Shadow life

The ebb and flow of belonging and alienation

I WAS LESS than five when I left Hungary for Australia, yet many of my formative experiences had already taken place – mostly unremembered and deep in the subconscious. Hungary was in my blood. In my Hungarian Jewish blood, I have to add. It is now seventy years since I left, and I can see that my engagement with Hungary has gone through several phases. The first I call amnesia; the second indifference, followed by re-­engagement – discovering the place of Hungary in my life. Then the final phase: withdrawal. Each personal phase has coincided with a distinct phase in Hungary’s postwar evolution.

The Hungary I was born into was allied with Hitler’s Germany. In the late 1930s, my parents anxiously watched their political landscape darken. My father thought of escaping to South America, even to Australia, but did not have the heart to leave his ailing mother. That decision led to his death in a labour camp in 1944. My mother survived the war in hiding, on false papers, with me, a six-­month-­old baby, leaving my older sister to be protected by Christian relatives.

The war over, my widowed mother started to rebuild her life. She met a man whose life had been swept away by the Holocaust: his wife, two children, both parents and most of his family killed in Auschwitz. Like many survivors in that postwar time, they married and started life again. By 1948, the ‘friendly’ Russians who had stayed in Hungary had taken over. My stepfather thought he could wrangle a job with the communists, but my mother did not want another dictatorship to rule her life and erase her at will. They obtained one of the last legal passports out of Hungary – stamped ‘Never to Return’ – before the Iron Curtain came down.

When we arrived in Australia, Liberal Prime Minister Robert Menzies had started his long rule. For a long time, my parents did not care who was in power, enchanted that they were living in a stable democracy and that Australia was, in general, sympathetic to immigrant Jews. Any prejudice was directed towards Roman Catholics. We never saw an Indigenous Australian; they were somewhere in some ‘outback’ – and hardly even mentioned.

My period of amnesia about Hungary started within months of emigrating, and lasted until 1962. We kids were busy metamorphosing into Aussie kids, while my parents worked hard. They bought our first house, then our first Holden. My parents’ circle of Hungarian friends mostly spoke Hungarian to each other, but there was an unwritten rule not to discuss the past. My grandmother spoke only Hungarian. But for the most part, Hungary seemed safely buried.


AFTER THE 1956 Budapest uprising, Dad deemed it safe to return, briefly. I remember the fear and tension around his departure. Would he be detained? Would we ever see him again? He got back to Australia safely, and Hungary slipped further from my mind. In the early 1960s my parents asked my sister and me to travel with them for our first real return visit. I was eighteen: reluctant, even sullen. I was Australian. What did Hungary have to do with me? Arriving in Budapest, everything was grey and shabby. People said Things are better now, but still spoke in whispers in public places and looked about furtively in case anyone overheard them. I thought I had nothing in common with these people. They seemed to have such limited goals, like getting a flat not shared with another family. Travel to the West was forbidden. London and Paris were the stuff of dreams.

The only time I glimpsed how deep our roots there were was when Dad took us to see his home town, Paks. There was only one Jew left in a town once bursting with Jewish life. I watched Dad cry at the headstones of his children whose bodies had been burnt to ash in the crematoriums of Auschwitz. Then we spent hours in the blinding heat, laying stones of remembrance at the graves of family, friends, neighbours. I was moved and shaken. I fled back to Australia with relief.

After that visit came a long period of indifference. I did not visit Hungary again for almost thirty years. My thoughts and actions were based on what was happening in my personal life, and in Australia. When Labor Prime Minister Gough Whitlam came to power in 1972, I was overseas. I came back quickly and involved myself in a period of national reform and progressive change: the introduction of free university education, ‘no fault’ divorce, universal healthcare, land rights – and more.

I returned to Hungary in August 1990 with my partner, Anne. For a long time, I had wanted to be a writer – but I always put it off. I suspected that my first book would be about the Hungarian years – and I dreaded going there. My mother’s wartime stories haunted my imagination, peopled with golden moments, but mostly with images of horror. More than half a million Hungarian Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.

At age forty-­five I finally began my real re-­engagement. Anne and I arrived in Budapest at a momentous time, just a year after the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. What next? The city seemed half-­asleep – as if the communists might come back at any time. Many street names changed by the Russians had been changed back to pre-­war names. Saint István, patron saint of Hungary and her first king, was everywhere. As jobs disappeared and the social fabric disintegrated, there were sad people standing in the subways selling cans of peas, two bars of soap or pornographic magazines. But there was dawning hope, too, as the country began to explore democracy and capitalism.

Among the new parties springing up was Fidesz. Its popular, but scandalous, poster showed a doctored image of former Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and of Erich Honecker, the former leader of East Germany, in a passionate clinch – and underneath, a picture of two young, attractive Hungarians in similar intimacy. The slogan: ‘Which do you choose?’ The Fidesz leadership was a collective of young men and women, among them Péter Molnár, Klára Ungár and Viktor Orbán. Fidesz proclaimed that its members had to stand down by thirty-­five, to be replaced by younger people. They seemed like a breath of fresh air, liberal and inclusive. At this time, the political right also came out of hiding.

The first president of freed Hungary was Árpád Göncz – a writer, humanist and anti-­communist. He was a popular and gentle man who set an inclusive tone. He made it very clear that he was a ‘philo-­Semite’. The need to use that word tells you a lot about Hungary. In this new atmosphere, the Central European University was founded by the émigré millionaire George Soros, who called his liberally minded initiative the Open Society. At the time it seemed irrelevant that Soros was a Jew.

In the three months we lived in Budapest, I fell in love/hate with it. In Australia I have never been conscious of being Jewish as I walk along a street, but in Hungary I became very conscious, because all Hungarians were so conscious of the distinction between Jew and gentile. I learnt a lot about myself and the land of my birth, most of which went into my first book, Heddy and Me (Penguin, 1994). I thought my interest in Hungary would then be over. Instead, I returned to my Hungarian roots often in my writing life. And a few years later I bought a pied-­à-­terre in the heart of Pest, not far from its famed opera house. We tried to spend time there every year.

In those first years there were swings between socialist and conservative governments. Fidesz started its move to the right. In 1993 this led to a split, with the liberal elements leaving the party. So when Fidesz first came to power in 1998 it was well within the conservative camp. It abandoned its rule about members leaving at a certain age, and the middle-­aged Viktor Orbán was firmly entrenched as its leader.

In Budapest in 2004 we witnessed a momentous event. Socialists were back in power, and Hungary was admitted into the European Union. Before this, the government passed legislation for gender equality and gay civil unions. Suddenly Hungary was no longer a struggling, former communist state but was allowed into the light – the charmed civilisation of Western Europe. A huge crowd gathered in the city’s biggest square, waiting for the countdown to midnight. Our friend Reka had tears streaming down her face. To her, once a young Hungarian-­minority refugee from Romania, this was Hungary’s crowning achievement. Hungary had taken its rightful place in Europe! Two years later, we decided to celebrate Anne’s fiftieth birthday in Budapest, so invited friends from across Europe and Australia to join us. Coincidentally, this was also the fiftieth anniversary of the 1956 uprising. There were clashes in the streets between people with opposing views of what the uprising had meant. Not for the first time, I heard people say that underneath the idealistic political rhetoric, the ultra-­right and anti-­Semitic forces were trying to get the upper hand again. There were violent scuffles in the city, cops everywhere and tear gas seeping through the streets. Some of our guests were caught at the edges of the fracas and were scared; others were excited by the drama.

After ten years we sold our beloved little flat. Events kept me away from Hungary for the next thirteen years. My focus was unwaveringly in Australia. But I was aware that from 2010, when Fidesz was returned to power, it won election after election, each time swinging further to the right. Orbán closed all borders to refugees, reinforcing the barriers with barbed wire on every front. He silenced the press by helping his mates buy most of the media outlets. He became the poster boy of the worldwide movement to the right. Anti-­Semitism and anti-­Roma feeling, always part of Hungarian life, was being let out of the bag and openly encouraged. Many Jews left the country. Orbán’s hatred for Soros became virulent. Soros was forced to move his university’s headquarters to Vienna. Orbán proudly called his model of government an ‘illiberal democracy’ and, more recently, ‘Christian liberty’. Four hundred media outlets were merged into a conglomerate loyal to the government. Gender studies departments in universities were closed, and the State Opera cancelled Billy Elliot because it might hint that homosexuality was acceptable. A fan of Australia’s hardline refugee politics – including those exercised under Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott – Orbán criminalised the provision of aid to migrants and asylum seekers.

In 2016 I read Susan Faludi’s enthralling book In the Darkroom (Macmillan, 2016), in which she subtly links her father’s complicated search for sexual identity to Hungary’s constant search for a ‘true identity’. The book also traces a grim trajectory from right-­wing pre-­war Hungary under the dominion of Hitler to the same alarming patterns emerging now.


I CAN ONLY describe my last visit to Budapest in September 2019 as time of withdrawal. My feelings about coming back after a long absence – especially after reading Faludi’s book – were very, very mixed.

From the beginning, things feel different. Most of my old relatives are dead. Two good friends have left: one for Belgium, the other for Berlin. Tony Abbott has just flown out of Hungary after another meeting with Orbán. In six days you can glean much – especially from taxi drivers. Asked about the current government, one says, sullenly, ‘My company doesn’t like us to talk about politics.’ So I shut up. Then, deciding to take a risk, he unburdens himself a little about the miseries of life under this regime. The only good thing, he says, is that Budapest is going ahead; there’s a lot of European Union money and the city is swarming with tourists. Another taxi driver, a pleasant young man, surprises me by asking me about myself. I tell him I left when I was five, after World War II. His sense of history doesn’t go that far back. He was born after the fall of communism. His political consciousness was formed by the rise of Fidesz and their last ten years in power. For him, I am a curious relic of the distant past. Not my parents – me! That gives me a shock. What am I doing, still engaging with a country that has moved past me in a direction I am deeply unhappy about? Interestingly, he is open about his hatred for Orbán – the corruption, the nepotism, the wealth of the ruling elite. ‘He must go, he will fall!’ But as to how or when, he grows vague. It becomes clear that his political education is limited to what he has gleaned from American news channels and a couple of websites.

We meet with a young couple: she the daughter of our friend Reka, he Portuguese. They have lived and worked in London and Paris, children of the European Union. We meet them at the new, stylish National Dance Theatre. ‘Where is the money coming for all this?’ I ask. They raise their eyebrows in unison: ‘From the EU of course, which Orbán hates and denigrates every day.’ ‘I feel no real ties here,’ she continues, ‘we’ve cut off from what’s happening here – we will leave as soon as we can.’ Our friend Kati, who now lives in Berlin, is ‘home’ for work. She says that Orbán doesn’t need to be a dictator. He has hollowed out the key institutions and media. He can do what he wants. ‘What about the left?’ I ask. She is full of scorn. ‘The only left radio station still bleats the tired old ideas – out of touch with reality. Totally ineffectual.’ I visit a Jewish relative, retired and eking out life on a pension, living in a flat that hasn’t changed since the 1990s. She says she survives because she turned off the television and radio years ago. Otherwise her life would be unbearable.

I think about how important things in public life in Hungary are often merely window-­dressing. From our elegant hotel on the Pest side of the river we see the imposing Royal Castle on its hill, and remember that it has never had a king in it. A little further on is the largest parliament building in Europe, built in a country with little democratic tradition. I think back to Admiral Horthy, the Regent of Hungary between the wars; the admiral who never had a fleet in this land-­locked country. So much sham.

And as we leave, in my last hour on Hungarian soil, I experience something that brings up the visceral fear that has always lain beneath my relationship with this country. A young airport employee takes charge of my wheelchair. He is loud, rough, rude and treats me like baggage. I’m in the hands of some sort of maniac. But when we reach the security area I realise he is not alone. The whole staff scream abuse at each other. An elderly Indian lady, also in a wheelchair, is pushed into a corner, left trembling and confused. I am shaken to my core. The brutish behaviour of petty officials: I recognise this ugly seam from Hungary’s history. I never want to see the place again.


BACK IN AUSTRALIA, I reflect on my relationship with the Hungarian language. As a child, English soon took over; a magic door to Australia flew open and Hungarian lay neglected. Much later, as my picture of Hungary became more complex, I realised how inadequate my childish Hungarian was. English translations were terrible at that stage so I tried reading in the original. It was a huge task. It took me a year to read one novel. Hard work but marvellous too, as I tuned in to the richness and elegance of the language. Then, before the seminal visit in 1990, I took some Hungarian lessons with a friend of my mother’s. And once we had our little flat in Budapest I went to intensive Hungarian classes. I was suddenly alive to the grammar and structure – ‘Oh, that’s a verb’! And during the thirteen years when we didn’t visit Hungary at all, I began a loose translation of the autobiography of avant-­garde Hungarian writer and intellectual Lajos Kassák, One Man’s Life.

I had been working on this for two years when I had a stroke. One result of that was that I lost my ability to speak Hungarian. That part of my brain disappeared. I used to cry when listening to a loved relative in Hungary on the phone. I understood her but no words came in reply.

My parents have died, my sister and I are estranged. My dual world of language is almost extinguished. On that last trip to Hungary, whole paragraphs would form in my brain, but I could not bring them to my tongue. Sometimes I murmur to myself Mutz – my mother’s favourite greeting for me, her voice musical with love. ‘Halo, Mutz.’

I have always felt so lucky and relieved returning to Australia, but I’ve never thought Australia a bastion of truth and goodness. Here, too, there have been disturbing trends and some of our freedoms – already lost by Hungarians – have come under threat. Recent examples include new prison terms for journalists and advocates under the Espionage and Foreign Interference Act; recent raids on the ABC and News Corp; stronger restrictions on Freedom of Information access.

Recent federal governments in Australia have been very good at normalising a right-­wing agenda, as well as racial prejudice against refugees and racial minorities, so that most Australians now accept what should alarm them. If we don’t fight this authoritarian trend we might be in danger of becoming a burgeoning fascist-­style state, as Hungary is now.

5 June 2020

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