It’s an odd feeling to come to a place that both is and isn’t home at the same time.
Hungary is just such a place for me.
It’s the country from which my grandparents emmigrated in the opening years of the 20th Century. My father was raised in a Hungarian neighborhood of Cleveland and so retained much of the culture of his parents’ home country.
Although he eventually married a woman of English heritage, my family kept close some of those Hungarian traditions — especially those related to the kitchen. My sisters and I all loved the creamy, spicy goodness of chicken paprikash and the smells of simmering stuffed cabbage or peppers often wafted from large pots on the stove.
So it’s always been my hope that one day I could “return” to this country that I’d come to know through its cuisine and those snippets of culture passed on by my father. We spoke around the table of the Hungarian Revolution and all the reasons so many of my ancestors were forced to flee their country. But the smattering of knowledge I possess of Hungary didn’t extend far beyond that.
It was, however, enough to give me a vague sense of familiarity when I entered Budapest on my first day here. And although I speak nothing of the native language, I still find myself proudly telling shopkeepers and servers that I, too, am Hungarian — although several generations removed.
But in the context of Hungary, what is a hundred years or so? In a stop at a castle-based café, the server told us somewhat matter-of-factly that the building was fairly new, having been built in the late 1800s. By that yardstick, then, my family’s departure is recent history and my own absence from the country a mere moment in time.
On the other hand, Hungary is a stranger to me. Its streets are filled with a history I’ve not experienced first-hand but know from dozens of stories. It’s almost as if I’ve awakened from a dream that I can’t quite recall but through which threads of recognition were strung.
Today my son Tyler and I wandered the streets of this ancient city, from our apartment on the Pest side of the river to the stunning Parliament building then across the Danube to Buda and its castles and back again.
It’s a combined city of both suffering and joy.
Certainly the joy is experienced in its stunning architecture, that which wasn’t destroyed during the two great wars illustrating the best of centuries of splendor. The buildings lining the streets are rich in neo-Renaissance and art nouveau styles with many noted as World Heritage sites.
St. Stephen’s Basilica is one such building. It’s named in honor of the first king of Hungary and his “incorruptible” right hand is supposed held in a gold reliquary within the church. Neo-classical in style, the church is anchored by two large bell towers.
Nearby the country’s Parliament, one of Europe’s oldest legislative buildings and the third largest Parliament building in the world, sparkles on the banks of the Danube. All white spires, fanciful decorations, sculptures, coats of arms and domes, the building is enormous, containing 691 rooms, 29 staircases and 10 interior courtyards.
Yet almost in Parliament’s shadow is evidence of the suffering that also occurred here.
Nearby are the Shoes of the Danube, a memorial to the thousands of Budapest Jews who lost their lives here during WW II. The line of bronze shoes represents the shoes Jews were told to remove on the riverbank before they were shot and their bodies carried away by the swiftly moving Danube.
Some 100,000 Budapest Jews lost their lives in the war.
Closer to the Parliament another moving memorial, its metal fences marked with bullet holes, honors the Hungarians who lost their lives here on May 25, 1956. On that day Soviet tanks and troops turned their guns point-blank on thousands of people demonstrating for Hungarian independence.
Hundreds — men, women and children — were slaughtered. Hundreds more injured.
The Soviets responded with a ruthless crackdown on Hungarian dissidents. Thousands died and 200,000 Hungarians eventually fled their own country.
The fight for freedom and Hungarian independence was short-lived and brutal. And despite Hungarian pleas for help from the West, none came. In fact the United States specifically decided against intervention, turning its back on the plight of Hungarians being slaughtered by the Soviets.
Communist rule didn’t come to an end until 1989 when the Hungarian People’s Republic was created.
For me, the memorial conjured memories of the anger and sadness my father still felt years later at the United States’ inaction during Hungary’s revolution. Once again, I felt drawn into this city as a place in which at least a part of me belonged.
Tomorrow we journey even closer to those memories when we visit the area of my grandfather’s birth. It will be interesting.