The researcher arrives. iPod, camera, Uher tape recorder, the works. “Yesterday”, he tells me, “I interviewed an old gentleman just like you. Yes,a little hunched, hands shaking, eyebrows twitching, you know…He was a child in the war, too, except on the other side.” “Same side”, I say.“No, he was a child in the London Blitz…” He consults his iPod. “Yes, London, Crouch End, and you are ‘oral history, et cetera, writer, Canadian, et cetera, 77’. You were a child in Axis-allied Budapest. The other side.”
“In air raids”, I say to him, “all children on the ground are on one side, and all adults in the air are on the other.”
“I see.” But he doesn’t. “Identifies with the underdog…”, he writes in his iPod. No. Only saints and neurotics identify with underdogs. As a healthy seven-year- old at the time, I identified with the Allied flight crews in their fleece-lined jackets, opening the doors of their bomb bays.
But saying that would only confuse the issue.
NO DOGS, PLEASE.
The bombing raids start with a broadcast, usually about half an hour before the first explosions. Like a muezzin calling the faithful to evening prayer, the announcer interrupts regular programming to call everyone to seek shelter. The liturgy consists of a string of place-names, followed by a code for the aerial activity expected: légiveszély (danger in the air) for a possible air raid, or zavarórepülés (nuisance flight) for a reconnaissance flight. The quadrant from which raiders approach indicates the likely target, although weather is a factor and can change the equation. Still, we soon learn that waves of bombers making for the capital tend to cross Hungary’s border from the south-west. If it sounds as though Bomber Command is headed for Budapest that night – the RAF always comes at night – my mother shoves an item or two in the small suitcase that stands ready by the door, adjusts the blackout curtains, and starts herding the dachshunds, Dolly and Blackie, towards the shelter at the far end of the courtyard. I tag along. We’re usually halfway there by the time the sirens begin to wail, waking up Szuszi, the senior distillery dog, who blinks at us malevolently. “It isn’t our fault”, mother says to her, in case Szuszi thinks we woke up the siren.
Our service apartment is in the distillery where my father is the manager. Animals don’t get to go to the air raid shelter, except the dachshunds. This is established in a brief conversation between my mother and the designated air raid warden, the yard boss, Uncle Lajos, during the first practice drill, for which mother appears with a dachshund under each arm.
“Sorry, animals won’t be allowed in the shelter”, Uncle Lajos says.
“I know, but Dolly and Blackie aren’t animals”, my mother replies, sweeping past him. Mother has a way of sweeping past people.
Since then, Dolly and Blackie cuddle in their underground basket during air raids intertwined like a pair of sausages, while animals stay where they are. If nearby thuds shake the ground, the brewery horses neigh uneasily and shuffle in their stables, but good-natured Mókus, the junior distillery dog, barely looks up as he keeps patrolling the yard, and after a few indignant growls Szuszi also curls up in her den of choice – she keeps changing them – and goes back to sleep. Explosions don’t bother her, but she hates the siren.
The RAF’s routine rarely varies, and neither does the liturgical text emerging from the muezzins in their radio minarets. Air defence dervishes keep up their chant before the arrival of the first wave of bombers, and then fall silent. The next half hour is often calm, with no sound except a distant rumble reaching the shelter, but sometimes the silence is punctuated by series of sharp explosions, the barking of Bofors guns, and the harmonic hum of aero-engines as the heavy Lancaster and Halifax bombers lumber in from the south-west, drop their ordnance in clusters, turn around and lumber out again. Sometimes we hear nothing until the all-clear siren and clamber up from the shelter expecting to see the Milky Way overhead, only to discover the sky obscured by smoke and painted red on the horizon. Incendiary bombs are spooky.
The American Air Force does day raids. Their Liberators are less predictable and sometimes take roundabout routes to their targets, but Yankee raids are still few and far between in 1942. America is hardly in the war yet.
My grandfather takes me to see the Supreme Warlord. (Sic: one of the Regent’s official appellations is Legfelsőbb Hadúr.) It is a summer Sunday without a cloud in the sky. Buda Castle smells of dumpling soup. In a cosy courtyard forty or fifty grandfathers are standing on the cobblestones, waiting for the Regent to appear at the window. Their well-scrubbed grandchildren look as if they would rather be elsewhere. I would rather be elsewhere myself, but know that if I play my cards right, grandfather may take me for a ride on the bumper cars in the city’s amusement park, so I behave myself. It is a puzzle why grandfathers like to take their grandchildren to see Hungary’s Regent, Admiral Nicholas Horthy, but many do. Some pin on their medals or campaign ribbons as they mill about the courtyard on summer Sundays, waiting for the Supreme Warlord to finish his midday meal.
“Is it dumpling soup, then?” inquires one grandfather, but the constables on duty in the archway leading to the living quarters of Admiral Horthy and his wife refuse to divulge state secrets. “No idea, sir”, one of them replies. “We’re not invited.”
My grandfather has taken off his hat and is waving it at one of the windows. The Regent is popular. My father believes he’s popular among Jews because they think he won’t let Hitler kill them, and he’s popular among anti-Semites, because they don’t expect Hitler to ask the Admiral’s permission.
I look at the second store window. The gentleman pulling aside the curtain has the strong, familiar features of his ceremonial photographs that school auditoriums, public buildings and high-end shops display in Budapest. He doesn’t open the window but raises his hand in a gubernatorial gesture. The grandfathers in the courtyard wave their hats and cheer. My grandfather does so in Latin.
This must alarm the Supreme Warlord because he vanishes. One moment he is at the window, as democratic and accessible as an American president, and the next he’s gone, withdrawn into his stiff, European lacquered turtle shell. No more hoi-polloi today, thank you, and that’s that. Hitler’s reluctant ally (much too reluctant if you ask Der Führer and not nearly reluctant enough if you ask Mr Churchill, according to my father) leaves his courtyard fans wanting more.Grandfather replaces his hat, and we go for a ride on the dodgems, as the little bumper cars are called, in the amusement park whose name was officially changed to Hungária Park at the beginning of the war, but which everyone in Budapest continues to call English Park.
A DEPARTURE STALL
The ominous day dawns about a month later .It is high summer, and the adults huddle around the radio in my grandfather’s cottage. Reports say the Regent’s son is dead. A handsome pilot officer, recently married, Vitéz (Valiant) István Horthy joined his squadron at the Russian front. On 20 August he fell out of the sky shortly after taking off in a single-seat fighter plane, a sleek machine of Italian design and Hungarian manufacture. Reports ascribe his crash to a departure stall, a type of pilot error.
No one in Budapest believes it. People are convinced young Horthy’s death has been due to enemy action, though not Russian but German.
Trained as an engineer in America, István is widely known as an Anglophile. In February, only six months before the fatal crash, Admiral Horthy makes the mistake of having the National Assembly elect his son Deputy Regent. Some are convinced he’s signing the young man’s death warrant. Deputy Führer Rudolf Hess’ 1941 flight to Scotland is still fresh on everyone’s mind. The Gestapo – or perhaps the Abwehr, the Sicherheistdienst, whichever Third Reich secret service has jurisdiction – is not going to take a chance on Hungary’s head of state suing for separate peace.
No evidence ever emerges, but the grieving nation requires none. Neither does the Horthy family. For István’s widow, Ily, the former Countess Ilona Edelsheim-Gyulai, sabotage becomes an article of faith. The military airfield in Russia was crawling with Germans. “Cutting a cable is child’s play”, Countess Ily will say to a reporter sixty years later.
Newsreels show young Horthy’s funeral, complete with glimpses of his family. The women are heavily veiled. The Regent displays the stiff gait of his years, the stiff upper lip of his office, and the vacant stare of his bronze bust.
THE ESCORT’S TALE
Summer turns to fall, then fall to winter. A man comes to see my mother. He spends about a half an hour in the reception room with her, and leaves very quietly. Before he does, I overhear some hushed conversation about “the bend of the Don” where the Russians have broken through our lines. After the man leaves, I wait for a while before going into the room. The maid has served tea, but I notice that no one has poured it. On the silver tray there are slices of lemon, a small cut crystal bottle of rum, cube sugar in a crystal bowl, and two empty Rosenthal cups in their saucers. No milk; in Budapest they rarely serve milk with tea.
The pot is cold. My mother sits on the sofa, crying.
A piece of crumpled wrapping paper lies on a side table. It is a note from my father. I can’t make out the pencilled scrawl, but what it says is: “Look after the member of the escort who brings you this. He’s a good man. We are being evacuated. I’ve dysentery; I’m staying behind. It’s very cold. I’m thinking of you. Julius.”
I do some research many years later. When the Red Army’s Voronezh–Kharkov Strategic Counteroffensive begins in the winter of 1943, the Second Hungarian Army and its attached punitive labour squad of Jews are about a quarter of a million strong. Forty thousand survivors return to Hungary. Father is not among them.
I shoot a lizard in my grandfather’s garden. Life goes on even in wartime, and life includes murder – innocent, atavistic, exploratory murder, such as a boy with an air rifle, shooting at everything that moves and some things that sit still, like songbirds on trees or frogs on lily pads. Or a lizard lying peacefully on a flat, white stone, with its head tilted towards the upper tier of grandfather’s peach garden.
The miniature jade dragon is enjoying the sun. I have nothing against lizards, but when I catch sight of them from the lower tier of the terraced garden, I am overcome by the hypnotic command of the hunt. In grip of the oldest urge available to a juvenile of a predatory species, I pump my air rifle and shiver in anticipation of the kill.“Well, well!” says my grandfather after I pull the trigger. He has been watching me, not expecting much from either a boy-Nimrod or his pellet gun at twenty-five yards. I do the distance in about a second, grabbing the spasmodic lizard by the tail. The pellet had hit it in the base of the neck. The body still writhes as I hold it triumphantly for my grandfather to see. Only when it subsides does it cross my mind that I did not want to eat the lizard and the lizard did not want to eat me. The commotion brings mother from the cottage. She notices a shadow on my face and says: “No use crying over spilt milk.” My grandfather is too baffled by my lucky shot to notice anything. “The boy has good eyes”, he keeps telling my mother, “good eyes and steady hands.” There is nothing for me to do but let my foot-long trophy lie in state upon a branch of one of grandfather’s peach trees, amazed at how quickly death has drained it of all colour.