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You See, I Used to Live Here
In 1978 I visited Budapest for the first time. I lived in Dijon from January until June of the year between college and graduate school, and my parents met me in Zurich, where some of my mother’s many relatives lived. Together the three of us toured France and Italy before arriving at our ultimate destination, Budapest.
A complete role reversal occurred when we were in Europe together. For the first time in my life, I did not mediate conversations between one of my parents and a shop clerk or a waiter or a bus driver or a flight attendant or a person on the street. Instead I was mute and inarticulate, as my parents, my incompetent immigrant parents, speaking French or German or, eventually, Hungarian, handled the quotidian minutiae that used to be my secure domain. I felt bad enough when infantilized in private conversation, but this all felt horribly, extravagantly public.
Somehow I remember our time in Hungary all as being rainy and gray, though my journal describes beautiful spring days. The city in 1978 still looked traumatized from its World War II siege and the Hungarian revolution of 1956. Bullet holes marked buildings, and dirt spewing from both factories and small Soviet cars left a haze in the air and soot on the walls and a vague headache for the first few days. And yet the grandeur of the Danube, the intricate pillars and crevices of the Parliament building rising on its left bank, the craggy hills of Buda, the flat, urban density of Pest, the sweeping bridges, and the reconstructed castle district all seemed familiar.
Images from My First Book of Hungary by István Csicsery-Rónay, a frequent Patterson Street guest, were now life-size and three dimensional. The book was published in 1967, and its introduction was the perfect example of the Hungarian self-involvement that I never witnessed at Patterson Street but that I grew to appreciate among some émigrés:
Hungary, or Magyarorszag (maw-dyawr-or-sahg), as the Hungarians call their country, may well be called the land of the middle. It lies in Central Europe; it is halfway between two corners of Europe (the Strait of Gibraltar and the Ural Mountains); and it is halfway between the North Pole and the Equator.
Dispensing with latitudes and longitudes, Hungary is simply the center of the universe.
My father brightened as we approached the city of his birth, the only place on the planet where he ever felt at home, despite all its radical changes. Sitting in the front seat of the cab we took from the airport, he engaged the driver in a wide-ranging conversation about national politics and local concerns. Even though he was already seventy-five, he was vigorous and energetic. He was voraciously curious and well informed, so he knew what to ask. When I casually remarked on the presence of soldiers at the airport, he, ever vigilant, shot me a warning look that said such observations should be kept quiet.
While my parents were both from Budapest, more than the thirteen years that separated their ages divided their experiences. My mother’s world of the rich but new Jewish aristocracy had once, when he was a very young man, been vividly a part of my father’s middle-class resentments, class tensions, and misunderstandings. In his 1929 diary he wrote defiantly, “I always had an insensible prejudice toward the rich and powerful—maybe because I am neither of those and would like to be both. . . . I always had a sense for the social distances, especially upward, and I am proud of having that sense.” It became clear to me that while my parents’ two families obviously did not represent all of Hungarian society, the Szegedy-Maszáks and the Kornfelds did embody two defining elements of the myriad tensions of Hungarian identity.
My father’s family—Catholic, upper middle class, and steeped in their Hungarian identity—would have seen nothing unusual about locating Hungary halfway between the north pole and the equator.
My mother’s Jewish, cosmopolitan, well-traveled, multilingual, and wealthy family would have smiled with just a trace of condescension at such grandiosity.
My father led us through winding streets and away from the tourist centers into the run-down neighborhood where my aunt Lilly lived in one of the most depressing apartments I had ever seen in my life. The building smelled bad. We walked up a few flights and knocked on a very dirty door. After entering a small, dingy hall, we saw to the left a kitchen with a black iron stove, no hot water, a tiny refrigerator, and filth. The center of the apartment was the living, dining, and bedroom, with a dirty bed presiding. Each wall was covered with pictures, but the whole room was like a curio shop, so full of memorabilia as to make one gasp for air.
Lilly, my father’s beloved sister—who had saved their parents during the terrible Siege of Budapest and who knocked on every official’s door and called in every family favor in an effort to get my father out of Dachau—lived here. Now she was old and sick and alone except for the resentful presence of her younger sister Musi, who always believed that Lilly had things easy in comparison with her hard life. Lilly lay in this squalid lair looking at paintings that were another reminder of all that she had lost.
They were mostly painted by my father’s great-grandfather, who was one of Hungary’s most accomplished nineteenth-century masters, Miklós Barabás. The Maszáks came from Bohemia, and there were several army officers among them. My father’s grandfather, Hugo Szegedy-Maszák, had studied art with Barabás before deciding to become a journalist, but he continued his relationship with the great painter by marrying his daughter Ilona and having ten children, one of whom was my father’s father, Aladár. Strained relations existed between the father-in-law and his daughter’s husband, and as impressive as Hugo’s intellectual energy was, his capacity to provide for his ever-growing family was erratic at best.
Still, what Hugo lacked in financial acumen, he more than made up for in creative energy. He began a short-lived art periodical and became the secretary of the newly formed Council of Fine Arts, a position he held for eighteen years. In 1882, in the interests of freeing the Hungarian press from the pressures of the Viennese news agency, he established the Hungarian News Service, which he headed for sixteen years. In 1887 he was granted nobility. The letter explained that “as recognition of your achievements in the areas of public education and the fine arts you are most graciously granted Hungarian nobility and the use, exempt from any fees, of the ‘Pesti-Szegedy’ title of nobility.” Much as the British confer nobility with a geographical honorific, this title indicated that he was from Pest—the two cities had not yet been united. He died in 1916.
Aladár’s father, who was also named Aladár, grew up in that highly intellectual, slightly chaotic milieu aswirl with children and paint boxes and literary ambitions. One of his sisters became a portraitist and a well-known Theosophist, whose claim to fame in the family was not her religious or artistic inclinations but the small yet comprehensive library located in her bathroom. And there were suicides, three or four of them, that my father would allude to during some of his darkest moments.
Artists, Theosophists, misunderstood geniuses, chronically depressed intellectuals, all populated the extended Szegedy-Maszák family. But the twin burdens of great intellect and depressive tendencies skipped Aladár senior—who was the head of the Imperial Hungarian Court in Budapest and by all accounts enjoyed an irascible but charming personality—and landed in a highly concentrated form in his only son.
My Szegedy-Maszák grandfather, spry and dapper it seems even as a young man, his goatee trimmed with surgical precision, craved a more ordinary, or at least a more orderly, life and joined the military. There he eventually rose in the Hapsburg monarchy and was put in charge of the royal palace.
At the last coronation of a Hungarian king in December 1916, the height of my grandfather’s prestige was captured in a photo that hung on Lilly’s apartment wall and in my father’s office. As the royal herald preceding the new king, Aladár Senior, dressed in an elaborate national costume called a diszmagyar, sat erect on a royal horse. It seems he peaked at that moment, as did the nation he represented, since both his career and the empire collapsed within two years. The much-longed-for ennoblement never reached him, and his wife, the formidable Sarolta Moldoványi, was deeply disappointed.
Sarolta’s family was from Transylvania, so Trianon—the treaty that followed World War I and redrew the borders of Hungary so that the country lost two-thirds of its land and half of its population—was not just a geopolitical abstraction for her but a very real severing of the heart of her heritage, albeit a heritage from the eighteenth century. She was one of five children of Sándor Moldoványi, who was an industrious pharmacist in Budapest. He even established the first bandage factory in Hungary, and in 1885 he received a medal at the Hungarian Art and Trade Fair in Budapest. My grandmother Sarolta was a devout Catholic, ambitious and organized and full of hopes, first for her husband and then for her only son.
After the First World War inflation ravaged the country, and my grandfather’s job disappeared with the monarchy. Following the brief intermezzo of Communism, the Horthy regime took power, and an old friend helped my grandfather secure a job, or at least the title, as the head of some economic office of the regent. His new colleagues had little respect for the old monarchist anachronism, and going to work where there was no real work, only to receive a paycheck, demoralized my grandfather.
My father as a young man saw the fortunes of the family buffeted by political storms and saw his own father descend from a kind of greatness to graceful, genteel defeat as he dressed for a pretend job with a very real salary every day. My father attended gymnasium and the University of Budapest and eventually went to the École Libre des Sciences Politiques in Paris, fulfilling the hopes of both his parents.
Yet as he sat in his sister’s pitiable apartment, the guilt of all his failures as a son and brother looked like a literal burden on his back and shoulders. He had promised his parents that he would take care of her, and over and over again in his journals, he would write about the anguish of not fulfilling that promise.
One afternoon in Budapest my mother and I visited András Belyus, who had been the head butler for her family ever since she could remember. His apartment was meticulous, the mantelpiece, bookcases, and side tables festooned with many photographs of my grandparents, my mother, her brothers, her sister, the family estate in Ireg, and their city apartment on Lendvay Street. He had begun his service to the family as a valet to my great-uncle Paul. Soon he became indispensable to the whole family.
He would become the dominant force in the Kornfeld household. At lunch or dinner, he stood at the serving table in the dining room, wearing his green or gray uniform and his white gloves, listening attentively to the conversations, and responding with silent precision to the slightest need of one of the guests or family members. His wife was a manicurist in the most prestigious barbershop in Budapest, so between the two of them, they could probably have reconstructed most of the social and political gossip of the city.
Belyus never sat down as he poured tea and reminisced with my mother about times he could share with no one in Hungary. I watched her, the hapless Scout leader, the frantic lunch mother, the Woman Who Never Wore Pants, the “bank and chauffeur” now become the gracious baroness. Not haughty and most of all not inauthentic, she was more comfortable than I had ever witnessed.
Later that day we took the little subway, the first in continental Europe, up Andrássy Avenue—although at that time it had been renamed Népköztársaság útja, or Republic Avenue of the People’s—and emerged in my mother’s old neighborhood. All the homes had gone through several incarnations, from private villas to chopped‑up apartments, but the grandest was the former home of her grandfather, Manfred Weiss, at 114 Andrássy Avenue. Now the official Russian guesthouse, the home was spectacular, with muscular, half-naked marble men supporting the sweep of balcony. My mother told me that once tennis courts and stables had occupied the far corner of the property, but no longer. When the house was built, it was even wired with electricity. When my grandmother and her sisters had dance parties, an electrician was hired to spend the night in case any emergency repairs were needed.
Marianne Weiss lived with her parents and five brothers and sisters on the first floor of the villa, while her maternal grandparents and great-grandmother lived on the second floor. My grandmother always said that the best time to have been alive was in the early twentieth century, before World War I. Budapest was at the pinnacle of its history. No longer the shabby junior partner to Vienna in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it blossomed with culture and new architecture and all the benefits of a world-class city.
It must have been especially nice if your father was Manfred Weiss, who did much to industrialize Hungary. He began modestly enough with a factory in the Budapest city limits that canned plum preserves. Eventually he expanded the canning to include other food and his market to include the military. He noticed that the cans themselves were a handy shape that could be enlarged and made into little military stoves, or contracted to become bullets. Since a factory that used gunpowder near the heart of a busy city tempted fate, he bought a plot of land on an island in the middle of the Danube called Csepel and built the Manfred Weiss Works. The Austro-Hungarian army was so impressed with its work that they asked him in 1887 to manufacture shell casings, magazines, and ammunition boxes, and its German affiliate was awarded a contract by the German government to manufacture ammunition boxes for the army Mausers.
As the factory fortunes rose with war, so they fell during times of peace. Weiss then poured money into Budapest real estate: some slices of Andrássy Avenue, a hotel in the inner city, a big chunk of land in a rich agricultural region known as the Angyalföld, and a significant piece of property near the Danube, in an undeveloped area where the Margaret Bridge stood.
As with many nineteenth-century entrepreneurs, the accumulation of wealth was not Manfred Weiss’s compelling need but a happy by-product of his truly compelling need, which was to make things. He was a creative genius, and his muse and motivation was the majesty of a huge factory, a new kind of factory that mass-produced a range of products in quantities undreamed of before in Hungary. But this factory would not exploit the workers strictly for profit, because a benevolent father ruled it.