Searching for the Ghosts of My Father’s Life in Hungary

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In my memory it was warm that September in Hungary, much warmer than it looks in the pictures I have from that trip. The smell of cigarettes lingered on the streets of Budapest, the industrial smell of gasoline remaining long after cars had motored past. The scents felt trapped, suppressed; in my memory it was because of this supposed heat. I recall the sun’s rays against my cheeks as my mother and I stood, both travel weary and weary, at the Fisherman’s Bastion in Budapest—an old, beautiful stone tower and wall overlooking the Danube River.

“It’s ancient,” our tour guide, Adrienn informed us, and that one word—which she relied on to describe anything historic—further drove the chasm between our own past and present, further displaced us.

It was 2010, and my father, a Hungarian immigrant, had died months earlier after a horrid battle with a rare, incurable cancer. It’d been a long five years for all of us: for my mother and me, who so often traveled with my father from New Jersey to Little Rock, Arkansas, for medical treatment at its renowned center; for my siblings, whose young adult lives had become a series of staccato sentences, interrupted by my father’s illness; for my husband and me, whose dating and then newlywed days had been spent overshadowed by the looming certainty of my father’s death.

And yet—despite having years to prepare—we were not ready for the permanence of his passing. I was not ready.

My mother and I walked the streets of Budapest, visiting smoky cafés and restaurants and looking for glimpses of my father. Food and drink were familiar, recognizable—things like Egri Bikavér, the Bulls Blood wine my father used to keep stacked in the wine rack, and kolbász, the sausage my father would buy in bags from the Hungarian market in New Jersey to store in our freezer. In this city, kolbász was plentiful, and each morning my mother and I piled heaps onto our plates.

During the day we’d forgo lunch in favor of coffee and diós torta (walnut cake—my father’s favorite), and at night we shared bottles of Egri Bikavér and slurped goulash from restaurants where Romani bands played the violin. My mother and I drank and ate and breathed in the culture, as if our senses might conjure my father. And at times it did—the wine a loosely applied band-aid, the meals a temporary salve. We escaped into memories that were happy, that preceded illness, and into moments of pretend that we were just carefree tourists. The food was familiar—my father’s death was not, though each day that passed, it inevitably became more real.

A month earlier I’d gone to visit him at the cemetery, my first time since the funeral. But something disconcerting happened: I couldn’t find him. His tombstone hadn’t yet arrived, and his grave marker was missing—I discovered it in the woods, about twenty feet away. I put the marker in the spot where I thought his grave was—or should have been. I wasn’t certain; the grass had already grown over in the four months since the burial, the dirt settled. I’d lingered with a bouquet of flowers, unsure whether to even leave them. An anger had fermented inside me like a bottle of wine—red, dark, heavy. Where was my father?

On a very simple—and perhaps naïve—level, my mother and I had gone to Hungary to find him. Here, I thought, here. Here he would be—his footprint, his heritage. Here he would still somehow exist.

There were treads of him other than in the food and wine. My mother found him at his old family apartment in Buda, where my aunt’s Hungarian friend, Ilona, took us to visit. It was a pale-yellow four-story building, with an open courtyard and black steel railings dotted with flowers. A bike leaned against a wall—evidence of life. Dwarfed by the two large evergreen plantings, my mother sobbed in great shakes, the likes of which I’d never seen—not even at the funeral. I wanted to tell Ilona, whom we were meeting for the first time, that my mother wasn’t normally like this. I wanted to tell her not because I was embarrassed, but because my mother’s reaction surprised me. When I tried to console her, she shrugged me off. Ilona and I fell silent, consciously shrinking in the periphery. The ghost of my father’s childhood had turned my mother inward to somewhere unreachable.

We left Budapest the following day, once again meeting up with Adrienn, the tour guide, and her boyfriend Richard, who conveniently owned a car. We were headed on a day trip to Nagyatád, a town in the southwest corner of Hungary, not far from the Croatian border. It was the town where my great-grandmother had lived and died, where my father spent his childhood summers, away from the capital.

Growing up I’d heard stories of Nagyatád, of numerous farms, of fertile lands that produced wine and fruit, of endless acres on which my great-grandfather bred race horses. My father told me how he and his siblings picked apricots and peaches from trees, how they fished for supper at the local river. He once recalled the time he’d sold wine from the farm to Romani travelers passing through with empty jugs.

All around us was this land, softly rolling hills and acres and acres of crop. There were sunflower and cornfields, with an occasional watermelon patch. Quiet, subdued lands. The cornstalks were low, a third the height of those I’d seen back home. The towns we passed through, if they could be called that, were scarce and small—a smattering of one-story tiny houses. Before I could see any people, the towns were gone, swallowed into the sloping landscape.

“Ancient,” Adrienn informed us, flicking her hand toward the car window.

Past and present; the towns were fleeting, surreal. My mother and I, stuffed in the backseat, automatically reached for each other’s hands.

After several miles of driving, we reached Lake Balaton, the large lake we were to cross to reach Nagyatád. We had time before the next ferry, so Richard and Adrienn ushered us to a thatched-roof restaurant on a hill overlooking the lake. The menu was long, and we feasted. We ate fried cheese and a white fish called zander; we drank wine produced from local vineyards. Over fish soup and beef paprikás my mother shared a memory: she and my father had rented a house on this lake many years ago. They went swimming in the mornings, she said with a half-smile. I wanted to know more of this—what she and my father had done in the afternoons, for instance, and whether my father had cracked a lot of jokes, as he often did. How he’d felt being back in his home country.

I longed to fill my head with memories that weren’t mine so that I would never forget him, so that if my own recollections faded, I would have replacements. But my mother offered no more, and as the waiter appeared again with more plates, we continued our consumption. We ate and drank so much that I would forget the name of the place mere hours later; I would remember the food and the wine, but my mother would have to remind me that the restaurant shared my father’s name: Ferenc, or Frank.

On a very simple—and perhaps naïve—level, my mother and I had gone to Hungary to find him. Here, I thought, here. Here he would be—his footprint, his heritage. Here he would still somehow exist.

Growing up I’d heard other stories, the ones about why my father and his family left. I heard how it all disappeared—the food, the lands, the people. In both Budapest and Nagyatád. Soviet Communists took the capital; they took the farms, the houses, and even my great-grandfather’s race horses—these they slaughtered for meat. My grandfather joined resistance efforts, and when the 1956 Revolution occurred, the family stayed, hoping things would improve.

But then a childhood friend of my grandfather’s, who had joined the AVO, the secret police, warned him that he was to be arrested. It was 1957, and arrest could—and often did—mean other things. The family abruptly left Hungary and all they had behind, sneaking across the border into Yugoslavia. After a couple of months in Sarajevo at a refugee camp with poor conditions, they were moved to a makeshift camp in a hotel in Fiume, on the Adriatic Sea, where it was the off-season. Eventually, they made their way to Belgium; my father gaining one new sibling, Laci, while another—George—spent time in a sanatorium, recuperating from tuberculosis.

By January of 1959, my grandmother’s sister, who lived in Newark, New Jersey, had arranged for a sponsorship, so my father, his four siblings and parents came to the United States. My father was fourteen years old. He would meet my mother at a house party when he was twenty-one, returning to Hungary with her just twice. There were plans to travel again later in life.

Nagyatád looked different, my mother remarked. It had been over thirty years since she’d seen it, when she and my father had last visited the village. Then, horses and buggies still galloped on the streets; then there was more land than houses. Then it was still Communist, and people traded money on the black market while looking over their shoulders.

Now Nagyatád boasted a hotel, a movie theater, camp grounds, and two cemeteries, we would discover, when trying to locate my relatives’ graves. One was more “ancient” than the other, so we tried our luck there first, and because I had brought a photograph to help us—a picture of my parents visiting the same cemetery thirty years ago—we were able to locate the spot quickly.

There lay the tombstone of my great-aunt, who tragically passed away long before her parents. Yet her mother—my great-grandmother—was missing. Where she should have lain, where she lay thirty years earlier in the photograph I held, was now another person, deceased in 2005. Her tombstone, however, was not missing: We located it a couple graves away, distinguished by its metal cross. We could see, with horror, the marks from where my great-grandmother’s plaque had been removed—the new plaque was smaller.

I was transported, again, to a month earlier, standing at my father’s cemetery, desperately trying to find him. How could my great-grandmother simply be gone? But I knew the real question was: How could he be gone?

We left Nagyatád soon after to head back to Budapest. We were going to visit the Citadel, a fortress overlooking the city, for the night view. From the backseat my mother and I reiterated our dismay about my great-grandmother’s missing grave, but Richard and Adrienn shrugged it off.

“Perhaps,” Richard casually suggested, “the grave space at that cemetery was rented.”

It was a practice we hadn’t heard of, although apparently not uncommon in Hungary.

“But why then,” I wondered aloud, “would her tombstone be selected? Wouldn’t they have taken my great-aunt’s grave?” She’d died in 1937; surely that lease had expired long before my great-grandmother’s.

Adrienn had a quick answer. “It’s ancient,” she replied, turning around and pointing to the photograph in my hand. Her finger tapped the tall, peak-like structure of my great-aunt’s tombstone, an unusual—and therefore valued—shape in that cemetery.

The road was getting darker, the sun sinking, the cornfields fading into the night. Suddenly, Richard slowed down; the car in front of us had abruptly braked, and then pulled off to the side. Car trouble? An accident? We peered out the window as we crept by—there, a dog lay in the road. He was still breathing; I could still see his breaths, his pants—I could see the blood starting to ooze, just beginning to stain his fur, just starting to pool on the road. Even though sky was quickly blackening, I could see the rusty hue of the dog’s fur as it moved up and down with each jagged inhalation. I knew, as we drove away, that soon his breathing would stop, and he would disappear.


Karen Winn’s Our Little World is available now via Dutton.