Archive for the ‘war’ Category

Equus in Agrum Est…

April 7, 2008

What a sentence – “the horse is in the field.”

Does it imply a horse-inhabited landscape

of fields rolling,

pocked with wild-flowers, a crop,

as far as the eye can see?

Does it suggest a legion of soldiers

marching by with their kits,

a simple farm-boy among them

who gazes on the browsing horse

with longing for his homestead?

Does it foretell of a scene

where an unmanned horse nuzzles

fallen men, strewn in the casual,

splayed, abandon of the dead?

Does it intimate that a horse is

 a guileless companion to man,

a witness to all that takes place

in fields everywhere?

GM 2004

Leaving Stalin Utca…

June 23, 2007

Our building door closed behind us. There was little motion on the street. Few people were walking to work, the soldiers patrolling the tanks in front of the buildings walked up and down, stamping their feet in the cold skiff of snow. Apu took out his cigarette case, extricated a cigarette and lit it. He waved at the soldier directly in front of our building and said “Good Morning” in Russian.  “Cold today” greeted the soldier.  Apu offered him a cigarette and lit it for him.  They conversed briefly.  Ildiko  and I stood by Anyu, shuffling our feet, looking around at the familiar landmarks which we would never again see.  Apu ended his conversation, came over, kissed us all goodbye and waving, walked off in the direction of the ambulance station where our car was parked.  Anyu shepherded us in the opposite direction, her ususal route to go to the shops.

We went around the block, rejoined Apu at the ambulance station. On the brief walk there, I took in the grey sameness of the various buildings we passed, the warmly lit windows which signalled daily routines were taking place inside, the familiar skeletal trees lining the street. There was to be no more strolling, running or playing with friends on these streets for Ildiko, me and our friends. Anyu and Ildiko walked at a business-like pace, not saying anything, holding their private musings to themselves.  We rejoined Apu to find him tinkering under the hood of the DKW (Deutsche Kinder Wagon). The ambulance station attendant, smoking a cigarette, leaned on the car and conversed quietly with him. In between fiddling with bits of machinery, Apu told him that he was taking us to  line up at a shop near the clinic he was to visit first.  We piled into the car and drove off toward downtown.

After some time of driving roundabout to get back on the main road leading out of town, Apu drove west.  The pollarded trees lining the edges of the road were brushy sentinels, dark grey against the tarnished silver sky. The car took us through villages huddled close to the earth, past stubble fields, past stripped-bare orchards and lacy copses of woods. We were silent in the car, each of us immersed in our own thoughts. There were no other vehicles on the road except for ours. The engine sounds sputtered a rhythm that established a tempo for an internal symphony and I hummed quietly, elaborating the melody under my breath, all the while looking, looking, hungry, at the passing familiar world.

“Where are we going? asked Ildiko.  “To a village near Ferto To” replied Anyu, “north of Sopron”.  “Who are we staying with? For how long?” I queried.  “Only for five days” answered Apu.  I quietly chewed this over in my mind.  What was there for the two of us to do for five long days, in a village we had never been in before and with people who we didn’t know at all?

Soon Apu turned the DKW off the tar-mac main road onto a rutted dirt path.  The landscape had changed. There were no settlements, nor scattered villages to be seen, just lacy masses of woods interspersed with fallow fields.  Shortly, in the distance appeared a whitewashed mass of low buildings, huddled on the ground and punctuated in the middle by the spire of a church.  This place was where we were headed toward, an isolated country outpost.

Apu slowly drove into this village and stopped outside a small house from which extended a high whitewashed wall with a gate large enough to allow passage inside of a farm-wagon.  He left the car, casually sauntered up to the house’s front door and rapped on it. A grey-haired older man cracked open the door, poked his head outside, waved at Apu, then ducked back inside and closed the door. Apu stomped around on the stoop and waited. The man came out, all bundled up against the cold and motioned toward the gate in the wall.  Apu got back in the car and drove slowly toward the gate, which the man hastened to open, drove inside and announced, “Well, we have arrived.  You girls hurry out and into the house.  No one in the village must see you!” Anyu stepped out of the car and hurried us out.  The man had closed the gate behind the DKW, and we found ourselves in an enclosure containing a barn, a small yard and the side of the house where the door opened and an older woman waved us inside.

Ildiko walked ahead, quite grown-up and proper, and said a polite hello. I came up in next, clutching “War and Peace” to my side, under my coat.  Anyu bustled in and embraced the woman in greeting. We found ourselves in a kitchen similar to the one in grandmother’s village home, with a large, scarred table surrounded by simple wooden chairs and a big kandallo warming up the room. Anyu helped us out of our coats which then were hung on pegs on the wall.  The woman invited us to sit down at the table, and this we did, and then waited quietly for whatever was to happen next.

Apu and the man came inside, hung their coats up and sat with us at the table.  The woman brought us cups of warm milk in pottery mugs.  Apu began to give us our instructions on how we were to behave and spend our days. “You are not allowed to go outside at all, and when you are indoors must be behind curtains.  No one must know you are here. And you must listen and do as Mr and Mrs Ferenci tell you to do.” Mrs Ferenci took us into a small room where we were to stay most of the day, where we were to sleep. Then she showed us the outhouse, outside in the compound, near the kitchen door. If we needed to use this we had to do it quickly, with no lingering outside.  Our meals, we would take with the two of them in the kitchen.  Anyu reminded us that we had to be quiet and not cause problems for the Ferencis.

Anyu and Apu took their leave of us soon afterward.  The hug and kiss from them and reminders we would see them soon temporarily had to satisfy us both.  Anyu and Apu always kept their word; whenever they left us anywhere, we were certain to see them again as they promised.  This time would be the same as ever, they would come for us, I reasoned.  However, I was somewhat afraid that this time might be different, circumstances were more difficult and less predictable.  I grasped Ildiko’s hand and asked:

“Would you read to me from “War and Peace”? When you get tired of reading, I’ll take my turn.”

You can’t take it with you…

June 16, 2007

“Time to get up, girls!” called Anyu in a fake-cheery voice. I burrowed deeper under my blankets, hiding, wanting to remain warm. She was at the foot of our beds, chattering away like the little bird she was nick-named after – “Pintyoke”.  “We are going on a trip this morning!  You will find it an enjoyable change.  Come on, get dressed!” I could just make out Ildiko complaining, “But, it’s still dark out.” I hunkered down and pulled the edges of my blankets tight around me as Anyu struggled to extricate me from within. When she finally succeeded, I lay exposed and shivering in our darkened room.  Ildiko was sitting up, yawning and stretching in a showy, exaggerated, fashion. “Brrr, it’s freezing in here,” she whined. Anyu, businesslike, gathered our grey sweat-clothes, fresh socks from the bureau and extra sweaters. She began to dress Ildiko, who, compliant as ever, tolerated this babyish treatment. I just huddled in the middle of my mattress and watched, in disbelief.  Anyu approached me with a sweater and reached to undo the buttons on my pajama top. “Don’t do that!” I growled and scrambled back on the mattress so she couldn’t reach me, “I am ten years old, not a baby to be dressed up!” “Well, then, get going” came the order from Anyu, short and snappish. I sulked off to sit on the piano bench and got myself dressed. Anyu continued to “help” Ildiko continue dressing, and when finished,  left us.

Ildiko was still sleepy and uncommunicative, and I liked to pepper her with questions when she was like this. “What do you think is going on? Where do you think we are going today so early? Aren’t you at all a bit curious?” Not a morning person, she groaned, “Leave me alone. You’re such a pest. You will find out soon enough!” She shuffled out into the half-light of the salon, and reluctant, I followed in her wake.

Apu, bundled up in layers of sweaters and what he called his hunting pants, sat in front of the salon kandallo sipping ersatz coffee. He had on his long legs the shiny knee boots that he had taken from a dead German officer while serving as a field doctor on the Eastern Front during the last war. He looked quite jaunty, as if about to undertake one of our family excursions in the woods. I took this as a promising sign. Maybe we might visit some friends in a nearby village, which was always so much more exciting than hanging about the apartment or our neighbourhood.

Anyu had made cream of wheat for breakfast; as she served it up she mentioned that much-dreaded accompanyment to breakfast – “Take your spoonful of cod-liver oil before you start to eat.” Blech! What a torture, especially on a dark winter morning, I mused. Ildiko dutifully gulped down her spoonful and cast me a triumphant smile. Anyu was watching me, expectant. I stirred my cream of wheat, added a lot of sugar to it, moved it about some more, made patterns with my spoon on the top of the mush – anything to avoid that first slimy taste and fishy smell. “For heaven’s sake, just toss back the oil”, urged Anyu. I complied, and then hurried to spoon the sweetened mush into my mouth. Apu offered me a sip of his coffee.  It did not make for a better combination of flavours but the offer molllified me momentarily – coffee was only for adults in our home, and I finally got a sip!

Anyu was busying herself putting her winter trousers on top of her indoor pants, several sweaters and her walking shoes. She looked like a badly stuffed doll. She came to the table and sat, finishing her coffee.  Apu launched into an explanation for our early start to the day. “An AVO man, whose children I helped deliver, came very late last night to warn me that several of my friends were going to be arrested within the week, and then charged with treason.  He thinks I may be among that group and that I should make plans to leave the country. We cannot just pick up and go on a moments notice; there are things we must arrange.  So, Anyu and I are taking you girls to a village near Sopron for the week, while we organize things here for our final leaving.”

“Can we say good-bye to our friends before we leave? Can I see Tibi and Marta before we go?”  I asked. (Long time before, I had decided that I was going to marry Tibi when I grew up. It saddened me I would never see his expressive black eyes nor smooth his dark cow-lick down while teasing him. And where would I find a friend like Marta with whom to look at the maps and stamps and make up elaborate tales of what life in distant places might be like?) “Let’s take Karolyka with us” suggested Ildiko, “he is an only child and will be so lonely without us.”

“No,” said Apu, “we have decided to tell everyone that you two are quarantined here in the apartment with an infectious disease, are very ill and cannot be seen.  Anyu will carry on her daily duties and occupations, as if busy looking after you two.  I will carry on in surgery, clinics and hospitals as if life was normal, and make arrangements for our leaving during the evenings.” Anyu stood up, her face pale and fearful, and cleared the half empty breakfast dishes, her hands trembling.  “Go put on more sweaters and socks, and then get your coats on” she ordered in a tense, reedy voice, and hurried out to the kitchen.

Ildiko wandered back into our room, sat at her piano bench, opened up the piano and silently, absently, fondled its keys. I dug out my paper napkin collection and laid all the beautiful, ornate blocks of folded flimsy paper on my unmade mattress. Then I brought over the lovely Japonaiserie antique toiletry case that Grandmother had given me for my tenth birthday a mere three weeks ago, opened its doors, caught my reflection in the polished metal mirror, slid out one mother-of-pearl inlaid drawer and brought out the little wooden comb inside. “Come here” I called to Ildiko ” let me comb your hair and make you pretty for our trip”. Tears running down her face, she walked over and sat on the floor.  I slowly combed her blonde hair, pinned it back from her face. She stood up, retrieved her hairless teddy bear, and dandled it in her arms. She looked abandoned.

Anyu came into the room with our winter coats. ” Hurry, get these on! We have to leave right away!” she urged. I closed up the Japanese toilette box, collected the paper napkins and wrapped them in their newspaper package.  Holding the small bundle out to Anyu I begged, “Can I take these with me?” “No”, she said, “you can’t take it with you. Everything has to remain as if you girls were still here, in case anyone comes and inspects unexpectedly.” Ildiko placed her teddy bear on her mattress, put on her coat and walked out of the room to join Apu.  I started crying, but put my treasures back in their place and put on my coat.

In the salon, Apu held Anyu’s coat, Ildiko huddled against him.  I walked to the bookshelf and took out “War and Peace”.  “I want to take this to read, because wherever we are going Ildiko and I can take turns reading to each other to keep busy “. “You are too young to read this book” said Anyu, “put it back!” “But Anyu, I have read nearly a quarter of it already, and understand some of what is written in it, and Ildiko will like for me to start reading back at the beginning so she can enjoy it also,” I persisted. “Let her bring the book along, Rozsa” rumbled Apu, clearing his throat.  Anyu shrugged and put on her winter coat.

Bundled up, we walked out the apartment door.  Apu shut it with a firm click and locked it. Silent, we descended the several flights of stairs. On the level where Tibi and Marta lived I touched their doors as we passed.  On the first floor, Ildiko paused by the door to Karolyka’s apartment and cried quietly.  Apu put his arm around her and led her to the main door. Anyu grasped my elbow and escorted me after them. We walked out into a snowy, cinder-grey November morning.

The door closed behind us; it closed on friendships, familiarity, a certain security.  Ildiko and I never saw our friends and home again.

You are not at the Suez canal… Our river is the Raba…

June 14, 2007

I opened my eyes to a silvery light and burrowed down into the blankets with just the tip of my nose and my eyes exposed. Ildiko slept soundly on the part of the trundle bed under which fit my rolling mattress. My eyes slowly adjusted to the details of the room and I craned my neck to better see the shiny tiles on the kandallo, the ceramic clad fireplace, in the corner of our room. The white glazed tiles looked as cold as the room felt and I was reluctant to emerge from my warm cocoon.

What was going to happen today, I wondered? We didn’t have to go to school, it was temporarily suspended. Anyu might have to go to line up for buying meat, milk, rice or flour. Maybe she would take Ildiko and me along to wait at the shops, and we could help bring home provisions in the string bags she carried bunched up in her purse. Or, perhaps, she would let us go outside to play the stone-tossing game against the apartment walls, with Marta, Tibi  and Karolyka. I knew Laci, my violin tutor, was arriving in the early afternoon to monitor my practice session, and that Herr Kropatschek would make his appearance in the early evening for our German lesson. Life was certainly topsy-turvy, but Anyu made sure that not all of our routines were interrupted. Apu was keeping appointments in the surgery in our apartment, and would afterward go off to the hospital and the clinics around the city to do his doctoring.

As I lay pondering these possibilities it occurred to me that maybe today the Russian army might arrive.  I crept out of bed, wrapped in the top-most blanket,  shuffled to the window and looked down upon Stalin Utca. Skiffs of snow drifted about on the road and on the soccer/handball court across the street. And parked on the empty street were tanks, lined up end to end as far as I could see. These were a mossy gray colour, patrolled by one soldier per tank dressed in long khaki overcoats and fur-lined khaki shapkas. The soldiers carried strange-looking guns and walked back and forth along the length of each tank.

I shuffled back to the beds and shook Ildiko awake.  “Come and see all the Russian tanks outside!  They really did come!” She blinked, sleepy, stretched and muttered “Go away, leave me alone… you are making this all up!” I poked at her and insisted, ” Really, I have seen them from the window… come and see for yourself”.  Ildiko crawled out of bed, rubbed her eyes and slowly made her way to the window. When she saw the tanks she groaned, “Oh, no!…now what will we do?

I was excited and suggested that after breakfast we gather all of our friends and go visit the soldiers. ” We just have to find out where they came from, and see if they really are dangerous to us,” I announced, “and besides which none of us have seen tanks before. We need to take a good look at them.”

We washed up in the cold bathroom and dressed in our matching grey sweatsuits, our regular at-home winter wear.  Anyu had our usual breakfast of cream-of-wheat, sugar and milk ready for us in the dining room. As we ate, she told us that today she would go and line up to buy lentils and rice; she had heard a shipment had come in and she had to make sure to be able to get some for us to eat. “I want you girls to stay inside. The Russian tanks have arrived outside and it may not be safe for you to go out.” Ildiko said she would practice on the piano while Anyu went shopping. I mentioned that Marta wanted me to come downstairs and exchange stamps from our collections, but carefully left out any hint that I wanted to talk with the soldiers.

After Anyu left the apartment, Ildiko opened up the piano and set out her sheet music. She wound up her metronome. Before she began practice she turned to me and warned me, “You better not go outside. You will get into trouble if the soldiers don’t shoot you first.” I just shrugged, and ran off to the kitchen to prepare some slices of  lard bread with sugar sprinklings for the soldiers. Then I went to collect Tibi, Marta, and Karolyka and we trooped outside bearing the pile of lard bread.

We stood outside the apartment building door and fooled around kicking up snow. Slowly we approached the nearest tank, and studied it carefully.  It looked somewhat like a mechanical sow-bug, but one with a long gun protruding from its humped back, and was a dusty moss green. The soldier patrolling, holding his gun, watched us, curious. “Good morning, Comarade”, greeted Tibi in his best Hungarian/Russian. The soldier approached us and motioned us to back away from the tank. This we did. I held out the pile of lard bread toward him and asked if he would like a slice. He shook his head, “No.”

He appeared very young, about the same age as Laci, my violin tutor. Like a skinny teen-ager, he seemed. From under his sheep-skin lined shapka strands of pale blond hair escaped, his skin was very white and his long green eyes gazed at us. I sensed he was friendly and was not about to shoot at us, so I offered him the bread again.  He took a slice and ate it down in very few bites.  “Good!” he said, in Russian.

Marta asked him, ” Where is your family?” “Novosibirsk”, he replied.  “You are very far from home” I said. “Yes, The Suez Canal is a long distance from Novosibirsk. I am surprised you African children can speak Russian”, he responded.  This took us aback and we exchanged glances and began to confer in Hungarian. Karolyka decided that the fellow confused our river with the Suez Canal. Karolyka’s Russian was better that the rest of ours, mainly because he was in a higher grade and had longer time to learn it. He clarified for this soldier, “You are in Hungary, not near the Suez Canal and our river is the Raba.  We are not African kids, we are white skinned like you.”  “No, no,” insisted the soldier “This is Africa.  We were told that we were to be stationed at the Suez Canal”.

We didn’t feel like arguing with him, after all he had a gun and a tank. So we politely said our goodbyes and went back into our building. I could not figure out how a soldier might not know where exactly he was.  Karolyka said that the soldier was just stupid. Tibi, Marta and I climbed the stairs to our apartments, and on the way to our homes determined that adults lied, not only to children but to each other.  I found this difficult to grasp.

“It has nothing to do with me…”

June 13, 2007

The anticipated bombing had not happened, though we waited, fearful. Our only information came from the capital in daily radio announcements. Russian tanks had moved in on Budapest and the citzenry there were engaged in an unequal battle for control; the brief freedom, illusory, had not been bolstered by outsider Western powers. Once the balance of power shifted back to the communists and the Russians, it was only a matter of few days for the armies to complete the mopping up of pockets of resistance in the smaller towns and cities. Our town would fall the day after the capital was recaptured, so Apu (Father) explained to us girls.  We were to be well prepared for the restrictions imposed on our movements by martial law, and Apu detailed what form those restrictions would take.

So we listened to the radio as though to an augur which  would predict our immediate fate. On a dark November evening we gathered around the radio and listened to a report that Budapest had been recaptured by the Russian Army. Apu’s face darkened, he clamped his large hands together as if they were two halves of a vise. Anyu (Mother) sat, tense, rigid in the large green armchair; her knitting fingers, nervous and stiff, made staccatto movements. Ildiko, curled around Anyu’s side, leaned her sad face against Anyu’s sleeve and stroked her upper arm. I went to the window overlooking Stalin Utca and gazed at the delicate sprinkling of snow falling slowly in the halo of the streetlamp.

Apu fiddled with the radio settings to find the local station. An announcement, terse, repeated several times, stated that a rally would take place at 8 pm at the town hall.  Here decisions would be made as to how best respond, united, to the anticipated arrival of Russian troops the following morning.  All concerned citizens were to attend this important meeting.

Apu stood up and ordered, “We must all get ready and go!  Get your coats, boots, watchcaps and gloves on.  It will be a long, cold meeting.” Anyu placed her knitting down on her lap.  “Why do you have to go so early?  The rally doesn’t start until 8 o’clock.” she said. “Well, there are a lot of hot-headed people here who will agitate the crowd to violent resistance, which is useless and will get a lot of people killed.  Then the repercussions will be increased brutal treatment of town people. I need to talk with the more rational folks to prevent such thoughtless reactions on our part.” insisted Apu.

Ildiko and I scooted out to the foyer and began to put on our winter gear.  Apu came and put on his shapka, overcoat and gloves. We stood around warming up and waited for Anyu to arrive.  She did not come, and we waited for a longish time. Apu opened the door to the salon and called out, “Rozsa, we are dressed and ready.  Hurry up! The girls are getting hot in their outdoor clothes.” No reply, silence. “Rozsa, let’s get going, we are waiting! What are you up to?” he asked.

Anyu slowly walked into the foyer to join us. She made no motions to get her winter coat on, and just stood wringing her hands. “I am not coming!” she announced, emphatic, “you take the girls and go.” Apu’s face turned an angry dark red under the edge of his shapka. “Whatever decision is made tonight by the crowd will influence what happens to all of us tomorrow. There has to be a balance of reasonable opinion there, to ensure a safe outcome for our town” Apu calmly reasoned. “It has nothing to do with me, and I am not coming!” retorted Anyu in a panicky voice.  “You girls, don’t let your Father make any speeches to the crowd.  If he does that tonight, the Russians will hang him as a traitor!” She walked back into the salon, slamming the door behind her. Ildiko looked confused, I know I was confused and Apu appeared frustrated.  We left the apartment, silent, trudged down the four flights of stairs and went out into the crisp, lightly dusting snow of the evening.

 On Stalin Utca were groups of people walking in the direction of the town hall. There were no cars on the street (few people in our town owned private vehicles), just bundled-up people  of all ages headed to the same destination.  Ildiko, older than me by a couple of years walked, sedately, on Apu’s right. I skipped beside him on his left, because of the cold, and he grasped me by the nape of the neck, but did not scold me. All the way to town hall, Ildiko begged and pleaded with him to not speak in public. “What will happen to us all if the Russians hang you, Apu?”she questioned him.  Apu reassured her that he had ways of avoiding such an eventuality. Along our walk he explained that it was an individual’s duty to share a considered opinion with others, so that the best possible group decision could be made.  He also told us that he cared not only for us, his family, but also for many other people and if he could convince powerful persons in the town to make the right decision in regards to how best respond to the anticipated arrival of Russian troops, we would all be spared the horror of reprisals.

I skipped along beside Apu, listening to Ildiko’s anxious questions and entreaties and his reasonable and reassuring replies to her.  He said he would not lose us in the crowd, and that if he spoke to them he would be truthful, calm and speak from the heart.  I believed and trusted Apu, thus felt no apprehension in being with him this evening. I sensed and heard Ildiko’s worry and decided that I would hold her hand and not let go, while we were waiting around listening to the many discussions that would take place.

We arrived at the town hall to find a massive crowd gathered and buzzing in the open square in front. Apu led us through the mass of people to the front of the building and guided us up the wide staircase to the front door. Spotlights lit up the square and blanched the many faces to be seen there; they looked like an assembly of ghostly heads gazing, very still, toward the parapet above the town hall’s main doors. Makeshift Hungarian flags, without the communist insignia, hung limp at the parapet’s corners. Snow dusted down, a finely speckled curtain.

Apu guided us upstairs and left us with a group of women and children, none of whom we recognized, and asked that we remain with them during the speechmaking that was to follow. He joined a group of older men, most of whom he seemed to know, on the parapet.  There was a microphone and spotlights directed at the podium where the speakers were to orate from to the crowd below. Suddenly, a man walked up to the microphone and announced the singing of the national anthem “Isten Elti A Magyart”, then began to sing in a wonderful tenor voice.  The crowd followed in song. At the end an eerie silence descended on the square, all movement seemed to cease and it felt like the whole mass was holding their breath all at the same time.

The acting mayor greeted the crowd with the news from a village nearby to the East of us.  The Russian tanks had arrived there and had encamped outside the village.  The Russian troops had travelled with their families in tow and had demanded that the village provide milk for the soldiers’ children.  There was not enough milk in the village and the demand had been made for milk to be brought from our town to give to the Russians.  Would our town accede to this order, or would the citizens resist?

Several younger speakers exhorted the crowd to organize armed resistance to the Russian arrival to take control of our town. Under no circumstance should we provide any aid to our opressors; in fact we should battle to repel them. More reasonable orators argued against armed resistance as being futile; we did not have the resources with which to engage in a pitched battle.  The discussion carried on for a long time, and a clear direction to take seemed elusive. Apu came back to check on Ildiko and me, to make sure we were not too cold. Ildiko hung onto his arm and begged, “Please , Apu, don’t talk to the crowd,  I am so afraid for you if you speak out!” She began to cry, and I hugged her and wiped the tears from her cheeks with my woolen glove. Apu put his arms around us and said quietly “I will talk, but listen carefully to what I will say to the people here. No Russians will hang me for what I am about to tell the crowd. Sometimes one must speak!” He left us and walked to the podium.

“How many of you brought your children to this rally tonight?  I brought my two – they are back there listening to all that we are saying here. I would be very angry if my children needed milk, were hungry, and were prevented from having what they needed. This anger would cause me to do everything in my power to force a resolution for my children’s needs, and even push me toward greater violence in reprisal actions against the group of people who increased my children’s discomfort. The Russian soldiers are men like us, their feelings toward their families is exactly the same as our own. The  families who accompany these soldiers are not doing this voluntarily, the children in their encampment are innocents, hungry like our own children. Send the milk, then maybe the soldiers will be more lenient and kindly toward our own families, once the power has shifted.  We would be foolish to resist such armed might, and would be fools to anger the individuals comprising it.” He walked away from the microphone and stood back with the group who had already spoken.

I was clutching Ildiko’s hand.  She was agitated, weeping and shivering. “I know Apu will be punished for this!”she sobbed, ” I should have done something to prevent him from speaking.  Anyu will be so disappointed with me for not looking out for him.” I threw my arms around her, hugged her and stood there with her until Apu came to lead us homeward.  In my heart I knew Apu was right, I just could not find the words to convince Ildiko of this.

The three of us walked home in the gently falling snow.  Ildiko was weeping, Apu was silent and had his arm about her shoulders.  I skipped along, feeling very safe and convinced of Apu’s wisdom.  The outcome of the rally was to collect milk in our town and take it to the Russian encampment for their children.  There was to be no armed resistance to the takeover.  Sometime tomorrow morning the tanks would rumble and grind into town and hunker down, menacing, on our snowy streets and boulevards.

Ki kopog…(who is knocking)?

April 18, 2007

We are busying ourselves to not think about the possibility of bombing tonight.  By lamplight shining on to her hands, Mother is seated in the green velvet armchair knitting the back of a sweater for Father.  Her lips move, in silence, to keep count of her row; her practiced fingers dance as the yarn passes on to the needles.  Father hunches near the turntable, an open score spread out on his lap, and follows along Saint-Saens’ “Rondo capriccioso” with one finger moving along on the sheet while the other waves to keep to the tempo. This is his favourite violin piece, one which he has been working hard to master. He knows his record well, the melody – whenever he returns the needle to a part with which he has difficulty in playing, he has an uncanny ability to put the needle back near the correct spot on the record. Ildiko is engaged in taking out duplicates from her stamp collection’s album pages; she has plans to trade stamps with Karolyka the next day. I have spread out my treasured paper napkin collection on the dining-room table so I can order them in some sort of arrangement that might make sense when comparing them.  This is problematic for me. Do the napkins become ranked by colour, complexity of surface patterns or by the nature of the edges, whether simple or fanciful in design?

The music weaves around us all as we are engrossed in our private passions. No air raid sirens disturb our concentration, and yet, we expect them to sound at any time this night. Time passes.  We are not going to bed early this evening. Our routines have been thoroughly disrupted by recent events, though there are efforts to retain some semblance of normalcy,  to maintain calm.

Suddenly, frantic knocking, rapping and banging sounds impinge on our consciousness.  Distracted, we glance at each other with quizzical expressions. It is late in the evening and no visitors are expected.  Who could this be, why is our quiet disrupted tonight?

Father rises to his feet as Mother, suddenly fearful, jumps up and starts to run into the hallway. We hear her question, “Who is it?” and muffled tones of a man’s excited voice. She walks back into the front room and beckons to Father to come. “It is someone for you, Bela.” He leaves the record playing and walks out to the front door.  Ildiko and I trail after Mother to see who has arrived so unexpectedly.

We watch as Father shepherds an older grey-haired man in drab brown work-clothes and a very young man, dirty and disheveled into his surgery. The young man is limping and seems very pale.  Father calls Mother to also come inside the surgery.  The door closes on them, leaving Ildiko and me in the hallway. We wait, but while doing so we have our ears pressed up against the door to better hear the conversation we have been shut out from.  Fragments of the exchange filter through, enough so we learn that the young man was shot in the buttocks while engaged in a raid on the local AVO who had been armed and hiding out in the station on Stalin Utca, toward the edge of town.

Mother comes out of the surgery and shoos us into the living room while explaining that Father has to perform some surgery on the young man and once repaired, the young man would stay the night in the maid’s room off the kitchen. She bustles off to prepare the bed. I get this sinking feeling in my stomach, knowing full well that she will find the mattress and blankets missing. Ildiko is completely in the dark about this!  The mattress and blankets are in the basement where I had dragged them earlier in the day.

Mother returns in what seems like no time at all. She beards us with the question “What happened to the mattress and bedding in the room?”  I have no choice but offer an explanation as to why these missing items were essential to be moved to the basement, particularly on this day. “Come with me! You have to help bring them back upstairs” she ordered.

Mother marches me to the elevator. On the way down to the basement she says nothing to me, won’t look at me.  (I sense a scene brewing!) Once there, she flicks the light on and scans the empty spaces. In the far corner lie the two mattresses, made up into tidy beds. The coils of sausage, round of cheese and loaves of bread are piled on the brick pallet nearby. The water jugs stand like obese sentinels, one near each “bed”. “Who arranged all this?” she quizzes. Blubbering, I manage to get out the whole story.  Mother shakes her head and smooths my hair with her hands.

“I don’t think there will be an air raid tonight” she says softly. “Come on, help me drag these to the lift. We’ll take them upstairs and you can help me make up the bed for the young man.”

“What about the rest of this stuff?” I ask.

“They can stay down here tonight.  Tomorrow I will deal with it all” Mother suggests.

A while later, after we replace the mattress in our maid’s room and make up the bed with sheets, Mother leads the young man in and bids him goodnight. She sends Ildiko and me to prepare for bed.

We wash up, change into pajamas, creep into our beds and wait for father and Mother to tuck us in and say good night.  Mother sits beside me and strokes my hair.  She looks quite pleased. Father kisses me and tells me I was a kind and thoughtful girl, and that my friends were good kids.  We had done the right thing, he says. 

“Don’t worry and sleep well” they say as they flick off the light.

From the dark on the other side of the room issue Ildiko’s questions – “What was all that about? What did you do that pleased Mother and Father for once?” 

Anitra’s Dance…

April 13, 2007

An early overcast morning, at the beginning of November 1956.  Father has gone again, Mother is clearing out breakfast dishes, Ildiko opens up the piano and begins to do scales. I take up “War and Peace” and continue reading, lying on my stomach on the divan.  Eva our maid arrives to make beds, dust and sweep.  Quiet, subdued, she moves around with girlish grace doing her chores.  The light in the room is under-watery, low, peaceful.

Mother comes into the room and announces that Tibi is in the hall asking for me.  She spies the book I am reading, snatches it up, looks at the title. “You are too young to understand this book!” she announces, as she goes to replace it in the bookshelf.  “Go, play with Tibi!”

Tibi and I lie about the steps in the stairwell, exchanging news we have sussed out despite our parents best efforts to keep us in the dark about what is really going on.  That very morning, he had overheard his Father mention to his Mother that our town was most likely going to be bombed the coming evening. We decided to call out Marta and Karolyka to confer with us about what we could do ourselves about this. The four of us met in the main lobby to draw up our plans. We agreed that Ildiko should be kept out of our doings as she was known to rat us out whenever she thought we were doing something the adults would not approve. Marta  and Karolyka were delegated to scrounge up food from their family larders, water in empty wine jugs and sneak these into the basement. Tibi and I were to raid the maids’ rooms off our kitchens and remove matresses and blankets down to the basement via the elevator.  We dispersed to get on with our appointed tasks.

I ran back into our apartment.  Mother was in the kitchen preparing food. I needed to get her out of there. So I sat in the waiting room and deliberated at length as to how I was going to distract her. Through the doorway into the front room filtered the strains of piano music. Ildiko had warmed up and had moved on to playing “Anitra’s Dance”, and it seemed to be rough going for her – she got stuck at the same place over and over again, struggled with the fingering of melody. Aha!

The solution presented itself, rather naturally.  Mother was quite anxious that Ildiko be very competent playing the piano, and could be easily convinced to stand over her making multiple corrections.  So, I casually strolled into the kitchen and mentioned to Mother that Ildiko was having considerable trouble with some passages and needed immediate help. She bustled off to do the piano practice monitoring, and thus left the coast clear for me to move the mattress and blankets from the maid’s room to the lift. I hauled my treasures down to the basement and dragged them into a far corner.

Soon, Tibi arrived with his load of bedding.  We set to making separate family spaces, and made up the “beds”. The elevator disgorged Marta.  She was wearing several necklaces of sausage and had a round of cheese under one arm and a bundle of bread cradled in the other. We found a pile of bricks and made a little pallet to put all the food on. Karolyka descended next and dragged several big jugs of water to the corner.  We were most satisfied with the results of our efforts and lounged about on the mattresses discussing what it might be like to be bombed the coming evening. We imagined our parents being pleasantly surprised that we had the forethought to provide some little comfort for us all while we found ourselves hiding out in the basement. Tibi thought it might be a bit scary to be down there in pitch black, so suggested we go back and steal some candles from our pantries. Karolyka said he would be the music director and distract us all during the long night hours by organizing us kids as an entertainment troupe. We argued about what kinds of songs we could perform, and I  put forward that I knew some disgusting variations on folk-songs which might provide some humour and distraction.  So we practised these in the half-dark basement.

Soon, it was time to go to our apartments and have an afternoon snack, so we dispersed. I let myself quietly into our hallway, hoping to get by Mother without being noticed.  She heard me anyway, came out of the kitchen and scolded me for having misrepresented Ildiko’s difficulties with her practice.  She ordered me to go inside the front room and sit quietly listening to Ildiko practice.

Chastened, but privately pleased with myself, I climbed up on the divan and quietly sat.  Ildiko played “Anitra’s Dance” over and over again.  The sprightly tempo echoed my feelings of pleasure and excitement with having had a part of making a little haven of safety for my family and those of my friends.

Mrs. Mufleh = Soccer = Hope

January 21, 2007

Too often, we hear and read primarily bad news.  Our fears are kindled. This make us percieve our lot like a cup that is less than half full, its contents rapidly dwindling.

But, if you read about Mrs Mufleh, her soccer team – the Fugees, in this terrific article, for certain you will find your capacity for HOPE to be revitalized.

Google – The New York Times, January 21, 2007, article – “Refugees find Hostility and Hope on Soccer Field”

An interesting development…

January 16, 2007

During the past week news have come, one day, that Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez is contemplating nationalizing that country’s telecommunications and electrical supply systems, maybe casting his socialist blanket over the national oil production as well and is also considering making major philosophical changes to Venezuela’s Education system.  The following morning, our local rag reported that the Iranian President visited Chavez and pledged to devise with him a strategy for oil extraction, development and supply control.  The two have formed an economic pact for the production of trucks and bicycles, presumably because the possession of trucks enable their two countries to move necessities around more reliably, while common access to bicycles by their countrymen increases individuals’ mobility and their ability to gather and transport needed daily supplies.

These two news items came, closely following on the heels of US President Bush’s announcement to step up troop strength in Iraq. The US has the problem of being the Modern Hans Brinker. One finger is plugging the onrushing tide of political non-compliance with its military presence in one place, meanwhile the dike has sprung another leak, of an ideological and economic nature, in another geographic region and which development proves a breach closer to home.

Now, this causes me to wonder if, soon,  I can expect to read in the newspapers an article that the Hugo Chavez government is toppled in a “coup” and that the forces of democracy once again prevail like they did when Chile’s Allende-lead government was brutally crushed.

A son in the army…

January 12, 2007

A friend’s son, having been inducted into the army, has experienced several months of training in the North prior to being stationed with a peacekeeping unit in the Middle East.  My friend is terrified for her son’s prospects, and wishes he could be here working quietly and safely at a dull, uneventful job.

Like many other young men of his age, he has been weaned on Nintendo and MuchMusic. What, possibly, could he know of the history and culture of a Middle Eastern country, let alone his own, so that he may be aware of the reasons for which he finds himself transported there to tote guns and ostensibly help keep peace between warring factions? In my opinion, he is merely unwitting and unaware cannon-fodder, a sort of plastic pawn, placed there at the whim of political leaders who are playing Global Chess.

So, this young man, who could be any of our sons, will be housed in tents or Quonset huts, drive around in armored vehicles, tote weapons in a place so unlike the place he calls home.  All, with whom he comes into contact, who are the “others”, and whose allegiances he could not determine by simply looking at or talking with, he will face with an unbearable and foreign-to-him paranoia. The harsh desert light will reveal everything in high contrast to him – safety/danger, friend/enemy, good/bad. The inevitable shadings of truth will not so easily be available for his discernment.

What kind of reasoning permits him to undergo this experience willingly?  Surely, that he is intellectually, emotionally and experientially green is the primary factor.  For certain, the lure of Romance and Adventure is embedded in the idea of a career in the armed forces, more so than, by way of contrast, in a warehouse job or plumber’s apprenticeship.

It may never occur to him that he is unwittingly an agent of hubris. Does he possibly think about the fact that democracy, a foreign construct in oriental cultures, may, instead of being desired by people living there be actively and vigorously resisted?