Excerpt From The Award Winning Memoir
THE PRICE OF FREEDOM
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Years of Terror
THE PRICE OF FREEDOM
A sparrow lost in winter's night
Is tempted by our window's light.
She flutters at the windowpane
Her struggles futile, so in vain.
I open now the window wide
Inviting her to come inside.
Her instinct fears captivity
And she declines security.
Next morning 'neath the window frame
She lies there frozen, free from pain.
She never knew a compromise,
And freedom asks a sacrifice.
Budapest, Hungary 1951
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 out spoken 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."
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.
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 "dare devils." 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....
As my father had been promoted to the position of Chief of Police in another city, Misa and I were separated for several years. Now, our family was back for a vacation in Oroshaza and I was preparing for entrance examinations to the prestigious Academy of Ludovica, a Military College. Proficiency in descriptive geometry was a requirement, which, unfortunately, was missing from my High School curricula. Misa, by then a first year engineering student at the University of Technology in Budapest, offered to coach me in that subject. Misa had a tendency to show off. When I was eight and he was nine he had occasion to enlighten my ignorance in the mystery of birth. Under the seal of secrecy he told me that babies came into this world through their mother's belly buttons. Being a year older, he let me feel the force of his superiority.
Now in the summer of 1939, we took a break from his first lecture in geometry to relax in the garden of the villa, under the shade of the gazebo. Then Misa surprised me with a question.
"Do you hate Jews?"
"Why should I?" I answered his question with a question. "I had quite a few Jewish schoolmates in Ujhely. They were fine people."
Ujhely was the city where I had graduated, a border town divided by a creek into Czech and Hungarian territory. It was one of those towns on the eastern border of Hungary where the Jews, fleeing from the pogroms of Czarist Russia, found refuge. Many settled there so the city had a sizable Jewish population. My father was the Police Chief of Ujhely, a position that required great tact and a certain sense of diplomacy.
"Because the Jews are parasites," he said, answering his own question. He sensed my astonishment yet he continued. "I'm a member of the Arrow-Cross Party." Sensing my disbelief that he would be a member of the Hungarian Nazi Party, he turned the lapel of his jacket to show me the infamous emblem of that party.
As I was an only child, by the time I entered high school my father had begun to treat me as an adult. Occasionally he would invite me to his den and we would have a man-to-man talk. Father would raise different topics aimed at introducing me to the problems of the adult world. Certain ethical norms, financial questions, and politics were discussed. Also, we talked at length about the injustices of the Trianon Treaty, which severed the ties of more than four million Hungarians from their mother country. He would also talk about the dangers of Communism.
"The Communists, in their bid for power, are using the base instincts of man. There are injustices in this world, but to eliminate them the Communists court the weaknesses of the mob, greed, revenge and envy, in order to gain its support. For them the end justifies the means. They disguise their dictatorship of the proletariat as democracy. It's unfortunate that some intellectuals believe that Communism is the antidote of Nazism. Do you remember the closing prayer at the end of the mass in our Church? Recite it!"
"God save our country from the ever growing danger of atheism and from the new paganism which is endangering our nation." I knew it by heart, since we parroted the words after each mass, without paying much attention to their meaning.
"Beware both dangers, my son. The Communists are atheists and the new pagans are the Nazis."
My father's idol was Count Paul Teleki, the tragic Prime Minister of Hungary. When Germany tried to force him to break the treaty with Yugoslavia, to which he was a signatory, he committed suicide rather than give in to the will of the Germans. Winston Churchill had promised to remember him at the peace conference after the war, as the symbol of Hungary's resistance to the German demand. His promise was forgotten after the Yalta Conference. Since Teleki's policy was to oppose Nazism, the Germans believed that all who supported him were automatically against Nazism.
As I grew older and became a candidate for the military academy, I once expressed to my father my immature admiration for the success of the German "blitzkrieg." My father was standing with his back to me at the picture window of his study, staring across the Danube River. The golden hue of autumn illuminated the room. On his large desk, everything was in meticulous order. The book cabinet full of books, paintings on the wall, some family portraits, my mother's indoor plants, all inspired an atmosphere of comfort and security. After he listened to my childish opinions, my father turned to me. His expression was calm, but his warning was stern: "Those Nazis, and their Hungarian lackeys, the Arrow-Cross, are nothing but servants of hatred. God forbid if they ever gain power in Hungary! We, the Police, are currently trying to check their unlawful drive for power. Their leader, Szalasi, is incarcerated for illegal activities, despite German protest. Pray my son, that they never win the upper hand. That would be the end of Hungary as we know it...."
That was my understanding of the Arrow-Cross. Since I had absolute confidence in my father's judgment, Misa's attitude astonished me.
"Misa, you must be kidding." A slight narrowing of his eyes and the tension on his face cautioned me to become diplomatic with my answer. "But, you're free to do as you like. You can join whatever party you please. Not me. Since the army has to be above politics and I aspire to be an officer, I must not be involved in politics. Actually, I'm not even interested in politics."
"That's a cop-out," he replied, venomously. "The Military College is an institution where stupid army brats are learning to be efficient killers. I can assure you, Alex, you will never fit in. You're just not the type."
I wasn't in the mood to pick a fight with him, but his bitterness surprised me. Years later, after my release from captivity, I mentioned this episode to Zoli, the third member of our triumvirate. He lost contact with Misa after the war but he followed his skyrocketing career as he rode the crest of Communist power. Zoli told me that in 1939, Misa learned that his grandparents were Jews. That was a great shock to him. In my naiveté, it never occurred to me that his question regarding my opinion of Jews was intended to provoke me. His bitterness had undermined his once unconditional trust in me. He had probably lost trust in everyone! Was he really testing me? It was possible. Suspicion, fanned by Nazi propaganda, managed to drive wedges between Jews and non-Jews and alienated even childhood friends. That summer of 1939 was the last time I saw Misa. When I was released from the AVO prison, he was already a prominent member of the Communist Party. He remains an enigma to me...
"The Holoskoys left their Persian rugs in the care of the Banhidys," continues Mimi. "We need to distribute the paintings and the silver among our friends."
"Yes... Yes..." Her words barely register with me. I hear the mangy cur of fear yapping at my heels and I don't know if I still have the strength to turn and confront it once again. I'm no longer the twenty-one year old newly commissioned Lieutenant with whom she fell in love; nor the young officer who hid his shyness by strutting about like a peacock and flashing his glittering epaulets to impress the young ladies. And she is no longer the chestnut-haired, eighteen-year old school girl from Transylvania.
Where will I find the strength to start a new life if we are deported? We have barely settled into this life, yet the Marxist regime is envious of even this tiny bit of happiness. The destination of the deportees is unknown. Are they being transported to camps in the Soviets? And what about Mimi? She could never survive a harsh camp life! How can I save her? She's been a faithful wife, waiting years for my return, and I have no right to drag her into the abyss of my uncertain future. Yet she is my strength. She gave me the will to survive my imprisonment.
I reach a painful decision; for her sake, I must divorce her and free her from my harsh destiny. It's the honorable thing to do and the only escape for her. I have no right to cling to her and destroy her freedom.
"Look my dear, it would be immoral to force you to share my possible deportation just because you're my wife. Why should you be deported with me? I must divorce you."
Her beautiful eyes, so expressive, peer into mine. She knows there is no way back to her parent's home in Transylvania, now a part of Rumania. The historic animosity that exists between Hungary and Rumania is stronger than the alliance enforced on them by the Soviets. History and blood run deeper than ideology and politics.
"Please, don't misunderstand me. I love you..." I stammer. "It would only be a formality. Just to protect you..."
She gives me a loving smile. Despite the gravity of the situation, she's enjoying my childish gallantry. She listens patiently to my chivalric nonsense.
"My dear, you know as well as I that the government doesn't recognize "ad hoc" divorces. Couples divorced years ago are still deported as married couples. I understand your motive, and I thank you, but now we have to think practically."
Our desperate dialogue is interrupted by a carefree song coming from the deck of an excursion ship on the Danube. A group of young people is returning from a cruise and the evening breeze carries the harsh, distorted sound of a popular song of the day to the riverside walkway where we stand.
"Moscow, oh Moscow! Most brilliant diamond of dreams..."
The tune is off-key and the lyrics are false, as false as the gay atmosphere. Our whole existence is permeated with lies. Newspapers, posters, statues, banners, slogans--all are false. Everybody knows it, even those in charge, but we're forced by fear to fake contentment. The official greeting is "Freedom!" the most painfully missed essence of our life. Life under the new regime is frightening, just like it was in Nazi times. The similarity is too disturbing.
We link our hands and continue our stroll along the river walk, taking comfort from each other's presence. I glance at my wife who walks so confidently beside me, and I am overcome with a wave of love so deep that I am able to believe, for the present, that its power alone will be able to keep us together.
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