Istvan Deak is Seth Low Professor Emeritus at Columbia Universityand the author of Essays on Hitler's Europe (University of NebraskaPress).
A Guest in My Own Country: A Hungarian Life
By George Konrad
Translated by Jim Tucker
(Other Press, 303 pp., $15.95)
For many years and through diverse political systems, the writerGeorge Konrad has served as one of Eastern Europe's leadingintellectuals, and can be rightly considered the living conscienceof a deeply disturbed society. As befits many an Eastern European,it is a near-miracle that he reached manhood. In this memoir, ablyand accurately translated by Jim Tucker, he tells that in thespring of 1944, when he was eleven, the Gestapo dragged away hisparents from Berettyoujfalu, a small town in eastern Hungary. Bythen the German army had been occupying Hungary for a few months.Without any real guidance from the Jewish community leaders, butsensing that something terrible was about to happen to them all,the boy dug out the 30,000 pengs (approximately $300,000 incontemporary dollars) that his father had hidden in his shop, andgave it to a non-Jewish lawyer to secure a permit for himself, hissister, and two cousins to move to Budapest. A day after the fourchildren boarded the train, the Hungarian authorities collected thethousand-odd Jews of their town for deportation to Auschwitz. Ofthe two hundred Jewish children living in Berettyoujfalu, onlyKonrad, his sister, and the two cousins survived, as well as twotwins who had been subjects of testicular experiments at Auschwitz,and Zsofi, another cousin of Konrad, who was fourteen at that timeand whom the dreaded Dr. Mengele had placed into the group judgedcapable of work.
As Konrad explains, 30,000 pengs was what a large house cost in thecountryside. (My own family papers show that, in the capital, itbought a twobedroom apartment in a residential neighborhood.) Thedeal made with the lawyer and, through him, with the localauthorities proved the astuteness and the foresight of the littleboy. It also proved that, more than in puritanical Germany, moneyin Hungary could often buy security. Although Konrad was to facemore dangers and would have other bare escapes, luck was with him inBudapest, where he stayed with relatives. The regent of thecountry, Admiral Miklos Horthy, who in the spring and early summerof 1944 willingly handed over to the Germans all but the youngeradult males among the Jews in the countryside, decided in July 1944not to surrender the Jews of the capital. Like many other things,this move, too, set apart the rich, the assimilated, and those withgood Christian connections--the three qualifications being almostidentical-- from the poor, the unconnected, and the unassimilated.Earlier, when Konrad's mother went on shopping trips to Budapest,she stayed in one of the city's plushest hotels; now he had tocarry his own suitcase. Yet he was safe, at least for a while.
The German occupation of Hungary on March 19, 1944, and thesubsequent deportations, came as a complete surprise to thecountry's Jewish community. Very few had heard of the exterminationof the Jews in Poland, and even fewer believed that the same couldhappen to them. Almost no one in Hungary remembered an earlywarning by Theodor Herzl, the Hungarian-born founder of modernZionism, who, a year before his death, wrote to a Jewish member ofthe Hungarian parliament, that "the hand of fate shall also seizeHungarian Jewry... . And the later that occurs, and the strongerthis Jewry becomes, the crueler and the harder shall be the blow,which shall be delivered with greater savagery. There is noescape."
Herzl was a great prophet, but in this case he was only partlycorrect. Even though about 60 percent of all those whom Hungary'snew racial laws treated as Jews perished during the Holocaust, theproportion was incomparably lower among those who had converted,had married non-Jews, and were wealthy professionals. Indeed,Herzl's warning, largely ridiculed in Hungary at that time, mightnot have applied to himself and to his assimilated relatives. Herzlcould well have survived the Holocaust--as did, for instance, oneof his first cousins, a famous writer, whom the Regent's cabinetoffice specifically protected. Konrad's parents, too, eventuallyreturned from deportation.
In time, George Konrad received nearly all of Europe's majorliterary and cultural prizes, except for the Nobel Prize, which in2002 went to Imre Kertesz, a fellow Hungarian. Unlike Konrad,Kertesz had gone through Auschwitz and Buchenwald. In Fatelessness,his fictionalized autobiography, he tells of a Jewish boy, threeyears older than Konrad was in 1944, whom cruel fate had changedfrom a Budapest resident into a resident of the countryside.Although this was only for a few hours, it was long enough for themonstrous country gendarmes to pick him up and to send him toAuschwitz.
At the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1999, which the Fair organizersdesignated as a "Hungarian year," the organizers selected fourHungarian writers for special attention, three of whom, PeterNadas, George Konrad, and Imre Kertesz, are of Jewish background.The fourth writer, Peter Esterhazy, is a member of one of CentralEurope's most illustrious aristocratic families, reinforcing thewidespread impression that even today nothing important can happenin Hungary without princes, counts, barons, and Jews. Yet botharistocrats and Jews have been cruelly persecuted, humiliated, andpartly wiped out by various tyrannical regimes.
Perhaps the most prestigious honor bestowed on Konrad was theKarlspreis, or Charlemagne Prize, awarded by the city of Aachen,Emperor Charlemagne's city. It is given "for the most valuablecontribution in the services of Western European understanding andwork for the community, and in the services of humanity and worldpeace." Konrad undoubtedly deserved the honor for his sociallyconscious novels and essays. The committee also appreciated thestrong stand he has always taken on behalf of justice, even if itmeant infuriating his liberal friends. This was certainly the caseduring the Kosovo crisis. Konrad steadfastly condemned the Americanbombing of Serbia, which he saw, besides its inhumanity, as supportgiven to extreme nationalism against the supranational idea. Yet asa novelist and an essayist, Konrad still must struggle, as mustother Eastern European writers, against the widespread assumptionthat his fame has been due not only to his talent but also to thecourageous stand that he took against tyranny--as if the most thatcan be asked or expected of a writer is dissidence, and the rightpolitics.
Berettyoujfalu, meaning "New Village on the Berettyo River," was oneof the many large settlements on the Great Hungarian Plain in whichpeasants traditionally sought mutual protection against marauders,while spending only the summer months in cottages located on theiroutlying fields. It was a modest town, but it had a highly culturedneighbor, Nagyvarad, where the theater and literary cafes werethriving. After World War I, however, the Paris peace treaties cutNagyvarad and the rest of eastern Hungary away from Konrad's town,causing its intelligentsia to cast its eyes increasingly on farawayBudapest.
Life was good for Konrad's father, a seller of agriculturalmachinery and other hardware, which made him the biggest taxpayerin the region. What Konrad tells about his childhood sounds similarto that of many other Eastern European Holocaust survivors: aloving family, a hard-working decent father; trustworthy Jewishclerks and non-Jewish workers in the father's shop; a somewhat primgoverness brought in from abroad and devoted maids brought in fromthe countryside. Sometimes the stories vary only regarding thenationality of the governess, Austrians being less fashionable thanGermans, Germans less fashionable than the French. English-speakingnurses or governesses were the privilege of the highest Jewish andnon-Jewish aristocracy. The Konrads being upper bourgeois, thechildren benefited from the presence of a German governess.
Another characteristic of the memoirs of Eastern European survivors,and also of the memoirs of Konrad, is their emphasis ongovernmental and popular anti-Semitism before the war, from which,however, their own neighborhood and school seemed to have beenlargely exempt. In any case, the Konrad children attended a Jewishelementary school, where the level of education was far higher thanin other schools, and where they were brought up in a thoroughlypatriotic Hungarian spirit.
What explains, then, the indifference, if not the outrighthostility, of so many neighbors when the authorities began "to takeaway the Jews"? The answer to the puzzle is, mainly, envy andgreed, as Jan T. Gross recently explained so well in Fear:Anti-Semitism in Poland After Auschwitz. Gross discusses onlyPoland, but, in respect to the public's treatment of the Jews duringthe Holocaust, all Eastern European countries with a large andeconomically successful Jewish population were the same. Contraryto widespread beliefs, religious anti-Semitism and the feeling ofbeing exploited by Jews were not a crucial factor among the ruralpopulation. People no longer experienced the Jews as money-lendinginnkeepers; "their" Jews were lease-holders of aristocraticestates, shopkeepers, and doctors, all of whom tended to treat thepeasants more decently than what they had been used to.
But even in Hungary, where anti-Semitism flourished more among themiddle classes than among the lower classes, envy at the sight ofJewish children wearing white gloves on holidays, their fine homes,their facility with foreign languages, their books, their urbanrelatives and acquaintances, all caused the vast majority of thepopulation to abandon the Jews in the hour of need. Violent attackson Jews occurred mainly where the traditional authorities hadceased to function, as in German-occupied Poland and the Balticstates. In Hungary, and in other countries with a well-functioningadministrative system, the deportations were an orderly andbloodless process, with the population acting mainly as spectators.Once the Jews left for "an unknown address," however, their homeswere immediately emptied of their contents. When the Konradchildren returned home after the war, they found nothing butdevastation wrought by the neighbors and by Red Army soldiers.
When he boarded the train, Konrad explains, his childhood ended; andwith it also the semi-feudal lifestyle of the Hungariancountryside. In Budapest, the children lived in crowded placeswhile Regent Horthy was preparing to surrender the country to theSoviet army, which by that time was already in Hungary. His attemptwas thwarted by an SS-led coup on October 15, 1944, which put theArrow Cross leader Ferenc Szalasi, a fascist fanatic, in power.
With Horthy's forced transfer to Germany, the uncertain protectionthat he had extended to the Jews of the capital came to an end.Arrow Cross thugs took over the streets, killing thousands of Jews,while Adolf Eichmann, who had come back to Budapest, marched tensof thousands toward the Austrian border, where most of themperished. "The armed men in armbands had plenty of people to shoot," Konrad recalls, "though they had begun to sense they couldn'texecute every single Jew." and so "the mood for murder flared upand flagged by turns." During the Soviet siege of the city, all wasanarchy. It could therefore happen that while thousands weredragged to the Danube shore to be shot into the ice floes, one ofKonrad's relatives, who was serving in a Jewish forced labor unit,was granted leave to visit his family at Christmas.
Again, money helped, and so did good connections. The Arrow Crossregime crammed nearly eighty thousand Jews into a newly erectedghetto, the only ghetto in Hitler's Europe at that time. There,except for those who were killed by roving bands of Nazis, theinhabitants had a decent chance of survival. At least twentythousand others survived in hiding with Christian families, and byobtaining forged identity papers. Some of these papers had beenbought, others had been freely given. Another twenty or thirtythousand purchased or somehow secured real or forged letters ofprotection from different neutral legations in Budapest--as did,for instance, Aunt Zsofi, the children's protector. Yet the lettersof protection handed out by the likes of Raoul Wallenberg, orforged by Zionists, did not guarantee safety. What counted inKonrad's case is that he and most of his Budapest relatives werealive when Red Army units freed their district, on January 18,1945.
But then new trouble began: the Russians "checked Aunt Zsofi'spapers and eyed her and my sister like cats eyeing sour cream." Oneof the worst aspects of liberation or occupation was the Red Army'sutter unpredictability. Konrad, whose life had, after all, beensaved by the arrival of the Soviet soldiers, found them"unfathomable, unsusceptible to understanding ? one would give thelocals gifts; another would rob them. The same man often did both.There was no particular need to fear that the Germans would rape awoman, whereas these boys couldn't wait to unbutton their flies."Add to this the fact that thousands of civilians, whether Jews ornon-Jews, were dragged away into POW camps from which the majoritydid not return. Murder-rapes by Soviet soldiers were not uncommon,especially in the countryside, but at least none of this had thecharacteristics of genocide.
At the end of February 1945, Konrad returned to his hometown.Traveling on the roofs of railroad cars, he found only the ruins ofhis earlier life. Even today, he writes, the town's synagogue is awarehouse and the Jewish cemetery is utterly neglected. But werethe cemetery in excellent shape, we must interpose, it would stillnot put into doubt the irrevocable victory of the anti-Semites andtheir practice of ethnic cleansing. Consider the Vienna CentralCemetery, where the large Jewish section with its elaboratetombstones and vaults has been freed recently from much of itsjungle-like foliage by dedicated young Austrian volunteers. Thisnoble gesture will not restore Jewish cultural and economic life inthe Austrian capital.
In Hungary and Romania, after 1945, many Jewish survivors, most ofthem former forced laborers within the Hungarian army, had to starta new life without their families. In business, they were amazinglysuccessful, whether in Budapest or in Transylvania, where Konradwas staying with relatives for a while. Amazingly, even though thenumber of Jews in Hungary had vastly diminished during the war, thesurvivors were largely responsible for the revival of privatecommerce and industry, which the communists encouraged, iftemporarily. Moreover, careers in the administration, politics, thejudiciary, the police, and the army officer corps were suddenlyopen to Jews. And small wonder, since, from the Soviet point ofview, the Jews alone were fully reliable.
All this was transitional, however, because the Jews were steadilyleaving Eastern Europe, with nearly thirty thousand fleeing Hungaryfollowing the suppression of the Hungarian revolution in 1956.Moreover, the communist regimes were gradually replacing the Jewishcadres with newcomers raised from the lower classes. Still, theanti-Semitism that exists in Eastern Europe today is mainly to beattributed--aside from the traditional religious element, ofcourse--to the memory of Jews in command positions after the war.
True, the expulsion of the German ethnic minority immediately afterthe war eased the housing shortage at least in some regions, butthe hunger for space and goods only increased under Stalinist rule,when hardly any private homes or consumer goods were produced. TheSoviet-style communal apartments were often shared by the originalJewish owners, their homeless relatives, the family that hadacquired the place following the deportation of the Jews, and afamily of new workers' cadres. It is a miracle that more of thetenants did not kill one another.
The first year after the war was marked by an astronomicalinflation, which created unheard-of opportunities for the skilledand the hardy, but in which neither Konrad nor his parentsparticipated. His father and mother came back from Austria at theend of 1945. The father re-opened his shop with the help of a smallhoard of gold that he had hidden. Again, business was thriving, butnot for long: in the late 1940s the communist regime nationalizedthe hardware store and everything else in sight.
Following his move to Budapest, Konrad was admitted into one of thebest high schools, where he met friends who would later also becomewell-known intellectuals. In school he learned, among other things,to chant, "Stalin is our battle, Stalin is our peace, and the nameSta-a-a-lin will make the world a better place"; but while many ofhis generation of middle-class Jews joined the party or fledabroad, he did neither. His family wanted him to become a medicaldoctor, but he was a class enemy with an "X" next to his name on his"cadre card," and so medical training was out of the question. Hewas allowed to study literature at Budapest University--Hungarianliterature only. In 1955, he was expelled from the university andreadmitted only following intervention by his professors. By thenhe was already beginning to work for a small literary journal.
In 1953, the post-Stalinist Soviet leadership replaced thetyrannical Matyas Rakosi as Hungary's prime minister with the moremoderate communist Imre Nagy. A number of economic reformsfollowed, and many political prisoners were released. This, as wellas Khrushchev's secret speech at the Twentieth Party Congress inFebruary 1956, led to a political ferment within the CommunistParty that proved to be unstoppable. Still, the revolution thatstarted on October 23, 1956 took everyone by surprise, even thosewho had brought it about, namely the often Jewish, reform-mindedcommunist intellectuals and the university students.
As mass demonstrations turned into sporadic shootings, Soviet tanksintervened. They were stopped by a hastily armed ragtag force madeup of young workers, students, individual soldiers, and commoncriminals. The revolution triumphed: democratic parties and amulti-party government were soon formed, and, on November 1, ImreNagy's revolutionary government proclaimed Hungary's neutrality.There followed a few days of public euphoria. Then, on November 4,the Soviet tanks came back, and gradually wiped out all resistance.
During these incredible events, Konrad was one of the fewintellectuals to carry a submachine gun. He did not use it, though.While wandering the streets of Budapest, he notes, he "was asked bymore than one woman if I would be kind enough to rub out one oranother neighbor--you know, the one in the fourth- floor cornerflat. I did nothing to appease the popular demand for murder."Whether or not it is true, the story fits well with the spirit ofthe time. Luckily for him, Konrad escaped punishment during theterrible years of post- revolutionary communist retribution, whenhundreds were hanged and thousands were imprisoned, among them someof Hungary's most famous writers, poets, and philosophers. Thoseexecuted or imprisoned included many Jews.
While most of his friends, lovers, and cousins (as well as hissister) left Hungary following the Revolution, Konrad became achildren's welfare supervisor, about which he wrote his first book,an extraordinary novel called The Case Worker, which appeared in1969 (and in English five years later). Its horror stories ofalcoholism, abuse, misery, and neglect would be familiar to a NewYork City social worker, but to the Hungarian public, until thengenerally kept in the dark about bad news, it came as a greatshock.
There followed two sociological studies, written in conjunction withIvan Szelenyi, today a well-known sociologist at Yale University.The more important of the two books, The Intellectuals on the Roadto Class Power, argued that, under socialism, the proletariat wasthe most oppressed class and the intelligentsia the dominant forcein society. Or, as Konrad now explains in his memoir, undercommunism "the intelligentsia was ensuring that the systemfunctioned effectively by refraining from calling the powerhierarchy into question, while perceiving itself as an abusedvictim and thereby absolving itself of responsibility." Themanuscript of this work led to the arrest of the authors in October1974, during a period of Soviet-ordered "sharpening of the classstruggle." The two were offered the chance to emigrate. Szelenyiaccepted, and moved to Australia; Konrad refused, yet he too wasreleased from police custody.
The terrible era of purges in the late 1950s and early 1960s gaveway to amnesties, at least for the intellectuals; but workers,students, and soldiers who had taken up arms were treated as commoncriminals, and some remained in prison for another decade. For theintellectuals, Gyorgy Aczel, the culture czar of the party, set upa three-class system: literary works that the party encouraged,those that it tolerated, and those that it forbade. Category onenow being an object of general ridicule, unlike in Stalinist times,category two became the writers' favorite. But Konrad andSzelenyi's manuscript fell into the third category; and theyavoided punishment only by proving, undoubtedly with the police'sconnivance, that they had been writing their books as a form ofscholarly exercise and only for their desk drawers. In any case,The Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power appeared first inEnglish, in 1979, and in Hungarian not until 1989, after the fallof communism.
Subsequently Konrad published several fictions, such as The CityBuilder, in which an Eastern European architect talks about hisfamily and his disillusionment with socialism, and The Loser, whosehero is in a psychiatric hospital reminiscing about the wild timesin Hungary before and after the communist seizure of power, andseveral other more or less autobiographical novels, one of which,The Stone Dial, is set in postSocialist Hungary.
No one knows exactly why, in the late 1970s and especially in the1980s, Hungary became "the merriest barrack in the Soviet camp":the country's dependence on Western loans and the need to buy thegood will of the dangerously unstable Hungarian public must havecontributed to this development. The atmosphere of semi-freedomallowed Konrad to publish more often abroad than at home, and toattend meetings of Helsinki Watch dedicated to the defense offreedom of expression behind the Iron Curtain, and to accept grantsoffered by, among others, the Open Society Foundation. The latter'sEastern European headquarters were grudgingly tolerated by theauthorities in Budapest because the foundation brought in hardcurrency, and because it allowed Hungarian scientists to study newtechniques and methods in the West. More than once, Hungarian partyofficials complained to me, and not without reason, that it waseasier for a dissident intellectual to study and to earn money inthe West, no matter what his true academic qualifications, than foran intellectual who happened to be loyal to the party.
The trouble was that the system corrupted everyone, at least to adegree: the dissident intellectuals, because they were treated inthe West as visiting royalty; and those at home, because they werekept in a velvet prison, to use the memorable phrase of MiklosHaraszti, another dissident intellectual. In order to be able totravel abroad and to become the darling of Western liberal society,one had to observe certain basic rules at home. Those who violatedthese limitations were no longer imprisoned, but they lost theprivilege of going abroad. Konrad writes that, for a decade and ahalf, between 1974 and 1989, he was an underground writer, excludedfrom regular employment. Moreover, he was a "non-person" in hiscountry. Still, one must note that during this period he receivedhis royalties for books published abroad, and he often traveled inthe West for business or pleasure. Here is how, in 1981, he summedup his dilemma, and that of all Eastern European writers andthinkers:
It's here in East Central Europe that Eastern and Western culturecollide; it's here that they intermingle. Here we see side-by-sidethe physical and psychic baggage of industrial and preindustrialcivilizations. Our heads, like old radios, hiss and buzz with theclaims of Soviet-style state socialism and Atlantic liberalism.? Asintellectuals we groan under, and revel in, our own authority.Personified contradictions, we'd like to see ourselves in a clearerlight. But that's hard and risky to do. So we drink instead. Nowherein the world are there as many drunken thinkers as in EasternEurope.
Following the end of communism, Konrad was elected president ofInternational PEN; in the past, he had also served as director ofthe Academy of Arts in Berlin. Despite these great honors, he isless often in the center of attention today than he was when hisworks circulated mainly in samizdat editions. In free Hungary,intellectuals no longer play the role of prophets. Society ispreoccupied with business, the growing income gap between thesuccessful and the less successful, and the political polarizationbetween a strangely business-oriented socialist party and anationalist conservative camp that, no less strangely, favors stateintervention. Konrad, or so it seems to me, wishes to remain abovethe fray, an attitude that some critics have characterized asOlympian. Meanwhile he has angered his liberal-leftists friends byendorsing the American attack on Iraq as the best way to fightMuslim extremism and to secure the defense of Israel.
The fundamental problem, entrenched in the title of his fine andfascinating book, is whether or not Konrad should consider himselfa guest in his own country. He poses the question even though hehas done so much as a writer to enhance the reputation of Hungary.Perhaps we should not be surprised that Kertesz, Nobel Prize andall, is also asking himself the same question in nearly all hiswritings. In view of renewed anti-Semitism on the political right,the question cannot yet be answered.
By Istvan Deak