Proemcards from Hungary (Part 2)

Proemcards by Montreal author Endre Farkas – a combination of prose, poetry and reflections on a journey to Hungary after having fled decades ago – continues from Part 1.

4.

Back at the Thermal and Wellness Hotel, I took to the Baths. The Baths were another turn-of-the-century luxury, a cure, a social activity for the wealthy. It also became a proletariat reward during the Communist years and now everyone can partake. The elderly locals and tourists come in droves to soak their weary muscles and bones. To let the waters lap at their sagging parts in 34-to 40-degree Celsius indoor and outdoor hot springs. Their reward to themselves for their years of hard work.

I admitted my age and joined them, quoting Leonard Cohen under my breath: “I ache where I used to play.”

Afterwards, steam-cleaned, light-bodied and mindful, I retired to the second floor to lounge around. A crowd of people ranging in age from their late-twenties to mid-forties milled about before being herded into the The Afrika Conference Room for an Amway seminar, a lions’ den of lively presenters building for their audience a pyramid of hopes and dreams and schemes for a quick buck. Communism is dead. Long live capitalism.

Too old to die young, I sat and read Gogol’s Dead Souls.

5.

Another rainy day. A bowl of greyness domes Hungary. It’s been raining the whole month of May. And because Hungary occupies the low-lying areas of the Carpathian basin, two-thirds of the territory consists of plains 200 metres below sea level. Now, a large portion of it really is. Civilians, soldiers and police have sandbagged day and night, to little or no avail. It’s quite something to see a landlocked country so covered by water.

Storm over the Hortobágy National Park. Photo: Hungary Guide.

Storm over the Hortobágy National Park. Photo: Hungary Guide.

Today my cousin’s husband took me to see his basement. He is a motor mouth of commentary, anecdotes and curses. He is hustle and chutzpah epitomized. The basement was his current project. Actually, it wasn’t really his basement; it was the Debrecen synagogue’s. More or less on his own he excavated it, and cleaned it up. He wanted to convert it into a weight and play room.

“The Board is fighting me, telling me it can’t be done. For me, their ‘no’ means, ‘When will it be finished?’” he explained. “Not only did they say it couldn’t be done, they were actively trying to block me. That was just the extra incentive I needed. Since they wouldn’t help, I got all my Christian buddies to help. We cleared the years of dust and dirt out of this old, dank, coal-bin, hundred-year-old basement. And look at it now!”

The walls had been scraped down to the original bricks and re-pointed. They poured a cement floor and installed new wiring. All of it got done with volunteered, Christian brawn and my cousin’s hustle.

He told me that he’s after the young Jewish kids who are the first generation of post-atheist Communism: “‘Get their bodies and then you’ll get their faith’ is what I told the Rabbi. He may know the holy books and the wisdom of the old, but he knows shit about the new generation,” said my cousin’s husband.

This wouldn’t have been possible during Communism. Now it is. But along with it, a strong whiff of neo-Fascism is on the rise. Hungary has a long tradition of anti-Semitism. In fact, it has a long tradition of anti-anything that isn’t “dyed-in-the-wool” Hungarian. I remember. I was seven in 1956, and in my village the revolution was about mobs roaming the night, shouting, “Kill the Commies! Kill the Jews!” Looking to loot and burn Jewish homes. I remember fleeing with my Holocaust-surviving parents.

Again.

Now, at 62, I’m back.

My cousin’s husband ragged on. “The basement door was supposed to be painted brown, but the synagogue wouldn’t spring for the paint. A Jew getting money from a Jew? Forget it. Why buy when we have lots of white and blue, they said.”

So he painted the flag of Israel on the door— his defiant “up yours” to the Board and to the Fascists. His declaration of “Never Again!”

6.

I am a Jew in a country that won’t let me forget it. I didn’t come looking to flaunt it or find it but I was reminded of being one before I left Canada by the news of the Jobbik Party’s activities.

And now that I am here, I am very aware of being one. And it’s magnified by Israel’s military action against the Gaza flotilla. It’s the main nightly news item after the flood. I’m conflicted over Israel. I understand with a child-of-holocaust-survivor sense Israel’s desire to exist, survive, thrive and live in peace. However, with the same child-of-holocaust-survivor’s sense, I am angry and ashamed of the Israeli government’s action with its flotilla raid, its wall and its apartheid policy toward Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Its inability to stake the moral high ground and act with the remembrance of “never again.” This “never again” should not only be a rallying call for its own defense but it should also be the way for them to treat others.

I know. A country is not a human being but a complex geo-historical, political, economical system with sensors that respond violently to hunger and danger. It has as its sole purpose existence and survival. But a country is comprised of human beings, and, therefore, it is not only a complex geo-historical, political, economical system but also an organism, which should respond not only to hunger and danger but also to consciousness and its conscience.

Today, relatives arrived from Israel for the unveiling—a Jewish tradition of dedicating the gravestone of someone recently deceased. During the welcome lunch, the topic of the flotilla raid came up. With the assurance that only Sabras can have, they declared that the people on the flotilla were terrorists who were shipping weapons to Hamas. I asked what their proof was.

“The government said so and the video on the news showed it,” said one of the relatives.

When I mentioned that other videos and accounts contradicted it, she claimed that those were doctored. For her and the rest of her family, it’s Israel right or right.

The only thing that disappointed them was the military operation. “They botched the job,” she said.

Israel had lost its military superiority.

“They used to do it so much better before,” she said.

There seemed to be no way, no desire to resolve the discussion. The conversation turned to the Jews in Israel and my relatives lamented the lazy black Jews, the ones from Ethiopia who didn’t work and expected the government to support them. They were also critical of the dirty Russian Jews who made a mess of everything.

In an accusatory tone they asked why I hadn’t been to Israel. I couldn’t tell them that I had the same unease about going there as I had about coming to Hungary. (The thing is, I’m here, so why not there?)

Endre Farkas

*

Endre Farkas, a poet, playwright and novelist, was born in Hungary and escaped with his parents in 1956. He has published ten books of poetry, had three plays produced and his novel Never, Again (about the 1956 uprising) is due out in Fall of 2016. His videopoem, cowritten with Carolyn Marie Souaid, “Blood is Blood” won first prize at the Berlin International Poetry Film Festival in 2012. The poet lives in Montreal.

7 Comments

  1. THE MARTYR WANNABE SYNDROME

    I have the same disappointment in Israel — the unpardonable occupation of the territories, the shameful bigotry. Having been the victim of two millennia of statelessness and persecution, the most recent and horrific being the Holocaust, does not excuse or justify either the occupation or the bigotry, but one can understand how it could lead to it.

    I reject the parallel with Hungary, however, which was not a victim of statelessness or persecution but rather a perpetrator of it (before and after Trianon).

  2. György Lázár says:

    These vignettes (proemcards) are absolutely wonderful. More please….! I spent the first 18 years of my life in Debrecen and these pieces bring back memories. Perfect reading with my morning coffee…

  3. Hi Endre, That was a nice read. I just didn’t get this part: “two-thirds of the territory consists of plains 200 metres below sea level”. Hungary’s lowest point is 78m (above sea level), so maybe I misunderstood something.
    Keep up the good work.

  4. Dear Steve.
    I did not want to draw a parallel between Israel and Hungary, rather it was my personal discomfort with being in Hungary because of my personal experiences there and my reluctance to go to Israel because like you, of the disappointment with its government’s policies toward the disenfranchised (lot of it is its making).

  5. Dear Edwin

    Thank you for pointing out my research error. I remember looking it up when I wrote it but unfortunately I can’t remember where and I can’t find that source now. I wouldn’t have made that up. You are right about it being above sea level. Sorry about trying to drown or bring down the country.

  6. Charlie London says:

    “Storm over the Hortobágy National Park.”

    The beautiful picture of the National Park – is that the one being decimated and sold off for farming to Orban’s mafioso mates?

    For creaming off of more lucrative EU subsidies?

    Enjoy it while you can!

  7. György Lázár says:

    Hortobágy is pretty much the same, it hasn’t change much in the last 50 years… some development around the Csárda and Nine Holed Bridge.

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