between the ethnicities, a peaceful and essentially amicable one for a thousand years all the way to the end of the era of the two great wars, when the spirit of harmony was shattered.
Many ties had developed during that neighbourly millennium and one of the influences from that northern march on the people of Léva was a culinary one. Domestic servants in town were mostly folks Slovak of tongue though Magyar of identity and persuasion, and the cook in his grandfather’s house was one of them, a kindly older woman with a round, always smiling face and the funniest accent imaginable. She was the one who introduced sztrapacska and lecsó to that house of yore that had now disappeared. Simple peasant foods, they were served as separate, stand-alone dishes.
Sztrapacska is a sort of dough whose bits are boiled in water to a chewy consistency and then made palatable by the addition of bacon grease, cracklings, and sheep curd, while lecsó is a thin, watery stew of several mixed vegetables. Nothing much to write home about, but since they had not tasted either for four decades now, those servings opened the floodgates of memories like only the combination of smell and taste together are able to. So they sat there, each one immersed in his own, separate thoughts trying to sort out the unsortable. It is said that a final sorting can only take place in the moments before death, when all the brain’s circuits fire at once, unimpeded by all the controls of a lifelong habituation, whose fog then mercifully lifts.
So scoot they did, but not before having done a bit of exploring, a thing that had always been his thing. To the north of the town, past the Kákasor, the main road splits, the right fork leading to Kereskény, which they knew well from many trips there by horse-drawn carriage. But the left one pointed toward the unknown, a circumstance disquieting enough that he had dreamt about its promising vagaries now and then in the course of the past decades, usually whenever the apprehension that precedes another move or a new job portended as yet unmet challenges. And now they had a car and could go and see where it led! That in itself, having a car in Léva, being no longer a dust-of-the-road-bound pedestrian kid but free to float where he wanted, was such a novel experience that it enhanced his overall feeling of being in a time warp manifold.
This way, they made it to Garamszentbenedek. It was not very far but special enough that they did not feel like going on beyond it. There, on the River Garam, is a surviving jewel of the past the like of which he had not yet encountered anywhere within the historical boundaries of the old, greater Hungary. A gothic church of the 14th century that survived the devastation left behind by the long terror regime of the Turks! This Abbey of Saint Benedict was founded by King Géza in the 11th century, and the entire layout that makes up a monastery was there, restored here and there but essentially untouched by time. He had seen such monuments often enough in the rest of Europe, but here this relic of the past was a rare, a unique, event of the moment of time transformed into the stone of permanence:
Nur allein der Mensch It is man alone
Vermag das Unmögliche … Who achieves the impossible …
Er kann dem Augenblick He can bestow permanence
Dauer verleihen. On the moment.
And not only was the permanence of the past there written in stone, but the crown and coat of arms of Hungary were present everywhere on the walls and in the coloured-glass windows. His brother is not a national chauvinist or a lover of antiquities like he is, but they were both touched to the core by this discovery.
It led them back to Léva, to the cemetery, where Miklós found their grandfather’s grave after a long search. Such old, Central European cemeteries are rarely the manicured preserves of pedantic piety one finds in the West. Once there, you are left to stay with the parting wish of requiescat in pace, and they really mean it. And if all your survivors are driven out, made to go away, like it was the case in Léva, why then, the unattended sections become overgrown by the jungle of time like the ruins of Angkor, as was his grandfather’s headstone.
So then, when his brother had finally lifted it out, dragged it back, from the depths of the past, he took out his pocketknife (one could still take one with you on an airplane back then) and scratched his name and address into it without really knowing why. Maybe it was a flashback to what he had seen the homeless refugees do after the war, when people were tacking notices of their whereabouts, or just of their still being alive, to telephone poles in hopes that someone they knew would chance by and find it. But at this time, they were not aware of any surviving kin behind the Curtain who might still remember them.
With that they did scoot, heading east to Losonc [Lučenec in Slovak] where their uncle Sörös Béla bácsi had been bishop, presiding over the Episcopal See of the Reformed Church of northern Hungary. In Hungarian usage református means Calvinist, and evangélikus means Lutheran. They found his house and his church, although it took some looking, for they had been small children when they visited there last. All through the search, he had a strange feeling that something was different here, until he realised all of a sudden what it was: Losonc was whole. It had not been destroyed like Léva. Why not? It was also a Hungarian town. I will never know why my hometown was singled out. And I do not want to know it, for it would not help anyway. Some people in power probably got together in a smoke-filled room and, after downing some glasses of slivovic, decided: this one must go, that one can stay. That is probably all there is to it. There are probably plans and studies dealing with such matters drawn up by technicians everywhere in the world. Reams of paper based on earnest research. Required formalities. But do the deciders ever read them? The decider likes to make emotional, gut-feeling decisions in the end. Like Mussolini did in Ethiopia. Or Hitler in Poland. Or Johnson in Vietnam. Or Bush II in Iraq.
In Losonc, however, unlike in Léva where they knew for sure they had no one left, Béla bácsi had left behind three daughters, Lilla, Zsuzsi and Márti, their cousins. Yet somehow they felt an inexplicable reluctance to do a determined search to find them like making inquiries at some competent public office. Let this part of the past remain buried. Nonetheless, they did go to the cemetery to look for Béla bácsi’s grave, and also, perhaps, because this whole mission to dig up the past put them in a generally cemeterial mood.
The Losonc graveyard was better kept than the one in Léva, maybe because ethnic cleansing had not been as thorough here. One of the graves was being tended by three old women dressed in black, as they walked by. His brother shared the same eerie feeling he had himself: would it be possible? How could those old women be the young girls we had known? His brother’s comment was very à propos: “We should have a mirror to look at ourselves. Then it would be easier to make the connection.” But the name Sörös was not on that headstone. It could not have been, for this was the Catholic cemetery. They had forgotten that in that part of the world the denominations do not mix even in death.
They entered Hungary at the Salgótarján crossing and had passed the little town of Fülek on the way without knowing how often they would return there in the future. In Budapest, they rented the second floor of a villa near the Városmajor Station of the rack-and-pinion mountain railway in Buda. There was a filling station on the other side of the street, but traffic was still very benign. He wondered if Hungary would learn from the abhorrent example of rush-hour traffic jams in Los Angeles and New York and go the route of reliable, cheap public transport. But the discussions on television, led by elvtárs Grósz, the comrade party chief, about the coming beruházások, the investments, that they were planning to make, did not bode well. Aping the West, growth, free-market capitalism, living well on borrowed money, and the like was already on their minds, one could sense it – between the lines. Although I remember well Grósz declaring repeatedly, almost as if in defence of his having already committed ideological treason while the red star was still waving over the Royal Castle: “Én kommunista vagyok…” Who knows, maybe he really was a committed Communist, as he professed to be, only he did not want it forced down his throat by Russian tanks.
They rediscovered Budapest, although his recollections of it were very spotty; he was six when they moved to Léva. They lived on a quiet street, Család utca, that changed its name to something I forgot. A two-story house with too tiny a yard to merit the name garden. Walks to the nearby Városliget, the huge City Park, with a grown-up now and then. Once all the way to the railroad bridge over the Danube. Maybe it was these walks as a five-year-old through quiet, featureless, unexciting, suburban landscape, often in dreary, gray winter weather over sooty snow that fixated him forever on walking the streets of every town, large and small, wherever he stopped, even if only for a night. He was easily impressed by everything, for he was a lonely child; one cooped up on that second floor of the house at Család utca 10.
The institution of the kindergarten was not in vogue yet then, although it did have a Hungarian name: óvoda. Child psychology had not yet made its way into the mainstream consciousness of people even like his parents. That kids should interact with others of their age is so much the norm today that it is hard to imagine times when the need of it was not recognised.
The quiet household in Család utca was one of adults: his parents and the two servants. His brother was not much company, for at the time he was almost twice his age and had other interests when he came back from school. So by the time he arrived in Léva, where the limitations of city existence opened up to the great freedom of a countryside without No Trespassing signs, he was already a shy introvert when all of a sudden, he saw himself surrounded by a rowdy bunch of tough kids in first grade. At first, he was not sure at all if he liked it, and it took him some time to adjust to having peers around.
From then on, adjusting had become his way of life in earnest. Of course, there is nothing special about that. Everyone has to adapt his ways to new circumstances much of the time. But still, it is fair to say that his case was somewhat atypical since so many of the adjustments he had to face and then digest had unusually large gaps to span, comparatively speaking that is, as opposed to other lives that run more in the routine channels of conventionality. So to come home now to California, USA, he had to leave the old home, Hungary, Europe, behind yet again and readjust now to homelessness with a new level of understanding.
Now, normally, there is nothing special about coming home from a trip abroad, except maybe for the rueful feeling that a long-awaited vacation is now over. For him, it turned into a form of identity crisis every time. Everywhere he went, it seems to me now, he was looking for his childhood vision of America, which then was never quite there. Each new place always offered some desirable novelty, while at the same time it was lacking something else that he had come to appreciate in the place he just left. This is a feeling not unlike jet lag. Having sorted out the time zones by flying over them at near-sonic speeds, you are upon arrival, wherever that may be, not quite yourself. You feel disoriented, out of sorts, and sleepy without being able to sleep. You do not hurt physically, but somehow the person inside your skin is not really you, until you get over it. It is the same thing with this sense of not belonging anywhere. With time it wears off, but never does so completely.
To get a feel for this, think of that caterpillar you caught and played with as a child. When you touch it, it curls up in a spasm and “plays dead” for a while. But after going through this routine a few times, it quits playing dead. “See”, you say, “I tamed it. It is not afraid of me anymore.” Of course, what happened was only that its rigidity-producing hormones had worn off.
And so it is with this jet-lag feeling of adjusting to homelessness. It dulls in time. It spins a cocoon around itself for protection, but it does not go away. You cannot become a citizen of the world. Maybe your head can, but your heart and guts cannot. Your home is the place that your habit of being used to it had imprinted on your mind. It is a haven. Real or imagined, that is where you want to be, not floating loose like in a balloon around the world.
The readjustment of coming home to El Cerrito after that trip with his brother was particularly disquieting. This was brought about perhaps by the fact that it was not a business trip like that first excursion to Hungary. A business trip has the reassuring quality of structure. It has limits, it has agenda that has to be accomplished within externally imposed boundaries and requirements. It is carried out in the businesslike way. In a word, it is essentially unemotional, even if emotional aspects bubble up in its course. This second trip, on the other hand, had been pure emo-tourism. The emotional kind that looks backward, that people, particularly those well past their prime undertake to complete a Gestalt by shedding emotional baggage or maybe in hopes of fixing, reconnecting broken threads in the torn fabric of half-forgotten yet treasured memories. He and his brother succeeded in neither. Instead, they ended up loading on more baggage (at least he did), and they carried it “home” with them. So were Marilynn’s fears justified? However unsettling many aspects of this trip had been, the whole thing was a closure of sorts, and that is of value.
But once at home, life and work went on as before, and the jet lag of adjustment wore off. And then again, it did not. There was a deeper adjustment to the past in the works this time: Magyarország, which had now fully re-emerged into the present, was shifting its place on the slowly drifting tectonic plates of his consciousness. It was crunching and grinding itself into a new place called Hungary. That is the name of the place as foreigners see it.
(The present excerpt as edited by Éva Eszter Szabó of Hungarian Review is from Chapter 9 – The Biologist by Gabor Bethlenfalvay, In Search of an America. An Introvert on the Road, Xlibris, 2011.)