Budapest, Bridge to My Past

by Erika Reich Giles
Photo by Erika Reich Giles

Photo by Erika Reich Giles

        The cloud cover that blanketed Europe on our flight from Amsterdam dispersed as we approached Budapest, revealing the Danube River far below, gleaming silver in sunny autumn haze. A good omen. Our Malev Hungarian Airlines Boeing 737 descended over suburbs of tidy, red-roofed stucco houses nestled among green trees before making a steep turn and landing at Ferihegy Airport southeast of the city. I was giddy with excitement and danced out of the plane behind my husband, Leon. Almost six decades had passed since I left my homeland as an infant in the arms of my escaping mother in 1948. Hungary had been in turmoil then. Soviet-backed Communists were taking over the country and guarding its borders in advance of the barbed wire, minefields, and guard towers of the Iron Curtain that would isolate Hungarians from the West until 1989. Now, in 2006, I was back from my home in Seattle, eager to forge a personal connection to a place and a past I knew only through fragments of my family’s memories—memories filtered through the prisms of reversed fortunes, shattered lives.
        Strolling beside Leon toward the baggage claim on polished marble floors of the modern terminal, I fantasized that the first Hungarians I encountered would recognize me as their compatriot, returned at long last; that they would sense how important this trip was to me. Of course, no one did. Not the blonde young man in the blue uniform at Passport Control who barely glanced at Leon’s passport but silently scrutinized mine for so long that I squirmed (was it because I was born in Hungary?); not the quartet of customs officers who ignored us at the green door for travelers with nothing to declare; not the clerk at the information desk who politely informed us it would be a forty-minute wait for the next shuttle into the city; not the two strapping men half-heartedly digging a trench near the sidewalk where we waited for a cab I had called on the advice of our guidebook to avoid taking an overpriced airport taxi.
        Despite the cool reception, I was pleased that we’d be spending the first half of our two-week trip in this cosmopolitan city of 1.8 million, sometimes dubbed “the Paris of the East.” Budapest would enable me, like a bather easing into one of the city’s many steaming thermal baths, to acclimate to Hungary gradually, without the strong emotional reactions I anticipated in Szombathely (SŌM-bŏt-high) and Vasvár (VŎSH-vawr), towns a hundred miles to the west in Vas Megye (Iron County), at the heart of my family’s history. My father had visited Budapest with his family as a child, and he and my mother toured the city after they were married. He had tried in vain to find a job there after the Communists seized the Reich Gépgyár, his family’s thriving agricultural machine factory, setting in motion the events that culminated in our escape. Otherwise, my family had no close ties to the city, viewing it from afar as the center of national culture and politics.
        Numerous cabs sped by us on the airport drive, but after a half hour, ours still hadn’t come. “Maybe the dispatcher didn’t understand me when I told her where we would be waiting,” I said to Leon. I grew up speaking Hungarian with my family in Billings, Montana, where we settled after immigrating to the United States as refugees in 1952. But when we learned to speak English, we started to mix the two in a sort of “Hunglish.” As a result, I was competent, but not fully fluent, in my native language. And I had no experience whatsoever conducting business in Hungarian, especially on the telephone.
        “I’m tired of waiting,” Leon said. “Let’s take an airport cab.”
        “Oh, all right,” I agreed. I tend to follow the advice of guidebooks to the letter on overseas trips, but decided it wouldn’t hurt to make an exception this once. We hadn’t slept in twenty-four hours. The sooner we could get to our hotel and relax, the better.
        The line for airport cabs wasn’t long, and a paunchy driver with curly salt-and-pepper hair soon waved us over. “Jó napot” (Good day), I said to him after we were settled in his compact car, hoping to dispel any notion that we were naïve American tourists. He responded with the more formal “Kezét csókolom” (I kiss your hand) and then fell silent as he drove away from the airport, apparently finding idle chit-chat incompatible with driving at breakneck speed, zigzagging between lanes, and riding the bumper of the car ahead of us. Leon and I swayed from side to side in the back seat, my hair flying in my face from the breeze coming in the driver’s open window. I stole a glance at my gray-bearded spouse. His half-smile tried to reassure me, but I clutched his hand so hard my knuckles were white. Whizzing by our window were miles of railroad tracks, dreary industrial areas, and drab Communist-era apartment buildings defaced with graffiti.
        The scene changed as we approached downtown Pest, the city’s government, financial, and commercial center. Ornate buildings in Classicist, Romanesque, Gothic, and Art Nouveau styles appeared. I felt as elated as I had seeing the centers of other European cities we had visited—London, Vienna, Milan—a sense of kinship with the Old World of my origins. Still, I was dismayed to see black scribbles of graffiti marring even some of those venerable structures. The narrow, winding streets forced our driver to slow down, but he still darted perilously among cars and bicycles before racing across the sleek white metal Elizabeth Bridge over the Danube to the city’s other half, historic Buda on the west bank. A mile or so north on the Bem rakpart, the tree-lined boulevard overlooking the river, he slammed to a stop in front of the Hotel Victoria. I leaped from the car, Leon close behind me. “That was one scary ride!” I exclaimed in English, unable, in the heat of the moment, to summon the necessary words in Hungarian. The driver gave no sign whether he understood, but he handed me a business card and invited me to contact him for the return trip. I slipped it into my pocket and crumpled it.
        We pushed open the glass-paned door of the twenty-seven-room hotel, a narrow, unpretentious building abutting its neighbors in the middle of the block. “Hello, hello,” the desk clerk greeted us in English. “I’m Gaby.” She unfolded her willowy frame clad in a chic black pantsuit from behind the desk and helped us haul our suitcases up several stairs to the compact lobby. “Welcome to Budapest,” she said, with a smile on her freckled face. “We’re so glad you’re here.”
        Her friendly, disarming manner dispelled my concerns about my failed conversation with the taxi dispatcher and inspired me to utter more than the few other phrases I had spoken since our arrival. I’d held back not only because of my incomplete Hungarian vocabulary, but also my accent, unique to Vas Megye. It’s all in how the letter “e” is pronounced. In Budapest, the sound is consistently as in the English word, “let.” In Vas Megye, “e” may also be pronounced like the vowels in “fur” or “raw” or “lie.” If you speak with other than a Budapest accent, some Hungarians view you with disdain, as though you’re too ignorant to speak the language correctly. Disdain was the typical reaction I elicited when conversing in my native language with Hungarians I met as an adult in the United States. My confidence plummeted. I avoided speaking the language with anyone outside my family. But if Gaby harbored any critical thoughts, she gave no sign, perhaps because her English, while very good, was also not perfect. Suddenly, I felt the urge to speak Hungarian with everyone I encountered—the hotel handyman, the chambermaid, the manager—to begin my transformation from an American tourist to someone who could pass as a native.
        Leon and I settled into our simple but comfortable eighth-floor room, enchanted by its panoramic view of the Danube and the flat reaches of Pest beyond. The stately neo-Gothic Parliament building stood on the far bank of the river to the north; to the south, the graceful Széchenyi Lánchid (Chain Bridge) stretched across it. Later, back in the lobby, we asked Gaby to recommend a place for an early dinner. She suggested a nearby bistro, the Horgásztanya (Fisherman’s Farm). We strolled there on the sidewalks of the Viziváros (Watertown), a pleasant district of shops, restaurants, and apartments, once home to artisans and fishermen, in the shadow of Castle Hill, a popular tourist destination.
        Sunlight filtered through locust, linden, and ash trees with green leaves just beginning to turn golden in late September. Posters with large colored portraits of candidates in local elections hung from light standards overhead. A streetcar crammed with passengers clanged past on tracks near the sidewalk. Beyond the tracks, a steady stream of honking cars moved on the wide boulevard. The acrid smell of exhaust fumes mingled with fleeting odors of fresh-baked bread, rotting garbage, roasting meat. On the buildings, more graffiti. I drank in the sights and sounds and smells with the sense that on some elemental level I had yet to discern, Budapest was somehow connected to me.
        At the restaurant, Leon and I sat outdoors on wooden benches at a table covered with a red-and-white checked tablecloth, separated by a railing from a street clogged with cars. A swarthy waiter in a white apron brought us glasses of Pinot gris from the Badacsony area of Lake Balaton to start our meal.
        “To my finally being back in Hungary,” I said, clinking my glass with Leon’s.
        “To your finally being back in Hungary,” he repeated, smiling. He, more than anyone, knew how much time and effort I had spent to arrive at this milestone. After 9/11, with its potent reminder that life is fleeting and that opportunities can easily be missed, I felt compelled to explore in depth the events surrounding my family’s escape. My parents’ avoidance of the painful topic when I was a child and my indifference as a younger adult meant I knew only the bare outlines. I spent countless hours over many months interviewing my parents on the phone and in person, poring over documents and photographs, reading about the history of Hungary during and after World War II. But at a certain point, none of it was enough. I knew I needed to return to Hungary.
        Leon and I dined on chicken paprikás and nokedli, pearly oval Hungarian noodles. It felt surreal to be savoring the tender morsels of chicken and tasty noodles smothered in a rich sauce of sour cream and paprika not at the lace-covered mahogany dining room table of my childhood home in Billings but in Hungary where my family’s story—and mine—began.
        It wasn’t just my husband and I who ate that chicken paprikás, or, later, studied the brooding paintings of Munkácsy Mihály at the Hungarian National Gallery, or browsed in the smart shops of Váci utca, or escaped from the city’s hubbub on the tree-lined paths of Margaret Island in the middle of the Danube. My mother’s relatives—her sister, my Aunt Évi, and Uncle Laci, and my cousin Suzie and my grandparents, Nagymama and Nagypapa—escaped from Hungary eight years after we did, during the 1956 Revolution, and joined us in Billings. Before he died in 1997, Uncle Laci went back to Hungary for several visits. My older sister Judy had often proposed that she and I travel there together, but before I began my quest, I wasn’t ready. When I finally was, I realized that it was Leon I needed by my side. So this trip was not just my trip. It was also a trip for Judy and my parents and my aunt and cousin and grandparents, all of whom, by choice or by chance, had never returned to our homeland. They shadowed me as Leon and I discovered Budapest. I watched and listened and spoke not only for myself but also for them.
        Leon and I crossed the Chain Bridge, under the pair of massive stone lion sculptures guarding either end, past its wide arcs and stone uprights, from Buda to Pest and back again. Strolling on the sidewalks bordering its two lanes of cars, we sometimes stopped at mid-span to watch long, low tour boats gliding on the water or to savor the view of the verdant Buda Hills to the west of the city. We admired the bridge outlined in lights from our hotel room after dark. If it’s possible to fall in love with a bridge, I did—not only as a famed suspension bridge, one of Budapest’s most popular landmarks, but also as a symbol of the link I hoped to establish with my heritage in Hungary.
        One night, we lingered over dinner at a sidewalk café on the riverbank in Pest and noticed that spotlights bathed the bridge in red and green. Approaching it on our way back to Buda, we found ourselves in a sea of people surging westward onto a deck cleared of cars.
        “What’s going on?” I asked a woman in Hungarian.
        “It’s a breast cancer walk,” she told me, and I translated for Leon. We were pleased to learn that this popular method of increasing awareness of the disease and raising funds in the United States had found its way to Hungary.
        “Let’s walk in honor of Suzie,” I said to Leon, referring to my cousin, a fifth-grade teacher in northern Montana who, for the past four years, had been battling an aggressive form of breast cancer. Just two months apart in age, we had been wary of each other when she first arrived in Billings, a pale, wide-eyed girl clinging to her parents, but later became best friends as I helped her learn English and acclimate to our adopted country. We were still close.
        “That’s a great idea,” Leon said. He had also grown fond of Suzie through shared vacations with her and her family in Whitefish and during her visits to the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance for annual exams. Swept along on the bridge by hundreds of people under purplish remnants of the sunset over Castle Hill, we marveled at the fierce determination that enabled my cousin to keep teaching despite continuous chemotherapy treatments with onerous side effects: baldness, nausea, joint pain, malaise. Her courage and zest for life inspired us.
        Neither Leon nor I like crowds. Yet walking on that bridge, shoulder-to-shoulder with citizens who had also been touched in some way by this devastating disease, I felt a sense of peace and solidarity. My empathy for Suzie and her struggle swelled to encompass the struggles represented by all the people around me. My fellow Hungarians.
        On the bridge and elsewhere, I reveled at my immersion in the Hungarian language. This Finno-Ugric language, related to only a handful of European languages, including Finnish and Estonian, is spoken by only fourteen million people in the world. For the first time in my life, I was in a place where what had most set me apart growing up as a refugee child in Billings was the norm. I spoke Hungarian with everyone but Leon; read it on billboards and in brochures, in magazines and newspapers; I listened to it on TV; I eavesdropped on people speaking it on the street, in restaurants, on the subway. The Hungarian I had spoken for as long as I could remember made the Budapest I was just getting to know seem familiar, almost welcoming.
        But there were darker moments, too. Leon and I were crossing a street near the Margaret Bridge one day when a stooped man with greasy dark hair and wearing tattered pants and a soiled jacket approached us from the opposite direction. As he came alongside me, he shook his fist toward Leon, on my other side. “Be verem a fejét,” he growled. Leon, facing the other way, didn’t notice.
        “That guy who just passed us threatened to bash your head in,” I whispered, tugging on his arm.
        “Really? Let’s get out of here,” Leon answered, matching my quickened pace. I looked back at the man, mumbling to himself and obviously mentally ill, as we half-walked, half-ran to increase our distance from him.
        “Is he gone?” Leon asked a short time later.
        “No,” I said. The man had turned and was now following us, less than half a block away. Did his troubled mind perceive Leon as someone he knew, an enemy? In the next block I stole glances over my shoulder. The man was still there and he seemed to be moving closer. What would we do if he caught up to us? I saw no policemen. We crossed a busy street and I turned again. The man was gone.
        As a former social worker, I empathized with someone who clearly needed help. But my heart banged in my chest as I imagined what would have happened if he had carried a weapon and followed through with his threat.
        My mother’s words rang in my ears: “You have to be careful in Hungary.” Before we left on our trip, she had told me about a family friend who, on a visit a few years earlier, became acquainted with a friendly Hungarian couple, only to have them drive him to a deserted field and rob him of all his possessions, including the clothes on his back. “And don’t forget what happened to Edit,” she added. My father’s cousin from Austria had left her locked car in the gated courtyard of a friend’s house in Hungary while they had lunch. She went out afterward to find the car emptied of its contents and stripped of its parts.
        Had my mother been trying to dissuade me from going to Hungary altogether? I wasn’t sure. As someone who speaks as directly as possible, I was often mystified by the nuances and innuendos of her communication with me—at least partly a reflection of the Hungarian tendency to approach topics sideways, rather than head-on. I knew her distrust of Hungary, even after the fall of Communism, ran deep. She had seemed less interested in our travel plans than my father. Had she been worried only about our physical safety, as on our previous European trips? Or was she concerned about the potential repercussions of my reopening wounds once raw from loss? The loss of the factory. The loss of country. The loss of social status and financial security. After managing a hundred people at the Reich Gépgyár as my grandfather’s deputy, my father struggled to adjust to a succession of machinist jobs in Billings. My mother cleaned the houses of the Kings and the Doyles and the Fanshawes to make ends meet. It wasn’t the life they had envisioned when they married less than a year before our escape, that life in Billings, a remote town not always friendly to refugees from a country on the losing side of World War II.
        In the end, my mother’s intent didn’t matter. Headstrong like she is, I was determined to go. So there we were in Budapest, shaken by an encounter that could have resulted in far graver consequences than any she had mentioned. I resolved to take her warning more seriously.
        The encounter with the man gave me a taste of the fear she and my father must have felt when they were stalked by the ÁVO, the secret police force the Communists established to crush any dissent and ensure their control of the country. With the seizure of his family’s factory, my father became an enemy of the state. Whenever he and my mother went out to dinner, an officer materialized at a nearby table and scrutinized their every move. A car that resembled a Red Cross vehicle, but was known to belong to the ÁVO, parked in front of their house on several occasions. The ÁVO’s intimidation was more subtle than that of a deranged man in rags muttering threats on the street. Instead of minutes, it lasted for weeks, keeping my parents off-balance as they agonized whether to try to escape and trembled at the prospect of a knock on the door in the middle of the night. Traces of those long-ago anxieties no doubt lingered in my mother’s warning.
        Budapest’s kaleidoscope of sights and sounds and experiences eventually relegated the frightening incident to the backs of our minds, and we resumed our avid sightseeing. One day on Castle Hill, between the ornate Matthias Church, bastion of Hungarian Catholicism, and the Royal Palace, we encountered a row of twenty flagpoles, each displaying a Hungarian flag. I felt a sudden surge of pride at the profusion of horizontal bands of red, white, and green, most familiar to me from the flags that had decorated the tables at a Hungarian Independence Day celebration in Billings when I was ten years old. Still longing for their homeland behind the Iron Curtain, my parents and their handful of Hungarian refugee friends marked this national holiday honoring the freedom fighters of the failed 1848 Revolution against Austria with a gathering focused on their hopes for the future, their children. Each of us sang or recited a poem. Clad in a traditional costume sewed by my mother, I recited Pohárnok Jenő’s “Magyar Vagyok” (“I’m Hungarian”). But I had no idea then what being Hungarian actually meant.
        Later, after touring the Hungarian National Gallery in the Royal Palace, we emerged into a courtyard with beds of red and yellow begonias high above the Danube. To one side was a large gathering of men in business suits and women in cocktail dresses, talking and laughing, holding drinks, and smoking cigarettes. Serving them were two young women with long blonde hair wearing traditional Hungarian costumes.
        “Those outfits are just like the one Mom made for me!” I exclaimed to Leon. White organdy dresses with full skirts trimmed in red, white, and green ribbon; red velvet vests and headdresses trimmed with loops of gold braid. Only the women’s matching red boots set their costumes apart from mine; I’d had to settle for white flats and ankle socks.
        “Do you want me to see if they’ll let me take a picture of them?” Leon asked me.
        I stared at the women, mesmerized, as though seeing an earlier incarnation of myself. “No,” I answered, suddenly shy. I hesitated to crash the party, to risk that his request might be rejected.
        At the same time, I was amazed that, so far away in Billings, my mother had reproduced the costume down to the smallest twist of gold braid. Perhaps she remembered a costume she had worn as a child. Or perhaps she drew on the collective memories of my Nagymama and Aunt Évi and other refugee wives to figure out the details. After long hours cleaning other people’s houses, how had she summoned the energy to sew the costume in the evenings on her antique Singer treadle sewing machine? Perhaps creating the costume transported her from being a refugee cleaning lady back to her carefree days as a member of a prominent, wealthy Szombathely family, eagerly planning the house her father-in-law had promised to build for her and my father—a life she missed more than she cared to admit. No doubt she also hoped to teach me about my heritage and instill pride in me for my homeland. Then, all I cared about was being swathed in crisp white organdy and soft red velvet. Now, I was finally ready to learn the lessons she had been trying to teach me and to establish my own ties to Hungary.
        One night after a dinner at the Uj Sipós Halászkert, a fish restaurant in Óbuda, several miles north of where we were staying, a promised ride back to our hotel fell through. Leon and I found ourselves on a street in an unfamiliar neighborhood at 10:40, waiting for the last bus of the evening before service ended at 11:00. Streetlights cast thin light partially blocked by trees. Traffic on the four-lane road next to us had dwindled to an occasional car whose headlights flashed on the surroundings before rushing past. Behind us yawned a park-like area in complete darkness. A line of taxis waited for fares nearby, but our guidebook had been emphatic about the dangers of taking a cab on the street rather that one we had called. This time, I was in no mood to ignore its advice.
        Scattered on the sidewalk around us were three or four young men in jeans, their faces indistinct in the dim light. Each seemed to be alone. But I remembered the mentally ill man and my mother’s warning. Would they suddenly converge into a group and try to rob us, a middle-aged couple speaking English?
        “I hope the bus comes soon,” I whispered to Leon, shivering. The temperature had cooled from the warmth of the day, and I had no jacket to wear over my knit top.
        “It will,” he said, ever the optimist. He wrapped an arm around me try to warm me up, and I leaned against him. I tried not to think of what would happen if the bus didn’t come—of our being stranded and walking for hours, searching for our hotel in a maze of dark streets, with danger, real or imagined, lurking.
        We had no tickets, since they needed to be purchased in advance at a bus station. Budapest buses don’t accept cash, no doubt to discourage robbery. I didn’t know the penalty for riding without a ticket, but I imagined the driver accosting us and somehow discerning that we were foreigners. He would demand to see our passports. When he saw that I was born in Hungary, what would he do? I remembered the expressionless passport officer at the airport. Did the government keep track of people who had escaped from Hungary? Was there a file on my family in some ministry, ready to be activated at my first misstep? Part of me sensed I was overreacting, but at least some of my parents’ anti-Communist fervor had rubbed off on me. Who knew what vestiges of that authoritarian philosophy lingered in the current government?
        The bus arrived moments before 11:00. Leon and I boarded with several other people through the rear door. Seated in a semi-enclosure in front, the driver seemed oblivious to us. We chose seats as far back as possible in the brightly lit coach to avoid attracting his attention for the rest of the trip. The bus started to move, and I pressed my forehead against the window, as though by doing so, I could remove myself from a situation I found intensely uncomfortable. I prefer to play by the rules, not defy them. We passed through dark, deserted streets. Shadowy buildings and trees were silhouetted against a cloudy, moonless sky. A dreamlike setting, stripped of any sense of time and place.
        Into that void drifted the image of my mother, just twenty-four years old, clutching me during our escape. She, too, had boarded a bus under false pretenses. By then we were in Austria, smuggled across the border for a hefty fee by a duplicitous army sergeant. He had taken my father and Judy the day before to avoid the suspicion a larger group would arouse, and they awaited us in a relative’s home. But my mother and I were still in danger. To reach our final destination, Rohrbach an der Lafnitz in the British sector of Allied-occupied Austria, we needed to cross the zone controlled by the same Soviets behind the Communist takeover of Hungary. Soviet soldiers blanketed the area and actively hunted Hungarian escapees. They sent any they caught back to the ÁVO. My mother had no false identity papers to conceal that we were among their targets.
        She was startled when the young man she met soon after the sergeant had left us asked her if we had just crossed the border. He was speaking Hungarian in German-speaking Austria, and she worried that he might be a spy bent on catching escapees. What if she hadn’t decided to trust him, to accept his help? What if she hadn’t succeeded in playing her part of his ruse to elude the Soviet officers checking the identity papers of every adult boarding the bus we needed to take to be reunited with my father and sister? We would have been caught and sent back to Hungary. She might have ended up in an unmarked grave, or she might have been broken by years in prison. I might have been adopted by strangers and grown up under Communism. My mother’s bravery awes me. I am forever in her debt. Could I have done what she did?
        After fifteen or twenty minutes, our bus turned onto the boulevard overlooking the Danube, with its reassuring sight of the Parliament building across the river in Pest. “Batthyányi tér,” the driver soon called, referring to a familiar square and transportation hub a few blocks from our hotel.
        “Let’s get off here,” I whispered to Leon. We didn’t know where the next stop was, and I didn’t want to defraud the Budapest transit system any longer than necessary.
        We strolled down the street and passed shuttered shops, restaurants filled with loud voices and laughter, an occasional couple walking arm in arm. Soon we were back at the Victoria. Leon pushed open the door. We passed from midnight darkness into warmth, safety, light.