A journal of narrative writing.
Christmas ’56

As we came around the corner, I felt my father’s hand suddenly tighten around mine. We had been walking up a narrow cobble-stoned laneway, and had emerged into an open square, a small urban park. There was a rectangular walk around the perimeter, lined with small beige pebbles, and concrete benches at intervals along the path.

The square was empty, as was much of Budapest during those days. It is still a wonder to me that my father, who always seemed so cautious, would have taken us out under such conditions. But, I suppose that he was almost as restless as we were, after being cooped up in our small apartment for almost a week, as Russian tanks rumbled down the streets, and we listened to the distant sounds of occasional small arms fire from the sparse resistance.

Miki, my five-year-old brother, staged marathon battles with his toy soldiers on the floor of our shared bedroom, and my parents huddled in their room, talking endlessly in low tones. At the age of eight, I was much too sophisticated to play with my brother. I had also grown weary of my dolls; Erika, a painted cloth creation who had been my companion as long as I could remember, and Zsuzsi, who had blond hair, and eyes that closed, though they sometimes got stuck.

When my father told us to put on our coats, we could hardly believe that we were finally able to leave the cramped apartment. My mother emerged from the bedroom, and I could see she had been crying again. She wore a faded blue satin housecoat with large yellow roses.

“Come on, Mom! Get dressed. Can we look for Christmas presents?”

“You go with your father, sweetheart. I can’t come,” she said, as she buttoned up Miki’s coat.

I had learned that it was useless to try to convince her. The behaviour of adults was governed by impenetrable laws, and it was better to just accept their mysterious ways.

Perhaps it was better that my mother had not been there when we got to the park. She was already upset most of the time.

Though my father gripped my hand so hard it was almost painful, Miki somehow managed to extricate himself from his grasp and ran ahead into the square.

Near each bench was a wrought iron lamp post, painted a dull green. Miki was running toward the nearest one of these, as my father stood frozen. There was a figure hanging by a rope from the cross-bar. Miki pushed at the feet, which were a meter off the ground, and the figure started to swing gently. He was wearing the gray uniform of the AVO, the dreaded Hungarian secret police.

“Miki, come here,” my father shouted, at the same time dragging me forward.

Miki ignored him, of course, and pushed again at the feet, which were now describing a larger arc. I looked up. The face was dark, distorted, inhuman, and the neck seemed unnaturally long. The trousers seemed too short, exposing a large patch of white skin above the drooping gray socks. There were round burn marks on the skin, black and red.

My father grabbed Miki by the hand, and rapidly dragged us out of the park. We hurried down a broad boulevard where the wintry breeze swept scraps of trash along the sidewalk. I saw a few people, walking swiftly, huddled into the collars of their thin cloth coats. Everyone was strangely silent, glancing about furtively, as if seeing the city for the first time. We walked past shuttered store fronts, and ahead we could see a knot of people blocking our way.

As we approached, I noticed broken bricks and cement rubble spilling across the wide sidewalk and right out into the street. To get around, we walked onto the pavement, and stopped at the back of the gathering. They were all staring at the building. Or rather, what remained of what had been a large four story apartment house. The whole façade was gone, exposing the honeycomb of room walls inside. It reminded me of those dollhouses I had seen in a toy store, where you could take off the front and move the furniture around in each room. Except that here, the floors were all sagging, and many walls were at crazy angles.

I heard snatches of conversation among the spectators. I noticed that each speaker would keep glancing over his shoulder, fear stamped on his features.

A man with a pointed nose, huddling in his worn gray tweed coat said, “There were people from the Revolution in the building.”

A young woman with angry eyes contradicted him, “Kids. Throwing stones.”

The man turned away, ignoring her.

“Let’s go home,” my father said, and dragged us down the street.

“But what about the toy store? You promised,” wailed Miki. My father clenched his jaw, and did not respond. The wind slapped his thin trench coat against his legs, and tousled his longish hair. He was only thirty-five, but already gray.

We hurried home. Along the way, we passed two more apartment buildings that the Russian tanks had destroyed, but we did not stop. One of them was all black, where a fire had once raged. Miki cried all the way home, complaining that he wanted to go to the toy store.

When we arrived home, my mother was on the phone, and she was sobbing. As we entered, she said, “I have to go!” into the mouthpiece, and hung up. My father looked at her. She avoided his eyes. Miki ran to her, and complained about the toy store.

“It’s okay, darling, we’ll go later,” she said, squatting as she embraced him, surreptitiously wiping her eyes on the sleeve of her housecoat.

“It’s worse than I thought,” my father said to her. She looked up, and now there was fear on her face. She had very white skin, and straight dark hair that fell to her shoulders. She was twenty-seven, but looked much younger.

They went into their bedroom, closing the door. This time, I heard my father raise his voice, but I couldn’t hear what he said.

Miki asked, “Do you want to play with my soldiers?” I felt sorry for him, so I agreed.

Later that day, I could hear shouting in the apartments below us. Then someone was banging on our door, and my father went to answer it. I couldn’t see who it was, because my father only opened the door a crack. They talked briefly, and then my father closed the door. With rapid steps he came into our room, and pulled aside the heavy blackout curtains from the windows which ran across the width of our room. Across the street, in the weed-covered vacant lot, two Russian tanks were moving into position, their turrets swinging until they came to rest with the long barrels pointing directly at us. A squad of soldiers was massed behind them.

It all looked so incongruous. Only a few months before, some gypsies had set up their colourful tent and a battered merry-go-round in the same lot, and Miki and I had taken our pennies down for endless rides on the old contraption with its painted horses and flashing mirrors. Now there were soldiers, their black boots trampling the dusty weeds.

My father immediately pulled the curtain shut. He chased Miki and me into the parlour. We sat quietly on the bench next to the large ceramic fireplace which heated the apartment. It occupied one whole corner of the parlour, the yellow tiles reaching all the way to the ceiling. There was a small black metal door on the front, where we fed coal into it. I leaned my back against the warm tiles, letting the warmth seep into my body.

We heard my parents working in our room, and when they finally allowed us to look, I was amazed to see that the long book shelves which had run along one wall had been moved against the windows. They then moved several cabinets from the parlour against the bookshelves.

My father’s face was deathly white, and sweat plastered his hair to his temples.

“Get dressed,” he said to my mother, who was still in her housecoat. His voice was surprisingly gruff. She disappeared into the bedroom, and my father took us to the kitchen, which was the farthest from the front of the apartment. My mother soon came in, wearing a skirt and cardigan, and we sat around the little table. Miki seemed to sense something big was going on, because for once he wasn’t whining.

My father got up, and made some sandwiches for us. I picked at mine, and my mother just stared at hers. Miki was the only one who ate.

Suddenly, there was loud banging on the front door, and shouts to open up. My father stood up, but my mother grabbed him, and forced him into a small broom closet. He resisted for a moment, then changed his mind. She told us to stay put, and went to the front door.

She had shut the kitchen door, but I opened it a crack, looking down the narrow hallway. In the small foyer, there were three soldiers in Russian uniforms, holding sub-machine guns. A fourth soldier, older, in Hungarian uniform, was questioning my mother, while the others, shouting in Russian, headed toward the front, searching the bedrooms. They soon returned, and were coming toward me. I was about to shut the door, but my father pulled it from my grasp and opened the door wide. I had not noticed that he had left his hiding place. He moved in front of me, blocking the soldiers. One of them shoved his gun into my father’s belly, but he didn’t move. The Hungarian soldier, noticing my father, pushed the Russian out of the way.

“Identification,” he said curtly. My father pulled a booklet with red cover from inside his jacket. The soldier opened it, looked at it, and looked at my father.

“Why aren’t you at the Ministry?” he asked. My father did not answer.

“I think you should come to headquarters with me,” the soldier said.

“I won’t leave my family.”

“I’ll keep this. You can pick it up at headquarters.” He pocketed my father’s papers, and then stared at my father for some moments. Shaking his head, he turned on his heels. He waved to the Russians, and they all left.