Question: “In 1956, who awaited Father Christmas most eagerly?”
Answer: “Comrade Stalin. He already put his boots out in October.”
Budapest joke, 1956
The state police came for Great Granddad only in April, and just when he’d made such a nice adjustment to the people’s republic and its tattered legitimacy! He rose at five, went to work by six, didn’t shoot his mouth off, and didn’t read the papers. His lifestyle reminded him of the First World War and his innocent, youthful years, and the long-familiar routine of work-dinner-sleep made his head buzz pleasantly. He even arranged for his son’s family to move in with him. His son Gyuszi must have made up his mind, possibly while he was still back in the Soviet Union, that nothing would come between him and his good cheer. Certainly, in 1957 no one except for him would have thought that it was worth fathering a child for this valley of tears, but Gyuszi did, because his wife Eta was expecting their third child.
Which is how she opened the door for the secret police—with a bulging belly. Pinning her hopes on the universal solidarity toward expectant mothers, she was just explaining to them that her father-in-law was not to be found at home, when Great-Granddad appeared behind her.
“Have you come for me, gentlemen?”
Somewhere in the back of his mind he’d been expecting them. After all, when they take down your particulars and enter them in the police records, it’s bound to give them ideas—unless, of course, someone should see fit to “misplace” them.
So it’s off to jail, Great-Granddad announced as he headed for the linen closet for clean underwear. Now that his daughter-in-law was doing the wash for him, he had plenty of clean underwear. He packed his rucksack with the old familiar routine and the unmistakable sense of relief that comes when your worst fears are realized. He felt this way every time—for instance, when the three children stuffed themselves full of sweets on Christmas Day, gobbling down the after-supper dessert, the fancy candy off the tree and the neatly sliced Christmas cake, too, then went dashing up and down the hall, screaming and yelling, their patent leather shoes echoing in a different part of the apartment every moment.
“Take care, or you’ll be sorry,” Great-Grandmother warned, wagging a finger. Nobody listened. Why would this stop a child? And before long, one of the three suffered a bleeding head, Grandmother’s string of real pearls was torn, and the bright sky of a much-awaited winter vacation was eclipsed by a physician’s visit, overcast by a sickbed and strict house arrest.
Should the protesting criminal masses that had gathered on Heroes Square on October 23, 1956 have been warned, “Hungarians! Don’t stuff yourself with the Christmas cake of freedom, or you’ll be sorry”? Anyone saying something like this would have found themselves on the wrong side of the law before they knew what had hit them.
“For once I’m happy, and you go spoil it,” Sanyika howled when Great-Grandmother told him that he could now consider Christmas over and done with, and that a surgeon would have to stitch up his head.
In October, too, Great-Granddad knew that he’d be sorry, but he just couldn’t curb that unruly revolutionary spirit of his. After five a neighbor from the building came back from Kossuth Square for a flag, which is how Great-Granddad learned that the people of Budapest were now headed for Heroes Square. There was no time to lose. They cut the coat of arms out of the flag on the run. Great-Grandad lent a hand. He stretched the material so the knife could slide through it more easily. And once there, he ate roasted chestnuts out of his pocket. He stood a bit off to the side, as if he were not part of the crowd. But there were too many people standing around for him to pretend he had nothing to do with them. It’s not such a big square as all that. Hungary has no big squares.
“Freedom for the people,” Great-Granddad shouted suddenly, absolutely without thinking.
“What’re you shouting for, old man?” a man in a cloth cap turned on him. “You’re splitting my eardrums.”
“Old people want democracy, too,” Great-Granddad said humbly as he prodded a roasted chestnut free off of the roof of his mouth with his tongue.
“So do we all. That’s why we’re here. But you’ve had your democracy, so stop shouting.”
He’s a filthy provocateur, Great-Granddad thought, but turned to the younger man amicably just the same.
“Are you referring to Horthy’s dictatorship? Don’t make me laugh! That’s when I was young, that’s when I got married, that’s when my children were born, and I felt fine, all told. But we all knew that we were living in a regime that was rotten to the core. Now we’re facing even more difficult times, but we can do so honorably, and of our own free will.”
“What’re you talking about? We’re here to bring down Stalin’s statue, or haven’t you heard?”
“Indeed? That’s good, then, because I’m here for the same thing,” Great-Granddad said, then softly but clearly shouted, “Abzug, Stalin!” and for a moment he felt once again like a school boy during the Monarchy, and would have liked nothing better than to head for Gizella Square to buy some Kugler pastry. But just then the crowd around him resumed their roaring, urging on the men busy bringing down the statue. Great-Granddad’s head was in a whirl, for clear as day, he could see the great Napoleon Bonaparte sticking his head out from behind the gray clouds.
“Hungarians!” he holds forth, his pronunciation impeccable as he surveys the crowd. Great-Granddad looks back at him, his face beaming with enthusiasm.
“Hungarians! The time is here for you to win back your lost freedom!”
Actually, that’s not how; he said it in a more old-fashioned way, like this:
“Magyars! The time hath come for you to wrest back your long-lost liberty!”
Then he added, “My troops are gathered for deployment just outside of Győr, as I have a score to settle with the Russians.”
“This is a bloodless revolution. Still, long live Napoleon! If we need help, we’ll let you know,” Great-Granddad said smiling affectionately at the Emperor.
They’d wound a rope around Stalin’s leg by then, though the crowd knew that this would not do the trick. In those days they didn’t skimp on high-grade iron. Meanwhile, Great-Granddad scanned the crowd for familiar faces, though not like the others, so that when the froth had settled and it was denunciation time, they’d have a story or two up their sleeve. No. He was simply curious to know what people who’d had the red star stuck to their foreheads so fast you couldn’t have removed it without ripping their heads off into the bargain were now thinking.
And he instantly spotted Józsi two rows up, a bit to the left. You could tell by his huge head fattened on Party benefits that he wasn’t building socialism with his own two hands. But on that particular day he was dressed like the simple folk. There was a man in a black coat standing next to him, his driver, probably, because his demeanor and gestures betrayed no emotion, personal or otherwise. Józsi spotted Great-Granddad, too, and after motioning to the driver, quickly elbowed his way to his old comrade.
“Who knows what tomorrow will bring. We may have to die for the cause,” he said by way of a friendly greeting.
“And when we haven’t even lived yet,” Great-Granddad replied as courteous as could be.
Were it not for the memory of the political mud wrestling in ’45, and if the crowd weren’t just bringing down Stalin’s statue, they would have even exchanged a knowing laugh. But they were both nervous. Their paths hadn’t crossed since ’45. Back then, had Józsi wanted to, he’d have returned with a Soviet battalion in half an hour and had Great-Granddad shot through like a sieve, without consequences. But then he must’ve realized that with the siege over, he could no longer do it without consequences. And when he could have done it again, again without consequences, he couldn’t find Great-Granddad in the old apartment, just the Okolicsányi family. Besides, so much of his time was taken up with organizing and running the communist police that something as trivial as having an old friend and comrade shot was not worth the bother of finding him.
Now Józsi took Great-Granddad into his confidence as if nothing had happened. He grabbed him by the shoulder and whispered in his ear, “Now that this business has gone sour, one’s tempted to question Comrade Rákosi’s words of wisdom. Still, there’s some truth in the fact that it’s no hayride, building socialism with nine million fascists. Just look around you!”
Then, by way of camouflage, he bellowed, “Bring it down!”
“If it were indeed the case that Comrade Rákosi had to make do with nine million fascists,” Great-Granddad countered, “he wouldn’t have retained his health quite so well, and he wouldn’t be in the Soviet Union now, being treated for simple hypertension, I assure you. They’d have put him through the grinder, then flung him to the dogs, like he did his comrades. The truth, alas, is that he had to make do with nine million Magyars trembling for their lives . . .”
“Freedom for the people! Down with the Soviet yoke!” shrieked Józsi, then lowering his voice to an angry whisper, he leaned into Great-Granddad’s ear:
“I always knew you were an inveterate clerical. But that you’re a nationalist as well?”
“The Soviet Union taught me that there’s no true friendship between a small nation and a world power, just as there’s no true friendship between a man and a woman.”
“That’s true. The stronger dog gets to screw the weaker.”
“Beautifully put, Józsi, like our golden-tongued Lajos Kossuth. Why don’t you go to the base of the statue and make a speech. You cut a fine figure. You could become a politician in the new regime,” Great-Granddad said and, taking advantage of the surging motion of the crowd, beat a quick retreat.
Though Great-Granddad was elated to see the Hungarians stand up for themselves once again, he was dismayed that on such a memorable occasion Józsi should be the first person he met. He couldn’t understand what a political officer was doing on the street at a dangerous time like this. During the previous revolution, the people paid a house call to shoot Prime Minister Tisza through the heart. Of course, that was out of the question now, with Rákosi on vacation with the Soviets. No wonder. Still, back in 1918, the White Army officers were packing their trunks by this time to catch the Vienna Express, while this man here is in disguise, working the crowd, egging them on! Well, let him do as he pleases, Great-Granddad concluded, but we’re not going to flee arm in arm, not this time.
“Take care, or you’ll be sorry,” he said to himself, though it wasn’t even him crying now, but his daughter-in-law, so he went to the back room to comfort her. Gyuszi pulled a long face. You could tell that an “I told you so” was on the tip of his tongue, so Great-Granddad didn’t dare take his leave of him.
“An expectant woman mustn’t cry.”
“What, pray, is an expectant woman supposed to do?”
Women can tell if they’re not going to see you again. Men aren’t afraid of death until they see the People’s Tribunal verdict, typed in triplicate.
“God bless you, dear. I’ll be back before you know it.”
“Will you get a move on, old man,” the boys in uniform said.
“I must have really got on in years,” Great-Granddad reflected, shaking his head. What is the world coming to when even these young henchmen have lost respect?”
From Kommunista Monte Cristo, Terricum Kia. Copyright 2006 by Noémi Szécsi. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2010 by Judith Sollosy. All rights reserved.