Everyone has heard that Eastern Europe — really all the lands trampled
by Stalin or Hitler — is ferociously haunted. Budapest, battered by
both men, is no exception. I felt this immediately, when I walked
through the automatic doors into Ferihegy airport’s casually modern
arrivals area and was shocked not to see my grandmother waiting there.
I had not expected to see her, more than a decade after her death in a
Los Angeles hospital, nor did I have any preconceived notions that
going back to the country of her birth would bring me preternaturally
close to her. As my boyfriend Sam and I walked past customs and the
lines of people holding signs or children’s hands, though, I was
unmistakably sad not to see amongst them her everyday coral and
My grandfather, still alive and since remarried, had warned me not to go to Hungary, that there was nothing for me to see. He had urged this so strongly that the only way to end the conversation was to promise that I would look into other destinations for my upcoming (and already paid-for) trip.
He had gone back, a few years after my grandmother died, and found nothing left to speak of in his Transylvanian town, not even a memorial plaque, and had gotten lost on the subway. If it was possible to further estrange him from Eastern Europe after the Holocaust, this seemed to do it.
I went anyway, of course, thinking that the Budapest of today would offer a great week for two travelers on a budget, and perhaps some insight into the Democracy and Freedom budding throughout this part of the world.
Instead we met Miklos.
We had connected with him through Sam’s friends at Commentary, who knew him from the early 1990s when Miklos was among a group of Budapest Jews who launched and maintained for a few years a Hungarian branch of that unabashedly Jewish and anti-Communist magazine. Over email, Miklos had informed us that he would meet us at our hotel promptly two hours after our flight landed. We were two hours late and Miklos was clearly tired when we finally got there, and without any ceremony informed us that he would be back at the hotel at noon the next day for the first of our tours. Still reeling from the shock of not seeing my grandmother at the airport, the sight of a face seeking out ours was a remarkable relief, no matter how annoyed his face.
His bluntness that evening proved deceptive. With 18 books under his belt (both fiction and nonfiction) and an intimate knowledge of Hungary’s three most recent, radically different governments, Miklos told the story of Budapest with such nuance that even now, safely back in a Brooklyn brownstone, I am still haunted. No, scared.
The place to start, Miklos informed us the next day, was the ghetto, a mere two blocks from our beautiful, French-style hotel. Preoccupied with the damp cold and with spotting bullet holes in the sides of buildings, I didn’t notice how quickly the city turned from glamorous and Parisian to grimy and barely post-Stalinist. We stopped at the corner of Sip Street, where Miklos — his hands buried in his pockets and his chin deep in the collar of his coat — informed us that this was where the Jews from the outskirts, hoping “whether rightly or wrongly” to escape persecution by moving to the city, lined up to get housing.
A toddler then, Miklos had been in hiding throughout the war, no doubt sealed into a room not unlike the ones huddled along this block. The street, dark and narrow and now housing a used-furniture store and kosher market, was lined with crumbling buildings, more than a few boarded-up windows and paved with uneven cobblestones. Clearly this street was not the benefactor of one of Communist Budapest’s rare restoration projects. But I had never seen a city wear its shameful past so much on its sleeve: it seemed that Hungary was neither covering up nor commemorating its Axis role, and, though now lacking its wooden gates, this area was still appropriately called a Jewish ghetto.
Miklos told us that at its densest in the winter of 1944-5, the ghetto housed hundreds of thousands of people in its Haussmann-style buildings, often with more than 10 people crammed into each room. Hunger and disease were of course everywhere in the ghetto, heek and jowl with traitors and spies who’d decided that alliance with the Arrow Cross could help them save themselves, no matter what it did to their neighbors. Except for those working with the very top of the Hungarian government, however, most of these turncoats were murdered with their fellow Jews. Miklos’s depiction of the ghetto came to a quiet and horrific climax at the edge of Klauzál tér, where, he informed us with slowed words, the corpses of those who succumbed were heaped for weeks before their corpses were properly buried. I saw a photograph of these corpses in the city’s Jewish Museum a few days later. The bodies still had on their socks and shoes.
The continued ghettoization of Jews is not limited to housing, we learned later, when Miklos briefed us in the current state of Hungarian literature. As with what seems like all things Hungarian right now, the literature is mired in a Left versus Right debate that can’t seem to get Jews out of the picture. While Jewish writers have had an easier time getting translated and read outside of Hungary (not to mention receiving the Nobel Prize), within Hungary they are perceived as inauthentic — or worse yet, as traitors. The literary Right — Christian, pastoral, nationalist, conservative — longs for 1938, Miklos said, when things were looking up for them on both literary and political platforms.
That this backward-looking desire is disturbing is clear; how it’s affecting the current and future shape of Hungarian literature and politics is more ambiguous. For his part, Miklos was unabashedly alarmist in his vision of the country — watch out for skinheads, they’re everywhere, he said, and don’t be surprised when the Arrow Cross come back into power, trampling Hungarian Jewish culture in its path. When Sam and I walked to the edge of Pest the next day, right up to where a line of naked writers, artists and government officials were shot and left to fall into the Danube more than 60 year ago, I thought back to Miklos’s warning.
Our trip, during which I had hoped to escape the terror levels and war anger of New York, instead instilled in me the idea that democracy is a fleeting moment in this world, in both the East and the West. I am haunted now not by my admittedly weird disappointment at not seeing my grandmother at the airport, but rather by the sickening, depressing, unbearable possibility that history will repeat itself.