Chapter 2 – My first political skirmish – aged nine
Updated: Jul 3
“Gábor, tell me, who told you that Jewish, and communist and Russian people are bad? Where did you hear such things? Because I'd really like to know why you think this way?”
I'd never liked Tivadár Nemes. He was like the bricklayer who always finished the day with at least two rows of bricks more than the next man: the perfect communist. I suppose that's why he'd got to be headmaster at my school.
Now, here he was, probing the origins of my political unsoundness.
But I probably need to put this all into context. After stamping on the 1956 Uprising and subsequent vengeful campaign to hunt down anyone vaguely connected to the defeated revolutionaries, historians today say that come 1963 Hungary was making tentative reforms – reforms that would, by the 1980s, see the country dubbed the “Happiest barrack in the Soviet bloc”.
Well, it didn't feel like it at the time. True, Hungary was not the Soviet Union, but equally, divulging anti-communist and especially anti-Russian sentiments to a crowded Budapest school hall did not do your prospects of a good end-of-term report much good.
But I'm getting ahead of myself: back to that April morning.
You've got to understand that I had no real idea as to the meaning of my outburst. I just knew that my father, after a bad day at work, would come home and let fly: fucking, sodding, Russian, communist, Yid, bastard – such was the vocabulary of his anger. And the angrier he was, the more he used it. It all seemed simple enough to me.
But the impact of my verbal indiscretion at that assembly was magnified by the officer on stage. In between a crescendo to match some 1945 Red Army heroics, he'd chosen the exact moment of my pained wrath for an interlude: in the silence, my scandalous words reverberated around the hall at a seemingly excessive decibel levels.
I don't think I even saw the two teachers who, striding forward from the sides of the hall, grabbed my collar and frogmarched me to the headmaster's office. I stood to attention in the corridor for an hour contemplating my fate, which would surely include some sort of beating.
But it didn't. Far from showing anger, Mr Nemes was being decidedly understanding and sweet: in fact, far too sweet.
Every living day, my parents had told me never to repeat outside what I'd heard at home. It was, perhaps, shutting the stable door after the horse had bolted, but now my defence lines came up. I knew I must not tell the truth.
“I just heard it outside, in the school yard, from one of the kids, from a schoolmate,” I stammered in response to his question.
“From your class? Who was this?”
“I really don't know. Just from some boys in the school yard,” I gulped, wondering how long I could maintain this fiction. “I heard these dirty words, and I thought if he used these dirty words, I could too.”
Somehow, I survived that softly softly interrogation, though naturally, Mr Nemes wrote a scathing message to my parents in my index – the daily school report booklet.
Of course, no sooner was I out of the headmaster's office than I carefully tore the incriminating page out of my index – if my parents read this, I was definitely due a beating.
I then headed home, happy and feeling a bit, well, smug. And why not? I'd got off lightly, though for sure it had been a close run thing.