Saturday, April 7, 2012

Hungarian Rhapsody - Three Books

The Good Master, by Kate Seredy

World Wars I and II redrew world maps, broke apart empires, and wiped out tens of millions of people.   During the three decades spanning the assassination of Grand Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, by a Yugoslavian nationalist, to the surrender of Germany and Japan in 1945 the human condition – for most Europeans, and Jews in particular – was about survival, one day at a time.  Many factors led to the conflicts which snowballed into the hellish battles that determined territorial boundaries, but  it was the collision of imperialistic empires vying for global domination that caused the chain reactions which devastated the entire world.  In all, 80 million human beings perished, roughly four per cent of the total population of 1945, some in conflict, some by hate, and others by chance.  The survivors suffered physical and emotional wounds, and many left behind ancestral homes and beloved traditions in order to escape death.

Hungary found herself in the middle of the World Wars by virtue of geography.  Long before artificial boundaries defined it as a separate country, nomadic “Magyar” people from the Ural Mountains began migrating eastward;  and around 865 AD a group under the leadership of the legendary Árpád split off and conquered the Carpathian Basin, north and east  of the Black Sea.  Over time, the Magyars developed a unique cultural identity which gave rise to a rich tradition of folklore, artistry, music, and horsemanship.  As western civilization arose with vast industrialized cities, territorial battles evolved into centuries of wars of aggression across much of Europe.  During all this turmoil, the Magyars held onto their way of life and Hungary retained its cultural identity. 

Three books – The Good Master, Between the Woods and the Water, and The Invisible Bridge    taken together, describe Hungary’s cultural , geographic, human, and political losses during the World Wars.  The Good Master,  by Kate Seredy, was a Newbury Honor Book in 1936.  In it, the author tells the story of her childhood when her father sent her to live with his brother’s family out in the vast Hungarian plains in the early 20th century.  My fifth grade teacher read this book out loud to our class and to me it was magical in a way that Harry Potter can never be.  Kate was a skinny, spoiled little girl whose widowed father couldn’t handle by himself, so he sent her to the country hoping she might stay out of trouble.  From the moment of her arrival, announced by her “tin whistle scream”, she created a stir wherever she went.  Her Uncle Martón, the “Good Master”, being an expert horse trainer, knew exactly how to bring out the best in young Kate.  This book is a love story about him as well as her aunt and cousin plus the people and traditions unique to Magyar culture.  Kate Seredy immigrated to the United States in 1922, and eventually became a prize-winning illustrator and author of children’s books. 

During the World Wars Hungary was caught in the middle of the European power struggles.  Under the terms of Treaty of Trianon, at the end of World War I, Hungary gained sovereign status, at the price of 72 per cent of its historical territory.  The treaty gave vast tracts of land to Romania and the newly formed Czechoslovakia, as well as the combined kingdom of Serbia, Croatia, and Slovenia.  Three point five million ethnic Hungarians thus found themselves living in exile even though they hadn’t moved an inch. 

During the interwar period, Hungarian right-wing nationalists fought with those wishing to revert to the aristocracy over who should be king.  While the nation struggled to form a new government, interim regent Miklós Horthy appointed Count István Bethlen Prime Minister.  Bethlen proved to be a master politician who succeeded in bringing order to the country by engineering a series of compromises and payoffs to calm the anti-Semitic and right-wing radicals.  Under Bethlen’s leadership, Hungary joined the League of Nations and signed a peace treaty with Italy.  The Great Depression exacerbated Bethlen’s economic policy weaknesses, leading to devastating shortages and unemployment; anti-Semitism and fascism once again became popular movements.  Being tribal people, the Magyars had no love for the tribe of Israel;  even so, Hungary resisted Hitler’s policy of annihilation.  In the wake of economic devastation, Horthy replaced Prime Minister Bethlen with Gyula Gömbös, a right-wing nationalist who aligned himself with Hitler’s Germany, gambling that Hitler would prevail in any future conflict between nations.  Thus, anti-Semitism became the law of the land and Hungarian Jews suddenly found themselves stripped of their civil rights.

Between the Woods and the Water, by Patrick Leigh Fermor, is based on a diary he kept as he traveled on foot, and the occasional bummed ride, from “the hook of Holland to Constantinople” – at the age of 18 – shortly after Hitler had come to power in Germany.  This book begins where his first book in the series, A Time of Gifts, leaves off:  at the Danube River as he crosses the Mária Valéria bridge from Slovakia to Hungary.  With the eyes, mind, and heart of a young man, Fermor recorded the details of every person, place, and thing he encountered on his trek.  While in Hungary, he traveled with Magyars and Gypsies on a borrowed horse and, like Kate Seredy, recognized the intrinsic value of these cultures as something precious and irreplaceable.  During his travels Fermor misplaced his diary which contained rich and detailed descriptions of a world that was on the brink of vanishing, although he didn’t know it at the time.  Decades later, workers in a Romanian monastery found the diary and tracked down its author. 

During World War II, Fermor worked undercover for the Grecian Nazi resistance movement.  His war experience coupled with his knowledge of classical cultures, gave him great insight and perspective about human history.  Many years later, when he read his own journal about traveling through Europe when the “old world” still existed, he decided to reinterpret it through the lens of a seasoned war veteran and scholar.  Between the Woods and the Water paints a poignant portrait of the aristocracy, city dwellers, peasantry, and gypsies whose ways of life were sacrificed along with millions of Jews in service to Hitler’s ugly hatred and megalomania, and then later to Josef Stalin’s Soviet style Communism. 

The Invisible Bridge – a work of fiction by Julie Orringer – is set during the second World War in Budapest and Paris, and is loosely based on the story of author’s Hungarian Jewish grandparents who immigrated to New York at the end of World War II.  Andras is the second of three brothers whose ancestral home is in a rural village called Konyár.  Andras and Tibor, the eldest, are living in Budapest while waiting to emigrate for their college educations, Andras to architecture school in Paris and Tibor to medical school in Italy.  Their younger brother, Mátyás, is still in secondary school at the time.  On the eve of Andras’ departure for Paris, Elza Hász, an upper-class Jewish woman of his family’s acquaintance asks him to take a package to her son who is already living in Paris.  Andras agrees and while he is picking up the package, Elza’s mother slips him a letter in secret to be mailed once he reaches Paris. 

The mysterious letter eventually leads Andras into a new and exciting world full of romance and mystery, as well as jealousy and misunderstanding.  Meanwhile, the winds of war grow stronger, and life in Europe for educated Jews during World War II underwent a rapid sea change.  Almost everyone in Europe suffered food and fuel shortages, but Jews also suffered discrimination and persecution at the hands of their former friends and neighbors.  Conditions in the Hungarian labor camps where Jewish men worked as de facto slaves were only somewhat less abusive than in Germany’s death camps.  Survivors returned home looking like skeletons and covered with lice, only to be recalled as soon as they were healthy again.  That anyone survived is a testament to the strength and durability of the human spirit.

Those Hungarians who opposed the Nazis suffered the loss of their communities in silence, because to voice opposition was suicide.  They watched the gradual fraying of their social fabric as did their counterparts in other countries which fell under Germany’s power.   Prime Minister Bethlen held Hitler at bay and promoted tolerance of Hungarian Jews, but his successor, Gyula Gömbös, aligned Hungary with Germany and pandered to Hitler in the hope of retaining some degree of autonomy when the wars ended.    

A common saying during times of war is “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, and in World War II the Allies needed socialist Russia in order to defeat Hitler.  The Soviet Union under Josef Stalin had entered into a mutual non-aggression pact with Germany, but Hitler reneged and this proved his undoing.  After Hitler’s defeat, Soviet troops maintained their occupation of much of eastern Europe including, Hungary.  The Warsaw Pact of 1955 codified the Soviet occupation of eastern Europe as a response to West Germany’s joining NATO.  Russia, having been invaded by Napolean and Hitler, viewed western Europe and the United States as a clear threat; an occupied eastern Europe provided a strategic buffer against any future invasion attempts.

While we cannot know what might have happened had Hungary continued to resist Hitler, by aligning herself with Nazi Germany  the nation was trapped in the Soviet bloc at the end of World War II.  Under Communism, tradition and religion had no place and so, what little remained of Hungary’s cultural heritage following the wars, went deep underground.  During the Communist Era (1947-1999) several hundred thousand Hungarian intellectuals and free-thinking individuals “disappeared”; and yet, some independent spirit remained and in 1990, the opposition was strong enough and organized enough to force the USSR to loosen its grip.  Today, Hungary is a member of the European Union and NATO and enjoys hard won autonomy as a sovereign state.

As a metaphor, the “invisible bridge” works on many levels.  First it refers to the bombed out Chain Bridge in Budapest:  the pillars remained standing, but the spans and road bed were under water.  The metaphor also describes connections between people across time and distance.  Many such “invisible bridges” exist when worlds are torn apart by war and devastation.  These three books featuring Hungary paint a devastatingly beautiful portrait of a people and a place – a world – that has mostly disappeared, but can still be reached over the invisible bridges of memory, culture,  and history.  If The Good Master  and Between the Woods and the Water are what was, then  The Invisible Bridge takes us to what is:  a world shaped by triumph and tragedy, love and hate, beauty and ugliness, war and peace.

Copyright 2012 Teresa Friedlander, all rights reserved

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