Goodbye Comrades

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Literary Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
A couple escapes from communist-controlled Eastern Europe and settles in Australia.

Submitted: April 05, 2012

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Submitted: April 05, 2012

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Ferenc gave a subtle “let’s go” sign to his wife. The small, sturdy woman in her mid-20s with a pretty, well-proportioned face, wearing no other makeup than pale lipstick, leaned forward in the comfortable armchair, extinguished her cigarette and stood up.

The get-together they were about to leave was not pure fun. It was an official function where presence, if not required, was definitely advisable. Comrade Kovacs, secretary of the communist party organization at the Lenin Institute in Budapest, Hungary had initiated it. A discreet, early departure was possible because they were sitting with a few other people in the salon, isolated from the heated discussion that raged in the dining room.  

Earlier, during the afternoon on this warm May day in 1962, the almost two dozen guests present in Kovacs’ luxury residence on Castle Hill on the West side of the Danube attended a court hearing and sentencing in Marko Street, the judicial center of the Hungarian capital. An instructor at the Institute who had failed to return from a conference in Frankfurt last year was on trial in absentia. He had asked for political asylum in West Germany. In short, he had “defected.”  

Hearing that Magda and Ferenc were saying goodbye to everyone, including a German Shepard police dog that a state security man brought along, Mrs. Kovacs returned from the kitchen. As she accompanied them to the door, they could hear the unending remonstration from the crowded dining room.

“Heads will roll, rest assured.”

“I don’t see why! Peter Szabo had all the signs of being a good communist. He joined the party shortly after the counterrevolution. How could we know? He was a member of the workers militia, an excellent academic without family or money problems.”

“Who could prevent or foresee such a thing?”

Mrs. Kovacs, wearing a fashionable silk scarf around her shoulders, was not as disturbed as her husband. With a “so what?” expression on her face, she calmly remarked as she unlocked the door:

“Everybody is the master of his or her own fate.”

Peter Szabo received a three-year prison term in case he was apprehended.

The couple had decided to walk over to the Pest side where they lived.

Ferenc, just like Peter Szabo, was an instructor at the Lenin Institute -- a pharaoh-befitting palatial building that served as the Budapest Stock Exchange before World War II. Magda was the daughter of a noted political figure. He fought in the Spanish Civil War and, barely escaping capture by Franco’s forces, had spent the war years in the Soviet Union.

When the Red Army extinguished Hungary’s bid for freedom in 1956, Magda and Ferenc still did not know each other. Magda never thought of going to the West. Ferenc’s story was quite different. 

He was an English major at the Eötvös Loránd University during his freshman and sophomore years then switched to philosophy. Soon realizing that unless he specialized in Marxism, he could never have a decent teaching position, he jumped into Marxist-Leninist studies with both feet. But the deeper he penetrated communist philosophy the more he saw it as “a utopian fancy that substituted bureaucracy for the economy and terror for politics.”

“56” came during the Fall Semester of his senior year. This anti-Marxian disciple of Marx did not mount the barricades although, like all physically-fit college students, he had spent two summers in the boot camps of the Hungarian People’s Army. When the Russians reinvaded the country on November 4, he felt like joining the mass exodus to escape communist restoration.  

“Yes, yes, it would be nice to get out,” Ferenc thought, “but what would I do in the West as a budding expert on “scientific socialism”?

True, his ability to speak English was a tremendous advantage. Go, not to go? His father encouraged him but not his mother.  

“Why not wait for a better opportunity, Ferenc,” she told him with tear-soaked eyes.

“A better opportunity? Mom!”

He hesitated until December when the border with Austria was sealed off again. He tried and was caught; put on a military truck with two dozen other would-be émigrés to be transported to a “Home Relocation Center.”

Ferenc knew that if he allowed himself to be processed by the authorities he would have the equivalent of a police record and would be black-listed. His career would be over.

His ability to scale walls, jump, and march for miles was put to good use. The truck stopped at a railroad station upon the captives’ insistence on a toilet. Ferenc climbed through the men’s room window, jumped out and hid. Rain began to fall, there was thunder and lightning and the group ran to the truck that was covered by canvas. By the time the headcount showed that one was missing, Ferenc was far away. The first lieutenant in charge remarked only that he remembered the face of that guy quite well and they better not meet again, at least not at the border.  

“If he wants to return home on his own,” he concluded the incident, “. . . he saved us a day’s meal and a train ticket.“

When Ferenc met Magda at a university ball the next fall, and found out whose daughter she was, he did not tell her about his little ’56 intermezzo. But by the time they were walking home from the house of Comrade Kovacs they had been married for three years and had no secrets.

They reached the Chain Bridge. There was practically no traffic and only a few people on the sidewalks. A gust of wind hit their faces. She put her arm in his and made a quick jump to fall in step with him.

Ferenc said casually:

“A two-week tourist package is available in July: East Germany mostly, but also three days in Copenhagen at the end.”

She nodded and squeezed his arm as strongly as she could.

It was a turning point in their lives. And like all historical events, even personal ones, it was both clear and dreamlike.

They got home and went to bed, but sleeping was out of the question. The night had lifted them on dark wings and with arms around one another they whispered in festive, defiant tones.

What they had learned that afternoon at the trial of Peter Szabo was that the authorities evidently did not harass the defector’s family. His parents, present at the trial, were allowed to remain silent on the advice of their counsel in order to avoid self-incrimination. (No one had doubted that Peter did say good-bye to his family before taking off.)

“I feel sorry only for Kovacs” said Magda. “First Peter, then us. . .”

“Don’t worry darling,” Ferenc assured her. “Peter’s case had already finished him. Rumor has it that Greczula will take his place but they had been waiting for the trial to be over.”

The rumor could not have been more correct. Greczula, an intensely disliked, ruthless careerist became the Institute’s party secretary. On the first day of his office he had called for an all-hands meeting. Without mentioning why Kovacs had to leave, he pointed out the importance of vigilance:

“Comrades,” he said, “the international situation is becoming increasingly complex. As Vladimir Ilyich had taught us, imperialism is the last stage of capitalism. Well, we may add that we are witnessing the death struggle of imperialism itself. The scales of history are turning in favor of the socialist camp led by the glorious communist party of the great Soviet Union. It is quite obvious that the imperialists are losing both the space race and the economic competition. Learning about our successes, while seeing the decay of their own, permanently crisis-ridden bourgeois order, Western powers are in a panic mode. In their desperate fury, they try to undermine the unity of working people in the socialist lands. Workers and peasants, conscious of their historical role in resolving the dialectical contradiction of capitalism in its totality, are immune to their vulgar propaganda, so they concentrate their efforts on the intelligentsia. This is the central point of view. As Comrade Kadar emphasized in his speech at the party conference two weeks ago:  ‘The working class needs to be extremely vigilant these days.’  . . . Vigilance, comrades, vigilance above all  . . .!”

Ferenc joined the burst of hypocritical applause.

After they signed up for the tour they feared that their apartment might be bugged. They met at the Magda’s workplace, the “Majakovskij bookstore and reading room,” dedicated to the Hungarian aficionados of Soviet literature.

Ferenc would take the bus and arrive at “Majakovskij” just as it closed.

Magda, a trained librarian, hated the job that the party higher-ups secured for her in deference to her father’s past in the “Movement.” Not only was the place ignored by the public, but most people walking near the establishment, located in the heart of the inner city, preferred the other side of the street. And no hour passed without hateful, searching glances through the shop window.

The couple would walk around while discussing their plans or have a cup of coffee somewhere before going home. Magda’s passport, stamped with the appropriate visas, had arrived in the mail two days ago, but Ferenc did not receive his. And it was already mid-June, only three weeks before the trip. Then there was some development, but not what they had hoped for. When they returned home one evening, their mailbox contained a letter from the Ministry of Interior Affairs, asking Ferenc to report at one of their offices at 9 a.m. on Monday.  

What if they had found out about his aborted attempt to flee in 1956? What if they knew that, using his uncle’s address, he had maintained contact with Andreas, a childhood friend who had escaped to Australia? Before stopping the correspondence for fear of consequences, Andreas, a microbiologist at the famous university in Melbourne, had assured him that if he could “come out,” it would be quite easy to arrange a fellowship for him since Australian social scientists were very interested in “alternative economic systems.” What if by a horrendous coincidence, the same officer whom he had evaded at the railroad station would greet him from behind his desk? 

And it was only Thursday. Four more nights till the interview. The next day he was scheduled to give a progress report to faculty, visitors from other academic institutions, and interested students on his research project: “Attempts of bourgeois economists to cover up capitalist exploitation: The Marxist critique of John Bates Clark’s neoclassical apology.”

Then, during the weekend he had to finish an article for the Marxist-Leninist Review that elaborated on Lenin’s theory about how and why financial capital becomes dominant over industrial capital shortly before capitalism collapses.  

An intangible air of agony settled on the couple. Did their application attract attention to themselves?  Did someone in their respective families do or say something that spilled over into their political record? They roamed the city, their rushing minds associating every blemish they might possibly have with catastrophic scenarios of losing their jobs, ending up in a factory, a collective farm -- pushing wheelbarrows at some construction site. Could the church incident have any bearing on their request?

About a year ago, Ferenc was summoned by the Institute’s party organization to a closed door meeting, where Kovacs confronted him without hesitation:

“Do you know that your wife attends church?”

“No,” answered Ferenc. “I cannot imagine  . . .”

“Well, last Wednesday someone saw her going into one, way out in the third district, in Old Buda, where probably she did not expect to be spotted.“

Silence.

“Look Ferenc, our constitution gives freedom to anyone to make a fool of themselves if they so desire. But you must understand that we, here at this Institute, are the guardians of Marxist-Leninist philosophy and cannot condone behavior in our families that perpetuates the mechanism that helped oppress the people of this country for a thousand years.”

”Maybe she wanted to look around, examine the architecture . . .”

“Ferenc,” someone said with a malicious glee “she was seen kneeling at a Virgin Mother side-alter, clasping her hands, deeply immersed in prayer.”

Later in the afternoon, one of his colleagues told him in confidence that it was Greczula’s 20-year old college student daughter, Klara, who turned in Magda. She was a police informer who took it upon herself to visit churches across town on weekdays to see “if she could catch a comrade sinning against atheism.”

“Greczula demanded your immediate dismissal,” the office ally continued in a low voice, “but Kovacs objected and, supported by the majority of the party committee, ruled to give you a chance to talk to your wife, who comes, after all, from an old communist family.”

Oh yes, Magda’s family could very well be another reason why the search lights of vigilance landed on the couple. 

A journalist by profession, Magda’s father had joined Hungary’s underground communist party in the early 1930s. Later he fought the fascists in Spain in the 13th international brigade’s Rakosi Battalion, escaping to the Soviet Union in 1938. There he had met George Lukacs, the legendary Marxist philosopher, who worked at the Marx-Engels Institute in Moscow. This association may have saved his life. Lukacs and his coworkers were spared from the purges that had killed an estimated 80 percent of foreign communists who sought asylum in the Soviet Union. Lukacs was too well known internationally to vanish without a trace.

Magda’s father returned to Hungary immediately after the War, but he no longer professed to be a communist. Outraged at what he had witnessed in the USSR, he chose the path of peaceful reforms and joined the Social Democratic Party. He became an undersecretary at the Ministry of Education. The multiparty life was short-lived and when the high tide of terror came, social democrats were declared to be the worst enemies of the international proletariat.

During the spring of 1950, the doorbell rang in the wee hours of the morning. Four members of the dreaded AVO (State Security Authority) stood in the door. Magda’s father was taken away. He returned three days later, very pale and speechless. Eventually he told his wife and Magda, who was 13 at the time, that he did not want to discuss politics or public affairs ever again, asking them to convey this wish to visitors, friends and relatives. The man had received a small pension; Magda’s mother continued to work as an accountant, and the family could keep its apartment overlooking the Danube on the Pest side.

In October 1956, George Lukacs, already in the provisional government of the liberal communist Imre Nagy, visited the family, asking his old friend to return to the Ministry of Education. He never had the chance. Two days later the Red Army returned and the“counterrevolutionary” government was arrested. Nagy and several members of his cabinet were executed. In 1957, Magda’s father was taken away for interrogation, but then there was a strange turn of events.

Once again, his fame as one of the founders of Western Marxism helped Lukacs to talk himself out. He also cleared the name of Magda’s father who, by that time, became a virulent anticommunist, encouraging Magda to find a way out of the “socialist camp.”

But back to Ferenc. Finally it was Monday!

At 8:55 a.m., he approached the front desk at the passport office of the Ministry of Interior Affairs.

“Comrade first lieutenant will see you immediately,” said the receptionist upon glancing at the letter.

“That will be the same damn first lieutenant! I’m lost!” thought Ferenc as he approached the indicated room, body trembling, beads of perspiration glistening on his forehead.

He knocked on the door.

“Enter!”

No, it was someone else, thank God! A man in civilian clothes stood up from his chair to shake hands with him.

“Please have a seat comrade. You have applied for a passport. Correct?”

“Yes, comrade first lieutenant!”

The man with a permanent smile on his smooth-shaven face nodded almost imperceptibly.  

After a little pause, he asked Ferenc to tell him about his work. He listened attentively while Ferenc summarized his activities at the Institute. Then without any transition:

“Do you have any enemies?”

Now Ferenc had to smile as he wondered whether the question was to be answered by making reference to “class enemies” or the “imperialists”? The man followed his train of thought and laughed.

“So, you and your wife want to see Copenhagen” he said, as if thinking aloud.

“In addition to the German Democratic Republic,” Ferenc replied politically.

“And what happens if we don’t give you a passport?”

“Then I don’t go!”

That was the right answer. The man laughed again, pulled out the top drawer of his desk, took out a passport and playfully tossed it to Ferenc.

Once on the street, he realized that the interviewer hid so successfully behind a frozen smile and an occasional frightening laugh that he could not recognize him now, only a few minutes after their encounter.

Next morning, the couple went to the state tourist office to pay for the trip. 

Only ten days were left until departure but their fear did not subside. Something could still intervene. They were especially afraid that Magda’s father, who in private conversations no longer hid his hostility towards communism and the Soviet Union, would say something to someone. Did that veteran survivor forget in his old age that there is no such thing as private conversation in a dictatorship? Did he drop a hint to his friend Lukacs, who, by 1962, was firmly ensconced in the favors of the Kadar regime? Lukacs had an office at the Institute and knew Ferenc, of course. One week before the trip the two had met on the stately stairwell. Lukacs was walking down, Ferenc was walking up. As they passed each other, the elderly philosopher whispered to him in a conspiratorial sotto voce without turning his head:

“Kafka was right.”

The tourist group was to assemble at nine o’clock in the morning of July 3d at the West Railroad Station, ironically next to a traffic circle named after Marx. The trick the authorities used to cut down on defection was to make the short stay outside the Iron Curtain fall on a weekend when embassies were closed. Of course, there was some presence in the silent buildings, leaving the door ajar for asylum-seekers.

The countdown had begun in earnest. One of the tasks on their checklist was to study the map of Copenhagen to identify the location of their hotel relative to the Australian Embassy and police headquarters in case they had found the embassy closed or unreceptive. Magda had contacts at the National Library and, after deploying some ruse, she got hold of a detailed map of Copenhagen and the city’s telephone book among the dusty back stacks. She made adequate sketches, wrote down street addresses and slipped out of the building to avoid the curious.

They both went on vacation starting Friday afternoon and everything seemed to proceed smoothly until Saturday morning when upon opening the Nepszabadsag (the Hungarian Pravda) Ferenc’s eyes were caught by the title:

“They accepted the consequences.”

The article reported that Peter Szabo, along with two other men and a woman, had returned to Hungary. Disappointed by capitalism, tortured by homesickness and regret for betraying the socialist homeland, they had accepted the consequences for their irresponsible, ill-considered actions.

The whole story sounded fishy and not only because of the customary rhetoric and propaganda. The description of the alleged return through contacting Hungarian officials in West Germany was porous and self-contradictory.  

Later that evening the couple visited with Magda’s parents. Her father told them what he had learned from Radio Free Europe. Undercover agents posing as plainclothes West German policemen lured the four individuals from the hotel where the Red Cross arranged them to stay along with other refugees from the communist block. The West German government protested, the Hungarian regime claimed that the returnees had asked for protection and safe escort back to their country. How they were brought back had remained a mystery. If by car, they had to cross at least one frontier (East German or Czech) to enter the Soviet Block. Another possibility was that they were put into crates stamped “diplomatic” and were smuggled on board a plane operated by the Hungarian airline, MALEV.  

Magda’s father was certain that Peter Szabo and the three others would repeat the party line in order to reduce their prison sentences.

This surprising episode did not discourage the couple but they knew it wouldn’t be a “cakewalk.”

On Sunday they said adieu to Ferenc’s family and Monday evening to their beloved metropolis.

Wading through shiny bluish puddles of light under wrought iron candelabra, they scaled the broad winding stone steps to the Citadel to take in the beauty of Budapest once again, probably for the last time in their lives. They looked across the Danube at the prominent quais on the Pest side with the Parliament, the vast space behind it, subdivided with centuries of meticulous toil; then one more glance at hilly Buda, the castle, and the Fishermen’s Bastion. Looking north, they could discern a dark mass that divided the river behind a strangely obtuse-angled bridge. It was, of course, Margaret Island, where they had their first kiss.

The venerable old city seemed to wave them an understanding farewell through the lukewarm, motionless air.

“What were you praying about when that bitch Klara Greczula caught you,” asked Ferenc, in a laughing mood.

“I prayed to the Holy Mother: My soul is pure; my intentions have been noble, I did not realize that I had been consorting with murderers, torturers, oppressors and hypocrites. From now on I want to live according to what my heart dictates . . .”

They closed their eyes and felt themselves already having gone far away into the inscrutable, exciting future. The long-sought treasure of freedom attracted them; their euphoria began to trump their pain, but Ferenc advised caution:  

“Nothing is sure until we cross the frontier.”

Potential travelers to the West often got telephone calls from the Ministry of Interior Affairs during the night before their intended departures informing them that their passports had been suspended.

They could barely sleep and kept glancing at the telephone. But it remained silent, and by eight they were at the railroad station where a sign indicated the gathering point. The tour guide, a fluent German speaker, cheerfully introduced herself to every new arrival. “Was she an informer?” “Who else might try to defect?” Magda and Ferenc wondered. A mother and daughter duo had attracted their attention. The daughter was carrying a violin case. No one had asked the obvious question or made a comment and soon the train moved out of the station.

The first stop on the program was Eisenhüttenstadt on the Oder River. It was East Germany’s answer to the call from Moscow in 1950 demanding that every country in the Soviet Block should build a gigantic new steel mill. The town where it was located, or at least a section of it, had to be named after Joseph Stalin. One could hardly imagine a drabber and more suffocating place than this socialist model city. The sightseeing was a total bore and the tourists were back in their hotel by late afternoon. After dinner they gathered in a small bar where they obediently listened to a trio consisting of two accordion players and a drummer. By nine they had all disappeared in their rooms.

Around 10 o’clock, Magda and Ferenc heard conversation from the deserted street. Very carefully they peaked through the crack of the curtain. Two policemen were checking the I.D. of a young man who stood in a loose attention pose. Through the open window they could hear the admonition: “Why aren’t you home, Genosse (comrade), resting to face tomorrow’s challenges at the workplace?”  

Then came Potsdam, with its historic Rococo palace, “Sansouci,” and magnificent museums. The couple marveled at how a defining moment in their life could live side by side with genuine interest in aesthetic pleasures.

After a few days in miserable East Berlin, the moment to flee socialism had finally arrived. The train took the tourists to the harbor city of Rostock, where a ship would ferry them to Denmark across the North Sea. Before boarding the vessel, East German border police studied every passport with arrogant, intimidating scrutiny.

After the group checked into their hotel in Copenhagen early in the evening, Magda and Ferenc went for a walk. In 20 minutes they were at City Hall Square, from where they could spot the avenue leading to the Australian Embassy.

The next morning, after breakfast, the tourists went sightseeing. When they spotted City Hall Square, the couple stayed behind as if preoccupied by something. Then they ran!  Direction: Australian Embassy. They got turned around on the way and Ferenc had to ask a passerby for directions in English. Characteristic of Danish hospitality, the man who was walking in the opposite direction insisted on accompanying them so that they would not get lost again.

The embassy was closed; they had to ring the bell. As soon as the man in charge saw that he was dealing with educated, well-mannered people who wanted to defect from the Eastern Block in order to restart their lives in Australia, he made telephone calls and soon other embassy personnel appeared.

The two were told what they knew already: They could not go from Copenhagen to Australia without being processed by the Danish authorities and that involved being arrested and spending about a month in jail while the Interpol investigated them in Hungary. Although it had remained unmentioned, the rationale was perfectly understandable. They could have been escaping convicts or communist intelligence operatives.  

“If you change your minds,” they were told, “you can walk out of here and we won’t say a word to anyone about your visit.”

“And if not?” asked Ferenc.

“Then we will have to call the Danish Police.”

Ferenc looked at Magda, who nodded.

“Please make the call,” said Ferenc.

Everybody smiled.

The couple was arrested. The two plainclothes policemen drove them back to the hotel to pick up their belongings. That went without a glitch. The group was still not back from sightseeing.

After lengthy hearings through a translator, and spending almost a month behind bars (Magda in the women’s wing, of course), Denmark granted them political asylum. Thanks to the Red Cross, they were housed in a decent hotel that had been reserved for refugees. There they met the suspicious mother and daughter team again. The daughter was a violinist who did not want to leave behind her expensive instrument. They were headed to Canada to join family. Another man in the group also defected. (Thus, there were five out of a total of 20.)  

Alertness was a permanent order of the day in the hotel. On the cafeteria wall there was a large map of Copenhagen, circles drawn around Soviet Block embassies. The tenants were warned not to walk near those locations and to stay in a group whenever they were outside. Although constant police surveillance of the area effectively prevented the trick that resulted in the kidnapping of four Hungarians from West Germany two months ago, everybody living in that epoch knew that communist governments had sly boots.

Those who wanted to settle in Denmark soon began to work in unskilled jobs, but the majority of the new expatriates had immediate plans to go overseas.

Andreas came through with flying colors. He managed to obtain a one-year fellowship for Ferenc and sent the couple airplane tickets as a loan. By the end of September they were in Australia, where the local association of Hungarian immigrants helped them make the new beginning as painless as possible.

During his year at the university, Ferenc audited courses and assisted research on the Eastern Block mainly by translating academic articles from Russian and German. He even had an offer to teach Marxist economics and philosophy in Papua New Guinea where students had expressed an interest in the subject.

But as much as he loved philosophy and academia, the idea of remaining a Marxist scholar repulsed him. Did he abandon his native land to end up teaching a credo he did not believe in, to spend his life with ideas that reeked of a perennial misreading of reality? That seemed more of a punishment than a reward for choosing freedom.

A consortium of multinational chemical companies had offered a two-year vocational training program to turn new immigrants with college degrees into technicians of industrial plastic production. Ferenc was accepted and upon graduating with honors, he found employment with one of the companies that financed the program.

Magda was working at a senior center as a combination waitress and cleaning woman. The work was not very exacting and she had the time to expand a meager bookshelf into a little library for the residents. Her enthusiastic volunteer activity had attracted the attention of the director at the local public library and soon she was hired there as a librarian’s assistant.

In short, the couple started well.

Their son, Thomas, was born in 1965. After that, life moved on an even keel. Whatever seemed as an intrusion had been chased back into the chaos of the external world. But by metabolizing the dramatic transition into rational babble, routine engendered dissatisfaction, especially in Ferenc.

His promotion to the rank of a supervisor did not do much for his self-esteem as he had remained subordinate to anyone with a degree in chemistry or industrial engineering. The thought had never stopped nagging at him that from a purely academic profession he had parleyed himself into a stinking factory, wearing a yellow hard hat, breathing poisonous fumes during the day, then going home on a crowded train to a distant outskirt of Melbourne to a low ceiling apartment crammed with simple furniture. The sight of his modest book case was salt in the wound. In addition, he suffered of daily acid reflux; stubborn phlegm lodged in his throat had made his breathing difficult from time to time. He regretted not accepting that teaching job in Papua New Guinea. In a few years he could have diversified into one of the several respectable philosophical schools that used Marx as a permanent reference.

The couple was homesick, and while knowing full well that they could not and would not go back to Hungary; they kept on dreaming about a sudden regime change there. First they placed their hopes in the Vietnam War. That faded, of course. But when the violent confrontation broke out between India and Pakistan in late 1971, they were convinced that that was it! Somehow, through a chain of events the conflict would spread, leading to the collapse of communism. They had no answer to the question “and then what?”

Some evenings when a whistling blast of cold air from the South Pole swept the streets, they wanted to scream. But they looked at Thomas and smiled.  

In the 70s, they became Australian citizens. Going through the process and the festive ceremony with the “Pledge of Commitment” instilled loyalty and gratitude in them.

By the mid-80s their parents were gone, and having no siblings, contact with the old country had gradually tapered off. Seeing that Thomas would have a happy childhood and later a good education became the main purpose of their lives. Their old, worn-out European patience had been replaced by a brand new Australian one; they joined the proud and optimistic mentality of their adoptive land.

Magda was the first to reintegrate her personality. She became a full-fledged librarian who loved to go to work every day impeccably dressed. Gradually, a soft, supportive smile replaced her suspicious, searching frown.  

For Ferenc it was photography that finally did it. He delved into the art of digital cameras to a point of obsession. They traveled to see Australia’s natural wonders and astonishing wildlife, and he would take pictures. Phillips Island; national parks, botanic gardens, fairytale caves, and mountains! Then they ventured along the Eastern Seaboard, seeing the Great Barrier Reef off the coast of Queensland. Later they discovered the “West,” and finally the island world of Tasmania. A collection of Ferenc’s photos was published in an anthology that referred to him as an “Aussi” photographer.

Thomas turned out to be a bright boy of unusual dynamism and personal charm. He won a stipend to study in one of the country’s finest business schools but dropped out in the second year, asserting that he had already knew what he needed to know. With his friends, he established a commodity trading company. One of them had Chinese background and spoke three dialects fluently. The young entrepreneurs discovered that China was superabundant in rare earth elements -- used in catalytic converters, medical devices, oil refining, with an unlimited horizon of further applications -- whereas there was no “rare earth” mining in the U.S. The light bulb went on: “Hello! Melbourne is closer to Beijing than Los Angeles in more ways than just geographically. Let’s become the middlemen!”

“My dad wanted the reds to disappear from the face of the Earth,” Thomas liked to say, “but I prefer to get rich on them. According to Lenin, the capitalists are ready to sell the rope with which the communist revolutionaries would hang them. It looks pretty much the other way around.”  

He married a lovely Australian girl and in 1990, their daughter, Amanda, was born. 

The Soviet Block collapsed and the possibility of going back for a visit became wide open. Magda and Ferenc planned to do that in 1995.

They were considered the luckiest people in the world. Life on the payroll was winding down; their son was a highly successful businessman who bought them a brand new condominium in South Yarra, one of Melbourne’s most prestigious suburbs. They had a beautiful grandchild and expected more. Their marriage was a masterpiece of lifetime partnership.

“How charming they are,” people remarked wherever they went, sensing the romantic passion between them.

They felt more and more that their path was not freely chosen. They only followed their destiny, written in the stars a long time ago.

Then tragedy struck. Ferenc was diagnosed with lung cancer. 

First it seemed that the disease had been brought under control. He took early retirement and stayed home, but soon his condition deteriorated.

His hair fell out, his skin turned yellow. With watery eyes, mouth turned down, bitter twitches running through his tortured face, his whole appearance became an eloquent complaint about the whirling mass of fearful sensations that accompany life’s bleak conclusion.

But at the very end, when he was closer to heaven than to his deathbed, his customary calmness and wisdom raised majestic waves that washed over the solitude of dying.

***

Last summer Magda and Amanda, a third year medical student at the University of Melbourne, went on a European tour. Budapest was their last stop. Magda showed her around. They walked by the apartment building near Saint Stephen’s Park on the Danube where her parents lived and she grew up; the place that she and Ferenc had abandoned on that early July day in 1962.

“Majakovskij,” in the heart of inner city, had been taken over by Christian Dior. The Beaux Art ex-Lenin Institute was in the process of renovation by a New York architectural firm. Once restored to its original beauty, it would become a premier business address.

While Amanda enjoyed the tour immensely, Magda became restless. The familiar had become so distant over half a century that it seemed weirdly unfamiliar. Why did she have to return? Old wounds came alive and aligned themselves with the heartbreak of losing her husband. She missed Thomas and was homesick for the protective womb of her everyday surroundings; craving the nearness of Yarra River, the Block Arcade, Collins -- the whispered rapture of lush ferns when fingered by the east wind in the Botanic Garden: “I want to go home!” her inner voice cried out.  

On the night before leaving, they walked over the Chain Bridge. When they reached the middle, Magda stopped and said:

“This is the place where Grandpa Frank suggested that we defect.”

The din of cars and the milling of passers-by faded away. Leaning against the rail, arms around each other, they stared at the water below, at the tassels of reflected light that remained unperturbed amid the endless flow of busy waves.

Amanda visualized her paternal grandparents as a young daring couple in love forever, and a teardrop fell into the gulf that separates past and present.


© Copyright 2020 Peter Pogany. All rights reserved.

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