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Budapest, Hungary 1951
OUR ROUTE LEADS us over the Danube river on the recently restored Margaret Bridge, walking towards the right bank of the river and the hills of Buda. On the left bank of the river lies the district of the city known as Pest, which combined with Buda in 1873 to form what we now know as Budapest. Crowning the left bank of the river and dominating the city, the silhouette of the war-ravaged Palace-Fort looks surreal, a stage set from some tragic play. A bluish veil of mist softens the contours of the ruins left behind by the tempest that devastated Europe only a few years ago. We are desensitized to ruins now. Our life is in ruins and the past is buried beneath them. Now an equally frightening future lies ahead of us.
Although we walk in silence, I burn with a desire to shout, to cry, to howl, to let my feelings explode. The world around us is saturated with agony, overcome with misery. The victors live on another continent, on the other side of the globe, and they are tired of the vanquished's lamentations. The War has hardened their hearts and it has dried up our tears.
My mind is drawn back to the horror of the interrogation chamber of Hungary's Secret Police. It's hard to believe that the nightmare happened only four months ago. It wasn't only the physical pain of torture, but also the inner emotion, the quivering fear associated with it that was so hard to bear. Relentless accusations were hurled at me. Torture was used to force meaningless admissions. It's impossible to forget that sickening, hollow feeling of helplessness. In my agony, I groaned and cursed under the blows, but I never cried aloud or begged for mercy;silence was my revenge. To beg for mercy was futile, for those with the power to stop the pain were beyond the soundproof walls of the cell. After a while oblivion set in, blessed indifference.
It had been easy to be brave on a battlefield. Under the watchful eyes of my men, I performed the obligatory role of hero, but in the solitude of prison, only my self esteem, or vanity if you like, kept me faithful to my principles.
I faced the physical torture in that interrogation cell alone, but now I'm no longer alone. I face the uncertain future with my wife, and this obligation is a mental anguish that is the most painful.
As we stop to catch our breath, I reflect on this recently restored bridge. During the war all the bridges were blown up by the Germans, five magnificent bridges. They have now been restored in a less splendid, more somber architectural style, but with such extravagant propaganda fanfare! "Victory over Capitalism!" "Hail the help of our socialist allies, the Soviet Union!" "Under the guidance of Generalissimo Stalin, we march!" "Fight to destroy Capitalism!" These bombasts were blared day and night during the reconstruction. Behind the overt propaganda, there was the hidden message: "Accept our superiority! Do not dare to oppose us! You are a subject nation! Be grateful, we are your liberators!"
The soft brown water of the Danube slides silently beneath our feet. It has a soothing, hypnotic effect. I hear the excited calling of children from a distance and am drawn back to the carefree days of my childhood and two of my close friends who shared those wonderful days -- Misa and Zoli...
BOTH WERE MIDDLE-class boys from different backgrounds. Misa, my best friend, was the only son of a wealthy lawyer. His father, Dr. Jozef Kovacs, was a Christian convert from Judaism. An easygoing man, he was wealthy by inheritance, but he neglected his legal practice. Misa's mother was the daughter of a colonel of the Hungarian Hussars. The beautiful, but poor girl and the wealthy lawyer had an exemplary marriage.
My other friend, Zoli, was also the son of a lawyer, but his parents were newcomers to the local social elite. Zoli's father, Dr. Berko Korsos, was an ambitious and diligent advocate. An unspoken rivalry developed between the two families, although social custom forbade that it should ever rise to the surface.
Our three families had distinctly different political outlooks: Uncle Jozef was an outspoken left-wing sympathizer; Uncle Berko was an ardent nationalist; and my father was the mediator in the never-ending disputes between the two. Their conversations were studded with good humor and witty sarcasm as they debated each other, never allowing their personal views to create ill will between them. This was the liberal atmosphere of my childhood. I grew up completely unaware of a difference between Jews and non-Jews, just as I was ignorant of social injustices.
Uncle Jozef owned a villa in Gyoparos. Through my child's eye, the villa and the surrounding park were like a royal mansion. It was a treat to be allowed to stay there with Misa during the week while my parents were back in town, working. Sometimes even Zoli was allowed to stay. We were the three inseparable musketeers who teased and goaded each other into daring and mischievous adventures.
The villa had a fenced yard where rusty, worn-out agricultural machinery was stored. That yard was forbidden territory to us, but of course, to defy a restriction like that was a challenge we were most eager to meet.
Those were the days when men were beginning to conquer the skies and the heroic aerial records of Bleriot or Lindberg were fantastic achievements that fueled our imagination. A coach-house with a slanted roof stood inside the enclosure and offered itself as an airstrip for our own attempt at flight. I think it was Misa who came up with the idea.
"We should try to fly."
"What do you mean?" Zoli asked with great interest.
"Do you see those chestnut trees? They grow huge leaves. I bet if we gather a big bunch of them and run down that slanted roof, we could gain enough speed to stay afloat for a while."
"You think so?" I asked, hesitant yet intrigued.
"I saw a picture of a man in a magazine who flew with wings. His wings were made of feathers, but what's the difference? We can make them out of chestnut leaves. Anyway, it's not a game for chickens. If you're a chicken, just forget it."
"A chicken? Me? No!"
"Well, what are we waiting for?"
In no time, we were climbing a ladder to the roof. The leaves were abundant and soon we had gathered big bunches. Then, we lined up on the ridge of the roof and at Misa's command, hurled ourselves forward, running towards the edge, where we started to beat the air frantically with our "wings." We came down like three sacks of potatoes.
Fortunately, the slanted roof wasn't very high, but we had forgotten the dry well at the center of our flight path. It was quite deep and a meter-and-a-half in diameter. Zoli, being the center pilot, landed on the brim of the well. Just then, Uncle Jozef awoke from his afternoon nap, came to the patio for some fresh air and, to his horror, witnessed Zoli's landing. He almost had a heart attack! Zoli, after a few seconds of a good balancing act, finally landed safely on the ground. Uncle Jozef's fright turned to anger. He shouted at us and demanded that the three of us come to him immediately.
"Whose stupid idea was this? You know very well you're not supposed to enter that yard! Who started this?"
Silence seemed the best course of action. All three of us received a smack on the face and were dismissed in disgrace. In those days, it was taken for granted that any of our fathers had undisputed authority over all of the children and we accepted punishment from any of their hands without protest. In this case, our mothers intervened, and Zoli and I were saved from further punishment from our own fathers.
The discipline we received as children allowed us to develop a feeling of brotherhood. Unfortunately, our childhood bond would not be strong enough to withstand the corrosive forces of the social transformation that was to come as a result of the war that loomed on the horizon.
Uncle Korsos became a politician and was elected to the House of Representatives under the Government Party's banner. The Kovacs were not directly affected by the "Jewish laws" forced on Hungary by the Germans since Uncle Jozef's parents had converted from Judaism many years ago and he was married to a non-Jew. Although exempt from the Jewish law, the pain of the edict was felt by the Kovacs' and was probably the reason my friend, Misa, turned to the political left. My father's profession prohibited him from participating in partisan politics so he remained on good terms with both of his friends, although they were slowly drifting apart.
THE GENTLE touch of my wife's hand draws me back to the present and we resume our walk over the Margaret Bridge. I cannot help but wonder if our children will ever enjoy the same carefree tranquillity of my youth.
Mimi, as we call my wife in our family, tries hard to keep up with my quick stride. I am not yet accustomed to her shorter steps. We have been married for six years but we are practically strangers. A short courtship and two apocalyptic months during the siege of Buda in 1945 are all we have as common memory. I was captured when Buda fell and interred in labor camps for the next six years in the USSR.
Is that enough of a bond to keep us together for an uncertain future?
"The Holoskoy family was deported yesterday." Mimi breaks the tense silence with a barely audible voice. The words chill my heart. The fear of deportation hovers over the head of many Budapest residents. It means forced evacuation; nothing can be taken other than the few necessities a person can carry. The destination is unknown.
My nation is being strangled by secrets and suffocated by lies! Blatant lies masquerade as glorious truths. Falsified industrial records are heralded as fantastic overproduction. Boastful slogans paint a glorious future with promises of Paradise on earth. But reality belies the slogans.
People see the burlap-covered trucks swallow up entire families. Neighbors disappear overnight, but nobody asks where they've gone. By pretending that all is well and by living the lie, perhaps your family will remain safe.
Deep inside I know we are targeted for deportation.
Be prepared, reason warns. But the nature of youth is irrational. I still hope against hope that they will miss us. It can't happen again! My optimism is still alive, but the voice of reason warns,
Don't deceive yourself! Son of a former police colonel, a commissioned Gendarmery officer, a bourgeois by birth, how can they miss you?
How unfair it is! All I ask for is a simple life: no big pay, no career, no fame, no success, only a modest unmolested life as a laborer. I would be content with that. All I need is my family and my wife next to me, but the government suspects the eternal enemy in me; the freedom fighter, the plotter against the regime, and there is no way to alter their convictions. For them, the political dogma is infallible; the Party line must be followed to the letter.
The authorities refuse to believe that after I return to our apartment, dog-tired from work, the outside world does not exist for me. I don't miss my army career, for I was never a typical army man. I was heckled for being shy, awkward with women, unwilling to swear, no companion in drinking. Under fire, however, I was a reliable officer, though never one of the so-called dashing "daredevils." Beset by the present pressure of the merciless political system, I was able to develop a tough outer shell. Now, I want to live my life peacefully with my family, without fear. I now know the uncertainty and fear the Jews felt when Hitler began his campaign for Europe. These thoughts bring to mind an incident that happened in the summer of 1939....
Copyright © 2002 by Alex Domokos & Rita Y. Toews