Chapter 4 - So How did it come to this?
Updated: Jul 16, 2020
In those days we lived in Budapest's district XII, on what was then called Mártinovics Hill - nowadays that's Kiss Swáb Hegy, literally Little Schwab Hill.
Then, as now, this was a prime residential district, and I went to what was considered a very good school, with an emphasis on music, on Mártonhegyi utca. I went there because I loved singing, and music, and my parents were keen on me learning musical instruments. My father thought in those days that one day I'd become a conductor. I don't know why.
I had a half-sister, Zita, who was my mother's daughter from a previous marriage. She was seven years older than me, and pretty soon she was a teenager, falling in love with this or that boy: we were not really very close.
With my father teaching architecture at university, and my mother a tour guide, we were, on the surface, a comfortable, middle-class family by the standards of Hungary at the time.
But internally, home was dominated by my father's phobias, which, like a cold, damp winter fog, permeated my daily existence.
While other boys boasted of their fathers' deeds and achievements – real or otherwise – I knew my father lived a life of cowed frustration, forever struggling with a trinity of powerful demons – Russia, communism and Jews.
In truth, some of this was understandable, though that didn't make living with it any easier.
My father was born in 1907 in the city of Nagyszeben, Transylvania - then part of Hungary, but ceded to Romania after WW1. Today, it is better known by its Romanian name, Sibiu.
He was of ethnic German stock, the descendant of Saxon settlers from centuries earlier, but grew up with Hungarian as his mother tongue. After finishing high school, he left Sibiu in 1925 to study in Budapest.
Along the way, he deftly used his two-country background to avoid compulsory military service – telling the Hungarian army recruiters he was serving in Romania, and vice versa – a simple ruse perhaps, but one that proved successful in the chaotic years between the wars.
This, along with his academic job, further helped him somehow avoid the military in WW2.
He survived the war in Budapest, fleeing from house to house as each was bombed or shelled in the winter of 44-45. But with the arrival of our Soviet 'liberators' in 1945, came troubles that few could avoid.
Comrade Stalin needed men to rebuild the Soviet Union: 'Malenki Robot' it was called - a corrupted form of the Russian for a "little work". Standing in a bread queue one winter's day, my father was grabbed by a Red Army snatch-squad, bundled into a truck, half-starved in a barn for some days and then sent on a forced march to Russia.
Somewhere in eastern Hungary, he escaped one snowy night by hiding in a dog kennel, and then dodging military patrols on his walk back to Budapest.
A year or so later, he left for work one morning and was met by two ÁVO officers – the feared Hungarian security police, and a force largely directed by Moscow-trained, Hungarian Jews.
After languishing in gaol for some months, he was freed as suddenly and inexplicably as he was arrested. Enquiring as to why he had been detained, the officer handing back his belongings retorted: Why, don't you want to go home?
He never got to know a reason – although he was told that the woman who had initiated his arrest was a resentful former Jewish friend, who blamed him for failing to protect her valuables given to him for safekeeping before the Hungarian Holocaust.
From this ill-sown seed, my father allowed an anti-Semitic growth to spread into his psyche like a cancer.
Then, by the 1960s, there was my father's boss, Prof Dr Weichinger, head of the architecture faculty at the Technical University. He was - you've guessed it – Jewish.
Whatever the cause - political, professional or just prejudicial, or a combination of all three - I do not know, but he and my father did not get on, and Dr Weichinger was the subject of many a homecoming, anti-Semitic rant by my father in my early years.
Whether the sum of these experiences justified my father's fear and loathing is not for me to say. I couldn't really understand the whole thing, I just considered that in our family it was natural: we had to be afraid of Russians, and we had to be afraid of communists, and my parents continually told me not to repeat in kindergarten or in school what I'd heard at home from my father. Conversations about politics were conducted in whispers. This was how I grew up.